Friday, September 3, 2010

Joe Flacco and the streaky QB

Let's pass lightly over the abysmal sink of suck that was the Ravens performance in the final preseason game, last night, against St Louis. (Gawd.) Here's something I was thinking about after last wk's game vs the Giants.

Bill James wrote a piece once,
about how much difference it makes to a baseball team's scoring output, to have the lineup set "correctly" – ie who bats first, who bats cleanup, who's in the 9 hole, etc. In order to run his study, he had to construct a comparison "worst" lineup for a given set of players. He described his process for setting up that lineup. He put the leadoff hitter in the 9-hole, and he distributed the other good hitters around the lineup so that they wouldn't be able to "interact" with each other. That's the concept that stuck in my mind: that to have a good offense, you needed the productive hitters to interact. You need to cluster a few hits together. A random hit here or there = a shutout. A few hits together = runs.

(Been a long time since I read the Bill James piece. For those wondering how the rest goes, I'm not sure I remember it correctly. I think he concluded that the lineup change did not make a significant difference in a team's scoring output. The figure that sticks in my head is around 20 runs over the course of a year, which would be about .12 runs per game. I might be remembering the wrong figure.)

Basketball has the concept of a "streaky shooter". This is a guy who is inconsistent, and maybe not reliably a great player. He misses shots a lot of the game. But then he scores in bunches. He can get hot, and he can hurt you if he does. He can be dangerous.
(Yes, I know there have been studies demonstrating that there is no such thing as a "hot" shooter in basketball. I'm more interested in the perception here, and the implications of the idea of streakiness. Let's stipulate that the streak shooter exists, if you don't mind.)
The culture of basketball is an interesting one (and a little odd). This streaky player is, I think, not accorded quite as much respect as the consistent player, even when the consistent player isn't as productive overall. The streaky player is regarded warily – by both sides. When he's missing, fans (and coaches?) of his team are confirmed in their view that he can't be depended on. When he's hitting, the opponents are confirmed in their view: I told you he was dangerous! It's almost like he's dangerous to both sides.


Joe Flacco brings the Ravens offense out in preseason game 3, which is traditionally the game where the starters play the most. It's the game most like a regular season game, the "dress rehearsal". And early on he doesn't look good. Sails his first couple of passes and gets sacked, and that's the Ravens 1st possession. Not counting the punt, the Ravens 1st 5 snaps totalled two incomplete passes, 2 sacks, and a false start. Great offense, guys. Flacco's last drive of the 1st half was just two plays: him getting sacked and then throwing an interception. And Flacco played one series in the 3rd quarter with the 2nd-teamers, going 1 for 2.

Flacco's total stats on the day were decent. He went 21 for 34 (61.8%) for 229 yards (6.7 yds/att) with 2 TDs and 1 INT, for a passer rating of 89.0. These numbers are similar to Flacco's stats from last year: 63%, 7.2 y/a, rating 88.9.

… You can see where this is going right? Flacco put up terrible numbers on his first and last drives: 4 of 12 for 41 yds with 0 TDs and 1 INT. That's a passer rating of 9. But if his overall stats were decent, then he must have put up great stats in the middle, right? Yes! Over 3 drives in the 1st half, the Ravens 2nd, 3rd and 4th drives, Flacco went 17 of 22 for 188 yds (8.4 y/a) with 2 TDs, for a passer rating of 132. The Ravens scored on all 3 possessions. (And on the next possession, with Flacco doing ok-but-not-good, the Ravens got into FG range and would have had a chance at another score, but for a dead-ball unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Derrick Mason, on the Ravens sideline.)

I don't want to get into whether this was a "good" performance for the Ravens offense. The Baltimore paper and fan sites were thrilled. Perennial Ravens critic Mike Preston even wrote that yes, fans weren't dreaming, the offense really did play that well. I am not as convinced. The Ravens needed two 4th-down conversions and a 15-yd personal foul on the Giants to score the two touchdowns, and the pass protection was at best spotty. But, whatever.

What's interesting to me is, Joe Flacco did not (statistically) play at the same level all game long. He played 7 possessions, and he was poor for 3 of them, and not good on another. But he got hot. He played great (or put up great stats, rather) on 3 possessions, and the Ravens scored each time. A football offense is sort of like a baseball offense, in this way: that you need to string a bunch of successful plays together, in order to score. One or two completions = punt. A string of completions = score. Flacco is like a streaky basketball shooter, in that he was able to get hot, and cause some damage when hot.

Is it always like that?

In basketball, the streak shooter is treated warily. Should we be embracing the streak passer in football? Basketball is one thing: but in a football game, if your team gets 10 possessions, and you stink on 6 of them – completely ineffective – you can still have a great game if you get hot for 4 possessions and drive for 4 scores.

I think even the best offenses punt most of the time (have to check that). Are the great QBs (Brees, Manning, Rivers, etc) streaky in the way that Flacco illustrated last night? We think of them as their stat line: consistently completing 65% (or whatever) of their passes. Are we wrong about that? Are they up and down, instead? Just that they get hot more often than the average QB?

Is this the whole point of football? Beat your head against the wall, punt when it doesn't work, but eventually put together a few drives where everything works right, and you score?

I feel like I've been watching the game wrong, this whole time.


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