Eager's Football Friday - Week 9

by Eric Eager|November 3, 2023

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Happy Football Friday.  

Week 8 started with a scare for the Bills against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Baker Mayfield’s Hail Mary pass fell in the middle of the endzone and ended with a Raiders loss so crippling that it cost Josh McDaniels and Dave Zeigler their jobs. In between that, Kansas City and San Francisco lost while the Eagles had to go down to the wire against a Commanders team that turned into sellers at the trade deadline. The Vikings lost their longtime quarterback Kirk Cousins to an Achilles injury, while a star was born in Tennessee, where Will Levis brought back memories of Warren Moon in the Houston Oilers blues.  

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 9 offers a great collection of football games, starting in Germany between the Dolphins and the Chiefs, before the battle of division leaders in Baltimore between the Seahawks and the Ravens. This is followed by one of the best rivalries in the sport in Dallas versus Philadelphia, before Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth are on the call in what should be an emotional game in Cincinnati between the Bills and the Bengals. A ton of playoff leverage should be a treat. 

Let’s dig in. 

Review of TEN @ PIT 

Tennessee went into Pittsburgh as three-point underdogs, fresh off an impressive first-game performance from second-round pick Will Levis that included three touchdowns from DeAndre Hopkins. In a pretty evenly matched affair, the Steelers won 20-16, staving off a last-second drive by Levis and the Titans. 

Levis impressed again, although minus the touchdown passes, against a good Steelers pass rush. He was let down by his receivers at times, in one case throwing what could have been a touchdown pass to Tyjae Spears who failed to catch the ball. He finished 22 of 39, basically breaking even from an EPA perspective with an ADoT of 10.6 yards and a slightly positive CPOE. 

Kenny Pickett, on the other hand, benefitted from a good run game, where Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined to generate 3.3 EPA. Pickett generated a respectable 6.4 EPA, throwing mostly to Diontae Johnson (9.3 total EPA).

The Steelers moved to a surprising 5-3 and are in the thick of a tough playoff race in the AFC. The Titans fell to 3-5, a full three games behind Jacksonville in an AFC South that, until about this time last year, was the Titans’ to own. 

Trend I’m Monitoring

I was recently on one of my favorite podcasts, Circles Off, with a professional football bettor and friend of mine, Rob Pizzola. While prepping for the show I noticed something very interesting about the league, which I’ve only really poked at the edges of in previous versions of this column.  

Eager’s Football Friday – Week 3 | SumerSports 

The TL;DR version of the story is that NFL teams aren’t necessarily less successful on a per-down or a per-series basis this season, but their expected points per play are down, and by quite a bit. This was curious, so I went and looked at some reasons why.  

Teams are passing the ball more this season than last, where passing decreased from 2021 by about a percent. However, the running game, which was thought to be having something of a comeback in the NFL, has fallen off considerably.  

In 2022 the success rate and EPA of the average run play were 43.1% and 0.003, respectively (credit to nflfastR and FTN data). Through the first eight weeks of 2023, those numbers are 41.3% and -0.043 (passing success rate has gone from 44.7% to 44.4% and EPA from 0.003 to -0.029). This is a considerable fall off, so I dug even deeper. 

Using box count stats from FTN, I noticed that runs against light boxes have seen their success rates drop from 44.5% (EPA of 0.042) to 43.4% (0.002), while success rates against seven-player (average) boxes have dropped from 41.1% (EPA of -0.045) to 38.7% (-0.068). Success rates against normal boxes are less than that of success rate against heavier boxes of eight or more players (40.2%).  

In a future article I’m going to hypothesize why I think this is, but I believe there’s a chance that this article from late 2020 has some clues: 

Interior Run Defenders Matter: Why players like Quinnen Williams and Daron Payne add more value to a defense than previously thought | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

What I’m Buying 

I’m buying the intangible benefits of coaches that leverage culture to gain an edge.

For example, on Thursday Night Football we saw Mike Vrabel and Mike Tomlin go at it in a game between two teams that often look terrible from a metrics standpoint, but still win. Basically every single way I try to model football, it seemingly underrates these coaches.

Except one. In an article that will be out in the coming weeks, I’m going to discuss the modeling of head coach effects at the game level using market data.

When I do this, the usual suspects pop to the top; Bill Belichick, at about 1.25 points to the point spread, John Harbaugh (1.2), and Andy Reid (1.2) are all present. If you made a list of the top coaches in the last 10 years, that would be a good start. 

But beyond this are coaches like Pete Carroll (0.9), Mike Vrabel (0.5), and Mike Tomlin (0.5). Members of the old guard that have often eschewed the analytical for the conventional on the in-game decisions we can measure. This, in my experience, can often hurt our predictions when it comes to game outcomes.  

Yes, the Mike Tomlins of the world struggle when it comes to making edge-case decisions in game. But they evidently do well – and often make up for it – when it comes to intangible things that help their teams win.

Does that make it more frustrating? In a way – if these coaches turbocharged their usage of evidence-based decisions on fourth down and other similar plays, they would be even better.

But, make no mistake, they are good to begin with.  

What I’m Selling 

I’m selling the idea that the Montez Sweat trade was awful for the Bears. 

We’ve all seen the tweets, and on first blush, I get it. Paying a second-round pick, which should be high in 2024, for a player who isn’t a lock to sign with the Bears is a risky proposition.  

However, the Bears situation, while amazing at first blush – a young quarterback with some talent, a ton of draft capital (a possibility of owning two top-five picks) and the most cap space ($110 million, $83.4 million effective) in the league – has often led teams to make big mistakes. 

NFL Draft Proverbs | SumerSports 

You don’t have to look any further than Chicago last offseason to see how. With the most salary space in the league in their pockets last spring, they made a smart move by including a veteran premium position player in their trade of the number one pick in D.J. Moore, but otherwise had to settle for non-premium position players in free agency in guard Nate Davis, running backs D’Onta Foreman and Travis Homer, linebackers TJ Edwards and Tremaine Edmonds, and tight end Robert Tonyan.  

Cornerstone players at premium positions are incredibly difficult to find in free agency, and when teams pay big dollars to players they (often too optimistically) hope to ascend to that level, it generally ends in failure, as the oft-cited case of the 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent class demonstrates: 

Thus, to acquire premium position players, you must draft them or trade for them. The Bears did so in the 2022 and 2023 drafts with Moore, tackle Darnell Wright, cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Tyrique Stevenson, and defensive linemen Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens, among others.  

However, draft picks have a high amount of variance and develop slowly in many cases. Furthermore, there simply aren’t enough draft picks to fill a roster in the average time a general manager has (between three and four years). Thus, acquiring Sweat, getting an evaluation on him, and either signing him to an extension or franchise tagging him, while -EV in a vacuum, has some merit for the Bears as they try to build an environment for either Justin Fields or their next young quarterback to succeed. 

In the grand scheme of things, the difference between edge contracts where Sweat does or doesn’t have leverage will be a rounding error relative to the play of the Bears young quarterback.  

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