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Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

With just under five minutes left in last Sunday’s game against the Giants and his team trailing 27-20, Mike Smith went for it on 4th and 1 from his own 29 yard line. As was the case on repeated 4th down attempts the last time his team visited MetLife Stadium to face the Giants, the decision to be aggressive did not work out well. Matt Ryan was sacked for a nine-yard loss that effectively ended the game. If his previous behavior is any guide, Smith may learn the wrong lesson from that outcome and choose not to go for it again when the next similar opportunity arises. Smith illustrates better than any other coach the potential for fourth down failure to lead to future fourth down timidity.

Before those two failed Ryan fourth down sneaks against the Giants in that 2011 playoff game, Smith actually was one of the more enlightened coaches on fourth down strategy. From 2008-2011, Smith was the third-most aggressive coach of the last twenty years, at least according to Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index. Dating Smith’s turning point is a little tough. He got burned going for it in Week 10 of the 2011 regular season, when he tried a sneak on 4th and inches from his own 29 in overtime against the Saints. He punted in a couple of situations where he usually went for it late in the 2011 season, but then was aggressive closer in against the Giants. By the 2012 regular season, Smith hadn’t just abandoned his prior tendency for aggressive strategy. He entirely reversed it. In 2012, he was the least aggressive coach in football, only going for it once in 91 qualifying fourth-down tries. He was similarly passive in 2013. His fourth down decision last Sunday was surprising given that trend.

To see Smith’s evolution on fourth down strategy, consider his decisions on 4th and 3 or less when between the opponent’s 10- and 40-yard lines. To consider only situations where there was a real choice while keeping things as simple as possible, I look only at first-half decisions along with third-quarter decisions where the margin was ten points or less. [click to continue…]

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Gronk can catch, block, and spike. But can he do all that without getting injured?

Gronk can catch, block, and spike. But can he do all that without getting injured?

In the 2011 AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, Bernard Pollard happened to Rob Gronkowski. And the Patriots offense ground to a halt for the rest of the game before being held to just 17 points in the Super Bowl.1 In 2012, it was a freak injury on an extra point and then a reinjury in the divisional playoffs against the Texans. After that, the Patriots offense put up only 14 against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Last year against the Browns, he took one of those horrible hits that make you cringe and want to keep him away from running seam routes in any regular season game.2 And the Pats put up 16 points against a mediocre and banged-up Broncos defense in the AFC Championship game.3

The Gronkowski injuries provide a tantalizing set of what-ifs. The Patriots have been within two games of a title the last three years. A healthy Gronkowski could have made the difference in any of those years. The Football Outsiders’ Almanac shows that the Pats’ offense was actually pretty good late in the season without Gronk, but they were terrible early in the year―they actually had a negative DVOA without him. Over the last two regular seasons, the Pats have averaged 34 PPG with Gronkowski, but six points fewer in New England’s 14 Gronk-less games.

And as much as I believe in stats, I’m not sure we really need them to tell us that Gronkowski is one of the most important non-quarterbacks in football. If he’s healthy through the playoffs, the Patriots seem likely to be neck-and-neck with the Broncos. With a defense that may be one of the best in football, I’d argue that the Pats should be a little better than the Broncos, even.4 Regardless, the Pats offense has been uniformly excellent with a healthy Gronkowski since 2010. Taking just the games where Gronk played, the Pats have ranked 1st, 3rd, 1st, and 2nd in offensive DVOA over the last four years.

That means one of the most important questions in the NFL in 2014 is whether we’ll see a healthy Gronkowski through the end of the season and into the playoffs. At this point, I think the reflexive answer is to assume that the answer is “no.” It certainly doesn’t feel like he’s going to be healthy. But previous examples of players getting hurt can provide some insight into Gronkowski’s actual chances.

Recovery for Injured Young-and-Excellent Players

In his second year, Gronkowski had an Approximate Value (AV) of 14. He then played only parts of the next two seasons due to injury. Considering players who started their careers since 1970, there have been 34 who had an AV season of at least 13 in their first two years and who then did not start at least 25% of the games in the following two years. This is a reasonable list of young-and-excellent players who then missed significant time in years 3 & 4. Most of these players missed time due to injuries, although some of those cases were a bit debatable.5 Regardless, the conclusions are pretty much the same if we drop some of those cases. [click to continue…]

  1. Yes, a very limited Gronk played in SB XLVI, but he had only two catches and jumped like me when battling Chase Blackburn on Brady’s underthrown fourth quarter pick. []
  2. The link is of Gronk shopping for groceries instead of the hit, because who wants to see that again? []
  3. The only two games all season where the Broncos gave up fewer points were against Houston and Oakland. []
  4. Unless Manning is just much better than Brady, I guess. I’m not seeing that. Denver’s only other big advantage is at receiver. Fine, but a healthy Gronkowski seems to even up a fair bit of that. And then there’s Brandon LaFell’s impending record-breaking season. I’m about to get shouted down. [Chase note: I don't know how much longer I can stomach Andrew writing for Football Perspective.] []
  5. In addition, I omitted two players who were obviously benched for other reasons: Shaun King and Derek Anderson. And Joe Cribbs, who went to the USFL for the fifth year of his pro career. []
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The Value of a First Down

What is the value of a first down? By that I mean, how many marginal yards is a first down actually worth? Here’s another way to word the question: If 3 first downs and 80 yards are worth X, then 2 first downs and [???] many yards are equal to X?

Calculating the marginal value of a yard isn’t easy. In fact, it’s been bugging me for years, because I’ve never quite been sure how to derive them. Then, a light bulb went off in my head: I needed to reach out to Brian Burke. I had an idea, but not the data or the means to execute.

Burke, of course, runs the fantastic website Advanced Football Analytics (formerly Advanced NFL Stats). I asked him if he would run some queries, and Brian was kind enough to do so. Fortunately, Brian’s not just a guy with access to lots of data, but one of the smartest minds in the industry. I wholeheartedly endorse his methods below, and I’m very thankful for his help. On top of running the numbers, he also provided an excellent writeup on his work. What follows are Brian’s words and analysis.


To estimate the value of achieving a 1st down without counting any of the value of the yardage gained, we can use the Expected Points model. The value of the 1st down itself minus yardage value will be the discontinuity in EPA when a play’s gain crosses the threshold for a 1st down. That discontinuity represents the value of the conversion apart from any yardage gained.

For example, on 2nd and 10, the EPA would increase smoothly for each yard gained up to 9 yards gained, then jump to a much higher EPA crossing the 10-yard mark where the conversion occurs. After that point, the EPA should increase smoothly again with each marginal yard gained above what was needed for the conversion.

Here is an illustration. The Y-axis represents Expected Points Added, the X-axis the amount of yards gained on the play.

EPA 2nd 10

The EPA for a 9-yd gain is 0.57, and the EPA for a 10-yd gain is 1.04. That’s a discontinuity of 0.47 EP, meaning that the 1st down itself is nearly equivalent to the 9-yards gained up to the point of conversion.

But we also need to correct for the yardage value of that 10th yard. One yard of field position is generally worth 0.064 EP. So in this case the discontinuity itself is worth 0.47 – 0.064 = 0.41 EP.

If we wanted to assign a “bonus” of yards to a player who is credited with achieving the conversion over and above the yardage itself, we could use this value’s yardage equivalent. 0.41 EP / 0.064 EP/yd = 6.4 yds. That’s the bonus for 2nd down and 10, but there are many other down and distance situations to consider.

For example, on 3rd and 10, the discontinuity is 1.57 EP, equivalent to nearly 25 yds. First and 10 is very strange because the discontinuity is negative. This makes sense, however, because an offense should prefer a 2nd & 1 to a 1st & 10 anywhere on the field. It would be silly to penalize a player for gaining the extra yard to convert, so my opinion would be to say the EP bonus for a conversion on 1st down is zero.

3rd 10

After examining a smattering of 2nd and 3rd down situations, the 2nd-down bonus EP is about 0.35 and 3rd-down bonus EP is roughly 1.4.

4th down conversions would obviously mean a very large bonus EP. They essentially have the value of a turnover–close to 4 EP or so. Since 4th downs are qualitatively different (and relatively rare) I’m going to set them aside.

In general, 32% of conversions come on 1st down, 38% come on 2nd down, and 30% come on 3rd down. So the weighted value of a conversion alone would roughly be:

[0.32 * 0] + [0.38 * 0.35] + [0.30 * 1.4] = 0.55 EP

The conversion bonus of 0.55 EP can be translated into yards by dividing by 0.064 EP/yd, which ultimately makes the equivalent yardage bonus for a conversion: 8.7 yards.



Figuring out the value of a first down will have many applications for Football Perspective going forward. Please leave your thoughts in the comments, as I’d love to hear what you guys have to say. And thanks again to Brian for his great work.

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Interesting tidbit from Peter King this week about how the Vikings nearly acquired Johnny Manziel:

As the picks went by, starting soon after the Rams chose at 13, Cleveland GM Ray Farmer worked the phones, trying to find a partner to move up from their second pick in the round (26th overall) to grab Manziel. He couldn’t find a fit. Finally, with less than three minutes to go in Philadelphia’s 22nd slot, Farmer heard this from an Eagles representative over the phone: “If you’re not gonna jump in here, we’re gonna trade the pick right now.” It’s cloudy what his offer had been to this point, but now he had to sweeten it, and he offered the 83rd pick overall, a third-rounder, in addition to their pick four slots lower than Philly. Done deal. The Eagles liked that offer better than an offer from Minnesota, because the Vikings would have been moving up from 40.

As discussed in my round 1 recap, the Eagles made out like bandits picking up the 83rd pick to move down four spots. Not only did Philadelphia received 137 cents on the dollar according to my trade chart, but the Jimmy Johnson trade chart — which overvalues high picks and therefore cautions against trading down — had the Eagles receiving 112 cents on the dollar. [click to continue…]

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Analyzing Position Values In the 2014 Drafts

The 2014 NFL Draft is in the books. The three-day event gives us a unique peek behind the NFL curtain; teams can and do say all sorts of ridiculous things, but the way the draft unfolds is the ultimate in what economists refer to as a revealed preference. For example, NFL decision makers might say that running and stopping the run is the key to winning football games (particularly likely if those decision makers reside in Indianapolis), but the NFL draft revealed that no team preferred to spend a top-50 pick on a running back. Only one pure inside linebacker was drafted in the first two rounds (Alabama’s C.J. Mosley), and only two more (Louisville’s Preston Brown and Wisconsin’s Chris Borland) were selected with picks in the top 125.

As regular readers know, I’ve created a draft value chart based on the expected marginal Approximate Value produced by each draftee in his first five seasons to the team that drafted him. By assigning each draft pick a number of expected points, we can then calculate how much draft capital was spent on each position. I went through the 2014 draft (using the position designations from Pro-Football-Reference) and calculated how much value was used on each position; the results are displayed in the table below.1

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  1. I’m excluding fullbacks and specialists from this definition. For purposes of this study, the three fullbacks drafted, Auburn’s Jay Prosch (HOU), Oklahoma’s Trey Millard (SF), and Arkansas’ Kiero Small (SEA), were included as running backs. For those curious two kickers — Arkansas’ Zach Hocker (WAS) and Boston College’s Nate Freese (DET) — and one punter (Miami(FL)’s Pat O’Donnell (CHI) were also drafted. []
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As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, most rookies sign four-year contracts. But as further evidence of the owners’ success during negotiations in connection with the 2011 lockout, teams were granted a club option for a fifth year for all players selected in the first round. The option is only guaranteed for injury, however, so a team can exercise the option for 2011 first round picks and still release the player after the 2014 season.

For players in the top ten, that fifth year salary is equal to an average of the top ten highest-paid players at their position from the prior year. For players selected with picks 11 through 32 — and boy, that number 11 pick never looked as valuable as it did in 2011 — the fifth-year deal is worth an average of the salaries of the players with the 3rd through 25th highest salaries at their position.

The deadline for exercising the fifth-year option on 2011 first rounders is tomorrow, May 3rd.  As a reminder, here is a review of the first round of the 2011 Draft: [click to continue…]

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Last Wednesday, I looked at every time a team traded away a future first round draft pick in the last ten years. Today, the reverse: the times a team traded for a future first round pick.  I’ll again be focusing on the general manager or other person responsible for making the trade: that’s because future first round picks are generally discounted, and I’m curious to see how often patience is rewarded.  As we’ll see in our first example, hurting the team in the short term — even if the move looks brilliant in retrospect and is a win in the long term — does not necessarily mean much for the man making the deal.

1) Cleveland trades Trent Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first round pick (Sept. 2013)

As a reminder, it was Tom Heckert who drafted Richardson with the third overall pick, so Lombardi doesn’t deserve any blame for the poor decision there.  In theory, Lombardi should have been rewarded for managing to still get a first round pick for Richardson, but instead, he just stacked the 2014 draft for Farmer.  For the franchise, it’s hard to view this trade as a great deal, because it’s connected to Richardson the draft pick (the Browns turned the 3rd pick in 2012 into the 26th pick in 2014). But as an isolated move, this one looks pretty strong for Cleveland and definitely for Lombardi, especially after how poorly Richardson performed in Indianapolis in 2013.

2) St. Louis trades 2012 first round pick (#2; Robert Griffin III) to Washington for 2012 first round pick (#6; Morris Claiborne), 2012 second round pick (#39; Janoris Jenkins), and 2013 first round pick (#22; Desmond Trufant) and 2014 first round pick (#2 overall) (March 2012)

A year ago, this trade arguably would define the Snead/Fisher era — in a bad way. Now, the Rams have managed to use one very valuable asset to restock the roster. Along with other trades, St. Louis wound up with four top 50 picks in 2012, two first round picks in 2013, and two more this year, including the second overall selection.  That hasn’t translated into much success on the field yet for Snead and Fisher, but it’s important to remember how bare the cupboard was when the duo arrived in 2012. Right now, this trade looks like a lopsided deal, but if RG3 can replicated his rookie season in 2014 — and Sam Bradford had another mediocre year — and the pendulum could swing again.

It’s worth noting that few decision makers would have been tempted to pull off this move. Fisher came to St. Louis in 2012 and was handed significant control.  That’s vital when a major part of the compensation involved a two year wait; that wasn’t a concern for Fisher, but I suspect it would be for most.

3) Cincinnati trades Carson Palmer to Oakland for 2012 first round pick (#17; Dre Kirkpatrick), 2013 second round pick (#37; Giovani Bernard) (October 2011)

Bernard and Kirkpatrick both look to be long-term starters in Cincinnati, while Palmer may have retired if the Bengals hadn’t traded him. This was an all-time great trade for Cincinnati and Lewis. The cherry on top is that Hue Jackson, who orchestrated the trade for Oakland, was Bernard’s position coach last year and will be the Bengals offensive coordinator in 2014. While the compensation wasn’t quite as generous, that’s as if Mike Lynn, the Vikings old general manager, moved on to the Dallas front office after the Herschel Walker trade.

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When a general manager trades away a future first round pick, it’s worth wondering if the transaction was the effect of the principal-agent problem. A general manager is supposed to act in the best interest of the franchise, but he may instead choose to act in his own self-interest. If he’s on the hot seat, trading a future first round pick for something right now may be a pretty attractive option, as he may not be around when the bill comes due.

Does that happen in practice? The most obvious example I can think of involved the Raiders in 2011.  On October 8th, Al Davis passed away. Eight days later, starting quarterback Jason Campbell went down for the season with a collarbone injury. With the owner and general manager positions unsettled, head coach Hue Jackson became the de facto head of football operations. And he traded first and second round picks to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer. Had the move worked out and the 4-2 Raiders gone on to make the playoffs, Jackson would have been very happy. When the move failed, the Raiders missed the playoffs and Jackson was fired. As a result, it was Reggie McKenzie sitting at the table when the bill arrived.

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Are Teams Afraid To Pass Against Seattle?

The Legion of Boom May Be Harmful To Your Offense's Health

The Legion of Boom May Be Harmful To Your Offense's Health.

We know that the Seahawks pass defense is historically good, but the title of this post sounds like it was written by a Seahawks homer, right? I mean, who else besides a green-and-blue fanboy (or maybe Richard Sherman or Earl Thomas) would write something as absurd as “Seattle’s pass defense is so good that teams are afraid to throw on them!!!”

The thing is, it’s kind of true. Seattle faced only 568 pass attempts (including sacks) during the regular season, the sixth fewest in the NFL.  Some of that is due to the Seahawks pace on offense and dominance of a defense that prevented sustained drives; even still, opponents passed on “only” 57.4% of all plays against Seattle.

Seattle ranked below average — 18th — in percentage of pass plays faced, but there’s a reason I put only in quotes. Seattle held an average lead over every second of game play this year of 5.6 points, the third best mark in the NFL. Denver and San Francisco were the only teams to play with larger leads, and they ranked 6th and 7th in percentage of plays faced that were passes. This is hardly a newsflash — teams generally throw often when trailing — but that wasn’t the case with 2013 Seahawks.

When Steve Buzzard used the Game Scripts data to determine defensive pass identities, he found that teams were more hesitant to pass against Seattle (once adjusting for the score and strength of schedule) than against any team in the league. I thought it would be interesting to take another crack at measuring this effect. We can use the score differential after each of the four quarters of the game to determine how many pass attempts (as a percentage of total plays) a team *should* face. [click to continue…]

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Film Room: Manning against Seattle in the preseason

Who treats the preseason like BS? BS!

Who treats the preseason like BS? BS!

On August 17th, Denver traveled to Seattle for each team’s second game of the preseason. Some people think the preseason is meaningless, but I thought it would be worthwhile to rewatch the first half of that game. If you’re interested, there were a pair of good recaps written in August from Field Gulls, the Seattle SB Nation site, and Its All Over, Fat Man!, a Broncos site and friend of the program.
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Cap Space Versus Production For DEN/NE/SF/SEA

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Seahawks, and are four of the best organizations in the NFL. Over the last two years, these four teams are the only to win 23 games in the regular season or 26 games if you include the playoffs. In the salary cap era, being an excellent team means managing the salary cap well. And, broadly speaking, managing the cap well means finding good values for cheap and making sure the players you spend a premium on deliver commensurate production.

So is that true for New England, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle? The invaluable Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap has salary cap data for each team in the league, which can answer half the problem. But how do we measure production? I decided to use the ratings from Pro Football Focus, since the website provides a rating of every player on every team (although I excluded special teamers from my analysis today).

One note about PFF data, which comes from Nathan Jahnke, a writer at the website. As he explained to me, PFF’s ratings are not necessarily designed for comparisons across positions. For each position, zero is average, but the magnitude a player’s rating can get to is somewhat dependent on the position they play. For example, PFF has never had a safety over a grade of +30, while five 3-4 DEs hit that mark in 2013. For my purposes today, this is not a big concern — it just means view the graphs with an understand that these are not designed to be the perfect way to compare a player. But in general, I think they work well. (And, of course, don’t think that just because Brandon Mebane has a higher rating than Russell Wilson that it means PFF thinks Mebane is a more valuable player.)

To avoid people using my graphs to scrub data and steal the hard work put in by by Over The Cap and Pro Football Focus in assembling the salary cap data and player grades , I have decided not to label either axis with salary information or player ratings. Just know that the X-axis (that’s the horizontal one) is for salary, and players on the left are cheap and players on the right are expensive. The vertical or Y-axis shows the PFF grades from worst (on the bottom) to best on top). Note: to compare across teams, I have used the exact same dimensions for both axes across all four graphs. [click to continue…]

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Trailing in the 4th quarter, send out the kicker!

John Harbaugh things this guy needs as much PT as possible

John Harbaugh things this guy needs as much PT as possible.

Through four weeks, there have been 28 cases where a team, trailing in the 4th quarter, sent in the kicker or the punter. In general, that’s a pretty low rate — it’s just under once every two games. But while going for it on 4th down isn’t always the right decision when trailing in the 4th quarter, even 28 kicks/punts is too many.

Twelve of those 28 plays were field goal attempts, and all were successful.  Four kicks were to tie or take the lead, but only one of them — Rian Lindell’s 37-yarder, trailing by one point with 38 seconds remaining in week one against the Jets was an obviously correct decision (not that Greg Schiano’s conservative play-calling on the prior three plays deserves the same treatment). Two other kicks were noncontroversial: Facing 4th-and-9 from the Vikings 11, trailing by 10 with 3:40 remaining, I don’t blame Mike Tomlin for sending in the kicker. Even more obvious: Jeff Fisher having Greg Zuerlein kick a 38-yard field goal on 4th and 8 from the Arizona 20, trailing by 3, with 9 minutes left in the game. What about the other 9 field goal decisions? Let’s start first with four end-game strategic blunders:

1) John Harbaugh sent out Justin Tucker to kick a 30-yard field goal on 4th and 4 trailing by 18 with 5:33 remaining at the Broncos 12-yard line. Yes, Harbaugh thought Baltimore’s best chance of winning was to kick a field goal, stop Denver, score a touchdown, stop Denver, score another touchdown, convert the two-point attempt, and then win in overtime. Even though a 30-yard field goal is close to automatic, this one is pretty easy to analyze.  In both situations, you need to stop Denver twice and score two more touchdowns. So the question becomes, it is easier to:

    (a) kick a 30-yard field goal and (assuming the other events all unfold in your favor) then have only a 1-in-4 chance of winning (i.e., convert on the 2-pointer and win in overtime); or
    (b) score a touchdown on a drive at the Denver 12, facing 4th and 4?

2) Mike Smith had Matt Bryant kick a 25-yard field goal with 3 minutes to go, trailing by 10 against New England, facing 4th and 1 at the Patriots 7-yard line.

This one is not terrible, but I agree with Bill Barnwell’s analysis that going for it would have been the preferred move. Note that you don’t need the benefit of hindsight: Jason Lisk correctly predicted in real time that by going conservative on 4th-and-1, Atlanta would have to go for it (and fail) in a more challenging 4th down play later in the game.
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“Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” – John M. Keynes.

Photo via phillymag.com.

Last Thursday night, Chip Kelly was widely criticized for an unconventional decision that turned out to be unsuccessful. Trailing 10-0 in the first quarter against the Chiefs, Michael Vick threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jason Avant. The photo above shows how the Eagles lined up for the point after. Philadelphia’s two-point conversion attempt — a play known as the the Swinging Gate — was stopped, and it was stopped in particularly ugly fashion. That made it easy to point a finger and laugh at the college coach doing something silly.

But without the benefit of hindsight, there was nothing silly or even suboptimal about the decision. Putting aside the specifics of the play — we’ll get to that at the end — the main criticism seems to be that it was “too early” to go for two, or that the Eagles were “chasing points”, or that it was simply “unnecessary.” All of those are buzz words for saying that the Eagles should have behaved conventionally.

At a baseline level, let’s recognize that a team has a roughly 50/50 chance of converting on a two-point conversion. For a good offense with a mobile quarterback, that number may be even higher, but let’s just use the 50/50 number now. If that’s the case, then teams early in the game should be indifferent between kicking the extra point and going for two. Consider this hypothetical example: if a team had the option of kicking the extra point or flipping a coin — and heads gave them two points, tail giving them zero — would choosing to flip the coin be a poor decision?

Late in games, perhaps. But early in the game? I don’t see any reason to think that the difference between having six versus seven points on the board in the first quarter is more significant than the difference between having seven or eight points. Suppose you were told that your favorite team would score first quarter touchdowns in back-to-back games. Option 1 provides that your team would the extra point both times, while Option 2 is that your team would make the two point conversion once and fail on the attempt once. So you get eight points in one game and six points in the other.

Which would you prefer, Option 1 or Option 2? And why? And, if you prefer Option 1 to Option 2, how much more preferable is it? What would you be willing to trade to land in Option 1 — how many yards on the ensuring kickoff?

I would be indifferent between Options 1 and 2, but even if you preferred one, I don’t see how anyone could strongly prefer Option 1 to Option 2. The value to having 8 points is real, which is why it is never “too early” or “unnecessary” to go for two in a world where teams convert on two-point attempts half the time. Those are red herrings, because going for two is only a high-variance strategy; is it not a high-variance, lower-expected value option. Once you understand that, then nearly all the criticism about Kelly’s decision disappears.

As for the actual play call? I think it was a good one. Keep in mind that the Eagles did not pigeon hole themselves into going for two — based on how the Chiefs reacted to that formation prior to the snap, Philadelphia could have switched back to a normal extra point formation or simply taken a delay of game penalty with minimal harm. But Kansas City did not react well to the play pre-snap: The Eagles split two players out wide to the right, and Kansas City countered with two defenders to that side. But in the middle of the field, Philadelphia had the snapper, holder, and kicker, while the Chiefs kept four players in the middle of the field. I’m quite certain the special teams coach was not pleased with how the Chiefs responded to the situation, because that left K.C. with only five defenders to the defense’s right, while the Eagles were able to match up five blockers to that side and Zach Ertz, the eventual ballcarrier.

That’s a matchup Philadelphia should win more often than fifty percent of the time, and perhaps significantly more often than that. As it turns out, Lane Johnson blew the block, Tamba Hali made a nice play, and Kelly and the Eagles had egg on their face. Failing unconventionally has its drawbacks.

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Luck causes people to lose their minds

Luck causes people to lose their minds.

I can’t believe I’m writing this article. Everyone loves Chuck Pagano, but he made a pretty embarrassing blunder at the end of the Colts upset win in San Francisco on Sunday. The Colts led 13-7 when Andrew Luck scrambled for a six yard touchdown on 3rd-and-3 with just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Incredibly, Pagano then chose to kick the extra point, which my buddy and Colts fan Nate Dunlevy identified immediately as a terrible decision.

I wasn’t going to write a post about that decision, because, ya know, what could be more obvious than going for two when up by 12 points with just over four minutes left in the game? I mean, Jason Garrett got this right in the season opener. Being up by 14 points means two touchdowns doesn’t beat you, while there is almost no difference between being up 12 or being up 13 points. That doesn’t make for a very interesting post, though.

From 1999 to 2012, 36 teams scored a touchdown when leading by 6 points in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter. Only 22 times did the team then follow that score by going for two, converting half of the time. Take a look:
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Previously on the 2013 RSP Football Writers Project…

Introduction/My Picks in Rounds 1 and 2
My Pick in Round 3
My Picks in Rounds 4 and 5
My Picks in Rounds 6 through 11

You can also view every pick in this draft recap.

Rounds 12/13

Already on team: QB Josh Freeman, WR Julio Jones, WR Brandon Marshall, TE Greg Olsen, LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, G Alex Boone, 3-4 DE Desmond Bryant, 3-4 DE Cameron Heyward, 3-4 OLB DE Paul Kruger, 3-4 OLB Courtney Upshaw, CB Vontae Davis
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We already know what the average draft pick is worth, thanks to the Football Perspective Draft Value Chart. If we assign the draft value associated with each pick to the college of that player, then we can determine which school had the most draft value in any given year. As it turns out, the best single draft since 1967 came courtesy of USC in 1968. Look at this pretty incredible draft for the Trojans, with five players in the top 24:

Pk   Team  Player               Pos  School
1    MIN   Ron  Yary             T    USC
10   PIT   Mike  Taylor          T    USC
14   PHI   Tim  Rossovich        LB   USC
16   CHI   Mike  Hull            RB   USC
24   DET   Earl  McCullouch      WR   USC
68   PHI   Adrian  Young         LB   USC
94   WAS   Dennis  Crane         DT   USC
101  NYJ   Gary Magner          DT   USC
298  OAK   Chip  Oliver          LB   USC
438  DEN   Steve Grady          RB   USC
439  NOR   James  Ferguson       C    USC

In modern times, the best draft class (in terms of draft pick value) by a single school came in 2004, when the Miami Hurricanes sent this impressive haul to the NFL:

Rk   Team  Player               Pos  School
5    WAS   Sean  Taylor	        DB   Miami (FL)
6    CLE   Kellen  Winslow  Jr.	TE   Miami (FL)
12   NYJ   Jonathan  Vilma	LB   Miami (FL)
17   DEN   D.J.  Williams	LB   Miami (FL)
19   MIA   Vernon  Carey        T    Miami (FL)
21   NWE   Vince  Wilfork	NT   Miami (FL)
213  NYJ   Darrell  McClover	LB   Miami (FL)
215  CHI   Alfonso  Marshall	DB   Miami (FL)
254  SDG   Carlos  Joseph	T    Miami (FL)

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Here’s the introduction to an old fantasy football article by my fellow Footballguys staffer Maurile Tremblay:

In most fantasy football leagues, eligible players are divided into 6 different positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, placekicker, and special teams/defense. Imagine a league that includes a seventh position, team captain, which earns points each week based solely on the initial coin toss. For example, if you’ve got the Raiders as your starting TC and the Raiders win their coin toss, you get 30 points; if the Raiders lose their coin toss, you get nothing.

Under the current laws of probability, we can expect any particular team captain to win about 8 out of its 16 coin tosses over the course of the season, winding up with about 240 total fantasy points — so let’s use that as our VBD baseline. There will probably be one or two team captains, however, that win around 12 tosses, making them about 120 points better than average. That makes the top team captain pretty valuable!

So how long should we wait before drafting our TC1? Is the first round too early? The second?

Of course, anything before the final round is too early! Coin flips are random, so while some TCs will end up scoring many more points than others over the course of the season, there’s no way to know which ones. We should therefore be totally indifferent to which TC we end up with.

That’s not the case with, say, running backs. We may be fairly confident that Eddie George will score more points than Tim Biakabutuka. So while we have no good reason to prefer the Raiders’ team captain to the Chiefs’, we should quite rationally prefer George to Biak. And as it makes sense to spend our early draft choices filling positions where our preferences are strongest — indeed, that is the essence of VBD — we ought to generally draft our RBs before we draft our TCs.
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[Special thanks goes out to my Footballguys.com co-writer Maurile Tremblay for his help in co-authoring this piece with me. Any points with which you may disagree are almost certainly due to my error, and not Maurile's.]

The new NFL collective bargaining agreement that ended the 2011 lockout instituted some pretty big changes to the salary cap. When it comes to roster management, here are three ways the post-2011 NFL differs from how things were under the old CBA:

  • Rookies are now super cheap relative to their production, especially high first-round players (relative to their old cost)
  • Rookie contracts can not be renegotiated until three years after the player is drafted.
  • Over a four-year period, each team must spend 89% of the cap dollars available to them, and the league must spend 99% of the cap dollars available to the 32 teams.

Under the old system, contrary to popular belief, most (if not all) rookies were underpaid relative to their free market value. Then in 2011, the owners and NFLPA decided to rob the rookies to pay veterans even more money under the new CBA. Russell Wilson has three years remaining on his contract and will have an average cap figure of just $817,000 over those three years. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will only cost their teams about 6 million cap dollars each per year from 2013 to 2015. The salary cap in the NFL in 2013 is $123M, making Luck and Griffin fantastic values, and Wilson perhaps the most valuable player in the league.

Wilson's paid in direct proportion to his height

Wilson's paid in direct proportion to his height.

What makes this especially juicy from the perspective of their general managers is that all three players are locked into their deals until 2015. Luck and Griffin actually are struck through 2016, as teams get club-options for a fifth year for the top picks. In Wilson’s case, after the 2014 season, he’ll be facing a contract that would pay him less than a million dollars in 2015 and then a possible franchise tag in 2016, meaning a maximum payout of probably 20 million dollars over two years (the tag in 2012 for quarterbacks was just under $15 million). That puts Wilson in a pretty poor position to bargain for a market deal: he’s going to sacrifice money in exchange for security. This means Seattle will get him for absurdly below-market rates in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and then will still have him on a very generous contract for the next few years after that.

In the case of Luck or Griffin, the Colts and Redskins essentially get a chance to use the tag twice; teams can turn the four-year rookie deals into a five-year deal by paying top-ten picks the average salary of the ten highest-paid players at their position; then the next year the franchise tag would be the average of the top five quarterbacks or a 20% increase on the salary from the previous year. So when they are up for renegotiation after year three, they’re looking at the team “forcing” them to stay for three years at roughly $42 million, with year one bringing just over three million. Luck and Griffin will have a little more bargaining power than Wilson, but not much. There’s no chance either player is going to play for $3 million in 2015 (remember, their cap hit will be a bit higher, but their base salaries will be around $3M in that season), so both will likely give up their freedom (which would be three years away, potentially) for security.
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My thoughts on trading Darrelle Revis

There are four things the Jets could do with Darrelle Revis.

Option 1: Trade him before the draft to the team (not in the AFC East or in New York) willing to offer the most.

Option 2: Trade him during the five-month period after the draft but before the trading deadline, under the assumption that Revis will be able to fetch more in return once he is healthy and playing at his old level (assumption #2). [Update: As pointed out to me on twitter, the Jets will also incur the $9M penalty discussed in Option 3 if Revis is traded after June 1st.]

Option 3: Have Revis play out his contract, and then watch him sign with another team in the off-season (or enter a bidding war and try to win Revis on the open market). In return, the Jets will receive a compensatory draft pick, roughly the 100th pick in the 2015 draft. And, since Revis was given an $18M bonus on a six-year deal in 2011 — a deal that Revis has the option of voiding after this season — the Jets will also incur a nine million dollar cap penalty in 2014.

Option 4: Re-sign Revis to a mega deal now. The Jets will get a slight discount off the enormous contract Revis would get on the open market based on the questions about his knee and the fact that he’s due to make “only” $9M in 2012.

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On Tuesday, I discussed the RSP Football Writers Project, a 32-team start-up draft of every player in the NFL.  I was assigned the 32nd pick, which does bring with it one advantage.  In order to balance the values assigned with the random draft order, the selection picks for the third round is “reversed”, a common fantasy football technique known as 3rd Round Reversal.  So while I picked last in round one after 18 quarterbacks had been drafted, I got to pick first in rounds two and three.

As you now know, I drafted Josh Freeman and Julio Jones with picks 32 and 33.  At 65, there were several ways I could go.

  • I think it’s hard to overestimate the value of a great passing game, so adding a receiver or tight end isan attractive option. That’s doubly true when Brandon Marshall and Aaron Hernandez were still available. Marshall was my highest-ranked receiver from last year and is relatively young; he turns 29 this month. Hernandez is 23 and is an incredible asset in the passing game.
  • If you think of the big positions in the NFL as quarterback, pass rusher, and left tackle, then you probably want to fill those slots as quickly as possible. At left tackle, Duane Brown, Joe Thomas, Matt Kalil, and Nate Solder are gone. Michael Roos is a solid pick, but at 31 in October, does he fit my model of fielding a young team? Ryan Clady was a player I might have taken, but he was selected just a few picks before I was up. I didn’t see an elite player available, so I crossed this off the list (a few picks later, Matt Waldman selected Russell Okung.)
  • On the pass-rusher front, Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews, Cameron Wake, Jason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware, Charles Johnson are all gone, as are 3-4 defensive ends J.J. Watt, Calais Campbell, Muhammad Wilkerson and Justin Smith. While there were some attractive options out there, my hope is one of them will be around when I pick again. The most interesting option was Mario Williams, a player I really wanted to take, but his struggles in 2012 were too significant to overlook.

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Matt Waldman and Sigmund Bloom are once again running the RSP Football Writers Project this off-season. Last year, a salary cap value was assigned to each player and we were asked to assemble our team within the confines of a salary cap. You can see my team here, but my basic philosophy was to invest heavily in building an elite passing offense. One of the questions we had to answer was who were our stars and why did we pick them? I wrote:

Peyton Manning is the key. With an elite quarterback and competent weapons, you can just about pencil your team in for the playoffs. With Jimmy Graham and Victor Cruz, I’ve got one player who ranked in the top three in receptions and one in the top three in receiving yards in 2011. Those three can form the cornerstone of the offense for the next three-to-five years.

This year, the RSP Football Writers Project (you can see the draft recap here or follow the picks on twitter here) is being run as a 32-team start-up draft with fantasy football style serpentine order that includes a third-round reversal. Trades are not allowed and the player pool will consist of veterans only (i.e., no players available in the 2013 draft).

We were told the draft order was random, although I choose to believe that I was assigned pick #32 because of my performance in last year’s project. Having the 32nd and 33rd picks in the draft placed me in a unique position, and I figured I’d explain my team-building methods here.
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“He’s the best coach in football right now.”

That was what John Harbaugh said about his little brother after the game. It’s hard to argue: I’ve said a few times that I think Jim Harbaugh is the best coach in the league, too. (Although I gave my mythical COTY vote to Pete Carroll.)

It was a classy thing to say by the winning coach, especially on a day where he outcoached his little brother. Actually, the more accurate way of putting it would be to say that “John Harbaugh made fewer bad decisions than Jim Harbaugh.” Let’s go through the game in chronological order

The First Snap

I’ve watched enough Jets games to know that there’s a certain level of horribleness that comes with having a pre-snap penalty at the start of a quarter or half. Maybe you don’t want to blame Jim Harbaugh for the 49ers lining up in an illegal formation on the first snap of the game, but let’s just say this: that’s not how the New York media would react if Rex Ryan’s team did that. Jim Harbaugh would be the first to tell you that it was inexcusable to have such a penalty on the first snap of the game, and the team didn’t look any more prepared on snap two, when Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore were on the wrong page of a fake-handoff that instead went to Lennay Kekua.

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From the Colorado School of Mines to the NFL

Unless you follow Division II football, you probably aren’t familiar with the name Bob Stitt. He’s the head coach at the Colorado School of Mines, and here is what Bruce Feldman wrote about him in the summer of 2011 in connection with the One-Back Clinic, an annual meeting of a few of the sharpest minds in college football:

Stitt is the 45-year-old head coach at Colorado School of Mines, a Division II school just down the road from the Coors facility in Golden, Co. Stitt is a regular to the one-back clinic and has become pals with [Dana] Holgorsen and the rest of the core crowd. His teams win big despite dealing with high academic requirements… Stitt’s topic is the pistol offense and back-shoulder throws. As you’ll find out, Stitt is a huge believer in the back-shoulder throw. He talks about it the way Jared talks about Subway. “If this stuff works with our guys, it’ll probably work with the guys you have,” he says. “We’re an engineering school, and we only have one major, engineering. Our average ACT score in math is 29.” That line draws the biggest “Oooh!” of the day. . . .

The tricky part of Stitt’s tact — as is the case with many of the things discussed here — is that it’s hard to say just how well these things could be replicated someplace else. “I love coming to this because it reinforces a lot of what we do, ” one coach says. “Sometimes you might get one or two things you can try out from a technique or a practice point.” It’s also pretty good for networking because you never know what position might open a few months from now.

That was only a year and a half ago, but Stitt’s fame has grown considerably since then. He’s become famous in some circles for the Fly Sweep, a play brought to the national state when Holgorsen repeatedly used the Fly Sweep in the Orange Bowl eleven months ago. So what is the Fly Sweep?

On most plays, West Virginia has Geno Smith in shotgun in a fairly standard shotgun spread look. On the Fly Sweep, the Mountaineers would motion a wide receiver/running back, usually Tavon Austin, before the snap, and have him accelerate as he approached the quarterback. When well-executed, the snap would arrive in Smith’s hands for just a fraction of a second before he would pitch the ball forward to Austin, who would be arriving between the center and the quarterback just a second after the ball was snapped. Already in motion and with the ball in his hands, Austin would then be able to use his considerable speed and quickness to get in space and rack up yards against an unprepared defense.

Well, in the Orange Bowl, it was executed perfectly. For four touchdowns. Take a look:

One of the benefits of the play is that it is low risk: if the quarterback/sweep exchange is mishandled, it’s simply an incomplete pass because the quarterback is technically throwing the ball forwards. So why the post today? Well, last week, the Stitt Sweep (my post, I get to pick the name) entered the NFL. I’m not sure if Jay Gruden picked up the play from his time in the Arena Football League or the World Football League — or maybe from just watching last year’s Orange Bowl — but there’s no doubt where the inspiration came from the Bengals first touchdown of the game against the Cowboys. You can see Andy Dalton’s touchdown “pass” to Andrew Hawkins at the 40-second mark of this video.

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What to do on 4th-and-7 in No Man’s Land

You went to Harvard, help me out on this

You went to Harvard, help me out on this.

Twice in close games in the last month, an NFL team has arrived at a three-way junction with seemingly no desirable path. In each case, the team faced a 4th and 7 from so-called ‘no man’s land.’

On November 25th, trailing the Atlanta Falcons 24-23, the Buccaneers had the ball on 4th and 7 from the Atlanta 38-yard line with just over three minutes remaining. Greg Schiano had all his timeouts left but faced a very difficult decision.

On Sunday, with 12 minutes remaining and a 12-7 lead, Chan Gailey’s Bills faced a 4th-and-7 from the St. Louis 34-yard-line. It’s worth noting — in part because it was notable to Gailey — that minutes earlier, Buffalo scored a touchdown but Shawn Powell botched the extra point, preventing Buffalo from going up 13-7. I suppose we could dwell on the fact that up 5 with 20 minutes left in the game after scoring a touchdown is an obvious scenario that calls for going for two, but let’s not do that in this post.

In Tampa Bay, Schiano attempted a 56-yard field goal. In Buffalo, with rain but wind at his back, the Bills sent on the field goal unit but then changed their mind and chose to punt, with the botched snap from minutes earlier apparently being a factor in the decision.

Who was right? Who was wrong? If you think this post is just a bunch of words I needed to type to show off a really cool graphic, you’re right. Take a look at this chart Brian Burke made to tell you what to do on 4th down generally:

At the 35-yard-line facing 4th and 7 is not a desirable situation, but Burke does say you should go for it. If you are a few yards closer to the end zone and it’s 4th and 8, then kicking is the advised course of action, while punting is best reserved for more dire circumstances.

What do teams actually do? This year, 15 times a team has faced a 4th-and-7 from between the 34- and the 38-yard lines. Nine times the team chose to kick the field goal, with teams hitting on 5 of those 9; Nick Folk missed from 52 but made from 54, Josh Brown hit from 52, Matt Prater from 53, Robbie Gould from 54, and Sebastian Janikowski from 55, while Dan Bailey and Janikowski missed from 54. The 9th example was in Tampa Bay, where Connor Barth missed from 56 yards out.

As you might expect if you have watched an NFL game before, coaches who chose not to kick the field goal did not entirely embrace the idea of going for it. Twice the Bills sent Shawn Powell out to punt (net of 29 and 24 yards), twice a team punted the ball out of the end zone (Pat McAfee, Dave Zastudil), and Andy Lee pinned the Rams on their four-yard-line with a 33-yard punt.

There was one coach who chose to go for it. It was Marvin Lewis, that beacon of wisdom in a cavernous field of conservative coaches. In the first quarter, trailing 3-0 to the Chiefs, first Lewis called a fake punt and when the drive stalled on the Kansas City 36, he chose to go for it. Andy Dalton scrambled for 11 yards, the Bengals would score a touchdown three plays later, and Cincinnati would go on to win the game, 28-6.

So what is the right call in the NFL’s version of the Bermuda triangle? The first answer is “it depends.” All these league average stats and theories have caveats which are easy to ignore in obvious situations. In close situations, like this one, all those caveats apply. Is it windy or raining? Are you in a dome? How good is your quarterback? What’s the score? How much time is left? And on and on.

Here are my thoughts for the two examples in this post.

  • Schiano made the wrong call, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. I’d say Barth had something resembling a 50/50 shot of converting that field goal, but what is the upside if he does? You now have a one-point lead against the Falcons with 3:30 to go and they have the ball. That’s not exactly a desirable scenario. According to Burke, the league average team has a 48% chance of winning if they have 1st and down on their own 22 with 3:30 left and trailing by one point. But this was not a situation involving league average teams. Matt Ryan has led the NFL in 4th quarter comebacks and game-winning drives in two of the last three years. He ranks 10th in ANY/A and 3rd in completion percentage, which might actually matter when your only real goal is gaining 10 yards every four plays. To make matters worse, despite an incredible run defense, Tampa Bay ranks 32nd in both passing yards allowedand net yards per attempt allowed.

    If there were six minutes left, maybe this is a different story, but I think there was too little time left to give up the ball like that. You’ve got Josh Freeman — who ranks 4th in ANY/A — going against a mediocre Falcons pass defense. I’d go for it in that situation, because your best path to victory is to gain 7-10 yards and then bleed the clock before kicking the game-winning field goal. I’ll also add this: to the extent that you want to bank on your opponent’s conservatism, punting is not as bad of an option as you might think. If you can down the punt inside the 10, and feel confident that Atlanta would run it three times, then you’re in pretty good. If successful, you would get the ball back with about 3 minutes left (remember, Tampa Bay had all three timeouts) and basically place yourself in that positive situation the Falcons would have been in if the Bucs hit the field goal, except Tampa would have been about 25 yards closer. Of course, I have no idea how much you can count on your opponent being conservative: that would depend on the opponent.
  • While the clock was the most important variable in the Tampa game, it wasn’t a huge factor in Buffalo. The Bills led by 5 points with 12 minutes to go. In this case, the Bills were at the 34, not the 38, which tilts towards the field goal and away from the punt. On the other hand, there were weather issues at play. In a rare twist, Burke’s calculator essentially has all three options as even, with the Bills having a 77-78% win probability regardless of whether they chose to punt, kick, or go for it. The Bills have a slightly below average passing offense and the Rams a slightly above average passing defense, but neither factor is particular strong. This is one of the closest calls I can think of, as I see good arguments for all three options. The Bills punted and pinned the Rams inside the five, so Chan Gailey won’t face too much criticism.

    But while extending a lead from 5 to 8 points doesn’t sound like much, it actually has a significant impact. Down by 8, you need to do a bunch of things well and then convert a two-point conversion and then win in overtime, and those two events only happen 25% of the time. Down by 5 you just need to do a bunch of things well. The weather is an important factor here — Rian Lindell said the wind was at his back, which maybe makes the weather a nonfactor even if it was raining, cold, and windy. In field goals from the 33-, 34-, or 35-yard line since 2009, NFL kickers have been successful 62% of the time. Again, the conditions are a huge variable here, but I think I would have trusted my kicker in this case.
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Interview with Aaron Schatz

Last week, I sat down with Brian Burke and discussed the work he’s done with NFL teams. Aaron Schatz, founder of Football Outsiders, an indispensable resource for fans of advanced football statistics, has been consulting with NFL teams for years. Schatz is also the lead writer, editor, and statistician on the book series Football Outsiders Almanac and writes for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Below is my interview with Aaron.

Q: Aaron, can you go into specifics on the type of work you do for NFL teams? Do you envision ultimately working for a team?

As far as consulting with teams, I’ve done two different sorts of things. First, I’ve done some in-game decision analysis, some fourth down stuff as well as some analysis on when to accept or decline penalties. Second, I’ve done reports for teams in February that gave analysis of the season with our stats, looking at what issues were likely to statistically regress and what issues really needed to be addressed, along with suggestions for possible free agent signings. Actually, it’s more accurate to say “we’ve done” rather than “I’ve done.” Some consulting I’ve done alone, and sometimes two or three guys on the FO staff work together.

Consulting for teams is great, but as advanced analysis people gradually move into front offices I don’t think I will be one of them. I don’t know about the various other folks who have followed in FO’s footsteps, but my heart has always been with the media, going back to my days running my high school paper, through my time as a radio disc jockey, doing the Lycos 50, and now Football Outsiders. I set out to revolutionize the way people analyzed the NFL, not the way they managed teams. If I end up improving the way people manage teams a little bit too, that’s just extra coolness.

Q: You publish your DVOA rankings every week, one of the most popular football articles on the web. Have you ever gotten flak from a team for them (i.e., how come we’re hiring you, we have a winning record, and you have us 24th!)?

No flak, no. A couple times I’ve had teams that I’ve worked with or that I’m otherwise in contact with ask me why their rating is particularly low in one area. However, unlike a lot of fans, people who work for teams understand that our stats are objective based on a general formula and don’t get tweaked to favor one team over another depending on how we feel each week. I think when people ask me why their team is low in one area, they often ask so that they can improve that area. And when a team hits rock bottom, I mean, they know it. The Jacksonville people don’t need to ask me why the Jaguars are ranked 30th in DVOA, or whatever it is this week. They don’t care as much about their DVOA right now as they do about their DVOA (and record) next year or two years from now. Jim Schwartz has told me he would rather have his defense ranked highly in DVOA than in yards per game. Of course, he’d rather have more wins than either. (In case it’s not clear otherwise, I should point out there are more teams where I’ve got contacts among various coaches and front office people than there are teams that I have actually worked for and received a check from.) [click to continue…]

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McKayla Maroney is not impressed.

Lane Kiffin is not a very good coach, and that’s putting it mildly. He’s one of the most hated men in college football and he’s the face of a USC team that has had the worst season of any preseason favorite since at least 1964. With a 7-5 record, no one is defending Lane Kiffin. And given the various ways he mismanaged the clock against Notre Dame, nobody can defend his performance in that game.

But let’s puts everything aside — Kiffin for being Kiffin, the fact that USC had 1st and goal from the Notre Dame 2 with over 5 minutes remaining and then proceeded to waste over 150 seconds of clock — and look at one particular decision. Facing 4th and goal from the Notre Dame 1-yard line, trailing by 9 points with 2:33 left, Kiffin decided to go for it.

This clearly defies conventional wisdom, and when the move failed, it opened him up to even more criticism. But was it the right call? According to Brian Burke, if this had been an NFL game, the correct call would have been to kick the field goal.

That may not surprise traditionalists, but readers of this blog and Advanced NFL Stats may be surprised to find that, according to the 4th Down Calculator, when trailing by 9 with 2:33 remaining, you need an 87% chance of converting to make going for it the correct call. (I will note that if you are trailing by 10, things change dramatically and going for it is the correct play.)

But this was not an NFL game. Burke’s model is based on two assumptions that are relevant here: one, the team has an average number of timeouts remaining, and two, that the clock will stop with 2:00 to go. USC had one timeout left (which is probably below average for this situation) and there is no two-minute warning in college football. So it’s likely that using 2:33 is not the correct number to use the 4th down calculator for college.

If you use 2:33 remaining, you need an 87% chance of converting to make going for it the correct call.

But, according to the same model, if you use 2:03, it drops to 64%.

If you use 1:33, it drops to 13%.

Obviously figuring out which input to use is very important. However, let’s think about it in a different context.

If USC scores a touchdown and does not onside kick (which I don’t think they do), ND gets the ball at roughly the 25-yard line with 2:25 left. On 1st and 10, they run, USC calls timeout, and there is 2:20 left. On second down, Notre Dame runs, 40 seconds tick off, and there is 1:35 left. Rinse, repeat, and Notre Dame punts with 50 seconds left. This means USC gets the ball with roughly 40 seconds left at say, their own 45.

Here college football’s rules benefit the Trojans because the clock stops momentarily on first downs. At this point, it comes down to this:
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Pete Gogolak, not Brian Burke.

You know the name Pete Gogolak, don’t you? The former Buffalo Bill placekicker is a famous figure in football history for two reasons. First, he played a key role in the merger between the AFL and NFL in the 1960s.1 He’s also remembered for what he did on the field: Gogolak is widely credited with being the first soccer-style kicker in pro football history.

But Gogolak’s impact wasn’t limited to identifying the optimal technique for kicking a football: he also helped usher in an era of specialists. In the early days of the NFL, there was no room for a specialist as rosters were tiny and players played on offense, defense and special teams. Unlimited free substitution wasn’t permanently instituted until 1950, and as recently as 1963, teams were limited to just 37-man rosters.

Once teams were allowed to roster more players, and a certain unique brand of kicking was proven to be superior, a more specialized NFL emerged. In 1949, nobody would have signed a soccer-style kicker, or any person who could only kick a football. We joke now that kickers aren’t real football players, because back in 1949, a kicker would also need to play tight end or free safety. The idea that 5’11, 182-pound, 42-year-old Jason Hanson could be a contributing member of an NFL team is as noncontroversial in 2012 as it would have been laughable in 1952. It’s not going to take 60 years before an advanced statistical analyst — perhaps the front office version of a kicker — becomes a contributing member of an NFL organization.

This weekend, I sat down with Brian Burke, the founder of Advanced NFL Stats, a fantastic website on football, statistics and game theory. Burke’s win probability calculator has been one of the most exciting innovations in our industry. In Part II of this series, I’ll be interviewing Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz. Neither person is a threat to Ron Rivera’s job security anymore than Jason Hanson is a threat to steal Calvin Johnson’s job. Specialization is the way of the world, and hiring someone trained in the art of decision-making isn’t any different than choosing to hire a lawyer or doctor. We can’t expert anyone to be an expert in everything.
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  1. Gogolak was the first AFL player stolen by an NFL team. In 1965, Bob Timberlake succeeded on just one of his fifteen field goal attempts for the Giants. That prompted a desperate Wellington Mara to sign Gogolak after the season, which violated the gentlemen’s agreement between the two leagues not to sign each other’s players (which would drive up salaries). In response, Al Davis went nuclear, and the AFL signed Roman Gabriel, Fran Tarkenton, Sonny Jurgensen and Mike Ditka to contracts. Shortly thereafter, the two leagues hammered out the details on a merger. Baltimore’s Carroll Rosenbloom reportedly told Mara afterwards, “If I’d known you wanted a kicker, I’d have given you a kicker.” []
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Mike Mularkey went for it on 4th and 10 in overtime

With 2:36 remaining in overtime, the Jacksonville Jaguars were at the Houston 47-yard line. It was 4th-and-10, following two short incomplete passes that were sandwiched around a run for no gain. Surprisingly, Mike Mularkey kept his offense on the field. The only similar example I can find of such an aggressive move in this situation came in 2009, when Carson Palmer and the Bengals convinced Marvin Lewis to go for it with 1:04 left in overtime, facing 4th and 11 at the Cleveland 41. Suffice it to say, this was something you don’t see everyday.

Despite being an unorthodox decision, most fans approved of the move. I do as well. Against arguably the best team in the league and your division rival, on the road, why not take the gamble? Is 1-8-1 that much better than 1-9, because punting in that situation is clearly playing for the tie. However, I think it’s important to make a clear distinction here, because stats guys are always recommending teams to go for it more frequently on fourth down.

This was *not* one of those cases. The numbers say this was a bad move. That’s exactly why this decision should be characterized as a a gamble. It’s okay to be risky for riskiness’ sake, but it’s important to recognize that that’s the reason. You’re playing for the variance here, not for the expected value. According to Brian Burke, Jacksonville would have needed a 55% chance of converting to make going for it the smart play. Over time, 4th and 10 plays are converted at roughly a 35% rate, and I don’t think that’s going to be higher when it’s Chad Henne against one of the best defenses in the league, regardless of how the rest of the game unfolded.

An incomplete pass, and your win probably decreases to 30% (never mind what happens on a sack or potential interception return). Give Houston the ball at say, their 14 following a punt, and you have a 60% chance of winning (this counts a tie as half a win). If you convert, you have a 76% chance of winning. Assuming a 35% rate, your win probably if you go for it is just 46% compared to 60% if you punt.

So the numbers don’t say going for it was the smart play. This was a gamble in every sense of the word. When statistical analysts argue that teams should go for it more often on 4th and 1, we’re not advocating risky moves; we’re advocating smart ones. This was risk for risk’s sake — which, given the situation, was probably appropriate.

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Scott Kacsmar posted an interesting article yesterday, noting that teams are punting or kicking on 4th down in 2012 more frequently than at any other time in the last 20 years. So far in 2012, just 1.27% of all plays are 4th down attempts.

Scott also noted that teams have been less aggressive on 4th and 1. I wanted to tweak some of Scott’s cutoffs and see if the results changed. I look at all 4th-and-1s since 2000, but limited the data to just weeks 1-10 and the first three quarters of the game. This year, teams have gone for it 56 times in these situations, gaining a first down 75% of the time.

The table below shows how often teams punted, kicked a field goal, or went for it on 4th and 1. The fifth column shows the conversion rate when teams did choose to try to get the first down, and the next two columns display the run to pass ratio (scrambles are included as runs). The final two columns show the success rates by run and by pass.

Year
Punt
Field Goal
Go For It
Conv Rt
Run %
Pass %
Run ConRt
Pass ConRt
201254.3%16%29.8%75%76.8%23.2%76.7%69.2%
201148.7%23.3%28%61.9%83.3%16.7%60%71.4%
201050%11.1%38.9%68.3%76.2%23.8%72.9%53.3%
200946.8%10.5%42.6%61.7%76.5%23.5%64.5%52.6%
200847.3%12.1%40.6%70.1%80.6%19.4%74.1%53.8%
200745.3%14.1%40.6%69.6%84.1%15.9%72.4%54.5%
200647.2%18.1%34.7%70.1%74.6%25.4%76%52.9%
200549.1%10.9%40%66.7%84.8%15.2%66.1%70%
200452%12.1%35.8%69.4%83.9%16.1%69.2%70%
200347.7%15.5%36.8%73.7%87.7%12.3%74%71.4%
200248.5%16.8%34.7%69%82.8%17.2%75%40%
200152.1%14.1%33.7%69.1%83.6%16.4%73.9%44.4%
200045.5%21.3%33.1%72.9%81.4%18.6%75%63.6%
Avg48.8%15.1%36.1%69%81%19%71.5%57.9%

It is a bit odd to see that teams seem less willing to try to convert on 4th-and-1 in 2012 than they were a decade ago. Why do you think that is?

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Creating a NFL draft value chart, Part I

Nearly five years ago, I came out with my own draft value chart to replace the “Jimmy Johnson” draft chart commonly cited by draftniks. What I did then was assign the career approximate value grade to each slot for each player drafted over a 30-year period, smoothed the data, and came up with a chart that actually represented career production.

The chart was due for an update in any event, but I’m going to make a key change. Using each player’s career AV makes sense on some level, as the drafting team gets the chance to have a player for his entire career. But the real value in the draft –especially now thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement — is the ability to get a player for cheap on his rookie contract, which expires after (at most) five years. The Jets got a great deal with Darrelle Revis early in his career, but now that he’s the highest paid cornerback in the NFL, much of his value (even pre-injury) is gone.

There’s also another consideration. Of the 100 top-ten draft picks between 1998 and 2007, only 48 players1 were still on the same team entering their sixth season. From the perspective of the head coach, things look even bleaker. In only eleven instances were the head coach and the top-ten pick still on the same team after five years (i.e., in year six): Chris McAlister and Jamal Lewis with Brian Bilick in Baltimore, Donovan McNabb with Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Richard Seymour with Bill Belichick in New England, Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross with John Fox in Carolina, Carson Palmer with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Eli Manning with Tom Coughlin in New York, A.J. Hawk with Mike McCarty in Green Bay, Mario Williams with Gary Kubiak in Houston, and Levi Brown with Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona.

If you’re a head coach — or a general manager — I’m not sure it makes sense to project any more than five years down the line. Therefore, I’m going to construct my draft value chart based on the amount of Approximate Value provided by that player in his first five years after being drafted.2 Using PFR’s AV as my guide, I graded each player drafted from 1980 to 2007 and counted how much AV they accumulated in each of their first five years. Below is a chart plotting the data along with a smoothed line:


[click to continue…]

  1. counting Eli Manning and Philip Rivers as staying with the teams that drafted them []
  2. Note: I am giving the player credit for all of the AV he earned, regardless of whether or not it was accumulated with the team that selected him. []
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