There Is No Elite NFC Team

As of right now, all the best team in the NFL, the ones that are considered the cream of the crop, are all in the AFC.

The term "elite" is hard to define. It's like how Justice Potter defined pornography, "I know it when I see it." When I think of elite, it's just a gut, instinctual feeling I get. As a stat guy and a stat blog, it's kind of difficult to write that, but football is less statistical orientated than a sport like baseball. Football is more of a sport you have to watch with your eyes. Bill Barnwell, writer of the best football statistical site right now, Football Outsiders, believes there will never come a day will you can determine how many wins a player is worth. In baseball, we already have that statistic- WAR. But in football, we can't have that statistic because all the pieces have to work together.

As great as Peyton Manning is, he still needs to have (at minimum) five guys block in front of him. He still needs receivers to catch his perfect passes (kind of, I mean Austin freaking Collie is third in the NFL in receiving yards), and he still needs 11 guys on the field to prevent points from being scored (well, SOME points). It's these interweaving parts that determines whether the team gets a W or an L, not just one individual.

And it's these interweaving parts that you have to look at to determine not only how good a team is, but whether a team can be considered elite.

The most important statistic at the end of the day is a win or a loss. You're offense can put up crazy statistical numbers, but if you lose, all those numbers don't mean squat. In fact, in football, if a quarterback tends to put up gaudy; great-fantasy-football numbers, it's almost assuredly that team lost. Jay Cutler went to the pro bowl because the Denver Broncos were down in most of their games in 2008 so Cutler had to throw to try and make up points as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible. In fact, Cutler's great year led to an 8-8 record while missing the post-season. It's also kind of like the one guy on a really bad basketball team that seems to put Kobe-lite numbers- I mean, SOMEBODY has to score.

In an ideal world, the best team will be able to score the most amount of points while preventing the most amount of points. But we don't live in an ideal world. But this baseline helps me to determine what factors should be considered to determine elite teams. They are: passing offensive, rushing offense, passing defense, rushing defense, and special teams. I don't know how I would rank the following but in some order I would look at these five factors in how they affect scoring.

But my two most important factors to determine what an elite team is: record and how many points you put up vs the quality of your opponent (i.e. how you won/lost). Kind of like the BCS. And just like the BCS, open to scrutiny.

First, what is your record? At the end of the day, all you need to do is win the game. Any professional player will tell you, it doesn't matter what their stat line is as long as they win. And if you're an elite team, you find a way to win. Are the New England Patriots considered the best NFL team ever after starting off 18-0? Are the Detroit Lions (0-4) even considered a top 15 team because they lost so many close games? Not at all. Because you just need to win.

But it's not only winning, but how good do you look while winning. Part of being an elite team, means you absolutely trounce the teams you should beat and you eek out close wins against other very good teams. Now being elite does not and should not mean that you are perfect. Every Superbowl winner since 1972 has lost an least ONE regular season game. But the less games you lose, and the closer the score is between the two teams at the end of a day in a loss, helps determine how elite you are. There's no shame when you lose by 1 against a great opponent (as long as you don't do it often)

It's these main two criteria that I determine to see who is elite.

And right now, there is no elite NFC team.

Right now I submit that there are only four teams that can even be remotely in the conversation for being elite: Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, and the Chicago Bears.

My first criteria I look for is record, and all of the aforementioned teams have one loss.

The Seattle Seahawks are leading their division with a 2-2 record, but being the tallest midget doesn't mean you can play basketball in the NBA. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers only have one loss, but they defeated the Cleveland Browns (only by three) and the Carolina Panthers. They got trounced by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now granted the teams the Bucs have played are at the extreme ends of the spectrum. There's no shame in losing to probably a top three team and they still should defeat the Panthers (who are probably bottom three) and Cleveland. But they weren't even close to being in it against the Steelers and they should have destroyed the Browns to be considered elite. Lastly, we get to the Redskins and Eagles. The Eagles would be on this list if week four hadn't been played because they lost a close one to Green Bay, a potential elite team. But you can't lose against Donovan McNabb. You just can't. And the Redskins lost to the Rams. The Rams might win the NFC West, but St. Louis was 0-2 when Washington played them and only won one game in 2009. Again, to be elite, you not only HAVE to beat the Rams, but blow them out of the water.

Now we get to our four contenders. We can easily cross the Bears off of the list because they only have one sure fire win- and that's against the Cowboys. A bullshit rule prevented the Lions from taking Game One from the Bears, and 18 penalties caused the Packers to barely lose. And they got demolished by the Giants. Again, I consider how you win important. Just barely beating the Packers is acceptable, but not when the Packers shoot themselves in the foot and lose within the last minute of the game by a field goal. I know the good teams have breaks go there way (in all sports) but this has just been kind of ridiculous. Plus the Bears do not look good going forward if Cutler misses more significant time.

Speaking of Green Bay, I don't put them in this elite class. If you're elite, you have to beat you're arch rivals, the Bears, on Monday night. This game should not have been close. Elite teams don't shoot themselves in the foot. Now beating the Eagles with a rejuvenated Michael Vick is a great win, but the Bears loss and Lions win negate that. The Packers only beat the Lions by 2 points. If you want to be considered elite you have to beat the Lions by at least 14 points. The Lions are better and are playing better than recent Matt Millen memory, but they're still a bottom five NFL team. Which means you can't just barely squeak by them.

The Saints are not the same Saints as their great 2009, Superbowl winning counterpart. In fact, I'm not convinced they're a top ten team. They're just skating by on their reputation. Last year the Saints could score via offense or defense. This year they aren't doing either. Right now the Saints are tied for 13th place in total points scored. In fact, the Detroit Lions have scored more points that the Saints right now. They're also just an average defense also ranking 13th in points allowed. And their wins show it. They barely beat a winless San Fran team, they only beat the Vikings by five (and we realize what a crappy quality team the Vikings are now when the Saints played them), they only won by two against a Jimmy Clausen led Panthers team, and they were defeated by their division foes the Atlanta Falcons. All these factors combined make for just an above average New Orleans team.

Lastly, we get to the Atlanta. In my mind, this is the closest team in the NFC to being elite. As much as I just trashed on the Saints, I still believe they're a top three team in the NFC and the Falcons defeated them. They absolutely trounced a shitty Cardinals team (41-7) and they went into overtime against the Steelers and lost by a crazy long Rashard Mendenhall TD run. They do however have one black mark- and that's that they almost lost to San Fransisco. Now great teams find a way to win but if Nate Clement had not pulled a 2006 Marlon McCree, the Falcons would be 2-2.

Now Atlanta is top 10 in the NFL in points allowed on defense and points scored, but I don't know, I just can't trust Matt Ryan (13th in the NFL in passer rating), they're only 19th in pass defense, and 11th in run defense. These numbers are very good, but they don't scream, "ELITE" to me. Call me a hater, call me what you will, but I can't put the Falcons in the same category as the Jets, Ravens, or Steelers yet. On a neutral field, I think those three teams nine out of ten times defeat the Falcons. I think the Falcons are the best team in the NFC, but not an elite team.

I think the only elite team are the Ravens, Steelers, and Jets. The Chiefs and Texans (as well as the Packers and Falcons) have a chance to move into that class. But not right now.

The end.

P.S. if you don't know who Marlin McCree is, he's the San Diego CB that New England's Troy Brown stripped to defeat the Chargers in the 2006 AFC Championship game after McCree had intercepted a Tom Brady pass.If McCree had just laid down instead of trying to make a play, the Chargers would have won that game.


Dmitry said...

There exist systems that try to determine team win/loss records by reverse engineering the players on the team.

ESPN even did this when new broke that Favre was returning. They put up the projections numbers for how many points they would score with and without him, and also had win projections. I believe Favre added like 1.5 wins to the Vikings over Tarvaris Jackson

Probably not as accurate as baseball stats, but it comes very close. Look at the pythagorean win/loss projections on football reference

Sexy Rexy said...

Here is an interview Football Outsiders co-author Bill Bramwell had on the Freakonomics blog. It's a great read and he answers to question of trying to find a WAR football equivalent statistics. Here's a quote from his piece:
"We’re nowhere near the point of valuing a player as being worth a number of wins, because we’re light-years away from quantifying all the things a player does. I doubt we’ll ever have a reliable “wins” metric because there are too many interactions between positions that we can’t account for in football. Take a quarterback, for example: even if we were to develop a measure of performance that stripped out the effects of his receivers and offensive line and placed his passing performance in a perfect, league-average context, we’d have to account for how he read defenses and called audibles at the line, how effective he was in setting up defenses on the play-fake, whether he had any impact on the running game versus an average quarterback … it’s not a realistic goal."

By just being a fan of the game and watching them we can gleam just how important each individual player seems to his team (esp. a player like Peyton Manning) and just how good an individual player is, but I don't foresee a day where we can quantify an individual football player. I think FO comes close, but it's nowhere close to being as good/reliable as WAR is

Sexy Rexy said...

Hmm, I hadn't heard of a pythagorean projection system for football ( but it seems obvious now b/c if we have one for baseball, why not for football), but it seems to me it's a better indicator for win/losses the next year than in the current year

Also, FO shows that the biggest factor to how teams perform year and after year is health. The healthier teams tend to produce more wins consistently

Sexy Rexy said...

Right after I post a comment saying we wont see a WAR football equivalent in our lifetime, Advanced NFL Stats have done exactly that.

They use The Hidden Game of Football's analysis (the bible of advanced football statistics BTW) where they can calculate the exact odds of you winning the game based upon the current score, time left, and how many yards you moved/failed to move relative to how many downs you have left

It still doesn't address the point Bramwell made about accounting for calling audible and stuff, but fuck is it good

Sexy Rexy said...

And a quote from Advanced NFL State using their WPA stats

"And although we still can't separate an individual player's performance from that of his teammates', we add up the total WPA for plays in which individual players took part."