Divisional DVOA Rankings
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Monday's League question, about which division is currently the NFL's best, got me thinking about an article I wrote for Football Outsiders in July of 2007, where I took divisional DVOA totals (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, our primary efficiency stat, explained here) per year and ranked the best and worst divisions through the DVOA era - which was then 1996 through 2006.
Why DVOA? Well, wins and losses, or points for and against, are common but more flawed measurements of excellence for two primary reasons - they do not adjust for opponent, and they do not define specific success and endeavor to value it over any sort of luck. Basically, to rank highly in DVOA, you have to be who we thought you were. So, in the spirit of the question linked above, I wanted to run the numbers for the first nine weeks of the 2008 season.
The method is simple, really - I just added positive and negative DVOA for all four teams in each division together, and the numbers are below. I've also included each individual team's DVOA through Week 9 (click here for the most updated numbers; if you do so after Tuesday afternoon of each week, you'll have that week's DVOA numbers)
Conventional wisdom says that the NFL East is the NFL's best division, and when you use DVOA as the measuring stick, it isn't even close. Additionally, what we have seen over the past few years is a seismic shift in divisional excellence from the AFC to the NFC. In 2006, the NFC East was also the best division, but the next four divisions were the four AFC quartets.
Through Week 9, the NFC East was home to the two highest DVOA teams - the Giants and Eagles. Something tells me that Philly's going down after Sunday night's loss to New York, but that's a different story. The Redskins ranked eighth overall; high in offense and defense with a serious dip in special teams. Dallas has discovered that the difference between positive 70% DVOA and negative -70% DVOA is the difference between Tony Romo and Brad Johnson.
Last year's bottom-feeders are this year's next big thing. While the Panthers have managed to maintain a balance from unit to unit the Bucs of 2008 mirror the Bucs of the early decade - iffy offense and special teams, great defense. The Falcons may be the surprise of the NFL, and their 16.4% Offensive DVOA is the second-highest in the division, a direct reflection of Matt Ryan and that great rushing attack. Defense and special teams are still catching up. For the Saints, it's the same old story - wonderful offense (21.7%, third-best in the league), shame about everything else. Still, that this is the only division without a team sporting negative DVOA is a huge turnaround from last year's nightmares.
AFC South 16.00%
The Titans, still the NFL's only undefeated team, rank third in DVOA - this is based on an offense far better on the ground than in the air, decent special teams, and a defense that is absolutely stellar from front to back. The Colts are living on Peyton's arm and a few amazing comebacks. Jacksonville and Houston, for whom so many high hopes were expressed pre-season, have fallen victim to their own maladies. The Jags have a demolished offensive line, and the Texans can't get anything going on defense.
And here's the first division in which one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Thank you, Detroit! Still, Green Bay can't be considered a world-beater at this point with injuries in the front seven and protection problems along the offensive line. Using Devin Hester in other ways may have been an inevitable idea for the Bears, but their special teams ranking has dropped to 17th from 1st last year. The Vikings have decided to enter the long-term "great team, shame about the quarterbacks" Pantheon, and the Lions are ... well ... the Lions. What else can one say?
If you had money on Miami having the highest overall DVOA in the AFC East nine weeks into the season? Nice crystal ball! The Dolphins rank eighth on Offensive DVOA, and that offense is about more than the Wildcat. There's great blocking and a solid passing game as well. The Jets are starting to falter offensively as Brett Favre's efficiency drops. The Patriots and Bills, who many saw as the 1-2 division toppers before the season started, have not been able to maintain consistency on either side of the ball.
AFC North -8.90%
The Ravens have combined their always stellar defense and a newly-productive offense into the division DVOA lead. Rookies Joe Flacco and Ray Rice are making big differences. The Steelers have a defense that is the equal of any in the NFL, but their inability to keep their quarterback upright will catch up to them. The Browns have one person to thank for their reasonably decent ranking - return man Josh Cribbs. Cleveland ranks 24th in Offensive DVOA, 22nd in Defensive DVOA, and first in Special Teams DVOA. The Bengals ? Well, that's comedy!
NFC West -51.80%
This used to be the doormat division year after year, both in real standings and in Divisional DVOA. It's still pretty bad, though the names have changed. The Cardinals have parlayed an explosive offense and a talented but undisciplined defense t a ranking of fourth overall. The 49ers are in Year Four of their current 23-year rebuilding plan, though there are encouraging signs for the future. The formerly great Seahawks and Rams can blame bad drafts and front office hubris for their sorry standings.
Well, thank goodness for the Chargers! The only holder of positive overall DVOA in the AFC West has seen its defense go "Splat" after Shawne Merriman's injury. The Broncos also suffered an injury to their best defensive player - cornerback Champ Bailey - and there isn't enough around that empty space to make up for it. The Raiders are reaping the rewards of the single worst offseason free-agency haul in NFL history, and the Chiefs are just trying to put 22 reasonably competent guys on the field at this point. Their ranking of dead last in overall DVOA indicates the level of rebuilding that needs to happen.
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Posted by: ProfWrightBSU | November 12, 2008 10:32 AM
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