NFL Statistical Analysis: How Eastern Philosophy Can Be Useful

Jonathan BalesAnalyst IApril 6, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS - OCTOBER 17:  Quarterback Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys calls a play against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field on October 17, 2010 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

We are in a golden age for statistical analysis in football.  Many NFL teams (including the Cowboys) have hired statisticians and mathematicians to oversee all aspects of game preparation and in-game calls, from complex play-calling trends to personnel usage.  

With 22 moving parts on each play, the process is almost unimaginably difficult.  Football lacks the simple, unchanging interface of baseball.  A team could run the same play 1,000 times during a season, for example, and the movement of the players, based on game situation, defensive alignment and so on, would never be the same.

So there are certainly a plethora of improvements to be made in the area of football-based statistical analysis, and the teams who are ahead of the curve on these alterations will hold a distinct competitive advantage.  

But which changes need to be made, and how can we be sure they’ll result in a superior chance of winning football games?

Advanced NFL Stats recently posted an article attempting to answer this question.  They detailed how statistical analysis in football could be improved, including changes such as superior records of personnel and subdividing yards into feet.  The alteration which intrigued me the most, however, was a rejection of a distinct run/pass dichotomy.  As ANS writes:

In its most cardinal form, its most absolute form, football is a game of running or passing and defending the run or defending the pass. But it’s not a neat binary. It is more like a scale or range, extending from a “pure” pass play like a five wide receiver, shotgun set, to a pure run play, something like the modern “wildcat” or wing t.

Statistical analysis has proven that passes are on the whole more effective than runs and thus seemingly underutilized, but that conclusion stems from the initial assumption of run or pass, which is an oversimplification. Personnel data would help bridge that gap by indicating whether, say, a vertical threat like DeSean Jackson truly forces safeties back and thus improves the run game. However, to really understand how the run and pass game interact, we need to account for play fakes. Play fake are elemental and essential parts of football strategy. Is, for instance, the value of Adrian Peterson—a talent adored by coaches and fans but largely undervalued by advanced statistics—hidden in his ability to improve the Vikings play-action offense? Or, conversely, how much does a great quarterback and a great passing offense improve the value of a draw play? We don’t know and until we do know, statistical analysis will be stuck attempting to evaluate an absolute run and an absolute pass in a game that’s really about everything that falls between.

They hit the nail on the head.  Advanced statistical analysis has shown us that teams needs to pass more, particularly on first down, but our statistics have been limited by the black-and-white dichotomy we have placed on the run/pass relationship.  We (that "we" includes myself) lump playaction passes and screens in together with downfield throws from five-wide formations, but these plays have very little in common outside of the quarterback throwing the football.

Running and passing can no longer be viewed as opposites.  Instead of viewing a particular play as a run or a pass, we should view it in a more pluralistic manner.  

A playaction pass, for example, is “less of a pure pass” than one from five-wide, and a draw is “less of a pure run” than a straight dive play.

In short, we have to look at the problem from a more “Eastern” perspective.  My reliance on philosophy will be sure to piss some people off, but this is my site, SO BACK OFF! (Billy Madison voice.)  Anyway, in section two of the Daoist text Daodejing, it says:

The difficult and the easy complement each other; the long and the short off-set each other; the high and the low incline towards each other; before and after follow each other.

To grasp any of these qualities, you must understand the other.  The rejection of a distinct dichotomy also creates a range of contrast. A cell phone is not inherently artificial, for example, but only more or less so than something else (just as a playaction pass can be simultaneously “more of a pass” than, say, a flea flicker, and “less of a pass” than a straight dropback).

Thus, “opposing” qualities take on a pluralistic characteristic: not absolute, yet not radically relativistic, as the ‘absoluteness’ comes with the implementation of a ‘relative’ perspective.  This allows for the concurrent existence of contrasting qualities without a logical contradiction.

Confused?  Take a look at the image below.


You can see that the separation of distinct pass and run types leads to a range of contrast–a sort of “dualistic dichotomy.”  In the example above (just an example, by the way, and not nearly a conclusive range), a counter is closer to a “pure run” than a draw, but the nature of a counter is such that we should still separate it from straight hand-offs.  The same goes for playaction passes.  As ANS points out, there is no way to effectively measure the impact of a player like Adrian Peterson if we divide play-calls into an absolute dichotomy, ignoring the individuality of specific calls like playaction passes.

Thus, it has become a goal of mine to implement this understanding of the run/pass relationship in my breakdown and analysis of Cowboys’ statistics.  In rejecting the “black-and-white” perspective on play-calls, I hope to more effectively analyze in-game trends, leading to a more holistic understanding of an individual player’s impact.

Of course, one must always remember that the entire game of football is itself so holistic that the compartmentalization that we see in baseball is impossible, or at least far beyond our current capabilities.  Each play is so unique that we must be careful in comparing it to others “like it.”

Nonetheless, the realization that play-calls are pluralistic, not absolute, is the first step in our attempt to acquire a holistic understanding of the game of football.