Worst Offense In The NFL? A Case for the AER
October 11, 2007 at 11:44 PM
The NFL rankings suck. There I said it. Why do they suck? Simple - they rely on total yardage as a measuring stick for deciding who is "number one" in the NFL. The more yards you put up the more you climb the rankings. The rationale being that the more yards you are able to get the better your offense is. So based on the NFL's inherently flawed logic, the 49ers are not better than the Rams, because, well - they were out gained in total yards. But the 49ers were able to beat the Rams, and the Cardinals for that matter. On paper, though, those teams out gained the 49ers 653 yards to 380.
It seems to me that SCORING is a bit more important, being as that's how we decide who wins the games - that is, unless the NFL decided to change something while we fans weren't looking. To completely exclude the ONE thing that determines a game's outcome in your team rankings is absurd.
So what do we do then? Do we fiddle with "power rankings" and completely eschew the NFL rankings? Well, that's half right. Statistics can still tell us much about a team, we just have to make sure we are looking at the right statistics when trying to determine which teams are, in fact, on top of the league.
To that end, there are a few methods out there for evaluating a team with a better metric because one is clearly needed. And who brings it to us? Well, he is a quarterback who played for a team that won five Super Bowls, a team that dominated a decade, and he had to retire due to the potential adverse affects of repeated concussions.
That's right - you guessed it!
Now now, before all you 49er fans throw your hands up and turn away in disgust from your former nemesis, just hear him out. His argument is quite simple, and it goes something like this:
Yardage does not necessarily get you touchdowns. Scoring is more important than yardage. Turnovers and Red-Zone scoring is something really good offenses so, and something really good defenses prevent. And finally, a team with a better offense and defense should beat a team with an inferior offense and defense.
Simple, eh? Aikman's argumentation is borne out in his Aikman Efficiency Rating (AER), an equation much like the QB rating that takes different offensive and defensive categories, weights them, and analyzes them in order to produce a number which we can then use to compare against other teams.
Aikman has not released his formula, but he does reveal certain facets of his calculations. For instance, we know that he uses seven categories (the weight given to each category is also included):
Percentage of possible points scored (offense)/allowed (defense) in the Red-Zone - 20%
Adjusted points (Only points scored by the offense are included) - 20%
Adjusted turnovers (Only turnovers committed by the offense or forced by the defense are included) - 20%
Yards per rush - 10%
Yards per pass - 10%
Total first downs - 10%
Third down conversion percentage - 10%
Aikman developed his rating because in the 90's the 49ers always ranked ahead of the Cowboys in the NFL's offensive rankings. In his own words, "My ratings aren't rocket science. I put it together because determining the No. 1 offense or No. 1 defense based only on yardage is a real injustice. The 49ers always were ranked ahead of us because they threw the ball a lot, and passing teams are always going to accumulate more yards than running teams. Who cares how many yards you get? Theoretically, you could average 600 yards a game and not score a single point and be the No. 1 offense."
Not only does this include common measures that people always include when talking about dominant or weak offensive and defensive teams, but the formula is proven to be valuable based on how well it correlates to reality.
As a benchmark, teams that churn out more yards than their opponents win 69% of the time. Meaning that almost a third of teams out gained in yardage somehow win the game. Compare that to the AER. When one team has a higher AER in a given game that team wins almost 85% of the time. In other words, the AER better reflects what is actually going on during a game than yards alone do.
The AER can even predict the winner of games too. Last week, the team with the higher AER went 11-2. The two games where the AER did not predict the outcome was San Diego's win over Denver and Chicago's win over Green Bay.
Granted, the AER is not perfect. (If I get any emails from people saying that they took out a second mortgage to bet on a game based on the AER and now Frankie "The Fist" wants to have a "talk," let this be my "I told you so.") The rating does not take strength of schedule into account, and it places an arbitrary 20% value on points, turnovers and red-zone scoring. What's to say that points aren't worth 30%? Despite these limitations, it's still a pretty powerful tool.
Now that I've made the case for the AER, let's move into what it says about the 49ers. Through week 5, the 49ers offensive AER is 63.4. As hard as it is to believe, that rating did not earn them the 32nd ranking. That honor is bestowed upon the Chiefs who manages a score of 58.8. The 49ers are ranked 28th in the NFL and 14th in the NFC. However, since only 4.6 AER points separates the 49ers from the bottom of the NFL, they are still toiling at the bottom of the league. The Colts, meanwhile, are ranked #1 in the AER with a score of 98.7. The NFL average is 76.1.
The 49ers divisional foes are all over the AER. The Rams offense is ranked 30th, while the Cardinals and Seahawks are ranked 6th and 24th respectively. This tells us that the Cardinals offense is more efficient than we would typically think. This may explain why they were able to beat a team like the Steelers, a team the AER confirms is in the top 5 overall in the NFL.
The 49ers defensive AER is more promising, clocking in at a respectable 74, enough for a ranking of 18th in the NFL and 9th in the NFC. The Jets occupy the bottom ranking on defense in the NFL with a score of 56.5 while the Titans hold the #1 spot with an AER of 89.1. In the NFC West the 49ers own the #2 defense, with the Seahawks only coming in one spot above the 49ers at #17 (AER 74.4) while the the Cardinals and Rams are 21st (AER 72.1) and 26th (65.3) respectively. The average NFL defensive AER is 73.9.
Overall then, the 49ers aggregate AER (AAER) for the season after 5 weeks is 137.4 which places them in the 26th slot of the NFL landscape. Dallas holds the top spot with a score of 178.4 while the Rams hold the worst AAER with a score of 127.4.
Now, for some historical perspective. Since 1995, when the AER started being recorded, the highest offensive AER was achieved by the 2004 Colts (AER 94.4) during Peyton Manning's record setting year. In 1998 the 49ers managed a 91.8 AER, eventually losing to the Falcons after Garrison Hearst broke his ankle in the NFC championship game. Yes folks, it's been almost a decade since the 49ers have had a top ranked offense according to the AER.
On the defensive side of the ball the 2000 Ravens hold the highest AER since 1995 with a score of 101. The last time the 49ers had a top ranked defense was in 1995, the last time they won a Super Bowl. That defense earned an 88 AER, roughly one AER point better than the Steelers defense this year.
The AER basically confirms what we as fans have been thinking for several weeks now - the offense is terrible and the defense can certainly hold it's own. In fact, the defense is capable of holding many NFC teams at bay. Seattle, the division leader, has the lowest AAER for A 3-2 team (145.4). Arizona, a team the 49ers beat, are ranked 9th with an AAER of 155.3.
It looks then, like the Cardinals, NOT the Seahawks, are the team to beat in the division based on these rankings. Their offense is ranked in the top 10 while their defense is slightly below average. Meaning that the 49ers, in a broad sense, match up well against the Cardinals in that the 49er defense is the strength of the team. If the offense could improve to say, even to an average AER that would add 12.7 points to their score, moving their AAER to a 150.1. At that point the 49ers would rank 15th in the NFL overall, above Baltimore, and surprisingly enough, be ranked 8th in the NFC, just below the 6 team cut off for the playoffs.
The 49ers offense is not the worst offense in the NFL, but it is dangerously close to being there. If Hostler and Nolan can find some way to get this offense back to average (setting aside for one second the fact that wishing for average is self-defeating) then the 49ers have the tools to shake some things up in the NFC.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
By: FreDate: October 16, 2007 at 10:20 AMComment: I agree, great article.
By: Moneil PatelDate: October 15, 2007 at 6:20 PMComment: Nice article, but somehow I doubt you would write it if this were the early 90's when SF was #1 in yardage and amongst the elite in points. With that yds/game stat, did you know no team in the last 30 years is worse than SF is on pace number? Nevermind they've scored the fewest points, can't convert third downs, can't get first downs and have two of the worst rated passers in football. Their RB isn't average 4 yards/carry and they're among the leaders in sacks allowed. So what if they convert once inside the red zone, how many times have they gotten there?
By: Michael BaesDate: October 12, 2007 at 8:55 AMComment: AER isn't perfect (as stated in the article), but the formula does bring more creditability to rankings. Scoring is more important than yardage...but even w/ this new formula, the 49ers offense would still be ranked pretty low, maybe even bottom five (through 5 games). Still, things can change for the better once Smith and Davis return healthy and Lelie will finally get more snaps.
By: Lynn WheelerDate: October 12, 2007 at 7:48 AMComment: Wow, Oscar! That is a GREAT article. SERIOUSLY, I have not read anything that was that good in several years from ANY source. I've lurked here for 3 years, never signed up or posted, but I am always on the lookout for an article by you, but this one is the cat's meow. I appreciate all the thoughtfulness that went into it. --Lynn