Statistical Review of the 2009 49ers: IV. Special Teams

Welcome back for Part 4 of my 2009 Niner stat review. If you missed Parts 1, 2 or 3, you can read them here, here, and here. Today, I'll be reviewing the 49ers' special teams stats.

Before we get going, I want to remind everyone that ST DVOA, although expressed as a percentage, has 5 components that are all expressed as point totals. Just so there's no confusion, ST DVOA is interpreted just like any other DVOA stat (i.e., adjusted efficiency compared to average), but the 5 components are interpreted as total expected points added over the course of the season based on field position. In this way, the ST DVOA components are interpreted a lot like Brian Burke's Expected Points Added (EPA) stat that I introduced the other day.

SPECIAL TEAMS PERFORMANCE

Here are the overall ST DVOA stats (Top-8 performance in bold; Bottom-8 performance in italics):

Team

ST DVOA

Rk

2008 ST DVOA

2008 Rk

SF

-0.6%

19

4.6%

3

NO

-2.8%

28

-0.6%

22

Playoffs

0.6%

14.5

-0.7%

19.5

Only 4 teams in the NFL had a larger ST decline than did the Niners this season. As things progress in this post, we'll see which specific ST units were most to blame; although I'm sure you can guess. For right now, though, let me get the 2 luck-related explanations out of the way.

Two things that are totally out of a ST's control, but do affect performance, are (a) mother nature and (b) how far their opponents' P or K kicks the ball. After converting these two phenomena into expected point totals, FO calls them "weather points" and "hidden points," respectively. So did luck play a part in the ST's decline?


First, weather cost the Niners nearly 5-points worth of field position more this year than last year. In other words, compared to last season, the 49ers' weather disadvantage was 5 points stronger this season (-6.6 vs. -1.0). Late-season, cold-weather, road games against the Packers, Seahawks, and Saints are mostly to blame.

Second, "hidden" ST aspects like how far opposing Ps/Ks punted/kicked the ball to the Niners, as well as how good opposing Ks were at FGs/XPs, cost the Niners nearly 12-points worth of field position more this year than last year. In other words, the 49ers' hidden ST disadvantage was 12 points stronger this season (-12.7 vs. -1.0).

Therefore, between weather and hidden points, the 49ers' ST in 2009 had a luck-based field position disadvantage of 19.3 total expected points, which was the 2nd-strongest in the league this season. Furthermore, comparing 2009 to 2008, we're talking about a ST disadvantage for the Niners that was about 17 points stronger this season, which was the 7th-biggest increase in the NFL.

So, did luck play a role this season? In the words of Sarah Palin, "You betcha!"

After the jump, I'll break down the 5 ST components to see which were most culpable for the overall ST decline...

FIELD GOAL & EXTRA POINT PERFORMANCE

First up, how did the FG unit do? Normally, I'd say "how did Joe Jedney do?" However, Nedney missed the final 2 games of the season, so the stats below aren't technically all-Nedney:

Team

FG/XP

Rk

2008 FG/XP

2008 Rk

SF

1.9

15

4.4

8

NO

-9.2

28

-5.3

28

Playoffs

-0.9

17.3

0.0

17.8

Well, the news is mixed. On one hand, "SF K" remained an above-average K in 2009. On the other hand, he was 2.5 expected points worse than he was in 2008. Essentially, "SF K" was slightly less valuable this season because he  made a lower percentage of his FG attempts (79.2% vs. 87.9%), and more of his missed FGs were inside 40 yards (2 vs. 0).

Interestingly enough, it looks like the decline of "SF K" in 2009 doesn't even matter in the big picture. As the table shows, the average playoff team had a below-average K, and the Super Bowl Champs had one of the worst overall FG/XP units in the league during the regular season. It's funny how their K ended up becoming the first K in Super Bowl history to make 3 FGs from beyond 40 yards. This just goes to show you that FG-kicking during the regular season isn't as important as you think it is.

KICKOFF PERFORMANCE

So FG-kicking wasn't really to blame for the overall ST decline in 2009. Next up, kickoff coverage:

Team

Kickoff

Rk

2008 Kickoff

2008 Rk

SF

2.6

13

9.6

3

NO

1.2

15

-7.0

26

Playoffs

1.0

16.4

-2.3

20.0

Now we're getting somewhere. According to these stats, the 49ers' kickoff coverage unit was 7 points worse this season. Again, the way we interpret this is that Niner opponents were expected to score 7 points more in 2009 than they did in 2008, simply based on better field position allowed on Niner kickoffs this season.

In addition, unlike the previous case, year-to-year change in kick coverage efficiency does seem to be relatively important. As the table shows, the average playoff team's kick coverage unit improved by over 3 points-worth of field position, and the Super Bowl champs' unit improved by over 8. Indeed, NO enjoyed the 8th-best kick coverage improvement in the NFL this season.

PUNT PERFORMANCE

So, although they were still above average, the Niners' kickoff unit was partly to blame for the overall ST decline. Next up, punt coverage:

Team

Punt

Rk

2008 Punt

2008 Rk

SF

12.8

3

5.6

10

NO

-7.7

29

-3.8

22

Playoffs

-1.0

19.8

0.2

17.3

Andy Lee = savior. Those 7 points the Niners lost on kickoffs from 2008 to 2009, they gained back on punts. Unfortunately, as good as Lee is, punt coverage doesn't seem to be very important for winning. The logic on this is pretty simple. I've already shown you (in Part 2) that winning teams generally have elite OFFs, which means they gain field position by, you know, moving the ball down the field; not by relying on elite punt coverage. Hell, why would you when you don't even punt that much to begin with? In 2009, SF punted 99 times, the average playoff team punted about 64 times, and the Saints punted only 58 times.

So, the bottom line here is that Lee is obviously not to blame for the Niners' overall ST decline this season. However, as was the case with FG-kicking, punt coverage seems to have had little impact in terms of playoff participation in 2009. Isn't it interesting that the 49ers -- with Lee and Nedney -- are set at the ST units that don't seem to have a meaningful impact on win totals? Let's say that the Niners, with all those young weapons, become an elite OFF in the next couple of seasons. Would it make sense to continue paying top dollar for Nedney after his contract expires in 2011; or for Lee after his contract expires in 2012? Your comments are welcome.

KICK RETURN PERFORMANCE

Now, for the prime suspects:

Team

Kick Ret

Rk

2008 Kick Ret

2008 Rk

SF

-3.6

16

6.0

8

NO

7.0

7

1.3

16

Playoffs

1.3

13.6

-0.1

16.3

The 49ers were 10 points worse in the kick return game this season than they were in 2008. Stated differently, whereas the Niners' OFF had about a half-point-per-game advantage last season thanks to field position earned by their kickoff return unit, they had about a quarter-point-per-game disadvantage this season thanks to field position lost on kickoff returns. For the math averse among us, that's a swing (for the worse) of 3 points every 4 games.

What was different on kick returns in 2009? Well, here's a wild stab in the dark. In 2008, Allen Rossum had 76% of the Niners' yardage on non-upback-handled kick returns. In 2009, he had 13%. This isn't to say that Rossum was lighting up the scoreboard before being released. However, my first question is, "What did the Niners have to replace him?" Clearly, the best of Rossum's kick-return replacements was Josh Morgan, but (a) the Niners didn't discover his kick-return talent until he was demoted from starting WR, and (b) he won't be a viable option next season because of his re-promotion back to starting WR.

Aside from Morgan, all the 49ers had as KRs were players who are well-known for their non-return ST performance; guys like Michael Robinson and Arnaz Battle. To me, it's pretty obvious that KR is a position requiring speed and athleticism -- of which Rossum and Morgan have plenty, but Battle and Robinson have little. So, my second question is, "What about Morgan returning kicks next year in addition to starting at WR?"

If not Morgan, they definitely need to spend this offseason searching for a speedy, athletic kick returner. Of the 5 components of ST DVOA, the highest average ranking for playoff teams was in kick return. Furthermore, we've seen so far that NO was pretty bad at ST in 2009; yet, on KRs, they were in the Elite 8. I don't think that's a coincidence.

PUNT RETURN PERFORMANCE

Finally, the primest of all prime suspects:

Team

Punt Ret

Rk

2008 Punt Ret

2008 Rk

SF

-17.5

32

1.4

10

NO

-7.8

30

11.4

2

Playoffs

2.9

14.0

-1.6

18.3

We're all aware that the 49ers were horrible on punt returns this season. Whether it was the steady dose of 2-yard returns, the botched trick plays, or untimely muffs, they were tough to watch. What's crazy, though, is that I don't think we fully appreciate just how awful they really were:

  • The Niners' #32 PR unit this season was over a TD worse than the #31 punt-return unit (Raiders, -10.4 pts).
  • The Niners' #32 PR unit sacrificed about 34-points worth of field position compared to the #1 PR unit (Eagles, +16.3).
  • This year's 49ers had the 2nd-worst PR unit of the DVOA era (1993-2009). The only worse PR unit of the past 17 seasons was that of the Packers in 2002 (-18.5 pts).

Now that's awful. And what makes matters worse is that PR seemed to matter this season in terms of making the playoffs. Of course, the fact that this year's playoff teams improved their PR units considerably over 2008 means that fixing their abysmal PR unit may payoff handsomely for the 49ers in 2010.

Piggybacking on what I said about the KR unit, two things now seem pretty clear. First, releasing Allen Rossum without any competent alternative was a major personnel fail by Scot McLoughan. Maybe there were issues with Rossum that we didn't/don't know about publicly, but if the decision was based on something other than performance, was it really worth it? 

To me, the answer is no. Between losing Nate Clements on a PR against the Colts, the muffed punt by Arnaz Battle against the Texans, and the botched reverse between Battle (!!!) and Brandon Jones against the Seahawks, one can argue that releasing Rossum indirectly cost the 49ers at least 3 wins this season.  Considering that they lost those 3 games by a total of 10 points, the 17.5 points surrendered by the PR unit this season sure would have been helpful. And one more thing, the revolving door at PR (and KR for that matter) meant that guys like Robinson and Battle, who are usally stout in kick coverage, were busy practicing returns rather than coverage, and the kick coverage unit likely suffered as a result.

The other thing that seems pretty clear now is that it's pretty tough to blame Al Everest for the Niners' ST decline in 2009. Obviously, the guy didn't forget how to coach during the offseason. When you release your return specialist, and instead rely on a backup FB (Robinson), a backup TE (Delanie Walker), a 4th-string WR (Battle), a 5th-string WR (Jones), and a starting defender (Clements), your return units are going to suffer...a lot. Granted, they still should have been better than the 2nd-worst of the past 17 NFL seasons, and it probably didn't help that Everest apparently called the Battle-Jones reverse debacle without Mike Singletary's approval, but I personally think Everest was the undeserving fall guy here.

BOTTOM LINE

Based on the stats I've presented in Part 4 of the season review, here are the things the Niners need to do in order to seriously contend in 2010:

  1. Improve on OFF so they don't have to rely as heavily on FGs and Ps.
  2. Find a competent PR/KR...stat!

*DVOA, FG/XP Pts, K Pts, P Pts, KR Pts, PR Pts, Weather Pts, and Hidden Pts statistics used to produce this article were provided by Football Outsiders.

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