As we get into the second half of the season, a lot has been determined. Some teams with young quarterbacks and high hopes (e.g. the Browns and the Jets) are not making the playoffs, while the 49ers, Packers, Bills and Seahawks have exceeded expectations. However, there’s plenty of time for the underachieving teams to get themselves back in the hunt, and for the seemingly-good teams to regress back to the pack.
There’s plenty of ways we can find signal in the first nine weeks of the season, but one way is to look at how many wins have been “earned” by the players on the team so far this season, relative to the wins that were actually earned. To do this, we use our wins above replacement (WAR) model, which assigns a win share value to each player over that of a player with the same usage that could be obtained off the street or from the practice squad.
If a team’s difference between actual wins and expected wins is positive, this team has been, among other things: a) lucky or b) the product of coaching (often yielding results that are better than the sum of the team’s parts). Let’s take a look:
San Francisco 49ers: 8 actual wins, 5.4 wins implied by WAR
It is possible to be both lucky and good, and if you win a Super Bowl you are undoubtedly a combination of those. The 49ers are undefeated and therefore are overachieving, but that doesn’t mean they are fraudulent — rather, that we shouldn’t overreact to a team winning their first eight games when their five hardest opponents show up during the second half of the season. The Niners have faced the fourth-easiest schedule according to PFF ELO ranking thus far and the third-easiest set of offenses. Opposing quarterbacks have made a turnover-worthy (plays that result in a turnover over 50% of the time on average) on 6% of dropbacks, which is the second-highest mark in the NFL (Patriots) and speaks to the ineptitude of the opposition more than the brilliance of the defense (though that certainly contributes). Their second-half slate features the hardest set of opposing offenses in the entire league and the fourth-hardest schedule overall, and it starts this Monday against the Seahawks and first-half MVP (by a country mile), Russell Wilson.
Aside from the schedule imbalance, great coaching has certainly contributed. Jimmy G has been solid, and was spectacular against the Cardinals, but the passing offense is still over-performing what you’d expect from a quarterback that ranks in the middle of the pack in PFF grade and didn’t have a wide receiver worth mentioning until Emmanuel Sanders showed up a few weeks ago. The Niners passing offense ranks eighth in expected points added per pass play and sixth on first- and second-down play-action passes while Jimmy has faced the second-lowest pressure rate this season.
Trampling the slow and hurdling the dying is what great teams do, but it’s secondary to beating other great teams, and only time will tell if the 49ers are able to do that. The major question mark has been the quarterback position, with Garoppolo coming off injury and looking shaky at times to start the season. That said, after his performance against the Cardinals (his highest-graded since he faced the Jaguars two seasons ago) he is one of three quarterbacks in the top-10 in positively-graded plays and avoiding negatively-graded dropbacks (Wilson, Dak Prescott). Should Sanders and all-world tight end George Kittle remain healthy there is no reason that the 49ers can’t be both lucky and good.
Buffalo Bills: 6 actual wins, 4.2 wins implied by WAR
The Bills have made a living out of beating some pretty bad teams, starting with a Jets team in Week 1 that may or may not have been playing with a quarterback already stricken with mono, and finishing their schedule so far with a win against a Washington team that hasn’t gotten in the endzone for the better part of a month. The defense has been excellent, with Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier’s bunch allowing only 4.9 yards per play, fourth-fewest in the league.
Defense doesn’t consistently win championships, though, and it’s quarterback play that is going to make up the most of this discrepancy, as Josh Allen has been both better than expected and not very good at the same time. Among quarterbacks still starting, Allen is second in terms of producing negatively-graded throws as a percentage of his dropbacks and is throwing passes that produce just 0.84 actual receiving yards per every air yard. It might not matter the rest of the way, as we have Buffalo winning 9.5 games and having a 69% percent chance to make the playoffs. But in January, this will likely not fly against the Bradys, Watsons, Jacksons and Mahomes of the world.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2 actual wins, 4.5 wins implied by WAR
Tampa Bay was a team we liked going into the year, so this one stings a bit. Losses to San Francisco and Carolina were typical Bucs losses of the past: Plagued by Jameis Winston turnovers at inopportune times (he’s generated the sixth-most negatively-graded plays as a percentage of his dropbacks this season). But losses to the Giants, Titans and Seahawks are going to be games that this Bucs team is going to want to have back in a season where Winston has led all quarterbacks in percentage of positively-graded throws (more than two percentage points higher than Matthew Stafford, Carson Wentz and Russell Wilson, the only other players generating such throws on more than 30% of their drops).
Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are in the top five at their position in WAR generated and have seemed to alternate weeks in which they look like the league’s best receiver. Shaq Barrett is realizing the potential that he showed for years as a super-sub in Denver, although his sack totals (11) are a bit high for his total pressure rates (34). That’s where it ends, though, and while the defense showed promise early in the season, they have no one with a PFF grade higher than 80.0, and no players in the secondary posting marks higher than 70.0. This has put stress on an offense that has been unable to consistently avoid mistakes, with Winston producing more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws.