Packing the Stats: Numbers and Notes From Around the Web

As you may know from reading my past blog posts, I love me some stats. I don’t think they’re the be-all and end-all when it comes to football, but I do think they are a useful tool to use when analyzing a team, a unit, or a player. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy following sites like Pro Football Focus (PFF) and Football Outsiders (FO).

These two groups of data crunchers put a lot of time and critical thought into representing the performance of players and teams in the form of numbers. Through careful observation and grading of every play of every football game of the year, these statisticians are able to eventually tell us which team’s offense is performing the best based on their results and the strength of the defenses they’ve played.  Or they can present a numerical “grade” for an individual player for something like “pass blocking efficiency.”

Like I said before, they provide a great tool for professional football analysis. We can use the information to either support what we think we’ve seen, or use it as a jumping off point to examine something further.

So without further ado, here are some interesting tidbits I’ve read about Green Bay Packers players as presented by the teams at Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. Take them as you will.


  • In one of FO’s most recent articles, Tom Gower revisited the 2006 draft class to see who were the best players, biggest busts, and best values from six years ago. He looked at each position, recapped what happened on draft day, then presented the findings. As we all know, this was the year Ted Thompson took A.J. Hawk in the first round. Here’s what Gower wrote about who the best linebacker really was: “A fairly uninspiring class with no clear standouts, really. By Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value method, it’s Hawk, followed by Wimbley, Florida State, 13th overall to the Browns.” Perhaps Packers fans don’t have quite as much to complain about. . .
  • About a week ago, FO Editor-in-Chief Aaron Schatz released two articles about the 2011 cornerbacks: “Best Cornerback Charting Stats 2011” and “Worst Cornerback Charting Stats 2011.” The good news is that no Packers CBs ended up on any of the “worst” lists. The bad news? None of them ended up on any of the “best” lists either. One player who did end up on the naughty list was former Packer Josh Gordy, though even Schatz gave him a pass for being an undrafted player in his second season filling the role of a starter.


Packers are Really Good, but not Dominant…For Now

The Packers inability to bury a team like the Saints is one reason Green Bay isn't quite dominant.

The Green Bay Packers are 6-0 and should be 7-0 after feasting on Christian Ponder and the bumbling Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

The Packers have been the more talented team on the field for each of their games this season, sometimes by a wide margin. But despite the Packers fast start and obvious talent superiority, I wouldn’t call this team dominant….yet.

Extremely good? Yes. Ultra-talented? Yes. The best team in the NFL? Yes. Dominant? Not quite.

Here’s why:

  • The Packers are 31st in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Opposing QBs have racked up 1,798 passing yards on Green Bay, an average of almost 300 yards per game. Passing numbers are up around the league, but this number needs to come down for the Packers to be dominant.
  • The Packers are third in Football Outsiders DVOA ratings and Pro-Football-Reference.com’s simple ratings system. I don’t put too much stock in this type of analysis this early in the season, but these numbers do tell us that the Packers are not miles ahead of everyone else like a dominant team would be.
  • A dominant team would have put away the Saints and the Panthers (and probably the Bears) much earlier than the Packers did. Instead of putting these games out of reach, the Packers let both teams hang around. A dominant team also would not have been shut out by the Rams in the second half, even if that dominant team was bored like the Packers probably were on Sunday.
  • The Packers schedule hasn’t exactly been mind-blowing. Strength of schedule is something the Packers can’t control, but it at least needs to be mentioned in this discussion. Wins over the Panthers, Rams, Broncos and (probably) Vikings aren’t going to make many people turn their heads and say “Whoa, that team sure is unstoppable.”

No, the Packers shouldn’t be labeled dominant right now, but there’s a lot of season left. They have the best QB in the NFL and have outscored opponents by 83 points. Their turnover differential is plus-8 and it wouldn’t surprise me if their defense improves as Tramon Williams gets healthier, Sam Shields returns to last season’s form and Dom Capers continues adjusting to life without Nick Collins.



Talking Packers With Mike Tanier From Football Outsiders

Mike Tanier wrote the Packers chapter in the 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac. Tanier took the time to answer a few questions about the Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com.

The 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac was released last week and, as is the case every year, it’s a must-read for fans of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL. Mike Tanier wrote the chapter previewing the Packers upcoming season and focused a good portion of his preview on GM Ted Thompson.

Tanier was kind enough to answer a few questions for AllGreenBayPackers.com and expand on this thoughts about Thompson, the Packers pass rush, no-huddle offenses and statistical analysis.  If you’re not familiar with the Football Outsiders, you should visit their website and learn more about some of their unique stats and measurements discussed in the interview.

Adam Czech: Do you think Ted Thompson knows what DVOA is? If not, how do you think he would react after you explained it to him? 

Mike Tanier: Thompson probably does not know what DVOA is. Every time we have spoken at length to a coach or GM about our methods, we have gotten reactions like this: “We do something similar, though the calculations are different, and it is based off our game film and internal methods.” The coach and GM know exactly what play was called and what each player’s assignment is, so they can analyze film in ways no one outside the organization can. One thing we always hear is that we are doing the right thing by making our stats situation-dependent: coaches want different things on 1st-and-10, 3rd-and-15, and 3rd-and-inches in the red zone, and DVOA reflects those differences.

AC: We’ve seen some major changes in the methods MLB and NBA GMs use to evaluate players and build teams over the last 10 years. Will Thompson’s team-building strategy — finding value players off the scrap heap that fit his coach’s system and provide depth — become the newest NFL team-building trend? Or have teams always been using the Thompson method, but we just haven’t noticed because a) Nobody is as good at the Thompson method as Thompson is or b) Few organizations have the patience to actually see if the Thompson method works?



Packers Defense: Why Tricky Does Not Mean Complex

Mike Tanier has written a follow-up to his previous article on MSNBC, focusing on the defense this time. As I wrote a response to the previous article, it only seems fitting to write a follow-up on the follow-up.

In summary, Tanier’s previous article suggested that “tricky” offenses might suffer this year since there won’t be the same amount of time to prepare due to the lockout. My argument was that teams have spent years building an offensive philosophy (which they should not abandon for just one year) and that complexity has more to do with offensive philosophy and personnel rather than the learning capacity of players.

In this article, Tanier suggests that defenses will also be affected by the lockout, but to a lesser extent since “confusion favors the defense.”  On one hand, defenses require less overall communication; each defensive player typically only works in conjunction with a couple other players (cornerbacks work with safeties but not really with defensive linemen for example).

Offensive players are more inherently required to communicate between the whole squad (wide receivers need to know who to block on running plays and running backs need to know who to block or where to go for passing plays).  On the other hand, as I have previously mentioned, a lot can go wrong on a offensive play and still net positive yards, but it only takes one confused defensive player for a play to end in a big gain or a touchdown.

Tanier goes on the premise that one metric of defensive “trickiness” is the number of blitzers and the standard deviation in the number of blitzers.  Again to me this seems a little simplistic:

  1. Personnel factors heavily into the play selection: One of the basic defensive premises of teams such as the Detroit Lions or the Chicago Bears is that a dominant front 4 should be able to generate all the pass rush needed to get to the quarterback.  When a team invests big money into the likes of Ndamukong Suh or Julius Peppers basically they are saying that they don’t need fancy “pew pew” blitzes, the defensive line should be able to beat any offensive line straight on; and it works, the Bears and Lions generate lots of pass rush without having to rely on blitzing a lot of players.  So really it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Lions and Bears show up as some of the “simplest” defenses based on this metric since it’s not in their defensive philosophies to blitz more than 4 the majority of the time.


Packers Offense: Why Tricky Does Not Mean Complex

In a recent article on NBC, Football Outsiders senior writer Mike Tanier wrote a piece on how the lockout might have a detrimental affect NFL offenses.  (Picture taken from National Football Post, props to anyone who can figure out what play this diagram is showing)  The reasoning is pretty simple, with less time to prepare and train players due to the lockout, playbooks and offensive philosophies that are considered “tricky” are going to be harder to execute than “simple” offenses and therefore put “tricky” offenses at a disadvantage.

I respect Tanier’s work and I think Football outsiders is one of the best football websites out there, but this article had me scratching my head a little.  The implicit suggestion of this article is that if a team utilizes a “tricky” offense they should consider dumbing it down to account for the lockout.

To me this seems a little bit ridiculous, teams spend years building an identity and to throw it out the window for one year sounds like a decidedly bad idea.  Should the Packers take the ball out of Aaron Rodgers hands and start calling more running plays?  That’s not who the Packers are and it definitely wouldn’t work for them.  That’s like asking the Tennessee Titans (who Tanier uses for comparison for the Packers), to take the ball away from Chris Johnson and give it to (insert quarterback here).

To me the inherent flaw in this piece is that ”tricky” plays are inherently complex and that complexity is handled the same for each team.

  1. Personnel factor heavily on the play selection: All teams try to maximize the strength of their players while mitigating their weaknesses.  For the Titans, this means running the ball and for the Packers this means throwing the ball.  You can bet that if the Titans had Aaron Rodgers they would throw it more or if the Packers had Chris Johnson they would run it more.  Simply put, the Packers are built to run a more “tricky” offense, but that also means that they are better suited to run “tricky” plays.
    • Above all, the quarterback determines the limit of “trickiness”: The quality of a quarterback can mitigate many positional deficiencies on the offense, but the quality of a quarterback also determines how “tricky” an offense can get.  The Titans are a mess at quarterback at the moment, they’ve announced that former starter Vince Young will no longer be on the team and Kerry Collins is not lock to make it back either.  The team also drafted Jake Locker in the 1st round, who is considered talented but raw at this moment (and is a rookie quarterback to top it off).  It’s pretty obvious that the Titans are going to try to limit the damage of an inexperienced/ineffective quarterback by relying on its running game and defense.  On the other hand, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, who might be the best quarterback in the NFL at the moment, and actually taking away “tricky” plays would likely hurt Rodgers’ production.


Packers Three-Man Rush Revisited: Football Outsiders Responds to Inquiry

As I opened up my e-mail Tuesday evening, I was pleasantly surprised with a message from Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. You see, a little over a month ago, as I was preparing for my article about Dom Capers and his use of the three-man rush, I decided to send Football Outsiders a query for some information to beef up my analysis. It’s hard to find statistics on the effectiveness of certain types of plays, but I knew they would have this sort of information logged into their databases.

Here was my original message:

Hi Aaron,

As a Packers fan and blogger, I have heard many complaints about Dom Capers’ use of the three-man rush, especially in third-and-long situations. I was wondering if you had any stats/analysis on the effectiveness of this strategy regarding the Packers defense and/or the NFL as a whole.

Chad Toporski

And then I waited…

…and waited…

…and eventually decided to finish the article without the information. By this time, the Packers had finished beating the Chicago Bears in Week 17, and I saw some good footage I could use instead.

But lo and behold, I finally received my answer. So I thought I would share it with you, because I found it rather fascinating. (It also helps to confirm my suspicions that most people complain about the three-man rush due to faulty preconceptions.)

Here’s what Aaron Schatz found out:


This would be as good a time as any to answer this question! Sorry it took me so long.

Believe it or not, overall rushing three is actually a little more effective than rushing four. Here are the league-wide numbers for all the games we’ve charted in 2010, with yards per pass and defensive success rate.

3        6.1       60%
4        6.5      55%
5        5.9      57%
6+     5.7      60%

Now of course, most of the time when a defense rushes three, it does so because it is the second half and they are protecting a lead, but I went and checked and the numbers don’t really change if you consider only the first half.

As for Green Bay, our numbers suggest that those complaints about rushing three are a bit misplaced. The Packers rushed three on 18 percent of plays, tied for third in the NFL. On those plays, they allowed 5.8 yards per pass with a spectacular 72 percent success rate.

On third-and-long (7+ yards to go) they allowed 7.4 yards per pass but had a 75 percent success rate because so many of those passes were short dumpoffs. (For the record, we have 51 charted passes as rushing three on third-and-long.)

The Packers also had three picks in third-and-long when rushing three, all in recent weeks: Week 14 on a Drew Stanton pass to Tony Scheffler, Week 16 on an Eli Manning pass to Hakeem Nicks, and Week 17 on a Jay Cutler pass to Johnny Knox.

Hope that helps.

Aaron Schatz

As I said, pretty interesting stuff across the board.



Debunking the Trap Game Myth: Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers

Did you know the Green Bay Packers play the Detroit Lions Sunday? With all the talk about the Packers vs. New England Patriots game on Dec. 19, it seems that most people have already chalked up Sunday’s game against the Lions as a Packers victory.

The people that do realize the Packers play the Lions this week are using one of my least favorite phrases to describe the contest: Trap game.

Loosely defined, a trap game occurs when a good team plays a bad team the week before playing another good team. In this case, the trap game concept assumes the Packers are thinking about playing the Patriots instead of focusing on the Lions. This will cause the Packers to play poorly and maybe lose to the lowly Lions.

I think the trap game concept is just a simple way to let a team that lost off the hook. Sometimes a bad team comes together and plays well enough to knock off a superior opponent. And sometimes a good team, for whatever reason, plays terrible against a foe it should beat.

In either case, all of the credit or the blame should go to the two teams that actually played the game, not a third team that had nothing to do with anything.

The Football Outsiders did a study in 2007 and concluded that the entire concept of trap games was a myth. The Outsiders defined a trap game as any game against a sub-.500 opponent slotted between two games against opponents who, on the season, posted records above .500 (this definition means that Sunday’s game against the Lions would not be a trap game, but anyway…).

The study concluded that good teams win trap games as often as they win other games. From 1983-2006, contending teams had an .820 winning percentage in trap games and an .815 winning percentage in all other games against sub .500 teams from. Good teams were actually more likely to win the so-called trap games than they were other games against sub .500 teams.

Even though I don’t believe in the trap game concept, I know some of the fine readers of this site do, so lets take a look at how the Packers have fared in trap games under Mike McCarthy. The Football Outsiders only used teams that finished above .500 for the season in their study. This would eliminate the 2006 and 2008 Packers, so we will change the criteria a bit.