NFL Betting School: Identifying an Edge

"Well if they're big and you're small, then you're mobile and they're slow. You're hidden and they're exposed. You only fight battles you know you can win. That's the way the Vietcong did it. You capture their weapons and use them against them the next time."

Brill Lyle, Enemy of the State (1998)

Winning money betting on the NFL is hard. Due to its popularity, football invites more American bettors (with more money) than any other sport. Sportsbooks are incentivized to offer the sharpest lines on the biggest markets, and bettors with the highest volume help sharpen the lines with their action. This is why you’ll see people call the major NFL markets – spreads, moneylines, totals – the most “efficient” markets. They are hard to beat.

Regardless, betting on sports is fun. Having a financial stake in the outcome of games makes them more interesting to watch. The dopamine hit that follows a winning bet is real. You don’t need to have an edge to make a bet. Doing it for fun is perfectly fine, and probably advisable for most people. But winning is more fun, and allows you to play the game longer on your given budget.

You won’t win in the long run without a true edge. You might get lucky and go on a hot streak, but that could set up unreasonable expectations and lead to disappointment. So I want to talk about – and demonstrate – this concept. An edge is created by data, information, an angle, or perspective, that allows you to make a bet with a higher true probability than the implied probability of the odds offered by the Sportsbook. In other words, you only have an edge if you factor in something the market does not. The more efficient the market, the harder that is to actually do. But it’s not impossible.

Here is my simple two-step process to finding an edge. Then I’ll demonstrate with some examples.

Step 1: Understand the Betting Market

A lot of people make bets because “the public” or “the media” spouts an opinion on a team that they think is wrong. But you aren’t betting against the guy who Tweeted that the Bengals are clearly better than the Chiefs because they beat them twice last year, no matter how many likes his Tweet gets. And you aren’t betting against ESPN. Sometimes a majority opinion can influence the market through a massive volume of bets, but for the most part, these off-base takes do not move the needle in the betting markets.

You are actually betting against (1) the Sportsbooks' trading rooms and (2) professional bettors. Both of these groups of people invest substantial time and money into understanding the teams, situations, injuries, and other factors present in every game. They run statistical models to predict outcomes and hone those systems with machine learning. They have been doing it for decades. The more you know about the kinds of inputs these models use, and the type of data bookmakers and professionals use or find significant, the better you can understand the market.

Step 2: Differentiate

Once you understand the market, you can look for an edge. To find an edge, you need to be able to identify flaws in the betting market's biggest inputs and exploit those flaws. I like to use the market’s own data against itself by exploiting gaps in major statistical metrics that inform the largest bettors and Sportsbooks. Let’s use some examples from the Futures market to illustrate, since those are the bets I'm looking at in June.

Sophisticated bettors do not start with last year’s win total as a baseline projection for a team. You’ll hear “The Dolphins won 9 games last year and vastly improved so Over 9 wins is a lock.” That’s not how sophisticated bettors think, and so this type of thinking is typically not reflected in the market. Instead, bettors use more advanced metrics, such as pythagorean wins and strength of schedule. Most successful bettors look beyond these metrics of course, but they are used widely enough to impact the market, and that's what we are looking for.

Pythagorean win totals capture a team's performance based on total points for and total points against, instead of wins and losses. The number attempts to project how many wins that team should have won based on point differential, and does a good job of evening out the impact of a lot of close wins or close losses. Many bettors have modified the basic Pythagorean formula, but even modifications will suffer from similar flaws. Namely, point totals do not accurately reflect the true performance of a team. If you have a metric that evaluates performance in a game independent of final scores, you can use that metric to generate a more accurate win total. Where this win total differs most from the team's pythagorean win total, you may have an edge.

Bettors typically provide context to a team's Pythagorean win total by measuring strength of schedule. These strength of schedule comparisons often involve using team win totals. That’s highly flawed. Most sophisticated bettors are not using this number, but use power ratings instead to form their own strength-of-schedule ratings. Yet most of the content in this space – which helps drive bets by a high volume of bettors and can implicitly influence sharp bettors – involves win totals.

But even strength of schedule calculations based on power ratings are flawed because teams aren’t consistent throughout the season. Catching the Packers without Aaron Rodgers should not count the same as a fully healthy Packers team. Facing a team missing eight starters due to Covid virtually assures a win regardless of how good that team is on the season. Even situational factors matter, such as playing a road game on Thursday after playing a long overtime game on Sunday (like the Ravens did in 2021). So you have to factor in true strength of schedule at the time of the matchup.

My Method

Instead of using Pythagorean wins, I evaluate every game holistically and assign score values based on each team's holistic Effectiveness. Instead of using raw points for and points against, I use my own metrics to calculate Adjusted Wins, or how many wins the team would typically earn playing that level of football without variance. Over the course of the season, small gaps in individual results can compound to create a meaningful edge in differentiating from the market.

Because we are looking for edges over market metrics, let's look at the biggest gaps between my Adjusted Wins and Pythagorean Wins. My numbers have incorporated all strength of schedule and hidden schedule quirks as well. I ran the numbers on every team and the two biggest outliers in 2021 (one in each direction) were the Raiders and Dolphins:

Team '21 Pythag Wins '21 Adjusted Wins Difference
MIA 7.74 5.57 -2.17
LV 7.15 9.43 +2.28


Miami’s win total and point margin were both inflated by extreme in-game variance and favorable situational strength of schedule quirks. For example, in Week 1 they beat New England 17-16 despite a very unfavorable Effectiveness Rating (6.12-5.11). They had fewer first downs (24-16), were less efficient on a per-play basis (5.6-5.0), and had fewer red zone trips (4-2). The Patriots moved the ball much more easily, converting 11 of 16 third downs to the Dolphins’ 4 of 11. But the Patriots settled for three field goals and lost two skill-player fumbles. The first was on a 9-yard catch on 1st down. The second was on 1st down on the Miami 11-yard line with 2 minutes to go, down by 1 point. The fumble allowed Miami to secure an unlikely win.

They had similar variance in Week 18 against the Patriots, in a 33-24 win despite another unfavorable Effectiveness Rating (5.56-4.55). This time, The Patriots outgained the Dolphins significantly (6.4 yards per play to 4.5), but Miami squeaked by with a win due to three Patriot turnovers, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and a heavy penalty advantage.

Outside of these two misleading final scores, the Dolphins had zero games in 2021 where they lost outright despite outplaying their opponent in terms of Effectiveness. They won every game they deserved to win, which is actually quite rare for an entire NFL season. They avoided negative variance as much as they benefitted from positive variance.

On top of that, they played the Saints down three offensive line starters with Ian Book, the Jets down two offensive line starters with Zach Wilson, the Giants with Mike Glennon, the Panthers with Cam Newton off the street, the Jets with Joe Flacco, the Texans with Tyrod, and the Ravens down two offensive line starters on 4 days rest after playing nearly 100 snaps on Sunday. These schedule quirks inflated both their strength of schedule and Pythagorean wins.

The Raiders, on the other hand, caught the short end of the variance stick in several games. Despite an ostensibly lucky record at 10-7 (including 4 out of 4 overtime wins), their actual performance was not reflected in their final scores. I'll highlight five example games:

  • They beat Miami by 3 points in overtime but significantly outplayed them overall (5.17-4.64). They edged Miami in first downs (28-22), yards per play (6.1-4.2), and red zone trips (4 to 1). They overcame a pick-6 deep in Miami territory and a turnover on downs in their own territory. Variance went against them and it should have been a more comfortable win.
  • They lost to the Giants 23-16 but were the more Effective team overall (5.30-4.62). They racked up more first downs (24-16), better yards per play (6.0-4.6), and more red zone trips (6 to 2). But three turnovers, including a pick-6, some unfortunate high-leverage failures, and a missed 25-yard field goal set them back.
  • They lost 32-13 to the Bengals in what was actually a fairly close game. The Bengals dominated time of possession in large part due to a massive penalty discrepancy (7-77 to 1-5) and two more turnovers by the Raiders. But it was 16-13 with just over 5 minutes left in the 4th before a late flurry of fairly meaningless points. These teams eventually played a rematch in the playoffs that more closely reflected the respective quality of the teams, as the Raiders had a chance to tie that game late and lost by a touchdown.
  • They got blown out by Kansas City to the tune of 48-9 but experienced massive negative variance. They had 5 turnovers, including 4 lost fumbles, 2 on first-down catches and 1 on a kickoff that was returned for a touchdown. Kansas City wins this game almost every time, but the 39-point differential skews the Raiders' pythagorean win total.
  • They only beat DEN 17-13 but absolutely dominated the game (5.78-3.78). With an edge in first downs (22-8), yards per play (5.1-4.0), red zone trips (3-1), the Broncos only stayed in it due to three turnovers. The Raiders finished the game kneeling in Denver territory, so it could have easily been a bigger win if they needed it to be.

Conclusions

With very similar records last year (10-8 for LV and 9-8 for MIA), similar win total projections for this year (around 8.5 wins), and similarly low pythagorean win totals, these two teams make for an interesting comparison. Both improved in the off-season. Yet both are projected by the market to win fewer games than last year. Schedule has something to do with it of course, but so does last year's results. In Miami's case, this element is justified. But for the Raiders, it arguably is not.

Now, I don't necessarily recommend betting on Miami's win total under and Las Vegas's win total over. I put a lot more into my analysis before firing off a bet. But I use these outliers to demonstrate one way that a bettor can find a potential edge over the market. Given that any edge in an efficient market will be small, I recommend only making a bet when you can compound a few edges in one bet. And hopefully, this gives you an idea of how to go about doing that for yourself.

Now for my pitch. This all takes a lot of work. Below, Members have access to a table with every team's Pythagorean Win total and Adjusted Win total from 2021. This is just a small snippet of the actionable information I provide to Members. If you're interested in learning more about what I do, you can join my free mailing list, or if you'd rather pay for the fruit of my work, you can become a SharpClarke Member and get all my picks and analysis. You can find both options on my Membership page.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

Los Angeles Rams 2021 Team Study

Part 29 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 28 here: Las Vegas Raiders. Part 30 now available: San Francisco 49ers.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.51 +0.52 5th


Offensive Eff. Rating (blue and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
4th 19th 9th


Sean McVay finally got his quarterback. Matthew Stafford came into an established scheme with two skills that Jared Goff lacked: reading defenses and throwing deep with confidence. McVay needed a quarterback who could react to what defenses put on the field, both before the play and while the play developed. Those who have actually watched the Lions play over the years expected Stafford to thrive. And that’s exactly what happened.

Despite spending a lot of time in the pocket letting plays develop deep, the Rams allowed the 2nd-lowest pressure rate in the NFL. The offensive line deserves some credit for this, but pressure rate is also significantly impacted by the quarterback and the scheme. For example, when a quarterback sees before the snap where the pressure could be coming from, he can switch up protections to give himself more time. And a good coach will give the quarterback these options in each formation. The Rams passing offense was simply well-executed at each level.

Their run game was awful. They had the biggest gap between passing EPA/play and rushing EPA/play in the league. Fortunately, running doesn’t win championships in today’s NFL so they overcame this weakness. They also were more of a downfield passing team than a catch-and-run team. As a result, they didn’t play quite as well against teams that gave up a log of yards after the catch. Chart A shows the Rams’ offensive Adj. Eff. Rating by each opponent ranked by its yards after the catch per completion allowed on the season. Their quality of performance trended negatively against teams that gave up a lot of yards after the catch.

Chart A

Outside of the run game, the Rams had two weaknesses on offense. First, Stafford’s aggressiveness led to some negative plays. He got away with one against the 49ers in the playoffs when Jaquiski Tartt dropped an easy interception. But his turnovers were costly earlier in the year too, most notably in an ugly 28-16 loss to the Titans. This is an acceptable trade-off in the long run, because this aggressiveness is what allowed the Rams to succeed in the first place. But it did lead to some inconsistency and risk.

Second, the offense was reliant on its top two wide receivers. Cooper Kupp absolutely smashed, and they were fine as long as they had either Robert Woods or Odell Beckham, Jr. on the other side. But things got dicey in the Super Bowl after OBJ went down, and it raises concern about what would happen if Kupp got hurt. They lost OBJ and Woods permanently now, but replaced them with Allen Robinson. If Robinson and Kupp can stay healthy, there is no reason to anticipate a drop-off for this offense. It is the type of passing game that can sustain success. But if one or both get hurt, the floor could be low.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

Las Vegas Raiders 2021 Team Study

Part 28 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 27 here: Kansas City Chiefs. Part 29 now available: Los Angeles Rams.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.08 +0.05 15th


Offensive Eff. Rating (silver and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
16th 29th 5th


The Raiders offense was a bit of an enigma in 2021. Coming into the season I expected the offensive line to be a liability that limited the team's upside. But watching their games, it seemed Derek Carr was never under pressure. They used creative formations that included a lot of tight ends and even fullbacks to get extra bodies up front, and it seemed to work. Despite spending the 5th-most time in the pocket, Carr was only pressured at the 9th-highest rate. That typically speaks to a quality offensive line, but in this case had as much to do with the scheme as anything.

I believe this in part because the run game was terrible, both before and after contact. Josh Jacobs is a good runner but never had holes. Sometimes linemen are just better in pass protection than run blocking, but I think their success stemmed from Gruden’s scheme. However, it certainly continued after Gruden resigned, which means either that the offense just continued its approach or it wasn’t Gruden to begin with. Carr also deserves some credit. He is a very smart quarterback who understands how the formations help offset pressure and he anticipates players being open. He showed the ability to use a variety of weapons in the passing game and is finally getting the respect he deserves. That’s good to see.

When your best pass catcher is a tight end and your best receiver is a slot receiver, defenses built around solid cornerback play tend not to be as effective. When looking at game-by-game performance, we can see this in action. Chart A shows the Raiders’ offensive Adj. Effectiveness in each game, ranking each opponent by its DVOA against opposing #1 wide receivers. Many handicappers validly recognize that teams reliant on a top outside wide receiver can struggle against elite cornerback play. But it’s just as important to recognize that an offense not reliant on a top outside wide receiver tends to outperform against those very same defenses by comparison. Diverse passing attacks featuring tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers, tend to eliminate the advantage a top cornerback brings.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pass defense in DVOA v. each team's top wide receiver.
*DVOA data from Football Outsiders.

Carr plays with a chip on his shoulder against the best competition. The Raiders offense – which was pretty much a reflection of Carr because the run game was underwhelming – played its best games against the toughest pass defenses. Granted, there is some correlation between good cornerback play and overall pass defense. But Chart B shows the Raiders’ offensive Adj. Effectiveness by each opponent ranked by its EPA/play allowed on passes. Carr stepped up in the toughest spots.  

Chart B

Chart B: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pass defense in EPA/play on the season.
*EPA data from Football isn't played on spreadsheets.

Carr is a smart player. I would expect the Raiders to continue to do whatever they did to help offset the inevitable pressure that comes from having a weak offensive line. But it’s not a guarantee. It depends on how Josh McDaniels approaches the scheme. They also picked up Davante Adams to reunite him and Carr. Adams is a really good fit for this offense with his excellent route-running and reliable catching. Even though his overall production should take a hit with a downgrade at quarterback and more target competition, he should definitely boost Carr’s play and immediately lifts the upside of this offense.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

Kansas City Chiefs 2021 Team Study

Part 27 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 26 here: Denver Broncos. Part 28 now available: Las Vegas Raiders.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
6.06 +1.12 1st


Offensive Eff. Rating (red and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
2nd 8th 2nd


The Chiefs once again boasted the best offense in the NFL despite a turbulent season. Early on they looked unstoppable moving up and down the field, but weren’t getting credit because of some very fluky turnovers and a defense that struggled to stop anybody. They lost to the Ravens and Chargers In back-to-back weeks as a direct result. But starting in Week 7 against the Titans, this offense started legitimately struggling for a stretch of 5-8 games. They eventually adapted and turned it around down the stretch, outside of a crucial offensive no-show in the second half of the AFC Championship game against the Bengals. 

The struggles were new for the Chiefs. Opposing defenses devoted everything to taking away the deep ball. Teams rolled out two-high safety shells and flooded coverage, particularly shadowing Tyreek Hill deep. Linebackers did not bite on play action and basically ignored the Chiefs’ run game. The result was a new style of offense in which Mahomes threw mostly shallow passes (9th-lowest ADOT) to create yards after the catch (3rd-highest yards after the catch per completion). All told, the Chiefs finished dead last in the percentage of total passing yards gained through the air (as opposed to after the catch).

Mahomes was not as comfortable in this style of offense, especially at first. He had grown accustomed to being able to make big plays happen in the passing game, and knew he had talent and elite weapons. The most effective way to coax defenses out of these looks is to run into these defenses successfully, but Mahomes and Reid knew that running the ball when you have Mahomes at quarterback is not ideal. And when they did run, the running backs were not great. Defenses let the Chiefs’ running backs pick up the 2nd-most yards per carry before contact in the NFL, but those same backs had the fewest yards after contact. All the rushing yards were created by the line and the scheme (and defenses playing in coverage). So opposing defenses never had to come back down and play the line of scrimmage.

But the Chiefs figured it out. Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy, and Patrick Mahomes worked on the offense and adapted on the fly. They finished 1st in passing success rate, much like the Packers did in 2020. This means they took what the defense gave them. Mahomes is the best in the business at avoiding sacks and making plays in negative situations. With an improved offensive line, they didn’t really have a weakness. They led the leage in converstion rate on 3rd and 4th down because Mahomes plays his best when his back is against the wall. They did all this while facing – by far – the most difficult schedule of opposing defense in the NFL.

Tyreek Hill’s departure changes this offense a bit. But I think the Chiefs knew what they were doing when they traded him. The truth is, defenses have adjusted to Hill and essentially taken away the explosive elements of his game. In four years, his average depth of target has decreased from 14.8 to 12.9 to 12.9 to 10.4 yards in 2021. His yards after catch per completion has decreased from 6.1 to 5.0 to 4.7 to 4.0 yards in 2021. Yet despite these trends, the number of first downs Hill picked up in those years was 66, 57, 39 and then 75 in 2021. By the end of the season he had essentially become a possession receiver. He’s a great player, but the Chiefs had already lost the most dangerous elements of his game and already had to adapt.

This is why I think the Chiefs offense will barely miss a beat. They will continue to adapt with the new weapons they have. Elite quarterbacks thrive regardless of specific weapons. Mahomes has played 8 games in his career with Hill injured for all or most of the game. In those games, he has averaged 341 yards passing with 17 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Chiefs are 7-1 in those games with an average margin of victory of 10.3 points. It’s a small sample size, but it backs up my point: this offense should be just fine.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

Denver Broncos 2021 Team Study

Part 26 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 25 here: Los Angeles Chargers. Part 27 now available: Kansas City Chiefs.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.78 -0.34 22nd


Offensive Eff. Rating (blue and orange) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
13th 21st 20th


After failing to entice Aaron Rodgers in the off-season, the Broncos opted for Teddy Bridgewater to lead their team, who has proven over the years to be a capable but unexciting NFL starter. He was a clear upgrade over Drew Lock, and helped the Broncos by delivering the 13th-best on-target percentage on his throws despite a respectable average depth of target of 8 yards. He made some nice throws in key moments to his talented receivers, but lacked consistency and suffered several in-game injuries.

The Broncos running backs performed at a very high level despite poor run-blocking. Javonte Williams led the league in broken tackles and watching him plow through defenders for extra yards was the highlight of watching Broncos games last year. Even Melvin Gordon did a good job creating yards. They finished with the 9th-most yards per carry despite gaining only the 19th-most yards before contact. Most of the damage was done after they got hit.

The offensive line deserves some blame for this disparity, but I also blame the play-calling. They were fairly predictable and ran a lot on early downs. They did not work to create open-space opportunities for skill players; even the check downs often went to players who were easily covered up. They lacked explosive plays in the passing game, which allowed defenders to crowd the line of scrimmage. It was much easier for the Broncos offense when they played a bad run defense, as shown in Chart A, which measures the Broncos' offensive Adj. Eff. in each game, ranking opponents by rush defense efficiency:

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent rush defense efficiency in EPA/play allowed on the season.
*EPA/play data from Football isn't played on spreadsheets.

Every time the Broncos put on an above-league average offensive performance (KC, DAL, DET, and NYG), it came against a team in the bottom half against the run. But this team was not only about the run. I also think Teddy Bridgewater played better than perception. The Broncos allowed the 2nd-most pressures of any NFL team, so Bridgewater was constantly under fire. Jerry Jeudy came out of college highly touted but has not really put it all together yet on the NFL field, and Courtland Sutton can make impressive catches but does not routinely create separation. It felt like, all year, this offense had the potential to be good. But it never reached that potential.

Broncos fans argue that this team was just one quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender. Before the season, when people believed Rodgers was going to Denver, Denver sports radio called the Broncos Super Bowl favorites. Now they got their wish – or close to it – by trading for Russell Wilson. Surely an elite quarterback will solve this offense's problems?

I’m not so sure. This is not a situation like the Rams, where Sean McVay had long established a successful scheme that made even Jared Goff look good for a while. With an elite defense and a successful scheme, the Rams traded for Stafford and he plugged right in and filled the role perfectly. The Bucs had a similar situation with Tom Brady. With an elite defense and an established, successful offensive scheme led by Bruce Arians that made a 5,000-yard passer out of Jameis Winston, the Bucs instantly became Super Bowl contenders.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

Los Angeles Chargers 2021 Team Study

Part 25 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 24 here: Carolina Panthers. Part 26 now available: Denver Broncos.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.52 +0.49 6th


Offensive Eff. Rating (blue and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
7th 16th 4th


If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I love Justin Herbert. After his rookie year I said that if I was starting a franchise, he would be in contention for my second-most desirable player (after Mahomes). Right now, he’d still be behind Josh Allen, but it’s close because of the upside he has as a player. He plays within context and constantly makes clutch throws, displaying accuracy even under pressure. We all know he has a cannon for an arm, but his lasting impression comes from the 12-yard throws on 3rd-and-11 where he puts the ball where only his receiver can get it.

I recently wrote about how I think Aaron Rodgers’ lack of risk-taking in the regular season could negatively impact his performance on high-leverage plays in the playoffs. Herbert is the anti-Rodgers. Thanks in part to Lombardi’s conservative play-calling and Staley’s aggressive decision-making on 4th down, he is constantly in do-or-die situations on third and fourth down. They Chargers did not run the ball particularly well and frequently passed short on early downs, leading to a ton of third downs for the second straight year. Once again, they performed at their best on third down, leading the league in total conversions on third/fourth down and finishing 2nd in DVOA on third/fourth and long. I suspect that, if the Chargers make the playoffs 2022, Herbert will be ready for the big stage.

Of course, they didn’t make the playoffs. That’s partly on the defense, but it also points to an issue with the offense: despite being pass-heavy on early downs, these passes weren’t generating enough 1st downs. It’s really important to have a quarterback who can make difficult conversions, but relying on it constantly is not the best way to run an offense. They need more explosive plays on early downs, particularly with an uninspiring run game. They also finished only 19th on third/fourth down and short, indicating they lacked the power running game that makes short conversions easy.

Herbert’s rookie-year struggles against complex coverage schemes and exotic blitzes also continued in 2021. Most elite quarterbacks thrive against the blitz because they can abuse breakdowns in coverage. Herbert is not there yet. But he keeps his head up in the face of pressure and should improve in this area based on his play style. Unlocking high performance in these situations will be the final piece of the puzzle. As it is, this offense performed better against teams that did not blitz:

Chart A

Offensive Adj. Eff. Rating against each opponent ranked by season-long blitz rate.

He handled the blitz okay, but his worst performance came against the blitz-heavy Ravens. And after blanking the Chargers 45-0 in Herbert’s rookie year, the Patriots - known for their coverage schemes that routinely fluster inexperienced quarterbacks - gave him trouble again in 2021. But the other trait that elite quarterbacks possess is the ability to succeed regardless of weapons. In 2020 he kept performing at a high level even without Keenan Allen. He does not rely on one receiver, and gets big plays out of a bunch of no-name receivers. He looks all over the field and he’s still learning.

There are some mental elements to the game that Herbert could improve. For example, against the Ravens, he targeted Marlon Humphrey in single coverage on a key fourth down attempt when Humphrey was, by far, the Ravens’ best cover corner. On other key downs he looked first to Jaylen Guyton. They lost this game 34-6 because of those high-leverage misses. Again, some of the mental aspects of his game aren’t quite there. But he’s getting the meaningful reps, and I think he will learn from those situations.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

Carolina Panthers 2021 Team Study

Part 24 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 23 here: Tampa Bay Bucs. Part 25 now available: Los Angeles Chargers.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.47 -0.49 27th


Offensive Eff. Rating (blue) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
32nd 20th 21st


Let’s go back to Week 3. The Carolina Panthers were 3-0. Sam Darnold was averaging over 8 yards per attempt and nearly 300 yards a game. Carolina was one of the top overall teams. Sure, they had dispatched the Jets in Zach Wilson’s first game, the Texans in Davis Mills’ first start, and an undermanned Saints team. Some regression was anticipated. But the rest of the season went much worse than expected. Why did they struggle so much?

The schedule got tougher. Injuries hit the Panthers on both sides of the ball. But primarily, Sam Darnold came back down to earth (and got hurt). It’s probably time to write off the idea of Darnold having a good NFL career. Unfortunately this has happened before and will happen again. A talented quarterback with potential to be a good NFL player gets drafted into a bad situation and his growth as a player is stunted, permanently. We saw this with David Carr. Darnold played behind a bad offensive line in New York with one of the worst coaches in recent memory in Adam Gase. He lacked a supporting cast. He formed bad habits in these formative years and brought those bad habits to Carolina.

Despite an upgrade for Darnold in just about every way, particularly the weapons around him, the Panthers’ passing offense was dead last in the NFL. He held the ball too long, allowing the NFL’s highest pressure rate despite spending the 9th-most time in the pocket. The offensive line obviously deserves its share of the blame, but when a player has time in the pocket and great receiving options who excel picking up yards after the catch, the quarterback has to get the ball out. This offense was better in 2020 when Teddy Bridgewater was negating pressure with quick throws. But in 2021, the Panthers finished with the 2nd-lowest on-target percentage as Darnold and Cam Newton were both unable to make the throws that mattered.

They did run the ball somewhat effectively, particularly when McCaffrey was healthy. It wasn’t great, but given that they had a weaker offensive line and did not threaten much downfield, the running backs did what they could. And the passing game was most successful when the running game was a true threat. Darnold thrived on play-action and situations where teams had to account for the run, particularly McCaffrey. This is partly why he looked so good in those first three games. The Panthers held the lead throughout all of them, so the run game was on the table.

This created a downward spiral when they were losing games but a positive feedback loop when they were winning games. When Darnold was comfortable and they were able to run, they played like a respectable NFL offense. But when they were behind, Darnold struggled in obvious passing situations where he could not rely on check downs or play action. As a result, Panthers games were typically not close: their average margin of victory was 13.8 points and their average margin in losses was 14.1 points. So the injuries they suffered on defense had a direct negative impact on the offense’s performance.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

Tampa Bay Bucs 2021 Team Study

Part 23 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 22 here: New Orleans Saints. Part 24 now available: Carolina Panthers.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.47 +0.55 4th

Offensive Eff. Rating (red) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
3rd 4th 1st

The ageless Tom Brady extended his legacy in 2021 with another great season. He didn’t win his eighth Super Bowl, but he led one of the NFL’s top offenses yet again. The Bucs executed efficiently in both the run and pass game, but leaned more heavily on the pass than any team in the NFL. When you do both well and lean into the pass, you’ll have an effective offense every time.

This success began up front. The Bucs’ offensive line excelled in both pass blocking and run blocking. But I also think Brady himself (and, arguably, the coaches) deserve credit for the offensive line success because he executed a quick-hitting passing game that did not allow pressure to get to him on most plays. The Bucs gave up the lowest rate of pressures in the NFL because of this symbiotic relationship between the line and the scheme. Brady’s anticipation and quick decision-making made it possible.

This led to the greatest success in high-leverage situations. They had the 3rd-best conversion rate on third and fourth down and the 2nd-best red zone efficiency. They were at their best against the blitz and high-pressure teams because their short time to throw negated the impact of pressure completely. Chart A shows the Bucs’ Adjusted Effectiveness against each defense ranked by its pressure rate on the season. Almost all of the Bucs' strongest relative performances came against teams in the top 8 in pressure rate, who tended to fluster less experienced quarterbacks or dominate weaker offensive lines. The Bucs handled them well.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pressure rate on the season.

This whole thing worked because the Bucs could win against coverage with Godwin, Evans, Antonio Brown (for part of the season), Gronkowski, and even Fournette and the other tight ends. Brady is accurate and makes good decisions, but a quick-hitting passing game does not work if the receivers do not get open. So as long as Brady has these weapons, this whole system works. Brady is one of the NFL’s best orchestrators, but he still relies on talent around him because he is not the type of quarterback to create everything by himself.

We saw what can happen to this offense when the Bucs were not able to win on routes. Against New Orleans, after Antonio Brown had quit and Mike Evans and Chris Godwin got hurt after fewer than 20 snaps, Brady was forced to play with Scottie Miller, Tyler Johnson, and Jaelon Darden at receiver. Losing top receivers hurts any team. But the Bucs were completely discombobulated and got shutout in an embarrassing 9-0 loss. It helped that the Saints were able to exert natural pressure of course, but this was a window into what the Brady-led offense could look like without talent around him.

The offensive line has lost some key pieces in Ali Marpet (retired) and Alex Cappa (Bengals). Given how effective Brady has been at limiting time in the pocket, this should not be a disaster. But it is a slight cause for concern. Last year I would not have called the offense fragile, with depth at every key position. But this year, especially with Godwin likely not ready at the start of the season off an ACL injury, it feels like they are one or two injuries away from potentially struggling on this side of the ball, at least relative to the lofty expectations. Leonard Fournette was fantastic last year but looked much worse earlier in his career behind a weaker offensive line.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

New Orleans Saints 2021 Team Study

Part 22 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 21 here: Atlanta Falcons. Part 23 available now: Tampa Bay Bucs.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.60 -0.36 23rd


Offensive Eff. Rating (gold and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
22nd 28th 31st


The Saints’ gameplan for the post-Brees transition was clear. They had an elite offensive line, one of the best running backs in the NFL, and a quarterback (Winston) dangerous enough to threaten downfield even if it wasn’t a huge part of the game plan. He would be just aggressive enough to open up some room underneath and could make some big throws as a bonus. They were set to rely on the strength of their defense by running the ball, avoiding turnovers, and implementing enough of Sean Payton’s patented creativity to keep defenses on their heels.

This approach can work. And when you no longer have an elite quarterback, it’s arguably the optimal way to run your offense. But it relies on the strength of the offensive line. The Saints’ offensive line completely fell apart in 2021 with injuries and Covid issues that never stopped. Terron Armstead missed 9 games, Andrus Peat missed 11, Eric McCoy missed 5, and Ryan Ramcyzk missed 7. It was a total disaster of rotations and the Saints just did not establish the run. A year after finishing with 4.6 yards per carry (good for 10th in the NFL), they dropped to 3.9 yards per carry, 5th-worst in the NFL.

On top of that major issue, the Saints played with four different starting quarterbacks and three different starting running backs in 2021 due to injury and ineffectiveness. They weren’t consistent on offense with any of the quarterbacks. Their four worst games relative to opponent came against the Panthers with Winston (-1.52 Adj. Eff.), the Eagles with Siemian (-1.31), the Bucs with Taysom Hill (-0.95), and, of course, the Dolphins with Ian Book (-1.39). In other words, every quarterback struggled at times and a healthy Jameis Winston did not solve all their problems.

They also lacked a true number one wide receiver. They needed to run to win, and were unable to do so. Chart A shows the Saints’ offensive Adjusted Effectiveness (measuring performance relative to opponent strength) against each opponent ranked by its run defense on the season in DVOA. All four of their best offensive showings involved teams that were bottom-5 against the run in the Packers, Falcons, and Giants. They struggled relatively against teams that could stop the run.

Chart A

Offensive Adj. Eff. Rating against each opponent ranked by rushing defense DVOA on the season.
*DVOA data from Football Outsiders.

If everyone had stayed healthy, I think this team could have been competitive. But you simply can’t lose your offensive line and quarterback and expect to be successful, particularly without elite wide receiver talent. Taysom Hill is a good football player, but he doesn’t process defenses well enough or throw accurately enough to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Siemian showed signs of promise but is nothing more than a backup. Book was terrible. And none were in a favorable situation with all the injuries.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.

Houston Texans 2021 Team Study

Part 20 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 19 on the Jacksonville Jaguars. Part 21 now available: Atlanta Falcons.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.12 -0.79 32nd

Offensive Eff. Rating (blue and red) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
30th 32nd 27th

It’s really incredible that the Texans won 4 games in 2021 considering the shape they were in heading into the season. They paid Deshaun Watson to be inactive every week after he tried to stiff-arm his way out of the organization and faced numerous lawsuits. They had all new leadership and had traded away most of their draft capital so they populated the roster with cast-offs from other teams. Even veteran Tyrod Taylor disappointed. They were so bad on offense that they were seemingly at their best with third-round rookie Davis Mills running the show.

But that’s a low bar. The Texans’ pass game was bad in every way. They did not utilize a viable deep threat, finishing with the 7th-lowest average depth of target in the NFL. Typically, teams that opt for a short passing game will offset this with yards after the catch. But the Texans had the 10th-lowest yards after the catch per completion. These short passes were also inaccurate, with the 7th-lowest on-target percentage. When they weren’t throwing short, inaccurate passes, they were taking sacks at the 6th-highest rate of sacks per pressure. Yikes.

They didn’t get much help at all from the run game. They finished dead last in yards per carry, yards before contact, rushing DVOA, adjusted line yards, and overall rushing EPA/play. It was pretty much a disaster from start to finish on offense, although they did shockingly piece together those four wins.

Houston was a run-heavy team that played its best football when they managed to run the ball successfully. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it made a huge difference. Davis Mills was simply not good enough to carry the team. So when they hosted the Chargers, who fielded the 2nd-worst run defense in the NFL, Rex Burkhead ran for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns on 22 carries (yes, you read that correctly) and the Texans sprang their biggest upset of the year, which ended up being enough to keep the Chargers out of the playoffs. Chart A shows the direct correlation between the Texans’ offensive effectiveness and their opponents weakness versus the run, ranking each opponent by EPA/play allowed on the ground over the course of the season. They generally struggled even relative to their low expectation against good run defenses but performed better against poor run defenses.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent run defense rank in EPA/play.

Despite this offense’s struggles, we saw some hot takes about Davis Mills late in the season, arguing he was the second-best rookie quarterback behind Mac Jones. These surface-level takes were wrong, in my opinion. Davis Mills’ stats were inflated by garbage time. For example, against the Rams he was 12/18 for 91 yards and an interception while the Rams took a 38-0 lead. From there he poured on 17/20 for 219 yards and 2 touchdowns without ever being within one score in a 38-22 loss. Against the Titans, he was 7/14 for 61 yards while the Titans took a 21-0 lead. Then he went 16/19 for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns in a futile comeback effort that never saw them with the ball and a chance to win.

Now, garbage time is somewhere between meaningful and meaningless. He still put up those numbers and showed the ability to capitalize against soft coverage, even with less than optimal weapons around him. That counts for something. But it’s tough to draw the conclusion that he can be a reliable starting quarterback in this league. It is a starting point, and it looks like the Texans will give him another year. Overall, I’m not optimistic.

The remaining content on this page is for Members only. If you are already a Member, please Log In.