Football is back! Our long, national nightmare is over and we are now in the midst of that special time of year when fans all collectively are full of playoff hopes and Super Bowl dreams. Well, everyone except maybe Dolphins fans.
Two teams in the NFC East enter the year with Super Bowl on their minds, while two more enter the season with their aspirations going as high as their rookie quarterbacks will eventually take them. Thanks to the schedule makers, all four teams are facing off against each other on opening weekend. We’re going to take a closer look at how these teams compare in their Week 1 matchups, but first, a quick detour into some of the advanced statistics we’ll be using throughout the year.
Expected Points Added (EPA)
The foundation of many analytical arguments is the idea of expected points. An expected points model uses data from previous NFL seasons to determine how many points a team is likely to come away with on a given play based on down,distance, time remaining, and field position. The difference in expected points at the start of a play and the expected points at the end of the play is referred to as expected points added, or EPA. A play with a positive EPA means it put the offense in a better position to score, while negative EPA implies the offense is in a worse position.
A team’s success rate is simply the percentage of plays with a positive EPA.
Now, on to the first game of the NFC East doubleheader.
Washington Redskins vs Philadelphia Eagles, 1:00 p.m.ET
Philadelphia finished last season with an extremely balanced offense,ranking No. 13 in both passing and rushing EPA in the NFL. Washington’s run game wasn’t terribly worse than Philly’s, but their pass attack finished No. 27 in the NFL and was better than only the Jaguars and the Cardinals after the Week 11 loss of Alex Smith.
On the other side of the ball, both teams were pretty average against the pass.
Philadelphia was also middle of the road against the run, but Washington finished 27th in run defense by EPA. They were one of just six teams in the NFL to allow a net positive EPA when facing the run.
Both teams are coming into the year with some big changes to their passing attacks.
Philadelphia’s wide receiver room added veteran deep threat DeSean Jackson and rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Arcega-Whiteside showed out in preseason, earning 20 targets while maintaining the 8th-best EPA/target in the NFL.
Small sample size, but an extremely encouraging start for the rookie second rounder.
Washington’s big change comes in the form of its two new quarterbacks. The stats unfortunately do not inspire confidence that either will improve the team’s performance. Case Keenum is slated to get the start in week 1. Keenum finished last season in Denver ranking 30th out of 36 QBs (min. 200 passes) in EPA/pass. He finished 6th in this metric in his dream season with Minnesota in 2017, so there is obviously the potential to turn his game around with the right system. Perhaps Jay Gruden can bring that Case Keenum back.
New York Giants @ Dallas Cowboys, 4:25 p.m. ET
Dallas and New York finished 2018 with near identical passing games by EPA, ranking 19th and 20th respectively. The difference between these two teams comes down largely to the defenses. Dallas had an average pass defense but a top-5 run defense by total EPA allowed.
The Giants finished in the bottom third of the league in both categories. With the Demarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith extensions, the Cowboys look poised to continue their strong defense as we head into week 1.
While they managed to lock up two important defenders, it was the Cowboys’ offense that was still the focal point of many offseason contract discussions. Ezekiel Elliot has, by most accounts, been one of the best running backs in the league. But if you are familiar at all with the current state of NFL analytics, you’re probably aware there is an idea that allocating a significant portion of the salary cap to a running back is bad.
Many of these arguments are based on EPA.
The Cowboys ranked 9th overall in rushing EPA in 2018, and it was still negative. Their passing game, while ranking in the bottom half of the league, was significantly more effective by the measure of EPA.
However you feel about running vs passing, it’s important to remember the Cowboys are still going to run the ball, and it is better to be good at it than bad at it. The Wednesday morning signing of Elliott's contract extension should be early enough to get him on the field and ready to go for week 1. If, after missing all of training camp and preseason, he isn’t ready for a full workload right away, we could see a healthy does of rookie RB Tony Pollard.
Pollard played every snap with the first-team offense in preseason and finished with the highest EPA/carry in the NFL among backs with 15 or more carries. Whichever back is getting touches on Sunday is poised to have a great day against that Giants run defense.
Some of the biggest differences for the Giants this year come in their passing game. Their receiving core has been stripped bare by injuries, a trade, and a suspension. The quarterback position will be the same for Week 1 as it has been the past 15 years, though rookie Daniel Jones did make quite a compelling case to see field time sooner rather than later.
Jones finished in the top 10 in both EPA/pass and success rate in the preseason. We’re still probably going to see a heavy dose of Manning for a while, but expect the calls for Jones to intensify with each interception thrown on Sunday.