While it is not to the savant level that baseball numbers crunchers break down situational statistics, the NFL is no stranger to using rankings based on stats.
In a tepidly active sport like baseball, which has so much down time such statistics come in handy, football is a sport that sometimes defies statistical analysis based merely on raw numbers.
For example, according to the official NFL ratings bar, the top offenses and defenses should be where you find the Super Bowl favorites. It works in other sports like clockwork. But the NFL is a different animal.
According to the statistics, of the best offenses, more than half of the teams in the top 11 are not playoff teams. An argument can made for San Diego and Chicago being in the mix, but there is no hope for Atlanta and Houston and the only way Washington or Philadelphia makes the postseason is for Dallas to completely implode.
Of the top-10 ranked defenses, the list includes Houston, Carolina, Cleveland, the Jets, Pittsburgh and Oakland. The only way those teams make it to the playoffs is if they buy tickets.
The numbers are an effective tool of drawing comparative analysis on different teams, but it’s far from an exact science. Where it is useful, much like global warming data, is when it is at the poles – the best and the worst in comparison to the other teams.
When trying to identify an elite or a vulnerable team, one has to look at being in the top 25 percent of the league or the bottom 25 percent. That tells you in quick summation whether you are one of the elite or one of the dregs.
In terms of the data the NFL spews out, there are 34 standards by which teams are rated – 17 viewed as offensive and 17 as defensive. When you break down a team, you look for what they do really well and what they do really badly. Top 25 percent, bottom 25 percent become the benchmarks. Either you’re eighth or better or 25th or worse.
Through seven games, if you need to know why the Vikings are 1-6, there are key rankings that scream the point out loud.
THE TOP 25
The Vikings have some envied spots on the league stat sheet. They are sixth in rushing average (4.6 yards), second in punt return average (15.9 yards), first in kick return average (33.3 yards), opponent gross punting average (42.0 yards) and net punting average (36.8 yards).
Four of their five top-25 categories are linked and doubled-up on special teams – three huge returns have given the Vikings offense and defense league kudos despite being special teams plays.
So, how about the bottom 25? If you’re a Sunday morning drinker, keep the bottle close.
THE BOTTOM 25
Offensively, the Vikings are 29th in yards per game (305.9), 27th in passing yards a game (202.6), 25th in average gain per pass (6.23) and first downs per game (16.7).
Defensively, Minnesota is 30th in yards per game (401.6), 29th in passing yards a game (287.9), 26th in sacks per pass play percentage (5 percent), 32nd in first downs per game (24.1), 32nd in third-down efficiency (51 percent), tied for 27th in fourth-down efficiency (75 percent), 27th in punt return average (11.8 yards), 31st in kick return average, (27.7 yards), 30th in points per game allowed (32.1) and tied for 30th in opponent field goal percentage (100).
Considering the four of the five elite rankings are lock-stepped together and have nothing to do with offense or defense, they can effectively be negated. What we’re left with is a glaring problem.
The only stat the Vikings are elite in is the average gain when they run the ball with Adrian Peterson. They are in the bottom quarter – Dreg Country – in 14 separate categories.
Giving points for the mutual special teams double-ups, that comes to a record of 3-14 on the elite-to-dreg scale. Considering the Vikings are 1-6, that sounds about right.
The numbers, as much as they may come with an asterisk, explain why the Vikings are 1-6 seven games into a 16-game schedule. If they stay there, you can do the math. Barring a nine-game run of success, the playoffs are out of reach for the Vikings this season. What isn’t out of reach is making the most out of the 34 comparative statistical categories the Vikings are being measured with against the rest of the league in their final nine games.
What is past is prologue for the Vikings. The return to the playoffs is already being put in decimal points of probability. But, what will the second half of the season bring? They hope it’s better than a 3-14 elite-to-dreg scale.
VIKINGS-COWBOYS BY THE NUMBERS
The Vikings have the 29th-ranked offense (17th rushing, 27th passing) and the 30th-ranked defense (21st rushing, 29th passing).
The Cowboys have the 14th -ranked offense (27th rushing, 8th passing) and the 32nd-ranked defense (17th rushing, 32nd passing).
The Vikings are averaging 306 yards a game (203 passing, 103 rushing). They have allowed 402 yards a game (288 passing, 114 rushing).
Dallas has averaged 342 yards a game (261 passing, 81 rushing). The Cowboys have allowed 423 yards a game (316 passing, 107 rushing).
Dallas is tied for second in the giveaway/takeaway ratio at plus-9 (19 takeaways, 10 giveaways). Minnesota is tied for 20th at minus-2 (13 takeaways, 15 giveaways).
The Cowboys are third in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 18 of 26 possessions (69.2 percent). The Vikings are 15th at 52.6 percent (19 possessions, 10 touchdowns).
Minnesota is 19th in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 18 of 31 possessions (58.1 percent). Dallas is 24th at 60.7 percent (28 possessions, 17 touchdowns).
The only other team that has allowed more defensive red zone possessions than the Vikings is Jacksonville (37).
The Vikings are 15th in third-down offense, converting 36 of 94 opportunities – 38.3 percent, which is the exact league-wide average. The Cowboys are 24th in third-down offense at 35.5 percent (33 of 93).
The Vikings defense is last on third downs, allowing first downs on 53 of 104 (51 percent). Dallas is at 37.4 percent (40 of 107).
The average starting position of an offensive drive following a kickoff is the 21.4-yard line. Nobody has a better disparity than the Cowboys. They are third in average offensive starting position at the 24.0-yard line and second defensively at the 20.0-yard line.
The Vikings are to the extreme in that stat. They are first offensively with an average starting point of the 26.1-yard line – almost five yards better than the league average and only two other teams (Chicago and Dallas) are within three yards of that benchmark. Defensively, the Vikings rank 30th, allowing an average starting point of the 23.7-yard line.
Tony Romo has two 300-yard passing games, including the 2013-leading week of 506 yards against Denver. The Vikings don’t have a 300-yard passer among the three 2013 starters.
Dallas has allowed four 300-yard passers. The Vikings have allowed three.
If the Cowboys give up a big day passing, it is really a big day. Through the first eight weeks of the season, there have been 14 passing days of 400 yards or more. Four of them have come against the Cowboys. The other 31 NFL teams have combined for 10.
Romo is in the top 25 percent in almost every statistical category. He is sixth in attempts (295), fourth in completions (195), seventh in completion percentage (66.1 percent), sixth in yards (2,216), third in touchdowns (18), fourth in touchdown percentage (6.1 percent), seventh in interception percentage (1.7 percent) and fifth in passer rating (101.7).
If Romo has a downside, it’s on third down. He ranks 26th in third-down passer rating at 67.2, with three of his five interceptions coming on third-down plays.
The Cowboys have five 100-yard receiving games – three from Dez Bryant and one each from Terrence Williams and Jason Witten. The Vikings have two, both from Jerome Simpson.
Both the Vikings and Cowboys defenses have allowed six 100-yard receivers, with Dallas being on the hook for Megatron’s 329-yard smackdown last week.
It could be good news for Kyle Rudolph today. Of the six 100-yard receivers the Cowboys have allowed, two of them are tight ends – Antonio Gates and Julius Thomas.
Adrian Peterson has two 100-yard rushing games. Dallas has one from DeMarco Murray.
Neither the Vikings nor the Cowboys have allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
Peterson is fifth in the league with 571 rushing yards. None of the four players ahead of him have had their bye week yet. Pro-rated, A.D. trails only LeSean McCoy, who leads the league with 733 rushing yards. Murray is 15th with 428 yards – the most yards by any running back with less than 108 carries. Murray has just 91 rushing attempts.
Bryant is tied for 14th in receptions with 45. Witten is 28th with 37. Rudolph leads the Vikings with 28 receptions, tying him for 60th place.
Bryant is eighth in receiving yardage with 641. Williams is 31st with 444. Simpson leads the Vikings with 422 yards, good enough for 38th place in the league.
Bryant is tied for third in scoring among non-kickers with 48 points (eight touchdowns). Peterson is tied for seventh with 42 points (seven TDs).
Peterson is 11th in total yards from scrimmage with 695 (571 rushing, 124 receiving). Bryant leads the Cowboys with 642 (641 receiving, 1 rushing) – good enough for 20th place.
Dallas kicker Danny Bailey is tied for sixth with 66 points in eight games. Blair Walsh is tied for 26th with 49 points in seven games.
It could be bad news for Cordarrelle Patterson, since Bailey is tied for second in the league with 34 touchbacks on kickoffs. Of 48 Bailey kickoffs, only 14 of them have been returned.
Vikings punter Jeff Locke is 13th in punting average at 46.2 yards. Chris Jones of the Cowboys is 24th at 44.1 yards.
Locke is 25th in net punt average at 39.1 yards. Jones is 24th at 39.2 yards.
Dallas’ Dwayne Harris is third in the league with a punt return average of 15.8 yards. Marcus Sherels would be third at 15.9 yards per return, but given his penchant for calling for fair catches, he doesn’t have enough returns to qualify at eight. The good news is that he isn’t far behind the curve. Devin Hester of the Bears is listed among the league leaders and he has just nine returns.
Touchbacks will be at a premium today. Only 19 teams have a player with enough kick returns to qualify for the league leadership and Nos. 1 and 2 will be on display Sunday (as mannequins?). Patterson leads the league with a phenomenal 39.1-yard average. Harris is second at 35.7 yards.
What make Harris’ numbers so impressive is that Patterson has two 105-yard-plus returns to his credit. Harris hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown, yet has posted some gaudy numbers.
Dallas linebacker Sean Lee is tied for the league lead with four interceptions. Three Vikings are tied for 23rd place with two – Harrison Smith, Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson.
Dallas defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is tied for seventh in sacks with seven. Jared Allen is tied for 21st place with 4.5 sacks.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.