Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stats that Matter - Learning From Buffalo

Football is certainly not baseball when it comes to statistics. Most importantly, unlike baseball, there are very few statistics that are truly personal. In baseball, if a batter gets a hit, it is usually 98% due to his ability. Perhaps a sliver of credit must go to the man in front of him for being on base or the man behind him for protection, but usually a man gets a hit and is properly credited.

But, in football, what can we believe? Did a runner get 100 yards or did his line make it possible? Did a QB win the MVP because of his great receiving group or did he throw a pick because his receiver ran the wrong route? 11 on 11 is far from 1 on 1 as we have in baseball. And therefore, some stats have great meaning and others mean very little.

With that in mind, let us visit further visit the topic of offensive efficiency against the backdrop of the surprising campaign of the 2011 Buffalo Bills. The Bills visit on Sunday afternoon, and at 5-3 they are right in the thick of the race for the AFC East crown and post-season play. That would be most shocking to anyone who made picks in the preseason.

For years, total yardage has been used by newspapers and media types to identify strengths in the NFL. You might hear that "they are the #2 passing offense in all of football" or "the most powerful offense in the AFC". But, of course, those of us who love the game know that there is almost no correlation between yards and wins. A quick look at yards per game this year do show us good teams like New Orleans (6-3), New England (5-3), and Green Bay (8-0). But, the other two teams in the top 5 are Philadelphia (3-5) and Carolina (2-6). Dallas sits at 7th in yardage and Buffalo is at 12th. Meanwhile, San Francisco is 7-1 and has the 26th best yardage total in football. Hardly convincing.

Buffalo, the worst turnover team in the NFL in 2010 (and finished 4-12) is 5-3 this year and are near the top of the NFL in one of the most meaningful statistics in football. Buffalo is +8 in turnover differential which sits 4th in the NFL. The 3 teams above the Bills? Detroit (6-2), San Francisco (7-1), and Green Bay (8-0). In fact, the top 5 teams in turnovers - if you add 5th place New York Giants (6-2) - you arrive at an insane win/loss record of 32-8.

Meanwhile, the bottom 5 turnover differential teams in the NFL? That would be Indianapolis (0-9), Miami (1-7), San Diego (4-5), Washington (3-5), and Pittsburgh (6-3). Combined record: 14-29.

This trend holds almost every year. Top 5 in 2010 in turnover difference? All 5 made the playoffs, and #2 and #4 met in the Super Bowl. Bottom 5? All 5 missed the playoffs. Given that the winner of each and every turnover battle wins the game 80% of the time (regardless of location, point spread, injuries, or any other factor), none of this should come as a surprise to us. Incidentally, Dallas sits at +2, tied for 13th in this statistic. And at 4-4, they sit roughly in the middle of the NFL.

But, turnovers are just one stat that correlates with winning. Another one that Buffalo is doing well and Dallas is not is the Red Zone TD percentage. Now, we do have to point out one qualifier when working with percentages. In any sport, if you are going to track a statistic based on percentage, you better be sure that the statistic sample in question is large enough to make sense. For instance, if a batter is hitting .500 on 10-20, we should not assume that he is a better hitter than someone who hits 100-300 (.333). Sample sizes are important, so let us set the qualifying minimum as near the NFL average for Red Zone drives. The average team has been in the red zone 26 times so far this year, so Cleveland's 14 trips renders their great percentage of TDs (57%) irrelevant despite their close percentage difference to Green Bay (59%) and their 32 red zone trips.

Here, we see why Buffalo is out-performing their expectations and Dallas are under-performing theirs. Buffalo has 18 TDs in 28 trips into the red zone. This 64% red zone mark is tied with Atlanta for best in the NFL among qualifying teams (Tennessee is actually better, but like Cleveland, they never get to the red zone). Dallas has been to the red zone 26 trips, or 2 fewer trips than Buffalo. But, when the Bills are putting 18 Touchdowns on the board, the Cowboys are wasteful, and only scoring touchdowns on 10 of 26 trips (38%). Only Tampa Bay scores less frequently on their red zone opportunities.

Top red zone teams are all performing at rather high levels: Jets, Patriots, Giants, Packers, and even the Raiders are having a better season than many expected. The worst red zone teams? The Eagles, Redskins, Dolphins, Cowboys, and Buccaneers. These teams are not reaping enough for the work that they are putting in. Somehow, the Ravens and 49ers are at or above expectations with poor red zone offenses, but the 49ers are dominating turnover differential and the Ravens manage to win every year without an efficient offense.

And one more. Buffalo is at the top of the NFL in goal-to-goal touchdown conversions. This is similar to red zone, but requires you to get a 1st Down inside the 10. It is even more crucial to find 7 points here. In this stat, Buffalo has had 1st and goal on 14 occasions - the NFL average - but has punched it in for a TD on 12 of those 14 shots (86%).

The Cowboys have had a 1st and goal 19 times. Well above the NFL average. But, what do they do with it? They have just 8 touchdowns in 19 tries for 42%. That rates them 31st in the league at punching it in. Only Jacksonville is worse. Think about all of the putrid NFL offenses that are better at this simple and imperative task than the Cowboys. The NFL conversion rate is 66%. If the Cowboys simply converted a 1st and goal into a TD at the NFL average, they would have 5 more touchdowns and would very likely be 6-2 or 7-1 right now.

Football is a game where big plays make up the highlight shows, but the winning the game and a successful season seem to be about 2 major objectives: 1) not giving the ball away and 2) maximizing your opportunities. When both of those are accomplished, you get the best "bang for your buck". It helps a good team have a surprisingly good season.

Buffalo is the very picture of efficiency. They don't get the yards that many do, but they make the yards they get count. Dallas must focus on wasting less as they head into the 2nd half of their 2011 campaign if they are to make the playoffs.


Valmont said...

"When trying to measure team strength or player ability, the focus should be on how well a team or player is likely to play in the future.

That's why stats that minimize noise, even while sacrificing some of the signal, can be more predictive and better measures of true ability than stats that include all the signal and all the noise.

Consistency is the key to measuring how much signal is in a stat."

"Look, recovering 5 fumbles in a game last week was very very important, and explains why you won that game in the past. It doesn't mean you have a skill at recovering fumbles that going forward will win you future games. It is the same with red zone play."

Andrew from Toronto said...

Great article as always Bob. And while l am in complete agreement that the Cowboys inability to punch 1st and goal situations for TDs has been a great concern, l wonder what the average distance on 1st and goal is for the Cowboys vs the league average? As l'm sure you will agree, scoring a TD on 1st and goal from 8-10 yards out is a lot more difficult than 2-3 yards out.

Do you have any stats related to this? While l know the Cowboys have failed to punch it in from the 1 yard line on several occasions, l have always wondered if this has any bearing on scoring TDs on 1st and goal situations.

Keep up the great work!