Introducing "Crunching the Numbers": A Different Kind of Power Ranking

The content of the following post has been a pet project of mine for over a year now, and I can say I'm satisfied enough with the results to post them in public forum. This will be the first of a weekly post on this site throughout the NFL season, which ranks each NFL team.

So, Power Rankings, right? But Jason already does those, you say. Well, these are a little different. While I believe Jason does a great job with his Power Rankings, I can't say the same for everyone (*cough cough* Don Banks *cough cough*), which is what prompted this little project that I started June 2011.

The idea behind these rankings is that they factor in pretty much every major statistic about the team except for the wins and losses. You might argue that this is counter-intuitive, since wins are all that matter. In the end, you would be right - wins are all that matter. But not all wins are created equal. That's why you see sportscasters arguing on ESPN over who is a "contender" and who is a "pretender." The question I pose is: what if the answer to that question was hidden in the statistics? What if you could predict before teams show their true colors on the scoreboard how they will fare down the stretch?

Last year I tried to answer those questions by writing an algorithm for each team's statistics and then ranking the teams according to the number my spreadsheet spit out. I shared my results with some friends while I refined the algorithm in an attempt to make it more accurate. Overall, I was pleased with the results, which is why I am now posting this year's results on a blog to be scrutinized by the public. You can check out the rankings for Week 4 below.

Please read the reasoning after the rankings before you comment. These will probably raise a few eyebrows (as they did mine), but a more in-depth explanation of what drives the algorithm I used should shed some light on things. If you're interested in seeing the algorithm, I'm not going to give away the whole thing. But for methodology, I stayed away from "bulk" statistics (yards per game, interceptions, etc.) and stayed with "relative" ones (yards per carry, yards per pass attempt, interception percentage, etc.). When I post these in the future, I'll do more analysis of the rankings themselves, but for the first one I'm going to stick to the reasoning behind my system.

Rank Team Score
1 Houston 36.791
2 Atlanta 23.036
3 New England 22.313
4 San Francisco 20.558
5 Chicago 17.728
6 Baltimore 14.915
7 Arizona 13.448
8 Cincinnati 11.682
9 Minnesota 10.9
10 San Diego 9.057
11 New York Giants 6.745
12 Seattle 5.922
13 Washington 3.995
14 Denver 0.905
15 Green Bay -3.1
16 Tampa Bay -4.3
17 Pittsburgh -4.556
18 Miami -9.55
19 St. Louis -10.415
20 Cleveland -13.689
21 Philadelphia -14.036
22 Jacksonville -15.227
23 Detroit -16.831
24 New Orleans -17.657
25 Dallas -18.722
26 Buffalo -18.949
27 New York Jets -21.332
28 Indianapolis -22.018
29 Carolina -22.932
30 Oakland -24.93
31 Tennessee -38.521
32 Kansas City -41.049

These rankings are simply a compilation of statistics. But what do statistics, on the whole, measure? Execution, execution, execution. In the end, it all breaks down to the fundamentals. Blocking. Tackling. Ball security. Simply put, the numbers you see for each team is a measure of how they have executed over the past four weeks.

Where my personal opinion on the sport came in is which statistics were more important than others. For the most part, all of the ones I chose are treated equally, with exception to ones related to scoring offense, scoring defense, and turnovers. I gave those three preferential treatment, since I believe those are most directly related to success.

Having said that, it's easy to see why the Eagles are twenty-first. Do they have more talent than some of the teams ranked ahead of them? Absolutely. Have they, through four games, executed better than those teams? That's debatable. You can have all the talent in the world, but as we saw last year, it means almost nothing unless you execute.

To avoid sounding like a Negative Nancy, let me say that I do not believe that the Eagles are "lucky" to be 3-1. I watched every game this season and know from every heart-stopping moment that they fought for those wins, sometimes in spite of themselves. They have shown determination and character that they lacked last year, and have earned to be sitting on top of the division. Obviously, determination and character are two things that statistics cannot measure but are probably as equally important. Thus the difference between the execution and the record.

However, it should still stand that the better a team executes, the more likely they are to be successful over the course of a sixteen-game season. The Eagles are where they are in the rankings because they have been careless with the ball and have one three games by four points and lost one by eighteen. With those numbers the success that they have had, while admirable, is likely unsustainable. They will have to continue the progress they showed on Sunday if they are interested in making a postseason run.

While the numbers I use are an aggregate of the season, it is not hard for teams to move up or down. Last year, the Steelers started out about where the Eagles are, got their act together, and finished as a top-ten team in my rankings with a 12-4 record. Other teams - like Tampa Bay - were not as lucky. For the 2012 Eagles, there is much reason for optimism. While talent alone is not enough to win without execution, talent certainly makes it easier to execute. And if there is one thing the Eagles have a lot of, it's talent.

Now comes the time when I ask for your opinion. It's very easy to be skeptical, as I was last year when I saw that the 49ers were in the top ten (remember that they were pretty much unproven at this point last season). But lo and behold, San Francisco never left the top ten as they cruised to thirteen wins. Conversely, teams like the Chargers the Buccaneers led their divisions at one point with a 4-2 record but never climbed out of the mid-twenties. They both proceeded to collapse with a string of losses and missed the playoffs.

Overall, the takeaway here is that for anyone looking beyond the superficial should look at more than wins. In the end, wins are all that matter, but they don't indicate a team's ability to have sustained success. That's why a 15-1 team could lose at home to a 9-7 team in the playoffs. At the moment, the Eagles have a long way to go if they want to win down the stretch, but their performance against the Giants is a good sign. If they continue their improvement, they won't be behind the likes of Cleveland and St. Louis in the rankings for long.

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