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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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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Simple Rating System: Final results and predicting the Bowls – 12/5/2011

Believe it or not, the Oklahoma State Cowboys ended up finishing #2 in the SRS. Like last week, LSU remains the clear #1. But on the basis of the most impressive SRS game of the season, the Cowboys topped the Crimson Tide.

Rk.  Team                 Conf  G    MOV      SOS      SRS      W-L
1.   LSU                  SEC   13   24.4     41.4     65.8     13-0
2.   Oklahoma St          B12   12   20.6     43.7     64.2     11-1
3.   Alabama              SEC   12   23.4     40.4     63.8     11-1
4.   Oregon               P12   13   18.7     41.1     59.8     11-2
5.   Stanford             P12   12   19.3     39.6     58.8     11-1
6.   Oklahoma             B12   12   14.0     44.7     58.7      9-3
7.   Wisconsin            B10   13   21.8     36.7     58.5     11-2
8.   Boise St             MWC   12   20.9     34.2     55.1     11-1
9.   Michigan             B10   12   15.3     39.7     55.0     10-2
10.  Southern Cal         P12   12   11.0     42.1     53.2     10-2
11.  Texas A&M            B12   12    8.0     44.4     52.4      6-6
12.  Arkansas             SEC   12   12.3     39.6     51.8     10-2
13.  Houston              CUS   13   22.4     28.7     51.1     12-1
14.  Baylor               B12   12    7.0     44.0     51.0      9-3
15.  Michigan St          B10   13   11.2     39.2     50.4     10-3
16.  Georgia              SEC   13   10.2     39.3     49.5     10-3
17.  Notre Dame           IND   12    8.0     41.5     49.5      8-4
18.  TCU                  MWC   12   17.1     32.3     49.4     10-2
19.  Missouri             B12   12    6.3     43.0     49.3      7-5
20.  South Carolina       SEC   12   10.1     39.2     49.3     10-2
21.  Texas                B12   12    4.8     44.4     49.1      7-5
22.  Kansas St            B12   12    4.9     43.3     48.2     10-2
23.  Nebraska             B10   12    7.0     41.1     48.1      9-3
24.  Florida St           ACC   12   13.2     33.8     47.0      8-4
25.  Arizona St           P12   12    6.6     39.6     46.2      6-6
26.  Virginia Tech        ACC   13    9.8     35.6     45.4     11-2
27.  Clemson              ACC   13    7.4     37.3     44.6     10-3
28.  Southern Miss        CUS   13   15.5     29.0     44.5     11-2
29.  Penn State           B10   12    4.0     40.4     44.4      9-3
30.  California           P12   12    4.4     39.5     43.9      7-5
31.  Toledo               MAC   12    9.8     33.8     43.6      8-4
32.  West Virginia        BgE   12    7.2     36.1     43.3      9-3
33.  Vanderbilt           SEC   12    4.2     39.0     43.2      6-6
34.  Ohio State           B10   12    3.5     39.8     43.2      6-6
35.  Cincinnati           BgE   12   11.3     31.9     43.2      9-3
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Can inexperienced quarterbacks succeed in the playoffs? The Houston Texans and the T.J. Yates experiment

The Houston Texans are currently having the finest season in their nine-year existence. With an 8-3 record, Houston is almost certainly going to make the playoffs. But after losing quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in consecutive games, the Texans are down to their third string quarterback.

Doing a lot of this

That man is T.J. Yates, a rookie quarterback out of North Carolina. Yates did manage to torch LSU for over 400 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, one of three 400-yard performances by Yates in his senior season. But you can’t fault Texans fans if they’re a little concerned.

Houston signed Jake Delhomme this week, but he’s expected to serve as the primary backup and mentor. If the Texans go with Yates for the final five games of the season, will he be the most inexperienced quarterback to ever start a game in the playoffs?

Hardly. There have been 13 quarterbacks to start a playoff game with five or fewer career regular season starts. In fact, he’d only be the third rookie quarterback with to be inserted into his team’s lineup for the last five games of the season and then start in the playoffs. Perhaps more surprisingly, there have been five times since 1960 when a quarterback made only one regular season start in his entire career before being called on to start a playoff game. Going chronologically:

Tom Matte, 1965 vs. the Green Bay Packers

In 1965, the NFL was a 14-team league with two divisions. The playoffs were simple: the two division winners would play in the last championship game before the start of the Super Bowl era. Under Johnny Unitas, the Colts raced out to 7-1 record, with the only loss coming at Lambeau Field by a score of 20-17 in week two. Unitas missed the Colts’ ninth game with a back injury, but backup Gary Cuozzo (more on his reputation as the best backup quarterback in football here) led the Colts to victory and threw for five touchdowns in his absence. Unitas returned the next week and helped the Colts pick up another victory and one tie. By then, the 9-1-1 Colts held a 1.5 game lead on the 8-3 Packers with only three games left to play. But against the Bears, Stan Jones and Earl Leggett tore Unitas’ knee in a classic high-low hit that ended his season. The Colts offense was helpless against Chicago, losing the game 13-0.

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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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Simple Rating System: The Oklahoma State Cowboys rise to top the rankings, with a caveat

By now, you understand how the Simple Rating System works. Last week, Stanford and Boise State were top six teams with BCS aspirations. Following home losses, both teams can still take pride in how far they’ve come: a second straight 12-1 season will be viewed as a disappointment.

As always, thanks to Dr. Peter Wolfe for providing the game scores. Here are the SRS results through week 10. The SRS places equal weight on each game and cares more about margin of victory than records (which is why it’s a predictive system). As a result, Stanford (5th last week) and Boise State (7th last week) are still top 10 teams, as is 5-5 Texas A&M. All three of those teams are 16+ favorites this week.

Rk   Team                 Conf   G   MOV      SOS      SRS      Rec
1.   Oklahoma St          B12   10   22.7     44.7     67.3    10-0
2.   Alabama              SEC   10   23.2     43.0     66.2     9-1
3.   LSU                  SEC   10   23.0     43.0     66.0    10-0
4.   Oklahoma             B12    9   20.6     45.5     66.0     8-1
5.   Oregon               P12   10   21.1     43.2     64.2     9-1
6.   Stanford             P12   10   22.0     40.0     62.0     9-1
7.   Wisconsin            B10   10   23.3     36.6     59.9     8-2
8.   Boise St             MWC    9   19.9     38.9     58.8     8-1
9.   Michigan             B10   10   15.2     41.0     56.2     8-2
10.  Texas A&M            B12   10    6.6     47.9     54.5     5-5
11.  Notre Dame           IND   10   10.7     43.0     53.7     7-3
12.  Texas                B12    9    8.7     44.7     53.4     6-3
13.  Georgia              SEC   10   13.7     39.7     53.3     8-2
14.  Missouri             B12   10    5.5     47.5     53.0     5-5
15.  Houston              CUS   10   26.0     26.8     52.8    10-0
16.  Arkansas             SEC   10   14.3     38.4     52.7     9-1
17.  Southern Cal         P12   10    9.0     43.5     52.5     8-2
18.  TCU                  MWC   10   15.1     36.7     51.8     8-2
19.  Nebraska             B10   10    9.9     41.8     51.7     8-2
20.  Arizona St           P12   10    9.8     41.8     51.6     6-4
21.  Michigan St          B10   10    9.9     41.5     51.4     8-2
22.  South Carolina       SEC   10    8.5     42.3     50.8     8-2
23.  Florida St           ACC   10   14.9     35.6     50.5     7-3
24.  Kansas St            B12   10    4.5     45.9     50.3     8-2
25.  Virginia Tech        ACC   10   12.1     36.9     49.0     9-1
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Frank Gore to break 60-year old team record

If you take a second, and are spotted a guess or two, you could probably guess the career leader in rushing yards for every team. Some are immediately obvious, as is the case for franchises like Dallas, Cleveland, Detroit or Chicago. A couple might take a few guesses (Tampa Bay? Philadelphia? Arizona?) while others have been recently set (St. Louis, Green Bay and Carolina). But did you know that the oldest team rushing record belongs in San Francisco?

I'm fast, but am I faster than "The Jet"?

Jason Lisk wrote a fabulous piece on Joe “The Jet” Perry of the 49ers two years ago, highlighting not just his success but the struggles he endured in his post-playing days. Sadly, Perry died in April, as a result of complications from dementia. Perry is about to be in the news again soon: Frank Gore recently passed Roger Craig for second all-time on the 49ers career rushing list, and he is now just 149 yards from topping Perry. Of the 32 franchises, no team has seen one man hold its rushing record for as long as Perry has with the 49ers. In fact, since the team entered the NFL, no other man has ever been its career rushing leader.

Perry joined San Francisco in 1948, just two years after the color line had been re-broken in football and only one year after Jackie Robinson did the same in baseball. He became the first black player to play for the 49ers, but it didn’t take long for him to win over teammates and fans. In Perry’s first professional game — on his first very touch — he raced over 50 yards for a touchdown. In 1948, the Browns and the 49ers were the class of the All-America Football Conference, a rival football league to the NFL. That season, Cleveland and San Francisco went a combined 27-0 against the rest of the league. One of the stars for the 49ers was rookie Joe “the Jet” Perry, a fullback who led the league with 10 rushing touchdowns and averaged 7.3 yards per carry. In the season finale, Perry rushed 9 times for 160 yards against the rival Los Angeles Dons. But the Browns won their two head-to-head meetings, 14-7 and 31-28, respectively, to secure their place as the league’s premier team.

The following year Perry led the league in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry; he also played a big part in one of the biggest games in AAFC history. On October 9, 1949, Perry rushed 16 times for 155 yards and scored two touchdowns in a win over Cleveland, including having one of the game’s highlights on a 27-yard, one-handed catch and run score. San Francisco won the game 58-26, the first loss for the Browns in 30 games and two calendar years.

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Simple Rating System – Week 10: Where LSU — and ‘Bama — continue to lead the pack

Last week, I discussed how the simple rating system could be an easy-to-understand and effective predictive ranking system. This week, I’ll be updating the ratings after the week 10 results, and providing an update on each conference. As always, special thanks to Dr. Wolfe who publishes the game scores for every NCAA and NAIA game each week.

The SRS assigns equal weight to each game, so by week 10, the weekly fluctuations are not significant. Still, here are the current SRS standings as of today:

Rk   Team                Conf   G   MOV      SOS      SRS      W-L
1.   LSU                  SEC   9   22.6     46.1     68.7     9-0
2.   Alabama              SEC   9   23.6     43.6     67.2     8-1
3.   Oklahoma             B12   9   20.6     45.8     66.4     8-1
4.   Oklahoma St          B12   9   20.3     45.8     66.1     9-0
5.   Stanford             P12   9   27.2     37.7     64.9     9-0
6.   Oregon               P12   9   20.6     41.5     62.1     8-1
7.   Boise St             MWC   8   23.3     37.5     60.8     8-0
8.   Wisconsin            B10   9   22.8     37.6     60.3     7-2
9.   Texas A&M            B12   9    7.3     48.2     55.5     5-4
10.  Michigan             B10   9   14.7     40.5     55.2     7-2
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Should Lynn Swann be in the Hall of Fame? What do the numbers say?

As one of members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee, I appreciate Peter King’s candor when it comes to the struggles the voters face when discussing wide receivers. King has written about the wide receiver conundrum frequently, including this note a couple of weeks ago:

Hall of Fame Headache Dept.: Art Monk retired after the 1995 season with 940 catches, most in NFL history. On Sunday, Derrick Mason of Houston became the 11th player in 16 years to pass Monk. Mason had one catch in the 41-7 rout of Tennessee, giving him 941.

Larry Fitzgerald, 27, is 296 catches behind Monk. Andre Johnson, 29, is 242 behind him. We haven’t even begun with the children of the aerial generation, the receivers just starting their careers in a time of unprecedented passing.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The 44 electors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame will have to define what a Hall of Fame receiver is over the next few years, because they’ll be facing an onslaught of receivers way beyond Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed. Isaac Bruce (1,024 receptions) or Torry Holt (920)? Or both? Hines Ward (980) or Mason (941)? And the tight end position could get similarly silly, numbers-wise. Tony Gonzalez has 289 more catches than any tight end in history.

There has to be something to separate these guys, and each voter has to search his/her conscience to judge them on more than numbers. I am one of the voters. It’ll be interesting, and perhaps maddening, to see how it unfolds.

I have several suggestions on how voters should tackle this admittedly tricky problem (here’s my article addressing the Carter/Brown/Reed conundrum), but I’ll leave further discussion of that for another day. For now, I want to examine exactly how much differently wide receivers are used today than they were 40 years ago. It’s easy to say things like “the passing game has exploded” but there’s nothing preventing us from being much more precise than that.

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