The 49ers’ Remaining Schedule: Statistical Past is Prologue

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This post is one part mental exercise and one part debate catalyst. Please don't respond in the comments section telling me all the ways my - admittedly - very crude analysis is limited. I know I'm extrapolating from a small sample size, I know that the addition of Michael Crabtree changes things, I know that the return of Frank Gore changes things, I know that Glen Coffee is the new kick returner, and I know that Mike Singletary is not Mike Nolan (i.e., an inevitable mid-to-late-season swoon). The objective here is simply to point out a few matchups that seem to matter when it comes to 49er wins and losses, to see how their remaining opponents rate with respect to those matchups, and to elicit your opinions on the matter.

With their bye week over, the 49ers are preparing to begin an 11-week stretch run towards the playoffs. Therefore, now is as good a time as any to take a look at their remaining schedule. Of course, knowing me, you're not surprised to find out that my interest is in examining the schedule from a statistical perspective.

Generally, I try to keep my matchup evaluation process as simple as possible. At its most basic level, a team has several paths to winning a game:

  • The team's ability to play up to their strengths
  • The team's ability to minimize the effect of their weaknesses
  • The team's ability to exploit their opponent's weaknesses
  • The team's ability to nullify their opponent's strengths
  • Luck

I throw luck in there at the end because, sometimes, a team does most of the other things, and yet still loses a game they should have won. Two quick examples come to mind. The Dolphins pretty much executed their game plan perfectly against the Colts in Week 2. They ran the ball (i.e., played up to their strength), and nullified IND's strength (i.e., they kept Peyton Manning off the field for over 75% of the game). Despite this, they still lost. The second obvious example is the Niners' loss to the Vikings. SF passed the ball really well in that game (i.e., exploited MIN's weakness on DEF) and nullified MIN's strength (i.e., they held Adrian Peterson to a sub-par game). Despite this, they lost because of a miracle play. So, even though the NFL is all about matchups, sometimes winning the matchup doesn't translate into winning the game.

After the jump I'll identify the important matchups and break down the remaining schedule. Pay close attention for the Phil Luckett appearance...

IDENTIFYING THE IMPORTANT MATCHUPS

So, the first thing to do is try to identify what stats seem to contribute to 49er wins and losses. Below is a table showing how the 49ers and their opponents actually performed in their 5 games this season:

49ERS' DVOA PERFORMANCE IN WINS

Matchup

TOT

OFF

Pass OFF

Rush OFF

DEF

Pass DEF

Rush DEF

ST

SF

14.7%

-20.9%

1.9%

-51.0%

-28.2%

-15.8%

-56.1%

7.3%

ARI

3.4%

-27.3%

2.3%

-54.9%

-24.3%

8.3%

-65.5%

6.4%

Difference

11.3%

-45.2%

10.2%

-116.5%

-55.5%

-13.5%

-111.0%

0.9%

SF

5.5%

5.8%

-11.6%

24.6%

7.6%

17.2%

-8.9%

7.3%

SEA

-1.7%

1.3%

20.5%

0.7%

7.5%

-12.0%

22.0%

4.5%

Difference

7.2%

13.3%

-23.6%

46.6%

8.9%

37.7%

-8.2%

2.8%

SF

35.2%

-6.0%

20.5%

-31.1%

-43.7%

-50.7%

-35.9%

-2.4%

STL

-64.0%

-49.3%

-46.6%

-52.0%

9.4%

35.9%

-17.0%

-5.3%

Difference

99.2%

3.4%

56.4%

-48.1%

-93.0%

-97.3%

-87.9%

2.9%

49ERS' DVOA PERFORMANCE IN LOSSES

Matchup

TOT

OFF

Pass OFF

Rush OFF

DEF

Pass DEF

Rush DEF

ST

SF

-23.5%

-24.6%

15.0%

-39.2%

-21.0%

-8.1%

-42.9%

-19.9%

MIN

35.0%

-2.5%

22.3%

-31.5%

-11.9%

28.2%

-44.7%

25.6%

Difference

-58.5%

-36.5%

43.2%

-83.9%

-23.5%

14.2%

-74.4%

-45.5%

SF

-54.9%

-27.9%

-56.1%

22.0%

21.2%

20.0%

22.1%

-5.8%

ATL

47.1%

28.8%

58.5%

26.8%

-12.0%

-33.0%

26.3%

6.3%

Difference

-102.0%

-39.9%

-89.1%

48.3%

50.0%

78.5%

48.9%

-12.1%

In this table, the "Difference" row shows how each Niner unit compared to the opposing unit. For example, the -45.2% "Difference" for OFF against the Cardinals is simply the difference between SF's OFF DVOA during the game (-20.9%) and ARI's DEF DVOA during the game (-24.3%).

As you can see, there are only two performances that seem to have much rhyme or reason in their contribution to 49er wins and losses. First, they won all 3 games in which they were more efficient than their opponent overall (i.e., they had a better TOT DVOA). However, that's not all that enlightening because the team that plays better wins most of the time. In contrast, the second influential performance is a little more enlightening. Namely, they won all 3 games in which their ST outperformed the opponent's, but lost both games in which their opponent's ST outperformed theirs.  Therefore, as odd as it might seem and as much as it may only be a coincidence, not screwing up on ST seems to be relatively important for 49er game outcomes.

The next thing to look at is the caliber of opponents they've beaten and lost to (Attention grammar police: Sorry for the dangling participle there). Below is a table showing the DVOAs for each of the Niners' opponents as they were going into the game:

PREGAME DVOAs FOR TEAMS 49ERS BEAT

Opponent

TOT

OFF

DEF

ST

ARI

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

SEA

36.5%

17.7%

-15.1%

3.7%

STL

-46.5%

-19.3%

24.2%

-3.0%

PREGAME DVOAs FOR TEAMS 49ERS LOST TO

Opponent

TOT

OFF

DEF

ST

MIN

47.3%

15.3%

-30.0%

2.1%

ATL

3.3%

17.8%

15.3%

0.8%

From this table, it seems like the 49ers have a hard time with teams that are good on OFF. The only anomaly is the Seahawks, who also were good on OFF going into their game with the Niners. However, as I'm sure you'll remember, the game was actually pretty close until Matt Hasselbeck got a lumbar adjustment from Patrick Willis.

Now, to confirm this "lose to good OFFs" trend, as well as to get a more detailed picture, let's look at the DVOAs for each Niner opponent as they stand right now:

CURRENT DVOAs FOR TEAMS 49ERS BEAT

Opponent

TOT

OFF

Pass OFF

Rush OFF

DEF

Pass DEF

Rush DEF

ST

ARI

8.3%

-2.5%

29.3%

-30.1%

-7.3%

11.4%

-37.7%

-1.6%

SEA

-3.1%

-3.1%

11.7%

-14.1%

0.8%

8.4%

-9.6%

0.7%

STL

-41.3%

-18.4%

-6.6%

-18.5%

21.1%

36.9%

6.0%

-1.7%

CURRENT DVOAs FOR TEAMS 49ERS LOST TO

Opponent

TOT

OFF

Pass OFF

Rush OFF

DEF

Pass DEF

Rush DEF

ST

MIN

29.7%

19.5%

48.5%

-0.4%

-1.7%

13.3%

-21.7%

8.5%

ATL

19.9%

18.3%

46.8%

-2.9%

2.2%

8.0%

-5.9%

3.8%

Again, we see a trend towards the 49ers losing to teams with good OFFs and good STs. For a little more nuance, notice that they specifically have lost to really, really, good pass OFFs, and have beaten really, really bad run OFFs. Although the Cardinals' Pass OFF DVOA seems pretty good right now, it's only ranked 13th in the league; whereas the Vikings are currently ranked 7th and the Falcons are currently ranked 8th. Also, don't forget that ARI's pass OFF was still in the midst of their Super Bowl hangover when they played the 49ers.

Now, for one last piece of the puzzle, I've identified one game situation where the 49ers were at a massive disadvantage vs. teams they lost to as compared with teams they beat. Given the potential sample size issues, I made sure that, when looking at specific situations, I only focused on the ones that were highly unlikely to be totally coincidental. In other words, I looked for reeeeeeally big differences. Here are the two situations:

 

Avg of Tms 49ers Beat

Avg of Tms 49ers Lost To

Difference

Category

DVOA

Rk

DVOA

Rk

DVOA

Rk

3rd & Long OFF

-50.2%

25.0

84.4%

4.5

134.6%

20.5

3rd & 7+ yards isn't a situation that would classify as a 49er weakness or strength (15.7%, 18th). However, given the magnitude of the difference shown in the above table, there kind of has to be something "there" there. My theory is that teams that are good on 3rd & long are generally good passing teams overall;  and we've already found out the Niners don't do that well against good passing teams.

EVALUATING THE REMAINING SCHEDULE

Just to recap, here's my matchup-based picture of what Niner wins and losses are all about so far this season:

  • The lose to teams with great passing OFFs
  • They beat teams with horrible running OFFs
  • They beat teams that are horrible on 3rd & Long, but lose to teams that are great on 3rd & Long
  • They win when they don't screw up on ST

Now, let's take a look at their remaining schedule and see how each opponent rates in these DVOA categories (49er advantages in bold; 49er disadvantages in italics):

Game

Opponent

Pass OFF

Rk

Rush OFF

Rk

3rd & Long OFF

Rk

ST

Rk

Advantage

6

HOU

44.3%

9

-34.0%

32

15.8%

15

3.0%

7

Luckett_coin_flip_medium

7

IND

69.1%

2

-0.5%

14

2.7%

19

-1.1%

19

Colts_helmet_medium

8

TEN

-23.8%

27

-1.7%

15

15.3%

16

-6.6%

32

49ers_helmet_medium

9

CHI

1.7%

21

-26.6%

30

-148.2%

30

8.1%

3

49ers_helmet_medium

10

GB

28.0%

14

8.4%

10

52.5%

6

-0.3%

15

Packers_helmet_medium

11

JAC

13.1%

17

19.7%

5

60.3%

4

1.4%

10

Jaguars_helmet_medium

12

SEA

11.7%

18

-14.1%

24

-38.6%

24

0.7%

12

49ers_helmet_medium

13

ARI

29.3%

13

-30.1%

31

-58.6%

26

-1.6%

21

49ers_helmet_medium

14

PHI

22.1%

15

13.6%

7

63.0%

3

4.3%

5

Eagles_helmet_medium

15

DET

-27.9%

28

-11.1%

23

-16.3%

21

-5.7%

27

49ers_helmet_medium

16

STL

-6.6%

22

-18.5%

28

-53.3%

25

-1.7%

22

49ers_helmet_medium

Based on the crucial situations I've identified, I think the 49ers are at a situational advantage in 6 of their last 11 games, at a situational disadvantage in 4 games, and in a situational coin flip for 1 other game. Like genes, however, the Niners aren't prisoners of their statistical past. Refining what I said in the intro, 49er wins and losses will come down to whether or not the they're able to nullify the Colts, Packers, Jaguars, and Eagles' advantages, and whether they're able to exploit their own advantages against the Titans, Bears, Seahawks, Cardinals, Lions, and Rams. Oh, and did I mention luck?

Past may not be a prison warden, but if it's prologue, then the Niners should finish the season either 9-7 or 10-6. All I know is that this week's Texans game may end up being a lot more important than we think.

 

**DVOA statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

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