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The NFL Is Weird

What do the statistical oddities from 2015 mean for the upcoming season?

AP Images
AP Images

There’s no shortage of statistics in football, and the sheer amount of data out there can get overwhelming. It doesn’t take long before most stats become just a huge jumble of numbers. That’s where we come in. We’ve sorted through the stack of hay to find a few needles: Ten of the craziest numbers from 2015, and what they can tell us about 2016.

The Jets had the third-ranked red zone touchdown percentage in the NFL: 66.04.

In 2015, New York wasn’t a prolific scoring offense (11th in the league at 24.2 points per game), but the Jets were at least efficient when they got themselves into scoring position, turning red zone trips into touchdowns two-thirds of the time. Hate when your team plays it safe and settles for field goals instead of throwing it into the end zone? That wasn’t really an issue for New York with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who tossed 23 touchdowns (sixth in the NFL) and just one interception from inside the 20-yard line.

In the red zone, there is less room in which to operate and defenses become more compact, so quarterbacks have to be smart and decisive. Fitzpatrick was both of those things inside the 20 last year, and it helped that he had two top-tier receivers to target. He developed a great rapport with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, connecting with the duo 18 times for red zone scores. This made Marshall and Decker the most prolific red zone receiving pair in the NFL last year.

If you take Fitzpatrick out of the equation, how much does that change in 2016? With the bearded wonder unsigned, the Jets are playing with fire. New York’s offense in 2014 — behind Geno Smith and Michael Vick — converted just 36 percent of its red zone trips into touchdowns and finished 28th in scoring. Obviously, the addition of Marshall was a big boost, but will New York risk going back to that level of inefficiency? If the Jets roll the dice and move on without Fitzpatrick — who has been very smart inside the 20-yard line over the past five seasons, tossing 76 touchdowns and just six interceptions — it wouldn’t be surprising if their red zone efficiency plummets.

The Bills had the second-ranked defense per DVOA in 2014; in 2015 they were 24th.

As you’d expect, there was a lot of hype in Buffalo when the defensive-minded Rex Ryan took the reins of an already-elite group. The Week 1 win over Andrew Luck and the Colts — when Buffalo confounded Indy’s franchise quarterback with exotic blitzes, recorded a pair of sacks, totaled six hits, and forced him into throwing two picks — was supposed to be a foreshadowing of things to come.

It was not.

The Bills struggled, and defensive stars Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus took to the media to express their displeasure with Ryan’s strategy of dropping them into coverage in key passing situations instead of allowing them to rush the passer full tilt. They weren’t wrong: The high-priced Buffalo defensive line did not produce, particularly with some of Ryan’s three-man pressure schemes, and they finished the year second-to-last in the NFL in sacks. In the back end, a lack of communication was a major issue. Amidst the defensive meltdown, the Bills finished 8–8 and watched the playoffs from their couches.

Buffalo still possesses an insanely talented defense, though, so Ryan enters 2016 on the hot seat; if he can’t get more from Dareus, Jerry Hughes, Stephon Gilmore, and the rest of his squad, then he doesn’t have much value as a head coach.

Over the second half of the season, Kirk Cousins averaged the most yards per pass attempt in the NFL: 9.41.

The Redskins went 6–2 over their final eight games, and they won the NFC East — due in large part to Cousins’s extraordinary jump in efficiency. In the second half of the year, he threw 19 touchdowns and two picks, completed 73.6 percent of his passes, and compiled a 126.1 quarterback rating, which was best in the NFL.

Compare that to Cousins’s highly forgettable first eight games, when he averaged 6.34 YPA (36th in the NFL) while throwing 10 touchdowns and nine picks to “lead” Washington to a 3–5 record. Whatever Cousins did to flip that switch worked, but a great second half does not a long-term deal make; the Redskins chose to slap the franchise tag on their quarterback this offseason and force him to prove that those eight games weren’t a fluke.

Washington’s success next year hinges on it. That defense is improving, but they’re a completely different team when Cousins is in “you like that?!” mode.

Matthew Stafford’s passer rating at the season’s midway point was 84.1; his passer rating over the Lions’ final eight games: 110.1.

Like Cousins in Washington, Stafford did something around the midway point of Detroit’s season that changed everything, and the Lions offense got its groove back.

Detroit’s turnaround did coincide pretty clearly with the Week 8 firing of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and subsequent promotion of Jim Bob Cooter, the awesomest-named person on Earth. After the transition, Detroit came out of a Week 9 bye and finished the year off on a 6–2 run, a stretch during which Stafford exploded, completing 70 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns (fourth most in the NFL over that period) and just two picks. The Lions’ first half saw defenses calling out their offensive plays before they ran them; the second half of the year saw them become the seventh-highest-scoring team in the NFL over that stretch. This second-half surge went largely unnoticed because of their putrid start, but it should put Detroit back on the playoff radar for 2016.

The Lions obviously have to adapt to playing without Calvin Johnson. That’s not going to be easy, but they’ll lean on Golden Tate as their no. 1 — something they did successfully in 2014 when Johnson was out with ankle and elbow injuries. They’ll hope free agent Marvin Jones — one of the most sure-handed receivers in the game and a player with proven upside as a touchdown-maker (he had 10 back in 2013) — can help to fill the big void Johnson’s retirement leaves in the Lions’ passing game. We’ll be looking at you too, Ameer Abdullah, to provide more explosiveness in Detroit’s run game.

Brock Osweiler’s accuracy percentage on passes 20 yards or more downfield (26.7) ranked 34th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks in 2015.

Putting some context to that: when you take away receiver drops, throwaways, and passes where Osweiler was hit as he was throwing, he was still only connecting with his receiver deep downfield about one-fourth of the time. [grimace emoji]

The sample size is relatively small — and granted, all of Osweiler’s stats are from a small sample size — but this is concerning. Why? Well, uh, the Texans’ first-round pick, Will Fuller, is a guy who is basically known for one thing: blazing downfield speed.

If you count all of his passes — drops, throwaways, etc. — Osweiler was 7-of-30 on those deep throws with one touchdown and two picks. Osweiler might figure things out with Houston and make that area of his game into a strength, but the numbers thus far suggest a bad fit between the Texans’ new franchise quarterback and their first-round pick.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Doug Baldwin tied for the league lead in touchdown receptions despite running out of the slot on 80 percent of his snaps.

Seattle has the reputation as a running team, but Baldwin has quietly become one of the most productive slot receivers in the game. His production exploded in 2015 in conjunction with Russell Wilson’s massive strides as a pocket passer. Wilson made getting the ball out of his hands quicker a big focus, and Baldwin was the natural beneficiary over the middle of the field. He finished the year with 1,007 receiving yards on routes run from the slot — tops in the NFL — and became one of just three receivers to break the 1,000-yard receiving mark from the slot over the past five years. (Randall Cobb did it in 2014, Wes Welker did it in 2011 and 2012, and Victor Cruz did it in 2011).

On the year, Baldwin caught 78 balls for 1,069 yards and tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdowns. The Seahawks rewarded him with a four-year, $46 million contract extension, which makes for an interesting case: He’s now the seventh-highest-paid receiver in the NFL on a per-year basis and the most expensive slot receiver, but should that matter? He’s clearly Seattle’s true no. 1 receiver and go-to guy, and in the same way that nickel cornerbacks are becoming more and more important in the modern NFL because of the prevalence of the three-receiver set, so too are slot receivers.

Larry Fitzgerald runs mostly from the slot now, so does Eric Decker. Randall Cobb will almost surely have a bounce-back season with Jordy Nelson back in the fold. Julian Edelman is still nearly impossible to defend on routes over the middle, and Jarvis Landry remains Ryan Tannehill’s security blanket. Golden Tate, the most difficult receiver to tackle in the NFL, is deadly on short routes over the middle, too. Maybe 2016 will be the beginning of the golden age of the slot receiver.

A record-tying number of receivers (26) joined the 1,000-yard receiving club.

This club was 23-strong in 2014, had 24 members in 2013, 20 in 2012, and 19 in 2011.

In case you didn’t already know, the NFL is a passing league, and passing records are getting broken regularly. Pass attempts leaguewide continue to rise and that trend shows little sign of changing; we’ll almost surely see more receivers and tight ends go over 1,000 receiving yards in 2016. Adjust your fantasy drafting priorities accordingly. On the other hand …

Membership in the 1,000-yard rushing club reached a 24-year low with only seven players.

Compare that to the 13 who eclipsed that mark in both 2014 and 2013, the 16 in 2012, and the 15 in 2011. Twenty-three runners were in this club back in 2006.

Running backs aren’t going the way of the buffalo in the league — they’re still plenty important — but with the increased specialization at the position and the growth in popularity of the running-back-by-committee, it’s becoming far less common to see bell-cow backs who break the 1,000-yard mark.

By DVOA, the Saints had the worst defense ever recorded by Football Outsiders.

More context: New Orleans’ defense last year (26.1 percent) was more than twice as bad per DVOA as the 31st-ranked defense of the Bears (11.3). So, basically, the Saints defense wasn’t just bad last year: it was historically, tragically, laughably, chose-your-adverb bad.

It’s a small miracle New Orleans won seven games. The Saints gave up the most points, surrendered a league-high 57 touchdowns (11 more than the next-closest teams), the second-most yards per game, and the most yards per play. Unsurprisingly, Rob Ryan was shown the door in November. Newly hired defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has the unenviable job of fixing the worst defense of the modern era.

The Rams had the youngest impact-adjusted roster in the NFL: 25.6 years.

The players that mattered for St. Louis — er, Los Angeles — were, on average, in their 26th trip around the sun last season, and this has been a consistent trend for the Rams. They were the second-youngest team in 2014 and the youngest team in 2013 as well.

Don’t expect that to change in 2016, either. They’ll (probably) be leaning heavily on a rookie quarterback, Jared Goff, and they’re likely to be even younger on defense after they released resident blue-hairs, Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, and lost veterans Janoris Jenkins, Nick Fairley, and Rodney McLeod in free agency. As replacements, they added 27-year-old Coty Sensabaugh, 26-year-old Quinton Coples, and 24-year-old Dominique Easley.

Sometimes being a young team can be a good thing — but it’s a clearly intentional strategy that hasn’t worked too well for the Rams over the past three years, as they’ve gone a collective 20–28. They’ll continue to lean on a very young group in 2016, and that doesn’t bode well for getting back over .500.

An earlier version of this piece noted that there were only four 1,000-yard receivers in 1987 ​but failed to provide the context that​ that season had been affected by a players’ strike. The piece also incorrectly referred to Ryan Fitzpatrick as Fitzgerald. The piece also incorrectly stated that at 25.6 years old a person is on his or her 25th trip around the sun; at 25.6 years old, you are on your 26th such trip.