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East Coast Offense: The Difference Between Variance and Permanent Change

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

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

  • The Giants performance at home against the Bears in Week 4 was no fluke. The team is beginning to grasp new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's scheme, and Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck are close to full strength again - which means they can get pressure without blitzing. And the secondary is vastly improved due to the arrival of free safety Antrel Rolle (who has been excellent so far) and the return of strong safety Kenny Phillips. Asked what he'd think if he were an opposing player looking at tape of the Giants defense right now, Rolle said: "Honestly, I'd be scared *%$#less."

  • At 6-0, 215, Hakeem Nicks isn't as big as Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald, but he's athletic and has huge hands, enabling him to go up and snatch passes out of the air like a much bigger receiver. He's a top-10 receiver.

  • Who's the best team in the NFC right now? The Falcons? Giants? Eagles?

  • What's wrong with the Packers and Saints? And while we're at it, the Colts?

  • Peyton Manning's receivers were well covered by KC's improving secondary, but Manning was throwing passes at his targets' knees and was bailed out a few times by Austin Collie making great catches on balls thrown behind him.

  • Aaron Rodgers is getting just 7.3 YPA despite completing 66.1 percent of his passes. That means he's just not getting the ball downfield. But Drew Brees is even worse with just 7.1 YPA on 71.4 percent completion percentage! Brees' average completion is less than 10 yards, i.e., everyone on his team has become Wes Welker. It's long overdue they got Robert Meachem involved in the fourth quarter last week - if the Saints have any hope of returning to the playoffs, they'll have to attack vertically.

  • Ryan Mathews looked sharp against Oakland - 9 carries for 56 yards - while Mike Tolbert was awful - 12 for 11 and a key fumble. Expect Mathews to take over going forward.

  • When the going gets tough, the Cowboys fold.

  • Terrell Owens leads the NFL in targets with 60. That's a pace for 192. Last year Andre Johnson led the NFL in that department with 171.

  • If the 49ers go 7-4 the rest of the way, they'll be 7-9 and probably win the NFC West. I think 6-5 is more likely.

  • I hate to say it because I love the idea of him, but Calvin Johnson is injury prone.

  • Michael Crabtree is back. Consider him a top-15 receiver the rest of the way. Vernon Davis is still a top-5 TE, but I wish he'd stop celebrating every first down like he was "Rudy" making that sack. Your team is 0-4, and you're trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter to the Eagles.

  • I got 80 to 1 odds in Vegas on Matt Cassel leading the NFL in passing yards. Why couldn't I have gone with Kyle Orton instead!

  • I don't think Brandon Lloyd and Malcom Floyd are top-10 receivers going forward. Top-20, I think is inarguable, but the Chargers will start running the ball more once they stop giving away so many bizarre special teams touchdowns. Lloyd is only 6-0, 194 and is in his eighth year in the league! You have to wonder how Josh McDaniels is able to get so much production out of Orton and this group of journeyman wideouts, when the Saints and Packers can hardly generate any offense.

  • Might the Lions defense be turning a corner? They shut out the Packers in the second half in Week 4, and held the Rams to six points (and the Rams aren't that bad).

    Things to Watch for in Week 6

  • Ben Roethlisberger returns to the Steelers

  • Falcons play in Philadelphia, a game between two of the NFC's early favorites, and another good test for Kevin Kolb.

  • Ravens at New England - the first game of the post-Moss era and not the most convenient opponent.

  • Jets at Denver - if Orton cracks 300 this week, there's really no stopping him.

  • Cowboys at Minnesota - two talent-loaded preseason favorites in the NFC are equally desperate.

    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

    %eam Opponent Percent Taken
    Steelers Browns 65.9%
    Giants Lions 22.1%
    Bears Seahawks 3.8%
    Chargers @Rams 3.5%
    Other N/A 4.7%

    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.