Is the Falcons Offense Really Worse in 2015?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsKyle Shanahan

There’s no doubt that the “eyeball test” indicates that the Atlanta Falcons recent struggles stem from their offense’s inability to put points on the board. Many conclude that new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s changes on that side of the ball have stagnated the Falcons offensively, especially in comparison to their 2014 offense which seemed to have far less issues.

However when one looks at the numbers, it seems to tell a much different story. At least comparing the statistics from the first nine games of 2015 with that of 2014, there has been little difference in the team’s offensive output. In fact, most of the numbers suggest that this year’s offense is better than its 2014 counterpart in the majority of areas.

I don’t post this with any sort of agenda such as defending Shanahan. I simply post these as a way to get information out there, and allow people to draw their own conclusions. I will post my own at the end but in looking at the numbers, people are more than welcome to draw differing ones. Should you have a different take, be sure to leave a comment.

First let’s look at the passing statistics. Again, I will remind you that I’m only posting the numbers from the first nine games of 2014 in comparison with the first nine from 2015.

2014-15 Passing Stats

scroll to the right for more stats
YearCompAtt.Pct.YdsAvgTDTD%IntInt%RtgSkdYdsSk%Adj. Yds/Att.Yds/CompAdj. Net Yds/Att.
201523935766.9%25957.27123.4%72.0%92.4171074.8%7.0610.869.43
201422134065.0%24527.21164.7%92.6%91.0181375.3%6.9611.109.33

There’s nothing too substantial in terms of differences as far as the passing game goes. The 2014 passing attack threw a few more touchdowns, but also had a few more interceptions and sacks allowed. But for the most part, these are cosmetic and this year’s passing attack looks a bit more efficient.

2014-15 Rushing Stats

YearAttYdsAvgTD
201524910254.1211
20142068754.258

To no one’s surprise, there is a bit more of a substantial difference between last year’s rushing success and this year’s. The difference may not be as night and day as probably many would have guessed with an average of five more runs for 17 yards per game in comparing 2015 to 2014. But that’s often what separates a healthy ground attack from an unhealthy one.

2014-15 Drive Stats

scroll to the right for more stats.
YearDrivesPlaysTDFGTD%Score%IntFLTO%PuntEnd of Half/GameMiss FGTO on DownsBlk PuntSfty
2015102640241423.5%37.3%7713.7%3493310
2014101578241223.8%35.6%9513.9%3862401

There’s no real major difference in drive stats either. A few more scores and a few less punts for this year’s offense, but nothing that deserves a second look.

2014-15 Down Stats

Down by Down            
1st down
YearPlaysYardsYds/Play1st Down1st%TurnoversTO%Neg. PlaysNeg%PassRunPass%
201528217876.347024.8%62.1%3512.4%14014249.6%
201425714515.655822.6%72.7%2810.9%13312451.8%
2nd down
YearPlaysYardsYds/Play1st Down1st%TurnoversTO%Neg. PlaysNeg%PassRunPass%
201519910645.356130.7%84.0%2412.1%1217860.8%
201418910235.416735.4%52.6%2714.3%1236665.1%
3rd down
YearPlaysYardsYds/Play1st Down1st%TurnoversTO%Neg. PlaysNeg%PassRunPass%
20151296845.305845.0%53.9%1511.6%1022779.1%
20141108617.834742.7%65.5%109.1%931784.5%
4th down
YearPlaysYardsYds/Play1st Down1st%TurnoversTO%Neg. PlaysNeg%PassRunPass%
201513705.38969.2%215.4%17.7%9469.2%
20149-8-0.89333.3%222.2%222.2%90100.0%

Now here is where things get a bit more divergent, as we break down each down by looking at the yards, first downs, turnovers and negative plays achieved on first, second, third and fourth down. You can also see how the run/pass balance differs on each down.

But it’s harder to draw any strong conclusions from these numbers. It’s clear that the 2015 offense has fared better on critical downs like third and fourth down, but it appears that the two seasons are about even when it comes to first and second down.

2014-15 Big Play Stats

Big Plays       
Runs
Year20+ Yds15+ Yds10+ YdsAtt.20%15%10%
2015416322491.6%6.4%12.9%
201458212062.4%3.9%10.2%
Passes
Year40+ Yds25+ Yds20+ YdsAtt.40%25%20%
2015613293571.7%3.6%8.1%
2014513383401.5%3.8%11.2%

These are the numbers that interest me the most. I’ve included different yardage as measuring sticks as not all statistical sites agree on what constitutes a big play. Pro Football Focus uses 15-yard runs as an explosive run, while Sporting Charts uses 10-yard runs and 25-yard passes to qualify as big plays. I tend to focus mostly on the 20-yard plays for both runs and passes.

But you can certainly see some differences here in terms of the number of explosive runs versus passes in each year.

Conclusions

Given this information dump, what are some conclusions to draw on? As I said earlier, I think people should look at the numbers and come to their own conclusions, but here are some worth considering…

Why does this year’s offense feel/look so much worse than last year’s offense?

I think the answer to that is simply the nature of how memory works. Particularly when you’re drawing upon the memory of an entire 2014 season versus little more than half of the 2015 season. At the end of every season we tend to come to one stark conclusion and construct a narrative about how that season was. What ends up happening is that “season-long” narrative doesn’t always mesh with what is occurring during the year.

Put another way, each individual week in an NFL season a team tends to have its ups and downs. But at the end of the year, we tend to draw a single “trend line” to judge it’s “normal” performance over the course of the entire year.

In this particular case, our season-long narrative from 2014 doesn’t include the offensive struggles that the team experienced through the first half of the year. The Falcons struggles against the Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens don’t quite fit in the narrative many have constructed about how the offense fared a year ago.

Strong offensive efforts early in the year against the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coupled with a relatively strong finish against the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers among others overshadows the many times during that year that the Falcons laid complete eggs on offense. (see Weeks Two, Seven and Seventeen)

The Falcons offense in 2015 have laid a few eggs in recent weeks and it’s much fresher in our memory than the stinkers of last year. Thus one of two things will happen:

  1. The Falcons offense will “trend” upwards over the second half of the season and thus recent lull will be mostly forgotten in the future.
  2. The Falcons offense will continue to stagnate in the second half and that will become the season-long narrative for 2015.

Only time will tell.

So what is really wrong with the Falcons?

Obviously I’ve written about the lack of big plays in the past, so my eyes immediately gravitate towards those numbers. At first glance, there isn’t a huge difference in the number of big plays, but when you just like at the 20-yard gains, the 2014 offense produced 43 big plays in their first nine games while the 2015 unit has 33.

The difference of 10 big plays over nine games may not seem substantial at first, but if you’ve read anything I’ve written about then you probably understand that is arguably a significant difference. Because 10 or so big plays could result in five or so touchdowns, given that on offensive drives that include a 20-plus-yard play, the Falcons offense has consistently managed to score a touchdown on over half of them over the years.

Five more touchdowns could mean the difference between a 6-3 Falcons team and a 9-0 one. Five more touchdowns if spread out over the past five weeks makes their scoring outputs of 25, 21, 10, 20 and 16 points turn into 32, 28, 17, 27 and 23 points. The latter set of scores is far more pleasing to the eye upon first glance.

Also worth noting is that over the course of the entire 2014 season, the difference between the 10th best scoring team and the 10th worst equals 4.7 points per game.

Passing is about even, rushing is improved and the third-down offense looks more efficient, so why doesn’t this year’s offense feel better than last year’s offense? I think the one main difference that the 2015 Falcons offense doesn’t have going for it is the number of explosive plays, particularly in the passing game.

But as noted above, there are still seven more games left in 2015 that really need to be played out before any really strong conclusions can be made. My suspicion is that if the Falcons can dial up a few more big plays in the passing game over the second half of this year, then the offensive output will start to feel better and the eyeball test will start to match what much of the numbers are suggesting.

Now that you have the numbers, feel free to come to your own conclusions in the comments below.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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