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White crushes the Falcons

The 2016 Falcons were really good, and were really, really, really close to winning the Super Bowl. The Falcons had one of the most heartbreaking ends to a season in NFL history: at one point, the Falcons had a 499-in-500 shot of winning it all, and still lost. Can they possibly recover from this?

My first thought, honestly, was no. How could they? This was arguably the biggest gut punch in history: has any team, in any professional sport, at any time, been 99.8% likely to win a championship and then fail to do so?

But then I remembered the 1996 Broncos. Do you remember that team? Woody Paige wrote an article previewing the Broncos/Jaguars playoff matchup that well, you can read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, the Broncos weren’t supposed to be challenged. The Broncos clinched the 1 seed early thanks to a 12-1 record, and were expected to ride to the Super Bowl unchallenged. Instead, a shocking upset left head coach Mike Shannahan saying “This is going to hurt and this is going to hurt for a long time.”

The Broncos, having already lost three Super Bowls with lesser teams, were supposed to finally win it all under John Elway. Instead, they had a heartbreaking loss… and responded by winning the next two Super Bowls.

How about the 2004 Steelers? Pittsburgh had gone 15-1 that year under rookie Ben Roethlisberger, and hosted the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. Pittsburgh, thanks to future New England killer Plaxico Burress, dominated the Patriots during the regular season. The Steelers had already lost AFC Championship Games at home to San Diego (’94), Denver (’97), and New England (’01) under Bill Cowher, along with the Super Bowl against the Cowboys. But with the best quarterback of the Cowher era — and Roethlisberger entered the game with a 15-0 career record– things were supposed to be different.

And yet, for the fourth time in 11 years, Pittsburgh lost at home in the AFC Championship Game, a heartbreaking finish to a season. If not then, when could the Cowher Steelers ever win it all?

Well, the next year, in fact.

The ’87 49ers were the best team in the NFL, and arguably the best team of the 49ers dynasty. But that San Francisco team was stunned in the playoffs:

Sitting through the shock at the bay is how San Francisco 49ers fans will remember a certain playoff Saturday, an occasion that was supposed to have been a walk through Candlestick Park on the way to San Diego and the Super Bowl.

Instead, the 49ers will have to live with the final score and the indignity of the season that was theirs for the taking, or so it seemed.

The Minnesota Vikings, league wild cards and everyone else’s discards, pulled off what others deemed impossible. Not only did the Vikings defeat the 49ers, 36-24, before a crowd of 62,547, they defeated them soundly and advanced to the National Football Conference championship game next week.

San Francisco, admittedly, was different than Atlanta, Denver, or Pittsburgh because the 49ers had already won two Super Bowls (although some of the names had changed). Still, this was a heartbreaking loss, and the team responded by winning the next two Super Bowls.

And how about the Tom Landry Cowboys? In ’66, Dallas lost a heartbreaker in the NFL Championship Game to the Packers (Green Bay went on to win Super Bowl I two weeks later). In ’67, Dallas lost another heartbreaker in the NFL Championship Game — aka, the Ice Bowl — to the Packers (Green Bay went on to win Super Bowl II two weeks later). The next year, a 12-2 Cowboys lost in the playoffs to Cleveland. In 1969, an 11-2-1 Cowboys team lost at home in the playoffs to Cleveland. Then, in 1970, Dallas exercised their playoff demons and made it to the Super Bowl.

In that game, the Cowboys led 13-6 entering the 4th quarter, and Baltimore star Johnny Unitas had been knocked out of the game. With 9 minutes to go, Dallas had the ball and a touchdown lead… and then disaster struck: a Craig Morton interception led to a short touchdown, and another Morton interception led to a last second game-winning field goal. If Dallas couldn’t win it all then, when could they?

The next year, as it turns out. Dallas made it all the way back, and then beat the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. And it’s worth noting that the Cowboys lost in Super Bowl V to the Colts… a team that two years earlier had their own heartbreak to deal with. [click to continue…]

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Brown continues to dominate the NFL.

Antonio Brown averaged “only” 12.1 yards per reception last year, although his great reception, receiving yards, and receiving touchdown totals earned him a third straight first-team All-Pro selection. If Brown wasn’t so good and just 28 years old, you might look at that average and think Brown was on the decline or at least was becoming less of a big play threat.

But that’s not really true: with 22 receptions (in 15 games) of at least 20+ yards, Brown had the third most big plays of any receiver last year, and 21% of his catches went for at least 20 yards. What really hurt Brown’s average was that he also caught a ton of short passes: he had 57 receptions of 10 or fewer yards. Kelvin Benjamin caught 63 passes for 941 yards last year, a 14.9 yards per reception average. But while that sounds good, Benjamin only caught 10 passes — or 16% of his total — for 20+ yards. How did Benjamin average nearly three more yards per catch than Brown? You probably already figured this one out: just 20 of his receptions (32%) went for 10 or fewer yards. Either Benjamin wasn’t running short routes or he wasn’t catching passes on those routes. If it’s the latter, it’s a bad thing; if it’s the former, well, it’s also a bad thing (relative to Brown, at least) that all he was doing was running long routes and Brown still caught more long balls than him!

The graph below shows the top 100 wide receivers and tight ends in receiving yards last season, sorted by number of 20+ yard receptions. In addition, I have included the percent of their receptions that went for 20+ yards, the number of receptions that went for 10 or fewer yards, and that percent as well.
[click to continue…]

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We know that Amari Cooper is a better receiver than Kenny Stills, but who is the better big play threat? Or, more specifically, who was the better big play threat last year?


To answer this question, most people would focus on one metric: yards per reception. Most people are wrong. [click to continue…]

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Throwbacks: Dr. Z On Roger Staubach’s Retirement

I love reading old articles, and reading old articles about football history is a particular passion of mine. As much time as I spend working on era-based adjustments, you can’t beat reading about a player in (his) real time. So I’m introducing a new feature at Football Perspective: reviews of historical articles. Today’s content comes from the great Dr. Z in April 1980, and it covers the retirement of Roger Staubach. I recommend you read the whole article first.

*********************************************************************************

So long, Roger, we gave you a bum deal, kid. For openers, we never picked you All-Pro. That’s we, the writers, the pickers, the guys who vote on the AP and Pro Football Writers ballots. Now that’s a bad call right away, because all you did was end up as the NFL’s top-rated passer—in history, the whole 59 years. Higher than Unitas, than Tarkenton or Jurgensen, than Tittle or Baugh. And you quarterbacked the Cowboys in four of their five Super Bowls, winning twice. And brought the team from behind to victory 14 times in the last two minutes or in overtime, 23 times in the fourth quarter. Hey, what does a guy have to do?

All of those facts are true, of course. Let’s go in order. [click to continue…]

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Gray Ink For Percentage of Team Receiving

On Thursday, I presented a new way to look at wide receivers, focusing on both how the receiver dominated his teammates (i.e., by getting a large share of the pie) and how much his offense dominated the league (i.e., how much better/worse than average his team’s passing attack was).

Since I presented the full dataset covering the years from 1970 to 2016, I thought we might as well use that information in other ways. For example, let’s say you typed Steve Largent into the search box on that post.  You would see that Largent was a monster when it came to dominating his teammates: in 1978, he was responsible for 33.6% of the Seahawks Adjusted Catch Yards, which ranked 3rd in the league.  In five years — 1980, 1981, 1983, 1986, and 1987 — he ranked 4th in the NFL in percentage of team ACY.  In ’85, he ranked 5th, and in ’79 and ’84, he ranked 6th.  That’s remarkable:

If you calculate his gray ink – which means giving him 10 points for a 1st place finish, 9 for a 2nd place finish, and so on, he had 59 points of gray ink in this category.  Remember, % of Team ACY is simply a measure of what percentage of the pie each receiver was able to devour, and % of Team ACY Rk shows where they rank in the league in a given season.  I would never use this as the only way to rank a receiver (more on this in a second), but it is an interesting way. Why?

Receiving production is based on a lot of things outside of a wide receiver’s control — for example, how good his quarterback is, or how often his team passes.  But this isolates that by only comparing how the receiver fared compared to his teammates.  That’s why I like to use this as a check against other metrics.  Below shows the leaders in gray ink in this category since 1970.  Largent, as you can see, ranks 2nd because you always know who is going to rank 1st: [click to continue…]

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Moneyball Podcast with SiriusXM Wharton Radio

Yesterday, I appeared on the Wharton Moneyball Podcast on Sirius XM. It is available on SoundCloud here:

https://m.soundcloud.com/user-780849378/8162017-wharton-moneyball

And Apple Podcasts here: 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/8-16-2017-wharton-moneyball/id1159695411?i=1000391122720&mt=2

We talked football analytics generally, along with a pair of articles I published this week. Give it a listen – my segment starts at the 32:10 mark.

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I spent some time discussing Gary Clark’s 1991 season yesterday. It was really impressive in two notable respects: he accounted for a huge percentage of his team’s production, and his team’s production was easily the best in the league.

What was even more impressive? What Gene Washington did in 1970. That year, the 49ers had a phenomenal passing attack: San Francisco averaged 7.6 ANY/A, while no other team was above 6.0. John Brodie was the AP MVP because of his great passing numbers, but what was arguably more impressive is what Washington did that year. Playing for the best passing offense in football1, Washington caught 23% of the team’s passes, 37% of the 49ers receiving yards, and 48% of San Francisco’s receiving touchdowns.

If you calculate Adjusted Catch Yards with a 5-yard bonus on receptions and a 20-yard bonus on touchdowns, Washington had 1,605 ACY out of the 49ers 4,620 total team ACY, or 35%. That’s even higher than what Clark did on the ’91 Redskins (33%). On the other hand, WR1s tended to get slightly more attention on 1970 offenses than on 1971 offenses. So here’s what I did:

1) Calculate the ACY for each receiver on each team since 1970. For Clark in ’91, this was 1,890.

2) Calculate the percentage of team ACY for each receiving season since 1970. For Clark, this was 33%; for Washington, it was 35%.

3) Calculate the average percentage of team ACY for the top N receivers in the league each season, with N being equal to the number of teams in the NFL. For 1970, this was 29%; for 1991, it was 27%.

4) Calculate each receiver’s percent over average; for both Clark and Washington, this means +6%.

5) Calculate each receiver’s team RANY/A for each year. Clark’s Redskins were at +3.14, while Washington’s 49ers were at +3.45.

6) Plot those seasons in the graph below. [click to continue…]

  1. And along with the ’66 Packers, the only offenses to average at least 7.50 ANY/A from 1961 to 1975. []
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Gary Clark Was Uniquely Dominant In 1991

Clark caps his dominant season with a Super Bowl

The 1991 Redskins are the hipster’s choice for greatest NFL team of the modern era. The team was statistically dominant, but what makes Washington’s case unique is that folks rarely mention the 1991 Redskins as one of the best teams of all time! Well, today I want to talk about that team’s star wide receiver: Gary Clark.

Judging wide receivers is very tough. One way to do that is to look just at their raw statistics, but a receiver’s production is heavily influenced by the environment he plays in — how often does his team pass, how talented is his quarterback, how good are the other targets on his team, etc.  At a high level, it’s easy to assume that the best receivers are playing on the best passing attacks: after all, if a passing game is dominant, the receivers are likely a big part of the reason why.

The 1984 Dolphins, 2004 Colts, 2007 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos all had record-setting passing attacks.  And while Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady were great, but they also each had not one, but two star receivers: Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison (and Brandon Stokely), Randy Moss and Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (and Wes Welker!).  That’s generally the rule, not the exception: dynamic offenses almost always have a great quarterback, but they also almost always have multiple top receivers.  The Falcons offense was outstanding last year, and it’s hard for a wide receiver to be better than Julio Jones, but even he only accounted for 28% of the Atlanta receiving yards and 16% of the Falcons receiving touchdowns (Jones also missed two games). [click to continue…]

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Anyone who has spent any time studying football analytics knows one truth: teams are not aggressive enough on fourth down. For example, in situation-neutral contexts, it’s always advisable to go for it on 4th-and-1. The value of possession has become increasingly important in the modern game, where offenses are so adept at gaining yards and scoring points, and the likelihood of conversion is so high that the trade-off of 40-50 yards of field position for a chance to keep possession is almost always worth it. Possession, after all, is worth about 4 points: if having 1st-and-10 at the 50 yard line is worth 2 points, then being on defense in that situation is worth -2, making the swing between having the ball and not having the ball worth 4 points.

So are NFL teams becoming smarter when it comes to 4th down decision making? I looked at all 4th-and-1 plays since 1994 that (i) came in the first three quarters, (ii) with the offense between the 40s, and (iii) with the team on offense either leading or trailing by no more than 10 points. From 1994 to 2004, teams went for it on these 4th-and-1 situations about 28% of the time. Then, from ’05 to 2014, teams went for it 35% of the time. But over the last two years, offenses have stayed on the field for these fourth downs over 40% of the time both years. Take a look: [click to continue…]

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Implied SRS Ratings for NFL in 2017

Back in May, CG Technology released point spreads for all NFL games during the first 16 weeks of the 2016 season. We can use these lines to generate implied NFL ratings — as of May 10, 2017 — for this upcoming season.

Basically, we take the point spread in each game, adjust for home field, and then determine how by many points Vegas thinks Team A is better than Team B.  When the Seahawks are favored by 13.5 points in a home game against the Rams, we can take this to mean that Vegas thinks the Seahawks are 10.5 points better than Los Angeles.  When Seattle is a 6-point road favorite in Los Angeles against the Rams, that tells us that Vegas thinks the Seahawks are 9 points better than the Rams.  That’s just two games, of course: Using the iterative SRS process, we can generate season ratings based on the 240 point spreads involved. Here are those ratings, again as of May 10, 2017.

Here’s how to read the table below. After adjusting for home field, the Patriots are expected to beat their average opponent by 6.6 points. On average, New England’s opponents (after adjusting for *their* strength of schedule) are 0.3 points better than average, which means the Patriots are expected to be 6.8 points better than average (difference due to rounding). That’s the best in the league, far ahead of the Seahawks, Cowboys, and Packers (the only other teams that are 4 points better than average). [click to continue…]

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Leaders in Percentage of Team Targets

On Friday, I wrote about Rob Moore’s 1997 season, when he set the still-standing record for targets in a year. Moore had 208 targets, but as alluded to in that post, he did not set the record for percentage of team targets in a season, which is simply targets divided by team pass attempts (excluding sacks).

That honor belongs to Brandon Marshall, who was targeted on 40% of all passes for the 2012 Bears, and wound up with a post-1978 record 46% of the Bears receiving yards that year.  Remarkably, Marshall saw over 30% of his team’s targets on three different teams, and saw 29% of a fourth franchise’s targets in a season (2015 Jets). The table below shows all players since 1992 with at least 30% (okay, 29.5%) of their team’s targets in a season:

[click to continue…]

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Footballguys.com – Why Subscribe?

Regular readers know that I’m one of the writers at Footballguys.com. If you are a hardcore fantasy footballer (or daily fantasy sports player), you probably already know that Footballguys.com is the single best source for fantasy football information. If you are a more casual fantasy football player, you’ll find that the tools available at Footballguys will make life much, much easier for you to win your league(s). Either way, I think you’ll find FBG to be worthwhile at $29.95 for one season of the Insider PRO and $44.95 for the Insider PRO Plus.

I don’t make extra money if more people sign up for Footballguys or buy an app, but I hope my readers subscribe because I think a subscription is a really good deal. If you play fantasy football and want to win your competitive league or save hours doing research for your local league, a Footballguys subscription is well worth it. You get: [click to continue…]

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Not Rob Moore

If you find yourself talking about Rob Moore in the summer of 2017, it’s probably for one of four reasons.

1) You are a diehard Jets or Cardinals fan choosing to reminisce about Boomer Esiason and the halcyon days of the ’90s.

2) You just finished watching Jerry Maguire. That movie, which was released in December 1996, saw Cuba Gooding Jr. play the role of Rod Tidwell. Gooding’s character wore 85 and played wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, just like Moore (who even had a bit role in the movie, playing himself).

3) You are researching the best players in Supplemental Draft history, and Moore’s name came up. A star at Syracuse, Moore graduated early (back when it was still unusual for undergraduates to enter the draft), and therefore elected to enter the Supplemental Draft. The move cost the Jets the 8th pick in the 1991 Draft, which the Eagles used on Tennessee offensive lineman Antone Davis. Moore was the much better player.

4) You were wondering which player in the last 25 years (and, perhaps, for much longer) saw the most targets in a single season in NFL history. After some searching, you found out that the answer was Rob Moore, with 208 targets for the 1997 Cardinals.

Wait, what? Of all the players in the last 25 years, Rob Moore is the single-season leader in targets? The single-season leaders in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns are Marvin Harrison, Calvin Johnson, and Randy Moss, respectively. The most targets (since 1992) that Jerry Rice ever saw was 176, and that was in 1995, when he gained 1848 receiving yards while playing for a 49ers team that threw 644 passes, the 2nd most in the NFL. So how did — just two years later — Rob Moore see 32 more targets than Rice in ’95? [click to continue…]

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Guest Post: Passing Volume vs. Passing Efficiency

Today’s guest post comes from Ben Baldwin, a contributor for Field Gulls and Bryan’s site, http://thegridfe.com. You can find more of Ben’s work here or on Twitter @guga31bb. What follows are Ben’s words.


Arguing on the internet

A common argument on the internet (e.g. Twitter, where I spent too much time) is that the efficiency of players like Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson in their rookie seasons (and subsequent seasons, for Wilson) was not impressive because they were not asked to throw the ball as much. Once they are asked to throw more often, the argument goes, we can expect their efficiency to fall off. Here is one of many, many examples:

Do quarterbacks really look good because they throw less? [click to continue…]

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Receiving TD Concentration Index (By Passer)

Gronk Smash

On Monday, I looked at the concentration index scores for a number of quarterbacks based on the number of touchdowns thrown to each receiver (more details on the formula available there and here). Today, the reverse: how diverse (or not diverse) were receivers with respect to the number of quarterbacks from whom they caught TDs?

Marques Colston, for example, caught 100% of his touchdowns from Drew BreesRob Gronkowski has caught all but one of his touchdowns from Tom Brady. And Mark Clayton caught 94% of his touchdowns from Dan Marino.

At the bottom of the list are two of the most underrated receivers by modern fans.   Both were superstars in college and very high draft picks, but “disappointed” in the pros.  That’s probably because they were stuck with a revolving door of bad quarterbacks.

Joey Galloway caught 77 career touchdowns and was the 8th pick in the ’95 Draft, but he is chronically underrated due to the bad quarterback play he experienced. He only had double digit touchdowns with one quarterback: an in-his-40s Warren Moon.  His top four quarterbacks were responsible for only 51% of his career touchdowns!  Galloway played with a lot of quarterbacks, and most of them were below-average.

The other receiver with a concentration index of less than 11% was former number one overall pick Irving Fryar.  Regular readers may recall that Fryar is the odd duck who set his career high in receiving yards at age 35 while playing with Bobby Hoying!  Fryar has over 3,000 yards with three franchises, a very rare feat.  He spent his 20s with the terrible Patriots back when that was a thing, and he led New England in receiving yards in ’90, ’91, and ’92, then led the Dolphins in receiving yards in ’93, ’94, and ’95, and then led the Eagles in receiving yards in ’96 and ’97!  It’s pretty impressive to lead your team in receiving yards for eight straight seasons, but it’s really impressive to do it for three different franchises. [click to continue…]

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The Patriots and the Spread, Part I

Since 2001, the Patriots have been favored to win in a whopping 79% of all games, including postseason (giving half-credit as a favorite in games where the spread is zero). The Steelers are second at 73%, the Packers and Colts are next at 69%, the Eagles are at 68%, the Broncos at 67%, and the Saints at 61% are the only other team over 60%. In other words, the Patriots have been in a class by themselves when it comes to being favored.

But even that kind of underrates New England. The Patriots weren’t favored in any of the first 8 games of the 2001 season; the team was only favored in one of its first 12 games, at which point in time New England had a 7-5 record (and an 8-4 mark against the spread). There have also been 19 games since 2001 where Tom Brady was not the starting quarterback, and the Patriots were underdogs in 4 of those games (and a pick’em in a fifth). And there were meaningless week 17 games in 2006 and 2009 that the Patriots were underdogs because they were projected to rest their starters.

The graph below shows how many points the Patriots were expected to win in each game, regular and post-season, since 2001. I have included as red dots games not started by Brady or during meaningless week 17 games: [click to continue…]

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Passing TD Concentration Index (By Receiver)

Fran Tarkenton threw 342 touchdowns in his career, but you may be surprised to learn that he didn’t throw more than 25 touchdowns to a single player! He played with John Gilliam from ’72 to ’75, and Gilliam caught 25 touchdowns during those four seasons before signing with Atlanta in 1976.  Tarkenton played with receiver Sammy White during the final three seasons of Tarkenton’s career, from ’76 to ’78, and the duo connected for 24 touchdowns.  And Tarkenton threw 23 touchdowns to Hall of Very Good running back Chuck Foreman.  While with the Giants, Tarkenton also threw 20 touchdowns to Homer Jones; those were the only four players to catch 20 touchdowns from Tarkenton.

A couple of months ago, I discussed the concentration index as a way to measure how concentrated certain statistics are.  We can do that same thing to measure quarterbacks and receivers to see which players had the most varied passing games.  This will be skewed, of course, in favor of quarterbacks who played for multiple teams, but that’s arguably a feature and not a bug.

Below are the results for the quarterbacks with at least 100 touchdown passes: [click to continue…]

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Mike Anderson was the 189th pick in the NFL Draft, and one of the most unlikely rookie of the year winners ever. He played at Utah in ’98 and ’99, not getting there until four years in the United States Marine Corps and two years at junior college. On the other hand, Anderson’s success wasn’t entirely shocking: perhaps the biggest hurdle to his success was just becoming the team’s starting running back. From ’96 to ’00, Denver’s top running back averaged over 90 rushing yards per game in each season; the Broncos were responsible for 5 of the 21 instances when a rusher hit that mark while playing in at least 12 games.

Last year, Dak Prescott (the 135th pick) became another extremely unlikely rookie of the year winner. He helped turn around a Cowboys passing attack that was the worst in the NFL the prior year. Of course, there was quite an impressive infrastructure in place there, too: in 2014, the Cowboys passing game was great, too.

In 1974, Don Woods took the league by storm in 1974, despite being the 134th pick in the draft. A star quarterback at New Mexico, like most black quarterbacks of his time, he was converted to another position upon reaching the pros. Woods was cut by the Packers, but signed with the Chargers (who already had a pretty good quarterback on the roster). In the final 11 games of the season, Woods averaged over 100 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 touchdowns, while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

In 1975, RB Mike Thomas was the 108th pick to the Redskins. Thomas totaled 1,402 yards in 14 games, and found himself in the company of the game’s top running backs by topping 75 yards in 12 of 14 games.

The graph below shows where the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year was selected in each season: [click to continue…]

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Congrats to the Hall of Fame Class of 2017

Congrats to the 2017 Hall of Fame Class that will be inducted tonight. We spend a lot of time debating and talking about someone’s Hall of Fame worthiness, but today is a day to celebrate and honor some of the game’s best players. We have an 7-person class (Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) being enshrined tonight:

It is a pretty remarkable class of players (and congrats to Jones, too, though I am not going to get into his accolades here).  Consider: [click to continue…]

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When it comes to the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award, one thing is clear: being a high draft pick really, really helps. On average, the last 15 players were drafted with the 11th overall pick, and all but one was a top-18 pick! This award is extremely skewed in favor of early draft picks. Take a look:

[click to continue…]

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I appeared on Chris Harris’s podcast yesterday, talking yards per carry and game scripts. You can listen to it here, beginning at the 41:36 mark.

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Bell had a lot of valuable yards last year.

All yards gained on special teams are done outside of the context of the series (down and distance) environment that defines most games. A kickoff return from to the 30 or to the 40 represents a difference of 10 yards, but those 10 yards are not as valuable as the difference between a gain of 5 yards and 15 yards on 3rd-and-10. The former are, quite literally, special teams yards. They don’t provide any value in gaining any additional first downs, or keeping a drive alive. This is why we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about all-purpose yardage leaders, or the difference between a kickoff returner who averages 28.0 yards per return or 24.0. Special teams yards, while obviously valuable, are — just as obviously — the least valuable yards possible.

On a 3rd-and-10, a 15-yard pass provides a significant amount of value by providing a first down. But let’s get a bit more precise: the first 10 of those yards were really valuable. The last 5? Well, those were special teams yards. The difference between gaining 10 yards and gaining 15 yards on 3rd-and-10 isn’t that significant: well, it’s about as significant as returning a kickoff for 30 yards or 35 yards. Those last 5 yards don’t help a team move the chains. [click to continue…]

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Two years ago, I wrote this post titled “Take Away His X Best Carries and He’s Average.” The idea was simple: Suppose you sort each running back’s carries in descending order by yards gained. How many carries would we need to take away from him to drop his production to at or below average?

Browns running back Isaiah Crowell ranked 9th in yards per carry last year, with an impressive 4.81 average gain. But that number may be a bit misleading, to the extent it made you think that Crowell was consistently churning out big gains. Crowell was responsible for the longest run of the season last year, an 85-yard run in week 2 against the Ravens. And, for what it’s worth, it was one of the easiest long runs you’ll ever see:

In the last game of the year, Crowell had a more impressive 67-yard run against the Steelers. But here’s the thing: outside of those two runs, Crowell averaged just 4.08 yards per carry on his other 196 carries.

There were 42 running backs last year who had at least 100 rush attempts; those players averaged 4.19 yards per carry last year. So if you remove Crowell’s two best carries, he falls below that average.

An impressive Powell movement

On the other hand, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell averaged 4.86 yards per carry last year, and his six best runs went for 44, 38, 33, 26, 25, and 24 yards. Remove those, and Bell still averaged 4.23 yards per carry, which means you need to remove his seven best runs to drop him below average.

Jets running back Bilal Powell was the star of this metric.  He averaged 5.51 yards per carry last year, but he was a consistent producer of big gains.  He had 12 runs of 13+ yards, and you need to remove all 12 to bring Powell below average.  Remove those 12 carries and his average finally dips to 4.16 yards per carry.

Below are the 19 running backs to exceed that 4.19 yards per carry average last year, and the fewest number of carries you would need to remove to bring their production below average: [click to continue…]

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Yards per Carry: RB1 vs. RB2

Regular readers know that I’m not a huge fan of yards per carry as a metric to evaluate running backs, or even rushing attacks. Given the limited numbers of metrics available, sometimes it is a useful measure, but we also much caution ourselves against relying on it too often. Today’s post is another example of that.

I looked at all rushing attacks since 2002, and calculated the yards per carry gained by each team’s top running back and second running back (excluding pure fullbacks and situations where the second running back had fewer than 50 carries), as measured by carries. If yards per carry was the best way to evaluate running backs, and coaches wanted to play their best players most frequently (and, of course, coaches were able to identify their best players), then RB1s should be better at RB2s at yards per carry.

Last year, Bears rookie Jordan Howard averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 252 carries, while backup Jeremy Langford (who actually opened the season as the starter) gained just 3.2 yards per carry on 62 carries.  That’s a piece of evidence that YPC is useful: Howard was much better than Langford at YPC, and he gained way more carries.  But that +2.0 discrepancy was the largest in football last year: this is an outlier, not a typical example.

How about an outlier in the other direction? The Jets top running back last year was Matt Forte, who started 13 games and handled 218 carries; he averaged 3.7 yards per rush. Meanwhile, backup Bilal Powell averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 131 carries.  This might mean that Powell is better than Forte, but at least last year, the Jets didn’t seem to think so — or maybe thought so too late.

These are two interesting examples because they show some of the drawbacks to actually trying to properly analyze the issue.  Howard was the backup, but because he was so much better than Langford, he gets graded as Chicago’s top running back.  This biases the study in favor of RB1s: if a running back is producing at a high rate, even if he’s the backup, he may wind up leading his team in rushes that year (thanks to earning more carries in the second half of the season), which means RB1s in generally will appear to have higher yards per carry than RB2s.  In that way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the other hand, look at the Jets example.  I think we would all agree that Powell was the Jets best running back last season. He actually finished with more yards from scrimmage than Forte (thanks to playing in two more games), and nearly outrushed him, too. Forte was the (moderately) high priced veteran free agent signing, while Powell was intended to be the backup. By the end of the year, it was clear Powell was the Jets best running back (if not best player), but he didn’t have enough carries to overtake Forte for RB1 status. So in some ways, this study may not properly identify a team’s true top running back and backup running back, if we only classify those players by carries.

So there is some issues with this on a case-by-case basis.  That’s why the best thing to do is to aggregate the data.  The graph below shows the average yards per rush gained by the average team’s RB1 and average team’s RB2 in each year since 2002: [click to continue…]

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Best Non-Record Breaking Seasons: Passing

On twitter, I’ve been doing some fun screenshots of player stats where you need to guess the player based only on all — or just some — of his stats. You can follow with the hashtag PFRScreenShots.

I thought this was a fun one:

Okay, you may say how the heck could I know that? Well, You have more than enough info there! The number 5235 can only be a reference to one thing in season stats: passing yards. And it’s not in bold, which means its not a league leader. So the real question is can you recall a player who threw for 5,235 passing yards but didn’t lead the league in passing?

Which got me to wondering: which passers had the most impressive raw statistics while not leading their league in that category? [click to continue…]

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Over the last four days, I wrote about the one great team that didn’t win it all on the six greatest dynasties in the NFL since World War II:

And while these dynasties never played each other, of course, there was some overlap among the quarterbacks.

Starr vs. Bradshaw

Otto Graham played from 1946 to 1955, while Bart Starr didn’t enter the NFL until 1956.  But Starr had a long career, sticking around in Green Bay through 1971.  And on December 6th, 1970, a very special game in NFL history took place: the only meeting with Starr and Terry Bradshaw.  Even if it wasn’t quite Brady/Manning.

In 1970, Bradshaw was the first pick in the draft, and as a rookie, he was terrible, finishing 3.30 ANY/A below average. Starr was washed up by 1970: he ranked 21st out of 25 qualifying passers in ANY/A. [click to continue…]

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Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part IV

On Tuesday, we looked at three of the best teams on three of the greatest dynasties in football history: the ’53 Browns, the ’87 49ers, and the ’07 Patriots. Wednesday, the focus shifted to Lombardi’s ’64 Packers, while yesterday we looked at the ’76 Steelers. Today, we complete the series with some notes on the ’94 Cowboys, and how Dallas not only nearly became the first team to win three Super Bowls in a row, but the first team to win four.

Switzer wasn’t able to sustain Johnson’s success

Dallas won the Super Bowl after the ’92, ’93, and ’95 seasons, and lost in the NFC Championship Game against the ’49ers after the ’94 season. Given that the Super Bowl would have been against the Chargers, there’s little doubt that the Cowboys would have been Super Bowl champs had they defeated San Francisco. Back then, the NFC Championship Game — which was between the 49ers and Cowboys three straight years — was the Super Bowl. So was the ’94 version of the Cowboys worse than the other three teams? Let’s look at the rosters. [click to continue…]

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Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part III

On Tuesday, we looked at three of the best teams on three of the greatest dynasties in football history: the ’53 Browns, the ’87 49ers, and the ’07 Patriots. Yesterday, the focus was on the ’64 Packers, a talent-rich team sandwiched around repeat champions from ’61-’62 and ’65-’67. All four teams were dynasties with Hall of Fame coaches and quarterbacks, and that trend continues today with a look at the ’70s Steelers, and the historic combination  Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw.

And as with the Packers, we will look at a Steelers team that didn’t win the Super Bowl but was in the middle of the team’s dynastic run.You know that Pittsburgh won four Super Bowl titles in six years, but less understood is how the team evolved over that period.

Four of the Steelers Hall of Famers were drafted in 1974, the year of the team’s first championship. Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, and Mike Webster were all green 22 years olds that season, and only Lambert was a major contributor as a rookie; Stallworth, Swann, and Webster combined to start just six other games.

Noll and Bradshaw didn’t always see eye to eye, but they usually won.

A fifth Hall of Famer, QB Terry Bradshaw, was drafted in 1970, but he was far from Terry Bradshaw even five years into his career.  The ’74 Steelers featured one of the worst passing attacks to ever win the Super Bowl, and Bradshaw’s passing numbers were below average in each of the first five seasons of his career.  In fact, it was Joe Gilliam who won the training camp battle for the starting job; Bradshaw didn’t even start the first six games of the 1974 season.  Four years later, he was the AP MVP.

What about the rest of those famous Steelers? RB Franco Harris was drafted in 1972; he was an immediate star, and made his third straight Pro Bowl in ’74.  LB Jack Ham was drafted a year earlier, and he made the first of six straight AP 1st-team All-Pro teams in ’74 (and the second of eight straight Pro Bowls).

In 1970, Pittsburgh drafted not just Bradshaw, but Mel Blount. The famed cornerback was a full-time starter his first five seasons, but he didn’t make his first Pro Bowl or earn any All-Pro recognition until 1975, when he led the league with 11 interceptions.  And in 1969, the Steelers drafted DT Joe Greene and the best Steeler with four rings not in the Hall of Fame, DE L.C. Greenwood.  Both were in their prime by ’74.

So while the ’74 Steelers had the names, only half of them had actually developed into stars by 1974. Stallworth, Swann, Webster were reserves, Bradshaw had been benched and underperformed, and Blount had yet to break out. The ’74 team went 10-3-1 and had an SRS of +6.8; the ’75 version was much, much better: that team went 12-2 and had an SRS of +14.2, and rested starters and lost the final game of the regular season. And the ’76 version? Well, after a very rough start, it finished with an SRS of +15.3, the best in Pittsburgh history.

So when it comes to missing rings, the obvious starting place to look is the ’76 Steelers. The ’73 Steelers were far too young, while the ’80 Steelers were over the hill; the only other choice would be the ’77 squad, but that one was doomed before the season even started, with the team chemistry hindered by lawsuits and holdouts. No, the Steelers team that should have won it all — but didn’t — was perhaps the best Pittsburgh team in franchise history. [click to continue…]

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Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part II

Yesterday, we looked at the three of the best dynasties in NFL history, and one of the very best teams on each of those dynasties that somehow fell short of winning it all. For the ’07 Patriots and ’87 49ers, shocking playoff losses as double-digit favorites were the the result of ferocious pass rush engineered by the Giants and Vikings, respectively. For the ’87 49ers and ’53 Browns, these losses were followed by back-to-back championships, signs of the talent-laden rosters these teams possessed. And for the ’53 and ’07 Patriots, all-time great seasons by all-time great quarterbacks ended with bitter disappointment.

Today? A look at yet another dynastic team that had all the talent in the world, sandwiched between its inexperienced championship teams of yesteryear and its aging veteran championship rosters of tomorrow.

1964 Packers

Even these two couldn’t save the 1964 Packers.

Yesterday, we talked Brady/Belichick, Montana/Walsh, and Graham/Brown. Today we focus on one of the only other coach and quarterback combinations that can compare to those three. The Packers won their first title in the Vince Lombardi / Bart Starr era in 1961. The 1962 Packers may have been the greatest team in NFL history. In 1963, the Packers again led the NFL in the Simple Rating System, and ranked in the top 2 in points and points allowed. The problem for Green Bay? The Chicago Bears had one of the greatest defenses in NFL history: the Bears led the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, turnovers forced, net yards per attempt allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and yards per carry allowed. Green Bay finished 11-2-1, with both losses coming to Chicago (including one game that Bart Starr missed).  And, of course, in 1965, 1966, and 1967, the Packers three-peated as NFL champions.  By ’68, Lombardi was gone, and the Packers Hall of Famers were largely retired or past their prime.

So what rings did the Packers miss? There are only three years from which to choose: ’60, ’63, and ’64.  In 1960, Green Bay made it to the title game, but that team was the baby Packers. There were 13 all-time great players to play for the ’60s Packers, and 12 of those made it to the Hall of Fame. Here is how old each player was in ’60, ’63, and ’64. [click to continue…]

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Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part I

A decade ago, NFL Networking aired a series called America’s Game: The Missing Rings, looking at five great NFL teams that failed to win a Super Bowl. These were the Minnesota Vikings from 1969 and 1998, the 1981 Chargers, the 1988 Bengals, and the 1990 Bills. None of those franchises have ever won a Super Bowl, but those five teams all came very close to winning or at least making a Super Bowl.

But what about the 6 great pro football dynasties since World War II? The ’50s Browns, ’60s Packers, ’70s Steelers, ’80s 49ers, ’90s Cowboys, and modern Patriots all had (at least) one great team that failed to win it all, too. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the great Brady/Belichick, Graham/Brown, and Montana/Walsh teams that didn’t win it all. But in some cases, those were the very best teams they ever fielded.

2007 Patriots

You know the story. New England became the first and only team to ever go 16-0, and the first and only team to ever outscore its opponents by 300 points. QB Tom Brady was the NFL MVP, and WR Randy Moss, LT Matt Light, LB Mike Vrabel and CB Asante Samuel were all 1st-team All-Pros. WR Wes Welker led the NFL in receptions, and G Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, and NT Vince Wilfork all made the Pro Bowl (and the defense also had veteran stars in LB Junior Seau, DE Richard Seymour, and S Rodney Harrison). The year before, without Moss and Welker, the Patriots nearly won the Super Bowl: New England lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Colts, a game the Patriots led 21-3 early on. [click to continue…]

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