Looking at the standings, one might think that, with home field advantage, the (2-1) Dallas Cowboys should be a better team than the (1-2) New Orleans Saints. Of course, no one that has spent much time following the NFL believes that the record, especially this early in the season, is the end all be all for evaluating teams.

We all know the infamous take originally attributed to Henry Du Pré Labouchère, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." In sports, though, statistics are how we measure performance beyond just the wins and losses. In football, where sample sizes are so small, and the mean so cluttered, it behooves us to try to analyze things that have a higher correlation to winning than previous wins.

Fortunately, over the past several years, many statisticians a million times smarter than the author of this piece have spent countless hours devising formulas that they use to judge the quality of teams beyond the normal statistical measures. These advanced metrics allow us a glimpse into which teams are winning based on quality play, which ones are winning because of inept opponents and which ones have a horseshoe crammed up their chimneys.

So, let’s take a look at some of the statistical explanations for what kinds of team the 2014 Dallas Cowboys and 2014 New Orleans Saints have proven to be.

## Standard Statistics

**Dallas Cowboys**

Off Yds / G | Off. Pts / G | Def Yds / Gm | Def Pts / Gm | |

Total | 363.3 | 25.7 | 360.3 | 23.0 |

Rank | 12th | 8th | 21st | 18th |

**New Orleans Saints**

Off Yds / G | Off. Pts / G | Def Yds / Gm | Def Pts / Gm | |

Total | 421.7 | 26.0 | 379.7 | 24.0 |

Rank | 4th | 7th | 24th | (t)20th |

## Differential Rankings

There are generally two stats that are easily calculated that seem to have a high correlation to predicting future success; Passer Rating differential and Adjusted Net Yards Per Passing Attempt differential. Both are calculated by simply finding the difference between what your offense achieves in each category and taking away what your defense gives up. Teams with the larger differentials are more likely to have future success (read: wins) than those teams with smaller, or negative differentials.

As my good friend One.Cool.Customer over at Blogging The Boys can attest to right here, these stats have shown to be the most closely correlated stat to winning and losing outside of scoring differential. (I think we all know why that one ranks so highly.)

Here’s his take, but I implore you to follow the link and read the entire article. It’s from 2012 but should still rings very true today:

*The graph illustrates a fairly simple truth: the higher your passer rating differential, the higher the number of wins a team had last year. Conversely, the teams with the lowest number of wins had some of the worst passer rating differentials (PRD). *

*
In statistics this relationship between wins and PRD is called a correlation. The strength of the correlation is measured by the "correlation coefficient". The correlation coefficient measures the relationship between two variables. This coefficient is often referred to as "r²" and is expressed as a number between 1 and -1. The closer the r² number is to 1 or -1, the stronger the relationship between the two variables. The closer it is to zero, the weaker the relationship. *

*
R² between PRD and wins in 2011 was 0.80, an astonishingly high correlation. It is almost as good as scoring differential (0.85) at predicting the W/L record of an NFL team.*

Rk | Tm | G | Off Passer Rating | Def Passer Rating | Differential |
---|---|---|---|---|---|

1 | Cincinnati Bengals | 3 | 100.9 | 56.9 | 44 |

2 | Chicago Bears | 3 | 98.2 | 71 | 27.2 |

3 | New England Patriots | 3 | 82.9 | 57.4 | 25.5 |

4 | Carolina Panthers | 3 | 106.9 | 82.8 | 24.1 |

5 | Denver Broncos | 3 | 108.5 | 86.7 | 21.8 |

6 | Green Bay Packers | 3 | 95.1 | 77.1 | 18 |

7 | Seattle Seahawks | 3 | 109.5 | 96.5 | 13 |

8 | Atlanta Falcons | 3 | 102.4 | 91.7 | 10.7 |

9 | Indianapolis Colts | 3 | 101.8 | 92.5 | 9.3 |

10 | San Diego Chargers | 3 | 108.3 | 101.1 | 7.2 |

11 | Arizona Cardinals | 3 | 93.1 | 87.6 | 5.5 |

12 | Cleveland Browns | 3 | 96.5 | 91.1 | 5.4 |

13 | Washington Redskins | 3 | 103.4 | 99.3 | 4.1 |

14 | Detroit Lions | 3 | 84.1 | 80.4 | 3.7 |

15 | New Orleans Saints | 3 | 99.1 | 97.7 | 1.4 |

16 | Philadelphia Eagles | 3 | 95.5 | 94.9 | 0.6 |

17 | New York Giants | 3 | 84.3 | 84.2 | 0.1 |

Avg Team | 89 | 89 | 0 | ||

18 | San Francisco 49ers | 3 | 92.2 | 92.2 | 0 |

19 | Buffalo Bills | 3 | 89.8 | 90.4 | -0.6 |

20 | Tennessee Titans | 3 | 70.8 | 71.6 | -0.8 |

21 | Houston Texans | 3 | 92.2 | 93.4 | -1.2 |

22 | Dallas Cowboys | 3 | 86.1 | 91.4 | -5.3 |

23 | Baltimore Ravens | 3 | 82.3 | 93.2 | -10.9 |

24 | Pittsburgh Steelers | 3 | 92.1 | 105.3 | -13.2 |

25 | St. Louis Rams | 3 | 87.6 | 105.1 | -17.5 |

26 | Miami Dolphins | 3 | 74.1 | 92.3 | -18.2 |

27 | Kansas City Chiefs | 3 | 81.5 | 103.1 | -21.6 |

28 | New York Jets | 3 | 76.3 | 100.4 | -24.1 |

29 | Minnesota Vikings | 3 | 69.6 | 95.2 | -25.6 |

30 | Oakland Raiders | 3 | 74.9 | 101.8 | -26.9 |

31 | Jacksonville Jaguars | 3 | 81.1 | 110.3 | -29.2 |

32 | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 3 | 73.7 | 117.2 | -43.5 |

Despite some of the other metrics which we will look at a little later, the passer rating differential shows that the Saints (ranked 15th) are barely an above average team, and the Cowboys (22nd) are a little more below average than the Saints are above in this metric.

Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt, or ANY/A, comes in third with an R2 of 0.62. What exactly is ANY/A?

*
ANY/A: Adjusted net passing yards per attempt = (Passing Yards + (Passing TDs)*20 - (INTs thrown)*45 - Sack Yards) / (Passing Attempts + Sacks)*

Rk | Tm | G | ANY/A Allowed | ANY/A Allowed | Differential |
---|---|---|---|---|---|

1 | Cincinnati Bengals | 3 | 9.1 | 3.8 | 5.3 |

2 | Carolina Panthers | 3 | 8.6 | 5.6 | 3 |

3 | New England Patriots | 3 | 6.1 | 3.4 | 2.7 |

4 | Denver Broncos | 3 | 8.4 | 6.5 | 1.9 |

5 | Arizona Cardinals | 3 | 8.1 | 6.3 | 1.8 |

6 | Green Bay Packers | 3 | 7.4 | 5.7 | 1.7 |

7 | Seattle Seahawks | 3 | 8.4 | 6.8 | 1.6 |

8 | Chicago Bears | 3 | 6.8 | 5.3 | 1.5 |

9 | Detroit Lions | 3 | 7.1 | 6.1 | 1 |

10 | Atlanta Falcons | 3 | 8.6 | 7.7 | 0.9 |

11 | Houston Texans | 3 | 7.8 | 6.9 | 0.9 |

12 | Cleveland Browns | 3 | 8.1 | 7.4 | 0.7 |

13 | Philadelphia Eagles | 3 | 8.2 | 7.5 | 0.7 |

14 | Tennessee Titans | 3 | 5.6 | 4.9 | 0.7 |

15 | Buffalo Bills | 3 | 7.1 | 6.6 | 0.5 |

16 | San Diego Chargers | 3 | 8.7 | 8.3 | 0.4 |

Avg Team | 7 | 7 | 0 | ||

17 | San Francisco 49ers | 3 | 6.8 | 6.8 | 0 |

18 | Washington Redskins | 3 | 8.6 | 8.6 | 0 |

19 | Indianapolis Colts | 3 | 7.5 | 8.1 | -0.6 |

20 | Pittsburgh Steelers | 3 | 7.6 | 8.2 | -0.6 |

21 | Dallas Cowboys | 3 | 6.4 | 7.1 | -0.7 |

22 | New Orleans Saints | 3 | 7.5 | 8.2 | -0.7 |

23 | St. Louis Rams | 3 | 6.7 | 8.1 | -1.4 |

24 | New York Giants | 3 | 5.9 | 7.7 | -1.8 |

25 | Miami Dolphins | 3 | 5 | 6.9 | -1.9 |

26 | New York Jets | 3 | 5.7 | 7.7 | -2 |

27 | Baltimore Ravens | 3 | 5.9 | 8 | -2.1 |

28 | Jacksonville Jaguars | 3 | 6.7 | 9 | -2.3 |

29 | Kansas City Chiefs | 3 | 5.8 | 8.2 | -2.4 |

30 | Minnesota Vikings | 3 | 5 | 7.4 | -2.4 |

31 | Oakland Raiders | 3 | 4.8 | 7.4 | -2.6 |

32 | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 3 | 4.6 | 9.6 | -5 |

Whoa now, there’s hope! Dallas and New Orleans share the same below average ranking when it comes to ANY/A differential. It looks like when it comes to bad defense, New Orleans is doing much worse than Dallas is. Of course, neither of these metrics is adjusted for the opponent’s faced, so there is a little caveat. At this point, though, we’ll take it.

## Week 3 DVOA Ratings

DVOA (or VOA at this juncture of the season) is a metric that measures success on each play as compared to league average based on "a number of variables including down, distance, location on field, current score gap, quarter, and opponent quality." Due to it being so early in the season, FO can't truly define opponent quality, so for now they are excluding that from their calculations.

COWBOYS | Offense DVOA | Defense DVOA | ST DVOA | Total DVOA |
---|---|---|---|---|

Value | 3.30% | 8.50% | 3.10% | -2.10% |

Team Rank | 14 | 24 | 8 | 19 |

SAINTS | Offense DVOA | Defense DVOA | ST DVOA | Total DVOA |
---|---|---|---|---|

Value | 24.60% | 15.40% | 1.60% | 10.80% |

Team Rank | 1 | 31 | 10 | 13 |

Dallas Total VOA (Offense, Defense and ST) is -2.1% after Week 3. It's basically saying that if a team that played exactly at the league average was put in the exact situations Dallas has for two weeks, they would have performed at a 2.1% better clip than the Cowboys. That value ranks them 19th out of 32 NFL teams.

The interesting thing here is that despite the Saints 1-2 record, FO sees them as being the best offensive team in the league; better than both their scoring and yardage rankings would indicate. More importantly, Dallas and New Orleans are only separated by two total points on the season, but DVOA clearly thinks that the Saints are the more potent offense and by a wide margin, with almost half of the league (12 teams) ranked between them.

## Team EPA Per Game, Defense By Offense

Expected Points Added (EPA)

*The value of a football play has traditionally been measured in yards gained. Unfortunately, yards is a flawed measure because not all yards are equal. For example, a 4-yard gain on 3rd down and 3 is much more valuable than a 4-yard gain on 3rd and 8. Any measure of success must consider the down and distance situation.*

*
Suppose the offense has a 1st and 10 at midfield. This situation is worth +2.0 EP. A 5-yard gain would set up a 2nd and 5 from the 45, which corresponds to a +2.1 EP. Therefore, that 5-yard gain in that particular situation represents a +0.1 gain in EP. This gain is called Expected Points Added (EPA). Likewise, a 5-yard loss on 1st down at midfield would create a 2nd and 15 from the offense’s own 45. That situation is worth +1.2 EP, representing a net difference of -0.8 EPA.*

Basically what your looking at in the above interactive chart is that teams with Good Offenses and Good Defenses exist in the upper right quadrant. The further to the right, the better your offense, and the further “north” the better your defense.

One can clearly see how much better the Saints have performed on offense than the rest of the league and specifically Dallas. They are also hideously low on the defensive scale. Hover over each team in the interactive table above from AdvancedFootballAnalytics.com. For more information on this metric and it’s friend, Win Probability Added (WPA), I strongly recommend heading over to their website and checking out the glossary.

## EPA Breakdowns

Success Rate simply determines the percentage of plays that lead to a positive EPA. In other words, the Cowboys “averageness” isn’t a result of being average play by play, it’s that they make crushing mistakes, also known as turnovers.

COWBOYS | Offense EPA | Success Rate | Run EPA | Pass EPA |
---|---|---|---|---|

Value | 14.5 | 50 | -3.2 | 17.6 |

Team Rank | 16th | 6th | 17th | 16th |

SAINTS | Offense EPA | Success Rate | Run EPA | Pass EPA |
---|---|---|---|---|

Value | 47.1 | 57.3 | 11 | 36.1 |

Team Rank | 1st | 1st | 3rd | 2nd |

What you are seeing here is how well each team is doing on a play by play basis by increasing their chances to score. One thing that jumps out immediately is that despite having the leagues leading rusher, and by a large margin, Dallas is in the middle of the pack of Run EPA. The explanation is simple. Standard yardage stats don’t take into effect DeMarco Murray’s fumbling habits, but Run EPA clearly does. That’s how detrimental turning the ball over can be.

COWBOYS | Defense EPA | Success Rate | Run EPA | Pass EPA |
---|---|---|---|---|

Value | 18.6 | 47.8 | 1.9 | 16.6 |

Team Rank | 23rd | 31st | 21st | 16th |

SAINTS | Defense EPA | Success Rate | Run EPA | Pass EPA |
---|---|---|---|---|

Value | 33.1 | 55.7 | 6.6 | 26.5 |

Team Rank | 30th | 7th | 27th | 28th |

Basically what we’re looking at is that the Saints advantage on offense over the Cowboys is twice as large as the Cowboys sizeable advantage over the Saints when comparing their defenses.

## Summary

To summarize, it appears that the game should live up to it’s billing; a shootout where a bad defense faces off against an elite and efficient offense, and where a putrid defense squares up against an above average offense that turns the ball over way too much.

One metric that is gaining steam amongst NFL Teams is the Aikman Efficiency Rating. My pal OCC looked into this metric earlier today and it would behoove those interested in statistical measure to check it out there.

The advanced analytics say that the Saints should come out on top, but with all things… that’s why they play the game.