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State of the Eagles: Trust the ... results?

One cause for concern during the Eagles’ 6-0 start has been the lack of a “complete” game. But is it warranted?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a hot minute since my last post, and during that time the Eagles have done little more than start 6-0 for the third time in franchise history. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Philadelphia sports team without lingering anxiety among the fans. That’s something I plan to address in this post by doing a throwback to my “stat nerd” days. Let’s get into it!

In this article:

  • The Eagles are 6-0 without having played the elusive “complete” game. The question we need to ask: Should we care?
  • The NFL may be in the beginning of a new era - one with stronger defenses and less scoring. Are the Eagles on the leading edge of it?
  • Looking ahead to the next 6 weeks.

The “Complete” Game: Reality or Myth?

It’s been interesting watching Eagles fans go back and forth with each other in the midst of the team’s blistering 6-0 start to the season. While some complaints are nitpicks, there is one overarching theme to the discussions that can be simply described as a question of process or results.

The results, of course, are that the Eagles have won every game they’ve played this year. The process has mainly been through explosive second quarters... and not much else. This unfamiliar style of winning has had some fans questioning just how sustainable it is. But it got me thinking: is it really all that different from how recent Super Bowl champions won their regular season games? Were they consistently playing “complete” games of quarter-by-quarter domination over their opponents? Or did they score in bursts with lulls in between?

To find out, I investigated the past ten Super Bowl champions. I’ll split up my analysis into “high level” and “deep dive,” so if this kind of stuff bores you, skip ahead accordingly.

The High Level

To start, I pulled up the regular season score differential of the last ten Super Bowl winners, from 2012 (Baltimore Ravens) through 2021 (Los Angeles Rams). This is the “results” side of the equation - by how much were these teams beating their opponents? It turns out there was a pretty decent spread:

  • The averages for points forced and allowed were 437.5 (27.2 per game) and 308.9 (19.2 per game) for an average net of +128.6 (+8.0 per game).
  • The highest net was +191 (2016 New England Patriots, +11.9 per game).
  • The lowest net was +54 (2012 Baltimore Ravens, +3.4 per game). This sounds right since they were a 10-6 fourth seed. But not far ahead of them were the 2015 Denver Broncos, who went 12-4 and earned the top AFC seed that year. They were only +59 (+3.7 per game).
  • Since you may not remember, the 2017 Eagles were +162 (+10.1 per game), which puts them above the 10 year average.

The 2022 Eagles currently sit at +56 (+9.3 per game). If they continue on this pace, they will finish the season at +159. Only three Super Bowl winners since 2012 finished with a higher net (the aforementioned 2017 Eagles and 2016 Patriots, and the 2013 Seahawks, who finished +186).

The Deep Dive

These numbers are all well and good, but they don’t tell us much about how teams scored during each game. To analyze this, I randomly picked three teams from the past 10 winners - the 2019 Chiefs, 2020 Buccaneers, and 2021 Rams (yes I know how it looks, it was random). I also threw in the 2017 Eagles for good measure. I then went and charted the box scores of these teams for all of their regular season games and calculated:

  • The net score by quarter.
  • The scoring variance per game, where “variance” is defined as the difference between the Super Bowl winner’s best scoring quarter and their worst. For example, in the Eagles’ last game against the Cowboys, their best quarter was the second (20-3, +17) and their worst was the third (0-7, -7). So the scoring variance would be +17 - (-7) = 17 + 7 = 24.

The idea behind this that we should expect Super Bowl teams to have a positive net score by quarter (duh) and if they are consistently playing “complete” games the scoring variance should be low. In other words, a team playing a complete game is beating the piss out of their opponent for four quarters, so there should be little difference between their “best” and “worst” quarters.

There is admittedly some noise to this approach. For example, if a team outscores their opponent 14-3 every quarter until the fourth, when they grind out the clock and nobody scores (0-0), the variance will be 14 (+14 - 0) but nobody is going to say they didn’t play a “complete” game. Unfortunately, there was no good way to filter out the noise so we’ll need to live with it. Based on what I saw in the data there are still valuable insights:

  • The average quarterly net score for the four Super Bowl winners was +1.9. This might seem low on first blush but is actually impressive when you consider the quarters - and entire games - Super Bowl winners lose. Net scoring was highest in - surprise! - the second quarter (+3.3). No other quarter had net scoring above +2, but all net scoring was positive.
  • The average quarterly scoring variance for the four Super Bowl winners was 17.8. This is a pretty high number, and it implies that “complete” games are the exception rather than the rule, even for the best teams. When taken with the quarterly scoring trends, it paints a picture of teams that pull away in the second quarter and then spends the second half trading blows and grinding out clock... Sound familiar?

Quarterly net scoring in chart form:

(Note: That overtime quarter - Quarter 5 - is from one game: the Rams loss to the 49ers in the last game of the 2021 season.)

The chart shows more clearly the difference in scoring between the second quarter and other quarters, and how net scoring peaks before halftime and then steadily declines.

Through six games, the 2022 Eagles are following this pattern, but to the extreme:

Note the change in scale here. The Eagles are more than doubling second quarter scoring (18.7 vs. 9.3) and more than quadrupling second quarter net scoring (14.2 vs. 3.3). Are the other quarters as exciting? No, but the reality in the NFL is the score will dictate the approach to the game. If you’re up by 13 points at halftime (the Eagles’ average this year) you’re going to spend the second half being “safe” and protecting that lead. While that hasn’t looked pretty at times, it’s been successful considering that the Eagles are, you know, undefeated.

Clearly, this scoring trend is odd but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. I think most of the concern is that this pattern appears unsustainable, but I’m not buying that for two possible reasons:

  1. The Eagles are, by traditional and advanced metrics, a great team. A Super Bowl contender. As such, even if there is some regression, we should expect that to move towards what we saw in the first chart - less scoring in the second quarter but more scoring in other quarters. If the Eagles are really as good as we think they are, this is more likely than they suddenly getting “figured out” and being unable to score.
  2. The NFL may be in the midst of a changing era, and it’s possible the Eagles are one of the pioneers of that era. We don’t have a real sense of what is sustainable and what isn’t. This is actually a great segue into my next section (funny how that works, huh?).

Flying into a New Frontier

Have you heard that scoring is down in 2022? Probably, because a lot of the “talking heads” keep bringing it up. This has led to an incredible amount of mediocrity parity in the NFL this season, with most teams hovering around 0.500.

Pro Football Network has an excellent article on the topic. The whole thing is worth a read, but they generally lay the blame for scoring at the feet of Gannon’s sometimes controversial two-high defensive scheme:

Teams keep two safeties back, allow the quarterback to survey the field and force him to take the checkdown. That has resulted in a lower depth of completion and a lower yardage per attempt, leading to makeup yardage later that doesn’t help advance the ball in a meaningful way.

Basically, by forcing teams to methodically march down the field, defenses have more opportunities for fumble recoveries, interceptions, sacks, tackles for loss, or even offensive mistakes like holding penalties. Offenses get off schedule and end up punting - or worse. So far, it’s working. Teams are averaging 21 points per game, the lowest mark since 2017.

And yet, the Eagles are almost matching that total in a single quarter.

It’s worth asking if they are already ahead of the curve of the latest defensive trend. Between their talented offensive line, dual-threat quarterback, and receiving threats that can consistently win matchups, the Eagles are a team built to avoid the kind of miscues opposing defenses are counting on when they sell out to prevent the big play.

Advanced stats (per BGN’s own Johnny Page) provide the evidence to back this up. The Eagles are 3rd in EPA per pass, 5th in EPA per rush, and first in giveaways per game. The way they play football - with a healthy dose of the run, RPO-based passing schemes, and designed quarterback runs - simply makes it easier to stay on schedule and take care of the ball against deep safeties and light boxes.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Eagles can’t keep up this cardiac scoring cadence for a whole season. To which I say: If we are really in a new NFL frontier, why can’t they?

A Look Ahead

Since I’m doing “trimester” posts, let’s check out the Eagles’ next six games. Given how dominant the Eagles have been, I’ll eschew going game-by-game in favor of picking out the safe bets, tough outs, and potential losses.

In case you forgot, the Eagles’ next six opponents are Pittsburgh, Houston, Washington, Indianapolis, Green Bay, and Tennessee.

Safe bets. These are games where a loss would track as a trap game or upset. I have Houston, Washington, and Indianapolis penciled in here. I am tempted to make the Commanders a tough out with the scrappy Heineke at quarterback, but I think playing at the Linc tips to the scale too much in the Eagles’ favor. Conversely, the Colts’ quarterback situation is why I moved them from a tough out to a safe bet.

Tough outs. These are games that could very easily be competitive, but the Eagles should pull out the win. A loss wouldn’t be totally unexpected, though. I think Pittsburgh and Green Bay fall into this category. There’s a kneejerk reaction to just assume Aaron Rodgers will put things together in time for this game, but I’m getting real “Mike McCarthy swan song” vibes from this year’s Packers team. As for the Steelers, it’s really hard to fully bet against Mike Tomlin in any game.

Potential losses. Consider these games toss-ups where a win or loss are both very believable. The “AJ Brown revenge game” is the lone contest here. While I think the Eagles are clearly the better team, Vrabel is a good coach and the Titans play a brand of football that is simply different from most of the league. I could definitely see them giving the Eagles fits. This game being at the Linc could be the deciding factor.

What about their record? It’s almost too easy to predict 12-0, but that doesn’t feel realistic. I do think the Eagles could lose one of their tough outs, and the Titans always seem to give them problems. I can’t see them dropping more than one, though, so let’s say 5-1 with a loss to Tennessee. That puts the Eagles at 11-1, where they should still be in the driver’s seat for the #1 seed in the NFC.

How wild is that? What a time to be an Eagles fan.

No, scratch that... what a time to be a Philadelphia sports fan.

Go Birds.



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