Boosted by two impressive defensive performances against the Jets and Saints, the surprising Carolina Panthers take the top spot in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings this week. This is first time in history that the Panthers have been on top of our ratings after any week, going back to their founding in 1995. The 1996 Panthers peaked at No. 2 in DVOA, while the 2015 Panthers peaked at No. 3.
Carolina leads a big pack of 2-0 teams at the top of the DVOA ratings. The Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are second and third, both over 40% as they go into a game against each other this Sunday. Denver is just below that, followed by the three other NFC West teams: Arizona fifth, San Francisco sixth, and Seattle as the top 1-1 team ranked seventh.
Carolina’s appearance on top of our table means there are now only two or three franchises that have never topped the DVOA ratings, depending on how you want to count the Cleveland Browns. The new Browns have never ranked any higher than fifth, going back to 1999, but the original Browns were on top of DVOA for a long stretch in 1989. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions have also never reached No. 1 in DVOA, both peaking at No. 2. The Jaguars were second for almost all of 1999. The Lions were second after Week 1 of 2014; they have never ranked in the top four any later than Week 4.
After two games, of course we have to ask how “for real” the Panthers are. We’re not adjusting for opponents yet in DVOA, not until after Week 4, and while it’s hard to say just how good or bad the New Orleans Saints are after two very different games, I think we all agree that the New York Jets are a bad team making that a less impressive win. How much can we learn from a high DVOA with no opponent adjustments and a two-game sample?
I went looking for teams that were in a similar situation to the Panthers since the expansion to eight divisions in 2002. These were teams that put up a DVOA over 40% through Week 2 (without opponent adjustments) coming off a season in which they ranked in the bottom half of the league. (Carolina ranked 21st last season.) From 2002 to 2020, there were 22 such teams. Fourteen of these 22 teams eventually made it to the playoffs, plus the 2015 Jets and 2017 Lions who each had winning records and would have been in the playoffs under the current seven-team format. Recent teams that started 2-0 after bad seasons but didn’t eventually make the playoffs included the 2018 Dolphins (7-9) and the snakebit 2019 Cowboys (8-8). Two other Panthers teams were part of this list: the 2002 Panthers (who started 3-0 and then lost eight straight, eventually finishing 7-9) and the 2017 Panthers (who ended up with a wild card at 11-5).
If we want to look at a slightly bigger group of teams, we can lower the baseline from 40% DVOA after Week 2 to 35% DVOA. Now we’ve got teams we can compare to both the Panthers and the Broncos, who have 38.9% DVOA so far. This group has 17 of 28 teams making it to the playoffs.
While we’re asking about the Panthers and similar teams, let’s also focus on the Panthers and similar defenses. That’s the unit that’s powering the Panthers so far this season. Carolina has -52.0% defensive DVOA through two games. The Panthers rank No. 1 in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate. This is quite the unexpected improvement, as the Panthers ranked 24th in defensive DVOA a year ago.
This time, there are fewer teams for comparison purposes. Only 12 teams since 1983 have put up defensive DVOA of -40% or better in Weeks 1-2, a year after they ranked in the bottom half of the league. Here, though, we have good news for the Panthers. Eight of these 12 teams ended up ranking sixth or higher in defensive DVOA at the end of the year. Only the 2003 49ers and 2018 Dolphins saw their defenses collapse after that early success. Here’s a full table:
|Early Turnaround Defenses, 1984-2021|
Why Aren’t The Las Vegas Raiders Higher?
When I ran through the top teams in DVOA a few paragraphs above, you may have counted six different 2-0 teams. You also may know that there are currently seven 2-0 teams in the NFL. Where’s the seventh team, the Las Vegas Raiders? You won’t even find them on the partial table run below. You need to go to the full DVOA table, where you will find the Las Vegas Raiders ranked 19th at 2.3% DVOA, right above the winless Minnesota Vikings.
(The Raiders are below average in rank but above average in DVOA. Because the worst teams this year have been very, very bad, we actually have 21 teams right now that come out above the average of 0% and only 11 teams that are below 0%.)
What’s going on? It’s not that the Raiders have had a bad game. Their single-game rating is 1.4% for the Week 1 overtime win over Baltimore, and 3.0% for this week’s win over Pittsburgh. This isn’t a case of DVOA thinking the “wrong team won,” either. The Raiders have the higher rating for Week 1, and the two teams are essentially tied for Week 2. It’s just a case of DVOA feeling these games, especially against Pittsburgh, were closer than the final scores indicate.
For Week 1, I probably don’t have to explain why DVOA is close in an overtime game. In case you are curious, the Ravens and Raiders both had 6.1 net yards per play. The DVOA ratings for Week 2 are more curious. The Raiders controlled most of this game. They outgained the Steelers, 6.6 to 5.9 yards per play, and they won the turnover battle by intercepting Ben Roethlisberger once. (Neither team lost a fumble, although the Raiders fumbled twice to Pittsburgh’s once.) The Raiders also had the higher success rate on offensive plays, 44% to 37%. Yet the Steelers were slightly higher in offensive DVOA, 11.8% to 6.9%.
Getting down into the weeds on this one, the Raiders were the better team on first downs and the Steelers on second downs. The difference is on third downs, and the reason is that the Raiders had more baseline value on their third- and fourth-down plays than the Steelers did. Both teams converted these plays at about the same rate, but the Raiders were doing it from easier positions. For example, they had seven third/fourth downs with 4 or less to go. The Steelers had only three.
So what happens to 2-0 teams that DVOA isn’t high on? Let’s do the same thing we did with the Panthers, and go looking for past teams in a similar situation. Once again going back to 2002, there have been 23 different teams that were 2-0 despite a DVOA between -10% and 10% after Week 2. On average, those teams finished the season with 8.3 wins. They ranked 16th on average with 0.4% DVOA. Ten of these 23 teams made it to the playoffs. On one hand, the 2013 Saints and 2006 Colts proved early DVOA wrong by finishing with double-digit wins and top-six DVOA ratings. On the other hand, teams such as the 2007 Lions and 49ers sank to the bottom of the league. The 49ers that year started 2-0 but ranked 20th in DVOA. They ended the year 5-11 and dead last in DVOA.
The Raiders situation isn’t very strange. In fact, last year we had it with four different teams including the Raiders themselves! Tennessee, Arizona, Chicago, and Las Vegas all ranked between 13th and 20th in DVOA last season despite 2-0 records. None of these teams saw their DVOA particularly improve over the rest of the year, but Tennessee and Chicago both made the postseason — although for the Bears, they made it as the new seventh seed with an 8-8 record.
Will Defense Keep Kansas City Down?
One other team we want to talk about today, and that’s the Kansas City Chiefs. I got a question over Twitter yesterday from Twitter user @PATRICKMAHOMES, who I’m going to guess is not actually Patrick Mahomes. He asked:
What are the worst defenses by DVOA that made the playoffs and how does the 2021 Weeks 1-2 Chiefs defense compare to them?
Let’s go back into the database and find out, shall we? Kansas City’s defense is at 33.7% DVOA after two weeks. The bad news is that no team has ever made the playoffs finishing the season with a defense this bad. The good news is that Kansas City isn’t going to finish the season with a defense this bad because no team ever has finished a season with a defense this bad! The worst defense in DVOA history is the 1986 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 26.7%.
What if we compare Kansas City to teams that started out the season with really bad defenses? I went and looked at teams with defensive DVOA of 30% or worse after Week 2, once again going back to the start of the eight-division setup in 2002. There are 45 different teams that qualify. Only 10 of these teams eventually made the playoffs, which are not good odds for the Chiefs, even though the playoff teams here include the Chiefs themselves in 2018, when they ranked dead last in defensive DVOA after two games.
But of course, this is not really a good list of teams comparable to the Chiefs, because what matters with the Chiefs is the offense. So instead, let’s look for teams that have a defensive DVOA of 30% or worse but also have an offensive DVOA of 30% or better after Week 2. Now we’ve got a group with only seven other teams in it. Five of those teams made the playoffs, with the exceptions being the 2002 Chiefs who finished 8-8 and the 2010 Texans who crashed out to 6-10. Even if we include teams from before 2002, we only add in two other teams, one of which made the playoffs. This really isn’t a good list of comparable squads, especially given that a few of them eventually lost their starting quarterbacks to injury (2000 Rams, 2013 Packers). But you do have the 2006 Colts, who won the Super Bowl.
|Great Offense with Terrible Defense Early, 1983-2021|
|2006||IND||2-0||40.4%||2||36.0%||31||12-4||17.9%||7||Won Super Bowl|
In the long run, the Chiefs are still one of this year’s top two or three contenders, despite some early defensive problems. Probably.
* * * * *
A reminder that all our free stats pages, including DVOA and player position stats, now require registration to view. This is not a paywall! You only need to register (for free) and then log in to the site to view these pages. While you’re at it, you can get a seven-day trial of FO+ and check out the FO+ features like a deeper DVOA database, weekly fantasy projections, fantasy football research tools, and picks against the spread.
* * * * *
This is the Football Outsiders Top 18 through two weeks of 2021, measured by our proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system that breaks down every single play and compares a team’s performance to the league average based on situation in order to determine value over average. (Explained further here.) Please note that there are no opponent adjustments in DVOA until after Week 4, which is why it is listed here as VOA.
OFFENSE and DEFENSE VOA are adjusted for performance indoors and consider all fumbles, kept or lost, as equal value. SPECIAL TEAMS DVOA is adjusted for type of stadium (warm, cold, dome, Denver) and week of season. As always, positive numbers represent more points so DEFENSE is better when it is NEGATIVE.
DAVE is a formula which combines our preseason forecast with current DVOA to get a more accurate projection of how a team will play the rest of the season. DAVE is currently 85% preseason forecast and 15% actual performance.
To save people some time, please use the following format for all complaints:
<team> is clearly ranked <too high/too low> because <reason unrelated to DVOA>. <subjective ranking system> is way better than this. <unrelated team-supporting or -denigrating comment, preferably with poor spelling and/or chat-acceptable spelling>
Click here for the full table.