Thursday, July 30, 2009

Can you win with mediocre QB play?

In all likelihood, the Vikings will have mediocre quarterback play in 2009. Some people (myself included) think that would have been the case whether or not the team signed Brett Favre, but even the most ardent Sage Rosenfels/Tarvaris Jackson supporters admit they aren't going to turn into Peyton Manning or Drew Brees overnight. With most Viking fans thinking the 2009 version of the team is the strongest in a long time at running the ball and playing defense, the common wisdom is that the only thing potentially holding the team back is the quarterback.

But how much will the quarterbacking hold the team back? There have been plenty of teams, even in the recent, pass-happy NFL, that went a long ways -- and even all the way -- with so-so quarterbacking and a stout defense and/or running game. Recent versions of Baltimore, Chicago, and Tampa Bay teams all spring to mind.

Here are the list of quarterbacks who've acquired Super Bowl rings in the last decade:

Ben Roethlisberger
Eli Manning
Peyton Manning
Tom Brady
Brad Johnson
Trent Dilfer
Kurt Warner

Three of those, I'd say -- Warner, Peyton Manning, and Brady -- have played at an elite level for a good chunk of their careers. Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Johnson have been OK-but-not-great, and then there's everyone's favorite whipping boy, Trent Dilfer. That makes over half of the SB-winning quarterbacks of the last decade in the above-average-but-not-great category. Could Sage or Tarvaris fall into this category and maybe play well enough, with a good supporting cast, to take the Vikings to the promised land? Of course, they could -- anything's possible, after all -- but this is still a pretty small sample size to go on and there were several teams that almost made it to the big game, if not for a small blip along the way in the playoffs. If not for the "Tuck Rule" and the "Proehl Rule," we might see Rich Gannon or even Shaun King (!) on this list.

So how good can a team be with iffy quarterbacking? I decided to set the bar of a "good team" as a team that either a) won at least 12 games in the regular season; or b) advanced to its conference championship game (or beyond). That would qualify any team that had a good regular season or a good postseason, at least by most people's definitions, and both criteria would be above and beyond anything the Vikings have done since 2001. Frankly, I'd be happy with that.

60 teams meet these criteria over the last 10 years. I judged their passing prowess both by their team passer rating and their Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Here's the list, sorted by passer rating.

2007New England116.08.0
1999St. Louis106.67.3
2001St. Louis102.26.8
2004San Diego102.07.0
2007Green Bay95.96.6
2001San Francisco95.06.1
2006New Orleans94.96.9
2001Green Bay94.16.4
2006San Diego93.06.3
2004New England92.56.4
2003Kansas City92.46.6
2006New England88.35.6
2008NY Giants88.25.7
2002Green Bay86.65.3
2002Tampa Bay86.35.3
2001New England85.35.0
2003New England84.35.4
2000NY Giants83.15.4
2007San Diego81.35.1
2003St. Louis81.04.9
1999Tampa Bay76.54.0
2007NY Giants73.04.3


Super Bowl-winning teams are indicated in bold. The average for this list is 89.3 passer rating and 5.9 ANYA. Surprisingly, for Super Bowl winners, the averages are 87.3 and 5.7. Super Bowl winners were actually worse, on average, than the typical "good team" over this span, at least in terms of quarterbacking!

The last two Super Bowl winners have actually been some of the worst teams at passing the ball, at least in the regular season. Eli Manning had a spectacular 2007 postseason, but Ben Roethlisberger didn't, and, again, that 2000 Baltimore team was laughably bad. We also tend to forget that Tom Brady really wasn't all that early in his career, as evidenced by the so-so showings of his 2001 and 2003 championship teams; those teams were 6th and 1st in points allowed, making Brady more of a "game manager" than a truly elite player in those seasons.

The average league passer rating over this span is somewhere in the high-70s range, so most of these teams at least featured slightly above average passing games, but, with the exception of Peyton Manning's 2006 Colts and Kurt Warner's 1999 Rams, and arguably, Brady's 2004 Patriots, most of the teams to win the big game have featured solid, but not spectacular passing.

Here are some notable quarterbacks' career numbers. Remember that the average QB on a "good" team from 1999 to 2008 had an 89.3 passer rating and 5.9 ANYA:

Brett Favre: 85.4, 5.9
Tarvaris Jackson: 76.5, 5.0
Sage Rosenfels: 81.2, 5.7

Favre's numbers certainly are better than the others', but he's still only about average, or slightly below. Even Jackson and Rosenfels grade out better than Trent Dilfer and Eli Manning in their Super Bowl years. When you take recent events into consideration -- like Favre over the past four years (79.5 passer rating, 5.0 ANYA) and Jackson's late-2008 surge, he looks like even less necessary.

A number of things still need to come together for the Vikings to make an impact this season, but central to all discussion will be the quarterback play. While it would certainly be nice to have a better quarterback situation than what the team currently has, there's (still...still) no evidence to suggest that Brett Favre would have improved the team or even if he was all that necessary to start with. The Vikings have two quarterbacks who, provided they don't completely fall off the wagon, are capable of leading an otherwise-talented team to a good season or even the promised land of the Super Bowl, even if they don't improve much on their career numbers.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's over...maybe

So, now that the story of the summer has concluded, the Vikings can just go back to preparing for the upcoming season without the specter of Brett Favre hanging over their heads. Now, Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels can compete for the starting job without looking over their shoulders at the retired legend waiting in the wings.



It doesn't take three months to determine you can "never get over the mental hump" of another season, as Favre said -- well, OK, for Brett Favre, it might, but even that's stretching a little bit. More likely, the Vikings didn't offer him enough money or offer to rename the team the "Minnesota Bretts" or whatever absurd additional clause he demanded for his services (guaranteed starting job, perhaps?).

And then there's this. If you don't throw up a little watching this video, well, then I don't know you.

He is going to stay retired. However, he told [Steve] Mariucci that he is going to keep throwing and that he is going to continue to work out. He says he is torn about his decision. Mooch asked him about, "What will you feel like tomorrow when you wake up after having made this decision," and Brett replied to him, "I wonder how I'm going to feel about this tomorrow morning."

And then Rich Eisen laughs. He laughs hard. So, after, let's say, 80 days of waffling, he's not "mentally prepared" to come back to the NFL. 81 days, though? That might be completely different. Or it might not. Who know?

I used to work with a guy who was almost late with everything. Almost late with projects for work, almost late to the airport, almost late for appointments. It wasn't because he was slow or overworked, it was because he'd waste time -- literally, I'd drift by his computer in the afternoon and see him working on an online crossword puzzle or somesuch -- and then, he'd rush through it, pull something together at the last minute and, because he worked so hard and was so tired after everything he put into it, he'd come off looking like a hero for getting it done.

That guy reminds me of Brett Favre.

I have no doubt -- none -- that as soon as the first significant injury to a quarterback for a contending team happens in the NFL (to a team that isn't run by a desperate or incompetent coach -- I doubt Bill Belichek would have called Favre's number last year after Tom Brady went down), we'll be right back into Favrewatch. Favre doesn't want the grind of training camp or to put the same work into the season that everyone else does. He just wants to ride in as the conquering hero, the cavalry surging over the hill, the golden boy rescuing a team from itself. And if he happens to play poorly, well, that's not his fault...the poor guy's having to learn an offense on the fly, how could he be expected to do that?

Answer: By being in training camp, practices, and so on all off-season and not pretending he doesn't need them.

Still, whatever may come tomorrow -- and you better believe something will come -- the Vikings are back to where they were three months ago with Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels. And regardless of what you think of either of them, you better hope neither of them goes down with an injury in the preseason.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Move along

Nothing to see here. Pretend the last few months didn't happen.

At least he didn't cry.

More on Winfield, and lots of girls

Here's a few more details on Antoine Winfield's new contract (thanks to Grant's Tomb for the link). On the one hand, I like the "if you're a starter, we'll pay you like a starter" clause, but I wonder if there could be some hard feelings down the road if Winfield feels like he's playing well enough, gets demoted anyway, and then stews over his lost income.

...The premise behind this commercial is about as unfunny as a commercial starring a man with no legs who mourns the fact that he can't walk.

...If the United Football League is what I think it is, it won't have very good players, but at least it's signed a comedy act for its San Francisco franchise.

...Then again, if you're looking for a wholly different kind of "action" in your minor-league football, this might be the league for you.

...I don't think I'm doing this poorly in my efforts to find a job, but considering the results so far, I'm not sure.

...Title of the week: Women Who Love Men Who Love Boobies or:
How I Learned to Reject Radical Gender Feminism and Started Loving the NFL
. Even if I don't agree with all her views. And she's married to a Bears fan.

...Since this seems to have turned into a "girls and football" post, here's another site I visit occasionally that provides some decent content.

...Meanwhile, if you prefer girls and baseball...or, more often than not, girls with no real connection to baseball...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Winfield's new deal

So, about Antoine Winfield...

The new deal is reported to be a 5-year deal with $16 million guaranteed that could be worth as much as $36 million, with incentives, making it potentially similar to the 6-year, $33 million deal he signed during the 2003-04 offseason. The difference, of course, is that Winfield is now five years older and will be 36 years old when this new deal expires. As I pointed out earlier, cornerbacks in their mid-30s don't typically turn in great seasons. Even so, this is probably a pretty good contract for the Vikings.

While Winfield did have a career year last year, making his first Pro Bowl at the age of 31, it would be foolish to expect him to maintain that same high level of play as he advances through his 30s, even if he stays healthy. By committing only $16 million guaranteed to Winfield, the Vikings make a relatively small investment should he fall completely off the map and a slightly larger one if he does defy the odds and continue to produce Pro Bowl-caliber seasons. Winfield is clearly a unique cornerback, given his great tackling skills, so it's possible he won't decline much.

Even if he does lose a (or perhaps "another") step or two, he can serve as an insurance policy against Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson, if either should suffer lasting injuries or their quality of play should drop. Winfield would seem like a natural for a safety position if his duties as a cornerback prove too much as he ages, and the Vikings have a few potential replacements (such as Marcus McCauley and Asher Allen) for the other corner spot opposite Cedric Griffin, should Winfield be needed elsewhere. There might be some issue about whether Winfield would accept a "demotion" to safety -- his twice grousing about his contract leads me to think he's not exactly the definition of a "team player" -- but that's a distraction we won't have to worry about until at least after this year, when Brad Childress gets replaced by a coach who displays a smidge of authority (I can hope).

Here's the kicker, though, and why this contract could potentially be great for the Vikings: A major holdup in the signing of the contract was said to be the Vikings' unwillingness to tie up a bunch of money in Winfield while they were still courting Brett Favre and trying to keep enough money available for his eventual signing. Maybe, just maybe, they actually got tired of waiting for him and signed Winfield with some of the money earmarked for His Favreness, who will now decide that the piddling few millions the Vikings are willing to pay him aren't enough to come down off his throne and mingle with the commoners in training camp. If all that proves true, this might very well be the best contract the Vikings have ever given out.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Not remotely conflicted

I was meaning to talk about Antoine Winfield and his new contract today, but that was before the really important news about the Vikings hit yesterday.

Oh, the agony.

Favre already might have decided not to play this season, but he has had a tough time walking away because Vikings stars Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen and Steve Hutchinson have been encouraging him to sign.

Casting aside the sanity levels of Peterson, Allen, and Hutchinson, why should any of this matter? Oh wait, that's right: Brett Favre is a glory hound who wants everyone to love him and adore him and probably worship him, and gosh darn it, with the support of those three, that leaves 50+ Vikings who haven't begged him to come play for them! How could he possibly come play for the Vikings if everyone doesn't love him and want him to be there?

Fine, Brett, let me make it perfectly clear to you, because I want you to know at least one person is certain of where he stands, a concept you seem unable to grasp: I don't want you. You're not sure if you want to come play with us? Then don't. There are a lot of guys who do, they've all been to mini-camp and off-season practices, they're all ready for training camp. If you're not sure that want to be one of them, then don't. Go away.

Oh, sure, you want to be sure that your arm is 100%, that you can hold out for the whole season. Guess what? So does every other player. Football's a rough sport. Every player realizes that the next play could be his last. Of course, you might not be in this situation if you'd decided back in February that you'd wanted to come back, had your surgery then, and spent four months rehabbing it. For that matter, you might still be with the Jets, but that's beside the point.

Yes, the Vikings are partially to blame for this, as Brad Childress has had a man-love for Favre that rivals anything Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal could have come up with. But I'd wager that every newly retired once-great player gets overtures from his former team (and others) once he calls it quits. The Lions wanted Barry Sanders back (and the Patriots asked about him, too). The Bengals wanted Boomer Esiason back. The Vikings tried to convince Dan Marino to come back the year after he left the Dolphins. I'm sure the Broncos tried to coax John Elway to come back for one more year. And a few guys, like Cris Carter and Deion Sanders, did give in to temptation and come out of retirement. Neither of them were very good. But at least they came back (as far as I know) out of a desire for competition or just to play again, rather than a perverse and spiteful wish to get back at their old team and to have their new teammates beg for them to return.

I've tried to avoid venom and bile in my discussions of Brett Favre, tried to use rational arguments and facts to support my views, but I just can't any more. In the words of someone only slightly older and more twisted in his loyalties than you, Brett, "We don't need you...leave now and never come back!"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Revisiting receivers

I knew something seemed a little amiss with yesterday's post, and it bugged me all afternoon. (I still need a life.) If I was trying to "prove" that the quality of a #2 receiver had no effect on a #1's yardage total, then I should start with the #2s and try to see what seasons their complementary #1s have.

So I made two changes to my initial analysis. First, I removed all instances of a #2 having a better season than a #1 on his same team, leaving me with 83 pairings. That way, I'll only be looking at #2s who were inferior (at least from a yardage standpoint) to their #1s. Second, I reversed the direction of my study by grouping the #2s together and seeing how their corresponding #1s performed.

As I did with #1s yesterday, I split the #2s into three groups, of 28, 27, and 28. The top 28 had the most yardage, the middle 27 the second most and the bottom 28 the least. If yesterday's "Situation A" is correct -- that, if you have a poor #2, the #1 will rack up great stats as the only viable receiver -- we'd expect that the low group should have the highest corresponding yardage for its #1s. If "Situation B" is correct -- that having multiple good receivers means that defenses can't concentrate on shutting down one or the other -- we'd expect the highest yardage to belong to the top group. Here's what we get:

Avg. #2 Yds.
Avg. #1 Yds.
Top 28
Mid 27

Bot 28


These results seem to verify yesterday's results, namely that the quality of the #2 receiver has little to no effect on how many yards the #1 will rack up. With a very good #2, averaging nearly the same 1,200 yards I set as a minimum to qualify as a #1, #1s managed only 19 fewer yards on average than they did with a poor #2. The correlation between the two groups (which was changed only due to my removing the "#2 > #1" pairings and not by my sorting things differently) is 0.047, still small enough to be insignificant.

I read somewhere today that, with Terrell Owens gone, Jason Witten could have a huge season. Don't you believe it. Witten might very well have a great season, but it won't have the slightest thing to do with Terrell Owens, just as Lee Evans' 2009 won't have anything to do with Owens going to the Bills.

And besides, we all know the real reason the Cowboys passing game will improve this year...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Does a great fantasy receiver need a #2?

Like to the running back conundrum I questioned last year, another fantasy football paradox popped into my head over the weekend as I was wondering what effect the departure of T.J. Houshmanzadeh might have on Chad Johnson in 2009. (I really need a life.) Viking fans will also recall that, for all the hubbub on what effect losing Cris Carter would have on Randy Moss, Moss went on to have his best season, yardage-wise, in 2003. I've often heard two lines of argument about drafting wide receivers:

Situation A: A #1-caliber receiver has no good #2 on his team
"He's all they've got! They have to throw to him! He'll have a great year!"

Situation B: A #1-caliber receiver has a good #2 on his team
"Opposing defenses have to cover #2, as well! #1 will have a great year!"

Yeah, I'm gonna have to look into that.

So I spent an inordinate amount of time on looking at all receivers for the last 10 years with at least 1,200 yards receiving and looking at their "#2" receivers in that season, so see if there was any correlation between great receiving seasons and particularly good (or bad) seasons by complementary receivers. There were 95 seasons that matched this criteria -- 93 by wide receivers and two by Tony Gonzalez. The reason I limited it to 10 years was because, frankly, I would have to look up each player's "#2" on his team's page for that season, which took long enough as it was. 95 seasons is probably enough to give us a reasonable sample size, and by limiting the study to the last 10 years, I keep it firmly rooted in the "modern" NFL with its oft-explosive passing game.

I use "#2" in quotation marks because, several times, a team had more than one player with 1,200 yards receiving, meaning that one player's "#2" receiver actually racked up more yards than him. Specifically, there were 24 such pairings (twice counting 12 different sets of players) from 1999 to 2008, from Torry Holt (1,635 yards) and Isaac Bruce (1,471 yards) in 2000 to Jimmy Smith (1,213 yards) and Keenan McCardell (1,207 yards), also in 2000.

I took the 95 pairs and sorted them by the total yards for the #1 receiver. I then split the #1 receivers' seasons into three parts, of 32, 31, and 32 players. The top 32 had the best seasons, the middle 31 had the second-best, and the bottom 32 had the third best. If there is a correlation between great seasons by #1 and great or not-great seasons by #2, we should see some sort of significant difference in their corresponding #2's yardage totals. Here's what I got:

Avg. #1 Yds.

Avg. #2 Yds.
Top 32
Mid 31

Bot 32

Doesn't seem like much of a difference between the three categories. The correlation between the two sets of numbers is -0.06, which also indicates that there's virtually no connection between yardage totals for #1 and yardage totals for #2.

A few other interesting stats...

Greatest difference between #1 and #2: 1,122 yards (Steve Smith/Ricky Proehl, 2005, 1,563 to 441)

Smallest difference between #1 and #2: 4 yards (Hines Ward/Plaxico Burress, 2002, 1,329 to 1,325)

Most frequent #1-#2 pairing: Torry Holt/Isaac Bruce (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004)

Most 1,200 yards seasons, 1999-2008: Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison (6 each)

And Terrell Owens, in his five 1,200 yard seasons, has had a different #2 in each one: Jerry Rice, J.J. Stokes, Tai Streets, Brian Westbrook, and Jason Witten.

Now, this study isn't perfect. Sometimes, a #2 puts up poor numbers not because of a lack of talent, but due to some other reason, such as injury. For 2008, Anquan Boldin is a perfect example. Had he not missed four games, he almost certainly would have cracked 1,200 yards in his own right (he had 1,038), thus altering not only Larry Fitzgerald's numbers in my data but adding a new point of his own. Calvin Johnson losing Roy Williams after just five games also might have had some impact on his numbers. (Shaun McDonald's 332 yards receiving for the 2008 Lions -- fittingly -- makes him the worst "#2" in my data.) Still, it could also be argued that Fitz and CJ put up their good numbers without a solid #2 for part of the season (and no, I don't count Steve Breaston), even if you could theoretically add together the yardage numbers for several receivers and paint a more accurate picture of their "#2 receiver."

Another thought is that a #1 receiver, especially one who's having a great season, is going to get a lot of balls thrown his way (similar to the argument in situation A) and the #2, by default, isn't going to get as many passes thrown his way and, therefore, have worse numbers. There might be something to that, but I think the effect is minimal.

Still, when it comes to trying to pick a wide receiver, at least for fantasy football, I believe it comes down to not thinking too hard: Pick the best guy, period. You can take QB and best offensive philosophy (a la the current Patriots or Cardinals or the early-2000s Rams) into account, but don't overly concern yourself with his other receiving teammates, either for the positive or the negative.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Antoine Winfield's contract situation

So, Antoine Winfield is unhappy and wants a new contract (Kudos, BTW, to the fine editors at Yahoo! Sports, for giving us the headline "Winfied frustrated with Vikes, contract situation." Who is this "Winfied"?) On the down side, contract issues are never fun to deal with. On the bright side, it gives us something to talk about that's not related to Brett Favre -- well, not directly, at least.

The 2009 season will be the last on the massive, 6-year, $34.8 million contract Winfield signed after the 2003 season. An athlete with a frontloaded contract (I think Winfield's due to make just around $3 million this year) wanting to tear up his last year and negotiate a new deal isn't anything new. On some level, I can sympathize with Winfield wanting to do that...

...if he hadn't done the same thing two years ago, that is.

Yes, way back when I first started blogging, one of my first posts was about Antoine Winfield's issues with his contract in the summer of 2007, when he still had three of the six years left on his deal. (Or maybe he didn't, though I think this was more about damage control and PR management than about anything else.) Now, here we are in the same situation, two years later. Winfield's still under contract, still obligated to play for the team through 2009, and still grousing about how the team doesn't see him as valuable enough to sign to a new deal.

To which I say: He probably isn't.

Antoine Winfield is a terrific tackler, no question. As a cover corner, though, he's probably not much more than average, and he's just turned 32 years old. When the 2010 season starts, he'll be 33. I realize Winfield's never been much of an interceptor, but consider this: of the 278 players who have intercepted 8 or more passes in a single season, five of them were age 33 or older. That leads me to believe that defensive backs -- especially defensive backs who are already losing a step or two at ages 31-32 -- don't make for good long-term investments at the age of 33 and up.

One legitimate complaint Winfield has is certainly the team's apparent interest in signing him to a deal earlier in the offseason, a plan that has apparently been derailed since the love affair between Brett Favre and Brad Childress started. On the one hand, you can understand Winfield being frustrated by the apparent reneging of the promise; on the other hand, he's worked with Brad Childress long enough by now that he should know that what he says and what he does rarely have any connection.

As with any aging, popular player (see Matt Birk), fans tend to look past their current and potential future contributions and focus solely on what they've done for the team in the past. You might occasionally get lucky and see a player return to form for a short while, but when you sign an aging player to a big contract, you're likely just paying for his past performance. Add in Winfield's semi-annual griping about his contract -- still a great deal, even with the explosion in cornerback salaries in recent years -- or the direction of the team and I have no problem letting him go after 2009.

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.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A non-statistical opinion on the great debate

Thinking about the rushing/passing correlation, I wondered why it might be the way it is. After all, eight in the box should be a better defense against the run than seven in the box, right? That's why teams do it, right?

What if it isn't better but is actually just a different step in the risk/reward ratio versus running plays?

Consider the goal-line defense. Except for maybe a couple of corners and (maybe) a safety, everyone's stacked up at the line, 8, 9, or maybe even 10 "in the box." The idea is to stop a very small gain by the offense, which is generally all you have to stop when you're backed up against your own goal line on defense.

But how many times have we seen a short-yardage defense in a non-goal line situation when the running back bursts through and there's nobody else to tackle him, so he goes for a bunch of yards? It's anecdotal, but we've all seen that at least a few times.

If you think about it, that's probably how an eight-in-the-box defense should work. That extra defender is there to stop the back for a short gain if he gets through the first seven defenders, but if the back makes him miss, there's not much left to stop him from making a huge gain. It's just like blitzing against the pass -- you increase your chance of a big negative play (sack) for the offense but increase your risk of giving up a big offensive play.

If you played against a defense like that a lot, you might expect your rushing carries to look something like:

1, -4, 1, 4, 3, 0, 3, 3, 67, -1, -1, 3, 7, 2, 6, 5, -2, 0, 7, 1, -2


-1, -1, 2, 2, 6, 2, 40, 6, 0, 6, 1, 3, 0, 2, 0, 3, 0, 5, 5, 2

Hey, I think we've seen those stat lines before! (And thanks to Pacifist Viking for writing them out and making for an easy cut-n-paste.)

It's not pure, statistical proof, and I'm certainly not an NFL coach, but from a layman's point of view, it might be true that eight-in-the-box is good at stopping short gains but is vulnerable to the long gain. It's sort of like a less aggressive form of run blitzing. It may not have any effect on average rushing yards or total rushing yards, but would be more susceptible to the wild fluctuations and inconsistency we see in Adrian Peterson's numbers.

I'm not the first person to come up with this idea. I can remember, in my old Strat-o-Matic Football, that there were "zones" you would line up your defensive players in. There was one just behind the interior defensive line where the middle linebacker(s) typically lined up. You could "move up" those linebackers to linemen's zones to pass or run blitz and that could help you stuff the play. You could then move the free safety up to occupy the linebackers' original zone -- thus putting "eight in the box." However, there was a result on the cards for running plays that said if the linebackers' original zone had only one guy in it, you would add 10 yards to the result of the run. If there was nobody there, you'd add 20 yards. Interesting, that.

So maybe there is some credibility to the notion that a strong passing game would help Adrian Peterson become more consistent on a carry-by-carry basis. And maybe eight-in-the-box isn't actually a "better" defense than a seven-in-the-box strategy, no more than blitzing is a "better" pass defense than dropping into coverage. It probably just fits somewhere between full-on run blitzing and 7 ITB in terms of risk vs. reward.