Welcome back for another look at Niner player statistics and rankings as published by Football Outsiders (FO). Unfortunately, I'm not going to present full stats for each player this week. The reason is pretty simple: most are meaningless right now. Of the 8 Niners for whom I could present stats, Shaun Hill just got benched, Alex Smith has only played one half of football, Frank Gore might as well have still been injured given his lack of opportunities against the Texans, Glen Coffee has been relegated to kickoff returns, Josh Morgan was benched, and Michael Crabtree's only played 1 full game. Basically, with that much turmoil, I'm skeptical that the stats - as they currently sit - are a valid reflection of what the current starting lineup has produced or will produce for the rest of the season.
So, in lieu of the full modicum of stats, I'm going to simply touch one specific topic: Why did Hill suck so bad all of a sudden?
If you're unfamiliar with FO's player stats (i.e., DYAR, individual DVOA, and EYds) and line stats (i.e., ALY and ASR), or if you need a refresher course, take a look at my explanations here.
THE DECLINE OF SHAUN HILL
By now, we're pretty much all in agreement that benching Hill was the right move. Whether or not we believe Smith is the short-, medium-, or long-term answer at QB is a topic for another day, with the answer likely becoming evident over the next 4 or 5 games. The question we can answer now is, "What the hell happened to Hill?"
It's useful to start with a chart:
After the jump, I'll discuss the chart, and give you my theory for what happened to Shaun Hill. Here's a hint to make you scratch your head: VD...
This chart tracks Hill's DYAR and EYds per Pass (both on the left axis), along with his DVOA (on the right axis), as they stood at different points over the last year or so (i.e., after 2008, after Game 2 in 2009, after Game 3 in 2009, etc.). In other words, this is not a game-specific ratings chart, it's a tracking chart. For an analogy, consider my chart akin to this one, which tracks Barack Obama's approval rating over the past year or so.
What we can plainly see from the chart is that Hill's stats have declined precipitously since the end of 2008. His DYAR/P has fallen over a full yard, meaning he's far less valuable to the 49ers' passing OFF right now than he was at the end of 2008. Meanwhile, his EYds/P has fallen over 2 yards and his DVOA has fallen nearly 20%, which suggests that he's a far less efficient QB now than he was at the end of last season. Obviously, these conclusions can be filed under, "Duh!" Nevertheless, it's useful to visualize just how far the mighty have fallen.
To me, the most interesting thing about Hill's decline is how it really makes no sense. What I mean by "makes no sense" is that it is totally backwards when considering the type of OFF in which he excelled as compared to the type of OFF in which he seems to have fallen off a cliff. Specifically, if aliens were to have landed on the Earth right now, and they looked at Hill's repertoire of QB skills, Mike Martz's OFF, and Jimmy Raye's OFF, they'd surely say - in whatever language they speak - that Hill would be trash in Martz's OFF, but treasure in Raye's OFF. If they were to look at my chart, they'd guess - incorrectly - that Hill's decline coincided with a move from Raye to Martz as OC, not vice versa.
Of course, we don't need an alien invasion to hear these positions articulated. Surely, a good part of the reason for hiring Raye was that his OFF better suited the dink-and-dunk, high-percentage-passing skills of the starting QB in place at the time of his hiring. Furthermore, the whole reason why Hill wasn't even given a chance to win the starting job during training camp of 2008 was precisely because his skill set fit Martz's OFF just about as good as Tom Delay's skill set fit Dancing with the Stars or William Hung's skill set fit American Idol.
So it turns out, in truly peculiar fashion, that Hill performed much better in the OFF that didn't suit him, and his decline coincided with the installment of an OFF that seemingly suited him to a tee. Now, you might argue that Martz dialed back his OFF considerably once Mike Singletary made the QB switch last season. You'd be right, of course. However, even the Martz Lite OFF during the second half of 2008 was more of a downfield passing OFF than the "3 yards and a cloud of dust" passing OFF run by Raye until the 2nd half of the HOU game.
The question becomes, "Why was Hill's performance trajectory backwards?" My theory revolves entirely around one player, who's changing role this season has influenced the entire OFF. He's next...
THE RISE OF VD
My theory is simply that Vernon Davis is going out for more passes this season, which is helping his stats, but seriously damaged Hill's ability to be successful. Why? Because VD is no longer a blocking TE, which is what he was in Martz's OFF, and so the OL has basically lost its best pass blocker on the right side of the line. Worse pass blocking means more pressure on Hill, and Hill's lack of mobility means more sacks against, and more errant throws by, Hill.
Let's take a look at VD's rise:
In total contrast to Hill's tracking chart, VD's chart shows massive improvement in every stat. He's now over 2 DYAR more valuable per target to the pass OFF, about 5 EYds more efficient per target, and nearly 40% more efficient per target in terms of DVOA. So, this is pretty clear. The decline of Hill seems to have coincided - almost eerily - with the rise of VD.
So what about the second half of my theory? Has the rise of VD also coincided with worse pass protection for Hill?
To finish the story, here's the OL's tracking chart according to ASR:
For 2008, ASR includes only those games with Hill at QB. As you can see, the OL's ASR has increased about 2.5% this season. In other words, they're giving up sacks more frequently through 6 games this year than they did with the same starting QB last year.
What's crazy about this, again, is that Raye's offense is supposed to be the conservative one; the one that minimizes the chance of a QB losing the game. And yet it seems that for Hill and the OL, the opposite has occurred. My view is that, like a lot of precipitous declines in life, VD - or at least the breakout of VD - is most likely to blame.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.
Enjoy the game today. Go Niners!
**DVOA, DYAR, EYds, and ASR statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.