The Watchtower: NFC Playoff Wild Card Round

>> 1.06.2012

Look! Saints "wild cards"!

The Detroit Lions made the playoffs exactly twenty years, after their last playoff win, and their first foe is familiar: the New Orleans Saints. The Saints were the first opponent of the Schwartz era, and they’re also the first opponent this blog Watchtowered. The methods have been refined, the predictions made more specific, and the tables prettier, but the idea is the same: use data to tell the story of the game before the game happens.

When the Lions last went down to New Orleans for an 8:00 pm showcase game, the data told me this story:

The Saints are like the mini-Packers, and the Lions are like the mini-Saints. These two teams hold up a mirror to one another, and the Saints are a little bit better in every phase of the game—except the Lions play much, much better pass defense. I could see this going either way, and the Saints have a huge advantage in the Superdome (they’re 5-0 at home).

However . . . last week I was rooting for a huge Monday Night Football win for the Saints over the Giants. Why? Because we’ve seen all too well what can happen to a team that pulls out all the stops for a huge home MNF win, and face a tough follow-up test the following Sunday. The Saints are due to come out flat, and the Lions are coming off a long week of rest and preparation.

I could sit here and flip thought-experiment coins all day, but that wouldn’t help much. I’ll just follow the numbers: The most likely outcome of the game is a 30-28 Lions win.

The final score was 31-17, but the winner of that game was not the Lions. There were two big reasons for that. First, the Lions without Ndamukong Suh, Chris Houston, and Louis Delmas—so the key phrase “the Lions play much better pass defense” in the above quote didn’t bear out (see my Lions vs. Brees pass defense film breakdown for details). Second, the Lions killed themselves with a few stupid mistakes.

Finally, there was the little matter of the referees:

My personal belief is that the league and/or officials are trying to send a message to the Lions. Now that they’re a “dirty team,” the Lions not only have to play as clean as everyone else, they have to play cleaner. They’re going to get flagged for things no other team gets flagged for. Rough stuff from the other side is going to go unpunished. The league is sending a message to the Lions, and it’s up to them to listen.

Now, the Lions are completely healthy. On Thursday, the Lions had full roster participation in practice: per John Kreger of CBS Rapid Reports, 21 of the 22 Week 1 starters will be expected to start on Saturday night, with Jahvid Best the only casualty. We can presume, then, that the Lions will do a much better job of playing to their season averages on Saturday night. Ah, yes—season  averages.

One of the many, many benefits of making the playoffs is that the 2011 season-average data is actually an entire season; all the highs and lows of this year are as ironed out by sample size as they’ll ever be. With a full roster, and a full season, we can look at these numbers with as much confidence as possible.

Sean Payton vs. Gunther Cunningham

NYG 21st 20.0 7.20 3.80 TEN 29th 27.2 8.05 4.62 29 45% 7.86 9% 2.48 -35%
DAL 15th 20.3 6.68 3.57 KCC 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 27 33% 9.59 44% 5.83 63%
NOS 1st 31.9 8.01 4.50 DET 32nd 30.9 7.79 4.51 45 41% 10.53 31% 4.49 0%
NOS 2nd 34.2 8.08 4.94 DET 23rd 24.2 6.34 5.00 31 -9% 9.50 18% 4.35 -12%

In the last Watchtower, I had a difficult time identifying any consistent trend with the three games Sean Payton had called against Gunther Cunningham. In the first contest, Payton’s Giant’s were the 21st-ranked offense in the NFL, and faced off against Cunningham’s 29th-ranked Titans. The Giants scored way above expectations, 45% better than their season average, despite Tennessee holding them to within 10% of their usual YpA and completely shutting down their run game.

In the next meeting, Payton’s 15th-ranked Cowboys met Gunther’s 16th-ranked Chiefs; a very even matchup of talent. Again, the Cowboys outperformed expectations, scoring a touchdown more than their season average—only this time, the rushing and passing effectiveness were both well above average, too, up 44% and 63% respectively.

Then came 2009's slaughter: the No. 1 Saints scoring offense faced a Lions unit ranked butt-naked last. What happened was predictable: a 41% boost in scoring output, accompanied by a 31% gain in passing effectiveness. Rushing effectiveness, interestingly, stayed flat.

Finally, we have December’s matchup. The Saints’ 34.2 PpG offense was the second-best this season—and it’s been extremely balanced, averaging 8.08 yards per attempt and 4.94 yards per carry. The Lions’ defense is ranked 23rd, allowing 24.2 points per game, 6.34 YpA, and exactly 5.00 YpC.

As discussed above, the Lions pass defense couldn’t meet their typical 2011 performance standards—not with their top interior pass rusher, top cover corner, and playmaking/coverage-quarterbacking safety all out of commission. They allowed 9.50 YpA to Brees and the Saints, 18% better than the Saints’ average gained and 33% more  than the Lions’ average allowed. I’d expect that figure to be between 7.00 and 7.50 on Saturday.

Though the Lions had been allowing a healthy 5.00 YpC all season, and the Saints had been gaining rushing yards at an almost identical rate (4.94), New Orleans only ground out 4.35 YpC last month. That’s a very surprising result; I’ll project the Saints to more closely match their average: between 4.75 and 5.00.

Despite the lack of Suh, Houston, and Delmas—and despite the first-half loss of Nick Fairley, who was having an incredible game—and despite allowing 10.35 yards per attempt and despite allowing 21 points in the second quarter, the Lions still held Brees and New Orleans to 31 total points. That’s right: the 2nd-best offense met the 23rd-ranked defense and scored 9% fewer points than their season average.

Were the systemic wrinkles I caught on film enough to explain the Saints’ underperformance? If so, it’s tempting to project that same advantage on the Lions again. But the Saints have access to way more Lions tape than I do; Gunther and company will have to come up with an all new set of surprises if they want to get the drop on Payton again.

By skill against skill, I'd expect the Saints to score about 40 points. By average against average, it should be 30. By “take what happened last time and add in Suh, Fairley, Houston and Delmas,” it should be 20. But what’s the one thing The Watchtower has taught us, above and beyond anything else? The story of two teams playing against each other twice in one season is never the same.

Throughout this season, I’ve realized that “points per game” is far from an ideal metric. When the offense throws a pick six, that counts against the defense. When the defense gets a pick six, that counts for the offense. Watching the second Minnesota game, the offense played poorly and the defense very well—yet the 34-28 final score suggests a shootout. It’s for these reasons I discount “the Saints hang 40+” storyline that “2nd-best offense versus 23rd-best defense” suggests. Similarly, “A performance + B player = A+B performance” never works cleanly in the NFL.

With full season averages and a fully healthy roster, I give the two teams’ average performance levels the most weight. Therefore, taking into account the projected pass and run figures, I project the Saints to score 27-30 points, passing for 7.00-to-7.50 YpA and rushing for 4.75-to-5.00 YpC. Despite the lack of a strong, consistent historical systemic advantage, I have medium-to-high-confidence in this projection.

Aggravating/Mitigating Factors

As I said above, I don’t see the Saints racking up 40-plus unless the Lions do, too in a Week 17-style track meet. There is the potential for a surprisingly low-scoring game, if Suh, Fairley, Houston, and Delmas all make as big an impact as possible. However, the Lions defense still played very, very well in that game; I’m not sure how many plays those players would have made that their replacements didn’t.

The huge factor in the last game was penalties—stupid ones the Lions made, and terrible ones the referees called. If that factor is removed from the previous meeting, the outcome of that game is likely different.

As potentially huge as each of those two factors could be, they could also potentially be non-factors. I remain confident in the projection.

Scott Linehan vs. Gregg Williams

MIN 8th 24.4 6.60 5.30 HOU 27th 24.8 6.20 4.49 39  60% 6.24 -5% 5.46   3%
MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 HOU 21st 19.3 6.89 3.92 34 34% 7.92  11% 4.69   0%
STL 10th 22.9 6.69 4.26 WAS 20th 19.2 7.18 4.47 37  62% 10.21 53% 5.05 19%
DET 27th 16.4 5.12 4.42 NOS 20th 21.3 6.57 4.49 20  22% 4.95  -3% 3.17 -28%
DET 4th 28.7 6.72 4.48 NOS 19th 22.9 6.52 5.03 17 -41% 9.27 38% 3.95 -12%

Throughout the history of the Watchtower, one of the most consistent effects I’ve identified is Scott Linehan offenses against 3-4 defenses, and 4-3 defenses that feature a lot of aggressive blitzing. Gregg Williams and his aggressive 4-3 defense are no different; he has struggled mightily against Scott Linehan offenses.

Look at the first four rows of this table. Linehan’s units were ranked anywhere from 6th-best in the NFL to 6th-worst, and the “PTSΔ” (change in points scored from season average) is massively positive every time. The running and passing effectiveness has been all over the map, with a lot of games near average—so against Gregg Williams defenses, Linehan offenses tend to get better point production from typical between-the-20s performance.

This season the Lions’ 4th-ranked offense, racking up 28.7 points per game, faced the Saints’ just-below-median 22.9 PpG defense—and only scored 17 points. This, despite completing 31 of 44 passes for 408 yards! Stafford’s 9.27 YpA performance was one of his best of the year, and it came with a below-typical-but-not-terrible 3.95 YpC effort from the running game. How could a high-flying offense spend a whole game gaining nearly one first down per pass attempt’s worth of yardage, but only muster 17 points?

Does the phrase "offensive pass interference" mean anything to you?

The Lions had 25 first downs to the Saints’ 21, and outgained them 466 to 438. But that one interception and those critical penalties swung the game around in a big, big way. The other problem was a missed field goal and a blocked field goal, wiping a usually-guaranteed six points off the board.

What are those expectations? I’m glad you asked. Last time, I projected this:

I project the Lions to score 30-33 points, pass for 6.75-7.25 YpA, and rush for 5.00-5.25 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this prediction.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Actually, there aren’t too many. Unless Stafford completely melts down—or ditching the gloves unleashes a truly magnificent performance—I don’t see much wiggle room here. I expect the Lions to be able to take advantage of the Saints pass defense . . . whether that’s early on in an upset win, or in garbage time of a blowout loss, like last time.

Well, the Lions certainly were able to “take advantage of the Saints pass defense,” two-and-a-half yards per attempt better than I thought they would! Yet Lions’ inability to drive it all the way to the red zone and score killed them. This is the opposite of the effect we usually see when Linehan offenses meet Williams defenses.

The numbers have barely changed since I last looked at them. Even without the advantage, I’d expect the Lions to keep pace with the Saints here—and referees aside, that advantage was in evidence throughout the previous game. I’m going to bump the projected passing effectiveness to account for Stafford’s hot streak, and aim high on the rushing effectiveness because of a healthy Kevin Smith. Hanson won’t miss two field goals again.

Ultimately, I’m going to stay with the data, and project the exact same point total as I did a month ago: 30-33 points, coming from 8.00-8.50 YpA and 4.50-4.75 YpC.

Aggravating/Mitigating Factors

Did I mention the penalties?


It’s the same two teams, nearly the same set of numbers, in the same place at nearly the same time for even higher stakes. Last time Lions performed even better than I expected, but mistakes, injuries, and the officials held them back. I expect the Saints to take their game to the next level, too, though, so I can’t project a complete turning of the tables.

The data, and my instincts, compel me to project an even closer, 31-30, Lions win.


Detroit Lions Film Breakdown Against Drew Brees

You all might like my film breakdown of the Lions defense against Drew Brees over at Bleacher Report.

Whether you do or don't enjoy that. . . Watchtower today.


Steve Spagnuolo, Jim Schwartz, & the Road Not Taken

>> 1.03.2012

Jim Schwartz, Detroit Lions head coach

Spags is my #1 choice for the next Lions head coach--and he ought to be yours, too.

That was the closing line of my fifth post ever, the "To Whom it May Concern" for Steve Spagnuolo. I tagged him “Candidate 1A,” thanks to his impressive track record of coaching up defensive backs and harnessing pass-rushing talent. He also had experience in player personnel, making him an ideal fit for a franchise turning the keys over to a first-time GM.

Monday, Spagnuolo was fired.

It’s a visceral reminder of how thin the line between success and failure is in the NFL. It’s a reminder of how “the right” choices and “the right” processes can still lead to bad outcomes. You can make a great coaching hire like Spags, draft great prospects like Sam Bradford and Robert Quinn, sign great free agents like Pro Football Focus darling Quentin Mikell, and still have the wheels fall off. It’s not enough to make good individual decisions, they all have to synthesize into a greater plan—and sometimes, even that isn’t enough.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch eloquently detailed how and why Steve Spagnuolo’s “trying hard” was too hard to swallow:

You don't get four-year or five-year building phases in this league anymore. You don't win seven games in your second season and then revert to being an expansion-team level mess in your third season. There should be zero tolerance for the horror of watching quarterback Sam Bradford regress so alarmingly in his second NFL season . . .

. . . My fear is that a bizarre alternate universe has set in over at Rams Park. It's a place where you can go 10-38 and merrily dish the kind of tributes usually reserved for a team that's gone 38-10.

We've lived in that alternate universe, haven't we, Lions fans?

Spagnuolo got off to a start mirroring Jim Schwartz’s. They both drafted franchise quarterbacks, they both took big jumps from one or two wins to six or seven wins, and coming into this season both had legitimate designs on making the playoffs.

In the end, though, Spagnuolo’s tenure more closely resembled Rod Marinelli’s. Both changed offensive coordinators in year three, both had major regressions on both sides of the ball, and both held a season’s worth of awkward press conferences full of blithering platitudes about building a foundation when the walls were clearly tumbling down.

And now: poetry.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

Normally we just hear the last three lines of this poem, because this is America and “just being yourself” is our greatest collective virtue. Doing your own thing just to be different is universally lauded. Being interesting is just as valid, if not more so, than being good—just ask Lady Gaga.

But there are seventeen other lines to this poem, and Frost takes great pains to point out that neither of the two paths is any more or less virtuous. The path the speaker takes was “just as fair” as the other; it had “perhaps a better claim” because it was grassy and not worn down—but he admits both paths had been worn “really about the same.” Both were covered in undisturbed leaves anyway, so he might as well have flipped a coin.

This poem is about the lies we tell ourselves to spin our lives into dramatic narratives, with concrete causes and effects and triumphs and tragedies. The speaker tells himself he “kept the first [path] for another day,” even though in the back of his mind he knows it’s unlikely he’ll ever make this choice again.

The speaker is self-aware enough to know someday, years and years down the line, he’ll wistfully recall this apparently-fateful day in the woods—and tell someone with a sigh he took the road less traveled by, and in the end it made all the difference. He’s foretelling his own revisionist history! The choice, we know, was basically a whim—and whatever events followed it coincidental.

It's tempting to say Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand—or, if he is to be believed, William Clay Ford—were blessed with incredible foresight to let the Rams have the consensus “Candidate 1A” and tab Jim Schwartz to lead the Lions from the absolute bottom of the blackest abyss to the top of the mountain. It’s tempting to believe the Lions, by marching to the beat of their own drummer, got the “right” guy while the Rams foolishly followed the herd and got the “wrong” guy. Who knows? Perhaps it’s true.

But on the face of it, Spagnuolo and Schwartz were both great (and similar) candidates. So many factors go into the success of an NFL franchise that a head coach can be consistently excellent at his job and still fail (see: Andy Reid, who may have to hire Spags to save his own skin). Who’s to say that had the situations been reversed, Spagnuolo wouldn’t be leading the Lions to the playoffs while Schwartz tries to team back up with Jeff Fisher?

Whether it was a stroke of brilliant insight by the Lions executives, or a stroke of sheer luck, the Detroit Lions have a great coach doing great work with the considerable resources at his command. I can’t pretend I wouldn’t have loved the hiring of Steve Spagnuolo, nor can I pretend that if Spags were successful as Schwartz has been I wouldn’t be just as thrilled to have him prowling the Ford Field sidelines.

But the Lions took the head-banging, chess-playing, ref-eviscerating candidate less wanted, and I’m happy to tell myself The Grandmaster has made all the difference.


Fireside Chat: Lions at Packers

>> 1.02.2012

'Tis better to celebrate a 10-6 season and a playoff berth than never to celebrate at all. This was a great one; had a lot of awesome Packers folk in the chat. I recommend.

As always, if you dig,subscribe via iTunes!


Fireside Chat at 10:45 pm!

>> 1.01.2012

Join me LIVE for the Fireside Chat post-game show, at!


Can the Lions Slay the Lambeau Field Dragon?


Throughout the Lions’ three-season post-Millen run, they’ve snapped almost every negative streak, quenched almost every dry spell, and slain almost every dragon. Winning a game, winning a road game, winning a divisional game, winning a divisional road game, putting together home, road, and division winning streaks, having a winning season, going to the playoffs . . . short of postseason glory, they’ve accomplished everything the teams of the past decade couldn’t. Well, almost.

Up in Wisconsin, there’s a great writhing demon made of green and gold. A winged, fire-breathing losing streak whose 20 years make it the longest in NFL history. A physical and psychological force so strong the last Lions team to pierce it was the mightiest squad in my lifetime—the 12-4 NFC Central championship team—and even then they only squeaked out a 21-17 win.

There are all kinds of ridiculous stat nuggets to be unearthed about this streak. Matthew Stafford hadn’t yet turned three years old. Jason Hanson had just finished his junior year at Washington State. Brett Favre was at the end of his long-forgotten Atlantan purgatory. The Lions’ starting right tackle in that game, Eric Sanders, was born in 1958. The Lions’ defensive coordinator then, Woody Widenhofer, was also the DC for the Super Bowl-winning 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the season reproduced in Tecmo Super Bowl.

There’s one other brick in this wall: the Lions needed to beat the Packers in Lambeau Field to avoid 0-16, and couldn’t. Back in 2008, in the game Gosder Cherilus declared “Our Super Bowl,” Aaron Rodgers handily outdueled Dan Orlovksy while Packers running backs Deshawn Wynn and Ryan Grant piled up 106 yards—each. Lions cornerback Travis Fisher was forced to renege on his promise to walk home if they lost.

Of all the crazy stats about this terrible losing streak, this is the one that hits me hardest: the Lions have the chance to go from 0-16 to 11-5 in exactly three years. They have the chance to take the field at the site of their ultimate defeat, go toe-to-toe with the only dragon they’ve yet to slay, and walk off the field in triumph. Could there be more perfect, complete redemption?

Many Lions fans have cheered the news that the Packers are planning on resting many of their top starters. If the Lions push all their chips to the center of the table, they should have no problem raking the pot. Ah, but there’s the rub: is a victory truly a victory when the other side lays down? Michael Strahan would say so . . .

See? This is an old Packers trick: by giving the enemy a victory, they’re actually denying them one. If the Lions leave Lambeau with a gifted victory, some will say it doesn’t count. Some will think it doesn’t really break the streak. The green-and-gold dragon will still haunt this rivalry. Its specter will still be invoked next year, and the year after that if the Lions don’t repeat the feat in 2012.

Incredibly, as of this writing 2012 is “this” year. Something happened to 2011; it disappeared in a flash of lockout and victory. Somehow, another calendar year and season is water under the bridge. Somehow, this year full of uncertainty and anxiousness and potential and expectations became a year full of success and achievement and PLAYOFFS.

I’ve been saying, repeatedly, that I’ve felt like the Lions clinching a playoff berth is a moment of surreal elation, of detached awe. I still can’t really process it; this sort-of game against a Packers “B” side isn’t going to help ground my free-floating emotions, either.

Losing technically means nothing at all, but will be a bitter disappointment. Winning will technically mean the world for the Lions—but will it taste as sweet as if the Packers had gone all-out? Will it still satisfy? Will it still feel like the ice-cold blood of the Titletown monster has been spilt upon the frozen tundra?

Here’s hoping we get the chance to find out.


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