Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mark Sanchez's playoff career trending in a Roethlisbergerian direction

With the New York Jets heading into Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers for the AFC crown, now would be a good time to analyze the playoff performance of young Mark Sanchez to date.  The reason I say that is because after looking at his first two playoff runs, they chart similarly to the early career of his opponent this week, Ben Roethlisberger.

Note:  This is only going to take into account the first two seasons of each player's career since both have made the playoffs as starting QB in their rookie and sophomore seasons, so please try not to visualize the Big Ben of the last few years when taking this into account.  For Sanchez, that is 2009 and (to date) 2010 and for Roethlisberger 2004 and 2005.

Ben Roethlisberger

2004: 1-1 record, lost in AFC Championship Game; 3 TD, 5 INT; 57.4% completions; 204 ypg; 7.5 ypa; 61.2 QB rating

2005: 4-0 record, won Super Bowl XL; 9 total TD (2 rushing), 3 INT; 62.4% completions; 201 ypg; 8.6 ypa; 101.6 QB rating

Total: 6 games, 5-1 record; 12 total TD (2 rushing), 8 INT; 60.5% completions; 202 ypg; 8.2 ypa; 86.8 QB rating

Mark Sanchez

2009: 2-1 record, lost in AFC Championship Game; 4 TD, 2 INT; 60.3% completions; 180 ypg; 7.9 ypa; 92.7 QB rating

2010: 2-0 record, playing in AFC Championship Game; 3 TD, 1 INT; 60.7% completions; 192 ypg; 6.8 ypa; 91.6 QB rating

Total: 5 games, 4-1 record; 7 TD, 3 INT; 60.5% completions; 184 ypg; 7.4 ypa; 92.2 QB rating

Obviously Mark Sanchez has some unfinished business, but the numbers so far are pretty similar.  Both QBs were not asked to carry the team for four quarters but rather to lead in the team in its most critical moments.  This is evidenced by the low number of attempts each QB had per game, which is roughly 25 passes a game.

Roethlisberger and Sanchez were both competently accurate, hovering over the 60% mark, but this is where we notice some differences between the two. As a regular season QB, Roethlisberger was about as accurate as they come for young guns, averaging a completion percentage in the low to mid 60s.  This cannot be said for Sanchez.  During the regular season, this seems to be Mark's biggest issue and something he will need to improve as he matures.  However, in the playoffs his accuracy is about five points higher while Big Ben's is a touch lower.

A great down the field thrower since the first day he stepped on the field, Roethlisberger unsurprisingly carries a higher yards per attempt and thus approximately twenty more passing yards a game.  To average 8 yards per attempt for a career is amazing, and that is what Big Ben has done in his seven seasons.  The playoffs have been no different to him, and his first two playoff runs show just that.  The difference between he and Mark is that Sanchez's 7.4 ypa is nearly a full yard above his career average.  It all goes back to accuracy.  By completing just a few more passes a game, it has a dramatic effect across the board.

A common misconception about Sanchez from those who do not watch him each week is that he does not or the gameplan does not call for downfield throws.  Almost the complete opposite has been the reality much of the season, and that had been one of the critiques of OC Brian Schottenheimer -- that the complexity of the offense and the number of downfield passes it called for exacerbated Sanchez's decision-making and accuracy.  The decision-making has improved with maturity in year two, but the accuracy still remained a problem and thus negatively affected his yards per attempt average.  Since the Week 15 matchup against Pittsburgh, however, the offense has called for a lot more quick reads and it has played to Mark's strengths.  The shorter, quicker throws have allowed Sanchez to complete 63.1% of his passes for 6.7 ypa in his last four games, both noticeable increases.  The downfield throws are less vast and more calculated now, and it has helped his overall game.

The TD:INT ratio and QB rating are where Sanchez edges out Roethlisberger.  The reason for both is simple; Sanchez has taken better care of the football.  However, if you only look at Big Ben's Super Bowl run, the ratio is the same.  Either way, Sanchez sports a slightly higher QB rating mainly because the TD:INT ratio offsets the negligible advantages Big Ben had in other passing statistics.

When looking at this from the big picture what you should take away is that Roethlisberger, who played about as well as any rookie and sophomore QB could during the regular season, maintained a pretty similar and efficient level in the playoffs.  The difference here is the incredible improvement Sanchez has made when on the big stage.  Neither QB looked like Montana or Elway out there, but Roethlisberger's play in 2005 shows that a well-rounded team that is efficient and calculated on offense can win a Super Bowl with a young rising QB.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Dedication to Colts RB Joseph Addai

In your best Paul McCartney (or Axl Rose) voice, please sing along:

When you were young
and you ran an open playbook
You used to say give and fake give
You know you did
You know you did
You know you did
But in this ever changin' league
in which we play in
Makes you give in and try
Live and let Addai

A Word on Current Playoff Format

With a large part of football nation clamoring about the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks making the playoffs and hosting a Wild Card game this afternoon, now would be a good time to set the record straight.

First, this season was a bit of an anomaly, and I for one tend to not advocate implementing new rules based aberrations.  Since the 2002 season when the NFL split into eight divisions, this was the first year of the nine in which a team won the division with a losing record.  The NFC West was just historically bad this season, and that's going to happen from time to time; that's just the ebb and flow of the NFL.  Sometimes things can swing the opposite direction.  For example, in 2007 the AFC South boasted three teams with double-digit wins and the last place Houston Texans did not have a losing record (8-8).  Nothing is perfect, and as long as there are divisions you have to reward the division winner with something.

Since 2002:

# of 9-7 division winners: 5 (Jets - 2002; Seahawks - 2004; Seahawks - 2006; Buccaneers - 2007; Cardinals - 2008)
# of 8-8 division winners: 1 (Chargers - 2008)
# of 7-9 division winners: 1 (Seahawks - 2010)

On average, almost every year one non-elite team wins a division.  The term non-elite is used to describe division champs that did not reach double-digit victories. Only two of these seven teams did not have a winning record.  So out of the 72 division winners since 2002, 70 of them had a 9-7 record or better.  That's nearly 97% of the time.

The real problem is not that these teams are making the playoffs but instead that they are hosting playoff games.  Five of the seven teams hosted Wild Card teams that finished with a better regular season record.  It's one thing to reward a team with a playoff birth for wading through a division but it's another to give a team a home game against a team in a different division with a better record.  I just cannot justify that.

In total, out of the thirty-two Wild Card Round games to date there have been nine "Situations" in which a Wild Card team played on the road versus a Division Champ with an inferior record.  In those games, the Wild Card team is 4-5.  There are four more of those this weekend: Saints (11-5) at Seahawks (7-9); Jets (11-5) at Colts (10-6); Ravens (12-4) at Chiefs (10-6); and Packers (10-6) at Eagles (10-6).  Despite the same record, the Packers defeated the Eagles in Week 1 to win the tiebreaker.  That brings it to a grand total of thirteen instances out of thirty-six games.

The two most egregious examples of a better record team playing on the road are today's Saints game and the 2008 Colts playing on the road with 12 wins versus an 8-8 Chargers team that ending up winning in OT.  Those who differ with the proposal of "reseeding" would argue that the home field advantage the division winner gets offers a nice balance to the playing field and makes the opening round games more exciting.  The purpose of the playoffs is to crown the best team winner, and teams with a better record deserve the home field advantage regardless of whether they won a division or not.  Furthermore, the reseeding would make Week 17 games even more exciting.  Do you think the Jets would have rested starters if they knew a home game was at stake?  Do you think the Eagles would have rested starters if they thought the Packers could steal the first round home game from them?  I like Roger Goodell's commitment to making all Week 17 games exciting by having divisional matchups, and reseeding is another smart step in that direction.