Friday, January 18, 2013

The Muse, Championship Round: Four Things to Keep in Mind on the Best Football Weekend of the Year


Knowledgeable fan = happy fan.  Here are a few things to ruminate on as you watch this Sunday's conference championship games.

Ravens vs. Patriots: Turnovers and the run game.

The Patriots rushed for 5.1 yards per carry against the Texans on Sunday, while the Ravens held their opponent (Denver) to 3.0 yards per attempt.  Denver, however, came at the Ravens with a rush attack ranked only 15th in DVOA, while New England is 4th in that category.  Further, Baltimore allowed 5.1 yards per carry two weeks ago against a Colts team ranked 17th on the ground.  The Ravens need to live up to their regular-season performance in this area—they were fifth in DVOA against the run—or the Patriots will be very difficult to stop as they combine a successful ground game with their top-ranked air attack.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Muse, Divisional Round: Some Numbers to Mull Over for This Weekend’s Games

[Posted to Cippin on Sports, 1/11/13]

The knowledgeable fan is the happy fan.  Here are a few things to keep in mind as you watch this weekend:


Ravens vs. Broncos: The third-down battle.
The Baltimore defense, which during the regular season held opponents to a 36.6% third-down conversion rate, allowed the Colts a 45% success rate (9 for 20) on Sunday.  Denver, the Ravens’ opponent this Saturday, ranked third in the league in this category during the regular season, succeeding on 45.1% of third-down conversion attempts.  It would behoove the Ravens on Saturday afternoon to find a way to get the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands whenever they have the chance.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The “Tuesday” Muse Math-tastic Playoff Preview


Considering my tendency toward obsessive analysis, I am strangely uncomfortable making predictions.  While it can be entertaining to read others’ ideas on how upcoming games, playoff series, or seasons will play out, I regard the future as too unknowable for me to venture, with any degree of confidence, speculation as to what it will bring.  (If you accuse me of harboring petty neuroses, I will not argue.)  What I do enjoy, though, is the formulation of hypotheses to test out analytical tools, and that is what I’ll be doing here.  (If you accuse me of predilections toward unhealthy pastimes, again, I will not argue.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Tuesday Muse, Week 14: Disparate Happenings around the League


Too much stuff (important and otherwise) went on in the last nine days to focus on any single thing in this week’s (apologetically late) “Tuesday” Muse.  So, gumbo it is.
The Rounds
  • The bounty case is over (!).  We hope.  Anyway, Paul Tagliabue, while not exonerating the players in any kind of ethical sense (but who needs that?), has overturned their suspensions, complaining that “this case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Tuesday Muse, Week 13: The Falcons' Success in the Close Ones, and other happenings around the league

[Published at Cippin on Sports, 12/4/12]


The Falcons, speeding off to an 11-1 record through the season’s first thirteen weeks, clinched the NFC South on Thursday with a win over the Saints.  They have done so with a lineup on the offensive side of the ball that is almost identical to last year’s squad, and that helped the team to a (still not shabby) 10-6 finish and a wild-card entry to (and first-round exit from) the playoffs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Tuesday Muse, Week 12: The New Niners, and other happenings around the league

[Published at Cippin on Sports, 11/27/12]

Like many young sports fans, I grew up as a shameless frontrunner.  It was with strict devotion that, from 2,500 miles away, I rooted for the great 49ers teams of the 80’s and 90’s—those West Coast artisans tearing through the league, playing brilliant, lyrical, memorable football.  John Taylor in the back of the end zone55-10 in the SuperdomeJerry Rice splitting defenses and setting records.
The dynasty lasted as long as it lasted, and that was a long time—thirteen years from the first Super Bowl victory (1981) to the fifth (1994).  Following Steve Young’s last full season (1998) San Francisco finished above .500 only twice (and not after 2002) until the hiring of Jim Harbaugh in 2011.  While it is super-premature to herald this new era of success (22-7 over the past season-and-a-half) as a return to glory, the 49ers are displaying their greatest dominance since the mid-1990’s, and are doing so in a fashion that is a sharp departure from the identity that Bill Walsh and Joe Montana stamped on the franchise.
While the Niners of old operated a devastatingly fluent, surgical offense (Montana to Craig, Montana to Jones, Montana to Rice, touchdown), the system helmed by Alex Smith (and now Colin Kaepernick) offers an unusual mixture of jumbo sets, downfield attacks, and (with Kaepernick) read-option plays.  In 2011, San Francisco used formations of 2+ tight ends or 6+ offensive linemen 60% of the time, the second highest frequency in the league (per the Football Outsiders).  In 2012, while they have continued to utilize such jumbo sets,* the San Francisco also ranks third in the league in yards per passing attempt.  And on top of all this, in the past three games (two of which he started), Colin Kaepernick has accounted for almost a fifth of the 49ers rushing attempts (19%), and 23% of the their total rushing yards.  To put his contribution in perspective, over the course of the season (during which he has started only two games), Kaepernick has more rushing yards than all but four quarterbacks in the league, all of whom are full-time starters: Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Michael Vick, and Russell Wilson.
This all adds up to the 11th-ranked offense (by total yards) in the league—nothing spectacular, but more than sufficient as a compliment to San Francisco’s truly dominant aspect: its defense, which is ranked sixth in the league in FO’s defensive DVOA, first in points allowed, and second in yards allowed.  Together, these phases are combining to create a top-tier operation, and if the 49ers are going to take the next step under Harbaugh this season, it will be through a system not only unique to the league, but also far different from the notion of what the franchise itself represents historically.
* FO strategic tendency data for 2012 is not yet available, but, per FO snap count data, out of 684 total offensive snaps, first-string tight end Vernon Davis has been on the field for 640 (93.6%), while second-string TE Delanie Walker has participated in just over half (358 snaps, 52.3%), indicating a significant use of two-TE sets by the 49ers.
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Box of the Week
The Steelers turned the ball over eight times on Sunday in Cleveland, and recovered their own fumbles three more times.  Garnering one interception from Brandon Weeden, Pittsburgh ended the day with a -7 turnover margin, one-third of the league’s worst overall margin (Kansas City’s -21).  Pittsburgh’s +/- on the season thus dropped in one week from -3 to -10, while Cleveland’s improved from +1 to +8.
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The Rounds:
  • Brandon Jacobs had his first carry of the year on Sunday.  Joe Buck: “Remember Brandon Jacobs?  He’s in the game.”
  • Fireman Ed hangs it up, as Jets fans continue to be the most Jets-fans ever.
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Greg Blume writes here and rambles there.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Tuesday Muse, Week 10: The Year of the Kicker, and other happenings around the league


If you squint at “Thursday,” it looks like “Tuesday.”  (Sorry, guys!)
On Monday, Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz noted that this season, not a single field goal attempt below thirty yards has gone astray.  While such a pace almost certainly will not be maintained (right?), looking at the last twenty years of league-wide performance, only one season (2008) has even come close to this level of accuracy (all stats via Pro-Football-Reference.com):
Year
0-19 FGA
0-19 FGM
20-29 FGA
20-29 FGM
Success Rate
2012
8
8
142
142
100.0%
2011
16
16
296
285
96.5%
2010
19
19
270
257
95.5%
2009
11
11
273
264
96.8%
2008
7
7
266
261
98.2%
2007
17
17
284
270
95.3%
2006
15
15
269
257
95.8%
2005
13
13
272
259
95.4%
2004
12
12
252
243
96.6%
2003
6
6
281
270
96.2%
2002
13
12
257
242
94.1%
2001
10
9
267
253
94.6%
2000
31
29
240
224
93.4%
1999
25
25
261
247
95.1%
1998
22
20
230
219
94.8%
1997
20
20
257
243
94.9%
1996
20
20
281
266
95.0%
1995
19
18
265
243
91.9%
1994
22
22
239
229
96.2%
1993
28
28
246
229
93.8%
For 2012 to fall to an average rate, there would have to be a sudden, and extreme, drop off, which does not seem likely, even as we approach the winter months.
This phenomenon is part of an unprecedented jump in accuracy overall:
Year
FGA
FGM
Success Rate
2012
591
510
86.3%
2011
1011
838
82.9%
2010
959
789
82.3%
2009
930
756
81.3%
2008
1000
845
84.5%
2007
960
795
82.8%
2006
942
767
81.4%
2005
967
783
81.0%
2004
870
703
80.8%
2003
954
756
79.2%
2002
951
737
77.5%
2001
959
732
76.3%
2000
917
731
79.7%
1999
964
749
77.7%
1998
889
708
79.6%
1997
906
708
78.1%
1996
915
732
80.0%
1995
954
738
77.4%
1994
811
640
78.9%
1993
879
673
76.6%
While there has been a general upward trend in kicker performance over the last decade, this year’s jump of almost four percentage points is the most extreme, by a wide margin, of any single-year improvement over the last twenty seasons.
There have also been two extraordinary developments on the level of individual performance.  The first is the fact that, in only ten weeks, three kickers have made field goals from 60 yards or beyond: Jay Feely (week 1, vs. Green Bay), Rams rookie Greg Zuerlein (week 4, vs. Seattle), and Jay Feely (week 6, vs. Buffalo).  The only other season in which more than one 60-yarder was made was 2006, when both Matt Bryant and Rob Bironas accomplished the feat.
Secondly, rookie kickers have shown exceptional flash this year, as the top three leaders in field goals of 50+ are all first-year players: Blair Walsh (Minnesota) and Zuerlein have both hit five from that distance, and undrafted rookie Justin Tucker (Baltimore) is tied for third in the league with four.
The Year of the Kicker?  It sounds funny, but there are definitely some good vibes coming out of the fraternity this season.
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Box of the Week
After Sunday’s loss in Seattle, Rex Ryan said that he is sticking with Mark Sanchez as his starting quarterback.  Consciously or not, though, the Jets may be inching toward a change, as Tim Tebow’s playing time on offense increased significantly last week.  Tebow was on the field for eight offensive snaps against Seattle.  That may not seem like a lot, but it comprised 15% of New York’s offensive plays; in only one other game this season has Tebow been on the field as an offensive player that frequently (numbers via Football Outsiders):
Week
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
10
Opponent
BUF
@PIT
@MIA
SF
HOU
IND
@NE
MIA
@SEA
% of off. snaps:
14%
5%
15%
13%
12%
9%
6%
6%
15%
Sunday’s game represented a spike in Tebow’s offensive participation from the previous three weeks, and he also threw the ball more than he ever had, completing all three of his pass attempts.  Again, that number doesn’t seem like a lot, but it doubled his total pass attempts on the season.
All of which may mean little—or quite a lot, as the Jets coaching staff feels more pressure than ever to get the 3-6 team on track, and as tensions over the issue begin to boil over in the Jets locker room.
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The Rounds:
  • “Snee ruled it out, saying: ‘His name is Little Bear. Big Bear, Little Bear. That’s it.’” [h/t @katiebakes]