FanPost

Biggest disappointment: Defense or Offense?

Brian Solomon over at the inappropriately-named (but good) McNabb or Kolb just made a case for "the mirage of late season success." In it, he argues that the late 4-win streak was predictable and means less for next year than we might want to believe. However, in the post he only discusses the defense, totally ignoring the offense (and special teams I suppose).

While responding to that post, I decided to look at what some of the numbers say about the performance of the offense and defense, and determine which was truly a bigger disappointment.

Defense

We all know the excuses by now: first-time coordinator Juan Castillo had a short offseason to figure out what to do with all the new free agents and young/inexperienced starters. Expectations were skewed thanks to big-name signings like Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, and Jim Washburn. But in the end, those are just excuses, and the defense didn't pass the eye test. They looked terrible for long stretches. And the numbers support that, right?

Not so much, no. The Eagles defense ended the year:

  • 12th in DVOA, 7th in weighted DVOA
  • 10th in points allowed
  • 8th in yards allowed

Exactly what you'd expect from an outmatched rookie former offensive line coach. Right?

So by those rankings at least, the defense wasn't as bad as we might think. Yes, they failed to generate a lot of turnovers (18th in takeaways/game). Yes, they allowed a lot of 4th quarter points (25th in 4th Q pts/game allowed), but the Eagles had a lot of 4th quarter leads and teams like New England and Green Bay were worse. Yes, they were 30th (59.57%) in red zone scoring percentage, but were a historically bad 32nd last year with 78.26%. Yes, they missed tackles and blew coverages, committed stupid penalties on 3rd down, and generally looked soft. All things considered, they played like you'd expect for an 8-8 team.


Offense

So what happened to the offense?

Unlike the defense, the offense had stability and talent with both coaches and players. The only free agents that were brought in were backups, except for Evan Mathis. The starting quarterback, running back, tight end, and top 3 wide receivers were the same as last year. The only real changes were on the offensive line, with a new coach and 3 new starters (including 2 rookies). And while I'm probably the last person qualified to judge offensive line play, I don't think many people would argue that the offensive line was at least the best in the NFC East.

Let's look at how they did by the numbers:

  • 8th in DVOA, 7th in weighted DVOA
  • 8th in points scored
  • 4th in yards gained

Maybe that's a little less than we hoped for given the talent involved, but not at all terrible. Also not significantly better than the defense everyone believes to be incompetent. But good enough, combined with the defense, to be better than 8-8. So what went wrong?

I can't really say exactly what went wrong. All I can do is find some numbers I find indicative. Some other rankings the offense garnered:

Obviously the big one is turnovers. Being the 2nd worst at giving up the ball killed drives, took points off the board (a lot of those turnovers were in the RZ), and put a lot of pressure on an inexperienced defense. Also concerning was the tendency for the offense to disappear late in games.

Looking at the Eagles' 8 losses, 5 of them were by 7 points or less. Also in 5 of those 8, the Eagles scored 3 or fewer points in the 4th quarter. And in 4 of those 8, the Eagles scored 0 points in the 4th.

Yes, half of the Eagles losses this year came in games where they failed to score in the 4th quarter, despite losing by a TD or less. And the offense managed to score a TD in the 4th quarter in just 3 of the 8 losses, all games in which the other team had at least a 17 point lead.


Conclusion

Of the Eagles 8 losses, only 2 were blowouts in which they were never competitive (NE and SEA). Both were kind of forgivable, since almost every playoff-quality team has at least one loss to a top team and one bizarre loss to a mediocre/bad one on their record. The Seattle game was also on a short week in which the Eagles had to fly across the country to play a team that's better at home. And don't forget, the Packers' only loss this season was on the road against a 7-9 team in a weak West division. Sound familiar?

The other 6 games were winnable, either because of a 4th quarter lead, a late surge, or merely the fact that they were within one TD of winning when time expired. The defense definitely played a role in those losses, often by surrendering the points that lost the lead and the game. However, the Eagles offense managed to score a 4th quarter touchdown in just 1 of those 6 winnable games, averaging 2.17 4th Q points.

The defense had some talented players in key positions, but was not a stable or solid unit going in to the season. They predictably struggled early, as the coordinator learned his job and the new and young players figured out how to work with each other. But they got better.

The offense had one of the most talented rosters in the NFL going in, and the only major change was bringing in one of the most respected (and generally awesome) position coaches in the NFL to successfully rebuild the offensive line. But they turned the ball over, disappeared in close games, and generally underachieved.

Yell about Juan Castillo all you like, in my opinion the biggest disappointment of the 2011 Eagles was the offense.

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