Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview is here! It’s been one of my favorite sources as I reflect on the 2017 NFL Season and prepare for 2018. Not only will it give you excellent insight into your Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, but the rest of the league well - click here for more info on how to get your copy.
Sharp is a leading mind in football analytics and here’s his view on what his preview has to offer:
“This book shares insights into the players, coaches, teams and philosophies with one goal in mind: to get you prepared for the 2018 season by delivering the smartest information in the fastest, most direct way possible for optimal reviewing and retention.
Every key element you would want to study is included, such as Fantasy Football (player profiles, ranks & visualizations), Vegas Odds (forecast team wins, division rankings, lines for all 2018 games), Coaching (strategic advice for teams, real vs optimal play calling analysis & uncovering team tendencies) and Front Office Analysis (positional spending, roster construction & cap analysis). Team chapters are detailed and intelligently organized for a massive revolution in reader understanding and information retention.”
To promote this years’ edition, Sharp was kind enough to answer some questions for Bleeding Green Nation about the Eagles. Read on for the question and answer exchange.
1. The Eagles have become a bit of a darling of the analytics community. Looking at the overall picture, what is it that they do differently that speaks to them being more forward thinking than other teams and how does that translate to wins?
It starts with confidence and a lack of fear. Doug Pederson shows confidence in his players to execute the play calls and the players are more inspired to execute, giving return that confidence with interest, knowing their coach is putting them in a better opportunity to win games. The decisions that are more analytically savvy arise from a lack of fear of what will be said about their approach.
Internally, I imagine management is on the same page with their strategy of incorporating more analytics into their decision-making and don’t care what outside voices have to say about it. This flows top-down. Management gives the coaches confidence, coaches give the players confidence, and players confidence grows knowing that their coach believes in them to execute non-traditional (at times) decisions.
Throughout the league, too many coaches are fearful of new voices, thinking it will undermine their power. Or are fearful of what will be said outside the building or from management if their nontraditional decisions are not successful. There is too much fear in the NFL.
Many coaches are short-tenured on mediocre teams and know they could be fired if their next season is bad. Thus, they are less likely to listen to analytical voices, and instead fall back on what earned their position in the first place, themselves and their own decision making. Taking risks and being less fearful allows coaches and teams to employ their most successful strategy to win their next game.
2. In 2017 the Eagles ranked 12th in explosive plays of 20+ yards, 1st in explosive runs, but only 21st in explosive passes. What does your data say in regard to projecting more splashes in the passing game in 2018?
Through week 14 (with Carson Wentz) the Eagles ranked 16th in explosive pass rate. By my metrics, this came against the 5th most difficult schedule of explosive pass defenses in the NFL through those 14 weeks.
Things naturally got worse when Nick Foles was first getting acclimated to the offense, but in the postseason, the Eagles produced explosive pass gains on 11% of their attempts, better what Wentz produced in weeks 1-14. I don’t envision it being a problem like last year. Naturally every passing attack would like to get more explosive, and my early metrics have the Eagles playing a substantially easier schedule of explosive pass defenses in 2018 as compared to what they faced last year.
Overall, the Eagles were not very explosive on early downs. Ignoring the 4th quarter to remove situations where the Eagles may have been playing more conservatively with a lead or when bad teams get desperate when trailing, the Eagles ranked 20th on first down explosive pass gains, 31st on second down and 2nd best on third down. They clearly were very conservative with their play designs when passing on second down, and need to get more aggressive. They were obviously incredible on third down.
3. With receiving backs like Corey Clement and Darren Sproles, what’s one way the Eagles can better utilize them to maximize efficiency?
Last year the Eagles targeted their RBs on only 14% of all pass attempts, 3rd fewest in the NFL. League-wide, targeting RBs on 3rd down is the least efficient pass a QB can throw. But for the Eagles, these 3rd down targets were successful 54% of the time (best in the NFL) and averaged 9.0 Yards Per Attempt (2nd best). These were well above average (32% success rate and 6.1 YPA). So the answer is not to increase their efficiency on third down, but incorporate them more on early downs.
The Eagles targeted their RBs on only 15% of their early down passes, 3rd fewest and well below the league average of 23%. These passes produced a success rate equal to their WR targets (49%) and they averaged more YPA (6.9 YPA) to RBs than to WRs (6.6 YPA). Yet they threw to WRs on 60% of their early down passes, four times more often.
4. You argued that teams are too run-happy after an incompletion on 2nd & 10 after an incompletion. The Eagles were one of those teams in the regular season, with sub-optimal results. In the playoffs they flipped their frequency and threw more, garnering 10 yards per passing attempt. Why is running on 2nd down after a completion inefficient and why do you believe teams cling to the run in those situations?
Many teams are scared to go pass-pass-pass-punt, and thinks it looks bad on their play calling ability. Last year during the regular season (ignoring 4th quarter plays), the Eagles went 54% run on 2nd & 10 following a 1st & 10 pass with no gain (most often an incomplete pass on 1st and 10). The league average was 50% run.
When the Eagles passed on 2nd & 10 following a 1st & 10 pass, they produced a 42% success rate and averaged 8.3 YPA, well above the league average of 7.0 YPA. But when they ran the ball, it was a mere 26% success rate for a league average 4.7 YPC. In large part because they ran the ball often, their overall success rate on 2nd & 10 following a 1st and 10 pass was only 33%, below the league average of 38%.
The Eagles changed in the postseason, going 83% pass and producing the best success rate of any playoff team on these 2nd & 10 play calls (83%). But what was amazing was the fact that while they played in 3 full postseason games, they only had 6 plays in this situation. Meaning there were rarely times the Eagles gained no yards on a 1st and 10 pass play.
Looking around the league last year, the best teams on 2nd & 10 after a 1st & 10 pass produced success rates of between 47% and 58%. These were the New York Giants, Los Angeles Chargers, New England Patriots, Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals, and these teams called passes (respectively) 75%, 68%, 68%, 63% and 60% of the time.
5. The Eagles threw the ball out of 12 personnel with the second highest frequency (57%) in the league. This seems to match with the philosophy that you laid out in the “Improving Efficiency in Pro Football” chapter. Can you expand on why passing out of two tight end sets needs to be done more frequently?
League-wide, passing out of 12 personnel is the most efficient grouping to utilize. That edge is more pronounced on early downs, as teams infrequently pass out of 12 personnel on 3rd down. Pass plays out of 12 personnel are 6% more successful, gain 1.2 more YPA, and deliver a +9 increase in passer rating as compared to passes out of 11 personnel. Yet league-wide, quarterbacks drop to pass the ball out of 11 personnel 69% of the time as compared to only 15% of the time in 12 personnel.
The numbers tell the story, but schematically, the benefits of 12 personnel are numerous. The most obvious is it allows you to target the TE, the most efficient target on the field, while still having a six-man protection along the line with the option of seven if the RB stays in for pass protection. This grouping still affords the ability for the RB to be an early down target out of the backfield, another big efficiency edge. And it still places multiple WRs on the field.
The bottom line is multiplicity and disguise. This grouping allows for five true receivers, should that be required, or can ensure eight-man max protection with two WRs running routes.