NFL Study Hall: 2 Different Ways Stats Can Lie to You

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NFL Study Hall: 2 Different Ways Stats Can Lie to You
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of good things that stats can tell us about individual players. They'll obviously show production in the touchdowns that offensive players pick up and the tackles that defensive players make.

These are basic metrics of football. The offense moves the ball down the field and picks up yards, and the defense goes out there to stop the offense by making tackles. It's hard to overlook or discount any stats that players pick up that you'd see in a box score. They did those things and made those plays and there's an easy way of proving they were productive. 

It doesn't always work like that when a player's name doesn't show up in the box score, though.

Sure, if a player scores six touchdowns he'll get the credit he deserves. But there are times that offensive and defensive players are doing what's asked of them but aren't getting credit in your dad's Monday morning box score. Sometimes it's hard to quantify certain things out on the football field in a simple, concise way on paper. 

Rather than just going through a bunch of statistics for this article, we're going to take a look at a couple of different plays from last season using still frames. These two plays are good examples of things that wouldn't end up in a box score but show players doing their jobs. 

The first one we're going to take a look at is on the defensive side of the ball. 

In this play you're going to see Chiefs defensive lineman and 2012 first-round pick Dontari Poe collapse the pocket and disrupt the play. He doesn't get credit for the tackle or do anything that shows up in a box score, but upon closer examination of the play, you can see that he's making an impact. 

Dontari Poe is lined up in the middle of the Kansas City Chiefs defensive line. Once the ball is snapped, Poe gets a good push on Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey

The initial double-team to the right defensive end (left of screen), Ropati Pitoitua, has blocked off any chance for Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson (lined up behind him) to shoot the gap and make a play. Poe maintains his blocker. By driving him back up the field, Poe has created a clear lane for Jovan Belcher to get to the running back. 

Once Belcher fills that hole, the running back's only choice is to jump-cut and head back the other way. Poe has maintained his place in the Steelers backfield, and Chiefs left defensive end Tyson Jackson is fighting off his block on the right side of the screen. 

Pitoitua and Jackson got credit for the tackle on this particular play. They fought off blocks and deserve credit for the tackle.

But what about Dontari Poe? His penetration occupied the middle of the field, allowed Belcher a free lane up the field and changed the path for the running back, which gave Jackson and Pitoitua enough time to get off their blocks and make the tackle. 

This isn't to say these particular guys always make these plays, but it does detail how someone could be doing a good job but not be getting credit in a box score. Just because someone has low tackle numbers doesn't mean they aren't bringing a lot to the defense. It could mean that, but it doesn't always, and people have a tendency not to look any further than a simple box score.

Here's one for the offensive side of the ball. 

There are not a lot of people out there that wouldn't consider Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson one of the best in the league. Many would even consider him the top player at the position. 

Johnson finished the 2012 season with 122 receptions for 1,964 yards, but he added just five touchdowns. The NFL has become a passing league. Touchdowns are what it's all about for receivers looking to make an impact in a box score and out on the field. 

Here's a look at how the Seattle Seahawks defended Johnson and the Lions' offense in the red zone. 

You'll see Johnson lined up in the slot with Ryan Broyles split out wide. It's a smash-concept route combination with Johnson taking a corner route to the back of the end zone and the inside receiver running a slant-out route.  

This play is tough on the cornerback that's lined up on the outside receiver—for this play, it's Brandon Browner. He's going to be in position to see the quarterback looking his way, Broyles starting his slant route and Johnson setting up the corner route.

The outside linebacker initially crashes down on Johnson and then releases back inside to cover a slant route coming through his zone coverage. The safety is reading Johnson. 

Matt Stafford pump-fakes the throw to Johnson right here on the corner route, which causes Browner to turn his back and help cover Johnson.

It's at the same time that Broyles breaks off his slant route and heads back to the outside. 

Once Browner's back is turned, it's an easy touchdown pass from Stafford to Broyles. The defense was keying on Johnson, for good reason, and that opened things up for everyone else. 

This is just another specific example of how any elite player opens up things for the guys around him. That can be said for a tight end, pass-rusher or cornerback. 

The box score doesn't show how the defense was specifically trying to keep Johnson from getting a look in the red zone. A defense can try and take certain players out of the game with its game plan. An offense can target certain pass-rushers to neutralize.

Obviously having the personnel to match up helps, but it goes beyond a box score when figuring out why guys' stats just aren't adding up. 

There are times that it's just because the player isn't performing, but there are also times it's because of other factors. 

Stats are a useful tool in measuring production, but they aren't the end-all to knowing how well a player is performing. There's the cute saying that "Numbers never lie," but you have to know at which numbers to look. Often, what's listed in a box score simply isn't enough.  

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