Seven Step Drop: Efficiency is king!

Welcome to Seven Step Drop a weekly NFL analytics newsletter. Every week of the NFL season we will take a look at seven games or trends that defined the weekend. As the NFL season returned with a vengeance in Week 1 a few of these trends began to emerge. Amongst quarterbacks efficiency was king with some of the top quarterbacks in the game posting gaudy completion percentage, estimated points added and completion percentage over expected numbers. Whilst for some of the teams that many expected to struggle, it was a day of comeback and upset victories. Lets dig in to the numbers…

1. Russell Wilson Has Entered The MVP Conversation...

Over the past five season the Seahawks have passed on fewer than 50% of their early downs. Much to the frustrations of both the analytics community and wider Seahawks fan base. The coaching team in Seattle had been reluctant to turn the keys to the offense over to Russell Wilson at the beginning of games. However, 2020 has been a strange year and on Sunday something strange happened. The Seahawks passed on 64% of their early downs. The offense looked fantastic, as the team raced into a 14-3 lead from which they never looked back. Carson, Metcalf and Lockett all sparkled in the passing game. But one star shined brighter than anyone else. 

31/35 for 322 yards, four touchdowns and an incredible +20 CPOE and 0.56 EPA per play is an incredible stat line from one the NFL’s MVP favourites. Four passing touchdowns led the league in Week 1, as does the EPA per play figure. The passing game was explosive when the opportunity arose but also measured and accurate when needed. In a game week that featured five or six impressive offensive performances, this from Wilson and the Seahawks may have been the best. 

Week 1 Roundup
Picture: SBNation

2. Lamar Jackson Shows Once Again That He Can Do It All...

The Baltimore Ravens notched up their third straight 30+ point season opening win with a demolition of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Led by the reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, the Ravens outclassed their division rivals. Jackson was efficient, as so many of the top quarterback have been this weekend. Posting another superb stat line with 80% completion, +20% CPOE and three touchdown passes.

Lamar showed an improvement on the form that won him the MVP award last time out. As the Browns defense sold out to stop the ground game, Jackson went to the air. Silencing some of the critics of his passing ability with a steady performance. However, there is room for improvement passing the ball, as Jackson isn’t yet on the level of a Wilson or Mahomes in the passing game. This performance should go at least some of the way to quelling any doubts about his ability if the run is taken away. 

3. The Return Of Aaron Freakin' Rodgers!

Aaron Rodgers is one of the most polarising figures in all of the NFL. Presumed washed by many coming into the season. His replacement drafted 26 overall by the Packers in April. The stage is set for the Aaron Rodgers revenge tour, for him to once again remind us all that he is Aaron Freakin’ Rodgers. Remind us, he did. 

43 points scored, the most ever conceded by a Vikings team under Mike Zimmer. As Rodgers turned it on in the second quarter. After a careful and accurate start, gorgeous touchdown throws to Davantae Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling reminded us that Aaron Rodgers is a special quarterback. 

The stats stand up as well, +14.7 in CPOE, 20.3 Estimated Points Added are impressive numbers. But for Rodgers it was the decision making that pleased more than anything. Almost gone was the frantic looking for an open receiver before throwing the ball away. Instead the Packers QB looked for the check down to his running backs on the few plays where Adams wasn’t open. This was a fantastic team win by Green Bay, but it was spearheaded by an Aaron Rodgers that will strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators. 

4. Minshew Mania II: The Sequel May Be Better...

Week 1 Roundup
Picture: USA Today

The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight and now Minshew Mania Season 2. It is rare the sequels live up to hype of the original movie. Football even has a term for a poor second season. The so called ‘Sophomore Slump’ has become a fixture of the football lexicon, but one player looked to dispel it as myth on Sunday. Gardner Minshew of the much derided Jacksonville Jaguars led his team to a win in Week 1 with a high efficiency performance. I wrote back in January that the Jaguars should look to stack as much talent around Minshew as possible in order to limit what he has to do in order for the team to win games. 

On Sunday the team came up big around the former Washington State man, the defense had three interceptions and they caused new Colts quarterback Phillip Rivers hell. The running game showed up as well. But it was Minshew who had the best performance. Completing 19/20 passes and posting a gaudy CPOE of 20.9 to lead the league. Minshew also threw for three touchdowns as the Jaguars toppled the Colts in what might have been the biggest upset of Week 1. If Minshew continues to play with such a ruthless efficiency, then the Jags won’t need to be explosive to win games. 

5. Rivera's Warrior Mentality Embodied by Washington

Heart and guts are probably words you didn’t expect to see in an analytics column. They are immeasurable, intangible and impossible to be sure about. I am however sure about one person. The head coach of the Washington Football Team Ron Rivera has more heart and guts than most of us. Coaching on the sidelines whilst also receiving cancer treatment (including a precautionary IV at half time) is going above and beyond for his team.

Down 17-0 at one point towards the end of the first half, Washington scratched and clawed their way back into the game. 27 unanswered points including a passing touchdown for Dwayne Haskins and two rushing touchdowns from Peyton Barber combined well with eight sacks from a much heralded defensive line. Haskins performance was far from sublime, but unlike much of last season it wasn’t detracting to the point of a Washington loss. Some shoots of growth are visible for this team. The story in 2020 will be just how much growth we will see.

6. Oh Lions...

The Detroit Lions had become the trendy team to back for a big improvement in 2020. Even my Seven Step Drop Podcast colleague Ben Rolfe was high on them coming in to the season. In the first half the offense was solid, with Stafford playing well under centre. The defense also looked closer to what many expected. They got pressure on Trubisky, and covered well. By the middle of the third quarter, the Lions win probability was 97%. Then the cracks started to show.

The Lions run game was non-existent. It was so poor that despite only making up a third of all snaps it was responsible for the Lions posting a negative EPA figure for the game. The inability for the Lions to win in the run game put pressure on Quarterback Matt Stafford and handed the initiative to the Bears. Who slowly got back into the game. However, the heartbreak was only just beginning. Down four with time running out Stafford led a poitentially game winning drive, putting a perfect touchdown pass into the hands of rookie running back D’Andre Swift to win the game. The rookie dropped the pass. The Lions lost and the outlook for this group in Detroit looks bleak. 

7. Shadows Of Their Former Selves

Week 1 Roundup
Picture: The Detroit News

It was a tough day for quarterbacks in the much anticipated season opener between future first ballot Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Both quarterbacks struggled mightily in the passing game posting negative CPOE and poor efficiency numbers. Lets start with Brady, of the two he has more external factors impacting his performance. 

Lining up with a new team, it was clear the chemistry with the pass catchers was missing. However and perhaps more importantly for Brady, so was the chemistry with the offensive line. Pressure up front forced Brady into mistakes. As the year goes on, this chemistry will improve. The players will get more used to playing with Brady who will also get more used to playing in Bruce Arians system.

Perhaps the greater surprise in this one was Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In spite of having one of the higher expected completion percentages of the weekend; Brees didn’t live up to the efficiency standards that he has hit the last few seasons. With star wide receiver Michael Thomas hobbled, Brees looked bereft of the arm strength needed to push the ball outside the numbers. Luckily for New Orleans, the supporting cast is fantastic. Good enough to carry the team to the win. As the league transitions from one era of quarterback superstars to another, this game was a reminder that the ending is very rarely a perfect story at this level.

Alex Chinery

Head of FOOTBALL Analytics