Improving Statistical Analysis in the NFL

One of the reasons I have always supported and endorsed Brian Burke and his work at Advanced NFL Stats is his recognition of the limitations of statistical analysis. Ever since statistical analysis took baseball by storm and many of its most prominent practitioners were scooped up and employed by MLB franchises, there has been a crush to translate statistical analysis to other sports. And to varying extents, it has worked.

Football remains relatively impenetrable. It doesn’t have the binary pitcher-batter interface of baseball. Apart from maybe touchbacks, there are no true individual stats. One player’s name may appear beside a 20 yard reception but that reception is the product of: one player passing, one player receiving, x number of players running (ultimately) decoy routes, and y number of players blocking.

All those confounding factors tend to test the intuitiveness of advanced stats. Yes, Austin Collie was the second most valuable receiver by EPA/P, but, no, no one thinks Collie is the second most valuable receiver in football. Even aggregate EPA produces some head-scratchers. Was, for instance, Lance Moore truly more valuable than Marques Colston? Probably not, right? But we are short of information to explain exactly why. Keep in mind, a stat like EPA isn’t arguing that Moore is more valuable as a football players than Colston, only that passes targeting Moore were more valuable in toto than passes targeting Colston.

For the time being, advanced stats really must be combined with scouting to create a meaningful whole. However true that may be though and however long that may be true, that doesn’t mean stats are maxed out. There remains huge potential but some of that potential will never be realized unless the NFL itself improves its own stat keeping.

That is the subject of this piece.

Top Ten Most Exciting Games of 2010 - Dolphins at Packers

In light of winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers home loss to the Dolphins is artistic. Not Artistic like, say, a Rothko color field. More like Varinia leaving for Gaul, showing their newborn son to Spartacus, saying “Please die, my love... die, die now my darling!” artistic. A cave hidden in the great artistic crevasse that is impenetrably deep but opens at the banks of the River Schmaltz.

You see.

The Packers week six loss is a story of spurned ambitions, sudden reversal and anticlimax. It feels essential within the greater narrative of the 2010 Packers. It was the second of consecutive overtime losses, both by field goals, that dropped the Packers to 3-3. It was among Aaron Rodger’s worst games of the season. It was his first following his first concussion of the season. He would suffer another in Week 14.

It was a loss, yet, in the associative, irrational, romantic human brain, it can now be interpreted as a story of manning up, hanging tough and accepting transient defeat in the pursuit of eternal glory. Heady stuff. But in the eternal present of an MP4 file, the Packers know only bitter defeat. Again and again. Forever.

Top Ten Most Exciting Games of 2010: Lions at Bears

Known mostly as the game Gene Steratore and his officiating crew redefined what a catch is, changing the outcome of the entire game and delivering the first big controversy of the regular season, week one’s contest between the Bears and Lions was a division showdown pitting rivals with striking similarities: Two young, hugely-expensive franchise quarterbacks attempting to break through after a poor first season; two dominant defensive lines; two suspect-to-atrocious offensive lines.
Why this game was exciting: This game was exciting as determined by win probability, because the score was within one point for most of the second half, and because the two teams combined for seven turnovers including five fumbles lost (out of seven fumbles total.) That led to wild swings in win probability despite a static and nearly even score.
Turning of the tide: Detroit’s win probability peaked at 85% following a nine yard reception by Matt Forte with 1:25 left in the first half. On the very next play, Forte released out of the backfield into a speed out, Olin Kreutz submarined Julian Peterson with a pretty and perfectly-timed open-field cut block, and Forte ran up the right sideline for 89 yards and a touchdown. Three plays later, Julius Peppers ran under a block by Jeff Backus, turned the corner nearly uncontested, and blindsided Matthew Stafford for a sack-fumble recovered by Tommie Harris. Within little more than one minute of play clock, the Bears surged from 15% win probability to 54% win probability. Stafford would miss the next six weeks including the bye.

Live NCAA Basketball Win Probability

Live win probability for the NCAA basketball championship games is available now at (Final games are here. Games from the previous day are here.)

This is something I put together a couple years ago, and I've dusted it off for the tournament. The model's approach is very similar to my football model. Basketball is a much simpler sport, though. There's no field position, down, or distance in basketball. Aside from possession, score and time remaining are really the only significant statistical factors.

Site News: Welcome John Morgan

John, formerly of one of SB Nation's best NFL blogs Field Gulls, has agreed to come onboard Advanced NFL Stats. I've been a fan of John's for a couple years and I'm looking forward to his contributions. He'll be initially chronicling some of the most exciting games of the past season in the eyes of WP and Excitement Index (the EI number on all the WP graphs).

Here are couple comments from John's farewell from Field Gulls:

John, the particular flavor of your writing sucked me in. I wouldn’t know half of what I know about the game or current football events without ya. 

John's writing has been inspirational. I have learned so much about my favorite team from this man, so much about football. Reading his posts on here is such a pleasure because of the quality of the language, writing, and well supported evidence he puts up.

So give John a warm welcome. We're lucky to have him.