Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
21 Jul 2010
by Mike Tanier
Twenty percent of the yardage in an NFL season is gained on two percent of the plays.
OK, I fudged a little bit: It's more like 18.7 percent of the offense on 2.3 percent of the plays.
But it's still pretty staggering. The NFL is league of long bombs and big runs, of yardage gained in 30-yard chunks.
There were 31,874 official plays from scrimmage last year, resulting in 174,176 yards for 5.46 yards per play.
There were 15 plays from scrimmage that gained 80 or more yards last season, including a 98-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Terrell Owens, a play which accounted for 2.2 percent of the Bills offense, 11.8 percent of TO's production, and 6.9 percent of Fitzpatrick's for the season. There were 23 plays of 70-79 yards, 52 plays of 60-69 yards, and 96 plays of 50-59 yards. There were a total of 750 plays that gained 30 or more yards. Those plays generated 32,597 yards of offense. Take those plays away, and the league's per-play average drops to 4.55.
Take away 18.7 percent of the Saints' total yards last year, and they rank below the Panthers. While those big plays aren't divided equally, 750 plays come down to about 24 plays per team. That's about 1.5 plays per team per week. The difference between a Super Bowl champion and a .500 team can come down to those rare plays.
Let's look at this a different way. There were 11,331 plays last year that resulted in no gain or a loss. Some of those plays were dramatic, like a 28-yard sack of Kurt Warner, but most were incompletions (there were 6,006 incomplete passes last year), plunges up the middle, or screen passes to nowhere. Those plays, more than a third of the plays from scrimmage in the entire league, lost 11,253 yards. I have no trouble rounding that to an average loss of one. NFL offenses wasted over a third of their offensive plays trudging backwards a yard at a time, hoping for one of those 750 lightning strikes.
Both the 750 big plays and the 11,331 runs to nowhere had a huge impact on the standings. The big plays turned games around, while the no-gains and losses slowly, desperately doomed teams by slow erosion. (Yes, I am thinking offense-centrically here.) But we remember the big plays. They made highlight reels, so we watched them over and over again. They were memorable because they were exciting. It creates a major selection bias. The big plays become the story of every season. In retrospect, that's fine, because when telling the story of the 2009 season it is more interesting to talk about Chris Johnson's touchdowns than Derek Anderson's incompletions. But when looking ahead, the selection bias becomes a big problem, because a 750 play sample is small and volatile.
It makes prognostication a thankless task, though one that we happily undertake here at Football Outsiders. We compile spreadsheets, run dozens of regressions and hundreds of simulations, make the best possible projections, and know that a couple of 70 yard runs can throw an entire division hopelessly out of whack. But even when the projections are balky, the information we draw from all the work is invaluable. We learn more about teams and players, and we pass along what we learn to you.
The prominence of those big plays also colors our perceptions as fans. We lose sight of the small difference between 8-8 and 10-6, that it can come down to a dropped pass or a missed tackle, to say nothing of a bad bounce or a missed field goal. A lot of fans also make the mistake of comparing one team's highlights to another team's entire game. When you watch the home team for three hours, your eyes glued to the set, you see every incompletion, loss, and run to nowhere. Then, you see a few highlights of another team on ESPN or NFL Network or during Game Breaks. You see all the warts on the home team, but only the best of the highlight team. That may be why so many fans pick apart the teams they are supposed to root for -- the highlight reels hide the fact that football is about 35 percent failure.
What's great about this time of year is that we are all hungry for football -- for the 750 big plays, for the 31,104 not-so-big plays, for college games, for preseason games, even for training camp. We will invest the next seven months deriving endless entertainment from football, even though so much of it isn't all that entertaining. All of this anticipation, and all we get is a handful of breathtaking accomplishments, scattered in a sea of incomplete passes, predictable plays, extra points and long commercial breaks.
If I weren't so damned eager for the season to start, I would think we are all crazy.
Jaguars fans, unite! Both of you.
OK, that's the last one. You won't see any more "Jaguars have no fans" jokes around here. It was an easy gag, and it's gotten stale. What's more, Jaguars fans -- the tens of thousands who loyally, passionately support their team -- are tired of hearing that their team has no fan base and is one blackout away from a move to Los Angeles, London, or Pluto. They've enlisted some heavy hitters to spur ticket sales and improve Jacksonville's image as a legitimate NFL market.
And there aren't many hitters as heavy as five-time Pro Bowl tackle Tony Boselli.
"The city of Jacksonville likes being an NFL market," Boselli told me in an interview earlier this month. "Last year was not good enough -- we need to support this team." To get the fanbase motivated, Boselli joined forces with Jacksonville mayor John Peyton to create the "Touchdown Jacksonville: Revive the Pride" program and the Team Teal project.
Here's how Team Teal works: Individuals or companies become Team Captains by purchasing season tickets. The captains then encourage others to join their teams by buying season tickets. Money spent on tickets turn into points, which make members eligible for prizes ranging from autographed memorabilia to tailgate parties. Boselli and other Team Teal representatives host rallies around the Jacksonville area to promote interest in both the program and the Jaguars. "It's a way to connect to the team and remind people how excited this city was to get a franchise 15 years ago," Boselli said.
So far, it's working. The Jaguars have retained 90 percent of their season-ticket holders from last year and have attracted 12,500 more ticket holders through mid-July. That may not sound like a lot to fans in cities where the season-ticket waiting list is measured in decades, but it's a big deal in a state hard hit by the recession and for a team that didn't make any high-profile moves in the offseason. "LeBron James didn't sign here," joked Boselli the day after the basketball star's me-festival.
Those of us who wrote the Jaguars off as an "orphan" franchise (and I am as guilty as anyone) have blown the team's ticket situation out of proportion in recent years. The Bills, Bengals, and other small-market teams have had a hard time filling the seats since the recession started, but the Jaguars are the butt of most of the "empty seat" gags.
"You would think that the blackout was invented in Jacksonville," Boselli said. He's also not impressed by the Los Angeles talk. "I lived in L.A. when they had two teams, and nobody went to those games."
The Jaguars haven't helped themselves in recent years. The on-field product was bad-to-mediocre in 2008 and 2009, thanks largely to a string of poor drafts. Football Outsiders Almanac projects another seven-win season for the Jaguars -- 6.8 mean wins, to be precise -- but new general manager Gene Harris offers some hope, and Boselli likes what he's seen in the last two drafts. He likes tackles Eben Britton and Eugene Monroe, noting that Monroe came on strong in the second half of the season after holding out early in the year. And Boselli, like Mike Mayock, likes defensive end Tyson Alualu, the Jaguars top pick this season. As a former USC tackle, Boselli knows a thing or two about Pac-10 pass rushers.
Team Teal still has a long way to go. The Jaguars need to sell thousands more tickets before to prevent regular blackouts, though Boselli expects a rush in August, when most ticket packages are sold. The grass-roots, booster-club nature of Team Teal may seem like a high-school tactic to some, but it's a necessity in a city that hasn't yet built the kind of generational loyalty that insulates teams like the Redskins or Packers against a few bad seasons. Remember, the Jaguars are just 15 years old. "It's not fair to judge this franchise and these fans for one year out of 15," Boselli said.
Besides, what's wrong with a little extra team-to-fan interaction? Boselli wants Touchdown Jacksonville and Team Teal to live on, even when Jacksonville Municipal Stadium is full. "I would recommend that any team do it," he said. "The more you can touch the fans and connect with the fans, the better chance you have of winning those fans over."
Give Jacksonville and the Jaguars the benefit of the doubt. They're trying. And while we may have snuck a no-fans joke into FOA ("if you rebuild it, they won't come"), writer Tom Gower also gave Team Teal their due, and spent most of his chapter talking about the things we are supposed to talk about: Alualu, Monroe, David Garrard, Maurice Jones-Drew, and the actual team. In the rush to pick on the Jaguars, some people forget that the team still plays actual football, that they reached the playoffs in 2007, and that they were in the hunt for much of last season.
"When the season starts," Boselli said, "the story will be that the Jaguars fans answered the call."
Football knows you strayed. She was away for months. Your eyes wandered. You were weak. It's OK. Football is forgiving.
You spent a few months dallying with other sports, other activities. A few were briefly diverting. Most left you wanting. Admit your trysts. Football doesn't judge. She knows what you have been up to:
Soccer: Spain defeated the Netherlands by a score of (you guessed it) 1-0 to avenge its crushing geopolitical defeat at the hands of the Dutch in the 16th century. In semi-final action, Prussia defeated the Kalmar Union and the Holy Roman Empire defeated the Prince-Bishopric of Leige, also by 1-0 scores.
I have no interest in soccer, and unlike many of my friends, I have no interest in pretending to be interested. When it comes to soccer enthusiasm, I believe America is faking it, in the same way we feign Olympic interest. A lot of Americans watched the World Cup this year because it was televised on weekday mornings. When the choice is a soccer game streamed into the cubicle or a pre-meeting about TPS reports, soccer wins by a 1-0 rout.
Yes, teenagers love soccer -- I have witnessed this with my own eyes. Teenagers love Silly Bandz, too. Again, an informal poll of my students showed that most would rather watch the World Cup than take my Honors Precalculus exam. Tellingly, the vote was not unanimous. My guess is that American teens' affinity for soccer is overblown, just like their supposed obsession with Rainbow Parties.
I have said too much. The worst thing about hating soccer is being lumped in with Soccer Haters, the buffoonish, jingoistic loudmouths who make themselves feel more macho by condemning soccer as a wimpy, un-American socialist starter sport. I'll humbly submit that soccer, like opera and kabuki theatre, may just be too beautiful and subtle for my cheesesteak-stuffed mind to appreciate. And if an editor pays me to cover soccer, I will even find my muse and learn to type the words "thrilling scoreless tie" without a seizure.
Wimbledon: John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played a 10-hour tennis match in late June. Any longer and the match would have officially been re-classified as an NFL preseason game. The game might have ended after a reasonable three hours, but a frustrated World Cup referee sneaked into London and decided to use up all his unspent "bonus minutes" at once. The final score: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68; like soccer, tennis needs parenthetical documentation just to keep score. In all, that was 183 games, roughly the length of Matt Millen's tenure in Detroit, but sweatier and less frustrating. The triumphant Isner celebrated the way all male tennis players do, by fading immediately into obscurity.
Serena Williams, meanwhile, dominated the competition, straddling atop one blonde, lithe Russian competitor after another, easily forcing them to yield to her will. Needless to say, I envy Serena as much as I admire her, though I yearn for another nutty tirade because it adds an element of physical terror to the sport. Venus Williams wasn't nearly as successful as Serena, and her overall career is fading compared to her sister's. She may soon follow the career path of other less-successful athletic siblings. If you see any Williams "All White" Birthday Bashes on the calendar, make sure you leave five minutes before the shooting starts.
Baseball: Fans in other cities may be riding high, but it's hard to follow baseball in Philadelphia this summer. Chase Utley hit the disabled list in early July and took half the lineup with him. At one point, Roy Halliday was 7-10 with an ERA of 6.63x10^-34 ERA, the lowest ERA the city has seen since the days of Eddie Plank. Local talk-radio callers, when not tittering over the fate of certain backup quarterback, obsessed endlessly about Cliff Lee, a pitcher the Phillies let walk in the offseason who was traded to the Rangers before the All-Star break. It was as if callers got a free DeSean Jackson jersey just for mentioning Lee's name. There are good reasons for Lee's Philly popularity, of course. He pitched here for just half a season, but he still recorded more sacks than Mike Mamula.
Desperate for some baseball and not too particular about where I found it, I traveled to Baltimore in late June to see an Orioles-Nationals game with some friends. "Maybe Strasburg will be pitching," we hoped leading up to the game, kidding ourselves. Unfortunately, the Nats pitcher wasn't phenom Stephen Strasburg but the exhumed remains of Livian Hernandez. Hernandez pitched pretty well, but I could tell something was fishy. It wasn't Hernandez at all, but Lee Strasberg, back from the grave and method acting, convincingly, as a 35-year-old journeyman pitcher on a last-place ballclub. The Nationals won on a wild pitch. All memory of the Orioles' performance that day vanished after two productive hours at Pickle's Pub. Stephen Strasburg, meanwhile, is now bigger than U.S. Steel.
And of course, there was LeBron. Never underestimate the national sports media's ability to recklessly stoke a campfire, then shake its head solemnly at the charred forest. Or its ability to report with breathless shock that 25-year-old multi-millionaires aren't the most sagacious career planners or selfless human beings. The fascinating irony of three superstars huddling together to create the world's most instantly hate-able sports franchise, each trying to protect his "legacy" by winning a championship can only be trumped by the insane dollar figures at stake. From what I understand of the NBA salary cap (not much), the Heat's 12th man will have to play for pick 'n' peel shrimp. The only missing piece to the Miami Heat puzzle is Albert Haynesworth, who doesn't like the kind of defense they run. As for King James' decision and his one-man selection show, I would do the same if I had his combination of talent, youth, and money. Let the grey-bearded sportswriters debate my legacy, my loyalty, my responsibility to the fans blah, blah, blah ... I am going to have mojitos on the beach with Ke$ha. A week later, LeBron was booed at Carmelo Anthony's wedding and getting the effigy treatment in Cleveland. All of this is considered charming and appropriate, because none of it happened in Philadelphia.
Functional Fitness: The new fad at my local gym is called "Functional Fitness." The trainers litter the back parking lot with tires, fire hoses, and other hard-to-maneuver, light-industrial objects, then lead participants through a variety of "exercises" that consist of rolling the tires, stretching and winding the hoses, and so on. There's something apocalyptic about middle-aged matrons paying 40 bucks a month to pretend to be warehouse workers, but at least there are more stationary bikes available during the hour-long firefighter-and-pit-crew scrimmages.
I've been inspired to create my own workout fad: Dysfunctional Fitness. Once per week, your loser brother-in-law gets kicked out of his third-floor apartment, and your wife orders you to move his cheap furniture and unboxed possessions down the un-air-conditioned stairwell and into his El Camino. Afterward, there's a long intervention at which only crudite is served. You'll get in shape in a hurry.
Getting High: A giant pot leaf adorned the cover of Philadelphia Magazine in July, which only had two possible explanations: (1) their cover story on celebrity athlete birthday parties was scrapped for some reason, or (2) there was a mix-up on the presses that left local news anchor Jim Gardner on the cover of High Times. "Pot is Back," the headline read, trumpeting the shocking revelation that weed is smoked not by staggering back-alley addicts but by successful businesspeople, educated professionals, and authors of quasi-humorous sports features. (Hey, don't look at me. This Robitussen is for my kids).
If pot is indeed "back," it is in short supply. I have a theory that pot shouldn't be legal at Philadelphia sports events. It should be mandatory. All non-driving adults must take three hits before the game, then another three at halftime, the start of the third period, or whenever Brad Lidge starts warming up. Instead of booing, Phillies fans would be known for a long exhale and a slight cough. Kind of like the Dutch fans when Spain won.
Arena Football: At the other end of every possible spectrum from the World Cup lies Arena Football. World Cup games end in thrilling 1-1 ties. Arena football uses the old Donkey Kong scoring system, with an extra man at 5,000 points. The World Cup is enjoyed by tens of millions of fans in cities, villages, rain forests and deserts around the world. Arena football is enjoyed by a handful of bored football writers and a few hundred wayward fans in metropolises like Bossier, Louisiana.
Yes, Bossier. I watched a game a few weeks ago between the Tampa Bay Storm and the Shreveport-Bossier Battle Wings. So many questions ran through my mind. Shreveport? Bossier? Battle Wings?
OK, I know about Shreveport. The Canadian Football League once had a franchise there (don't ask). I never heard of Bossier, so I contacted a friend who once worked in the Louisiana state attorney's office. He never heard of Bossier, either. Perhaps it's a crime-free city, which makes sense with a superhero like Battlewing around to mete out justice. A quick Google search took me to the website of the City of Bossier City. Redundancy is the name of the game in Bossier. Evidently, the city boasts three riverboat casinos and a racetrack to service the 65,000 hard-gambling residents.
The website of the City of Bossier City website offers traffic reports and information about the H1N1 virus, but contains no information whatsoever about the mighty BattleWings. It does give hints as to the origins of the BattleWing name, and it doesn't involve Dick Grayson marrying Starfire. Barksdale Air Force Base is right nearby. That doesn't explain how Oklahoma City named its team the Yard Dogz, but if Michael Vick is finally drummed out of the NFL and into the Arena league, the potential for ironic headlines is staggering.
The BattleWings, incidentally, have a one-armed kicker, Nick Gatto, who has bounced around the AFL for years. Gatto is an inspirational story, and he's more than just a kicker. He played wide receiver in high school, and he recorded 18 tackles in six AFL seasons, making him just as dangerous a tackler as Asante Samuel.
There, all is forgiven. Camp opens next week. Give football a good, long hug.
I will be writing weekly "camp notes" features for The New York Times starting in just a few weeks. Look for them in the Fifth Down blog on Fridays and in the Sunday paper. Walkthrough will run every other week until the season starts, then I will rev up the diagrams and start talking strategy.
I will also be writing some short features for Rotoworld during the preseason and regular season. More on those when we finalize the details.
I plan to have more of a Twitter presence this year once we get closer to the season. Follow me at FO_MTanier. You can still join the Walkthrough Readers group for other updates on all things Walkthrough and Football Outsiders.
Finally, on Aug. 12, I will be at the Collingswood Public Library in Collingswood, New Jersey. I will be talking Football Outsiders Almanac, discussing the upcoming season, and probably previewing my upcoming book, The Phanatic Code. If you are in the Philly area, stop by and say hello!
103 comments, Last at 01 Aug 2010, 12:14pm by SW