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Archive for May, 2008

Approximate Value and the 1997 top draft trades

Posted by Chase Stuart on May 30, 2008

In 1997, the Jets traded the 1st pick in the draft. But to look at why the Jets did that, you have to go back one year earlier.

In 1996, New York had spent about as much money as any team had ever spent in one NFL off-season. They signed a star quarterback fresh off a Super Bowl season. They gave him two studs to throw the ball to: one, a 26 year old who had just recorded 1300 receiving yards the season before, and the other, the first pick in the 1996 draft. The passing attack would be augmented by two bookend tackles, one a former Pro Bowler and the other a former first round pick, and a guard who had started 16 games each of the past six seasons. This offense was going to be explosive, and this team was going to win now. And after spending countless millions of dollars, the Jets won one game in 1996.

After Peyton Manning turned down the chance to go to NY, the top prize in the '97 draft was Orlando Pace. Considering the Jets holes everywhere, and salary cap problems, breaking the bank for Pace wasn't an option. Usually, the first pick goes for a high premium, but everyone knew the Jets had to sell for pennies on the dollar. Gerald Eskenazi, a well versed Jets historian, wrote this piece in the New York Times in 1998:

11 Comments | Posted in Approximate Value, General

Another round of AV tweaks

Posted by Doug on May 28, 2008

Just when Chase was starting to do some really good stuff with the approximate values I gave him a few weeks ago, I've gone and changed the formula. I doubt that it'll significantly effect any of Chase's results from the previous two posts, but I made a couple of changes that improve the AV formula.

1. In the original formula, the ratio of skill-position AV to offensive line AV was constant from team to team. I discussed this in the very first post about AV. I've now modified that assumption so that teams with more (less) decorated offensive lines, compared to skill position players, will have a higher (lower) percentage of their total AV allotted to the line. To be more specific, an average team has 43.6% of its offensive AV points devoted to linemen. Prior to this change, every team had 43.6% of its offensive AV devoted to linemen. But now, for example, the 1975 Dolphins, who had three pro bowl linemen including two first-team all-pros, and no pro bowl skill position players, will have about 50% of their offensive AV devoted to linemen. Meanwhile, a team like the 1980 Chargers (three first-team all-pros, plus another pro bowler at the skill positions, no pro bowl linemen) will have about 38% of their AV devoted to linemen. These are two of the most extreme examples; the vast majority of teams are very close to the original 43.6%.

Essentially what I'm saying here is that I'm going to trust the writers of the day to tell me whether a given team's offensive success was more due to the line or the skill guys. I'm slightly uneasy with this because I don't completely trust the writers to select pro bowl offensive linemen on their merits, but in the end I'm more comfortable doing it than not doing it.

Likewise, I've made a similar adjustment with respect to dividing the defensive points between front 7 players and defensive backs.

2. I've instituted a minimum AV for first-team all-pros, second-team all-pros, and pro bowlers. We may as well call this the Jonathan Ogden rule, because he's the guy who demonstrated the need for it. The AV formula, because it starts with team success, hates Jon Ogden. Ogden is essentially the opposite of Derrick Brooks, who ranks surprisingly high in AV largely on the basis of being the lone constant on one of the best 12-year team defensive runs of all time. According to my metric of choice --- points per possession --- Ogden has played on a below average offensive team for 11 of his 12 seasons, some of them way below average. As a result, there just haven't been many points to divvy up among the Raven offensive players. So when I run through the formula, Ogden gets a lot of points relative to other Ravens, but still not as many points as he probably should. The AV methodology essentially implies that a terrible offense can't have any great players, and that's not true.

So my inelegant fix is to simply declare that first-team all-pros at tackle and at any defensive position get a minimum of 13 AV no matter what (a typical first-team all-pro gets about 16). Second-team all-pros get a minimum of 11 AV, and pro bowlers get a minimum of 9 AV. At guard, center, and tight end, first-teamers get a minimum of 11, second-teamers 9, and pro bowlers 7. This adjustment really amounts to almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it just seems right.

The two adjustments together move Ogden from 153rd on the last AV list I posted to 68th. Willie Roaf, who benefits primarily from the first adjustment, moves from 59th to 41st. You may also note that Marino had a tiny lead on Favre in the last list, and Favre has a tiny lead on Marino in this list. That's because of the first adjustment: Marino played with more decorated linemen than Favre did. Similarly, Walter Payton closes the gap on Faulk and Emmitt Smith.

Here is the current top 200 list:

18 Comments | Posted in Approximate Value, General

The Patriots: J.A.D.

Posted by Doug on May 27, 2008

Until now, I had been quite proud of the fact that this blog was one of the very few --- possibly the only --- Spygate-discussion-free football website in existence. Unless I've forgotten about something, not one word about the topic has been written here. And this really isn't a Spygate post either. It's more of a meta-Spygate post. But in order to set it up, I have to say just a few words about Spygate itself.

I think the Patriots knowingly broke rules with the intent of gaining a competitive advantage. I think the competitive advantage they gained was probably somewhere between negligible and very small, somewhere on the order of one or two expected wins during the course of the Belichick era. I think it's possible that other teams are as guilty as, or even more guilty than, the Patriots, but that New England is probably in the top five or top ten cheatingest teams of the last decade. I have very little basis for any of these beliefs.

But as I said, this post isn't about Spygate. It's about the reaction to Spygate. It's about what morality means in team sports. It's about double standards. It's about win-at-all-costs being an admirable motto and a disgraceful one, depending on how the costs are counted.

Matt Walsh had nothing. But his eight tapes' worth of nothing ignited another round of columns about how evil the Patriots were. Walsh's and Ross Tucker's allegations that the Patriots misused the injured reserve list to their advantage would have been No Big Deal had it been any other team. But it was (is?) a Big Deal because it was the Patriots. Why? The easy answer is jealousy, and that's part of it.

But far more important is the way the Patriots have portrayed themselves, and have been portrayed by their supporters, since February of 2002: as not just a great team, but a team that was great because of its morality.

In team sports, the ultimate Moral Good is devotion to the team above self. Just behind that is the will to win, and for some reason intelligence is considered a moral virtue as well. These were the cornerstones of the Patriots' schtick. The Pats didn't win because they have more talent; they won because they play better as a team. They didn't win because they had better athletes, they won because they were smarter and harder-working and more willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the team. They wanted it more.

When a team goes out of its way to break from the norm and introduce itself as a team --- and when its fans fall all over themselves praising this choice --- there is a clear implication of moral superiority. The Rams could have won that Super Bowl if they had had the courage to put the good of the team above their own personal glory. The Patriots didn't just win. They won The Right Way. They won only because they did things The Right Way. And that's what Pats' fans have been emphasizing for the last five years.

And I don't blame them for emphasizing that. Winning The Right Way is something to be proud of. It is better than just winning. But the problem is: if you want credit for winning The Right Way, you have to, you know, actually win the right way.

That's why "they didn't really gain a competitive advantage" and "other teams have admitted to similar violations" fall on deaf ears that surround an angry face. If you've been lecturing me for five years on how you win because of your ability to do the little things right, I don't want to hear that this was just a little cheating. If the secret of your success is having the strength of character to do what other teams aren't willing to do, I'm going to react badly when you tell me that sure, you cheated, but no more than anyone else probably. And I'm not going to find it too much of a stretch to believe that maybe the other secret to your success is that you had the weakness of character to do what other teams weren't willing to do.

The Patriots are taking more heat about this than other teams would for the same reason that a televangelist takes more heat than a rock star when he turns out to be a drug-using adulterer.

Has the Patriots' dynasty been tarnished? Yes and no.

No. Their on-field accomplishments stand, as far as I'm concerned. It probably was a very small competitive advantage (if any) and other teams probably were cheating at nearly a similar level. The New England Patriots are the legitimate dynasty of this decade. But eight months ago, they were more than that. They were some sort of transcendent super-dynasty. That hasn't merely been tarnished. It has disintegrated.

The Patriots: Just Another Dynasty.

12 Comments | Posted in Rant

Grading Ten Years of NFL Drafts: From 1996-2005

Posted by Chase Stuart on May 26, 2008

Which NFL teams have done the best job drafting in recent history? It's way too early to grade any of the last three drafts, but we can start looking at drafts from 2005 and go back about ten years. That should give us a good look at which teams have "overperformed" and which teams have "underperformed" relative to their draft positions in recent years. We can also see which picks were the biggest "steals" and which were the biggest "busts" over that time.

Let's get one thing out of the way. Any list that doesn't have Tom Brady as the biggest steal and Ryan Leaf as the biggest bust is just wrong. We all know that. Fortunately, my system -- which combines Doug's Approximate Value System for grading NFL players and my NFL draft value system which assigns appropriate value to each draft pick -- does just that.

Before I get to the nuts and bolts of how I graded a player, let's skip to what everyone wants to see first -- the best 35 draft picks from 1996-2005. The middle column shows what pick the player was selected with, and the third column shows that player's value (explained in a bit).

11 Comments | Posted in Approximate Value, General

The Draft Value Chart: Right or Wrong?

Posted by Chase Stuart on May 21, 2008

I'm sure most of the PFR readers have seen the NFL draft value chart, sometimes referred to as the Jimmy Johnson draft chart. Lots of people have discussed whether it's accurate, and whether it's still valuable in an era of escalating salaries. I'll sidestep the salaries issue today, and just focus on the actual draft value chart.

For one, how would we know whether or not it's accurate? I suppose there are a few ways of analyzing that, but you need to assign some basic value to each draft pick. We know that Pick N is always better than Pick N+5, but how big is that difference if N = 5, or N = 25, or N = 100?

I looked at every draft from 1970 to 1999, giving me thirty years of drafts. I then assigned the approximate career value of each player to his rookie draft slot. So for the number one pick, we've got 133 points of value from Peyton Manning, 77 points of value from Keyshawn Johnson, 32 points of value from Kenneth Sims, and the value from all the other number one picks from 1970 to 1999. If you do this for the first 224 picks in every draft, and you can then get an average value for each draft pick.

There are some bumps in the data, of course. The seventh pick in the draft has an average value of 39, and the eighth pick an average value of 51, over the thirty years. The 7th pick has a lot of busts (Reggie Rogers, Brian Jozwiak, Joe Profit and Andre Ware) and not that many stars (Phil Simms, Champ Bailey and Bryant Young are the best players). The 8th pick has Ronnie Lott, Willie Roaf, Leslie O'Neal, Otis Anderson and Mike Munchak, and fewer busts.

Since the approximate values of the players that correspond to the draft picks fall off exponentially, I used a logarithmic formula to best fit the data. The formula to predict any NFL draft pick's approximate value in the NFL is:

    Approximate Value = -12.583 * Ln(draft pick) + 73.195

You end up with a list that looks like this:

8 Comments | Posted in Approximate Value, NFL Draft, Statgeekery

History of the NFL’s structure and formats, part two

Posted by Jason Lisk on May 19, 2008

This post is a continuation of History of the NFL's Structure and Formats part one, which covered professional football from 1920 to 1959.

The American Football League and America's Team: 1960-1965

1960 was a watershed year for professional football. A group of wealthy businessmen, including Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams and Ralph Wilson, formed a rival league to challenge the NFL. The American Football League (AFL) began play in 1960 with eight franchises, all of whom are still in existence today. Prior to 1960, the NFL was primarily centered in the Northeast and in the Great Lakes region, with only the Los Angeles Rams and San Fransisco 49ers located outside this geographic area. The AFL took advantage of the U.S. population growth westward and southward following World War II by establishing primarily in markets where the NFL had no prior presence, five of which were west of the Mississippi River.

The AFL placed competing franchises in the two largest cities, with the New York Titans and the Los Angeles Chargers. The Boston Patriots filled a void in the only major Northeast market that did not have an NFL franchise, as Boston had been without a team since the Boston Yanks of the NFL folded after the 1948 season. The Buffalo Bills were the remaining East Coast entrant, adopting the same name as a previous AAFC franchise in Buffalo. The league added two teams in Texas, the Dallas Texans and the Houston Oilers. The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders were the other original members.

The AFL designated Boston, New York, Buffalo and Houston to compete in the Eastern Division, and Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland to compete in the West. Though the league was divided in two divisions, all eight members played each other on a home and away basis, for a 14-game regular season schedule. The winners of the Eastern and Western Divisions met in a championship game.

21 Comments | Posted in History

AV top 200 redux

Posted by Doug on May 13, 2008

I shouldn't post this one either, but...

In response to some convincing opinions offered in the comments to the previous post, I have made lots of (mostly very small) tweaks to the system. Offensive linemen have had their values slightly increased, the importance of the running game (relative to the passing game) has been increased just a smidge. The value of making a pro bowl or an all-pro team has been increased for cornerbacks (relative to safeties) and decreased for linebackers (relative to defensive linemen).

Here is take two:

46 Comments | Posted in General

I shouldn’t post this: Approximate value top 200

Posted by Doug on May 11, 2008

So I finally wrote down all the details of the approximate value (AV) method. You can find them at this ever-evolving page.

Sometimes, for example if you want to assess a trade or determine the top draft classes of all time, you need a metric that is capable of comparing players across positions and eras. In baseball and basketball, lots of stats have been cooked up to do this, and they can do so with a reasonable degree of precision. In football, no such stat exists. In most cases, people use "starter" or "number of years as a starter" or "number of pro bowls" as the metric when they have to compare across positions.

AV is intended to be an improvement over those metrics, and nothing more. It is not Not NOT an ubermetric whose purpose is to decide once and for all who the best players in NFL history were. So I should not Not NOT rank all the players in post-merger NFL history according to AV and present them in a list. To do so would be to imply that I've done something I haven't done. To do so would be to invite links from team message boards where the first post is "some guy posted his list of the best players of all time" and the second post is "I stopped reading as soon as I saw _______ ranked ahead of _________. What a bozo!" And I have to admit that I'm overly thin-skinned about that sort of thing.

But I'm going to do it anyway, for a couple of reasons. First, it's May. I don't think that one requires any more explanation. Second, I'd like feedback on groups of players that people think are over- or under-valued (by the way, allow me to agree in advance that mediocre quarterbacks with long careers are overvalued and that truly great cornerbacks are undervalued --- I'm just not sure right now how to fix those problems). This post will probably lead to some improvements in the system. Third, I've learned a lot from tracing down the reasons why some guy I've barely heard of is rated so high. You can too. Follow the links. Even if you ultimately don't agree with the ranking, you might learn that some players were better than you remember them, and others weren't as good.

20 Comments | Posted in Approximate Value, General

Al Davis likes shiny things

Posted by Doug on May 8, 2008

My friends Sigmund Bloom and Cecil Lammey from the world's best football podcast are fond of saying that Al Davis likes shiny things. I don't know if it's original to them, but it's catchy.

I don't know why this thought popped into my head, but last night I wondered what team had the most former first-round picks on its roster. So I ran the query, and it provided more evidence of this post's title.

There have been three teams in NFL history with 18 former first-round picks on the roster at some point. Two of those three are Raider teams: 1997 and 2003. Both were 4-12. They're separated by only six years but have almost no overlap. In fact, 39 different former first-round picks played for Oakland in the seven-year span from 1997 to 2003. The average NFL team suited up about 22 different first-round picks during that span.

3 Comments | Posted in General

History of the NFL’s structure and formats, part one

Posted by Jason Lisk on May 5, 2008

This post will trace the history of the NFL's structure, in terms of league size, expansion (particularly as it applies to the currently existing franchises), length of schedule and format, and playoff structure. I am not going to focus on the champions or specific on field results each and every year, though I may discuss a few. If you want to see any particular season, you can go here.

Part one will discuss the league up through the 1959 season. Part two will pick up in 1960, the year that the American Football League started. I would encourage comments from anyone if you think I have omitted something important, or have any personal knowledge or historical info. I am recreating this almost entirely from reviewing the yearly standings, franchise indexes, and specific yearly team pages here at pro-football-reference. Some of the historical references to World War II, as well as date checking were confirmed using this site for the Pacific and European Theatres.

11 Comments | Posted in History