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49ers-Redskins Statistical Review: Half-Full or Half-Empty?

It's New Year's Day and I'm still not recovered from "celebrating," so my final statistical review of the season is going to be a short and sweet one...

In my preview, I identified three things on which my optimism for 2009 hinged:

  • Beating or nearly beating a team that has at least a 25% DVOA advantage over the Niners
  • Winning a game despite being outplayed according to DVOA
  • The emergence of Jason Hill as a viable option in the passing game

I'm going to briefly evaluate these one by one and decide whether I'm optimistic for next season or not.

TWO IS A COINCIDENCE, THREE IS A TREND

As I said in my preview, the Niners had beaten (NYJ) or nearly beaten (ARI) two teams despite a ≥25% DVOA disadvantage. Going into Sunday's game, the Redskins had a 27.8% DVOA advantage over the Niners, so the "trend" test was on display. Obviously, the Niners won, so that's evidence of a trend. I still have a couple of reservations though.

First, it turns out that the Cardinals and Jets were frauds when the Niners played them. Although they had ≥25% DVOA advantages over the Niners going into those games, they ended up the season being much less efficient than was apparent at the time. Specifically, now that all is said and done for the regular season, the Cardinals are only 18.3% better than the Niners, and the Jets are only 21.0% better. Don't get me wrong. Under Mike Singletary, the Niners still played competitively against three superior teams. I would just like to see some wins or down-to-the-wire games against non-frauds next season. Indeed, it would have been interesting to see the outcomes if Singletary had been head coach when the 49ers played NE and PHI.

Second, the two wins came in San Francisco. My graduate education is in sport psychology, so I've always been a big believer in road performance as an indicator of a team's mental toughness. Teams that can't win on the road are doomed to failure in the playoffs because only one team per conference gets to play all their playoff games in the friendly confines of a home stadium. Some quick examples of great road teams in the NFL are last year's Giants, the mid-2000's Eagles, and the 80s 49er dynasty, so my hypothesis does have some evidence to back it up. This season, the 49ers were 28th in road DVOA, and 14th in the discrepancy between home DVOA and road DVOA. If they want to take that quantum leap towards Super Bowl contention, they're going to have to play much better on the road, with a couple of road wins against superior teams.

Bottom line: Cautiously optimistic.

After the jump, I'll continue the optimistic theme with my evaluations of underperforming wins and an emerging Jason Hill...

‘TIS BETTER TO HAVE PLAYED WELL AND LOST...?

In my preview, I noted that the 49ers had won 3 of their past 5 games despite being outplayed according to DVOA in all 5. I didn't know what to make of that, so I wanted to see what happened in the Redskins game before making a decision on whether I liked it or not. Well, the streak ended on Sunday. The Niners won and outplayed the Redskins by over 40% (+15.7% to -26.1%). Now, staying consistent with the last section, one game does not a trend make. Nevertheless, it bodes well for the future that the Singletary-led Niners seem to be able to win games regardless of their relative game performance. I guess you could file this under "Finding a Way to Win."

Bottom line: Optimistic.

MAKING A MOUNTAIN OUT OF MORE HILL

As many have pointed out, one of Singletary's assets as a head coach is his aversion to cronyism. Unlike Mike Nolan, he's not married to underperforming veterans like Nolan was, and he's willing to give prospects a shot in the starting lineup to see what they can bring to the table. Of this latter group (Jason Hill, Josh Morgan, and Chilo Rachal), I think Hill has the best chance to make the biggest impact in 2009. Mainly, the presence of an elite WR will open up running lanes for Frank Gore, who looks to be the focal point of the offense under the Niners' yet-to-be-named offensive coordinator. Also, in comparison to the other two youngsters, Hill is farther along the learning curve than Morgan, and guards are the least valuable (and therefore least paid) members of an offensive line.

My goal for Hill's game performance was 7 catches for 85 yards and a TD, which is commensurate with the typical #1 WR's game stats. He ended up with only 4 catches for 28 yards and a TD against Washington, but man that TD was a big one, seeing as how it gave the Niners their first lead since 30 seconds into the 2nd quarter.

Bottom line: Cautiously optimistic.

"WHETHER A GLASS IS HALF-EMPTY OR HALF-FULL DEPENDS ON WHAT'S IN THE GLASS." - DEMETRI MARTIN

Overall, the Redskins game made me cautiously optimistic about the 2009 49ers. There are so many things that are going to happen between now and Week 1 of next season that I reserve the right to change my opinion. Specifically though, there are five things that could seriously derail the Niners' ascent from irrelevance, and render the above evaluations meaningless. Two are psychological, one is physical, one is organizational, and one is something the Niners have no control over:

  • Jason Hill or Frank Gore suffers a serious offseason injury.
  • Singletary's master motivator act, although successful when introduced as a contrast to "Vanilla Mike" Nolan, gets stale under the rigors and drudgery of an NFL offseason.
  • Like in 2007, opponents view the 49ers as an up-and-coming team rather than a red-headed step-child, and bring their "A" game every week. Or from the Niners point of view, the team prematurely thinks it's arrived, and brings its "F" game every week.
  • Singletary epically fails in his selection for offensive coordinator.
  • The schedule. At first glance, it looks brutal. Four of their eight home games are against teams that had winning records this season (ATL, CHI, TEN, ARI), and one other is against an injury-plagued team that almost certainly will rebound next season (JAC). More relevant to what I said earlier, though, is that 6 of their 8 road games are against teams whose home/road DVOA splits are even more home-leaning than is the Niners'. Green Bay was 28.0% better at home this season (10th in home/road discrepancy), Indianapolis was 28.1% better at home (9th), Houston was 26.2% better at home (12st), Arizona was 38.8% better at home (4th), Seattle was 32.9% better at home (8th), and Philadelphia was 36.5% better at home (5th). Also, one other road game (@MIN) is against a team whose defense was 17.7% better at home this season than it was on the road.

"WITH HIGH HOPE FOR THE FUTURE, NO PREDICTION IS VENTURED." - ABRAHAM LINCOLN

One last thing I'll say before I sign off for the regular season. I started doing these statistical previews in Week 8 against the Giants, and in each of the 10 I've given my DVOA-based game prediction for that week's game. In those 10 games, I was 7-3. However, because I went against the stats and picked the Niners to beat the Dolphins on general principle, I was really 7-2 (or 7-2-1 if you want to count that game as a push). That's not too shabby I think.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'll just quickly explain how I come up with the prediction. Essentially, it's based on a combination of the team's total DVOA and their home/road DVOA split, weighted 65-35 toward total DVOA. As crude as that is, it's a pretty reliable predictor of game winners, especially when the teams involved (like the Niners) have that level of a home/road DVOA discrepancy. During the offseason, I'm going to do some hardcore stat analysis, and come up with a much more sophisticated system for predicting games. I really look forward to testing out the new system next season.

In the meantime, I'll be continuing my statistical preview posts through the playoffs. For each round, I'll be previewing each matchup, and giving my game predictions, both straight up and against the spread. Once the playoffs end, I'll be writing up stat-based posts on specific 49er-related topics (e.g., Martz's OC performance, potential QB draft picks, etc.), general topics that Fooch thinks my stat-based analysis can shed light on, and any other topics that you all would like me to cover.

Thanks for reading and stimulating lively discussions this season. GO NINERS!

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