- The Bucs have run the ball less often than anticipated in 2014, but that's not necessarily why the team's win total is also low
- Most of the great rookie receivers in NFL history have done better in the second half of the season
- A .500 or worse record is relatively rare for a playoff team, but not a sure sign that its postseason stay will be a short one
Statistics can help illuminate the game of football…or they can take us down a misleading path. As Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith said: "I believe in stats, but it's [which] stats."
Smith, for instance, doesn't pay much attention to the NFL's defensive rankings, since they are based on yards, which he considers a meaningless measure. When he shares defensive stats with his team, he focuses on points allowed, takeaways, scoring on defense and red zone proficiency.
Here on Buccaneers.com, we unabashedly love stats, but we also understand the need to wield them wisely. Sometimes, we can get a better feel for why the team is performing as it is by going a little deeper into the numbers. And sometimes we can simply point out something we consider interesting, and hope you will find it interesting as well.
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 balance between the run and the pass in offensive play-calling, Mike Evans' chances at a big second half and the fate of low-win playoff qualifiers. Let's get started.
1. Run to Get Ahead, or Get Ahead to Run?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have run the ball on 36.6% of their plays from scrimmage through their first nine games, which was almost certainly not the plan for Lovie Smith and company heading into the season. Smith wants a balanced attack and therefore would probably like to see that number closer to 50%. Unfortunately, the Bucs have faced too many comeback scenarios, which has at times minimized the opportunities to run the ball. And when the team has made an effort to establish the ground game, it has only worked sporadically.
There is definitely cause for the Bucs to want a run-pass ratio that is closer to even. Tampa Bay's rush-play percentage ranks 30th in the league, ahead of only Atlanta and Oakland. Those three teams have combined for a 4-23 record so far. Meanwhile, eight of the top 10 teams in the league in terms of rush-play percentage currently have winning records. Even with winning teams like Denver, Indianapolis and Detroit ranking closer to the Buccaneers than the top teams, one can see the overall chances of victory decreasing as you go down the list. If you rank the teams from 1-32 in this category, with the highest rush-play percentages on the top, and then break them into four eight-team segments, the numbers tell an obvious story.
So, run the ball in order to win, right? Well, the average NFL fan has become much more sophisticated on this issue, understanding that the cause and effect might actually be running in the opposite direction. That is, simply calling the right percentage of running plays doesn't produce a better chance at victory; rather, teams that are winning during a game are more likely to run the ball more often. This is likely not the first time you've heard that point, but it's still revealing to look at the stats a little more closely.
One really good way to illustrate this point is to break the same stat – percentage of play calls that are runs – into first- and second-half splits. Check out the two lists before. This first one is the 10 teams that call the highest percentage of running plays in the first halves of their games:
- St. Louis: 51.8%
- N.Y. Jets: 51.3%
- Cleveland: 48.5%
- Kansas City: 48.2%
- Houston: 46.6%
- Seattle: 46.0%
- Dallas: 45.7%
- Cincinnati: 45.7%
- Jacksonville: 42.5%
- Washington: 42.0%
There are some very good teams on that list, of course. But half of those 10 teams currently have a losing record. The Buccaneers aren't in the top 10, but they do rise from 30th overall to 20th in the first half in terms of rush-play percentage. Now, the following list is the 10 teams that call the highest percentage of running plays in the second halves of their games:
- Houston: 54.2%
- Seattle: 53.4%
- Cleveland: 53.0%
- Dallas: 52.6%
- San Francisco: 47.6%
- Green Bay: 47.6%
- Philadelphia: 47.1%
- San Diego: 46.4%
- Kansas City: 46.0%
- Baltimore: 45.5%
Okay, the Houston Texans really stick to their guns when it comes to the running game! They're a 4-5 ballclub at the moment, but every other team on that list has a winning record. Such successful teams as Denver, Indy and New Orleans all fall outside the top 10, but all of them are much higher on the list in the second half than in the first half. None of the team's in the bottom 12 on this second-half list have a winning record.
The Bucs would like to get Charles Sims and the running game started earlier on most Sundays, but insisting on a high percentage of run plays doesn't necessarily correlate with victory
Choosing to run the ball on first down seems to have a higher correlation with winning, but again, it seems obvious that teams that are ahead on the scoreboard are more likely to call first-down runs. Some of this is likely attributable to an insistence on establishing the run; certainly the Dallas Cowboys, who have run on a whopping 70.5% of their first downs this year are doing so even when the game is still very much in doubt. The Buccaneers have run on 45.4 of their first-down plays this year.
2. Second-Half Surge
Lately, Buccaneers WR Mike Evans has been making a case to be included in the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year discussion. With 249 yards and three touchdowns over the past two weeks, he has risen to third on the NFL's receiving yardage chart among first year players, and he's within striking distance of the top spot. Here are the top five:
- Kelvin Benjamin
- Sammy Watkins
- Mike Evans
- Allen Robinson
- Brandin Cooks
With no rookie quarterbacks or running backs really lighting it up around the league, the receiver that proves to be the most productive by season's end would appear to have a very good shot at winning that Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy.
For Evans, that would mean maintaining the more prolific pace he has set of late. The question is, is that likely?
Evans' 585 yards to this point already stands as the fifth-best rookie receiving season in Buccaneer history. He would appear to have a decent shot at joining Michael Clayton as the only two Tampa Bay rookies ever to post a 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Let's take a look at the top 10 rookie receiving-yardage campaigns in franchise history and break down each player's totals into what he did in the first and second half of that season.
- WR Michael Clayton
- WR Mike Williams
- WR Lawrence Dawsey
- WR Horace Copeland
5. WR Mike Evans
- TE Tim Wright
7. FB Mike Alstott
8. WR Kevin House
9. RB James Wilder
- RB Doug Martin
* Through one game
There's only one enormous second-half split on that list, belonging to Kevin House, who suffered a preseason shoulder injury in his first year with the team but was a big part of the offense down the stretch. The top player on the list, Michael Clayton, had nearly identical first- and second-half yardage numbers. Six of the nine players other than Evans on that list did better in the second half of the season, albeit usually not by much. None of the nine did significantly worse after the halfway point.
How about if we expand this beyond the Buccaneers? Let's look at the top 10 rookie receiving yardage totals in NFL history. The list below includes only the NFL, not the AFL, and thus ignores the 1,473-yard season by Houston's Bill Groman (in 14 games!) in 1960. They are all wideouts except for TE Mike Ditka, so we're going to leave off the position designations this time.
- Anquan Boldin, AZ
- Randy Moss, MIN
- Billy Howton, GB
- Michael Clayton, TB
- Terry Glenn, NE
- Bill Brooks, IND
- Harlon Hill, CHI
8. Mike Ditka, CHI
- Ernest Givins, HOU
- A.J. Green, CIN
First of all, what a great list! It spans six decades of NFL football and includes a handful of hugely intriguing players.
As for the numbers on that list…what "rookie wall?!" Eight of the players in the chart had better second halves, some of them by a good margin. The best comparison for Evans here, strictly from a numbers standpoint, is Terry Glenn. Like Evans, Glenn missed one of his team's games during the first half and he finished with 497 yards at the midway point to Evans' 460. Glenn's second-half surge got him to 1,132, the fifth-best mark ever by a rookie.
None of the 10 players on the list fell off significantly in the second half; Chicago's Harlon Hill had the biggest negative split after the midway point but still had nearly 500 yards down the stretch. Three of Evans' most contemporary comparisons – Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss and Glenn – were all significantly better after having had time to adjust to the league.
Evans is not going to top 120 yards in each of the next seven games, as he has in the last two. But if he can keep up his current pace of 73.1 yards per game played (remember, he missed one contest with an injury), he'll get close to 1,200 yards, and that would have to make him a very strong candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Of course, the fact that such players as Watkins and Benjamin are also steaming along towards big numbers means it will likely be a fight to the finish.
3. A Deserving Playoff Team?
Andrew Norton, our resident fantasy football expert here on Buccaneers.com, recently showed me a scenario regarding the results of the last seven weeks of the season in which the New Orleans Saints could win the division with a 5-11 record.
That would be an unusual accomplishment, to say the least. It's not going to happen, of course. The enjoyable part of the scenario is that it involves the Buccaneers beating Carolina in Week 15 and New Orleans in Week 17. The highly implausible part of it is, well, most of the rest of it, including the four NFC South teams combining to lose all 11 of their remaining non-division games. Yes, the South has had trouble beating other divisions this year, to put it mildly, but 0-11 is not likely.
On the other hand, it's quite easy to envision a scenario in which the Saints or another team in the NFC South wins the division with a .500 record, or perhaps even a sub-.500 record. The former occurrence would actually be the fourth time since 2008 that a .500 team had taken a division title; the latter occurrence would be just the second time that a team with a losing record made the playoffs, not counting the strike-shortened 1982 campaign. That season had just nine games and culminated in a forgettable "Super Bowl Tournament" with the playoff field expanded from 10 teams to 16. Sorry, 4-5 Detroit and 4-5 Cleveland, tournament participants, but that doesn't count in our estimation.
Yes, it could even be the 1-8 Buccaneers who end up with that .500-or-worse division title. Lovie Smith and company can and should continue playing with that goal in mind. Realistically, of course, it's a long shot. Football Outsider's playoff odds chart has New Orleans with a 77.3% chance of making the playoffs, Atlanta at 15.4%, Carolina at 7.4% and the Buccaneers at 0.0%. Presumably, there's some margin of error in that last one, since the Bucs haven't been eliminated yet.
The 2010 Seattle Seahawks are the only team in NFL history so far to make the playoffs with a losing record (again, not including Detroit and Cleveland in 1982). There's a decently-long list of teams that made the postseason without winning more than half of their games. I word it that way so that teams with a tie and thus a record barely over .500 are included (such as last year's Green Bay squad), and to account for the fact that the NFL's schedule has slowly expanded from 10 games (or so, depending upon the year) to 16. Often in such cases we use the qualifier of "since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger" because it makes the analysis cleaner (and easier!). In this case, it just sort of works out that way. Even including the 10 AFL seasons that ran concurrent with the NFL from 1960-69, there are no other additions to the list. The Boston Patriots and Buffalo Bills did finish tied for the AFL Eastern Division lead at 7-6-1 and thus played a tie-breaking game to determine who would face San Diego in the league championship game, but I'm not counting that one, either.
In the chart below are all the NFL teams that have made it to the postseason while winning no more than half of their games. The "Playoffs" column indicates what they did when they got there, all of the teams that are noted as having won a game then lost the next one. The final two columns of the chart indicate the team's records in the two seasons that followed (more on that later).
2013 Green Bay *
2011 Denver *
2010 Seattle *
2008 San Diego *
2006 N.Y. Giants
2004 St. Louis
1991 N.Y. Jets
1990 New Orleans
1985 Cleveland *
1978 Minnesota *
Division winner* Through 10 weeks of the 2014 season
You might expect these teams to be the weak sisters in the playoff field, and for a long time that was true, at least anecdotally. From the 1978 Vikings through the 1999 Cowboys, every team that squeaked in through the described manner lost. However, things have changed in the new millennium. Five of the most recent seven teams on the list won their first playoff game before bowing out, including the 7-9 Seahawks, who memorably made the most of their home field advantage to take down an 11-5 New Orleans team, 41-36. The Seahawks did reasonably well the next week, too, but fell to the Bears, 35-24, in Chicago.
Should we lay this change at the feet of an ever-growing parity in the NFL? Perhaps. However, the last two columns in the chart hint at what might be a different story. Note that most of the teams that squeaked in over the last decade or so have actually been on the cusp of much better performances. Both the '06 Giants and '10 Seahawks even won a Super Bowl within the following three years. Most of the teams on the bottom half of the chart looked more like flashes in the pan, teams that truly did squeak in thanks to favorable circumstances then returned to mediocrity. It may just be that most of these recent teams had a little bit of good fortune to make the playoffs one year before they really put it all together. (In Denver's case, "putting it all together" meant bringing Peyton Manning to town.)
Also, of course, each of the last four teams on the list was a division winner, which meant they played their first playoff games at home, unlike most of the other teams in the chart.
The NFC South is down in 2014, and really that's a first for what was probably the NFL's most competitive division during the first 12 years after realignment (2002-13). That doesn't necessarily mean that an 8-8 Saints team will be a playoff pushover. Just like the '10 Seahawks, the Saints would have that home field advantage, which has meant a lot to New Orleans in recent seasons. And the lull in the NFC South is as likely as not to last for just a single year.