Best Of Advanced NFL Stats 2009

The past year was a very good one for this website in several ways. Certainly if the visitor traffic is any indication, interest in advanced football analysis is growing by leaps and bounds. And I hope most readers would agree that this site has produced more high-quality articles in 2009 than ever.

Judging from the emails I get, Advanced NFL Stats fills a niche that's either been neglected or poorly served for years. Your encouraging notes are a part of the reason I continue to invest time in the site. The best compliments are the ones I come across on message boards or other sites because they're the most genuine. I had been keeping a list of all the best comments until I saw one that topped them all. It said something like, "best football site only criticism is that they don't post more often."

The site's readership has more than quadrupled over the course of the current season, and it continues to grow. I realize the site has the feel of a small amateur blog, which it is. But believe it or not, the readership here is higher than for most magazines you see on the rack in the bookstore. I hope many of the new readers have gone back through the archives to read some of the nuggets from months and years past. But I know it's hard to spend time combing through hundreds of posts looking for the best ones. (Even though I can tell some of you do judging by the visitor logs!)

So in honor of the new year, here's a list of what I think are the top articles from 2009. I chose them based on either the attention they received or, frankly, my own opinion. I'll go in chronological order:

Every time there is an overtime game I get tons of hits on this article from 2008 about how often the coin flip winner wins the game. But I think this January 2009 article is more insightful. It talks about just how big the coin flip winner's advantage is, and why it matters. It also talks about how kicker ability has led to the current state of affairs in the NFL's overtime rules.

I wasn't a big fan of this article myself, but some other people really liked it. It's about the difference between "serial" sports like baseball and "parallel" sports like football.

In February I looked at why the NFL's coaching carousel spins faster than it probably should.

Here's a straightforward 2-part study on how the salary cap and free agency have affected competitive balance in the NFL.

In March I did a lot of work on NCAA and NBA basketball win probability. Then I moved on to NHL win probability. Sadly, there were no worthy nuggets that month.

April is draft season, and one of my favorite draft articles is the Bricklayers vs. Gladiators post. If you've wondered why the top picks get outrageously generous contracts, this may be part of the explanation.

The Power Law and Network Theory fascinate me. Here's an article on where we can see them in football. The difference between team success in the NCAA and NFL can be modeled with the power law distribution. So can coaching tenure. This post also wins for best (and most confusing) title of the year.

May brought us more Michael Vick drama. Here's a post on why he was a better QB than most people give him credit.

I got a few requests from people to look at whether starting as a rookie harms QB development. I put this analysis together in response. Basically, it's really hard to tell, but that tells us a lot in itself. If the effect is too small to detect, it probably doesn't matter that much. Go ahead and start the rookie if he's your best guy.

This article suggests that underdog teams should be more aggressive and take more risks if they want to win more often. Underdogs win more often with "high-variance" outcomes, and favorites win more often with "low-variance" outcomes.

In June I worked on building an archive of win probability graphs for all games in the decade. I put together a scoring system for ranking the most exciting games.

July was a slow month for posting. I started contributing to the NY Times Fifth Down blog, and I was working on bigger projects. But although this post turned out to be completely wrong about Jay Cutler, it did mark a milestone. It was the first time we've used the win probability model for real analysis beyond the 'game of the week' or 'play of the week.'

August was all about preparing for fantasy season. I get a lot of requests for fantasy stuff, and although I'm a fantasy guy myself, I think those fields have been over-plowed for years. Still I relented and developed a projection system in my own style. And so Koko the Fantasy Football Monkey was born. Here were his poop-throwing projections for: QB, RB, WR, TE, K, and DEF. Now that the fantasy season has ended, it's a great time to check them out and see how they compared to other systems, especially the 'proprietary' ones people pay for. They can't be that bad--I used them myself and won championships in both of my leagues this year (n=2).

August was also vacation month for me. I was able to read a lot on Decision Theory. Here's a quick look at how it might apply to football. Plus, here's a quick look at how the tight end position has changed over the decade.

In September I wrote one of my favorite articles of all time--a look at how evolutionary game theory can explain home field advantage.

September is also when I got around to finishing my big 4th down project.

In October, I applied the same tools I used for 4th downs to onside kicks. I also pushed the envelope a little further by applying win probability analysis to the subject. The results are surprising. (Onside kick ahead late in the game? You'd have to be crazy!)

November brought the perfect storm of advanced football analysis. An unlikely 4th down decision by the Patriots on Sunday Night Football spawned this simple, 3-paragraph write-up about how it was probably a good decision. It had one short line of math, but somehow "(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP" must really have a ring to it. It brought this site its obligatory 15 minutes of fame, but more importantly it got people thinking about the potential of statistical analysis. I hope it opened up a lot of minds.

But on the same day, Maurice Jones-Drew took a knee on the 1 yard-line instead of scoring the winning touchdown. Despite the splash of the article on the Patriots, I thought this article was more interesting. I can do 4th down articles all day long, but this was the kind of thing you point out to your son--'See how smart and selfless he was. That's a winner.'

In November I also posted some research on the imbalance between running and passing in the NFL. On first down, most teams should be running less, particularly outside of the red zone.

December brought the JaMarcus Russel era to a close. It was a good opportunity to look at how the concept of 'sunk costs' can doom a team (plus the post wins second best title of the year).

I also looked at run-pass imbalance on 2nd and 3rd downs.

December featured some interesting applications of Win Probability Added (WPA) stat for football. Here is way of roughly measuring Troy Polamalu's impact, and here is a ranking of 2009's top players by their WPA.

These are only a few of the 203 posts from 2009. When I look back on all these articles, I'm honestly not sure how I did it. I hope you enjoyed them, especially new readers of the site. I'm not fishing for compliments, and to prove it I'm turning off comments for this post. Here's to a great 2010.

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