I’m anything but an anti-stathead. Bill James’ New Historical Baseball Abstract changed my way of thinking about sports forever. The advanced statistical work you can read about at our sister sites Broad Street Hockey and Liberty Ballers is tremendous.
But football is a different game. Team based stats, such as Football Outsiders DVOA and Brian Burke’s now blackboxed Win Probability and Expected Points are excellent, much better indicators of a team’s ability than the raw stats we still lean on. We’ve long pointed out here at BGN that using counting stats to evaluate Chip Kelly’s team is an exercise in futility because of the sheer amount of plays run, that advanced stats, and even simple rate stats, paint a much better picture. We’re not at a perfect level of team based stats, but we’re pretty close.
Individual stats though, we’re in the dark age. And we’ll never step completely into the light. The last few weeks on Twitter, there’s a been a conflict between Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders and Eagles fans over Kacsmar’s declaration that Carson Wentz hasn’t been as good as advertised because of his average air yards per throw. It’s a perfect example of the flaw of football statistics for individual players: players don’t have much control.
In baseball there are game plans but ultimately the game is largely a series of individuals performing events. Mike Trout hits home runs because he can hit the cover off a ball and the pitcher threw him a pitch he knock out of the park. What his coaches and teammates do during a game doesn’t contribute to his ability to hit a curveball. Hockey and basketball also have set plays, but a significant amount of the game is played in transition. The Flyers get Shayne Gostisbehere the puck at the point on the power play to take advantage of his incredible slap shot, but when he needles an assist to Claude Giroux from the neutral zone, that’s mostly innate talent.
The NFL doesn’t have that. Nearly everything a player does is determined by their coaches, and by the circumstances of the game. And that’s why air yards is a worthless indicator of ability. It’s a fairly useful descriptor of the philosophy of a team’s offense, but that’s it. When Carson Wentz throws a screen pass that lowers his air yards, he can’t do anything about that. That’s the play Doug Pederson called, and unless there’s something Wentz sees pre-snap that requires him to check out of the play, that’s the play the Eagles are going to run. It’s not Wentz’s fault that Pederson comes from the most screen pass happy team in the league. It’s not Wentz’s fault that none of his receivers can consistently get separation downfield that allow the Eagles to have a more vertical attack. All through training camp, Wentz was airing it out. He’s certainly not afraid to throw deep.
The football statistical revolution is underway, but it’s headed in some wrong directions. Air yards as anything but a descriptor of how a team chooses or is forced to play is a worthless stat, a step above baseball’s runs scored+RBI-HR, and on the same level as +/- in hockey. Pay no attention to it.
1 The Eagles were wrong to start Vaitai, but they’re right to keep him there
The Eagles front office and coaching staff have gotten a lot of things right this year, but starting Halapoulivaati Vaitai rather than move over Allen Barbre wasn’t one of them. But once they did, they had to commit to it. This season is a rebuilding one, and while it could and arguably has cost the team a win, getting Vaitai as much experience as possible to see if he can be a starter at RT is valuable. And pulling a rookie after one game is as surefire a way to destroy his confidence as there is. There’s a good chance Vaitai isn’t the answer at right tackle. But we’ll never know if he just sits on the bench.
2 And they should keep playing the kids
It’s not just Vaitai who the Eagles need to give playing time too. Jalen Mills has had rough starts and needs to be caddied at times, and his future is in the slot due to his lack of long speed, but the only way he’s going to get better is playing. Same with Wendell Smallwood, who has played well in spurts and could use (and looks to get) more playing time. The priority for this offseason should be to get Wentz better weapons and more protection, and they have some in-house candidates to vet first.
3 But they’re also right to make a change
Connor Barwin as a pass rusher just isn’t working. It was entirely predictable. Barwin’s a really good linebacker in a 3-4. As a defensive end, he’s really ineffective. He’s best in space, whether it be in coverage or shooting into a gap created by a defensive lineman, put in a one on one situation and he’s limited. He should be the third most used DE, not the most used DL on the Eagles. Vinny Curry can get to the quarterback, and deserves more playing time. Thankfully, that’s changing starting this week.
4 My right to bare arms
As most of you know, I’m not exactly Sam “Sleeves” Bradford’s biggest fan. On Sunday, he’s probably going to play well and beat the Eagles. Or he could play poorly and still beat the Eagles, he could turn the ball over inside his own 20 twice and the Eagles could walk away with only six points (which you could say about a lot of teams against the Vikings defense) and the Vikings could still romp. Or, best of all of course, the Eagles could win. Either way I’m going to have a very strong reaction. You’ve been warned.
But…. if he plays well, that’s good for my fantasy team!
Desperate times call for desperate measures pic.twitter.com/AjajKbg8Wj— Dave Mangels (@Southern_Philly) October 19, 2016