Breakfast Table: Recalibrating the Patriots

For the last decade or so, Michael Salfino and Scott Pianowski have been putting together an email exchange centered around (but not limited to) the NFL. You might enjoy listening to them haggle. You might prefer a swift kick into the stomach. The Table isn't for everyone; we hope some of you enjoy it.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 9:56 PM
Subject: Week 11 Breakfast
To: scott pianowski

We have to get this show going this week. So I will butt in and do the opener, making it quick.

How many games this week feature teams with winning records and both starting quarterbacks? I'm counting one - The Colts at the Patriots. And that game has to get an asterisk. I don't know which team I take less seriously after seeing New England barely escape at home against the putrid Bills, who just roll out the red carpet for the opposing offense. Somehow in Week 10, the Patriots defense was even worse.

It's interesting how to price in quarterback injuries, both in fantasy and reality. Vegas has to be dragged kicking and screaming to move the line even three points for someone like Ben Roethlisberger. I don't get that. As for the rankings of, say, Steelers skill players, maybe the rule should be to multiply by two.

I'll make this quick and give you more room to run than teams are giving C.J. Spiller. (Okay, Spiller creates a lot of that room himself, I know, but I need a lazy transition.) When a guy has his kind of rate stats, do teams just think that it's because they're using him correctly in such a limited way? If so, what could ever be the reason that their approach is wrong? And I guess you'll insist we talk about the Jets, given what the players are saying about the guy you want to see play so badly, Tim Tebow. The Jets have quickly become the worst organization in football. Week 11 Breakfast is served.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 10:47 AM
Subject: grogan's heroes
To: Michael Salfino

A shot at the Patriots, okay. You're just baiting me, right?

I guess the majority of football writers and fans are sick of New England. In a very general sense, they've become the Yankees of the NFL (not financially of course, but in the playoffs-as-a-birthright sort of way). Now I'm going to antagonize all the readers sick of the constant New England talk. Sorry up front, amigos.

Over the last nine years, Bill Belichick has won 14, 14, 10, 12, 16, 11, 10, 14 and 13 games. He's 17-7 all time in the playoffs. This guy had Cleveland in the playoffs and on the right track until Art Modell pulled the plug in 1995. (I hope everyone has seen that tremendous NFL Network documentary by now.)

I know, the Pats haven't won a title since 2004. But that's the wrong way to look at it. The goal is to be competitive every year, to get into the playoffs every year, to be on the short list of contenders every year. New England is that and has that. Get into the tournament, hope to get lucky. The Pats obviously enjoyed more than their share of breaks in the first two title years; things haven't been as fortunate in recent years (at least against the Giants - New England obviously received a gift against Baltimore last year), but that's how it goes. Focus on the process and the primary goal, not the end result.

There's a mainstream media love affair with football defenses that I don't really understand. Sure, if you can be good at everything, be good at everything. That's wonderful. But I shake my head when the "good defense, no offense" teams get treated like fuzzy little stuffed animals, while the offensive juggernauts that don't defend well get attacked. The smartest organizations realize that offense has more year-to-year continuity; build an offense, figure out the defense. (Let's see how New England is defending when the games count. Did anyone like the Giants defense last year before the playoffs started? How many of Peyton Manning's Indy defenses were any good? Perhaps Aqib Talib can straighten up, fly right, and make an impact.)

So, the poor Patriots and their plus-98 differential. I still give them a chance against anyone in a one-shot game, and only Houston is clearly better in the AFC. The Pats offense might be the best in the league (and the most balanced), especially if Aaron Hernandez comes back healthy. The offensive line has been fixed.

And oh yeah, reports of Tom Brady's slippage turned out to be just silly. Look at his indexes in the major stats, where 100 is league average and anything higher is positive: while Brady is just 104 in YPA Index, he's 113 for completion percentage, 108 in touchdown percentage, 131 in interception percentage, 116 in sack rate and 118 in QB rating. (By way of comparison, here's Scam Newton: 114-88-86-85-86-90. He's good in one area, YPA, and that's it. Not coincidentally, the Panthers couldn't score in a women's prison with a briefcase full of pardons.)

The strength of any Belichick defense is that it generally allows less points than the gross yardage suggests it should. This is a consistent staple in New England. The Jets have allowed 27 more points than the Pats, by the way. The Ravens are basically a wash. Every NFC East defense has allowed more points - the Giants with an extra game, of course. Some of this reflects Brady not giving away the ball, but it also should remind us that it's stupid to judge defenses by gross yardage numbers.

The Colts have allowed the same 201 points that New England has allowed. Indy's schedule reminds me of John Thompson's gig in the 1980s at Georgetown. What's St. Leo doing Wednesday night? The last four horseshoe wins came over the Browns, Titans, Dolphins and Jaguars. You beat Weeden, Hasselbeck, Tannehill and Gabbert in a row, you must be living right. And as much as we all love Andrew Luck, his numbers aren't that wonderful (79.1 rating, for one thing). New England's going for 30-plus here; I doubt the Colts outscore them.

I agree with your Spiller take. Coaching staffs have trouble discerning what works because of them and what works in spite of them. Hey, I like Fred Jackson, I always have. But Chan Gailey is basically putting the Dean Smith clamps on Michael Jordan here. The potential of Spiller getting big touches (with Jackson out) makes Thursday's game intriguing. Give him 150 total yards (I wish I had him on even one crummy team) and call it Buffalo 27, Miami 20.

There's not a lot to say on the Tebow stuff. I blame the New York braintrust for all of this - the coaches thought Tebow would be Wildcat 2, Electric Boogaloo as a package player, and it's been an absolute bomb. As much as I distrust Mark Sanchez and don't enjoy watching him play, it's silly for the Jets to put him on a yo-yo and make him constantly look to the sidelines for the pitching change. Morons. Don't mess with the quarterback's head.

Mind you, I still want to see Tebow play - for the circus of it all. It's not an endorsement, it's an emotional appeal to a novelty. But mostly, I'm satisfied to watch the Jets mess it all up. The worst possible path they could choose is what they've rolled with through the first 10 weeks. (Maybe Tannenbaum will talk himself into Michael Vick next year.)

I'll try to focus on the other 31 teams when I get the ball back.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 11:46 AM
Subject: Re: grogan's heroes
To: scott pianowski

Yes, I am baiting you.

And I totally agree that a good offense is way more important than a good defense. But you can't have a terrible defense, and you especially can't have a terrible pass defense. The Patriots are giving up 7.7 yards per pass attempt. We know that teams that win the YPA stat win at least 75% of the time, irrespective of any other statistic (and no matter the margin). So this puts a lot of pressure on Tom Brady. Against the Bills, the Patriots were outpassed in YPA 1.5 yards and somehow won - at that kind of negative differential the win probability is 10% at best, I will guarantee you. So Sunday's win was a total fluke at home against a pretty bad team with a mediocre at best passing offense. If you have the kind of passing attack the Patriots had last year, you maybe can survive that kind of horrible pass defense. But Brady and the Patriots pass offense have clearly taken a step back this year (YPA of 7.4 vs. 8.6 in 2012).

I can't believe you still use the words "strength" and "Patriots defense" in the same sentence. When are you going to acknowledge that any Little Bill's shelf-life as a defensive genius has long-ago expired? He now only goes as far as Brady can take him. And that's really been the case for nearly a decade now. And you answered your own question with the Patriots defensive efficiency. It's really other things. They give up zero estimated points to the opposing defense and to opposing special teams per game. The Eagles give up 4.7. That's a lot. In just offensive points allowed per game, the Patriots at 22.3 are 22nd. And that's with the one of the joke schedules of all time for a defense. The Broncos are the only good offensive team they've played all year. Mark Sanchez ripped the Patriots defense apart, for cryin' out loud.

I don't understand your unwillingness to see the decline of the Patriots offense. Yards per play - 12th. Yards per pass - 11th. Last year, they were second in both of those stats. I weight both of those way more than points because I think they are way more predictive of future points, especially against better defenses. You can't tell me you're going to be surprised if the Patriots offense falls apart against the Broncos or Texans this year. Last year, I would have been surprised. New England has gone from 24th to 5th in yards per rush. That's the stat you can pretty much throw in the waste basket. And it has cost them a lot of their devastating rhythm and precision in the passing game, I think the stats prove.

Regarding your franchise goals, would you rather have been a Giants fan since 2007 or a Patriots fan?

There are problems with Newton, for sure, but passer rating and TD rate are stupid stats with him because of the rushing touchdowns. So I don't know why you keep emphasizing those when it just hurts your overall argument. He has 18 rushing TDs. There's no difference to the offensive performance of the Panthers that he ran those in instead of throwing them in. So add them as passing TDs to his career ledger and his career passer rating is now 89.6. Tom Brady's passer rating his first two years, by the way, an even 86 (with one rushing TD, which will barely move the needle).

Tebow is terrible, obviously. The fact that the Jets didn't know that and also didn't know that the wildcat is dead is just breathtakingly stupid. But remember Tebow pulled games out of the fire that he squarely put in the fire against Rex Ryan and Tony Sparano. So this caused them to overweight his likely impact, I guess. I don't know why neither remembered about 95% of the rest of those games. But I have to say that Sanchez's performance hasn't been impacted to my eye by being taken out of games. Tebow has run barely any plays. Sanchez just sucks right now, period.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 2:03 PM
Subject: Re: grogan's heroes
To: Michael Salfino

The Patriots can't be a sham on all of the spreadsheets. Football Outsiders has them second on their current DVOA board, and Massey-Peabody slots the Patriots fifth on their power ranks. I know at least one of those sites holds credibility with you.

I don't understand taking naked YPA without incorporating sacks (and that's something that will marginally help the Patriots; Brady is always going to take less sacks then the opponent does). As for the YPP decrease, that's partly explained by the running game getting more volume: New England is on pace to run the ball 104 more times than it did last year. Is that coming at the expense of the offense? Geesh, they lead the league in scoring (and it's not being floated from the defense). Isn't that the objective, score a bunch, score more than the other guy? Did they move to Coors Field?

Brady set a career best in YPA last year; I don't think it's any great shock he hasn't repeated it. But the dip is more pronounced than anyone expected, that's valid. I primarily point to the Hernandez injury and the spotty play of Brandon Lloyd (or maybe we can blame Brady for not getting in sync with Lloyd by now). And maybe there's a sacrifice made since they're running more - maybe you're right on that.

There are a lot of stats that correlate strongly to wins and losses. The Patriots were plus-3 in turnovers last week. According to Spreadapedia's database (since 1978), teams win 89 percent of the time when they hold a turnover edge of exactly plus-3. That said, teams can't approach a game like turnover avoidance is all that matters. You can't tell your team to run 57 straight fullback dives into the line; you need to try to move the ball, generate yardage and points, help out your defense, etc.

The same line of thinking would apply to yards per attempt. You can't approach every game thinking that a lofty YPA at the expense of everything else is a good thing. That's what we're seeing with Newton. He's hitting some big plays, but it hasn't helped the offense much at the end of the day. Carolina is 27th in scoring, Jersey (stop bringing last year's spikes into it - I'm talking about what isn't happening in 2012). A lofty YPA is great when it comes with other goodies attached (and normally the best YPA quarterbacks will be good in other areas); Newton is showing us that occasional big plays don't matter much if you stink in every other area. This year, that's the case. (He's also been poor in the red zone; Mike Vick waves hello.)

And remember, Newton's key stat indicators dropped off significantly in the second half of 2011. He hasn't been the same guy since the first half of his rookie year. Is there a book on him now? Is it the design of the offense? Newton's work ethic? Where do you expect the Panthers to rank in scoring for the rest of the year?

One funky thing about the Brady-Belichick era: the titles came before Brady stepped into the elite class. In the early part of the 2000s, we weren't debating Brady-Manning - we were debating Brady-Pennington. Brady was more or less a game manager during the first championship.

And don't be fooled into thinking Belichick doesn't have a lot to do with the offense's explosion during the second half of Brady's career. Belichick does his homework in the offseason, meets with the best college coaches and picks their brains. The Gronkowski-Hernandez concept was Belichick's baby. And ask yourself why the Belichick coaching tree has been so mediocre away from New England. Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, all of them folded out on their own. Mangini can't even get seated in Vesuvio any more.

I meant to talk some Giants this week, but they're on bye anyway. We can get them next week. For now, it's time for a Vegemite Leftwich (for Pittsburgh talk, hit me in the comments).

What to Read Next