Could this lead to “saber metrics” in football? Doubtful, but the items I share below I suspect are how some teams are building their rosters out. This seems very clear when I go back and look at the last 40 years of my Eagles. But I also wanted to look at a lot of other teams and see if my hypothesis holds up. Do you remember people saying, “you can’t win with a scrambling quarterback”? I’d contend this is reflective of an offensive line not able to block all that well – or a QB holding the ball too long which leads to sacks (could be strip sack) or QB scrambling yards. You would also then contend if you had a poor offensive line, perhaps you needed to draft/sign a mobile quarterback? Below, I go into a few things that I believe are the core today of building a strong team to win a majority of their games.
Back when I was doing part of my MBA at Villanova in 2001, Brian Westbrook was breaking all kinds of NCAA records, then went on to have a stellar career with the Eagles. But I was also entrenched with regression analysis and multiple regression analysis. At the same time, a woman who sat next to me was doing the same type of class – and I once saw how she did a regression analysis on turnovers and winning. Meaning, there was a direct correlation between how many times you turned over the football and won the game. Blew my mind, and forever hooked me on regression analysis! You can then do a multiple regression analysis to test different items to see how they correlate. We now have PFF who rates lines, and it might be interesting to see correlations to this and winning IF a team perhaps had top 5 in each.
Think about that for a moment. In a game of inches, if you turn the ball over 3 times, and your opponent turns it over once, how likely are you to win the game? You are listed as “minus 2” for turnovers (others may call it plus 2, depending on whose stats they are). Today, my Eagles are 6-0 and with this, lead the league at -13 (or plus 13). Meaning, they have -2.16 NET turnovers per game. With how equal a lot of this talent is, you think you need the $100 million quarterback to win the game. I want you to consider two quarterbacks…
Quarterback A – 33TD, 7 INTs, 28 sacks (career low), 101.9 passer rating in 2017. He also had 40 plays of 20+ yds passing. This TEAM had a minus 11 for the YEAR. This QB was the leading MVP candidate before he wrecked his knee and the TEAM went on to win the SB with 8 or 9 backup players, including QB. This was almost 5:1 TD to INT ratio. The defense was 4th in takeaways and staunch, and 4th overall. Offense was 3rd overall. This is Carson Wentz and is credited with winning 0 super bowls. You have to then look at 2020 when he took FIFTY sacks and wonder how that would not result in losing games, turning the ball over, and interceptions. Wentz is now on pace for over 50 sacks this year with Washington (edit, scratch that, he may be out 6-8 weeks with a broken finger – probably taken from a sack from a poor line). You have a QB with a HOF line that is MVP candidate material and takes 28 sacks to one that is the same guy, but scrambles for his life with no time to throw and gets a concussion and somehow he’s a zero. Yeah, no.
Quarterback B – 15 of his 19 years in the league, he has less than 35 sacks – many seasons a lot less than this. Over a 16 game season, that is about 2 per game. One can argue that every time a quarterback is sacked, there is a chance for a forced fumble AND that the pressure in the face can result in bad throws. This quarterback has a 3:1 TD to INT ratio in his career, and with it, 7 super bowls. Of course this is Tom Brady – but I want you to note that the outstanding TD to INT ratio along with the low number of sacks combined with his 19 years in the league shows someone who, at the line of scrimmage, can read the defense and get rid of the ball early. Likewise, the QB before him is injured, yet again, perhaps due to either holding the ball too long or taking sacks from a poor O-line. His career may be limited due to this.
Quarterback C – 11 of his 12 seasons he had less than 35 sacks taken. His TD/INT ratio was 165:141 and his passer rating was 81. His QB passing stats are average, at best. Yet this man was the field general for a 3 time super bowl winning team. What is also left out of this is that his running back had the most yards of any running back, ever, and literally every offensive player on his team – including the line – are Hall of Famers. This of course, is Troy Aikman. Tony Romo kills Aikman by a mile in every category – except – Super Bowl Wins (0). One has to ask what made this team special?
The two most important factors
If you look back in history, you can see when football was more run oriented, and then see when it became more pass oriented when people like Herman Moore were getting 100 reception years. But if I was to build teams from the ground up, I want to look for two things:
- Win in the trenches (strong offensive and defensive lines)
- Win the turnover battle
lot of this you can perhaps credit Joe Montana and the 49ers, where the “West Coast Offense” was born. Traditionally, a strong run would bring people up in the box, allowing for play action and setup the pass. With the West Coast, it went to a “pass first” system to back up the defenders, which then set up the run. You can see the evolution of these coaches – as they all had success, and created coaching trees which produced the likes of Andy Reid today – and many others from him. Meaning, the league overall evolved to a pass first offense. So one might now wish to put pressure on the QB to create strip sacks – and this puts additional weight on how good your defense can put pressure versus how well your line can block.
If you look at Aikman’s teams, he had Emmit Smith. But I WATCHED those teams decimate my Eagles. And something that doesn’t jump off the page for you on the stat sheet is how Emmit used to be able to drive a truck through the holes that the line created. It was like a parting of the Red Sea, and Smith would come flying through there untouched. I think most people on the planet who WATCHED football in the 90s would agree Barry Sanders was the best running back – but if you watch his highlights, he’s getting hit in the backfield every play. This is also why those Lions teams were shit. It is also why the Cowboys had a mediocre passer and won a billion games. Strength of offensive lines were night and day.
But look closer. I watched my Eagles vaunted defense under Buddy Ball (Eagles under Buddy Ryan in late 80s) strangle opposing offenses, with Reggie White at one time being the all time sack leader. He created fumbles – just as the West Coast offensive styles were taking off, giving a pass rusher more opportunities to get to the QB. The pressure that defensive line had on passers would then lead to a lot of pick 6s with the defense. There was a standing joke then that the defense each week could outscore the offense. But they just didn’t want Randall Cunningham to turn it over. Randall had Chris Carter to throw to for a period of time. But he had no offensive line, which is why all of Randall’s highlights are him running for his life – I think he ran for almost 1,000 yards one season. That Eagles team would always make the playoffs, but not go deep due to the inability for the offensive line to protect the quarterback. You could almost say the same thing about the Baltimore Defense of the early 2000s who won the Super Bowl with a sub-par QB. So one can say Randall’s 1,000 or so yard season could have been as a result of a poor offensive line.
One can then make a pretty bold observation….
If an offensive line can be dominant in run offense, it increases the yards per run and can bring defenses up to cheat, thus allowing for big pass plays on things like play option or RPO today (Wentz). If an offensive line is dominant in pass defense, you can keep sacks low, but also reduce the poor decisions your quarterback might make when running for his life and throwing. It can also help reduce sack-fumbles. If you look VERY closely at Wentz’s numbers, you see he takes a LOT of sacks. On my beloved Eagles, we DID have a HOF O-line, which you saw in his MVP year, but what you did NOT see was how Peterson somehow got the whole team injured all the time and a lot of the line was always out with injuries. This increased the sack numbers, and led to more sack-fumbles.
From a defensive line standpoint – if you can stuff the run, it forces teams to pass and can get you the ball back to the offense quickly. The time of possession battle is somewhat overblown, but if it is lopsided, that fares very well for the team ahead in the 4th quarter and running the ball to seal the victory. If your defense is great with pass rushing, you can create turnovers through sack-fumbles or making a QB throw before he is ready, allowing DBs to jump routes, tip balls, and force turnovers.
I am writing this article mostly because I’m seeing those two items listed above with my Eagles this year. While I do give Peterson credit for our Super Bowl year, I also give him the credit for all of the injuries we had year in, and year out with a roster that should have won 2-3 super bowls. As soon as he leaves (after I believe 3 different medical staffs), suddenly injuries go away. That SB team won with 9 backups playing in the Super Bowl.
And with this, I wanted to point out I think this is why my Eagles are so good this year. FIRST, work in the trenches. SECOND, don’t turn the damn ball over. THIRD, create turnovers. Check, check, and check. The announcers in last night’s game correctly pointed out how our offensive line on the left side was just mangling everyone. We have a 6-7 365 pound former rugby player in Jordan Mailata who just mows people down in run blocking. He never played football before he was drafted and beat our first round pick Andre Dillard for left tackle. Jason Kelce is a future HOF. Lane Johnson may be future HOF. This was after future first ballot HOF Jason Peters left the Eagles and possible HOF Brandon Brooks retired. They went out and re-stocked with high quality lineman. The last two years they have drafted Jordan Davis (run stuffer) with the 1st round and Cam Jurgens (C) with the second round to eventually replace Cox and Kelce, respectively. In 2021, they took a second round pick in Landon Dickerson, who was moved to left guard and is from Bama. That more or less is a strong backfill to replace Brandon Brooks – having Isaac Seomalu moving over to RG.
These lines now have a mix of fresh blood at highly drafted spots to mix with veterans like Kelce, Cox, and Graham to pass along wisdom and techniques. But they are doing something I’ve never seen. Both sides of the ball, the lines have been DOMINANT. I had questions about Jalen Hurts heading into this year. Those questions are gone, mostly. But when Lane Johnson got hurt and Jack Driscoll went in, you also saw a less-than stellar performance from Hurts. It’s not to say Hurts isn’t great – but you can see how quarterbacks can shine with a stellar O-Line who give them time to throw.
With turnovers, you wouldn’t necessarily say that if you led in the turnover battle, that you would win the Super Bowl. However, you could make the argument all of these teams made the playoffs. I liked looking HERE for some of these stats and going back through the years. Most teams in a YEAR have +12 (flipped for this metric here). Eagles have +13 after only 6 games. To me, this means unfortunately the Eagles may end up turning over the ball more in coming weeks. I hope not, but that’s what it’s telling me. If you go back over the last 10 years – all of the best teams are top 6 or so in those years.
To me, statistically, turnovers are going to tell a story in the box score which may support a win. Somebody did the work for me here, but if you win the turnover battle on Sunday, you have a 78% chance of winning. Now, if you are my Eagles and getting the ball two more times than you are giving up each week, you are going to win a lot of football games. Think about it – if you have a 3:2 turnover advantage or a 4:3, you have almost a 4 in 5 chance of winning. Now what happens if that is 4:2 or 5:3? Statistically speaking, it’s probably closer to 9 in 10 or greater. Meaning – if this team was constructed based on Lines and winning turnovers, this team can be a winner for years to come, regardless of your running backs. We saw this a bit with Denver 20 or so years ago, where no matter what running back they put in the system they were running for stupid high numbers of yards.
It’s also not to take away the luster of the “field general” of Aikman – but to recognize the role that the lines have in both keeping the offense on the field to win the time of possession battle, but also to keep the number of sacks, forced fumbles, and interceptions low. It’s also recognizing how a superior defensive line than can rush only the front four and cause 9 sacks against another NFL team – which allows all linebackers and DBacks to drop into coverage, can create a winning defense.
When you put these two factors together and not turn the ball over, I believe you have the greatest recipes to consistently winning at the top levels. I believe this is why Doug Peterson was not only a hero for bringing a super bowl to Philly, but also a zero for something he did that had that incredible offensive and defensive line hurt ALL THE TIME, which led to Wentz getting a concussion and turning the ball over a lot.
The one outlier I’d say here is Tom Brady, and why he’s the GOAT. When you watch him play, you understand quickly that he gets rid of the ball, ASAP. In those cases, sometimes, it doesn’t matter who has the best pass rush – if you cannot get to the QB, ever, then it takes the defensive line out of the game. However, I want you to remember how the Eagles beat Brady at the end – a strip sack by Brandon Graham. While the Patriots had an even TO ratio for the game, you could see how this near the end of the game cost them a lot.
Honorable mentions – I can put in here the time of possession and penalties, but this kind of goes towards both of these having disciplined lineman. Those who can control the ball and take the ball away will win the time of possession. And those who don’t jump offsides will not extend series for defenses and thus would potentially be reflected in time of possession.
Wouldn’t you look at that? Eagles are also leading in time of possession. This can probably show you: a) offensive run strength and, b) winning TO battle keeping defense off of the field and offense on the field longer.
Eagles are also near the lowest in the league in penalties and penalty yards…
This shows how PFF had the Eagles number 1 preseason for Offensive Line.
All of this appears to be evidence to support my claims that if you have a strong offensive and defense line AND control the turnover aspect of the game – you will win. Yes – skill players help. But you could see a dynasty with the Cowboys with an average passer in Aikman. You could also see the best passer of all times win 7 super bowls by demonstrating an outstanding TD/INT ratio and preventing the sack by getting rid of the ball quickly. Likewise, you can see a previous MVP candidate with all of the stats get turned on when a line cannot protect him. While everyone might WANT a Tyreek Hill, you need to have the time to drop back and throw to him. While everyone might WANT an Emmit Smith, one can see how Barry Sanders under that offensive line might still be running today. And one can clearly see how the Cowboys Offensive Line of the 1990s deserved to be in the Hall of Fame.
To me, the game is 100% in the trenches, which then can lead to turnovers, getting your skilled people the ball to score, and holding the ball to wear down your opponents late in the game.
Fly Eagles Fly!!