Happy Tuesday, friends. I’m a little hard up for stuff to write about today, so I decided to eat some low-hanging fruit. Being a person who subscribes to ESPN’s Insider service, I get an interesting mix of useful and useless material. Among the useless stuff that I get is articles from K.C. Joyner, The Football Scientist, or as I like to call him, The “Football Scientist.”
Joyner was an early screamer about football stats, and how there weren’t enough of them, and how they weren’t good enough. He had a point, but his personal capacity to remedy the situation was, shall we say, limited. He created a bunch of metrics, many based upon his own subjective observations. For an example, I give you Good Blocking Yards Per Attempt. What exactly does “Good” mean? It sounds like he’s measuring something that’s not exactly measurable.
I guess it’s good to be first on the scene, because then ESPN pays you to write stupid articles and pimp your book through oblique references to it, as if everybody bought and memorized the thing. Actually, it’s good to be second too, because they do the same thing with Football Outsiders, who also acts as if their own proprietary stats are the bomb-diggity, be-all, end-all fountain of all football knowledge. I’d like to see them have a nerd fight – My VYPA is better than your DVOA! I’ll unleash my 23rd-level warlock on your paladin! Pokemon to the rescue! (I know, I’m kind of an a-hole jock – sue me.)
In either case, here’s the mindset – my numbers are the best thing ever, and you can use them to most reliably predict what’s going to happen, or explain what did happen. Despite being more than adequate at math, and being capable of understanding the numbers, I instinctively distrust anybody who tells me they have an equation that tells me who is going to win football games. There are too many variables at play for one math problem to be very predictive.
You want an example? Exactly what metric would have predicted that the 2011 New York Giants would beat the 15-1 Packers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs? At the time they played, the Giants had snuck into the playoffs as a 9-7 team that was last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and 29th in passing yards allowed per game. They had scored 394 points and given up 400, which was 11th out of 12 playoff teams (guess which one was last).
No metric was going to predict that result, yet it wasn’t a fluke. Remember, the Giants lost to Green Bay in overtime during the 2011 regular season and gave them their first scare. Arguably, a guy like me, who gets my information from my eyes would have been more likely to see the Giants’ excellent defensive line vs. the Packers’ suspect offensive line as a potentially game-deciding matchup advantage.
There’s no equation or approach that gives us the final answer. Stats can provide some intelligence that tells part of the story, just like a knowledgeable person watching tape can. When it comes down to it though, a lot of football games are decided by luck and timing and pure randomness.
Joyner is my target today because he’s one of these particularly annoying know-it-all types who is speaking subjectively, and trying to con you into thinking he’s being objective, and that his brain droppings are therefore meaningful. His stats are the best stats, and beyond that, his reasoning is the best reasoning. He wrote an article for Insider that says the Chargers are going to win the AFC West in 2012. I’m going to list and paraphrase his five reasons why, so as not to unlawfully use the content I paid for, and then I’ll tear him apart. Ready? BEGIN
1. Philip Rivers is the best QB in the division.
Ooooh, provocative! Joyner’s favorite stat ever is Vertical Yards Per Attempt (VYPA! (Armed?)) He says that Rivers was ninth in the NFL in VYPA last season, and that Peyton Manning was 26th in that metric in 2010, when he last played. Joyner actually seems to consider that to be Manning’s normal production, and says that even if his four neck surgeries get him back there, he’s unlikely to post top-flight vertical numbers. Because that’s everything. Or something.
Proprietary stat in a vacuum plus ignored context plus vacuous analysis equals wrong conclusion. Rivers has a high VYPA because he has had receivers that are at their best running vertical routes, and because his scheme is one that puts them in position to do so frequently. The Chargers throw lots of screens and swing passes, and run lots of 9 routes. They don’t do much in the middle of the field - beyond throw to their TE, usually further downfield than 11 yards - which isn’t “vertical” in my opinion, but qualifies for Joyner’s stupid stat.
The 2010 version of Manning played with subpar receivers, none of whom is a vertical type of player. Reggie Wayne led the team in Yards Per Reception at 12.2. It was a chain-moving, quick-throwing offense, partly because guys like Austin Collie, Blair White, and a banged-up Dallas Clark were doing the receiving, and partly because the offensive line was a sieve. Manning still threw for 4,700 yards, despite the effects of his neck injury.
Oh yeah, and last year stays last year. Next.
2. The Chargers have the best set of receivers in the division.
Antonio Gates is the bestest ever, even though he hasn’t done too well the last couple years when he was banged up a lot. (Last year doesn’t matter, because Eric Weddle said so). Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem had high VYPA’s last year (which now matters) while playing as tertiary options with good QBs, and seeing lots of single coverage in highly vertical offenses. Vincent Brown looked good in camp, according to Pork Chop, and so did Eddie Royal (whose bad 2011 season doesn’t matter). This is the deepest set of receivers, and deepest means best! Whee!
Joyner is so sure of this pronouncement that he doesn’t even seem to consider the receivers on any other team in the Division. There’s no mention of Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas, whose “per attempt” stats may be slightly affected by their former QB’s struggles to hit the broadside of an outhouse. (I think outhouses are cool – I work in Taylor County, Florida, in the middle of nowhere, and some locals still use outhouses, rather than upgrade to indoor plumbing.)
The thing with QBs and receivers is that they kind of make each other. A QB is only as good as the guys catching the ball, and a receiver is only as good as the guy throwing it. To my eyes, if you had the same QB throwing to all of them, Decker and Thomas are the most talented starting pair in the AFC West, followed by Kansas City (Bowe/Baldwin), and then San Diego, with Oakland bringing up the rear.
3. The Chargers have the best running back in the division.
This is kind of a doozy. Every team has at least one back who can make the claim of being the best, based on either the eye test or the stats. Hell, if you really loved some Caucasianness in your running backs, you could make the claim twice for the Chiefs (Charles/Hillis).
Joyner’s rationale is the following:
a. Ryan Mathews did well when the Chargers blocked well.
b. Darren McFadden did too for the Raiders, but he gets hurt too much.
c. Jamaal Charles is good but he had an ACL tear, and Peyton Hillis was worst in the NFL in GBYPA in 2011.
d. Willis McGahee was just as good in GBYPA as Mathews but he’ll be 31 soon, and his carries have been limited the last four years, and those two facts count against his present day quality or something.
And on top of that, Joyner is a “scientist” who is “scientifically” driving toward a predetermined contrarian conclusion. Just like a crank “scientist” cooking the books to make man-made climate change look like a hoax to gullible idiots like ________________. Feel free to enter your name in the blank, if you want, as half the country is presently a disaster area due to not-random drought conditions. Moving right along…
4. The Chargers had the best Draft in the division.
I love this one, because it’s uber-scientific. (I loathe the prefix uber, by the way.)
The Chargers had the best grade in Mel Kiper’s annual Draft grades, with a B+. The Broncos and Chiefs each had a C+, the Raiders had a C-. Plus, Philip Rivers thinks Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes are good, and no veteran player ever, EVER likes the rookies on his team. Case closed. (Literally).
5. San Diego’s defensive woes weren’t nearly as bad as generally thought.
One of my rules for writing is, and always has been, never to use a word that I wouldn’t say in everyday speech. It sounds contrived and unnatural, and crappy sportswriting is filled with it. I use a lot of different words in my speech, and some of them are big and obscure, depending on the audience, but one word I never use is “woes.” It’s right up there with a team “eyeing” a player. It just drives me crazy, and I felt like sharing that. We’re not all meant to write in the same stupid language as Peter King.
San Diego’s defense kind of sucked last year. As we know, last year stays last year, so rational thinkers will give that fact some acknowledgment, but won’t completely hold it against them. Joyner doesn’t get that though, and he goes through the pros and cons, like he’s setting up a half-assed equation, again. The Chargers were 25th in YPA allowed, 22nd in points allowed, and 27th in passing TDs allowed. Those are bad stats. On the good side, Antoine Cason was good, and while Quentin Jammer sucked, he was getting divorced, so he gets a pass. And then, he double-counts Ingram and Reyes, who might get a bunch of sacks, if you ignore the typical reality that rookies who aren’t absolute athletic freaks tend not to do well against NFL pass protection.
Not much science here, folks. It reads like the kind of rationalization you’d see on a low-rent Chargers blog. Let me do better. Ready?
The Chargers had an interesting offseason, in terms of changes in their defensive personnel. They lost a long-time key player on their defensive line in Luis Castillo, who may be completely used up at this point. If Corey Liuget improves in his second year, which is reasonable, the loss may not matter much. The Bolts drafted Kendall Reyes, which was a bit of a weird scheme fit, but he may be able to help some in pass rush situations right away. I don’t think he’s ready to two-gap in base defense, though.
If Melvin Ingram can get some pressure from the OLB spot, the Chargers could see some improvement there, but he’s kind of a technique guy more than a physical tools guy, and his tricks are going to work less well in the early going at this level. Jarret Johnson is a good edge-setter in the run game on the strongside, but doesn’t offer much pass rush. Shaun Phillips is still there, and using him on fewer base snaps seems like a good idea. Inside, Donald Butler has some potential, but he has a little way to go to reach competence. Takeo Spikes is a big name, but he really struggles in coverage. Larry English has been a waste of oxygen.
The CB situation is shaky after Antoine Cason and maybe Quentin Jammer. Jammer seemed to decline last season, but he blames some personal problems, and he may be able to bounce back. The book on him has always been that he can cover, but he can’t catch a cold. There’s not much depth, unless second-year player Marcus Gilchrist has improved, which is reasonable.
Eric Weddle is very good at FS, but the Chargers seem to be putting a lot of eggs in the Atari Bigby basket on the other side. He’s reasonably competent when he stays healthy, but that hasn’t happened much the last few years. Behind him is basically dreck. Lack of quality Safety depth is a major risk area on this team.
In all, the Chargers could be better on defense if they play better on defense during football games. It’s reasonable to think that they have a chance to improve, and it’s equally reasonable to think that they don’t.
I think the Chargers will be in the mix for the AFC West championship, along with the Broncos and Chiefs. I think those three teams are similarly talented, and that QB play, luck, and team health will probably make the difference. In fact, I could make a case for the Raiders winning the division too, if Carson Palmer has a 2005-like season, and some young guys step up for them, especially in the secondary. The AFC West is now home to four programs which appear to be well-managed to some extent, and that makes things interesting for the future.
There’s no math equation that can tell any of us who’s going to win the division, the Super Bowl, or even Game 1 of the season. It will take football to be played to determine all of that. This takedown of K.C. Joyner and by extension, wankers like him, has been brought to you by the fine company who paid for the advertisement that Google put in your ad window. Please consider buying their product or service. If not, thanks for at least putting your eyes on the screen.