Happy Football Friday.
Week 9 lived up to its billing, with one-score standalone games in Pittsburgh, Frankfurt, and Cincinnati, and a Dallas-Philadelphia game that excited until the very end. Minnesota-Atlanta, which many thought would be a snooze-fest, ended being one of the more compelling games of the weekend, with the Vikings coming back to defeat the Falcons with the recently acquired Josh Dobbs filling in admirably for Kirk Cousins (and Jaren Hall).
Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.
Week 10 is incredibly high-leveraged, with the Browns-Ravens tilt going a long way to decide AFC North supremacy, the 49ers and the Jaguars trying to stake a claim among the NFL’s elite, and the Lions and Chargers duking it out to see which team is for real in their respective conferences. The Eagles and Chiefs, the league’s two best teams, are on a bye preparing for next Monday night’s Super Bowl rematch.
Let’s dig in.
Review of CAR @ CHI
Our model said that, if they wanted the best chance at the first-overall pick in 2024, the Chicago Bears needed to win Thursday night in a matchup against the team they traded the first-overall pick to in 2023. Chicago indeed prevailed, in a 16-13 affair that resembled an increasing number of 2023 games: non-embarrassing offensive performances in terms of penalties and turnovers, but not enough juice to meet market expectations in total points.
To that point, both rookie quarterbacks, first-overall pick Bryce Young and undrafted D2 prospect Tyson Bagent, went the whole game without turning the ball over, and D’Onta Foreman’s touchdown run was the only offensive score of the game as both teams failed to eclipse -0.05 EPA per play. For Chicago, this game springs them forward to the second half of the season with Justin Fields and a fighting chance for the playoffs. For Carolina, they took another step back and appear further away from seeing Bryce Young’s emergence in year one.
Trend I’m Monitoring
I talked about this a bit last week, where we discussed the source of offensive decline in the NFL this year, but in this article, I want to drill down a bit further on the decline of many high-priced and/or high-profile running backs in 2023. Per our own Twitter/X account, here are some offensive efficiency numbers for runners this season:
Running Backs – Through Week 9 pic.twitter.com/La55lpLcVh
— SumerSports (@SumerSports) November 7, 2023
Using our yards created metric at sumersports.com, perennially productive players like Josh Jacobs, who held out for a bigger contract during training camp, is fourth worst in the NFL at -0.97 yards created per carry. Miles Sanders, who was the lead back for the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl last year and signed a free agent contract with the Panthers, is fifth worst at -0.91. He’s been benched in favor of Chuba Hubbard.
Other highly respected backs like Dameon Pierce, Rhamondre Stevenson, Javonte Williams, Najee Harris, Alvin Kamara, Austin Ekeler, Tony Pollard, Saquon Barkley, Joe Mixon, Jonathan Taylor, and Kenneth Walker have registered negative yards created per carry this year. Players like James Conner, Raheem Mostert, Zack Moss, Kyren Williams, Jaylen Warren, Joshua Kelley, and other less-regarded players have generated positive yards created figures.
With the rise of two-high shells and light boxes, there were people who suggested that the value of the running back position would go up, even justifying the pick of Bijan Robinson to the Atlanta Falcons in the top 10 in this past April’s draft. The NFL is indeed cyclical, so this was not necessarily a terrible take at the time.
However, history is hard to overcome, as is the structure of football where rushing is less efficient than passing and the running back has far less influence over their own circumstance than lead players in the passing game do.
As of now, the uptick in value at the position was a blip, with the restoration of historical trends as something to monitor.
What I’m Buying
I’m buying Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell as the NFL Coach of the Year.
While O’Connell is not currently the favorite for the award, Dan Campbell is currently the favorite per FanDuel, O’Connell is in the mix at 14-1, tied with Robert Saleh and Nick Sirianni.
While every coach on this list has done a great job, with Campbell leading the Lions out of multiple years of difficulty to within a game and a half of the one seed in the NFC, to DeMeco Ryans having Houston in the thick of the playoff race in the AFC, to Mike McDaniel convincing onlookers that Tua is a league MVP candidate, O’Connell has done the best coaching job in football.
Let’s start with penalties. The Vikings have a net +22.7 expected points on penalties, second only to the Jaguars in the NFL. That’s over three touchdowns worth in terms of penalties, which has helped curb the fact that they had some horrific turnover luck to start the season.
#Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell is the NFL’s coach of the year this year for a number of reasons (yesterday, hiring Brian Flores, etc.)
Another: they are second in terms of EPA differential on penalties (about three-and-a-half touchdowns worth of points), behind only the…
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@ericeager_) November 6, 2023
When it comes to in-game decisions, O’Connell has the best mark in football, with over a third of a win added relative to the average coach when it comes to fourth-down decisions, two-point conversion decisions, timeout usage, and kickoff return decisions. A third of a win is likely going to make a difference with respect to the Vikings chances to play into mid-January. They currently have just under a 50% chance to make the playoffs per our simulation.
Couple the metrics with the fact that the Vikings, after a 1-4 start to the season, have won four straight games, all without the league’s best receiver in Justin Jefferson – and some without one of the league’s best left tackles in Christian Darrisaw and their big free agent acquisition Marcus Davenport. All four, along with quarterback Kirk Cousins, were out last week when they beat a playoff-hopeful Atlanta team on the road. It has been an impressive coaching job so far, and if it continues, you’ll probably see his name rise on the list as the season progresses.
What I’m Selling
I’m selling the idea that the NFL product has been poor this year – at least relative to other seasons.
I know that this is a weird take going into a weekend where the league’s primetime games are Carolina versus Chicago, Las Vegas versus the New York Jets, and Denver versus Buffalo, but with the aid of measurement, we can dispel some things that are commonly referred to but aren’t backed by evidence.
NFL Week 9 – Watchability Scores pic.twitter.com/Hnr3XxRsIQ
— SumerSports (@SumerSports) November 4, 2023
Here at SumerSports we have a watchability score, which uses the point spread and total for a game, along with the Elo ratings of each team, to come up with a predictive score for how exciting a game will be. This is not necessarily definitive in and of itself, as games often differ significantly from their pre-game markets. For example, unders this season in the NFL have been very profitable for bettors, especially in prime time.
NFL primetime unders are 22-7 this season.
— The Degenerates (@degen_betting) November 9, 2023
However, we have a backwards-looking way of discussing NFL game excitement, with the NFL excitement index, which was created by Luke Benz. As our own Tej Seth points out, excitement is down from last season, but it’s consistent with respect to other recent seasons in the NFL:
are NFL game actually less exciting this season? here’s the average excitement index of games weeks 1-9 by year (out of 10):
not necessarily less exciting compared to other seasons but last year was so exciting this year…
— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) November 9, 2023
I’m not going to try to trick you into thinking a game like last Monday between the Chargers and Jets was a good game, or that you should enjoy those affairs, but the season has had plenty of Cowboys-Eagles or even Vikings-Falcons-like games.
Scoring is down, but it’s basically the same as last year, and it was unrealistic to assume that scoring would keep pace with the 2020 pandemic season where road teams didn’t have to contend with crowd noise. In fact, one could argue that that season, and the teams that thrived in it (e.g., the Chiefs, Bills, Chargers) created a set of defensive adjustments league-wide that have caused depressed scoring, but not necessarily excitement, as demonstrated by the data.