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DVOA for Dummies: A beginner’s look at a misunderstood metric

DVOA has been a topic of discussion amongst Packers fans and media members alike on social media this week. So what the heck is it?

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy once said, “statistics are for losers.”

What he was referring to was the analytic side of football and since he said those words a few years back, the role of analytics has grown not only among media coverage of the NFL but also among the teams themselves. If you have read APC for any length of time, you probably know we are probably more analytically-driven than most other Packers sites out there.

Then there is me. If you’ve read Cheese Curds or other pieces of mine, you know I’m more of a storyteller. I like to tell the human and emotional stories behind the games rather than the numbers or Xs and Os.

Like many fans, I ignored the analytic side and dismissed them under my breath. “You can’t grade football like baseball. There are too many variables.” Like many in the league, I have viewed tape as the end all, be all. I thought analytics were just something people used to prove a “yeah but” point to others. Like how analytics show the Packers weren’t as good as their 13-3 record were last year, especially on offense. That caused many an eye roll among fans, myself included.

Until recently, that is.

That was when it dawned on me suddenly that I wasn’t dismissing the analytic side of football because it was dumb, I was dismissing it because I didn’t understand it — and as humans, we often fear or flat out dismiss what we don’t understand.

So I’m going to do something about that. Each week during this season I will be educating myself about one analytic term in relation to that week’s Packer game and I’ll be bring you all along with me. Agree or disagree here, the goal is to teach and maybe open some eyes, hearts, and minds as to the side of football that is too often dismissed as something for “dorks.”

So let’s get right to it with this week’s concept and it’s one you have probably seen thrown around a lot this week.

If you’ve opened up Twitter at all in the past 48 hours, you’ve likely seen a term thrown around that might be somewhat foreign to you. It’s only four letters but they seem to be the bane of many a Packers beat writer.

That term is “DVOA” or “Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.” Not “Dorks Value Only Analytics,” as one ESPN reporter put it this week.

Did that just bring your brain to a screeching halt? That’s okay, it’s done the same thing to me too.

Football Outsiders, who uses DVOA as the heart of their work, defines the statistic as the following: “DVOA breaks down the entire season play-by-play, comparing success on each play to the league average based on a number of variables including down, distance, location on field, current score gap, quarter, and opponent quality.”

So in layman’s terms, DVOA is a statistic that takes things into consideration plain old stats might not. For example, Kirk Cousins had a decent day in the box score on Sunday (19-25 for 259 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception plus 34 yards rushing) but his DVOA took a bit of a hit because the Vikings were playing from behind, which does have some impact on how DVOA is calculated as noted above (Cousins ranked 9th in DVOA after Week 1). DVOA looks at the average result of a play in a similar situation, and when teams are down big, they tend to throw a lot and go for chunk plays. Cousins was successful in doing that (over 10 yards per attempt), but because the baseline is higher, his value over average dips.

On the other sideline there is Aaron Rodgers, who earned acclaim for his performance in Week 1 (and deservedly so). Rodgers’ box score was indeed impressive as he went 32-44 for 364 yards and four touchdowns. It was the most Rodgers-like game he has played in a while and has been a cause for celebration amongst Packers fans.

In terms of DVOA, Rodgers finished 6th among quarterbacks in week one. For those wondering why it might seem so low, two drops by Marquez Valdes-Scantling definitely played a role and Rodgers simply attempted more passes than the five players ahead of him. Ahead of him were Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Gardner Minshew (remember only one game so far, and he was 19-of-20 passing!), Patrick Mahomes, and Derek Carr. It should be noted the gap between Mahomes and Rodgers was only 1.7%.

Is that fair enough of a statistic in terms of quarterback performance? I’d have to say yes, most of the time. DVOA helps put “garbage time” yardage into perspective by comparing a team’s results to what an average play in the same situation would do. Of course a team is going to throw more when they’re very far behind and defenses are going to play softer coverages (‘sup Dom Capers?).

It most definitely is not a stat that can be blown off as something dorks enjoy. It actually holds value and can really shows how efficient a quarterback really is rather than spouting an impressive-sounding box score.

Team and Unit DVOA

DVOA can also be used to grade teams as a whole on both sides of the ball. One big controversy over the Packers’ Week 1 win is that the Vikings somehow came out ahead of the Packers in offensive DVOA despite the lopsided time of possession and, obviously, the final score.

While that result is jolting to see and something that those who refuse to learn more about advanced stats might use to dismiss them, there are several reasons as to why this could happen, as explained by Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz.

The Packers ran 76 plays to the Vikings 49 and Minnesota, as mentioned above, scored 24 points in the fourth quarter. Teams who score that many in the fourth end up winning the game in most scenarios, but that wasn’t the case here. There’s also the turnover factor, as Aaron Jones’ fourth quarter fumble, which might not have even been picked up much on the broadcast, added some negative value.

This also might have been forgotten in the jubilation over the offensive explosion but Green Bay struggled in the red zone to open the game, coming away with only 3 points on the opening drive and missing a fourth down and goal later on that led to a safety for the Packers — but DVOA doesn’t count that for the offense, obviously. Green Bay finished the day 3-for-6 in the red zone (50% success) while Minnesota was 3-for-4 (75%). That undoubtedly had an effect on the DVOA scores.

Finally and perhaps most simply, the Vikings averaged more yards per play than the Packers did; Green Bay, like Minnesota, actually had its best yards per play in the fourth. Since DVOA is generated on a play-by-play basis, it now makes sense to how this happened, as weird as it is. This should eventually get straightened out as the season wears on, but it is worth pointing out.

All this considered, does that invalidate DVOA as a statistic? Absolutely not, despite what some on the beat might make you think. Minnesota’s offense is not why they lost that game. Green Bay’s defense was ranked 30th by DVOA (only the Browns and Falcons were worse) and that played a role as well.

I’d argue that it is more valuable in ranking individuals instead of team offense and defense due to the occasional aberration as noted above, but that is no reason to absolutely dismiss the stat as just a nerd’s wet dream.

Finally it is important to note that DVOA rankings do not take opponent quality in consideration until after Week 4. The Packers very possibly would have gotten a boost out of that considering how good Mike Zimmer’s defenses have been and Minnesota might have taken a hit given where Green Bay’s defenses have been in years past.

So concludes a crash course on DVOA. It’s made me a more aware viewer of the game and I hope it does for you.