Five notes before we begin:
1. Thank you times a thousand to Brian Burke. His site is crazy good. It's my ambition not to destroy it.
2. Below are previews of two upcoming games: Thursday night's between Minnesota and New Orleans and the Monday game between San Diego and Kansas City. These previews aren't intended to be exhaustive, by any means. (In fact, the attentive reader will notice that there are only, like, 10 words dedicated to the Chiefs.) Rather, the intent is to construct a lens through which to watch these games -- hopefully something that your local paper isn't gonna provide. I discuss this more fully in the introduction thing near the end.
3. Oh yeah, there's an introduction thing ("Introduction-as-Epilogue") near the end of this document. It explores more fully the theoretical underpinnings to this document. If it makes you throw up, I apologize.
4. For each game, you'll see not only the day and kickoff time, but also -- below that -- something called Four Factors. The Four Factors are an attempt to express each team's offense and defense relative to league average. So, OPASS+ is offensive pass efficiency relative to league average. Their 111 OPASS+ means that Minnesota passed the ball 11% more efficiently (measured by net yards per attempt) than the league-average team in 2009. Likewise, DRUN+ is that team's ability to stop the run, also relative to league average. Numbers over 100 are always a good thing. So when you see that Minnesota had a 107 under DRUN+ in 2009, that means that they stop the run 7% better than league average.
5. Let's get it started in here.
Minnesota at New Orleans | Thursday, September 09 | 8:30pm ET
The Anti-Freak Out
Let's hope that if I do one thing right during my stay in these electronic pages, it's to explicity not freak out about Brett Favre. Or, how about this: if I do freak out about Brett Favre, it'll only ever be for the right reasons.
Brett Favre-related stories are probably the worst thing about football, as they provide mainstream media infinite opportunity to speculate wildly. Wild speculation, regardless of context, is wildly unbecoming. And yet, for the last four or so offseasons, we hear the same story, repeated ad nauseam.
• "I have it on good authority that Brett Favre will be returning to the NFL this fall."
• "I have it on good authority that Brett Favre will not be returning to the NFL this fall."
• "I have it on good authority that Brett Favre descends from a race of cannibal people and has a hunger that's sated only by the taste of human flesh."
Those are all equally plausible stories in July.
A Note on Adrian Peterson
If you're (a) a devoted fan Adrian Peterson's and (b) much bigger than me, please stop reading right now.
Pretty please. Do it.
Okay, now that those types of people are gone, here's the thing I'm gonna say: Adrian Peterson wasn't that valuable last season. "But, Cistulli," maybe you're saying, "he rushed for over 1500 yards." Or "Cistulli," maybe another one of you is saying, "don't you even know that he scored 21 TDs last year?"
Yes, I realize those things. But I also realize another thing: running is, in almost every case, less effective than passing. And I realize a third thing, too: for all his time with the ball, Peterson added exactly 0.1 Expected Points (EPA) last season and posted only 43.0% Success Rate (SR).
By comparison, teammate Jeff Dugan, the target of six total passes all year, was more valuable, compiling a 2.9 EPA.
A Second Note on Adrian Peterson
Obviously, there's a difference between value and talent. The latter is largely the province of the player himself; the former, how said player is deployed.
Adrian Peterson is a talented football player. He has over 1500 muscles, can run the 40 in -1.3 seconds, and -- honestly -- is a lot of fun to watch. Those are all true things.
Also obvious is that, as players are involved in larger and larger percentages of their team's possessions, so too will they becomes less efficient on a per-play basis. Even so, that didn't prevent Chris Johnson (49.7 EPA) or Ray Rice (23.8) or Jonathan Stewart (22.9) from tallying large-ish Expected Point totals.
Did those players have better run-blocking ahead of them? Maybe. But also: it doesn't matter. The Vikings averaged only 4.1 yards per run last year; the league average was 4.2. Meanwhile, the team passed for 6.9 yards per attempt; the league average was 6.2. During "normal" football (i.e. 1st and 3rd quarters, within 10 points either way of their opponents), Minnesota passed 58% of the time -- only 15th most often in the league.
Very Tentative Conclusion
The Vikings aren't using their awesome weapon in the best way possible.
Also: it'd make a lot of sense for the Vikings to pass more (although, admittedly, Sidney Rice's injury complicates this matter).
Is it almost a burden for a team to have a great running back -- on account of they feel the need to (over)use him?
I don't know the answer, but it seems like a distinct possibility.
Something the Saints Will Do
Be awesome offensively.
Last year, the Saints averaged 6.3 yards per play -- tied with the Cowboys and pretty far ahead of everyone else. There are a lot of reasons to think they can stay near the top of the leaderboard in 2010. They featured above-average passing and running attacks and, unless you think that Mike Bell was responsible for the largest part of the team's success -- well, then the Saints are gonna bring it pretty hard.
Something the Saints Won't Do
Score 510 points again.
Last year, the Saints had 5 TDs from interceptions and 2 TDs from fumbles -- and had 9 TDs total from events other than offensive passes or rushes. The league average for those "other" TDs was 3.4 per team last year. Hardly any of the elements that contribute to these other sorts of TDs are considered "repeatable skills." If the Saints score, you know, exactly 35 fewer points this season, that'll probably be why.
San Diego at Kansas City | Monday, September 13 | 10:15pm ET
Searching for Vincent Jackson
Whether because of his physical attributes, his instincts, or his understanding with quarterback Philip Rivers, the fact remains: Vincent Jackson has been super good at catching footballs for the past couple years. Only problem is, he'll also probably be absent until Week 10. Consider this: last season, Jackson tied for second (with Minnesota's Sidney Rice, behind New Orleans' Robert Meacham) in EPA/P with 0.71 and second (behind Rice) in total Expected Points Added, with 82.6. Consider this other thing: despite the fact that, for each of the last four years, his rate of Deep targets (15 yards or more) has generally increased, his Catch Rate has, too (46.6%, 49.4%, 55.1%, and 63.6% over the last four years). That's good.
Replacing Jackson as the team's No. 1 receiver will be Malcom Floyd. Floyd was quite productive on a per-play basis in 2009, posting a 0.52 EPA/P -- right between Miles Austin and Greg Jennings by that measure (albeit with fewer targets than either). Exactly 50% of Floyd's targets were of the Deep variety, placing him second among all qualified receivers by that measure. It seems unlikely that Floyd will reach either mark this season. In Jackson's absence, he'll receive more attention from opposing cornerbacks. Moreover, with an increased load, he's likely to be targeted more often within 15 yards of scrimmage.
On account of I'm not that smart, it would be impossible for me to do it, but a good study would be to find the average decline in EPA/P for receivers who "graduate" from No. 2 to No. 1 receiving status. It'd probably have to be adjusted by the talent of the departing No. 1, but it seems like something that's worth studying.
The attentive reader will note that San Diego last year posted a kinda crazy imbalance in their pass/run efficiency (8.1 pass versus 3.3 run yards per attempt, respectively). Despite the incompetence of their running game (the second-least efficient in the league), the Chargers still managed an impressive 5.9 yards per play -- good for third in the NFL.
One can't help but wonder, though, how much better that offense would've been had coach Norv Turner and Co. not given LaDainian Tomlinson 223 rushes. Consider this, for a second:
NFL Avgs (2009)
Pass: 566.7 (56.3%)
Run: 440.3 (43.7%)
San Diego Avgs (2009)
Pass: 545 (56.1%)
Run: 427 (43.9%)
As you can see, the Chargers ran about as often as a league-average team while possessing a considerably above-average passing and considerably below-average running game.
The Chargers, Passing, and Normal Football
Turns out, San Diego's play-calling wasn't so abysmal as the raw numbers show. If we look at what Mr. Burke calls "Normal Football" -- that is, those periods in the first and third quarters when the score is within 10 points -- we see that the Chargers were actually more pass-heavy than at first glance, going to the air a full 61% of the time. That's a good thing for San Diego.
It remains to be seen how Turner will go about his play-calling with the young and relatively spry Ryan Mathews now in the fold. If anything, there's likely to be more running.
Obligatory Note About the Chiefs
It's a fact: the Chiefs are the other team playing today.
In which the author pontificates as hard as possible.
Asking the Right Questions
In these pages, a little over three years ago, our esteemed host Brian Burke wrote the following:
Who has the longest interception return ever? Which running back ran for the most yards in a single game? What team scored the most fourth quarter touchdowns in a season?
Answer: I don't care.
That's trivia, not statistics. What I'm interested in is analysis. What makes a winning team? Is it better to go for it or punt on 4th and short at the 50 yard line? Which teams are most likely to make the playoffs? How much does luck play a part in any game?
You're also likely aware that there's a lot of football coverage around these here internets that concerns itself neither with answering questions responsibly, nor even with asking questions in the first place. That's a bad way to go about things.
It's Brian's commitment to asking questions that's made me such an enthusiastic reader of his site, and it's what's got me excited about contributing to the same.
Numbers as Narrative
Simply because we deal with numbers here doesn't mean we ought to ignore words. In fact, numbers are at their best when they acquire the power of words.
Don't take my word for it, though. Here's Bill James, Father of Sabermetrics, from one of his Abstracts:
When the numbers melt into the language, they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do, to become fiction and drama and poetry. Am I imagining things? Do not the numbers of Ted Williams detail a story of fierce talent and, by the char of their ugly gaps, the ravages of exquisite frustration that ever accompany imperfect times? Do not the numbers of Roberto Clemente spell out a novella of irritable determination straining toward higher and higher peaks until snapped suddenly by an arbitrary, but now inevitable, machina? Do not the stressed and unstressed syllables of Willie Davis‘ prime suggest an iambic indifference Is there not a cavalcata in Pete Rose’s charges? Is there no union of thrill and agony in Roger Maris‘ numbers? How else can one explain the phenomenon of baseball cards, which is that a chart of numbers that would put an actuary to sleep can be made to dance if you put it on one side of a card and Bombo Rivera‘s picture on the other.
What James suggests is that, rather than destroying narrative, the numbers -- or, the correct numbers, at least -- are able to construct narratives that are otherwise invisible. The numbers give us stories we didn't even know were there, really.
As I write, ESPN's SportsCenter is promoting a story they'll run later about Matt Leinart -- the same Matt Leinart who has spent the majority of his NFL career as a back-up quarterback. Obviously, that's not an entirely meaningless story: Leinart was a great college player and won a Heisman, but has disappointed as a professional.
But the real reason Leinart is in the news is because of his off-the-field exploits. Like the time he got photographed drinking with hot and mostly naked coeds. And like the other time he got photographed drinking with hot and mostly naked coeds. The point is: Leinart isn't so much an interesting player as he is a personality. That's fine. There's nothing explicitly wrong with that. But it also doesn't really have a lot to do with him being a football player. Really, that's just how he got famous to begin with.
The numbers, though, tell stories about the action on the field: that passing is probably the best way to win; that, despite being just a mound of ice cream and hot dogs, Albert Haynesworth was actually pretty good last year; that Jared Allen is as much of a man-beast as he appears to be. It's nice both ways: when long-held truths are upended by evidence, or when the data reinforce what we suspected already.
I like watching sports. I like watching sports a lot more when I know what to look for, when there's a lens through which to watch a specific game. My work at FanGraphs deals mostly with constructing these lenses, of identifying a player or situation of interest to the reader/watcher.
Basically, that's what I intend to do here -- and, hopefully, have done above. It's possible that, in future weeks, I'll address more than two games. It's very possible that I dwell on each game for fewer than 800 or so words. However it works, the intention will always be the same: to make the game more interesting for people who both (a) like football and (b) respect the scientific method. Oh, and if you ever wondered how a foul-mouthed 7-year-old might write, that'll be available here, too.