Friday, July 27, 2012

Turnover Margin and Predictions

Joe Fortenbaugh with a cool article.  Usually the kind of thing I like to research and I’m a little surprised I hadn’t thought it of it before.

I disagree with some of his conclusions (of course) because I think he looks too much at single seasons without looking at spreads of seasons for anomalous numbers.

First the link:  

Now the chart:

odds chart

From this it is easy to look at 3-4 year spreads and ask “what number doesn’t fit”.  For example, Kansas City’s +9 in 2010 was out of character for them and corresponded with a somewhat improbable playoff run.

Looking at 2011 we see that Fortenbaugh highlighted Jacksonville’s jump, but the real anomaly was 2010, not 2011.  2011 was corrective.

So looking at this, the teams who I would expect to be “corrective” in 2012 would be (in order of confidence):

San Francisco     -15.5
Philadelphia      +13.5
Pittsburgh          +12.5
Tampa Bay         +11

I would normally expect Baltimore to improve by about +6 but the loss of Suggs may mitigate this improvement a bit.  I’ll leave it to you guys to decide whether last year’s dip was merely normal variation or a combination of weak offensive line play and aging playmakers.  You’ll recall Reed’s somewhat bizarre INTsplosion in a half season in 2010.  It could be that +2 is closer to the new normal for the Ravens.

I would like to point to Arizona.  A team I already thought was a bit remarkable, going 8-8 with no quarterback and trying to overcome heavy losses from the ’10 offseason.  Additionally we see that their TO margin also dove.  While this could directly correspond to their personnel problems, it could also point to a team that suffered bad luck and might be worth a couple more wins.

Finally, looking at Denver.  This is an interesting team.  Made the playoffs (and won a game!) last year with an absurd run of 4th quarter comebacks.  Now they’ve replaced their awful QB with an all-time great.  It is impossible to predict exactly what Peyton will be, but it is fairly easy to project that he will be better than Ortonbow.  This is a team that could take dramatic steps forward, given the right Manning, similarly to Minnesota in Favre’s penultimate season.

Not predicting, just predicting.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

5 Year Record

Training camps open this week! Young guys report early, vets report later in the week, and the hitting starts soon. In honor of the collective return to vivid life, here is The List.

In the table below, ties are broken by postseason wins, where applicable, under the theory that one postseason win is worth more than one reg season win. It's a slightly greater accomplishment. Thus Seattle gets the nod over Carolina & Tampa, because of the two playoff wins. Ties remaining after that are broken by the most recent reg season record, under the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately theory. Thus Packers ahead of Steelers; likewise Niners over Vikes, Carolina over Tampa, Miami over Redskins, and Oakland over Buffalo.

For comparison, last year's list is here.

TeamReg seasonPost season Grand Total
20072008200920102011 Sum20072008200920102011 Sum
New England Patriots16111014136422468
Green Bay Packers1361110155514560
Pittsburgh Steelers1012912125532560
New York Giants101281094944857
New Orleans Saints781311135231456
Baltimore Ravens51191212492111554
Indianapolis Colts131214102512253
San Diego Chargers11813984921352
Philadelphia Eagles89.51110846.52248.5
Dallas Cowboys1391168471148
Atlanta Falcons4119131047047
Tennessee Titans101386946046
New York Jets4991184122445
Arizona Cardinals8910584031444
Chicago Bears797118421143
Houston Texans889610411142
San Francisco 49ers578613391140
Minnesota Vikings8101263391140
Jacksonville Jaguars115785361137
Denver Broncos78848351136
Seattle Seahawks1045773311235
Carolina Panthers71282635035
Tampa Bay Buccnrs99310435035
Cincinnati Bengals74.5104934.5034.5
Miami Dolphins11177632032
Washington Redskins9846532032
Oakland Raiders4558830030
Buffalo Bills7764630030
Cleveland Browns10455428028
Kansas City Chiefs42410727027
Detroit Lions70261025025
St. Louis Rams3217215015

My rule of thumb is, any team with a grand total of 45 or over is doing something right. That's an average winning record, nine wins per year, in a league where winning at all (let alone winning consistently) is extremely difficult. These are the most successful organizations in the sport.

Note technically a total of 40.5 or better represents a “winning” record, barely. That would average out to 4 yrs of 8-8 and one year of 8-7-1. I personally think that is nothing to write home about: but it beats losing. These teams in the 41-44 win category are in a second tier. I anticipate Houston breaking into the next tier up next season. Maybe San Francisco too.

The usual suspects in the top 5 this year. Man, the Packers are coming off a 15-win season, the Steelers have appeared in two Super Bowls during this span, and the Giants have *won* two – and look how far ahead of everybody the Pats are. That's really impressive. They lost their starting QB one of the seasons listed here, they're supposed to have a crappy defense, and they still averaged 12.8 reg season wins plus a playoff win over the span. Unbelievable. Next year the Imperfect Season comes off the books, so they should come back to the pack a little. Or who knows, maybe Belichick will do it again.

Indy takes a bit of a tumble (they were #1 last year), they figure to fall a bit more over a couple seasons. Everyone knows they lost Manning, but the more important figure long-term is Bill Polian, who might be the best GM of all time. Who replaces him? I like Chuck Pagano very much, but who's picking the players?

If the Ravens have another of their typical Harbaugh double-digit win seasons, their win total will increase on this list. Their 5-win 2008 season will come off the books. But their peer group is tough to gain a lot of ground on: they could easily add 5 wins to their total and still move up only 1 spot.

Five full seasons since the Chargers let Marty go, and the reports of their demise have been – well I don't know, we see steady decline over the last three seasons, and it's not clear that AJ Smith is still making great draft picks. They had a decent offseason, for once. We'll see.

Man, the Rams suuuuuuuuuuuuck. 3 wins per year! Nice to see the Lions finally out of the cellar. Notable that they win 10 games and only climb up to second-worst, but they have an albatross. The zero will come off this list in a couple seasons; they seem to be building to last, so they could climb fast once they lose the anchor.

Oakland has had two respectable seasons in a row. Interesting.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Will football die?

Two recent articles, both of which were good and interesting, popped up in light of Seau's death. We haven't even confirmed that he's shown signs of CTE. But his suicide - only a year removed from another suicide attempt - has pretty much said everything that needs to be said to spark a new round of questions and concerns about concussions in the sport.

Here's a Grantland article on what life without football would look like. 

Here's a ProFootballTalk article on how the game must evolve.

At this point I just don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that the game of football is a shell of what it is today in another 10-20 years. Most people scoff when someone suggests that football could be dead in the coming decades. But, as the Grantland article notes:

Before you say that football is far too big to ever disappear, consider the history: If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it's not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for the NFL too. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.
The problem that I I have is, most people - including the Grantland article - believe that if football as we know it is going to die, it will be due to lawsuits financially crippling the game. I don't believe it will happen quite like that. The lawsuits I do think clearly will be the sparkplug. 

But the path I see is a bit different. And it leads me to believe that the game will be fundamentally changed some time in the next 10-20 years, and the only question left will be whether people love the game as much as they do now or not. The path to me begins with the kids. Two Oblong Spheroid articles come to mind. Jim wrote one, linked. Patrick wrote the other, but I couldn't find it...I remember it distinctly though, because it sparked a debate in which I was clearly on the wrong side, that high school and kids' football in general would have to be significantly altered, and soon. I took the stance that the game shouldn't change, and it marked for me the beginning of a total attitude shift...I eventually landed on the right side here. 

 But that, to me, is the point of main change. The lawsuits, to me, won't kill the NFL. What I think they'll do is two things. 1) They're shining light on this issue, and showing how dangerous this game is. That's going to give parents pause as to whether or not they allow their kids to play. 2) They very well may wind up pointing at the youth leagues. 

Forget former NFL players suing the NFL. Imagine instead a group of parents suing high schools because their kids are showing signs of CTE. That second point is by far the more dangerous and likely to incite sweeping changes in an exceptionally short time. But the bottom line is, I don't think it's going to take long for first the talent field to thin due to fewer parents allowing their kids to play the game, and second for schools to limit if not ban hitting, which fundamentally shifts the way the game is played at lower levels, meaning the talent is completely different at the pro level, assuming the pro level doesn't shift as well. 

 At this point, claiming the game cannot possibly see a massive shift in the next quarter century is simply naive. More than that, I no longer think it's a question of if...I think it's a question of when football undergoes massive, sweeping changes. And once that happens, the question is, will the fans stay? That's the question I think no one can really predict.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

One of the most important drafts in franchise history

The Baltimore Sun today says:

With a number of needs, Ravens head into one of the most important drafts in franchise history

I reject that.  There is no way.  How can this draft be one of the most important?

I'm not saying this draft is not important.  The draft is the most critical means by which teams acquire frontline talent for the next several years.  So that makes every draft important.  Fail to acquire talent, and you have blown your best opportunity for a year.  You've set yourself back.  The draft as a process is important; so every year's draft is important. 
(If you click thru to the linked article, it says pretty much the same thing.)

But ranking the drafts against each other, as to which particular year's draft is more important than other years?  Surely this year's is one of the most UNimportant in Ravens history. 

What were the MOST important draft years in Ravens history?  Well, probably the #1 most important draft year for the Ravens was 1996, their first year of existence in Baltimore.  The foundation draft.  They got Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden.  NAILED IT!  Imagine how different Ravens history would be if they had gotten, say, Lawrence Phillips and Eric Moulds instead.  Eric Moulds was a fine player, an excellent player: 10 years in the league, 3-time Pro Bowler, 10k yards receiving.  But he certainly hasn't been Ray Lewis.

2nd-most important draft?  Tough to say, but looking back over Ravens history, their worst record after their 4-12 first season in Baltimore, was their 5-11 record in 2007.  That indicates that the 2008 draft was pretty important.  They got Joe Flacco and Ray Rice.  I'll say "Nailed it!" again: not in all-caps this time, since it doesn't look like those guys are going to the Hall of Fame as among the best ever to play their position, but still with the same tone of voice, since those are foundational players at two critical positions.  Franchise-changers, both of them. 

(Re: franchise-changers.  It's easy to get caught up in a discussion about how good Joe Flacco is or is not.  But it's important to note that (a) Flacco is by far the best QB the Ravens have ever had, climbing to the top of their leaderboard in every important stat after just 3 mediocre seasons; and (b) Ravens fans always wondered how well the team could do if they had just average-to-good quarterbacking.  Now we know.  In four seasons, they've made the playoffs every year, won a division title, and made it to 2 conf championship games.  Just a couple plays from the Super Bowl both times.  "Stability" is also a virtue, and Flacco has, at the very least, brought that.)

Among other "important" drafts, I'm drawn to 2002 and 2003.  Remember, in 2000 the Ravens won the SuperBowl, and then in the offseason they loaded up on old guys, trying to repeat.  They failed in 2001, and endured an epic salary purge.  In 2002 they fielded the youngest team in modern NFL history.  So in 2002 and 2003 they were undergoing a massive and quick rebuilding/turnaround.  They got (2002) Ed Reed and (2003) Terrell Suggs & Jarret Johnson.  NAILED IT!  They also got useful players in Anthony Weaver, Ovie Mughelli, Aubrayo Franklin and Tony Pashos. 

(Um, they also got [cough cough] Kyle Boller.  That pick probably underscores a number of important points, maybe about the importance of making good decisions with first-round picks and with QBs, and about the appropriate yardstick for measuring Flacco as a draft pick.  But let's move along.)

Those drafts listed above were "important" for the team context in which they occurred.  Bad teams, needing to make a change to quickly establish new "eras".

So where does this year's draft rank in importance?  Way toward the "less important" end of the spectrum.  

This current Ravens team holds the division title and is coming off a conference championship game appearance.  Almost a Super Bowl team – really, breathtakingly close to being in the Super Bowl.  In the "normal" case, their expected record this coming year is somewhere between 9-7 and 14-2.  I'm assuming a "normal" amount of progression by players who were young last season (like Torrey Smith & Jimmy Smith), and a "normal" amount of erosion due to player age and free agency, and assuming that Ray Lewis & Ed Reed don't suddenly fall of a cliff in terms of their productivity.  Assuming the I-word does not play too big a role.  In the "normal" course of events, these Ravens will be in a dogfight with the Steelers and Bengals for the division title, the division winner will probably be the #2 or #3 seed in the AFC, two of those teams probably make the playoffs, the Ravens probably will be one of them.  And that's the case no matter how this draft plays out.

I'm not saying the Ravens don't have important holes to fill.  They do.  They need help on the O-line, they need a pass-rusher, they could use another downfield threat, they need a backup RB.  (These holes are documented in the  linked article.  Which really is a good and interesting piece, I don't mean to savage it here.)  Finding good players to fill some of those roles will be very important to the future success of the team.  

But, these are mostly just normal holes, the result of the normal wear-&-tear of having a football team.  The Ravens are (knock wood) not at any kind of "crossroads" where they need a dramatic change to create a new era.  They need to add some talent and keep going the way they have been.

This year's draft is "important" the way they're all important.  But it's less important than some have been.


Monday, March 12, 2012

The Best Way To Evaluate The RGIII Deal

One of the easiest things in the world to do is to grab an article and pick it apart in a blog. That said, I'm going to do precisely that.

The guys from the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective wrote a fairly interesting and critical analysis of the Redskins trade for the Rams' pick. Interesting, critical and wrong.

From an expected value perspective, the Redskins definitively lost this trade (to put it mildly). The second overall pick carries an expected Career Approximate Value Over Average (eCAVOA) of 435.4. The 6th and 38th overall picks have a combined eCAVOA of 525.1. If the Redskins had given up just these picks, they would have lost 89.7 eCAVOA, which is the equivalent of the 114th overall pick (the middle of the 4th round).

If this price had been the extent of the trade, it would have been defensible. A 525.1 eCAVOA translates to a CAV of 78.7, essentially equaling Matt Hasselbeck’s CAV. ~
For the Redskins to get the equivalent value from RGIII as they spent acquiring him, he must produce at least as much as Tom Brady.
If RGIII merely lives up to his eCAVOA, he’ll finish his career having slightly outperformed David Garrard (61 CAV). Because all-time-great quarterbacks are rare commodities, the Redskins likely lost value both on paper and in reality.

The post is worth a read. Heck, the whole blog is worth subscribing to. I would have to copy over a whole lot more than I am comfortable with to fully describe the analysis. Really though, I have no problem with the analysis such as it is. Kevin Meers (the author) describes the value of the pick in terms of the degree of talent that RGIII would have to return to make this trade valuable. To me, this is fundamentally wrong - even if mathematically correct.

The problem with this, and with all of the criticisms of the trade, is that they assume that the purpose of the NFL draft is merely to acquire talent.

It isn't.

Mostly it is exactly that, but it goes beyond that to something more fundamental. The purpose of the NFL draft is to put a team in the position to win a Super Bowl. Really, that's it. That's the entire purpose of this league. So I agree with the argument that RGIII would have to become Brady to make the trade worthwhile, if the Redskins win a Super Bowl with him playing a key role some time in the next decade then the trade is certainly worth it.

I could go further with this. The Redskins are one of the more interesting teams and have been far longer than Daniel Snyder has been the owner. Outside of a brilliant 12 year stretch they've been pretty poor, historically speaking. I believe there is an illusion that they've been more relevant than they have for a couple of reasons; one being that they happened to have their greatest stretch exactly through the period when the NFL was exploding in popularity, the other simply due to the division they are in and the opponents that they face.

A kind of fun game to play is to couch this trade of what the Redskins' expected return on those picks would have been, rather than an average team. With Allen and Shanahan, perhaps that return is better than their historical return but regardless it is more fun to frame this in the context of this franchise's history. Counting backward from 2004, the first year where Career AV currently has any relevance, Redskin first round picks returned AVs of 33 (Sean Taylor, unfairly low), 14, 27, 46, 57, 103, 53, 0, 38, 7, 39, 18, 12, these going back to the last Redskin championship in 1991. In 15 years, the Redskins drafted three first rounders who generated career AVs greater than 50. By comparison, this year's Giants had 6 players, last year's Packers had 7. In other words, the Redskins stink at using their first rounders on players who populate championship teams.

Looking only at quarterbacks, over the last 20 years the Redskins used the #3OA, #32OA, #25OA picks on quarterbacks while trading the #37OA for Donovan McNabb. The best player from that group was Jason Campbell who has generated a 40 carAV in 7 seasons.

Really this trade can't be evaluated for many years. By all accounts Griffin is one of the greatest quarterback prospects in memory, with amazing athleticism, intelligence and character. Most prospects do not deserve the value that the Redskin braintrust placed on Griffin. Griffin, in fact, just might.

Thom Loverro shares a different take

What could go wrong?

Griffin could stink on the field or be a problem off the field. Neither is likely.

The guy is off the charts in all measureables in football and life. He is perhaps the fastest quarterback in NFL history. He has a cannon for an arm. He is so smart he graduated early from high school and wants to be a lawyer. And he volunteers to take care of small children in his spare time.

He could get hurt, of course. But that is hardly a unique risk.

The draft picks the Redskins gave away could wind up being major contributors with the Rams for years to come. But if Griffin proves as great as advertised, no one will care.

No, the X factor in what could go wrong is not Griffin.

It is the Redskins.

They could really mess this up.

In fact, based on the news the Redskins will lose $36 million in cap space over this year and next, they already may have messed this up.

To believe that Griffin will become an elite NFL quarterback worth the high price paid by the Redskins is to believe that the Redskins won't get in the way of that development, that something inside Redskins Park won't go wrong.

That's a leap of faith.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Regarding Cam Cameron

Fans around the country might not be aware, but Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is a controversial figure. The Ravens still, 4 years into the Harbaugh era and 4 full seasons after drafting a "franchise quarterback", still win their games with defense and controlling the football. Ravens discussion boards are wallpapered with calls for him to be fired after each close nailbiter of a win. The furor when they lose is almost unbelievable.

The below is a reply to an email from Chris on this subject.

Chris wrote:

Flacco had a down year this year. ...
I feel like the Ravens passing game should be way more productive than it is.
... and I can't figure out where the blame belongs.
For the record, I basically agree that Cam needs to be replaced. To me it's not a matter of "fault" or him clearly sucking. It's a more pragmatic, amicable split: it's been 4 years, and it mostly hasn't worked, so a change has to be made. I can make a case for continuity; but I do have to make the case for it, and you also have to keep the confidence of the locker room. I wouldn't be mad, like most fans on the Ravens board, if the Ravens kept Cam. Especially after this weekend's game. But I recognize a change is probably necessary.

But what happens if we observe that the Ravens passing game should be more productive than it has been, and go thru the exercise of assuming that none of the problems were Cam's fault? This is a logic game like something you might use if you were trying to debug a computer system. Assume that one piece is working perfectly, even if you have reason to suspect it's not, so that you can capture other contributing errors in the other interacting pieces. We can use this game to make a list of the other issues affecting the offense, and see how convincing it is.

First, a description of the issue. Joe Flacco's yardage and TD numbers went down this season, on 53 *more* attempts than last year. His productivity rates declined: completion pct, yards-per, and TD pct. Yet the coaching staff maintained that Joe was having his best season as a pro, and it wasn't close. (Reported in interviews, I think mostly by gameday announcers.) Jaworski said he studied Flacco's plays vs the Texans in the divisional round, and found only 3 plays where he would give Joe a negative grade. Cameron, perhaps a harsher grader, said he found only 6. Both guys are professional graders of QBs, and both say Flacco played very well – on a day when he completed less than 52% of his passes for less than 7 yards-per, took 5 sacks and fumbled once. Just as the Ravens coaches are saying Joe played better this year, even thought he stats don't reflect it.

What are these guys seeing? Is it possible to play *better*, and have your completion pct and yards-per and TD pct all drop?

Well, sure.
  • First, we can see some residue of improvement in the stats. I've mentioned this all year, but it's worth repeating. Joe cut his sack pct by almost a third in 2011, setting a new personal best in that category. He was also on pace for a new career low in INT pct, which he has been steadily cutting every year since he got into the league, until he threw 2 picks against the Chargers in game 14. He still finished the season with the second-best INT pct of his career, right between his number for 2009 and 2010.
  • I assume that much of the other improvement the coaches are talking about have to do with things that fans can't really measure, like getting into the right play and making the right read and so forth. Let's just assume that Joe was better in these areas than he's ever been before -- I think it's probably a safe assumption, but we can't check it either way.
Ok, so if Joe was playing the quarterback position better than he ever had before, and if we operate under our test assumption that Cam was not the problem, then what have we seen that could have caused the overall productivity to drop?

  • Youth of the receiving corps.
This was undoubtedly an issue. The Ravens unloaded Joe's favorite targets, two extremely sure-handed receivers, and replaced them with inexperienced players. Derek Mason and Todd Heap could really catch the ball. Torrey Smith and Ed Dickson are faster, but they did not catch as well. Mason was also probably one of the best route-runners in the game, and Torrey Smith isn't. At the very least this impacted Joe's completion pct. I wonder if this ramified also. Did the Ravens have to stick with simpler formations and route combinations, to keep the offense manageable for Smith & Dickson? I don't know.

  • No offseason to work with the young receiving corps.
We said all season that the offenses that would handle the lockout well would be those on teams where the QB and receivers had already worked well together. It sounds like a fairly stupid thing to say: the QBs who would be good this year were the ones who were already good. This might not be a "strong finding", since it's what we'd normally expect to see. But the top 8 in passer rating were basically "the usual suspects" plus Stafford (Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Romo, Schaub, Eli, Matt Ryan). And Stafford had Calvin Johnson to throw to. Alex Smith snuck into the next spot on this list, but he did it on few attempts and avoiding INTs; then it's Big Ben and Rivers. That's EVERYBODY in the league with a rating over 88. There weren't anymore. The two rookies who had magnificent rookie seasons did not crack the top 14 or post a rating over 85. Ryan Fitzpatrick had high volume numbers, but a rating below 80.

The passing offenses who weren't already established as efficient prior to this season, did not crack the top third in efficiency this year. That's a non-finding, but it can be read to support the idea that teams needed the offseason to get their passing offense in sync if it wasn't already. The three most notable counter-examples might be Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Fitzpatrick. I'm not sure they invalidate the idea, because first of all it's not like they did any better than "average". "Average" constituted a stunning improvement for those squads, but it's not the same thing as greatness. And secondly, there might be extenuating circumstances in all three cases. Newton might be the Ultimate Weapon, Dalton is unusually skilled & composed for a rookie and has a tremendous receiving corps, Fitzpatrick wasn't that good taking the season as a whole.

Anyway: Ravens tried to integrate a young receiving corps in a year with no offseason. It didn't come together. Ultimately that doesn't seem shocking.

  • Lee Evans injury.
Huge. The Ravens turned this into a positive, by giving increased opportunity to Torrey Smith, and Smith really delivered. But Evans is a veteran receiver who presumably would have run better routes than Smith and had better hands, at least early in the season. The loss of Evans probably did away with much of the Ravens planned use of 3-WR sets. Additionally, if there was any effect of "keeping the offense" simple for Smith, that's a consequence of the injury to Evans.

Evans came back and was terrible. So terrible, it's hard for me to believe it's his actual level of performance. Remember he looked like a revelation in preseason; and even in game 1 vs the Steelers when he didn't register a catch, all the post-game reportage said he played a key role by drawing coverage etc. I choose to believe that late in the season Evans was dealing with after-effects of the injury all season. I might even find a way to forgive his TD drop, in time.

Remember, when all the writers harp on the Ravens failing to use 3-WR sets, they didn't have 3 WRs most of the year. Their #2 WR missed half the season with injury (and was horrible when he was back). Who were the Ravens supposed to trot out there? David Reed fumbled away the coach's confidence. LaQuan Williams got some snaps, looked like he could become a player but didn't really produce as a rookie. For almost the whole season, there weren't 3 solid WRs for the Ravens to use.

  • Anquan Boldin's knee.
Boldin had surgery late in the year, to clean out the torn cartilage in his knee. He said it had been bothering him all season. He was observably less explosive than in previous years, except for the game vs the Cardinals. Did this cartilage issue slow him all season? It's easy to believe the answer is yes. He made plays when he came back from the surgery.

  • Ben Grubbs injury.
The left side of the O-line was terrible when Grubbs was out, and it led directly to at least one loss (vs Jax, I think). He missed six games. That's a large chunk of the season. I haven't matched it up perfectly, but there was a stretch of games when Joe was getting pressured terribly and the running game wasn't working either. Does anything derail an offense worse than problems on the line? (other than a QB injury)

  • Personnel package issues, with a fullback on the field.
I wrote to you [Chris] about this last week, that the Ravens reliance on a FB adversely impacted the passing game. Bill Walsh always used 2 backs in the backfield, and to great effect, so it's not like a FB has to cripple the passing offense. But Walsh's guys could all catch and run. Vontae Leach caught about 55% of the passes thrown to him (stats from Football Outsiders), which is terrible for a back, and gained a measley 4.6 yards per reception (2.6 yards per pass attempt). He was not a positive in the passing game. And his presence on the field kept another good receiver, like Pitta (or theoretically Evans) off the field. But he had to stay in the game: he was one of the Ravens best players, and a key to the running game. We as fans insisted the Ravens run the damn ball; Leach was a key to that.

You linked the Greg Cosell comment about "isolation routes, no bunch sets or rub routes." I wonder how much of that is a factor of the personnel package. Can you even run bunch sets with a FB on the field? Say you want to do trips right. So who are the three receivers in the bunch? Boldin, Smith, and – Dickson? That seems ok; but then do you line up Leach at TE, with Rice the lone setback? Does Leach have the size to block inline like that? Do you leave Dickson at TE, put Rice in the trips formation, and leave Leach in the backfield to block? Won't defenses key on the bunch including Rice, and ignore the run?

FO wrote this about the Ravens offense:
"In this era of multiple receivers and shotgun spreads, the Ravens actually run a fairly conventional, old-fashioned offense. Our charting lists the Ravens using two wide receivers on 56 percent of plays, the highest rate in the league. They run more often than they pass on first down. They like their play-action passes..."
I'd be curious to know what Rice's rushing numbers were with Leach in and out of the formation. If the Ravens could only run effectively with Leach on the field, and he's a liability in the passing game and should come out when they want to throw; well that would seem to be a big tip-off to the defense.

* * *

Let me take a timeout to reference the AFCC.

The New England game was the clearest example I've ever seen in my life of what coaches are talking about when they say an offensive game plan is "designed to win the game" rather than "designed to score points".

That requires some explaining. I usually find it an oxymoron, to try to draw that distinction. I think we all agree that the best thing an offense can usually do to help a team win is "score points". The more the better. But we also know that there is a persistent school of thought that when you're playing against high-octane offenses, you want to "control the ball" and "control tempo" and "not get into a shootout", etc. It's a conservative brand of coaching that survives because it is fundamentally sound and works at all levels. It's "the right way to play" at the lower levels, and we've all seen teams win in the NFL with it. Even win Super Bowls; coaches as diverse as Bill Parcells and Brian Billick and Bill Cowher have won Super Bowls that way. The spokepeople who have to defend those offenses (including the coordinators who speak to reporters) all say that they weren't trying to look pretty or win style points. The offense was "designed to win the game".

The Ravens very clearly went into New England with a team-wide game plan to "keep the game close and win in the 4th quarter". The Ravens players & coaches obviously had a healthy respect for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick et al. So defense, spec teams, and offense were all geared to playing THAT game. On offense that meant a game-plan that did NOT stress a lot of throwing to attack the Pats weakness in pass defense. That would tend to increase the number of possessions in the game and contribute to a shootout. Instead the gameplan stressed balance and sustained drives.

Do you intentionally limit the number of points you yourself score? It seems crazy in football, but it's definitely true in basketball. In basketball, you score the most points by running the fast break, and maybe also pressing full court. But that picks up the tempo of the entire game. The other team scores more points too; the whole game is faster. The phenomenon should not be directly transferable to football, because every offensive possession has an isolated beginning. There's no fluid continuation of play. But football coaches always act as if there is a transfer; as if picking up the tempo on your own offense will have the effect of picking up the tempo for the other team's offense. I want to stress that I don't understand how that could possibly be true, BUT it is an observable fact that coaches act as if it's true: as if going "uptempo" in the passing game will have the effect of increasing the other team's tempo as well, and will tend toward "getting into a shootout".

So the Ravens went into the New England game with a clear plan to "keep the game close", and that includes prescribing a certain style on offense, which could/would have the effect of scoring fewer points than they might otherwise score. And the team executed that plan. And dammit if the plan didn't work! At least on offense. Flacco made one mistake, the D bailed him out, and Flacco in a one-score game threw the game-winning TD pass in the final 30 secs. Which didn't actually win the game, but that seems beside the point when looking at it from a planning & strategic perspective.

If you believe that there CAN BE such a thing as an offensive game plan that is "designed to win the game" rather than "designed to score points" – I'm not sure I believe it, but I have a lot more respect for that view after the AFCC than I did before – then Cam Cameron looks like an extremely capable tactician. You can start to see how the Ravens brain trust inside the building might value Cam and his gameplanning very highly, more highly than fans do.

End timeout.

* * *

That's a strong list.

Let's say this is all true:
  • your #1 receiver is slowed by chronic injury
  • your #2 receiver misses half the season with a knee injury, and is terrible when he gets back, basically worthless the whole year
  • your #s 3-4-5 receivers are all rookies and inconsistent (or fumblers and locked in the doghouse)
  • your top 2 TEs are 2nd-year players getting their first big playing time, and inconsistent
  • your FB is a terrible receiver
  • your O-line has major holes in pass-blocking for six games (and is not really that great the rest of the time)
If you're the coordinator in charge of generating a productive passing game out of that, what the hell do you do?!?

It seems to me that this list is quite sufficient to hold back the passing game. We don't need the assumption that Cam Cameron sucks. Do you see? If that list is largely true, then your coordinator could be Sean Payton or any other annointed genius you'd like to name, and we'd still see less-than-awesome numbers coming out of the passing game.

There may even be an additional allowance made, depending on where you stand on the notion of "game-planning to win" rather than "to score".

In real life, what Cam Cameron did with that situation is, he rode his RB to the league lead in yards-from-scrimmage, he developed his talented rookie #3 receiver into a quality deep threat, he got decent "possession receiver" numbers (a thousand-yard pace) from his dinged-up #1 receiver, and he leaned on his young & inconsistent TEs for 930 combined yards and 8 combined TDs. The Ravens improved to 12th in scoring, from 16th last year.

That's a strong result, in light of the issues listed.

It's also worth noting that the Ravens played 7 games vs teams who finished in the top 10 in defensive DVOA. Only 2 games (reg season) were against teams in the bottom 10. That's another boost to the idea that the Ravens offensive coordinator did a pretty decent job in 2011.

Flacco has actually produced in several half-ending 2-min drive situations, the last couple years. He's won the game in Pittsburgh on those drives each of the last 2 seasons. I put the AFCC as another plus in Flacco's column, even though the result wasn't there. When you talk about performance in the passing game, that situation is disproportionately important. Flacco seems to deliver when called upon. That's another boost to the idea that the Ravens OC is gameplanning well, possibly "to win games" rather than "to score points", but with good situational effectiveness.

* * *

As I said before, I see the argument for pushing Cam out the door. He's had 4 years, there's been an investment in the offense, and there still seems to be very little explosiveness or efficiency. Sometimes you have to make a change. Plus they do seem rather plodding when you watch them play. There are an awful lot of 3-and-outs.

But there is a case to be made for keeping Cam, and it's not insane. I would not be spitting with rage if Cam were retained, at all. It seems a reasonable option.

By the way, one argument is frequently made, I think by accident or out of laziness. People write, "Cam's offense has sucked for 4 years," or variations like that. Let's not forget that Cam looked AWESOME in 2008. He was an important part of the train we rode to the AFCC.

I might feel more strongly that dumping Cam was an utterly necessary move, if (a) we weren't so noticeably weak on the left side of the O-line, or if the tackles as a pair played better; (b) if the TEs could block better; and (c) if there weren't so goddam many drops by the receivers, on PERFECTLY thrown passes! It is no exaggeration to say that the team would be in the Super Bowl if not for a receiver failing to make the play on a perfectly thrown pass that hit him right in the chest. I'd be very interested in the drop rate of Flacco's receivers vs those of other QBs this year. I don't know what Drew Brees or Philip Rivers has to deal with; it feels to me that if Flacco got "normal" catch rates on his most accurate passes, the Ravens would have gone about 14-2 and hosted the AFCC. And Cam Cameron would look a whole lot smarter, to Ravens fans.

* * *

Random note: Dilfer and the guy who writes those "Five Things We Learned" columns for the Sun (Kevin Van Valkenburg) both brought up Aikman as an interesting comp for Flacco. Aikman also played for winning teams that emphasized the running game, and he NEVER threw more than 23 TDs (in his 4th season, in fact). And he's in the Hall of Fame.

My respect for Aikman grew as his career went on. He became a helluva passer; deadly in the 2-min.

* * *

Last note, here's another excerpt from FO's AFCC preview.
"...there are some interesting first half/second half trends when it comes to the Ravens receivers. In the second half of the season, Flacco threw to his tight ends less often but had more success when he did. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta went from 10.6 targets per game in Weeks 1-9 to 7.5 targets per game in Weeks 10-17. However, together their catch rate improved from 60 percent to 72 percent, and their DVOA improved from -1.9% to 29.1%. The other split to note is that since midseason, the Ravens have ended up using Ray Rice more as a safety valve for dumpoffs than on planned passing routes. His catch rate has gone from 68 percent before Week 10 to 79 percent since Week 10, but his receiving DVOA has dropped from 51.0% to 6.2% and yards per reception have dropped frmo 10.9 to 7.6."

That whole piece is worth a read.

* * *

I like the Caldwell hire.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Brain bank examines athletes' hard hits

Another good article in our tradition of educating about concussions.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Diagnosing a Ravens offensive series

I just finished charting the second half of the Texans at Ravens playoff game, and I want to go through the series in which the Ravens scored their final FG.

As a season ticket holder, I attended the game in person. I have been very critical of Cam Cameron, as have most other fans I sit with. Cameron has taken a lot of criticism for this game, in particular the final two plays of this series. But after charting it, I’m not so sure he deserves the heat he’s taken. Were some of the play calls questionable? Could be. But after a long look, it’s now clearer why some of those calls were made, and I don’t think Cameron deserves the heat he’s taken over them.

The Set-Up
At this point in the game the Ravens offense was ineffective. The running game was getting between zero and five yards almost every carry. Joe Flacco was under a lot of pressure. To this point in the second half alone, there were a half dozen QB pressures or sacks by the Texans, and I charted eight blown blocks on Ravens drop-backs.

The Ravens take the ball over at their own 29 with 7:21 in the fourth quarter and a 17-13 lead. TJ Yates had just thrown his second interception.

1st and 10 @ Ravens 29 – I will abbreviate these plays as follows: 1-10 @ R29

The Series
1-10 @ R29 – Rice off left tackle is stuffed for a two yard gain.
2-8 @ R31 – From a run formation, JJ Watt comes off Oher’s attempted block to pressure Flacco, who steps up in the pocket and finds Pitta wide open in the middle of the field for a first down.

1-10 @ R44 – This is an important play, so I’m separating it. The Ravens are in an I-formation with Torrey Smith to the right, covered by Jonathan Joseph. The Texans are in a standard 3-4 formation. With the clock running, the Texans run blitz, throwing seven guys into the OL. The Ravens block with seven, which leaves single coverage with a deep safety. Before the pocket collapses, Flacco hits Smith on a quick slant for nine yards. The Texans sold out, Flacco read it and did a great job delivering the ball.

2-1 @ T47 – Hand off to Leach gets the one yard needed to pick up the first down.
1-10 @ T46 – Another run formation, another 1st down run, another stuff by the Texans, who are consistently beating their Ravens counterparts on the line.

2-9 @ T45 – The second important play. Here, the Ravens line up with three receivers, a classic pass formation. But the Texans don’t respond with the typical nickel defense; they’re still lined up in a 3-4 and clearly expecting run as they run blitz yet again. This time it’s six rushers (a seventh comes eventually, but not before the ball is out) on six blockers. Flacco again reads the rush and gets a very fast quick slant out to the right side, this time to Boldin.

The Ravens are now close to if not in field goal range. With the clock ticking, it will be just over 3:00 in the game by the next offensive snap. The Texans are clearly selling out on the run at this point, not even bothering to match up with the Ravens personnel on the prior play. And probably most importantly, the corners are giving the receivers the inside slant route, which Flacco has hit twice, both times before an overloaded rush can even apply pressure.

1-10 @ T31 – Rice rushes into the middle, this time for a gain of five yards. Houston takes its first time out at 3:04, clearly signaling they are going to make a stand here.

This is where the heat Cameron takes begins. Fans in the stands grumble that Cameron “better not get too tricky.” I agree with them. Everyone wants to see two runs. Bleed the Texans final two time outs, work to pick up five yards; if you do it, the game is virtually sealed, and if you don’t, you kick the FG and let Yates try to drive into the end zone which he’s only done once before.

But what I think we as fans miss is this probably isn’t the best way to play it. The first down actually holds great importance because it bleeds the clock. Assume each play takes just five seconds. With two time outs left, that puts the clock at 2:54 after the Texans take their last time out. If the Ravens don’t pick up the first, they kick on fourth down, kick off, and the Texans are getting the ball with 70-80 yards to drive, and likely between 2:30 and 2:45 to play.

But if the Ravens pick up the first down, even on this play, it changes the time significantly. There’s a time out on the first down at 2:59. A running play on first down, then another time out at 2:54, and the Texans are out of time outs. Two plays later after third down, the clock is at the two minute warning. And not just that…because of how close the clock is to 2:40, you actually can afford to run a passing play on either second or third down (as long as you run the other down), and still get the clock to the two minute warning. These open options make offense much easier to play and improve the odds of another first down, which ends the game. And if they don’t get the first again, they kick the FG, kick off and force Yates to drive 70-80 yards with between 1:40 and 1:55 to play.

2-5 @ T26 – The Ravens line up in a run formation, seemingly playing into the Texans yet again. The Texans blitz with six pass rushers, Ravens blocking with seven. The play is yet another quick slant to the right, the same that had worked twice previously. This time, however, Kareem Jackson did a great job getting up and jamming Boldin on the line. This knocked Boldin off the route, and the pass fell incomplete.

3-5 @ T26 – The Ravens line up with two receivers and two TEs. But just before the snap, Rice goes into motion wide to the right, leaving an empty back-field. Rice trips on his route, and the pass falls incomplete. This play likely works and comes close to, if not picks up, the first down if Rice doesn’t fall.

I want to cover the third down play first a moment. The situation is that the Ravens need to pick up a first down, or else the clock will be stopped with around 2:55 to play no matter what, and the Texans will still have at least one time out plus the two minute warning. This gives the Texans the ball plus 2:45ish to score a TD. While Cameron takes a lot of heat for this call not being a run, at this spot in the game, it actually makes little sense to me to not open up the play book and try whatever possible to get the first down. Perhaps he (or Flacco, if Flacco called/audibled to it) can take heat for the particular passing play being a fourth quick slant in seven plays. But running here actually makes less sense to me than passing, given the Texans’ dominance at the line of scrimmage.

The natural fan reaction becomes “It never should have gotten there! If you run on second down, you can run on third to pick up the first down or bleed the time outs!”

Thinking this through more, there are actually a lot of problems with this. First, with how great the Texans controlled the line, there’s no guarantee you can run on third down to have a high likelihood of picking up the first down. If Rice gets stuffed and it’s 3rd and four or more, a run is a very low percentage play, and you’re forced to pass anyway. Second, bleeding the time outs with almost three minutes to play actually carries very little value. They need more than a field goal, so they won’t need a time out to get the unit onto the field. And three minutes with the two minute warning is an eternity to drive the field.

Meanwhile, you have to look at how the game was going at the time. At this point, Rice had rushed the ball 19 times. He was averaging just under 2.7 YPC and had only three runs of more than five yards with his biggest a rush of eight. And the Texans were selling out on the run. Meanwhile, Flacco had just thrown two successful quick slants against a ferocious rush.

Suddenly it becomes understandable why those plays were called. The quick slant on second down seems in fact to be a pretty high percentage play. And there’s really little incentive to bleed time outs with so much time left.

With less than two minutes to play, I think it becomes a much different story. But in that situation, I actually think the play calling was solid if not very good. And considering it took me a day of thinking about it and an hour and a half to chart it to come to that conclusion, it shows why I sit on my couch writing amateur articles for no pay, while the experts make the big bucks to come to these conclusions inside of the 120 seconds they have before the play-call has to go in.


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