Numbers can be twisted and numbers can be deceiving, but there's also generally an inherent trust in them as well. Some might say that numbers never lie.
I'm not sure I would go quite that far, but I do like to take a deep dive at them sometimes and spend a few hours tooling around on STATS to see what I find interesting. Some of the less fashionable, less traditional measures at one's disposal can point to trends to come, situations that might foretell a regression to the mean or a reversal in fortune. And if ever there is a time to make such a foray during the NFL schedule, it's now, with minicamps complete, training camps a month from opening and most rosters essentially set for the time being.
Here are some of the revelations that struck me after spending a sweltering summer afternoon researching on the database and trying to get a jump on what to look out for in the 2017 season:
How quickly do the Falcons start games?
Last year, with Kyle Shanahan in his second year as offensive play-caller and in perfect symmetry with Matt Ryan, no one was better early in games. Shanahan is a master at installing a game plan and scripting plays, and after clashing some with the league MVP in 2015, he and Ryan were sympatico. Check this out:
- In 2016, Ryan led the NFL in first-quarter passing: 100 for 131 (76.3 percent), 1,235 yards (9.4 yards per attempt), 9 TDs, 0 INTs, 127.9 rating.
- The year before, however, (his first with Shanahan), Ryan ranked 24th in the same category: 91 for 138 (65.8 percent), 1,019 yards (7.4 yards per attempt), 1 TD, 3 INTs, 81.2 rating
With Steve Sarkisian a late arrival to the staff to replace Shanahan, now coaching the 49ers, I'll be very interested to see how this goes. I suspect Ryan's first-quarter stats end up somewhere between these two extremes. A year ago his near-perfect first-quarter performances allowed a rebuilding defense to ease into games and often play with an early lead. A feeling-out process would be natural, and Ryan maintaining last season's pace could be asking a lot. The defense should be better, but Ryan hasn't always been a fast starter, and I believe Shanahan's departure will create at least a short-term void.
Will Prater ever miss?
If you are bullish on the Lions, their kicker should be a major part of the reason. They tend to play a lot of close games, and they have one of the all-time greats when it comes to those situations. Matt Prater has long been considered one of the better kickers in the league, though the altitude In Denver and kicking in a dome in Detroit certainly help. Still, I was astonished at his results with the game on the line when I started crunching the numbers.
Last season, Prater went 6 for 6 in game-tying or winning kicks. No other kicker in the NFL attempted more than four such kicks (Arizona's Chandler Catanzaro tried four), and everyone who attempted three or more missed at least once. Prater's money kicks ranged from 29 yards to 58 yards -- and averaged 42 yards in length. He also was perfect the season before in those situations, and the year before that, and the year before that (though it was only on one attempt each year). And for his career he is 16 for 16 when attempting a potential winning or tying field goal, included 7 for 7 with the Broncos in 2011, the first time he faced such situations.
If you lean to Detroit getting a wild-card spot, Prater will likely be a big reason. If you had asked me before this exercise, I would have said Justin Tucker is the best kicker -- and best clutch kicker -- in football, and the Ravens kicker is 13 for 14 in those situations (his lone miss came in 2015, a season in which he faced six of those opportunities). But even he hasn't been perfect.
Goff never stood a chance
The Rams have sunk money into their offensive line and shipped out former first-round pick Greg Robinson -- a bust to this point -- but will that be enough? Given just how atrocious their line was, I'm not convinced it could be fixed in one offseason. The inability to open any holes for Todd Gurley in his second season was well chronicled, as were the ugly growing pains from 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff, but he didn't have much of a chance to survive, much less thrive.
I knew the protection was not good, and Goff has a ways to go, but the percentage of dropbacks in which he was under duress still surprised me. Goff took over around midseason and was sacked 26 times. That came on just 231 dropbacks. So he was sacked 11.26 percent of the time. Among all quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks, that ranked dead last. (Colin Kaepernick was sacked on 9.81 percent of his dropbacks and Cody Kessler on 9.72 percent.)
Now, the Browns situation was actually worse, when you consider Robert Griffin III got sacked over 13 percent of the time (he had less than 200 dropbacks). And Goff's inexperience led to some of the sacks. But even a veteran would have struggled under these circumstances. The Rams had best improve that protection ASAP.
Can the Rams unlock Tavon Austin?
Last season, there were 52 instances in which a player caught 10 balls or more in a game. Austin, who is being paid like a top outside receiver but has yet to come close to that sort of production (albeit with some of the worst quarterback play imaginable), had one of them. And it pretty much captures the close-to-the-line-of-scrimmage issues that have plagued him and this offense. Austin managed to catch those 10 balls in that game -- a 17-10 Week 7 loss to the Giants -- for a grand total of 57 yards. His long was 10 yards, which means the other nine receptions amassed 47 yards –- essentially 5 yards per catch.
No other receiver could top that. Jordan Matthews was closest with an 11-catch, 65-yard game. At some point Austin is going to have to be a weapon teams fear downfield if this offense is going to expand, and as we just explained, Goff is going to need all the help he can get.
Big Ben under center means big problems
Pittsburgh's offense is a thing of beauty when humming along, and with Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant not facing suspensions this season, we all expect the unit to exceed a so-so 2016 campaign. Coordinator Todd Haley has brought new wrinkles, but the older Ben Roethlisberger has gotten, the more reliant he has become on the shotgun.
He isn't as spry and mobile as he once was, and injuries have mounted. While Roethlisberger has always like the shotgun, that extra few yards really helps now. As for under center -- well, it was rougher than I thought last season. Roethlisberger ranked 33rd out of 39 quarterbacks who attempted at least 20 passes after taking the snap from under center, and hardly kept the kind of company we expect of the likely future Hall of Famer.
He was 55 of 94 (58.5 percent) for 699 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions outside the shotgun, for a rating of just 73.8. That's problematic. The only guys worse than him were RG3, Bryce Petty, Cam Newton, Brock Osweiler, Jay Cutler and Goff. Roethlisberger's rating outside the shotgun was virtually even with that of Paxton Lynch and Blake Bortles … so I guess in at least one regard, those Bortles/Big Ben comparisons still make an iota of sense (not that they ever really did).
By now it's well documented that 2016 was a lost season in Carolina, going from nearly winning the franchise's first Super Bowl to flirting with a top-five draft pick. There were lowlights from beginning to end. But to me the following stat sums up the entire campaign, and the kind of futility that gripped them.
There were a five interceptions thrown in first-and-goal situations (on 183 total attempts) last season. Across the NFL. And Carolina quarterbacks accounted for 60 percent of them. Newton, the reigning MVP, tossed two of them, and backup Derek Anderson chipped in with one as well (and attempted just three first-and-goal passes all season). Drew Brees and Joe Flacco accounted for the others. The Panthers' quarterbacks combined to go 4 for 12 in these circumstances, with three touchdowns and three picks. (In 2015, there were only two interceptions on first-and-goal passes in the entire league.)
The odds would say that can't happen again, right?
I will note that in 2014, Josh McCown managed to throw three first-and-goal picks for the Buccaneers on just six attempts, which clearly trumps this Panthers note, and continues an odd trend of this being a decidedly NFC South phenomenon.
Red zone still a dead zone for Jimmy Graham
The Seahawks have tried like mad to better incorporate talented tight end Jimmy Graham into their offense, and he and Russell Wilson work endlessly after OTAs and training camp sessions and practices to develop a chemistry. Seattle featured Graham more last season; he stayed mostly healthy and did manage to improve by catching four red-zone touchdowns. But overall production in that area remains a struggle, hindering the entire offense with it.
Graham was targeted 17 times in the red zone -- more than double the amount from his first season with the Seahawks –- but he had just six receptions, a completion rate of just 35.3 percent on those throws. In two years in Seattle, he has caught just nine of 25 attempts in the red zone (from a Pro Bowl quarterback, let's remember; perhaps not Drew Brees, but no slouch) for five TDs. That's a 36 percent to the player who was brought in on a blockbuster trade to put this offense over the top.
Seattle ranked just 15th in red-zone passer rating a year ago (under 50 percent completions; only the Panthers and Rams were worse) due in a large part to the Wilson/Graham failures, and Doug Baldwin remains far and away the team's go-to guy in the clutch. In his previous two years in New Orleans, however, Graham was a red-zone machine, catching 28 of 46 passes (61 percent), including 20 touchdowns.
Can he get anything close to that in 2017? If so Seattle will be playing deep in January.
Suh might be dirty, but his record is kind of clean
It's nothing new for Dolphins defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh to be noted by his peers, or the media, for being among the dirtiest players in the NFL. That's his reputation, and he has had more than his share of ugly moments along the way, to the point where gauging his intent in stomping incidents, or near stomping incidents, has become increasingly difficult. And his time in Detroit was clearly checkered.
But believe it or not, Suh did not have one defensive personal foul called on him last season. Nineteen Dolphins incurred such penalties -- including a punter -- but Suh was not among them. Ditto for 2015. No roughing the passer. Nothing. Suh hasn't had such a flag thrown against him since 2014, though he has been embroiled in controversy since then.
You would think, however, given his reputation, he wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt, and if was as dirty as he's made out to be, more flags would rain down. Sometimes the matters aren't detected until later on replay, but I'll admit I was surprised I had to dig back as far as I did to find his last personal foul.