Monday, July 6, 2009

On consistency

"Consistency" is a word you hear bandied about in sports talk all the time. Managers and coaches want their players to be consistent. Announcers criticize a player by saying he's inconsistent. Fans can't understand why a guy can be great one month and lousy for the next. And a certain site noticed a certain broadcaster (and other people) using "consistency" so much, they incorporated it as one of their tags.

Viking fans, in particular, have noted Adrian Peterson's lack of consistency from game to game, or even from carry to carry. Many hope that the addition of a better quarterback, whether Brett Favre or improvement from Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels, will help make Adrian Peterson more "consistent."

I just want him to be "better." And so should you.

Certainly, we're all a little frustrated when, say, AP rushes for 150 yards one game and 50 the next. But that still works out to 200 yards per two games, or 1,600 yards per season. Nobody should be upset with that kind of production from their team's running back.

"But why," you may ask, "does he only run for 50 yards? If he were more consistent, he'd be better!" We definitely have some reason to gripe when AP turns in a shoddy game and to wish that, if he's going to average 100 yards per game, that he should turn those 50-yard games into 100-yard games.

But have you ever said, "Gee, I with Adrian wouldn't run for 150 yards. He should just stop at 100"? I doubt it. "Consistent" does not equal "better." It only equals "the same" (or nearly so). A running back who averages 50 yards per game, every game, is very consistent. He's also a backup running back, at best. If Adrian ran for 50 one week and 200 the next, that would make him even more inconsistent than the 50/150 split. It would also make him better.

Fantasy football has fueled the desire for consistency, as evidenced by this article. Sure, you'd like the guy who can deliver 10 fantasy points every week, guaranteed, and you're frustrated when that guy just gets you 5 points. But do you complain when he runs for three touchdowns and scores 25? Do you wish he would have only scored 10, so he could be more consistent? Of course you don't. Similarly, would you rather have a baseball player who alternates hitting .250 and .350 every month, for a total average of .300, or would you rather have the guy who hits .275 every month? I'll take the former.

Now, football's an odd beast, because of the need to get 10 yards every four downs. 3.0 yards per carry is awful for a running back, but if you had a guy who could, guaranteed, net you three yards every time he touched the ball (and could avoid injury), he would be the most valuable player in the history of the league. That player doesn't exist, of course, so we have to make do with our "inconsistent" -- but generally better than 3.0 yards per carry -- players.

In the end, I think the desire for consistency boils down to our innate desire for predictability. We watch a Vikings game expecting Adrian Peterson to have a good day. When he only runs for 50 yards, we get frustrated and wonder why he put forth such an effort that wasn't in line with what we know to be his established ability -- in other words, "Why is he so inconsistent?" We never ask that question if he runs for 200 yards (which, as great as he is, is also out of line with his established ability). St. Louis Cardinals fans probably wonder the same thing when Albert Pujols goes 0-8 over two games, but are perfectly fine with seeing him go 4-4 with two home runs and 6 RBI in the third game. Consistency is nice, and it gives us a sense of reassurance in the ability of our favorite players. But by and large, you don't want your players to be consistent. You want them to be good.


joe fischer said...

On a per-game basis, AP was fairly consistent last season: he had 75+ yards rushing in 15 of 16 games.

Certainly football is a weird sport, and even the greatest players are going to have numbers fluctuate greatly from week to week. However, I do think that greatness really is based on consistency. All professional athletes should be capable of great games. Great players consistently produce great games. And to be successful, they need to; if you're satisfied with up-and-down performances, that probably means you're satisfied with 8-8 seasons.

I'm not as concerned about AP's per-game consistency as his per-play consistency. Frequently during AP's career, the Viking passing game has been dreadful, and AP's long runs were better for the team than a bunch of consistent 4-5 yard runs. What good does it do to churn out yards when the offense is going to eventually stall due to no passing game anyway? I would cite as an example the 2008 Colts game, when AP had something like 160 yards rushing, but the offense scored no TDs, because there was no passing threat. That's also how I felt about the 2007 season: the best offense was a couple of long runs a game.

However, I don't think that's a way to build a successful offense. Inconsistent running on a per-play basis leads to a lot of 2nd and 10s, 3rd and 8s. A boom-and-bust offense means more three-and-outs. I think a more consistent running game helps the offense succeed, which helps the team win (which is what we really care about, not what AP's numbers add up to).

There's a danger in fetishizing consistency, and I don't mean to overrate it. But I do think it is important. Perhaps I'm thinking here from a team perspective rather than an individual player perspective, because as I said, to be a winning team, you obviously have to be more than good one week, mediocre or bad the next.

Jason said...

My problem is with the use of the word and how people equate "consistent" with "good." The Vikings didn't struggle in 2007 and 2008 because their passing game was inconsistent, they struggled because it was bad.

A QB who completes 40% of his passes and throws two interceptions every game is consistent. So is one who completes 60% of his passes and throws two touchdowns every game. They are both as consistent as possible. One, however, is better. And if that second QB occasionally completes only 50% with one TD, I'll still take him over the other guy, despite his "inconsistency."

On a per-play basis, you might be right, consistency, especially in the running game, is important. But you usually don't hear that.

I could also question whether being consistent, on a game-by-game basis, is better than having wild fluctuations, assuming the average is still the same. Would the Vikings be better off if AP ran for exactly 100 yards every game or if he alternated between 50 and 150 every other game? I still think the desire for consistency is a factor of people being afraid of the unknown, to some degree. They know AP can run for 100 (or more) yards, so why is he only running for 50 this game? It doesn't make sense!