49ers Quarterly Statistical Report: I. Overall & Offense

One of a series of unfortunate events that have doomed the 49ers' offense through 4 games. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Good news! This is going to be a condensed version of the statistical report because we're only 4 games into the season. That means we're talking about really small sample sizes for most of the advanced stats I rely on. There's a lot of football left to be played this season, so many of the 49ers' stats that suck now will be better later, and several of the few that don't suck now will be worse later. All in all, it's best not to jump to conclusions this early, so I won't. Lucky for you, this means a Florida Danny post of non-dissertation length! You're welcome.

Hey everyone...So, coming into this season, I had this bright idea. How about making my in-season DVOA articles a quarterly feature instead of a weekly feature? I mean, after all, team statistics don't change much from week to week, and it's probably easier for you guys to read one long stats article per month than one per week - that is, if you read them at all. Therefore, for the rest of the season - and for as long as Fooch keeps me around - that's what we're going to do. Hence, our not-so-new, new feature, the 49ers Quarterly Statistical Report.

For those of you who discovered our site during the offseason, the basic format of these posts is that I describe the 49ers' performance via a cornucopia of advanced statistics that have been developed and disseminated by Football Outsiders (FO). The main statistic I rely on is FO's defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA)*, which is a much simpler statistic than it sounds. The Cliff's Notes explanation is that every offensive play in the NFL can be classified as either successful or unsuccessful. Previous statistical studies have determined what the definition of "success" is given down, distance, and game situation. If you count up the successes, and divide by the total number of offensive plays, you have a team's offensive success rate, or "value." Compare that value to the league average, and you have "value over average." Adjust that value-over-average to account for the fact that teams run plays against defenses of varying quality, and you have "defense-adjusted value over average," or DVOA. Thus, DVOA is just a team's play-by-play success rate compared to the average NFL team against the average NFL opponent.

The only other thing you need to know about DVOA to understand it is that, as it's based on the success of offensive plays, above average offensive (and special teams) DVOAs are positive, whereas above average defensive DVOAs are negative (i.e., the defense is good at making opposing offenses unsuccessful). Therefore, a team's Total DVOA is the sum of its offensive, defensive, and special teams DVOAs, with an above average team having a positive Total DVOA. So, if I tell you that the Patriots' Total DVOA is 34.1%, this means their plays have been successful 34.1% more frequently than the average NFL team's plays have been against similar competition. In contrast, if I tell you that the Steelers' Defense DVOA is -22.9%, this means that their opponents' offensive plays have been successful 22.9% less frequently than the average NFL defense has allowed against similar offensive competition. Of course, DVOAs can be interpreted in this manner for any number of specific game situations, many of which I'll be detailing in these posts. If you'd like to learn more details about the development and interpretation of DVOA, you can read about it here.

So, with the re-introductions out of the way, let's delve into the stats.

After the jump, I'll report and discuss the 49ers' advanced overall and offensive stats through the first quarter of their 2010 season...

OVERALL TEAM RANKINGS

Here are the Niners' overall DVOA stats and rankings through 4 games, along with the degree to which they've changed since the end of last season (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):

 

Games 1-4

 

Last Season

 

Change

Statistic

Value

Rk

Value

Rk

Value

Rk

Total DVOA

-31.7%

28

 

1.0%

20

 

-32.7%

-8

Offense DVOA

-23.0%

30

 

-10.2%

23

 

-12.8%

-7

Defense DVOA

3.4%

19

 

-11.8%

3

 

+15.2%

-16

Special Teams DVOA

-5.3%

28

 

-0.6%

19

 

-4.7%

-9

DVOA Variance

20.1%

25

 

10.3%

8

 

+9.8%

-17

 

Just so we're on the same page here, the Niners' Offense DVOA of -23.0% means their offensive plays have been successful 23.0% less frequently than the average NFL offense's plays have been against similar defensive competition. In contrast, their Defense DVOA of 3.4% means their opponents' offensive plays have been successful 3.4% more frequently than the average NFL defense has allowed against similar offensive competition.

With that said, I think these overall stats pretty accurately illustrate the Niners' 0-4 start to the 2010 season, and suggest they're playing much less efficiently in all phases of the game than they were in 2009. That DVOA Variance statistic at the bottom of the table also indicates that they're playing much less consistently (aka more variably) on a game-to-game basis than they did last year, which I think also is an accurate reflection of the first 4 games: a blowout loss to a bad team, followed by a close loss to the defending champs, followed by a blowout loss to a descent team, followed by a close loss to a good team. With that kind of yo-yoing, you'd think Mike Singletary was walking the dog and rocking the cradle on the sidelines over the past 4 weeks.

What might surprise some of you - certainly not me given my comments in the Falcons' postgame thread - is that a dropoff in defensive success rate is arguably more to blame for the 0-4 start than the much-maligned offense. Granted, the offense has declined considerably as well. However, based on expectations coming into the season, the Niners' defense hasn't even come close to being the elite unit implicit in their reputation. Face it, we all know the offense has been - and still is - a subpar work in progress. We have minimal confidence in them; and for good reason. But the defense, that's a different story. They're supposed to be the bell cow of the team, not the bum steer; and as it stands through 4 games, each non-elite performance pushes the entire team closer and closer to the slaughterhouse. The question becomes, of course, what the heck's happened to the defense? I'll save that discussion for Part 2 of the quarterly report on Friday.

One final thing I'll mention is something most sports statisticians like to cite, and that's the difference between the team's expected win total and their actual win total. Without getting into the specifics, a team's expected win total tells you how many wins that team should have given their statistical profile. If a team has more expected wins than actual wins, it means that they've probably gotten unlucky to some degree or have lost an inordinate amount of close games (FYI...wins in close games is not predictive of future success whatsoever). In contrast, if a team has won more games than you'd expect from their stats, it means that they've probably gotten a bit lucky or have won an inordinate amount of close games.

The 49ers' expected wins through their first 4 games is 1.3, whereas their actual win total is - need I remind you - 0. In other words, they've won 1.3 fewer games than you'd expect from their DVOA performance thus far this season, which currently is the 3rd highest differential in the NFL; ranked only behind the Lions (-1.4) and the Cowboys (-1.4). The reason I bring this up is because, as any of you who read my post on predicting team wins will know, teams who underachieve their expected wins pretty reliably make up that difference in the future. Teams like the 49ers, who are playing better than their record indicates, tend to improve their actual win total as time goes on; until the point at which their actual and expected win total converge. Know hope.

OFFENSIVE RANKINGS - OVERALL

Now, let's turn to the offense. Here' how the offensive DVOA stats and rankings look overall and by type of play, as well as how they've changed from last season (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):

 

Games 1-4

 

Last Season

 

Change

Statistic

Value

Rk

Value

Rk

Value

Rk

Offense DVOA

-23.0%

30

 

-10.2%

23

 

-12.8%

-7

Pass Offense DVOA

-28.7%

29

 

-8.2%

22

 

-20.5%

-7

Run Offense DVOA

2.3%

14

 

1.5%

13

 

+0.8%

-1

Offense DVOA Variance

9.7%

26

 

3.8%

3

 

+5.9%

-23

There's absolutely no mystery here. The pass offense decided to take the first 4 weeks off, and the DVOA punch clock accurately reflects their vacation time. Interestingly enough, if you look at the 49ers and the 3 teams below them in the Pass Offense DVOA rankings, all have taken immediate, drastic action to improve their situations. Namely, the 49ers fired their whatever-the-opposite-of-innovative-is offensive coordinator, the Vikings (#30) just traded for Randy Moss, while both the Cardinals (#31) and Panthers (#32) just benched their starting quarterbacks (QBs) in favor of rookie understudies. On one hand, it's nice to see that the Niners chose not to stay the course while Jimmy Raye helmed their ship straight into an iceberg. I'm reminded of 2007 when conjuring up a 49er-specific example of the opposite reaction.  So, at the very least, we can rest assured that Singletary is no Nolan.

Although everyone's focus is on the Niners' pass offense failings, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the running-in-place run offense. Specifically, when comparing the 49ers' Run Offense DVOA thus far in 2010 to the same stat in 2009, we can see that drafting 2 maulers in the 1st round of the draft has barely registered any kind of impact. That's probably due to the fact that said maulers are mere pups learning the art of the hunt as they grow, as well as to the fact of Eric Heitmann's absence. It just stands to reason that, when a run offense relies so heavily on interior blocking, replacing a perennial starter at C with a perennial backup at G is probably going to make things a little worse. In any event, I simply bring attention to this because Heitmann's due back soon, and the rookies' learning curves are accelerated; so it'll be interesting to track this as the season progresses. I mean, if I come back to you after the 8th game with the same nothing-to-see-here Run Offense DVOA, the Niners Nation musings of myself and Bill Barnwell vis-à-vis minimal 1st-year impact from the 1st-round rookie OLs will start to become a little less prediction and a lot more reality. Please prove us wrong, guys.

Now, let's get back to the more pressing question on everyone's minds: "Why the massive decline in Pass Offense DVOA since last season?" For that, we need to look at the situational DVOA splits.

OFFENSIVE RANKINGS - DOWN SPLITS

Here are the offense's pass and run DVOAs by down (bold = top 8 in the NFL; italics = bottom 8):

 

Games 1-4

 

Last Season

 

Change

Statistic

Value

Rk

Value

Rk

Value

Rk

1st Down

-22.8%

29

 

-9.5%

24

 

-13.3%

-5

1st-Down Pass

-46.3%

31

 

-7.2%

25

 

-39.1%

-6

1st-Down Run

28.9%

4

 

-3.3%

18

 

+32.2%

+14

2nd Down

-6.6%

19

-23.9%

32

+17.3%

+13

2nd-Down Pass

9.9%

15

 

-35.0%

32

 

+44.9%

+17

2nd-Down Run

-8.4%

17

 

3.2%

15

 

-11.6%

-2

3rd Down

-64.2%

32

 

5.9%

16

 

-70.1%

-16

3rd-Down Pass

-62.1%

30

 

14.2%

17

 

-76.3%

-13

3rd-Down Run

-24.1%

24

 

11.3%

17

 

-35.4%

-7

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

 

Games 1-4

 

Last Season

 

Change

Statistic

Value

Rk

Value

Rk

Value

Rk

1st Down

-22.8%

29

 

-9.5%

24

 

-13.3%

-5

2nd Down

-6.6%

19

-23.9%

32

+17.3%

+13

2nd & Short

-20.9%

25

 

-18.0%

28

 

-2.1%

+3

2nd & Mid

18.2%

9

 

-1.6%

18

 

+19.8%

+9

2nd & Long

-10.5%

20

 

-34.6%

31

 

+24.1%

+11

3rd Down

-64.2%

32

 

5.9%

16

 

-70.1%

-16

3rd & Short

-3.4%

20

 

48.0%

3

 

-51.4%

-17

3rd & Mid

-227.3%

32

 

-9.7%

19

 

-217.6%

-13

3rd & Long

-68.4%

28

 

-43.5%

26

 

-24.9%

-2

To the untrained eye, these tables simply tells us that the Niners' pass offense has been absolute garbage on 1st and 3rd downs, and that any 3rd down longer than 3 yards spells doom. While those things certainly are true, and there's a bevy of potential explanations for them, I think a more general statistical point might help to illuminate one major reason why the offense is seemingly underachieving our expectations.

Here's a little secret for those of you who don't peruse the seedy underbelly of NFL stat sites. One robust phenomenon that FO has found in their research is that 3rd-down success has this uncanny knack for putting lipstick on a pig. What I mean is that bad offenses can look competent simply because they're able to convert 3rd downs successfully after being unsuccessful on 1st and 2nd down. Generally speaking, offenses that fit this profile are unable to duplicate their 3rd down success the following season, and so their makeup gets washed away to reveal the pig that's been there all along. Meet the 2009 and 2010 San Francisco 49ers' offense. As you can see, Shaun Hill, Alex Smith, Raye, and company were in the bottom quartile of 2009 NFL pass offenses on 1st and 2nd down, but covered that up with above average success on 3rd down. Low and behold, they haven't been able to duplicate that - successful 75% less frequently!!! - and so 2009's Spider-Ham has been unmasked to reveal Peter Porker in 2010. Similarly, the 2009 unit was a Top 5 offense in terms of success rate on 3rd & Short, which masked a downright-ugly success rate on 2nd & Short; and, what do you know, they're successful over 50% less frequently on 3rd & Short this season while their success on 2nd & Short has remained essentially unchanged from its abysmal status in 2009.

Now, I know some of you might find that to be an underwhelming explanation; and it probably is to some degree. By no means am I saying that this explains everything that's gone wrong with the pass offense through 4 games. Heck, it probably doesn't even explain most of what's gone wrong. However, I'd argue that it does explain some of it, and this is definitely an under-the-radar phenomenon that I'm sure none of you have considered. I'll leave the "Alex Smith sucks more than a Bissell" and "Nate Davis is our future" commentary to others. I'm the stats guy here, so it's my job to tell you some explanation you didn't already know or hadn't heard 100 times already in the spectacular non-stats discussion threads we have on our site.

BOTTOM LINE

Woah! That's it? ‘Fraid so. Pretty much all of the other advanced stats I cover in these things have woefully small sample sizes at the moment. For instance, how can we evaluate the OL statistically when the Niners have fewer than 10 runs thus far in all directions besides up-the-middle and behind-right-tackle? How can we evaluate what kind of effect game venue has on the Niners' offensive stats when they've only run 58 plays at home so far? The fact is that, from a statistical perspective, we can't. Or, at least, I'm not dumb enough to do it, and then compound the error by posting bogus conclusions on the interwebs for all to see. Don't worry, though. After Game 8, I'll be back with my usual, exhaustive assortment of situational splits and advanced OL stats. In the meantime, here's what you should take away from the offense's first quarterly statistical report:

 

  1. The 49ers currently have the 5th-worst play success rate in the NFL, but...
  2. Even with a success rate that bad, they still should have a better record than 0-4, which means...
  3. They're bound to get lucky here or there, and perhaps win a close game or 4 before the season ends.
  4. When complaining about how sorry this team is, don't forget that the defense is just as - if not, more - to blame than the offense. We already knew the offense wasn't great. We thought the defense would be. Expectation is a helluva drug!
  5. While the run offense cruises along at a similar success rate to last year, the pass offense has nosedived...
  6. One overlooked, non-Alex-Smith-sucks reason for that nosedive is their inability to duplicate the above-average passing success on 3rd down that they enjoyed last season...
  7. It's too early to reach a verdict on the impact of drafting Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. If the Niners' 2010 run offense continues to resemble the 2009 version - at least, statistically - after Heitmann's return and the rookies' maturation, then we can start worrying.

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

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