Lies, damned lies & statistics
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 18, 2010
(Ed. Note: Today marks our first feature contribution from Nate Dunlevy, publisher of the great Colts blog, 18to88.com, the site that famously came to our attention years ago when it called CHFF "a flaming pile of poo." Reminded us of the old pep talks from mom.)
By Nate Dunlevy
Cold, Hard Football Facts gridiron Blue Blood
The old saying says there are lies, damned lies and statistics. We take on all three from the past week of pigskin.
We start in my hometown where Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz praised a controversial decision by Colts coach Jim Caldwell.
"I loved Jim Caldwell's gutsy decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Houston 45-yard line with the Colts trailing 13-7."
Kravitz was right to praise Caldwell's decision. His only mistake was calling it "gutsy." The Cold, Hard Football Fact is that going for it on fourth and short is almost always the right decision.
Too often, coaches get praised as "gutsy" simply because they're playing the odds stacked in their favor. Statistically speaking, the best thing you could do in Caldwell's situation was go for it. That's not gutsy. That's just common sense.
What's the more gutsy play for a coach like Caldwell? Try to pick up two yards behind his $20-million future Hall of Fame quarterback, or ask his beer-swilling part-time football player punter to spin a ball inside the 5 perfectly so that another anonymous player can fly downfield and stop it at the 1 yard line?
Studies have shown that going for it on fourth and less than about 6 from inside the 50 leads to better results than punting. For a coach like Caldwell who punted inside Houston territory four times last week, "gutsy" is not the right adjective.
The football blogosphere attacked conventional wisdom with the Cold, Hard Football Facts last year in the wake of the "4th-and-2 Gate" controversy at the end of the Patriots-Colts midseason battle. It was one of the great new-media stories of the year, actually.
The old media, in the immediate wake of Bill Belichick's decision, pounced on the coach savagely with their tired old conservative conventional wisdom, the kind of conventional wisdom that Caldwell exercised last week. But the word quickly spread from the bloodthirsty shut-ins that the "pundits" and old conventional wisdom were wrong.
Coaches are wise to consider many factors when choosing to go for it on fourth down. The strength of the offenses and defenses and the time remaining all come into play. But they have to get rid of the conservative old baseline assumption that you punt and play defense. Their first instinct on 4th and short should be to go for the first and keep the drive alive.
In Caldwell's case Sunday, it was the right call, not the gutsy one.
... Damned Lies ...
NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi, a former Raiders executive, frequently appears on ESPN writer Bill Simmons' podcast. Lombardi recently shared a stat with The Sports Guy:
"Last year, Miami led the NFL in rushing attempts plus pass completions ... if you add those numbers together and you are over 51, you probably won the game."
Simmons loved the 'new' stat. The logic is that it is a reflection of a team's execution. But the "logic" is wrong, or at the very least backwards.
It's a well proven fact that teams rush when they win, not rush to win. Any stat that claims that rushing attempts is a sign of a good team, just states what is often the obvious. Teams run the ball when they have big leads. This stat provides no real insight into how football games are won.
Stats like the one Lombardi manufactured out of thin air are the equivalent of saying, "Teams that kneel down more win 99 percent of NFL games!" If that statement was true, teams should kneel down on every play.
(Actually, the Bears considered this plan last year. It probably would have yielded better results than their strategy of letting Jay Cutler play catch with the other team.)
Think about it. Lombardi's stat means that teams should complete passes and run a lot if they want to win. Actually, that's a remarkably simple task -- if you don't care about the success of those passes and runs.
Before pontificating on their great new stat, Lombardi and Simmons should have considered the obvious: the Dolphins went 7-9 last year, a decline of four games from their AFC East championship season of 2008. Sounds like their stat is not a very good indicator of success.
If Lombardi was looking for answers in Miami, all he had to do was look at the Cold, Hard Football Facts: as we've proven, the Dolphins, like all NFL teams in history, win when they pass the ball effectively.
The 2007 Dolphins went 1-15 because they were one of the worst passing teams in football (No. 31 at 5.05 YPA).
The 2008 Dolphins improved dramatically, to 11-5 and AFC East champs, because their passing game improved dramatically with Chad Pennington at quarterback (No. 8 in the NFL at 7.07 YPA).
The 2009 Dolphins fell back to earth, to 7-9 and also-ran, because Pennington was hurt and the passing game fell back to earth as a result (No. 23 at 5.47 YPA).
Football analysis is no more difficult than that. Hell, even the sad-sack Raiders realized that Lombardi didn't know the not-so-secrets of success in the NFL.
... And Statistics
Peyton Manning is atop some remarkable lists of NFL accomplishments. But he made one list this week that they won't write about on his bronze bust in Canton.
Manning produced a banner fantasy day against Houston (433 yards, 3 TDs, 0 Ints). But you know how we feel about imaginary fake football. Manning's big fantasy day didn't help his team in the standings as the Colts dropped their opener to the Texans, 34-24.
In the process, Manning joined six passers since 1960 as the only players to throw for 400 yards, 3+ TD passes, and no interceptions, and still lose the game.
Matt Cassel, 400 yards, 3 TDs (Patriots vs. Jets, 2008)
Carson Palmer, 440 yards, 3 TDs (Bengals vs Chargers, 2006)
Billy Volek, 426 yards, 4 TDs (Titans vs. Chiefs, 2004)
Matt Hasselbeck, 414 yards 3 TDs (Seahawks v. Cowboys, 2004)
Tony Eason, 414 yards, 3 TDs (Patriots vs. Seahawks, 1986)
Steve Grogan, 401 yards, 3 TDs (Patriots vs. Jets, 1986)
The two most amazing names on the list played for the same team and "accomplished" the feat within a month of each other: New England's Eason and Grogan.
Eason's big day came in a 38-31 loss to the Seahawks on Sept. 12, 1986. It was the most prolific day of his career. Three weeks later, on Oct. 12, Grogan produced the most prolific day of his career, too. But both lost.
Prior to the two teammates in the space of three weeks, no quarterback in modern history had reached 400 yards and three TDs and lost the game.
You wonder what the Patriots were thinking. Just a few months earlier, in January of 1986, New England became the first team in history to win three road games in the same postseason. Eason attempted just 42 passes (14 per game) for a total of 367 yards (122.3 YPG) as New England defeated the Jets, Raiders and Dolphins on the road to capture the AFC crown.
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