A Better Box Score: Simple Ways to Improve the Basic Game Recap

Box scores are intended to give a snapshot of games, and, for the most part, they work. If I look at the box score for West Virginia’s 70 to 63 victory over Baylor, I have a pretty good inkling of what kind of game it was; similarly if I look at the box score of Auburn’s infamous 3-2 win over Mississippi State. But there’s an awful lot I can’t tell from those box scores. Mississippi State had 38 rushing yards, but was that because their running game was stoned or because they took too many sacks? West Virginia and Baylor combined for over 1,000 yards passing, but were those short passes receivers took the distance or long ones down field?

Run or pass? Or neither?

Run or pass? Or neither?

I’m against overwhelming the classic box score with a variety of so-called advanced statistics. I’m a fan of these and I think they are great, but the box score is not the place for unpronounceable acronyms. So below is a non-exhaustive list of very basic, very simple, hopefully very clear changes I think would greatly improve the quality of the traditional box score.

  • Sack Yards: This is an easy one, and is unique only to college rather than the NFL, but there’s no reason that sacks should count against rushing yards. It makes quarterback rushing yards extremely difficult to decipher, especially in the age of the dual-threat quarterback, and often makes passing look more productive than it is in reality. (It also penalizes quarterbacks who do the smart thing, and throw the ball away instead of taking sacks.)
  • Tackles for Loss: Sack yards should come out of passing but all box scores should also have a simple table of negative plays as its own stand alone category. You can tell a lot about offensive and defensive styles based on the number of negative plays.
  • Completions Behind the Line: Bubble screens, rocket screens, now screens, touch passes and swing passes are an increasingly large part of offenses, and, given that these plays are nominally forward passes but are typically “packaged” with running plays, they really should be their own quasi-run/pass category. (In college and high school in particular, the rules for linemen downfield are entirely different depending on whether the pass is completed behind or past the line of scrimmage, thus further arguing for different treatment.) Call it the Percy Harvin/Tavon Austin category of plays which “all-purpose” players typically thrive on. The other goal is to remove these plays from traditional passing categories (though I think it is fair to count incompletions against the quarterback), to make passing statistics more purely a measure of downfield passing.

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Manny Diaz Gets It

From an excellent interview Texas’s defensive coordinator did with LonghornDigest.com:

But statistics were also changing for in-game analysis. Whereas it might once be considered an advanced metric to look at red zone efficiency, Diaz said Texas is focused on red zone touchdown efficiency.

“You can win a national championship by making people kick field goals in the red zone,” Diaz said. “And you can finish last, in theory, in red zone defense. It just doesn’t make sense.”

[...]

That phenomenon has given rise to statistics like Slow Grind — the number of plays a defense forces an offense to take to score — and the FootballOutsiders.com S&P+ Ratings, a play-by-play success rate that factors for situation and competition. Looking at the latter rating, you can see Diaz’s 2011 Texas defense come to life through the numbers. The Longhorns finished No. 4 nationally in the statistic, but were especially good on running plays — a major Diaz focus — and on winning passing situations (defined as second down with eight or more yards to go, or third or fourth down with five or more yards to go). Texas was third nationally in Rushing S&P+, and second only to national champion Alabama in Passing Downs S&P+.

“Those are the tenets of our defense,” said Diaz, who follows both S&P+ and Slow Grind. “We’ll show those kinds of things to our players during the season just to reinforce what we already know. There aren’t usually any ‘eureka’ moments, but it works more side-by-side with what we see on film.”

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On whether quarterbacks drafted early in the NFL are better than ones drafted later

From Phil Birnbaum:

As you’d expect, the early draft choices got a lot more playing time than the later ones. Even disregarding seasons where they didn’t play at all, and even *games* where they didn’t play at all, the late choices were only involved in 1/4 as many plays as the early choices. Berri and Simmons don’t think that’s a problem. They argue — as does Gladwell — that we should just assume the guys who played less, or didn’t play at all, are just as good as the guys who did play. We should just disregard the opinions of the coaches, who decided they weren’t good enough.

That’s silly, isn’ t it? I mean, it’s not logically impossible, but it defies common sense. At least you should need some evidence for it, instead of just blithely accepting it as a given.

And, in any case, there’s an obvious, reasonable alternative model that doesn’t force you to second-guess the professionals quite as much. That is: maybe early draft choices aren’t taken because they’re expected to be *better* superstars, but because they’re expected to be *more likely* to be superstars.

And:

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The Packers have allowed more yards than they’ve gained, but what does that mean?

After 15 games, the Green Bay Packers are 14-1. But this season, the Packers have been outgained by their opponents. In fact, the Packers have won more than half of their games while losing the yardage battle. How is that possible?

Is this a problem?

If a team is 14-1, the natural inclination is to assume that they’re an elite team with few flaws. And the Packers, as defending Super Bowl champions, certainly pass the eye test. So why has Green Bay been outgained this season? I suspect most people think there are three plausible explanations: (1) total yards is simply meaningless; (2) the Packers have given up a bunch of meaningless yards in garbage time because they always have a lead; or (3) the Packers simply play a ‘bend but don’t break’ style of defense, so measuring them by yards allowed is silly. Let’s look at each argument.

It’s tempting to just think that total yards is meaningless as a measure of team ability, but that’s not really the case. The team that wins the yardage battle has won 66% of all games this season. New England and New Orleans, the two teams most similar to Green Bay, have outgained their opponents in 19 of their 30 games this season. The Steelers, Texans and Saints are the top three teams in yardage differential while the Colts, Rams and Bucs are the bottom three. As a metric, yards and yards allowed have flaws; I would never use yards to rank a player or a team, and the same goes for yards allowed. But yards are still generally correlated with success. So let’s dig a little deeper into what’s actually happened for the Packers this season.

Green Bay ranks 16th in yardage differential, as only 14 teams have outgained their opponents. But Green Bay has lost a lot of possessions this season. A turnover ends your opponent’s drive and gives you a possession, except when you return that turnover for a touchdown. The Packers have seven interception, fumble or special teams touchdowns this season, depriving the offense of possessions. The Packers also muffed two punts (both against Minnesota) and lost a couple of onside kicks. The Packers have also had a few kneel down drives at the end of halves, where they only technically had a possession. Of course, the same has happened to their opponents, but Green Bay has disproportionately lost significantly more drives than the average team this season.

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A closer look at the New England Patriots defense

No one suggests that the Patriots defense is good, or even average. For starters, well, look at the starters. Here was New England’s starting lineup this weekend against the Broncos:

I'm working on it

DE	 Brandon Deaderick 
DT	 Kyle Love 
DT	 Vince Wilfork 
DE	 Andre Carter 
OLB	 Jerod Mayo 
MLB	 Dane Fletcher 
OLB	 Rob Ninkovich 
CB	 Devin McCourty 
FS	 Matt Slater 
SS	 James Ihedigbo 
CB	 Kyle Arrington

Casual fans have heard of Wilfork and Mayo, and McCourty was one of the top rookies in the league last season. But don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Deaderick (2010 7th rounder) or Love (undrafted) or Fletcher (undrafted from Montana State) or Slater (5th round draft pick — at wide receiver — who converted to safety in the middle of this season), and it’s not like Ihedigbo (undrafted, special teams ace for the Jets) , Arrington (undrafted, Hofstra) and Ninkovich (5th round pick by New Orleans) are high profile players, either. Now that Andre Carter — New England’s best pass rusher — is out for the season, the situation looks even worse. And among the “name players” on the Patriots’ defense, only Mayo (who missed several games earlier this season) isn’t having a disappointing season.

The Patriots do not have much talent on defense. So it’s not too surprising that the Patriots rank last in the league in yards allowed. But the situation is even bleaker than that. The 1981 Baltimore Colts were one of the worst teams in football history; they’re also the only team that allowed 5800 or more yards in the first 14 games of the season. Well, they were: now the Patriots have joined the list.

But the Patriots total defense is still better than the Patriots pass defense. Until this season, no team had ever allowed more than 3,910 passing yards after 14 games; the Patriots have allowed 4,154.

Part of that historical ineptness is because the Patriots often play with the lead. New England has faced the third highest number of pass attempts this season, and ranks 30th (as opposed to 32nd) in net yards per pass attempt. So instead of having a historically terrible pass defense, it’s probably fairer to just note that they have one of the league’s worst pass defenses. New England’s rush defense isn’t very good — the Pats rank 26th in yards per carry allowed, and because they face so many more passes than rushes, 19th in rushing yards allowed.

But New England ranks 14th in points allowed. That means despite a terrible pass defense and a bad rush defense, the Patriots actually have allowed fewer points than the average team this season. So what gives?

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Who should be the NFL rookie of the year? Cam Newton vs. Andy Dalton

Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are having outstanding rookie seasons. Newton has been setting records since the beginning of the season, while Dalton has helped make Cincinnati the NFL’s most surprising playoff contender. With the season 11 weeks old, many fans are thinking about who will wind up winning some of the NFL’s main individual awards. Aaron Rodgers has just about locked up the AP MVP award and should probably grab the AP Offensive Player of the Year Award, too. The AP Defensive Rookie of the Year will almost certainly be Von Miller, also known as the “other” reason the Denver Broncos have won five of their last six games. But what about the Offensive Rookie of the Year award?

"Cam, is the rookie of the year award a done deal?" "Like they say...."

Realistically, either Dalton or Newton will win the award. DeMarco Murray and A.J. Green are having great seasons for a rookie running back and wide receiver, respectively, but the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award is as much about position as performance.

From 1967 to 1983, the award went to a running back in all but three seasons. In 1968, Terry Cole led all rookie running backs with only 418 yards, so the award went to the top rookie receiver that season, Earl McCullouch. In 1970, the top rookie running back was Dallas’ Duane Thomas, but he had been less impressive than the Cowboys’ 1969 offensive rookie of the year, Calvin Hill. The top receiver, Ron Shanklin, was unspectacular, so the award actually went to Buffalo quarterback Dennis Shaw. Shaw had a an ugly 3-8-1 record, but all of his wins were 4th quarter comebacks. He also finished 6th in the league in passing yards. In 1976, wide receiver Sammy White had a monster year for the Vikings while no rookie running back stood out.

In fact, from the inception of the award in 1967 until 2003, Shaw was the only quarterback to win the award. But since then, Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young, Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford have taken the award in every even year starting in ’04. In 2005, Kyle Orton was the only rookie QB with at least 200 attempts; while his 10-5 record was nice, his individual statistics were terrible, and Cadillac Williams took home the award. In 2007, Adrian Peterson was an obvious selection, and it probably didn’t hurt that Trent Edwards was his top competition at quarterback. In 2009, Percy Harvin won the award on the basis of his receiving and returner skills, while Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman were each busy throwing seven to eight more interceptions than touchdowns and completing fewer than 55% of their passes.

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Analyzing NFL running games through 10 weeks

NFL teams are passing more frequently and more effectively than ever before. Given enough opportunities, most teams will eventually connect on big plays through the air. But while running backs have taken a backseat in most offenses, a successful rushing attack is still a significant component in most effective offenses.

Success

As teams — and by extension, their opponents — become more prolific at passing, the opportunity cost of not passing increases. That makes an unsuccessful run particularly damaging. A run on third and short that forces a punt, or a run on 1st or 2nd down that makes it harder for his team to move the chains, hurts a team more significantly than ever before. In the ’70s, the running game was supposed to win games for teams, as running was a more effective optionthan passing. In some ways, the goal of the running game now is to not mess things up for the passing game, by forcing a punt or an unfavorable third down situation.

About 25 years ago, Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn wrote the Hidden Game of Football, a fascinating book on football theory and win probability. They went through and graded each play as a success or failure based on how many yards were gained as a percentage of how many yards were needed to pick up a first down or touchdown.

When I wrote a series on the most dominant running backs of all-time, I noted that yards per carry was a misleading statistic for running backs. Rushing is more about consistent success than passing, and rushing has a positive feedback loop in place that might lower yards per carry averages. Yards per carry is highly sensitive to large runs, decreasing the correlation it would have with the overall strength of a running game. I had a discussion with Brian Burke about this a couple of years ago, and he now uses rush success rate in his team efficiency models.

So to analyze NFL running games so far this season, I decided to use my own version of rush success rate. Here’s exactly what I did:
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ESPN’s new Total Quarterback Rating

The NFL’s quarterback rating is bizarre and misleading, so it is no surprise that many have tried to invent the better mousetrap. What is a bit surprising is that ESPN has invented its own metric, which it will undoubtedly promote relentlessly. And, in the twist that is maybe what is most surprising of all, it’s actually pretty good, or at least a well grounded attempt to move the ball forward (at least when it comes to this kind of thing). As Chase explains:

The [formula behind the existing] quarterback rating is complicated, but it can be reduced to a simple formula. That’s what Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn discovered in their groundbreaking book, The Hidden Game of Football. Essentially, QB rating is equivalent to yards per attempt, but with a 20-yard-bonus for each completion, an 80-yard-bonus for each touchdown, and a 100-yard-penalty for an interception. Such adjustments should seem ridiculous to every reader, which is why everyone finds quarterback rating ridiculous. By way of comparison, PFR’s ANY/A formula — in addition to including relevant data on sacks — gives no bonus for completions, a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions.

But on Thursday, ESPN released the methodology behind its new QB Rating. And last night, ESPN aired an hour-long segment at 8 PM to discuss the new formula. So how does ESPN’s formula look? There’s some good and some bad, which means it has exceeded my expectation. . . .
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