Football Outsiders On Freakonomics Blog

Freakonomics is probably the greatest book ever written of our generation. Yes, we baseball nerds love to jerk it to Moneyball and everyone who believes RBI is a crap stat has read and enjoyed Moneyball. But the ultimate "stat" book ever written was one written about life: Freakonomics.

Well the authors of Freakonomics have an awesome blog sponsored by the New York Times and recently had Football Outsiders co-creator/author Bill Bramwell on to talk to him about football. For the many of you who don't know, Aaron Schatz is essentially the Bill James of what I call "football sabermetrics" and Bill Bramwell is, I'll say, the Voros McCracken of football sabermetrics. Or maybe DME's daddy Tom Tango. Well whoever the #2 guy is in actual sabermetrics.

Normally I'm not a big fan on Bill Bramwell (and it's not because he yelled at me), but I found this talk fascinating. You can read the full "interview" here but here are some excepts from the chat.

Q. As a Bills fan, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on perennial cellar dwellers. Have you found any statistical indicators of pending turnarounds?

A. The miracle turnaround you speak of is often accompanied by a remarkable, unexpected, drastic shift in team health. We’ve found in the past that about 25 percent of a team’s year-to-year change in wins is accounted for by the change in their injury rate.

As examples, consider the biggest swings in win-loss record from each of the past two seasons. In 2007, the Miami Dolphins went 1-15. By Adjusted Games Lost (our proprietary injury metric and a variant on the HGL metric that is mentioned in the link above), they were the eighth most-injured team in football. A year later, they went 11-5, shocking everyone en route to an AFC East title. While much of the credit was given to the team’s quickly-overrated “Wildcat” offensive scheme, there was one patently obvious factor driving their success: the Dolphins had become the league’s fourth-healthiest team.

Q. Do you account for personality and psychological effect?

A. Although I don’t think anyone doubts that there are intangible effects and they affect both the motivation and performance of players, I don’t think we can ascribe statistical significance to those ideas. We could probably come up with motivations for every quarterback in the league: Eli Manning wants to get back to the Super Bowl and erase his team’s humiliating finish to last season. Donovan McNabb wants to prove that the Eagles shouldn’t have traded him. Kevin Kolb wants to prove that the Eagles were right. Tony Romo wants to stop the chatter about how he can’t get it done in big games. There’s the NFC East right there.

You’ll also note that only skill position players (quarterbacks, running backs, wideouts, and tight ends) and the occasional prominent defensive player are ascribed motivations. You’ll never read a game story about how the left guard was clutch and willed his team to win.

Q. To what degree does luck play in determining the outcome of a game?

A. When it comes to an individual game, luck plays a far bigger role than anyone cares to admit. We know that the act of recovering a fumble is almost entirely luck, and that the distance of a fumble (or interception) return is mostly random, but a game can very well come down to who recovers the fumbles or whether a player slips on a return.

There are also factors that we see regress towards the mean on a seasonal level that can drive huge single-game swings in performance. Research published by Football Outsiders in the Times suggests that a kicker’s field goal accuracy is mostly random from year-to-year. We’ve also found that teams have no ability to influence the success rate of field goals taken against them

Q. How well can you isolate the play of any particular player (e.g., the RB) from that of his teammates (e.g., the O-line)? Who contributes more to a 2000-yard season, the RB or the line?

A. We’re nowhere near the point of valuing a player as being worth a number of wins, because we’re light-years away from quantifying all the things a player does. I doubt we’ll ever have a reliable “wins” metric because there are too many interactions between positions that we can’t account for in football. Take a quarterback, for example: even if we were to develop a measure of performance that stripped out the effects of his receivers and offensive line and placed his passing performance in a perfect, league-average context, we’d have to account for how he read defenses and called audibles at the line, how effective he was in setting up defenses on the play-fake, whether he had any impact on the running game versus an average quarterback … it’s not a realistic goal.