The Difference Between Variance and Permanent Change
There's a lot of week-to-week variance in the NFL, but sometimes things actually change substantially and permanently. I've written about it in the past - that teams often fluctuate along a "capacity" axis, playing either their "A" games or their "C" games, but remaining at a certain baseline around which that fluctuation occurs. Conversely, teams also sometimes move along an "identity" axis - where it's not just variance around a baseline, but an actual shift in the baseline itself.
The Giants seem to be a different team (identity change) the last couple games than they were when the season started, and the Saints seem to be different from last year's version. The Chargers, on the other hand, despite being 2-3, seem to be more or less the same team as always, plus or minus a few special teams disasters. I could be wrong about these examples, and we don't always get a clear answer one way or the other - it's often a very fine line. But I think it's a useful way to understand teams (and players), so we can at least ask the relevant question: Has something fundamentally changed (identity) or have recent fluctuations in performance just been due to variance (capacity)?
That's why I wasn't overly worried about Ray Rice heading into last week because even though his early performance was poor, his situation was more or less the same as it was heading into the year. I'd say the same for a player like Ryan Mathews going forward, now that it looks like he's mostly over his ankle injury.
In some cases, it's hard to see exactly what's so different about the situation, but the performance is such an overwhelming outlier from anything done previously we must assume the change is for real, e.g., Kyle Orton's started the year at an historically productive pace - only Kurt Warner (in 2000) has ever had more yards over the first five games of an NFL season (Hat tip: DDD). The odds of that happening to a 7.0 YPA QB from last year after losing the highest-paid receiver in NFL history due to simple variance are slim. Something is different about Orton and/or the team whether we can easily explain it or not. Orton, Peyton Manning or anyone else, is, of course, unlikely to keep up a record-setting pace (5546 yards), but he's also unlikely to return to being the Orton we once knew. Brandon Lloyd (more on him below) also fits this description.
In other cases, players like Greg Jennings appear healthy but are simply not producing. While Jennings has just 31 targets (32nd among receivers), the real problem is he's averaging just 5.9 YPT. (Jennings averaged a robust 9.3 YPT in 2009 and 9.2 in 2008). For whatever reason, the Packers simply aren't getting the ball down the field like they used to. But is this a case of Green Bay just playing below its capacity for a short stretch, or, assuming Aaron Rodgers doesn't miss more than one game, is Jennings still more or less in the same situation as last year? I don't know the answer. (I realize Jermichael Finley just got hurt, but if anything that should help Jennings, and the Packers played several games without Finley last year, too.) Even so, Jennings is a player I'd target because while I don't know why he's had such a severe drop-off, I know that should he reverse it, the payoff would be big. Essentially, he's similar in that respect to Michael Crabtree a week ago.
Things to Take from Week 5
Beating the Book
Jets -3 at Broncos
The Jets look like the real deal, but this strikes me as a letdown game - short week, coming off a big Monday night win and having to travel and play in altitude while laying three points. Maybe the Jets are good enough to pull it off, but this is a high degree of difficulty. Back Denver.
Broncos 20 - 19
Last week we won with the Cardinals to go 4-1 in this forum and 40-35-3 on the season. We were 10-7 in this forum last season, 131-122 overall. We were 12-5 in this forum in 2008. From 1999-2009 we've gone 1439-1262 (53.3%, not including ties).
The full article comes out on Thursday morning.
Surviving Week 6
The Colts took care of business for us last week, though it was a little more dramatic than I would have liked.
This week, there are four viable choices: The Steelers hosting the Browns, the Giants hosting the Lions, the Bears hosting the Seahawks and the Chargers at the Rams.
Here are the current pick-distribution numbers according to OfficeFootballPool.com.
I'll crunch more numbers when the full article comes out Thursday night, but my first instinct here is to take the Giants because so many people are on the Steelers, and the payoff would be huge should Pittsburgh lose. The Lions are improving, and I don't necessarily think New York will have an easy time with them. But with Calvin Johnson banged up, and the Giants defense playing well, they should be able to pull it out. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind when the full article comes out Thursday night.