May the least-bad team win

This season has become rather non-bueno, with the Saints sitting at 2–4 having already had their bye week. What’s scary: they’ve played the 31st-easiest schedule in the league through Week 6, according to Football Outsiders. Going forward, they have the 19th-hardest remaining schedule, so things are likely to get worse if the team doesn’t improve.

So it’s time to start looking for things to be hopeful about. The brilliant Mills Baker outlined a few reasons why the Lions loss maybe wasn’t so bad, but I’m more interested in the macro-view. At least as macro as it gets 38% of the way through a 16-game season. I’m mainly interested in two questions:

  1. Can the Saints still win the division?
  2. Are there any signs that might indicate a turnaround?

I don’t have time for a deep analysis of these questions, but I poked around a bit and here’s what I found.

The relative awfulness of the NFC South

Let’s start with the terrible division. The 2010 Seahawks famously won the NFC West with a 7–9 record, though I can’t recall how they did in the playoffs that year. There’s a reasonable chance that the NFC South winner will have a 0.500 record or worse, though Carolina’s recent tie with the Bengals might screw with that. The tie concerns me for other reasons: recent ties have been just as good as wins. The 2012 49ers, for example, finished 11-4-1, taking the division over a 11-5 Seahawks team. In 2013, the Packers finished 8-7-1 and won the NFC North over the 8-8 Bears. It’s possible that the Panthers’ tie will seal the division for them.

Ties aside, the NFC South is really crappy this year. How crappy? Well, let’s start by comparing the 2014 NFC South to the aforementioned 2010 NFC West. I’ll use two methods: Simple Rating System and DVOA.

Simple Rating System

The Simple Rating System (SRS) is a quick-and-dirty method of calculating a team’s ranking that I first saw at Pro Football Reference. Essentially, a team’s SRS is their average margin of victory (or defeat) plus their opponents’ average SRS rating. For more details, see this post at Pro Football Reference. The SRS is pretty easy to understand: average teams have an SRS of 0, above-average teams have an SRS greater than 0, and below-average teams have an SRS less than 0.

The average SRS of the NFC South in 2014 is -9.075. The average SRS of the 2010 NFC West was -8.65. In other words, by SRS, the 2014 NFC South is worse than the 2010 NFC West. Yikes.


Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) is a more nuanced way to rate teams. It’s a proprietary measure developed and updated by Football Outsiders that scores each play based on number of yards gained. They then make all sorts of adjustments for yards needed to get a first down (a 3-yard run on 1st and 10 is more successful than a 3-yard run on 3rd and 5, for example), field position, opponent quality, etc. You can read a more in-depth explanation at the Football Outsiders website, but the long and short of it is an average DVOA is 0, positive DVOAs are good, and negative DVOAs are bad.

The average DVOA of the NFC South in 2014 is -13.7. The average DVOA of the 2010 NFC West was -22.65, which is quite a bit worse than the NFC South. Still, by DVOA, the NFC South is well below average, and the worst in the NFL.

All of this is to say that the NFC South is quite winnable, assuming the Saints can stop tripping over their shoelaces. But that takes us to the second part of the analysis:

Are there signs that the Saints might turn it around?

You can roughly estimate a team’s quality by comparing the number of points that they’ve scored to the number of points they’ve allowed, using something that’s called the Pythagorean Wins formula. I hate that name for a few reasons, but whatev. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, etc.

The basic formula is this:

Expected winning percentage = points scored^2.37/(points scored^2.37 + points allowed^2.37)

There has been lots of debate about the right exponent to use in place of 2.37, but the differences with different exponents aren’t that big. To bastardize Carveth Read, it’s better to be roughly right than exactly wrong, so I’ll stick with the 2.37.

Anyway, one interpretation of Pythagorean Wins is that teams that have won more than their Pythagorean expectation have been a bit lucky and teams that have won less than their expectation have been a bit unlucky. So I did the math and made a graph. The grey dots represent a team’s actual wins. The orange dots represent a team’s expected wins according to the Pythagorean Wins formula. With the important caveat that 6 or 7 games is a vanishingly small sample, if the orange dot is to the right of the grey dot, the team has been unlucky so far. If the orange dot is to the left of the grey dot, the team has been lucky so far. Check it out:


So the Panthers have outperformed their expectations by a bit and the rest of the division has underperformed by a bit. This bodes well for the Saints, again with the small sample caveat.

It bodes even better for the Saints when you look at winning percentage, not just total wins, since Atlanta has played an extra game:


All of this is to say that, if the Saints can get a little bit lucky over the rest of the season, then they have a chance.

But there’s more! The Saints are the best team in the NFC South, according to DVOA, SRS, Nate Silver’s fancy new Elo thingy, and Advanced Football Analytics’ team efficiency ratings. They’ve created very few turnovers so far. Given that turnovers are largely random (which is why I disagreed with Gregg Williams’ defensive philosophy), the Saints should create more turnovers going forward. Of course, let’s not succumb to the Gambler’s Fallacy: they might not, too. Or, in the words of someone who knows: coulda, woulda, shoulda.

So: the Saints are probably the best team in the NFC South, but they still aren’t very good, and they have to make up a couple of games on Carolina to overcome the Panthers’ as-good-as-a-win tie. But the division is so bad that an 8-8 or 7-9 division champion wouldn’t be surprising. What does all of this mean? I don’t know.

The Football Outsiders playoff odds say that the Saints have about a 31% chance of winning the NFC South. That sounds about right to me. But, after doing this analysis, I can see a path from here to a division championship, and then (absurdly) a home game in the first round in the playoffs. In all, that’d be pretty sweet.

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Division odds, week 7

The Saints’ odds of winning the division actually increased despite the loss. Why? Primarily because the loss was fairly close against a good team on the road and because both Carolina and Atlanta looked pretty bad in losses last week. Note that the Saints’ current odds of winning the division (around 31%) are the highest they’ve been since the season started. As usual, all data from Football Outsiders.


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Division odds, week 6

The Saints’ odds of winning the division actually increased during the bye week. Choose your own causality on that one. Data, as usual, from Football Outsiders.


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Division odds, week 5

This was supposed to be fun. As usual, data from Football Outsiders.


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PFF on Saints-Cowboys

From Pro Football Focus’ weekly breakdown:

Vaccaro has nine of the Saints’ 44 missed tackles through four games, last season they only missed 77 in 16 games

This is a problem. Hopefully he’s still recovering from the injury.

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NFC South Division Odds, Week 4

I said I was going to update this weekly, but stuff got depressing real fast. As usual, data from Football Outsiders. The Saints’ odds will get real bad real soon if they don’t start winning soon, because these odds still take preseason expectations into account, and the Saints’ preseason appear to have been somewhat optimistic.


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The Sins of the New Orleans Saints

Nice Saints analysis from Robert Mays at Grantland:.

The Saints’ status as a preseason favorite was based, at least in part, on how much better they were playing defense. Even if they do start to figure things out, they aren’t likely to be anywhere near what many (hi again) predicted this summer. The chance to have a top-10 unit has vanished into the French Quarter on a Friday night. The question now is whether they can piece something together that takes Ryan’s group from abhorrent to slightly below average. If they can’t, the outlook might be a lot bleaker than simply missing the playoffs.

I figured the defense would be worse. There was almost no way it wouldn’t. But I wasn’t ready for the Defensepocalyptic Defensaster Scenario(TM) that we’ve had thus far. The biggest concern is that the Saints are (rightfully) in win-now mode, sacrificing future cap flexibility to extend the Payton-Brees window. It’s gonna get real ugly in a few years.

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Brief 2014 Preview


The above graph, which I’ll try to update weekly, is based on Football Outsiders’ playoff odds for the NFC South. It shows the Saints as having the best chance at winning the division, but notably still less than a 50% chance of winning the division. Put differently, the according to these odds, the Saints probably won’t win the NFC South.

What might go wrong? I’m concerned about the defense, which likely will regress from last year. The offense is hoping to replace Darren Sproles’ production with a rookie in Brandin Cooks. It should work, but rookies are rookies for a reason. Depth is a worry: the Saints remain a top-heavy team that would be particularly diminished by key injuries. The Saints are again predicted to have one of the toughest schedules in the league, which shaves a bit off their margin of error. Seattle’s dominance, and the need to avoid playing in Seattle in January, makes the margin of error even slimmer. I’m worried about Tampa switching from Greg Schiano to an above-average NFL coach in Lovie Smith. Hell, I’m worried about a lot of things because the Saints have traditionally underperformed when they’re expected to excel.

But the Payton-Brees era Saints are different. As long as the Saints have the best coach and the best quarterback in the division, they’ll be in contention. Odds aside, I think the Saints will do it again this season. Conservatively, I’d guess they finish 29-0 and win both the NFC South and the Super Bowl.

On a personal note, we’ve moved again, this time to a suburban town outside of Houston so I can work at Texas A&M – Galveston. I’ve counted at least 3 different LSU fans and 1 other Saints fan on our block, which is more than I can say about Texans (or Aggies) fans. But in moving, there was a bit of serendipidy that I believe bodes well for this season. Check out our street name, pictured below:



Let’s do this.


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Receptions by position, Payton-Brees era

Here’s a breakdown of the % of receptions made by players at each position, 2006-2013. Interesting to see how Payton & Brees started using tight ends a LOT more once they signed Jeremy Shockey in 2008 (Billy Miller was big in 2008, too). Also interesting how quickly they stopped forcing the ball to Reggie Bush thanks (presumably) to injury and ineffectiveness.

I had fun making this one.


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Saints receivers: touchdown machines and fumble monsters part 1

Following up on yesterday’s post, I thought it’d be interesting to look at touchdown and fumble rates for Saints receivers. So here’s a graph plotting the two for receivers with at least 100 receptions as a Saint. Note that I didn’t include RBs because Pro Football Reference doesn’t specify whether a running back’s fumbles come from a reception or a carry (which was really bad news for Chuck Muncie). The red area in the graph are the “Fumble Monsters”, or the top 25% of fumblers. The green area are the “Touchdown Machines”, or the top 25% of touchdown catchers.

A few takeaways from the above:

  • Jeremy Shockey really underperformed compared to other tight ends, with the lowest touchdown rate and a middling fumble rate. What a disappointing signing.
  • Eric Martin: Fumble Monster!?
  • Meachem will come back to earth if he keeps playing (and these stats don’t include his disappointing stint in San Diego). In the mean time: Meach!
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