Believe It or Not, the Denver Broncos Were Probably Better This Year Than Last Year
The Denver Broncos didn't have a good season.
Coming off a 12-win campaign and a Super Bowl title in 2015, which was spearheaded by a dominant defense, the Broncos went 9-7 this year and will be bystanders when the playoffs get underway this weekend.
A team's win-loss record is ultimately what matters as that's how the standings are determined in the NFL, but wins and losses can be deceiving.
The standings would have you believe that the Buffalo Bills had a worse year than the Miami Dolphins, but Buffalo outscored opponents by 21 points this year and went 7-9, finishing two games behind Miami, who was 10-6 despite being outscored by 17 points this year.
The Arizona Cardinals have a better points differential (plus-56) than seven playoff teams, but the Cards went 7-8-1 and are sitting at home.
Inconsistencies like this are part of the reason our nERD metric is so helpful. For those unfamiliar, nERD is our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league-average team. If the team's nERD rating is 10, they would be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent.
We also use our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric to evaluate player and team performance. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data.
When we look at the end result of this year, the Broncos didn't have a good season, but when we look at our metrics, Denver was still one of the best teams in the league.
In fact, they were better in 2016 than they were in 2015.
You're probably thinking: So you're saying this year's 9-7, missed-the-playoffs squad was better than last year's 12-4 Super Bowl champs?
Yeah, looking at our numbers, that's the truth.
An Offensive Statement
Denver's nERD rating in 2015 was 3.47, ranking fourth in the league. Again, that means last year's Denver team would be expected to beat a league-average opponent by 3.47 points.
The Broncos ended this season with a nERD rating of 4.73, again ranking fourth.
Denver's offense wasn't great this season, but it was good enough to win a Super Bowl. How do we know that? Because the unit, per our numbers, was a lot better in 2016 than it was in 2015.
The team's nERD improvement can largely be traced to that side of the ball.
|Adjusted NEP (Rank)||-15.48 (28th)||9.36 (25th)|
|Adjusted Passing NEP (Rank)||18.50 (25th)||33.27 (24th)|
|Adjusted Rushing NEP (Rank)||-28.89 (27th)||-27.99 (29th)|
Denver's 2015 offense actually cost the team -15.48 expected points while the 2016 offense gained 9.36 NEP. Now, 9.36 NEP isn't great, but it's a heck of a lot better than the offense's 2015 output.
Denver's running game was pretty putrid both seasons, but the offense made big strides in the passing game thanks to Trevor Siemian, who we'll dissect more in a minute.
Getting All Defensive
So if the offense is better in 2015, then the poor win-loss record in 2016 season falls at the feet of the elite "No Fly Zone" defense? Well, kinda.
The Broncos' defense was still very good in 2016, but they were slightly worse overall than their Super Bowl winning defense. While the pass defense, if you can believe it, somehow performed better in 2016, Denver was significantly worse against the run.
|Adjusted Defensive NEP per Play (Rank)||-0.07 (1st)||-0.06 (1st)|
|Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per Drop Back (Rank)||-0.10 (1st)||-0.16 (1st)|
|Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per Play (Rank)||-0.08 (5th)||0.06 (28th)|
Overall, Denver still had the best defense in football, per our numbers, so it's hard to pin much of this season on them.
The pass defense this year turned in the 13th-best season in our database, which dates back to 2000, despite the increase in passing efficiency in recent years.
Better Than You Think
For much of last season, even though his numbers told you he was playing terribly, Peyton Manning got a pass (no pun intended) because, well, he's Peyton Manning, one of the best quarterbacks in the history of football, and Denver was winning. But the Broncos won 12 regular-season games and captured a title in spite of Manning, not because of him.
Siemian was always going to be in a tough spot taking over for Manning. Siemian inherited a roster built to win now, and Denver didn't win enough this year, but he has done better than you might think.
In addition to Passing NEP per drop back, we can also look at each quarterback's Passing Success Rate, which is the percentage of his drop backs that positively impacted NEP. We'll also include more traditional stats like completion percentage and passer rating to give a well-rounded view.
|Manning in 2015||-0.02||42.9%||59.8%||67.9|
|Siemian in 2016||0.06||45.8%||59.5%||84.6|
This could be more about how terrible Manning was last season -- when he cost Denver -0.02 expected points every time he dropped back -- than it is about Siemian, who ranked 26th in Passing NEP per drop back this year among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs.
But when you consider that Siemian was a seventh-round pick who was making his NFL debut in 2016 and Denver's running game ranked 29th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, his numbers really aren't that bad.
For fun, let's do a little side-by-side blind player comparison.
|Siemian in 2016||0.06||45.80%||59.50%||84.6|
Player A is Carson Wentz, who is generally regarded as a promising young quarterback, and as ESPN said recently, a player who gives the Eagles hope. Siemian's production is right in line -- a tad better, one could argue -- with Wentz's numbers.
From a historical perspective, Siemian compares favorable to other first-year passers. Siemian wasn't technically a rookie as he sat all of 2015, but his numbers were pretty good in his first season of action.
Looking at our study of rookie quarterbacks -- if we're willing to be a little lenient with our definition of a rookie and include him with that group -- Siemian's 2016 stacks up well.
The Denver Broncos had a disappointing season in 2016. Anytime the defending champs are at home for the playoffs, it's hard to paint it as anything other than a disappointing year. But they also had an unlucky season in 2016 as our numbers still rate Denver as one of the best teams in the league.
The biggest negative this year was their record in one-possession games. One-possession games naturally involve some luck, and a team's results in those games tends to be random. Sure enough, the Broncos went an unsustainably good 9-3 in one-possession games in 2015, and they went 3-4 in such games this year.
Denver's defense is still great -- historically great, in fact, against the pass -- but the run defense needs some attention. The offense isn't going to be confused with Kurt Warner's Rams, but as the numbers show, the unit was better in 2016 than in 2015.
With first-round pick Paxton Lynch waiting in the wings, the team has some decisions to make at quarterback, but Siemian's first year under center went pretty well.
Denver has holes, just like 31 other teams, but the Broncos -- who went 50-14 in the four years prior to 2016 and missed the playoffs this season for the first time in five years -- are plenty talented and still one of the best teams in football.