The Potential Peyton Problem

The Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning to a 5-year, $96 million contract on Tuesday. Most NFL prognosticators believe the Broncos are immediate Super Bowl candidates with the addition of Manning. After all, the Broncos were a team on the rise even without Manning, weren’t they?

The Illusion of an Ascending Defense

Manning theoretically went to a team with an emerging defense, but their individual players combined to receive a cumulative grade of 17th by Pro Football Focus. Football Outsiders had Denver ranked a lowly 19th in 2011. They finished even lower according to Advanced NFL Stats. You’ve got to scroll all the way to down to 21st to find them.

In truth, this is a very mediocre defense that benefited from the Tim Tebow Effect. Broncos games featured low scores because they played at a slow pace on offense and weren’t a threat to outscore their opponents. This led to a limited number of total snaps and a conservative approach by the opposing team. You can expect this to be reversed with Peyton Manning under center.

The Myth of the Good Offensive Line

Because the Broncos led the NFL in rushing, most believe Denver has a good offensive line. The truth is very different. This is an area where Tebow’s unique rush ability dramatically distorts the stats. If you remove Tebow’s yardage, the Broncos drop out of the Top 10. Tebow averaged 5.4 yards per carry, almost a yard above what the RBs averaged, and his value as an option threat dramatically impacted how the defense had to play. This was true even when the RBs ended up with the ball.

The true measure of the Broncos offensive line can be seen in the advanced stats. Advanced NFL Stats ranked the Broncos dead last in offensive line play. They ranked last in OL-EPA (expected points added) by a wide margin. They ranked last in Rush EPA and they rank 27th in Pass EPA.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Broncos dead last in run blocking and they finished 50% worse than any other team. They ranked 25th in pass blocking. Advanced Stats are better than traditional stats in correcting for context and determining which metrics are predictive, but they obviously still have blind spots. Advanced NFL Stats and Pro Football Focus use completely different methodologies in determining their rankings. If both of them see the Broncos as having an atrocious offensive line, it’s a very bad sign. Continue reading The Potential Peyton Problem