Super Bowl 52: The Pregame 5

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]1. Super Bowl Comps

Last year, I wrote an article for this site comparing the Super Bowl contenders (New England and Atlanta) at the time to other teams in the Wild-Card era based on the following metrics:

  • SRS (margin of victory adjusted for schedule from ProFootballReference.com)
  • DVOA (a team measure from FootballOutsiders.com)
  • Yards Per Play Offensive/Defensive/Net (Explosiveness)
  • Yards Per Point Offensive/Defensive/Net (Efficiency)

I have since updated the data and the charts (found here) to reflect this year’s combatants. Within the context of the past 27 Super Bowls and their aforementioned statistical profiles, here are the closest comparables to this year’s Patriots and Eagles.

Patriots:

  1. 2011 NE (L vs NYG)
  2. 2015 CAR (L vs DEN)
  3. 2004 NE (W vs PHI)
  4. 2006 CHI (L vs IND)
  5. 1990 BUF (L vs NYG)

All of these teams were well-balanced squads that generated points (Chicago did so in a very different way than the others), had a solid defense and generally find themselves in the middle of the 56 team data set here. Really good, but not all-time great teams. Four of the five (sorry again, Bears) were directed by All-Pro level quarterbacks that spread the ball around. However, four of the five teams, save the ‘04 Patriots who held on against Philadelphia ironically enough, lost their respective games. Two Brady/Belichick  Patriots’ teams here seems appropriate.

Eagles:

  1. 1998 ATL (L vs DEN)
  2. 1997 DEN (W vs GB)
  3. 1997 GB (L vs DEN)
  4. 2010 GB (W vs PIT)
  5. 1992 DAL (W vs BUF)

Here is an interesting group led by the “Dirty Bird” squad that seemingly came out of nowhere (7-9 the previous year like the Eagles) to run roughshod over most of the NFC and then, like these Eagles, found themselves underdogs to the Vikings in the conference title game, before prevailing. Although Jamal Anderson was a star during the 1998 run (his 1,846 rush yards were 822 more than any other season in his career), the Falcons had more “subtle stars” like Terance Mathis and Jessie Tuggle, than household names. None of these five teams found themselves in the precarious quarterback situation the Eagles find themselves in, but the Falcons can most relate to the Eagles reliance on Nick Foles by coaxing a few career seasons out of journeyman turned solid starter Chris Chandler.

2. Snap Counts

As Torrey Smith snagged an immaculate flea flicker in the NFC Championship Game, I immediately flashed back to when the Eagles’ added him to Carson Wentz’ arsenal this past offseason. The weapons at the young quarterback’s disposal were limited and given the solid state of the rest of the roster, the Eagles front office went full force toward solidifying their skill positions on the open market while continuing to fortify the rest of their roster through the draft. Running backs Jay Ajayi and LaGarrette Blount, along with wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith are likely to see more than half of the offensive touches in Sunday’s game and none of them were on the Eagles’ roster last year.

The aggressive nature of the Eagles’ in adding these players prompted me to take a look at how exactly these two Super Bowl teams constructed their rosters. To do this, I looked at each player that has taken a snap in the playoffs and how each was acquired, even breaking it down by round they were taken in and type of free agency. I then accumulated the number of snaps each player has taken thus far in the postseason, took it as a percentage of total offensive, defensive and special teams snaps, and divided by the number players on the field at one time.  

The success the Eagles and General Manager Howie Roseman have experienced in the largely inefficient unrestricted free agency market over the last few years is impressive. 28.6% of the snaps taken this season have been from unrestricted free agents including a one-year “prove it” deal for Jeffery (he did and inked a four-year extension in December) and a sneaky good 2016 haul of offensive guard Brandon Brooks, safety Rodney McLeod, and linebacker Nigel Bradham. Their success on first round draft picks like “trench” leaders offensive tackle Lane Johnson and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox isn’t so bad either.

Even more impressive is the Patriots’ ability to mine for talent in unforseen places. Over one-third of the players on the postseason roster and 24.6% of postseason snaps have come from players acquired as college or street free agents.  The ability of the Patriots’ front office to weed through all the noise in the player acquisition market to identify a specific type of player that fits their program without a regard for how that player is acquired is unique and key to their continued success. Two of the top ten Patriots’ in snaps this postseason are center David Andrews and cornerback Malcolm Butler, both college free agents.  

3. Prop Bets for 1st TD

Super Bowl prop bets, or bite-sized bits of entertainment for the football layperson during the biggest game of the year, have become a site to behold. There is literally nothing within the game that can’t be bet on.

From “Which player will have the most receiving yards in the 3rd quarter?” to “How many yards will Nick Foles throw for relative to Tom Brady?” and even “How many times will the announcers reference Brady eating avocado ice cream to combat the aging process (over/under set at 9.5 probably)?” It’s all in play.

There is probably too many at this point (ducks to avoid the fun police), but one of my favorites has always been “Who will score the first touchdown?”. It’s one of the few that you can lend some historical context and potentially learn something based on past information.

Below is a table containing all of the first touchdowns scored during the Super Bowl in the Wild-Card Era (since 1990). I’ve included which teams were favored, each player’s position and regular season touchdowns (and if they led the team), what quarter they scored in and the type of touchdown whether it be through the air, on the ground, or by some other means (I see you, Malik Jackson).

I’ve separated the table into two sections. The top portion includes only the last ten years, probably a better barometer for the style of football being played now then the bottom portion which encompasses all 27 Super Bowl since 1990.

The goal of this exercise was simply to pinpoint any identifiable trends in the data that may hint at who will score the first touchdown on Sunday.

There may not be one clear trend that can be gleaned from the data, but there are subtle leans in one direction or the other. Rarely has a team’s regular season touchdown leader also scored the first touchdown in the game (22.2% of the time) and even with those instances where a big regular season scorer like Thurman Thomas (only player to score the first touchdown twice in this data set) or Jerry Rice did get on the board first, the average number of regular season touchdowns scored by the player getting inside the pylon is a shade over 5.  90% of the touchdowns during the last ten years and 88% of the last 27 have been scored by running backs or wide receivers, with 51.9% coming through the air and 37% on the ground. A favored team hasn’t had the first touchdown since Jordy Nelson in Super Bowl XLV, but over the course of the 27 years, it’s been about 50/50. Given all of that, who are the best bets?

This whole thing is a fool’s errand, but I feel even more that way if I’m trying to figure out what offensive weapon the Patriots’ are going to deploy on a given week so I’m going to lend some credence to the non-favored team scoring first. Based on what we saw two weeks ago against Jacksonville, where the Jaguars exposed some potential vulnerabilities in the short passing game to the running backs (before Corey Grant did a disappearing act in the second half) and the fact the Eagles deploy Corey Clement more than Blount (outsnapped 37-31 in the postseason), I can see a swing pass to Clement heading into the endzone. I can also see Torrey Smith, who scored on a deep ball last week, getting behind a Patriots’ secondary intent on stopping the run for a score. Both are better values at 20-1 than any other players on the board. Granted, this will all probably be wrong on Monday.

4. Returning Production

I touched in section two about the lack of continuity at the skill positions by the Eagles, but I wanted to see if there were any other continuity trends that could have lent itself to the success of each team this year. I looked at six statistical measures from 2017 – yards from scrimmage, offensive touches, offensive touchdowns, offensive line games starters, tackles, and sacks plus turnovers created – and computed what percentage of those measures were accounted for by players who were on their respective teams the previous season. The Eagles, as anticipated, got almost half of their offensive production from players they acquired since the conclusion of last season. The Patriots were right around the 60% mark for five of the six measures as they continue to maintain a core of players from year to year while also bringing in a healthy amount of new players into the fold, perhaps avoiding any sense of malaise from holdovers. Despite the differences, there was one thing each team had in common:

The most common trait between the two teams is the continuity of their offensive lines. Each unit has had their fair share of injuries (the Eagles lost offensive tackle Jason Peters early while the Patriots lost offensive tackle Marcus Cannon) like most teams do during an arduous season, but each squad has also relied on players that have been in their program both this season and last season to replace the lost starters. Each unit is outstanding in its own right, but the ability to develop guys in house that understand a good offensive line isn’t about one player, but instead five players working as one to execute a game plan is vital to winning. My curiosity now turns to whether the belief that offensive line continuity is important to team success actually bears itself out in the numbers by looking at past data. More to come on that in time.

5. A Prediction…

There are two ways I can approach this, especially given the common disclaimer that I’ve been wrong before, I’ll be wrong again, but “you miss 100% of the shots” you don’t take. The data driven approach is pretty clear. I have three of my own metrics I employ based on a compilation of data that I’m constantly tweaking. One approach simply predicts the winner of the game. The method has predicted the winner in 23 of 27 Super Bowls since 1990 and calls for Philadelphia to win this year. Granted, there is some noise in those numbers, as there are with anyone referencing Eagles’ regular season data to make predictions about the playoffs their potential MVP quarterback went down with only two games to go. But some of the numbers now include a small, but sizable enough four game sample on backup Nick Foles, who torched a really good Minnesota defense last week.  

The other two data sets involve predicting the margin of victory with one actually giving a score. The first which predicts the spread had Philadelphia favored by 1.8 points. The other, which predicts the score, calls for an Eagles’ 27-24 victory (27.1 to 23.7 if fractional numbers were possible). Again, this all needs to be taken with a grain of salt given the quarterback change. But then again, the first data set in these figures is from 1990 (Super Bowl XXV) when the Giants, quarterbacked by backup Jeff Hostetler, upset the favored Bills 20-19. My three prediction models would have had that game as followed: Giants win, Bills favored by 3.9 points and a 27-23 victory for the Giants.

But this is the Patriots. And with Brady and Belichick, they are operating in a different stratosphere than the rest of the league. Tom Brady is 40 years old, but it doesn’t matter because he operates in an alternate alien timeline where age is irrelevant. But there are cracks in the armor. The defense just isn’t that good. This is a team that almost lost to a Jaguars team with weapons on the outside that weren’t as good as what the Eagles have, an offensive line that isn’t as good as the Eagles have, a more versatile cavalcade of ball carriers, and a quarterback, who lets face it, despite Bortles’ postseason performance, has shown he may be better.

While the Jaguars defense has an outstanding front four that puts pressure on quarterbacks and a playmaking back seven, they got tired in the game against the Patriots. I don’t believe the Eagles will have those issues. Their defensive line is deeper and the defense as a whole, led by coordinator Jim Schwartz, is a more veteran group that has experience in big game situations, let alone one that is on a neutral site rather than Foxboro. It’s not as if the Brady/Belichick Patriots are infallible in the big game. They’ve lost twice, to a team in the Giants that can be argued isn’t as good as the Eagles, and every game has been tight. Here are the point differentials in their previous Super Bowl appearances: 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 6. The numbers don’t mean everything, but when cogent thought and rationale point toward what the data tells me, who am I to ignore it?

Eagles 27 Patriots 24

 

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and find his other work here, including a comparison of modern Super Bowl teamsthe best playoff QBs in recent memory, and his look at the Cleveland Browns, and how to balance development with results.

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