Like any sport, the NFL doesn’t lack for numbers. There is an abundance of statistics for everyone who follows football, from teams all the way down to fantasy football lovers and fans in general, to digest, analyze and debate.
But are some numbers more important than others? Here are eight that helped shape how the 2016 season played out. Of course in the end, the only number that really matters is 52, as in Super Bowl LII which New England won.
(This article appears in Athlon Sports’ 2017 Pro Football Magazine, which is available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere.)
1) Kansas City and Oakland led the NFL with a +16 turnover margin
NFL fans don’t like to hear this, but there’s an inordinate amount of luck involved in an NFL season. Some of it comes via a team’s schedule, and some of it comes because there are only 16 games. Compare that to sports like baseball or basketball, where we are dealing with five or 10 times that sample size. Catching lightning in a bottle or getting fortunate matters a lot more when there’s less season to bring things back to the average performance. In 2014 and ’15, the top three teams in turnover margin saw an average dip of 8.1 turnovers the following season.
The Chiefs and Raiders both made the AFC playoffs, preventing the Broncos, the defending Super Bowl champs, from claiming a spot. But they both also had a plus-16 turnover margin as compared to Denver’s plus-three. Some of that is because Denver quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch were a little overzealous or unready. But more of it is just a simple matter of bounces going one way or another.
2) The Patriots threw just two interceptions all regular season
NFL head coaches, if you hadn’t noticed, are a pretty conservative group as a whole. There have been entire subgenres of columns devoted to blown in-game calls based on the pure mathematics, and most of them revolve around coaches playing it too safe.
The NFL as a whole has embraced a safer passing offense over the last five years. Screen passes and package plays are in vogue, and throwing short of the sticks on third down appears to be on the rise. The Patriots were an extreme outlier in 2016, but interception totals as a whole have hit historical lows. The 2016 season had the fewest pick-sixes of any year in NFL history. Last season, there was one pick-six per 538 pass attempts. Sure, Matt Schaub didn’t play, but that number tells us a lot about how offense is evolving. We are going to see more and more teams play it conservatively and try to stay on schedule via their passing game.
3) No Carolina Panthers wide receiver had a catch rate higher than 57 percent
After a spectacular 2015 season in which everything went right, 2016 was a win for sports media personalities still reading from the Hater’s Guide to Cam Newton. Newton suffered a concussion and threw 14 interceptions to just 19 touchdowns as Carolina missed the playoffs.
But, remember what we just said about passing offenses playing safer? The Panthers are an outlier. None of their top four receivers actually plays like a possession threat, which made it difficult for the offense to develop any consistency.
Newton threw more passes 20 or more yards downfield than he did screens. The Carolina passing game has been let down by its wide receivers for the last two years — it was just less noticeable in 2015 while Newton was behind an offensive line that was playing better. It’s very easy to get down on Newton for how he played in 2016, but putting the blame for the entire Carolina implosion solely on him is a bit of a stretch. With a little help from his friends in 2017, Newton and the Panthers could be back in the playoff chase.
4) Three different Tampa Bay offensive linemen blew 20 or more blocks in 2016
Tampa Bay almost crashed the playoff party in the NFC. On the whole, Tampa’s improvement isn’t hard to understand: Mike Evans had another outstanding season, the team’s pass rush was more effective than in previous years, and the Bucs covered just about everything but opposing running backs well.
But the scary thing for the NFC is that this team had major flaws that can be fixed. The offensive line had an astounding three players (Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith, and Kevin Pamphile) with 20 or more blown blocks, per Sports Info Solutions charting. That means that, mistake-wise, Tampa had three of the worst 19 starting linemen in the league. They also added DeSean Jackson to buffer a bad receiving corps and will have a camp competition at kicker after Roberto Aguayo conclusively proved in 2016 that spending second-round picks on kickers is stupid. The Bucs didn’t quite launch in 2016, but 2017 could see things turn.
5) Tennessee went from 28th in rushing attempts in 2015 to fourth in 2016
The Titans, led by Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense, busted out in 2016. They were a loss at Jacksonville away from taking the AFC South, and that loss could be blamed on quarterback Marcus Mariota’s injury.
Tennessee was one of the most successful teams at zigging while everyone else was zagging in 2016. Behind a bounce-back year from DeMarco Murray and a great first season from rookie right tackle Jack Conklin, the Titans were one of only a few teams that were able to establish a running offense good enough to be the lead focus of an offense. The Titans were one of three teams that averaged more than 4.6 yards per carry and ran the ball more than 450 times, along with the Bills and the Cowboys.
It would not be surprising if Tennessee’s success emboldened the rest of the league to try to create a rushing offense that makes games shorter — especially teams with better defenses that have no realistic path to acquire a franchise quarterback.
6) Atlanta’s offense used play-action on 26 percent of its passing attempts
Matt Ryan was always a good quarterback with a few flaws, but under Kyle Shanahan’s lead in 2016, he had the most outstanding statistics of any quarterback. A big reason why? The success Atlanta had in the play-action pass game.
Play-action fakes can really help out quarterbacks. They limit the reads to one side of the field, giving quarterbacks less to worry about. Play-action passes without bootlegs, in theory, give quarterbacks more time in the pocket. And, finally, if your play-action passes function off a real run game, you can deke linebackers and box safeties into neglecting responsibilities.
It’s fair to question if Ryan can sustain this level of production without Shanahan. Natural regression would tell you that Ryan wouldn’t do as well as he did last year. But it’s also fair to wonder if the play-action pass may find itself back in vogue as the NFL continues to try to cut down on overloading the quarterback position. The best way to find premium quarterback numbers without a premium quarterback might be to tilt the odds in your favor, as San Francisco is banking on with Shanahan.
7) Jared Goff took 26 sacks in 231 dropbacks
There was a lot taking attention away from Goff in his first year in Los Angeles. Todd Gurley’s high-profile implosion as a fantasy football option got most of the attention for the offense’s failures. Jeff Fisher’s firing got most of the team-wide attention as he encapsulated old-school thinking.
But Goff was a first-year bust on many levels. Getting sacked 26 times in 231 drop-backs is disastrous, even behind a bad Rams line. He looked as bad as any first-year, highly drafted quarterback in recent memory. He completed 54.6 percent of his passes in a league in which even Brock Osweiler connected on 59.0 percent. He threw seven picks to five touchdowns. He was even bad in the preseason.
There are a few instances of good quarterbacks having bad first seasons in recent years. Donovan McNabb was pretty bad in his first year, for example. But what you should take away from Goff’s first season is that he has the potential to be a Ryan Leaf- or Blaine Gabbert-esque bust for the Rams. How you feel about his potential going forward is probably a big factor in how you feel the NFC West will shake out over the next few years. The Rams aren’t winning anything unless they fix him up.
8) Dak Prescott finished third in the NFL in Adjusted Net Yards per Passing Attempt, at 7.86
ANY/A is a stat that takes yards per attempt and controls for both sacks and interceptions. Prescott was a fourth-round rookie. Finishing third in this statistic was a preposterous result in the context of NFL history. But, much like Russell Wilson did a few years ago, Prescott’s success is trying to tell us something.
The traditional way of scouting quarterbacks is leaving outliers on the table. Putting a premium on arm talent is fine, but how many bombs dropped over the middle of a defense do you see in today’s NFL? There’s a much bigger focus on intermediate routes and ball placement against man-coverage. It’s much harder than it ever has been before to hide a quarterback’s weaknesses under pressure.
Setting up the Cowboys with a cost-controlled Prescott gives them money to pay their offensive line and focus their draft picks on defense. It will set them up with a window as a contender for the foreseeable future.
– Written by Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) for Athlon Sports