NFL Statistics That Don't Exist Yet, but Should
In many respects, we're living in the golden age of analytics. As far as the NFL is concerned, however, we're not done yet.
Just think about it. Politics aside, the biggest star of the last election cycle was the New York Times' Nate Silver, who predicted both the electoral and the popular vote with stunning accuracy—even while being derided by pundits from every side.
In baseball, Mike Trout didn't win the MVP award, but the sabermetrics crowd struck a number of large blows at the Luddites and exposed many of the voters as backward-thinkers. Miguel Cabrera would have been largely unquestioned as the MVP had he won the Triple Crown a decade ago.
In football, we have the Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus. Both have worked with ESPN in recent years, and PFF was used by the New York Giants during last year's Super Bowl run. Not only do both sites use stats to tell the story of what happens on the field, but they go so far as to assist (accurately) with fantasy football and sports betting.
Other great sites that are spearheading the statistical charge: Pro Football Reference, Advanced NFL Stats, Cold Hard Football Facts and (of course) Bleacher Report, as we continue hiring great writers and focusing on better ways to break down the game.
NFC North Lead Writer Andrew Garda even sat at a round table earlier this year with some of the great statistical minds in media. They discussed where stats are going in sports and the "best practices" for using stats to tell the stories that haven't been properly told.
Tony Khan, son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, lists himself as the "senior vice president of football technology and analytics." It will be incredibly interesting if the "Moneyball" approach will help the Jaguars work their way out of the doldrums of the AFC.
Honestly, the worst part of writing this article was trying to figure out ideas those above hadn't already come up with. Any overlap on my part is completely unintentional.
So, out of deference to those experts and the many others who do such fine work, here are some stats that don't exist quite yet, but should.
Interceptions Credited to Receivers
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Yeah, Dez Bryant, this one's probably for you.
Interceptions are a quarterback stat. Of course, they are. When it comes to decision-making, i.e., when and where to throw the ball, the buck stops at the quarterback's metaphorical desk. No arguments from me on that point.
But what about when it doesn't?
Stats aren't valuable in a vacuum. They need to tell a story and if the story doesn't accurately portray what happens on the field, then what value are the stats? If the stats are misleading, we shouldn't value the stats over the reality they are supposed to describe.
So, why not start crediting receivers when their screw-ups lead to an interception?
A tipped Tony Romo pass that should've been a Cowboys first down but turned into a Giants 1st-and-goal? That's all on Bryant.
The only question here is what to do with miscommunication. If a quarterback hits his receiver on a choice route where the receiver ran into the coverage instead of away from it, that shouldn't be on the quarterback at all. With All-22 film, fans and media can point these out a lot easier in 2012 than any time before.
However, while it would be great to credit those miscommunications or wrong routes on the receiver, it would almost certainly require a playbook and knowing the exact play-call to do with any certainty.
Let's take just the tipped passes for now and stop blaming quarterbacks for mistakes they didn't make.
Sacks Allowed as a Quarterback Stat
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Not so fast, my quarterback friends. I'm not letting you off the hook that easily.
Sacks allowed is one of the most misleading stats in the NFL. We look at offensive linemen, to a degree, like that is all they do. So-and-so gave up X-number of sacks, but so-and-so only gave up Y, so let's vote that second guy to the Pro Bowl.
There is, truly, no easier way to prove that one has never actually watched the linemen play.
The NFL is built around timing. After a three-step drop, the ball should probably leave the quarterback's hand before a defensive lineman has a chance to get into the pocket. Five- and seven-step drops can be a little more dangerous, but even a modicum of good blocking up front will keep an elite quarterback clean.
Don't believe me, just look at the Manning brothers.
Both of those guys should be, rightfully, sacked more often than they are. Peyton has elevated the play of offensive lines his entire career, and Eli has done his best work this season. The best way to neutralize a pass rush is not an elite left tackle, it's an elite quarterback. No one is getting to the quarterback whose quick release and lightning-fast decision-making gets the ball out before the pass rush gets to him.
All that said, there are sacks that are truly too fast for a quarterback to handle—times when it's clear the lineman was beaten like a rag doll. Yet, that happens more rarely than most fans believe.
So, let's start putting sacks on the quarterbacks who are already getting what they deserve by making slow decisions. A timer on sacks, started after the quarterback sets up after his drop or receives the ball after a shotgun snap. Give the quarterback a few beats of "grace" time (if he is sacked, it goes on the linemen), but after that, the onus is on him to get rid of the ball or get credited with his own sack.
Oh, and any time a quarterback leaves the pocket, that's on him as well. Leaving the safety of the pocket out of the sight of the guys trying to protect you is already taking the play in your own hands. The stat should reflect that.
Quarterback Progression Efficiency
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While we're looking at what the quarterback does in the pocket, let's start watching his feet and his eyes as well.
Nothing kills a drive like a quarterback who stares down one of his receivers.
Basic stat premise. Every time a quarterback drops back, everyone can tell who his No. 1 read is supposed to be. It's usually the receiver you would expect him to throw to (the Wes Welkers and Calvin Johnsons of the world), and it's always the receiver he's watching. If the quarterback is good, his feet are usually opened up to that receiver as well.
So, let's start measuring which quarterbacks are going through their progressions well. It's something we see when we look at the tape (especially with All-22), so we should start writing it down.
Of course, no stat tells the full story. In this regard, a low progression efficiency rating wouldn't solely condemn a quarterback. Think Andy Dalton should be blamed for staring down A.J. Green, or Andrew Luck for firing the ball at Reggie Wayne every time he drops back? Probably not.
Still, if the goal of stats is to tell the story better than ever before, this is part of the narrative that has gone untold for too long.
Coach Challenge Effectiveness
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More and more, the whens and whys coaches throw that little red flag is becoming important to the game. Also, now that turnovers and scoring plays are automatically reviewed, coaches are using their challenges for things like ball spots, field position and mid-field catches.
Challenges (and the timeouts they're connected to) are a little thing, but one of the many little things that can add up to a loss if teams aren't careful.
The easiest way to start measuring is to start seeing which coaches should just stop throwing the flag altogether. In some respects, we've already started that. ESPN Stats and Info keeps those numbers and releases them to their divisional bloggers. It's relatively easy to start measuring your team's coach from home—just count the number of times they throw the flag and the number of times they're actually successful.
What about taking it a step further?
How many times does that decision to throw the flag actually make a difference? If a coach stupidly throws the flag to get a four-yard catch and then punts two plays later, he just wasted a timeout he'll almost certainly need later. If that same coach throws his second flag to try to get a touchdown rather than be down at the 1-yard line, he could have just lined up and punched it in.
It would take some complicated math and advanced win-probability stats, but why not? We have those tools already.
Tracking the effectiveness of coaches throwing the flag could start holding the less adept coaches more accountable.
'Coaching Cojones Quotient'
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Did I write this entire article just for the opportunity to use the word, "cojones?" Maybe, but I'll never tell and you can't make me.
For those unaware of the colloquialism, cojones is the Spanish word for a certain part of the male anatomy that is often associated with masculinity. Because of that, the word is often used as a replacement for courage. More than that, though, it's courage in the face of "better judgement," when doing what's right isn't necessarily what common wisdom would indicate is smart. Chutzpah and "ballsy" are similar terms, depending on your geographical location.
NFL coaches too often fail because they lack the cojones to win games. They magnificently plan Xs and Os all week and put together a foolproof game plan, then they foolishly wreck the whole thing.
Punting on 4th-and-short across the 50-yard line is statistically idiotic. It's like holding up a neon sign offering the other team an easy win. Yet, coaches do it, constantly. With platitudes like "field position" and "we trust our defense," coaches ignore numbers and consistently lack the courage to make the hard decisions that win games.
Then again, sometimes coaches make stupid, rash decisions as well. In the heat of the game, coaches can do what feels right rather than what actually is the correct decision. We second-guess, on a case-by-case basis, but let's start holding coaches responsible.
Think of it this way. On Madden or NCAA Football, players can set their coaches to a certain level of aggressiveness. This would be the opposite of that—putting each coach where they already exist on the "Barometer of Ballsy-ness."
If coaches are playing not-to-lose, make sure they're never in the position to lose ever again. Just fire them and get someone in there who actually wants to win games more than play just well enough to save his job. If someone is making too many rash decisions, that coach shouldn't be on the sidelines anyway.
With these stats, on top of the many great advanced stats we've already been treated to in recent years, the game may not change, but the way we talk about it certainly will—for the better.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at "The Go Route."