When the Results are Less Than the Sum of the PartsAs we inch towards the regular season, I’ve become acutely aware of media storylines going into the 2013 seasons. Storylines are, of course, necessary. Human nature looks for patterns in the chaos,1 and so building narratives around sports is natural.
For the 2013 Atlanta Falcons, this narrative arc is that the recent addition of Steven Jackson elevates the Falcons offense to “Elite.” The Elite Offense is one that can’t be stopped and will run rampant through the NFL. The only problem is that it’s not true. The Falcons aren’t even the best offense in the division.
The National Football League is chaotic. Every week provides surprises and disappointments and every week we unconsciously compare these aberrations to the narrative and either discard them or absorb into our preexisting framework. This subconscious game of connect-the-dots becomes more pronounced within sports media because each week there are something like 1700 active players in the league playing close to 1,000 minutes of football.2 There simply isn’t enough time to have an informed opinion about even a small fraction of the league so we’re forced to rely on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to make instantaneous judgments based on a small amount of information.
In the echo chamber of ESPN and sports websites, one dominant story tends to rise to the top of the heap and begins to inform on-and-off-air conversations. Mostly, this isn’t intentional: it’s the only way Trent Dilfer can go on live television every day and fill up airspace with pseudo-intelligent conversation about every team in the league.3
For the Falcons, the storyline that has been field-tested all offseason and groomed throughout preseason is that they are in possession of an “Elite Offense.” Now, this seems like a reasonable assertion. If you aren’t paying too close of attention, you’d immediately think of their offensive star power. The Falcons have an Elite Offense because they have a top 10 quarterback, two top 15 wide receivers, a Hall of Fame of tight end, and now a running back who’s racked up fantasy points on a pretty bad team for the last decade. Individually, Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzales, and now Steven Jackson, rank near the top of their respective player groups, so the easy conclusion is that as a unit, they’d be among the best offenses in the league.
And yet this team has never finished at the top of any offensive statistic since the core of the group (read: Matt Ryan) showed up in 2008. Sure, White, Jones, and Gonzalez seem like an unstoppable triumvirate, but they aren’t. Why is that? First, though, let’s start with the newest addition of this super team: Steven Jackson.
But what do we know about Steven Jackson? He’s a 30 year old running back (one year younger than Michael Turner) with 2,400 carries under his belt (750 more than Turner) and the driving narrative behind the move has been that the Falcons let go of the aging (and increasingly inefficient) Turner for a still productive Steven Jackson.
Adding Jackson has further bolstered the idea that the Falcons have had/will have an Elite Offense. In fact, it prodded their Hall of Fame tight end to call them the “perfect offense.”
Now I know this this largely just preseason hype language that comes out of every team’s camp at some point in July, but perfect? But the underlying truth is that Jackson is football old. He’s so old that he leads all active rushers in attempts by nearly five hundred carries. He’s so old that only 24 players in the history of the NFL finished their careers with more carries than he has going into the 2013 season. Jackson doesn’t make this offensive radically better, or even more diverse. He’s just another cog in an above average machine.
But Steven Jackson is still an improvement over what the Falcons have had in the last few seasons. At this point in his career, Jackson is a workhorse running back that has already been run into the ground by playing on an awful team, with an awful line, for an awful long time. This is a move Atlanta has already made once before with Tony Gonzalez (who was a workhorse tight end who had been run into the ground by playing on an awful team for an awful long time). Before coming to the Falcons, the combination of Jackson and Gonzalez had a combined one playoff win (coming way back in 2005).4 With or without Steven Jackson, there’s no proof that Atlanta is an elite offense. None. The preconception is, again, a cognitive shortcut used to form an opinion about a team without any terribly interesting points.
Having an abundance of talent on your roster doesn’t guarantee success (neither does referring to yourselves as a “Dream Team”). The individual components on Atlanta’s roster are objectively impressive. If you put any stock in the latest player ranking by ESPN, they’ve got four players in the 22.5
I’m sure if Roddy White or Julio Jones left Atlanta and went to a different team, they’d succeed and I’m sure Matt Ryan could do reasonably well if you took his toys away from him. Meanwhile, Marques Colston and Lance Moore remain two of the most underrated wide receivers in the league and Robert Meachem left the Saints and flamed out quicker than I thought physically possible. Until Jimmy’s abrupt rise in 2011, the Saints had succeeded with players that most of the league felt were propped up by the Saints offensive system.6 For the Saints, the cohesive whole was always exceeded the sum of the parts. Drew Brees and Sean Payton elevated the squad to a World Championship and everyone else was just along for the ride.
Atlanta seems to be the opposite. Their players are almost universally respected as being great, but final statistics just don’t mirror the talent on the field. To demonstrate this, I took a sampling of offensive statistics over the last five seasons that I feel is a representative sample of traditional and advanced statistics: total offensive rank, scoring offensive rank, 1st Down rank, Football Outsiders Offensive Efficiency rank, and Advanced NFL Stats’ Offensive Expected Points Added.7 The results show a team that is not so much “elite” as “above average.” In each instance, this is where they ranked that season against the rest of the league (so an elite offense would be expected to place in the top five of most categories).Does that look like a truly Elite Offense? They didn’t finish in the top two of any relevant statistical category at any point in the last five seasons and if you take omit first downs, they only breached the top five once (for scoring offense in 2010). Their average ranking across the board (the average of their year to year average) is a pedestrian 8.8. This demonstrates that the Falcons are, consistently, an above average offense. An offense that should be respected, not lauded. The Falcons don’t have the Elite Offense. They’ve never been in possession of in Elite Offense.
What they are is the most consistent team in the NFL. They don’t make many mistakes or reach far above their heads either. That’s why their best season was that funky 2010 season in which the rest the league couldn’t seem to string together 12 consecutive quarters of good football. They were the rock in the stormy sea.
And yet the narrative will remains that Atlanta is an Elite Offense. But to this point, it’s nothing more than a heuristic used by talking heads and fans alike. Atlanta wins games, and they have notable offensive weapons, ergo, they have Elite Offense.
Unless Atlanta can figure out a way to combine their talent to create something greater than the component parts, they’re going to hit a wall (hopefully sooner rather than later). The Falcons, believing that they are close to a championship have aggressively traded away draft picks in recent years (most notably for Julio Jones). This strategy only works in the short term. Now the Falcons are left with an unbalanced roster with a huge quarterback contract, a huge obligation coming to a skill player (Jones) and holes in both the offensive and defensive lines. The Saints, too, have positional holes as a result of focusing their efforts on building a great offense, but Drew Brees does a lot to smooth over the rougher spots on our roster.
Steven Jackson is an upgrade at running back, but that won’t elevate the Atlanta offense beyond what it’s been in the last few years. Just like the addition of Tony Gonzalez in 2009 didn’t dramatically enhance their offense the past few seasons.
I guess what I’m saying is Atlanta has a reckoning coming. The Falcons have been extraordinarily lucky the past few seasons: they haven’t suffered any substantial injuries, they win close games,8, and they rarely fumble. History tells us that these are things that are part of the larger chaos of an NFL season.
When that luck runs out and they’re left to rely on their pretty good offense and a weak defense, things will start to fall apart. Without an elite offense, their margin of error is much smaller than the Saints. All the while, the Saints will keep on pressing on with the only truly dominant offense in the division.
And while our defense may continue to rank among the worst in league, we have the offensive power to overcome all but the worst defenses. If the Saints had merely been the worst defense in the league last season, instead of being among the worst defenses of all time, the Saints would have probably still claimed a wild card berth last year. Now that Coach Payton is back, we can assume that we’ll be a more stable team.
In case you were wondering what a real Elite Offense looks like, just take a look at the Saints yearly averages:
- We ranked first in the league in eight categories (out of 25 categories) and finished in the top three in 60% of the time.The Falcons have built a crude copy of the Saints team over the past five years (they just don’t hit the extremes – the offense isn’t as good and the defense isn’t as bad), but the real difference lies in the huge gulf between Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.
- Matt Ryan is a serviceable quarterback.He could, in the mold of Joe Flacco, potentially win a Super Bowl if the circumstances are right. But he isn’t good enough to carry a team by himself. He isn’t good enough to make those weapons around him better.
- He may be paid like Drew Brees. But he’s ain’t no Drew. And come August 8th, I think that’ll be made pretty clear. Bring on Falcons Week ladies and gentlemen.