clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

49ers-Bills Statistical Review: The Ugly Duckling

The consensus since Sunday has been that the 49ers' win was of the "ugly" variety. Although I did predict that type of game, I'm not going to sit here and toot my own horn given that I also predicted a 49er loss (you're welcome Cruithear). Where there's been no consensus, however, is regarding how we should interpret this ugly victory. All week, the fans and media have been engaged in a debate that sounds like something out of an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem: Is it better to have played poorly and won or to never have played poorly at all? In my statistical game review this week, I'm going to try to answer two related questions: (1) What does an ugly win look like statistically? and (2) Should we be optimistic or pessimistic after this ugly win?


So what does an ugly win look like statistically? Let me start painting the picture for you with DVOA:

  • The 49ers played three times less efficiently than they normally do (-44.9% vs. -15.0%).
  • The 49ers played their second least efficient game of the season (only -55.7% vs. SEA was worse).
  • The 49ers played considerably less efficient than the Bills did (25.4% less efficient).
  • The 49ers underperformed their 3.6% DVOA disadvantage going into the game (by 21.8%).
  • The 49ers' offense played 42.6% less efficiently than the league average.
  • The 49ers' offense played 32.3% less efficiently than the Bills' offense did.

After the jump, I'll continue to paint the portrait of an ugly duckling...

Now, how about adding some offensive line stats to the picture:

  • 2.75 actual yards per RB carry, 2.0 unadjusted line yards per RB carry, and 2.63 line yards per RB carry when adjusted for opponent. The average NFL yards-per-carry is 4.20.
  • 11.5% sack rate, and 15.8% sack rate when adjusted for opponent. The average NFL sack rate is 6.3%.

Let's finish off the picture with a running back stat:

  • Frank Gore gained only 3.0% of his rushing yards after the first 10 yards of a carry. The league average is 19.0%.

Basically, the Niners played worse than the Bills, especially on offense, yet still won the game. And despite being wildly inefficient running the ball, they still won a game played in weather conditions that required efficiency in the running game. That right there is the protrait of an ugly duckling.

So how should we feel about this ugly win? Well, as bad a performance as it was, it was also a statistical anomaly in two ways that should bring 49er fans a sense of optimism for the future:

  • This was the first game of the season that the Niners won despite being outplayed by a better DVOA team. They had previously gotten outplayed in their Week 2 win at Seattle, but the Seahawks had (and still have) a worse DVOA than the Niners, which means that the Niners technically were a statistical favorite.
  • This was the Niners' first win east of the Mississippi against a superior team since the beginning of the Nolan era. They previously were 0-12 in such matchups.

So let's stop and absorb what these two statistical anomalies mean: For the first time in at least 4 seasons (I'm going to look at this in more historical depth), the 49ers just beat a better team east of the Mississippi despite being outplayed statistically in the game. Maybe this is just some kind of regression to the mean, or maybe it's a sign that the long-lauded "character in the locker room" is actually starting to translate into wins. We won't really know for sure until the end of the season (aka after that game in Miami on 12/14), but I'm starting to feel optimistic given the consistent will to win that this team is showing under Mike Singletary.


Just to refresh our memories, I identified the following strength vs. weakness (SVW) matchups for the 49ers in their game against the Bills:


SF Rank

BUF Rank







So how did they do? As you may recall, the bottom line of the 2nd-down SVW was that the 49ers’ defense needed to limit Bills yardage on 1st down, putting them into 2nd and long situations. That’s how I’m going to score success/failure here. Also, the Niners' offense only had 2 plays on 3rd and mid (4-6 yards), so I’m not going to grade that SVW (FYI, they were 50% successful).

1st-Down DefenseIn continuing the week’s ugly duckling theme, the 49ers won despite doing performing poorly in this crucial situation. On the Bills’ 27 total 1st-down plays, the Niners’ defense forced the Bills' offense into 2nd and long 13 times, allowed 2nd and short 4 times, allowed another first down 7 times, and put the Bills into 2nd and mid 3 times. All told, that’s a 13-11-3 performance with 7 new first downs allowed, which is pretty bad when you consider their 1 first-down allowed, 14-5-6 performance last week against the Cowboys. What makes this performance even worse is that the situation was more crucial this week because the Bills are actually worse than the Cowboys on 2nd and long. It can’t be understated how poorly the Niners’ D played on first down against the Bills, so I’m going to bring up one last stat regarding this SVW. On the Niners’ 13 successful first-down plays, the Bills only gained a total of 3 yards, or 0.2 yards per play. In contrast, the Bills gained 173 yards, or 15.7 yards per play, on the Niner D’s 11 unsuccessful first-down plays. On those plays, the Bills’ offense had gains of 50, 22, 19, 14, 13, 11, and 11 yards. That, my fellow 49er fans, is ugly.

Now, you might say, "Hey Danny. In your preview, you said the Bills were much better than the Cowboys on first down." This is true. However, the Niners’ D also performed worse than expected when they did force the Bills into 2nd and long. Specifically, they were successful 8 times, giving up a total of 1 yard (0.3 yards per play) and recovering a fumble; while they were unsuccessful 5 times, giving up a total of 61 yards (12.2 yards per play). Score: Taking all of the above into account, it was a double whammy, or alternatively…Double Bogey.

Using my golf scoring system, the Niners were 2-over-par on one hole. Again, their SVW performance just further reinforces the fact that the 49ers beat the Bills despite playing particularly poorly on a play-by-play basis. While it’s a hell of an achievement, and a rare one to boot, it’s not a recipe for consistent success unless the "character" it suggests is a sign of better things yet to come.

Next up this Friday…a preview of the Jets game. Will the 49ers play the role of spoiler or that of Brett Favre’s red-headed step-child?

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