Archive for Football

Super Bowl Squares Update

It’s that time of year where I’m bombarded with hits for people searching “super bowl squares.” I get the hits thanks to a classic post by Doug Drinen.

Doug now operates his own blog, where he has posted an update to his initial post. I encourage you to check it out if you want to win your party’s Super Bowl squares game.

Super Bowl Squares Update

It’s that time of year where I’m bombarded with hits for people searching “super bowl squares.” I get the hits thanks to a classic post by Doug Drinen.

Doug now operates his own blog, where he has posted an update to his initial post. I encourage you to check it out if you want to win your party’s Super Bowl squares game.

What Are the Best Super Bowl Squares?

If you play a Super Bowl squares game at your Super Bowl party, here are some tips for for purchasing your squares from an old post by Doug Drinen.

So, to recap, here is the official Doug Drinen plan for making friends at your Super Bowl party.

1. As soon as the squares are drawn, find the people with the 70 and 07 squares. Offer them $3 for their square. If they accept, tell them that they just traded an expected payoff of $3.80 for a mere $3.00. Call them suckers.

2. Find the guy with 22 and let him know that since the merger in 1970 there has only been one single 22 game (it was the Dolphins and Bills in week 13 of this year). Call him a sucker too.

Doug recently updated his analysis using quarter-by-quarter scores, and you can read it here.

Go Terriers!

Excuse me while I take a moment to talk about college football. My alma mater’s football team, the Wofford College Terriers, has advanced to the second round of the NCAA FCS (I-AA) Playoffs after defeating the third-seeded and previously undefeated Montana Grizzlies. Despite winning the Southern Conference and beating Appalachian State—yes, the same Appalachian State that upset Michigan—the Terriers didn’t even get a mention on the national playoff selection show. And Wofford is no stranger to playoff success. In 2003, Wofford advanced to the semi-finals only to lose to the eventual champion Delaware.

The T-Dogs will be hosting the Richmond Spiders this upcoming Saturday. I’m hoping for a trip to Chattanooga for the championship game.

Update: Video highlights! Check out the option attack of Coach Ayers.

The Lull

I hate the day after the Super Bowl. Football season just ended, Spring Training is still a month away, and the hot-stove league is concerned with minor deals. I used to be a big basketball fan, but I just don’t find it interesting anymore. I’ll watch a little March Madness, and maybe some of the ACC Tournament, but I’m just counting the days (56) until Opening Day.

Now, I prefer baseball to football, but I do enjoy watching football on the weekends when baseball isn’t on. And though I often find my preferences to be different than the average American, I think this is one of the cases where many people feel the same way. The NFL is raking in money, but I think there is plenty more on the table. Why doesn’t the NFL expand its regular season by a few games? Why hasn’t another league started up to compete?

I think one of these two things has to happen very soon. I haven’t done an in depth study of the issue, but the revenue and salary numbers lead me to believe that NFL players are not paid nearly what they generate in terms of revenue. I think it would be very easy for a rogue league to get many good players to jump ship. Additionally, many college players participating in the student-athlete farce of “college” football ought to be willing to jump to pro football.

The USFL tried and failed over 20 years ago (1983-1985). The XFL didn’t last more than one season (2001). Both of these leagues had problems. The USFL was poorly organized, but still almost survived. The XFL was a joke, and forgot the fundamental reason why people watch football—it’s a fun game to watch and doesn’t need any fake drama. Plus, the XFL did not pretend to hire major-league talent.

The sports world is booming along with the economy. More and more fans—in particular, wealthy fans—are watching football. And we have plenty of eccentric billionaires who would love some public adoration. Now is the time for new league or an expanded slate of NFL games. There’s just too big of an opportunity here for this not to happen.

Super Bowl Extravaganza

For the past two years, I’ve turned Sabernomics over to Doug Drinen for the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. I won’t be doing so this year, because Doug has become a full-time blogger at the Pro-Football-Reference Blog. So, go on ever and check out what he has to say.

Today, he updates The Manning Index, which he first presented here, two years ago.

Fantasy Football Advice

Josh breaks out the Stata to give some fantasy football advice over at The Everyday Economist.

With the pros starting up this weekend, don’t forget to check in regularly with Doug Drinen at Pro-Football-Reference.com. He’s been a blogging ninja during the off-season. I’ll be curious to see what he posts during the season. I miss getting my info directly from the source.

The Pro-Football-Reference Blog Is Up!

Doug Drinen of Pro-Football-Reference—and host of the Sabernomics Super Bowl Extravaganza—is now blogging full time at the PFR blog. I always get requests for Doug to blog more, and I always pass them along. Well, he’s finally done it! Go over and give Doug a warm welcome to the blogosphere.

He starts off with an interesting question:

If you were starting a franchise right now, would you rather have Reggie Bush or Shaun Alexander?

Lock of the year

I recently read a book called Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini. It’s an old book — originally written in the early 80s I think — that details the psychological tendencies that allow us to be persuaded by others and by ourselves. I enjoy this sort of book because (1) I find the human mind fascinating and (2) I like to be aware of my own inherent psychological tendencies so that I might have a better chance to be aware of them and override them when appropriate. It can be quite eye-opening at times to realize how powerful these things are, even when we consciously try to override them.

One of these nasty little buggers is the cause of my current belief that the Seahawks are going to win the Super Bowl by three or four touchdowns. I don’t remember if it has a name, but the psychological tendency that has me in its grip is the desire for self-consistency.

The story starts on the Monday following the conference championship games. Aside from J.C. and I, there are approximately two people in this quiet little community who enjoy football. One of them has an office a few doors down from mine. That Monday, this guy came in and started claiming that the Steelers were going to win by 17 at least. At that point, I had no sense of who I thought would win, but my intuition told me that the two teams seemed very evenly matched. I simply pointed out that, while the Steelers had indeed had a very impressive playoff run, the Seahawks had too. He would have none of it. The Seahawks hadn’t beaten anyone, the Steelers were hot, the Steelers D was going to easily shut down Alexander, Roethlisberger is the chosen one, the whole bit. And this guy is not a Steeler fan. Far from it. During the ten-minute conversation that ensued, I made no effort to downplay the Steelers’ achievements. But I found myself repeatedly noting that the Seahawks were a very formidable squad in their own right.

Back to psychology. From a persuasion standpoint, there is something powerful about the physical act of expressing an opinion in voice or in writing. Once you make a statement, you’re on record. You have made it clear to other people, and to yourself, what you believe. Once that’s done, it’s tough to undo. Most humans want to think of themselves as consistent. I had just spent 10 solid minutes putting myself on record as being a Seahawk backer. When it started, I thought I was just playing devil’s advocate. But the longer it went on, the worse it got. By the end, I was a Seahawk backer.

That conversation formed the foundation for my belief that the Seahawks are an ubeatable juggernaut. But that’s a pretty shaky foundation — like three legs of a table. My desire for self-consistency had much more work to do. And work it did. From that point forward, everything I read, every stat I looked at, every bit of evidence I examimed was subconsciously run through a pro-Seahawk filter and came out the other side blue and green. All these bits of evidence formed the fourth leg of the table, then a fifth, sixth, seventh, and eigth, and several metal support braces. By the time it was over, you could have sawed off the original foundation — the original three legs — and I would still be a Seahawk backer.

All this happened, mind you, within about a 24-hour span a couple of weeks ago, and within three weeks of reading a book about how psychological tendencies can mislead us. I know I’m being duped. And yet right now, I truly believe — I truly believe — that the Seahawks are going to win this game.

Now that you have been sufficiently warned not to listen to me, I’ll briefly outline the case for putting your hard-earned on Seattle.

First let me embark on a brief tangent about markets. I am not fully informed on all the literature, but my understanding is that people who have studied it seriously have come to the conclusion that the NFL gambling market is an efficient one. This certainly matches with my intuition. Because lines are set to get equal action on both sides, many people believe — and I used to believe — that you don’t have to be smarter than the bookmakers. You just have to be smarter than the general public. When people hear “general public,” they get a mental image of their old fraternity buddy phoning in idiotic bets to his bookie at the last minute. But it’s not that general public that you have to outsmart. It’s a weighted average of the general public, weighted according to how much money they’re willing to bet. Your buddy’s $50 doesn’t move the line. It’s the big money that sets the line. And the big money knows what it’s doing.

I’ve heard many times this week that, since there are many more Steeler fans than Seahawk fans, the line is artificially tilted toward the Steelers, making Seattle the smart play. If this kind of thinking were true in general, then the Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders, and Fighting Irish would have significantly below .500 records against the spread over long periods of time. But they don’t. So I generally don’t put any stock in this argument.

However, this may be a special case. It’s the Super Bowl. Your buddy’s $50 doesn’t set the line on a week 9 Browns-Texans game, but the collection of people who bet on the Super Bowl is not the same as the collection of people who bet on that Cleveland-Houston tilt. It’s possible, just possible, that, while serious bettors set lines during the regular season, casual bettors set lines during the Super Bowl. In that case, the line probably would be tilted toward the Pittsburgh side. So it’s possible that, if you bet on Seattle, you’re getting a few free points. Or, more importantly, you’re getting better odds on the money line.

Still, better odds don’t help unless you the Seahawks actually win. Why do I think that’s going to happen?

It’s an argument Mr. Occam would approve of. Since 1990, the team with the better record is 8-2 in Super Bowls. The team with the better points scored vs. points allowed margin is 13-2. Generally speaking, the better team wins the Super Bowl.

So the argument for Pittsburgh must boil down to the fact that, despite the records, Pittsburgh is the better team. And that argument can be broken down into two sub-arguments: (1) Seattle played a very weak schedule, so their record is not indicative of their strength, (2) Pittsburgh is very hot and is thus better right now than their seasonal record suggests. This second one is often tied to the argument that PittsburghWithBigBenHealthy is a better team than PittsburghWithBigBenHurt, and thus the PittsburghWithBigBenHurt games should be ignored.

Both these arguments have some merit.

Seattle’s opponents’ winning percentage (after removing the games against the Seahawks) was .446, the lowest figure in the league. It is worth noting that, while they did have the weakest schedule in the NFL this year, .446 is by no means a historically low figure. In fact, three of the last four Super Bowl teams with weaker schedules — the 2000 Ravens, the 1999 Rams, and the 1992 Cowboys — won their big games. While Pittsburgh did play a tougher regular season schedule, they were 2-4 against playoff teams during the regular season. I don’t see why losing to good teams is more impressive than beating bad teams.

But then we come to Pittsburgh’s playoff run. It’s unclear how impressive the win over the Kitna-led Bengal team is. It’s unclear what to make of a Colt team that hadn’t played a good game in a month prior to facing Pittsburgh. The win at Denver was unquestionably impressive. And I also have to grant that, whatever you may think of a Palmerless Bengal team or a Colt team that seemed to be in a funk, the playoff run as a whole has to be considered pretty impressive. I don’t dispute that.

But before Pittsburgh was the hottest team in the league, that honor belonged to Washington, who had won six in a row before falling at Seattle. Carolina had gone on the road and dismantled two of the NFC’s best teams before being absolutely destroyed by Seattle. Carolina may not be as good as Denver or Indianapolis, but Seattle’s game against the Panthers was as dominant a performance as we saw in the 2005 playoffs. For most of that game, Seattle had as many scores as Carolina had first downs. Yes, Pittsburgh is hot. So is Seattle.

And if you want to adjust Pittsburgh’s record because of Big Ben’s injury, you have to remember that one of Seattle’s best offensive players missed half the season, and also that their record is skewed by the give-up game they played against Green Bay in week 17.

I’ve got more arguments for Seattle, but I’m trying to keep it simple and this post is almost unreadably long already, so I’ll cut it here.

It is to be understood that Lock of the Year should be interpreted in the sense of Smooth Jimmy Apollo: when you’re right 53% of the time, you’re wrong 47% of the time. It is also to be understood that when you pick one game per year, it’s necessarily got to be your Lock of the Year (either that or your Shoe-In of the Year). With those caveats, I offer you my Lock of the Year: the Seattle Seahawks straight up. Play it with confidence.

The Other Dungy Index

Tony Dungy’s teams haven’t fared particularly well, relative to expectations, in postseason games. So when, in my last post, I created a metric to measure such performance, I named it after the man. That was something of a cheap shot.

I’ll right that wrong here by noting that Dungy has a superlative record of producing and maintaining very good teams. In his four years at the helm of the Colts, they’ve won 48 games. Since 1990, only three teams have bettered that number during a four-year stretch and three more have equalled it. Yeah, I know, he inherited Peyton, Edge, and Marvin. He also inherited a defense that was a complete wreck. To average 12 wins a year over a four-year span is remarkable under any circumstances.

Let’s now examine the fraud known as Bill Parcells. He seems to get lots of credit for turning losers into winners. Most recently, he took over a Cowboy team that had been dreadful for several years prior to his arrival. Immediately, they were contenders in the NFC. There was a bump in the road the following year, but the Cowboys were once again in the playoff mix in 2005.

But what has he done, really? In the three years prior to Parcells’ arrival, the Cowboys were 15-33. That’s pretty bad. In the three years since, they’ve been 25-23. Better. Is that Parcells, or is that just what bad teams naturally do in the NFL these days: get better? Since 1990, there have been 35 teams that won between 14 and 16 games over a three-year span. These teams, as a group, would have to be considered similar to the Cowboy team that Parcells took inherited. Their performance during the next three years could serve as a yardstick against which to measure Parcells’ performance. During the next three years, the other comparably bad teams averaged 22 wins and 0.85 playoff appearances. Bill has notched 25 wins and one playoff appearance. Solid effort? Yes. Miraculous turnaround? No.

For various reasons — some “natural” and some due to NFL tinkering — teams with good records tend to regress while teams with bad records tend to get better. That’s a fact that will surprise very few readers of this blog, I’m sure. But it’s at the heart of why I believe Dungy has a more impressive record than Parcells — than just about anyone — over the last few years. His teams, despite being good, have not regressed. During their most recent stints, Parcells has been aided by the forces of nature while Dungy has been fighting against them.

On the other hand, even someone like myself who possesses a deep and irrational hatred of Parcells would acknowledge that Dungy did inherit a better team than Parcells did. It would therefore be unfair to simply compare their records.

I want to quantify these ideas a bit. The first step is to establish a baseline. If a team won X games in 2005, how many games should they be expected to win in 2006? Regression can provide us with an estimated answer. A plain old linear regression including all teams since 1990 produces the following formula:


Next Year Wins =~ 5.51 + .317 * LastYearWins

Some quick checks indicate that it passes the smell test: plug in 8 and you get out 8, plug in 12 and you get out 9.3. Teams since 1990 that have won twelve games have actually averaged about 9.2 wins the next year. The formula models reality fairly well (not surprising, of course, since it was built to fit reality).

But this same formula doesn’t model the reality of 1973 or 1985 very well. Those were different times, so they require different formulas. I simply ran a separate regression for each of the three time periods 1970–1979, 1980–1989, and 1990–present. I’ve got no good reason for selecting those cutoff points. Probably 1978 (a bunch of rule changes) and 1993 (free agency) would be better cutoffs. Even better, I could ask J.C. to tell me about some statistical whizbangery that would examine the data and tell me the best place to draw the cutoffs. But I’m lazy, so nominal decades it is.

The next step is to go through each coach’s record, year by year, and compare his expected wins to his actual wins. Here, for example, is Dungy:

         Expected  Actual
Year Team  wins     wins    Diff
---------------------------------
1996  tam   7.7      6.0    -1.7
1997  tam   7.4     10.0     2.6
1998  tam   8.7      8.0    -0.7
1999  tam   8.0     11.0     3.0
2000  tam   9.0     10.0     1.0
2001  tam   8.7      9.0     0.3
2002  ind   7.4     10.0     2.6
2003  ind   8.7     12.0     3.3
2004  ind   9.3     12.0     2.7
2005  ind   9.3     14.0     4.7

That’s about 84 expected wins and 102 actual wins, making +18 marginal wins. He gets some credit for turning around a bad Bucs team. But he scores most of his points by keeping his teams at (or near) the top of the league consistently.

Before we get to the full list, a couple of technical notes are in order:

1. Only seasons since the 1970 merger are counted. Guys like Don Shula, whose career started before 1970, are included but the games prior to 1970 are ignored. These guys are asterisked.

2. I didn’t want to order the list by Total Marginal Wins because that would weight long careers too heavily. Ordering the list by Marginal Wins per season, on the other hand, wouldn’t give enough weight to long successful careers. So I ordered the list by (an approximation of) the probability that chance would produce the given record or a better one.

                  Expected  Actual    Marginal
                     wins    wins       wins
---------------------------------------------
*Don Shula            239     276      +36.5
 Joe Gibbs            123     147      +23.6
 Tony Dungy            84     102      +17.7
 Mike Holmgren        117     138      +20.9
 Marty Schottenheimer 159     183      +24.3
 Bill Cowher          121     142      +20.8
 Mike Shanahan        109     129      +19.8
 George Seifert        97     114      +16.7
 Bill Parcells        143     164      +20.9
 Bill Walsh            83      96      +13.2
 Andy Reid             60      70      +10.2
*Tom Landry           183     200      +16.5
*George Allen          77      88      +10.7
*Chuck Noll           191     208      +17.7
 Marv Levy            129     144      +14.6
*John Madden           95     106      +10.8
 Jon Gruden            65      73       +8.3
*Bud Grant            141     152      +11.3
 John Fox              30      36       +5.7
 Jimmy Johnson         71      80       +8.6
*Paul Brown            48      55       +6.9
 Marvin Lewis          22      27       +4.8
 Chuck Knox           185     198      +12.9
 Bill Belichick        91      99       +8.3
 Tom Coughlin          78      85       +7.1
 Chuck Fairbanks       46      51       +5.3
 Art Shell             42      47       +4.9
 Bobby Ross            72      78       +6.2
 Dennis Green         101     108       +7.0
 Mike Sherman          52      57       +4.6
 Jack Del Rio          23      26       +3.1
 Barry Switzer         37      40       +3.4
 Jeff Fisher           90      96       +5.6
 Dick Vermeil         117     124       +6.4
 Wade Phillips         41      45       +3.5
 Mike Martz            53      57       +3.7
 Mike Ditka           119     124       +5.5
 Don Coryell          112     117       +5.3
 Red Miller            39      42       +2.9
 Brian Billick         58      62       +3.8
 John Ralston          38      41       +3.0
 Dan Reeves           189     195       +6.2
 Jerry Burns           50      53       +2.9
 Jim Mora             123     127       +4.2
 Walt Michaels         42      45       +2.4
 Bum Phillips          86      89       +3.1
*Joe Schmidt           28      30       +1.6
 John Robinson         74      75       +1.6
 Mike Tice             31      32       +1.1
 John Mackovic         29      30       +1.0
 Raymond Berry         44      45       +0.8
*Charley Winner        21      21       +0.6
 Jim Fassel            58      58       +0.8
 Tom Flores           103     104       +0.8
 Jack Pardee           90      91       +0.7
 Wayne Fontes          64      64       +0.5
 Steve Mariucci        73      73       +0.3
 Buddy Ryan            56      56       +0.1
 Ron Meyer             60      60       +0.1
 Jerry Glanville       61      61       +0.0
 Forrest Gregg         84      84       -0.2
 Ted Marchibroda       92      92       -0.4
 Dan Devine            32      31       -0.7
*Nick Skorich          36      35       -0.7
 Pete Carroll          34      33       -1.1
 Rick Forzano          24      23       -1.0
 Tommy Prothro         51      49       -1.7
 Sam Rutigliano        56      54       -1.8
 Don McCafferty        39      38       -1.4
 Jack Patera           45      43       -2.2
 Jim Haslett           47      45       -2.3
 Jim Hanifan           46      43       -2.5
 Herman Edwards        41      39       -2.5
 Dick Jauron           38      35       -2.7
 Monte Clark           59      56       -3.6
*Lou Saban             52      49       -3.5
 Dave Wannstedt        89      85       -4.5
*Dick Nolan            71      66       -4.2
 Joe Walton            58      54       -4.0
 Neill Armstrong       33      30       -3.3
*Ray Malavasi          45      42       -3.7
 Leeman Bennett        60      55       -4.7
*Norm VanBrocklin      40      36       -3.9
 Bart Starr            65      60       -5.3
*Hank Stram            58      53       -4.9
 Ray Rhodes            42      38       -4.2
 Gene Stallings        28      24       -4.5
 Butch Davis           30      25       -4.6
*Alex Webster          32      27       -4.7
 John McKay            56      49       -7.1
 Sam Wyche             93      84       -8.3
 Norv Turner           67      60       -7.7
 June Jones            24      19       -4.5
 Ray Perkins           54      46       -7.7
 John North            19      14       -4.8
 Bill Johnson          29      25       -4.9
 Mike McCormack        34      28       -6.5
 Bill Arnsparger       17      11       -5.1
 Dave McGinnis         21      16       -5.3
 Dennis Erickson       48      40       -7.6
 Gregg Williams        23      17       -5.6
 Dom Capers            57      48       -9.4
 Darryl Rogers         27      20       -6.8
 Rich Kotite           48      40       -8.3
 Frank Kush            18      12       -5.9
 Abe Gibron            19      13       -6.1
 Ron Erhardt           27      21       -6.1
 Vince Tobin           37      29       -8.1
 David Shula           34      26       -8.2
 Paul Wiggin           20      14       -6.5
*Weeb Ewbank           32      24       -7.5
 Mike Riley            21      14       -7.0
 Lindy Infante         46      36      -10.1
 Dave Campo            22      15       -7.2
 Dan Henning           50      38      -11.8
 Marion Campbell       53      39      -13.8
 Bruce Coslet          58      44      -14.0
 Joe Bugel             35      24      -11.5
 Kay Stephenson        21      12       -8.9
 Ed Biles              22      11      -11.3

How you weight the relative importance of regular season performance versus postseason performance is up to you. But either way, it’s tough to come up with a better candidate for best post-Merger NFL coach than Joe Gibbs.