Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE – Presswire

KC Joyner, the so-called “Football Scientist,” believes that the San Diego Chargers — yes, the same San Diego that was discovered by the Germans in 1904 — are the favorites to be the AFC West champions.

Usually I do not take stock of the prognostications of either “insiders” or “pundits,” but Joyner’s reasoning at first glance appears so profoundly misguided that I felt compelled to share. You see, Joyner believes the Chargers not only have the best quarterback in the AFC West, but also the best receivers and running back. A profound statement, to be sure.

About the Quarterbacks

There is no doubt Phillip Rivers wears the (much coveted?) crown of “Best Quarterback in the AFC West.”  But what is in doubt is just how much his play will affect the outcome of the game. That is, how far can Rivers’ arm take this team?

Rivers had arguably his best season in 2009. The result? The Chargers finished with a 13-3 record but failed to make it past the Divisional round of the playoffs. Certainly Rivers played an integral role in his team’s success, but it is also worth noting that the Chargers had a weak schedule (ranked 17th overall) and a defense that allowed the 11th-fewest points. So, Rivers was not without help.

Rivers will likely need even more help this year, as he won’t have the same luxuries he had in 2009. Most notably, his division opponents are much improved. Instead of the JaMarcus Russells and the Jay Cutlers of the league, the Chargers will have to compete against the Carson Palmers and the Peyton Mannings.

Player DYAR DVOA Passes Yards EYds Comp % AV
P. Rivers 1118 17.0% 618 4,531 4,728 63.3% 16
C. Palmer 434 8.9% 347 2,663 2,332 61.2% 8
P. Manning (2010) 1400 19.0% 450 4,747 5,653 66.3% 16

 
In short, Rivers was the best quarterback in the AFC West last year, but I am not as confident as Joyner that he’ll be the best in 2012. Where Joyner sees a strong supporting cast for Rivers, I see question marks.

About the Wide Receivers

Joyner concedes that the loss of Vincent Jackson is a “big personnel hit,” but maintains that the Chargers have “the deepest set of pass-catchers in this division.”

Citing Malcom Floyd’s 13.1 VYPA and Robert Meachem’s 14.4 VYPA on 35 vertical targets as evidence, Joyner believes that San Diego has “great” vertical threats. He also believes that the Raiders’ Denarius Moore is one of the most overrated players in the NFL. Despite Moore’s 14.5 stretch vertical yards per attempt (which placed him 13th out of 30 receivers with at least 20 targets), Joyner found that Moore does not “display any type of ability to beat tough competition.” According to Joyner, Moore’s “4.0 YPA against that coverage level was 46th out of 47 wide receivers with at least 30 targets under the same circumstances.”

According to Football Outsiders, Joyner might be right. Both Floyd and Meachem’s DVOA (which measures effectiveness on a play-by-play basis) rank in the top-20 among receivers. This means that Floyd and Meachem are explosive receivers who could potentially score on any given play. Despite their speed, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Moore do not possess the same skill.

Chargers DYAR DVOA Passes Yards EYds Catch Rate AV
M. Floyd 351 51.4% 70 856 963 61% 9
R. Meachem 208 30.8% 60 620 697 67% 6
V. Brown 46 1.9% 40 329 326 48% 3
E. Royal -128 -45.2% 50 155 131 38% 2

 

Raiders DYAR DVOA Passes Yards EYds Catch Rate AV
D. Heyward-Bey 129 1.7% 115 975 942 56% 8
D. Moore 84 -0.7 % 76 618 627 56% 5
J. Ford 31 -0.9% 33 279 262 58% 3

 
Still, what Joyner’s rigid statistical analysis does not account for is the circumstance surrounding the success of Floyd and Meachem and the relative failure of Denarius Moore.

Floyd and Meachem both possess a very similar skill set: Vertical speed. Both also played along side elite receivers who matchup against the opposition’s best. Meachem played opposite Marques Colston, who Football Outsiders ranks as the 6th-best receiver in the league in 2011. Floyd was coupled with Vincent Jackson, who Joyner anointed the NFL’s top matchup-buster, a term given to a player who possesses “the ability to get open against good competition.”

Heyward-Bey and Moore endured two games with Kyle Boller, Football Outsiders’ third-worst QB with under 99 pass attempts last year, as well as a number of games with an out of practice Palmer. In all, the lack of continuity and practice repetitions hurt Heyward-Bey and Moore.

In 2012, both sets of receivers will be faced with new circumstances. Without Colston and Jackson, both Floyd and Meachem will be asked to fulfill new roles. As such, it would be imprudent to expect their production to continue unaltered. Meanwhile, Heyward-Bey and Moore will have the benefit of a full offseason with Palmer. Thus, it would seem likely for each to enjoy an increase in production.

About the Running Backs

While Joyner admits that every team in the AFC West has a dominant lead running back, he believes the Chargers’ Ryan Mathews is best.

Joyner’s argument relies heavily on Mathews’ 8.6-yard average in good blocking yards per attempt, as well as Darren McFadden’s injury history. But traditional statistics would argue the opposite. McFadden, despite playing in half the games as Mathews, rushed for four touchdowns on 5.4 yards per attempt, while Mathews achieved only six touchdowns on 4.9 yards per attempt.

Nevertheless, advanced statistics seem to agree with Joyner. While McFadden has more value per play (as DVOA suggests), Mathews is the better all-around runner. In fact, his DYAR (which measures his overall effectiveness) ranks him sixth in the league.

DYAR DVOA Rushes Yards EYds Success Rate AV
D. McFadden 87 11.6% 113 614 533 44% 5
R. Mathews 171 10.8% 222 1091 1022 50% 13

 
As much as Joyner’s assessment at first seems illogical, it is in fact the opposite: given their talent relative to the rest of the division, the 8-8 Chargers of 2011 are indeed the favorites of 2012. The Chargers possess the statistically superior quarterback, wide receivers and running back. That said, it seems hasty to disregard either the Denver Broncos or the Raiders. Both teams are much improved, especially Oakland. Though they didn’t make any big free agent acquisitions, the Raiders return an offense that will not be hampered by unfamiliarity, as well as a defensive unit anchored by a line that should be strengthened by the return of Matt Shaughnessy. While I wouldn’t bet on the Raiders, I certainly wouldn’t bet against them.