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Archive for the 'History' Category

Do star safeties have shorter careers than players at other defensive positions?

5th April 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at Peter King's comment on Eric Berry to examine whether safeties were risks at the top of the draft. In that post, I determined that safeties were not risky in the sense that they didn't pan out. In fact, compared to other positions, a higher percentage of safeties panned out in that they made at least one pro bowl and were at least good starters (career AV > 49).

However, King did raise a point about safeties being less likely to stay healthy, citing recent injuries to star safeties Troy Polamalu, Bob Sanders, and Ed Reed. Today, I try to take a stab at looking at that issue. The best way we have of doing that is to look at games played data, though games played is also susceptible to talent and ability as well as health. In an attempt to deal with that fact (though I am sure I fail in limited specific cases), I decided to look at players who already proved to be good players at a young age (age 25 and under) and see how many games they played from ages 26 to 29, how frequently they retired before age 30, and how old they were during the last season they were able to play 10 or more games for an NFL team. The hope here is that if a player has played well through age 25, he should continue to play in games through age 29, unless he missed those games due to injury, or was benched or forced to retire due to injury-related decline.
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Posted in Approximate Value, History, NFL Draft | 5 Comments »

The 1987 strike and what could have been, Part II

2nd April 2010

Part I

Yesterday, I posted SRS ratings for the teams during weeks 3, 4 and 5 of the 1987 season -- the replacement teams. The more interesting question, I think, is how did those real teams perform in the other 12 games? The table below shows team SRS ratings for all 28 NFL teams in 1987 during games 1, 2 and 6 through 15:

San Francisco 49ers 12.8 -0.4 12.4 10 2 0
New Orleans Saints 8.9 0.4 9.2 10 2 0
Cleveland Browns 8.5 -0.1 8.4 8 4 0
Denver Broncos 7.7 -1.0 6.7 8 3 1
Seattle Seahawks 2.9 0.1 2.9 7 5 0
Buffalo Bills 0.7 2.1 2.8 6 6 0
Washington Redskins 4.6 -1.8 2.8 8 4 0
New England Patriots 1.3 1.3 2.6 6 6 0
Philadelphia Eagles 0.7 1.3 1.9 7 5 0
Chicago Bears 2.6 -0.7 1.9 9 3 0
Los Angeles Raiders 1.3 0.6 1.9 4 8 0
New York Giants 1.4 0.4 1.8 6 6 0
Indianapolis Colts 2.0 -0.5 1.6 7 5 0
Miami Dolphins -0.4 0.8 0.4 7 5 0
New York Jets -1.0 1.1 0.1 5 7 0
Minnesota Vikings 2.7 -2.6 0.1 8 4 0
Los Angeles Rams -1.5 0.6 -0.9 5 7 0
Pittsburgh Steelers -2.8 1.8 -1.1 6 6 0
Houston Oilers -1.6 0.2 -1.3 7 5 0
St. Louis Cardinals 0.2 -2.8 -2.6 6 6 0
Green Bay Packers -4.6 1.5 -3.0 3 8 1
Dallas Cowboys -2.4 -1.5 -3.9 5 7 0
Cincinnati Bengals -4.8 0.6 -4.1 3 9 0
Kansas City Chiefs -3.8 -0.9 -4.7 4 8 0
San Diego Chargers -6.6 1.3 -5.3 5 7 0
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -6.8 -0.5 -7.2 2 10 0
Detroit Lions -6.8 -1.8 -8.6 3 9 0
Atlanta Falcons -15.3 0.4 -14.9 2 10 0

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Posted in History, Insane ideas | 20 Comments »

The 1987 strike and what could have been, Part I

1st April 2010

Per Patrick W's request, I'm going to spend the next couple of days looking at how the 1987 player's strike impacted the NFL. There have been thousands of pages written on the 1987 strike, so any analysis here would be woefully inadequate. But to provide at least some color on the event, let's start at the beginning.

Part I: Labor History

In 1956, the NFL Players Associated was formed. It's original goal was to create a minimum salary for all players and to gain some benefits that would be considered standard today. Threatened by a lawsuit, the NFL owners mostly gave into the players' demand, but refused to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA. In 1968, a brief lockout and subsequent strike occurred. It ended when, with Art Modell serving as NFL President and Chairman of the Owners Labor Committee, the players and owners negotiated the sport's first CBA, guaranteeing veteran players a minimum salary of $10,000. When the AFL and NFL merged, so did the league's respective Player Associations.

And, in the summer of 1970, the newly merged NFL saw its first strike. A new CBA was created, the minimum salary was raised to $13,000 and a more favorably pension plan was approved. By 1974, the NFLPA had become a stronger organization, and was ready to tackle the NFL on more serious issues. The PA wanted to eliminate the option clause and the Rozelle rule, which created a serious barrier to free agency; the PA also demanded that the NFL eliminate the draft, abolish and the waiver system, and begin including guaranteed contracts. The owners didn't budge, and the players went on strike for 42 days. The owners stayed tough, so the players called off the strike and instead chose to take the NFL to court.
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Posted in History, Insane ideas | 10 Comments »

Rod Martin, John Mobley and Andre Wadsworth

19th March 2010

Which colleges lead the way when it comes to quantity and quality of NFL draft picks? That's the question I set out to answer today. Here's what I did:

  • I started in 1967, when the AFL and NFL began holding a common draft. I looked at every NFL draft from 1967 to 2009.
  • I then gave each player the value that his draft slot was worth; I used the pick value chart I derived two years ago, which closely resembles the famous NFL draft chart that many sources cite (but I chose to use my values since the reasons why the two charts diverge are precisely why, for this sort of study, my values are preferred).
  • I then gave each school, in each season, the sum of all of the draft values of all of its players drafted. This gives each school a season grade. To come up with a program grade, I used the draft values in the three years before and after the year in question (along with that season). So the 2000 Oklahoma State Cowboys' program value would be the sum of the OSU seasonal grades from '97 to '03. Because of this, I only have program grades from '70 to '06.

Which college-seasons come out on top?
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Posted in History, NFL Draft, Statgeekery | 5 Comments »

Checkdowns: Tomlinson to the Jets

15th March 2010

LaDainian Tomlinson has had an incredibly successful pro career, all while playing for the San Diego Chargers. Now, in the twilight of his football life, he's moving on to a new team. Sound familiar? Tomlinson joins a long list of all-time greats who switched teams before fading into the sunset. The Jets have picked up aging Hall of Famers before (Brett Favre, Art Monk and Ronnie Lott, who came to NY after a couple of seasons with the Raiders), but they're by no means the king of acquiring former superstars in their thirties (that would be the 49ers).

Who were the best players to change teams? Which teams have picked up the most aging superstars? Which player hung with one team the longest but still didn't retire in that city? I looked at all players who acquired at least 100 points of AV with one team (I'm talking about the sum of his single season AV scores, not the 100-95-90 career AV score) before moving on to a new team. I only gave the new team credit if the player immediately joined that team, so the Jets don't get credit for Ronnie Lott and the Eagles don't get credit for Art Monk (who went there after playing for the Jets). The table below shows all players who meet the above description, along with each player's accumulated AV with his former team, his number of seasons with his former team, his age and the year when he first played for the new team, the AV he had for his new team in his first season, and his number of seasons with his new suitor. (Note: There are two columns for position; the first column is presented so you can sort by position in a more effective manner.)
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Posted in Checkdowns, History | 8 Comments »

Part II: The 36 best undrafted players since ’36

8th March 2010

Yesterday, I looked at half of the 36 best undrafted players since the first NFL draft in 1936. Today, listed alphabetically, the second half:

Warren Moon - players like Night Train Lane and Larry Little were prevented from player major college football due to the color of their skin, but Moon had to deal with double discrimination -- he wasn't just black, he was a black quarterback. Some major colleges wanted Moon, but none of them wanted him as a quarterback. He instead went to West Los Angeles College, where he starred for the Hustling Oilers at quarterback. After two years at the junior college, he was able to convince the University of Washington to let him play the position he loved. The Huskies' faith in Moon paid off when in his senior season he was named MVP of the Rose Bowl, as UW upset Michigan, 27-20. Despite the success, Moon went undrafted in 1978 when he refused to switch positions to play in the NFL. He went north where he found a team willing to make him their leader, and he starred for six seasons in Canada. After winning five Grey Cups and having one of the most remarkable careers in CFL history, Moon was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2001. In 1984, after tearing apart Canadian defenses for years, Moon was welcomed into the NFL. He would again become the QB of a team called the Oilers, this time in Houston. Moon didn't enter the NFL until age 28, and when he did, he joined a miserable Houston team that was just 2-14 the season before. Despite all that, Moon made an incredible 9 Pro Bowls in his career. Moon and Jerry Rice are the only non-linemen to make nine Pro Bowls after turning 28 years old.

Marion Motley - Fullback, linebacker and all-around bulldozer, Motley was one of the greatest athletes in Cleveland history. With the help of Sean Lahman, I briefly highlighted Motley's terrific career last year. In the four AAFC championship games, Motley rushed 48 times for 415 yards (8.6 YPC) and five touchdowns. When the AAFC collapsed/merged with the NFL, Motley was the all-time leader in rushing yards thanks to an incredible 6.2 YPC average. The NY Daily News named him first-team All-AAFC all four seasons and then All-NFL in 1950. Because of five years of service in the Navy during WWII, Motley was 30 years old by the time he entered the NFL. With his incredible power and acceleration, Motley would have had a chance to set several NFL records if he had entered the league at an early age. Instead, due to his Naval commitment and his time in the AAFC, he's mostly remembered for (along with teammate Bill Willis and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode in the NFL) reintegrating pro football. But relative to his era, he's probably the most athletic player to ever go undrafted.

Nate Newton - like Mills, Newton spent time in the USFL before playing in the NFL. But no one ever accused Newton of not being big enough to play in the NFL; in fact, he was considered too big, or more precisely, too fat. Newton never seemed to be bothered by his weight -- he turned down an offer to play at Arizona State because coach Frank Kush made his players run up and down a mountain; instead, Newton stayed in-state and attended FAMU. There are no mountains near Florida A&M's campus. He wasn't selected in the 1983 NFL draft but signed on with the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, he was cut before ever appearing in a game, and then signed on to play in the USFL. Newton quickly became a fan favorite playing for the Tampa Bay Bandits and finally signed with the Cowboys in 1986. When he came to Dallas, he was even bigger than William Perry, so some started calling him "the Kitchen". At first, Newton was something of a joke or an experiment, and while Newton struggled with weight his whole career, he helped usher in the modern era where being a fat lineman is a good thing. In 1995, he made his fourth straight Pro Bowl, won his third Super Bowl, and was a first-team AP All-Pro for the second straight season. He helped Emmitt Smith break dozens of records, and Newton quickly went from the Kitchen to the prototype, with every NFL team searching for a Newton. Nate's post-playing life was tarnished due to consecutive drug busts; in two months, he was arrested twice for possession of 388 pounds of marijuana, or what some called, a Newton-sized amount of pot.

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Posted in General, History, NFL Draft | 14 Comments »

Part I: The 36 best undrafted players since ’36

8th March 2010

It's officially draft season in the NFL, and much of the next 45 days in NFL circles will focus on the 2010 draft. But over the next couple of days I want to look at some of the best players in football history who never heard their names called on draft day. Ever since February 8th, 1936, when Jay Berwanger was selected with the first overall pick, there have been draft snubs. Ray Nolting may have been the biggest snub of the initial NFL draft, as the former Cincinnati Bearcat went on to make two Pro Bowls in his eight-year career as a two-way halfback.

Who are my best 36 undrafted players since 1936? Ask 20 people, and you'll get twenty different lists. I tried to come up with a good group of players to provide a good cross-section of NFL history and across every position. Today, the first eighteen, in alphabetical order:

Willie Brown: A sixteen year veteran of the AFL/AFC West, Brown was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Brown went to Grambling State, and like many players from HBCUs, Brown found a home in the AFL in 1963. He was signed by the Oilers after the '63 draft, but was cut in training camp. He found a home with the Broncos and later the Raiders. By the time he hung up his cleats, Brown had made 9 Pro Bowls, been named a first-team All-Pro five different times, won an AFL Championship and won a Super Bowl. He was a first-team choice on the All-decade team of the '70s (although was relegated to second-team status in my view) and was perhaps the first cornerback to perfect/invent bump and run coverage. His most memorable moment? A 75-yard interception return for a score in the Raiders win over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.

Deron Cherry - Cherry grew up in New Jersey and headed to Piscataway for college. At Rutgers, Cherry was a star safety and punter. He was named team MVP in '79 and and earned AP All-East honors in '79 and '80. When the 1981 draft took place, Cherry's work at Rutgers was overlooked. The Chiefs brought him into camp as a punter, but he was released in the pre-season. After injuries hit the Kansas City defensive backfield, Cherry was brought back again, but as a free safety. At the time, the position was locked up by Gary Barbaro, who made the Pro Bowl in '80, '81 and '82. Then, Donald Trump thrust Cherry into the starting lineup, so to speak: Trump's New Jersey Generals of the USFL offered Barbaro a huge contract, and he bolted to the rival league. Kansas City inserted Cherry into the starting lineup, and he promptly became the first Scarlet Knight to ever make the Pro Bowl (and remained the lone alumni to earn that distinction Shaun O'Hara, also undrafted, in 2008). Cherry made the Pro Bowl in his first six seasons as a starter, and was a three time AP first-team All-Pro during that stretch. He earned a spot on the second team defense on the All-decade roster of the '80s, one of two undrafted players to make that team.
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Posted in General, History, NFL Draft | 25 Comments »

Championship Rematches

1st March 2010

In case you've been living under a rock this past week, the U.S. Men's Hockey Team was in the Gold-Medal match of the Olympics yesterday against the pre-tournament favorites, the Canadians. USA had beaten Canada in the round-robin stage of the Olympics, and was undefeated going into the championship game, but Canada avenged their earlier loss by defeating the Americans 3-2 in an overtime thriller.

What does this have to do with football, you ask? Well, this was basically the Super Bowl of these Olympics, and before the game I thought about the fact that it was a rematch, which felt like a bad omen for USA -- I mean, doesn't it seem like every Super Bowl in recent memory involving two teams who had played before during the regular-season ended with the team that lost matchup #1 winning the rematch? More to the point, is this recent trend representative of the entire history of football?

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Posted in History | 14 Comments »

Who is the greatest Charger ever?

22nd February 2010

Yesterday, the Chargers released star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, bringing an end to one of the most successful eras in San Diego history. When Tomlinson was drafted by the Chargers they were the worst team in the league. San Diego had gone 1-15 the year before LT arrived and were still feeling the aftershocks from Hurricane Leaf. As Tomlinson fades into the sunset, the San Diego skies are much brighter: his Chargers have won the AFC West each of the past four seasons. And while general managers John Butler and A.J. Smith have done a masterful job remaking the Chargers, much of San Diego's turnaround in the '00s can be traced back to Tomlinson. But does that make him the best Charger ever?

This is one of those questions that Doug's Approximate Value system was designed to help us answer; using AV we can compare the contributions of players across positions and eras. Here are the 20 players who accumulated the most AV in the 50-year history of San Diego Chargers football (disclaimer: 2009 AV, while incorporated below, has not yet been published by P-F-R):
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Posted in Approximate Value, Great Historical Players, History | 50 Comments »

Bench Bart Starr

22nd February 2010

[The article below was written in February 1959, but I never got around to posting it until today.]

Dear Dominic Olejniczak, President of the Green Bay Packers,

I'm writing to you to offer advice on how to turn around your once proud franchise. I believe it begins with a switch at quarterback. Please indulge me for a few minutes, as I explain my reasons to you.

Bart Starr was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on January 9th, 1934. After a terrific high school career, Starr naturally chose to attend the University of Alabama in 1952. As a freshman, he was the backup QB on a Tide team that went 10-2 and beat Syracuse 61-6 in the Orange Bowl. As the starter in 1953, Starr completed about half of his passes and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt. That season Alabama managed to win the SEC despite 7-7 ties with Mississippi State and LSU, and a scoreless tie against Tennessee. The Tide ended the season 6-3-3, culminating with a 28-6 loss to Rice in the Cotton Bowl. Things only got worse from there for Starr. His junior year he suffered a back injury, and was limited to just 41 passes; Alabama went 4-5-2 without him, enough to ensure that a new head coach would be taking over in 1955. In Starr's senior year, Alabama went an unthinkable 0-10, culminating with a 26-0 loss in the Iron Bowl against Auburn; that was the fourth time the Tide were shut out that season. Alabama averaged 4.8 points per game in '55, and never came within 14 points of any opponent. Starr was benched for most of the year, along with nearly all of the other seniors, by new head coach Jennings B. "Ears" Whitworth. For what it's worth, Alabama canned Whitworth after just three seasons, although new head coach Paul Bryant (previously at Texas A&M) didn't do much better last year, either.

With a mediocre college career, it's no surprise that Starr fell to the 200th pick in the 1956 NFL draft. The prior year, the Packers quarterback was Tobin Rote, who had a nondescript performance for the pass-heavy Packers; no team threw more in the mid-'50s than Green Bay. But drafting Starr appeared to provide the motivation Rote needed. He ranked as the #1 QB in the NFL in 1956 in my quarterback ranking system. As a result, Starr's rookie season consisted of just 44 pass attempts.

Despite a great season -- Rote's 18 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing scores tied Sid Luckman's 1943 record for the most combined touchdowns by a QB in NFL history -- the Packers went just 4-8 in 1956. In the off-season, Green Bay traded Rote to the Lions in exchange for three offensive linemen and Don McIlhenny. None of the four players did much for the Packers. As for Rote, in 1957 he threw 4 touchdowns and 280 yards in the 1957 NFL Championship game, making the trade an instant success for the Lions. [Editor's note: since this was originally written, Rote won a championship with the AFL's San Diego Chargers, making him just the second QB (joining Norm Van Brocklin) to win championships for two different teams (Earl Morrall has since joined the club, as well).]

With Rote off winning the league championship in Detroit, how did Starr fare in his second season? Starr posted pretty good numbers for a 23-year-old first-time starter, but his Packers went just 3-8 in Starr's starts. Even worse, in two of Starr's wins as a starter, it was backup Babe Parilli who was the hero, throwing the game-winning touchdowns against Chicago and Baltimore. [Ed: Adjusted for era, if we put Starr's statistics into the 2008 season, he would have completed 189 of 287 passes (66%) for 1,866 yards (6.5 Y/A), with 8 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions.] He had roughly league average numbers, impressive for a first-year starter but disappointing to the fanbase because he led his team to just one victory and the QB they traded to make room for him just won the NFL title.

It would seem that 1958 would be Starr's make or break season. He came to Alabama and largely underwhelmed, with an injury plagued junior year followed by a benching during a mind-bogglingly winless season for the Tide. He was a low draft pick, and barely played as a rookie. While expectations shouldn't have been very high, Starr played reasonably well individually, even if the team struggled, in '57. With two years of learning and one year of experience under his belt, Starr would have no excuses for his third year. In the '58 draft, the Packers selected Jim Taylor, the powerful running back out of LSU, to improve the offense. They drafted a guard that looked good in training camp last season, Jerry Kramer out of Idaho. And they replaced head coach Lisle Blackbourn with Ray McLean, a former star with the Bears as a player in the '40s. If Starr was ever going to become something, 1958 was the year. Fans don't give four years to first round picks, let alone 17th round picks. So how did Starr do?

Absolutely horribly. His body language was terrible, and he showed no signs of being a leader of men. If you like numbers, he was 78 for 157 (49.7%), threw 3 TDs against 12 INTs and averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt. In fact, his yards per attempt average has gone down every year he's been in the league. [Ed: Adjusted for era, Starr went 125 for 209 (60%) for 1,130 yards (5.4 Y/A) with just 2 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.] Lest you forget, Starr went 0-3-1 in the Packers first four games, before being replaced by Babe Parilli. In game five, Parilli threw for 199 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs in a 38-point victory over the Eagles. After a 56-0 bludgeoning by the Colts the next week, the Packers went back to Starr, who promptly lost to the Bears. Starr would finish the season 0-6-1 and as the worst QB in the league in my QB rating system. Of the 15 QBs to throw over 100 passes that season, Starr finished 15th in yards per attempt. The 14th best QB threw nearly a full yard more per attempt than Starr. Among those same QBs, Starr finished dead last in TD/INT ratio; had Starr thrown twice as many TDs as he did, he would have only finished 14th in that metric. As a result, Starr finished far below everyone else in adjusted yards per attempt; the difference between Starr's AY/A metric and the 14th best QB was bigger than the difference between the 9th and 14th best QBs.

Starr underachieved in college and tanked a once great program. He was then a very low draft pick in the NFL. His rookie year, he sat and watched as his team's starting QB tied an NFL record for touchdowns. In his second year he was alright, posting decent numbers for a QB, and good numbers for a young QB, but he won just one game for his team. And in his third year, he was unquestionably the worst quarterback in the NFL, while his team went 0-6-1. We've got an underachieving player without much talent who is clearly regressing. Enough's enough: it's time to bench Bart Starr.

Mr. Olejniczak, I believe you are already moving your team in the right direction. In the 1959 draft,, which started in December of 1958, your Packers selected a QB with the first pick. I think Iowa QB Randy Duncan will revive the franchise. I also like your hire last week of the ex-Giants offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi. But I am concerned because there are rumors swirling around that Duncan may go to Canada, as that's where the money is. Please don't let that happen, and please make sure Mr. Lombardi benches Mr. Starr.

Posted in History | 20 Comments »

Checkdowns: The players boycott the AFL All-Star Game

19th February 2010

At the pro football hall of fame website, they have a story in honor of Black History Month detailing the AFL All-Star game in January of 1965. For those who were interested in the series on the AFL and NFL in the 1960's (particularly where I talked about the influx of talent from historical black colleges in the decade), or just want to learn a little more history about the game, check it out.

The story details how the African-American players who were in the All-Star game were treated in New Orleans, how they decided to handle it, and what the white AFL players did to support them. AFL Commissioner Joe Foss decided to move the game to Houston in response to the events in New Orleans leading up to the game.

Posted in Checkdowns, History | 2 Comments »

Amazing numbers in context

10th February 2010

In this week's Monday Morning Quarterback, Peter King included a discussion of the Hall of Fame selections this weekend, and included a section on Floyd Little. King notes that he did not vote for Little, but at least 36 of the remaining 43 selectors did. Here is the part that caught my attention:

There's no doubt in my mind that the exhaustive work of Denver Post writer Jeff Legwold either got Little in or was a major factor in his election. The way the system works is that each candidate has his case for election presented by a member of the media from where he played. Then there's free-flowing debate about the candidate. Little's speaker was Legwold. Our bylaws prevent me from discussing freely what Legwold said in the meeting, but with permission of Hall of Fame VP Joe Horrigan, I can say that one factor in Legwold's argument was that Legwold personally viewed about 1,200 of 1,641 carries in Little's nine NFL seasons.

Though I can't tell you what Legwold said in his presentation, I can tell you I discussed this with him after the presentation and Legwold said he kept records of each carry and where Little was first contacted by a defender behind a subpar Denver offensive line. Legwold said about 30 percent of the time Little was first hit behind the line. That's an amazing number. "I saw a runner who had to struggle to get to the line of scrimmage often,'' Legwold said afterward. "He had no time to be a patient runner, because he was in a bad offense with no other options.''

It's that amazing number comment that got me. I'm guessing that the committee didn't consider how frequently all running backs are first contacted behind the line of scrimmage, because that number doesn't seem particularly amazing to me. How good is a .350 on base percentage? You have to have some context about what the average is. Is making 50% of field goals from over 50 yards good or bad? Well, we need to know what others have done.

Getting hit behind the line of scrimmage 30% of the time may have wowed the room, but if it did, it's because the voters did not understand and put into context how many runs are failures where the back is first contacted behind the line. I don't have play by play data from Little's era and I also haven't viewed over 1,000 carries of any player from that era. I can try to do a quick estimate of how amazing that number is. Before the 2007 season, Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders wrote an article breaking down the percentage of rushing plays that result in certain gains. He used the 2005, 2006, and 2000 seasons. For those three seasons, 9.1% of all runs lost yardage, 8.8% gained no yards, and 12.1% gained exactly one yard. That adds up to 30.0% of all running plays either losing yards or gaining one yard or less.

Now, that number is not a direct comparison. It just allows us to put the "first contacted behind the line 30% of the time" in some context. First, not all of those rushing plays measured in 2000, 2005 and 2006 were by running backs, though a sizeable majority were. Also, not every one yard gain resulted from first contact occuring behind the line of scrimmage, though a majority of them were. On the other hand, sometimes a running back breaks a tackle or brushes off a player "contacting" him and gains more than a yard. The average carry in the three recent seasons was about 0.1 yard higher than it was during Little's prime. Throw that all together, and my guesstimate is that Little was hit behind the line a little more frequently than the average running back. I would put an estimate of between 25% and 30% for the average running back during Little's time. Certainly, it wasn't something like 10% or 15% for all others.

These numbers were presented in a vacuum to make Little's Hall of Fame case that despite his numbers, he deserved in because he played with such bad teammates. As an aside, this makes me extremely interested to see Little's induction speech. What's he going to do? Get up and thank his offensive linemen--for being perceived as being crappy enough to get him in?

So how bad were his linemen? Well, Doug and Chase have both taken a crack at that topic, and were certainly not looking to make a case for a specific player. In Doug's first pass at looking at the top 100 career rushers, Little ranked 89th in terms of playing with pro bowlers the year they made the pro bowl. He jumped to 31st when looking at how many eventual or past pro bowlers he played with, though his pro bowlers weren't of the Munoz variety. He dropped back to 85th when looking at the total pro bowls for his linemen. Remember, though, that these are below average rankings when compared to other top running backs, not compared to all running backs.

In part two, Doug then used Approximate Value and weighted it by linemen age versus peak. Little came in at #88 on that list. A year later, Chase improved on Doug's information by not only weighting it by the linemen age, but by also weighing it by the running back's actual production peak. Little came in at #85 on Chase's list. So we can say that Floyd Little played with below average linemen relative to other top rushers. Of course, so did Walter Payton, who checks in at #91, or Gale Sayers at #88. I'm guessing that Walter Payton's presenter didn't get up and talk about how bad his linemen were throughout much of his prime. The way Little's case was presented, you would think he played with the worst line of all-time, or even the worst among the top 100. He's about as close to average as he is to the very bottom, where James Wilder really did play with linemen who were a lot less accomplished than Little's. I'm going to start breaking down Wilder's career carries. I suspect he was hit behind the line an amazing number of times, and his 3.8 career rushing average should be a lock for the Hall.

Posted in History, Rant | 56 Comments »

Super Bowl XLIV and Big Game Experience

8th February 2010

Big game experience is way over-rated.

I thought about writing this post on Friday or Saturday, suggesting that part of the point spread line in favor of the Colts had a big game experience factor built into it. Of course, that may be rational, because if teams with big game experience do play better than their underlying numbers would suggest, then we should expect them to play better in big games and favor them more than the numbers suggest. Turns out, though, they don't, at least in the little bit of Super Bowl information that we have. We are limited by a small sample size of 43 Super Bowls to begin with, and then alot of them don't really fit the theme we had with the Saints and the Colts, where one participant had a recent championship while the other had no experience in the Super Bowl.

With such a limited data set anyway, I thought better of posting it, mostly because applying general thoughts (like experience might be a tad over-rated) to one specific game situation often leads to immediate embarrassing results. Then, my colleague Neil Paine, far more brash and full of youthful exuberance, posted what I was thinking all week: Why are the Colts 5-point favorites?

Now, the answer to that is not a simple one. Other factors were certainly at play, all of which may or may not also be over-rated, such as the Colts had not lost a meaningful game while the Saints had, or that the Colts had played more consistently all year while the Saints played worse late and didn't play nearly as well in the Championship game. In listening to all the pre-game chatter that I could stomach and in hearing a sizeable majority of pundits picking the Colts, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that "big game experience" was a big factor for most of said pundits.

So, let's look at other games that might be similar to this Super Bowl on big game experience differential. Here's a list of every Super Bowl since the merger where one team had won a Super Bowl title within the previous four season, and was playing a team that had not appeared in a Super Bowl during that time.

Year Winners Novices Line PF PA ATS RESULT
2009 Colts Saints -5 17 31 L -19
2008 Steelers Cardinals -7 27 23 L -3
2007 Patriots Giants -12.5 14 17 L -15.5
2004 Patriots Eagles -7 24 21 L -4
2003 Patriots Panthers -7 32 29 L -4
2001 Rams Patriots -14 17 20 L -17
1998 Broncos Falcons -7.5 34 19 W 7.5
1997 Packers Broncos -11.5 24 31 L -18.5
1995 Cowboys Steelers -13.5 27 17 L -3.5
1990 Giants Bills 6.5 20 19 W 7.5
1988 49ers Bengals -7 20 16 L -3
1980 Raiders Eagles 3 27 10 W 20
1979 Steelers Rams -11 31 19 W 1

The Colts-Saints matchup is the thirteenth such matchup in the post-merger Super Bowl era. The team with big game winning experience went 9-4, but only 4-9 against the spread (at least that's my best guess, as I had to search for the older lines in archives and went with what I could find--you may tell me you had to lay 12 1/2 on the Steelers back when they were going for the fourth title against the Rams). Two of those examples are less applicable to this year's situation, as the Raiders (1980) and Giants (1990) were exactly four years removed from titles, they were the only two underdogs, and the opponent had as much playoff experience in the two seasons before the Super Bowl matchup. When the team with big game winning experience has been favored, they are now 2-9 against the spread.

The SRS ratings show that the teams with big game winning experience were better on average, as they had a 9.5 average SRS rating compared to 5.4 for the novice opponent. However, the average point spread was 7.2, so the big game experience teams were getting about an additional field goal boost at the point spread over what the simple rating system would suggest. The actual game results show an average margin of 3.1 points in favor of the big game experience teams (and thus roughly 4 points worse than the point spread), so these teams with the supposed big game edge played roughly in line, and slightly worse, than the average SRS expected result, and almost 4 points worse than expected by the public.

I suspect that the Colts' boost was a little larger than that even, considering that the Saints weren't just a team lacking "big game experience", they were a franchise that had exactly 2 playoff victories ever and were "just happy to be there". So when Neil asks why the Colts were a 5-point favorite, I think the answer is that the public and the talking pundits way overvalued the benefit of big game experience, and this matchup was a lot closer than most people believed.

Posted in History | 10 Comments »

Rubin, Rozelle, the Redskins, and Super Bowl Blackouts

5th February 2010

Super Bowl XLIV will be viewed by people from all over the world, by people using a variety of media, and by anyone who wants to take the time to witness it. Once upon a time, though, the Super Bowl couldn’t even be seen in the city that hosted the event. It may seem archaic now, but the NFL refused to televise the game in the city that played host until they were forced to change by outside forces. Thirty-nine years ago, in Miami for Super Bowl V, a battle took place between a lawyer named Ellis Rubin and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle before the Colts and Cowboys ever took the field.

Ellis Rubin started his campaign the previous summer, knowing that the Super Bowl would be coming and that Rozelle would stand his ground. Rubin had already won a victory against local blackouts when he successfully challenged the Orange Bowl (the game, not the stadium) blackout policy. He began drumming up local support against the blackout and sending correspondence to the NFL, but Rozelle wouldn't budge.

Before I go further, though, perhaps we should take a quick and incomplete look further back in history at the origins of the blackout policy. The NFL first broadcasted a game in the late '30s, but television deals were locally handled and inconsistent. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams (along with the Redskins) became the first team to broadcast all of their games on television, including home games. The 1950 Rams were a very good team that had star power in both Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin, and they reached the NFL Championship game before losing to the Browns. Nevertheless, the Rams' attendance figures dropped by 110,000 compared to the home games from the previous season. This result had a strong influence on the owners, and led them to believe that a blackout policy of all home games was an absolute necessity. Bert Bell instituted a league-wide blackout policy, which was challenged in court by the Justice Department. The NFL won a victory in federal court in 1953 affirming the blackout policy, and it was the policy that was still in place when Rubin challenged Rozelle in January of 1971. The NFL would not televise games in the "home market" for a game, even if the game was a sellout.

Pete Rozelle insisted that a local blackout of the Super Bowl was necessary, even though all the tickets had been sold, because any adverse weather could cause ticketholders to stay home and watch the game. He based this in part on Super Bowl I, which was played in Los Angeles and did not sell out. In retrospect, using Los Angeles as an indicator of typical football fan behavior may not have been ideal.

Getting back to Super Bowl V, the initial challenge by Rubin was unsuccessful. That game was blacked out in Miami even though all the tickets were sold (just like they have been for every Super Bowl besides the first one). Miami residents did not get to see the Colts and Cowboys battle in a generally uninspiring contest, just like they had missed the Jets' miracle over the Colts two years earlier. Rubin wasn't done though. A year later, he went to New Orleans to again lead the charge to have the game between his hometown Dolphins and the Cowboys televised locally in Louisiana. Again, Rozelle refused to budge, and again, he failed in court.

A year later, Rubin didn't need to intervene at the Super Bowl again, because a larger force stepped in. By 1972, the Washington Redskins had become a pretty good team under George Allen, having made the playoffs the previous season for the first time in 26 years. They had also become the hot ticket in town, and games were regularly sold out. It was one thing when the common man had to drive more than 75 miles outside of town to see a game that he couldn't get a ticket for. It was something else entirely in Washington, when congressmen and executives and even President Nixon, a devout football man, could not see a game on TV. On Wednesday, December 20, 1972, just prior to the Redskins first home playoff game since the 1942 NFL Championship, Walter Cronkite reported that attorney general Kleindeinst had asked commissioner Rozelle to lift the blackout, and Rozelle had said no. As a result, Kleindeist was going to ask Congress to revisit the NFL's anti-trust exemption.

The Redskins would ultimately reach the Super Bowl by defeating the Packers and Cowboys while congressmen had to listen on the radio. At Super Bowl VII in Los Angeles, Rozelle finally blinked and the NFL decided to lift the blackout of the Super Bowl on an "experimental basis" for the matchup between the Redskins and the undefeated Miami Dolphins. It was too little, too late for the NFL. As we have seen recently on other sports issues, Congress can move quickly on a bipartisan measure with broad public support when it affects sports. Before the 1973 season had kicked off, Congress passed Public Law 93-107, which eliminated the blackout of games in the home market so long as the game was sold out by 72 hours before game time. NFL owners and commissioner Rozelle, eager for Congressional intervention twelve years earlier, predictably predicted Bengals and Bears living together and the end of the world as we know it, after Congress forced a change in their blackout policy.

Fast forward thirty-nine years later, and the NFL's thought process seems almost incomprehensible to the fans from a generation that have grown up with 239 cable channels and easy internet access. Who would have guessed that actually making your product widely available would have led to a dramatic increase in popularity over time? While the NFL has evolved over the years, the story of a Miami lawyer who liked both the limelight and the little man shows us that it's usually not the establishment that changes itself for the better. Sometimes, it requires a push from the rebel with a cause.

Posted in History | 6 Comments »

Terry Bradshaw & Joe Montana – Playoff Mortals to Playoff Gods

28th January 2010

by guest blogger Scott Kacsmar

The only two QBs in NFL history to go 4-0 in the Super Bowl are looked at as two of the best playoff performers of all time.

They won multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. Joe Montana has the record with three, and Terry Bradshaw won two in his final two appearances.
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Posted in History, Player articles | 39 Comments »

Quarterbacks and fourth quarter comebacks, Part III

15th January 2010

By Scott Kacsmar (posted by Sean Forman)

Last time I wrote out my methodology in gruesome detail for tabulating comebacks and game-winning drives. What's changed since then? Now that data can be found on every QB's page at Pro-Football-Reference in it's own table.

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Posted in General, History, Site Features, Statgeekery, Trivia | 20 Comments »

AFL versus NFL: the power ratings

22nd December 2009

I could have handled the conclusions one of two ways. The first would have been to present all my conclusions and then have a chart of all the AFL and NFL teams from the decade with their ratings. The second way is to present the results first, and then follow up with how I got there. I opted for the second way, as I didn't want the results and actual team ratings to be a footnote at the end of the series. These ratings, after all, were the reason I started on this path in the first place. I wanted to see how an NFL team compared in 1964 to an AFL team, how the champions of each league compared, and so forth.

I don't claim that these numbers are completely accurate or infallible. There is simply year to year variation across leagues and teams that we can't measure accurately. How do the 2007 Colts compare to the 2009 Colts? We don't know, because they didn't play in the exact same situation, and that's with a lot more direct information to draw upon than what we have when comparing the AFL and NFL. We do have numbers upon which we can make reasonable estimates though. Similarly, these numbers represent my best available guess of how teams compared during the decade of the 1960's. If you've been following along and read the entire series up until now, you probably have some idea how I got there, but I'll explain in the final post how I settled on the best guesses that I did.
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Posted in AFL versus NFL | 5 Comments »

AFL versus NFL: post merger results

15th December 2009

This is the final piece of evidence before we get to the conclusions and overall team power rankings for the decade. Let's get right to it. Here are the point differentials and the win/loss records (from the perspective of the former NFL teams) for all regular season matchups involving an AFL team and a former NFL team from 1970-1974.

1970 21.5 15.6 5.9 39 19 2 0.667
1971 22.2 17.4 4.8 35 19 2 0.643
1972 21.1 17.6 3.5 33 26 1 0.558
1973 20.2 19.4 0.8 27 27 4 0.500
1974 18.8 21.4 -2.6 21 36 1 0.371

These results include matchups involving Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore against the AFC opponents. The AFL was not good relative to the NFL in 1970, the first season after the leagues merged. The next set of numbers are weighted by team quality. For example, Houston and Cincinnati played more games against former NFL teams than did Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego and Denver after the merger. Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh played more games against the AFL (by virtue of joining the AFC) than other NFL members. As Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego were three of the four best AFL teams in the late 1960's, and two teams that had been frequent playoff participants in the NFL were now joining the AFC, this might bias the results slightly in the NFL's favor.

Even considering this, though, the NFL dominated in 1970, and in fact, that year shows as more of an outlier than the raw numbers would indicate. This is because Baltimore and Cleveland show up as worse based on regular season SRS in 1970 (though Baltimore won the Super Bowl), and then they bounced back and Pittsburgh improved steadily over the next five years. Here are the schedule adjusted differentials between the teams from the two leagues during the first five years post-merger. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in AFL versus NFL | 5 Comments »

AFL versus NFL: the Super Bowls, part two

9th December 2009

Earlier in the series, I looked at how much we should take from the four Super Bowls, by looking at historical championship games, and how much the game results deviated from the team regular season ratings. I didn't want to actually discuss the specifics of the game until I had gone in depth on the other evidence. Now, it's time to turn back to those four Super Bowls, and the teams involved. I'll tell you right now that you can find a lot of resources that go very in depth on each of these games and teams, moreso than I have the knowledge or time to do here. I have no personal knowledge of these games, have only seen the highlights, and am going strictly off what I see from reconstructing the play by plays using our Super Bowl play finder.

It does, however, give me an excuse to give a sneak peak at the ratings I have for the AFL and NFL teams of the 1960's. You may have noticed that we added the Simple Rating System ratings to the team pages and standings going back to 1960. My ratings are going to differ slightly from those you see on those pages. My rating tweaks the simple rating system, similar to what Chase is doing with the college rankings. The primary changes between my ratings and what you see on the team pages are: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in AFL versus NFL | 19 Comments »

NFL teams underrated through ten weeks

23rd November 2009

5341885  Marshall FaulkI don't advocate gambling on football games, and neither does the P-F-R blog. Point-spread data are very useful as historical guides to understanding the perception at any point in time and to measure how the public may improperly value certain teams. The past is never a perfect prediction of the future, and the results of this post are intended for educational purposes, only.

About a year ago I wrote a preliminary post on how to grade the best defenses in NFL history. I focused on four categories to rank defenses, as I didn't think there was one best stat to use. Today I'm going to use four "basic" categories to grade each team; rushing yards per carry, net yards per pass attempt, rushing yards per carry allowed, and net yards per pass attempt allowed.

I'm ignoring things like touchdowns, fumbles and interceptions. Why? Interception rates are essentially random, and fumble recovery rates are too. Touchdowns are slightly more predictable, but they don't correlate with future success as well as yards do. Therefore, instead of assigning some arbitrary value to touchdowns scored, I chose to leave them out. I could probably improve the formula by assigning a small weight for touchdowns (and maybe an even smaller weight to turnovers), but I'm trying to use some "basic" stats. On the other hand, I'm leaving in sack and sack yardage data, based on the work done by Jason to show that such numbers are predictable.
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Posted in History, Statgeekery | 7 Comments »