Monday, January 21, 2013

Five Things I Hate About You, Super Bowl XLVII

And so, the time has come.  Thirty teams have fallen by the wayside, and only two remain, as the Orioles face off against the Giants in the World Series.  Oh, wait.  Wow, I actually just realized that San Francisco has a really nice year going, although they don't have the representation in the NBA and NHL to allow them to really go for the gold.  

Anyway, I don't know about any of you, but I'm not much of a fan of the fact that the Super Bowl has two weeks of hype behind it after the conference championships, as if it needed the extra exposure.  What that produces is an oversaturation of the same headlines for two straight weeks with only a wee little Pro Bowl interruption (and that might be gone after this season).  So instead of adding to the hype train that is already gaining steam, I'm going to give you the five storylines that you will be sick of by as early as this Wednesday, more than ten days before the actual game is played.

5. The 49ers' championship history

I don't know how many of you have heard of Joe Montana and Steve Young, but they combined to win five championships in the span of 14 years in the 80's and 90's, and are both in the Hall of Fame as a result of their dominance during this period.  Only the Steelers have more Super Bowl wins (6).  The problem with this whole "storied franchise" thing is that they have not been in a Super Bowl before or since that period.  They had two of the greatest quarterbacks and the greatest receiver of all time for a continuous period, and they won a lot during that time.  Other than that, not so much.

4. Colin Kaepernick and the Read-Option

Last year we whetted our appetite for this stuff with Cam Newton's breakout.  This year we went full-on bonkers for the read-option running scheme, with RGIII, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick all having great success using an offensive philosophy that was previously mostly limited to the college ranks.  Yes, Kaepernick is a much more exciting player to watch than Alex Smith, but it's interesting to note that the Niners averaged 170 rushing yards per game in their 9 games with Smith, but just 159 with Kaepernick, and we can all agree that Kaep is adding a lot more rushing value than Smith.

3. Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback?

This discussion actually started about Eli Manning at the start of last season, and he validated his own confidence by winning a Super Bowl.  Flacco made a similar claim about his "eliteness" at the start of this season, stating that his expected contract value was only going to go up as the year went on.  Well, he made it to his first Super Bowl, and does own a very impressive 54-26 career regular season record, and perhaps a more impressive 8-4 postseason record.  Even if he wins this game, I'm not going to engage in the "Oh, he got a ring, so he's gotta be elite" discourse until I see more consistency out of him.  Flacco's Total QBR for each season in his career has never been higher than 12th in the league, and this year was a dismal 25th, while his playoff-snakebit contemporary has never finished lower than 14th and has finished in the top 5 in his other four seasons.

2. Ray Lewis' Farewell Tour

After soon-to-be-Hall-of-Fame-linebacker Ray Lewis announced at the start of the playoffs that this season would be his last, we all knew that people would be talking about it all over the place.  And the Ravens have given Lewis an opportunity to go out on top, a feat that has recently been accomplished by the likes of Elway, Bettis, and Strahan.  Lewis has also had a pretty good postseason amid all the hoopla, with 25 solo tackles and 19 assisted tackles in three games.  It's hard to argue with the attention being paid to the retirement (potentially with a Super Bowl ring) of one of the three greatest players at his position of all time, it's just been a lot of attention, and it's already been cooking for three weeks.

1. The Harbaugh Bowl (Harbaughl?)

I think that the over/under for references by the announcers to the Ravens and 49ers' coaches being brothers during the game should be set somewhere around 30, and that might be conservative.  There will be all sorts of prop bets in Vegas on the number of times they show the parents, or which Harbaugh they show more often, or whatever.  I actually feel that the attention that will be paid for this pales in comparison to the explosion that would happen if we ever get a Manning Bowl (and God help us if that happens), but we'll deal with this for now.  As I found out from my friend Allyson after I told her the story, there's a good chance that non-football-people could find this game more watchable than usual, so I suppose that's all right.  But I really don't need to deal with the comparisons, contrasts, baby pictures, and plays on words that are going to ooze out of the media in the next two weeks.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Maddening Manning

Well, that Divisional Playoff weekend certainly lived up to any hype it could have had.  A lot of talking heads call it the best weekend of football of the year, because of the combination of excellent quality and good-enough quantity of games available.  Unfortunately, the actual results of these games didn't quite tickle my fancy.  I was banking on a Brady/Manning AFC Championship followed by the winner going up against Rodgers for the title, but two of those teams managed to lose thanks to dramatically ineffective defenses.

In this post, though, I'm going to focus on one player who appears to not only be getting a disproportionate amount of blame for his team's loss, but this loss appears to have tarnished his career legacy somewhat.  I am of course referring to Broncos QB Peyton Manning, whose two interceptions, one resulting in a pick-six early in the game and one in overtime, clearly had a significant impact on Denver's loss.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to ignore this game in particular, in which the Broncos secondary imploded in an inexcusable way to allow the Ravens to have several big passing plays that won them the game.  As a result of this last game, some of these aforementioned talking heads have now started questioning Manning's ability to perform in the clutch once again, a practice that was commonplace just under a decade ago.  But doesn't even having that discussion around a 4-time MVP and Super Bowl champion seem unfair?  I'm not so sure.  Really, I'm not sure.  I'm going to decide as I write this.  Sort of a choose-your-own-adventure thing.  Or a lack of prior research. 

First, the detractors' argument. 

Here are a few standard stats over Manning's career in both the regular season and postseason:
Regular season         
69% WinPct    65% Completions       266 Yds/Gm    1.9 TD/Gm      0.9 INT/Gm      7.63 Yds/Att
45% WinPct    63% Completions       284 Yds/Gm    1.6 TD/Gm      1.1 INT/Gm      7.46 Yds/Att

So it looks like he's producing more yards in the playoffs but fewer touchdowns and more interceptions, which probably produces the dips in completion percentage and yards per attempt.  However, the striking difference is clearly in the winning percentage, where he loses an extra 1/4 of his games in the playoffs than in the regular season.  It certainly stands to reason that the lost touchdown every three games and the extra interception every 5 games might be the difference between 9-11 and something like 11-9.  In fact, of his 11 postseason losses, 7 of them were by a touchdown or less.  If Peyton throws an extra touchdown in two of those, that's a jump to 11-9 right there.  On the other hand, those touchdowns could have occurred in a game which he would already have won, in which case nothing important happens.

Now, the supporters' argument.

We're going to set aside the whole "HOW COULD YOU DISPARAGE PEYTON MANNING, HE'S UNDOUBTEDLY ONE OF THE TOP TWO OR THREE QUARTERBACKS OF ALL TIME!" thing for the sake of rationality.  The first step in acquitting Manning is probably to point out that he was 3-6 in the playoffs from '99 to '05, and has been 6-5 since, including a Super Bowl trip.  There's also a point that some people appear to be missing, and that is that the level of opponent is significantly increased in the playoffs, which should produce declines in performance in the playoffs relative to the regular season.  This decline may not manifest itself strongly in passing statistics, as there are many good teams that have bad defenses and would allow similar performances statistically to bad teams.  However, they are still good teams, meaning that Manning likely faces teams with an average win percentage of around 65-70 (i.e. 10-11 wins) in the playoffs compared to 50 in the regular season.  If his team normally wins 69% of his games, but they are facing a team that wins 65-70% of their games, one would expect his team to at best win just barely over 50% of the time, which would probably make his "expected" wins 10 out of 20 instead of his actual 9.  Is this enough to crucify him over?  Probably not.  

That being said, contemporaries Brady, Brees, McNabb, Warner, Roethlisberger, Favre, and his brother Eli (all of whom have playoff records over .500) have a combined regular season win percentage of 63, with their average playoff win percentage 61.  This represents a sample of some of the most successful quarterbacks that have played over much of Manning's career, and yet he still has a significantly better regular season record than these players.  Despite that, his postseason record is nontrivially worse than theirs, and he is 1-4 in playoff games against these quarterbacks (and 0-2 against Philip Rivers, who could theoretically have been included in the above list).

I'm not one to lean on wins and losses as a measure of one player's performance, but with the quarterback position being so much more critical to a team's success than any other position in any other sport, it's hard to ignore the contrast between Peyton Manning's playoff success and the success of his rivals.  Yes, two close losses turning into wins would probably kill the detractors' argument, so it's pretty unreasonable to make any strong claim about Manning's "clutchness," or lack thereof, but the difference between his playoff performance and everyone else's makes for a compelling discussion, at least.  I'm inclined to give the man who will probably end up the most prolific quarterback of all time a little bit of slack, though. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Going against Jim Mora's wishes

I'm going to talk about playoffs.  Sorry coach.

As someone who has a forum through which to make such claims, I'm always in the market for predicting the outcomes of seasons, postseasons, and... well... not preseason, actually.  Normally I just go with whatever feels right, but I'm feeling frisky today, so we're going to go a little (Football) Outside(rs) the Box.  That's right, we're entering the realm of DVOA.

Defense-Adjusted-Value-Over-Average, or DVOA, is a proprietary statistic put out by Football Outsiders as a metric of a player or team's performance, adjusted for opponent, in each game situation they face, as compared to an average player or team's performance in that same situation.  For example, the computed value of a team gaining 10 yards is dependent on the down-and-distance (if it's 3rd-and-17, it's not nearly as valuable as 1st-and-10), how well an average team would perform in that situation (it's a lot easier to gain 10 yards on 3rd-and-17 than 1st-and-10 because the defense is playing softer), and the opponent (it's a lot easier to gain 10 yards on the Eagles than the Seahawks).  DVOA is represented as a percentage increase in value against an average player or team, and does not take into account volume (so CJ Spiller can lead the league in rushing DVOA despite getting 140 fewer carries than Adrian Peterson).

So how did I implement DVOA in playoff predictions?  Well, Football Outsiders has computed the DVOA of each team's offense, defense, and special teams for the entire season, which is a more reliable tool for judging teams than simple win-loss record.  Here are the data I used:

SEA 38.30% 18.50% -14.10% 5.70%
DEN 36.60% 22.10% -13.80% 0.70%
NE 34.90% 30.80% 1.30% 5.50%
SF 29.90% 17.00% -14.30% -1.50%
GB 26.60% 19.50% -7.30% -0.20%
BAL 9.80% 3.00% 2.20% 9.00%
WAS 9.60% 15.30% 1.80% -4.00%
ATL 9.10% 6.10% -2.90% 0.10%
HOU 6.60% 0.10% -14.20% -7.70%
CIN 6.10% -1.80% -3.80% 4.10%
MIN 2.00% 0.30% 3.10% 4.70%
IND -16.00% -2.90% 14.00% 0.90%

(Note: A good defensive DVOA is negative, indicating the opponent's offensive output is reduced by a percentage)

I've come up with a crude way of comparing teams'  DVOA for each phase of the game, which gives a rough estimate of which team should perform better on offense, defense, and special teams.  First, I ignored the actual meaning of DVOA for the moment and just use the raw number.  For each phase of the game (home team on offense, home team on defense, special teams) I subtracted the offense's DVOA from the defense's, and then aggregated them while weighing the phases by average number of plays per game (64 offense, 64 defense, and 7 special teams).  If the result is positive, I expect the home team to win, and if the result is negative, I expect the away team to win.  In the interest of respecting home field advantage, I gave the home team the edge in games where the result was close to zero.

Since the actual result of this calculation is meaningless with respect to anything tangible, I'm just going to go round-by-round with what I found, with big wins in bold and close wins in italics:


As those who have watched the whole season closely might have guessed, DVOA doesn't think very highly of the respected Texans, Ravens, and Colts (the latter of which has the worst DVOA of any 11-win team since 1991).  However, the Bengals aren't any great shakes either, so Houston should be able to squeak this one out.  The Seahawks are very highly rated in DVOA in all three phases, so it's no surprise that even on the road they're expected to beat Washington, since they run very similar offenses but Seattle has a much better defense.


The Falcons have looked like frauds for much of the season, and since DVOA loves the 'Hawks, it's no surprise that they are expected to pull another upset.  The Broncos and Patriots have been dominant for much of the season, so they should roll over the overrated Texans and Ravens.  The Niners eked out a win by my calculations without adding any home-field advantage, so I feel a little better about that pick.


Now we have the cream rising to the top, so it's all close games from here on out.  The Niners ride home-field to a really close win (on a neutral field I would have to take Seattle), while the Broncos should use their clearly superior defense to take care of the Pats.


Given that this is a neutral field (and is indoors), I feel much better about picking the higher-flying offense in the Broncos, and with their 11 straight wins, it's hard to argue with.  Do you think the Colts regret releasing Peyton?  Serious question.

Using DVOA gives a very intuitive result for the playoff bracket (with the possible exception of the Seahawks, but they have the look of the late-surging wild-card team that's done so well of late), and that's heartening, because sometimes advanced statistics produce some odd predictions because they're allegedly independent of situation or luck.  I feel pretty satisfied with making this bracket my pick for the actual results, although I'd really prefer the Colts beat the Ravens and the Texans beat the Bengals so that the Manning-Colts matchup can happen.  Although I bet it's hard for DVOA to incorporate the whole coach-coming-back-from-cancer thing anyway.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

OK, fine, I'll wrap up the fantasy season

Since most of the people who read this blog are likely to have read my previous post about how I'm trying to be more prudent with my time spent on fantasy football, as it's slowly killing my soul.  That being said, I feel that I need to give some closure on the subject, and since the NFL regular season just ended, I'm going to go with a quick-and-dirty season in review.  Just some observations about what I expect to see next year based on this year.  In Jerusalem.
  • I guess we shouldn't have been concerned about going QB-TE in the first two rounds.  The top three quarterbacks (Rodgers, Brady, Brees) and top two tight ends (Gronkowski, Graham) this fantasy season were exactly the same five names as were unanimously drafted at those positions coming into the season.  Granted, all of them fell off from 2011 by an average of 50 fantasy points, but the relative position is still an interesting (if redundant) development for draft strategy next year.
  • Barring injuries in the upcoming playoffs, we might be looking at a much more palatable running back crop in the first 2-3 rounds.  The unstable situations of rookies Doug Martin and Trent Richardson and injured studs Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson proved to not be a concern, while some backs that worried fantasy owners (McFadden, Turner, Mathews) showed fairly conclusively that they really weren't as good as they were drafted to be.  At the same time, the top guys (Foster, Rice, McCoy) didn't do anything to make you question drafting them in the top 10 at their position in 2013.
  • Fantasy owners should have a much higher opinion of Mike Shanahan after this season.  After all, his team produced the 6th best quarterback (who missed a game) and the 5th best running back, and, despite having just the 20th best pass offense, a wide receiver who would have ranked 19th among receivers if he had played every game. 
  • When it comes to top-flight wide receiver production, being the only show in town appears to trump having another guy to distract the defense.  On the one hand, there were five pairs of receivers from the same team that made the top 20 this year.  On the other hand, those ten players averaged a rank of 12, compared to 8 for the solo receivers.  In fact, three of the top four receivers and four of the top seven had at least 61 more targets than the next highest pass-catcher on his team.  And that's with Percy Harvin missing almost half the season and Larry Fitzgerald being beyond grounded by his quarterback play.
  • There is going to be a massive tier of replacement-level quarterbacks next season.  After the Big Three, the Mobile Two, and Peyton, I could see arguments made for any of Ryan, Romo, Luck, Stafford, Wilson, Freeman, Eli, Roethlisberger, and Kaepernick being put anywhere in the range of 7-15, meaning that if you don't get a top-six guy (which you really should do), you might as well wait and take the 11th and 12th guys back-to-back or something.
  • And last but not least, I won the championship in three out of six of my leagues this year.  At least it's working.