Ron Rivera and the Washington Football Team: Second Half Studs

By: Jack Pooley

The new coaching regime in Washington created a cultural impact immediately felt throughout the organization. With Ron Rivera battling cancer, Scott Turner managing a QB room riddled with injuries/off-field drama, and Jack Del Rio inheriting the 27th ranked defense in yards allowed from 2019, the group wasn’t exactly dealt a stellar hand. Regardless, their ability to still earn a division title has proven that with Bruce Allen gone, the opportunity for improvement is very real in Washington. 

Beyond the evident character improvement with this new trio, another notable change brought by Rivera, Del Rio, and Turner is their ability to make impactful mid-game adjustments. This skill was displayed throughout the season, being showcased in a 17-point comeback in the season opener against Philly and emphasized in a statement win against an 11-0 Steelers team after being down 11 at half. Aside from being very entertaining, these comeback wins can be quantified to prove flexibility and situational awareness in a coaching staff, something Washington hasn’t had in a long time. 

In regular season games, Washington’s point differential per game jumped from -6.7 in the first half to 6.6 in the second; these plots demonstrate the significance of this improvement through comparison with the rest of the league. This certifies what had already been shown on an anecdotal basis: they were the best group at generating second half improvements for the duration of the season, and it really wasn’t close. Standing as extreme outliers in their position regarding 2H PD vs 1H PD and shadowing over all other teams when subtracting the two, it’s clear that their ability to go from being dominated to dominating in box scores was unmatched. Point differential being a very general metric, the question of where this improvement was generated remains unanswered. 

Specifying towards offensive ability and switching to EPA/Play* rather than Points Scored, these two plots better examine how much of this halftime improvement is due to offensive improvement. While still displaying relative growth in EPA/Play and having the second highest first half to second half difference within the metric, the turnaround is not nearly as impressive as it is regarding point differential. Nonetheless, with no true QB1 all year long, this halftime adjustment is strongly representative of Scott Turner’s capacity to make schematic improvements on the fly. 

*Expected Points Added (EPA) is a metric that assesses the value of individual plays. Each situation in a football game, accounting for as many variables as possible (down, distance-to-go, time left, timeouts, weather, etc.), is associated with a value for Expected Points. This value is determined by a statistical model which uses the mentioned variables as well as historical football data as inputs to decide the number of points expected from the current drive. Expected Points Added is simply the difference created in a team’s expected points after any given play. Say a team throws an incompletion on 1st and 10 from their own 20; the Expected Points associated with a 2nd and 10 from your 20 is less than that of a 1st and 10 from your 20, so that incompletion results in a negative EPA. Essentially the significance of this metric is that it applies situational context to yardage (8 yards on 3rd and 6 is much more important than 8 yards on 3rd and 15); today it’s generally accepted as the leading advanced metric in measuring team efficiency. It can also easily be applied towards defense by simply measuring the EPA/Play a team’s defense gives up, known as EPA/Play Allowed. 

Again narrowing towards defensive ability and using EPA/Play Allowed as the metric in question, it’s evident that the bulk of Washington’s halftime growth stems from their defense. This is not surprising; allowing only 21 second half points in the final 7 games of the regular season, this impressive defensive unit definitely knew how to hit its stride. The abundance of dependable young talent (Curl, Fuller, Payne, Sweat, Young, etc.) combined with Del Rio’s credible knowledge serves as a great base for defensive adaptability. 

Of course, all of this data has a relative principle to it, measuring Washington’s second half success in comparison to its first half struggles (which were plentiful). 

*EPA/Play Differential is the difference between EPA/Play (offense) and EPA/Play Allowed (defense). This is a way of observing offensive and defensive performance as a whole, while using something more telling and accurate than just point differential. 

This table, by omitting comparison, gives a more absolute perspective on Washington’s performance by half. Admittedly, the first half rankings among these categories are no bragging point for the new coaching staff. If Washington wants to take advantage of the talent they have, they need to better prepare themselves to establish early leads, especially on the defensive end. However, the consistent in-game adjustments made throughout the season are something that this organization has lacked for a long time, and to now have it at such an extreme is an exciting thing. The second half defense was ranked first by measure of both points and EPA, and on the offensive end, the average rankings are somewhat acceptable considering the quarterback carousel endured throughout the season. Obviously, building a successful franchise is far more complex than winning a single game, but hopefully this ability to improve serves as a microcosm for the new coaching staff’s growth heading into their second year. 

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