The Watchtower: Lions At Cowboys

>> 11.19.2010


For the first time in the illustrious not-very-long history of the Watchtower, I have the rare privilege . . . and infuriating chore . . . of analyzing a team whose head coach has been fired midseason.  The Dallas Cowboys finally put poor Wade Phillips out of his misery, and put me squarely into mine.  Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett takes over, which would be fine and all, except . . .

Jason Garett vs. Gunther Cunningham

    Ornk PpG YpA YpC Gun Drnk DPpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
2010 DAL 19th 21.6 7.45 3.61 DET 20th 22.4 6.80 4.68            

Jason Garrett hasn't ever faced Gunther Cunningham, which isn’t surprising since Garrett’s only been a coordinator since 2007, and Gunther was out of work in 2007, and the Cowboys didn’t play the Lions last year.  On first blush, Garrett doesn’t come from any specific coaching tree, either.  However, Jason was NFL quarterback for over a decade—including a long stint in Dallas where he held the clipboard for Cowboy coordinators Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese.  It’s then when Garrett learned the tenets of the Air Coryell offense.

It's the father of many offenses in the NFL—a major reason the Bears could transition coordinators from Ron Turner (Norv’s brother) to Mike Martz in one season without a wholesale change in terminology.  Timing routes and a modular route-numbering system allow for the easy construction of devastating pass route combinations.  Whether it’s paired with a power running game, a la Norv’s Cowboys and Chargers, or a crazy singleback-who-flexes-to-WR approach like Martz’s, Don Coryell's passing system is still potent.

The Cowboys don’t feature lots of four and five wide like Martz does—tight end Jason Witten is too potent to be shelved—but the running game has been a largely ineffective platoon of Felix Jones, Marion Barber, and Tashard Choice.  Barber, especially, has been a shell of his former “Barberian” self, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.  Without an effective running game, the Cowboys’ passing attack has been keyed on by opposing defenses—still, the talented targets the ‘Boys boast have been enough to muster 21.6 points per game (19th-best in the NFL).  Despite the one-dimensionality of their offense, they’ve been averaging 7.45 YpA through the air, which is excellent.

The Lions have faced several offenses that branch off of the late Don Coryell’s coaching tree, including all of the above.  They currently boast the 20th-ranked scoring defense in the NFL (the best they’ve been ranked since I started doing this), allowing 22.4 PpG.  These two units are very, very equally matched, so any systemic advantage could be a huge one.  There isn't any data for Jason Garrett, but let's go barking up his coaching tree for a substitute, shall we?

Arguably, the implementation closest to Garrett’s would be Norv Turner’s—and in a prior Watchtowering of Ron Turner, I examined Norv as a Ron equivalent:

IF we consider Ron and Norv Turner interchangable—and we don't—then given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham's hyperagressive 4-3 appears to match expectations versus a Turner Bros. Coryell-style downfield passing offense (albeit while generating very high sack and turnover numbers). That is to say there is no systemic advantage or disadvantage for either team.

The task now should be to do that thing I do with the averages.  However, the Cowboys seemed to “wake up” in a big way after Garrett was handed the keys: the 1-6 Cowboys went into Your Company Name Here Stadium and whooped the Giants, 33-20.  Has Garrett catalyzed the Cowboys’ considerable talent? Are the 2-7 ‘Boys are going to be a tough out the rest of the way?  Well . .  . maybe.  It’s true that the offense looked more competent through the air—but seven of those 33 points were scored on an interception return, and the Cowboys were already averaging nearly 22 points a game—the big difference was in how the defense played, not the offense.  Therefore, I’m not going to inflate the Cowboys’ offensive expectations beyond their season averages to this point.

Given no systemic advantage or disadvantage, Jason Garrett’s implementation of the Air Coryell offense should meet expectations against Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive 4-3, scoring 21-24 points, averaging 8.0-to-9.0 YpA, and 3.5 to 3.75 YpC.  I have low confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Well, first, I could be wrong about the whole “catalyst” thing.  Maybe Garrett shoved Wade out of the drivers’ seat, mashed the pedal to the floor, and now the Cowboys are rocketing down a windblown Texas highway, Phillips choking on dust and burnt rubber.  Then again, maybe last week was a one-off Perfect Storm of motivation and execution for their new coach, and they’ll settle right back into their averages from here on out.  Then again, maybe Williams and Kitna have vengeance on their mind?  In the other direction, the Cowboys’ pass protection could break down—the offensive line has youth and ability, but never both in the same body—and the Lions’ pass rush could tee off.  I suspect, though, that if I’m wrong on this projection, I’ll miss low.

Scott Linehan vs. Wade Phillips

MIN 6th 26.0 7.60 4.75 ATL 30th 26.4 5.23 4.48 35 35% 9.96 31% 4.37 -8%
MIA 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 SDC 13th 19.5 6.35 3.49 23 16% 10.4 75% 2.73 -26%
STL 10th 22.9 6.69 4.26 SDC 7th 18.9 5.97 4.18 24 5% 8.18 22% 4.81 13%
STL 28th 16.4 5.63 3.78 DAL 13th 20.3 5.87 4.17 0 ~ 4.77 -15% 2.95 -22%
STL 30th 14.5 5.67 3.95 DAL 18th 22.6 5.11 4.24 34 134% 9.05 60% 5.28 34%
DET 11th 23.9 5.87 3.43 DAL 29th 28.0 7.57 4.34            

Again, I feel a little odd Watchtowering a coach who's not coaching.  Newly-minted DC Paul Pasqualoni was the assistant with the most experience in the 3-4 alignment the Cowboys run—obviously, the scheme will not change drastically from what was in place.  There is a solid bit of history here between Linehan and Phillips, though, so I’ll go over it briefly.

In 2003, the 6th-ranked Vikings took on Phillips’ 30th-ranked Falcons (after Phillips had ascended to interim head coach midseason); the Vikings scored 35%  above their usual 26 points per game—right in line with expectations.  In 2005, the Dolphins—with Jason Garrett as quarterbacks coach!—were the 16th-ranked offense, going up against Wade’s Chargers, ranked 13th.  The Fins actually exceeded expectations a tiny bit, scoring three more points than their season average against a slightly-above-median defense—but nowhere near enough to suspect a systemic advantage.

In 2006, the Rams were ranked a solid 10th in the NFL in scoring, at 22.9 PpG.  The Chargers were even better, ranked seventh and allowing just 18.9. Surprisingly, the Rams managed to score 24 points, five percent about their season average.  They did it while rushing and passing at effectiveness levels above their year’s average, as well.  Unfortunately, here is where the happy times stop.

In 2007 the Rams were 28th scoring offense, averaging 16.4 points per game.  However, they were without Steven Jackson, and the Cowboys shut them out.  Wade’s D held the Rams to just 2.95 YpC, and 4.77 YpA, while the offense scored exactly zero points (Dante Hall did notch a punt return TD).  The next season, two weeks after Linehan had been fired, the Rams and their anemic 14.5 point-per-game offense hosted the 18th-ranked Cowboys and . . . scored 34 points?!

Yup, they sure did, and were sixty and thirty-four percent more effective through the air and ground, to in the process.  What caused such an outburst?  No clue.  According to Pro Football Reference, it was 72 degrees, windless, on FieldTurf, and all the starters played . . . the Rams just had the Cowboys’ number that day.

It looks as though the Linehan offense has a decided advantage over Wade Phillips’ 3-4 when the passing game is working early—passing to set up the run, as it were.  I’m therefore comfortable concluding that Scott Linehan balanced offenses have a mild systemic scoring advantage against Wade Phillips 3-4 defenses, especially when the passing game works well early.

Even given last Sunday’s wretched performance, the Lions still boast the NFL’s eleventh-best scoring offense, averaging 23.9 points per game.  Dallas’ defense has been putried, though—even last week’s surprising limitation of the Giants’ offense to 20 only lowered their season average to 28 points per game.  They’re allowing 7.57 yards on every pass attempt, and 4.34 yards on every carry.  The defense simply hasn’t been the unit we’ve seen in the Big D over the past few seasons, and that’s been their downfall as much as anything.

Expectations would hold that the Lions score better than their season average against the Cowboys, and that the Cowboys allow slightly more than usual against the Lions.  There, theoretically, is a mild scoring advantage for the Lions, but the defense did play markedly better in its first game under Pasqualoni—so I’ll call those two factors a wash.  I project the Lions’ offense to match expectations against the Cowboys, scoring 25-to-30 points, averaging 6-to-7 YpA, and 3.75-to-4 YpC.  I have medium-to-high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

It's the Lions on the road.


I cannot believe I’m about to do this after the past two weeks.  I projected the Lions to beat the Jets, and they blew a 10-point 4th-quarter lead and lost in overtime.  I projected the Lions to handle the Bills, and they completely failed to show up.  If the Lions are the Lions we saw all year up until last Sunday, they’re a better team than the Cowboys and should win.  If the Lions are the Lions we saw all decade, forget about it.  Interestingly, though, I think the shoes from last week are on the other foot: the Cowboys are fresh off a fantastic performance, feeling their oats, thinking they're way better than the lowly Lions they're about to face--even though both teams have putrid records.  After mailing it in last week, the Lions ought to be revved up to prove they are who we thought they were.  All that aside, though, the numbers show these two teams to be very evenly matched, but with a definite offensive edge for the Lions.

Hesitatingly, gulpingly, and with an extreme chance of heartbreak, I declare that the most likely outcome of the game is a 27-24 Lions win.  Heaven help me.


Watchtower Review: Lions at Bills

>> 11.17.2010

From last week’s Watchtower:

The 26th-ranked Buffalo offense has been averaging just 18.8 points per game, by far the worst Chan Gailey offense we’ve looked at. The Lions, ranked 23rd, are allowing 22.4 points a game. In theory, we should split the difference here—but applying a moderate systemic advantage, I’ll project the Bills to score 13-16 points. I’m not even going to attempt YpA and/or YpC, given how all over the map those numbers are this time, but I have high confidence in this scoring projection.

Good.  Yes.  Well done, data. 

So what’s going to happen when the 7th-ranked Lions offense comes to town? Since most of those points were scored with Shaun Hill at the helm, there shouldn’t be any dropoff from the usual rate of production. Even if there is . . . well, we’re talking a team that averages 25 points a game going up against the worst defense in the NFL. Even if we presume there is no systemic advantage, the Lions should score 30-35 points. Due to the total lack of systemic historical data, I have low confidence in this projection.

Somehow, the tenor of the national conversation surrounding the Bills-Lions game has become “Oh, sweet, the Bills will get a chance to get off the schneid! They pretty good for 0-8; they just almost beat the Bears, you know.” But the numbers just don’t support it. This is one of the best offenses in the NFL going against, by far, the worst—and on the other side, a mediocre offense against a mediocre defense. The Lions have a clear upper hand in this game, and mostly likely will win, 30-14. Hey, twenty-five fell demons of meadow grazing and road defeats! We are apex predators; you lose.

. . . sigh.

Frankly, I've already beaten this to death, so I won’t be long.  The Lions came out with a one-armed quarterback who couldn’t take too many snaps from under center.  Their game plan?  Run it down their throats, minimize risk, and play a low-variance game where their superior talent and execution will bring home the W.

Problems: the out-of-the-shotgun running game wasn’t working, at all (see Tom Kowalski’s play-by-play film breakdown of the Lions’ running game).  Shaun Hill couldn’t throw it downfield, and wasn’t throwing short passes with any accuracy either.  Shaun Hill was physically incapable of opening it up, and Drew Stanton hadn’t practiced all week.  The Bills came to play as if their lives depended on it, and the Lions came to play as if victory was inevitable.  Finally, when all that registered, and the Lions realized they had to flip the switch or lose, Hill’s rustiness, the rain, and some flat-out concentration lapses neutralized the Lions’ downfield attack.  Even then, converted on fourth down multiple times to score the needed touchdown . . . except, of course, Hill’s hand-slip & subsequent airmailing of the game-typing two-point conversion.  Right.

Outside of marking the Lions’ offensive projection way down (way, way, WAY down) for Hill’s rust, there’s really no way I could account for this—I had no reason to believe Jahvid Best would be completely ineffective against a run defense allowing 4.87 YpC, and no reason to believe that the Lions wouldn’t be able to go to the air if the running game wasn’t working.  Poor showing, lads.


Torches, Pitchforks, & a Painful Lesson

>> 11.16.2010


"Time for us to unite and force Ford to sell the team. Spread the word. I'm done standing by and watching and waiting."

--@derekgrube a.k.a @drgrube / @GroovyGrube / @KeepFrdFldEmpty

This is a very slow, painful, difficult lesson for fans to learn.  All the hours, all the days, all the years you’ve spent rooting for your team?  All the tickets, food, and drinks?  All the hats, shirts, and jerseys?  All the ups and downs and cheering and crying and yelling and sulking and swearing and shouting?  All the time, money, and emotion you have sunk into your favorite team?  It’s bought you exactly zero equity in the franchise.

You and I own absolutely nothing of the Detroit Lions Football Club.  It is a privately-owned—very privately owned—business, and it belongs to the owner.  Not you.  Not me.  The owner.  No matter what numbers Lions fans gather in, no matter what stupid “protests” we stage, the Lions are William Clay Ford’s and he will not sell them.  By all accounts, his son is as much of a Lions fan as we all are—so if you’re waiting for the team to pass first into Junior’s hands and then someone else’s, you’re out of luck.

Let me ask you this, “Make Ford Sell the Lions” people: and then what?

First, they’ll have to find an owner to sell it to—and if that owner’s last name is not Illitch or DeVos (or maybe Karmanos or Penske), be prepared for the team to leave town for good.  Presuming, though, there’s a Motor City-friendly ownership group ready to buy, then what?  They’ll have deeper pockets, or a freer hand in signing checks?  Ford is already tops in that department.  They’ll bring in a GM who’ll do more to fix the roster than Martin Mayhew has, faster?  No way; what GM could?  They’ll give total operational control—and a Brinks truck full of money—to a big-name out-of-work coach?  As I type this, the Redskins are proving that’s far from a surefire play.  They’ll rebuild the roster again, in some other leadership staff’s image?  Impossible, given the contracts involved.  If you think the owner is currently what’s wrong with the franchise, let me ask you: what would a different owner do differently, and how would that fix what went wrong on Sunday?  If you’re honest, you’ll say that you don’t know, and you don’t care—you just want heads to roll.

Look, I know you’re furious.  I know you’re crushed.  I know how bitterly it stings that after all this, the results are are still more theoretical than tangible.  But going postal because the Lions mailed it in against an 0-8 team and got stamped “insufficient postage?”  It’d be illogical, irrational, and—reality check—ineffective.  Shouting from the rooftops that you are “sick of losing,” even though you aren’t even playing in the games?  Save your breath.  Taking it to the streets to show the world that you are going to “DO something about it?”  Unless you have some run-blocking talents you can take to the field, you won’t be DOing any good.  Call me a coward, call me a traitor, call me a scab, call me part of the problem . . . but I’m sipping cider by the little blue fire with my friends, while you’re carpet-bombing the Internet trying to convince your fellow fans to turn their backs on the team.

Don’t worry though, man, it’s cool.  When your incandescent rage has dimmed, your torch has gone out, and your pitchfork is beginning to rust, you’ll see the big blue fire flicking just over the tree line.  You’ll watch the silver smoke rise high into the ash-gray sky, and realize your fingers are numb with cold, and your joints creak and ache.  Your lips will be chapped and cracked from the wind; involuntarily you’ll lick them and they’ll sting with pain.  You’ll almost hear the jokes and laughter, and you’ll swear the steam from the cider is already healing your parched and frozen throat.  Suddenly, you’ll realize that you’re walking towards us, and have been for a while.  By the time you get close enough to make eye contact with me, you’ll look down in shame—and realize you dropped your weapons somewhere in the woods.  No matter.  It’s then that I’ll take you by the hand, and show you I saved you a place by the fire.

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Three Cups Deep, Lions at Bills: Blaming Jim Schwartz

>> 11.15.2010

Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz thinking it over.

"It was real frustrating, especially coming in here feeling that we were the better team. That’s definitely the way we felt"

--Calvin Johnson, as quoted on Twitter by the Freep's Dave Birkett

The headline on Tom Kowalski’s Lions grades is “Continuing discipline problems reflects on coaching staff.”  Is it true?  Well, the Lions took their more-talented team into Ralph Wilson Stadium, and they got kicked in the nuts.  Their offense made the worst defense in the NFL look like the ‘85 Bears, and their defense made Fred Jackson look like Steven Jackson.  So what killed the Lions yesterday, so the common wisdom goes, is coaching.

Penalties.  Personnel.  Alignments.  Clock management.  Communication breakdowns.  Special teams lapses.  Coaching.

There’s no question, in terms of talent and production, that the Lions have been much better than the Bills over the course of the season.  As I discussed in the Watchtower, the Lions have been one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, while the Bills’ defense has been of a similar caliber to the 2008 Lions—dead last, and completely helpless against the run.  So, when one team has more talented players than their opponent, but loses . . . it must be coaching, right?

Right.  The Lions didn’t put their best team on the field today.  They came out thinking they could put it in the cooler.  They started Shaun Hill at quarterback, knowing he could barely play, refusing to let him throw downfield, and assuming Jahvid Best would slice through the Bills like butter.  When it didn’t work, they didn’t have a healthy, prepared arm to turn to—and Stefan Logan couldn’t quite bail them out with a return TD, try as he might.  The coaching staff elected to coast rather than attack, to not-lose rather than to win, and the result was Bills owning a lead and the momentum.  Blame Jim Schwartz for that.

Normally I gainsay this with, “No, the players play the game.”  At first blush, that argument can certainly be deployed.  The receivers dropped many passes, the tackling was atrocious, and the intensity was completely absent from the opening gun.  The players were not up for this game.  The players thought they had it in the bag.  Incredibly, after last week’s humiliating loss, they were overconfident.  They thought they had it.  They thought they couldn’t lose.  They were wrong.

"I thought we were going to run all over them . . . It's just frustrating.  It's frustrating to work on it all week. We think it's there, we see it's there, and it's just unfortunate because we get behind and we have to go to the pass. We can't stick with the run, and that kills us."

--Rob Sims, via Dave Birkett's article

Here, then, is confirmation: the players thought they had it in the bag because the coaches told them they had it in the bag.  The game plan from the beginning was to play a low-variance game: run, run, run, rely on the disparity in talent, rely on the gap in execution.  Don’t start Drew because you don’t want a gambler.  Do start Shaun because you know he won’t kill you with the big mistake.  Don’t push it downfield in the cold and the rain, don’t try to blow them out.  Just grind it out, run it over them, collect the W and move on.

The only problem with this approach is that the Bills “blew their wad” in this game, as someone told me the Lions did last week.  They knew this was their chance to make a statement, and they made it—as the Lions very nearly did last week.  But the Lions that battered and bloodied one of the toughest teams in the NFL last week didn’t make the trip.  The Lions we saw in Buffalo were hung over, lackadasical, incomprehensibly overconfident.  It seems as though they were told all they had to do was show up—and that’s all they did.

The execution, then, is on the coaches too.  Here’s the kicker though: so what.  Jim Schwartz is learning, too.  He has a roster full of talent, but most of it is very young, very inexperienced talent.  He can’t just tell Gosder Cherilus, “HEY KNOCK IT OFF WITH THE STUPID PENALTIES,” and expect Gosder to reply “Oh okay, thanks Coach,” then stop committing stupid penalties.  It’s not like Schwartz can bench him, either—Jason Fox was a healthy scratch—and if he did, the dropoff in play would hurt much more than a dumb hold at a bad time. 

Here is the reality of the situation: every coach makes mistakes.  Every coach makes good-at-the-time decisions that, in hindsight, backfire.  Every coach has wins slip from their grasp.  The coach that doesn’t make questionable decisions flatly doesn’t exist—even Bill Belicheck, the reigning Smartest Coach In Football, routinely makes mistakes, and sometimes they even seem to cost his team games.  But the Patriots are nothing without Belicheck calling the shots, and I personally don’t believe there are any other coaches who’d have gotten this team as far, as fast, as sustainably, as the man I call The Grandmaster has.

He just hasn't yet gotten them to the point where they can take games off on the road and win.


Fireside Chat: Lions at Bills


Fireside Chat.  I’m told I was “rollin” last night:


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