Posts Tagged ‘Football’

Does Defense Win Championships?

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

So Super Bowl XVIII went exactly as expected. Opening safety. Broncos shut down. Seattle dominating.

Well, it wasn’t as expected, obviously. But if you listen to the Sports Media Twerps, we should have foreseen it because “defense wins championships”. If you put a great defense against a great offense, especially in the playoffs, the defense will win. Right?

Right?

Well, Joe Posnanski threw a little bit of cold water on this:

The ultimate sports cliche was trotted out again and again on Sunday: Defense wins championships. I don’t believe that’s actually true. Great defense certainly CAN win championships but great offense can too. For every dominant defense like Seattle, I can point to a dominant offense like Kurt Warner’s Rams team; you talk about the great defense of the 2008 Steelers, I point to the great offense of the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

But I think there is SOMETHING to the cliche, and it’s this: We do often forget the power of great defense. Great offense is easier to see, easier to understand, easier to build up in our imaginations. I think it was easier to imagine the Broncos scoring a lot of points against Seattle because we saw them score so many points all year; those touchdowns are vibrant in our minds. So then we watch a great defense dominate the way the Seahawks’ did, and it’s jolting, it’s visually gripping, and we think: “Great defense is better than great offense. Great defense wins championships.”

And the next time a great offense comes along, we start the whole process over.

I would rephrase that a little bit. Great offenses capture our attention. So when they flop in the playoffs, we notice. Great defenses, unless they are historically great, tend to be missed. So when they flop in the playoffs, we don’t notice.

This tendency has been exacerbated the last few years because of the changes in the game. Every year, records are being set for scoring so whichever offense happens to be the best is hailed as the greatest offense of all time. This is clearly insane. If Jerry Rice’s 49ers — who led the league in scoring six times and won two Super Bowls in those years — were around today, they would be putting up similar numbers. The game has changed. And that tends to warp our perception. So when we see record-setting offenses stopped in the Super Bowl, we immediately jump to the conclusion that defense wins championships. After all, if Manning’s record-shattering offense can’t win the big game, that must mean offense is over-rated, right?

I wanted to look at this systematically and without a bias toward recent years. So I went through all 48 NFL post-seasons and tracked the records of the league’s best offenses and best defenses. I kept it simple, just looking at total points. Doubtless, someone like Football Outsiders can use a more sophisticated metric, but I wanted to do this in a couple of hours with a web browser and a spreadsheet.

So does defense win championships?

  • The league’s best offenses were 65-33 in the post-season. The league’s best defenses were 66-33. So, defense doesn’t win championships.
  • Or maybe it does. Top offenses were 10-12 in the Super Bowl while top defenses were 14-5. When the two have faced off, the top defenses were 4-1.
  • Or maybe not. Overall, top defenses were more likely to fall in the divisional and wild card rounds. Outside of the Super Bowl, top offenses were 3-3.
  • Or maybe it does. There have been some great offenses — Fouts’ Chargers, Marino’s Dolphins, Kelly’s Bills, the Patriots of the last seven years — that have failed to win championships.
  • Or not. Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters didn’t win a title. Atlanta’s great ’78 defense didn’t even make the playoffs. The early 80′s Eagles couldn’t win one. Chicago won the Super Bowl in ’86, but that year they also had a great offense. They didn’t make the Super Bowl again despite having the best defense in two of the next three years. New Orleans had a great defense in the early 90′s that went nowhere.
  • Or maybe it does. In the last 15 years, the top defense has won five Super Bowls while the top offense has won one.
  • or maybe not. During the 90′s, the top offense won five Super Bowls in nine years while the top defense won twice. And one of those years, the top offense and defense was the same team.
  • My point is that you can cherry-pick these data all you want to make any point you want. But based on looking at all the data, I would say that Joe is right. Defense doesn’t win championships; but it can. So can offense. You could make a slight case that when defense is at a premium, having a great defense can give a team an advantage (as it has for the last decade). And when offense is at a premium, having a great offense can give a team an advantage. But in the end, there are many ways to win a Super Bowl. The best way is to be good at everything.

    The Authentic Games Metric

    Thursday, December 5th, 2013

    In Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s most recent column, he suggested picking post-season favorites based on what he calls Authentic Games:

    Power rankings, strength-of-schedule, likes on Facebook — there are many ways to assess NFL teams. As the home stretch approaches, Tuesday Morning Quarterback makes his annual contribution: the Authentic Games metric.

    Authentic Games are those against other potent teams. The regular season is a smorgasbord of strong and weak; in the postseason, only strong opponents trot onto the field. That makes how a team performs against equal-caliber opposition the gauge TMQ likes.

    The Authentic metric values most W’s over best percentage. Thus I rank the Denver Broncos at 4-2 ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts at 3-1. The reasoning is that the more wins a team has versus power opponents, the better prepared the team is for the postseason.

    In principle, the Authentic Games Metric makes sense. A great team should be able to beat other great teams rather than pounding on cupcakes. But I was immediately suspicious because it plugs into what I call the Grand Championship Delusion: the belief that the team that wins the championship is always or even usually the best team. We want desperately to believe that the team that wins the title is not a team that had a good season and then got hot. Or a team that had a good season and then had a few breaks go their way. We want to believe that they possess some ineffable quality — clutchiness, manliness, moxie — that makes them win. And the idea that their record in “Authentic Games” is tempting as a way to measure their supposed manliness.

    However, once my skepticism was aroused, I came up with numerous problems with the Authentic Games Metric:

  • There is a great deal of parity in the NFL. If you opened up the playoffs to all 32 teams, we would doubtless see the occasional one seed upset by the occasional 16 seed. And the likelihood of upsets only increases as the teams become closer in quality. A team’s record in a 16-game season is subject to enough random variation, chance plays, tipped passed and blown calls. When you narrow it down to 2-6 “Authentic Games” between teams of near-equal quality, you’re basically just looking at noise.
  • This is born out by research that Football Outsiders has done: great teams are usually defined by their ability to dominate lesser teams not win close games. A great team puts games out of reach; a lucky team wins the nail-biters.
  • Even if Authentic Games gave you some read on who is really the best team in the NFL, applying those to playoffs results invokes even more uncertainty. You’re now dealing with an even smaller sample of 11 games involving teams that are nearly equal in quality.
  • Basically, I think this is yet another attempt to find the “special sauce” that would enable us to know why some some #5 seeds win the Super Bowl while #1 seeds fail. Because, to our simian brains, “football happens” isn’t enough. We don’t want to believe that the winner is a result of team quality convolved with a lot of luck and random chance. We don’t want to believe that a team wins the Super Bowl because they just happen to have three or four good games in a row. No, there has to be a reason behind the madness.

    Anyway, here’s what I did to test the Authentic Games Metric:

    I took all 60 playoffs teams from the last five years. I then went through their schedules and kept track of how they did against other playoff contenders. I then tracked how well this predicted playoff results. In the case of a tie, I went with the team that had more Authentic Games. Since we are subject to noise, I did a second test just looking at strong predictions — where one team was two or more games over or under .500 against fellow playoff teams during the regular season and their opponent was not.

    As a control, I then checked predictions made based purely on their regular season record (with a tie going to the higher seeded team) or which team had home-field advantage. I then checked against predictions based on Football Outsider’s team rankings.

    The result? It really isn’t even close. Teams that won the most Authentic Games were 25-25 in their matchups. For strong predictions, teams were 17-18. Essentially, the Authentic Games Metric is the same as flipping a coin. Of course, using the regular season records was 27-28, which bears out TMQ’s criticism that seeding and the regular season don’t tell you nearly enough about the relative quality of the best team.

    However, I did find two predictors that were useful. One was homefield advantage. Home teams were 30-20 in the playoffs. Even if you discount home teams in the divisional round, who have had a bye while their opponent was playing, home teams still win 60% of the time (I’m obviously excluding the Super Bowl here).

    Of similar quality was Football Outsider’s team efficiency ratings, which went 32-23. Not great, but pretty decent all things considered. FO would be the first to admit that predicting the winner in a football game is a fool’s business. Not only do you have the problem of random luck and chance, you have the problem that football is about matchups. A team may be, by some metric, the best. But if they have a weak secondary, they can get torched by a “lesser” team.

    Breaking it down by year reveals just how random the Authentic Game metric is:

  • In 2008, Arizona went 1-4 in authentic games and came within a hair of winning the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Indianapolis (5-1) died in the first round against San Diego (0-5). Philly (4-2) made the conference final but only because they played New York, also 4-2.
  • In 2009, Indianapolis and New Orleans were both 3-1 in Authentic Games, which would seem to give the metric some credence. But Minnesota (4-1) died in the conference final while Baltimore (1-6) made the divisional round. This was actually the best year for the Authentic Games Metric.
  • In 2010, Pittsburgh (2-4) made the Super Bowl while New England (6-1) died in the first round. The AFC final matches two 2-4 teams in Pittsburgh and New York.
  • In 2011, Baltimore and Green Bay went 6-0 in Authentic Games. Only Baltimore even made the conference final. The New York Giants went 1-3 and won the Super Bowl. Detroit went 1-5 and lost in the first round. New Orleans went 5-1 and lost in the division round. Atlanta went 1-4 and lost in the first round. San Francisco went 4-1 and lost the conference title game. Instead of a matchup of Baltimore (6-0) and Green Bay (6-0) we got New England (1-2) against New York (1-3).
  • In 2012, Seattle was 4-1 in Authentic Games and lost in the divisional round. Green Bay went 2-4 and lost in the division round; Baltimore went 2-4 and won the Super Bowl. Instead of Seattle (4-1) against Indianapolis (3-2), we got Baltimore (2-4) against San Francisco (3-2).
  • You see? You can occasionally pick out a team that did well in both Authentic Games and the playoffs but it’s mostly random. Part of this is, again, the vicissitudes of football. But FO’s rankings don’t do too badly. I think it’s more of a flaw in the Authentic Games metric itself. Because a metric based on 2-6 games is going to be worse, not better, than one based on 16.

    If you want to predict how the NFL post-season will go, here’s my system:

    1) When in doubt, pick the home team or the team with better FO ranking.
    2) Have a lot of doubt.

    The Agony of Atlanta

    Friday, October 4th, 2013

    The most miserable sports town in America is, without a doubt, Cleveland*. The Indians have not won a world series since 1948 and the city had a great team in the late 90′s that fell just shy (in heart-breaking fashion in 1997). Only the Cubs have a longer world series drought. The Cleveland Browns have not won a championship since 1964, although they have a lot more company in their misery than the Tribe do (for all the NFL’s talk of competitive balance, they are far more dominated by franchises than baseball). The Browns also had heart-breaking losses in the 1980′s. The Cleveland Cavaliers have not won a title in any of their 43 seasons. During the last decade, they had one of the best players in league history but couldn’t win a title. He then ran off to Miami, where he’s won two.

    That’s 157 years of misery for Cleveland fans and 49 years since they could claim to be champions. They have it the worst. There are 20 cities in North America that have at least three major sports teams. The second longest drought is Minnesota at 22 years (and Washington, but the Ravens have won twice since then). And Clevelanders have born this burden with about 6% of the whining with which Boston fans endured the Red Sox drought while their Celtics were dominating the universe.

    However, I would argue that Atlanta comes in second in sports agony**. Consider:

  • The Atlanta Braves have won one title in almost half a century of play. They were an awful team for their first 25 years — Lewis Grizzard once joked that Michael Jackson and the Atlanta Braves had one thing in common: they both wore one glove for no apparent reason. They then turned into one of the best franchises in sports. They have had two losing season in the last 23 years and went to the post-season 14 straight times. But they only won one title, including heart-breaking loses in 1991 and 1996. In recent years, they have flamed out every year and seem well on their way this year. The last time they even won a post-season series was 2001. Throughout the 90′s they lost on freak events, such as horrific umpiring in ’96 series. Last year, they lost on a fluke bad call.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have also gone nearly half a century without a title. They were also awful for a long time but have recently been one of the better franchises in the NFL, with five straight winning seasons. They have flamed out in the playoffs every time, only making one Super Bowl during their existence. Last year, they lost on a batted down fourth and goal pass that would have won the game.
  • The Hawks have not won a title since moving to Atlanta in 1968. During that time, they have made the playoffs 29 times and had the best conference record 4 times. They have not made an NBA final. They have not even made the conference final since 1970.
  • For good measure, the Atlanta flames played eight years and made the playoffs six times. The Atlanta Thrashers played eleven years and made the playoffs once. Neither team even made it to a semi-final.
  • The Georgia Bulldogs won a national championship in 1980. They lost the championship the next two years. Since then, Georgia has not made a title game. Over the last few years, they have been an SEC powerhouse but can’t put together a championship season. Last year, they lost the SEC title and a possible trip to the BCS title game when a pass was deflected and caught by a receiver, letting time run out inside Alabama’s five. Georgia Tech split a title in 1990 and have not done much since. That title, incidentally, should not have been split. It only was because of Colorado’s fifth down play.
  • Last year was particularly hideous for Atlanta sports fans. The Falcons, Dawgs and Braves all went down on fluke plays falling literally yards shy of a Super Bowl, a BCS title game and an NLDS appearance, respectively. And this year looks no better. The Falcons are already 1-3 and have lost three games because of an inability to punch it in from the red zone. The Dawgs lost a close game to Clemson and have looked shaky on defense. The Braves lost tonight and have looked hapless over the last few weeks.

    My brother thinks Georgia teams are cursed. I’m starting to believe him.

    (*After I posted this, the Great Posnanski posted similar thoughts.)

    (** Being me, I actually compiled a table for this. There are 20 metro areas that have three or more sports teams and six more that have had three at some point in the last 50 years. I compiled the number of championships and the number of years played since 1963. Some New Yorkers or Chicagoans may take offense at my math since I’m combining teams that play in the same city. Meh. I figure if you’re a Yankees fan and can’t get some small pleasure from the Mets winning a World Series, that’s your problem. A more meritorious gripe might be leveled at my merging of San Francisco and Oakland as well as Washington and Baltimore. But there is a lot of overlap between those fans.

    Anyway, every city has won at least one championship in the last fifty years. New York, LA, San Francisco-Oakland, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh have at least ten. New Yorkers, if you throw in the Islanders and Devils — and I will — have basically enjoyed a championship every other year. All good and decent sports fans should cheer against New York teams. I mean, unless they’re from New York. The other cities have enjoyed a title once every 2-5 years.

    The cities with only one title? Seattle, San Diego, Cleveland, Atlanta and Phoenix. If you divide the number of seasons by the number of titles, the most barren cities are Phoenix (1 title every 102 seasons), Cleveland (1 every 144), San Diego (1 every 115) and Kansas City (1 every 104).

    Atlanta, however, comes in at 1 championship in 158 seasons of sports. Now that’s misery.)

    PS: Some more facts that came to me this morning:

  • Up until 1995, the only championship any Atlanta team had ever won was the Atlanta Chiefs, who won the inaugural season of the North American Soccer League.
  • Before then, you have the minor league Atlanta Crackers. Seriously.
  • 1991 was the first time any major championship was played within 500 miles of Atlanta.
  • Tebow Out of NYC

    Monday, April 29th, 2013

    Tim Tebow was released by the Jets today, ending one of the most baffling sports acquisitions I have ever witnessed.

    When Tebow was with the Broncos, he crossed me as a poor man’s Doug Flutie — a QB who lacked some essential tool (height in Flutie’s case; passing ability in Tebow’s) but nevertheless found ways to win. I was dubious that it could be sustained. But it seemed like he’d found a niche — a team with a great running game and offensive line — where his skills were useful.

    When the Jets took him, I hoped they would find some creative ways to use him and Sanchez. Two QB sets, especially at the goal line; wildcat formations; using Tebow as running back who could sometimes pass. Instead, the nailed him to the bench and used him as an alternative to Sanchez. But, without the Bronco’s running game, that wasn’t going to work. And it didn’t. It’s obvious now that Tebow can never be a feature QB.

    However, I have to disagree with those, like ESPN, who are saying this is the end of the road for Tebow. He’s still young, still well-liked and still has some skills that will make your jaw drop. Some team is going to sign him for publicity if nothing else.

    But what I would really like to see is Tebow fall into the hands of a Belichick-like unconventional guru; someone who could use what Tebow does well (run, lead, use his instincts) without exposing what he does poorly (pass). Someone who would put in a two-QB set at the line to give defenses fits.

    In an odd way, I’m reminded of Reggie Bush. This is a bit of a stretch, since Bush was heavily touted coming out of college (although, in a post that disappeared in the event horizon, I was skeptical). But he never became the stud that everyone thought he would. Oh, he was good. But until 2011, he’d never a thousand yard season. What the Dolphins seemed to figure out was that he wasn’t an MVP type who could pound out 350 carries a year and gain 2000 yards from scrimmage. But there was nothing wrong with that. He was a guy who could run 200 times, catch 40-50 passes and get 1500 yards from scrimmage. And that guy was very very useful.

    Whoever picks up Tebow needs to stop squeezing him into a pocket passer hole. Tebow is not that guy and never will be. But he is a guy who could throw 50-100 passes a year, run for a thousand yards, score few touchdowns and drive opposing defenses crazy. And he’s only 25 years old.

    Easterbrook Can’t Read

    Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

    The frustrating thing about Gregg Easterbrook is that he often makes good points but goes too far in his argument. Today’s TMQ on how rivals.com ratings of high school players are a bit overblown:

    Rachel Bachman shows that 54 percent of the high schoolers that earned a five-star ranking, the top classification, not only were not drafted high by the NFL, they were never drafted at all.

    High school football players — being on Rivals, the ESPN 150 or any similar ranking is a big thrill and a way to get college coaches to call your cellphone. But being listed has NOTHING to do with whether your athletic career will go well and might even hold you back by swelling your head.

    A 46% chance of being drafted in the NFL is really good. As Bachman notes, only 10-20% of lower-ranked prospects get drafted. So a five-star prospect is 2-5 times more likely to end up in the NFL than a lower-ranked prospect. And probably even more likely to be there than unranked prospects.

    Scouting is a difficult business. All sports have busts and unexpected stars, despite the tens of millions spent on scouting. It’s fair to say that the rivals.com ranking is no a guarantee of success. But to say it is unrelated to success is bullshit, because it clearly is.

    Falcon Flight

    Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

    I still like Tuesday Morning Quarterback, but Gregg Easterbook’s ignorant shooting from the hip is beginning to grate.

    TMQ continues to think Atlanta has become so obsessed with its no-huddle offense — everything called at the line, with multiple checks before the snap — that the Falcons are losing track of the fundamentals. When receivers and linemen don’t get the actual call till two seconds before the snap — Matt Ryan sometimes uses more than one “sim” call before he checks to the real play — there just isn’t time to get set mentally.

    Atlanta is 22-3 when it features the run and Michael Turner rushes for at least 100 yards. Of course, some of those games are ones in which Turner got carries because the Falcons had a second-half lead. But the Falcons are trying to be too fancy; they need to go back to basics. The Packers, Patriots and Saints can be super-quick fancy. Ryan is good but he’s not Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees.

    This is categorical garbage. Atlanta’s season turned around when they de-emphasized their moderately effective running game and leaned more on Matt Ryan. Early in the season, they were fading in the second half because Michael Turner is not the star he was and their running game couldn’t ice games. Don’t believe me. Try Football Outsiders who rank Atlanta with the 8th best passing game and 25th best rushing game. They also rank Turner as the 28th most effective RB, despite the 1300 yards. Meanwhile, Ryan is rated as the 7th best QB in the league. He’s not Rogers, Brady or Brees, but he’s comfortably in the same tier as Manning, Stafford, Romo and Rivers.

    Update When Easterbrook gets his facts, he’s good. The article contains a debunking of the “we’re slashing fire departments” lie making its way through progressive circles.

    Saturday Linkorama

    Saturday, September 24th, 2011
  • Holy crap. Freakonomics backs me up on how spineless and useless NFL pre-season picks are. I really should be an economist.
  • Cracked takes on Doctor Who. It’s so weird to see this show become so popular. When I was a kid, Whovians were looked down on by Trekkies.
  • What 40 years of war has done to Kabul.
  • I’m not sure about this story. The Drug Warriors have a noted tendency to overstate their case, as does the CDC.
  • I can’t tell is this vampire kit is a real thing from the 19th century or somebody’s art project.
  • Another missing link has been found. But remember, finding a transitional fossil just means you need to find two more.
  • If it weren’t for his Fair Tax position, I’d really like Gary Johnson.
  • Friday Linkorama

    Saturday, April 9th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • Was Travels with Charley a sham? Seems so.
  • Well, I’m glad to see that someone wants to take football concussions seriously.
  • Yes.
  • This piece by O’Rourke hits my reaction to Atlas Shrugged pretty accurately. It’s good. As a philosophy, it has its flaws. But it exposes the true villainy of collectivism and the virtue of self-determination.
  • Political links:

  • This is how conservatives should do justice.
  • No, no, no, no, no no, no. TARP did not turn a profit. No way. No how. They just moved money around to make it seem like they did.
  • The latest from the Obama conspiracy nuts: his knee was in NY while he was in Kenya.
  • It’s a good week: free trade is moving forward.
  • My political view are libertarian-conservative, not Republican. So I’m more than happy to praise a Democrat, even a Cuomo, when he’s doing the right thing.