What's the Deal with the Falcons?

The Falcons are 8-2, tied for the best record in the NFL, but in terms of efficiency they are below average. The efficiency model has them ranked 19th out of 32 teams. So what's the story?

I often hear the refrain that Matt Ryan had a down year last year, but he's back as one of the best QBs in 2010. But he's throwing at a 6.2 net YPA pace, exactly average this season. The defense is giving up 6.7 net YPA, over a standard deviation worse than average. Their running game is nothing special either, gaining an average 4.1 YPC, while the defense gives up 4.3 YPC.

Atlanta hasn't faced a terribly tough schedule either. Their opponent GWP is slightly below average at 0.48.

So could it be a consistency thing? Do their SR numbers indicate they are deadly consistent, inching the ball up the field on offense and forcing frequent 3-and-outs? Nope, their opponent-adjusted team SR is the same as their efficiency ranking--19th.

The answer appears to be that turnovers are the reason Atlanta has been winning. They have the 2nd lowest interception rate and are tied with the lowest fumble rate. Their defense has a 4.3% interception rate, which is second best in the league. I suspect they probably are better than not at protecting the ball, but it's unlikely that kind of turnover rate is sustainable over the long haul.

I'm not predicting the Falcons will fall out of the sky, but they're not as good as their 8-2 record suggests. They are a mediocre team in a lot of ways. And although it's likely they're doing things well that the stats aren't detecting, the pundits who are calling them one of the two or three best teams in football are off the mark. (They'll be the same guys who are scratching their heads, writing columns titled 'What went wrong with the Falcons?' if they fall behind the Saints in the NFC South.) Regardless of their actual team strength, the Falcons already have 8 wins under their belt, so a perfectly average team could expect to be 3-3 in the remaining 6 games, making them 11-5 for the season and putting them in the playoffs.

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42 Responses to “What's the Deal with the Falcons?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Unrelated...but NFL Live on ESPN just referenced your website!

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is bullshit and stats are for losers. Just another attempt to put down the Falcons because your fav teams to talk about are not doing well i.e. vikings and cowboys. Falcons will continue to win with or without your approval. Which your approval means not a damn thing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Stats are indeed for losers. So next time you take medicine, be sure it wasn't tested in a double blind study where they used stats to find out if there was any sort of beneficial effect.


  4. Anonymous says:

    It's a nice, ironic touch to correct the pundits while telling us that the Falcons are playing in the NFC West... :)

  5. Brian Burke says:

    Sorry. Dating myself there!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous 1, this website is not part of the main media that likes to talk about Vikings and Cowboys.

  7. Bruce D. says:

    New guy here, been reading this amazing blog for quite a while now.

    I totally agree with Brian on this one. I had been thinking about "luck" (ints, fumbles etc..) for quite a while. After reading Brian's first "luck" article I was motivated to do some analysis using 6 years of NFL data, and picking out fumbles, ints, blocked punts, kick returns for touchdowns etc., and giving each type a point value.

    There were some wild swings in "luck" by team, not only year to year, but also between the first and second half of a season.(If anyone's that interested I'll provide some data tables).

    I'm trying to "beat the spread" in my analysis, so this data is used to find a possibly overlooked edge between 2 teams. Good or bad luck vs another team's good or bad luck in a short(2 to 3 game) span or longer has pointed out some very undervalued teams. (again I'll provide data if anyone's interested)

    I've read every one(I think) of Brian's articles concerning luck, and I've seen no reason why "lucky" teams can be expected to continue to be so lucky.

    Through week 11, the top 3 "luckiest" teams so far are (according to my calculations) Philly, Atlanta, and Pittsburg, in that order, The unluckiest are San Diego(by a lot), Carolina, and Minnesota.

    Now I know aggressive teams can make their own "luck", but at least a part of that "luck" is due to, well, lucK!

  8. Jonathan says:

    Stats are for losers. Now hold on for a second while I use stats to back up my point.

  9. Brian Burke says:

    Stats are only 82.7% for losers. But that's only 50% of the time.

  10. Ed Anthony says:

    I for one would like to see your analysis. Would you post it on the Community site.

  11. Anonymous says:



  12. Anonymous says:


  13. Justin says:


    You also left the Packers out,

  14. Justin says:

    Otherwise I like your points on Atlanta being handed three wins, teams could go decades without a season being handed 3 games like that.

  15. Ian Simcox says:

    I've done a similar analysis using efficiency stats and included turnovers with it (so it's more descriptive than predictive).

    At 8-2, ATL are on +3 wins (an average team would win half their games, so would be 5-5 so far). Of those +3, 2.7 of them are due to factors not included in my model. So I'm going with the same conclusion as Brian, except even more so as I've included turnover margin.

    When you look at each game, they won on a late 43 yd FG against San Fran, beat New Orleans in OT after NO missed a 29 yard field goal, went 80 yards late to beat Baltimore, needed a goal line stand to beat Tampa Bay. So that's four tight wins that could easily go the other way, and they're 5-1 in games decided by 7 pts or less.

    Perhaps that's the 'luck' factor..

  16. Ian Simcox says:

    And yes, thanks to the Anon who mentioned Clements fumbling off the interception - a double 'luck' moment.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Oh this is too funny! Lots of jealous folks trying to rationalize why either 1) The Falcons beat your team or 2) Your team is just not that good. Stop making excuses, man up and learn to give credit where credit is due. The biggest turnoff are people that have an excuse for everything because their envious of other's success. MAN UP PEOPLE.

  18. JJB says:

    The Saints won the Superbowl last year. Has anyone done a luck analysis of their 2009 season? Their victory against Washington alone was enough to make a person believe in a higher power.
    The 2010 Falcons seem to convert a lot of 3rd downs. Is that taken into consideration in SR? What I mean is, if 1st down is not a success and 2nd down is not a success, but third down is a success, wouldn't that show up as a 33% success rate but actually be a 100% success rate?
    The Falcons are averaging about 13 more plays per game than their opponents. That also backs up the idea that they are going farther into a down series before getting their first downs than the average team.

  19. Sampo says:


    Saints were #2 on the team efficiency rankings in 2009 with a GWP of .78. Most likely they needed no luck.

  20. Sampo says:

    ... Sorry for the double post.


    Actually there was a luck analysis from week 14 by Brian.


  21. Anonymous says:

    Great site. The best in the Internet. Keep on going. Don´t get annoyed if some Espn-Mainstream-Readers try to bash your analyisis.
    They have no idea that luck plays a very big role when high and even talented sportsmen have a competition.

    I agree on most of your points (about luck, pass effieciency, play calling) why teams are winning and loosing, while the meanstream only can guess. You see that they have no idea if you just look at their "Power-Rankings".

    Greetings from Germany

  22. Bruce D. says:

    Ed Anthony,

    I've emailed a document to the community web-site concerning your request to see more analysis, I've also posted it on the front page of my web-site. Click on my name above to go there(I think), or hopefully it'll get published on the community site soon.

  23. Brian Burke says:

    Thanks, Bruce!

  24. Brett says:

    Yes, the Falcons have only fumbled 5 times this year, but they lost all 5 of them and have only recovered 5 of 12 on defense, so I wouldn't say they've been lucky in that category. Also, their defense and special teams have been outscored 21-7 in return touchdowns despite having a positive TO margin, and you have argued that this type of scoring is random and unpredictable. That being said, I would agree that the Falcons do not appear to be as good as 8-2 and have been fortunate to win some close games, but the same could be said for the Jets and Pats as well.

  25. Bruce D. says:


    +1 for New England and the Jets also.

    They're playing each other this week, so will it just be even luck?

  26. Anonymous says:

    Sorry anyone who looks at this to try and validate why a team is winning is pathetic. The only thing that counts is the W-L column. I could sit here and put up numbers all day long for why the Falcons are good. Or maybe you should tell your team , like the Ravens, when you score, don't allow the Falcons to come back and score on you in 40 seconds. Sounds like a Defense defect on Baltimore's side. And Nothing wrong with what White did. I was at the game, the guy tried to push on him passed 5 yds and Roddy White had every right to push back. So if you are going to get on White's case, get on every receiver's case. As far as the Saints are concerned, THEY missed the field so their besides a kicker, their defense did NOT have to allow the Falcons to march down the field from their own 12 yd line and score. Saints have a defense problem too. Stop blaming your teams' problems on the Falcons and trying like a nerd to get analysis of numbers to validate your insecurities. FALCONS are as good as their record. Deal with it. Chargers are #1 in passing. You can pass ALL DAY LONG but YOU GOTTA SCORE. That is how you win the game. Falcons owe no one any explanation on why they are good. Keep being jealous , we absolutely LOVE IT. NEXT!

  27. Anonymous says:

    Oh and one more thing, anyone want to borrow my tape and watch how the Falcons kick the Saints, Ravens,Bucs,Bengals and Rams behind all day long through ball control. And how our Defense stifled these teams. Ravens couldn't move the ball until the 2nd half of the THIRD Quarter. Brees couldn't pass as effectively as usual because our defense was all on his receivers. And the Rams, had the #1 sack team right? Explain to me why they could NOT rush, hurry, hit or sack Ryan all day long. Ryan sliced and diced that defense. Ask these teams that played against the Falcons, how they feel the Falcons are, they never had an advantage. Even the Steelers game was so even between the two teams. In overtime, it was a matter of which team tired first, and Atlanta did so the Steelers(would love to play them again). So if you feel you can do a better job than the Falcons are doing,get from behind the computer and your numbers and get your butts on the field and prove it. Yeah I didn't think so...Pathetic

  28. Jonathan says:

    RE luck analysis on New Orleans last year: I find it telling that the best records are very often some of the luckiest as well. This year the jets, Pats, and Falcons are all among the luckiest teams in the league. Last year, the Colts and Saints were both unbeaten after week 14. They were very lucky (but also goo for at least a 10-3 record without luck). Obviously it is nigh well impossible to win the Super Bowl without a decent level of good luck.

    And as we all know, there is nothing wrong with being lucky. If you don't like luck, you should probably join an imaginary alternate universe with zero randomness.

  29. Brian Burke says:

    Well, since you went to a Falcons game once, I guess I'll have to defer. Your amateur intuitive opinion about your hometown team clearly trumps the fact that they give up 6.7 net YPA and 4.3 YPC.

  30. Ian Simcox says:

    Brian - My favourite line of that whole rant was the "Ravens couldn't move the ball until the 2nd half of the THIRD Quarter" line. Which means that the (apparently) best team in the league needed a last minute, 80 yard TD drive to win against a team that couldn't play football on one side of the ball for nearly 40 mins. Doesn't say a lot about the slicing-and-dicing Atlanta offense in that case.

    Jonathan - yes, I'd agree. The teams with the best record are nearly always going to have a certain amount of luck in their season. Nothing wrong with that, a sixteen game season isn't meant to be a statistically significant measure of the best team.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Ian Simcox...

    You forgot another good line: Brees couldn´t pass effectivly against his Falcons by going 30/38 365 with 3 TDP.
    And as he said he never did, here are the other games with Brees at QB for the Saints vs. the Falcons:
    31/40 296 3/0 won
    25/33 308 2/1 won
    18/32 230 2/0 won
    31/58 422 2/3 lost
    28/41 328 3/0 won
    22/34 219 2/1 won
    21/30 349 2/0 won
    20/28 191 0/0 won.

    That´s 7 Wins and 2 losses. Pretty bad for the Saints-Team vs. his Falcons when only the W-L column counts.

    To be more precise that´s 8,1 Y/Att. or in a statistic he might understand: 102,5 Passer-Rating.

    To say it in his words: What a nerd.

    He´ll sit at home and wonder when the Falcons have an early exit from the Playoffs. But we know it :-)

    Greetings from Germany

  32. Ian Simcox says:

    Good points.

    Interestingly, as much as we are Falcon bashing a little here, when you look at their remaining games (v GB, NO, CAR and @ TB, STL, CAR) they could easily go 5-1 and finish up 13-3.

    They have benefited from getting to play against the NFC West, which is having a poor season overall even by its own pretty low standards, but you can only beat who you're up against. They're still a good team (I suspect 19th out of 32 is underselling them a bit) but I 13-3 finish would be a couple of wins more than their true quality.

  33. Anonymous says:

    It looks pretty bad for the Falcons if they kicked those teams' "behind all day long" and yet could only eke out close wins. With all the dominance they supposedly displayed, I'd expect huge wins.

    But, yes, there is nothing wrong with luck. Falcons fans, nobody can take away your previous wins, and that's good. Luck is what makes it fun.

  34. Mike G. says:

    Brian, you write:

    "although it's likely they're doing things well that the stats aren't detecting..."

    I agree.

    Atlanta is the Strip Club Capital of the world. I can only imagine the stats that went into achieving this designation.

    This affects visiting teams, who go on Saturday, while the local guys tend to go more on Tuesday. I've run several regressions on this, factoring in The Cheetah, and using a few different t tests and z tests; the result is home field advantage for the Falcons is not the normal +3, but actually +5.8

    The flip side, however, is when the Falcons are on the road, shorn of the comforts of multiple strip club proximity.

  35. Bruce D. says:

    Mike G.,

    The most innovative NFL analysis I have ever read.

    I'd never have come up with that idea, and yet your logic makes me actually believe there's something to your theory.

  36. Anonymous says:


  37. Ian Simcox says:

    Wow, that goalline fumble sure cost Green Bay.

    Atlanta - amazing, winning despite giving up 9.5 yards per pass. Again though, can't rely on goalline fumbles to win games in the future.

  38. Anonymous says:

    nice call dumbass

  39. Anonymous says:

    Concerning the Falcons, here is what we know:

    • The Record- The Falcons have won 9 games and lost 2.

    • Average Yards Per Play- Matt Ryan is throwing for a mediocre 6.2 YPA while Michael Turner and Jason Snelling are gaining a mediocre 4.1 average YPC. The defense is giving up 6.7 YPA passing and 4.3 YPC running.

    • The 3rd Down Conversion Rate, Offensive Interception RAte, and Turnover Rate are all way too high for comfort. All three are likely to regress to the mean.

    • Close Victories- Six of their nine wins were by a touchdown or less.

    • Injuries- We are three months into the season and there is not a single starter missing time.

    So the question becomes, how good are they?

    My Take

    • 3rd Down Conversion Rate The Falcons high third down rate won’t last. Their high 3D rate doesn’t even pass the eye test. You can watch their games and see they’ve converted way too many 3rd and longs for sustained excellence.

    • The Interception Rate- Their quarterback and offense both lend themselves to a low interception rate but not this low. I doubt the INT rate will remain this low for the next five weeks and/or through next season.

    • Injuries- how lucky can they be? This won’t happen again for another decade so let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

    • Home Record- Matt Ryan’s .950 home field record is absurd and means nothing about a home field advantage. The Dome is never sold out, it’s a dome, and most sports fans in Atlanta spend Sunday afternoon recovering from tailgating at the UGA game on Saturday. Three years from now that .950 will more closely resemble his away record. Part of the skewed record is small sample size and fortunate home scheduling over the past three years.

    • Opposing Kickers- I think the biggest source of good luck for the Falcons this year has been that opposing kickers have been terrible against them this year (I don’t have the stats but I’m pretty confident in this assertion).

    • Offensive Average Per Play- They are a team that lacks big play ability. They do not have many long offensive plays which brings down their team average on offense. There offense is legitimately a Top 6 offense but is light years behind New England ,
    Green Bay, or a healthy San Diego.

    • Defensive Average Per Play- The defense is mediocre. Period. Their “total points allowed” stat is relatively low only b/c the offense has long sustained drives so the defense usually is only on the field for 7 or 8 possessions in a game.

    • The Schedule- two or three of their wins against good/great teams came as much from very good fortune as they did from skill.

    • Luck- To say that they have won three lucky games is perfectly fair. Between Hartley’s miss, Clement’s fumble, and the lack of call on the Ravens. However, I would like to point out that they have only been thoroughly outplayed by one team- the Philadelphia Eagles- and their schedule has included Philly, NO, GB, TB, Bal, and PIT before Aaron Smith and half their o-line were knocked out. But like I said, I would say attributing three wins to good luck is fair game.

    • Final Say- I would say the team’s “true” record is closer to a 7-4 team than it is 9-2 team. I would put them behind the Saints and Packers in the NFC but not all the way to #19 in the NFL.

    On a side note,
    I’ve watched every Falcons game this year and have been a die-hard Falcons fan for almost fifteen years so I am certainly biased in some respects. With that said, my eyes tell me they are a good team but certainly not a great one…Love the conversation about my Birds. What are your thoughts on their “true” value?

    Also, Brian- love the posts. Definitely the best on the web.

  40. Anonymous says:

    Great summary. Impressive lack of bias. I don't think I can do so well, so this post will mostly contain positive additions on the Falcons, but I will try to preserve some balance:

    Interception rate-Your expectation of regression on our interception rate misses the fact that Ryan has actually gotten significantly better as the season has progressed, culminating with his current streak of 4 consecutive games without an interception. If his ability to avoid interceptions has improved as the year has gone on, then we might see a "regression" back to his current interception rate for the year.

    Home record-Totally agree that the Falcons are not the unstoppable force at home that the record suggests. We are not perfectly built for the dome and the home crowd is mediocre. Agreed that the home and road records will come more into line, although this says as much about how the Falcons are currently being underrated on the road as it does about how we are being overrated at home.

    Luck-Before Hartley missed the field goal, we had the unluckiest of all bounces off of Decoud's leg when we were receiving a punt at midfield with the lead in the fourth quarter, so if you want to talk about luck Hartley's kick should have never happened. Before Roddy White's pushoff (which many objective "experts" agree was not illegal), we were already in field goal range and there's no reason to believe based on this season or that game we wouldn't have gotten back into field goal range with over 20 seconds left. Before Rodgers' goal line fumble, the Falcons already stopped the Packers twice, and Lofton did make the big hit to cause the fumble. San Francisco was probably the "flukiest" of the wins, but that doesn't change the fact that Roddy made a great play, and didn't the same thing just happen on Thursday for NO-Dallas?

    Injuries-This is probably where we have been the most "lucky". We have had a few significant injuries throughout the year but we have probably been as fortunate as any team in the NFL on this front.

    Smart football-Aside from limiting turnovers, which I get the sense might be undervalued in the model, the Falcons also lead the league in fewest penalties and least yardage lost from negative plays. Aside from the impact those factors themselves have on our success, they point to a savvy required to win football games that goes beyond efficiency stats. Along that same vein, yes, the Falcons have played close games all year, but many have essentially been close by design. Aside from San Francisco, if you look at the games against New Orleans, Baltimore, Tampa, and Green Bay, the Falcons controlled those games. Many fans complain that the Falcons get too conservative on both offense and defense with a lead, which I'm sure would have an effect on the efficiency stats being used. While I too would argue that we play with fire a little too much with this strategy and would prefer we blow teams out, the fact remains that by predictably running the football and playing a prevent-type defense, the Falcons limit teams' ability to come back and create situations where at worst we will have Matty Ice leading a drive with a chance to win the game for us in the end, a scenario Falcons fans are becoming very pleased with. Again, this is winning football that might not be fully reflected in efficiency stats.

    Final say-I agree with the sentiment that the Falcons are a good team but not necessarily a great one, but I think that the Falcons are as "good" as any other team in the league this year. That said, I think there are about ten teams that are very evenly matched, so if the Falcons were ranked tenth and not twentieth in the model I likely wouldn't feel compelled to post such a long-winded comment. As it is, though, hopefully the case of the Falcons this year and my comments along with the previous poster's can help point to some potential improvements to the model.

  41. Neil says:

    Opposing Kickers: Atlanta has been lucky with opposing kickers, but it has not really been helping Atlanta win games. Atlanta's opponents have missed 7 field goal attempts this season, but 5 of those came in their two losses (2 by Reed, 3 by Akers), and the distances on misses aren't far from normal (55, 53, 47, 40, 37, 37, 28).

    The visibility of the Hartley miss in OT is masking pretty normal opponent field goal kicking in their 9 wins. The only other missed FG against ATL in a win so far is a 53-yard attempt by the Bengals at the end of the first half, when the Falcons were already leading 24-3. If Hartley had instead missed the 34-yarder that sent that game into OT, I doubt we'd be discussing this at all.

  42. michael choe says:

    green bay made atlanta look average in the playoffs

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