Jim Harbaugh captured the wrong kind of attention with that handshake controversy. His San Francisco 49ers had just toppled the undefeated Lions, 25-19, in Week 6 when Harbaugh's postgame meet-and-greet with Detroit coach Jim Schwartz nearly descended into fisticuffs.
The ugly WWE-style incident was an unfortunate end to an otherwise great contest between two up-and-coming teams.
It was a particularly unfortunate turn of events for the winning coach. His irrational exuberance overshadowed what should be one of the big stories of the 2011 season: The 49ers, under their rookie head man, are the best-coached team in football right now.
That's right. No coach has his team playing smarter or more efficiently than Harbaugh.
Many analysts try to judge the quality of coaching with the eye test. The
We track each NFL team in two key measures of efficiency. We call them Scoreability (offensive efficiency) and Bendability (defensive efficiency), which quantifies the bend-but-don't-break phenomenon. These are two of our Quality Stats, indicators that have a direct correlation to winning football games.
Each indicator takes into account a variety of factors that go into winning football, including proficiency of special teams, field position, red zone offense and defense, penalties, third-down offense and defense and turnover differential, and spits out those performances in an easy-to-understand number.
Essentially, we measure how each team performs in so-called "situational football." Put most simply, Scoreability and Bendability tell us which teams are smart and well-coached and which teams are not.
And no team right now is smarter or more well-coached than Harbaugh's 49ers:
• No. 1 in Scoreability through Week 7.
Harbaugh's team is boldly sailing into uncharted waters of efficiency. Since we began tracking these indicators in 2004, no team has ranked No. 1 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Keep in mind that these measures are much more than just intellectual exercises by stat geeks far removed from the sidelines. Proficiency in these indicators is critical to team success: teams that win the Scoreability-Bendability battle of efficiency are 83-20 (.806) through Week 7, including an incredible 23-3 in the last two weeks (.885).
In other words, smart, efficient teams win football games. Dumb, inefficient teams lose football games. (We track the Correlation to Victory of these and many other stats at
Harbaugh's 49ers are 5-1 and the surprise story of 2011 because they are the smartest, most efficient in football.
We measure each team's Scoreabilty through Yards Per Point Scored -- how many yards you need to score the equivalent of a single point. The lower the number, the better.
No team has scored more efficiently than the 49ers. San Francisco has produced a meager 1,815 yards of offense. But it has still managed to hang 167 points on the scoreboard. That's an incredible 10.87 Yards Per Point Scored. In other words, the 49ers are good for about one point with each first down.
Not only is that performance No. 1 here in 2011, it's on pace to set the record for scoring efficiency held by the 2007 Patriots. That 16-0 New England team needed just 11.17 Yards Per Point Scored.
The 2011 Patriots, meanwhile, help put in perspective the incredible efficiency of Harbaugh's crew. Bill Belichick's team has generated 2,847 yards of offense this year -- 1,032 more yards than the 49ers in just six games. But the Patriots have scored just 18 points more.
The highly prolific Patriots are wasting a lot of yards, leaving a lot of points on the field and failing to generate points from units other than the offense -- especially when compared with the 49ers.
The importance of efficiency is far more dramatic if we put Scoreability in the context of touchdowns.
The 49ers need just 76.1 yards of offense to score the equivalent of 7 points. The St. Louis Rams are dead last in Scoreability: they need 225.9 yards of offense to score the equivalent of 7 points.
Wow, what a difference! There is little wasted effort out of the well-oiled San Francisco machine. The Rams, meanwhile, are riddled with poor field position, poor execution and poor situational football.
Believe it or not, 5-1 San Francisco and 0-6 St. Louis are almost dead even in total offense: 1,815 yards for the 49ers; 1,807 for the Rams. But the 49ers have scored 167 points; the Rams have scored just 56. The winless St. Louis offense spins its wheels week after week, loss after loss.
Generating yards does not win NFL games, which is why it's a waste of time for analysts to rank units by total offense or total defense. Instead, winning in the NFL is all about what you do with that output.
Smart, well-coached teams maximize their production. Harbaugh's 49ers are getting the ball in good field position, they're playing smartly in the red zone and on special teams and they're not coughing up the football in bad situations.
The same benefit of efficiency applies to defense, where San Francisco is No. 1 in Bendability. They force opponents to march a spirit-killing 20.76 Yards Per Point Allowed.
In the context of touchdowns, San Francisco's opponents need 145.3 yards of offense to put 7 points on the board. They have the best "bend-but-don't-break" defense in football. Opponents may generate a lot of yards, but they do very little with all that effort.
Now compare San Francisco's very bendable defense to the peanut-butter-brittle unit fielded by the winless Colts. Indy opponents need just 90.6 yards of offense to score the equivalent of a touchdown.
In other words, statistically speaking, almost every drive against the Colts results in a touchdown. In the case of the 62-7 loss to New Orleans on Sunday, this statistical phenomenon was on-field reality: the Saints scored on every drive but their last one.
It was a virtuoso performance of efficiency: New Orleans needed just 8.98 Yards Per Point Scored. But even then, it was only slightly more efficient than San Francisco's performance all year along (10.17 Yards Per Point Scored).
The 49ers do all the little things right to make life tough for opposing offenses: they put them in bad situations, make them march long distances, win the turnover battle, and stiffen in the red zone.
Harbaugh's 49ers are playing smart, efficient situational football in all phases of the game heading into their Week 8 visit from Cleveland. And it's this quality of play that's the biggest reason the 6-10 49ers of 2010 are 5-1 today.
The 49ers may not be more talented than their opponents. But they're winning games because they're smarter than the other guys.
Conversely, the NFL each year gives us seemingly talented teams that fail to live up to expectations.
If you see a talented but under-achieving team, turn immediately to Scoreability and Bendabilty and there you will see what's wrong with said team. In almost every instance, these talented underachievers play stupid football.
Norv Turner's Chargers are a prime example of a team that consistently possesses boatloads of talent but that fails to live up to expectations.
The 2010 Chargers, for example, were No. 1 in both total offense and total defense. Yet they went 9-7 and failed to make the playoffs. The problem? The consistently dumb, inefficient Chargers ranked No. 28 in Bendability, meaning they surrendered a lot of cheap points that made it hard to win games.
The 2011 Chargers are even worse: No. 31 in Bendability. Only the winless Colts surrender more cheap points.
The Philadelphia Eagles are the poster child of a talented but dumb football team here in 2011. They seem to have all the pieces in place, including game-breakers all over the field -- to the point that they were dubbed the "Dream Team" after cleaning up in the free-agent market.
But the Eagles are just 2-4 and dead last in the tough NFC East.
The problems in Philadelphia are easy to diagnose: this talented "Dream Team" is the worst in the NFL at situational football.
The Eagles rank No. 28 in both Scoreability (18.28 Yards Per Point Scored) and Bendability (14.12 Yards Per Point Allowed).
They waste a lot of effort on offense, generating yards with little to show for it. Then they compound the problems on defense, by giving up a lot of cheap points that make it hard to win games.