Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Falsity of Nostalgia for Bruce Arians

The Steelers fanbase is in a strange place right now. A few weeks ago, we were all kind of chuckling at Snoop Dogg's instagram messages about how Todd Haley should be fired.

Now, one of the most respected sports journalists in the city (along with one who is basically a giant troll) have picked up the mantle and run with it. Gene Collier's article in the Post-Gazette has been all the talk of Pittsburgh Radio this week. Mark Madden's column in the Beaver County Times requires a subscription to read and there's no way anyone in their right mind should pay to read what Mark Madden writes.

However, Collier falls victim to nostalgic reminiscing. The central focus of Collier's argument (which is pretty much the only statistic he cites in his entire article) is wins and losses.

"Haley has been the offensive coordinator in 38 games since the “retirement” of Bruce Arians, much reviled in the same role in the previous five seasons. The Steelers are 19-19 in those 38.
In the 38 games before Arians “retired,” the Steelers were 27-11. In his five seasons with Tomlin, the Steelers were 55-25, winning 12 games three times.
For starters, offensive performance is not the sole contributor to wins and losses. Last year's Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks were 17th in the league in total offense. Without getting into complicated metrics like DVOA, which someone who pays for a Football Outsiders subscription can do for you, let's take a look at the three time frames that Collier has laid out: Haley's first 38 games (2012-2014), Arians' last 38 games (November 29, 2009-2011), and Arians' 5 full seasons (2007-2011).

Let's start with the easy statistic that is essential to winning (which Collier totally ignores): points per game.

  • In 38 games under Todd Haley, the Steelers have averaged 22.08 points per game.
  • In Bruce Arians' last 38 games, the Steelers averaged 22.03 points per game.
  • In Bruce Arians' 5-year tenure, the Steelers averaged 22.60 points per game.

The difference between Arians' last 38 and Haley's first 38 equates to a grand total of 2 points. Over Arians' 5-year tenure, the difference was only about a half a point per game. Neither of those numbers are significant enough to say that the Steelers were better off under Arians than they were under Haley. Now, this is not to give Todd Haley's offense a free pass. His offense ranks a putrid 20th in points per game since the beginning of 2012. In comparison to the rest of the league, Haley's offense has to be better. In comparison to Bruce Arians' offense? It is simply more of the same.

However, something as simple as "Points Per Game" can get skewed by non-offensive factors. The "Points Per Game" number is simply the total number of points scored divided by the number of games, which includes the number of points scored on defensive and special teams touchdowns. The Steelers have scored 7 non-offensive touchdowns during Haley's tenure (1 punt return, 5 interception returns, 1 fumble return), lowering the offensive output to 20.79 points per game. During Arians' last 38 games the Steelers produced 6 non-offensive touchdowns (1 kickoff return, 1 punt return, 3 interception returns, 1 fumble return), lowering the offensive output to 20.92 points per game. In total, Arians' offense scored 5 more points over his last 38 games than Haley's offense did in his first 38. The Steelers scored 15 non-offensive TDs during Bruce Arians' tenure, which would lower the offensive points per game over that 5-year span to 21.29. On the whole, there was no great change in the numbers when defense and special teams touchdowns were factored out as Arians' total tenure was still about a half point per game higher than Haley's total tenure.


One of the common criticisms of Haley's offense has been that they move the ball between the 20s but have been red zone failures. That is a fair criticism, particularly in light of the last few games where the offense has scored all of 10 points against Jacksonville and Cleveland. However, what people are forgetting is that Bruce Arians' offenses suffered from the exact same criticism.

  • Under Todd Haley, the Steelers have averaged 344.8 yards per game.
  • In Bruce Arians' last 38 games, the Steelers averaged 358.5 yards per game.
  • In Bruce Arians' 5-year tenure, the Steelers averaged 345.7 yards per game.

Incredibly, there is virtually no difference (1 yard) between Haley's tenure and Arians' tenure. The one difference is that over the last 38 games, Arians' offense was about 13 yards per game better than his career average and better than Haley's average. From a yards per play standpoint, the story does change slightly as Haley's offense has been less efficient than Arians' but has been able to run more plays per game.

  • Under Todd Haley, the Steelers have averaged 5.34 yards per play and 64.5 plays per game.
  • In Arians' last 38 games, the Steelers averaged 5.72 yards per play and 62.7 plays per game.
  • In Arians' 5-year tenure, the Steelers averaged 5.49 yards per play and 63 plays per game.

One area in which Todd Haley's offense has not been nearly as good as Arians' is in the turnover department. Under Haley the offense has committed 61 turnovers (1.61 per game), 9 more than they did in Arians' last 38 games (1.37 per game). Over Arians' tenure, the offense turned the ball over 118 times, an average of 1.48 per game.

So where does that leave us? As Gene Collier clearly stated, the Steelers won more games when Bruce Arians was the offense coordinator. Ipso facto Todd Haley needs to go. But their offensive numbers, whether breaking it down by total yards or points scored, are basically the same. Perhaps we should turn our attention to the other side of the ball.

The Defense

For some reason, Dick LeBeau seems to have gotten a free pass this year. He has a Hall of Fame resume and somehow has been largely above the criticism heaped on this team because "we expected the defense to be bad." But that's just the excuse this year, what about for the past few seasons?

  • From 2007-2011 (Arians' tenure), the Steelers defense allowed 15.94 points per game and 271.5 yards per game.
  • From Nov 29, 2009-2011 (Arians' last 38 games), the Steelers defense allowed 15.76 points per game and 286.4 yards per game.
  • From 2012-2014 (Haley's tenure), the Steelers defense has allowed 21.67 points per game and 311.3 yards per game.

During Todd Haley's time as offensive coordinator, the Steelers defense is essentially giving up 6 more points and 40 more yards per game.

During Arians' last 38 games, the Steelers won 9 games by less than 5 points and 3 more games by exactly 6 points. Arians' adjusted record over his last 38 games as offensive coordinator if the defense gave up just 5 more points per game would be 18-20. If you include the additional 3 games that the Steelers won by 6 points, Arians' adjusted record would be 15-23. On the flip side, from 2012-2014 the Steelers have lost 8 games by less than 5 points and 2 more by exactly 6 points. If the defense allowed just 5 fewer points per game (as it did during Arians' last 38 games), Todd Haley's record as offensive coordinator goes from 19-19 to 27-11.

So what is the conclusion here? As Gene Collier clearly spelled out, Arians was 27-11 in his last 38 games and Haley is 19-19 in his first 38 games. Simply put, based only on points per game:

  • If Arians had Haley's defense, he would've been 18-20.
  • If Haley had Arians' defense, he would be 27-11.

But what about the notion that the defense is on the field too much because Haley's offense can't sustain drives? This is a fair question. I already laid out above that Haley's offenses have averaged about 1.5-2 more plays per game than Arians' offenses, but let's look at the defensive side to see if the defense is actually on the field more.

  • From 2007-2011, the Steelers defense allowed 4.51 yards per play and was on the field for 60.2 plays per game.
  • From Nov 29, 2009-2011, the Steelers defense allowed 4.70 yards per play and was on the field for 60.9 plays per game.
  • From 2012-2014, the Steelers defense allowed 5.05 yards per play and was on the field for 61.6 plays per game. 

While Haley's offense has averaged 1.5-2 more plays per game than Arians' offense, the defense has only faced about 1 more play per game, so it's hard to make the case that 1 additional play per game is "being on the field too much," particularly when the offense is on the field for more plays as well. The bigger issue is that the defense is giving up over a half a yard per play more since the start of 2012. Unfortunately, Pro-Football-Reference doesn't have data on cumulative time of possession, but I did look up 3-and outs.

There have been 106 3-and outs in the Todd Haley era (2.79 per game).
There were 81 3-and-outs in the last 38 games of the Bruce Arians era (2.13 per game).
There were 180 3-and-outs during Bruce Arians' 5-year tenure (2.25 per game).

For one final point of comparison, let's look at turnovers. During Arians' tenure, the offense turned the ball over 118 times while the defense produced 126 takeaways, a +8 margin. Over those 80 games, that averages out to 1.48 turnovers and 1.58 takeaways per game. From November 29, 2009 to the end of the 2011 season, the Steelers had 52 turnovers and 58 takeaways, a +6 margin that averages to 1.37 turnovers per game and 1.53 takeaways per game. Since the start of the 2012 season, the offense has turned the ball over 61 times (1.61 per game) while the defense has only produced 46 takeaways (1.21 per game), a -15 margin. That's a swing of -21 turnovers (9 more turnovers, 12 less takeaways) from Arians' last 38 games to Haley's first 38. In this instance, the offense and defense are almost equally at fault: the offense has turned the ball over more and the defense has not taken it away at the same rate.

Now, this is not to totally absolve Todd Haley from any criticism sent his way. The offense currently ranks 20th in the league in Points Per Game. The offense is clearly not producing as many points as it should and hasn't been giving the Steelers enough points to win games. However, in 6 games the defense has given up 27 and 31 points to the 28th-ranked offense (Cleveland) along with 27 points to the 23rd-ranked offense (Tampa). People might want to make a big deal out of Haley's offense only putting up 10 points in each of the last two weeks, yet this is no great difference from the Arians offense. In Haley's tenure, the Steelers have been held to single-digits only twice (3 times in Arians' last 38 games) and been held under 20 points 14 times (16 times in Arians' last 38 games). The biggest difference is that the Steelers are 5-9 under Haley in games when they score less than 20 and were 8-8 in Arians' last 38 games when scoring less than 20. The criticism of Todd Haley is fair and reasonable. However, the defense deserves just as much, if not more, criticism for its play this year. But no one is writing articles about how Dick LeBeau should be fired or how the defense has let this team down over the last 3 seasons. For some strange reason, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is getting a pass for being mediocre while the Steelers offense is being raked over the coals for being average. Pining for the return of Bruce Arians' offense is just silly, because it was no better than the offense we have right now under Todd Haley. Could the offense be better with a different offensive coordinator? Certainly. However, should the defense also be better? Most definitely.

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