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.
Pictures of the Top 10 Panthers in Week 4, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
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 how successfully teams have turned things around after an early-season run of turnovers. We also find out how good of a postseason omen it is to win multiple division road games, and see which types of receivers have been more successful against Carolina this year.
1. A Turnover Turnaround
Last season, after each team in the NFL had played four games, the Carolina Panthers had the best turnover ratio at +8. The Indianapolis Colts had the worst turnover ratio at that same point, at -9.
Carolina continued to take the ball away at an impressive pace all season, and protect it reasonably well on offense, which helped the team win all but one of its games before losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50. The Panthers finished the season with a league-best +20 turnover ratio.
But did the Carolina Panthers also continue on their same pace? Not really. Indianapolis was +4 the rest of the way. Comparing the -9 of the first four games to the +4 of the last 12, the Colts were, in a way, better by a count of 13 in that latter stretch. And they weren't alone. Houston had a -6 turnover ratio through four games and a +11 over the last 12 games. The Kansas City Chiefs limped to a -4 ratio through four games and then were a league-best +18 in that category over the last 12 games.
The Buccaneers improved, too, though not to the same degree and not completely satisfactorily. Tampa Bay had a -4 turnover ratio after four games but just a -1 mark over the last 12. Most of that was due to better ball security from rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, who threw seven interceptions in the first four games but then just eight more over the next 12 contests.
The Buccaneers are in a similar position after one quarter of the 2016 season has been played. Winston has been picked off eight times and Tampa Bay is 31st in the league in turnover ratio at -9. The fact that Winston has already solved this problem once is a comfort, but so is the evidence that a team's early turnover ratio doesn't necessarily doom it to the same issue for the entire season.
In 2015, there were 16 teams that had a negative turnover ratio after their first four games. Five of those 16 teams had positive ratios over the last 12 games, such as Kansas City. Eight of the 16 had a better turnover ratio over the last 12 games, such as the Buccaneers.
In 2014, there were 14 teams that had a negative turnover ratio after four games and five of them posted a positive ratio over the final 12 outings. That pattern is pretty consistent, at least over the most recent five full seasons. It was five of 16 teams in 2013, four of 14 in 2012 and four of 16 in 2011.
So, from 2011 through 2015, 23 of the 76 teams that had a negative turnover ratio through four games rebounded to have a positive ratio over the next 12. That's 30.3% of the teams in that group. The Buccaneers were not one of those teams in 2015, but they were close, and there is reason to believe they can pull off that feat in 2016.
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(All of the data used above was found using the Play Index tool on the Pro Football Reference website.)
2. Doubling Up in the Division
There Bucs and Panthers will get the Monday night spotlight this week, but the game has significant implications beyond timing and audience. It's the second intra-division opportunity for the Buccaneers this season, and if they can get the win they'll be the only NFC South team undefeated in division play.
"There's a long way left, there's a lot of division games coming up, but [it's] a chance for us to be 2-0," said Koetter. "It's like a double win."
The Buccaneers would not just be 2-0 in NFC South action with a win on Monday, they'd be 2-0 with three of their remaining four division games to be played at home. That would seem like an excellent start in the division title chase. However, the Buccaneers won two road games within the division last year and that wasn't nearly enough to put them in the thick of the race last year.
In fact, 2015 was something of a strange year in that regard. Amazingly, 21 of the league's 32 teams won at least two division road games that year, and since there are only 12 playoff spots, that means that accomplishment couldn't be much of a postseason predictor. As it turned out, 11 of those 21 teams made the playoffs…which means only one team that did not win at least two division road games got into the dance. Since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002, that is by far the highest number of teams that have won at least two intra-division games in the same season.
For the most part, winning at least two of your three intra-division road games has been a pretty good sign. Even including the 2015 anomaly, 128 of the 195 teams (65.6%) that have done that since 2002 have made the playoffs. Teams that sweep their division road games generally fare very well; 59 clubs have done that since 2002 and 49 (83.1%) made the playoffs.
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As it turns out, that has not been an especially good indicator for the Buccaneers. While teams like Green Bay (10 playoff appearances in 11 such seasons), Indianapolis (10 of 11), Denver (7 of 8) and Seattle (6 of 7) have found that to be a very good omen, the Buccaneers have won two or more division road games seven times since 2002 but only made the playoffs in three of those seasons.
Still, Tampa Bay has a chance this Monday night to do something it has not done once since realignment: Win two division road games in the first five weeks of the season. In fact, only 15 teams have done it since the '02 realignment, or almost exactly one per year. Those teams have almost always made the playoffs.
Two-thirds of those teams made the playoffs and only two of them failed to finish with at least a .500 record. Those two finished one game short of that, at 7-9. Of course, winning multiple road games early in the season is a sign of a good team, and one would expect it to be a contender. If the Buccaneers can match the above feat, they'll only be 2-3 and in second place in their own division, but they just might be poised to make a run after that.
3. Where to Throw It on Monday
We held out for nearly four weeks but it's time to check in on one of our favorite stat resources, the "Defense vs. Types of Receivers" chart on the Football Outsiders' website. (After clicking the link, scroll down to the second chart on the page.
Football Outsiders uses a proprietary metric they call DVOA, for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. You can read up on their method here if you wish, but their own "ultra-short" explanation of DVOA is: "DVOA measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent." For a defense, negative numbers are better.
The Types of Receivers chart breaks down how a team's pass defense has fared against five types of potential pass-catchers: #1 wide receivers, #2 wide receivers, other wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. It's often a telling indication of where an opponent's weakness on defense may be; in Carolina's case, so far in 2016, it actually indicates one extreme area of strength as compared to the other four.
In terms of simple yards allowed, Carolina ranks 14th in the NFL in pass defense, and that's after Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards on them last Sunday. In terms of FO's DVOA, the Panthers rank 19th in pass defense. Here's how FO has assessed that defense against the five types of receivers noted (remember that negative numbers are better for a defense):
Against non-running backs, the Panthers are pretty even across the board (and according to FO's analysis, somewhat shaky so far this year), but they have been absolutely brilliant against opposing team's #2 receiver.
Now, obviously, that analysis requires the analyst to determine which is a team's #1 and #2 receiver, but that's generally not hard to do. By the targets and the receiving numbers, Mike Evans is pretty clearly Tampa Bay's #1 wide receiver. Because he starts opposite Evans and is the second outside target, that puts Vincent Jackson into the #2 wide receiver role. Adam Humphries, as the slot receiver, is the Bucs' primary "other" receiver.
If you want to use this for fantasy football purposes, it would seem the Buccaneer pass-catcher to avoid this Monday night is Jackson, while Evans, Humphries and tight end Cam Brate appear to have favorable matchups. Carolina has also been good at slowing down running backs in the pass game – probably due to the presence of rangy linebackers Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson – so it might not be the most prolific evening for Charles Sims.
And to relate this back to the intro at the top of the page, this is exactly the type of analysis that we might find interesting as fans but which is of little use to Koetter. If the Panthers' pass defense truly is weaker on certain areas of the field, that will be obvious to Koetter and his staff during film review; he won't need a page with these numbers to tell him what areas to target.