A team in need of a statistical stimulus plan

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 02, 2009



Denver has been one of the league's marquee franchises since the arrival of John Elway more than quarter century ago.
 
But the Broncos sit here in the 2009 off-season surrounded by so much chaos that we swear we saw their fans smashing windows yesterday outside the G-20 summit in London.
 
Mike Shanahan was dumped as head coach at the end of last year's disappointing 8-8 campaign, following 14 successful seasons during which he guided the organization to its only two Super Bowl titles.  
 
Quarterback Jay Cutler, meanwhile, the face of the franchise and the team's No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, was shipped to Chicago yesterday after a highly publicized pissing match with Shanahan's replacement, former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels – the baby-faced 32-year-old head coach (33 on April 22) charged with rebuilding the Broncos brand. Denver landed Bears signal-caller Kyle Orton and a stunning two first-round draft picks.
 
The Broncos who run onto the field in September will look and feel a whole lot different than the Broncos  who  sheepishly walked off the field back in December.
 
And that's a very good thing for the Denver faithful as they look toward their own New World Order.
 
In fact, the 2008 Broncos were in desperate need of an auto-industry-style makeover and were an organization scarred by acts of statistical dysfunction so profound that only the Cold, Hard Football Facts have the insight you need to put it all into perspective.
 
Denver's Shocking Statistical Soulmate
To comprehend the chaos in Denver here in the 2009 off-season, you need to wrap your fragile little mind around two sets of data about two very different teams.
 
Don't worry, this will be fun ... and incredibly enlightening.
 
Consider Team A. It averaged:
  • 411.2 yards per game
  • 295.7 passing yards per game
  • 115.6 rushing yards per game
  • An inspiring 6.22 yards per offensive play over the course of an entire season.
Now Consider Team B. It averaged:
  • 395.8 yards per game
  • 279.4 passing yards per game  
  • 116.4 rushing yards per game
  • An inspiring 6.21 yards per offensive play over the course of an entire season.
Given the highly comparable offensive numbers – a slight but hardly significant edge to Team A in most categories – you'd assume that Team A was slightly more productive on offense than Team B, but not by much. After all, each snap by each team yielded nearly the same exact gain of 6.2 yards.
 
We'd make that same assumption, too.
 
But both of us would be wrong.
 
Team A is the 16-0 Patriots of 2007 – who scored an NFL-record 589 points (36.8 PPG), the second-highest per-game average in the entire history of the league (1950 Rams, 38.8 PPG).
 
Team B is the 8-8 Broncos of 2008 – who scored a paltry 370 points (23.1), barely ranking in the top half of the league last year (16th).
 
That's right: the 2008 Broncos moved the ball up and down the field nearly as well as the offense many consider the greatest in the history of the game. On a per-play basis, the 2007 Patriots and 2008 Broncos were statistical equals.
 
But when it came to the two results that actually mattered – turning those yards into points and victories – the two teams could not have been more different. The 2007 Patriots boasted twice as many victories and outscored the 2008 Broncos by better than two touchdowns per game.
 
The 2008 Broncos, in other words, were an extraordinarily inefficient offense.
 
Right or wrong, quarterbacks always shoulder an undue amount of praise and blame for their team's fortunes. So, naturally, the blame for Denver's dysfunction fell on the shoulders of the quarterback – or at least it did in the eyes of the only person that matters: new head coach Josh McDaniels, a guy who had a front-row seat to New England's version of 6.2 yards per play as the team's offensive coordinator.
 
A Very Bad Trend
Cutler was seen by most pigskin "pundits" as one of the bright young stars of the NFL – a player who seemed to prove his place in the NFL when he passed for a tremendous 4,526 yards last year.
 
It was easily the most prolific passing season in franchise history. Consider that John Elway himself surpassed the 4,000-yard mark just once – and just barely – with 4,030 yards in 1993.
 
So many observers were confused when McDaniels walked in and immediately made noise about acquiring another quarterback, touching off the flame war that ended in Cutler's trade to Chicago on Thursday. 
 
But McDaniels apparently knew what the Cold, Hard Football Facts have long told you: yards, and passing yards in particular, have virtually no correlation to success in the NFL.  
 
Let us say that again to be very clear: Yards, and passing yards in particular, have virtually no correlation to success in the NFL.
 
And few teams in history epitomized the vast emptiness of yards as an indicator of success better than the Broncos under Cutler.
 
In fact, his ascent to the role of starting QB was marked by rapid descent in Denver's offensive efficiency and, therefore, in Denver's success as a team.
  • The 2008 Broncos needed to produce a daunting 17.12 yards of offense for every point it scored in 2008 – 28th in the NFL as measured by the Cold, Hard Football Facts Scoreability Index, our measure of offensive efficiency. They went 8-8.
  • The 2007 Broncos were even worse: they needed to produce 17.32 yards of offense for every point it scored – 25th in the NFL as measured by our Scoreability Index. They went 7-9.
To find the last time that Broncos boasted an efficient offense – an offense that effectively squeezed points out of its yards – you have to go back to the 2005 Broncos under Jake Plummer.
 
The 2005 Broncos ranked 9th on our Scoreability Index, scoring a point for every 14.6 yards of offense. Not so coincidentally, the 2005 Broncos went 13-3 and were one game away from reaching the Super Bowl.
 
But for some reason that seems inexplicable in retrospect, the offensive efficiency and the 13-3 season weren't good enough for Denver fans or for the organization. In fact, Plummer, the quarterback behind that fairly efficient 2005 Broncos offense, was pigskin persona-non-grata in Denver. From fans to management, it seems nobody liked Plummer.
 
So, in the wake of their 13-3 season, the Broncos devoted their top pick in the 2006 draft to Jay Cutler, the proverbial quarterback of the future.
 
He threw pretty passes and put up big individual numbers. His 87.1 career passer rating, for example, easily exceed's Elway's 79.9 career passer rating.
 
But the Broncos under Cutler could not put the ball in the end zone. Denver clearly had serious defensive issues that made it harder for the offense to score points (last year's Broncos ranked 30th, surrendering 28.0 PPG). But it doesn't change the fact that, in two seasons with Cutler the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback, Denver's offensive efficiency crashed faster and more sharply than the Icelandic stock market.
 
The Cold, Hard Football Facts saw the problems with Denver through our Scoreability Index, even as most of the pigskin "pundits" gawked at Cutler's gaudy yardage total.
 
McDaniels apparently saw the same problems we did, too. After all, he learned what 6.2 yards per play looked like when he guided the Patriots to a record 589 points in 2007. And he must have been shocked when he watched film of Cutler and the Denver offense and its version of 6.2 yards per play last season.
 
He apparently knew big changes were in order. Cutler took the bait, making it clear he was not happy in Denver.
 
So McDaniels and the Broncos flipped an pouting, inefficient quarterback for Kyle Orton, who's won 21 of his 32 NFL starts with the Bears, and a stunning two first-round draft picks.
 
It's a great deal for a team that desperately needed a statistical stimulus plan.
 

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