By Brian Burke
A stat is a tool, and like a tool, each stat has its purpose. I'm not a fan of trying to peddle one single uber-stat, just like Home Depot doesn't try to sell one single uber-tool. I favor looking at a line of stats that paints a full picture of a team or player, with each stat capturing a particular dimension of performance. WPA is the tool ideally suited for retrospective measures of documenting 'who did what' in terms of wins and losses.
With that, let's turn our attention to the NFC All-WPA defenders for 2011.
National Football Conference
Cardinals lineman Calais Campbell leads the league at DE with 2.15 +WPA. He's #5 in total EPA, #2 in Tackle Factor (TF), and #3 in Success Count (SC). 9 Sacks and 16 QB Hits, and 12 tackles for losses. His biggest play was a 4th quarter fumble recovery deep in CLE territory in a tight game. His second biggest play (which isn't even counted in player WPA because it was a special teams play) was a field goal block with only 4 sec to play against STL. The block kept the game tied and allowed ARI to win in OT.
Right behind Campbell is Jason Pierre-Paul with 1.98 +WPA. JPP beats Campbell in many other categories though, including +EPA (#2), SC (#1), TF (#1), sacks (#3), QB hits (#2) and tackles for losses (#1). In short JPP has had a monster year, and the biggest game of it is still to come.
All-WPA alternates at DE include Jared Allen (1.97 +WPA/ 76.9 +EPA/ 0.89 TF) and Chris Clemons (1.77 +WPA/ 53.7 +EPA/ 0.73 TF).
Darnell Dockett makes the second Cardinals defensive lineman to bring home the All-WPA honors. He tops all DTs with 1.65 +WPA. He's also #5 in +EPA, #9 in SC, but far down the list at #19 in TF. He's #3 in QB Hits and tied for 5th in tackles for losses. His sack total is less than you'd first think, with only 3, which ties him with half the rest of the league at #17. His biggest play was a stuff of Steven Jackson on 4th and 1 with just under 2 min to play. This is Dockett's second consecutive year as the first starting DT on the NFC's All-WPA squad.
Next in the NFC is Justin Smith with 1.49 +WPA. Smith led a 49ers line that has been impervious to the run all season. He's #6 in EPA and SC, and #4 in TF. He leads all DTs in QB Hits with 18, has 3 forced fumbles and 5 tackles for losses. His biggest play was a forced fumble of Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin 17 yards downfield. How a DT does that, I'm not sure. It was a 0.33 WPA play--quite a game-changer.
Other notable DTs are Ray McDonald, also of the 49ers (0.93 +WPA/ 31.4 +EPA/ 0.89 TF), and Ndamukong Suh (0.91 +WPA/ 28.7 +EPA/ 0.77 TF/ 1 cleat stomp). Suh was a starter on the all-WPA team last season, and had he not missed those 2 suspended games, he'd be higher up on the list.
The top NFC linebacker gaining the honors this season is second-year Cowboy Sean Lee, despite missing two games with a hand/wrist injury. Lee totaled 1.92 +WPA. He was far down the list in +EPA at #19, so he had some disproportionately high-impact plays. His SC total was modest as well, tied at #31. He was #13 in TF. Lee's biggest play was in the epic Sunday night battle with NYG, when he intercepted a tipped a late 4th quarter Eli Manning pass and returned it 30 yards to midfield.
The Lions' DeAndre Levy doesn't get a lot of press, but he's right up there with 1.65 +WPA. Levy also has a relatively low EPA, way down at #65 in the league. The reason is that Levy was the player who forced the Joe Webb fumble at the end of the DET-MIN game. That play alone accounts for nearly half of Levy's +WPA total with 0.71. Levy, however, was guilty of an uncalled facemask on that play, which if called would have turned the season's best defensive plays into one of its worst. Controversial selection for sure, but those are the rules of the All-WPA committee.
The Giants' Michael Boley is 3rd in the NFC in WPA with +1.62. He's 23rd in EPA, but only #80(!) in SC and #43 in TF. Like Levy, the big reason is one huge play--a 65 yard return of a Sam Bradford fumble (backward pass) for a TD. In most cases, the leaders in +WPA are the stalwarts at their positions, who are both consistently dominant and lucky. Levy and Boley, however, are the exceptions this season as they are quite heavy on the lucky part.
Sadly, Boley is currently under a legal/criminal cloud, so we'll likely turn to one of the alternates for his spot on the All-WPA team. The alternates are Clay Matthews (1.60 +WPA/ 52.5 +EPA/ 0.54 TF), James Anderson (1.58 +WPA/ 42.3 +EPA/ 1.44 TF(!)), and All-WPA veteran from 2011 London Fletcher (1.57 +WPA/ 57.6 EPA/ 1.61 TF(!)).
The Seahawks own both safety positions on the 2011 NFC squad. Strong side guy Kam Chancellor leads all league safeties by a large margin with 2.14 +WPA. He's been consistently dominant and is #1 in EPA, #4 in SC, and is tied at #4 with 4 interceptions. A good chunk of his WPA and EPA numbers come from his league-leading 12 passes defended. In fact, his biggest play by far was a 0.56 +WPA tipped pass. Again, Eli Manning was the victim. The tip allowed teammate Brandon Browner to intercept the ball and return it 94 yards for a TD.
SEA free safety Earl Thomas is second in the NFC with 1.49 +WPA. He's #2 right behind Chancellor in +EPA, and is #5 in SC. Maybe someone who watches SEA regularly can help explain why these guys are eating up the rest of the league. Is there something about the SEA defense that funnels all the big plays to these guys? Marshawn Lynch and his Skittles might get all the press, but Chancellor and Thomas get the coveted ANS hoodies.
Honorable mentions go to SF's duo of Donte Whitner (1.13 +WPA/ 37.1 +EPA/ 47 SC) and Dashon Goldson (1.03 +WPA/ 31.8 +EPA/ 23 EPA).
Carlos Rodgers is making WAS regret letting him go to SF. He tops NFC CBs with 1.52 +WPA. He's also #1 in the league in total EPA, #8 in SC, tied for third with 6 interceptions, and tied at #6 with 18 passes defended. Rodgers really lots of smaller +WPA plays, and no real big game-changer on his resume this season. His biggest was a 31-yd interception for a TD.
Brandon Browner will line up on the other side of the All-WPA squad for the NFC. He has notched 1.29 +WPA. Browner is also #4 in EPA, tied at #13 in SC, tied at #2 with 6 interceptions, but his real claim to fame is his #1 ranking in passes defended with 20. His biggest play was the tipped pass interception return for a TD against NYG.
Alternates will be Charles Woodson (1.17 +WPA/ 53.0 +EPA/ 45 SC) and rookie Patrick Peterson (1.02 +WPA/ 18.2 +EPA/ 29 SC), whose numbers don't even include his spectacular punt returns.
The NFC West dominates the NFL All-WPA squad this year. ARI's defensive line and the secondaries of SEA and SF really stand out.