Andy Dalton and the Problems of Familiarity

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Through the first nine weeks of the season, Andy Dalton was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His unexpected improvement was one of the keys to the Cincinnati Bengals’ perfect start. His struggles Monday night — just 203 yards on 44 dropbacks, plus an interception — were a big reason why Cincinnati surprisingly fell from the ranks of the unbeatens against Houston.

In fact, Dalton’s struggles against the Texans should not have been a surprise, for reasons that suggest the fifth-year quarterback could well bounce back against the Arizona Cardinals this week but will likely struggle once again in the postseason.

Familiarity Creates Problems

The problem for Dalton is he performs significantly better against opponents who have not played the Bengals recently. This phenomenon was discovered by Bengals analyst Joe Goodberry. Against what he terms “uncommon” opponents, those who did not play the Bengals earlier that season or the previous season, Dalton is an excellent quarterback who has a great deal of success. Against “common” opponents, those who have faced the Bengals previously, Dalton finds the going much more difficult. Table 1 has the basic details.

Table 1. Dalton vs. Common and Uncommon Opponents

Comp. Pct. Yards/Att TD% INT%
Common Foes 59.0% 6.5 3.4% 3.5%
Uncommon Foes 67.1% 8.0 6.7% 2.5%

Dalton completes a higher percentage of his passes, for more yards per completion, throws many more touchdowns, and throws fewer interceptions against teams that have not played the Bengals lately. Table 2 has the numbers for just 2015, adding Football Outsiders’ per-play DVOA metric and another factor, Dalton’s sack rate.

Table 2. Dalton v. Common and Uncommon Opponents, 2015 Detail

Comp Pct. Yards/Att TD% INT% DVOA Sack%
Common Foes 63.7% 7.7 5.2% 3.0% 3.2% 6.9%
Uncommon Foes 68.3% 8.6 6.8% 0.6% 47.8% 2.4%

More Than Just Opponent Adjustments

The simple explanation is that Dalton is faring worse because he is facing better defenses. Many of the Bengals’ common opponents are AFC North foes and other teams who have ranked highly in their division. Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, however, suggest this is not the case. Opponent adjustments say Dalton’s 2015 performance against uncommon opponents has been even better than the raw statistics suggest, while his performance against common opponents has been worse than it looks.

Opponent adjustments were a part of the 2014 story, but only a very small part. Dalton had a non-adjusted VOA of 15.7 percent against uncommon opponents against an adjusted DVOA of 14.4 percent and a VOA of -20.9 percent and DVOA of -19.8 percent. Adding in opponent adjustments explains a very small part of the difference last year, and none of it this year or in 2013. There really does seem to be something else going on.

Sacks Are Part of the Story

The last column in Table 2, on sack rate, is especially informative. This is one area Dalton has improved from his younger days. He took an NFL-leading 17 coverage sacks in 2012 according to Football Outsiders’ charting data. Dalton has done a much better job of avoiding sacks and especially coverage sacks the past three seasons, but he still gets sacked at a much higher rate by common opponents.

Table 2’s cumulative numbers conceal one very interesting detail. Dalton’s 2.4 percent sack rate in his five games to date against uncommon opponents breaks down as four sacks by the Seattle Seahawks and no sacks by any of the other foes. Meanwhile, Dalton has been sacked at least twice in every game against a common opponent.

This season’s sack data continues a trend from 2014. That season, Dalton had a personal adjusted sack rate of 6.1 percent against common opponents compared to just 2.4 percent against uncommon foes, who often did not even sack him at all. Whatever Dalton does so well against uncommon opponents is reflected here as well.

Deep Balls Are Part of the Story

One thing that stood out Monday night was how much Dalton struggled throwing the ball down the field. He completed just two of his nine attempts thrown more than 15 yards downfield. This is another theme that runs through the common vs. uncommon opponents distinction.

Dalton has been a better deep ball thrower this year against common opponents, with great success against the Baltimore Ravens most notably, but the splits still stand out. His worst deep games were against Houston and the Pittsburgh Steelers, while he has posted an above-average DVOA in deep passes against all uncommon foes.

Last season’s numbers are cloudy because of an injury-plagued season from wide receiver A.J. Green and the absences of tight end Tyler Eifert and wide receiver Marvin Jones, but 2013 shows just how much difference common and uncommon games can mean to Dalton’s deep ball performance. In uncommon games, Dalton had a DVOA of 156.9 percent and a success rate of 56 percent on deep passes, versus a DVOA of -20.1 percent and a success rate of just 28 percent against common opponents. To put that in context, Dalton against uncommon foes was the best deep passer in the league by a significant margin and the second-worst deep passer in the league against teams more familiar with the Bengals.

What It Means Going Forward

Andy Dalton is a much better player against teams the Bengals have not faced recently. In particular, he is sacked much less frequently and is a much more effective downfield passer. This is one reason the Bengals have fared so well in interconference play and why he could do well against the Cardinals on Sunday night and the St. Louis Rams the next week. The bad news is, the Bengals still have four common foes left to play in the regular season, and most of the likely AFC playoff teams — New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, and even Indianapolis — are common foes. After an inspiring start, Cincinnati could be looking once again at a disappointing result and another fast playoff exit.

Don Ohlmeyer, longtime network TV executive, dies at 72

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Don Ohlmeyer, the “Monday Night Football” producer who came up with the phrase “Must See TV” in leading NBC to the No. 1 prime-time spot, died Sunday. He was 72.

“It is with heavy hearts we share that Don Ohlmeyer, our beloved husband, father and grandfather, has passed away at age of 72 due to cancer,” Ohlmeyer’s family said in a statement. “Surrounded by loved ones, he died peacefully at his home in Indian Wells.”

Longtime friend Al Michaels announced Ohlmeyer’s death while broadcasting NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

Ohlmeyer won 16 Emmys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Peabody Awards.

Ohlmeyer became producer of “MNF” in 1972, teaming with director Chet Forte and the on-air crew of Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford. In 2000 in his second “MNF” stint, Ohlmeyer put comedian Dennis Miller in the booth.

Ohlmeyer first worked for ABC Sports as a gofer while studying at Notre Dame and became a full-time production assistant in 1967 under Roone Arledge, working on “Wide World of Sports.” Along with his “Monday Night Football” work, he directed the network’s Olympic coverage and created “The Superstars.” Later at NBC Sports, he produced World Series and Super Bowl broadcasts.

After running his own Ohlmeyer Communications Company, he returned to NBC in 1993 as president of its entertainment division. He came up with “Must See TV” in the 1990s, when NBC’s rating soared with such hits as “Seinfeld,” ”Friends,” ”ER” and “Frasier.”

Watch Live: New York Giants vs. Dallas Cowboys on NBC

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The Dallas Cowboys host the New York Giants in a battle of NFC East rivals on Sunday Night Football.

Despite going 13-3 and earning the No. 1 seed in the playoffs last year, the Cowboys lost twice to the Giants in 2016, including a loss in Week 1. Dallas hopes to not have a repeat of last year and will rely on sophomores Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to carry the load. Don’t be surprised if Elliott gets even more carries in this game because there is a possibility his six-game suspension is upheld and he will have plenty of time to rest up before he sees game action again.

The Giants will rely on their strong defense led by DB Landon Collins and DE Jason Pierre-Paul to try and get after Prescott and bottle up Elliott. On offense, New York is all about Eli Manning and the passing attack. Odell Beckham Jr. is expected to suit up, but it remains to be seen how big of a role he will have after injuring his ankle in the preseason. As a result, look for new additions WR Brandon Marshall and rookie TE Evan Engram, to go along with sophomore WR Sterling Shepard to step up for Manning.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Giants vs. Cowboys

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app