Saturday, July 31, 2010

McNabb and the Passage of Time

The Washington Redskins made their annual foray into the aging but well known veteran's market this off season by adding Donovan McNabb. The Redskins overpaid for McNabb by giving up a 2nd round pick in this year's draft (37th overall) and either a 3rd or 4th round pick in next year's draft. Just to put that cost in perspective a little, if this were the NBA draft, that would be equivalent to giving up the 10th and 26th picks in the first round for an aging veteran.

Part of the problem with Donovan, is not just that he is aging and past his prime, but that he is declining faster than other QBs. The graphic below compares McNabb and Manning at equivalent ages on Adjusted Yards per Attempt. Both players will be 34 during the 2010-11 NFL season, and their AYPA are projected until they are 36. While it comes as no surprise that Manning has been a more efficient QB throughout his career, what is important about this projection, is that we can see that Manning's decline is slower (the line is less steep) than McNabb's. What this means is that while we can expect to see Manning continue to perform at a high if not exceptional level, we can also expect McNabb's performance to drop significantly within the next two years.

Perhaps it is the injuries that have caused McNabb to have an accelerated decline, or perhaps his style just does not hold up as well with age, we just don't know.  Whatever it is, the Redskins have given away two picks that could potentially be significant contributors for years to come, for a rapidly aging player that will not be able to perform at near his peak. On the plus side though, Synder will be able to sell a lot more McNabb jerseys.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

First Down Passing

I am on record suggesting that teams should pass more and pass more on first down in particular. It is fairly clear, that teams that can pass efficiently (above average yards per pass attempt on first down) and that pass frequently on first down (above average pass/run ratio on first and ten), are generally very good offenses. Last year, this group included teams like Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, Houston and Dallas. The list that is interesting to me though, is the list of teams that pass well, but do not pass very often. Last year those teams were:
  Teams                           YPPA          Pass Freq.
NY Jets7.3725.2
San Diego7.4343.3

The average YPPA on first down in the NFL last year was 6.63 and the average pass frequency on first down was 46.9%.  So there are some good teams (Jets, Chargers, Vikings) and some average teams (Tennessee, Denver) but no really bad teams. One potential interpretation of this data is that efficient passing is the key and as long as a team can pass efficiently, then the run/pass mix is not that important. An alternative interpretation though is that if teams passed more frequently, they would have performed even better.

Looking carefully at the teams though, the motivation for the low Pass Freq. can be understood for most of the teams. The Ravens, Broncos, Jets and Tennessee all had young and/or unproven QBs at the helm so that play callers would naturally tend to not give them as many attempts as Manning/Brady/Breese. In Minnesota, Favre's age and the presence of a premier RB (true for the Titan's as well) seem to make a clear case for a lower first down passing frequency.

Finally, we get to the Chargers. Here is the team with the highest YPPA on this list and 8th in the league, but they throw on only 43% of first down attempts. They had one of the best QBs in the game running the show and no dominant RB. Now they finished with 13 wins so it is hard to argue that they underperformed, except that they lost again in the playoffs and it is this conservative play calling that is at the heart of why. My prediction model had the Jets over the Chargers largely because the Chargers were downplaying their best weapon.

My son is a huge Chargers fan (and dismissed my prediction of a Jets win last season with a flipant "well your wrong"), so I hop that Norv and the boys who are calling the plays in San Diego will learn that their conservative ways will only lead them to the same place over and over again.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Agents

While perusing the NFL CBA is the literary version of watching grass grow, the task has brought the interesting role of the agents into focus. The CBA gives the NFL Players Association full control over the agents, who can be one and how an agent can be decertified. This is backed up by penalizing clubs for doing deals with agents that are not certified by the NFLPA. When analyzing the negotiations for the new CBA, we often think about players vs. big market owners vs. small market owners, but the agents also have a significant interest in these negotiations.

While they do not have a formal seat at the negotiating table, they will certainly have a voice, because any changes to the salary structure will have a significant impact on their earning potential. In most cases, the agents interests are in line with the players' interests, more money for player salaries translates into more money for agents.

Where these interests deviate however is around rookie salaries. Current players and owners hate the current rookie salary structure because it leads to rookies often being paid more than well established veterans at the same position and lengthy contract negotiations that can be PR disasters. Agents however, love the rookie structure for exactly these reasons.

While players know that if you take some money away from rookies, that cash will go to veterans and all the players at the table are obviously veterans. Agents however know that it is a lot easier to recruit a new client if they are not already someone else's client, rookie contracts (particularly first and second round picks) are often the most lucrative of a player's career. Additionally, negotiating a first round pick's contract, and doing it very publicly and perhaps with a long hold out allows agents to raise their own profile and make it easier to attract new business.

So as the negotiations unfold, watch what happens to the rookie pool. If NFL rookies get paid like NBA rookies (slotted fixed salaries with no negotiations unless you are the Griz), then agents are losing the battle. If however, the rookie structure remains in place, then the agents must be wielding significant power.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Florio and The CBA

Virtually everything I know about the NFL's collective bargaining agreement comes from Mike Florio and ProfootballTalk. I decided that that kind of dependence was not healthy as I start to comment on CBA related issues, so I went to the NFL player's association web site and downloaded all 300+ pages of it. Upon opening the file I was instantly reminded about why I not only have not read it previously, but why I am an economist/statistician and not a lawyer.

I am doing my best to work my way through it, but as I did not go to law school, I am forced to take a two hour nap for every ten pages of the document. This puts me on pace to have gone through the entire document and had 60 extra hours of sleep forced upon me, some time in 2020. By then of course, the lockout should be  over and a new CBA in place, allowing me to start the process over again.

This Sisiphusian effort is inspired by the complicated issues that will be discussed at length during the next few months as the owners and players try and avoid what could be deemed the dumbest lockout in history. What is happening in this negotiation is that  33 different entities (32 teams plus the players) are all trying to decide how to divide a large and growing pie. The lockout of course will serve no purpose other than to temporarily shrink the pie, forcing everyone to finally agree on how big each entity's piece is.

I want to avoid the travesty of an actual work stoppage in the NFL, largely because I do not know what my older son will do on Sunday in the fall if the 49ers and Chargers are not actually playing. So with continued reading of Florio's site and increased nap taking, I hope to understand the issues better, so that at the very least I can intelligently explain to my son why he is staring at blank screen for 6 straight hours.

The end in sight for Brady?

What I am about to suggest will be considered blasphemy by many Patriot fans, but news out of Foxboro that the Pats and QB Tom Brady are getting closer on a contract extension may not be good news. Brady has a year left on his contract, and he turns 33 next week. The odds say that extending his contract with any significant dollars will lead to significant dollars sitting on the bench, or at least, not performing.

The case for not extending Brady starts with his age. He will be 33 for the 2010-11 season. Putting that in context, since 1980, only 37 QBs have had seasons in which they have thrown more than 450 passes (Brady has averaged 525 attempts in seasons he has played significant time). Of those 37, only 9 played more than two seasons. So of the approximately 900 QB seasons since 1980, QBs that are 33 or older have played 8.5% and only 24% of those that make it to 33, then make it to 35. These are to numbers that scream "Long Term Extension Time".

The push back of course is that Brady is special, he is different, he is the Golden Boy who can do no wrong. He is a winner! There is no question that Brady has been an exceptional QB, but that does not make him immune to the effects of time. Remember, Patriot fans, how much you loved Drew Bledsoe? He did take you to a Super Bowl and had many productive seasons, but he was all of 29 when his injury provided Brady with his first opportunity and 34 when he threw his last pass as a Dallas Cowboy (and 33 when he had his last season of 450+ attempts).

Bledsoe not a good enough comparison for you? Not golden enough? How about Jim Kelly? Done at 36 but his last 450+ season was when he was 35.

Sure Steve Young played until he was 38, but he wasn't starting in the NFL until he was 30 and Brady has already thrown more passes than he did his entire career.

Then there is the ultimate golden boy not named Brady, Joe Montana. Joe, like Young, played until he was 38, but from the time he was 30, he only averaged 10 starts a season, and had only two seasons with more than 450 attempts.

Favre and Elway are really the only QBs that were consistent starters with high numbers of pass attempts that continued to play well late into their 30s. Could Brady be the next? Sure, but I would not bet on it.

I must admit to generally being totally in the tank for the NFL. I love it. I love watching games with my kids, I love following team moves in and out of the season, and I love doing research statistical research on strategic and player evaluation in the NFL. As a professor of sport management, I also have a great deal of respect for what the NFL has accomplished on the business side. They are the most powerful force in professional sports in the US. They had an hour long special announcing the order in which teams would play their previously announced opponents! And people actually watched!

This makes the strange case of even stranger.

The NFL is in the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the players, which is a highly complex process. There are numerous long range economic variables, international aspects, intellectual property issues... (I could go on here, but listing all the areas that the agreement touches is pretty boring stuff). One the aspects of this bargaining process is public perception. Fans invariably will either take the sides of the very wealthy players or ridiculously wealthy owners, and the side that wins more of the fans, will have some advantage at the bargaining table.

The NFL has one of the best PR and marketing teams in the business world (again they actually got people to watch them announce when teams would play previously announced opponents), yet they seem to have put together a totally transparent ploy to win "hearts and minds" in this battle for the favor of the fans. The site, which is owned and operated by the NFL, is a series of blog posts which seem to be designed to curry the favor of fans by posting on events in the NFL through highly rose colored glasses (assuming those rose colored glasses were personally fitted by Roger Goodell).

The writers of the blog, which are all apparently called "Staff", have highlighted such high value NFL developments such as the Eagles printing fans faces on tickets, NFL employees discussing how much they love fans, and that 15 NFL players are in the top 50 in earnings for professional athletes.

What is particularly interesting about this site is the address: because this site has very little to do with discussing important NFL labor issues and lot more to do with congratulating the NFL for being great. Why do this? Are fans going to be confused by this site and believe it is somehow related to the NFL Players Association (which does its fair share of propaganda for its point of view)? Are fans going to confuse this site with the excellent work done on

The entire exercise just seems amateurish for an organization as successful as the NFL. It is obvious, and blatant and they clearly or not proud of this as there is not link to on the site! The NFL has every right to try and curry favor with fans at the expense of the players, they are in a very difficult negotiation, but they should do it with the same expertise that they promote a multi-day event in which no football gets played yet fans tune in to watch their teams decide whether they should draft the 150th best player on their draft board, or try and fill a need with the 200th best player on their draft board (as an aside, I get board after the 3rd round of my own fantasy draft, I certainly can't stomach watching a draft where I don't even get to make a decision).