2021 NFL Statistical Team Rankings: Week 5

Now that 5 weeks are in the book and we have a decent sample size of statistics, we can start doing the statistical ranks.

For those who don’t know, last year in week 12 I created my own team ranking system based off their statistical ranks (1-32, with 1 being the best and 32 being the worst) across a number of different categories that I felt were the most important. Here is the link to the final rankings from last season (regular season only) so you can see how accurate they were.

For instance, one of the statistical categories I include in the rankings is rushing yards per game. Each team in the NFL gets a number, 1-32, based on where they rank in average rushing yards per game. The best team gets 1, the worst gets 32. I then do this for a bunch of different statistical categories to find a team’s “average rank” across all the categories. The lower the better.

I’ll briefly go over the 30 categories I look at:

  1. Strength of Schedule (double-weighted)
  2. Point differential
  3. Winning percentage (double-weighted)
  4. Win streak
  5. Turnover margin (double-weighted)
  6. Penalty yards
  7. Rushing yards per game
  8. Passing yards per game allowed
  9. Passing yards per game
  10. Rushing yards per game allowed
  11. Points per game
  12. Points per game allowed
  13. Yards per play (double-weighted)
  14. Yards per play allowed (double-weighted)
  15. Scoring drive percentage
  16. Scoring drive percentage allowed
  17. 3rd down conversion rate (offense)
  18. 3rd down stop rate (defense)
  19. QB pressure rate (defense)
  20. Sacks taken
  21. Sacks made
  22. Points per play (offense)
  23. Points per drive allowed (defense)
  24. Red Zone TD percentage
  25. Red Zone TD percentage allowed
  26. Offensive DVOA
  27. Defensive DVOA
  28. Average Net Yards per Attempt (offense)
  29. Rushing yards per attempt
  30. Passer rating

I think these 30 categories give us a pretty comprehensive picture of a team: what they do well, what they do poorly, and what they’re average at.

The goal is to have as few “blind spots” as possible, so if that means adding new categories to get a fuller and truer picture of a team, then I’m more than open to it. Some categories I’m considering adding to the list:

  • Early-down pass success rate: Chris Rayon of Action Network does a great job of explaining this here, but essentially this stat tells us how effective a team is at getting into what the play-by-play guys often refer to as “third-and-manageable,” i.e. a third down situation that is high success rate. If you can pass the ball well on first down, it means you’re less likely to end up in third-and-long situations. I’m hesitant to include this because it feels a bit redundant considering I already use third down conversion rate. However, the flip side to that is that third down conversion rate doesn’t tell us how far, on average, a given team has to go to convert its third downs. It implies it based on the success rate (i.e. we can assume that over the long term, the teams with higher third-down conversion rates are the teams that are best at getting into “third-and-manageable” situations, while the teams with low third-down conversion rates are the ones often facing “third-and-long” situations), but it doesn’t actually tell us definitively how good teams are at getting into “third-and-manageable.” The problem here is that I haven’t been able to find a website out there that keeps track of early-down pass success rate and/or average third down distance, both offensive and defensive. If anyone knows a place to find these stats, please let me know.
  • Either average yards allowed per opponent drive, average opponent drive time, or average plays run per opponent drive, as well as their offensive counterparts. All are available on Football Reference.
  • Explosive play rate: these are defined as pass plays of 20+ yards and run plays of 10+ yards. How many does a team get, on average, per game, and how many does a team allow, on average, per game? Because it is hard to string together plays in the NFL, and because the most efficient offense is one that can score on a single play (like a long run or a deep bomb), a big part of success in the NFL is getting explosive plays while limiting the other team’s explosive plays. You want your offense to score in as few plays as possible, and you want the other team’s offense to have to run a lot of plays to get down the field. The more plays the opposing team has to run, the more their odds increase of making a mistake. Now, obviously the best situation for your defense is a three-and-out, but the point here is that it’s important to limit the opposing team’s explosive plays, because explosive plays greatly increase an offense’s chances of scoring on a given drive.
  • Toxic Differential: This is a stat that former Ravens coach Brian Billick came up with, and it essentially combines turnover margin and explosive play margin. You take a team’s turnover margin and add it to their explosive play margin, and that’s Toxic Differential. However, since we already count turnover margin, all we’d really need to do here is include explosive play margin in the statistical categories and we’d have Toxic Differential covered. If anyone knows where to find data on explosive play differential, let me know. In the meantime I’ll keep searching.
  • Special Teams: This is the single biggest blind spot in my statistical rankings. I don’t include anything about special teams at all. I want to, but I have no idea what stats to include. Field goal accuracy? Touchback rate? I’m going to look into this next week and add a special teams section. The problem is that it has to only be a few categories in order to ensure it’s not weighted as much as offense and defense.
  • Average starting field position/opponent’s average starting field position. Drive success is based a lot on where you start your drives. And your defense is put in a bad spot if the opponent starts their drive in favorable field position more often. This has a lot to do with both offense and special teams. A bad offense is less likely to move the ball and pick up first downs, meaning it’s more likely to have to punt from deep in its own territory. And a bad punt team will result in the opponent having better starting field position.

These are the statistical categories I have in mind for future tweaks to the ranking system.

But for now, we’ll go with the system I had settled on by the end of last season.

So here are the rankings as of week 5:

Some takeaways:

  • It’s not really a surprise that the Bills are by-far the top team in the NFL right now. They rank extremely highly in almost every defensive category, and they’re in the top half of the league in most offensive ones, too. They are playing the best football in the league right now. Sure, they’ve played the second-easiest schedule in the league, but these rankings double-weight strength of schedule, so that’s already been factored in.
  • Not to toot my own horn or anything, but my rankings have the Browns and Chargers about dead even. We just saw the Browns and Chargers play on Sunday, and the game was very close–came down to the wire, and probably could’ve gone either way.
  • The Cowboys are for real. They’re a legit Super Bowl contender right now. As are the Cardinals.
  • The Bucs are ranked 7th, which seems low, but they have the worst pass defense in the NFL. That weighs you down. My rankings value completeness.
  • The Saints as a top-10 team might be the biggest surprise. But the truth is, they’re pretty efficient (although flawed) on offense, and have been really good on defense.
  • The Chiefs at 17? How is that possible? Well, they’re simply awful on defense. Just atrocious. They’re elite in most offensive categories–even rushing–but when you’re bottom of the league in most defensive categories, it’s going to average out and place you somewhere around the middle of the pack, which is right where the Chiefs are. Now, you could argue that offense is more important and should be weighed more than defense, but if that’s the case, why can’t the Chiefs offense overcome their awful defense? We need to stop ignoring the Chiefs record: they are 2-3 for a reason, and that reason is that they’re the worst defense in the NFL. It’s not a fluke that they’re 2-3.
  • The worst team in the league isn’t the Jaguars, or even the Lions. It’s the Dolphins. They’re just so bad across the board. They do virtually nothing well.

Those are the initial rankings for week 5. I’ll update them weekly going forward.

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