How to Diagnose a Stupid Stat & Avoid Overusing It
Through the first six weeks of the season, every broadcaster (play-by-play, color, analyst, and sideline reporter) was so eager to mention that the New England Patriots were the first team in league history to allow a 300 yard passer in six straight games. This is a stupid stat. Now, it is not nearly as stupid as some of the stats you see like, “well the Pittsburgh Pirates are 4-1 this year in Tuesday matinee games while wearing their alternate uniforms and playing Meek Mill in the clubhouse.” No. Everybody knows that is a stupid stat. However, where the stupid stat gets really dangerous is when it reveals whether or not the person conveying the message actually understands the point of the game. Some stupid stats like the matinee one above can be fun and add some life to the broadcast because it is so obviously stupid, but other stupid stats can be dangerous. Ask yourself one question when trying to diagnose a stupid stat; does this stat get to the heart of how to win the game?
Yards is a really important stat in football… for fantasy purposes. Like any red-blooded American who enjoys football, I find fantasy to be a fun way to interact with long-lost buddies that are spread throughout the globe. Talking trash to friends and worrying about a 9-9 Titans/Browns overtime game would not be nearly as much fun without fantasy football (and might be cause to go searching up the definition of Masochist). But for all the awesomeness (and it is awesome) of fantasy football, it has skewed people’s understanding of the actual game of football and what is the most important quality; scoring more points than your opponent.
Yards is honestly a tangential stat in the game of football. Points and points allowed are the most important football stats and no other stats come close. If you want to use yards to show how consistent an offense is at moving the ball, that is fine. If you want to show yards allowed to reveal to the audience that the current defense on the field is not a consistent three-and-out type, go ahead and float your boat. But if you use yards as a means to convey the dominance of an offense or defense and do not IMMEDIATELY follow that up with a points statistic, you are using yards as a stupid stat and have fallen into the stupid stat trap.
What Does the Stupid Stat Tell You
Yards are all well and good, but only if they lead to points. Take for example a drive from each of the Patriots last two weeks. In Week Six against the Patriots, the New York Jets were down 24-14 for their first drive of the fourth quarter, which started at their own 25-yard line after a touchback. In the next 11 plays the Jets drove all the way down to the Patriots’ four-yard line. 35 of those 71 yards were through the air for Josh McCown, the Jets’ quarterback. The rest of the yards were a combination of running plays and penalties. Now, if you want to use this drive as a way to say the Patriots defense was getting gashed for yards on first and second down, you would be right (the Jets only had to convert one third down on the drive, and that was a 3rd & 1). That tells you how well the Jets were moving the ball. In this case yards is a good stat. However, this was the drive that ended with the Austin Sefarian-Jenkins fumble out of the end zone. Technically the Patriots allowed 74 of a possible 75 yards on this drive. Yet, the drive resulted in absolutely no points. Which is more important, the 74 or the zero?
The second drive in question comes from the Patriots’ Sunday night game against the Atlanta Falcons. Third quarter this time and the Falcons are down 20-0 so they need a massive drive ending in points. They start from their own 24 yard line. The Patriots come out in a very soft shell that looks eerily similar to a prevent defense. Seven plays later the Falcons are 2nd & goal from the Patriots’ 10 (it is now also the fourth quarter). They throw a quick corner to Mohamed Sanu who comes down with it and gets pushed out at the one-yard line. On the next play, the Falcons try a play-action roll out, but Matt Ryan’s pass is a touch behind Julio Jones and gets batted away by Malcolm Butler.
The next play is fourth & goal from the one. The Falcons need points. The Falcons have gone as far as they can possibly go on the drive without scoring (and the Patriots’ defense has allowed those yards obviously). However, the Falcons try a jet sweep with Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Flower snuffs it out and Kyle Van Noy wrangles Gabriel to the ground for the turnover on downs. 75 out of a possible 76 yards for the Falcons… and the drive produces no points. Two drives where the Patriots allow 149 of a possible 151 yards… an outrageous amount for yards allowed… and zero points out of a possible 14. Patriots yards allowed=atrocious. Patriots points allowed=perfect. Which do you think Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia worry about more?
Even Experts Get Fooled by the Stupid Stat
I am harping on the yards allowed stat because if you point to yards allowed to say, “this defense is good” or “this defense is bad” without IMMEDIATELY bringing up “points allowed,” you are telling your listeners, “I do not understand what is actually important in football.” It gets worse because supposedly smart writers like Bill Barnwell love to harp about “yards allowed,” to say the Patriots defense is a smoke-screen.
That is entirely the point. Where have you been? The reason everyone refers to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia’s defense as “bend but don’t break,” is because they constantly create defenses to allow yards, not points. They understand this simple formula: points>yards. Now sometimes it does not work (the Patriots losses this year: 42 points allowed to the Chiefs and 33 to the Panthers), but most of the time it does (best scoring defense last year and the points allowed in wins this year: 20, 33, 14, 17, 7).
Barnwell already has a primer on the Falcons/Patriots game from Sunday night. In it he has a section entitled, “I’m Not Sure the Patriots’ Defense is ‘Fixed.'” Before reading I knew he was going to say something about yards and I was right; “if you want to mark a line in the sand after Week 4, you have to ignore Josh McCown throwing for 354 yards against the Pats in a tight game in Week 6.” No, I do not want to mark a line in the sand, but yes, I do want to throw away the 354 yards from Josh McCown because I find the 17 to be of much more importance than the 354. The Patriots defense is still dead last in yards allowed (426.7, a vast improvement from the 440.7 they entered the game with–Colts are 31st with 425.4), but went from 30th in points allowed (26.5) to 24th (23.7).
Bill Barnwell is a pretty good writer and following his work will give you a better understanding of football in general. He does a good job of pointing out in his article that the Patriots have been blessed the last several weeks with opposing kickers going stone cold (1-for-6), and the defense is allowing just 2.6 points per red zone possession (i.e. 0.4 points less than a field goal). He is right that that type of production is unsustainable, but this is also a defense that last year was 6th in red zone points allowed and is dominating in that statistic the last three weeks while the defense in general in that span has allowed 14, 17, and 7 points. Plus, they just finished off the part of their schedule inundated with their kryptonite (mobile quarterbacks) so things appear to be getting better for the Patriots defense, but you would have already known that if you were paying attention to the important stat (point scored) versus a stupid stat (yards allowed).
Stupid stats are everywhere in sports. Entire game philosophies have turned on people recognizing an infatuation with unimportant stats and finding what was actually important (Billy Beane with the Oakland Athletics turning to OBP and Runs is the easiest example of this). When watching a game, especially in today’s viewing culture of fantasy leagues and massive analytics, it is easy to get lost in the dense jungle of stupid stats. So the next time a broadcaster relays a stat, parse whether or not it is actually important. In football, if the point is to score and not allow the opponent to score, is Time of Possession really that important? Are yards more important than points or is it the other way around? In baseball, if the pitcher’s job is to not allow runs and he has a 10.0 K/9, but a 5.42 ERA, is he actually good at his job or just a good fascist? In hockey, save percentage can tell you how many goals the netminder might allow per 100 shots, but how many goals is he allowing per game… and which is more important? So next time a stat comes across your screen, take it in, but think for yourself, why am I being told this stat? Is it because it will add something of importance to the game or is this just another stupid stat to waste your time.