Midfield Kickoffs and Optimizing Winning

Two Sundays ago, the Cowboys and Eagles squared off in a game that ultimately decided the division title. While the Cowboys did win the game with a dominating performance in the final third of the game, the frequency of kick-offs from midfield and the lack of aggression by the kicking team seems peculiar. Personal foul penalties by the defense on plays resulting in a touchdown, successful extra point attempts, or dead-ball are enforced on the kick-off. Those fifteen yards lead to the ball being kicked from the fifty yard line. From there, the expected win probability and expected points can be calculated.

Dallas’s WP and EP for an onside kick up 28-24, 0:39 remaining in the 3rd Quarter

Dallas WP

After a penalty on Nolan Carroll for unnecessary roughness after a fourth Cowboys’ touchdown, the Cowboys were presented with this scenario. Above is a chart that gives the Win probability and Expected Points probability that Dallas had at the time of the kickoff, according to Brian Burke’s EP and WP calculator. Assuming that the kickoff would be a touchback is conservative as the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective calculated (Note: Jeremy Maclin would return the kick to Philadelphia’s 21-yard line. The HSAC also states that surprise onside kicks were successful 60% of the time from 2001-2010, albeit a small sample size. For an onside kick to be worth it in this situation a team must expect that it would convert about 28% of its surprise onside kick. That is less than half the league rate over that ten year span. Even including expected onside kicks, the success rate of onside kicks is 35%, a difference significant enough to make the risk worthwhile.

The main problem here is convincing a team to put this in action. If Jason Garrett opted to take the onside kick and failed, the media would have thought he was absurd for taking an onside kick with the lead, despite the mathematical evidence to support the reasoning. When Jeff Fisher took a field goal down nine from Arizona’s goal line a few weeks ago, Grantland writer Bill Barnwell made a keen observation on his podcast: many coaches make decisions that delays the inevitably of a loss rather than optimizing their chances of winning. Many coaches choose to make conservative decisions to remain in a closer game for a longer period rather than take a risk that could severely diminish their team’s chances of winning. Regardless, Week 17 will see a lot of desperate teams on the cusp of a playoff berth willing to make bolder decisions. Maybe one will even attempt an onside kick from midfield.

The Year of the Rookie Wide Receiver

Editor’s Note: Article written prior to Cooks’s injury announcement

“Rookie wide receivers just do not produce at the same level as veterans” was the belief many analysts and fans came with entering the season. Last year, Keenan Allen and Cordarelle Patterson caught the eyes of casual fans, while DeAndre Hopkins and Marlon Brown quietly produced solid seasons. Even so, the class, as a whole was underwhelming, and that is what history tells us to expect. While one or two rookies might put up great seasons, usually rookie wide receivers do not produce at a high level. The adjustment from a college secondary and a professional one is usually too great. Rookies only have a few months to learn the routes and develop a relationship with their quarterbacks. While all this may be true this year’s rookie class is debunking all those theories.

Averages for Top 5 Rookie Wide Receivers/Tight Ends by Year

Top 5 WR

The 2014 group, while only projections based on production per game and games remaining, is heads and heels better than any season in this century. The top five, based on number of receptions, contains two possession receivers (Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson) and three home-run hitters (Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans, and Sammy Watkins). While the production for these wideouts are quite incredible, it becomes a discussion of talent plus opportunity. The top five includes four first round picks and one second round pick. For Cooks, the rapid decline of Marques Colston, the inconsistency of Kenny Stills, and the lack of a slot receiver created more chances for the Oregon State Beaver. Robinson benefitted from the suspension of Justin Blackmon and the injury woes of Cecil Shorts III. Benjamin and Watkins were expected to jump in and be the primary wide receiver. Additionally, the Buffalo Bills and the Carolina Panthers have no wide receiver depth after their two rookies. The Buccaneers almost jettisoned pro bowler Vincent Jackson a month ago which probably would boost Evans’s numbers even more as he would become the sole skill player on the team.

Averages for Top 10 Rookie Wide Receivers/Tight Ends by Year
Top 10 WRs

The class only becomes more impressive, when the top 10 wide receivers are compared year by year. The crop at the top also consists of high picks: Jordan Matthews (2nd), Jarvis Landry (2nd), Jace Amaro (2nd), John Brown (3rd), and Odell Beckham Jr. (1st). It is rare to see rookies get so much field time, but for each team on the list, there was no number two target in their offenses. The talent matched the projection and the opportunity was there. What is happening this season is rare in that there were no busts nor injuries that hampered their rookie seasons, and all ten have been able to pick up their offenses quickly. The stars aligned and the 2014 wide receivers and tight ends are combining to put up unbelievable statistics as shown by the chart. Odell Beckham Jr. is barely in the top ten when he would easily be a top 5 (possibly a top 3) receiver in any other season.
The question is what do we make of the phenomenal rookie seasons moving past 2014?

Name Rec Yds Avg Yds/G TD 1st 1st%
Brandin Cooks 84.8 880 10.4 55 4.8 40 47.2
Player B 91 980 10.8 65.3 5 43 47.3

The only other rookie wideout with numbers comparable to Cooks is Eddie Royal in 2008. While Royal is a decent wide receiver, he never matched his rookie numbers again. Let’s do another one:

Player Rec Yds Avg Yds/G TD 1st 1st%
Kelvin Benjamin 75.6 1117.1 14.8 69.8 11.6 50.9 67.3
Player C 71 1046 14.7 69.7 8 54 76.1
Player D 70 1038 14.8 74.1 8 51 72.9
Player E 80 1193 14.9 74.6 7 56 70

Benjamin is projected for more touchdowns than these former rookies, but otherwise the four players have very similar numbers. Player C is Keenan Allen whose numbers this seasons more closely resemble Cooks. Player D is the aforementioned Marques Colston who has had a relatively successful career. Player E? Michael Clayton in 2004. He never had a season with over 40 receptions or 500 yards following his rookie campaign. The point is these wide receivers could become anybody. The volatility of players from their 1st season to their 2nd season is so great, that it is too difficult to project the trajectory of their careers. For the 2014 wide receivers and tight ends, they should enjoy their current success because they are as likely to reach a pro-bowl as they are the practice squad.

The Death of the Running Back

It is a widely known fact that the NFL s recently became a passing league. 4000 yards from a quarterback is an accomplishment that has been diminished by the gaudy numbers of the 32 quarterbacks. While eclipsing 4000 yards has lost some value, the a thousand yard mark is elusive to many of the premier running backs. As recently as 2006, 23 running backs topped that mark. Since then, the number of backs hitting that number is on a downward trend. There are two primary reasons for the recent decline: the difficulty of finding running back talent and the adoption of the running back by committee.

Screenshot (26)Above is a chart displaying the number of backs who rushed for 1000 yards, how many had done it for a consecutive season, and how many managed to reach a thousand yards twice in a three season interval (Note: 2006 does not include Michael Vick). What’s important about the chart is the consistency by which the same group of running backs would hit that mark. For example, in 2006, out of the 13 running backs who managed to accumulate 1000 yards at least twice in a three year span, 10 made a postseason appearance in either the ’05 or ’06 season. Having that running back who a quarterback could rely on made a huge difference in their offensive capabilities. In 2013, that number decreased to five out of seven. That means that having a versatile back does have the same significance, but that the number of backs who can provide that has been cut almost in half.

Now, the NFL is at the point where it appears that only 11 running backs will top the thousand yard mark. Those on the list include DeMarco Murray (already over 1000), Arian Foster, Le’Veon Bell, Justin Forsett, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Alfred Morris, Andre Ellington, Mark Ingram, and Jamaal Charles. While two or three more backs could have a huge game and pass the mark, it is also likely that two or three of the backs on the list will not keep producing at their current rate and come up short of a thousand yards or they may just get injured as their bodies have already taken a huge physical toll by this point of the season. As displayed on the chart, this would be a second consecutive 1000 yard season for six of the running backs. Trying to acquire such a rare commodity in the NFL is difficult. Also, evaluating what running backs are best is also challenging, as the Buffalo Bills can attest to since they traded away one of the more consistent backs in today’s games. Even when a team does acquire a running back in the free agency market or via trade, there are so many different variables that can influence a running back’s performance. Ben Tate is arguably the third best running back on the Cleveland Browns’ roster, but everybody thought he would be their number one. Out of the thirty-one instances in which a running back carried for a thousand yards or more, there were only eight occasions where the running back was able to duplicate their success from the prior season. The odds that a running back gets injured, does not produce, or cannot create plays in spite of a weak line makes them a difficult investment. Allocating a sizeable portion of the salary cap to such a high risk, high reward position is too dangerous, especially if the team structures its offense around that player.

Averages for Primary Backs

Primary Back

The chart above is the average percentage of carries, average percentage of yards, and the average yards per game the leading rusher on each team had during their respective seasons. Ultimately, the chart is a reflection of how the running back by committee has taken over the league. In a decade, the percentage of rushing attempts from primary backs has dropped by 8 % and the average number of yards per back has dropped by 16.5 yards. If a running back plays 14 games in a course of a season, which is a difference of 231 yards! If you add that difference to the running backs, the NFL is looking at, as one may expect 18 running backs with a thousand yards. Those touches that are being given to other backs plus the increase in pass attempts leads to seven backs coming up shy of the mark.

The scariest thought to all this is that some of these backs may not be able to put together three consecutive a thousand yard seasons. LeSean McCoy’s banged up O-line has brought him to a poor 3.8 yards per carry. The electric Jamaal Charles has dealt with nagging injuries throughout his career and may not even hit 1000 yards this season. The Dallas Cowboys are riding DeMarco Murray, which could easily lead to late season injury. Marshawn Lynch may not return to Seattle which could hamper his future performance. Matt Forte turns 29 this December. The physical demand of the position plus all the necessary components have heightened the difficulty for running backs to hit a thousand yards. Offensive linemen may get hit every play, but typically, only running backs get tackled 15 or more times per game. That detriment increases as the weather gets colder and the ground gets harder. There is a new perspective on running backs and it is changing the game drastically.

Stats from ESPN

The Evolution of Kicking

On Sunday, Mike Tomlin’s team possessed the ball inside the redzone while facing a fourth-and-two. Tomlin opted to play it safe and kick the field goal. However, Shaun Suisham shanked his kick wide left to the surprise of everyone in the stadium. Whether or not Tomlin’s decision was the right call from an EPA perspective (which it was not), shanks, like Suisham’s are becoming less and less common, regardless of the distance. Kicker accuracy has improved significantly over the past decade, which makes the decision to go for it more difficult for coaches.

Percentage Breakdown of Kicking By Year and Distance
Kicking Table

Not surprisingly, kicks within 40 yards have changed very little in terms of accuracy and have fluctuated significantly over the years. Even so, there is an upward trend in kicks mad from within forty yards. Suisham missing that kick was approximately 2% or even lower. Most of the misses from close range are coming from blocked field goals. For attempts from 40-49 yards, there is a noticeable increase in the percentage of made attempts in the past two years over the rest of the decade. Even the attempts from 40-49 have been at an all-time high over the past two years. The 11.03% increase over the past decade leads to an EPA increase of over three-tenths of a point, a significant statistic that could lead to coaches being more conservative. Advanced NFL Stats implements a 76% success rate for kicks of forty-one yards. With the recent rise in the percentage the past two years, the adjustment of that success rate to 79% or 80% would alter the EPA and WPA of whether or not to go for it on fourth down. Through Week 9, kickers are hitting 83.56% of their attempts, which provides an argument for an even higher success rate on such kicks.

Again, we see a recent spike in attempts made over 50 yards. From 2004-2010, kickers converted 53.90% of attempts from such a distance. Since 2011, that numbers has risen to an outstanding 64.06%, which does not include the rate of 63.16% through week 9 of the 2014 season. Advanced NFL Stats say that converting a field goal from fifty-one yards is only 55%. That ten percent difference is significant enough to convince more aggressive coaches to go for it on a 4th and 4 or so, when in reality, the field goal attempt yields the higher EPA.

Obviously, understanding game situation and personnel is critical. The Detroit Lions and their committee of kickers has lost them a couple games this year, and it may be wise to trust Megatron on a fourth and short. Conversely, Dan Carpenter is more reliable than most kickers and Kyle Orton and the Buffalo Bills do not exactly have an exhilarating offense. Overall, coaches may want to reexamine the EPA of kicking and give their million dollar legs a chance to score. It paid off for the Ravens when they did so on Monday Night against the Lions last year. Across the board, coaches should recognize the ever increasing odds of converting that 45 or 50 yard field goal.

The Eye of the Tiger: Why Dalton Deserves More Credit

Dalton

After Sunday afternoon’s drubbing of the Tennessee Titans, the Bengals are now the only team in the AFC with an undefeated record. Since drafting the combination of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, the Bengals have reached 3 consecutive postseasons, only to be bounced out in the Wild Card round each time. Critics have blamed Dalton for his poor postseason numbers while overlooking the fact he helped the team reach the playoffs. Last season, I wrote an article analyzing whether or not Peyton Manning performed worse in the playoffs. For Dalton, the answer is obvious as one touchdown, six picks and an adjusted yards per attempt of 3.80 is not even remotely close to his regular season numbers, whether it be against a formidable opponent or a bottom feeder.

Dalton against Non-Playoff Teams

Dalton Table 1
Not much needs to be said about Andy Dalton’s regular season games against non-playoff teams. Dalton went undefeated against such teams as a rookie and has continued to find success against them. His yardage improved immensely under the guidance of Jay Gruden (now in Washington), averaging over 70 more yards per game and throwing for more touchdowns each season. This part of Andy Dalton is the least worrisome for Bengals fans.

Dalton against Playoff Teams in the Regular Season

Dalton Table 2
Dalton’s rookie numbers against playoff teams are unbelievably low. He failed to beat one team that qualified for the playoffs that year in seven tries (which includes divisional sweeps by the Ravens and Steelers). Ultimately, Dalton’s inexperience showed in that first playoff matchup against the Texans. As a rookie Dalton just was not near the upper echelon of quarterbacks.
In the next two seasons, Daltons, completion percentage would increase significantly, as shown in the table above. Dalton averaged five less pass attempts in 2013, due in large part to the help he received in his backfield from rookie Giovanni Bernard. His performance against regular season teams does not vary too much from season to season. The increase in Total QBR also reflects Dalton’s improvement in higher pressure situations.

Dalton vs. Player B

Dalton Table 3
Dalton and Player B have fairly similar numbers, but how the NFL views both players is completely different. Player B is Peyton Manning from 1998 through 2002, his first five seasons as a professional quarterback. Manning started with a worse team, but in 1999 the Colts’ had three offensive pro bowlers and one defensive pro bowler, the same number as the 2011 Bengals. Manning also received much criticism from the media, but he became one of the greatest quarterbacks of this generation. Odds are against Dalton that he will be as great as Manning, but dismissing him as an elite quarterback is unwise. Dalton still needs time to improve, just as Manning did. For Peyton, the big change occurred when the Colts hired Tony Dungy. While Marvin Lewis is a great defensive coach, maybe it is time for Cincinnati to consider a coaching change. Lewis has not won a playoff game during his twelve year tenure.
With the Bengals at 3-0 and one of the best defenses in the league, it appears that they are bound for another playoff appearance. The Bengals should feel confident with Dalton at the helm, despite his postseason woes of the past. With three playoff games under his belt. Dalton is more prepared than ever for playoff success.

Nick Barton
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
All statistics courtesy of ESPN