Completely Useless Waste of Time: 2012 Edition

>> 4.18.2012


Ahh, the magic of the Completely Useless Waste of Time. The CUWoT, for the uninitiated, is my pet name for the masturbatory practice of predicting YOUR FAVORITE TEAM’S RECORD right after the NFL releases its schedule for the year. Last night, at 7:00 EDT, the NFL released its 2012 schedule.

The Lions have 5 games on national television: Thanksgiving against the Texans, two Sunday Night Football games at San Francisco and at Green Bay, a Saturday night game hosting the Falcons, and a Monday Night Football game at Chicago. This is news.

What is not news is everyone going through the schedule, presuming the Lions to be slightly better than last year, then going through the schedule and picking the Lions to lose to every team perceived to be as good or better than whatever "slightly better than last year" means for the Lions. That, my friends, is a completely useless waste of time.

For starters, unlike previous years, the draft hasn’t even happened yet. All 32 teams are going to fill major roster needs—or not—in a week. To pretend we know the relative strengths of these teams in the spring is goofy enough; to pretend we know the relative strengths of these teams when we don’t even know their starting lineups is criminally insane.

But, "slightly better than last year" means 11-5, and so everybody on the planet is picking 11-5. Last season, everyone was picking between seven and nine wins for the Lions, but I stated that the Lions would make the playoffs as fact on May 27th. Because, duh:

Nick Fairley doesn’t need to be a stud. The Lions don’t need to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, or add more backup tackles. The Bears don’t need to implode (though they will), and the Vikings won’t need to keep backsliding (though they will). The Lions don’t need to “learn how to finish,” they just need Matthew Stafford healthy for 16 games. If they get that, the Lions will win ten of those games, at least—and they’ll make the playoffs.

. . . not to put too fine a point on it, but that was as arrogantly definitive of a paragraph as I’ve written—and that’s saying something—and I batted 1.000.

Don’t forget, the NFL is all about variance. As I wrote about in “Detroit Lions, NFL, and Luck,” the correlation between actual team goodness and wins is about 75%. Per point differential and strength of schedule, the Lions were almost spookily in sync with how good they “really” were in 2011. The 2011 Lions expected W-L, based on point differential, was 9.9-6.1. That the record shook out exactly as I predicted was more or less sheer luck. If the Lions are slightly better in 2012 than they were in 2011, variance alone dictates they could finish anywhere from 8-8 to 15-1.

Don't believe me?

In 2010, the Green Bay Packers scored 24.2 points per game, 10th-best in the NFL. They allowed 15.0 points per game, 2nd-best in the NFL. They outscored opponents by 9.2 points per game, 2nd-best in the NFL. With their point differential, they should have won 12.1 games and lost 3.9. They actually went 10-6, snuck into the playoffs as a six seed, and won the Super Bowl.

In 2011, the Packers scored 35.0 points per game, best in the NFL, but allowed 22.4; 19th. Their differential was again second-best at 12.6 points per game, and their expected W-L was 11.9-4.1. They went 15-1, secured a bye, and promptly lost to the Giants (9-7, expected 7.9-8.1).

This method of calculating expected wins, often called Pythagorean wins, indicates something I'd suspected from the eyeball test: the Packers were slightly “worse” in 2012 than 2011, yet made a dramatic five-game jump in the win column.

In that very Pro Football Reference blog post, they note Pythagorean wins correlate much more strongly to next season’s wins than the season they describe—and since 1978, teams which finish 10-6 with between 9.5 and 10.5 Pythagorean wins (like the 2011 Lions), average 9.3 wins in the following season (like this upcoming season).

Food for thought.

What is my point? I have two left to make: penultimately, going through the schedule and picking wins and losses based on “last year’s record + talent additions - talent subtractions” is a completely useless waste of time, but that’s okay when there’s nothing else going on. Doing it immediately before the draft is madness. Lunacy. I refuse to participate.

I called the Lions going 10-6 last season because I thought they were an above-average team sure to make the playoffs, but no more . . . the scoreboard precisely reflected that level of performance. I wouldn’t have predicted a 5-0 start, and I wouldn’t have predicted a miserable October, but in the end the Lions were who I thought they were.

This year, the Lions will be better. If Stafford and Johnson are healthy for 16 games again, the Lions’ on-field performance will be better in 2012 than 2011, even if the draft yields no immediate starters. I base this entirely on the idea that the development of the younger players will have a greater positive impact than the depreciation of the older players’ negative impact.

How many regular season wins will that “slightly better than last year” performance? Well, between you, me, and Pythagoras it doesn’t really matter anymore. The Lions are a playoff team now. The question is, how many playoff games will they win?


Old Mother Hubbard: The Tight Ends

>> 4.17.2012


The Lions spent the 20th overall pick of the 2009 draft and, indirectly, the eighth overall pick of the 2006 draft on tight ends. That’s a lot of resources to invest in a position that seems to be going the way of the dodo—but offensive coordinator Scott Linehan loves to deploy his two big targets alongside his wideouts, often to great effect.

Let’s check 2010’s Tight End Old Mother Hubbard for where these players left off:

Will Heller is a good rotational blocker, who’s come up with a few nice catches in his time here. He should have a place on the roster for 2011, at least.

Tony Scheffler was signed to a three-year extension right after his great two-game stretch at the beginning of the season; he’ll likely be here through 2013. The player we saw in September was the same player we saw for years in Denver; I can’t believe that guy’s gone for good. Even if he is, “Diminished Scheffler” is a solid receiving TE, who blocks better than you think.

Brandon Pettigrew is young veteran with a huge frame and amazing tools. He’s already an excellent pass blocker, and a very good run blocker. As a receiver, his awful case of the dropsies hurt both his grades and several key Lions drives. Overall, his many penalties did the same. If he can cut down on the mental mistakes, Pettigrew could be one of the best TEs in the game. If not, he’s still a great blocker, and a target defenses must respect.

This is the order in which their PFF grades shook out, which is the opposite of what we’d expect. What about 2011?


The Lions’ top-rated tight end in 2011 was Tony Scheffler. I again quote from last season's report:

Tony Scheffler led all NFL TEs with 25% or more of their teams’ snaps in target-to-snap ratio. Scheffler was thrown to once every 6.3 snaps he played—meaning if he was on the field, he was a major part of the play. He seems to have a very specific niche in the offense, even if it isn’t what we expected.

This season, the pattern continued: Scheffler was targeted once every 7.73 snaps he played, 4th-most in the NFL. He trailed only Jimmy Graham, Evan Moore, and Kellen Winslow; he had the highest yards-per-catch of that group (9th overall) at 13.3. Scheffler also scored six touchdowns; that’s one every 6.83 targets (3rd-best in the NFL) and 52.8 snaps (1st-best in the NFL).

Just from watching, it seemed as though Scheffler was placed on the field the instant the Lions crossed the opponent’s 35, and instructed to go make a touchdown happen. The stats bear this observation out. Inexplicably, Scheffler’s WPA was not calculated by Advanced NFL Stats. He didn’t have a whole mess of reps, but anyone who scores six touchdowns should have had a significant impact on his team’s chances to win. My suspicion is his WPA would be quite high, especially relative to his EPA.

Bottom Line: Tony Scheffler is a weapon. A walking, talking red zone mismatch with ridiculous dance moves. He has a very specific role in this offense and he executes it very well. Expect nothing to change in 2012.

Brandon Pettigrew, on the whole, improved slightly in the eyes of PFF graders, but not relative to other tight ends. In 2010, Pettigrew was marked at -8.0 overall in a season where the TE average was -3.23. In 2011, he graded out at -7.1, and the average was -1.74. This all sounds like it was more of the same, but in fact Pettigrew’s production was completely different:

imageThis is why I do these things. Look at Pettigrew’s 2010 performance: he was a devastating all-around blocker, much better than average in both the ground and air games. He was also a heavily-penalized butterfingers, and as a result his grade was well below-average. This might be slightly harsh. Pettigrew’s athleticism got him open quite often, drawing a lot of passes his way. Sometimes he got his hands on balls other tight ends wouldn’t have been able to . . . but he dropped a lot of the balls he got his hands on.

In 2011, Pettigrew’s performance in the receiving game improved drastically, nearly matching the NFL average. He caught 70.3% of the passes thrown his way, 23rd-best and above the NFL average of 68.5. His pass protection was even improved over 2010, his +3.5 grade 4th-best in the NFL. Unfortunately, he took a big step back in run blocking: from +0.5 to -7.0. Pettigrew’s run-block grade was ranked 40th of 65; well below the 0.0 average.

Unfortunately, Pettigrew's high penalty rate continued: he was flagged 11 times for 117 yards; both of those marks were the worst in the NFL. This is why Pettigrew’s overall mark keeps getting dragged below average: he takes way too many penalties.

Perspective: there’s nothing average about Pettigrew’s production. He caught 83 passes, 3rd-most in the NFL, out of 117 targets—also 3rd-most in the NFL. Those receptions gained 777 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those targets came once every 9.24 snaps, the 13th-most frequent target rate in the game. Unlike Scheffler, a situational specialist targeted once every 7.73 snaps, Pettigrew played almost every down the Lions’ offense did. With 1,081 snaps played, Pettigrew got more reps than anyone in the NFL save Rob Gronkowski.

Bottom Line: Brandon Pettigrew is an enormous part of the Lions’ offense, and will be for the foreseeable future. He grew phenomenally as a pass catcher from 2010 to 2011, apparently at the expense of his run blocking. Pettigrew remains a devastating two-way player, and a truly rare talent. Last year’s assessment remains correct: If he can cut down on the mental mistakes, Pettigrew could be one of the best TEs in the game.

Will Heller was released to make cap room, and has yet to be re-signed. He, or another blocking specialist with not-stone hands, will need to be required. Oops, I missed his re-signing.

SHOPPING LIST: A Will Heller-type, preferably of the rookie variety. Or maybe Will Heller Possibly a developmental rookie, but otherwise the Lions are set here.

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