::Literate Blather::
Saturday, January 05, 2008
5 Questions About: NFL

An Interview with NFL Expert Kerry J. Bryne

(Yeah, we like football. On Sunday mornings, DaRK PaRTY pours Miller Lite on our corn flakes, pulls out the Sunday sports section, and then calls our bookie with for a few grand in bets. Then we break out the whiskey, dial up a few cheerleaders, and party like its NFL Game Day, which it is. Then, of course, we wake in our New England Patriots pajamas next to the wife. Still, we do like football and when we want information we called Kerry J. Bryne, the founder and main troll over at the best NFL site in the world: Cold, Hard Football Facts. Here is everything you need to know about the 2007 NFL season and the upcoming play-offs)

DaRK PaRTY: What have been the three biggest surprises of the 2007 regular NFL season?

Kerry: Well, I guess number one would have to be the New England Patriots at 16-0. I know it’s been an endless story everywhere so it seems old and unsurprising. But, let’s face it -- nobody expected 16-0 because it’s never happened before. Hell, we knew the Patriots would be good, but we predicted 12-4 good. In retrospect their march to 16-0 seems to have an air of inevitability. But, really, if something’s never happened in history, and it’s something people said could never be done, it has to be a pretty big surprise when it happens, doesn’t it?

TWO – The rebirth of Brett Favre. We had him written off for the great big cheese larder called retirement. In fact, we caused a bit of snit among Packers fans when we dubbed Favre “Old Yeller” – sure, he was once the best dog on the prairie, but it was time to put him out of his misery. Production-wise, he was completely washed up and his play was beyond reckless – costly interceptions that almost single-handedly lost games for his team time and again. In 2005, in something like nine of Green Bay’s 12 losses, he had the ball in his hand in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the game or take the lead and threw picks in every single one of those opportunities. It was piss-poor quarterbacking and any other QB would have been benched.

He responded here, at age 38, with one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career: Personal bests with 7.8 YPA and 66.5 completion percentage; a mere 15 interceptions, tied for the fewest since his MVP and championship 1996 season; and a 95.7 passer rating, third best of his career and only a micro-fraction behind the 95.8 he posted in that same 1996 season.

Hell, when baseball players show that kind of improvement so late in their careers Congress launches and investigation. Favre has literally had a career year – at age 38. Even if he wasn’t 38, the improvement from 2006 to 2007 has been remarkable.

THREE – The deafening silence of the Colts. For years, this team has generated fawning praise and attention out of all proportion to its actual on-field accomplishments. It was a flashy team that generated hype, but showed little substance.

Now here they are, the defending champs, and even better than last year. And suddenly, in the hype surrounding the flashy Patriots, NOBODY is talking about the Colts.

That’s a mistake.

The true irony here is that this may be the single greatest team in Colts franchise history. If they win the Super Bowl, they certainly will be the best team in Colts franchise history. The 2007 Colts are 13-3 and would have been 14-2 if they had put up any kind of fight in the finale against Tennessee. They scored 450 points, second highest total in franchise history (2004 Colts, 522). Their +188 point differential is second best in franchise history (2005 Colts, +192). And only the 2005 Colts have won more games (14), but that team couldn’t win a single playoff game.

You get the feeling that this team is quietly lurking in the shadows of the NFL season, waiting to pounce on its quarry and tear it to shreds. Honestly, it will not be surprising is if they win the Super Bowl.

DP: Let's talk New England Patriots and their 16-0 regular season record. How good are they really?

Kerry: Well, we put a lot of stock in our Quality Standings, and they tell us that the 2007 Patriots were probably the greatest regular-season team in history.

Before I get to why, first a little background: Our Quality Standings are the foundation of our Quality Stats, which, in turn, are the foundation of the Cold, Hard Football Facts. There is no magic formula to our Quality Stats – the term simply refers to stats that have a direct correlation to winning football games.

Our Quality Standings, specifically, measure each team’s performance only against opponents with winning records (or what we call Quality Opponents or Quality Teams).

The theory behind it is this: performances against bad teams don’t mean shit. Great teams are either going to pound bad teams – big whoop – or they’re going to put it in cruise control and not really play their best ball. Every year there’s a team that puts up big numbers but then when you look back at the Quality Standings you find that they really didn’t beat anybody. Almost invariably, these teams don’t do anything in the playoffs.

So these games against bad teams don’t tell us much. So we literally dismiss them.

We want to know how teams perform when the pressure’s high and the opponent is tough. These performances give us a look at the true essence of team: they’re either pretenders who will wilt, or truly great teams that are strengthened in the forge of tough competition.

It’s a fairly effective formula come playoff time. Since we introduced this “Quality Wins Quotient” in 2004, teams with the better record against Quality Teams are a remarkable 25-8 in the playoffs. Vegas favorites, over the same period, are 23-10. Teams with a better overall record are a mere 19-14. Home teams, meanwhile, are just 18-12. You can see more about the Quality Wins Quotient as it relates to the 2007 playoffs here.

So, with all that said, our look at the 2007 Patriots through the prism of Quality Wins indicates that they may just be the greatest team of all time.

They’re 7-0 vs. Quality Teams this year, matching the 2003 Patriots for the best record ever vs. Quality Teams. The 2003 Patriots, of course, went on to win the Super Bowl, giving them a perfect 10-0 record vs. Quality Opponents. That 2003 Patriots team didn’t blow anybody out of the water. But they played more than half their games against Quality Teams and beat every single one of them.

Only one other team in history beat 10 Quality Teams in a single season: the dynastic 1979 Steelers went 7-3 vs. Quality Opponents in the regular season and 10-3 including playoffs. There weren’t a lot of puff-cakes in that team’s schedule.

But more impressive than the 7-0 record of the 2007 Patriots is the utterly dominant way in which they beat these Quality Teams. These seven Quality Opponents include a record four wins over division winners (Indy, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Dallas) and wins over two other playoff teams (Washington and N.Y. Giants). New England outscored these Quality Teams by a whopping 38.3 PPG (points per game) to 19.0 PPG – a +19.3 PPG differential.

To put that 7-0 record and +19.3 PPG into context this year, consider that only three other teams boast as many as four wins over Quality Opponents (Indy, 4-3; Jacksonville, 4-3; Dallas, 4-2. The Packers, meanwhile, are 3-1 vs. Quality Opponents and second to New England with a +5.5 PPG differential. So, as you can see, New England is ridiculously far ahead of the field.

They’re also ahead of the field of greatest teams in history. Our Quality Standings don’t go back before the founding of the ColdHardFootballFacts.com in 2004 (we are working on a historic database). But we did take a look at the performance against Quality Opponents of the greatest teams in history and found that only the 1962 Packers and 1985 Bears even come close to the 2007 Patriots:

2007 Patriots (16-0 overall): 7-0 vs. Quality Teams, +19.3 PPG

1985 Bears (15-1): 5-1, +17.9 PPPG

1962 Packers (13-1): 3-1, +17.5 PPG

1991 Redskins (14-2): 6-2, +15.0 PPG

1984 49ers (15-1): 4-1, +12.0 PPG

1972 Dolphins (14-0): 2-0, +10.0 PPG

1975 Steelers (12-2): 4-2, +6.9 PPG

1992 Cowboys (13-3): 3-2, +0.6 PPG

1999 Rams (13-3): 0-1, -3.0 PPG

DP: As a New England die-hard -- I'm confident they'll go the distance. But the Colts are worrisome. What are your thoughts on Indy?

Kerry: Well, you saw my thoughts about the Colts above in the first question. The 2007 Colts are probably the best team in franchise history and already took the Patriots to the wire back in November. They have all the ingredients you need: great coach, great quarterback, great defense and, more importantly, they’re all wearing Super Bowl rings, too. They’re also the first team in history to win 12 or more games in five consecutive seasons.

If they were to beat the Patriots in the AFC title game – and I’d give them about a 40-percent chance of doing so – it would be treated by the media as the “upset of the century.”

But it really wouldn’t be that great of an upset. This is a very, very good Colts team – probably a great Colts team – and is very capable of beating the Patriots.

DP: The NFC was interesting this year. What team do you think is going to emerge at the Super Bowl contender and why? And what is your Super
Bowl prediction?

Kerry: We like Green Bay. We really do. Dallas has received all the hype. And, obviously, the Cowboys are a great team and won their regular-season meeting and will host the Packers again if they both advance to the NFC title game.

But Dallas has a few warts that get covered up by its great offense and by the general hype that surrounds America’s Team. Namely, for all their big names and Pro Bowlers, they have a very inefficient defense, at least among playoff contenders. They stand at a mere No. 17 in our Bendability Index, our way of quantifying the “bend but don’t break” phenomenon. Opponents need just 106 yards against Dallas to score the equivalent of 7 points. Whereas No. 1 San Diego forces opponents to march more than 126 yards to score the same 7 points.

It tells us that Dallas is doing a lot of little things wrong to make it easy for opponents to score, whether it’s poor red zone performance, turnovers, and poor field position. Indeed, our Special Teams Index reveals that the Cowboys were a mere 22nd this year in that category. Basically, the Cowboys don’t make opponents work very hard for points.

Green Bay, however, was the single most well-balanced team in football this year, even more so than the Patriots. They rank between number three and number seven in every single one of our Quality Stats, from offensive and defensive lines, passing offense, passing defense, offense and defensive efficiency, even special teams and relative scoring differential. The Packers were packed in from number three to seven in every single one of these categories. That’s pretty fuckin’ impressive. You can see the whole breakdown here.

And their 3-1 record and +5.5 PPG scoring differential against Quality Teams were second only to New England this year. The Packers are a very good team.

For Green Bay, it will all come down to the performance of their greatest asset and greatest liability: Brett Favre.

If he plays like the vintage 1996 Brett Favre we saw for much of 2007, the Packers will win a rematch with Dallas. If he plays like the vintage 2005 Old Yeller we saw in the Thursday night loss to Dallas this year, the result will be the same. Favre was dreadful that day, resorting to his old Rex Grossman-style “gunslinger” (a euphemism for “shitty quarterback”) ways, just tossing away hopelessly misguided passes into the hands of Dallas defenders.

Remember Favre got hurt that night and the offense improved dramatically when untested Aaron Rodgers came in off the bench because he played smart football and didn’t throw stupid passes. The Packers actually outscored the Cowboys, 17-10 I believe, after Favre went down.

Green Bay is definitely the more solid all-around team. If Favre plays smartly, the Packers go on to the Super Bowl. If he doesn’t then Dallas advances. Pro football is pretty simple that way, actually. You can break down all kinds of stats (and we often do). But at the end of the day the team with the quarterback who plays better that day invariably wins.

DP: Let's hand out some awards. Who was the best offensive player of the year? Defensive player of the year? And what two teams were the absolute worst?

We just handed in yesterday our Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America year-end awards ballot.

We picked Tom Brady, obviously, as the best offensive player in football this year. I don’t know if there’s much of an argument there. A guy already destined for the Hall of Fame has a career year, breaks numerous records, throws for the third most yards in history and, more importantly, leads his team to a 16-0 record.

Yes, there’s a groundswell of support for Brady’s battery-mate, Randy Moss. We can understand that sentiment. Consider that New England’s entire corps of wide receivers in 2006 caught just 12 TD passes. Moss caught a record 23 this year. Clearly, he remade the New England offense (as we predicted when he was acquired back in April.

But it’s a QB’s league and you can argue that nobody in history played the position better than Brady did this year.

On the defensive side of the ball, we named Indy safety Bob Sanders our defensive player of the year. It strikes some as a clichéd choice. He’s generated a lot of hype and this “Superman” status among his fans on the web. But we don’t care about the hype and the buzz, only the substance.

And there is plenty of substance behind his selection as Defensive Player of the Year. Most notably, Sanders is the best player on one of the best defenses in the league. He’s tremendous against the run, and he’s the leader of one of the stingiest secondaries in the NFL. The Colts rank number three in Defensive Passer Rating (a “Quality Stat”) and number two in passing yards per attempt against them. And, as we showed earlier this year, the Colts defense is lost without him back there.

His impact on that unit is profound. We discussed his fairly quantifiable statistical impact on the defense and on the Colts in general early this season.

Over the past two seasons, the Colts are 10-4 (.714) without Sanders in the lineup, which is pretty good. But they’re a remarkable 32-6 (.842) when he is in the lineup.

As for the two worst teams, you gotta give a nod, of course, to the Miami Dolphins. Not only were they one of the few teams in history to lose 15 games in a season, but they have to suffer the indignity of losing out on the division race to New England by an embarrassing record of 15 games.

But don’t forget St. Louis, too. One of our readers, a guy named Brian Sheppard, created for us something called the Relativity Index, which measures how teams perform relative to the average game of their opponents. The Rams were dead last, an average of 11.8 PPG worse than the average performance of their opponents. Even the 1-15 Dolphins were only a mere 10.2 PPG worse than average.

St. Louis has truly become the Most Miserable Show on Turf and the decline from its heyday just a couple years ago has been stunning and dramatic.

Read our interview with Kerry from last year here

Read our interview with NESN's Tom Caron on baseball here

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