Strength of schedule is a fickle variable, one that should tell us more about a particular opponent but really does not. Though this formula does account for S.O.S, that's not always the best indicator of whether or not a team has faced "legitimate" competition.
Despite what Bill Parcells may have you believe, a team is not always what their record says they are. They are often a flawed representation of late-game variance and fluky injuries, especially when you're splitting hairs among closely contested teams. That's how you end up with Tampa Bay being the 20th-ranked team in Football Outsiders' DVOA despite entering the week a single win.
Still, there are instances where a team shows some pretty alarming splits among the haves and have-nots. In the case of one likely playoff team, that makes for some troubling signs going forward.
The San Francisco 49ers are a top-10 team in these rankings, which seems to fit with their public perception as a borderline Super Bowl contender. But while the NFC champs started the season with an impressive victory over the Packers, they've since beaten the Rams, Texans, Cardinals, Titans and Jaguars; they have lost to the Seahawks, Colts, Panthers and Saints. Only the Arizona game (which was at Candlestick) stands out as a semi-impressive win, and all four losses are to likely playoff teams.
Beyond the schedule, the red flags are clearly there, nearly all of them on offense. The passing game is where things have most painfully gone wrong, as Colin Kaepernick has not really progressed in his first full season as a starter. A year after finishing 10th in EPA per play, Kaepernick is down to 17th in that category this season, dropping from 0.16 to 0.09. As you can see, an increase in traditional drop-back reads from the pocket have had an adverse affect on his numbers:
The high sack number there is particularly alarming for such a mobile quarterback. Plays like this and this are indicative of a player who simply is not processing information fast enough. In both instances, Kaepernick could probably have scrambled away from the impending pass rush, but spent too much time trying to decipher his reads and consequently failed in his pocket awareness.
However, it's shortsighted to blame the Niners struggles solely on their young quarterback. San Francisco seems intent on playing anachronistic 1 WR-2RB-2TE sets on the majority of their plays, greatly limiting their speed and athleticism in a league where passing is predicated on those very traits. For all his strengths, Anquan Boldin is not a burner, and his production has been wildly erratic as teams have focused on taking away Kaepernick's primary read.
Vernon Davis is still a fine tight end, and Michael Crabtree's return is imminent (though it's tough to ask a player returning from a torn Achilles to be the offensive savior). But with a full offseason for opposing teams to adjust, the 49ers offense is not creating the same amount of confusion as they did when teams had to prepare for them on the fly in 2012.
Kaepernick has not taken a decisive step in his development as a passer, and the 49ers have not maximized his chances for success by asking for traditional reads from the pocket while not surrounding him with adequate weapons. San Francisco seems to realize this, but their significantly dialed-back offense seems unlikely to cause much damage against top-notch playoff defenses.
With games against the Redskins, Rams, Bucs and Falcons, the Niners should be able to squeeze out 10 to 11 wins and make it into the postseason, albeit likely as a wild card team. Kaepernick is a talented high variance quarterback, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he pulls off a Flacco-esque hot streak through the playoffs. But as currently constructed on offense, the 49ers seem unlikely to redeem themselves for their near-miss in the Superdome last February.
A Turbulent Flight
The New York Jets became the first team to alternate wins and losses in their first 10 games of the season with their no-show in Buffalo last week. New York's Jekyll-and-Hyde identity seems confounding, but digging deeper, we can find some patterns in an absurdly scattershot team.
First off, the Jets defense is a rock-solid foundation, one that essentially shows up every week. New York has the league's best run defense success rate, anchored by arguably the league's best young defensive line in Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison. The pass defense is a little more hit-and-miss, but is about league average and generally reliable enough.
As most people can understand, it's the offense that fluctuates severely from game to game, particularly rookie quarterback Geno Smith. Smith's performance is not really an every-other-week type of deal, but rather a home-road split, a fairly common malady for a rookie QB. Indeed, per Pro-Football-Reference, his home-road splits and win-loss splits match almost perfectly:
But opponents obviously matter more than location, and in that sense, Smith's struggles are a bit more confounding. If he played better defenses on the road and worse defenses at home, then his big splits would be a bit more understandable, though still concerning. But to date, the Jets have played five home and five away games. Take a look at how the opposing pass defenses from home games have compared to opposing defenses from road games on average:
New York has actually faced slightly better pass defenses at home! Trying to make sense of Smith and the Jets is probably a futile exercise, a product of their roster composition. The Jets rely on a ton of young players to play important roles. While many of those players are talented and performing at the higher end of their expectations this season, their youth generally means they are higher variance players. Thus, the Jets as a whole have built their 2013 foundation upon a boom-or-bust base.
The Jets have already exceeded expectations this season, and Rex Ryan deserves credit for extracting so much out of a raw defensive unit. It's impossible to say who will emerge out of the AFC's mediocre morass to snatch the sixth seed, but the Jets probably have the highest ceiling of an (admittedly uninspiring) eight-team smorgasbord of 5-5 and 4-6 teams.
- The Saints are the new number one team in the rankings, narrowly ahead of Seattle after taking down the previously sixth-ranked Niners. If New Orleans can get past Atlanta on Thursday, that will give the 9-2 Saints a chance to snatch the top seed from the 10-1 Seahawks on Monday Night Football in two weeks. ESPN producers are thanking the heavens for Cam Newton vs. Tom Brady and Drew Brees vs. Russell Wilson within a three-week span.
- I've yet to write a single word about the Buffalo Bills this season, which is what happens when you start Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel for a month. But the Buffalo defense has turned a decisive corner in 2013, with promising young stars in all three units. Marcell Dareus, Kiko Alonso and Stephon Gilmore are all 24 or younger. Mario Williams is still not worth $100 million, but with 12 sacks and the fourth-highest WPA among defensive ends, he's been excellent. If the team can appease Jairus Byrd and sign him to a long-term deal, this could be one of the league's top units very soon.
- Remember when the Chargers looked very sixth-seedish? Seems like a while ago. San Diego has dropped three in a row, and probably deserves their status as the least efficient defense. The Chargers are the worst run defense and third-worst pass defense, which is unsurprising when you look at their non-Eric Weddle defensive personnel. Five of San Diego's last six games are against the Chiefs, Broncos, Bengals and resurgent (!) Giants, so the 4-6 Chargers can probably kiss those wild-card ambitions goodbye.
Check out all the happenings below:
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