The Greatest Season No one Remembers

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The Greatest Season No one Remembers

Postby AngryJohnny51 » Thu Jul 19, 2012 2:06 pm

Dirty Bird Secret: the greatest season nobody remembers
Cold Hard Football Facts for July 19, 2012
The 1998 Atlanta Falcons were the greatest team in franchise history, defined in our memories largely by RB Jamal Anderson and the 'Dirty Bird' dance. But that dance diverted our eyes away from Chris Chandler and an eye-popping passing performance for the ages.
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts touchdown dance choreographer

Narratives often entrench themselves deeply in the collective psyche of sports fans. Singular moments in time are burned in our memories, yet do not always reflect the statistical reality of a situation.

This phenomenon is especially true in football, where so much of what fans and analysts believe is based upon memorable anecdotes, and not based upon Cold, Hard Football Fact.

We've spent years deliciously carving up those situations in which anecdotes conflict with statistical reality, skewering these myths like so many statistical shish-kabobs along the way.

The 1998 Atlanta Falcons are a perfect example of a team, and a season, defined by memorable anecdotes, to the point that these anecdotes diverted the gaze of Football Nation away from the incredible statistical story that unfolded on the field each and every week, all the way through Super Bowl XXXIII.

In fact, these anecdotes miscast who the Falcons were, and how they captured the franchise's first and only NFC championship.

The 1998 Falcons remain the “Dirty Birds” in NFL lore, a team defined by running back Jamal Anderson, and his rather awkward and rhythm-less, but certainly memorable touchdown dance.

The most effective passing season in 42 years
The 1998 Falcons should be remembered for the stunningly historic (and stunningly forgotten) performance by quarterback Chris Chandler, who quietly pieced together one of the most effective passing seasons the NFL has ever seen, even while Anderson generated all the headlines and SportsCenter replays doing his jaunty little jig after each touchdown.

Now, Anderson was a true stud in 1998:

410 carries, 1,846 yards, 4.50 YPA, 14 TD

Those 1,846 rushing yards are No. 15 on the list of single-season performances. Anderson also added 27 catches, 319 yards and 2 TD through the air. So it was a great season.

But Chandler produced an utterly eye-popping and historic season, averaging in incredible 9.65 yards every time he attempted a pass. It was the highest average by any quarterback in 42 years (min. 150 attempts). Chandler’s mark has been surpassed only once since, by Kurt Warner in 2000 (9.88 YPA).

How does 9.65 YPA stack up to other great seasons? Well, consider these two historic notables:

Hall of Famer Dan Marino averaged 9.01 YPA in his record-shattering signature 1984 season
Future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning averaged 9.17 YPA in his record-shattering signature 2004 season.

Put another way: for one season, in 1998, Chandler got the ball down field as well as any quarterback in the history of football – at a level very few of even the game’s elite quarterbacks have ever matched.

Here’s a look at the 10 most effective passing seasons in NFL history.

10 Most Effective Seasons, NFL History (Pass YPA) Player Year Att Yds Y/A Record Result
Sid Luckman 1943 Bears 202 2194 10.86 8-1-1 won NFL title
Otto Graham 1953 Browns 258 2722 10.55 11-1 lost NFL title
Norm Van Brocklin 1954 Rams 260 2637 10.14 6-5-1 no postseason
Ed Brown 1956 Bears 168 1667 9.92 9-2-1 lost NFL title
Kurt Warner 2000 Rams 347 3429 9.88 10-6 lost wildcard
Chris Chandler 1998 Falcons 327 3154 9.65 14-2 lost Super Bowl
Bart Starr 1968 Packers 171 1617 9.46 6-7 -1 no postseason
Len Dawson 1968 Chiefs 224 2109 9.42 12-2 lost division
Greg Cook 1969 Bengals 197 1854 9.41 4-9-1 no postseason
Ken Stabler 1976 Raiders 291 2737 9.41 13-1 Won Super Bowl

It's a pretty impressive list: Five of those teams reached the NFL championship game or Super Bowl. Five of those quarterbacks are in the Hall of Fame. Kurt Warner probably will be in Canton some day. Ken Stabler has his share of HOF advocates.

The list is important, as intelligent devotees of the Cold, Hard Football Facts know, because passing YPA is the single easiest measure of passing success and, therefore, of team success. It's much easier to understand and to explain than passer rating. More than just easy, YPA is also a very effective measure of passing success and of team success.

Teams with a higher average per pass attempt win about 75 percent of all NFL games. And nobody in 1998 passed the ball nearly as well as Chandler passed the ball. Certainly, nobody in Falcons history passed the ball that well, either.

We’ve shown time and again that winning football is built around an effective and efficient passing game, regardless of how well or how poorly a team runs the football – though it certainly doesn’t hurt to do both well.
Atanta's greatest passing season = Atlanta's greatest team
But it’s no coincidence that Atlanta's greatest passing season coincided directly with the team’s greatest season, period. Some of the highlights of the 1998 Falcons:

Best record in franchise history (14-2)
Most wins in franchise history (14)
Most points scored in franchise history (442)
Most points per game in franchise history (27.6)
Greatest scoring differential in franchise history (+153)
Only conference championship in franchise history

The Anderson and Chandler tandem provides us the perfect opportunity to highlight why the passing game is so much more important than the running game and why the passing game correlates so much more highly to wins and losses.

Anderson did pound out 1,846 yards – but he averaged just 4.50 YPA. It's a very strong season, for sure. But hardly historic in terms of effectiveness, either. Hundreds of running backs have produced 4.5 YPA over the course of a season. Anderson, statistically speaking, was nothing particularly special on a per-carry basis.

Meanwhile, the Falcons ripped off nearly 10 yards – a frighteningly good number – every time Chandler whipped the ball down the field.

It’s virtually impossible to beat a quarterback when he's torching you for 10 yards every time he unleashes the ball. And it was virtually impossible to beat the Falcons in 1998.

The difference in the impact of Anderson and Chandler was evident in the epic 1998 NFC championship game, when the Falcons went into the Metrodome and shocked the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings.

Chandler was the best player on the field during what proved another in a long line of heartbreaking days for Vikings fans.

Atlanta that day ran the ball 29 times for 110 yards, 3.79 YPA and 0 TD. Anderson led the way with 23 carries for 67 yards and a lowly 2.91 YPA. He scored the game’s first TD on a short pass from Chandler – and then did the Dirty Bird in the end zone. But it was a largely ordinary, non-descript day on the ground for the Falcons.

It was, however, a dangerously effective performance through the air by Chandler:

27 of 43, 62.8%, 340 yards, 7.91 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 110.6 rating

In fact, he was far more effective than Minnesota QB Randall Cunningham:

29 of 48, 60.4%, 266 yards, 5.54 YPA, 2 TD, 0 INT, 89.41 rating

In a sport in which passing efficiency is almost always the deciding factor, Chandler’s clutch effort – and a fine effort by the Atlanta defense to mitigate Minnesota’s passing attack – was the singular deciding factor in the 1998 NFC title tilt (the turnover battle was even, by the way, at 2 each).

Of course, Chandler returned to being the pigskin pumpkin most fans remember him as in the 34-19 loss to John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII. He produced just 219 yards on 35 attempts (6.26 YPA), while compounding the ineffectiveness with three INTs.

Three picks and 6.26 YPA are losing numbers almost every time, especially in a Super Bowl. It was an anomalously bad end to an anomalously brilliant season by Chandler.

In the meantime, we’re not trying to put Chandler in the Hall of Fame, folks. Not trying to overstate his case. He spent an impressive 17 seasons in the NFL, but most of them largely forgettable, while playing for seven different teams (including both the L.A. and St. Louis Rams).

But the reality is, for one season, Chandler was as good a quarterback, as effective at getting the ball downfield, as the game had ever seen.

And the reality is that Chandler, not Jamal Anderson or the memorable Dirty Bird jig, was the biggest single reason why the 1998 Falcons were NFC champs and fielded the greatest team in franchise history.

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Re: The Greatest Season No one Remembers

Postby Pudge » Thu Jul 19, 2012 4:15 pm

I like CHFF, but they are very wrong here.

Chandler's success/production as a passer had everything to do with the steady rushing of Anderson that year, not the other way around.

Take for instance, the season finale against the Dolphins. Chandler passed for 118 yards on 3 pass attempts, for a ridiculously high 39.3 YPA. He hit O.J. Santiago on the opening play of the game (play-action), who broke tackles for a 62-yard score. Then on the next possession, on a 3rd & 4 and broken coverage, he found an open Tony Martin for 53 yards, then on the next play hit Santiago for the 2-yard score, hurting his ankle and then was out of the game.

You look at Chandler's 2nd best YPA game. Their first win over the Saints, where he was 7 of 10 for 129 yards for 1 TD. That lone TD was a 45-yard bomb to Martin on a play-action fake on the 1st play of a drive.

His next best game came in the 2nd Siants matchup where he was 19 of 28 for 345 yards and 2 touchdowns (12.3 YPA). Early in that game, on a 1st down he hit Mathis for a 31-yard score to set up a 1-yard TD run by Christian for the first score of the game. The Falcons next score comes after Ray Buchanan's INT sets up him to hit Mathis for 62 yards on a scoring play on 1st down of the ensuing drive.

I don't want to make it sound like Chandler was purely a product of his environment. I do believe that Chandler was a very effective and efficient QB that year. His ability to convert third downs and extend drives was a huge aspect of the Falcons offense that year. But a significant amount of his success was built off the play-action offense, and teh ability for the Falcons to hit teams over the top of the defense on 1st downs, particularly following turnovers because teams were expecting us to run the ball.

And BTW, a team that has a +1 turnover margin in a game wins 79% of the time.
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.

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Re: The Greatest Season No one Remembers

Postby takeitdown » Fri Jul 20, 2012 12:45 pm

Agreed on most points.

On passing attack, I always use YPA and INT% and that basically gives you both turnover differential and passing efficiency. I can't remember the correlation on it, but I think it approaches 90%.

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Re: The Greatest Season No one Remembers

Postby Cyril » Mon Jul 23, 2012 12:56 pm

What I find interesting is we're always talking about building a team around Matt Ryan. Yet the year before we were 7-9 and we made one trade for Tony Martin (giving up a #2) This was Reeves second year with the team; as was it Chandler's second year....

There were no other major deals except we didn't offer "Iron Head" a contract;lost Bert E., yet with Martin
& Mathis and a line that still was fairly poor at pass blocking we did make the Super Bowl.

I think it shows your Qb just needs to play good; and Reeves was certainly as conservative as Coach Smith.
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Re: The Greatest Season No one Remembers

Postby Pudge » Mon Jul 23, 2012 4:10 pm

Yes, Reeves was probably more conservative than Mike Smith, but Reeves coached in an era rife with conservative football philosophy. The 1998 season was smack dab in the middle of the short period of time where the QB play in the NFL has been collectively the weakest it has been for the past 30 years. It was the mini-epoch in which the "game manager" first came to be known and recognized. Chandler was the epitome of this type of player. Unfortunately for him, it would be Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer that would ultimately emerge as the Super Bowl winners of that group of QBs, and Chandler was largely forgotten.

We did shuffle around our O-line. Moving Tobeck to center was huge, playing Collins at the less pivotal LG, and replacing Willig with Ephraim Salaam at RT. That obviously had a dramatic effect on our ground game.

In the first 8 games of the 1997 season, where the Falcons were 1-7, Jamal Anderson had 124 carries for 323 yards (2.6 YPC) an 2 touchdowns, an average of 15.5 carries, 40.4 yards, and 0.25 touchowns per game.

In the second half of that season, where the Falcons were 6-2, Anderson had 146 carries for 679 yards (4.7 YPC) and 5 touchdowns, an average of 18.3 carries, 84.9 yards, and 0.6 touchdowns per game. Essentially in the categories that matter (yards, TDs, and YPC), he basically doubled his production. Now granted, a big part of that was because of the two strong performances he had in Week 9 vs. St. Louis (20 carries, 162 yards, 1 TD), and Week 17 vs. Arizona (33-152-0). Outside those games, he averaged about 61 yards per game and had a YPC of 3.9. Still significant improvements over the first half, but largely average for the time.

Now in 1998, Anderson broke out and had a huge year. He averaged 25.6 carries per game, 115.4 yards per game, and 0.9 TDS per game, with a YPC of 4.5. In 1998, he had 72 or more yards in 15 of 16 games played in. In 1997, he had 72 or more yards in only 4 of 16 games.

Again, the popular perception that Anderson was the lynchpin to why the 1998 Falcons is actually reality. Because unbeknownst to many people, Chris Chandler was actually really productive in 1997. It was his 2nd best season of his career behind '98. His '94 season with Rams might give '97 a run for its money, but since he only played in 6 games that year, it's not close. He ranked 6th in DVOA in 1997. When you look at 1997, 1998, and 1999, it's clear to see that the significant changes in the success/failures of those respective teams rested on the running success of '98 (and lack thereof in '97 and '99) and how good the defense was in 1998, which probably to this day is probably the most underrated aspect of the 1998 season.

That 1998 team had everything required by a conservative head coach, a strong running attack, a smart QB that could manage a game very effectively, but also be able to make the big plays when necessary, and a strong defense that could generate turnovers, stop the run, and generate reliable pressure with its front 4.
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.

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