Friday, September 24, 2010

The Blindeside Project: Some Jets Questions

As the fresh data pours in, I wanted to start asking some questions about both the Jets offense and defense (we'll focus on the Giants in another posting). This posting will have one question for each side of the ball, and most of these results will be fairly raw and rather stream of conciousness style thinking so any comments or thoughts on areas that seem the most fruitful are welcome.

The first question is about the inherent aggressiveness of the defense. They get pressure quicker (2.3 seconds vs 2.45 average) than other teams. Do they get this pressure faster because they have better rushers or because they send more rushers?

The answer seems to be both. Jets are nearly twice as likely to send a 5th or 6th or even 7th rusher than any other team currently in the data set (see the graphs below for a comparison between the Jets distribution of # of player rushing the QB vs the entire data set).

This would suggest that the shorter time is due to higher volume of bodies flying at the opposing team's offensive line, but that is not the entire story. With a basic regression of time in the pocket on number of rushers, while controlling for the QB's dropback and whether they were in shotgun formation or not, I find that the Jets get more kick from their additional rushers than other defenses. For example, when the Jets go from four to five rushers, their opponents average time in the pocket drops by 0.22 seconds, while the average team only sees a drop in time in the pocket of abou 0.14 seconds when they send an additional rusher. This suggests  that it is not just volume of rushers (though that certainly helps) but also what those rushers are doing. The skill of the rushers and how they are sent are effects that we can't unpack just yet, but they seem to have a big effect for the Jets defense.

On the other side of the ball, Sanchez seems to be getting some credit for his cool demeanor, and I wonder if he really is cool under pressure, or is something else going on.

Looking at the data, the Jets face the fewest rushers on average of any team in the data set and have the longest average pressure free time in the pocket. They also have teh shortest average length of a throw (7 yds vs 9+ for everyone else. So, while none of this is truly conclusive, Sanchez gets more time to complete shorter throws, so his completion percentage better look good.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

NFL Week 3 Picks

Last week I had the Jets over the Patriots and nearly the 49ers over the Saints (both right against the spread). Since I'd rather not dwell too much the Vikes or Cowboys picks, lets get right into week 3. As always, home team is listed first, projected winner in bold and confidence level is the probability that the pick is correct.

New Orleans (26) vs. Atlanta (14) Confidence: 80%
Atlanta has not been very good on offense, particularly on first down and they have been aweful stopping the run on first down. The Saints on the other hand have been very good running the ball on first and generally playing very good defense. The match-up signals bad news for the Falcons this week.

New England (25) vs. Buffalo (15) Confidence: 77%
The Patriots bounce back from not being able to stop the efficiency of Mark Sanchez by shutting down the UFL level Bills offense. The BIlls have had some success defending the pass, but that will not be enough to pull out a win on the road.

Carolina (13 ) vs. Cincinnati (15) Confidence: 92%
Highest confidence on the board despite the closeness of the score. Even the Bengals shouldn't be able to blow this as they face the 30th ranked offense in the league that is paired with one of the worst pass defenses in the league. 

Baltimore (21) vs. Cleveland (20) Confidence: 78% 
The model finally takes its talents and gets out of Cleveland. The Ravens good if not great offense goes to battle against a sub par defense on all fronts and as Cleveland has one of the worst passing attacks in the league, the Ravens should be winners at home.

Houston (26) vs Dallas (18) Confidence: 76%
Finally going against Dallas and strongly against them. The Texans have the 2nd best passing attack in the league and they are not afraid to use it, while the Cowboys have struggled mightily defending the pass (particularly on 3rd down). The Cowboys offense will continue to look good though as they will put up some yards against a porous pass defense, but it won't be enough.

Minnesota (28) vs. Detroit (20) Confidence: 88%
Detroit is the hot pick to start putting up some wins due to their gaudy sack numbers. They won't pull it off against the Vikes though as Favre is still leading a good offense and the Lions 27th ranked offense will not be able to break through a very strong Minnesota defense.

Kansas City (17) vs. San Francisco (18) Confidence: 62%
Chicago (23) vs. Green Bay (15) Confidence: 59%
Denver (24) vs. Indianapolis (16) Confidence: 77%
Arizona (26) vs. Oakland (20) Confidence: 97%

Jacksonville (21) vs. Philadelphia (24) Confidence: 61%

Tampa Bay (18) vs. Pittsburgh (19) Confidence: 73%

Seattle (21) vs. San Diego (20) Confidence: 55%
St. Louis (19) vs. Washington (30) Confidence: 71%

Note: Giants and Jets predictions will appear in the New York edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Time in the Pocket and the Effects on a QB

The stake in the ground of the Blind Side Project is that time in the pocket, which is increased by good offensive linemen, has a significant effect on a QBs ability to complete passes. The natural first pass at trying to establish this would be to look for a direct correlation between completion percentage and time in the pocket while adjusting for the distance of the throw. While a small positive correlation can be found, it does not seem to be of the magnitude one might expect, or at least I would not expect. This could be a function of the size of the data set, and that more data will demonstrate a stronger correlation, but I think that the complexities of the game of football, are more the culprit. There are a host of factors that could effect the relationship between time in the pocket (even adjusted for distance of the throw) and completion percentage. One area that is clear however, is that when a QB is under pressure, their completion percentage (adjusted for the distance of the throw) drops. In our 2007 data, when Peyton Manning is under pressure, his adjusted completion percentage drops from 86% to 46% and when Tom Brady is under pressure, his adjusted completion percentage drops from 71% to 39%. There is also a very direct connection between how long a QB holds the ball and the probability that they are under pressure. The graph below demonstrates the "survival function" or the estimated probability that a QB will not be under pressure, for any given length of time in the pocket.

This graph looks about like we could expect it to. As time in the pocket increases, the probability that the QB is not under pressure drops and the probability drops the fastest between 2 and 3 seconds. This suggests that the average offensive line has a fairly high probability of keeping their QB free of harassing defensive players for about two seconds, but there is only about a 40% chance that the QB will have 3 seconds without pressure.

This helps provide a baseline for the overall quality of an offensive line. Lines (or individual linemen) that can help increase this probability, can help increase the overall efficiency of the offense. Additionally, linemen that can increase the No Pressure probability, also provide the playcallers with increased flexibility in areas such as depth of routes and number of  receivers running routes (as opposed to staying in to help block).

Monday, September 20, 2010

Northern California Symposium on Statistics and Operations Research in Sports

Just a quick reminder that the Northern California Symposium on Statistics and Operations Research in Sports will be held on October 16th at Menlo College. Featured speakers this year are Roland Beech of the Dallas Mavericks and Sig Mejdal of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Blindside Project

I have been fascinated with the offensive line since the heyday of the Hogs in Washington DC. During the 1991-92 season, the Redskins offensive line (Schlereth, McKenzie, Jacoby, Bostic and Lachey) turned Mark Rypien into not only a Super Bowl winning QB, but into one of the most efficient QBs of all time. That year Rypien amassed over 3500 yards and 28 TDs with only 11 interceptions. He was able to pull that off because he was sacked only 7 times the entire season. To put that into context, the Bills, Texans, Steelers, Panthers and Eagles have all allowed 7 or more sacks after just two games, and every team is on pace to allow at least 8 sacks this season. And to further explain the excellence the 'skins line exhibited that season, remember that they played both the Jerome Brown, Reggie White and Clyde Simmons's Eagles and Lawrence Taylor's Giants twice that season.

The issue with offensive linemen is that beyond the proverbial "I know it when I see it" there is very little known about how to quantify their performance and understand their true value to a team. Clearly the 'skins would not have won the the Super Bowl, or even many games with Rypien at QB without the exceptional line play (the next season with a banged up offensive line Rypien tossed 13 TDs and 17 interceptions while being sacked a more normal 23 times). But what contribution did each of these players make individually to the team?

I have begun to tackle this question before and would like to dig deeper into the data that I have now, and expand this data set, so that we can be as confident in the results as possible. Below I will begin to further probe the data set that exists to try and understand the right directions to take, but the data collection provides the stumbling block.

One of the most important jobs of the offensive line is to provide the QB with a safe pocket in which he has plenty of time to make the right decisions. Clearly the longer a QB has to watch his receivers develop their routes, without being harassed by 350 lbs defensive ends trying to take his head off, the better his decisions are going to be, and more likely it is that the receivers will get open. I based that not on any data analysis (though the analysis does support it) but rather the knowledge that I make better decisions when I do not have 350lbs of DE rushing towards me.

This implies that to understand the value of each offensive linemen, we need to know how well they provide this safe haven for their QB. Which  is exactly what I set out to do in my original stab at this problem. At the time I (with the help of my then intern Jesse Weinstein-Gould, put a stop watch on every pass play for a small group of teams, to get an idea of how long linemen could hold their blocks - how long did QBs have in their safe pocket. While this is a very time consuming project, in certainly yielded some clear results on how variability in the quality of an offensive line could effect the completion percentage of a teams' passing attack. This was done for 5 teams for the first four weeks of the 2007-08 season.

Now, looking to expand the data set, I will again (with the help my current intern Keith Goldner) put a stopwatch on every pass play (both offense and defense this time) for two teams over the course of the entire season. I will be charting the Jets and Giants all year and gathering all of the data that was originally tracked, plus some additional variables on formation and play type that will help further inform the analysis. Some of that work will appear here and some will be over at the Wall Street Journal but the goal of all of it is to enter into a massive study of the effect of individual linemen on a teams' passing attack.

As I have discussed here previously the dominant thought in the NFL is that LTs are by far the most valuable of offensive linemen (as implied by their significantly higher salaries) and therefore must have the biggest impact on a team. According to the Blind Side Hypothesis, this takes the form mostly of insurance. The LT protects the blind side of the QB (assuming he is right handed) and so keeps the QB safe (or not) from what he cannot see. As the story goes, Joe Theisman had not chance to avoid Lawrence Taylor because he could not see him coming. Thus, the data should indicate that when a LT fails to hold his assigned block, it results in a sack more often than when any other offensive linemen does.

Once we control for actual time in the pocket, this is exactly what the data shows. When a Left Tackle fails, the odds that a QB is sacked increases by over 20%. In contrast, when a Right Guard fails, the odds that a QB is sacked increase by only 9.2%.

Probability of a Sack
Left Tackle 21.6%
Left Guard 16.0%
Center 4.4%
Right Guard 9.2%
Right Tackle 14.6%
Other 13.7%

These results suggest that there is a significant difference between failures and sack totals, but does that translate into an effect on completion percentage? There the data appears to suggest that no, failure is failure when it comes to completing passes, so the higher salaries may be attributable solely to the insurance aspect: we don't want our QB getting hit too much. The differences in salary for LTs relative to other linemen and other players on the team though seem too great to be explained just by insurance. Many teams, for example, pay their left tackles more than their QB, you would not pay $1mil to insure a $500,000 asset - so it seems like their needs to be some team performance element to the salary differences.

These are just preliminary results though, as the data set currently includes only 478 plays from five different teams. As the data set grows and number of teams covered expands, the data set will be more robust which should lead to clearer results. Once we can fully evaluate the contribution of each linemen, then hopefully we will be able to at least better understand the salary structure for linemen in the NFL.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Singletary was right

Sure I love a good coach meltdown as much as the next guy, but the thing about Mike Singletary's nuanced answers regarding his team's upcoming match-up with the Saints is that he was right.

Asked how his offense will try to move the ball against the Saints' defense, coach Singletary replied "We won't try to move the ball against the Saints' defense, we will move the ball against the Saints defense and we will score points. Next question."  His skill in directly answering the question with confidence and annoyance, plus sticking the "Next Question" dismount earns him a perfect 10. Allow me to just read between the lines a little bit for you though so you can see how those points will get scored. Once you use more than just last weeks results (win for Saints, embarassing loss for the 49ers) to make projections, you can see some interesting matchups.

The 49ers 1st down passing attack was not overly impressive, except that they really seem committed to throwing on first down. They get  5.3 yards per pass play on first down which is a full yard better than what they get when they run the ball. As the Saints run defense is excellent (allowing less than 4 yards a carry) and their pass defense is suspect (allowing 6.3 yards per attempt), the 49ers commitment to throwing on first down is a major strength. This is a good math-up for Alex Smith to demonstrate why the 49ers believe in him.
 Particularly if the 49ers can employ the same tactics that the Ravens did last week against the very aggressive Jets defense: lots of shotgun with quick passes, limiting the effects that their incredible pass rush could have on their young QB.

Asked how his defense will try to stop the high power Saints' offense, Singletary again stuck the dismount: "We will not try to stop the Saints' offense. We will stop the Saints' offense. Next Question!"

The 49ers will stop the Saints' offense because the Saints actually like to run on first down which is the great strength of the 49ers defense. They have a good pass defense, but the best rush defense in the league on first down (again, this is not just based on last weeks data). If New Orleans utilizes a similar game plan to last week, they will find themselves in 3rd and long on a regular basis against a defense that will be able to slow them down enough to get the win.

Next question.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

NFL Week 2 Picks

Week one was an interesting one for the model. Of all the picks made, it got 53% correct (against the spread as well). Once the confidence in the pick is factored in (estimated accuracy of the pick) the accuracy shot up to 72% overall and 67% against the spread. This included picking the Steelers and the Texans. I did pick the Cowboys and they blew it by holding on the last play of the game, but that is what I get for picking the Cowboys.

This week we final have some current data to feed into the model so we are looking for slightly better overall performance. Here goes nothing. Home teams are listed first, each team's projected score is in parentheses and the confidence level reflects the odds the team projected to win will actually win the game:

San Francisco (20) vs. New Orleans (19) Confidence: 51%
The 49ers ran into so....technical difficulties last week, but we assume that Singletary and Co. will be able to get the play calling under control and get Alex Smith in position to have the break out year I have projected him to have. Meanwhile, New Orleans is not running the ball well nor (strangely enough) passing enough.

Washington (17) vs. Houston (21) Confidence: 52%
The Texans look to follow up their big upset of the Colts with a win on the road over the incredibly lucky Redskins. Houston averaged over 7 yards per play on first down against a good Colts defense, hard to imagine what they will be able to do to a 'Skins defense that gave up  nearly 6 yards a play on first against a good but not that good Cowboy offense.

Carolina (20) vs. Tampa Bay (21) Confidence: 58%
These were two of the worst third down defenses last week, both giving up close to 10 yards per pass play on 3rd and long. Not sure that either team has the firepower to take advantage of the others weakness though so Tampa should be just good enough on offense to squeak out a win.

Cincinnati (21) vs. Baltimore (16) Confidence: 59%
The Ravens must be riding high after their big Monday night upset of the suddenly cowering Jets, but it will not be enough to beat a division rival on the road. The Bengals are passing well and often which should more than over come a leaky first down defense to score them the win at home.

Cleveland (24) vs. Kansas City (21) Confidence: 61.3%
The Chiefs are getting a ton of buzz and my good friends over at Football Outsiders are feeling good about their pick of the Chiefs winning the division. I however see there 1.4 yards per pass attempt on first down against the Chargers and believe that everything is not quite up to date in KC. Cleveland's strong defense will let them win at home, regardless of their starting QB.

Denver (22) vs. Seattle (19) Confidence: 65.8%
Tebow Fever, catch it.

Green Bay (23) vs. Buffalo (15) Confidence: 64%
Buffalo looks to have one of the worst offenses in the league, averaging approximately 3 yards per play on first down. Their defense is stout, but not enough to contain Rodgers and company (even without Grant) in Lambeau.

Tennessee (22) vs. Pittsburgh (19) Confidence: 70.4%
I had the Steelers win pegged last week, and feel equally confident about a loss for them this week. The Titan's D is looking dominant in all phases and defenses are so scared of Chris Johnson, Vince Young is becoming an efficient option.

Detroit (9) vs. Philadelphia (10) Confidence: 71.2%
The Vick experiment continues  in the backup QB bowl. It looks to be close, but since the Detroit Defense gave up 11.3 yards per 1st down pass attempt and 10 yards per 2nd down pass attempt, even Vick should be able to move the chains.

Oakland (12) vs. St. Louis (17) Confidence: 71.4%
 St Louis is apparently not afraid to let their rookie QB throw the ball (60% of first down plays), and the Oakland D seems amenable to allowing him to actually complete a few this week.

Atlanta (12) vs. Arizona (21) Confidence: 75.8%
The Cards take their balanced and efficient offense on the road against an Atlanta team that appears to have weakened on the defensive end and have little to no rushing attack on offense. The Cards should have little problem taking this one on the road.

Minnesota (23) vs Miami (14) Confidence: 80%
Minnesota bounces back at home after being beat up by the Saints in the opener. They have a dominant run defense and Miami has almost no aerial attack. Peterson may have trouble finding some holes in a defense that looks to be just as good against the run as the Vikes, but at home in their very own dome, old man Favre should be able to find a few TDs to keep the Purple alive.

San Diego (28) vs. Jacksonville (18) Confidence: 85.7%
My one and only caveat to this pick is that the Chargers have to throw the ball more on first down. They are a very good passing team, yet Norv chose to throw on only 40% of first down plays against the Chiefs. That is 21st in the league, behind such stellar passing attacks as the Redskins, Rams and 49ers. If they throw, they'll win going away, otherwise...

Dallas (25) vs. Chicago (16) Confidence: 86.3%
They deeply disappointed me last week, but they also outplayed the Redskins in virtually every aspect of the game. As Chicago was on the other side of lucky last week, I see Dallas bouncing back and actually letting their very efficient offense score some points.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

NFL Week 1

Football can be viewed as a game of situations and match-ups, so my statistical model that predicts game outcomes analyzes situations and match-ups. Additionally, on a very macro level, the model analyzes how well coaches utilize their tools. For example, it does not matter how well a team passes on first down and how poorly their opponent defends the pass on first down, if the coach does not call many first down passing plays (I'm looking at you Norv).

The model was put into action during the playoffs last year and picked 9 of 11 games accurately, including the Jets upset win over the Chargers and the Saints upset win over the Colts (the model was also 67% accurate against the spread...not that I'm interested in that sort of thing).

The additional complication for the model at this point in the season though is that teams have changed from last year, so we do not have a clear set of estimates for exactly how well a team will be able to pass on 3rd and long. The starting point is obviously last seasons data, but I then go through a projection process that incorporates how much turnover each teams has had on each side of the ball, while also assuming that to some degree, each team's performance will move closer to the mean.

So without further ado, below are my picks for week one with the exception of the Giants/Panthers and Jets/Ravens. For those picks you'll have to check the Wall Street Journal. Home teams are listed first, each team's projected score is in parentheses and the confidence level reflects the odds the team projected to win will actually win the game:

Tampa Bay (23) vs. Cleveland (21)   Confidence 50.0%
When the 24th and 32nd projected offenses get together on the same field, the only real losers are the fans. The Bucs should be able to squeak this one out at home, but there is certainly no guarantee.             
New England (24) vs.  Cincinnati (21) Confidence 51.0%
The Pats face a tough home opener against a retooled Bengals team that could pull off the upset based on their excellent pass defense. If the Pats can throw effectively though their average running game won't be an issue and they should have just enough to pull it off.      
Washington (18) vs. Dallas (21)    Confidence 51.7%
The Cowboys will storm into DC and likely steal one from their hated rival on the road. The Cowboys high powered offense will be too much for the 'skins defense and a hobbled McNabb (or worse, a healthy Grossman) won't be able to take advantage of the spotty Cowboys pass defense.  
Seattle (10) vs. San Francisco (14) Confidence 53.4%
My hometown 49ers will run up the coast to take the season opener from division rival Seattle. They will bring a projected 5th ranked defense along with a much improved Alex Smith against a Seattle team that just received a vote of no confidence from the very experienced Alex Gibbs.                       

Jacksonville (14) vs. Denver (21) Confidence 53.6%
If Tebow doesn't play will anyone watch? Ok, they'll watch in case he does play I guess. Otherwise you have two mediocre teams playing outside the division…Someone has to win and odds are it is the Broncos by 7 due to the Jags inept first down pass defense.                           

New Orleans (28) vs. Minnesota (18) Confidence 61.9%
Full comments are available below but what it comes down to is Brees is a better QB than Favre ever was and taking away Bush's Heisman takes nothing away from a dominant offense and growing defense.                   
Buffalo (22) vs. Miami (21) Confidence 64.2%
With the Tuna now out in Miami, maybe they will be allowed to throw the ball a little bit, but then with their combination of RBs and QBs, maybe they are the exception to the rule that teams should pass more. Only Oakland and Miami are projected to actually gain more yards per play when they run than when they pass.
Philadelphia (21) vs. Green Bay (18) Confidence 66.0%
Rogers begins his quest to lead my fantasy league in points again by disappointing many against a top 10 defense in Philadelphia. The anemic rushing attack and inexperienced passing attack of the Eagles will still prove too much for the visiting Packers and their 15th ranked pass defense.                            

Kansas City (14) vs. San Diego (21) Confidence 67.8%
To quote a wise friend "How can Norv Turner hold the same position that Sid Gillman and Don Coryell did?" Norv's conservative ways aside, this Chargers team looks to have NO trouble on the road with the truly abysmal Chiefs and their 30th ranked offense and 22nd ranked defense.                  

Chicago (24) vs. Detroit (21)         68.3%
Stafford's sophomore season begins on the road against a top 10 defense. Not a real recipe for success when you will be relying on Nate Burleson to be easing some pressure off of Calvin Johnson. The Bears may not be able to run the ball against anyone, but with Martz calling the plays and one of the worst pass defenses in the league coming to town, they may not even try.                       

Houston (28) vs. Indianapolis (17) Confidence 73.0%
The Colts have not lost to the Texans since 2006, but this is the year of Schaub. Houston will have the best passing first down offense this year and Kubiak will not be shy about utilizing it. Expect the Texans to pass early and often against a good but not dominant Colts defense. While Schaub is still on the upside of his Career, Manning will begin (if just slightly) to show his age and any decline in Peyton's performance will prove devastating for the Colts.                             

St. Louis (15) vs.  Arizona (18)      Confidence 75.8%
I feel pretty confident picking the Cardinals to win on the road, but I'm not very interested in it.                      

Tennessee (25) vs. Oakland (21) Confidence 80.3%
The Titans maybe adding Albert Haynesworth to a defense that is projected to be the 3rd best 3rd down defense this season. Couple that with the fact that they are playing the Raiders at home, and this is a pretty straightforward pick.                        

Pittsburgh (26) vs. Atlanta (14) Confidence 89.6%
Complete analysis of the Steelers and Dennis Dixon is below, but the Steelers could spot the Falcons and their "struggling" defense a touchdown and still win going away. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Dixon Effect - What the Steelers Lose Without Big Ben

 I have the Steelers projected to win a boat load of games this year, 12 to be exact, which is the highest
projected total on my list. It has been suggested that I am nuts to have the rates so highly with Big Ben sitting out the first four games of the season and Byron Leftwich out with an injury. This has left Dennis Dixon as the starter and Charlie Batch as the primary alternative (just a note, they probably could have added Leinart to the mix here, yet by all indications no serious thought  was given to this option).

So what exactly will the Dixon Effect be and how significant will it be on the Steelers' prospecting for winning in the first four weeks. The real problem with trying to make this determination is that Dixon has essentially no NFL experience, so nothing to concretely gauge what we should expect from him. With no real data to work from, I went to the facts that we do know: he was a 5th round pick, he is 25, he will be starting the season and likely playing 4 games and going back to the bench and he has almost no prior experience. This information actually describes a reasonable number of NFl QBs that can help put some parameters on Dixon's likely performance. Since 1980 20 QBs have fit this rough description and while some will give the Steeler faithful hope (Marc Bulger, ok maybe Bulger is the only serious hope on the list) most are in the Koy Detmer/Rusty Hilger model.

Player  Year  Cmp  Att  Cmp% 
Eric Hipple  1982 36 86 0.419
Paul McDonald  1983 32 68 0.471
Mark Herrmann  1984 29 56 0.518
Steve Bono  1987 34 74 0.459
Steve Pelluer  1987 55 101 0.545
Rusty Hilger  1987 55 106 0.519
Kevin Sweeney  1988 33 78 0.423
Mark Vlasic  1988 25 52 0.481
Stan Humphries  1990 91 156 0.583
Scott Zolak  1992 52 100 0.52
Scott Mitchell  1993 133 233 0.571
Cary Conklin  1993 46 87 0.529
Rob Johnson  1998 67 107 0.626
Koy Detmer  1998 97 181 0.536
Moses Moreno  2000 27 53 0.509
Marc Bulger  2002 138 214 0.645
A.J. Feeley  2002 86 154 0.558
Jesse Palmer  2003 60 116 0.517
Cody Pickett  2005 14 35 0.4
Dan Orlovsky  2008 143 255 0.561

What this means for the Steelers is that they can reasonable expect Dixon to complete about 54% of his passes (Big Ben has a career average of 63%), turn 3.6% of his attempts into TDs (5.3% for Big Ben) and be intercepted on 3.9% of his attempts (3.4% for Big Ben) with an average of 6.3 yards per attempt (8 Y/Att for Big Ben).

The yards per attempt difference is large and is likely directly connected to the difference in TD%. As the int% is roughly equal, the biggest impact then will be on the offense's ability to score points. Assuming the Steelers throw on 35 to 40 plays against their week one opponent (Falcons), they will probably score about 4 fewer points due to Big Ben's suspension. As I have the Steelers winning that game rather decisively (26 to 14 with nearly 90% confidence) a drop in offensive output of even 5 points still has them winning by a touchdown, even if Dixon turns out to be Moses Moreno or Cody Pickett. 

Vikings/Saints Preview

The Saints open at home on Thursday night, kicking off their quest to repeat as NFL champions against the Favre-Vikings. The only downside to the NFL season starting is that with Favre in the season opener we will certainly hear more about the legendary Favre and how he just loves the game etc. We may not hear from the broadcasters that Brees's average yardage total for the four seasons he has been in New Orleans (4575) is 161 yards higher than Favre's best season (4413, in 1995, whne he was 26 and Brees was 16).

We can get past the Favre-fest though and enjoy the opener and watch knowing that there is a 62% chance the Saints win with a likely final score of 28 to 18. Yes the vaunted Saints offense will not be slowed at the start of the season as Brees an Co put up big numbers against the over-hyped Vikings defense. The Vikes have a great first down defense, but they struggle on 2nd and 3rd downs while the Saints Offense (projected 2nd overall coming into the season) is dominant in all offensive situations. They run well and pass even better. Consider that they have the 10th best projected yards per rush on 1st and 10, and 6th best projected yards per pass. The rankings get better as they move to second and third down scenarios.

On the other side of the ball, the Vikings do not maximize their assets very well as they have the 10th best projected yards per pass on first and 10, but only throw it 44% of the time. Yes Peterson is a great back, but on first and 10 they are projected to be 13th in the league in rushing. In yardage terms, the Vikings get 2.5 more yards per play when they pass on 1st and 10, but they still choose to run more often than not. By giving up those yards on 1st down, the Vikes will be playing into the strength of the Saints defense which is their 3rd down packages. They move from an average at best defense on first and second down to a top 10 defense on 3rd down.

So while the great Favrernator may exhibit is legendary love for the game Thursday night, it will be Brees and the defending champion Saints loving the victory.

Saints: 28, Vikings 18, Confidence level: 62%

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The NFL is Making Less Money????

I was browsing my favorite NFL propaganda website today when I saw the devastating news: USA Today Reports NFL Attendance for Third Consecutive Season. This was incredible because it suggests that the NFL may actually function like other businesses and see lower revenues during a very weak economy. Or worse, maybe the NFL is on shaky economic ground all by itself. If that were the case, then NFL owners would have a real case in the ongoing negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement that they should be paying players less and have an "enhanced" season.

I needed to learn more about this dire business climate that the NFL owners are facing, so I clicked through to the actual USA Today story. This is when it starts to get interesting.

Reading the story sheds some light on what it is the USA Today is actually reporting. The headline on the NFLlabor site hints that the USA Today had done some economic analysis or at least interviewed some independent analysts. Not so. The USA Today article was an interview with NFL executive Eric Grubman. So the only source of the expected decline in ticket sales that the NFL is screaming about on its' propaganda site, is the NFL itself.

That would be just a case of a sloppy pr stunt, except that the USA Today did do some actual reporting that helps put that decline into context. During the 2009-10 season, ticket sales were apparently down 2.4%, double what was projected for the upcoming season. The NFL also saw a total increase in ticket prices of 3.9%. So in the face of the worst economy the NFL has ever seen, they raised ticket prices by 3.9% which translates into a total revenue increase of 1.4%. 

So I find myself totally agreeing with Michael Wilbon as I watch PTI "The NFL is King"..."The NFL has nothing to worry about" Except perhaps that their attempts to cry poor entering the CBA negotiations will likely fall flat.

Season Predictions

With a week to go before the season begins, for your commentary, I present my the win totals from my season simulator for the NFL 2010-11 season. I have also included each team's win total from last season, along with their expected change in wins.

Team 2010-11 Wins 2009-10 Wins Change
Pittsburgh 12 9 4
NY Jets 12 9 3
San Diego 12 13 -1
Arizona 11 10 1
New England 11 10 1
New Orleans 11 13 -2
Philadelphia 11 11 0
Baltimore 10 9 1
Cincinnati 10 10 0
Green Bay 10 11 -1
Houston 10 9 1
Tennessee 10 8 2
Chicago 9 7 2
Dallas 9 11 -2
Denver 9 8 1
Indianapolis 9 14 -5
Minnesota 9 12 -3
San Francisco 9 8 1
Washington 9 4 5
Carolina 8 8 0
Seattle 7
5 3
Buffalo 7 6 1
Atlanta 6 9 -3
Jacksonville 6 7 -1
NY Giants 5
8 -2
Miami 5 7 -2
Detroit 4 2 2
Kansas City 4 4 0
Oakland 4 5 -1
Tampa Bay 4 3 1
St. Louis 2 1 1
Cleveland 1 5 -4

Not much of a surprise to see Cleveland and St Louis at the bottom (though winning four fewer games than last year for the Browns is pretty startling). Beyond the Colts dropping to 9 wins, the biggest surprise to me was the Redskins adding 5 wins. They have upgraded their offensive line (it would actually be difficult to not have improved that unit) and made a marginal improvement at QB (while McNabb is healthy...I think I would prefer Campbell over 2nd stringer Rex Grossman) but 9 wins seems awfully ambitious for that group.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A funny thing happened on the way back to the Super Bowl...

I have been fine tuning my projections for actual win totals for the upcoming NFL season (ONLY 7 DAYS TO GO!!). To produce the win projections, I input the entire season into a simulator, and project the score of every game along with the probability that the winner is picked accurately. These projections are based on the model I used with the Wall Street Journal during the playoffs last year and explained roughly in previous posts. Using those projections I simulate the entire season and take average win totals.

The results are always interesting and occasionally produce a result that draws my attention. I like to compare the projected win totals with last season's win totals for each team to see who the system says the big risers and fallers will be. After running the simulation, I found that the team with the largest drop in wins from last season to this season is the Indianapolis Colts. That's right, Peyton and Co. are projected to go from 14 wins last season to only 9 this season (I say only 9...I think Rams/Browns/Raiders' fans would just about kill for 9 wins).

The Colts being the owner of the largest projected drop in wins is cause for further investigation. What causes the Colts to go from 14 wins and clinching home field advantage throughout the playoffs to 9 wins and maybe not making the playoffs at all?

Part of the answer of course is Peyton himself. Peyton will continue to be one of the best QBs in the league, but he will be 34 during the 2010-11 season and is projected to have his first sub 4000 yard season since he was 29.  A 700 yard drop in total passing yards is fairly significant, particularly since his interception total has been trending up since he was 30, but perhaps not enough to explain a 5 win drop.

The second part of the explanation has to do with schedule. Last season, the Colts' opponents had an average win total of 7.5. The Colts' are faced with a much tougher schedule in the upcoming season as their opponents' have an average win total of 8.5. One extra game in average win total may not seem like a big deal, but consider that last season, only 37.5% of the Colts' opponents had more than 8 wins while 68.75% of their opponents in the upcoming season have projected win totals of more than 8 games.

Peyton's decline along with a significantly tougher schedule make the Colts a prime candidate for a post-Super Bowl slump to only 9 wins (again, sorry Rams/Browns/Raiders' fans for the "only"). A repeat Super Bowl appearance seems fairly unlikely as they are not lock to even make the playoffs.