December 26, 2011

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Week 17 of the NFL season.

A week too awesome for most fantasy leagues.

When playoff scenarios become playoff matchups. 

When great players sit on the bench and bench players become great. 

When a team filled with stars is led to a playoff-clinching win by an outside linebacker no one even knew existed beforehand.

When a wide receiver that would finish his career with 418 receiving yards makes a last-second game-winning touchdown catch for a 3-12 team, which allows a team in another division to make the playoffs.

When a 15-0 team plays all their starters to keep their undefeated season alive against a 10-5 team that also plays all their starters without any incentive other than to derail the other team's bid at history.

Week 17 is great because it's a showcase of the league as a whole.  While the season's best teams rest up for the playoffs, the other teams try to put a happy ending on their seasons.  Teams still in the hunt do everything they can to clinch a playoff spot against teams that would be better off losing to get a better draft pick.  Yet all but the best teams play out the games with maximum effort, just because winning feels great and losing feels awful.  Just to maintain the integrity of the league.  You always have to earn a win against a bad team, even if that bad team is completely out of the playoff picture.

Enjoy this week of NFL action, because it's the last time you'll see over half of these teams until next year.  Enjoy the Giants-Cowboys matchup.  Watch the Chiefs and Chargers try to screw up the AFC West.  Check out the Browns' attempt to keep the Steelers from winning the division.  Have fun watching NFL football this week, because it's some of the purest, high-quality football you'll see all year.

December 18, 2011

Sorry About That, Green Bay......

"I don't want to jinx it, but the remaining schedule for the Packers is easier than it looks."

-Me last week, on who could beat the Packers

Is Running The Football Even Worth The Effort?

     The average NFL pass gains 6.7 yards.  The average NFL run gains 4.3 yards.  So why do teams still run the ball over 40% of the time?

     The short answer:  Passes are very inconsistent.  If football was a game in which you had 10 plays to gain as many yards as possible, rushing plays wouldn't make any sense at all.  The 4-down structure (which in most cases is really a 3-down structure) makes passing very risky.  While it can get you quick chunks of yards, it's also likely to get you a quick 3-and-out.  The reason running plays are significant despite such a low average gain is that they usually yield some yards, which sets you up for the next down better than an incomplete pass.

     However, in accordance with my earlier rant on NFL coaches running outdated offenses, I wondered what would happen if a team decided to pass on every down.  To accomplish this, I set up an Excel spreadsheet that would simulate a drive using seven variables:

-Distance to the end zone
-Percentage of passing plays
-Completion percentage
-Yards per completion
-Interceptions per incomplete pass
-Sacks per pass play
-Yards per carry

     The first two are pretty much arbitrary.  Average values for the other five were fairly easy to find.  But there was something missing, a way to decide how far a specific pass completion or run would go.  For that I used three statistically normal games from a team that was near the middle of the league in passing and running averages.  (Thanks, Atlanta Falcons!)  I recorded the length of each run and each completion, and used that data to make a decent model of the distribution of those lengths.

     As a baseline, here's the results of 1280 drives for a league-average team with 57% passing plays, starting 70 yards from the end zone.  (I set it up to do 128 drives at a time.)

     (Field goal attempts are defined as drives which end within 33 yards of the end zone, which would be roughly a 50-yard field goal.  Points are calculated by giving 7 points for a touchdown and 2.5 for a field goal attempt, as 84% of field goals attempted in the NFL are made.)

     So the consistent nature of rushing plays is not influential enough to explain their widespread use.  What else could explain the lack of passing in the NFL?

     Another reason teams run the ball a lot is so their offense is "balanced".  That way, defenses don't know what to expect.  When they're able to predict whether the next play is a run or a pass, they're more likely to stop it.

     Let's assume that the league averages are only valid for a 50/50 offense, and changing to an all-passing offense results in, say, a 5% lower completion rate, one less yard per completion, and one more yard per run.  Changing to an all-rushing offense would have the opposite effect.  This is what the numbers would look like then:

     As you can see, too much passing would become harmful to the offense, and the optimal offense would consist of a little under 70% passes.  If each interception is said to cost the team one point (by making it easier for the other team to score), then the optimal percentage is closer to 65%.

     Now let's see what would happen for a team with a 5% better completion rate, 1 more yard per completion, and 1 less yard per run (something like this year's Giants):

     According to the data, this team should throw over 90% of the time!

     Now let's make the opposite adjustments to the average team (roughly the 2011 Vikings):

     This team should be running something close to a half-and-half offense.  What I find most interesting about these numbers is how close they are to one another.  With the average and pass specialist teams, run-heavy offenses fared much worse than normal ones.  The run specialists, though, can operate under any offense except the two extremes and be relatively successful.  This gives those teams an ability to change their offensive style depending on their opponent's defense, while the passing teams are less able to do so.

     So what have we learned from all of these numbers?  First of all, running plays are only useful because they make the pass more effective.  Secondly, NFL teams probably do not pass the ball as much as they should.  Thirdly, the best offenses are those that can pass the ball well, but the most versatile ones are those that run the ball much better than they pass it.  As coaches become more aware of the benefits of throwing the football often, the NFL is going to become even more high-scoring unless big changes are made.

December 13, 2011

Having Fun With ESPN's Playoff Machine

     Every year, ESPN adds an item to their website called the Playoff Machine.  This page allows you to pick the winner of each remaining game in the NFL season (or call it a tie), and then it works through tiebreakers and such to tell you what teams would be in the playoffs and what seeds they would occupy.  Some people like to use it to make predictions.  Others, like myself, enjoy trying to create the silliest playoff scenario possible.  I came up with one that has four degrees of silly:

1.  Kansas City wins its division at 8-8.
2.  Tennessee makes the playoffs at 10-6.
3.  The winner of the NFC East is 7-8-1.  It's Philadelphia.
4.  Arizona and Seattle are the two NFC wild cards, both with 8-7-1 records.

     Check out the above scenario here and see if you can come up with anything better.  To get the URL for your specific scenario, just click the "Copy URL" button below the NFC playoffs graphic.

Marcus Pollard, Amazing Race Contestant And Former NFL Player,...

     ...said in the finale on Sunday that his wife, who he ran the Race with, is smarter than any quarterback he's ever played with.  Did I mention he played tight end for the Indianapolis Colts from 1995 to 2004?  Your wife is nice and seems pretty intelligent, but you have to think before you make statements like this.

     Am I really the only one that noticed?

Who Can Beat The Green Bay Packers?

     The Green Bay Packers have not lost in their last 19 games.  Which of course means that all the sports experts are looking for teams that can beat them.  Some say it's the New Orleans Saints, because they have the offense to keep up with Aaron Rodgers and Company.  Some say it's the San Francisco 49'ers, because they play great defense and don't turn the ball over.
     I decided to take a slightly different approach.  Rather than looking at teams they could play in the future, I looked at the teams they already played.  Specifically, I went to find stats that the four teams who came within 7 points of beating the Packers had in common (Giants, Chargers, Vikings, Panthers).  The three stats I chose are combined into the Packer Factor, a measure of how well-suited a team is for playing against Green Bay.  The four aforementioned teams were all in the top ten of the league in these stats:

Most Rushing TD

     Why did this stat show up?  Most likely, it's because it signifies a team's ability to get near the end zone and then capitalize on the opportunity.  The Packers like to play a "bend but don't break" defense.  They'll let you gain a lot of yards, but they turn a lot of those long drives into turnovers or field goals.  Teams with a strong red zone rushing presence will have a strong chance against Green Bay.

Panthers:  1st
Vikings:  T-2nd
Giants:  T-6th
Chargers:  10th

Most All-Purpose Yards

     Green Bay scores a lot of points.  If you want to have any shot at beating them, you have to gain yards, in any way possible.  In the past few years, the Packers have been susceptible to big kickoff and punt returns, so a team with the ability to move the ball with returns, passing, and running will fare much better.

Panthers:  4th
Giants:  5th
Chargers:  6th
Vikings:  8th

Most Yards Allowed per Pass Attempt

     Yes, you read that correctly.  The four teams being studied all gave up a lot of yards for every pass the opponent threw.  What could it mean?  It probably means that the Packers' offense does not play as well against a defense that mimics their own.  Aaron Rodgers is very good at picking up the blitz, so the best way to play against him is to sit back, let him complete short and medium-length passes, take away the possibility of a big play, and hope he makes a mistake.

Panthers:  1st
Vikings:  3rd
Giants:  6th
Chargers:  10th

     Adding up a team's rank in each category gives the Packer Factor.  (Note:  For rushing TD's, tied rankings are averaged over the span of the tie, so two teams tied for 2nd would be ranked at 2.5, the average of 2 and 3.)  The teams with the lowest PF's should play much better against Green Bay than against other teams.  The lowest by far was the Panthers' 6, which explains why a 4-9 team came so close to beating the defending champs.  Here are the PF's for Green Bay's remaining regular-season opponents:

Chiefs:  66.5 (average is 49.5)
Bears:  56
Lions:  62.5

     I don't want to jinx it, but the remaining schedule for the Packers is easier than it looks.  What about their possible opponents in the NFC playoffs?

Giants:  18.5
Saints:  23.5
Cardinals:  48
Falcons:  52
Cowboys:  55
Bears: 56

49'ers:  59
Lions:  62.5

     Only two teams have a good shot at defeating the Packers in the playoffs, and it's two teams that have already played them to within 8 points.  Assuming they get to the Super Bowl, what AFC teams could give them trouble?

Patriots:  19
Chargers:  26
Texans:  43.5
Raiders:  43.5
Jets:  52.5
Ravens:  54.5
Broncos:  61.5
Steelers:  61.5
Bengals:  68.5
Titans:  78.5

     Obviously the Chargers were high up on the list, but the Patriots' good ranking is very intriguing.  They probably have the best shot of any team in the NFL at beating the Packers, but they would have to make it through a brutal AFC playoff to get their chance.  Could you imagine the Patriots, four years after their own failed bid for perfection, ending the Packers' season at 18-1?  As much as I love the Packers and hate the Patriots, I think that would be great for the league.

     Whatever happens, enjoy the rest of the season, because the Green Bay Packers are about to make it very interesting.

December 10, 2011

Tests Confirm That Ryan Braun Is Unreasonably Manly

But we already knew that.

Why I Dislike James Harrison

     A lot of football players injure their colleagues.  But James Harrison does it with the poorest tackling I've ever seen.  Every time they show a clip of him concussing somebody, it's him running at full speed into a player and sort of flailing his arms at them when he gets there.  He doesn't even try to wrap up.  He doesn't even try to lead with the shoulder.  It's embarrassing.  Were his coaches really that bad?  It bothers the heck out of me.

     Look at these big hits.  These are horrible.

     Right away I notice two things.  One:  What is he doing so high in the air?  You can't get any leverage that way.  Two:  Why are his arms above his head like that?

     Again, look at the arms.  This is a push.  I understand that McCoy was just standing there but if Harrison head was in a different spot this tackle would have dealt very little damage.  Also, why was Harrison's head so high up?  Don't be afraid to put it all the way down where it's supposed to be.  You'll be fine, James.

     Still don't know what to do during a tackle?  Please, study Ryan Clark for the next few weeks.

     Finally, a tackle that's technically sound and still painful.  The arms are wrapped around the body.  The head is below the receiver's head and the shoulder is correctly placed in the receiver's midsection.  It's beautiful.  And a lot less expensive.