I'm baaaaaaaaaack. That's right. After a long hiatus for various work-related reasons (Read: extracurricular activities impossible for quality control guy in the middle of an office reorganization), I return to reclaim my rightful place as Niners Nation's (NN) resident stats nerd. And believe me, I'll be making up for my absence in a big way (Read: 12 posts over the next 24 days). For some of you, my stat posts will be just what the doctor ordered as a remedy for your Niner/NFL withdrawal. For the rest, I've just given you some really bad news. Here's hoping for more of the former than the latter.
Like Peyton Manning relying on his bread and butter - aka throwing backbreaker INTs - when he returns to the Super Bowl after a long absence, I'm also going back to what I do best: bringing Football Outsiders' (FO) stats to NN. For those who don't visit FO as, um, frequently, as I do, they ran a series of "Stat of the Day" posts during the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl in which they basically scoured the catacombs of their stat database to present information for which they don't otherwise have the time/space.
Well, it turns out that the 2009 49ers were prominently represented in the newly declassified stats; some positively and some negatively. Reading through their posts, I found myself being surprised repeatedly to varying degrees. It was as if I was in some late-night TV purgatory between Arsenio Hall's, "Things that make you go hmm," and Johnny Carson's, "I-I-I-I-I did not know that." My astonishment - and its continuum - forms the basis of this post.
Specifically, I've taken FO's 15 stat-of-the-day mentions of Niner players & team units, ranked them from most to least surprising, and turned that ranking into a countdown-style article. As you'll see, some of these stats aren't surprising at all (Hint: Patrick Willis is awesome!), some are downright astonishing, and the most surprising of all - aka #1 on my list - will probably result in a "duh!" moment for those of you who've been reading my posts since I began on NN back in the fall of 2008. I figured I'd reward the NN greybeards with an inside joke to mark my return.
OK, so on with "The Final Countdown!"
After the jump, I prove that, if asked to do so by an attending officer, I can, in fact, count backwards from 15 to 1...
#15 - PATRICK WILLIS IS AWESOME!
Although much of the US probably still thinks Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher is the best MLB in the NFL, Niner fans are intimately familiar with the stone-cold fact that Willis is the current standard-bearer at his position. For the nation's edification, FO dedicated an entire post to displaying - statistically, of course - just how good Willis truly is. Although it's technically 2 stats, here's the 15th-most surprising stat you probably didn't know:
- Willis was the best LB in the NFL when it came to tackling receivers after they'd caught a pass. Specifically, Willis had 63 tackles - most among LBs - on plays in which the opponent completed a pass. Furthermore, on such plays, he led all LBs with 30 stops, which are tackles that result in an unsuccessful play for the opposing OFF (according to FO's standards of down-and-distance-specific success; See here for those standards).
Short translation: Patrick Willis is awesome! Long translation: Patrick Willis is LB kryptonite to offensive pass efficiency.
#14 - ANDY LEE AKA ROBO-PUNTER
Like Willis - OK, maybe a little more than Willis - Lee's prowess is far less conspicuous nationally than it is among Niner fans. Of course, we'd probably prefer it that way, given the alternative situation in which a team's punter also wears its best-selling jersey. Well, even if you already knew that Lee is the proverbial ROBO-PUNTER, I bet you didn't know the 14th-most surprising stat you probably didn't know:
- Compared to the league average - and all else being equal among punters - Lee gave the 49ers the largest field position advantage via the punt. Specifically, Lee single-handedly accounted for about 17 points-worth of field position on special teams. In other words, if Lee was just an average punter, the 49ers would have given up about 17 more points this season - or about a full point more per game.
#13 - FALSE START. OFFENSE. NUMBER 85.
The breakout season posted by Vernon Davis in 2009 may or may not have been surprising to you. However, one thing that I'm sure won't surprise any Niner fan is the 13th-most surprising stat you probably didn't know:
- VD committed 12 penalties this season, which was good/bad enough for 6th-most in the NFL among individual offensive players. The 5 penalty machines above him all play OL.
You know how some coaches make fumble-prone RBs carry the ball around with them all offseason as a way to cure their fumble-itis? Well, given that VD's game is nearly complete, perhaps Mike Singletary should just have him stand still until July. I bet he won't false start after that.
#12 - WHY AGAIN WASN'T HE INVITED TO THE PRO BOWL?
Although the stat I'm about to present to you right now isn't all that surprising, what was surprising to me was the emergence of NT-talk during Niner game broadcasts (I mean Nose Tackle, not New Testament). Generally speaking, the NT in a 3-4 defense is about as thankless and invisible as any position a defender could play. I mean, he's basically a big, fat, space-eating, gap-filling, stat-phobic member of his team's roster. Not since the days of Ted Washington have the 49ers had one that's actually any good...until Aubrayo Franklin. And like Washington did back in his days with the Niners, Franklin got mentioned a lot this season; except of course by anyone holding a Pro Bowl ballot. That's a damn shame, especially when I tell you the 12th-most surprising stat you probably didn't know:
- Franklin was the best 3-4 NT, the 3rd-best DT, and the 5th-best DL in the NFL with respect to stop rate against the run. Specifically, 93% of the Franklin's tackles in the run game resulted in an inefficient (aka unsuccessful) gain for the opposing OFF.
So Franklin, who plays a position in which the purpose of life is to stop the run, is the most efficient run-stopper at that position, and he doesn't go to the Pro Bowl? Even after they were down to 15th in the pecking order? Thankfully, as you'll see shortly, this egregious omission was remedied via another Niner's Pro-Bowl participation.
#11 - MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH!
If I were being 100% selfish in this post, I would have ranked this stat #15 because, to me, it's been about as conspicuous as the elephant in my room. Anyone who's had the privilege/punishment of reading my game-thread comments knows exactly who I'm about to talk about. Hint #1: He's young. Hint #2: He just became a starter. Hint #3: He's a WR. Hint #4: He's allergic to the 1st-down marker when he catches the ball on 3rd down. Hopefully, it's obvious by now. If not, here's the 11th-most surprising stat you probably didn't know (although I did):
- Josh Morgan was #2 in the NFL among WRs & TEs both in terms of total unsuccessful receptions and unsuccessful reception rate. Specifically, 22 of his 52 receptions - or 42.3% -- resulted in yardage representative of down-and-distance inefficiency.
If you think 22 unsuccessful receptions isn't that high of a total, consider that Morgan had the highest total of any WR not named Brandon Marshall, who - and here are a couple of bonus stats - was targeted nearly twice as many times (154 vs. 81) and had nearly twice as many receptions (101 vs. 52).
Likewise, if you think 42.3% isn't that high of a failure rate, consider that Morgan was 1 of only 2 WRs/TEs in the league to even break the 40% threshold, with the other being Donald Lee, the Packers' short-yardage TE.
#10 - FISH OR CUT BAIT? EVIDENCE SAYS CUT BAIT.
Also familiar to regular readers of mine is that I'm a strong believer in the "fish or cut bait" roster philosophy. There comes a point in time in which a player has shown all he's ever going to show, and it's time to rid the roster of his dead weight. In this context, you might be expecting me to talk about my least favorite 49er, Arnaz "The Human Roster Exemption" Battle.
Interestingly enough, I'm not. Actually, I picked up a new fish-or-cut-bait target later on in the season when I heard his name for the first time all season; right around Week 17 or so. I had practically forgotten he was still on the roster. I'm talking about Isaac Sopoaga. What has this guy ever done in a Niner uniform besides perennially being 1 or 2 years away from being an impact DE/DT/waterboy? Don't agree with me that he's dead weight? Well, that must mean you'll be surprised to know the 10th-most surprising stat:
- Only 10 DL in the NFL had a lower stop rate against the run than Sopoaga. Specifically, when Sopoaga made a tackle on a running play, the opposing OFF gained efficient/successful yardage 41% of the time.
Given that 3-4 DEs don't do much in the way of pass-rushing, a 3-4 DE who can't stop the run is pretty much the definition of "expendable;" and "expendable" is pretty much the definition of "dead weight; and "dead weight" is a good cue for choosing one of the fish-or-cut-bait options (Hint: It's not "fish").
#9 - DUMPOFFS AND CHECKDOWNS
During the season, I wrote about how there was kind of a chicken-and-egg paradox when trying to figure out who was to blame for Alex Smith's low Yards per Attempt stat. Was the chicken calling for a lot of dumpoffs and checkdowns or was the egg throwing a lot of dumpoffs and checkdowns that weren't called? Well, as with the chicken-egg thing, we're not going to find that answer any time soon. Well, actually, we'll find out in a few paragraphs. What you'll find out now, though, is my 9th-most surprising stat that you probably didn't know:
- Among QBs with at least 100 completions, Smith had the 3rd-highest failure rate on completed passes. Specifically, 34.7% of Smith's completions resulted in inefficient/unsuccessful yardage for the 49ers' OFF.
Fooch did a pretty thorough treatment of this stat a few weeks ago. What I think is most surprising about it, though, is the statistical company with which Smith kept. Bonus stat alert: The combined record of the other 8 teams represented in the top 10 of QB completion failure rate is 47-81. You want a good indicator of crappy teams? Try inefficient QBs...or OCs; whichever came first, the chicken or the egg.
#8 - MORE FROM THE FAILURE FILES
About halfway through the list, this is where the surprise factor takes a marked increase. Unlike the relatively "duh!" stats I've presented so far, the rest of the rankings have a genuine surprise factor in them. They may not be earth-shattering revelations, but - at least to me - they're all surprising in varying magnitudes.
The first of the rest that caught me by surprise the least was about Michael Crabtree. Personally, I thought his rookie year was an unmitigated success. I also thought that his game, both in terms of what he can do and what the 49ers ask him to do, doesn't resemble Morgan's in the slightest. Little did I know the 8th-most surprising stat:
- Crabs was #5 in the NFL among WRs/TEs when it came to unsuccessful reception rate. Specifically, 33.3% of his receptions resulted in inefficient yardage.
Obviously, I don't anticipate this becoming a career-long trend. However, I'm not sure if you're keeping track, but I've already told you that the 2009 49ers had the 3rd-worst QB in completion failure rate, along with 2 of the bottom 5 WRs in reception success rate. But wait, there's more...
#7 - EVEN MORE FROM THE FAILURE FILES
There's only one prominent member of the 49ers' pass OFF left that I haven't mentioned in this failure party: VD. Well, technically, I did mention him earlier with respect to penalties by offensive players; just not in the context of failed receptions. Well, here's the 7th-most surprising stat:
- VD's 19 unsuccessful receptions ranked #6 in the NFL among WRs & TEs.
Granted, VD suffered from a Brandon-Marshall-esque problem in that his large number of unsuccessful receptions was a byproduct of being targeted 129 times this past season. Nevertheless, as much as I prefer rates to totals, VD's total is far from meaningless. That's because each unsuccessful VD reception in 2009 meant one more 2nd-and-long, 3rd-and-mid-to-long, or 4th down situation for the Niners' OFF. Furthermore, it can be argued that VD's unsuccessful receptions were even more detrimental to the overall OFF precisely because he was such an integral part of it. If an offensive player has a lot of unsuccessful receptions in a small number of targets, so be it. You know he sucks, and you replace him. But when it's an offensive player that's targeted nearly as much as both of your starting WRs combined, it's kind of difficult to cut bait, so to speak.
And that brings me back to the chicken and egg. What we see here is that, in terms of inefficiency, the 49ers' pass OFF is practically unparalleled. Inefficiency is pervasive, even affecting their Pro Bowl TE of the present and their destined-to-be Pro Bowl WR of the future. Even when it appears that their much-maligned QB has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance, and even when a 6th-round WR pick shows enough talent to start from the outset of his 2nd NFL season, inefficiency rules the day. So, to me, the evidence is pretty compelling that the chicken came before the egg. Jimmy Raye's pass OFF, though good enough to be productive, needs a lot of fine-tuning to become efficient.
#6 - PATRICK WILLIS IS STILL AWESOME (BUT NOT AS MUCH AS I PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT)!
Just to pre-empt any hate comments, let me be clear that by no means am I suggesting here that Willis is anything less than the best MLB in the NFL. I bring up this stat only because I was really surprised by it. After seeing Willis ranked #1 in completion tackles and completion stops among LBs, I full expected him to be - at the very least - in the top 5 of completion stop rate. Well, he's not in the top 5, and he's not even in the top 10:
- At 48%, Willis was #12 among NFL LBs in stop rate on completed passes.
For someone who prefers rates to totals, needless to say I wasn't very happy upon learning this little tidbit of info. However, because certain LBs make more tackles than others, Willis' rate is a more informative measure than his totals. Looking at the Top 10, though, I think I've identified why Willis is ranked so low - and low is a little unfair given that he's still 12th. Namely, Willis is in a class by himself in terms of having a high level of productivity coupled with a high level of efficiency. When looking at the other LBs in the Top 12 of the completion stop rate rankings, only 1 has even half as many completion tackles, and 8 of the other 11 have less than one-third as many. So, looking at both the totals and rates as complimentary measures, it's pretty clear that some LBs were very productive and other LBs were very efficient; but only Patrick Willis was both productive and efficient. It was still surprising, though.
#5 - STRIKING GOLD
Now we're getting to the nitty gritty; the stuff that really surprised the hell out of me.
The Top 5 begins with the first of two S-related stats. That kind of reduces the guesswork a little bit, eh? The 5th-most surprising stat you probably didn't know is another double-whammy:
- Dashon Goldson's 51 tackles on completed passes was the 3rd-highest total among Ss. He also ranked 3rd with 11 completion stops.
So, going back to the last discussion, Goldson was easily one of the most productive Ss in the league. I was absolutely shocked when I saw this. I knew Goldson was good. I knew he has a bright future ahead of him. I knew for damn sure that he's better than Mark Roman. What I didn't know is that he's a tackling machine. Rather, I always figured his skills were in the "create turnovers" and "lay wood" mold of FSs, not the "I'm the last line of defense" mold.
#4 - THE TOTAL PACKAGE (AND I DON'T MEAN LEX LUGER)
I remember back during the lead-up to 2008 free agency, the debate was between trading for Jared Allen or signing Justin Smith. Allen was the well-known, high-priced franchise player, whereas Smith was the anonymous, bargain basement purchase. Everyone had seen what Allen could do for a DEF, whereas Smith's prowess with the Bengals was predominately outside the box score. As we all know by now, the Niners chose to sign Smith to a 6-year, $45M deal, while Allen was traded to the Vikings, where he later signed a 6-year, $72M deal. At the time, McNolan had a lotta ‘splainin' to do!
The 49ers may have gone the cheaper, non-descript route, but they definitely got their money's worth. That's because - and this is pretty ironic -
- Justin Smith's 35 hurries ranked 2nd in the NFL among DLs/LBs, behind only Jared Allen.
Where things get even more lopsided in favor of the Niners' brass is in this complementary stat:
- Justin Smith's 88% stop rate vs. the run ranked 10th among DLs.
Jared Allen? Nowhere to be found on that list. So, in the grand scheme of things, MIN paid $30M more for a player that - when compared to Smith - was more one-dimensional in 2009. In fact, in addition to Smith, only 1 other front-7 defender appeared on both the QB Hurry & Run Stop Rate Top 10 lists: Mario Williams. I hear he got taken #1 a couple of years ago, that he's pretty good, and that, oh yeah, he signed a 6-year, $54M rookie contract. So, based on 2009 stats (and probably 2008 for that matter), the 49ers definitely got a lot of bang for their buck.
In terms of how much Smith's stats surprised me, I have always been under the impression that his impact on the Niners' DEF was subtle, full of intangibles, and showed up more in the coach's film than in the box score. I remember when he was signed that his career stats were a tad underwhelming, but his value was undeniable based on all the dirty work he did. Well, thanks to FO, now we know 2 dirty-work stats that show Smith's 2009 season was every bit as good as what Scot McLoughan advertised.
#3 - LAYING DOWN THE LAW IN PASS DEFENSE
Remember how I said Willis was #12 among LBs in completion stop rate? What I strategically withheld in that section was that he's actually not even the best Niner LB on that list. That honor goes to a player whom, up until now, I actually thought was frequently taken out in passing situations precisely because he wasn't all that good in pass defense. It turns out he's not just really good at defending the pass; he's also really good at making the QB pay for throwing a pass. Here's my 3rd-most surprising stat, which again is actually 2 stats:
- Manny Lawson's 65% stop rate on completed passes ranked him #2 in the NFL among LBs.
- Lawson's 11 hits on opposing QBs were tied for the 6th-most among NFL defenders.
Wow. I-I-I-I did not know that. Manny Lawson is omnipresent. When the QB drops back to pass, Lawson gets a hit on him. Then, when the pass is complete, he's also there to tackle the receiver. Amazing.
#2 - MORE FROM THE "I THOUGHT HE'S A PASS DEFENSE LIABILITY" FILES
Continuing the theme, the subject of this stat appears to only see the field in pass defense situations because the coaching staff will do whatever it takes to keep Roman off the field. So I was absolutely shocked - shocked! - to see him at the top of any rankings related to pass defense stats. All I remember from this season is that, if there was a pass defense fail during a game, you could bet your bottom dollar that either Roman or this guy got beat/screwed up on the play. Well, what a real surprise it was when I read the 2nd-most surprising stat I didn't know:
- Michael Lewis' 10 stops on completed passes was good for #4 in the NFL among Ss
How about that? It's not that Lewis makes a lot of tackles on completed passes, which could easily be the result of him being a bad pass defender, but good tackler. Rather, Lewis makes a lot of stops on completed passes, which means that he prevents pass-catchers from gaining efficient yardage. If it's 3rd & 9, Lewis tackles the receiver (sometimes before he catches the ball, sometimes after) before he gets those 9 yards. If it's 2nd & 7, his tackle of the receiver keeps the opposing OFF out of 3rd & short. For a guy who's considered to be really bad in pass defense, it turns out that Lewis was a lot better in 2009 than I thought he was.
#1 - THE HYBRID STRIKES BACK
Now for the inside joke...The single-most surprising Niner-related stat that I came across while reading FO's Stat of the Day posts was
- Mike Nolan led the 2009 Broncos DEF to the 2nd-best turnaround in the DVOA era (1993-2009). Specifically, DEN's DEF went from 24.7% less efficient than the league average in 2008 to 7.9% more efficient than the league average in 2009.
For those of you who've been around since the 2008 season, you'll know my first column on NN was a precise dissection of Nolan's reality-light assessments of his team. In that context, as well as knowing just how much Mike Singletary's singular focus on the 3-4 has been an improvement over Nolan's identity-free "Hybrid" and efficiency free "Big Sub," you can see why I'd be flabbergasted to see the word "best" used to describe anything related to a Nolan-led DEF (except for maybe "best at being bad").
So, props to Mike Nolan for actually succeeding at something in the NFL...finally.
I hope you enjoyed my little countdown here. I'm sure many will disagree with some of my slotting, and many were far less surprised than I was about some of the stats FO declassified. Feel free to voice your disagreements in the comment section. What's less debatable is that, going inside the numbers, so to speak, these stats helped me learn/confirm the following:
- Patrick Willis is all-around awesome.
- Andy Lee is ROBO-PUNTER.
- VD has a penalty problem.
- Aubrayo Franklin had a Pro-Bowl-worthy 2009 season.
- Josh Morgan needs to stop looking for the imaginary yellow line and start focusing on the real orange first-down marker.
- It's time to cut bait aka Isaac Sopoaga.
- There was an inefficiency epidemic that spread among offensive players in the Niners' passing game. Jimmy Raye appears to have been wielding the bacteria.
- The 49ers arguably had the most efficient S duo in the NFL during 2009.
- Justin Smith was arguably the best all-around DL in the NFL during 2009.
- Manny Lawson was all over the field in pass defense this season.
- Michael Lewis was not, in fact, a pass defense liability this season. I guess I can lay off him now.
- After nearly 30 years in the NFL, Mike Nolan finally became a competent defensive coach.
*DVOA statistics used to produce this article were provided by Football Outsiders.