Commentary

The best and worst of 2008

Originally Published: December 29, 2008
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

All year, we've analyzed the best and worst games of each week in this space using Football Outsiders' advanced statistics for measuring performance. Now it's time for our yearly review of the best and worst players of the entire season using those same metrics (which are explained here).

As regular readers of Quick Reads are likely aware, our statistics do often veer away from conventional wisdom and traditional statistics, with the goal of measuring performance versus the league average while accounting for the context in which each play is run. That's evidenced by our opinion of boom-or-bust running back Adrian Peterson. Although he had enough booms to lead the league in rushing yards, his DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) and DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) are in the middle of the pack for starting runners because of the context in which those yards were gained, as well as the disappointing fumble problems Peterson experienced throughout the year.

On the other hand, our statistics sometimes confirm what you might already expect. Because of the sheer number of passes he threw this year, Drew Brees rates as the best quarterback in the league by DYAR, our cumulative statistic. On an average play-by-play basis, though, Peyton Manning edged out Brees to win the DVOA crown. Think of it like having the most passing yards in the league as opposed to the best quarterback rating, if those stats were more accurate.

Top 5 quarterbacks

1. Drew Brees, Saints: 1,976 DYAR (1,983 passing DYAR, -7 rushing)
2. Peyton Manning, Colts: 1,687 DYAR (1,709 passing, -22 rushing)
3. Kurt Warner, Cardinals: 1,502 DYAR (1,513 passing, -11 rushing)
4. Philip Rivers, Chargers: 1,500 DYAR (1,504 passing, -4 rushing)
5. Jay Cutler, Broncos: 1,333 DYAR (1,319 passing, 14 rushing)

Brees has a healthy lead on Manning by DYAR, but he also threw 75 more passes than Manning; that's why we mentioned that Manning's DVOA (36.0%, best in football) just nudged out Brees' (34.0%). Meanwhile, previous DVOA leader Matt Ryan (who finished seventh in DYAR) had one of his worst games as a pro and dropped to fourth in DVOA for the season.

Bottom 3

1. J.T. O'Sullivan, 49ers: -392 DYAR (-414 passing DYAR, 22 rushing)
2. J.P. Losman, Bills: -278 DYAR (-312 passing, 34 rushing)
3. Marc Bulger, Rams: -259 DYAR (-265 passing, 6 rushing)

Drew Brees
David Stluka/Getty ImagesSaints QB Drew Brees had an outstanding season, no matter how you evaluate his performance.

The message is clear: Quarterbacks who employ initials are doomed to fail. Losman's -57.1 percent DVOA was the worst among qualifiers (100 passes) by a wide margin. Although he didn't get to the 100-attempt threshold, Brad Johnson earned -199 passing DYAR and had a DVOA of -50.8 percent. The difference between his DVOA and that of Dallas starter Tony Romo (18.5%) was the second-largest since 1995. The only time there was a bigger drop-off from starter to backup was when Spurgeon Wynn had to replace an injured Daunte Culpepper back in 2001.

Better than his standard statistics made him look: Romo, who had the biggest gap between his DVOA and his VOA (which is the same stat without opponent adjustments). In Romo's 13 starts this year, he had to face the league's best pass defense (Pittsburgh), its second-best pass defense (Baltimore), its fifth-best pass defense twice (Philadelphia), its seventh-best pass defense (Green Bay), and its ninth-best pass defense (the Giants). So almost half his starts came against the best pass defenses in the league (according to our ratings, not the silly NFL rankings by total yardage).

Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Brett Favre, Jets. Favre got to play the sieve-like secondaries of Denver, Seattle, St. Louis, New England (twice) and Kansas City. All of those teams rank among the seven worst pass defenses in the league.

Best quarterbacks of Week 17: Brees (225 DYAR) and Matt Schaub, Texans (213 DYAR).

Worst quarterback of Week 17: Bruce Gradkowski, Browns (-139 DYAR). His performance in the final two games of the year earned him an incredible DVOA of -192.6 percent.

All 2008 quarterback numbers here.

Top 5 running backs

1. Derrick Ward, Giants: 375 DYAR (274 rushing DYAR, 102 receiving)
2. Kevin Faulk, Patriots: 365 DYAR (180 rushing, 185 receiving)
3. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers: 361 DYAR (367 rushing, -6 receiving)
4. Clinton Portis, Redskins: 336 DYAR (285 rushing, 51 receiving)
5. Thomas Jones, Jets: 325 DYAR (253 rushing, 72 receiving)

Ward ahead of Williams?!? You can thank each player's performance in the passing game. If we look strictly at how the running backs did carrying the ball out of the backfield, Williams is numero uno, with Brandon Jacobs (308 rushing DYAR) right behind him. Because those players had no impact in the passing game, though, guys like Ward and Faulk jumped ahead of them. A first down is a first down, regardless of whether it came through the air or on the ground, and Ward (58) grabbed enough of them to pull himself ahead of Williams (51). Ward was excellent as a receiver, averaging 9.4 yards per reception. Faulk averaged 8.4 yards per catch, but had 74 passes thrown to him on the year, a figure that tops most wide receivers.

Williams had the 20 touchdowns, of course, but that number is inflated slightly by the fact that he had four touchdowns from the 1-yard line, a distance from which virtually all teams score when given four downs.

Bottom 3

1. Chris Perry, Bengals: -218 DYAR (-139 rushing DYAR, -79 receiving)
2. Justin Fargas, Raiders: -71 DYAR (-60 rushing, -11 receiving)
3. Tim Hightower, Cardinals: -68 DYAR (-73 rushing, 5 receiving)

Perry came close to history. In the 14 years that we've calculated DVOA, only one running back has put up a more embarrassing DVOA with 100 or more carries than Perry's -39.6 percent: Lamar Smith, who had a DVOA of -39.7 percent for the 1998 New Orleans Saints. Smith averaged 3.3 yards per carry and was a competent receiver, though. Perry averaged only 2.6 yards per carry, had five fumbles to Smith's three and was both the worst runner and receiver in the league.

[+] EnlargeLe'Ron McClain
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesThe underrated Le'Ron McClain excelled against some of the league's best run defenses.

Perry's total DYAR is the fourth-worst for running backs with 100 carries in the history of DVOA (since 1995). First in that category, with -276 DYAR in 2001? Why, that would be Lamar Smith! Smith had moved on to the Dolphins and had seen his receiving skills slip, while he continued to struggle to run the ball and fumbled more. Smith accrued his DYAR in a full season, though. Perry was around for about half a campaign before the Bengals finally sat him down.

Although Hightower has been regarded as a success story in fantasy circles, that doesn't bear any relationship to reality. His fame is due to a large touchdown total, which has everything to do with the chances he has gotten to score from inside the 5-yard line. Hightower actually converts touchdowns at a below-average rate inside the 5, ruining his rep as a short-yardage back.

Better than his standard statistics made him look: Le'Ron McClain, Ravens. The Ravens' short-yardage dynamo converts first downs at a much higher rate than the rest of his teammates, and did so against the league's toughest slate of run defenses: Pittsburgh (twice), Philadelphia, Tennessee, Cincinnati (twice, and yes, the Bengals have a good run defense), and the Giants all tried to stop McClain, leading to a sizable gap between his VOA (1.0%) and his DVOA (7.5%). That doesn't even count the fact he had to run against his own defense in practice.

Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Darren McFadden, Raiders. Not that McFadden had great statistics as a rookie, but he had a tissue-soft schedule of run defenses and had only one big game. That came against the Chiefs, whose rush defense is sixth-worst in the league. Fifty of his 497 rushing yards came on one play against Kansas City, and 33 percent of his rushing yards on the year came in that one fateful game. That's simply not enough production for the rest of the year.

Best running backs of Week 17: Darren Sproles, Chargers (67 DYAR), Tatum Bell, Broncos (60 DYAR) and Steven Jackson, Rams (54 DYAR). Michael Turner's 208-yard day finishes sixth because of the opponent adjustments related to playing the Rams. Jackson has a knack for Week 17 heroics -- he destroyed the Vikings in 2006 in his best game as a pro, garnering 164 yards and four scores.

Worst running back of Week 17: Larry Johnson, Chiefs (-42 DYAR). In what could only be described as an intensely gutsy call, Johnson decided that the postgame press conference was the right time for him to request a trade, only a year after signing a mammoth contract to stay in Kansas City.

All 2008 running back numbers here.

Top 5 wide receivers

1. Andre Johnson, Texans: 489 DYAR
2. Roddy White, Falcons: 416 DYAR
3. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: 410 DYAR
4. Steve Smith, Panthers: 379 DYAR
5. Vincent Jackson, Chargers: 375 DYAR

Although this is clearly a young man's list, it remains impressive to see Smith make an appearance as one of the five most productive wideouts in football despite missing two games due to injury. Well, Ken Lucas' injury.

On a per-throw basis, the best receiver in the league was Saints deep threat Devery Henderson, who averaged nearly 25 yards per catch and had a 36.5 percent DVOA. Jackson was second; Anthony Gonzalez of the Colts was third.

Bottom 3

1. Justin McCareins, Titans: -101 DYAR
2. Shaun McDonald, Lions: -49 DYAR
3. Braylon Edwards, Browns: -40 DYAR

McCareins "impressively" topped the list by a huge margin, thanks to some fumble issues and a very dangerous 9-of-25 showing on third down. He caught only 42 percent of the passes thrown to him when the league-average catch rate was right around 59 percent. He couldn't create after the catch, gaining an average of only 3 yards. McCareins once had a promising career in Tennessee, but the Titans would be better off letting him depart once more.

Better than his standard statistics made him look: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Bengals. You're familiar with his issues of having to go through multiple quarterbacks and fellow wideouts this year, but Houshmandzadeh had a very good under-the-radar season. His numbers suffered from a tough schedule, as he ranked 34th in DVOA and 47th in VOA. Teams making a move for the unrestricted free agent will be pleasantly surprised.

Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Terrell Owens, Cowboys. Yes, he had more than 1,000 receiving yards and snagged 10 touchdowns, but he also caught just 49 percent of intended passes. That's not a Brad Johnson issue; his catch rate with Romo was just 50 percent. Calvin Johnson (52 percent) was the only other 1,000-yard receiver with a catch rate below 55 percent.

Best wide receiver of Week 17: Andre Johnson (80 DYAR). Against a very decent Bears pass defense, Johnson caught 10 of the 13 passes thrown to him for 148 yards, scoring two times in the process. Also, Vincent Jackson (69 DYAR).

Worst wide receiver of Week 17: Roy Williams, Cowboys (-43 DYAR). Seven throws to him yielded two catches and 4 yards.

All 2008 wideout numbers here.

Top 5 tight ends (numbers do not include blocking)

1. Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs: 236 DYAR
2. Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings: 219 DYAR
3. Jason Witten, Cowboys: 197 DYAR
4. Owen Daniels, Texans: 185 DYAR
5. Dallas Clark, Colts: 179 DYAR

In past years, we've argued that Clark is a wide receiver with a tight end's number, thanks to his propensity to line up in the slot. Thanks to the emergence of Anthony Gonzalez, though, Clark played much more tight end in 2008 and was very effective.

The unlikely player who moves out to wide receiver all the time now, though, is future Hall of Famer Gonzalez. When the Chiefs employ their "Pistol" offense, Gonzalez splits out wide and lines up by himself, often against a cornerback. This is the 10th straight season in which Gonzalez finished in the top three among tight ends in DYAR, and the fifth time he was No. 1.

Bottom 3

1. Desmond Clark, Bears: -110 DYAR
2. Robert Royal, Bills: -89 DYAR
3. Benjamin Watson, Patriots: -73 DYAR

With Greg Olsen taking a larger role in the passing game, Clark went back to being a blocker first and a receiver second. He converted only four of 11 third downs. Royal has awful hands. Watson continues to regress since the beginning of his career.

Better than his standard statistics made him look: Brent Celek, Eagles. Celek had only 288 receiving yards on the year, but he had a big day against a Seahawks team that featured two Pro Bowlers at linebacker. He also faced a tough slate of tight-end defenses as the year went along, although L.J. Smith got most of the coverage from the opposition's primary safety or linebacker in man alignments.

Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Dante Rosario, Panthers. Rosario's big Week 1 made him a household name, but he spent most the rest of the year blocking for the excellent Panthers' running game. Meanwhile, the Chargers' defense he torched in that first game ended up as the worst pass defense against tight ends for the season.

Best tight end of Week 17: Anthony Fasano, Dolphins (29 DYAR), with three catches on three passes for two first downs and a touchdown.

Worst tight end of Week 17: Casey FitzSimmons, Lions (-38 DYAR). FitzSimmons caught one of the seven passes thrown to him for 7 yards.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.