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Archive for February, 2010

Breaking down average passer rating performances

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 26, 2010

I took all quarterbacks who had a roughly average passer rating performance on at least 20 attempts (game rating of 75.0 to 85.0) in the last decade (2000-2009 seasons) and broke them down by the four categories used in the passer rating formula--completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. By focusing on roughly average performances overall as judged by the passer rating formula, we should be able to see how an extreme performance in one of the categories compares to another in points scored and team won-loss record. 645 quarterback games met the criteria and were included in the study.

Here are the correlations between the various categories and both total points scored and team win-loss record:

Completion Percentage and Points Scored: -0.08
Completion Percentage and Winning Percentage: -0.04

Yards Per Attempt and Points Scored: +0.21
Yards Per Attempt and Winning Percentage: +0.05

Touchdown Percentage and Points Scored: +0.32
Touchdown Percentage and Winning Percentage: +0.06

Interception Percentage and Points Scored: +0.27
Interception Percentage and Winning Percentage: +0.03

Total Number of Pass Attempts and Points Scored: -0.02
Total Number of Pass Attempts and Winning Percentage: -0.28

Let's put those into sentence form. Among quarterbacks judged to be roughly equal by passer rating . . .

Those with a better completion percentage score fewer points and win slightly less than those with a lower completion percentage.
Those with a better yards per attempt score more points and win slightly more than those with a lower yards per attempt.
Those with a better touchdown percentage score more points and win slightly more than those with a lower touchdown percentage.
Those with a better interception percentage score fewer points and win slightly more than those with a lower interception percentage.
Those with more total pass attempts score about the same number of points and win less than those with fewer pass attempts.

I added the total pass attempts thing to show one of the quirks of using the passer rating in individual game situations. I don't think we can fault a passer who has to throw alot because his team is trailing, and the chances of going through a game without an interception or completing a high percentage decrease as the sample size increases. I think we would all agree that throwing 50 passes without an interception is more difficult than throwing 20, yet both passers get the same sub-score for interception rate. The passers who avoided interceptions and got a perfect score by not throwing as much (25 passes or less) won 69% of the time in this group. In contrast, no passer among this group who threw 45 attempts or more without an interception, the more difficult feat, actually won the game (0-16-1).

A further breakdown of each category may be even more illuminating. Here are the points scored and winning percentage breakdowns by completion percentage:

comp% no. pts win pct
under 50 48 22.0 0.563
50-54.9 118 20.9 0.462
55-59.9 166 19.8 0.464
60-64.9 190 19.1 0.447
65-69.9 83 20.3 0.506
70 or higher 40 19.4 0.450

Here we see that passers who are heavily dinged for completing a low percentage of passes score more points and win a higher percentage of games than other passers judged similar by passer rating. A quarterback completed less than 40% of passes only three times in this group of 645, and that quarterback's team won all three and they all scored at least 20 points. Each featured a yards per completion over 17.

Here is a breakdown by interception rates for this group:

int% no. pts/g win pct
0 224 17.6 0.471
0.1 to 2.5 58 19.8 0.293
2.6 to 5.0 281 20.7 0.505
5.1 to 7.5 64 24.2 0.469
7.5 and up 18 24.3 0.500

Here is the breakdown by Yards per Attempt:

YPA no. pts win pct
under 5 45 16.7 0.400
5 to 5.9 131 18.1 0.466
6 to 6.9 216 19.9 0.442
7 to 7.9 177 21.5 0.520
8 to 8.9 76 22.0 0.487

And lastly, here is the breakdown by touchdown percentage:

td% no. pts win pct
0 119 17.2 0.521
0.1 to 2.4 66 16.8 0.265
2.5 to 5.0 315 19.7 0.460
5.1 to 7.5 108 24.3 0.528
7.6 or up 37 24.5 0.595

26 Comments | Posted in General, Statgeekery

P-F-R teams up with Move the Sticks

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 25, 2010

Daniel Jeremiah is a former Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns scout who provides insight into the mind of scouting community for the casual fan. He started appearing on a weekly segment this past season on the Footballguys podcast The Audible. I've enjoyed listening to him there and started following him on twitter (@movethesticks; remember, you can also follow P-F-R @pfref).

Daniel started his own podcast a couple of weeks ago, breaking down the sorts of things scouts look for when analyzing draft prospects. We exchanged e-mails and P-F-R will be providing Move the Sticks with historical analysis and statistics related to the NFL draft over the next couple of months. Here's a link to today's draft study on defensive players; I'll have a similar one for offensive players coming up in the next couple of days. P-F-R will, of course, be providing some draft analysis on our blog as well, but we're not scouts or mock draft experts. I'd recommend checking out movethesticks.com and draftguys.com if you want some in-depth analysis on nearly all of the prospects for the 2010 draft.

7 Comments | Posted in Announcements

Introducing College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com

Posted by Justin Kubatko on February 25, 2010

I am pleased to announce the launch of College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com, the latest addition to the Sports Reference family of web sites. We have had plans to launch a college basketball site for quite some time, but for one reason or another we always ran into roadblocks, most of them data-related. However, thanks to the efforts of researcher extraordinaire Kevin Johnson, we now have a college basketball database that we believe to be second-to-none. Let me tell you a little bit about what the site does (and doesn't) have:

3 Comments | Posted in Announcements, College, Non-football, Word from our Sponsors

Who is the greatest Charger ever?

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 22, 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):

50 Comments | Posted in Approximate Value, Great Historical Players, History

Bench Bart Starr

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 22, 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.

20 Comments | Posted in History

Checkdowns: The players boycott the AFL All-Star Game

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 19, 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.

2 Comments | Posted in Checkdowns, History

Support Pro-Football-Reference.com, Sponsor a Page

Posted by Neil Paine on February 18, 2010

Sponsoring a page is fun, fast, and easy way to support what we're doing here at Pro-Football-Reference. With a sponsorship, you can:

  • Show your support for your favorite player or team.
  • Drum up traffic for your own site & draw in fans with a common interest.
  • Get some well-deserved recognition for your support of PFR.
  • Make your voice heard by the tens of thousands of people who visit Pro-Football-Reference every day.

Here's all you have to do to get involved:

  1. Create a membership account.
  2. Find the page(s) you'd like to support, and click "sponsor" (available pages).
  3. If the page you want is already sponsored, click "Alert Me!" to be informed when the current sponsorship expires.
  4. Follow the instructions to create your message and make your payment.
  5. Your message and links will be visible on the page after we approve them (usually in less than 24 hours).

And who knows, if you're clever enough, your message might end up on lists like these.

Comments Off | Posted in General

Server Switch – Friday & Saturday

Posted by Neil Paine on February 17, 2010

Just a note that on Friday (probably starting around 9am ET), we'll be switching to a new, more powerful server that should increase site performance and reliability. We don't anticipate any downtime, but if you do encounter any issues with the site, we apologize, and we wanted you to know the reason for any irregularities. As always, send us an e-mail if you have any questions or comments, and hopefully everything will go smoothly this weekend.

2 Comments | Posted in Announcements

Checkdowns: FO Adds 1993 Stats

Posted by Neil Paine on February 17, 2010

Over at Football Outsiders, Aaron Schatz and Co. have finished putting the play-by-play from 1993 into their database, and today they share the results. Dallas was on the back end of their consecutive titles, but you may be surprised at who the best regular-season team was... Plus, a QB whose stats were rarely in sync with his reputation is the best passer in football, Emmitt and The Bus tie for rushing supremacy, The Playmaker makes more plays than The GOAT, and the Oilers finish the season on a roll (for all the good it did them).

3 Comments | Posted in Checkdowns, Statgeekery

HOF 2011: Senior Nominees, preliminary options

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 17, 2010

One of the most successful things we've done at the P-F-R blog has been the series chronicling the 2010 Hall of Fame selection process. The series was so successful because of the significant amount of quality contributions from our commenters. We appreciate and recognize how lucky we are to have so many knowledge, every-day readers, and we tried to show our appreciation by inviting some of the commenters to a roundtable discussion the week before the 2010 HOF Class was announced. As it turned out, the comments to that post were again terrific, and spawned a new idea.

Along with me and Jason, many of our readers were disappointed with the senior candidates selected by the Hall of Fame Committee. The rules surrounding the seniors committee choices are simple: any player or coach who has been retired for at least 25 seasons is eligible for induction via the seniors route. While Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little are now Hall of Famers, many of us felt that there were more deserving players who retired decades ago and still have yet to be enshrined.

Tom Martens pointed out that perhaps we could come up with suggest candidates for the seniors comittee for the Hall of Fame Class of 2011. Patrick W agreed with Tom, before Jason threw cold water on everyone. Since I fully agree with Jason's comment, I'm reprinting it below:

125 Comments | Posted in Announcements, HOF

Check Out Olympics at Sports-Reference.com!

Posted by Neil Paine on February 16, 2010

With the Winter Olympics in full swing, have you taken a look at Olympics at Sports-Reference.com? If not, here are some features you'll find there:

...And more!

Comments Off | Posted in Announcements

Joe Namath is a legitimate Hall of Fame Quarterback

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 12, 2010

If you haven't been keeping up with the comments to the previous post about amazing stats and context, well, shame on you, because there has been a lot of interesting discussion about a lot of things. One of the things that came up was a discussion of player talent with some references to Joe Namath. I'm going to just quote some comments from BSK, responding to JWL:

Are you we thinking of the same Joe Namath? He of the 173/220 TD/INT ratio? Of the 62-63-4 record as a starter? Of the career completion percentage of 50.1%? Of the career 65.5 passer rating? And while perhaps Namath would have had a better career despite his injury, the fact is the injury happened, his career numbers were pretty poor, and by no legitimate statistical measure can you say he was a legit HoF. Take away the story of Super Bowl III and his personality and it wouldn't even be up for discussion. And that is the problem with the HoF.

And later . . .

Now, what happened on the field obviously went better for Namath than (Bo) Jackson, but neither really did anything particularly exceptional when it's all said and done with. My point was that there are supremely talented players who, for one reason or another, don't live up to that talent (or the perception of their talent). Unfortunately, we cannot give them credit for what they did not actually accomplish. Namath gets no bonus points for what might have been had he not hurt his leg before he even got to the NFL, just like Jackson gets no bonus points for what might have been. To say that Namath was a top 5 QB and then say that my statistical demonstration of exactly why he wasn't is off the mark is laughable at best.

If you read the title of this post, you might correctly guess that I am going to try to show that by legitimate statistical measures, Namath was a legitimate Hall of Famer. While I am quoting BSK here, because he just happens to be the one making comments in a post this week, I don't think he is exactly in the minority. I see lots of comments about Joe Namath not being a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, or talking about how bad his numbers were. Joe Posnanski wrote about Namath and his "shockingly bad" numbers on his blog two years ago.

I guess I should first point out that Chase Stuart wrote a series of posts on the Greatest Quarterbacks of All-Time last summer, and in the most recent version, Namath ranked #24 all-time. Now, Chase is a Jets fan, so perhaps you think that Chase, just because he sponsors Namath's player page at PFR, was cooking the books to make Namath look better. Actually, we had a lot of discussion behind the scenes about that series. Chase was contemplating including a completion percentage calculation as part of the updated formula, and I am actually the one who deterred him by showing him some numbers about teams with similar YPA's and different completion percentages, and the resulting win/loss and points scored. I should probably do a separate post on that this off-season, so I'll just say that for now, it didn't appear that including completion percentage would actually better measure value. Namath, as we know, had a relatively low completion percentage, so including that would have lowered him in the rankings.

So, we see that in what I would hope would pass as a legitimate statistical measure, Joe Namath ranks as a valid Hall of Famer, even without "the guarantee" and the New York media. So let's break down that a little further and discuss why some think he is not, and why I think he is.

1. When we cite things like quarterback rating, completion percentage, and interception ratio, we are going to find that they do not favor Namath. Of course, quarterback rating is over-reliant on completion percentage, and interception percentage also plays a big factor, so mentioning those things and also citing qb rating is redundant.

2. As we know, qb rating does not include sack percentage, though I argued a few months ago that it should. This also disfavors Namath when we cite qb rating, because he had a quick release, which is statistically confirmed by his extremely low sack percentage relative to his era.

3. I talked about quarterback personality types this summer and one of the traits I used was the Gambler trait. If you threw more interceptions and more incompletions because you were avoiding sacks, you were a Gambler in my book, and Namath was an extreme Gambler. Of course, this isn't necessarily bad for your point production and value, even though it is bad for your blessed qb rating. I actually wrote a modest proposal for a Kansas City area sports blog entitled Matt Cassel needs to throw MORE interceptions, where I discuss some of these things. Holding the ball and taking sacks can be as costly or more costly than throwing some interceptions by throwing the ball before you are ready. In Namath's case, we are underselling how good he was when we don't also cite his sack data. His effective completion percentage (completions divided by total passes plus sacks) ranks him much better, and in my opinion, more accurately provides a full picture of a quarterback's contribution.

4. Completion percentage is vastly over-rated. Again, I will probably have a separate post sometime this off-season. I also looked at quarterbacks with similar passer ratings, but different sub-ratings in the four categories, and you will probably be interested in the results as they relate to how frequently, say, a qb with a 90 rating that is dropped down by a bad completion percentage wins and scores, compared to one that is propped up by a good one.

5. Most people agree that yards per attempt is a better indicator of passing value, and Namath exceeded 8.0 yards per attempt in 1967 and 1968, and was at 7.0 or higher every year between ages 23 and 32. Using our advanced passing table which adjusts to league average, he was above average in that category in every one of those seasons. He was insanely above average in 1972 (over two standard deviations above the league average).

6. When we look at adjusted net yards per attempt, which does include his sack rate and his interception rate (but does not include completion percentage), we see a well above average quarterback for most of his career. We don't have reliable sack data for individual quarterbacks before 1969, but extrapolating his career sack rate after 1969 (combined with his completion percentage and interception rate) we can make a pretty good guess that he was also good at avoiding sacks before 1969. From 1969 forward, which would be after he won the Super Bowl and most think he stopped being a good quarterback, he was over a standard deviation better than the league in 1969, 1971 and 1972. He was above average in 1973 and 1974 as well. The only year he was average was in 1970, when he played in only 5 games. So, using adjusted net yards per attempt, rather than quarterback rating, we see that he was a well above average quarterback from ages 24 to 31.

7. His numbers need to be put in context of his era, which we can do with things like our Advanced Passing Table, as interception rates and sack rates and completion percentage were all much lower than they are today.

Of course, all of the above is why he ranks in the top 30 all-time on Chase's list, but I just wanted to spell out why that was, and why I disagree with assessments that selectively cite things like qb rating and completion percentage. I don't know how talented he was relative to other quarterbacks. I do know that he ranks in the top 30 by what I think is a pretty good objective measure, which takes into account rate stats and total attempts to derive value.

And he is ranked in the top 30 despite missing a substantial portion of what would be the prime years for a lot of quarterbacks (missing 28 games between ages 27 and 30). The one year he played almost a full season during that stretch (1972), he led the league in passing yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt. Oh, and he completed 50% of his passes, so he sucked. The Jets went 7-6 when he started that year, but it was because they ranked 19th out of 26 teams in points allowed, and not because they finished 2nd in points scored.

And he is ranked in the top 30 despite hanging around too long and playing broken down and on bad knees, and putting up awful numbers at the end of his career. We don't know what he would have been if he had stayed healthy (though it's not going out on a limb to say he would rank higher), but let's be clear. His career numbers were not "pretty poor", unless you worship at the Church of the Blessed Quarterback Rating, and ignore everything else.

90 Comments | Posted in HOF, Player articles, Rant

Amazing numbers in context

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 10, 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.

56 Comments | Posted in History, Rant

Super Bowl XLIV and Big Game Experience

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 8, 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.

10 Comments | Posted in History

Checkdowns: Big Game Cows

Posted by Neil Paine on February 7, 2010

Let's say you're a random American cow. Well, The Book of Odds asks: What are the odds that you'll eventually be used for a Super Bowl game ball?

(Before you click, do you think the odds are higher or lower than what Albert Breer thought the Saints' odds of winning the Super Bowl were before the game?)

1 Comment | Posted in Checkdowns

Why Are the Colts 5-Point Favorites?

Posted by Neil Paine on February 7, 2010

Just a quick pre-Super Bowl thought... Given that "Power Rating" style systems like the SRS are designed to retrodict game scores and produce the lowest retrodictive error, you can compare two teams' ratings and derive a decent expectation of how the teams would match up on a neutral field. If we throw out the Week 17 games by all division winners + the Colts-Jets Week 16 game (to only capture games each team was trying to win) and minimize squared errors, we get these ratings:

7 Comments | Posted in General

Checkdowns: Super Bowl Venues, I to XLIV

Posted by Neil Paine on February 5, 2010

Time Magazine has a cool slideshow in honor of the Big Game, featuring a photo of every Super Bowl stadium. And it even includes whatever the heck they're calling Super Bowl XLIV's venue this week.

7 Comments | Posted in Checkdowns

Rubin, Rozelle, the Redskins, and Super Bowl Blackouts

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 5, 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.

6 Comments | Posted in History

Super Bowl Squares

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 4, 2010

See also: PFR Super Bowl Squares mobile app

This is a re-run of Doug's post from two years ago.

Three Super Bowls ago, I wrote this post over at Sabernomics. In it, I looked at your probability of winning a squares pool with any given square. For example, I found that in a one-unit-per-square pool, either of the '0/7' squares would have an expected value of about 3.8 units. Compare that with, say, a '5/6' square, which has an expected value of 0.22, or the lowly `2/2' square and its expected value of .04. Because it was all the data I had at the time, I only considered the last digits of the final scores of games, but someone correctly pointed out in the comments that most pools also give prizes for (the last digits of) the cumulative scores at the end of each quarter.

Well, now I have score-by-quarter data for the entirety of the NFL's 2-point-conversion era (1994--present), so it's time for an update.

8 Comments | Posted in Checkdowns

HOF 2010: Roundtable discussion

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 3, 2010

P-F-R has decided to close this series on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010 by having a roundtable discussion where we argue about the candidates up for election. Below are the profiles P-F-R has written for the 17 men, of whom as many as seven may be called Hall of Famers by Saturday afternoon:

Finalists:

John Randle
Roger Craig
Russ Grimm
Dermontti Dawson
Tim Brown
Cris Carter
Andre Reed
Charles Haley
Cortez Kennedy
Don Coryell
Shannon Sharpe
Jerry Rice
Richard Dent
Emmitt Smith
Rickey Jackson

Senior's nominees:

Dick LeBeau
Floyd Little

You have read more than enough of my words over the past two months; joining me at this virtual roundtable will be Jason Lisk and four frequent P-F-R commentators: Jason W, Just Win Baby, Richie and Tim Treumper.

38 Comments | Posted in HOF, Player articles

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