Is LenDale White Right? Analyzing the Titans' Decline in 2009

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LenDale White thinks the Titans' struggles in 2009 were due to his lack of carries. "I think what happened was in Tennessee they probably got a little too carried away with the Chris Johnson thing," said LenDale. Sour grapes aside, is he on to something? Could Chris Johnson's success caused the Titans to abandon the pass enough to ultimately be a hindrance?

Somehow the Titans went from 13-3 and the #1 seed in 2008 to a non-contender that was lucky to claw back to 8-8 in 2009. Let's break down their WPA and EPA numbers to find out what really caused Tennessee's troubles.

Let's look at the offense first. Overall 2008 and 2009 were similar years in terms of offense for the Titans. I'll breakout passes, runs, plus two other types. 'Aborted' plays are plays in which some miscue, usually unforced, occurs before the play becomes either a pass or run. 'Other' plays are typically dead ball penalties between the downs. Here is how the Titan's offensive WPA breaks out by play type:

Play Type 2008 2009 Change
Aborted -0.3 -0.2 0.0
Pass 1.6 2.1 0.5
Run 0.0 1.1 1.1
Other -0.2 -0.5 -0.3
Total 1.1 2.0 1.3

And here is their offensive EPA:

Play Type 2008 2009 Change
Aborted -8.2 -9.2 -1.0
Pass 37.8 19.5 -18.3
Run 3.3 39.2 35.9
Other -10.6 -12.5 -1.9
Total 22.3 37.0 14.7

Overall, the Titans' passing game changed little between 2008 and 2009. There was a drop in EPA, but an increase in WPA. The WPA numbers got a particularly strong boost in 2009 due to the 99-yard game winning drive at the end of the game against the Cardinals. That alone accounted for nearly a full win. The Titans' running game improved by one full win, thanks to Chris Johnson's breakout season. In total, the offense improved by about 1 game of WPA, and 14 points of EPA.

Next let's look at defense, and a different story emerges. Here are the Titans' WPA numbers. Negative numbers are good, and positive numbers are bad. And boy are there lots of big positive numbers here:

Play Type 2008 2009 Change
Aborted -0.1 -0.1 0.0
Pass -2.1 3.4 5.5
Run -0.4 -0.8 -0.3
Other -0.3 -0.3 0.0
Total -2.9 2.2 5.0

Things look just as bad in terms of EPA:

Play Type 2008 2009 Change
Aborted -6.2 -6.0 0.2
Pass -52.3 102.7 155.0
Run -8.3 11.7 20.0
Other -9.0 -11.6 -2.7
Total -75.8 96.7 172.5

The Titans' defense declined to a tune of 5.5 wins of WPA and 172 points of EPA. The story becomes very clear, and it doesn't have anything to do with LenDale White or even Chris Johnson. Their run defense was relatively similar from 2008 to 2009, but their pass defense collapsed. It was pass defense that made the difference between 13-3 and 8-8.

The departure of Albert Haynesworth undoubtedly made a difference, but the breakdown was far more severe for passing than for running. The loss of coordinator Jim Schwartz may also be part of the explanation.

Sacks and interceptions appeared to have similar effects in both 2008 and 2009. The WPA from sacks was -1.6 for both seasons. Interceptions made the same impact in both seasons as well. In 2008 WPA from interception plays was -1.4, and in 2009 it was -1.2. The big difference in pass defense can't be explained by sacks and interceptions. The Titans were simply getting burned in the secondary.

The Titans really played two different seasons last year, one in which they began 0-6 with Kerry Collins at the helm, and another in which they went 8-2 under Vince Young. Let's drill down game by game to see what caused the turn-around. Was it Young or did the defense get its act together?

The table below lists the WPA of the four primary facets for the 0-6 start and for the 8-2 stretch. Remember that negative numbers are good for defense.

'09 WPA 0-6 8-2
O Pass -0.3 2.5
O Run -0.3 1.4
D Pass 2.0 1.4
D Run -0.8 0.0

It turns out it was the offense, and passing in particular, that led the turnaround. The pass defense improved modestly, but was still well below par.

Sorry LenDale, Tennessee's poor start in 2009 had little to do with you. Although the Titans are probably better off without you carrying the ball 200 times, it was clearly the pass defense that caused the decline.