Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Remedial Football Math

Sports talk radio guys gotta eat, and they can only cadge one meal a day through plugs, so I probably shouldn't have been too surprised nor upset when Mark Bertrand and Scott Zolak, who know better, began their show this morning by wondering if the subpar performance of the Patriots' offense against Kansas City and his own utterly forgettable evening meant that Tom Brady was in danger of getting benched in the 2017 season.

No, the sad thing is that this obvious effort to drive listeners to the phones in sputtering rage as a way to fill up four hours of air time was based on the program's knowledge that most fans are 1. always overly focused on offense, especially the quarterback; and 2. completely innumerate when it comes to the NFL.

Did Brady play his best or even within shouting distance of it? Oh, God no. Did the offense sputter or worse at vital moments. Sure. But let's take a look at the scoreboard. At game's end last Thursday night it read Chiefs 42-Patriots 27.

Let's multiply 27 by 16, the number of games in an NFL regular season. This gives us a total of 432. Now let's look at the NFL scoring stats for last season. What do we find?

First, we find that scoring 432 points would have made a team the third highest-scoring offense in the league. In fact the Packers, rightly known as one of the league's top offenses, scored exactly that. The Patriots, during a season where nobody called for Brady to be benched, scored 441, all of nine points more.

Delving a bit more, let's note that the average NFL team, winners and losers alike, scored a smidge less than 23 points a game, 22.8 to be more precise than smidge. Of course, this means that the average team also allowed that figure.

This is well within the parameters of NFL scoring since pass blocking was deregulated in the late '70s. Over the decades, scoring has climbed from a little less than 21 points a game per team to 22.8. For all the changes pro football has seen in that time, one thing has remained constant. Score 27 points, you are way more likely to win a game than not.

Of course, there's one other constant, too, one that's of the most relevance to the Pats' 0-1 record than is Tom Brady. Give up 42 points, and you have an over 99 percent of losing, and over a 90 percent chance of losing very badly indeed.

I guess devoting an entire four hours of broadcast time to the proposition "a defense that made Alex Smith look like Brett Favre gunslinging on one of his best days had better improve" just wouldn't drive the ratings meter. But I'll bet Bill Belichick has spent hours a day considering it, and about five minutes worrying about Brady.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

No Days Off, Just the Occasional Night

Local reaction here in New England to the unexpected-by-everyone-on-Earth-especially-me Chiefs win over the Patriots by the embarrassing margin of 42-27 has been instructive. Among the Patriots themselves, disgust was the prevalent emotion. They turned in a performance unworthy of their talents, knew it, and reacted accordingly.

That's good. A "just a few bugs to work out" reaction would've been an alarming sign of a franchise so accustomed to success it had forgotten how to cope with failure. Among fans and commentators, reactions were more mixed, indicating some had indeed forgotten, as if Super Bowl LI had given their heroes a perpetual pass from the sport's inherent difficulties.

Oh, sure, there were the usual subset of Boston fans who believe that the game meant certain doom, just as a win would've had them tweeting about a 19-0 season; It was the (slightly) subtler analyses that were more revealing.

Mr. Proud Negativity himself, Michael Felger, was the leading exponent of one of the silliest rationalizations. He argued, as did others, that had two, three or four plays gone differently, the Pats would've beaten Kansas City easily.

Anyone making this case is honor bound to ask themselves the following question. What would you have said had any Falcons fan said the same thing back in February? One doubts there'd have been much sympathy here.

Another reaction was to isolate each and every Pats misdeed in purely technical football terms. That's OK in itself, analyzers gotta analyze after all. But so much time was spent dissecting the offense! To focus on Rob Gronkowski's indifferent evening or Tom Brady's for that matter is to ignore the obvious. New England's offense scored 27 points. The total average for points scored by NFL teams in all NFL games is about 22 points. The Pats scored enough to win most games.

Of course commentators and fans lambasted the defense, too, as well they might've. If Dont'a Hightower is so invaluable his loss to injury means the defense collapses, well, that's kind of a problem given his injury history. Giving up 78 yard TDs and 80-yard two play scoring drives to an opponent who due to both talent and coaching inclination usually takes 14 plays to go that far is alarming.

All NFL defenses stress preventing big plays as their Prime Directive. It's a religious tenet for Bill Belichick. They only happen for two reasons. 1. Somebody fucked up. 2 and much much worse. Your guys chasing the men with the ball just aren't as fast as they are.

There might not be anybody in the NFL who can catch Tyreek Hill from behind. Leave that one aside for now. Defensive screwups happen. If all those KC big plays came from such errors, that's disturbing for the coaching staff, but errors can be corrected.

What can't be corrected except by every man on the roster is the following narrative. The Pats led after three quarters and went further south than Rio in the fourth. It was a total team collapse not seen, well, since the last game New England played, except in reverse. And such a collapse puts, or ought to put, the burden of proof on the team that suffered it.

The Falcons play the Bears tomorrow. I am sure every Atlanta fan and commentator is looking towards the game with the wariest of eyes. The Falcons themselves must have inner doubts. What will happen the next time things get tough for us? That's why, oddly, they'd be better off winning a close one than blowing Chicago out as talent says they should.

For decades I've noticed the peculiarity that athletes whose teams suffered beatdowns to blame their own lack of effort, an enormous professional sin, rather than just saying "those guys were a lot better." It's a defense mechanism. Anyone can try harder at anything. Human beings, however, cannot just will themselves to be faster, smarter, stronger and more poised.

But sometimes the self-loathing is justified. I think the Pats themselves are closer to the reality of the Chiefs game than are outsiders. When the going got tough, they stopped going. They're right to be disgusted.

Every NFL team turns in at least one pure stink bomb per season. Perhaps the Pats have gotten theirs out of the way early and it'll be smooth sailing on a sea of excellence for the remainder of 2017.

But fans saying that is unhelpful, whether it's true or not. New Englanders should spend the next week getting a little Philly on their heroes' asses.

It'll be good for the heroes, and make the fans feel better, too. They'll have done their part in the re-education process.