Contextualizing Mr. Jackson

Another day, another confusing report about DeSean Jackson.  Until something actually happens (like a trade or release), I’m not going to spend too much time discussing it.  There’s just not much value in speculating when we’re clearly missing a lot of information.  However, I have noticed something worrisome over the past week.  Namely, people seem to be underrating DeSean Jackson.

Make no mistake about it, DeSean Jackson is a great WR and he cannot be easily replaced.  I find it remarkable that I feel compelled to write a whole post about this, but here we are.

D-Jax entered the league in 2008.  He’s played 6 mostly healthy season with the Eagles, with 87 games played.

Take a moment and make a list of the 10 best WRs over the last 6 seasons.  Seriously, jot it down.  Is DeSean Jackson on there?  Probably not, and I’m guessing many of you didn’t seriously consider putting him on there.  Was that a mistake?

Following is a list of the top WRs over the last 6 seasons, as measured by Approximate Value.  AV is certainly not a perfect measure, and I don’t mean to suggest it is.  However, it’s a very good one, especially for offensive skill players.  Anyway, here’s the list:

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Now go back to your list of the 10 best WRs.  If you actually made it, I’m guessing there’s a LOT of overlap with the top ten WRs by AV.  Of course, the point of this exercise is to highlight where DeSean Jackson is (and is not).  By AV, he ranks 8th (tied), ahead of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Greg Jennings.  He ranks just behind Steve Smith.

The point is NOT that Jackson is a better WR than those players, that’s a different discussion.  The point is that he has been among the best WRs in the game since entering the league.  Note that Jackson gains AV points for his Return work as well, inflating his WR ranking.  Of course, it doesn’t make much sense to hold that against him either.

Let’s stick with AV for a moment, but take a slightly different look.  I’m always bothered by the “since he’s been in the league” ranking, because it’s a very arbitrary measure, typically skewed in favor of the subject player.  So, let’s change our filter.  Instead of looking at all WRs from 2008-2013, let’s just look at the first 6 years of each individual player’s career, going back to 1990.  Here’s the top 20:

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Spend a minute examining that list, and note that it underrates Michael Irvin by virtue of the 1990 cutoff date.  Regardless, notice anything?  Nearly half of them are sure-fire Hall of Famers.  Most of the other half at least deserves consideration.  Now you’re starting to see why I think giving Jackson up for little return is insane.  In terms of pure production, DeSean Jackson is a GREAT receiver. Full stop.

BTW, here’s the same filter, but sorting by Receiving Yards instead of AV.  Again, we’re looking at the most Receiving Yards over the first 6 seasons of a player’s career, for all seasons since 1990.

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DeSean has more yards in his first 6 seasons than Roddy White, Isaac Bruce, and Antonio Freeman.  Terrell Owens had just 53 more yards in his first 6 seasons, and actually averaged fewer yards per game.

Like I said…GREAT, and apparently under-appreciated.

Now let me attack the “replaceable” nonsense.  There seems to be an argument out there that basically says: “This is an extremely strong draft for WRs, we can just draft his replacement then.”  This is a fairly ridiculous argument.

1) Draft prospects are not guarantees!  Remember the post I did on Hacking the Draft?  Let’s take another look at the chart from that study.

See the odds of landing a “starting” WR with a 1st round pick?  Just 65%.  It’s possible that this year’s draft has a higher probability of success.  I’m willing to accept that assertion, but how much higher?  Certainly, given what we KNOW about the draft, not all of the WRs drafted in the 1st round this year will pan out.  Pulling from the studies I did on Skill vs. Luck in the draft, we ALSO know that there’s really no reason to believe the Eagles are more likely than any other team to be able to identify the WRs who WILL pan out.

So if you were planning on replacing D-Jax via the draft, think again.  It’s very possible, but it’s far from guaranteed, and we haven’t even accounted for the opportunity cost of a 1st round draft pick.

Let’s say you DO “hit” on a WR if the first round.  Surely then you’d have adequately replaced D-Jax, right?  Not so fast.

Here is a list of the best rookie WR seasons, by AV, since the 2005 season.  Note that, last season, DeSean registered an AV of 11.

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Since 2005, just ONE rookie WR (Harvin), has registered an AV as high as DeSean did last season.  Moreover, look at the column labeled “Draft”.  12 of the top 20 seasons by rookie WRs were from players NOT drafted in the first round!  Like I said, finding a great WR in the draft is NOT EASY, and certainly not just a matter of taking the best available guy in the first round.

In fact, since 1990, just THREE rookie WRs have registered AV’s above 11.  Randy Moss, Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway.  That’s the list.  23 years, 3 players.  Again, you’re probably not replacing DeSean’s production with a rookie from this year’s draft, at least not next season.

For those of you who don’t trust AV, I’ve also looked at receiving yards.  Here is the list of the best rookie WR seasons, since 1990, sorted by receiving yards.  For reference, DeSean had 1332 receiving yards last year.

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This is going to be tough, but go ahead and count how many rookie WRs had more than 1332 receiving yards….finished yet?  Thought so, counting to ONE doesn’t take that long. Note also that just 8 rookies have exceeded 1000 yards receiving. Remember, we’re looking at every WR in the league since 1990.  That’s a long time.

There’s a lot more to say about DeSean, but I’m going to stop there.  The main takeaways from today’s post are:

1) DeSean Jackson is a GREAT player.

2) The Eagles will NOT be able to replace his production next season, even if they “hit” on a WR in the first round.

Roster Building with Seattle: Skill, luck, or something else….

So Seattle just stomped Denver in the Super Bowl.  Game sucked, commercials sucked, RHCP played air-guitar/bass.  At least Bruno Mars came through.  I didn’t really see anything particularly interesting to discuss from the actual game, other than to note that Pete Carroll made some very poor strategic decisions early on (the 4th down calls).  Of course, if he thought his team was much better than Denver’s (and it appears that was the case), then taking the points may actually have been the right call.  Remember, favorites want low variance.  Refer back to here.

I did, however, see something interesting when looking at Seattle’s roster composition.  Specifically, the great defense the team has put together is composed of players who were drafted with relatively low picks.  Here’s are the starters, plus Cliff Avril:

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Two 1st round picks, neither from the top 10, and one 2nd round pick.  What you’re seeing there is an incredibly efficient use of draft resources.  The vaunted secondary features two 5th round picks, a 6th round pick, and Earl Thomas.

If this isn’t surprising you, remember that elite players come mainly from the 1st round of the draft, and almost entirely from the first two rounds.  See this chart from the archives:

So…it looks like what the Seahawks managed to do (build a historically good defense with low-round picks) should be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Let’s take a look.

First, how good were the Seahawks this year?

I’m going to use a shortcut here, and rely on just points allowed adjusted for league average.  This measure isn’t perfect because it doesn’t account for the contributions from the offense and special teams, but it also relies on readily available data, and more importantly, doesn’t offer a lot of false positives.  Since 2000, here are the best teams by this measure, with Seattle added to the mix:

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The teams highlighted in yellow won the Super Bowl.  I should also note that this year’s Carolina Panthers just missed the list.  They allowed 35.6% fewer points than average.

Anyway, as you can see, Seattle was historically good this year at preventing points.  Now, how does their roster compare?  Well I looked at the starting rosters, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, of the 5 teams ranked ahead of them (haven’t had time yet to look the rest).  Here’s what I found:

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Most of those teams seem to line up with our expectations; the best defenses ever feature a lot of 1st round picks.  I realize that not all of these players were drafted by the teams they ultimately played for above.  That’s a secondary matter, though, and one we can explore separately.  For now, I’m just interested in where the talent originally came from. It’s not enough just to count up 1st rounders.  We want a complete comparison that accounts for the differences in the value of each pick.  To do this, I used the Draft Pick Value Chart.  This is the chart teams either use or used to use as a guideline for weighing trades.  Here are each of the previously mentioned teams, with the starters listed along with their Draft Pick Value.  I’ve summed each at the bottom.  Click to expand.

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Here is the condensed version:

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So yes, the Seahawks appear to have done something remarkable, though perhaps not as remarkable as I expected.  Additionally, nearly all of Seattle’s contributors on defense were, in fact, drafted by the Seahawks, eliminating the possibility that they simply waited for late-round talent to prove itself in the league and then signed it.

The upshot:

There are a few possibilities here:

– The Seahawks are simply better at drafting then everyone else.  If you read the work I did on Skill vs. Luck in the draft, you know that’s almost definitely NOT the case.

– The Seahawks got lucky, and managed to string together several unlikely outcomes (very good players in the late round).  This one’s possible, and perhaps the most likely scenario.

– The Seahawks coaching staff is very good at turning its players into valuable contributors.  Also possible, but the level of results tells me to be skeptical here.

– Something else is going on….

We’ll need to explore these options in more depth to get a good sense of what’s actually happening.  For now, just know that what the Seahawks did, as far as roster-building goes, was EXTREMELY unlikely.  If we can figure out HOW they did it, it will tell us a lot about the kinds of strategies the Eagles should employ (even if it turns out Seattle did just get really lucky).

The Persistence of Sack Rate

Before we get to today’s topic, I need to clear something up about the last post.  It seems as though many readers came away with the wrong message. Nobody here (EaglesRewind.com) falls into that camp (at least nobody who commented), but Philly.com pulled the post from BGN and ran it on the front page of the site….

Hilarity ensured, at least if you read the comments.

So, let me make this clear:  I am a huge Nick Foles fan and the last post was not really bad news for him.  Yes, interception rate shows very little persistence from one year to the next, and that is, by itself, bad news for Foles (because he did so well this year and last).  However, I also mentioned that, (1) Foles rate was so good that even a relatively large amount of regression would still leave him with a very strong rate, and more importantly, (2) it looks as though some QBs are able to improve upon their interception rate over time.  That second part is a vital piece to this puzzle.  It means there is definitely skill involved in avoiding interceptions (hardly a surprise), but it also means that Foles may be able to actually improve his “true” ability level, which would obviously counteract some or all of the expected regression.

So, good news, not bad.

Now, for today, I decided to look at another aspect of Foles’ game thats drawn a lot of scrutiny: his sack rate.  

Foles has a career sack rate of 7.6%, and this season he was sacked on 8.1% of his drop-backs. (Pro-football-reference.com).

The first question, obviously, is:  Is 8.1% bad?

Well, it’s not good.  This season, it left Foles ranked 27th in the league, just behind Kellen Clemens.  There were a few notable QBs who did worse though, like  Cam Newton (8.3%), Colin Kaepernick (8.6%), and Russell Wilson (9.8%).

I know what you’re saying, those are all “running” QBs, and their high sack rate should be balanced against the positives they bring in the running/scrambling game.  (If you weren’t saying that, you should have been).  While I’ll attack the positive/negative balance another time (check Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics for a very surprising look), allow me to posit another potential explanation:  they’re all relatively young.

Here is the list of QBs who finished with a worse sack rate than Nick Foles this year, along with their ages (right column).

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That’s a lot of 23 and 24.  This makes complete sense, for one of two reasons.  Either:

1) Sack avoidance is a skill that can be improved over time

OR

2) QBs who take a lot of sacks don’t remains starters for very long.

The most likely explanation is that its a bit of both (as it usually is).  If a QB takes sacks at a very high rate, it’s going to be very difficult to be a productive offensive player.  There are exceptions, though, like the QBs I named above (Foles, Wilson, Kap, etc…).  Also, Ben Reothlisberger has a career sack rate of 8.2%.  Clearly, a high sack rate is not catastrophic.

For more, look at this year’s leaders:

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Jason Campbell, Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford, Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel….There are a lot go great QBs on that list, but also a handful of mediocre-bad ones as well.  Once again, sack rate isn’t everything.

Now, to the title of this post, persistence.

In my last post, we found that interception rate persists at a relatively weak level (at least within our admittedly limited sample).  That means one year’s rate has little informational value regarding the following season.

Let’s do the same thing with Sack Rate.  Simply put, does getting sacked at a high rate one season (like Foles this year) mean you’re relatively more likely to be sacked at a high rate the following season.

The answer, overwhelmingly, is YES.

Here is the chart:

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Again, the sample only consists of 100+ attempt seasons from: Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, Mike Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Stafford, Carsoln Palmer, Tony Romo, and Aaron Rodgers.  All told, that’s 112 qualifying seasons.  The same caveats I discussed last time apply here as well.

From the above data, the correlation value is 0.57, which is VERY strong compared to most statistics in football.

Clearly, a player’s style and skill have a large effect on their sack rate.  More importantly, Nick Foles is likely to be sacked at a high rate next year.  By itself, that’s bad news, but not as terrible as it might seem.

First off, the youth factor.  Here is a chart showing the average sack rate of the entire sample by qualifying season.  Note that these are NOT weighted numbers, so Hasselbeck’s 10.6% rookie rate counts the same as Aaron Rodgers’ 6%, regardless of the number of attempts.

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There is a clear and significant drop-off after the first season.  Of course, this year was Nick Foles’ SECOND season, but he did start just 6 games his rookie season, so I don’t think it’s unfair to look at this year as something like a continuation of his first season (though we can’t ignore the fact that a full offseason SHOULD play a big role).  There are definitely a lot of other factors in play here, for example maybe teams tend to improve the offensive line in the first offseason after anointing a new QB.  So nothing here is definite.

Still, from the sample I looked at, it’s certainly possible, and perhaps likely, that Nick Foles will see a decline in his sack rate next year.  However, the high correlation value suggests that we shouldn’t expect a significant difference.

I’m going to leave it there for now because I already feel like I’m rambling a bit, but let me give you one last chart and correlation value to think about.

How do interceptions and sacks relate?  The “narrative” frequently says that it’s “better” to take sacks than to throw interceptions.  Alone, that’s almost always the case.  But, it seems to suggest that one can and does take sacks INSTEAD of throwing interceptions.  For example, everyone that says Nick Foles doesn’t throw interceptions BECAUSE he’d rather take a sack is making a logical jump and assuming that the two outcomes are related.  I need to do A LOT more research on this, but preliminarily, here’s a chart showing the correlation between interception rate and sack rate, within our sample:

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A jumbled mess.  The correlation value is just 0.123 (roughly the same strength as the persistence of Int rate).  Remember, if the “Sacks INSTEAD of INTs” narrative holds, we should see a negative correlation (so more sacks equals fewer interceptions).  That’s not what we have.  As explained, I need more data and a deeper dig before coming up with any conclusion I can feel comfortable about.  In all likelihood, we need to groups QBs by “type” and evaluate them within discrete groups according to their attributes.

One more thing about Foles

Not a full post today, just a point I had wanted to include yesterday but forgot about.

The lack of excitement/”believers” regarding Foles may be a direct result of his “elite” skill.  as I said yesterday, it’s possible that interception-avoidance is Foles’ “plus” trait.  If that’s true, he’s never going to command a huge following.

Think about it.  The best plays Foles makes are, by definition, the ones you DON’T see, simply because they don’t happen.  As a fan (or anybody), it’s impossible to identify the plays in which a replacement-level QB would have thrown an interception but Foles does not.  Sure, we can talk about it in the abstract, for instance when he takes a sack and we say “it’s better than an INT”.  However, that’s obviously never going to be featured in a highlight reel.

In particular, Foles might be hurt by the way the game is analyzed today.  With the prevalence of All-22 breakdowns, countless people are going through game-tape and identifying everything that happened.  Once again, interceptions NOT thrown is never going to show up on those.  Instead, you’ll get a handful of wide open receivers that Foles missed.  The take-away, naturally, will be about what an “elite” QB WOULD have done, given the same openings.  However, that type of analysis doesn’t account for Foles’ “elite” skill.  Yes, maybe another QB would have made a few more plays.  However, he also may have then turned the ball over, completely negating the additional positive plays.

I’m going to try to dig a bit deeper into both interception rate and sack rate.  Hopefully, I’ll find evidence one way or another indicating the degree of skill involved in each.  Until then though, keep in mind:

IF Foles’ “elite” skill is his ability to NOT throw interceptions, he will never be fully appreciated.  Not only is it not a real “measurable” skill, but it doesn’t show up on replay.  While other QBs may be able to make a lot of positive plays that Foles can’t make, Foles may AVOID a lot of negative plays that those other QBs don’t.

That’s not as easily identifiable and it doesn’t lend itself to highlight reels, but in theory, there’s no reason it can’t be just as significant a skill.

 

Does interception rate persist? Potential red flags for next season

The Eagles had a very successful 2013 season.  Now we need to evaluate it.  After a success, particularly one as resounding as we experienced this year, the most important question to ask is:

Were they lucky or good?

Obviously, if they were very lucky, then success next year is less likely.  Heading into this season, I was one of the few Eagles writers/bloggers to predict anything resembling what actually happened (I had them at 9-7, but I was just 20 points off on the point differential).  Part of the reason I was so bullish was that the Eagles had bad luck last year, especially as it relates to turnovers.

Now, we have to take the same view of things.  Today, I’m going to focus on one particularly important statistic from this season:

Nick Foles has an interception rate of 0.6% this season.  (The single season record is 0.4%)

Aside from the obvious (interceptions are bad), this carries additional weight because if factors into whether or not Foles can be a “franchise” QB.  I personally do not think he’s a great QB (or likely to become one).  However, I do think he’s “good enough”.  The other side of the argument is that he lacks any truly elite skills.  Most apparently, his arm strength isn’t great and he’s slow.  His accuracy seems very good, but it’s much harder to judge that type of attribute than something more measurable like strength.  As a result, while watching him play, it’s much easier to focus on what he CAN’T do or isn’t doing than on what he is doing.  In light of that, allow me to posit the following:

It’s possible that Nick Foles’ “elite” quality is the ability to avoid interceptions without abandoning downfield throws.  It’s possible he just has an excellent internal sense for the risk/reward of each throw.  Or, if you think back to my blitz post (windows v. time), he might just have a very good sense of when a window is large enough for his skill level.

If that’s true, than I don’t see any reason why he can’t be an “elite” QB.  Of course, we don’t know if that’s true and, on balance, it seems unlikely.

Today, let’s take a very preliminary step towards testing it.  As the title suggests, I think the best way to proceed is to see if Interception Rate persists over time.  In other words, how much does a QBs interception rate one season tell us about his rate the following season. If it does persist, then avoiding interceptions is likely a skill and we can feel really good about Nick Foles.  If it does NOT, then we’re in trouble, because Foles’ amazing statistics this year were built primarily upon not throwing interceptions.

The Sample

There are a number of issues with trying to test interception rate persistence, so before we even get close to a result, we need to remember everything here is just informative rather than solid proof (I’ll explain the problems below).

To get a preliminary look, I selected 13 active QBs.  The only prerequisite was that they had to have started for at least a few years.  Of course, this introduces our first source of bias, survivorship.  However, we’re looking at persistence, so that means we need careers that allow us to track over time.  One-two year starters don’t help much (or at all).  Anyway, here are the QBs I included:

Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Stafford, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck.

Then, I removed any season in which the player did not have at least 100 pass attempts.  For example, Tom Brady had an interception rate of 0 in 2008….because he only threw 11 passes before getting injured.

From there, I matched each player’s season interception rate with their rate the following season, ending up with 111 matched pairs.

The Result

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Hmm….not what Eagles fans wanted to see.  The correlation value is 0.12, so real but relatively weak.  In other words, a good interception rate one season was not very likely to result in a good interception rate the following season.  OR, interception rate is composed of some skill plus a fair amount of luck (that sounds about right).

I mentioned one issue with this analysis above (sample bias), but I want to mention another big one here.  We haven’t accounted for defensive strength.  It’s possible (likely in fact), that good defenses intercept passes at a higher rate than bad defenses.  Some of the variation in QB Interception rate is therefore explained by differences in the year-to-year schedule (which are largely random).

As I said, informative not dispositive.

A few more things

After collecting the data I looked at it from a few other angles, which led to a few interesting takeaways.

– Of the 13 QBs I looked at, the largest single season deviation from their overall average interception rate (NOT career because it’s not weighted) was 2.55%.  That was from Matt Stafford’s rookie year, when his interception rate was 5.3%.  The second highest deviation was 2.23%.  That was from Peyton Manning’s rookie year, when his interception rate was 4.9%

In fact, 4 of the 13 QBs recorded their highest seasonal interception rate in their rookie years.  Moreover, another 4 of them had rookie interception rates than ranked as their second worst season.  So together, 8 of the 13 QBs had either their worst or second worst interception rate their rookie seasons.

That doesn’t really TELL us anything, but it certainly suggests that QBs may improve their ability to avoid interceptions over time (which matches the “conventional wisdom”).  That, of course, would be great for Nick Foles, whose rookie rate was just 1.9%.

– In light of the last point, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the progression of each QB’s seasonal interception rates.  Maybe from one year to the next there is a lot of variation, but over time QBs generally get better (or plateau around their “true” skill).  Here are some individual charts, pay close attention to the X-Axis label changes if you’re comparing:

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Wow…now that looks interesting.  Every one of them has seen a clear downtrend in interception rate from season to season.  Of course…it wouldn’t be a QB breakdown without Eli Manning:

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He really does ruin everything….(and he throws a LOT of interceptions; compare his X-Axis to the others).

– The key to remember, though, is that Nick Foles registered an interception rate of 1.9% in his rookie year and just 0.6% this year.  His career rate is now 1.2%.

That means, even if he is due for some regression, he’s got a lot of room to work with.  He could triple his career rate next season and still be at just 3.8%.  That’s high, but every QB in the sample except Rivers, Brady, and Rodgers, have hit that level at least once in their careers.

Additionally, if Nick Foles can IMPROVE his rate over time, as the QBs I showed above did, then he really will have an identifiable “elite” skill.  That’s probably unrealistic (you just can’t get much better), but remember that an improvement in skill would counteract the regular variance he’d expect to see.

– A lot more data to look at regarding Interception Rate, but for now I’d say the takeaway is this:

Nick Foles is very likely to throw interceptions at a higher rate next season than he did this year.  However, I wouldn’t bank on a massive shift, and given where his career rate is, I STILL expect him to finish the year with a very good interception rate (< 2.5%).

That’s good news for Eagles fans.

How often do good offenses score?

Were you underwhelmed by the Eagles’ offensive performance against the Saints?  Readers here might not have been, but my guess is a lot of fans were.  This was one of the best offenses all season yet it scored just 3 TDs on 11 drives (and a FG).  You can probably guess where I’m going now:

Context.

What does a good offensive performance really look like?  Let’s look at a few stats to find out.  In the process, I think we’ll find a better perspective with which to judge all teams offensively.

How many points per drive should a good offense average?  Take a guess.  If an offense scores a TD every drive, it’ll average 6-7 points per, depending on the conversation choices.

How about 2.98?  Does that sound reasonable?  Barely less than a FG.  Or 1 TD every 2.3 drives.  Clearly, that’s a pretty good offensive performance.  However, broken down like this, it’s hardly spectacular.  Of course, as you probably suspect by now, that was Denver’s average points per drive this season; Denver also scored more points this year than any team in NFL history. (FootballOutsiders.com)

The MEDIAN this year was 1.91 points per drive.  That’s 1 touchdown every 3.66 drives (with no FGs).  Or, that’s 2 FGs ever 3.14 drives.  Imagine starting a game and having your first 3 drives go thusly: Punt, FG, FG.   Are you satisfied?  Probably not.  However, that’s 2 points per drive, which would place 12th overall this year.

Punt, FG, FG…repeat.   Congratulations, you’re a top 12 scoring offense.

The moral of the story is, offenses don’t score nearly as often as many people think they do.  It’s frustrating to watch a series of punts, and we inevitably start questioning the play-calling in such situations.  However, it’s a lot harder to score than people think.

The Eagles averaged 2.18 points per drive this season, good for 8th highest in the league.

Against New Orleans (the 10th ranked defense by DVOA), the Eagles scored 24 points on 11 drives.  That’s 2.18 points per drive…. In other words, the Eagles offense, on a scoring per drive basis, performed EXACTLY as expected.  In fact, it performed better than expected when you account for the strength of schedule difference between the regular season and the playoffs.

Meanwhile, New Orleans averaged 2.4 points per drive this season, 3rd best in the league.   Against the Eagles, the Saints also had 11 real drives (excluding kneels).  They scored 26 points.  That’s 2.36 points per drive, ALSO roughly in line with their season average.  Given the low ranking of the Eagles defense, it’s also reasonable to say the Saints should have been expected to score MORE.  That’s not really the point of this post, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Forget about this “per drive” crap, what about TDs?

Good question.  How many TDs do you think the average team scores each game?

The Denver Broncos scored 4.4 offensive TDs per game this year (teamrankings.com).   Of course, that was the best offensive performance ever (a huge outlier).  In fact, that measure was roughly 40% better than the second place team…..the Eagles with 3.2 per game.

The MEDIAN team this year scored just 2.4 touchdowns per game.

The average # of offensive drives this year was 186.  That’s 11.62 drives per game.  If we use the median value of 2.4 TDs per game (to keep Denver from skewing), that means, roughly speaking, the average offense this year scored a TD on 20.6% of it’s drives.

1 touchdown every FIVE drives.  That’s average.  

Like I said…perspective….context.  Even the best offense ever, Denver this year, scored TDs on just over 1/3 of its drives.

Remember that the next time somebody complains about the offense’s “inconsistency”.

Maximizing the Kick Return Game

Time for another guest post from Jared.  For those of you who don’t know, Jared is my brother.  He’s also a U of Chicago MBA and a two-time Jeopardy! champion.   You can follow him @jaredscohen or see the original of this post at his site, linked here.  Now, his words:

Last year I put together some analysis of NFL kick returns. I was really motivated by one big question – Why do teams return kicks?

Initially, I wondered if returning kicks was even the optimal decision for teams trying to win football games. I wondered if the risks of turnovers and poor field position meant teams really should prefer a touchback to bringing the ball out of the end zone.

As a brief review, that’s not the case. Returning kicks is, on average, better for scoring points than taking a knee in the end zone as the returns leave your team with better field position. If you look at it in terms of expected points generated on kick returns vs. generated on touchbacks – the distinction is clear: (Note: this analysis relies on the concept of expected points based on field position – which I’ll assume readers have already seen and grasped)

This data comes from the first 16 weeks of this NFL season, over 2400 kicks. It’s also consistent with last year’s data.

So returning kicks is good, but think about why it’s a good idea. Although it presents better average field position, the average return nets only about four yards of position (and only two yards if the ball is brought out of the end zone relative to a risk-free touchback).

Linking back to material my brother has posted – the upside is directly tied to variance. Returning kicks is much more of a high-variance strategy.

Below – is an illustration of all returned kicks through Week 16 this year. The histogram shows the distribution of expected points.

You see the giant spike between 0.3-.04 which equates to a return between the 18 and 22 yard lines, that’s the most typical result (remember a touchback is worth 0.34 expected points). But there’s also an extremely long tail of positive performance, and these outliers can be worth a lot more (even a touchdown). Those outliers are what make kick returns worth the risks (injury, turnover), which is exactly what we mean when we talk about high-variance strategies.

A touchback has zero variance. That result is predictable and constant. But a return, that could be a whole bunch of possibilities.

OK – so let’s take the idea that returning kicks instead of taking touchbacks is a high-variance strategy as a hypothesis. Now, if that’s true, we would expect to see a couple different trends in the data. Generally, we would expect less talented teams to return kicks MORE often than their better opponents. Weaker teams should be pursuing higher variance plays in an attempt to pick up ground on those other (stronger) squads. In an example – you’d expect the Jaguars to try everything to beat the Broncos because Denver is extremely talented and playing a conventional game will leave the Jaguars at a big disadvantage. That could mean any number of things, more shots downfield, 4th down conversion attempts, surprise onside kicks, and we could expect – more kick returns.

So…is that something we actually observe in the data? Are weaker teams pursuing higher variance strategies in the form of more frequent kicks?

To test this, I went back and looked at my favorite kickoff metric – percentage of touchback eligible kicks returned. This counts the number of kicks that were returned out of the end zone as a proportion of the total number of kicks fielded in the end zone. Obviously – teams will return all kicks fielded short of the end zone, so we need to exclude these. The real decision point is whether or not teams bring balls out of the end zone – this is our true high variance strategic choice.

The data set it built off of play-by-play information, which is the best I can get. Unfortunately, there are a large number of touchback kicks where distance is not recorded and it isn’t specified whether the kick was fielded or kicked out of the end zone. After some initial eyeballing I’m confident these are kicks out the back of the end zone (Matt Prater of the Broncos had a lot of them as an example). So our set of kicks is a little smaller than you might expect. But there are still 950 kicks in our sample.

Then, I took all the NFL teams and split them into three performance tiers based on point differential. Teams with the highest point differential are members of the first tier, teams with the worst scoring differential are in the third tier. Below are the teams and their tier positions.

You can see the usual suspects in both the first and third tiers. And to me, this is where we’d expect to see the biggest change. These third tier teams – they have to do MORE to compete against first tier teams. Alternatively, first tier teams, one might argue, don’t need to take additional risk by sending their return man out of the end zone. If we look at touchback eligible kickoff return percentage across the different matchups – we can see if there’s any difference in the way teams behave. Do third tier teams return more kicks when they face off against first tier teams? Do first tier teams (who don’t need to pursue high-variance strategies) return fewer kicks?

Hmm…there’s almost no difference in return % whether the worst teams are facing other crappy teams or the best teams. That seems a little odd…as we had guessed the worse teams SHOULD be returning more kicks when they face better teams. This indicates that this doesn’t happen.

It’s also not a result of sample size, as most of these cells are large enough (80-120 observations).

As another check, I looked at touchback eligible return percentage relative to specific team talent (via point differential) on a team-by-team basis. I did this to see if there were any teams that really seemed to be demonstrating aggressive tactics at the individual level.

Again, this doesn’t appear to support our thinking that poor teams are pursuing higher variance strategies by returning more kicks. At best, it’s inconclusive. There are a couple of teams, like the Vikings, who really push the envelope – but there’s not a major correlation between team talent and return percentage (correlation is roughly -0.15)

Strange, but maybe identifying high-variance strategies before the game starts and following them blindly isn’t really what coaches of less-talented teams spend time on. Is there another way we can test our hypothesis?

Another theory is that if teams aren’t determining to return more kicks as part of pre-game strategy, maybe it’s something they pursue once they fall behind on the scoreboard. This wouldn’t even have to be exclusive to poor performing teams – any team that’s fallen behind might be more likely to run back kicks to try to break a big play to help catch up. What if we examine touchback eligible return percentage by in-game score differential?

The chart below illustrates the return percentage across a set of different score bands, ranging from down by more than 14 points to ahead by more than 14 points.

Again – there doesn’t seem to be any real connection between the scoreboard and aggressive kick return tactics. A team down by more than two touchdowns is just as likely to return a kick out of the end zone as one who is tied. If a kick return out of the end zone is indeed an aggressive play with a higher reward – teams don’t appear to be pursuing it MORE when they need to make up ground or LESS when they have a large lead. (As an aside, I absolutely cannot explain why having a small lead seems connected to a dramatic drop off in returns. I’ll chalk that up to some data wonkiness unless someone has a great insight there.)

But the broader concern remains. Shouldn’t teams which are behind or less talented need to take more chances to win? Why aren’t they doing that and bringing kicks out of the end zone?

My initial guess, though I’d welcome other speculation, is that teams the organizational structure of coaching almost inhibits something like that from happening. This comes with the obvious caveat that I’ve never coached in the NFL (so sure, Bill Belichick or someone else can dismiss all this out of hand as mom’s basement musings – but screw them). But if you’re the special teams coach of an NFL team – your work includes a thorough evaluation of your special teams and your upcoming opponent. All that work and planning becomes a little less valuable if a head coach just says – ‘Hey, I think we should return any kick we get in the end zone’

If the special teams coach is to maintain any kind of control over what his squad does – a simplistic rule like ‘run them out when we’re behind’ may not be sophisticated enough to justify all that pre-work and planning.

But that’s just a thought, based on the idea that coaches know their teams and customize approaches based on their own teams’ skills and the matchup with the opponent. Of course, when you actually look at the data, teams don’t really appear to be all that successful in managing their return game. Below is an illustration of touchback eligible return percentage, but this time charted against the average return position (i.e., return ability).

While we’d expect to see some correlation here – to show that teams with good return games return more kicks and teams with poor return teams take more touchbacks – that’s only true to the degree of a 0.2 correlation.

Some teams seem to get it – the Bills are really bad in the return game, but they rarely return kicks out of the end zone (on a relative basis – still over 50%). At the other extreme are the Vikings. The have Cordarrelle Patterson and, as such, they return kicks out of the end zone over 95% of the time!!!

On the flip side, look at Washington and St. Louis, teams with mediocre return units that run kicks out of the end zone 90% of the time. The Chiefs and Ravens seem odd as well – teams with great performance who could stand to run some more back. Now, maybe the Redskins are pursuing a high variance strategy, and maybe the Chiefs a more conservative one, but the overall results remain inconclusive.

At the end of the day, I come back to the idea of coaches and control over their special teams. For any team to read any of this and think about employing a ‘high-variance’ strategy – it really requires an admission of the role of chance in the outcome of a football game. Running every kick out of the end zone is a strategy based on the concept of inherent variability in outcome. Some returns may get stuffed, and others may go for big returns, but you can’t be sure when one or the other will happen. That view, to me, is fundamentally opposite the idea that with the right scheme and flawless execution – you can create the optimal outcome.

One of those ways of thinking supports the coach as the ultimate authority, while the other incorporates more probabilistic thinking. That gap is why I think we haven’t seen any patterns to support our hypothesis, and no clear evidence of high-variance kick return strategy consistently employed in today’s game.

Two-Factor Blitz Theory

I received some pushback from yesterday’s Billy Davis rant, so today I’m going to try to add some nuance to my explanation.  First, I want to note that while Davis bears the brunt of my criticism, he’s certainly not the only DC I disagree with on a fairly consistent basis.  Graded against everyone else, Davis is OK (for now).  However, as is usually the case, just because everyone else does something doesn’t mean we need to do the same thing.  Conventional wisdom, especially in sports, frequently lags the “optimal” strategy.

So….Defensive Strategy, and more specifically, the Blitz.

My general take on this is that the Blitz (sending more than 4 pass rushers) should be viewed as a TOOL, not a general philosophy.  I realize that in Philadelphia, that’s borderline heresy (lot of Jim Johnson fans out there).  But let me explain.

Two Factors

To complete a pass, two things must happen (generally speaking): an “open” receiver must exist, and the QB has to identify that opening (after which he presumably throws the ball there).  It’s tough to determine what constitutes an “open receiver”, so I’m going to discuss this side of things in terms of Windows.  So a passing window refers to an opportunity to place the ball where the receiver can catch, and one must exist and be identified in order to complete a pass.  Simple enough?

Also, for a QB to identify the available passing window, he must have TIME to do so.  The more time he has, the higher the odds of him seeing an existing window or of one developing.

By breaking the process down into these factors, we can see the basic trade-off in defensive strategies (against the pass).  The best of both worlds, of course, is to minimize the passing windows AND minimize the time the QB has to identify them.  That’s why DEs are so coveted.  If you can generate a strong rush (i.e. lower QB time) with just 4 d-linemen, you can use everyone else to close passing windows.  However, very few teams area able to do that on a regular basis.

More often, you have to make a choice.  You can rush an extra man (blitz), which should decrease the amount of time the QB has to see a window.  Conversely, you can rush fewer men, and use more of them to minimize the windows.

With me so far?  Good, now let’s talk a little bit about passing windows.

Passing Windows

Passing windows open and close throughout each play.  A complete pass occurs when one of them opens and the QB hits it.  To help illustrate, I’ll pick a random frame from Sunday’s game:

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 9.57.59 AM

Nice….Now let’s superimpose the passing window on it.  Despite the outcome of the play (Boykin game-saving interception), there was, in fact, a window to hit here for Orton.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 10.02.04 AM

That’s a rough approximation, obviously, but you can see the idea.  Given such a big opening, how the hell did Orton miss?  Any guesses?

How about:  He’s not a good QB!?

That’s a little unfair (just a little), because every QB misses opportunities sometimes.  However, let’s dig a little deeper into this.

When deciding what pass-rush strategy to use, there’s perhaps no greater factor for consideration than the skill of the opposing QB.   We now have to combine the QB skill with our Window illustration from above.  Let’s visualize it like this:

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 10.11.23 AM

Don’t get too caught up in the relative sizes, this is far from a “to-scale” illustration.  In the middle we have the passing window.  On either side I’ve provided a visual representation of each QB’s (Peyton and Orton) accuracy.  Think of the two layers as confidence intervals; something like 70% certainty the ball will end up within the smaller red circle and 90% certainty it will end up within the outer circle’s boundaries.

Hopefully this is rather intuitive.  Now play a mental game using those images.  The green square will move across the screen from left to right.  You control the red circle, and your job is to align it with the passing window and and press go.  Think of it like aiming a rifle.

Now…which player’s range (red circles) would you rather play with?

Easy, Peyton Manning’s, because his confidence ranges are smaller, meaning there’s a smaller margin of error.  For example, let’s say you align each perfectly with the passing window:

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 10.19.15 AM

See the problem?  The window is smaller than Kyle Orton’s accuracy range.  Meanwhile, it the window is significantly larger than Manning’s 70% accuracy range.  The upshot, naturally, is that Manning is a lot more likely to complete this pass.  Going back to our game image above, we can visualize the pass like this, with the yellow X denoting the final placement of the ball, which was intercepted.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 10.23.35 AMMoreover, we can extrapolate the idea.  In general, Peyton Manning will be able to hit smaller windows than Kyle Orton will.  Obviously, smaller windows occur more frequently than larger windows, hence Peyton Manning, by virtue of his accuracy, will have many more opportunities to complete passes than Kyle Orton.

Now pretend you’re a defensive coordinator.  Remember you have a choice to make between eliminating passing windows and minimizing time.  In this exercise, you cannot do both.  Against which player is the “window elimination” strategy more likely to work?

Easy (again), Kyle Orton.

Since Peyton Manning’s required window size is so small, eliminating them will require extremely good coverage.  More likely, you can play excellent coverage on the receivers and STILL not prevent several of these small windows from opening up.

Conversely, against Kyle Orton, things aren’t so difficult.  He needs a relatively large window.  Large windows are easier to eliminate.  You don’t have to play perfect coverage. Notice in the Boykin play, there was a relatively large are in which Orton could have complete a pass for a big gain.  Fortunately for the Eagles, Orton didn’t hit his spot.  Boykin’s coverage was far from perfect, but it didn’t need to be!

In light of that, go back you your strategy decision.  Which do you think is easier to do:

– Eliminate windows

– Minimize time

Now consider that Orton was operating out of 3-step drops for much of the night.  Then, the answer is easy.  Eliminating his passing windows is the much higher-probability play.  Note that’s the BASE strategy.  Obviously, you need to blitz every once in a while, if for no other reason than to add some unpredictability.

That’s the crux of my argument against Billy Davis’ blitzes.  He doesn’t seem to vary his usage as much as I believe he should, and he doesn’t save his blitzes for high-leverage situations.  Instead, he uses them in LOW-leverage situations, where the reward of a sack is comparatively low, especially when weighed against the odds of a big play.

Against a great QB (like Drew Brees this week), you have to be much more aggressive because it’s much more difficult to eliminate those passing windows.  Moreover, there’s another factor to discuss:

The Blitz Bonus

A very successful blitz will result in a sack.  A sack dramatically swings the odds of a turnover (punts included) in the defense’s favor.  Now, comparing opposing QBs, against which ones do you think that’s most important to do?  I’ll give you a hint, it’s not Kyle Orton.

Against a great offense or great QB (frequently one and the same), the odds of allowing a 1st down are comparatively high.  For example, according to Pro-football-reference.com, the Denver Broncos faced 93 third downs needing 5 or fewer yards for a first down.  They converted 62.4% of those.

Now compare that to a bad offense, like Baltimore (ranked 30th by Football Outsiders).  The Ravens faced 96 third downs with 5 or fewer yards to gain.  They converted just 49% of those.

As you can see, getting to 3rd and less than 5, normally not considered much of a “win” for the defense, is still good enough to get you to 50/50 against a bad offense.  Assuming each opportunity is an independent event, the odds of the Ravens converting two consecutive such third downs is just 25%.

Hopefully your mental light-bulb just turned on.  Facing a Kyle Orton-driven offense, the Eagles were looking at a team much closer to the Ravens than the Broncos.  In that situation, just preventing a big play and forcing the Cowboys to convert a string of third downs was VERY LIKELY to produce a punt.

In other words, we didn’t NEED a sack!  The odds were already in our favor.  Conversely, if we had been facing the Broncos, the risk/reward equation flips.  That team is much more likely to convert a string of third downs, meaning the defense needs to do something to increase its odds.  Getting a sack is one of the only affirmative ways to do this.  In that case, the reward of getting a sack outweighs the risk of giving up a big play.  Without the sack, you’re likely to give up a long drive anyway!

Against a bad offense, though, that’s not the case.  It’s better to sit back, eliminate passing windows, and wait for the odds to shake themselves out.  By blitzing bad QBs, you’re making a foolish grab for upside that you don’t need.  Bad QBs will struggle to hit receivers that are even marginally covered, so why make it easy for them by making those passing windows larger?

Wrapping Up

Hopefully that illuminated things a bit more clearly.   Basically, against bad QB’s, the odds are already in your favor.  The reward of a sack (or forced incompletion), and the increased odds of a punt that come with it, are NOT worth the risk of the big play. In all likelihood, a bad offense will NEED a big play in order to score.  They simply won’t be able to string together a 12 play drive with a lot of 3rd down conversions.  Hence, the goal should be to get to third down as often as possible, and let the odds take effect.

Against a great QB, though, that’s not enough.  They ARE somewhat likely to string together 3rd down conversions, especially if their short yardage situations.  Similarly, they DO NOT need a big play to sustain a drive.  In that case, the risk of giving up the big play (which is worth relatively less to a great offense than to a bad one) is worth the associated reward of a longer yardage situation (which the defense needs to push the odds in its favor).

That doesn’t mean you never blitz a bad QB or always blitz a great one.  It does mean that you’re general pass rush strategy, particularly when it comes to sending extra pass rushers, should vary greatly depending on which QB you’re playing against.  Just saying “we’re a blitzing defense”, so we’ll blitz, is a very low-level strategy.  It’s far too simplistic, and sounds a lot more like a crutch than a well-thought out, adaptable and deployable strategy.

The Benefits of Being a High-Variance Team

Great game yesterday.  It was a nice preview of what this team COULD be if both the offense and defense play well at the same time.  Can’t ask for a much better set-up for the Eagles than a win-or-go-home game next week in Dallas.  The Eagles are, objectively, a much better team.  The stakes should take care of the motivation aspect.  Also, with Romo being out (assuming the news is accurate), if Foles shows up looking anything like “GoodFoles”, there’s very little chance of Kyle Orton keeping pace.

Now, to today’s topic.

According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles are ranked 31st in the league by DVOA Variance, at 25.4% (BEFORE the Chicago game).

Only St. Louis has been more uneven.  Normally, you’d prefer your team to be both very good, and very consistent (low-variance).  That’s the goal.  However, there’s more to the story, and it ties in to our general underdog strategy discussion.

The Eagles are not the best team in the NFC.  They might not even be in the top 5 (before yesterday, DVOA had them 7th in the NFC).  That means that winning the Super Bowl will require winning multiple times against inarguably “better” teams.  When I say better, I mean the expected performance of the other team is clearly higher than the expected performance for the Eagles.  Of course, that’s only one part of the equation.  The other, obviously, is variance.

The fact that teams don’t always perform to expectations is exactly what makes the game fun.  Otherwise, there’d never be any upsets.  So…taking the next step, that means if you’re a large underdog, you really want at least one of the teams involved (you or the opposition) to be a high-variance team.  Remember, underdogs (both ex-ante and as a result of current conditions) want to MAXIMIZE variance.

Let’s illustrate.  Below is a graphic showing the expected performance distributions for two teams.  Unfortunately, the shape-options in Powerpoint are fairly limited, so the shapes are a bit crude.

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 7.23.36 PM

Above, the width of each distribution and it’s height at each point tells you both how good the team is and how consistent it is.  If this were a “to-scale” drawing, the area under the curve would add up to 1.  Notice that in the above chart, there is a gap between the two teams.  That means, in this case, the Red team would NEVER beat the blue team.

Let’s pretend you’re the Red team.  What can you do?  Obviously, you can’t do anything to Blue’s distribution.  In general, the whole point of team-construction is to move the distribution to the right, so that’s option A.  If you shift Red far enough to the right, you’ll catch up to Blue.

But what if it’s in-season?  What if you only have one week before the game?  You can’t do much to change the make-up of your team, so Option A is out.  There’s still hope, though.  You can WIDEN the performance distribution.  This is what it means when we say  teams in desperate situation must make High-Variance moves.  Let’s say Red team had the same average performance expectation, but is now a High-Variance team.  Then the chart might look something like this:

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 7.31.55 PM

See the overlap?  That’s the key.  Although it’s still unlikely, there is now an actual possibility of Red beating Blue.  Notice that there’s also a possibility of Red losing by a lot more than it would have before.  However a loss counts the same whether it’s by 1 point or 40 points. (Ask any real racer….)

Back to real life: the Eagles have a very WIDE expected performance distribution; it’s reflected in their high-variance.  That means that even if they’re undeniably worse, on average, than a team like Seattle, they’ve still got a decent shot at winning (compared to if they were a low-variance team.)

For example,

Prior to yesterday, the Arizona Cardinals ranked one spot ahead of the Eagles by DVOA (10.9% to 7.7%).    However, the Cardinals are among the most consistent teams in the league, and rank 4th overall by Variance, ahead of the Eagles by 27 spots, and a variance margin of 18.9%.

Charting each team against Seattle (very rough approximations here), we’d get something that looks like the following:

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 7.55.05 PM

Notice that while the Eagles’ average is worse than the Cardinals, their overlap with Seattle is actually greater than the Cardinals.  We’d have to do some calculus (and put a lot more effort into an accurate chart) in order to calculate the difference, but the overall idea is sound.

While it’s incredibly unlikely, the Eagles do stand a greater chance than similarly skilled teams to actually win the Super Bowl if they get to the playoffs by virtue of their high-variance nature.

Lastly, let’s look at the regular season variance of recent Super Bowl winners (this is going to warrant a dedicated post, but let’s just take a peak for now):

Baltimore Ravens – 15.6%, 24th in the league

New York Giants – 15%, 20th in the league

Green Bay Packers – 14.8%, 15th in the league

New Orleans Saints – 15.8%, 17th in the league

Pittsburgh Steelers – 10.8%, 8th in the league

Mean Reversion and the 2012-2013 Eagles Improvement

Preseason, I did a number of posts that focused on the reasons why the Eagles finished with such a poor record last year.  The general thesis was that the team was bad, but it was also very unlucky.  Therefore, we could expect a better record this year purely as a result of reverting to the mean in several meaningful statistics.  Today, let’s take a look at a couple of them and see how they look.

First, here’s the 2012 performance dashboard I put together.

Remember that I scaled everything by historical standard deviation (last 10 years of data) so that it could all be viewed in one chart.  For our purposes today, the most important terms above are Fumble Recovery %, Fumbles Lost, and Net Field Position.

Note that, for now at least, I’m going to avoid the whole luck-vs.-skill angle.  I’ve explored that before and I’m sure I’ll revisit it again.  Regardless of which side you believe in, the fact is that regardless of the role of luck, those statistics show NO PERSISTENCE from year to year.  Note also that the three stats I’m highlighting are obviously interrelated, so it’s no surprise that terrible performance in one is correlated with terrible performance in the others.

Fumble Recovery %

In general, teams should expect to recover around 50% of all fumbles.  There’s been some additional research done about varying rates for different TYPES of fumbles (Downfield WR vs QB for example), but after including all types, the overall rates converge to 50%.

Last year, the Eagles recovered just 35.09% (Teamrankings.com), which is 1.99 standard deviations below the mean.  That’s really bad, and extremely unlikely to happen again.  So how is the team doing this year?

46.34%

Not great, but a much more reasonable rate of recovery.

Fumbles Lost

Relatedly, the Eagles problem last year wasn’t just the rate of recovery, it was an overwhelming number of fumbles.  Combined, that meant the 2012 Eagles lost a historically large number of fumbles to the other team.  Looking at the chart above, we see that the team lost 22 fumbles last year, which is nearly 3 standard deviations from the mean.  Like I said, historic, and a big reason why last year’s team struggled so much.

So how do things look now?

Well so far, the team has lost just 8 fumbles, or .615 per game, meaning it’s on pace for just under 10 fumbles lost, less than half of last year’s measure.

Net Field Position

Finally, for today at least, there’s Net Field Position.  As a result of both special teams and the historic turnover rates, the 2012 Eagles had TERRIBLE net starting field position.  Looking at the chart above, we see the team’s average drive started 6.67 yards behind the other team’s average starting position.  That’s a very big difference, and it’s more than 2 standard deviations from the mean.  The offense last year was actually middle-of-the-pack by yards-per-drive.  The problem was that they had farther to go than everyone else.

This year?  +1.4 yards, good enough for 11th overall (Football Outsiders).

Having trouble conceptualizing the significance of the shift?  Well consider this:

This year, the team is averaging 33.06 yards per drive.  It’s scoring 25.7 points per game.

Last year, the team averaged 31.51 yards per drive.  It scored just 17.5 points per game.

Put differently, this year’s team is gaining an average of just 1.5 yards per drive more than last year’s team did.  

The real difference?  Mostly turnovers and field position, both of which we’re primed for mean reversion.

Lastly, the really good news

Did you notice anything else about the stats I just discussed?  Let’s look at them again:

Fumble Recovery %: 46.34%

Fumbles Lost:  On pace for 10

Net Field Position:  +1.4 yards (11th overall)

Now?  While last year’s numbers were EXTREMELY bad, and thus carried a very high probability for improvement, this year’s numbers are squarely in the middle of the expected range.  That means, while last year’s team was both bad AND unlucky, this year’s team is just good, no luck caveat needed, at least as it pertains to these stats.

That means what we’re seeing isn’t likely to be a fluke.  Once the season is finished I’ll look at a larger number of statistics and see where we can expect improvement or decline, but for now, it looks like the team is just good.

P.S. I’m in the middle of the law school exam period, hence the low volume of posts.  Good news is I’m finished next week, meaning my break coincides with the home stretch of the season, and I’ll be able to post a lot more frequently, at least until late January.