The Band Is On The Statistical Yield: An NFL Stats Guide

By: Dan Grant

“I don’t know”, he said. “I love hockey, it’s a fast game. Basketball I can get behind, March Madness is fun and the Raptors are actually playing well! Not a huge baseball guy but I love the Jays, I grew up with them. But football? Football is boring, man.”

The football fans out there might be shaking their heads right now, but this person is more common than you might think.

Obviously, since the NFL is so insanely successful financially, many people don’t subscribe to this theory. Most of that success is driven from American markets, where their passion for football is similar to the love for hockey here in Canada. There, football dominates the fall and winter months. High schools play on Fridays (Friday Night Lights anyone?), College plays Saturdays, and the NFL plays the majority of its game on Sundays.

However, I’ve found that more than any other sport, there are a lot of casual football fans. There are the die-hards, who love the game and there are people who will go to or watch a game because there is generally beer and food. Still, there is a large sect of the population for whom football is the ideal sport. Baseball, hockey and basketball represent too much of a commitment, time-wise. 162 or 82 games a year? Nope, I’ll stick with 16, thanks. Seven game playoff series? I’ll take my single game elimination and drive through, see ya later!

There’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone is going to be a frothing at the mouth Packers fan (my heart is broken) or a teal-loving Dolphins zealot. With that said, until recently I worked in a small but often vibrant Toronto sports bar. I always worked Sundays for football and I would often engage in lively debate with said die-hards, or share a laugh with those just there for the food. But with the casual fans? The same topics of conversation would come up over and over again.

I wanted to take this time, before the NFL’s second playoff weekend, to dispel some of those common misconceptions and also offer a quick hitting  guide to some of the more common NFL advanced stats. If you’re a casual fan, this might give you a little more insight into just what in the hell is going on. If you’re a die-hard, I’ll be offering some analysis of this weekends games as examples! If you don’t give a rats ass, well, that’s fine too. The pretzels are over there. Keep looking, you’ll find them.

Lined up for the second round.

Lined up for the second round.

Common Complaints and Misconceptions

Honestly, I tried writing this section up as a bunch of different complaints and then I realized they all blended into one big one:

Football takes too friggin’ long.

The plays take too long, nothing is happening, why do they keep stopping, why does the game take four hours, what are they waiting for, why are there so many timeouts and on and on…

I understand. If you don’t know what’s going on, football can be exhausting. I remember when I first got really into football. I was about 13 or 14, I’d seen some games but I started to watch the NFL and I had no CLUE what was happening. It was almost painful. That’s why I’m glad I’m here!

This weekend’s games are incredibly exciting. They feature the eight teams left (out of 32) on the season, and they also feature myriad different types of teams. We have an offensive juggernaut, three defensive powerhouses, young superstar quarterbacks (three!) and two of the greatest of all time. It’s a fantastic slate.

The other great thing is that each match-up is perfectly suited for us to examine some of the more commonly used ‘advanced’ stats used during NFL games. I have advanced in quotations because some of these stats will be quite well known to those I classified as die-hards. That said, we’ll try and see how those stats might positively or negatively affect the contests this weekend. Sound good to everyone? I thought so!

This Weekend

Even the most novice football fan is familiar with the idea that gaining the most yards means you’re probably going to score the most points, which means you’re probably going to give yourself a good chance to win the game. On offense, the two basic types of yards are rushing yards and receiving yards, which are exactly what they sound like. In a 16 game season, the basic benchmark for above average receivers/rushers is 1,000 of their kind of yardage. How they gain that yardage, however, is something that can help determine whether a player is elite or is just a product of the offensive system they play in.

We have handy little acronyms to help!

Teamwork!

Teamwork!

New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts

YAC – Yards After Catch/Contact

The acronym so nice they used it twice! Also, the only acronym that sounds like you’re about to hurl!

Yards after the Catch is a hugely important stat in the NFL. It shows how effective a player is once the ball has been caught. The acronym can also mean ‘Yards after Contact’ for running backs; this is a great indicator of their elusiveness and how difficult they are to tackle. For receivers, YAC can indicate their ability to make something happen once they have the ball. A lot of average receivers are made into stars by elite quarterbacks (see Brady, Tom).

Let’s take a look at the top two receivers in this weekends Colts-Pats matchup, Julian Edelman for the Pats and T.Y. Hilton for the Colts.

Hilton is typically known as a game breaker, someone who can grab deep passes and take them for scores. Edelman is seen as a scrap-heap talent, a product of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, someone that is known as a ‘possession’ receiver, meaning he’ll catch the ball and not do much with it.

When we examine their season stats, however, we see something very interesting.

Hilton had 82 catches for 1083 yards, averaging 4.9 Yards after the Catch.

Edelman had 105 catches for 1056 yards, averaging 4.8 Yards after the Catch.

Edelman finished 17th among qualified players in total YAC, with 500 of his yards coming after the catch. Hilton finished much lower, but only played in 14 games.

Now we can see several things from these stat lines. The fact that Hilton put up more yards than Edelman in 23 fewer catches means that he typically goes for longer plays, which fits in nicely with our perception of him as a game breaker. However, the fact that their average YAC is basically identical shows us that neither guy is elite once they actually have the ball; Hilton’s biggest weapon is his legs and that’s his main advantage over Edelman.

The Pats are favoured and they certainly have the experience. But they’ll need to contain Hilton, or this game will likely be a shootout.

In action.

In action.

New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks

Turnover Rate

Turnovers or Takeaways are the most important thing in a football game. Statheads have spent years trying to figure out formula’s to accurately predict how fumbles and interceptions affect football games.

A condensed version tells us that fumbles are essentially random – a team can certainly force more fumbles by having effective and explosive defensive players, but the recovery of those fumbles? It’s up for grabs and basically impossible to predict. Interceptions are as often the product of an offensive mistake as they are of defensive excellence, making them equally tough to call.

That said, this weekend in New Orleans will feature one of the leagues top passing offenses in the Saints, taking on the leagues best pass defense in the Seahawks.

There has been much debate about whether Seattle’s smothering (historically so!) pass defense will continue to stifle the high octane Saints. Bill Barnwell wrote a fantastic breakdown on Grantland about it – I won’t attempt to go into nearly as much detail. That said, if you look at the Giveaway and Takeaway stats, the picture for the Saints doesn’t look very rosy.

Both New Orleans and Seattle were elite at taking care of the ball this season. They actually tied with Philadelphia and Carolina for the 2nd best mark in the NFL, giving the ball away only 19 times all season.

However, when we get to takeaways, a far different picture emerges. The Saints broke even, with 19 takeaways, which was just above average for the league, making their plus/minus in Giveaways/Takeaways exactly even. Conversely, Seattle were veritable ball-hawks this year, leading the NFL with 39 Takeaways, and thus leading the NFL  with a plus 20 mark.

When these teams last played in Week 13, Seattle romped 34-7 and recovered both the game’s fumbles. If the Saints have any hope this weekend, look for them to take chances to try and force the stingy Seattle offense to give up the ball.

Backed by a superhuman defense, it's Supe... I mean, Cam Newton.

Backed by a superhuman defense, it’s Supe… I mean, Cam Newton.

Carolina Panthers vs. San Francisco 49ers

Defensive/Offensive Rankings

Carolina vs. San Francisco is a battle of two of the leagues perceived best defenses. Sometimes, when the casual fan is watching a game, they might hear the broadcast team refer to a teams ‘rank’.

“They have a top 5 offense Joe! They’re going to light it up!”

“That’s because this team has a league average defense, Troy!”

And so forth. It’ll definitely help the casual fan to understand what this means and why it’s important.

Widely, the offensive and defensive ranks will refer to yards gained and allowed per game. This can be broken down further into pass and rush offense, as well as pass and rush defense.

This season, Carolina was a defensive juggernaut, allowing only 301.2 yards per game, 2nd in the NFL. They ranked 2nd in rush defense as well, allowing only 86.9 yards per game. They came 6th in pass defense, allowing 214.3 per game. They were the essence of elite.

San Francisco is widely viewed as a hard hitting, well coached team that relies on its defense for its identity. However, a litany of injuries and some up and down performances this season led to a drop in overall effectiveness, statistically. The 49ers still managed to rank 5th in overall defensive yardage however, with the 4th ranked rush defense and the 7th ranked pass defense.

Does this mean we’re in for a low scoring contest? Not necessarily! Cam Newton of the Panthers has emerged as an elite young quarterback who, along with Andrew Luck of the Colts and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, is the face of the new generation of NFL QB’s. He can change a game with his arm and his legs. However, the Panthers ranked just 26th in total offense, despite Newton’s unique skills, mainly because of a lack of talent around him. Injuries to Michael Crabtree and other parts of the offense left the Niners at 24th.

All in all, it looks like this is going to be a smash mouth defensive battle. It’s going to come down to which defense blinks first.

This is what a top ranked QB looks like.

This is what a top ranked QB looks like.

Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers

Quarterback Rating

This is a bit of a strange one, but it was the first real advanced stat to hit the NFL – it’s been around for as long as I can remember [Ed. Note: It was adopted in 1973]. The issue is, it’s determined by a complex set of rules and regulations that even the most faithful NFL fan would struggle to understand. All you need to know is that in the NFL the scale goes from 0 – 158.3. A nice even number! The league average generally falls around 80-85, though that’s been climbing in recent years. It takes into account passing attempts, completions, yards gained, touchdown passes and interceptions. It’s generally meant to condense a quarterbacks performance into one easy number. However that number is really only useful in relation to itself.

Our final game features one of the greatest Quarterbacks’s of all time, the 37 year old Peyton Manning. This season, Manning broke the single season records for both TD passes and yards in a season. His passer rating? 115.1, which was 2nd in the NFL behind Eagles QB Nick Foles, who barely started half his teams games this year. It was also somehow only the 2nd best mark of Manning’s career, behind 2004, when he threw a then record 49 TDs.

Philip Rivers of the Chargers was a formerly elite QB who had fallen on rough times the past couple seasons. A new coach and offense geared to his strengths led to a bounce back season for Rivers, and he finished 4th in the NFL with a 105.5 rating.

I bring this up here because this game, more than any other, is a battle of the QBs. If Peyton is on his game in cold weather, Rivers and the Chargers really don’t stand a chance. That aside, Rivers has a great record in Denver in his career, and already beat the Bronco’s on the road once this season. It should be a heck of a game.

Whew! I can’t wait for the weekend! I hope this has helped those of you who sit watching football and feel like your mind is melting. Remember, the space between the plays involves all of this and more! It’s great, isn’t it? No? Well perhaps you should have another Rib-wich then. Get outta here!

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