Category: Football

To Defer or Not to Defer?

By Owen Tedford

In 2008, the NFL added a rule that allowed teams that won the coin toss to defer their choice of receiving or kicking to the second half. When this rule was first introduced, it was used only 7.8% of the time. But, it has become an increasingly used option in today’s NFL with the toss getting deferred over 78% of the time now. Why are teams doing this? Well, coaches, like Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, claim that by deferring you have the chance to get an extra possession. Now, if true, this would provide teams a clear advantage by giving them an extra chance to score.

Using data from Sporting Charts [1], I’ve compiled the time of possession in minutes, the total number of drives, and time per drive for each NFL team (table at the end). The average time of possession this past year was 2.65 minutes or 2 minutes 39 seconds. But, looking at the data, there are a few outliers, and so for the rest of my analysis, I chose to use the median of 2.695 or 2 minutes 41.7 seconds.

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NFL Playoff Picture and Predictions

By Owen Tedford

We’ve reached the end of another NFL season and that means that it’s time for the playoffs. The 12 teams have been decided with the Patriots, Chiefs, Steelers, Texans, Raiders, and Dolphins representing the AFC and the Cowboys, Falcons, Seahawks, Packers, Giants, and Lions representing the NFC. Every team has had their share of ups and downs but they’ve all made it to the final stage where records mean nothing and all that matters is what they do going forward, as this is what will make them remembered.

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Why 3 Big Ten Teams Should Be in the Playoff

By Chris Murphy

With the season coming down its final weeks, it is crunch time for any and all College Football Playoff hopefuls. It is also crunch time for College Football Playoff predictions. Perhaps the question you will hear most over the next two weeks is “who’s in?”, and everyone has an answer along with an explanation.

If you take a survey of all these answers and write them down, you will probably end up with the following list of teams: Alabama, Ohio State, Washington, Clemson, and Penn State/Wisconsin. Of these 6 teams, some will have Penn State, some will have Ohio State, and some will have Wisconsin. But very few will have multiple Big Ten teams, even two seems a little much to have.

Alabama Crimson TideIn a season of big risks and outlandish statements, I’m going to make one myself: Three Big Ten teams deserve to be in the College Football Playoff. Those three teams should be Ohio State, Michigan, and the winner of Penn State/Wisconsin. These three, combined with Alabama, should be the top four come the final Playoff Rankings. Along with this idea, I’m here to try and convince you why this Playoff scenario should be considered.

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Great Expectations: the Roberto Aguayo story

By Jack Graham

Among other things, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been plagued by the kicking struggles of rookie Roberto Aguayo throughout the 2016 season. Through 9 games, Aguayo has made only 9 of 14 Field Goals, a rate of 64% that qualifies him as the least accurate kicker in the league. Of course, these lackluster numbers would not typically be grounds for an interesting story, except for the fact that Aguayo also happened to be the Buccaneers second round draft pick. While selecting a kicker so early in the draft is not unprecedented (the Oakland Raiders drafted Sebastian Janikowski in the first round in 2000), it is incredibly rare. It is not controversial to say that Aguayo has not met the lofty expectations imposed on him by his draft status, but it is also natural to wonder: how well would Aguayo have to perform in order to justify such a high draft pick? And then, based on his college performance, was it reasonable for the Bucs to expect him to meet this standard?

Roberto Aguayo

Roberto Aguayo

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Who Is the Best Team in the NFL?

By Owen Tedford

How do you measure the best? Is it quantifiable at all or is it the intangibles that could never be measured that make a team better than another one? This question has been an issue for many years in college football and has been complicated in recent years with the creation of a four-team playoff. The problem is selecting which metric should be given the most weight, which has led to the creation of a number of new metrics for measuring the best.

NFL Teams

One that I find most intriguing is the idea of strength of record, created by ESPN this year. It measures the probability of an average Top 25 team having the same record against the same schedule. To me, this seems like the best metric that is out there that I know of. But what I find interesting about ESPN’s use of this metric is why they don’t calculate it for the NFL, which leads me to my next question of why do we not question the NFL playoffs as much as the college football playoffs? We accept record as the metric of who is best without taking into account strength of schedule or all of the other factors that can lead to a better or worse record. With this in mind, I set out to create my own metric, inspired by strength of record, comparing strength of schedule and team’s records.

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A Historical Review of ESPN Power Rankings

By Ben Ulene

It’s September again, and with the major wintertime sports starting their 2016-2017 regular seasons, sports fans across the U.S. get to participate in the annual tradition of poring through expert predictions – including various outlets’ preseason power rankings.

While Vegas odds and other betting markets offer a general take on how various teams may stack up, there is something satisfying about reading power rankings reports. With written blurbs for teams that function as justifications for their rankings, sites like ESPN and Bleacher Report impart a qualitative aspect to the numbers that may mirror, or perhaps even spark, debates among fans across the country. And like professional odds-makers, many sporting news outlets update rankings as the season goes along – bookending the year with a final set of rankings leading into the playoffs – which provides a mechanism for determining how “predictable” any given regular season is.

For ease of use, I analyze ESPN’s Power Rankings in this article. With rankings from the first to last week of the regular season across all four major U.S. sports, ESPN’s rankings let us perform cross-sport comparisons to test the accuracy of predictions by different sets of “experts,” as well as dive deeper into individual sports to determine the predictability of different teams and seasons.

 

Cross-Sport Analysis:

Upon analyzing the past six years of rankings across MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL, one thing is apparent: The NBA is consistently the most predictable league, and by far. As a few scatterplots show, in the NBA, Week 1 Power Rankings are much more predictive of regular season success than in any other sport:

Here, a straight diagonal line would represent perfect prediction accuracy for every team; while the NBA plot is far from perfect, it still seem to be noticeably less random than the other plots.

In fact, as a two-sided t-test shows[1], the inter-league difference in predictability (measured by the average absolute value difference for every team’s beginning ranking and their final ranking) is statistically significant between the NBA and every other league, but insignificant among the other three. In other words, the predictabilities of MLB, NFL, and NHL regular seasons cannot be proven to be different from one another – but the NBA is more predictable than all three:

League 1 Mean Difference League 2 Mean Difference p-value
NBA 4.33 MLB 6.94 1.151e-07
NBA 4.33 NHL 6.54 6.178e-06
NBA 4.33 NFL 7.52 3.242e-09
MLB 6.94 NFL 7.52 0.3327
MLB 6.94 NHL 6.54 0.4735
NFL 7.52 NHL 6.54 0.101

 

Why then – besides the unlikely explanation that ESPN’s NBA analysts are that much better than their analysts for other sports – is there such a drastic difference in ranking accuracy? Season length is what first comes to mind, but upon closer inspection cannot be the primary cause; not only is the NBA season easier to predict than the equally-long NHL season, but there is a noticeable lack of statistical difference between predicting the MLB (162 games) and NFL (16 games) seasons.

There are, however, a few possible explanations:

1) Fewer, more impactful players: The NBA mandates that teams carry 14 players at any given time, as opposed to the NHL’s 20, MLB’s 25, and the NFL’s 53, giving star players – who are usually apparent at the beginning of the season – more of an impact on results.

This is magnified by the nature of the game: Only in the NBA do the most impactful players consistently play for more than three quarters of the game, making it easier for talented teams to rise to the top. Pitchers in baseball can play only every five games; hockey superstars may see only 20 minutes on the ice in a game. Even in the NFL, elite quarterbacks are only on the field for offensive snaps, and the comparatively high injury rate makes it difficult to predict even the best teams.

2) Higherscoring games: The high number of possessions in NBA games, compared to the other three sports, may mean that there is less of a risk that any given NBA game is determined by chance. NBA teams possess the ball over 90 times on average in any given game[1]; even in baseball, teams will rarely send up more than 40 batters in a game[2]. Therefore, skill differences have more opportunities to manifest themselves in basketball, while mistakes can have a larger impact on the other big sports with fewer possessions.

3) Injuries: Since hockey and football are high-contact sports, teams in the NHL and NFL are much more susceptible to being gutted by injuries midseason than NBA teams. Even in baseball, a non-contact sport, pitchers – perhaps the most important players on their teams – are highly susceptible to season-ending arm injuries that can tank a team’s season.

 

Seasonal Analysis:

Taking the league-based differences into account, it is no surprise that six of the seven most predictable seasons in our sample are in the NBA – with the 2013 NBA season clocking in with a tiny 3.47 average difference between beginning and end rankings.

seasons

Additionally, the NBA is unique in its consistency – while other sports like the NHL vary wildly from season to season in predictability, the NBA has stayed relatively constant. The NBA has been the most predictable for each of the past six years, while no other league has repeated as least predictable – the NFL led in 2010 and 2013, MLB in 2011 and 2015, and NHL in 2012 and 2014.

seasons2.png

 

Team Analysis:

Just as interesting are the numbers for different teams across sports. Not surprisingly, the Miami Heat was the most predictable team in the country over the past six years – buoyed by four years of their LeBron-powered “Big Three.” But the top of the list is not just dominated by consistently good teams – bottom-dwellers like the Philadelphia 76ers, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Houston Astros (bad until 2015) also lead in predictability. Perennially unpredictable teams like the Minnesota Vikings and Boston Red Sox dominate the bottom of the list, as well:

teams.png

To conclude, what can this data tell us about predictability in American sports as a whole? For a large majority of teams across the big four U.S. sports, not a ton – moving four spots up or down in rankings can be the difference between making the playoffs and missing out. And assuming the randomness in professional sports doesn’t change anytime soon, it is probably safe to say that expert accuracy will continue along this trend for years to come.

[1] I compared the absolute value of first week–last week differences, with n=180 for every league except the NFL, which had n=192 (since the NFL has 32 teams).

[2] http://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_stats.html

[3] https://www.teamrankings.com/mlb/stat/at-bats-per-game

 

Buffalo’s Big 3

By Dana Fesjian

After one week, the Bills are 0-1, but not a hopeless 0-1. Fortunately, this year unlike other years (or so they say) there are a few players that are going to bring the Bills from bad to better. The Bills’ defense has always been the stronger half of the team, and that was clear in Week One. However, there is room to improve on offense and this year’s offensive line has tremendous room for growth due to the talent that exists already. There are specifically three players whose performances matter the most, whom I like to call the “Big 3.”

The chemistry and fluidity of how Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins, and LeSean McCoy play together will make or break the Bills season this year. In Week One, these three were still struggling to find their rhythm, something they’ve been trying to find all through training camp. With more practice and more games, these three will inevitably improve.

Tyrod Taylor had a pretty good game on Sunday showcasing his athleticism and agility at the QB position. Although most of his plays didn’t have successful results, Taylor has the speed and awareness on the ball to create opportunities for the Bills to have more successful plays in future games. After the saga that is finding a (good/decent/non-injured) quarterback for the Bills, Taylor is the best starter so far since this saga began with Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick. So maybe the Bills finally have a chance.

Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy both work really well with Tyrod Taylor when they are playing in sync. Sammy has always been a strong WR and if he has another strong year, combined with McCoy getting more yards each game, Taylor then has two strong players he can hand off the ball to to make successful plays. McCoy has recently started to practice his skills with an Oculus Rift, so I hope he can have his VR skills become reality skills.

I may say this every year, but the Bills really do have a chance to make it to the playoffs this year. Their defense is solid and has always been their stronger half of the team, but if the Big 3 can pull it together and have three great seasons at the same time, the Bills will be back in business.

NFL Divisional Realignment for Earth Day

By Max Kaplan

nflteammap

[Late edit] I was featured in an on-air interview to defend this article on Earth Day.

Earth Day is coming up on April 22, and even the NFL can do its part to reduce its carbon footprint.

I mean, just look at the divisions. Why must the Patriots travel all the way down to Miami every year when there are over twenty teams closer? Talk about waste…

The Eagles, Giants, and Redskins are all cozy and close, but who decided to throw the Cowboys into the East?

Let’s look at the facts. Dallas isn’t in the east. Indianapolis isn’t in the south. This is not how Mother Nature intended. In the name of conservation, preservation, and environmentalism, I’ve come up with a solution!

Let’s realign the divisions. Not willy-nilly but with an eye towards protecting our environment. There’s no need for the Chiefs’ 1,500-mile annual commute to Oakland. Kansas City certainly isn’t in the west of the United States. This isn’t the age of American pioneers. We can do better.

By my calculation, the NFL could save over 165,000 gallons in jet fuel each season by realigning the divisions.

The current divisions are a legacy of the NFL-AFL merger of 1970 and while we have seen the NFL climate change over the last half-century, the warning signs have been evident and growing stronger. We cannot afford to let this problem get any worse. It is time to decommission the old and open the new clean divisions. Sustainability is all about leaving a better future for the next generation. We must act now!

Below are the geographically optimal divisions – in order to minimize overall divisional travel.

  • Southwest Division – ARI, DAL, DEN, SD
  • Pacific Division – LA, OAK, SF, SEA
  • South Division – ATL, HOU, NO, TEN
  • Heartland Division – CHI, GB, KC, MIN
  • Southeast Division – CAR, JAX, MIA, TB
  • Northeast Division – BUF, NYG, NYJ, NE
  • Atlantic Division – BAL, PHI, PIT, WAS
  • Midwest Division – CIN, CLE, DET, IND

Rivalries

By realigning the divisions geographically, we put teams back in their ecological niche with local rivalries. The Raiders have only played the 49ers five times since they moved to Oakland. The Jets have played the Giants only twice in the last ten years – and they share a stadium.

Tidbits

  • Unfortunately, no recycling. None of the divisions stayed the same.
  • But we do have hybrids. The Pacific, Northeast, and Heartland Divisions all run on three teams from the old, clunky divisions.
  • Sometimes the planet is out of equilibrium despite our best efforts. Three of the Heartland Division teams had double-digit win totals in 2015.
  • The Super Bowl is a renewable resource. The Northeast Division (Patriots, Giants) and Atlantic Division (Ravens, Steelers) account for ten of the last sixteen Super Bowl titles.

Problem Formulation

For anyone interested, I layout the NFL minimal travel problem below.

Snip20160414_9

KO With A Side of Marrone to GO

By Dana Fesjian

 

In the last two weeks of the Buffalo Bills season I have cried, hollered, cheered, pouted, and smiled. The Bills have had such a tumultuous end to 2014 – it is just very emotional. Bottom line, they lost a lot: an owner, a head coach, a quarterback, a game against the 2-12 Raiders, and a chance at a playoff spot.

But there is one thing they haven’t lost: their fans. I am more happy and excited about the Bills than ever before. Seeing their first winning season since I became a die-hard Bills fan is exciting. Considering the challenges the Bills faced as a team this year, this is an unbelievable feat. So here is my year in review.

The Saga Begins

Let’s commence with that tragic July 2nd when I got that Bills app update that Kiko Alonso hurt his knee. My first thought was just “no.” When I found out he tore his ACL, I was speechless. Could you have imagined how powerful the defensive line would have been with both Kiko and the Brandon Spikes?

kiko

Then came the disappointing preseason with three straight losses going into the regular season, and I expected another 6-10 season or worse. The next few weeks came as a nice surprise though- two wins with EJ! But the two losses afterwards led them to put KO in. He did well, but we lost Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller to injuries in the process.

The Saga Continues

After the bye week, we had two disappointing losses in games the Bills should have won. And then there came another obstacle they had to go through: Mother Nature. Buffalo got about 8 feet of snow and I got a ScoreCenter update asking me to call a number to come shovel Ralph Wilson Stadium (aka THE best invitation ever). Then the Bills beat the Jets 38-3 as if there had never been a snowstorm in the first place.

woods

 

CJ returned against Oakland and, with the way Sammy had been playing all season, I was ready for the playoff push to keep going. After that game there was an afternoon of tears. The Bills lost to the Raiders 26-24. They almost made a comeback, but the Oakland defense was just too good that Sunday. Playoff chances were gone, but my hope was definitely not.

The Perks

The main things that kept me devoted to the 2014 season were Sammy Watkins, Dan Carpenter, and the defensive line. The All-Pro duo and the defensive line were stellar this year and Dan Carpenter got a career high 34 field goals and set the Buffalo Bills record. Sammy was just Sammy and set some rookie records all across the board.

sammy-watkins-jimmy-wilson-nfl-miami-dolphins-buffalo-bills-850x560

I have a lot to be upset about because the Bills didn’t make it into the playoffs, but I am also so happy with this Bills season. The Bills will keep improving even without Doug Marrone and KO because Doug Marrone was not the defensive coordinator and KO could have been better.

I see great things in store for 2015 and we shall see if Rex Ryan does become the new head coach. Boy, will I have a lot of things to say about that.

 

A Carpenter and His (De)Fense

by: Dana Fesjian

And we are back. After six weeks of emotional ups and downs, the Bills have reached their first eight-win season in ten years, thanks to a Week 15 upset over the Packers. How long ago was that last eight-win season? Well, for starters, Sammy Watkins was 11 years old in 2004. Fred Jackson was earning $200 a week playing indoor football for the Sioux City (Iowa) Bandits. Usher and Outkast topped the Billboard Hot 100.

How did the Bills get here? That would be thanks to Dan Carpenter and the Bills defense. The Bills special teams and defense accounted for all 21 points last week, enough to overcome the hottest team in football. The Packers were working on a five-game winning streak. No other team in the league had even a four-game streak. Of course, KO’s ability to not mess up has helped too. Though KO has only thrown five TD passes over the last six games (since my last article), he has kept the Bills close in every game.

Dan Carpenter

When I think of the Buffalo Bills, I think “field goals.” Unlike the quarterback position, the Bills never went wrong with the choices they made at kicker. It was bittersweet when they let Rian Lindell go two summers ago – after 10 seasons with the Bills – in favor of their sixth round draft pick Dustin Hopkins, who had set the all-time NCAA scoring record for kickers with 466 points at FSU. But a groin injury ended Hopkins’s rookie season before it even began.

In comes the “replacement” Dan Carpenter…Last year, Carpenter made 33 field goals, tied for the most in Bills history. His 91.7% accuracy was second only to Rian Lindell in 2006. This season, Carpenter leads the NFL with 32 field goals and is T-second in the league with 5 field goals of 50+ yards. Last week, he went 4/4 and led the charge against the Packers.

Baccari Rambo Running

The Bills are also lucky to have such a strong defense. Over the past two weeks, they have held Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning to a combined zero touchdowns and four interceptions. They lead the NFL with 49 sacks and are second in the league with 30 turnovers. Go Bills. And they are ranked in the top 10 in just about every other defensive category as well.

pic3

In the midst of all of these defensive feats, Sammy‘s 850 receiving yards surpassed the previous Bills rookie mark held by Lee Evans. He’s looking to join only 12 other rookies since the merger to reach the 1,000-yard plateau. All in all, these things were good for the Bills and for my fantasy teams so thanks boys. I just hope that the momentum from this game can carry on into next week’s game against the Raiders. And that all of the teams that need to lose in order for the Bills to get into the playoffs are playing defenses just as good as theirs.