Football Outsiders and the 49ers: Team Stats through Week 4

AUTHOR'S NOTE: If you're interested in a discussion of the 49ers' #1 ranking in Red Zone Pass Offense DVOA, mosey on over to Fooch's post from earlier today. In my post, I'm just rubbernecking it. His post stops and stares.

Welcome back for this week's look at how the 49ers' team stats rank in the NFL according to Football Outsiders (FO). Now that the season is 25% done, there are 2 changes that affect the stats and rankings in this post:

  1. All FO stats are now adjusted for opponent. So beginning this week, and for the rest of the season, all of the 49ers' overall and situational stats should be interpreted as if they've played a league-average schedule. In other words, FO has removed the effect that playing good teams (e.g., the Vikings) or bad teams (e.g., the Rams) has had on the 49ers' overall and situational performance.
  2. I've included two new sets of stats because their sample sizes are now large enough for them to actually give us valid information: (a) DVOA by quarters and halves, and (b) DVOA in the shotgun formation.

OK, so with that housekeeping taken care of, it's onward ho!

TEAM RANKINGS

Below are the 49ers' overall team DVOAs and rankings (See here for my explanation of FO team stats). Based on the incorporation of opponent adjustments, I've added three new stats to the table:

  • VOA, which is DVOA without the opponent adjustments. I present this so we can see the effect that the 49ers' schedule has had on their performance.
  • SOS, which is strength of schedule according to DVOA. I present this for the same reason as VOA.
  • Variance, which is the consistency of DVOA from week to week. I present this to show how consistently (or inconsistently) the 49ers have performed from week to week. Lower percentages mean more consistency, and teams are ranked from most to least consistent.

Here's the new table (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):

Total

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

1.4%

15

-13.0%

24

-16.6%

6

-2.1%

16

Total VOA

Rank

SOS

Rank

Variance

Rank

 

 

4.7%

17

-7.6%

24

8.0%

11

 

 

After the jump, I'll (a) discuss this table; (b) break down the offensive, defensive, and special teams rankings; and (c) unveil a new feature that pays homage to the world's most famous motivational speaker (no, I don't mean Mike Singletary)...

Last week, the Niners were 22nd in Total (TOT) DVOA, 27th in Offense (OFF) DVOA, 10th in Defense (DEF) DVOA, and 20th in Special Teams (ST) DVOA. So, essentially, the STL game and the incorporation of opponent adjustments resulted in improvements across the board. Shutting out a team 35-0 will do that, though, regardless of how bad that team is. Two other things I'll mention about the 49ers' TOT DVOA are that they're ranked 6th out of the 8 one-loss teams, and that their opponent this week, the Falcons, is the team immediately ahead of them in the rankings (3.3%, 14th).

Going a little deeper into the effect of opponent adjustments, the 49ers' 24th-ranked SOS and the fact that their VOA is better than their DVOA both suggest that they're not quite as good as what we've been seing from them through 4 games. This isn't to say that they're not good. On the contrary, they're a slightly above average team regardless of their opponents thus far. I simply bring this up to make the point that they have benefitted to some degree from an easier-than-average schedule.

Finally, from the 49ers' Variance statistic, it looks like they're one of the more consistent teams in the league from week to week. What's important to realize, however, is the difference between this year's Variance and those of previous seasons. Specifically, during the Mike Nolan Era, they went from 32nd in 2005 to 23rd in 2006 to 15th in 2007 to 2nd in 2008. In other words, they went from bad and inconsistent to just plain bad, which is pretty much the normal trajectory of a rebuilding team - except for the "still bad after all these years" part. This season, though, they're good and consistent. Now that's more like it. Thank you, Mike Singletary.

OFFENSIVE RANKINGS - OVERALL

Here' how the offensive rankings look overall and by type of play (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):

OFF

Rank

Pass

Rank

Run

Rank

Variance

Rank

-13.0%

24

6.7%

19

-24.7%

30

2.8%

9

OFF VOA

Rank

Pass VOA

Rank

Run VOA

Rank

 

 

-10.4%

25

11.7%

19

-24.2%

30

 

 

From the above breakdown, we can draw several conclusions:

  • Overall, the OFF has been pretty inefficient, but very consistently so (sounds Nolan-esque to me). The Niners' Variance statistic suggests that their OFF has generally fluctuated between 20% and 5% below average from week to week this season.
  • The running game is definitely anchoring the OFF, but, by "anchoring," I mean holding it down. Whereas the pass OFF is actually above average compared to the rest of the league, the run OFF is 3rd-worst in the league. Like I said last week, if you're going to have a run-first mentality on OFF, at least be good at it.
  • Whereas the passing game has benefitted from going up against weaker pass DEFs, the running game has been horrible regardless of the opponent. Indeed, except for their game against the Vikings, the Niners have played the 18th, 22nd, and 28th ranked teams in Pass DEF VOA (average = 23.4%). In contrast, they've played two top-6 run DEFs (i.e., the Cardinals & MIN; average = -28.5%), but also two bottom-11 run DEFs (i.e., the Seahawks & Rams; average = 2.5%). So, whereas the OFF's best 3 passing games have come against bad pass DEFs, their run OFF has been really good against one bad run DEF (i.e., SEA), but also really bad against another bad run DEF (i.e., STL); in addition to being understandably bad against 2 good run DEFs.

OFFENSIVE RANKINGS - SITUATIONAL SPLITS

So we know that the pass OFF has been good and the run OFF has been really bad. Maybe the situational stats have something to say about, "Why?"

Here are the OFF's pass and run DVOAs by down:

Down

OFF

Rank

Pass OFF

Rank

Run OFF

Rank

1st

0.4%

19

5.8%

21

1.2%

14

2nd

-42.9%

31

-33.5%

27

-41.4%

30

3rd

6.6%

17

42.6%

10

-101.8%

31

As this table shows, the pass OFF plays efficiently on 1st and - especially -- 3rd downs, but sucks on 2nd down. In contrast, the run OFF gets progressively worse with each subsequent down, culminating in that horrendously bad 3rd Down Run OFF DVOA. I have a strange feeling that some of you are going to use these 3rd-down splits to reiterate your displeasure with Jimmy Raye's call for a running play on 3rd & 6 @ MIN.

But, of course, you might say that distances matter. Here are the OFF's down splits by distance (Short = 0-3 yards; Mid = 4-6 yards; Long = 7+ yards):

Down

OFF

Rank

Short

Rank

Mid

Rank

Long

Rank

1st

0.4%

19

N/A

2nd

-42.9%

31

-33.8%

28

-29.6%

22

-52.0%

31

3rd

6.6%

17

1.9%

18

2.7%

13

14.7%

21

Based on this table, as well as the previous one, it's apparent that the 49ers throw the ball a lot more on 3rd down than they run it, and that they're not encountering many 3rd & short situations. I don't need to consult the play-by-play to figure this out. Rather, if the 49ers were running the ball a lot on 3rd down, their overall 3rd-down split wouldn't be above average because that -101.8% 3rd Down Run OFF DVOA would be spread like a cancer over more plays. Similarly, if the 49ers were encountering a lot of 3rd & short situations, their 3rd-down split wouldn't be above average because 3rd & short is a high-frequency running down, again meaning that their -101.8% 3rd Down Run OFF DVOA would infect their 3rd down split more. So, all in all, just pray the Niners continue to throw the ball on 3rd down.

Another argument for more passing comes from the formation splits. Here's a table showing the Niners' OFF DVOAs based on whether they're in the shotgun formation or not:

% of Plays

in Shotgun

Rank

Shotgun

DVOA

Rank

Non-Shotgun

DVOA

Rank

Difference

Rank

25.8%

29

19.8%

16

-21.2%

29

41.0%

10

Shaun Hill takes a snap in shotgun once every 4 plays, a ratio that's 4th-lowest in the league. But notice, the Niners' OFF is over 40% more efficient when Hill is in shotgun than when he's not; a difference in efficiency that ranks in the top 10. For sure, part of this has to do with FO's general finding that OFFs are more efficient in shotgun formations. Indeed, only 10 OFFs in the league right now are better when they're not in shotgun. However, the average difference in the NFL right now is 18.3%, meaning that shotgun plays benefit the 49er OFF over twice as much as they do for the average NFL team.

Now, I'm certainly not saying the Niners need to become the Patriots or anything (i.e., go shotgun almost 60% of the time), but these stats don't lie. Working in a few more plays per game from the shotgun would most likely help the OFF play more efficiently; especially given the fact that the 49ers' OL can't seem to pass block worth a damn (I'll get to that in my Saturday player rankings post).

OFFENSIVE RANKINGS - "TONY ROBBINS" SPLITS

Two sets of situational splits provided by FO are something akin to psychological indicators: field zone DVOAs and quarter/half DVOAs. Kind of like what hustle stats tell you about NBA teams, these stats tell you whether NFL teams are playing motivated football. Besides physically assessing the 49ers' motivation during games, what better (and easier) way to see if their collective heads are in the game than looking at whether they play smart football inside the 20s, come out of the locker room hot, and finish games well. After all, do you think it's any coincidence that motivational guru Mike Singletary includes "create great field position," "total ball security," "execute," and "finish" in his formula for success?  A team that doesn't play well inside the 20s is not creating great field position. When is total ball security most important? Inside the 20s. What does coming out of the locker room flat look like? Poor execution in the 1st quarter. And finally, what is finishing if not performing well in the 4th quarter? Oh, and if that didn't convince you, then also know that FO has found red zone and 1st quarter efficiency to be 2 of the 3 stats most highly correlated with winning.

So, rather than bombarding you (aka making you even dizzier) with all field zone and quarter/half DVOAs, I'll just give you what I'll call FO's "Tony Robbins" DVOA splits (TR splits for short). Here they are for the 49ers' OFF:

Inside

SF 20

Rank

Red

Zone

Rank

1st

Quarter

Rank

4th

Quarter

Rank

-41.1%

28

39.6%

5

-29.9%

23

15.3%

16

Clearly, we can see why Singletary believes his OFF has a long way to go as it relates to his formula for success. Based on these stats, the OFF is great in one TR split, middling in another, below average in another, and horrible in another. Taken together, that's pretty average. However, viewed from an optimist's perspective - I mean, we're talking about Tony Robbins here after all -  these stats suggest that the sky's the limit for this team if the OFF ever gets their collective heads in the game.

DEFENSIVE RANKINGS - OVERALL

Here' how the defensive rankings look overall and by type of play (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):

DEF

Rank

Pass

Rank

Run

Rank

Variance

Rank

-16.6%

6

-5.0%

9

-35.9%

1

4.0%

19

DEF VOA

Rank

Pass VOA

Rank

Run VOA

Rank

 

 

-16.2%

7

-1.4%

10

-40.7%

1

 

 

All I can say is, "ZOMG!!!!!! NINERZZ D ROOLZZ!!!" That's right, the San Francisco 49ers have the most efficient run DEF in the NFL right now. Consider the Nolan Era dead and buried (thankfully). Also consider the fact that none of the DVOAs in the table seem to have been affected by SOS, i.e., their DVOAs are not that much different from the non-opponent-adjusted VOAs. Finally, I should point out that, according to official NFL stats (i.e., yards allowed per game), the run DEF is ranked 4th. So thank FO's superior stat methods for allowing us to bask in the glory of a "We're #1" ranking.

DEFENSIVE RANKINGS - SITUATIONAL SPLITS

So we know that the DEF is pretty awesome all-around. But how awesome (or not) are they on specific downs?

Here are the DEF's pass and run DVOAs by down:

Down

DEF

Rank

Pass DEF

Rank

Run DEF

Rank

1st

-16.2%

5

4.8%

12

-40.8%

2

2nd

-29.2%

5

-20.2%

6

-40.2%

4

3rd

-2.4%

13

-3.6%

11

4.4%

21

I'd say that's pretty awesome. What I like most about the stats in this table is that the Niners' DEF is great both on high-frequency running downs (i.e., 1st & 2nd), as well as high-frequency passing downs (2nd & 3rd). To me, the fact that they're ranked 21st in defending 3rd-down runs is totally inconsequential.  Teams pass the ball the vast majority of the time on 3rd down, so I'd rather they be above average against the pass - which they are - than above average against the run - which they're not. Basically, what you see above is a near-spotless record of situational efficiency.

Here are the DEF's down splits by distance (Short = 0-3 yards; Mid = 4-6 yards; Long = 7+ yards):

Down

DEF

Rank

Short

Rank

Mid

Rank

Long

Rank

1st

-16.2%

5

N/A

2nd

-29.2%

5

0.7%

19

94.1%

31

-70.7%

1

3rd

-2.4%

13

16.6%

20

-37.3%

12

10.8%

16

There are two take-home messages from these stats. First, the most important (only?) area where the DEF seems to need improvement is on 3rd & short. Giving up 1st downs on 3rd & short can lead to a downward spiral in hurry. I'm not too worried about this, though, because of Singletary's "no downward spirals" coaching style, and the fact that their 1st and 2nd down performances seem to be creating very few 3rd & short situations.

Second, I've never seen one yard mean so much to a down-and-distance split like it does to the Niners' DEF on 2nd down. Specifically, they're 164.8% better (!!!) when their opponent has 7+ yards to go on 2nd down than when their opponent has 4-6 yards to go. Their overall prowess on DEF seems to hinge on stopping 1st down plays for minimal gain, thereby putting the opposing OFF in a 2nd & long situation. Therefore, in order for the DEF to keep up their recent domination, they're going to have to continue to be stout on 1st down.

Another indicator of their across-the-board awesomeness is the DEF's shotgun vs. non-shotgun splits. Here they are:

% of Plays

in Shotgun

Rank

Shotgun

DVOA

Rank

Non-Shotgun

DVOA

Rank

Difference

Rank

42.6%

10

-16.3%

5

-16.8%

7

0.5%

7

The DEF has been facing a fair amount of shotgun so far this season, which is to be expected given that (a) shotgun is essentially ARI's base offense, and (b) teams like STL tend to be in shotgun a lot when they're on the wrong end of a blowout. As you can see though, facing more shotgun than normal hasn't affected the DEF's DVOA. Specifically, they're in the top quarter of the league regardless of whether the opposing OFF is in shotgun or not, and their DVOA difference is infinitesimally small.

DEFENSIVE RANKINGS - TR SPLITS

We saw earlier that the OFF needs to get their head in the game a little bit more. Now it's time to check out the DEF's TR splits:

Red

Zone

Rank

Inside

OPP 20

Rank

1st

Quarter

Rank

4th

Quarter

Rank

8.2%

20

-45.8%

5

-23.2%

6

9.2%

19

If the OFF was 1/4 of the way to Singletary's motivation destination, then the DEF is twice as far along in the journey. Namely, they come out of the locker room on fire (mabe Singletary learned firewalking as a motivational tactic from Tony Robbins?), and they're great at keeping teams pinned deep inside their own territory. The DEF still has plenty of room for improvement with respect to the other TR splits; but, unlike the OFF, they're not atrociously bad in either of those two aspects of motivated football.

SPECIAL TEAMS RANKINGS

Below are the Niners' ST DVOA stats broken down by unit:

ST

Rank

FG/XP

Rank

Kickoff

Rank

Punt

Rank

-2.1%

16

0.4

8

-3.6

30

6.8

4

ST VOA

Rank

 

 

Kickoff Return

Rank

Punt Return

Rank

-1.1%

18

 

 

-1.2

15

-5.5

30

Before I discuss the table, I'd like to clear up something about the interpretation of ST DVOA. To be honest with you, I was a little confused about whether the net points stat for each specific ST unit is supposed to be interpreted on a per-kick/punt, per-game, or year-to-date basis. In other words, even I didn't know the answer to, "Compared to the league average, has the kickoff coverage team cost SF 3.6 points per kickoff, 3.6 points per game, or 3.6 total points so far this season?"

Well, I had a little e-mail convo with Aaron at FO, and he was kind enough to clear this up for me. Basically, net points in the above table should be interpreted in a year-to-date fashion. So, going back to my previous example, the correct interpretation is that, compared to the league average, SF's kickoff coverage unit has cost the team 3.6 total points so far this season. Incidentally, Aaron also told me they're going to be converting net points into a per-kick stat at some point in the near future, which I think is a good idea from an interpretation perspective. Anyway, just wanted to clear that up. Back to the stats...

Unlike last week, there actually are a few things to discuss regarding ST. First, Andy Lee and company have reclaimed their spot in the top 8, netting the Niners over a touchdown's worth of points so far this season. Second, Joe Nedney is 1 of only 8 Ks in the NFL this season who is netting his team more FG points than the league average. Finally, when comparing the Niners' ST DVOA to their ST VOA, we see that they've faced a relatively weak ST schedule thus far. Indeed, aside from MIN, who has the #3 ST VOA, they've faced STs ranked 13th (SEA), 22nd (ARI), and 28th (STL).  And even in the MIN game, the 49ers' ST played far worse (game-specific ST DVOA = -19.8%) than how the average team would be expected to play against the Vikings (ST DVOA = -8.4%), all else being equal.

Oh, and, by the way, Allen Rossum or Arnaz Battle or whichever Player X is back there this week still sucks at returning punts.

BOTTOM LINE

OK, so through 4 games, we can draw the following conclusions about the 2009 49ers:

  1. They're an above-average team that plays consistently from week to week.
  2. Their schedule has been relatively soft so far this season.
  3. Their OFF would really benefit from passing the ball more, especially out of the shotgun.
  4. Their OFF needs to start games better and do a better job deep in their own territory.
  5. Their DEF is a juggernaut for sure, but it needs to finish games better (ala the STL game) and do a better job when other teams enter the red zone - that is, if other teams ever do enter the red zone.
  6. As expected, Andy Lee and Joe Nedney are having yet another great season. Punt returner X...not so much.

On Saturday, I'll break down the player stats and rankings. See you then.

 

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

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