Thursday, January 18, 2018

CHAMPIONSHIP SUNDAY: The Key Statistic

By T. J. Troup

Years ago was I honored to work with Mr. Allen Barra when he wrote for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). He would write the articles and I would supply whatever insightful stats or data I could. This short story is an update.

Few know that since the AFL-NFC merger, there have been 94 conference championship games. In those games the team that has scored the first touchdown has won 78% of the time!
Let us begin with the AFC and the clash between Jacksonville and New England. The last seven years the team that scored the first touchdown has won (and fifteen of the past seventeen), so if the Jaguars want to dethrone the Patriots they better get in the end zone first.

The AFC overall record is 37-10.
Every year from 1970 through 1989 in the NFC the team that scored the first touchdown won! The lone exception though they still won is the stalwart Los Angeles Ram defense of 1979 who shut-out Tampa Bay 9-0 (all field goals).

The NFC record is 36-10. Since all four teams have excellent defenses this stat comes into play even more.


In closing, I am shifting gears again to Peter King's MMQB column, and the errors that I have corrected for him in the past. Since I never hear back from them thought that when I read the error in his column this week I would wait and so if someone else corrected him? No one has so far.
The error you ask? He mentions the long and distinguished career of one of my favorite players/coaches; Dick LeBeau. He states that he intercepted as a cornerback in his rookie season of '59. WRONG. The Lions claimed LeBeau off the waiver wire from Cleveland to replace retired safety Jack Christiansen—even wearing his jersey number of #24. LeBeau was a reserve safety who played mostly on special teams that season in six games, and did NOT intercept a pass that year. C'mon Peter hire a fact checker.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Calais Campbell, PFWA Defensive Player of the Year—Will He Be Consensus?

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney
Since 1992 there have only been three seasons in which the Associated Press (AP) Defensive Player of the year did not also win the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) award of the same name.

In those three seasons, 1993, 2010, and 2013 the AP voting was close only in 2010 when Polamalu beat Clay Matthews by two votes. 

Today the PFWA announced that Calais Campbell is the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year. Next month we will find out of he is a consensus pick since that is when the AP announces it's awards. Odds are that he will be since they winners are so often the same, but then again 2017 could be like 1993, 2010 and 2013 when the awards were split.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Side-by-Side Comparison of AP and PFWA All-Pro Teams

By John Turney
Today the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) released their annual All-NFL teams along with their All-NFC and All-AFC teams (the only organization to still select All-Conference teams). In the 1970s the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Pro Football Weekly (PFW) and The Sporting News (TSN) all chose All-AFC and All-NFC teams. 

Last year the AP changed their format by eliminating one of their two inside linebacker positions, deleted their fullback position, added an offensive "flex" position, changed the defensive ends to "edge" player that can now include rushing linebackers and changed the defensive tackles to "interior" and added a fifth defensive back and a special teams player and added a return spot so there was one kick and one punt returner. They also broke guards into left- and right as well.

So how do the PFWA (the only All-Pro team to ever be considered "official" by the NFL) and the AP differ? Here are the selections for 2017 for both—
The only difference between the offenses is the AP selector voted for Andrew Norwell over Zack Martin at one of the guard positions.  Le'Veon Bell took the "flex" spot for the AP and the second running back slot for PFWA.

On the defensive side of the ball, the PFWA voters preferred Fletcher Cox over Cameron Heyward. Heyward is a defensive end in the Steelers 3-4 base defense and a defensive tackle in nickel/dime defenses. Both he and Calais Campbell are "sink" ends. Campbell does it from a 4-3 defense but it's the same idea, and end in base defense and then "sink" to an inside technique in likely passing situations.

Additionally, the PFWA chose one middle linebacker and two outside linebackers (who were both rush backers) while the AP poll asks for three linebackers and this year two "Mikes" were chosen and one rush backer who really was an "edge" player.

The position that is getting overlooked is outside linebacker who can play the run, cover, blitz, the "all-around linebacker". This year that would include Telvin Smith, for example. Smith had 101 tackles 3 interceptions and scored two defensive touchdowns (and got another one yesterday in the Jaguar-Steeler game)

The special teams are the same. So, which is better? Depends if you prefer two middle linebackers (Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly) or one. Depends if you want a 5th defensive back or not and if you want a defensive end who sinks to tackle to be "Interior" or if you'd prefer Cox who was a true defensive tackle.

And here is Pro Football Focus and our own All-Pro teams for comparison (click to enlarge)



Saturday, January 13, 2018

Stats You Need to Know - 2017 Penalties

By Nick Webster
The Seahawks offensive line is broken, We know it, you know it and Pete Carrol knows it.  How do we know it, Russell Wilson is constantly being hit, constantly being sacked and constantly scrambling for his life.  All this and yet a review of Penalties this past year shows that all this happened despite the ‘Hawks starting right tackle Germain Ifedi leading the league in Penalties.  A review of Ifedi’s season shows that he was flagged 20 times, 16 of which were accepted directly costing his team 120 yards but costing his team 189 yards in total (penalty yards plus yards nullified by his Penalties).  

How does this compare within the league? See below:
In fact, the second most flags in the league this past year were thrown against another Seahawk, Michael Bennett. Do you suppose leading the league in penalties could be the difference between the 9-7 Seahawks making the playoffs and missing them? Tied with Bennett with 15 total flags thrown is Garett Bolles the Broncos rookie left tackle from Utah and he is followed by another pass rusher on his same team, Von Miller. The highest QB on the list is Phillip Rivers who drew nine Delay of Game penalties – the Chargers really need to start getting those plays in more quickly!
The list of declined penalties reads like a list of defenders who play on the edge. Declined penalties, by their nature, tend to over-index to defenders who commit a foul on a play where the offense is still able to arrive at a positive outcome. The top offensive players on the list Taylor Lewan and Matt Kalil are typical offenders on plays where the offense still manages a negative outcome – Lewan had a habit of committing penalties on Incomplete third-down passes, for example:
One look at yards penalized and you see Cornerbacks jump up the list, no real surprise here, you throw in Pass Interference penalties of 30, 34, 35 and 38 yards against Dre Kirkpatrick and the yards stack up quickly. P.J. Williams of the Saints racked up 48 Yards on a single PI Penalty against the Rams’ Sammy Watkins in Week 12.  Of course, Ifedi shows up as the top offensive player, hard not to when 16 times you cost your team yardage.
Another interesting angle is ‘Nullified Yardage’ how many gains were negated by Penalty?  Here again, chunk plays make a big difference. League Leader Donovan Smith managed to nullify 116 yards worth of plays, but wouldn’t have even been in the Top 10 were it not for a Week 7 holding Penalty which negated a 53-yard Jameis Winston completion to DeSean Jackson. DeSean should lobby for that one back, tallying his lowest yards-per-catch total of his career at just 13.4 this season, that single reception alone would have popped the number up by a yard.
How meaningful were Penalties, the two charts below show how frequently Penalties lead directly to a first down or to a drive being ended.  The first down n table is heavily populated by cornerback’s committing pass interference and the stalled drive table is heavily populated by offensive players, typically offensive tackles and quarterbacks; our friend German Ifedi shows up again.

In total, the number of yards that a Penalty costs you is the sum of the penalized yardage and the yardage lost to the play that was negated. Your 2017 leader in Total Net Penalty Yards—German Ifedi, you are not surprised at this point are you?

Below the list of every player costing his team over 100 Yards in 2017 simply due to Penalties. This is our first opportunity to highlight a Patriot, well-coached teams simply don’t hurt themselves often.  But a Rob Gronkowski offensive pass interference penalty negated what would have otherwise been a 40-yard gain on a 2nd and 17 play against Atlanta, instead, the Pats were in a 2nd and 27 hole they could not dig themselves out of.
Lots of interesting nuggets and kernels in the 2017 Penalty stats, what’s your favorite?  As interesting as all this is, nobody can top the infamous Brandon Browner 2015 season, 24 flags thrown, 21 Penalties accepted for 207 yards and 19 first downs for Rob Ryan’s feeble Saint defense, two seasons later, Brandon is gone, Rob is gone, and the Saints are in the Playoffs.

Is Jerry Rice Still the G.O.A.T? He Thinks So.

PERSPECTIVE
By John Turney
Yesterday, there was a dust-up on Twitter in which Jerry Rice proclaimed his place in history (for some reason) and get some pushback from fans of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens.
Much of the mocking Rice endured was the likely misspelling of "haters" as "hatters", which is fair, but silly since Twitter has no edit button and all of us make spelling errors, me more than most.
As of this posting Rice's Tweet has over 600 responses and over 1,000 retweets and a decent number were the aforementioned Moss fan pushback and the Rice fans rebutting those Tweets. I don't know why Rice got into the ordeal in the first place (don't punch down, Jerry) but it occurred and of course, I couldn't leave it alone so I added some perspective with a couple of Tweets.

The first was this chart (click to enlarge):

It compares careers of Rice versus Owens and Moss in the categories of longevity, All-Pros, other honors, statistics, and championships. Only in yards per catch are Owens and Moss close.

The next was a more in-depth look at AP MVP votes and AP Offensive Player of the Year votes.
Antonio Brown, I suspect will surpass Moss in February when the AP Awards are announced but it really isn't close. Year-in and year-out Rice had support in this award, which is a hard thing to do.

The same is true of the AP MVP. In 1987 Rice was the runner-up in the MVP voting and he was the PFWA and NEA MVP, making him the consensus MVP of 1987, not John Elway.

Over the years there have been 127 or so votes cast for wide receivers, though some were called split ends and flankers in the 1950s and 1960s. And, with the two leagues in the 1960s the numbers skew somewhat but over 45% of all votes ever cast for a WR in the AP MVP poll went to Rice.
These things really just offer a glimpse of the impact of Rice's career. Everyone has their own "eye test" and we could see Moss was more physically talented than Rice in terms of height, speed, leaping ability. But that same eye test showed what Moss claimed was a fact, that is "I play when I want to play". Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver said recently, "Moss took seasons off" when doing a compare-and-contrast about Moss and Terrell Owens vis-à-vis the Hall of Fame. 

Even Shannon Sharpe, who is highly critical of the Hall of Fame voting committee, said, when pressed, that of those two Owens was better, but that both should be in the Hall of Fame.

How the Hall of Fame vote goes in February will be interesting. There are lots of qualified players and only five slots. Someone will get left out this year but by our research over 90% of those who make the Final 15 eventually get it the Hall of Fame. So, the question becomes who has to wait.

Moss could go either way, he is not a lock. What prevents him from being a lock is the question of:  "Is he close enough to Jerry Rice's accomplishments to warrant first-ballot consideration?" That is a subjective question and each voter will decide for themselves. 

In terms of numbers, it would seem not. About 3/4 the longevity, about 2/5 of the honors, about 3/5 of the statistics, and in terms of MVPs and Player of the Year awards and Super Bowl rings is zero percent.  Moss's highlight reel, though is comparable. And it comes to that, are wide receivers to be judged on their best plays or the entirety of their careers? 

Though Rice's highlight reel is not lacking in any way, if it is played side-by-side to Moss, it may make you wonder which player you'd rather take. But when blocking, running (Rice had 10 rushing touchdowns in his career), route-running and consistent effort are all factored in most player personnel would say Rice wins, hands down.

My only concern in this matter is if both Owens (seems like his time) and Moss get in it will, like always, exclude a lineman or a defensive back who always seem to get screwed when the glory positions take up all the oxygen in the room. So, it makes sense to hope that Owens gets in this year, Moss next year. That way, both are in, neither is "snubbed" more than other great receivers like Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice is still the standard of the post-1978 rule change receivers. 

If a wide receiver wants to be a first-ballot guy do what Antonio Brown is doing—racking up statistics AND Player of the Year votes. I don't think voters would ever be so unreasonable as to say a player has to measure up to Rice in every way, that would be impossible. But making All-Pro more than four or five times is not impossible. Both Moss and Owens had the talent to do that but threw away too many seasons. Making more than six Pro Bowls is possible (Owens and Moss made six each).

Whatever the outcome of the Hall of Fame vote next month it is my view that this is a truism:  Jerry Rice is the G.O.A.T and it's really not even close enough for a discussion unless we are talking about different eras, historical perspective, and Don Hutson.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Deacon Jones and Willie Davis were Both Left DEs—Anything Else in Common?

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney
Well, yes. They had quite a few things in common. Both were, as we mention left defensive ends most of their careers. Both were All-Pros, Both Hall of Famers, Both elected to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team, but began their careers as left tackles—Wait, what?

Yes, it's true. Before both Jones and Davis settled into their Hall of Fame positions, both had stints on the offensive line.

Here is a shot of Jones (No. 75) in his first NFL game versus the Colts. He spent the first half trying to block Ordell Braase. By the second half he on not playing on the offensive line so it is fair to say the experiment didn't work.

Willie Davis actually played defensive end his rookie year but in his second year he moved to left tackle and he performed well, though not at an All-Pro level, but well enough that he spent the whole season there, with few exceptions. Here is a shot of him at tackled (No. 77)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Still a Key to Winning: The Defensive Passer Rating

By T.J. Troup
Credit: Merv Corning
Though it is always a challenge to choose which aspect of football is the most important to winning, the defensive passer rating is still a key component in team success. What is the defensive passer rating? It's simply the passer rating almost all football fans are familiar with applied to the defense which I began applying to my own research in the late 1980s, long before the Internet as we know it today. My logic was simple—if a high number is good for the offense then a low number reflects well on a defense.

So, now that the final team stats are official, and the playoffs beckon; let's take a look at the defensive passer rating for 2017 as we celebrate Don Shula's birthday. For the first time in their team history, the Jacksonville Jaguars led the league (68.5), and have returned to the playoffs as a division champion.

Last season Mike Zimmer's Vikings finished 4th in this category (73.0) and improved this year to 3rd with their best record since 1998. There is a very real possibility that Minnesota will play longtime playoff rival Los Angeles in this year's playoffs. The Rams improved from a dismal 95.3 rating last year to finish 5th this year with a mark of 78.3.

For the past few seasons the porous Saints defense kept New Orleans out of the playoffs, but with a dramatic improvement from 98.11 a year ago to rank 7th this year at 79.0 they are division champions. For this year the record of the top 10 teams in this category is 101 wins and 59 losses, while the bottom 10 teams the record is 57 wins and l03 losses. Every year the defensive passer rating chart shows that success in this category usually leads to the playoffs or at least a winning record.

Has there ever been a season where this stat defines the playoffs and winning you ask? In 2007 the top 11 teams all made the playoffs and combined for a record of 125-51, while the bottom eleven finished 67-109.

In 2001 12 of the top 13 earned a playoff berth. Which year stands out historically? Eight teams would fight tooth and nail to qualify for the playoffs starting in 1970, yet the season of 1975 is still the benchmark as 7 teams made the playoffs. The combined record for those seven was 78-20, while the bottom seven was 25-73.
Credit: Merv Corning
John Madden's Oakland Raiders played cohesive team pass defense in that 1975 season with the best mark in the last 43 years at 37.2. No doubt Jack Del Rio would still be employed if the Raider secondary this year came anywhere near that mark.

The Dolphins, in 1975, did not make the playoffs yet allowed only 9 touchdown passes to be thrown against them. Touchdown passes allowed is one of the four components in figuring this stat. Don Shula's teams allowed just 65 touchdown passes from 1970 through 1975.
Credit: Merv Corning
Though impressive, Shula's Dolphins do not rank #1 for an 84 game stretch. The Minnesota Vikings from 1969 through 1974 allowed just 53, and their longtime rivals the Green Bay Packers under Lombardi allowed 61 from 1962 through 1967.
Shula's experience as a right corner for Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington gave him a background as a player, while his experience as the defensive coordinator for the Lions from 1960 through 1962 helped further his knowledge of defending the passing game.
Shula defends Bear Split End Harlon Hill
Now that this history lesson is complete, let's shift gears and ask a simple question—is there a team during this year's playoffs that will win on the road?

The reason I ask is that since the wild card began in 1970 there has been at least ONE ROAD VICTORY EVERY YEAR. Who will it be this year?