Tuesday, December 18, 2007

NFL Thoughts, Week 15

If the analysis I did last week were drugs, it’d be marijuana: a gateway, experimental narcotic that leads to much more addictive ones. It was supposed to just be for recreation, all in good fun—“hey, everyone else on the internet’s doing it, how bad could it be?”—and now look at me, I’m completely strung out on stats.

If you recall at the end of my Week 14 thoughts, I realized that I hadn’t fully answered my own question about how important special teams units are to a team’s overall success, and that there were many other ways of looking at it. Thus I began fiending for more analysis, and now I’m fresh off a marathon binge of numbers-crunching that will probably cost me my job and my family, all in an effort to seek that euphoric knowledge high. And though I’ve got a more complete perspective on that special teams question, I’m STILL not satisfied—there’s more I can do! It’s like I’ve gone from the pot of results comparisons last week to the crack-cocaine of percentages THIS week, and I’m basically one week away from the full-fledged crystal meth of positive and negative correlations. No more! I must stop before you catch me in a gutter somewhere, turning tricks in exchange for hits off of someone’s Excel spreadsheet.

But all that said, what a rush! I feel like Motley Crue’s Vince Neil or Poison’s CC DeVille anytime they’re interviewed on one of those lame “Behind the Music” documentaries. Sure, they’re a mess now, and they’d take back all of the coke, strippers, etc. if they could, but there’s an unmistakable gleam of nostalgia in their eyes when they talk about it.

So here’s what I did: in my continuing quest to figure out the importance of special teams, I’ve chopped up six years’ worth of overall team stats and injected them into my MS Office Excel, then snorted them into my brain (and vomited out results, I guess, to complete the entirely unnecessarily graphic analogy). I chose three offensive categories: total yards, total points, and total giveaways (lost fumbles + interceptions). Then I selected three defensive categories: total yards allowed, total points allowed, and total takeaways (recovered fumbles + interceptions). Then I used the same six special team categories I used last year: kickoff return yards, kickoff return touchdowns, punt return yards, punt return touchdowns, % of punts that pinned the opposition inside the 20, and average net yards per punt.

Having selected my stats, I went through every single category for each season’s playoff teams and checked whether or not it was within the Top-12 for that year. The two exceptions to the “Top 12 Test” were the kickoff returns and punt returns for touchdowns, in which case I observed whether or not the team had more of two of them (the vast majority of teams only return 1 or fewer kickoffs and punts for touchdowns each year). If this sounds easy to do, it’s not. In fact, I’m not even sure it sounds easy—just trying to describe what I did is giving me a contact high.

So having done all that, it was time for a little subjectivity (subjectivity is the statistician’s chaser). I decided that a team’s overall offense was “stellar” if it ranked in the top-12 in all three categories, “good” if it was top-12 in 2-out-of-3, “bad” if it was top-12 in just 1-out-of-3, and “awful” if it wasn’t in the top-12 in any category (considering that I was only dealing with playoff teams, there were a surprising number of “bads” and “awfuls”—more on that later). Then I did the exact same thing with the defensive categories. Special teams were a little trickier, because I had six categories, rather than just three. So I decided that 5 or 6 top-12 categories rated a “stellar,” 3 or 4 rated a “good,” 2 rated a “bad,” and 1 or 0 warranted an “awful.”

Then it was time for the ultimate trip: the results. Of the 72 playoff teams of the past 6 years, 25 had “bad” or “awful” offenses, 25 “bad” or “awful” defenses, and a whopping 47 “bad” or “awful” special teams. So by that measure, special teams are far less important than the other two units. Incidentally, there were more “stellar” offenses than defenses (26 to 19), and fewer “awful” offenses than defenses (9 to 11) among the playoff teams, so I suppose that great offenses are better than great defenses—contrary to all we hear about defenses winning to championships. And yet, there are probably other ways to answer this…STOP! I better stop right there before the cops are surrounding my apartment, and someone with a megaphone is telling me to “step away from the laptop.”

Back to special teams! Of those 72 playoff teams, four of them actually had “good” or “stellar” special teams and “bad” or “awful” offenses and defenses. So by that count, it would seem that special teams CAN actually carry a team to the playoffs…until you try the same measurement with offenses and defenses and find that 13 “good” or “stellar” offenses have overcome “bad” or “awful” defenses and special teams through the years. Similarly 15 “good” or “stellar” defenses have overcome offenses and special teams that were both either “bad” or “awful.” So once again, the stats show that the significance of crack special teams units should be marginalized (AND that defense might be more important than offense, but again, I’ll stop right there).

Let’s see, was there anything else? Is that all I have to show for this? I guess there was one other thing: just for kicks, I was wondering how many were playoff teams were “good” or “stellar” in ALL THREE categories (offense, defense, and special teams), and it turns out that there have been 13. And of course, then I had no choice but to find out if/how many teams have been “bad” or “awful” in all three areas, and there have actually been 3, believe it or not: last year’s Giants (which most New Yorkers probably have NO PROBLEM believing), the 2004-05 Rams, and last year’s Seahawks, who happened to be the only playoff team of the last 6 years with the dubious honor of being “awful” in all three categories. So if you’re a fan of those any of those franchises and have been feeling vaguely guilty for criticizing them even though they made the playoffs, Merry Christmas from me.

So anyway, the conclusion is…ummm, I forgot the question was at this point. Oh yeah, with very few exceptions, special teams are pretty much not that important…which is actually what all of us know intuitively in the first place. I’ve basically accomplished nothing. I suppose I’m at least a good cautionary tale. Stay away from spreadsheets, kids, because they’ll ruin your life. Try smoking pot instead…

Defensive Player of the Week: Scott Fujita, Saints. 10 tackles, 2 sacks, and a FF kept the playoff dream alive for the Saints against Arizona. Too bad he can’t run the ball for Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister.

Offensive Player of the Week: Fred Taylor, Jaguars. Taylor’s 147 yards and a TD on 25 carries against a solid Steelers defense keyed a huge road victory for the Jags. From now on, Fred Taylor should be an adjective that describes a consistently excellent player who nonetheless flies under the radar for most of his career, as in “Curtis Martin had a very Fred Taylor-ish career.” Incidentally, this week’s runner up, Jamal Lewis could also describe a player who’s great even after he does an extended stint in prison. For instance, in 2010, we could all be saying, “Mike Vick just pulled a great Jamal Lewis.”

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