Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Playing Defense

A few posts back I asked Is anyone playing defense in the NFL this year? That led me to compile a few stats.

While the NFL has devised complex formulae like QB rating to measure offensive production, it weirdly has no such metric for defense. Instead, defenses are ranked on gross yardage per game, which is far from a true measuring stick. So I started (and unsurprisingly, half-completed) a journey to find a comparative metric of effectiveness for defense.

We begin with points allowed, since you win by scoring more points than your opponent, not by gaining more yards. A defense that gives up yards, but not points, is much more effective than a defense which gives up a lot of points. But again, the NFL does not maintain a 'defensive points allowed' stat, but lumps in all points allowed together - including punt/kick returns and fumble/INT returns. Obviously, it's foolish to include these scores in any measure of a defense's effectiveness, since they aren't even on the field when they happen. So that was step one - removing seven points for each return TD from the total points allowed. Note: Seven is a bit arbitrary, since extra points could be missed after return TDs, or two-point conversions could have been tried, but it should be close enough to be a representative number.

Next, I subtracted seven points from the defensive points allowed (DPA) for each TD scored by the defense. Based on the momentum swings of defensive scores (~83% of teams with a defensive score win the game) I should probably award more than 7 points, but assigning a point value to momentum is total guesswork, so I'm just sticking with the actual points on the scoreboard. So if a defense gives up a TD and scores a TD in a game, it would equate to giving up 0 points...not perfect, perhaps, but logical. There are some weird edge cases here that I wasn't able to distinguish, for instance the INT by a Redskin defender who then fumbles, and the resulting fumble is picked up by a Saints WR and returned for a TD...in this case the Redskins defense is rewarded for the INT and Saints defense is rewarded for a fumble return TD, when in fact neither should be. However, these cases are few and far between, and do not significantly impact the rankings, so I'm simply ignoring them.

Next, I subtracted 1.2 points from the DPA for each turnover that was not returned for a TD. This is because it provides an extra possession for the offense, which has a 1/3 chance of scoring on each possession. 60% of offensive scores are TDs (that number's a lot higher than I expected, anyone else? feel free to double-check my calculation here), so the average points scored on a possession is (.6*7 + .4*3) or 5.4...divide by 3 to get 1.8 for the number of points each turnover is worth to the offense. I'm arbitrarily reducing this number to 1.2, because turnovers that happen on 3rd or 4th down don't award an extra possession (and occasionally result in worse field position), and also turnovers at the end of a half or game do not always happen with enough time left for the offense to take advantage.

Finally, I reduced the DPA number by 3.2 for each safety the defense records, since there are two points on the scoreboard plus the additional 1.2 for an extra possession. Again, this may not be perfect, as the defense will receive credit for any safeties recorded by special teams, but I'm ignoring this too.

There are still more imperfections with my calculations, because defenses can be put in bad spots by poor special teams play or offensive turnovers. Witness the Eagles' defense starting at the 50 yard-line or worse on about a half-dozen possessions last week...can you say that 7 points surrendered by a defense starting on it's own 20-yard line is equivalent to a defense that surrenders 7 points after an 80-yard drive? But I don't have stats for average starting field position, and even if I did I'm not sure exactly what I'd do with it. But still, this adjusted defensive points allowed is a pretty good measure, and reveals some mildly surprising insights:

  • The Jets are having a tremendous defensive season, a full 2 points better than their nearest competition. If I could figure out how to account for bad field position, I suspect they'd separate even further, since Sanchez has been a turnover machine.
  • The Patriots, Panthers, Steelers, and Cowboys have been quietly playing very well. The 8 return TDs against the Steelers, as well as some memorable late-game meltdowns, have obscured their overall strength.
  • The Redskins at 20? This shocked me, as their defense has been overhyped all season. Most football talking heads agree the defense has played well while the offense sucked, but these number tell a different tale. Although, again, this isn't helped by the offense's turnovers.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Observations from the Broncos' Game

  • Adventures in officiating - Seriously, that was terrible. How did that initial Eagles TD get reversed? What camera angle did you see that definitively showed the ball moving forward? I didn't see one. And the penalty calls? They sucked both ways. Horrendous illegal contact/PI calls on both teams, along with multiple instances of blatant offensive holding that were ignored. And what's with the 15-yard penalty on Macho? It's a perfectly clean block post-interception. That penalty changed the game; instead of having the ball on the 50, the Eagles get it on their own 1, and a shanked punt ends up starting the Broncos' comeback. I wish the competition committee would simplify the rules, because the game is so difficult to referee right now...but even within the current, complex web of judgement calls, the officials did a terrible job. Here's a tip: if you aren't sure, just shut your mouth. We didn't need 18 penalty calls...I'd much rather see a few missed penalties than the choppy pace enforced on the Eagles and Broncos by that overzealous crew.
  • Phil Simms, Broadcasting Genius - "The Eagles have a middling defense when they don't blitz." Huh? Blitzing is a key component playing defense, and the Eagles blitz more than most teams in the league. There isn't any blitzing in the Pro Bowl, and it's reflected in the final score. If my car was "middling" with only three wheels, I'd say I had a pretty good car. Overall, the Eagles held the Broncos to 241 yards, 33% third-down conversion, and a measly 3.9 yards-per-pass-attempt. Considering the bad punts, three turnovers, and five straight 3-and-outs by the 'offense', the Eagles defense played great. I wish I remembered more of his banalities and outright falsehoods, it would have made great fodder. His commentary was nearly as bad as the officiating.
  • McConsistentcy - Donovan went three consecutive series without throwing a single catchable pass. Total number of called runs during that series: two. Andy Reid needs to come up with another solution to McNabb's weekly funks other than dialing up more and more passes.
  • B-Dawk - Didn't have an impact on this game, but I still love him. Wish he was still an Eagle instead of Macho.
  • Where has Chris Gocong gone? - I killed the Eagles when they drafted him, and then I recanted when he became a solid starter. Now he can't even get on the field. I can't say whether it's justified, but it sure seems the coaching staff has decided where the blame lay for that inability to stop opposing TEs...on a thinly related note, I'm excited to think the Eagles might draft an athletic, play-making LB in the first round this April...it's their only glaring need, and someone like Navarro Bowman could be staring them in the face at the end of round 1...if you pair him with a recovered Stewart Bradley and Witherspoon, LB could be a strength instead of a weakness...

Go Bears! If the awful Bears somehow pull out a win tonight, the Eagles will be playing for the #2 seed in Dallas next week.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Week 15 Wrap

Cover-your-face awful. At least it's not real money. And in just two years now, the world will end and there will be no record of my terrible picks anyway. 4-8-1 this week for a season total of 59-53-2.

  • Jacksonville +3.5 vs. Indianapolis - Colts 35, Jags 31 - LOSS. I didn't expect Manning to play the entire game, and still only lost by half a point.
  • Dallas +7.5 at New Orleans - Cowboys 24, Saints 17 - WIN. Naturally, the only pick I got right is the one I wanted most to be wrong about.
  • Buffalo +7.5 vs. New England - Patsies 17, Bills 10 - WIN. Sometimes the half-point is your friend.
  • Arizona -12 at Detroit - Cards 31, Lions 24 - LOSS. Entering Week 15, teams returning a pick for a TD were 26-0. The Lions made it 26-1.
  • Kansas City -1.5 vs Cleveland - Browns 41, Chiefs 34 - LOSS. The Browns have scored 199 points all season. Two games, against the Lions and the Chiefs, account for 78 of those points, or 39%. The other twelve games, they've scored an average of 10 points.
  • Philadelphia -8 vs San Francisco - Eagles 27, 49ers 13 - WIN.
  • Baltimore -11 vs. Chicago - Ravens 31, Bears 7 - WIN. I admit - I was one of the many people who believed Jay Cutler would make the Bears a playoff team. Instead, he's turned them into a laughingstock, and might just get the coach and GM fired.
  • Denver -14 vs. Oakland - Raiders 20, Broncos 19 - LOSS. JaAwful entered the game and threw the winning TD with 35 seconds remaining in the game. Seriously, I'm at a loss for words.
  • San Diego -7 vs. Cincinnati - Chargers 27, Bengals 24 - LOSS. Nice showing by the Bengals. Not enough to win, but enough to cover. Fuckers.
  • Green Bay +1 at Pittsburgh - Steelers 37, Packers 36 - PUSH. That might have been one of the best regular-season games I've ever seen. Amazing throw by Ben, and a great catch by Wallace at the other end. Is anyone playing defense this season in the NFL? Anyone?
  • Seattle -7 vs. Tampa Bay - Bucs 24, Seahawks 7 - LOSS. Wow, just...wow. I've called out Jim Mora as a bad coach, but I thought it would take a little longer than this for him to ruin the team. Letting a one-win team beat the shit out of you in your own house - that's inexcusable.
  • Minnesota -9 at Carolina - Panthers 26, Vikings 7 - LOSS. Is Jared Allen tired or something? How could the DL of the Vikings allow Matt Moore to beat them, when the Panthers were starting two backup tackles? And don't give me this Brett-Favre-in-December bullshit...the Vikings couldn't run, and let Matt Moore throw all over them. That's not Favre's fault.
  • Washington +3 vs. New York Giants - Giants 45, Redskins 12 - LOSS. Poor Jim Zorn. After this disaster, would you even hire him as an OC? Maybe he can catch on as a QB coach with the new Seattle staff and try to rebuild his career.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Eagles in the playoffs

Minnesota's loss gives the Eagles a legitimate shot at a #2 seed and a first-round bye. They'll win the tiebreaker based on conference record, so they only need to pick up one game in two weeks left. As always, it's key to secure that bye, but especially this season as the Eagles most-likely opponent in the wildcard round will be an NFC East team.

Of course, the way Dallas played on Saturday means the Eagles could very easily slide to #5 or #6 if the Cowboys win out. That could set up a revenge game at Arizona, which is no cakewalk either. Much, much better to win these last two games and get a bye.

Some notes on the Eagles game against the 49ers

  • Not the time to go for it - As a pure odds play, going for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 29 yardline is actually correct. But when you look at the 49ers offense, you have to understand that they simply can't score unless you help them with great field position. So why risk it? Against a powerhouse offense - like the Saints - I would love this move, but it doesn't work against a weak sister like the Niners. Then later in the game, you punt on a fourth-and-two from the 49ers 37...where's the consistency?
  • Stop the Vick madness - Shuttling Vick in and out of the game is silly, and I wish it would stop. It cost the Eagles at least one timeout, which would have helped a lot (and maybe been worth another four points) at the end of the half. If you're going to use Vick, and I wouldn't bother, then send him in for one full series in each half. Allow him to develop some timing and get into the flow of a game, without disrupting the rest of the offense. But honestly, what do you think scares defensive coordinators more right now, McNabb-to-Jackson, or Michael Vick?
  • Disappearing Shady - Nine carries for 48 yards? Hasn't he earned more touches than that? I like Weaver as much as anyone, but he shouldn't have twice as many carries (17) as Shady. He's not a threat to break long runs.
  • Throw, Alex, throw - Even though the Eagles were in nickel defense the whole game, and Frank Gore was averaging 6 yards/carry, Niners coaches called a total of 16 runs for him. Meanwhile, their awful QB was tossing three picks. Sounds like someone took a page out of the Reid/Mornhinwheg playbook.

Let's clean this up, Birds, and make a run. The Flyers aren't offering any post-football hope this year, so give me at least a Superbowl appearance to hold me over until the draft.

One word on Mike Tomlin's much-ridiculed onsides kick...it was absolutely correct and bordered on brilliant. Green Bay was clearly caught by surprise and the play executed within a half-yard of perfection. If he kicks deep, Green Bay can eat up the rest of the clock and win the game with a FG...considering how terrible the Pittsburgh secondary has played, both yesterday and late in games generally, how can football announcers and writers believe this is the best option? Instead, he kicks short, nearly recovers the ball...and when it fails, Green Bay scores with enough time left for Pittsburgh to drive the field themselves. You'll read all week how Ben 'bailed him out' with that great throw at the end, but Ben would have never had that opportunity without Tomlin's decision.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Week 15 Picks

I could quit while I'm ahead, but instead I'll take this three-week opportunity to dive under .500 for the season. I'm going to switch up the format a little bit, I was never comfortable with the old way that I did it.

  • Jacksonville +3.5 vs. Indianapolis - The Jags are a good bet to keep it close anytime against the Colts. Factor in a short-week road game, and the probability that Manning and his fellow starters won't play the whole game, and I'm loving the Jags.
  • Dallas +7.5 at New Orleans - The Cowboys have played well in the last two games, and in spite of two close losses, they have not displayed the signs of their classic December swoon. In fact, I think they'll come out firing Saturday and take a lead, and might even win the game. I hope I'm wrong - I'd love to see Dallas lose by 40 - but my money's on the 'Boys.
  • Buffalo +7.5 vs. New England - The Pats have recently beaten the tar out of the Bills, but this isn't the same Patriots team.
  • Arizona -12 at Detroit - Not a big fan of double-digit road favorites, but the Cards are 5-2 on the road this season, and coming off an embarrassing loss. On top of that, the Lions don't have a defense that can even slow down Warner and Co.
  • Kansas City -1.5 vs Cleveland - Ratings Bonanza Game #1. It's almost a shame that one of these teams will get a win, but KC clearly has more playmakers, so I'll take the Chiefs at home.
  • Philadelphia -8 vs San Francisco - The Niners were the beneficiaries of seven - count 'em - seven turnovers last week, and scored a grand total of 24 points. That's some pathetic offense...exactly what the Eagles defense needs to get healthy.
  • Baltimore -11 vs. Chicago - Not exactly what the Bears envisioned when they traded for Jay Cutler: being 11-point underdogs to a 7-6 team. The Ravens have better RBs, better WRs, a much better OL, and a better defense. And frankly, the way Cutler has been playing, they have a better QB too. That doesn't leave too many reasons to pick the Bears.
  • Denver -14 vs. Oakland - It's both funny and meaningful that the Raiders have turned to Charlie Frye instead of JaMarcus Russell, but it doesn't mean that Frye gives them a realistic chance of winning. Just imagine how different this season might have been for the Raiders if they gave Jeff Garcia the starting job in training camp.
  • San Diego -7 vs. Cincinnati - The Bengals are 6-0 in their division, 3-4 against everyone else. Struggling with the bizarre 'tragedy' of Chris Henry, I can't see them playing well enough to beat the Chargers at home.
  • Green Bay +1 at Pittsburgh - I want to believe the Steelers aren't as awful as they've looked, and that they'll come out and beat the Packers this Sunday. Apparently, a lot of other people want to believe the same thing, as incredibly a team on an 0-3 run (against KC, Oakland, and Cleveland, no less) is giving points to a team on a 5-0 run. But I'm going against my gut and sticking with the numbers.
  • Seattle -7 vs. Tampa Bay - Ratings Bonanza Game #2. Two teams who were non-competitive last week face off in the Great Northwest. The Seahawks are the lesser of two evils.
  • Minnesota -9 at Carolina - The Vikings are a really bad matchup for a team with a struggling OL. Even worse, the Panthers haven't been able to stop the run. I'm predicting a bounceback week for AP: 150+ yards, and a big Vikings win.
  • Washington +3 vs. New York Giants - I don't have a real good feel on this game, so I'll go with the home team.

Note: A bunch of games had no line this week, including Miami/Tennessee, Atlanta/NYJets, and Houston/St. Louis, so I didn't pick them.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sometimes, people surprise you

One of the on-line writers that I read religiously is Gregg Easterbrook. His weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback column is one of the most intelligent commentaries on football that I've read, it's well-written, and it's fun. One of the notable ideas I've picked up from his column is the Joy of Not Punting.

An odd note about Easterbrook: in spite of the obvious football-themed nature of his column, he goes on long ramblings about other topics as well, often political. And he's a raving liberal. Suffering from an acute case of liberal guilt, he believes in such concepts as a progressive tax code, nationalized health care, and a carbon tax. As a result, I've been tempted to stop reading his column completely, or (less dramatically) just skipping over the political sections. But I finally decided to designate Easterbrook as one of two liberal authors (Daniel Gross is the other) who I read (holding my nose, sometimes) with the express purpose of challenging my pre-existing beliefs.

So anyway, that is a long-winded way of explaining why I was surprised to see him openly criticizing both Al Gore and the nonsensical 350 or die crowd. I'll reprint his comments below (the whole article is here), because I wanted to give him credit for thinking outside of the standard liberal/conservative mold. He's living proof that it's possible to think beyond the blue/red dichotomy which dominate voting patterns and actually develop opinions on issues that are fact-based and not Rush Limbaugh/Michael Moore-based. And although we'll never agree on much politically, my respect for him has climbed dramatically.

As the Copenhagen climate summit grinds on with -- big surprise! -- nothing specific agreed upon, here's my summary of what you need to know about the global warming issue...[Easterbrook self-promotion removed]

• There is indeed a strong scientific consensus regarding climate change. The deniers simply aren't honest about this.

• The consensus is that in the last century, air has warmed by about one degree Fahrenheit while the oceans have warmed a little and become slightly acidic; rainfall patterns have changed in some places, and most though not all ice melting has accelerated.

• That consensus is significant, but hardly means there is a crisis. Glaciers and sea ice, for example, have been in a melting cycle for thousands of years, while air warming has so far been good for farm yields. The doomsayers simply aren't honest about how mild the science consensus is.

• Predictions of global devastation -- climate change is a "profound emergency" that will "ravage our planet" -- are absurd exaggerations, usually motivated by political or fund-raising agendas.

• Climate change has serious possible negative consequences, especially if rainfall shifts away from agricultural regions.

• Global poverty, disease, dirty air and lack of clean water in developing world cities and lack of education are far higher priorities than greenhouse gas emissions.

• Smog and acid rain turned out to be far cheaper to control than predicted; the same may happen with greenhouse gases.

• The United States must regulate greenhouse gases in order to bring American brainpower, in engineering and in business, to bear on the problem.

• A carbon tax, not some super-complex cap-and-trade scheme that mainly creates jobs for bureaucrats and lawyers, would be the best approach.

• If the United States invents technology to control greenhouse gases, no super-complex international treaty will be needed. Nations will adopt greenhouse controls on their own, because it will be in their self-interest to do so. Smog and acid rain are declining almost everywhere, though are not governed by any international treaty; nations have decided to regulate smog and acid rain emissions on their own, because it is in their self-interest to do so.

As for the e-mails hacked from a greenhouse research center in the United Kingdom, e-mails are private correspondence. Copying them without permission is at the least unethical, and perhaps a crime. If you saw private letters on someone's desk, photocopied them and posted them on the Web, you would be considered a person of low character. Whoever hacked the climate e-mails is at the very least an unethical person of low character, and one should be wary of the agendas of unethical people.

That said, many climate scientists are rigidly ideological and believe dissent must be shouted down. This is partly because of money and privilege. The United States and European Union spend about $6 billion annually on climate change research, and every penny goes to alarmism, because it can be used to justify government expansion. Being a climate doomsayer is a path to cash and tenure -- even to celebrity, as making wildly exaggerated claims got Al Gore a Noble Prize plus stock in companies now winning government subsidies triggered by alarmism. The doomsayers are lauded by foundations, go to parties with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and attend taxpayer-subsidized conferences in Nice. They've formed a guild with intense focus on maintaining guild structure. The 1962 Thomas Kuhn book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is best-known for introducing the "paradigm shift" concept. Kuhn's larger argument was that science is not an abstract truth-seeking realm, rather, subject to fads and what is now called political correctness, and one in which many scientists are concerned foremost with safeguarding their sinecure by toeing the line.

Plus the alarmists need to divert attention from the inconvenient truth that 20 years ago, Gore and James Hansen of NASA began to say that without immediate drastic action against greenhouse gases, there would soon be global calamities. Nothing was done -- and no problem so far. That is no reason to be complacent -- warming-caused problems may be in store. But for the self-interested alarmists, this is a reason to shout down their critics.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wild Wild Win

Huge win for the Eagles last night, hanging on for a 45-38 victory over the Giants. They're now in first-place in the NFC East, and only need one more win to lock up a playoff spot. Most likely they'll end up as the #3 or #4 seed, since Minnesota would have to lose two more games (@Car, @Chi, NYG) and the Eagles would have to win out to get a first-round bye. A few observations from the game:

  • It's a worrisome trend to see receivers continue to get behind Eagles' corners on double moves every week. Clearly, opposing coordinators have figured out that they like to read the QB and jump routes. You can get away with that against bad QBs and receivers with stone hands, but against Drew Brees, Brett Favre, and Kurt Warner in the playoffs? I shudder to think.
  • Speaking of the defense, I'm prepared to give them a pass for last night's game. The tackling was atrocious and unacceptable, but it sure looked like both sides were struggling with the cold, wet, slippery conditions. It's always harder to play defense in those conditions because you're reacting. Since the tackling is usually very good (Asante Samuel aside), let's see what happens next week before we get too panicky.
  • Loved the big plays, of course, but that 91-yard drive in the fourth quarter was truly a championship drive. Six rushes, six passes, 7 minutes off the clock. Balance works, Andy. Glad to see you've rediscovered this 'secret', I'll try to enjoy it now before you forget to run the ball again next season.
  • Where was Akeem Jordan? He was active for the game, but I didn't see him make a play all night. Did he even get on the field?
  • A blocked extra point? Come on. Something went terribly wrong with that blocking scheme, as Max Jean-Gilles was holding on for dear life against two defensive lineman. Someone's got to help him out there.

In addition to the win, the Eagles have the Cowboys to thank for their first-place position. Remember just two weeks ago, when football writers were handing the division to the Cowboys, seemingly oblivious to historical trends? Well, the Eagles are 2-0 in December and the Cowboys are 0-2, and I, at least, am not surprised.
I will give credit where it's due, however, and say that the Cowboys losses this season are not the product of a bumbling, turnover-prone QB and a scared coach, but instead are simply close losses to good teams (a desperate division rival on the road, and the Chargers on an 8-game winning streak.) If you even casually looked over the 'Boys schedule, it was pretty obvious they built a lot of wins against lousy teams and would have to work harder to beat the quality opponents lined up for them in December. With upcoming games @NO, @Was, and Phi, it's entirely conceivable they could go 1-4 or even 0-5 to finish the season without 'collapsing.'
Up next for the Eagles are the 49ers, travelling across the country on a short week (they play tonight.) This sets up well for the Eagles, and should definitely give the defense a chance to redeem themselves against an inexperienced QB.

Monday, December 07, 2009

It's December, so I'm complaining

Unsurprisingly, my recent four-week hiatus from blogging corresponded with a new video game purchase, namely Dragon Age: Origins. I won't bore you with a complete review, but if you've ever enjoyed a story- or character-based RPG, you'll love DA:O. I'm on my fourth playthrough, and still experiencing a few things for the first time.

Instead, I'll bore you with a thoroughly tired topic: the idiocy of the BCS. This year's college football season produced a remarkable five undefeated teams to vie for the "national title". But instead of a playoff system to determine the champion, we'll simply eliminate three contenders by vote, and instead award the opportunity to a couple of schedule-padding, big-money programs.

Even more comical is the fate of undefeated programs TCU and Boise State, thirsting for national recognition and a chance to prove themselves as legitimate programs, who will instead play each other in a totally meaningless third-place money-grab.

Again, let's go through the exercise of an eight-team playoff as I've proposed in the past, with the 6 BCS conference champs and two at-large conference champs. The playoff-eligible teams would be, in seeded order:
  • Alabama
  • Texas
  • Cincinnati
  • TCU
  • Boise St.
  • Oregon
  • Ohio St.
  • Georgia Tech

Is there be any doubt at all that the team emerging from this tournament unscathed would be a true national champion? Instead of the BCS clusterfuck, which insists on having a "championship" game that excludes three undefeated teams, we'd have an honest competition and a deserving winner. But who'd enjoy that?

Assassin's Creed II is up next, I'll probably pick it up after Christmas. But the one I'm really looking forward to comes out in February: