Past As Prologue: Wade Phillips, Year Two

Back in the halcyon days of August 2011, I wrote a post that looked at how teams had improved on defense in their first year with Wade Phillips calling the shots. Specifically, that post looked at how each of the defenses had performed, relative to the rest of the league, across nine categories in the year before Wade arrived and in Wade's first season. Using that data, I offered an estimate for what kind of improvement we could reasonably hope to see out of the Texans' defense in 2011. (As it turned out, that estimate was decently close, but ultimately too conservative.)

I mention this because it has become de rigueur lately for some sports bloggers to claim that Wade Phillips' defenses have showed a marked decline in performance in Year Two. Case in point: this Bleacher Report post, wherein Nate Dunlevy turned the hyperbole to 11 and wrote that the Texans' defense "will collapse" in 2012.

While Nate bases his conclusion on a cursory look at teams' rankings in points allowed and DVOA, it bears repeating that people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. (Forfty percent of people know that.) As with most things, context in these sorts of evaluations is king. So, rather than take some poorly reasoned post at its word, I thought we'd take a more comprehensive look at Wade Phillips' track record in Year Two, including more statistical categories as well as other factors like personnel changes, injuries, general observations about specific stats' consistency from year to year in the NFL, etc.

As with the original post, the first year listed for each team is the season prior to Wade's arrival, while the second year is his first season with the team. The third year, then, is Wade's second season with the team. The numbers in each column are the teams' respective ranks among NFL teams in the categories. The categories are, left to right, Yards Allowed Per Game, Points Allowed Per Game, Passing TDs Allowed, Interceptions, First Downs Allowed, Net Yards Allowed Per Passing Attempt, Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game, Rushing TDs Allowed, and Total Turnovers Forced.

New Orleans Saints

Year Record Yds/Gm Pts/Gm PassTD INTs 1stD NetYds/Att RshYd/Gm RushTD Trnovrs
1980 1-15 28 28 28 28 28 24 28 27 28
1981 4-12 11 24 23 21 14 26 11 17 21
1982 4-5 5 8 13 24 3 16 10 12 14

Obviously, there was no drop-off overall from the Saints' defense in 1982; only INTs fell relative to the rest of the league and, even then, turnovers were up overall for the Saints. The strike-shortened season, coupled with replacing a rapidly declining Archie Manning with 37-year-old Ken Stabler and having no receivers that were even average, kept the offense from doing much and explains a lot about how a team can be sub-.500 when the defense is playing as well as the Saints' D was.

In the first post, we also took a look at each team's improvements using Pro-Football-Reference's Defensive Simple Rating System. (You can click the link to read about the SRS generally.) The Saints went from -9.4 to -2.4 in Year One and 1.8 in Year Two.

Philadelphia Eagles

Year Record Yds/Gm Pts/Gm PassTD INTs 1stD NetYds/Att RshYd/Gm RushTD Trnovrs
1985 7-9 10 10 6 19 13 10 21 15 25
1986 5-10-1 17 12 11 9 4 10 19 15 14
1987 7-8 23 25 26 10 13 13 9 20 1

A brief glance at the difference between Year One and Year Two suggests that the defense was appreciably worse in 1987. This is only partially correct, however. First of all, the strike-shortened 1987 season was infamous for the replacement players in Weeks 4-6, and those stats are factored in to our final results. In the Eagles' case, that means that three losses, in which they allowed 373 yards/game and 30.6 points/game, are added to the "real" Eagles' totals of 344.1 yards and 24 points in each of the other 12 games.

Secondly, the results in 1987 were more an extension of the decline that began in 1986 when Wade arrived. While Buddy Ryan, like Wade, was a great defensive mind, Ryan preferred the 4-3 (or, more accurately, the 46) and he actually switched Philadelphia from the 3-4 it had been running to Ryan's preferred scheme. Point being, saying that the 1987 Eagles showed something vis-a-vis Wade's overall Year Two performance isn't particularly accurate, since we're concerned with how teams running Wade's system have done.

Denver Broncos

Year Record Yds/Gm Pts/Gm PassTD INTs 1stD NetYds/Att RshYd/Gm RushTD Trnovrs
1988 8-8 22 20 10 19 21 12 27 25 24
1989 11-5 3 1 1 9 1 3 6 7 2
1990 5-11 20 23 19 26 20 26 17 20 25

Denver is one of the two examples that people who want to point to Wade's Year Two problems like to point to (Atlanta being the other). Of course, what they don't mention when writing that "the defense dropped from being in the top 10 to the bottom 10 of the league in just one season" is that the Broncos had very little depth on the defensive side of the ball and were unable to adjust when they lost a number of defensive starters to injury. DE Alphonso Carreker was out for the entire season with a knee injury suffered during the preseason, and the Broncos lost CB Tyrone Braxton to a knee injury after just two games. Both players had been integral in the defense's success in 1989. Carreker was replaced by Warren Powers, who battled a foot injury all season, and Braxton's CB spot was a revolving door of suck --- Randy Robbins, Alton Montgomery, and Kip Corrington.

On top of those losses, starting RDE Andre Townsend was dinged up early (ankle) and lost his starting spot to a duo of Ron Holmes (good as a pass rushing specialist in 1989; lost as an everyday starter in 1990) and Jim Szymanski (rookie from Michigan State; terrible). Starting RILB Rick Dennison was replaced by a terrible duo as well --- Marc Munford and Tim Lucas. (Munford would never play in the NFL again after 1990, while Lucas would start only three more games over the rest of his career.) Between the hole at CB and the inability of the replacements up front to get pressure, the pass defense was shot to hell, and the run defense didn't fair much better.

Unlike 1990 Denver, if the 2011 Texans showed us anything, it was that they did have depth on the defensive side of the ball, at least in the front seven. An injury to Johnathan Joseph would certainly change a whole lot about the defense, but, barring that, there's little to take away from the 1990 Broncos' struggles that translates directly to what you'd expect to see from the 2012 Texans. Lest you think I am putting too much emphasis on the injuries, consider this: the 1991 Broncos' defense had Braxton back, replaced the terrible RILB duo with rookie Ricky Croel, had a healthier Warren Powers, and got a better season out of Ron Holmes. They were again a Top 10 unit in nearly all of the above-listed categories.

Buffalo Bills

Year Record Yds/Gm Pts/Gm PassTD INTs 1stD NetYds/Att RshYd/Gm RushTD Trnovrs
1994 7-9 17 22 25 18 13 25 8 8 18
1995 10-6 13 12 1 12 5 7 11 25 21
1996 10-6 9 6 2 21 8 3 14 14 18

No fall off here in Year Two. Their DSRS scores went -1.8, -.4, 3.9 over this span, and their DVOA Ranks were 19, 10, 7 over the same. Not surprisingly, only one of the changes made between the 1995 starters and the 1996 starters was a negative (going from Cornelius Bennett to Mark Maddox at RILB). The other two moves were either an upgrade (Marlo Perry to Chris Spielman at LILB) or a push (Henry Jones to Matt Stevens at SS . . . yes, that Matt Stevens, who was surprisingly not-terrible in his rookie season).

Of course, when you've got an example like this that doesn't fit the narrative that you want to write, what do you do? Well, if you are Dunlevy, you just move the goalposts by pointing out, "In both instances when his defenses improved in year two, they fell back in year three, notably dropping 17 spots in Buffalo in 1997." Then you neglect to mention that the Bills' DVOA ranking in 1997 was actually better than 1996, because, again, that would screw up the argument. (Not to mention, this over-reliance on points-allowed ranking isn't terribly persuasive. Because of the clustered nature of scoring, plus the limited 16-game sample size, Buffalo's 23rd ranking in points allowed in 1997 was actually closer to 12th than it was to 30th.)

Atlanta Falcons

Year Record Yds/Gm Pts/Gm PassTD INTs 1stD NetYds/Att RshYd/Gm RushTD Trnovrs
2001 7-9 24 30 28 13 21 31 21 20 14
2002 9-6-1 19 8 18 3 10 17 23 6 2
2003 5-11 32 30 30 14 31 31 29 30 11

As mentioned, the 2003 Falcons' performance is the other standard "example" of how Wade's defenses fall off in Year Two. I mean, just look at the drop-off in points allowed! And DVOA rank? It fell from 12th to 28th! Clearly this proves that Wade's defense fell off the map because of something inherent in him, and there's no way that the next paragraph will disabuse anyone of that notion!

Riddle me this, though: what is it that actually improved the most from 2001 to 2002? The pass defense, right? (In addition to the table above, this is supported by the DVOA ranks: the pass defense improved from 27th to 8th, while the run defense improved from 24th to 21st. Bonus fun fact, the actual raw DVOA for the Falcons' run D was better in 2001 than in 2002; only the ranking against other teams was improved in that area in 2002.) Now, knowing that the defensive improvement in Wade's first year was predicated on a greatly improved pass defense, what do you think might happen if the Falcons' CB1 (Ray Buchanan) and FS (Keion Carpenter) each missed half of 2003 with injuries, CB2 Ashley Ambrose left via free agency following the 2002 season, and SS Gerald McBurrows went from above-average to Nick Ferguson-ian seemingly overnight?

Because that's exactly what happened. Rather than having a good, solid secondary, the Falcons were forced to rely on guys like Juran Bolden, Tod McBride, Bryan Scott, Cory Hall, Kevin Mathis, and Kevin McCadam. The fact that you've barely heard of few, if any, of these guys says a lot. Then, to make matters even a little worse, both NT Ed Jasper and RDE Brady Smith missed a couple of games each, and LOLB Keith Newman missed 5. At the end of the season, the pass defense had plummeted in DVOA rank from 8th to 26th. While the run defense had suffered as well, the impact was less severe, falling from 21st to 28th.

Point being, a look at Atlanta circa 2003 is only instructive for the 2011 Texans if you assume that Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning will miss half the season, while Glover Quin will become terrible and lose his job to a rookie. And, if you're assuming those things, then you're not offering "analysis" so much as "inane speculation of little worth."

San Diego Chargers

Year Record Yds/Gm Pts/Gm PassTD INTs 1stD NetYds/Att RshYd/Gm RushTD Trnovrs
2003 4-12 27 31 32 25 29 22 25 13 28
2004 12-4 18 11 11 3 25 22 3 21 8
2005 9-7 13 13 17 26 22 18 1 18 27

Overall, there was a slight drop-off by the Chargers in 2005, falling from 12th in DVOA rank (-3.9%) to 16th (-2.5%). Their SDRS score fell from 3.0 to 2.9 as well. The decline can again be chalked up to the secondary and, more precisely, some shakeup therein. Sammy Davis, who hadn't really clicked in Wade's system in 2004, lost his starting spot, with Quentin Jammer taking over the CB1 role and cheap-shot-artist Drayton Florence playing CB2. Florence and SS Terrence Kiel both missed four games with injuries, however. And FS Jerry Wilson was replaced by Bahwoh Jue, neither of whom had any business starting on an NFL defense in 2005.

Focusing solely on the drop-off in the pass defense overlooks the improvement in the run defense, though. In raw DVOA, it went from -7.7% to -13.4% (though dropped one spot in rank). The defense also improved overall in getting the hell off the field and in yards allowed.

Also, and more importantly for purposes of this conversation, the 2-spot drop in points allowed ranking that Nate listed ignores that the actual points allowed in 2005 was . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . less than it was in 2004. Sure, I could this fact as another segue into the problems with Nate's analysis, but, well, that seems repetitive at this point.

Dallas Cowboys

Year Record Yds/Gm Pts/Gm PassTD INTs 1stD NetYds/Att RshYd/Gm RushTD Trnovrs
2006 9-7 13 20 27 10 15 23 10 11 8
2007 13-3 9 13 8 6 19 7 6 17 15
2008 9-7 8 20 10 30 9 5 12 8 20

As Nate lists, but does not expound upon, the Cowboys' DVOA rank in 2008 (9th) was better than in 2007 (11th). Rather than address this in a way that makes sense --- perhaps by noting that the raw DVOA in 2008 (-.6%) was noticeably lower than 2007 (-5.8%), Nate merely dismisses this improvement in rank by saying that the Cowboys' defense "fell back in year three." Which they did---all the way from 9th to 12th. THE HORROR!

Of course, Year Three has nothing to do with the premise of the original post, so we'll stick with Year Two analysis. It is correct that the Cowboys' points/game ranking fell from 2007 to 2008. Their SDRS also fell, going from 1.7 to -1.2 (which I include so as to not be accused of cherry-picking my stats). However, their yards/game improved, as did the net yards per attempt and first downs allowed.

So, to the extent that the defense got worse in 2008, to what do we ascribe this decline? Well, there's the important fact that the Cowboys' offense plummeted in 2008, from 4th in DVOA rank (17.4%) in 2007 to 17th in 2008 (6.7%), including a huge decline in passing DVOA (from 39.7% to 15.8%). There's also the part where Anthony Henry, who had been good as a rotational guy / spot starter in the secondary in 2007 was less effective as a full-time starter in 2008, and Terence Newman spent much of 2008 dinged up. The Cowboys also managed to replace SS Roy Williams with someone who was worse in coverage (Keith Davis), which is no mean feat. Finally, regarding the secondary, FS Ken Hamlin followed up his Pro Bowl 2007 (and fat six-year-contract signing) with a season that eschewed generally accepted notions of good pass coverage.

Conclusion

If any trend emerges in reviewing the stuff above, it's that Wade Phillips' success in Year Two with a team is tied to the health and performance of players at key positions, especially the secondary. While injuries are a part of the game, it's borderline absurd to suggest that it's somehow Wade's fault that the Falcons' defense regressed when you consider the actual players he was able to put on the field that year.

It's similarly absurd to predict what the Texans' defense will do in 2012 based on past teams' points-allowed ranking if you are not also going to factor in things like injuries and free agent departures and whether the team you're looking at even plays the same style of defense as the Texans. But, if we are extrapolating from the past, let's at least do it in an intellectually honest way: of the previous teams to employ Wade Phillips, three were as good or better in Year Two (Saints, Bills, Chargers), one is irrelevant (Eagles), two had precipitous drop-offs that can be easily explained and directly traced to a rash of injuries (Falcons, Broncos), and one had a slight decline as part of an overall decline that season of an annually dysfunctional team run by a megalomaniac (Cowboys). Thus, if the Texans stay healthy, the evidence that we have more strongly supports that the defense will not suffer a large drop in performance.

So, you know, there's that. But, hey, why let facts and analysis get in the way of provoking web traffic?

UPDATE: After a lengthy (for Twitter) conversation with Nate, I believe him when he says that his article was not written solely to drive traffic. I appreciate his willingness to discuss our disagreement rationally as well.

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