Five Teams Who Will Benefit Most From Game Script Mean Reversion

by Ikey Azar · Analytics & Advanced Metrics

Regression is a term many hate, even if they don’t realize it can be a positive. Regression to the mean is simply getting back to league averages in layman’s terms. From 2015 through 2018, 19 teams attempted less than 500 passes. On average, those teams increased their pass attempts by 53 the following season.

In 2019, there were five teams that attempted less than 500 passes. Those teams were the Ravens, Titans, Vikings, Washington Football Team, and 49ers. Outside of the Washington Football Team, the common thread for those teams is that they all won more than eight games last season. Which correlates directly to the 8.6 wins the 19 teams averaged from 2015-2018. 

Logically, teams that are ahead tend to run the ball more. 

Teams who are winning and running the ball more tend to win the time of possession battle. The 68 teams to finish above .500 since 2015 have averaged 51.06-percent of the time of possession. 63 of them (92.6-percent) attempted more than 500 passes. Only 20 of those teams (29-percent) lost the time of possession battle.

This brings us to our five teams from 2019 who will be the biggest beneficiaries of Game Script mean reversion.

Tennessee Titans

No team with a winning record ran less snaps while leading (26.98-percent) than the Titans did in 2019. The other 12 teams with winning records ran 45-percent of their snaps with a lead. The Titans also saw a dip in time of possession, and the amount of passing attempts with a lead declined for the third consecutive season. The Titans have already shown over the past three seasons that when games are tied, or if they are trailing, they will skew slightly more to the passing game.

In addition, Ryan Tannehill had the best season of his career, putting up the fourth highest yards per pass attempt of all time with a 7.7-percent (No. 2 among qualified quarterbacks) TD Rate. Only two quarterbacks in NFL history have repeated a 7.0-percent TD Rate the following season. With Tannehill under center, the Titans scored a touchdown on 86.7-percent (No. 1) of their red zone trips, 30.8-percent higher than league average.

Tennessee Titans Pass Rate by Game Script

With those efficiencies bound to regress, it may lead to even more pass-friendly Game Scripts. This would give Tannehill the opportunities to offset the loss in efficiency. Let’s not forget to mention the now-suspect right side of the offensive line after Jack Conklin, PFF’ No. 6 graded run blocking tackle, was allowed to leave in free agency.

While it felt like Tannehill was being overrated during this stretch of play, it seems he’s now being slightly underrated. Over his last five seasons, he has posted a 5.3-percent touchdown rate, ranking in the top-10 in PFF adjusted completion percentage three out of his last five seasons. Tannehill has accomplished this with four of those seasons being in Miami under Joe Philbin and Adam Gase.

Washington Football Team

The Washington Football Team trailed on 69-percent (No. 30) of their plays last season, running 14.8-percent of their plays (No. 32) with a lead. Piling on to the terrible Game Scripts, Washington became the second team in the last decade to run under 900 offensive plays, leading to the firing of the coaching staff. They went out and hired Ron Rivera as head coach and Scott Turner as offensive coordinator. Turner has been working under his father Norv, which provides us the biggest insight into how he wants to run his offense.

In Norv’s 28 years as either a head coach or an offensive coordinator, only twice have his teams run less than 960 plays. Washington ran only 835 (No. 32) plays last year. Over the last three seasons, his offenses have ranked No. 14, No. 12, and No. 2 in passing attempts. By sheer volume alone, this offense will help fantasy owners in 2020 more than it did in 2019.

Minnesota Vikings

Mike Zimmer established the run successfully last season. Minnesota was one of three teams to run the ball at a higher rate than they passed. The Vikings were a strong first half team last season, ranking No. 6 in points per game in the first half. Despite building early leads and ranking No. 7 in plays run with a lead, they ranked No. 28 in time of possession. 

Kirk Cousins and the Vikings have already traded Stefon Diggs away, leaving a 30-year-old Adam Thielen as their only proven commodity at wide receiver. In addition to Diggs’ departure, which will undoubtedly affect the efficiency of that passing game, the team has only two remaining starters from last year on the defensive side of the ball. They even lost one of the replacements, with defensive tackle Michael Pierce opting out of the 2020 season. We can argue there will be addition by subtraction, but for a team that ranked No. 7 in defensive DVOA last season, that is a lot of new faces that need to be acclimated and gel together in a shortened off-season. 

Check out Kirk Cousins’ 2020 Projection on PlayerProfiler’s “World Famous” Draft Kit:

With a weaker offense and defense, expect Minnesota’s offense to have to pass more this season, especially in the early portion. The Vikings open with matches against the Packers twice, Colts, Titans, Texans, Seahawks, and Falcons. That is five of their seven games to open the season against teams with expected win totals of at least 8.5, with the other two matchups being against Deshaun Watson and the shootout-prone Falcons. 

San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers, along with the Ravens and Vikings, were the only teams to run the ball more than they passed in 2019. In an interview on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football, Football Outsiders creator Aaron Schatz stated:

“Last year, in our efficiency stat, the 49ers were the first team in 35 years to improve by 20-percent on both sides of the ball. And usually, when a team has that much improvement, they come back to the pack a little bit next year. Obviously, there’s a lot of talent there, but we worry a little bit about the loss of DeForest Buckner. We also worry about the loss of Emmanuel Sanders, and there are questions about the wide receiver corps. The 49ers can make the playoffs in the strongest division in football, but I don’t think they’re going to be the juggernaut going to the Super Bowl that we saw a year ago.”

San Francisco 49ers Pass Rate by Game Script

The 49ers suffered significant losses in Buckner and Sanders, but in addition, the retirement of longtime left tackle Joe Staley. While Trent Williams can theoretically be an upgrade at this point, he still needs to learn the system and has not played football in over a year. On the defensive side of the ball, the aforementioned improvement came mainly on the heels of the addition of Nick Bosa, who vaulted the 49ers pass defense from No. 27 overall in 2018 to No. 2 overall with the same secondary behind that front seven. 

With a Super Bowl hangover coming into the season, some changes in personnel, and the dramatic shift from 2018 to 2019, we may see the 49ers lean on Jimmy Garoppolo more in 2020 than they did in 2019. 

Baltimore Ravens

The 2019 Baltimore Ravens were the highest rated team by Football Outsiders DVOA since the 16-0 New England Patriots. Greg Roman’s offense controlled games from the get-go, averaging the most points per game in the first quarter and the third-most in first halves. Jumping out and dominating early allowed the Ravens to run 60.3-percent (No. 1) of their plays with a lead. Their unique running game built around Lamar Jackson led to an NFL-high 57.3-percent (No. 1) advantage in time of possession, also the highest mark since 2015. This allowed them to run only 18.6-percent (No. 32) of their plays while trailing, the second lowest mark since 2015. The closest comparison to the Ravens since 2015 are the aforementioned 2016 Patriots. That Patriots team ran 17.1-percent of their plays while trailing, a figure that rose to 25.9-percent the following season, correlating to a 3.4-percent increase in pass rate.

Jackson threw a touchdown pass on 9.0-percent of his passes, the highest percentage since Aaron Rodgers posted the same mark in 2011. Rodgers saw his TD Rate drop to 7.1-percent the following season. This was in line with the near 2.0-percent drop quarterbacks see after posting an 8.0-percent-plus TD Rate. In addition to an expected regression, the Ravens also saw Marshal Yanda, PFF’s No. 4 graded guard, retire this offseason. While projections still do not have the Ravens surpassing 500 passing attempts, 63-percent of the 43 teams who attempted less than 500 passes since 2011 did increase their attempts by at least 30 the following season. Jackson only threw the ball 400 times while leaving early in five games due to blowout victories. With more competitive games coming in 2020, and with a now healthy Marquise Brown, Jackson can repeat his fantasy history breaking 2019.