Since no one really wants to spend too much time thinking about the Saints -- what with the season being over and all -- the question of the day is why the Eagles are 19th in scoring points when so many other offensive indicators look so good:
Eagles - Numbers Do Lie
By LES BOWEN
EIGHTH IN TOTAL offense. Tied for second in the NFL in number of drives of 10 plays or more. Second in the league in yards per carry. Seventh in first downs.
These are some of the numbers the Eagles' attack has compiled this season, as it prepares to begin playing out the string this weekend at New Orleans. And here is one more number, the number that goes to the heart of the Birds' 6-8 record and their premature elimination from playoff contention: Nineteenth in scoring, at 20.1 points per game.
In his explanation, Bowen cites 1) poor starting field position caused by weak special teams and a defense that's not forcing enough turnovers, and 2) red zone inefficiency. So let's take a closer look at the numbers.
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1) The special teams this year are truly terrible and the defense hasn't made many big plays. The Eagles are 24th in average kick return and 19th in punt return. The coverage teams are bad too, with the Eagles ranked 19th for kickoffs and giving up almost 12 yards a punt return. Football Outsiders ranks the special teams 28th in the league.
However, for all that ugliness, we're not talking about huge numbers here. The difference between the Eagles' average kick return and the league's best is abut five yards. That's not huge, and much of that gap is the result of a few long returns skewing the statistics. If we were dealing with medians rather that means, that spread would be a lot closer.
No, the problem isn't starting field position on most drives -- it's that the special teams has gone an entire season without making any plays. The Eagles' longest kick return this season went for 35 yards. Only Carolina (29) is worse. And here's an even more amazing stat:
The Eagles are the only team in the NFL that hasn't scored a non-offensive touchdown this season.
No returns for touchdown on punts, kicks, fumbles, interceptions or blocks. If they can go the next two games without scoring a non-offensive touchdown, the Eagles will be the first team to manage this feat since the 2005 Katrina Saints. I'll get into the impact that has on the scoring stats later, but for now just consider that the NFL average so far for touchdowns not scored by the offense is about 3.7. (Last year the Eagles had five.)
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2) The red zone issue is also big. According to this chart here, the Eagles are 25th in the percentage of red zone trips that end in touchdowns. As Bowen notes, things have gotten better recently, but for the season the Eagles are scoring touchdowns only four out of every nine red zone trips.
Of course, the more interesting question is why. Why has the Eagles' offense struggled so much in the shadow of the goal posts? I think there are three reasons:
LJ Smith -- Tight ends become even more important down by the goal line. Smith's absence was a factor in the early struggles.
Donovan McNabb -- The Eagles' QB has traditionally been very good in the red zone (scroll to the bottom of that post). This year, not so much. I think some of that can be explained away by personnel (that's coming), but that's still an abysmal completion percentage.
Brian Westbrook -- This is what I think is the key. Eagles fans have become fond of saying that this team was only a couple of breaks away from being 8-6. While that's true, the unspoken corrollary is that this team was only one bad Westbrook injury away from being 4-10. Westbrook is that important.
And what we saw this year is that Westbrook is too good to be shut down in the middle of the field. The coaches can do too many things to get him the ball in space for any team to consistently hold him in check. But when the Eagles get down by the goal line, things change. The space compresses, safeties who no longer have to worry about helping deep can start creeping up, and there's just not as much room to spring Brian free.
I put together a couple of tables to show just how big an effect this has. The first compares Westbrook to the other backs in the league's top 10 in rushing:
Now obviously, all these guys are going to have lower averages in the red zone, just because there's not as far to run when you're close to the goal line. But Westbrook has the biggest gap of all these guys between his rushing average in the red zone vs. the rest of the field. This is particularly critical for the Eagles, because they don't have an Antonio Gates or Dallas Clark they can go to as a back-up plan when things get tight. Westbrook is the guy.
The second table gives Westbrook's career numbers in this regard. I include it only because you might find it interesting:
In short, I think a big part of the reason the Eagles have had a lot of success between the 20s and not as much in the red zone is because you can't defend against Westbrook in the first case, but you can in the second.
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3) Akers is no longer Mr. Reliable. This one is short and sweet. Akers has hit 73 percent of his field goal attempts this year. The league average is 82 percent (and David used to be better than average). Between 40 and 49 yards, the average is about 74 percent. Akers is one-for-six. From 50+ it's slightly worse than a coin toss, at 46 percent. Akers is one-for-four.
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So how does this all net out? The Eagles are 8th in total offense and 19th in scoring, with 281 points. To have the 8th-best scoring offense they would need to have scored 334 points. If we adjust the figures based on what's discussed above:
- The average NFL team has scored 25.8 non-offensive points on the season, the Eagles have none.
- The average NFL offense scores a touchdown 51.8 percent of the time in the red zone. If you gave the Eagles an NFL average red zone offense, they would have scored an additional 13.3 points in touchdowns rather than field goals.
- The math on the Akers' misses is a little fuzzier, but if you replace him with the league average kicker from beyond 40 yards, you pick up an additional 12.8 points.
- Add 281 + 25.8 +13.3 + 13.8 = 332.9 or just about equal to 334.
Going by those numbers, if you're looking to parcel out blame it's about half the fault of the defense/special teams, a quarter Akers and a quarter the red zone problems.
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As a final note, one thing that's not to blame is a lack of big scoring plays. I thought we'd see that, based on all the issues the Eagles have had getting the ball down the field this year. But the Eagles have scored 11 touchdowns this year on plays that started outside the red zone, coincidentally tied for eight-highest in the league.