For decades, I was a big football fan, the kind of guy who knew the situational specialists for every team. Five months a year, I had a six day week; Sunday belonged to the NFL.
Then, about five years ago I got heavily into advanced statistics (once a geek, always a geek). Rather than focus on the accumulation of points, yards or runs, my newfound interest became the efficiency of that production. Inefficient teams and players tend to be bad long-term investments and efficient ones often go overlooked. In sports, as in business, doing things efficiently bodes best for long-term success.
Baseball got hip to this as the work of Bill James became better known over the last 15 years or so. In basketball, they are encroaching on the fringes of some decision-making circles, and the best front offices even have staffs of number crunchers. Football seemed left out in the cold; NFL stats are all about accumulation with little opportunity to parse the numbers for hidden value. That plus a change in my job situation that put me working all day Sunday pulled me away from the NFL.
In football, context is everything. Is an eight-yard pass play good? Well, if the play occurs on third down and seven yards to go, it's fantastic. If it occurs on first and 10, it's great. If it occurs on third down and 15, it's a reason to plan a snack run.
Also, is a running back that averages three yards per carry any good? Well, not if you compare him to the top backs like LaDainian Tomlinson who has averaged 4.5 yards per carry during his stellar career. However, what if three yards a carry back is a short yardage specialist who is only used on third and two, fourth and one and goal line situations? Then that three yards a carry looks really good.
While 71-yard passes or 53-yard kick returns are always great, what about the other 99 percent of the plays? To effectively measure them, you need a lot more than a conventional Web page of conventional NFL statistics gives you. Enter Pro Football Prospectus 2008, the book is in its fourth year, and it has really come of age. Author Aaron Schatz and his crew, whose work is published regularly at Football Outsiders, have created a book about football that should do for the sport what Bill James did for baseball with his annual Abstracts in the '80s.
What James did in the '80s didn't impact the way the game was played, but he began to change the way the game was watched and appreciated. PFP 2008 can do that for NFL fans. Schatz and his crew have a game-charting project where they watch and detail every play of every game. For instance, they tally which direction a running play occurred (and behind which blockers), in what blocking scheme, what personnel were on the field, what defensive alignment they faced and whether the play was successful on the basis of a defensive failure or an offensive success. Was an incompletion the result of a poor throw, a dropped pass, a good play by the defensive back or even a hurried pass due to put pressure on the QB. They have accumulated data like this for every game since 1995. Yes, their spreadsheets are probably crammed with enough information to crash a good laptop.
From this impressive body of work, they have created a series of metrics that measure how well each player performs above the average replacement player at that position. They have come up with a variety of individual player, team and unit metrics (adjusted line yards, for instance).
Yet the true value of PFP 2008 is that you could read it without paying the slightest heed to their algebraic gymnastics and still enjoy the book immensely. The book starts with two introductory essays about their methods and where they differ from the conventional wisdom, then opens into a series of 32 chapters, one for each NFL team. The essays are exceptionally well written and reading them will likely elevate your sense of the game. They discuss each team in terms of scheme, personnel, drafting philosophy and results. For instance, Denver's recent slide owes to years of poor drafting, something they used to offset via free agency, but then the salary cap expanded quickly and the free agent market dried up. Arizona's rise is the result of several solid drafts, but they might emerge as a power in 2009, not this season.
There are several basic tenets outlined in the early sections of the book that most critical sports fans will know, such as teams run the ball because they are winning, not vice versa and that most players begin their decline between the ages of 28 and 32 with running backs having the shortest career span and quarterbacks having the longest. However, several others' observations are insightful and go against the grain. Field goal percentage is random, but kickoff distance is not; thus teams should choose their kicker on the ability to put kickoffs in the end zone. Teams built on depth are typically better than teams built on star power, since injuries are inevitable. And teams who are very good on first- and second down but sputter on third down are more likely to improve while teams who are great on third down but stumble on first and second are likely to decline.
The authors recognize the exceptions to their rules (the Dallas Cowboys countered both the depth rule and the third down rule en route to a 13-3 season last year). The authors make projections for the 2008 season and among their most interesting picks are that Houston, Minnesota and Tampa Bay should continue their rise into the elite. The New York Giants are closer to the 10-6 team that regular-season watchers saw than the playoff Cinderella that won the Super Bowl. Some good teams that went south quickly last season like the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs figure to rebound this year and good teams that benefited from an easy schedule like Tennessee figure to struggle a bit.
Following the team evaluations, the book features individual comments on every skill player and closes with a fascinating series of essays on the next vistas for this sort of analysis: the impact of injuries, the medical staffs of each team, improving the way in which teams scout collegiate talent (right now, the draft is a very expensive crapshoot) and how to rank college teams. Oh yes, there are also ratings that will be of good use for fantasy-football enthusiasts.
There are many books that delve deeply into sports statistics but none on the market that quite so convincingly sell the love of the game as well as Pro Football Prospectus 2008. Any fan that gets it is likely to start counting down the hours until opening kickoff.
Martin Johnson is a New York writer.