I try not to be the angry fan too often, but I feel like I need a public airing of grievances after the Lions game last night. To clean my palette afterward I’ll have a quick note on the statistical silliness of the general media.
Sweet Moses did penalties kill the Lions. Every time I read about the Lions there’s a mention of how Schwartz has been cleaning up the team; a few years ago they were disorganized and undisciplined, and look at them now! Now they have the organization to get in line to commit dumb penalties, the discipline to wait until they’ll hurt most to commit them. The Lions took 11 penalties last night, and I swear each was worse than the last. The first came the first time they touched the ball; holding on a punt return. That isn’t so bad. A defensive offside, ok. But then things went crazy. Nate Burleson took three offensive pass interference penalties. Three! None of them looked that awful to me, but he was definitely extending his arms. After the first one you sigh and say ‘you got me’. After the second you have to assume they’re calling it close. How do you take three? He also cost himself a good gain when he twisted the facemask while stiff-arming a guy, which offset the late hit he drew. Then he had the gall to say “we have to get guys to understand you don’t have to show how tough you are on each play“. Burleson has been decent for the Lions, but he was not helping yesterday.
Of course Burleson’s quote was about the worst part of the evening. The Lions also took three personal foul penalties for going too far after the whistle, with each being inexcusable. Down 24-7 at the half, the Lions got the ball and just drove down the field, making it look easy. On 2nd and 5 from the 7, Morris ran for 4 yards setting up 3rd and 1 at the 3. At this point, the question is only how to try to get the touchdown. Do you run it again to get the first and maybe the TD? Do you throw the fade and plan to jam it up the middle on 4th if it’s incomplete? Instead Titus Young shoves a Saints player in the head after the whistle, with a referee standing between them. I don’t care about having Mike Vick on my fantasy team, but I felt bad about having Young at that point. How stupid can you be? Settled for a field goal there.
By the end of the third quarter the Lions had scored again to make it 24-17. Despite throwing away some chances they were within a touchdown and within 30 seconds of the 4th quarter starting they forced a three and out. On the punt return, which Stefan Logan managed to take all of 3 yards, he decides it’s time to talk some smack and threw the ball at a Saints player. Apparently he knew the answer to ‘how stupid can you be’ was ‘even more’. Instead of being near midfield the Lions started inside their own 20. They got one big completion but then had to settle for a long field goal that was no good. Had the same plays happened, it would have been a more reasonable 40 yard kick instead of a 55 yarder. The change in field position may have also helped prevent the Saints from going down and scoring the touchdown that they did on the next possession, effectively ending the game. It didn’t end the stupidity though, as Brandon Pettigrew shoved a referee (a referee!) after a play with under 5 minutes left. I thought he would be ejected; I wonder if he’ll be fined.
All in all, it was an extremely frustrating game to watch. The worst part of it all is that the Lions had a real chance in this game. The defense was able to stop the Saints a few times, and like I said they had the ball with a chance to tie at the beginning of the 4th. They were passing effectively and Stafford had reasonable protection all game. The running game was even working alright. I’m not a coach, so I don’t know what it takes to motivate guys in professional football. But I hope Schwartz has something in mind to cut this macho stuff out of the game. I don’t honestly even care if the Lions are the slightly on the wrong side of dirty; my favorite player is Bill Laimbeer. But it can’t cost you games, and the Lions cost themselves an important game yesterday.
Now that I’ve had my ranting blogger moment, a quick word on the media being foolish. Brian Burke has a quick link to an article where the author claims that Tim Tebow is the MVP right now (it’s a Fox News Exclusive, by the way. If you link to this article anywhere, please call it a Sport Skeptic Exclusive). The author points out that Tebow is 6-1 as a starter after the Broncos went 1-4 and that he’s the MVP despite all those fancy numbers like TQBR that say he’s mediocre. The money quote for me: “It’s kind of sad when you can’t just have a fun argument in sports without someone coming up with some bogus statistic.”
Beyond the Tebow issue, it reminded me of some of the recent ESPN discussion on Rookie of the Year. It appears to be a race between Andy Dalton and Cam Newton. In a Hot Button ‘discussion’, John Clayton sided with Cam and his ridiculous numbers. Ashley Fox went with Andy because he has the only number that counts: wins. K.C. Joyner also went with Dalton because Dalton has the better yards per attempt numbers when you include penalties and all that good stuff. Joyner also notes that Newton makes more poor decisions according to his own game review, and that Dalton has more wins.
The Fox Sports guy has something of a point – people will come up with whatever statistic backs their claim. But what good researchers try to do, which I think most stats-minded people understand, is find the statistics that really explain something. And importantly, if you’re talking about individual players, they have to explain something about individual players. Wins does not do this. There are 10 other guys on offense along with Newton and Dalton; arguably five of them (the offensive line) are more important than either of the quarterbacks. Even then you’re only talking about offense; the Bengals and Panthers have to play defense too, and that contributes to who wins. Carolina is 4-8 despite having given up the 4th most points in the league, an even 27 per game. The Bengals, on the other hand, have given up 250, or nearly a touchdown less. If you want to take wins as your measure of quarterback quality, you have to spot Newton a touchdown per game to account for his defense. But on offense, which is where Newton and Dalton actually play, the Panthers are the better team, putting up about 24 points per game compared to the Bengals’ 22. Not all of those points are directly attributable to either QB, but at least they have some input there.
So wins are terrible measures of individual quality in the NFL; how about Joyner’s measures? Well, despite being ESPN’s “football scientist”, he managed to ignore an important part of the equation, which is running. If you look at the basic passing stats, Newton and Dalton are pretty comparable. They have similar completion percentages; Newton has more yards; Dalton has a better touchdown/interception story (and apparently if you take penalties into account, better yards per attempt). If you combine them into a single number, both QBs have about an 82 rating. Of course, quarterbacks sometimes do other things. Newton gets sacked more often, for example. If you wanted to divide them up for some reason, you might think of QB rushes as compensation for sacks. Dalton runs a little to make up for his 19 sacks; he’s run 25 times for 87 yards and a touchdown. Newton has been sacked 28 times, but has run 100 times for 518 yards and 13 touchdowns. Which one do you think is compensating better? Even if we were to grant that Dalton had slightly better passing numbers, Newton has much better running numbers.
When you add those in, Newton is obviously the better choice. ESPN’s TQBR has Newton at 57 and Dalton at 47, despite the fact that the rating takes winning into account to a certain degree and the Panthers haven’t won as much. Similarly Brian Burke‘s WPA measure has Newton at 11th in the league and Dalton at 31st; Dalton has apparently actually cost his team wins. Expected points added (EPA) says the difference is even more dramatic when you take out any accounting for game situation/score. Newton is 4th in the league while Dalton is only 18th. When you take everything into account and strip away some of the influence of his teammates, Newton is clearly better than Dalton.
This issue has really bugged me ever since I read Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. Like a lot of media he doesn’t quite trust the stats movement. There’s a variety of reasons and they differ a bit from person to person, but that quote I had earlier does a good job of summing it up. But what the media never seems to realize is that when they put their arguments down on paper, they use stats too. They just tend to be crappy ones. Some people use wins, which can tell you almost nothing about individual players depending on the sport. In his book Simmons uses MVP awards, trips to the playoffs, points per game, and other statistics that we know to not be as good as other ones that are out there. When they bother to talk about it the media often says “even the stats guys don’t know which numbers are best, and how do we know they’re right?” Those are fair points. But we all agree and we’re all pretty sure that the numbers the media use are wrong. Moving in another direction almost has to be better.