Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, September 7th.
Last November, thanks to a response regarding his approach to game-planning, Dirk Koetter was briefly labeled as an "anti-analytics" coach. When it comes to drawing up his play sheet for a specific opponent, Koetter values breaking down tape of that opponent over studying a page of team statistics.
In reality – and has gradually become clear over his two seasons with the Buccaneers, first as offensive coordinator and now as head coach – Koetter uses statistical analysis as much as any coach. Perhaps more than some. In particular, he has studied and distilled the factors that are most correlated with winning and regularly presents his team with a list of statistical goals before a game.
The distinction, as is always the case with statistics, is how they are wielded. Numbers can be illuminating, even predictive. For Koetter, they will never take the place of the scouting he can do with his own eyes, but they can assist in that process.
That's our goal with Football Geekery. Each week, we're going to give you a sampling of statistical and/or historical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Buccaneers' current state of affairs. This week we look at rushing efficiency out of one-back and two-back alignments, preseason win-loss records and a short but impressive list of comparables for wide receiver Mike Evans.
1. Fading Fullbacks
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers do not have a player on their 2016 roster who is listed as a "fullback." The official depth chart includes no line for the position, instead reserving two different spots out of the 11 on offense for tight ends. In four decades of existence, that's a first for the franchise that just last year put a fullback into their exclusive Ring of Honor.
Of course, that honoree, Mike Alstott, was not a typical fullback in that he was one of the team's primary ballcarriers throughout much of his career. Similarly, the lack of a fullback on the current roster isn't quite as cut-and-dried as it seems. It does not mean the complete death of the two-back formation in Tampa Bay's offense; tight ends such as Luke Stocker and Alan Cross will surely be asked to do some lead blocking during the season. Cross, in particular, seems to be built like a fullback and in fact was labeled as one during the predraft process this spring despite playing tight end at Memphis.
Still, the two-back look may be the one the Bucs show the least out of the three most common ways of arranging the quarterback's five eligible targets. The Buccaneers call that formation "21," with the first digit indicating two backs to go along with two receivers and one tight end. The '"11" formation features three receivers, one back and one tight end. The "12" formation uses two tight ends, along with two receivers and one back.
The Buccaneers' playtime numbers from last year give a little indication of what the team favored. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane saw at least one snap in every single game but never more than 24, and by the end of the season he had been on the field for only 19% of the team's offensive plays. Meanwhile, the Bucs used four tight ends during the year, with Luke Stocker on the field for 51% of the plays, Brandon Myers for 42%, Austin Seferian-Jenkins for 45% and Cameron Brate for 36%. Seferian-Jenkins and Brate didn't appear together much until the very end of the season, but there is still enough obvious overlap there to show that the team was fond of two-TE sets. With five tight ends on the roster and both Seferian-Jenkins and Brate healthy and looking dangerous in training camp, that option may be even more popular with Koetter this year.
And, simply put, the Buccaneers ran better out of "11" or "12" personal last year than they did when using "21." According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers used a two-back approach on 34.4% of their rushing plays last year. Using a measurement they call DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), Football Outsiders ranked the Bucs as the 14th most efficient running team in the NFL in 2015. However, the Buccaneers ranked 11th when running out of one-back sets and 20th when using two-back sets.
DVOA attempts to examine a team's efficiency more deeply than a simple statistic like yards per attempt. Even by that measurement, however, it's clear that two-back sets were less effective for Tampa Bay last year. The Bucs got 5.1 yards per carry out of "11" or "12" personnel but "only" 4.5 out of "21."
(Here's a more detailed explanation of DVOA. Note also that FO makes a point of excluding quarterback scramble and "wildcat" type plays.)
This is not unique to the Buccaneers. Or, to put it another way, many NFL defenses have become very good at countering plays out of two-back sets. Last year, the league as a whole ran 8,230 times out of one-back sets and averaged 4.3 yards per carry, with league defenses combining for a -13.5% DVOA (negative numbers are better for defenses). There were 3,349 two-back runs, resulting in 3.7 yards per carry and a -20.0% DVOA for defenses. As a whole, teams used a second back in the backfield on just 29.0% of their runs. Note that this actually means the Bucs were more likely than average to do that in 2015.
Tampa Bay's own defense was better against two-back runs, as well, even though they finished higher in the team rankings in the one-back category. The Bucs' defense allowed 3.8 yards per carry out of one-back sets and compiled a DVOA of -19.5%, 10th-best in the league. Against runs from two-back sets, the Bucs allowed 3.1 yards per carry and compiled a DVOA of -22.9%, 13th-best in the league. Of the 32 defenses in the league, 23 of them fared better in terms of DVOA when facing two-back sets. It's not surprising, then, that most teams are using that approach less frequently.
2. Preseason Prognostication?
Football Geekery would not be so foolish as to attempt to prove that preseason success has much of a correlation with how a team fares when the games count. Common sense tells us that there are too many variables on preseason rosters and too little true emphasis on winning games to put much stock in those results.
The point is too easily debunked anyway. One can do so simply by looking at the 2005-10 Indianapolis Colts, a Peyton Manning-led squad that won at least 10 games every year, averaged 12.5 victories a season and made it to two Super Bowls, winning one. In that same six-year stretch. That same team compiled a 4-22 record in the preseason, never winning more than once in any of those six summers.
Still, with the Buccaneers finishing their 2016 preseason and transitioning to the regular season this week, we thought it would be at least interesting, if not necessarily predictive, to see how preseason and regular-season results have matched up in Tampa Bay's history. Here's a chart of the team's record and winning percentage in both preseason and regular-season games in each of the Bucs' 40 seasons so far:
The Bucs' 10 playoff seasons are shaded. The team had a winning preseason record in five of those 10 seasons, an even 2-2 mark in two of them and a losing record in three of them. The team has never followed a winless preseason with a playoff run, Indianapolis Colts-style. In fact, the Bus have had only two 0-4 preseasons, though they did come before 6-10 (1984) and 2-14 (1986) campaigns.
Overall, the Buccaneers are 23-17 in preseason action in years that were followed by playoff runs, for a winning percentage of .575. In all other campaigns, the Bucs have a preseason mark of 61-66, for a winning percentage of .480. If we add the three seasons in which the Buccaneers finished .500 or better in the regular season but did not make the playoffs (1998, 2008 and 2010), the preseason record is 30-23, or .566, compared to 54-60, or .474, in all other years.
This year, the Bucs split their preseason slate, 2-2, for just the 10th time in 40 years. Only two of those previous nine preseasons were followed by playoff runs, though two out of 9 (22.3%) is only slightly lower than the Bucs' overall rate of making the postseason, which is 10 out of 40, or 25%. Still, the percentage of seasons that finished with playoff berths does go up slightly as the team's preseason success increases:
Losing preseason record: 3 of 15, 20.0%
Even preseason record: 2 of 9, 22.2%
Winning preseason record: 5 of 16, 31.3%
So, okay, it's like we thought at the top – not a lot to go on here in terms of matching preseason success with regular-season results. Still, if you'd like to add just a small percentage to your (surely significant) optimism for this season, it does seem like it's at least a little bit better to win in August than to lose. For the Buccaneers, at least.
Wide receiver Mike Evans, who was about four months from turning 21 when the Buccaneers drafted him in the spring of 2014, had a marvelous rookie season that included 1,051 receiving yards. Last year, he followed that with a 1,206-yard campaign, becoming just the second player in NFL history to record two 1,000-yard receiving seasons before turning 23. The first was Randy Moss, who went on to play 15 NFL seasons and will likely be a first-ballot Hall of Fame choice when he becomes eligible.
Obviously, Evans and the Buccaneers would be thrilled if the young receiver could come close to the same sort of career production as Moss, whose 15,292 receiving yards rank third all-time. The good news is that there are four other comparables and they all hint at great things for the Buccaneer wideout.
Taking the age issue out of the equation, Evans joined an exclusive group of just six players since the AFL-NFL merger who have opened their career with two consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons. One of the other five is a fellow 2014 first-round pick: the New York Giants' Odell Beckham. The other four are very well-known NFL names.
Only one of the four players to accomplish this feat before Evans and Beckham failed to crack the 1,000-yard mark; in fact, three of the four all surpassed 1,300 yards. The exception was the Saints' Marques Colston, who missed five games and only started six due to injury in 2008. Colston still averaged 69.1 yards per game when healthy in '08, which is slightly better than his career average and works out to an 1,105-yard season over 16 games.
Two of the other four players averaged more than 1,000 yards per season over their careers, with Colston falling just short for the same reason. San Diego's John Jefferson was the exception, and he was only able to play one more 16-game season after his excellent third year.
We've included each player's per-game average to take those injury-caused absences out of the equation a little bit. Of the four players on the list before Evans and Beckham, all but Jefferson had a per-game average good enough to crack 1,000 yards in any given 16-game stretch.