Are NFL Teams Faking Injuries?

Sorry for the recent absence, I returned from Beirut and went right into recruiting season.  Once I’ve accepted an offer I’ll start posting again. In the meantime, I’ve got a guest post (unedited) from Jared Cohen (previous posts include the 4th down chart and the kick return strategy post).  You can find the original here. and follow the author on Twitter @jaredscohen.

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Given all the animated discussion over the Patriots tactics against the Ravens in their divisional round playoff game, I thought it would be as good a time as any to post some gamesmanship research.

If you read about the game – you know the Ravens were a bit upset with the Patriots usage of receiver eligibility to disguise their offense. The response from the Patriots was, well, Patriots-like. If it’s not against the letter of the law, it’s all good (unless it’s videotaping other teams, in which case even the law doesn’t matter).

Clearly, the NFL is a league where teams will look for any edge, even if it means pushing the bounds of fair competition.

So it’s with that issue in mind that I started digging into the possibility that players are faking injuries.

As a Philadelphia sports fan, I’m generally inclined to assume that my teams will ultimately lose, and so once the Eagles started running Chip Kelly’s offense, I was quick to accuse every injured defender a liar and a cheat (not to their faces of course).

The Eagles run a very high-tempo offense, one that doesn’t allow opposing defenses to leisurely make substitutions or get a full play clock to catch their breath. It’s a major feature of their strategy, and one that opposing teams would love to minimize, particularly if they aren’t well prepared for it.

One way to slow down the pace of the Eagles offense would be for an opponent to use their timeouts while the Eagles offense is in full-swing. But since a team only has three timeouts per half, they’re a little too valuable to burn. An injury however, is an official’s timeout – these are unlimited – and there’s no cost to the injured team outside of the last two minutes of a half, except that the injured player must sit out for the next play.

So in the current NFL world where fake injuries don’t have a cost (apart from having the ‘injured’ defender miss a play) and can help defenses maintain an easier pace – you could see why an Eagles fan might look at an opposing defender’s injury with suspicion.

Could the Eagles opponents be faking injuries to slow them down? The idea is one that makes the rounds in Eagles bars, but one that’s hard to actually evaluate. So this is my attempt to try.

Others have analyzed NFL injuries via metrics like games lost (i.e., players who aren’t active on game day because they’re injured), but to my knowledge, this is the first attempt to use play-by-play data to look at in-game injuries for trends and whether teams might be faking against the Eagles or other high-tempo teams.

The analysis is a bit long, so below are some quick takeaways:

– The Eagles suffered (or inflicted depending on your point of view) the most defensive injuries against the in league in 2014, and are 2nd in the league when adjusted for a per-play basis
– Across the league, there is a significant positive correlation between running more offensive plays and a higher per-play rate of defensive injury
– Such a correlation could be attributed to fatigue, but this correlation does not hold for the three other possible game situations (own offense, own defense, offense against) – these show no strong relationship between running more plays and a higher per-play rate of injury
– Taken together, these last two points support my hypothesis that players fake injuries against higher tempo offenses

Data Collection and Methodology:

I gathered play-by-play data from all the regular season games this year, and identified all the in-game injuries noted in the descriptions. In case you haven’t read play-by-play before, each play has its own line and explanation, and any play that resulted in an injury timeout is noted. Below is an example:

2-10-DET 40 (14:05) (Shotgun) 10-E.Manning pass incomplete deep middle to 80-V.Cruz (27-G.Quin). DET-27-G.Quin was injured during the play.

If an injury was noted as a stoppage, it was recorded. In an ideal world, we’d eliminate injuries that are serious and clearly not fakes, but there’s no detail on the injuries in the game data, so we have to take the major with the minor.

The play-by-play injuries were then coded as to whether they occurred to the offense, defense, or on special teams (e.g., kick coverage). There were approximately 700 total observations, and while it’s possible that not all injuries were noted in the play-by-play data, this is the only comprehensive source for such information. Given that there are ~700 injury stoppages in our set, that works out to 2-3 injury timeouts per game, which sounds possible but could also be low. It’s possible that whoever officially creates the play-by-play gets lazy and misses some, my assumption here is that if any injuries are somehow missed, they aren’t biased towards one particular side of the ball.

After gathering the data, one additional adjustment is for play frequency. Simply put, the more snaps a player gets, the more likely they are to sustain an injury. Therefore, any team that runs more plays is more likely to see a higher absolute number of injuries. To account for this, I also looked up the total number of plays for each team’s offense and defense during the course of the year – to understand the rate of injury rather than the total number.

Output:

Let’s start with the absolutes. I found 692 injuries in the play by play data, 66 of which were special teams plays. I took these out, because they aren’t central to the question of are teams faking injuries to slow down offenses. Of the remaining injuries, I looked at whether they happened to an offensive player or a defensive player and which team they occurred against, below is the data from this season:

Not a shocker to see the Eagles at the very top of that list, and indeed they led the league in defensive injuries against this season.

However, as I already noted, this metric can be misleading. The Eagles offense runs more plays per game than any other team, so we would expect them to be near the top of this list. We need to adjust our data for the number of offensive plays – and we can examine the rate at which opposing defensive players get injured against the Eagles and whether they are still an outlier.

So as we see when we look at it on a rate basis (number of injuries/number of total offensive plays), the Eagles are still close to the top of the league, and roughly 50% above the league average. Houston is just above them, and while no one would consider their offense up-tempo, the fact that the Eagles are so high would be consistent with the theory that opposing teams might be faking injuries to slow them down.

Now, before we get any further down the faking rabbit hole, what if there’s a simpler explanation that doesn’t involve fake injuries? There’s another obvious possibility to explain why the Eagles are so high in defensive injuries against. What about the idea that as you run more plays, players get more physically exhausted, and therefore are naturally more susceptible to injury?

That seems possible, right? So let’s examine that idea a bit.

The first thing we can do is very simple, does injury frequency vary by quarter? If teams get physically tired during the course of the game and that leads to more fatigue and more injury, there should be more injuries as the game goes on:

Interesting. This sort of muddies our waters a bit.

In absolute terms, the number of injures rises dramatically as the game goes on. Injury stoppages in the fourth quarter occur at 2x the rate they do in the first quarter. Part of that can be explained by the fact that the clock stops more frequently in the fourth quarter than the others (and thus more plays), but that wouldn’t explain a 2x difference. I would want to check against the sheer number of plays run by quarter, but I don’t have that data without a bunch of more work.

Still – it looks like that thinking may be reasonable, injuries increase as the game goes on. But it’s also interesting to note that the increase is much more pronounced on the defensive side of the ball. We’ll come back to that later.

For the time being, let’s move on to looking for evidence of fake injuries.

As a general framework for this analysis, I’ve split the types of injury stoppages into four buckets:

1. While on defense, your own team suffers an injury (Own-Defense)
2. While on defense, your opponent suffers an injury (Opponent-Offense)
3. While on offense, your own team suffers an injury (Own-Offense)
4. While on offense, your opponent suffers an injury (Opponent-Defense)

We’ve been focused on bucket #4 thus far, and saw that on a per-play basis the Eagles are close to the top of the league in terms of defensive injuries against on a per-play basis. We also saw that overall injuries increase as the game goes on – but it seems much more prevalent on the defense, which is the side that would be interested in faking injuries.

So can we look a bit deeper to see if play frequency increases injury risk across each type of injury stoppage? The idea that running more plays increases the rate of injury should not be exclusive to offense or defense – although it appears that way at first glance – it’s hard for me to believe that defensive players are in any worse shape or take any harder hits than offensive players.

To take a look at the issue, I ran some basic correlations across each of those four injury types, looking at the number of plays run and the rate of injury. Just to clarify, I summarized the four below:

1. Your defense runs more plays and gets injured more often (this would be a bad defense)
2. Your defense runs more plays and your opponent gets injured more often
3. Your offense runs more plays and gets injured more often (this would be a good offense)
4. Your offense runs more plays and your opponent gets injured more often

Again, if the rate of injury increases with more plays, we should see relationships in each of these situations. So what do we see?

#1 – So earlier we saw defenses suffering more injuries as the game goes on…and yet, when we look at number of defensive plays per game and the rate of defensive injury, there really doesn’t seem to be any relationship. Teams with defenses that are on the field a lot don’t seem to get injured at a higher rate than those who execute fewer plays.

#2 – Our next picture shows a similar lack of correlation, this time between defensive plays per game and the rate of opponent offensive injury. This idea would be that if an opposing defense is really bad, your offense gets more plays, and might get hurt more frequently. But the data shows nothing that looks like a relationship.

#3 – Now we’re on the offensive side of the ball, looking at whether an offense that runs a lot of plays suffers a higher rate of injury. There’s actually a relatively weak negative correlation between running lots of offensive plays and suffering offensive injuries. If you want to believe in things like Chip Kelly’s Sport Science program, you would expect a negative relationship as teams that employ high tempo offenses are more adequately prepared to stay healthy while running it. While a very slight relationship exists, it doesn’t look to be that large, if it even exists at all.

#4 – Hmmm…now it’s officially interesting. When we look at the rate of defensive injury against offensive plays per game, there is our most significant positive relationship. A correlation of 0.39 is significantly more than we’ve seen in the other three instances, and it’s also the only one where there is a clear incentive to fake injuries.

Taken alone, this relationship might be explained by the fatigue theory, but I think it’s tougher to make that argument when you don’t see anywhere close to the same relationship in all other situations. When a defense is bad and on the field a lot, they don’t get hurt more often, when an offense is good and runs lots of plays, they don’t get hurt more often, and when a defense is bad and their opponent runs a lot of plays, they don’t get hurt more often. The only ones who show a substantial increase in injury stoppages as plays increase are opposing defenses.

To me, that’s pretty freaking suspicious. Either opposing defenses are the only ones who suffer from fatigue-related injuries…or maybe some of the injuries aren’t injuries at all.

Now, this is far from 100% conclusive. It may be that defensive players naturally get more fatigued than offensive players due to their roles (i.e., offensive players can take more plays off because they know the play calls)…but I don’t really buy that. I think there’s at least a little bit of shenanigans.

It’s also an entirely different question as to how much this even matters. Any fake injury will happen on the margins, as you see the number of total injury stoppages remain relatively small (2-3 total per game). But for an Eagles team that narrowly missed the playoffs, the marginal differences matter.

Solutions

So is there a way to address teams that fake injuries? There are certainly options, but some of them are just impractical. The NHL has a penalty for diving, but you really can’t ask the officials to diagnose injuries and try to penalize fakers. You could charge a team a timeout, which the NFL already does if an injury occurs in the last two minutes. That’s much easier than trying to penalize teams, but also provides incentive for coaches and players to hide injuries (also, what do you do in the case of a ‘Body Bag Game’?)

One idea I think might actually be workable, is to tweak the NFL’s current rule for injured players. As it stands today, an injured player who causes a stoppage has to miss at least one play. Well, if you want to eliminate fake injuries, you should raise the cost to those players for faking, and you can do that simply by making them sit out longer. What if, when a player is injured and causes an official stoppage, they must sit out not for just one play, but for the remainder of that series or until a change of possession?

Missing the rest of a series is a bit more significant than missing just one play, and is something that could balance the equation on faking injuries. It also dovetails nicely with the NFL’s stated emphasis on player safety (interpret my use of the term ‘stated’ as you will, based on your own level of cynicism)

If there are fake injuries happening, such an increase in missed time might be enough to keep anyone from acting hurt. Requiring a player to miss the remainder of a series also isn’t as significant as forcing them out for the rest of a quarter or a game.

Some would argue that this isn’t even a problem worth focusing on. But if fast-paced offenses gain greater acceptance in the NFL (which will happen if more of them succeed), the issue will only become more prominent (beyond the realm of the paranoid Eagles fan) and could materially impact the game.

Summary Data

Below is a table of all the raw data I used here, as a reference:

Bonus – Jevon Kearse All-Stars

One last thing I did with this data, after pulling it together, was dig through and sum up all the specific players who sustained injuries in a game this season.

I wanted to look into it because I was really interested in what I’ve termed the ‘Jevon Kearse All-Stars.’ It may just be a bad memory on my part, but one of the things I really remember about Jevon Kearse’s tenure with the Eagles was his tendency to hurt himself and fall to the ground like he got shot. I feel like his injuries always looked more serious than they actually were. It’s possible I’m misremembering, and if so I apologize to the Freak. But with that said, here were the league leaders in injury stoppages in the NFL this year:

Now I’m not accusing these guys of faking injuries, these just happened to be the guys with the most injury stoppages in the play-by-play data (excluding special teams, which most of these guys don’t play anyway).

Enjoy your spot on the Kearse All-Stars guys – the trophy (it’s an ace bandage) is in the mail!

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Wild Card Weekend: Eagles v. Saints Pre-game Notes

Finally here. I don’t know about you, but it feels like the Dallas game was a LONG time ago. In no particular order, here are some things to think about heading into tonight’s game:

– Brian Burke from AdvancedNFLStats.com has done some research on dome teams playing in cold weather.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s really good news for Eagles fans.

– I tweeted this yesterday, but since 2005, home teams that were 2.5 point favorites have won 50.6% of the time.  Combined with the variance numbers I showed you yesterday in my odds breakdown, that mean tonight really is a “anything can happen” game.  It could be a blow out for either team and it wouldn’t surprise me.

– Jimmy Graham gets a lot of attention, but you should worry more about Darren Sproles.  Graham is going to do damage, there’s almost no way around it.  However, it’s the secondary weapons we have to eliminate.  Sproles tops the list because the Eagles just don’t seem that concerned with RBs out of the backfield.  Also, I feel like I’m the only one harping on Kenny Stills.  He’s a rookie and he didn’t have that many catches this year (32), but he averaged 20 yards per reception and scored 5 TDs.  Anytime Stills is one-on-one with a safety I’ll be holding my breath.

– Lots of comments on my Blitz Theory post, some of them very good, some of them dumb as hell (at BGN, not here).  It needs work, but a lot of people have asked how I would apply it to Drew Brees.  Drew Brees is a great QB, therefore minimizing time becomes vital.  He just won’t miss many windows if he has time to throw, so sitting back in coverage is dangerous.  So don’t be upset if Davis blitzes a fair amount.  HOWEVER, one thing I didn’t discuss was TYPE of blitz.  That’s a whole different analysis.  Against Brees, I’m terrified of the CB and S blitz.  I wouldn’t use them.

The Double-A gap blitz that Davis also likes is very risky, since Brees is smart enough to diagnose it quickly and it leaves a lot of open space for him to hit.  BUT, remember that Brees is pretty short (6’0″…maybe).  That means it’s tougher for him to throw over people. If the blitzers are cognisant of that (get their hands up), the Double-A blitz may not be as bad a call as it seems.  Of course, it should be used sparingly and only when the Eagles NEED a big play.

– Keep an eye on the kickers.  This shapes up to be a close game, and in very cold weather, kicking is more difficult (especially distance).  Alex Henery has been good recently, but I still don’t trust him from beyond 40 yards.  However, the Saints haven’t exactly been consistent in that department either.  They fired their kicker (Garrett Hartley) and signed Shayne Graham in week 16.  Graham doesn’t have a cannon either.   His career long is 53 yards, though he did hit nine 50-51 yard FGs last year for the Texans (his previous season high was 4).

A side effect of both kicking games is that we’re likely to see several 4th down conversion attempts.  I just don’t see either of these guys attempting a 50 yard FG.  As unfortunate as it would be, the game might come down to which team converts (in other words…luck, well mostly).

– I’m going to keep saying it until it happens:  A surprise onside kick would be huge.  With a bad defense (Eagles) going against a very good offense (Saints), field position means relatively little.  In other words, the 25 yards you sacrifice from NOT recovering an onside kick doesn’t mean that much.  I’d gladly trade that for a close to 50/50 chance at stealing a possession.

Note: The Eagles ARE still a bad defense.  A lot of people have been arguing otherwise, but Football Outsiders has them ranked 23rd by DVOA (they finished 26th last year).  The team has been trending significant upwards (ranked 12th after week 9 I believe), but remember all of the key offensive players the Eagles haven’t had to play against due to injury.  Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Demarco Murray, Reggie Bush….

– I’m leaving it there.  You can find all of the normal pre-game analysis elsewhere.  This game has all the ingredients for a true classic, hopefully it lives up to its potential (with an Eagles win of course).

Andy Reid Era

This will probably be just the first in a series of posts we do on Andy Reid over the next couple weeks, but here we have highlighted his success relative to other current NFL coaches.   Before we get to the chart, here are the rules:

The X axis is cumulative regular season winning percentage.  Important to note that this a) only includes current NFL coaches, and b) only includes their track record with their CURRENT team.  So Jeff Fisher and Mike Shanahan don’t get credit.  This is a What Have You Done for Me Lately? world.

The Y axis, I’ve termed Annualized Playoff Success.  I went through each coaches playoff history and gave them credit for their success on a simple point system I created.

Playoff Appearance (No Wins): 1 Point

Playoff Win(s) (but no Conference Championship): 2 Points

Super Bowl Loss: 3 Points

Super Bowl Win: 5 Points

You add up all those points and divide by total coaching tenure with the team (to mitigate the impact of long tenure).

The bubble size represents total Playoff Points under my system (so it’s a bit biased towards long tenure, but instructive nonetheless).  Orange bubbles, in case you couldn’t guess, mean super bowl winners.

Screen Shot 2012-12-24 at 10.43.08 AM

 

Andy Reid is a little tough to see, but he is the biggest blue bubble, just under Tom Coughlin.

The big takeaway here is: “Be careful what you wish for” regarding a coaching change.  I’ve long been an Andy Reid supporter.  Despite some obvious shortcomings, I believe he is still one of the best coaches in the league.  Most importantly, it is very difficult to find a good NFL coach.  As we can see in the chart above, by our assumed current standards (Andy Reid = just not good enough), there are A LOT of crappy coaches out there.

There’s no guarantee the Eagles make the right choice when it comes to the next coach, and I’d argue that the odds actually suggest it will be tough to find someone as good as Reid has been.

Just to clarify, this is not an endorsement of keeping Reid, just reminding everyone to temper their enthusiasm to get rid of him.

 

Andy Reid Drafts:

We’ll be taking a much more detailed look at the Draft after the season ends, but I thought I’d quickly provide a good illustration as to why the team’s performance has tailed off the last few years.  Below are all of the Eagles’ draft picks made under Andy Reid.  I did not include this past year’s since not enough time has passed to really judge any of the picks (though Cox looks like a hit).

I’ve color coded them so we can easily see where and when the good picks were made.

There’s a lot of subjectivity to “grading” players, but the general rule of thumb I used was:

Good starters for the Eagles are highlighted Green.  Complete disasters are Red.  Everyone else is Black (either mediocre or jury is still out).  You’ll notice that nobody after the second round is Red.  Beyond there it becomes very difficult to find quality starters, so the team really isn’t docked much for missing there (though not finding quality backups is another issue altogether).  Also, if a player went on to be successful, but did so for another team, they don’t count as a good pick (think Derrick Burgess or Brandon Gibson).

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Notice anything?  Now I’m sure some will argue about how I’ve classified a few of the names on the list (Andrews and Bunkley could certainly be Red) but in general I think everyone can see the same overarching trends.   The most shocking realization is the complete lack of strong defensive players picked since 2006.    Maybe Brandon Graham’s emergence is real, in which case he might switch to Green, but there really isn’t anyone else in all that time that I’d happily call a starter.  (And don’t say Stewart Bradley, he started for just 2 seasons, only one of which was a good year)

It’s also easy to see how this happened if we take a glance at who is highlighted in Red (i.e. complete misses).  From 2007-2011, the Eagles used 2nd round picks on the following defensive legends:  Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett.

That, folks, is a very big reason why this is Andy Reid’s last year as coach.  It looks like he broke the trend with Cox, but too little too late.

Final note:  I do not mean to suggest that Andy Reid is bad at drafting.  My guess is that over his career he has been about average and most people don’t realize just how hard it is to accurately project talent.  The offseason draft analysis will take a look at league-wide success rates and see where Reid actually ranks and if there really are good drafters or if it’s just luck (hint: it’s probably a lot of luck).

Also, I apologize if there are any typos or misspelled names.  Lots of transcription, hopefully its all correct.

Week 14: Eagles vs Bengals Rewind

Sorry for the long delay, but as some of you know, the All-22 footage isn’t available until the Wednesday after the game.  So at the risk of bringing up the memory of a game most fans would like to forget, here is the All-22 breakdown, featuring notes on key figures and breakdowns of three big plays:

Notes:

Overall – A better game then the score indicates, as I described in the post-game notes.  Key figures:

Nick Foles – Played a much better game then most are giving him credit for.  The interception was a terrible throw, but other than that he made good decisions.  Some will point to a couple throws at the end of the game that clearly weren’t high-percentage passes, and they’re correct, but I would argue that down 24 points with time running out is exactly the time to engage in higher risk plays.  Throwing an interception at that point doesn’t really decrease the odds of winning since they are so low to begin with.

He again showed good pocket mobility, though this game he didn’t make his progressions quite as well as he had been doing previously.  All-in-all another encouraging game despite what most are saying.  (That’s precisely why we just look at the tape rather than going off what we hear.)

Colt Anderson Colt played a better game than I gave him credit for.  In the post-game notes I mentioned the nice pass break-up but nothing else.  Colt made some nice plays in the run game (his strength) though he did have trouble bringing down the runner at the point of contact a few times (getting dragged a few yards).  A solid game, though, and certainly higher quality than we’ve seen from any of the safeties in a while.

Jamar Chaney – From now on Chaney will be referred to as either “The Invisible Man” or “Human Practice Sled”.  It is really amazing how he can play so much and yet have so little impact on the game.   The box score will tell you he had 7 total tackles (by far his highest of the year), but most of those came from him chasing down a man he should have stopped earlier.  By my count, he made just 1 positive play, bringing the runner down at the line of scrimmage. The best thing you can say about him is that he takes 1 blocker out of the play (which in fact is about the worst thing you can say about a LB).

Fletcher Cox/Brandon Graham – This was easy to see for most watching the game, but both of these players had a huge day.  If they can keep up this level of play, the Eagles have the potential for a great d-line.  Cox has already shown himself to be among the best pass-rushing DTs in the league, which is what the Eagles hoped for when they picked him.  Graham, however, has been a revelation (considering how low his stock was preseason).  In addition to the sacks, Graham played with a lot of energy on each play, including coming completely across the field once and bringing down a scrambling Dalton from behind on the opposite sideline.  Any fan looking for a reason to get excited has found it.

DRC –  DRC reminded everyone why he’s so well-known.  He was matched man-to-man against Green nearly the whole game, and held him relatively in check.  The TD fade is a tough one, DRC has to know that’s coming and find a way to stop it, but that’s easier said then done for any corner up against a receiver of that caliber.

Kendricks – Another young player to watch.  Kendricks had a tough game and was largely missing from the action.  He did have one pass defended, but was made to look foolish by Andy Dalton (on Dalton’s TD run).  Kendricks’ performance has definitely taken a hit outside of last week’s game.  Let’s hope he rebounds, otherwise the LB core is again pretty weak.

Now for some plays:

The Maclin Fake-Screen:

2nd and 3 at the PHI 38 yard line.  This is a great play not just because of how well it was drawn up and worked, but because the Eagles started setting this up the week before.  Remember all those WR screens they ran against Tampa?  Well they came out this game and early-on ran a couple, giving the Bengals plenty to recognize and key off.  Laying that groundwork paid off in this play, which ultimately led to a TD.

Here is the pre-snap look:  The Eagles come out trips-right with Riley Cooper on the opposite side (total of 4 WRs).  On this play, the Bengals are in a nickel defense, which means they only have 3 CBs on the field.  To account for the discrepancy, the Bengals’ safety takes responsibility for Maclin.

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Just after the snap, seen below, the Eagles are showing the WR screen.  Notice the safety covering Maclin has stepped up and crossed the 50.  To this point there is no real sign that it’s a fake, as Maclin could just be running to set up blocking position between his man and the receiver.

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Finally, we get the payoff picture.  At first glance it doesn’t look like much, the safety covering Maclin is still farther downfield.  What’s key though, as we can see from the above picture, is that at this moment Maclin is at full speed, whereas the safety covering him has just realized it’s a fake and is starting from a dead stop, giving him no chance of matching Maclin’s speed.

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A very well-drawn up play, but fairly simple.  The key was setting it up with actual screens both early this game and in the week before.  I know some people have mentioned Foles should have hit Maclin in stride (leading to a TD on this play), but I think Foles was really just trying to ensure a catch and got a bit conservative with his throw.

Play 2:  The Cooper TD

This play occurs shortly after the previous play.  Nick Foles hits Riley Cooper, who is wide-open at the goal line.  How did he get so open?  Below is the pre-snap.  The Eagles come out with 5 WRs and bunch 4 of them just off the line to the right side.  As you can see from the diagram, bunching 4 WRs (one is actually RB Lewis) together makes things very difficult for the defense.  If they are in man-coverage, the defenders are susceptible to “pick” plays or running into each other as they try to run with their man.  Zone coverage alleviates this problem, but means the defenders have to be communicating with each other perfectly, or else they may accidentally double-cover a WR and leave another open.  The second option (zone) is what appears to happen here.

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Riley Cooper is the WR lined up closest to the O-Line on the right side.  Pay close attention to his route.  See how it runs between the two defenders (shown as red circles)?  That ends up being the key to the play.  Of those two, the outside defender takes Dion Lewis, the Eagles WR furthest right in the above picture.  The inside defender actually disrupts Cooper’s route (seen below), forcing him towards the sideline.  However, this defender, after running with Cooper, sees Dion Lewis break back inside, therefore entering his zone.  He breaks off his coverage of Cooper and picks up Lewis.  The outside defender doesn’t get the message and also covers Lewis, leaving Cooper wide open on the goal line.

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Above, we can see Cooper being disrupted.  Lewis is about to break back towards the inside, which causes Cooper’s defender to leave him, sticking to his zone.  Below is the moment this happens.

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And here is the moment of the  pass.  Notice Cooper coming open and the two defenders covering Lewis.

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Bunching 4 WRs caused confusion in the defense and led to a very easy throw-and-catch for a TD.  It must also be noted that this play only succeeded because the O-Line gave it enough time to develop.

Play 3:  One for the defense.

Second Quarter, 1st and 20 at the 2 minute warning.  This is the fumble forced by Cullen Jenkins and recovered by Tapp.  There are two things that make this play interesting: it comes from the wide-9 alignment, and it involves Jenkins coming over top both the other DT (Cox) and DE (Cole), which means the DBs did a good job in coverage to give him time to do that.

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The key to the play, other than the coverage, is Cox and Cole’s ability to attack the center of the offensive line.  As I illustrated above and we can see below, the combined power of these players collapses the left side of the Bengal’s o-line, giving Jenkins the space he needs to come around.

 

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Above we can see Jenkins in motion and Cole setting the edge.  Below we can see Jenkins as he’s coming around the line.  Notice that the stunt action towards the center has drawn the Bengals’ LT to Cole, meaning there is nobody left to block Jenkins, whose original blocker  can be seen doing nothing in the picture below.

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Finally, the moment of the strip  Jenkins gets there just in time, as Dalton is about to release the ball (and fortunately just before his arm starts coming forwards.

 

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A big defensive play out of the wide-9, who knew?  In any case, this is the type of action the Eagles should be able to generate with Cox/Cole.  Both are great pass rushers (Cole not as much this year but he still has to be respected) and are used here to create space for Jenkins, leading to a turnover (something they haven’t created nearly enough this year.)  Let’s hope we see more plays like this in the next couple games.

What’s the deal with fumbles? (Should we worry about Bryce Brown?)

Given all the hyperventilating going on about Bryce Brown’s supposed fumbling problem, I thought it would be helpful to take a data-driven look into fumbling rates and see if there truly are players with “fumbling problems” or if it’s largely a result of chance.

Verdict?  While there are certainly some players that are better/worse than others at holding onto the football, most of it really is a result of luck (despite all the crap you hear from analysts).

How did I get there?  Stay with me while I explain:

I gathered a sample of relatively prominent running backs over the past ten years.  Admittedly this is non-random, however I wasn’t picking by any specific stat and after reviewing the sample I don’t see any particular reason to suspect that it’s largely skewed (one big caveat that I’ll get to later).

I ended up with 31 running backs of varying career lengths/prominence/etc… I’ve listed the full sample at the end of the post.  In all, this produced 167 seasons of 100 carries or more.  I then looked to see if there was any correlation between a player’s fumbling rate (fumbles/attempts) from one season to the next.

The end result was a correlation coefficient of .17.  For those unaware, correlation coefficients run from -1 to 1, with 1 suggesting perfect positive correlation and 0 suggesting no correlation from one year to the next.  A value of .17 tells us that while a player’s fumbling rate from year-to-year is somewhat correlated, the relationship is weak and largely dictated by chance.

So about Bryce Brown: While his fumbling rate this year is very high (3.9%), it’s way too soon to really worry about this as a long-term problem.  In fact, within the sample there were 7 RBs who carried a fumble rate of greater than 2.5% over the course of a full season (with 100+ carries).  Of those, only one RB recorded that high of a rate a second time in his career (Ricky Williams).

– Hat tip to Matt Swartz from Fangraphs for insight.  Follow him on twitter if you like analytical baseball stuff (@Matt_swa).

More Notes from the data:

– The highest fumble rate within the sample was Reggie Bush’s second year with 100+ carries.  That year he fumbled 4.46% of the time.  However, in every other season of his with 100+ carries (there were 4), his fumbling rate was never higher than 1.89%.

– Just two of the included RBs had career rates greater than 2%, Reggie Bush and Travis Henry.

– The lowest career rate was recorded by none other than Brian Westbrook, who fumbled on just 3 carries out of a total 1385, or just 0.22% of the time.

– Below are the charted season rates for Adrian Peterson and Tiki Barber, two players noted for early career “fumbling problems”.  I’ve explained that most of this is likely result of chance, but felt it was interesting to see given the reputation of each player (the chart should probably not have the data points connected given what I’ve talked about, but it makes things easier to see):Screen Shot 2012-12-19 at 11.42.57 AM

-Now for the caveats: As I mentioned above, this was a non-random sample chosen mainly because I was looking for RBs with a large enough number of carries to make for a significant sample.  It’s likely that players who fumble a lot do not get many seasons with 100+ carries, though there were several players included who fumbled a lot in their early career and continued to get carries.  I will take a look at the records to see what the fumbling rates look like for players who did not have long careers (at least 3 seasons with 100+ carries).

-The data I used only includes RUSHING fumbles.  So if an included player caught a pass and then fumbled it is not counted.  I wanted to get a pure representation of rushing.  Westbrook in particular, had several fumbles after receptions.

– The data for current players did not include this past week’s games.

– Here is the sample of players used:

Ladanian Tomlinson
Fred Taylor
Ricky Williams
Eddie George
Jamal Lewis
Willis McGahee
Steven Jackson
Frank Gore
Clinton Portis
Tiki Barber
Shaun Alexander
Chester Taylor
Ahman Green
Adrian Peterson
Maurice Jones-Drew
Travis Henry
Marshawn Lynch
Brian Westbrook
Michael Turner
Chris Johnson
Willie Parker
Ray Rice
Brandon Jacobs
Reggie Bush
Jonathan Stewart
Fred Jackson
Ahmad Bradshaw
LeSean McCoy
Felix Jones
Arian Foster
Jamaal Charles

Looking ahead to the draft

As discussed last week, at the end of the season, it’s likely that the Eagles will find themselves with their highest 1st round draft pick since choosing Donovan McNabb #2 overall in 1999.  So let’s take a look at the current prospect rankings and talk about the potential directions the Eagles could take.

First caveat: We do not know how much input the next coach will have when it comes to the draft.  My guess is that Howie Roseman is calling the shots, and will have final say on each pick.  It’s safe to assume that the top coaching candidates will want some personnel control, though, so that could change once the Eagles enter the hiring season (I think it’s unlikely Roseman cedes any control.)

Looking at this year’s projected class (underclassmen may choose to return to school), we can see that the Eagles’ timing is pretty bad.  Regardless of the Eagles’ particular needs, the absence of one or two franchise QB prospects definitely diminishes the value of a top 5 pick.  Additionally, Scouts Inc. typically has at least 2-3 prospects with a grade of 97-98, of which there are none this year.  While Scouts Inc is far from perfect in its grading, its board typically closely resembles the consensus “big board” at draft time.  However, given the current landscape, the team is in pretty good position to get a major piece (as they should be with a likely top 5 pick).

Here are the top prospects according to Scouts Inc. along with their rating:

Star Lotulelei – DT – 96

Jarvis Jones – OLB – 96

Damontre Moore – DE – 96

Chance Warmack – G – 96

Manti Te’o – LB – 96

Luke Joeckel – OT – 96

Right off the bat, I think we can eliminate Warmack and Damontre Moore from consideration.  I feel pretty confident in saying the Eagles will recognize that selecting a G (even if he projects as potentially the best in the league) is a terrible value that high in the draft.  Guys like Todd McShay are saying Warmack is the “best guard I’ve evaluated in the past decade, Warmack is the rare interior lineman worthy of a top-10 overall pick”, but I’m not buying it.  The position doesn’t have a great enough impact on the game, and average guard play is much easier to account for than either a porous D-Line or mediocre OTs.  Top 5 picks are rare, and team’s must maximize the impact from them (though for teams that don’t perhaps top 5 picks are not as rare).

Dismissing a DE is riskier, especially given what appears to be a strong fetish for them among NFL GMs.  However, I think (hope?) the play of Brandon Graham and the existence of Vinny Curry will push them to look elsewhere.

From there, the big name to watch is STAR, as in Star Lotulelei, the DT from Utah.  Roseman has said pretty strongly that he will be sticking with a “best-available” strategy rather than picking for need, and at this point it looks like Lotulelei has the inside track on the consensus “highest rated prospect” designation.  While DT isn’t a glaring hole for the Eagles, the opportunity to pair Lotulelei with Cox for the next 5 years would intrigue any coach.  The current scouting report on Star mentions some work needed on his pass-rush skills, but given Cox’s talent for getting pressure, that would seem like a strong match.

If Star is taken, then the obvious (for me at least) pick is an OT.  Some may argue that OT isn’t a need, because Peters and Herremans will be back next year.  I look at it a little differently.  Assuming the Peters/Herremans/Kelce trio comes back next year at 100% of their former skill (a big assumption that most are making quite easily), the O-line would look like this:

Peters – Mathis – Kelce – Scott? – Herremans

The RG position is up in the air (really wish that Watkins kid could play), but whoever they plug in, I feel comfortable in saying that the OL wouldn’t be a weakness and my guess is that it would be above-average.  The left side of the line is among the best in the league, but the Herremans/Scott combo leaves much to be desired.  Though most fans like Herremans, I don’t consider him any better than average at OT.  He won’t get the QB killed, but he isn’t going to set the edge in the run game or completely shut down top pass-rushers.

Now lets look at the line with Joeckel (or whichever OT is deemed best at draft time).

Peters- Mathis – Kelce – Herremans – Joeckel

The left side of the line remains the same and has the potential to be among the best in the league.  Herremans moves back inside to Guard, where he has been very strong in the past.  Joeckel at RT gives the Eagles the best set of tackles they’ve had since Runyan/Thomas (wait…isn’t that the last time they contended?  coincidence?).  Additionally, it has to be said that, not only is Peters coming off an injury, but he isn’t getting any younger (he turns 31 in January).  While OTs can play at a high level well into their 30’s, it would be prudent for the Eagles to start looking for someone on the right side that could replace Peters when the time comes.  We can also look at this as risk-mitigation, in case Peters does not return to his former ability or suffers a new injury.

The remaining players listed above (Te’o and Jones) are both wild cards.  I think Te’o is a very unlikely pick for the Eagles, as I assume Roseman hasn’t completely abandoned what he sees as the relatively low value of LBs (he’s not entirely wrong).  Jones, however, seems to be all over the place when it comes to evaluation.  He projects as a OLB in a 3-4 defense, so its conceivable that if a new coach brings a 3-4 with him, then he would pound the table for a guy like Jones.  However, I think the more likely role for both Jones and Te’o in the Eagles draft analysis is as trade fodder.

I think it’s likely that there are several teams will be willing to pay up for Jones (less-so for Te’o but possible), meaning the Eagles may have the chance to slide down a few picks.  Provided they could do-so and remain near the top of the draft (getting their OT), this would appear the be the best-case scenario.

To summarize:  OT is the current favorite in my estimation, though DT is a significant possibility.

In any case, root for a high draft position.

As an aside, here is a link to National Football Post’s top 200 prospects.  I mention this because they appears to disregard the consensus analysis and rely solely on tape and their own research, which obviously appeals to me and, at the very least, provides a different perspective.