?Cleveland Browns: The First Half in Review
When a team is called "the most dangerous 3-5 team in the NFL," as the Cleveland Browns often are these days, it's hard not to see that as a relatively meaningless consolation prize, or damning with faint praise. Unless we can review a period of time with the kinds of numbers that tell us something about how the team has found its way forward, we're sort of stuck with the record as the only indicator.
At Football Outsiders, we have several advanced metrics which tell us a lot more about a team's journey and the landmarks along the way. Here, we'll review the Browns' first half of the season and see where the team stands. Is this a legit 3-5 team, or are we seeing the beginning of something special?
FO's two primary stats are DVOA and DYAR. Their explanations are linked, but the easiest and best way to think of these metrics is as production and efficiency metrics adjusted for down, distance, situation, and opponent. DVOA is the per-play metric, and DYAR tells us what a player has done in a cumulative sense.
As it stands through Week 9 (and not counting the Thursday Night Football game between the Falcons and Ravens – we tabulate the efficiency metrics once a week), the Browns currently rank 14th in our overall DVOA metrics, and this is the best the Browns have looked since 2007, when Derek Anderson came out of nowhere and before le left just as quickly. They are 16th in offense, 15th in defense, and sixth in special teams, and we can see the upswing this year in that at the end of the 2009 season, the Browns ranked 25th overall – 24th in offense, 30th in defense, and third on special teams. How did the Browns get from there to here?
Obviously, the main man here is Peyton Hillis. We've discussed him in several Xs and Os articles, and he's a great story – not only is he an appealing guy; he also presents yet another wonderful opportunity to make fun of Josh McDaniels. It shows up in the advanced numbers – among qualifying running backs, Hillis ranks sixth in DYAR and fifth in DVOA, which means that in both play-by-play and cumulative efficiency, he's one of the best running backs in the NFL. More importantly, he ranks first in the league in Success Rate, which reflects the ability to make specific and key gains in crucial situations – it rewards a three-yard run on second-and-2 or third-and-goal from the three-yard line and tends to ignore that same three-yard run on first-and-15. So, from just about any standpoint you care to mention, Hillis is among the NFL's most effective offensive weapons.
The same cannot be said of the Cleveland receivers. Right now, the most efficient Browns receiver on both a cumulative and per-play basis is Josh Cribbs, who ranks 62nd in DYAR and 59th in DVOA. Chansi Stuckey ranks 75th and 77th, respectively. Mohammed Massoquoi hasn't been targeted enough to qualify as a league leader, but he wouldn't be, anyway, and this tells us that the problem might be the quarterbacks.
Through the first half of the 2010 season, Seneca Wallace has been the team's most efficient quarterback by far, which shouldn't be a surprise – the underrated long-time Holmgren backup was more efficient that Matt Hasselbeck in his last two years in Seattle. Wallace ranks 24th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA, and when you look at a guy with fewer snaps, DVOA should be taken into slightly sharper focus, because the individual effect might mean more than the cumulative. Jake Delhomme has been truly abysmal; only Todd Collins of the Chicago Bears has put up worse versions of our numbers, and he did that in mop=up duty after the New York Giants tried to kill Jay Cutler. Colt McCoy, who has impressed both Browns fans and outside observers with his poise, accuracy and mobility, actually has a better DVOA than Wallace – he ranks 11th, and the same proviso about taking DVOA into sharper focus with limited snaps applies here. We've seen bright young quarterbacks flame out before, but it seems that Mike Holmgren does know a thing or two about drafting quarterbacks.
The Browns' offensive line, as reflected by our Adjusted Line Yards metrics, is probably more of a product of Hillis' excellence than the other way around, though I have written before that Hillis may not be able to find a better set of blocking schemes for his abilities anywhere in the NFL. Cleveland currently ranks 19th in overall ALY, second in Power Success (Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown), and seventh in the percentage of plays in which a runner gets back to the line of scrimmage or gains yardage. Against the Patriots last week, Hillis ran the ball 29 times and had one negative play. One. That's ridiculous, and should be a very good indicator of the kind of player we're dealing with here.
Currently, the Browns rank 22nd against the pass, and seventh against the run. And if there's one thing that could keep the Browns from rising up and somehow surprising as a wild card team, it might be the pass defense. It's especially worrisome that the Browns rank 31st in DVOA against #1 receivers – this defense is doing good work against ancillary receivers and running backs, but the AFC North is chock full of potentially dangerous quarterbacks and marquee receivers – that's a real problem.
The improvement in the run defense – Cleveland ranked 30th in 2009 – has been graphic. We also keep track of Defensive Adjusted Line Yards, and the Browns look very good in certain aspects – 23rd in overall DALY, but fifth in defensive Power Success, and one of the best teams at stopping open-field rushers. The problem seems to be in sustaining dominance at the line of scrimmage; Cleveland is one of the NFL's worst teams when it comes to causing negative plays. Perhaps Peyton Hillis can play three-tech as well?
No surprise here; the Browns have ranked highly in special teams for years, and we all know that #16 has been the reason. The surprise this season is that the Browns are about league average in punt and kick return value, and they're among the league's best in punt and kick coverage.
What Does It All Mean?
Are the Cleveland Browns better than their record? The numbers, and consecutive wins over the Saints and Patriots, would seem to point in the direction of "Yes". Using our Estimated Wins statistic, which tabulates potential and prospective wins based on overall efficiency, the Browns have 4.8 "victories" (yes, we're also wondering how to pick up that coveted .8 win – perhaps Josh McDaniels can tell us), which puts them pretty close to Baltimore (5.8 Estimated Wins) and Pittsburgh (6.2). We also keep track of the DVOA metrics of opposing teams, and use those numbers to figure out who's had the toughest schedule to date, and who has an easier road ahead.
One of the reasons that the Browns' Estimated Win total is so much higher than the actual win total is that per DVOA, no team has had a tougher schedule to date than Cleveland, and according to DVOA of all teams at this point in time, the Browns have a far easier schedule down the stretch. Cleveland's remaining opponents combine to rank 23rd in DVOA. No other team in the top half of the Estimated Wins list has a losing record, so it's fairly easy and accurate to assume that the Browns, as they stand right now, are indeed the most dangerous 3-5 team in the NFL – and that term is neither pejorative nor meaningless. Instead, the numbers show that something successful is being built in Cleveland, and it's well worth enjoying.