Category Archives: Football

What does Chip Kelly have to do with spotting the ball?

I’m pretty excited that Chip Kelly is coming to the NFL. If you’ve watched the Oregon Ducks in recent years or the Patriots hurry up offense, you’re probably excited too. It’s fun to see teams try something different, and I like seeing fast offenses break defenses’ will using such a simple concept. Sometimes, the defense isn’t even lined up when the ball is snapped. Teams spend tons of energy trying to outsmart defenses, but a fast offense can make it easy.

If the speed game catches on, it has other possible implications. For example, the NFL could shorten the play clock to encourage game pace. Most people would enjoy more football and less standing around. Whether the play clock changes or not, teams will want smaller, faster players on offense and defense, reversing the rapid growth in player BMI over the last thirty years. A size reduction might help with concussions — though force equals mass times acceleration, and acceleration might go up — and it could also help with heart, heat, and other obesity-related illnesses/deaths that lineman face.

So what does this have to do with first downs? Bear with me. The NFL has a credibility problem with it’s measurement technology. I chuckle every time the chain gang trundles out and the ball is measured one link short. Football certainly is a game of inches: in the case of spotting the ball Continue reading

Sour grapes

True Wins did okay over the weekend — predicting the 49ers and Patriots victories, but whiffing on the Ravens and Falcons. Picking the team with more True Wins so far has six correct and two wrong, while relying on actual wins to pick has just four right, two wrong, and makes no prediction on two games (same records for Pats-Texans and 49ers-Packers).

The True Wins king — Denver — is out! Over the last ten years, the top team in True Wins has won four Super Bowls, and the second ranked team has won two more. It’s up to the Patriots (#2) to carry on the tradition, even though the 13.5 True Win Broncos had the second highest total in the last ten years (behind another famous losing team that you may remember). That couldn’t save them from one very cold Manning flinching first in a stalemate and one very cold Champ Bailey getting toasted over and over again (not to mention one very cold referee blowing a couple video reviews and throwing a ton of flags on the Broncos). More on the playoffs later in the week, but for now, I want to go back to some old predictions and talk about this year’s playoff spectators.

The Sour Grapes Club

Last year, I broke the outsiders-looking-in into four groups (follow the link — the predictions are worth a read-through in their entirety):

  • The Michael Vick Division (pretty good teams that had some bad luck): Eagles, Bears, Chargers, Cowboys
  • The Cam Newton Division (mediocre teams with something to build on): Panthers, Titans, Seahawks, Dolphins, Vikings
  • The Rex Ryan Division (overconfident teams that need to reassess their approach): Jets, Cardinals, Bills, Raiders, Chiefs
  • The Sam Bradford Division (teams that need to start over completely): Redskins, Jaguars, Browns, Colts, Rams, Buccaneers

The first thing that has to change are the names. Cam Newton moves up a notch and replaces Vick, who unfortunately goes all the way around the horn to replace Bradford in the blow-it-up division. Rex Ryan, one of the most overconfident men in the world, is saved by Tony Romo and his buddy Troy Aikman — I can’t listen to Aikman defend Romo anymore. I’m sticking with my man Stafford and handing the “something to build on” division to him, even if my Lions regressed this year.

Here are the standings this year:

2012 non playoff standings

From the first group (I expected good things): Continue reading

Some questions and some predictions

Predictions

If you read my post last week, you know that the AFC is a two-horse race and the NFC is a mess. All four first-round games agreed with the True Wins predictions. I didn’t trust the Seahawks on the road, but True Wins came through (11 for the Seahawks versus just 9.5 for the Skins). So, what are we left with? Two clear favorites in the AFC (Patriots and Broncos) and two toss ups in the NFC. True Wins alone takes 49ers over Packers (11.5 to 11) and Seahawks over Falcons (11 to 10.5). I’m going to stick with the home teams in both cases, but don’t expect blowouts in the NFC unless the turnover margin is really skewed.

Questions

As part of football month on the blog, here are a couple random questions and answers that I’ve accumulated.

Should the NFL eliminate kickoffs? Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers crazy coach, thinks the NFL should get rid of kickoffs to protect player safety. A Rutgers player was paralyzed running kick coverage while Schiano coached there, so he knows exactly how dangerous kickoffs can be. Never mind that this is the same coach who runs a “kneel down blitz” when the other team is trying to kill the clock, a tactic that might work once when the other team is not expecting it, but will probably never work again.

Continue reading

Playoff Appetizer: True Wins Plus (Fumble Adjusted)

We might be halfway through the first quarter of the first NFL playoff game of 2013, but I’m still finishing up with baseball and just getting warmed up on football. Football month on the blog officially kicks off today — there’s lots of interest stuff to come, from innovative rule ideas and play calling to new prediction methods and game analysis. Today, I’m trying an addition to the measure of NFL team quality that I debuted last year: True Wins. True Wins are calculated as follows:

True Win = Blowout Wins + Close Wins/2 + Close Losses/2 + Ties/2

You may recognize the intuition from pythagorean expectations — you get full credit for blowout wins (I define this as more than 7 points), but no extra credit for winning by huge margins, and you get half credit for all close games, since those probably come down to luck more than skill. Last year, I showed that True Wins predicts a little better than pythagoreans, and it’s a whole lot more direct. Both measures are much better than using wins alone, which unfairly penalize (reward) teams that lose (win) a lot of close games.

What Else is Luck-Driven? Fumble Recoveries?

With the playoffs coming right up, I decided to try an improvement that adjusts for possible luck in fumble recoveries as well. Here’s the logic (from Football Outsiders):

Stripping the ball is a skill. Holding onto the ball is a skill. Pouncing on the ball as it is bouncing all over the place is not a skill. There is no correlation whatsoever between the percentage of fumbles recovered by a team in one year and the percentage they recover in the next year. The odds of recovery are based solely on the type of play involved, not the teams or any of their players . . . Fumble recovery is a major reason why the general public overestimates or underestimates certain teams. Fumbles are huge, turning-point plays that dramatically impact wins and losses in the past, while fumble recovery percentage says absolutely nothing about a team’s chances of winning games in the future. With this in mind, Football Outsiders stats treat all fumbles as equal, penalizing them based on the likelihood of each type of fumble (run, pass, sack, etc.) being recovered by the defense.

The keys are:

  1. Fumbles are huge turning points in games
  2. Teams don’t maintain high or low recovery rates over time

To quantify #1, I determined the point value of a recovery. A simple regression of point differential in each game on total fumbles and fumbles Continue reading

Is Joe Flacco Elite? Barnwell strikes again!

Bill Barnwell is up to his usual tricks at Grantland. This time, he’s tired of hearing that Flacco is an elite quarterback and wants a new measure of quarterback value. Flacco gets credit for piling up wins, which Barnwell thinks is unfair:

For whatever good or bad Flacco provides, he has spent his entire career as the starting quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, who perennially possess one of the league’s best defenses. He also has Ray Rice and a solid running game to go alongside him on offense. It’s safe to say that a win by, say, Cam Newton usually requires more work from the quarterback than one by Flacco.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. In response, Barnwell tries to capture quarterback value by creating an “expected wins” measure based on points allowed by the defense and comparing this to actual wins. He argues that a quarterback with more actual wins than expected wins is doing well because he is scoring more points than average.

An example helps explain the concept. First, Barnwell notes that teams have won 86.5% of games recently when allowing between 8 and 12 points. Imagine a team that allows between 8 and 12 points in all 16 games. They are expected to win 86.5% of those games, or 13.8 games. If the team won 14-16 games, Barnwell would argue that the quarterback is doing better than average, while if the team won fewer, Barnwell would argue that the quarterback is doing worse.

As hoped, Flacco is unimpressive by this measure (while the usual suspects — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — are top dogs). He has 44 wins in 64 regular season games, but because the Ravens D is so good, an average QB would have managed about 42.

Before going farther, I’ll warn you: these numbers are pretty meaningless. I’ll start by explaining Continue reading

Adrian the Canadian explains what happened on the infamous Hail Mary

I’ll let my legal expert, Adrian the Canadian take it away (and believe it or not, this has little to do with the incompetence of the replacement referees and everything to do with the NFL’s replay review procedures):

Every football fan, even the replacement refs, was relieved when the NFL and the real officials resolved their labor dispute. The fast resolution was driven, in large part, by the result of the Monday Night game between the Seahawks and the Packers. By now, even non-fans know what happened. If you’ve been living in a shoe box, here’s the video of the call that encompasses the replacements’ legacy. But simply blaming the replacement refs doesn’t quite get us to the clearly incorrect result. Yes, the refs blew it on the field, but they also had a chance to review the play using instant replay and still allowed the call on the field to stand. How could instant replay fail to correct such an obvious mistake?

The Play:

Down by five, the Seahawks had one chance to beat the Packers: a Russell Wilson Hail Mary pass. While the pass was in the air, Seahawks receiver Golden Tate first pushed off and over a Green Bay defender Continue reading

Raiders – Chargers Notes: Just go for it!

It’s an old mantra for football analysts, but if there was ever a time to go for it on fourth down, it was in the MNF nightcap for Oakland. Their long snapper was out with a concussion early, making punts a risky proposition. However, at the end of the first half, the Raiders signaled their intentions by settling for a field goal on fourth and one from the one yard line, despite trailing 10-3 at the time.

That decision was probably the wrong one — Oakland didn’t get inside the 20 again until the game was out of reach — but failing to score the touchdown would have been a tough on morale, so it’s semi-understandable early in the game (TMQ was frantically scribbling “game over” in his notebook, of course). However, the second half became comical. Oakland had two fourth and ones between the 20s in the third quarter. On the first, the second string long snapper bounced it up to Shane Lechler, who wisely tucked the ball and fell forward to avoid a block (“GAME OVER” in all caps). On the second, the snap was okay, but someone missed an assignment and the punt was easily blocked (“GAME OVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”).

The Raiders defense didn’t get the memo, though, and played their tails off, holding the Chargers to successive field goals (it helped that Phil Rivers seems legitimately afraid of the blitz). When the Raiders faced a third and 21 later on, Continue reading

Ranking College Football Teams

As the college football season gets under way, my buddy Jeff and I put together a brand new college football ranking for ESPN the Magazine (insider required, in print 9/17/2012). We started with ESPN’s pro franchise ultimate standings as a template, and tried to make things as quantitative as we could to make the ranking defensible. We’ve inspired some feedback already. The SEC does well of course but didn’t land the number one team — check it out if you get the chance!

Adrian the Canadian: What’s wrong with the BCS and its successor?

I’ve made my thoughts about the BCS abundantly clear, so on the eve of the college football kickoff, I’ll let Adrian the Canadian give you a more well-reasoned critique of both the old/current system and the new one:

In case you missed it while focusing on the Olympics, Euro 2012, or MLB’s new double wild card chase,  college football’s bigwigs announced that, finally, there will be a playoff in D-I, sorry, FBS college football (starting in 2014). For those interested in the details, here’s Andy Staples. In short, it’s a four team playoff with the four teams selected by the ubiquitous “selection committee.” Now, despite what I’m about to argue, I think this is an improvement over the previous system which was corrupt, illegitimate, and, ultimately, kind of dull.  Still this system fails to identify and address the real issue with college football’s championship. The problem is not that college football does a bad job of identifying and rewarding the “best” team — it arguably does that with more frequency and reliability than any other sport in America — it’s that college football does little crown a legitimate champion. Indeed, what we want from our sports in not a system that determines the best team but one that gives us a legitimate result at the end of the season. The new college football model fails to do that.

As I’m sure Tyler will tell you, the best way to figure out a league’s “best” team is to have a sufficiently connected round-robin style tournament with a large number of rounds. In plain English, have everybody play everybody else lots. Such a system minimizes luck, randomness, and fluctuations in performance, leaving us with a relatively clear idea of who the “best” team is. Most domestic European soccer leagues follow this model, as did baseball prior to the advent of playoffs. This model doesn’t work for American football for an obvious reason: the sport is too physically taxing to play enough games. And yet, college football is pretty adept at determining who the “best” team is in any given year. Compare to the NFL: surely Alabama has a better claim to being the “best” college football team than the New York Giants do to being the best “pro-football” team. Tyler can do the analysis, but I’m willing to bet that the BCS champion correlates much more highly than the Super Bowl champion to statistical measures of team quality. However, no one complains about the Super Bowl champion or demands that the NFL change its playoff system.

The reason for this is simple; we sports fans don’t want a playoff system that determines the “best” team. What we want is a system that crowns a legitimate champion. Let’s look Continue reading

Part 2: The Return of Adrian the Canadian

Yesterday, Adrian reasserted himself on the blog with a clear proposal to reduce diving in soccer.  Today, he shows off his versatility with a response to my recent thoughts on fairness in U.S. and European professional sports leagues (written in relation to my brother Conor’s defense of talent concentration in European soccer). For a taste of the historical, economic, legal, and political, set aside 10 minutes and read on:

How long has it been? Too long, I think.  But Tyler’s recent post has compelled me to withdraw from my self-imposed hibernation and away from the stultifying process of studying for the Ontario bar exam. In short, I disagree with the capitalist/socialist, American Sports/European Sports dichotomy or, rather, I think it abstracts away from the real issue – that cartels make a heck of a lot more money than entities that exist in competition with one another. In short, the NFL and MLB are not staunch defenders of equality values; Dan Snyder and Hank Steinbrenner are not driving the train to the Finland Station.

The standard argument goes something like this: isn’t it ironic that America, land of unbridled capitalism, home of animal spirits on free and open fields, has “socialist” sports leagues that redistribute resources from winners to losers while red, socialist, pinko Europe has a free and open market for sports talent? It’s a cute argument and one that elicits a nice “hmmm…” from readers and there are certainly large elements of truth to it. American sports are, at least nominally, more redistributive, and there is a larger perception that American sports are organized more “fairly” than European sports from a competitive standpoint. Still, it’s far from clear that European sports are more aristocratic than American sports if we look at the highest levels and, more importantly, I think this distracts us from a deeper, more thorough comparison of why European sports and American sports are organized so differently.

Barcelona’s greatness is undeniable, but it’s not a greatness that has translated into a dynasty at the highest levels of competition. While Barca has been the dominant team in La Liga, it’s only won three of the last ten Champions League titles despite making each of the last ten tournaments. This means that the Champions League may not even be as “aristocratic” as the NBA:  eight different teams have won the Champions League while only six have won the NBA championship in the same span. And, unlike La Liga Continue reading