NFL: When Talking About Statistics Perception Is Not Reality
Whether it's the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning or the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson; Recently I've been waging a war against them all.
NFL players that is. Well, not exactly against, them but against their stat sheets. For some of you though, there is no difference.
Which is exactly my problem.
I'm not going to throw out an article saying that statistics have no meaning or place in sports. Obviously they do. However they have become so overblown and overused in today's NFL that many people seem to watch them rather than the actual games.
That is understandable of course with the prominence of fantasy football and because it is easier to watch one or two games while looking at 14 other stat sheets.
Statistics are useful guidelines and can be used as part of determining the value of a football player. However just because one quarterback has a higher completion percentage than the other 31 starting quarterbacks in the league that does not mean that he is the most accurate passer in the league.
I recently had this debate with a reader of this very website.
The argument was simple. I believed that Rodgers was the most accurate quarterback in the league over the past three seasons. Or in other words, since he was a starter. My refuter claimed that Drew Brees had to be because he had the highest completion percentage during that span.
My problem with the completion percentage is that it presumes every single attempt is the same as another. Obviously it is a good indication of how accurate a quarterback is, but it does not determine the most accurate.
Like every statistic it implies that each rush/pass attempt is exactly the same as the other. Statistics do not take into account situational football or the quality of a player's teammates. Football remains a team game and individual statistics do not tell the whole story.
As much as some people want to believe it, the completion percentage does not reflect accuracy.
It does not take into account the difficulty level of the attempt. It is much easier for say Brees to hit Lance Moore on a drag route three times in a row, opposed to Rodgers hitting Greg Jennings on a post once.
Even when Rodgers does hit that pass, it is generally a more difficult ball to reel in for the receiver rather than a possession catch. Not every quarterback in the league has a Jennings to throw to either, so a 0/1 for Ryan Fitzpatrick could be the exact same throw as a 1/1 for Rodgers.
Rodgers for me is the most accurate quarterback in the league and has been for some time. It is not because of any one statistic though.
A lot goes into an attempt in the NFL. Firstly not every player gets the perfect pocket that Brady gets in New England. Not every quarterback can diagnose a defense or make the right decision of where to go with the football.
In those instances it is not inaccuracy that is causing the completion, it is a lack of awareness.
When you look at an incomplete pass on the stat sheet, you cannot see if the receiver dropped the ball, if the quarterback was under pressure, if his feet were set, if it was a 4th and 20 and he overlooked the easy completion to the flat instead heaving the ball deep looking to win the game.
Were the quarterback's feet set? Was he on the move? Did he have to make a play? Did the receiver run the right route? How good was the coverage of the defensive back? How tight was the window?
Even when the ball is a completion on the stat sheet, there is much more too it than just saying that was an accurate pass.
Ball placement is a vital thing for NFL quarterbacks. It can only be evaluated by watching a quarterback on the field. Where you place the ball for the receiver to catch it can determine the difference between a 50 yard gain and a 5 yard gain.
The most accurate quarterback will put the ball in a position for the receiver to catch it in stride at the most comfortable point. He will also put it in a position where only the receiver can catch it and not risk a turnover.
That is the biggest difference between Brees and Rodgers. When you are talking about accuracy those are huge aspects. Rodgers interception numbers over the past three years are much better than Brees'.
Brees has thrown more passes but his 50 interceptions to Rodgers' 31 in the past few years has only equated to 15 more touchdowns over the same span.
Rodgers' completion percentage is lower than Brees' but he is the more accurate quarterback as he often throws receivers open on routes that require more difficult throws. Both quarterbacks are among the best in the league, but that debate was a good example of how statistics can lie.
It's not just on pass attempts either.
Situational football affects running backs statistics also. A goalline back won't have as good an average as a home run hitter in all likelihood but he can still run the ball effectively and be a better overall player.
Some backs will have a lot of yards and likely be on their way to the Pro Bowl as fantasy stars. However some backs will be playing behind struggling offensive lines.
What the back sees as he receives the hand-off is not considered. Just look at Rashard Mendenhall against the Ravens in Week 1. On one play against the Ravens he could not even get the ball as Haloti Ngata was already in the backfield.
There was nothing in that moment that Mendenhall could do. Statistically it is obviously a negative play but what would Adrian Peterson have done? What would Chris Johnson have done?
You see rushing attempts are not all the same either. Each carry is significantly different from the other. Often times it is simply about getting the best that your offensive line can give you.
Would Jamaal Charles have averaged 6.4 yards per carry last year without Thomas Jones? I doubt it. Would Arian Foster have had 1,616 yard rushing if he swapped places with Fred Jackson in Buffalo? Probably not.
Statistically Vonta Leach had essentially nothing last year. However he was a huge reason Foster had a big season last year. He was an all-pro and saying that Foster will be able to be the same player without him is optimistic.
Leach showed his class for the Baltimore Ravens this week when Joe Flacco picked apart the Steelers. Leach was dominant blocking Steelers' linebackers allowing Flacco to make plays.
Funnily enough in that game Flacco's most important receiver had zero receptions. Lee Evans made the difference for the Baltimore Ravens at the weekend. He forced Ike Taylor to cover him rather than Anquan Boldin which created matchup problems for the Steelers.
This isn't just an offensive thing either as guys like Asante Samuel and Ed Reed have been looking to balance risk vs reward factors in coverage over the years. Reed and Samuel generally have more success than mistakes but that is not the case for all players that are racking up the interceptions.
So when I say that Lee Evans was the best receiver for the Ravens at the weekend without a reception don't pick up the phone to call the men in white coats.
Instead pick up the remote and put down the statistic sheet. Turn off your fantasy league and stop researching how many yards or receptions Jabar Gaffney is projected to have against the Arizona Cardinals this weekend.
Football is played on the field so watch it on the field. Don't look at Cam Newton's 422 yards from last Sunday, look at the accuracy and velocity of the ball that allows him to reach that number. Look at the understanding of the defense and awareness of where his receivers will be.
Statistics don't win anything on the field, they just dominate on paper. Numbers are just that. They are numbers.
The only numbers I care about are the ones on each player's jersey.
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