Why, statistically, the New Orleans Saints are set up for success in 2014


Last week Bill Barnwell wrote a fascinating column for Grantland on different statistical categories which impact winning in the NFL. I would recommend reading it here.

As a wannabe statistical nerd, I too, try to evaluate wins and losses by more than just the film, though as a former high school coach I recognize that of course the film is crucial as well.

If nothing else, a statistical view balances the way we view a game or particular team, or even groups of teams. It helps tell us who got lucky, and who was actually a good team. And as Barnwell notes, it is the best predictor of future success, as opposed to just looking at past wins and losses.

Barnwell looked at four key categories for success. To briefly summarize his findings, he found Houston to be an extremely unlucky team. Their 2-14 record was not indicative of the overall quality of their team. On the other end of the spectrum, Carolina and Indianapolis were probably not as good as their 2013 records.

Nowhere to be found on either top/bottom top five lists were the New Orleans Saints. That’s not too surprising, and in reality is a good sign for 2014. I’ll explain as we go.

Point Differential

Saints 2013: +6.9/game (7th of 32 overall)

In 2013 the New Orleans Saints averaged about a touchdown better scoring margin per game than their opponents. Remember, this is an average. It takes into account the losses—where obviously the other team scored more points.

This all seems rather obvious and intuitive. And it is.

This statistic is obviously the same as what Jonah Kerri uses as his primary metric to judge Major League Baseball teams (Run Differential). As with any statistical measure, the more sample size (games played) the more the result is relevant and useful for future predictability.

Here’s why it matters: It means the Saints over the course of 16 games were right at a touchdown better than their opponent. In other words, for the season they won every game rather comfortably.

In the Saints’ 11 regular season wins, the Saints were plus 14.27, or about two touchdowns better than their opponents (In their five losses, the Saints were -10.2—most of that margin accrued in the Saints’ lopsided loss in Week 13 at Seattle).

But we know that is not true. The Saints did not win all their games. They lost five, and interestingly that is exactly how many they were supposed to lose based on their Expected Win/Loss Ratio courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

It’s a simple statistic, but as Barnwell goes to great strides to write any time he gets a chance, winning close games is not so much a matter of how good a team is, but often due to luck and randomness—at least statistically.

It’s another rather obvious thing to say, but a team that stays in a game gives its self a better chance to win than the team regularly getting blown out. Point differential tells us over the course of a season who is doing that, and doing it well.

Record in One Touchdown Games

4-3 in 2013 Regular Season

Based on Barnwell’s research a .500 record is about what to expect for any given team in one touchdown games over the course of an entire season. The Saints were a little better than average, but not so much that it stands out as unusual.

The fact the Saints only played seven out of 16 games to a one touchdown difference is what proves the Saints were a rather dominant team—in most of their contests.

Interestingly, of the one touchdown victories, three were against NFC South opponents—Atlanta in Weeks 1 and 12 and Week 2 in Tampa Bay.  There’s an interesting factor that we’ll delve more into later, but in each of the first two games (Week 1 & 2) the Saints created two turnovers, and were plus-one overall in the turnover differential.

In other words, those two victories early in the year were a little more the result of luck and randomness than overall outstanding play. But that is to be expected in divisional games.

Turnover Margin

19 Turnovers Created/19 Turnovers Given to Opponents; 0 or Even

Of the five teams with the worst turnover margin in 2013, none made the playoffs. Not surprisingly the five best teams made the playoffs. But as other statistics prove, two of those teams—the Chiefs and Eagles—were more lucky than good in 2013.

The point is that turnover differential is important—too many will often ruin a season, while a great turnover margin can take a relatively average team to the top of the league in one season (see Kansas City). That is not sustainable for subsequent seasons generally.

Turnovers tend to even out over the course of many seasons.

That the Saints won 11 games with an even turnover margin should be seen as a huge positive going forward. If it’s true that turnovers are mostly random and lucky, the Saints were an 11-win team with really no luck and randomness in their favor. New Orleans simply didn’t allow turnovers to ruin its season (easier said than done).

With the Saints’ stated emphasis on creating turnovers in 2014, it’s not unreasonable to think the Saints will at least get into the positive margin when we review these numbers again at the end of the 2014 campaign. If all else stays even, it would be rational to think that might equate to one extra win in 2014.

In the 2009 Super Bowl Championship season, the Saints were +11 in turnover margin. Turnovers were what that particular defense did best. Turnovers were their primary contribution to winning.

Rob Ryan’s defense in 2013 was a more solid unit overall, who simply couldn’t find a way to force the ball out of the opponents’ hands—especially in the latter half of the year (more on that in a moment). If the Saints just turn the opponent over five more times than the offense gives it up, one or two extra wins would probably result.

But even if they do not, 11 wins is not an impossible feat.

In the 2013 season the defense turned the opponent over 15 times in the first eight games, then only four times in the final eight games. With the exception of the Seattle game, that second half defense was really no worse in terms of points given up than the first half defense.

But four of the teams’ five losses came in the second half of the year, meaning that yes, turnovers created has a positive correlation to winning football games. It’s not a gargantuan correlation, but they undoubtedly aide a teams’ quest for victory.

Defensive Touchdowns Allowed

Two (12 Points)

Simply put, this statistic is only speaking of plays in which the opposing defense puts the ball in the end zone. It is not a comprehensive stat, as many touchdowns take place a few plays after a turnover.

But it should be stated that the teams who had the most defensive touchdowns scored against them—Houston again tops the list—and those who had the fewest against them—saw a direct correlation to winning and losing.

With only two defensive touchdowns allowed, the Saints were relatively lucky, but nowhere near as lucky as some of the luckiest teams in the league. The Chiefs, 49ers and Panthers did not give up a defensive touchdown in 2013—the first two gave up one safety each, while Carolina had two safeties against them.

Seattle only gave up one defensive touchdown all year, while Arizona gave up one TD and one safety. Those were the leaders. All five of those teams finished with 10 wins or more in 2013.

Barnwell’s research found that year-to-year there is little correlation. Statistically-speaking, what the Saints did in 2013 has little to do with what they’ll do next year. But the Saints placed a great emphasis last season on avoiding turnovers offensively.

Eliminating turnovers will obviously reduce the opportunities for opposing defenses to score against the offense. Thus it’s not unrealistic to think the Saints can equal or do better in only giving up 12 defensive points.

What’s It All Mean?

On the whole, the Saints’ 2014 roster is relatively similar to the 2013 roster. Gone are some regular faces, but in their place stand players mostly of equal ability. In some spots, the replacement is clearly an upgrade (Jairus Byrd at one safety spot tops that list).

In other words, if all else stays the same, a 6.9 positive points differential should stay the same or improve. The turnover margin is likely to improve with the acquisition of Byrd (no, I’m not worried about his back surgery) and more playing time for Rafael Bush.

Terron Armstead, in his first full season as a starter, should improve the blindside pass protection for Drew Brees, which should reduce the number of sacks and hurried throws, thus reducing the offensive turnovers further.

New Orleans just has to hope that it can remain in the positive win-percentage in one touchdown games as it did last season. If talent and coaching are the best indicators of season-by-season success in that category, the Saints should be fine.

They’re as talented as any team in the league.

There are other categories I’ve found to have a positive correlation to success over the course of a season—most notably rushing attempts and rushing efficiency. Those and other statistical categories we’ll look at later this offseason.

For now, take heart as a Saints fan that the Saints were as solid as any team in the league last year. They won as many games as they should have, meaning they were neither lucky nor unlucky.

Winning 11 or 12 games in 2014 is not automatic, but based on these metrics, quite likely.

With a little luck in or more of these categories, the Saints might just have another magical season.

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  • Larry salsberry

    13 and 3 go saints who dat

  • tom

    So few people remember our record in 2012 and that defense
    I’d say we were not expected to b2 11-5 last year
    we will build on that momentum and the Panthers are headed straight to NFC South cellar dwellers