Saturday, March 20, 2010

RBIs and Touchdowns

Joe Posnanski recently posted a nice article about the relative lack of value of RBIs, something that virtually any baseball fan with more than rudimentary knowledge of the game understands. These two paragraphs, in particular, helped solidify in my mind a similar idea I'd had for a while about football:

But it really isn’t so. Take this situation: One out, Rick Manning cracks a line drive single. Duane Kuiper hits a high chopper in front of the plate, he’s out, but Manning takes second. Jim Norris, with first base open and two outs, works for a walk. Manning and Norris move up on a wild pitch. Pitcher works around Andre Thornton, and he walks. Then, with a 3-1 count and the bases loaded, the pitcher has to throw a fastball that catches too much of the plate, and Rico Carty rolls a single between short and third, scoring two runs.

That’s a fairly typical sequence, I would guess. In our mind and in our statbook, Carty is the hero — two RBIs. He is, in fan and media shorthand, RESPONSIBLE for those runs. But he isn’t. Carty’s single didn’t make those two runs happen. Those two runs scored because of a series of events, and Carty’s single was just the last of those events.

I've emphasized that last sentence to drive home the notion that I have the same feeling regarding touchdowns. Last season, Adrian Peterson had 1,383 yards, a 4.3 average, and 18 touchdowns. In 2008, he had 1,760 yards, a 4.8 average, and 10 touchdowns. And I'd wager that at least a third of football fans would point to his 18 TDs in 2009 as a positive sign, despite the lower yardage and yards per carry.

I don't. I think they're meaningless, except to fantasy football players -- kinda like the RBI is to fantasy baseballers.

We've all seen drives where the quarterback passes and the featured back runs the ball down to the 1-yard-line. Then, in comes Mike Alstott (or Jerome Bettis or Craig Heyward) to plunge it in from the one. Alstott is the Rico Carty of this scenario. To paraphrase JoePo: Alstott's run didn’t make that touchdown happen. That touchdown was scored because of a series of events and Alstott's run was just the last of those events.

To be certain, there are times when the player scoring the touchdown is the "hero" of the drive and fully deserving of the stat bump and the accolades that come with scoring the TD. But taking another look at Peterson's 18 TDs in 2009, nine of them came from one yard out and only four came from further than five yards out. Peterson's good, to be certain, but a lot of backs could have scored from that distance, just as a lot of players can hit a single -- like Rico Carty did -- and drive in two runs in JoePo's scenario. All of which isn't to say AP's not a great player. He is, but it's not because he scored 18 TDs last year.

This is also why I've been slow to adapt to the notion, now professed by the guys at Pro-Football-Reference, that a TD should be worth 20 adjusted yards (instead of 10). To me, a touchdown doesn't require much more skill than any other run and shouldn't be rewarded in the stats. Yes, it is more difficult to gain a yard on the one-yard-line than it is on the 50, and I'm willing to give the 10-yard bump for that, but 20 just seems like too much to me.

Finally, JoePo goes on in his article to name a few situations where teams that added players who had poor averages put up big RBI numbers actually scored fewer runs the next season. I thought I'd see if there was any similar correlation in football. I did a search of players who scored more than 15 rushing TDs ("high RBI totals") but averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry ("low batting average/OBP") and got this list of nine players. (The Redskins apparently love these guys!) Did they improve their team's scoring the year they scored so many TDs? Let's see:

John Riggins: 24 TDs in 1983
1983 Redskins: 33.8 points per game
1982 Redskins: 21.1 ppg

Terry Allen: 21 TDs in 1996
1996 Redskins: 22.8 ppg
1995 Redskins: 20.4 ppg

George Rogers: 18 TDs in 1986
1986 Redskins: 23.0 ppg
1985 Redskins: 18.6 ppg

LaDainian Tomlinson: 17 TDs in 2004
2004 Chargers: 27.9 ppg
2003 Chargers: 19.6 ppg

Shaun Alexander: 16 TDs in 2002
2002 Seahawks: 22.2 ppg
2001 Seahawks: 18.8 ppg

Pete Banaszak: 16 TDs in 1975
1975 Raiders: 26.8 ppg
1974 Raiders: 25.4 ppg

Lenny Moore: 16 TDs in 1964
1964 Colts: 30.6 ppg
1963 Colts: 22.6 ppg

Karim-Abdul Jabbar: 16 TDs in 1997
1997 Dolphins: 21.2 ppg
1996 Dolphins: 21.2 ppg

Lendale White: 16 TDs in 2008
2008 Titans: 23.4 ppg
2007 Titans: 18.8 ppg

Well, that's not quite what I was expecting. In every situation except one (the Dolphins scored exactly 339 points in both 1996 and 1997), the team in the high-TD year scored more points than in the previous year -- and it usually wasn't even close. My only redeeming thought is that, unlike an "RBI machine," a high-TD featured runner can score around a third to a quarter of his team's points, compared to accounting for only about one-sixth to one-seventh of a team's RBI total, which is all most hitters can manage. Thus, with an outlying high-TD season, a high-TD back can have a bigger impact on his team's overall scoring than the RBI machine. I might also claim that five of these nine players were just barely under the 4.0 yards per carry mark (3.87 or better), so it's not like they were truly awful. And I'm not looking up any other team-related improvements that might have accounted for the increase in scoring. If I found a way to incorporate Adrian Peterson's 2008-09 seasons into this mix, I'd see that the Vikings scored 470 points in 2009 (when Peterson scored 18 TDs) and 379 in 2008 (when Peterson scored 10 TDs). But I think we all know who was responsible for that.

Maybe a wider search using this list (greater than 12 rushing TDs and less than 3.75 yards per carry) would shed some more light on the subject, but that's for another day. I'll still draft AP #1 overall in my fantasy football league, but I'll prefer if he has a season like 2008 than like he did in 2009.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Super Bowl XXXIII redux

I've been playing around with the NFL SimMatchup on lately, where you can match up any two teams in history and play a simulated game with them, just to answer the question: If Denny Green (and not Gary Anderson) hadn't lost the 1998 NFC Championship Game for the Vikings, how would they have fared in the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos? Better than the Falcons, who got hammered 34-19 in a game that wasn't even as close as the score indicated.

It's easy to set up and sim games (if you're setting up this particular game, set 1998 Denver as Away, 1998 Minnesota as Home and select Pro Player Stadium at 70 degrees), and my first result was this 24-17 Denver win.

All right, so that's not very encouraging. But at least it was a far more exciting game than the real result, with Denver scoring the go-ahead TD with just five seconds remaining.

Still, small sample size, blah blah blah, so I ran nine more sims to get a full 10-game sample to play with. The results were:

Denver 24-17
Minnesota 18-13 (six Gary Anderson field goals)
Minnesota 23-16 (Cris Carter TD catch with 0:25 left)
Denver 24-21
Denver 27-20 (24 of game's 47 points in the fourth quarter)
Minnesota 28-17
Minnesota 23-17
Denver 54-41 (!!!!)
Denver 44-24 (Terrell Davis 239 yards rushing)
Minnesota 17-14

That's five wins apiece for each Denver and Minnesota, with an average score of Denver 25, Minnesota 23.2. And nearly all of them exciting, close affairs.

A few more notes on that insane 54-41 game:

* The game started off slowly, with Denver leading just 7-0 after the first quarter. The single-quarter scores after that were Minnesota 17-13, Denver 14-3, and Minnesota 21-20.

* Terrell Davis ran for 292 yards, which would have been an NFL single-game record at the time, and three touchdowns.

* Randall Cunningham countered with 396 yards passing and 3 TDs, 141 of it going to Randy Moss.

* Total offense: Denver 567, Minnesota 493, for a total of 1,060 yards.

* In a game like this, you'd have expected to see a few turnovers and long returns setting up or outright creating scores, but there were no turnovers and didn't appear to be any TD returns on kicks or punts.

* In a show of poor sportsmanship (which can probably be chalked up to the game algorithm just trying to score as much as possible), Denver kicked a field goal on the final snap of the game while already possessing a 10-point lead, to inflate the final score from 51-41 to 54-41. Boo, Dan Reeves!

Anyway, this is just one of the cool things you can do with the SimMatchup, and thanks to the guys at the Pro-Football-Reference blog for pointing it out to me. They've got their own interesting application for the SimMatchup planned, and I can't wait to see how it turns out. I'll definitely be rooting for the 1998 Vikings!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tarvaris Jackson for Brady Quinn?

The Browns are looking to deal Brady Quinn and want a quarterback in exchange.

Tarvaris Jackson is essentially done in Minnesota, whether or not Brett Favre returns.

So, why not?

I'm not as low on Quinn as others are -- playing for that awful Cleveland team will make anyone look bad. I don't know if his 53.2% completion percentage and 5.2 yards per attempt last year were his fault of the fault of his receivers, but he avoids turnovers (just nine interceptions in 353 career attempts and four fumbles on 45 career "touches") and he just looked too good in college to be a complete NFL bust. Give him Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, and Visanthe Shiancoe to throw to and Adrian Peterson (and LaDanian Tomlinson?) to hand off to, and he'll have to look better.

Besides, the Browns already have Seneca Wallace. With T-Jack, they could have the most mobile quarterbacking in the league, which they'll probably need.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Busy day for the NFC North

As a "final 8" team in this new uncapped year, the Vikings don't look to be too active in free agency this offseason. But the other teams in the division aren't as restricted, as was evidenced by today's flurry of activity by two of the Vikings' divisional rivals.

Well, by one of our divisional rivals and the Lions.

Here's my opinions, in order of increasing importance, of the five free-agent moves made today by the Bears and the Lions.

5) Lions sign WR Nate Burleson. Apparently learning nothing from the Seahawks, who got nine more catches and 31 fewer yards in four years of Burleson than the Vikings got from him in three, the Lions handed Burleson a five-year, $25 million contract. He did have a respectable 63 catches and 812 yards for the Seahawks last year but also missed three games, following a one-game 2008 season. And the Lions continue to show why they're in last place, year after year.

4) Bears sign RB Chester Taylor. If you're surprised I rank this transaction so low, consider this: The Bears already have a decent third-down back in Matt Forte (120 receptions in two seasons), Taylor will turn 31 just after the start of the season, and he's averaged 4.0 and 3.6 yards per carry his last two years with the Vikings. If the Bears plan to make him their featured back, consider that Taylor managed just 4.0 yards per carry his one year as a featured back (2006), which was vastly inflated by his 95-yard run against the Seahawks; he managed just 3.7 yards per carry on his other runs that year. I'm really appreciative of what Taylor did in his four years with the Vikes, but his age, Adrian Peterson's new-found receiving skills, and the presence of Albert Young and Ian Johnson to take over the backup role made him eminently expendable.

(Strange note: In my copy of Madden NFL 2009 that I played four seasons of last year, Taylor signed with the Bears during the 09-10 offseason. Now, if Tarvaris Jackson can just lead us to the Super Bowl, my game will be uncannily accurate...)

3) Lions sign DE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Two years ago, Vanden Bosch was coming off three seasons of 12.5, 6.5, and 12.0 sacks. Since then, he's managed just 7.5 sacks, and the Titans' scoring defense sank to 28th in the league last year. Granted, he instantly improves the Lions' defense -- not a difficult task -- but he's not the playmaker he used to be.

2) Bears sign TE Brandon Manumaleuna. Chester Taylor won't do much to improve the Bears' running game, but Manumaleuna might. He's not much of a pass-catcher, but he's blocked for the likes of LaDanian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk during some of their biggest years. On the bright side, this means that Greg Olson's career as a Bear is almost virtually done, as he'll likely be traded for a draft pick, so, in the short term, one wonders if the "trade" is a wash.

1) Bears sign DE Julius Peppers. All of the other transactions involve so-so players or don't provide significant upgrades to their teams. This one's the biggie, though, and I, for one, am not looking forward to Peppers making our QBs run for their lives twice a year. My only consolation is that Peppers turned 30 in January (by comparison, Jared Allen is two years younger), but as was evident in the Panthers' game against the Vikings in December, he can still give any offensive coordinator nightmares.

Still, in general, I think that most of these moves -- Peppers excepting -- aren't the kind of big-impact deals that can completely change a team. The only team I'm really worried about in our division going into next year is the Packers, who, in winning seven of their last eight regular-season games last year, might not need much in the free agency market to give the Vikings a run for their money in 2010.