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Running the Numbers: Can Denver’s Offense Be Contained?

Posted Oct 3, 2013




Remember those old SportsCenterepisodes when Kenny Mayne & Co. used to say “You can’t stop Tim Biakabutuka (or some other unheralded player), you can only hope to contain him”? Well, that’s the chore the Cowboys defense is faced with this week, containing the Broncos offense, except instead of an under-the-radar player, they need to limit perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

Before each game this season, I’ve used player comparables to generate projections and final score predictions. I’ve basically been searching for players with stats similar to the player in question playing against comparable defenses.

But when studying the Broncos, there’s a problem with that approach: Few offenses, perhaps none, have ever really played like this. We can use player comps in all sorts of ways, but they can break down when dealing with extreme players.

For example, take a look at Manning’s comps for this game, as generated by the rotoViz GLSP model.

The average stat line for those players was 25-for-38 for 294 yards, 2.48 touchdowns, and 0.92 interceptions. Intuitively, we should know something is amiss there. Through four games, Manning’s average stat line is 29-for-39 for 367.5 yards, four touchdowns, and zero picks.

We’d never expect Manning to keep up those numbers all season, obviously, but he’s clearly playing all-time great football right now. We can’t really liken Manning to any other players because he truly has no comparables.

Facing a defense that has allowed the fifth-most passing yards in the NFL, no one in their right mind would really project Manning for only 294 yards and 2.48 touchdowns. Could the ’Boys hold him to under 300 yards and three scores? Certainly, but it’s not probable.

Broncos Visualizations

Since the model literally “breaks down” when assessing Manning, I’m instead going to provide you with a few visuals to demonstrate the greatness of Denver’s offense right now. First, take a look at the teams that have scored over 100 points this year.

Those are the top-scoring offenses in the entire NFL, and the Broncos soar above all of them. Clearly they must be getting at least a little lucky, right? No one can be that much better than everyone else.

Using historic game data, we can look at how many points a team can be expected to score – their “expected points” – given how they play. By tracking how many points teams have scored in certain situations, we can calculate how well teams are playing by determining the difference in their expectation before and after each play.

One of the biggest advantages of expected points is that it accounts for defensive strength. If an offense starts a drive at their opponent’s one-yard line and runs it in for a touchdown, they’d be rewarded with the same number of points as if they drove 99 yards. However, they wouldn’t see a huge jump in expected points added; since their expectation with a first-and-goal at the one-yard line would already be so high, scoring wouldn’t have a major effect in that situation.

Using expected points, we can see if the Broncos have been lucky at all in regards to their league-leading 179 points. Guess what? They haven’t. Here are the nine teams with at least 100 expected points.

With 176.5 expected points, Denver’s output has really been what they’ve deserved given how well they’ve played. Their expectation is nearly 30 percent higher than the league’s second-place offense. It’s really just incredible.

And how about Mr. Manning himself? His level of dominance has been unprecedented.

All of the following charts will rank the top-10 quarterbacks in each category. Manning ranks so far ahead of the other passers that you don’t even need to know the numbers; you can just immediately see the effect. First, let’s look touchdown rate, the percentage of throws resulting in a touchdown.

Passer rating:

And finally, adjusted yards per attempt, a stat that accounts for both touchdowns and interceptions.

It’s truly amazing that a player can stand out so far from his peers in a league comprised of the best of the best. If the Cowboys are going to win on Sunday, they not only need to contain the best quarterback of all-time, but they need to do it at a time when he just might be playing the best football anyone has ever played.

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