Each week of this NFL season, Vince Verhei of Football Outsiders analyzed the biggest upset of the weekend and what it meant for each squad going forward. This week -- in the final edition for 2009-10 -- he looks at the New York Jets defeating the San Diego Chargers -- and what we should be thinking about Jets building blocks Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene.
The New York Jets' stalwart defense has carried rookies at both quarterback and running back to within one game of the Super Bowl; the Jets had better make this playoff run count, however, because while Shonn Greene looks like he'll be a good player for years, there are signs of a bleak future ahead for Mark Sanchez.
Sanchez is already the youngest quarterback since at least 1960 to win two games in a single postseason; he'll be the youngest to win three or four if the Jets' hot streak continues. His performance in San Diego, however, was historically inept. Sanchez threw for only 100 yards on 23 attempts, a woeful average of 4.4 yards per attempt. Since 1978, 119 quarterbacks have thrown at least 10 passes in a playoff game and averaged less than 5 yards per attempt; only 29 of them, including Sanchez, were lucky enough to win.
Greene, meanwhile, is only the fifth rookie to post two 100-yard games in the playoffs. Coincidentally, three of the other four men to pull this off -- Jamal Lewis, Curt Warner and Ickey Woods -- tore their ACLs the next season, and combined to play only three games in their sophomore seasons. The fourth, Duane Thomas, saw a promising career ruined by contract squabbles with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.
Two games, though, is a small sample size. Looking at the 16-game regular season will give us a better idea of how Sanchez and Green have played. We can put their statistics into context by using Football Outsiders' similarity scores. Similarity scores were first invented by baseball expert Bill James and have since been used by countless analysts in multiple sports. At Football Outsiders, our methodology analyzes not just yards and touchdowns -- but also age and experience. We usually examine players in two- or three-year chunks, although we obviously can't do that for Sanchez and Greene.
For Sanchez, we're limiting our sample to players who were first-year starters. Now, regardless of which team each Football Outsiders writer cheers for, we are all football fans first; we want to see good young players succeed. So imagine our horror when the closest match for Sanchez turned out to be current Raiders punch line JaMarcus Russell.
In 2008, Russell completed 198 of 368 passes for 2,423 yards and 13 TDs (with 8 INTs). This season, Sanchez went 196-for-364 for 2,444 yards, 12 TDs and 20 INTs. Their completion percentages were identical (ahhh!): both at 53.8 percent.
Russell started 15 games at age 23 in 2008; Sanchez started 15 games at age 23 in 2009. The biggest difference is in interceptions, where Sanchez was significantly worse, throwing 20 interceptions to Russell's eight.
Other players similar to Sanchez give little reason for hope. The best of the bunch are Jim Everett and Neil Lomax. There are also former first-rounders like Byron Leftwich, Tim Couch and Matt Leinart -- and then you get guys like Tony Banks, Scott Campbell and Billy Joe Tolliver.
Obviously, this is one year, and Sanchez was drafted higher than most of these comparable players for a reason. He has more potential. But except for the wild-card win against Cincinnati, he really hasn't shown it.
Greene's list of comparables is much more impressive; the best of the bunch is Frank Gore. Terry Allen went over 1,000 yards four times. Tatum Bell, Harvey Williams and Napoleon Kaufman each had a 1,000-yard season despite sharing time in crowded backfields. Fred McAfee never made it as a running back, but lasted 16 years as a special teamer. Greene's other four comparables -- Joe Carter, Jamie Mueller, Irving Spikes and David Overstreet -- never amounted to much. (Overstreet tragically died in a car accident after his rookie season, and never had a chance to develop.)
Greene nearly set a record for one-dimensionality this season, rushing for 540 yards without catching a single pass. That's the second-highest total since 1978; Andra Franklin had 746 yards (and no catches) for the Dolphins in 1983.
Greene outperformed Thomas Jones all year long. Jones ranked just 32nd among running backs in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, FO's exclusive metric that analyzes every play of the NFL season and adjusts it for down, distance, score, field position, quality of opponent and other factors), while Greene was 19th. Greene had a higher success rate (percentage of carries that gain meaningful yardage) than Jones, and also topped him in both second-level yards (5 to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and open-field yards (10 or more yards downfield) per carry.
Against San Diego, the Jets had a lot more success when they abandoned the outside run and went straight up the gut. They averaged 5.7 yards per carry between the tackles, but just 2.1 yards to either side. That's nothing new for a team with a dominant interior line; the Jets were ninth overall in ALY (adjusted line yards, FO's metric that attempts to separate the performance of an offensive line from its running back), but 29th running to left end, 23rd running to the right. They should stick with that philosophy against the Colts, a defense that emphasizes speed over power.