This week's edition of The Weekly League features notes about Sunday afternoon's Indianapolis-Denver game and also the Monday night contest between Green Bay and Chicago.
The following games have been chosen as they'll be available to the greatest portion of the network-watching audience, per the NFL maps at the506.com.
The Four Factors you see for each game represent each team's ability in four important categories (pass and rush efficiency, pass and rush efficiency against) relative to league average (where 100 is league average and anything above is good). They're only for this season's first two weeks of games, however. In other words, they're to be taken with the giantest grain of salt ever.
Finally, a glossary of all unfamiliar terms can be found here.
Indianapolis at Denver | Sunday, September 26 | 4:15pm ET
Kyle Orton Hears a "Who?" (And Probably a "What?" and "How?" Also)
If you look at our quarterback leaderboards and sort by either EPA/P (Expected Points Added per Play) or AYPA (Adjusted Yards per Attempt), you'll see a surprising name either near, or even right at, the top of each list: Kyle Orton. Through the first two weeks of the season -- first at Jacksonville, and then home versus Seattle -- Orton has impressed both with his raw totals (he's thrown for a little over 600 yards now, good for sixth in the league) and by means of more advanced metrics (by EPA/P, Orton is the best quarterback in the NFL, with a 0.41 mark; he's also fourth among QBs with a 7.4 AYPA).
So, of course, inquiring minds everywhere are wondering: What's the deal with Kyle Orton?
Well, there are three things -- and probably more -- to say in response to that question. The first is, "We can't know for sure." That answer is both (a) boring and (b) totally accurate.
There are two other things we can consider, however: both (a) Orton's strength of opposition to date and also (b) his career numbers.
As I mention above, Orton and the Broncos have played Jacksonville and Seattle so far. Last year, those two teams ranked 28th and 25th in terms of opponent adjusted yards per passing attempt. My super secret sources tell me they also finished last and third-to-last by team Pass EPA/P in 2009 (at 0.24 and 0.18, respectively). In short, they're probably two of the worst pass defenses in the league.
So, there's that.
But what about Orton himself? Well, last season he finished 16th among QBs with a 0.09 EPA/P, and 14th at his position with a 5.4 AYPA. While those aren't great numbers, both figures probably place him above his general reputation, which is that of a low-upside, dump-passer. Make no mistake: he's not a physical specimen like his predecessor Jay Cutler, but he also might be more than a Trent Dilfer, too. Nor does any of this take into account that the Broncos lost ostensibly their best best receiver and replaced him with... no one, really.
The Secret of Indy's Success (Rate)
In case you didn't watch the game against this past Sunday night, believe me now and hear me later: the Colts super-crushed the New York Giants. The final score was 38-14, but that makes it sound much closer than it really was. At halftime, New York's WPA was 0.04, nor did it ever rise above 0.07 for the rest of the game.
The notable thing is how Colts won the game. In the first half (which is basically when they won the game), Indianapolis averaged 5.4 yards per rush and 8.6 yards per pass attempt (adjusted for sacks and interceptions, of which there weren't any).
Both of those figures are significant compared to last year's league averages. In 2009, the average run went for around 4.2 yards; the average pass (also adjusted for sacks and interceptions), 5.2 yards. Relative to last year's averages, Indianapolis was producing at 3.1 and 2.3 standard deviations above the mean in rushing and passing, respectively.
That sort of production is probably enought to explain Indy's success, but it doesn't even address what was likely their biggest accomplishment of the night -- that is, their success rate on rushing plays.
In the first half, the Colts rushed 23 times. Of those rushes, 16 were "successful" -- that is, they accounted for a positive EPA*. That comes out to a 69.6% SR on rushes. Last season, the average SR on rushes was just under 44%. Relative to last year, Indianapolis was successful at a rate that was 6.6 standard deviations above the mean. So while their longest rush was only 16 yards, they converted often enough to simply dominate their opponent.
The Giant-Brained Brian Burke (a.k.a. the boss of me) has found recently that, when it comes to rushing, it's not so much yardage that matters, but a team's success rate on rushing plays. Of course, yardage isn't a bad thing, at all. If a team could get infinite yards on each of its runs -- well, that'd be a strategy worth sticking to. But more important to winning, it seems, is a team's ability to convert frequently.
That's literally all I know of Brian's findings (as he as yet to publish them!), but in itself it's something upon which to ruminate. Nor, it should be said, is this foreign territory for the Colts: last season, they led the league with a 50.3% Run SR. That was approximately 1.7 standard deviations above the league average.
*In this case, I've used a rule of thumb for calculating success -- i.e. I've called "successful" any running play that, on first or second down, went half the distance towards a first down or, alternatively, converted a third down. If this -- or any other of my calculations -- are incorrect, I blame the Republicans.
Green Bay at Chicago | Monday, September 20 | 8:30pm ET
Passing = Winning
If, as our host has suggested emphatically in these electronic pages, "passing equals winning," then both these teams are nicely situated entering Week Three of the gridiron football season -- for different reasons, however.
Exhibit One: the Chicago Bear Offense. Whether it's because of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the maturation of quarterback Jay Cutler, the ease of their opposition so far, or simple random variation, the Bears currently sport the league's most efficient passing attack. After two weeks, Cutler has posted an 8.5 AYPA, currently tops among all QBs. That said, his 0.16 EPA/P -- only good for 11th in the league -- indicates that perhaps his bigger gains have come as a result of taking only as much as the defense is giving him. To get an idea of the degree of difficulty on the pass for Chicago this season this season, consider: the Bears' first two opponents this year, Detroit and Dallas, finished 32nd and 18th last season in terms of opponent pass efficiency. That's not the worst, but it's also an indication that they've as yet to be challenged fully.
Exhibit Two: the Green Packer Defense. The Packers had an above-average defense in 2009, both against the pass (110 DPASS+) and run (114 DRUN+). It's early in this 2010 season, but the defensive unit appears formidable once again. So far, the Packers have been the second-most effective team at defending the pass, posting a 2.5 ANY/A as a team (per Pro Football Reference). Let it be known that their two opponents thus far finished 10th and 26th last year in terms of pass efficiency (as measured by ANY/A) last season. In other words, they've probably had average competition thus far. (Of course, that 10th-ranked team was the Eagles, who are now without Donovan McNabb.)
There's a high, but not absolute, correlation between a quarterback's AYPA and his EPA/P. It stands to reason, generally: a team must move the ball to score, and the best way to move the ball is via the air. Still, there are exceptions and, through his first two games, Aaron Rodgers is one of them. The Green Bay dreamboat currently has the third-highest EPA/P (0.31) at his position, but is only averaging 5.3 AYPA -- or, 14th overall. Ultimately, the difference between his rankings in those respective metrics will decrease. Last year, Rodgers was fifth in EPA/P (0.23) and fourth among QBs with a 6.5 AYPA. Given the quality of the Packer passing game, it's likely to be his ranking in AYPA that rises, as opposed to his EPA/P declining.