Since the arrival of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead in early 2012, the Rams have been quite successful in stockpiling talented young players. Football Outsiders/ESPN - in its annual ranking of NFL teams with the most under-25 talent (link) - named the St. Louis Rams as the NFL team with the best collection of young players.
The future appears bright for the Rams. They're expected to rise above the .500 mark - and challenge for a playoff berth - this coming season. Now into year three of a complete rebuild under Fisher and Snead, the time has arrived for the Rams' young talent to turn potential into results on the field.
In a recent article for FiveThirtyEight [owned by ESPN], Neil Paine attempted to determine:
"...whether there’s a relationship in the NFL between having a lot of young talent and winning down the road."
After investigation and analysis, Paine came to a conclusion that may surprise you:
"...there’s practically no relationship between how highly regarded a team’s talent is and how well it does in the next three seasons."
Paine relies heavily on statistical analysis in his article. I like to think of myself as a numbers guy; however, most of the statistical measures Paine uses - Spearman rank correlation coefficient, schedule-adjusted Pythagorean wins, Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement - leave me scratching my head in wonderment.
In an article for Turf Show Times last week, I shared my thoughts on the ever-increasing use of advanced NFL statistics:
"I look at all of these new-fangled NFL stats - particularly the ones involving a fair amount of subjectivity - with a degree of skepticism. Statistics can tell you everything...and nothing. This is especially true for statistics related to NFL football. Individual statistics are invariably interconnected - with many moving parts - making it difficult to assess talent and performance levels."
Wes Cecil is a valued, respected contributor and member of the Turf Show Times community. He's written many quality fanposts, where he's displayed a great interest in NFL statistical analysis. Wes is a professor of literature and philosophy, and teaches mathematics logic, critical thinking, and the foundations of scientific reasoning. When not working, reading, or writing, Wes spends much of his time in the garden with his chickens.
I asked Wes to contribute his thoughts on the limitations of statistical analysis with respect to the NFL, and to offer his commentary on Neil Paine's article. It makes for a compelling read:
"It turns out you really don't need to understand statistics to see the central flaw in Paine's argument: Junk In = Junk Out. Paine's measure of success over time of the most talented young teams is not based on some fundamental data, but on ESPN's and Football Outsider's ranking of the quality of the under-25 talent on each team:
"Instead of limiting our analysis to players who have yet to emerge in the NFL, these rankings consider all players who will be 25 or younger as of September 1, 2010 -- regardless of where they were drafted or how many games they've started. After compiling a list of eligible players for each team, we compared the groups on a variety of factors. We weighed issues like upside versus established production, quantity versus quality, and current staff versus historical ability to develop rookies when it comes to evaluating the talent available to each NFL franchise."
This is a highly subjective analysis. What Paine is actually arguing is not that there is no correlation between young talent and future success, but that there is no correlation between ESPN's ability to predict the performance of young players and the future success of associated teams - a somewhat less surprising conclusion. This means that if, on the off chance, ESPN has graded one of your team's young stars much higher than they should be, their failure to contribute in the future will make your team look bad. Similarly, if they think your team's young talent is terrible, then any future success looks anomalous.
We should not be too harsh on ESPN, Football Outsiders or Paine. As Paine mentions in his article, "in general, the NFL is much more difficult to predict than MLB." I think it is important to understand why all this apparently heavy-duty statistical analysis falls apart when examining the NFL. Consider, for example, that the 2010 Chargers led the league in total offense and total defense. They also failed to make the playoffs. This extraordinary achievement tells us, above all, that the total offense and total defense statistics are not very good measures of team success. For statistical analysis to be helpful, you need three elements that are missing from the NFL - a low number of variables, reliable quantities, and a large sample.
The NFL has an astounding number of variables. Not only are there 22 players on the field on each play, those players vary from play to play. There are huge differences in offensive and defensive schemes that are being matched, games are played in temperature controlled stadiums on artificial turf and in the snow on grass. Essentially, every game involves so many variables in personnel, scheme and conditions it is difficult to compare one game to another.
Many of the variables in football are also difficult to quantify. A player like Calvin Johnson forces a defense to adjust to him. Even if he does not catch a ball for long stretches of a game, he is influencing the game decisively. In the video for Robert Quinn being chosen as one of the NFL's top 100 players, Coach Pagano of the Colts is seen on the sideline saying, "we said we weren't going to let Quinn ruin our game plan." The Colts had adjusted what they were doing to account for Quinn, and he still ruined their game. When Johnson does not get a catch or Quinn doesn't get a sack, it looks like a poor statistical game. However, if you constantly draw double and triple-teams, you have a major impact. But how do you put a number on that? And if you cannot put a reliable number on something, then it cannot be accounted for in statistics. Junk In = Junk Out. There are simply too many variables, and many of those variables are hard to quantify, for reliable use of statistics. Pro Football Focus tries to account for all of this by grading every player on every play of every game. However, as they readily admit, such grades are subjective and - because of an incomplete knowledge of what a player was supposed to do - often inaccurate.
Another problem for statistical analysis of the NFL is the sample size. Because there are so many variables, it is difficult to get a sufficient number of similar samples to create reliable base-line data. In baseball there are 2,430 regular season games a year. In football, 256, or roughly 1/10 the number of games. Further, far more players participate in each game. Even with relief pitchers and designated runners, likely only 30 to 40 players participate in a given baseball game. In an average football game, you will likely see more than 80 players take the field. So 1/10 the number of games and at least twice as many players means a nearly worthless sample size for many of the variables we would like to understand.
For instance, in evaluating the talent of a young slot corner, how many snaps is he likely to see in a year? If your team plays 30 defensive plays a game, and you are in nickel 30% of the time, our young slot corner might see 160 snaps in a season. If a team runs half the time against the nickel, and targets the slot receiver 20% of the time when they throw, our player will see 16 passes in his direction in an entire season. That is an astonishingly low number to derive any reliable data. Our corner could fall down on a play and allow a 90 yard touchdown, get picked on a play and allow a 45 yard completion, and then stop every other pass for no gain. That would equal an 8.4 yard completion average. Is that good or bad? It is an ugly number, but a great year for a slot corner. Because of the number of variables, it is often impossible to have sufficient number of samples to get clear base-line data.
Further exacerbating the situation, the NFL changes the rules of the game every year. Why have pass catching tight-ends suddenly risen while running backs have seen their importance decline? Rule changes. Strong safeties used to roam the backfield praying for a QB to throw a seam pass to a TE or slot receiver. The strong safety would then destroy the receiver. Receivers would develop alligator arms and offensive coordinators who wanted to extend the lives of their receivers would avoid throwing to the middle of the field. Now, devastating blows are called "hits on defenseless receivers" and result in 15-yard penalties and league fines. Suddenly, the middle of the field is open. Similarly, emphasis on hand checking and pass-interference has also changed the dynamics of the passing game. These rule changes mean that from year to year, and certainly over any five year period, the game has changed sufficiently, that it is difficult to compare statistics across time.
Of all the difficulties of analysis presented by the NFL, perhaps none is more daunting than player evaluation. Most NFL teams employ seven or eight full time scouts, plus player development directors and managers and scouting services. Further, when the season ends, the entire coaching staff becomes scouts and begins evaluating players, attending and running workouts, and watching film. These guys watch a lot of film. So twenty or more men spend thousands of hours analyzing players in order to choose seven or so players in the draft, a handful of UDFA's, and sign maybe a half-dozen free-agents. Despite all of this work, players are drafted early who fail to perform and players are drafted late or come in as UDFA's and make a real contribution. Is it any surprise the team at ESPN and Football Outsiders are unable to more accurately predict the future success of young players, than the accumulated talent of the NFL's best minds?
So when you see statistical analysis of the NFL be very leery. When Chip Kelly was hired as Philadelphia's head coach, several articles discussed his use of a computer system called Zeus, that had used advanced statistical analysis to come up with the idea that you should almost always go for it on 4th and short. This analysis suggested, by the way, that all the other head football coaches in the NFL did not understand the game. Kelly, the argument ran, was going to revolutionize football by going for it a LOT more on 4th down. As it turns out, in his first year as head coach, Chip Kelly called 14 fourth down plays and was successful on 7 of them. This was essentially middle of the pack in number called and success rate.
The NFL cannot be accurately quantified because of the large number of variables, subjective nature of assigning values to many variables, and the limited number of samples available for many of the variables that could be quantified. This does not mean that some hard numbers are not helpful in giving insight to the game or player production, rather that any such analysis must be mated to a careful viewing of each and every game relevant to the question at hand. As coaches say repeatedly at the end of games, "I'll let you know when we have finished watching the tape."
Success in the NFL
Advanced statistical analysis aside, what are the characteristics successful NFL franchises share, that allow them to sustain excellence - and win consistently - year after year? In which year do many rebuilding teams - like the Rams - begin reaping the benefits from successful planning (both short and long-term), and the stockpiling of young talent? How big a role does young talent play in a teams success?
In an article for Turf Show Times, in October, 2013, "The Blueprint For Building A Successful NFL Franchise", I took an in-depth look at the characteristics successful franchises share:
- Ownership and the front office - Each of the successful franchises noted in the article have stable, long-term ownership structures in place. These owners don't interfere with the day-to-day operations of the football team. Rather, they put quality football people in place, and let them do their jobs. Successful franchises also have skillful General Manager's, who are adept and knowledgeable in all facets of a teams operation.
- Coaching and player development - Successful franchises hire high-quality head coaches and coaching staffs. These coaches are considered among the best in the business, and stay with their respective teams for many years.
- The franchise quarterback - A franchise quarterback is essential to a teams long-term success. Since the Rams' Super Bowl victory, 12 out of the 14 Super Bowls played have been won with quarterbacks considered to be the "face of the franchise".
- Scouting and the NFL draft - The new CBA, relatively flat salary cap, and new rookie wage scale all favor a team building through the draft. These successful franchises add young, quality talent to their teams' rosters every year, via the NFL draft and the UDFA process.
- Free Agency - These franchises are noted for their judicious use of the Free Agency process. These teams are cautious in free agency, paying particular attention to team fit, and the effect of free agent signings on salary cap space. All exhibit a preference for developing - and retaining - "home-grown" talent.
- The defense - A strong defense is a trademark of successful franchises. The last 3 Super Bowl champions - Seattle, Baltimore, and the NY Giants - all had top-flight defenses. Of the 13 teams that won 10 games/made the playoffs in 2013, 9 of them finished in the top-ten in Points Allowed.
- Managing the salary cap - Successful franchises run their financial affairs in exemplary fashion. Managing the salary cap - and fiscal responsibility - play important roles in putting the best possible football product on the field.
- Continuity and stability - All successful franchises exhibit continuity and stability in every facet of their operation. Everyone knows and understands the systems put in place, and their roles and responsibilities within those systems.
These successful franchises share one additional characteristic: they all want to sustain excellence, and win on a consistent basis. Long-term planning is paramount in their organizations. An abundance of quality, young talent is but one of the many characteristics/pieces of the puzzle that contribute to making these franchises winners, both in the short and long-term. There's definitely a relationship between having all of these characteristics inherent in a franchise, and winning down the road.
In an article for Turf Show Times, in November, 2013, "Les Snead: The Rams And The Grit Year", I took a look at the Rams' complete rebuild - under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead - and their 4-year plan to return the team to prominence. It takes time for young, talented teams to grow, realize their potential, and become winners in the NFL. Rams GM Les Snead shared his thoughts on team building, the importance of Year 3 in their plans, and how teams like Seattle and Carolina "caught on" - and began winning - in Year 3 of their teams' rebuilding plans [under Pete Carroll and Ron Rivera, respectively]:
"Now long-term vision’s pretty simple: We want to be a team that wins consistently. We want to do that as rapidly as possible."
"If you look at all the teams that build something that lasts, even the 49ers under Bill Walsh, it’s usually somewhere in Year 3 they catch on and they get in their window."
"You take the Panthers right now. Everybody’s been killing the Panthers. (Saying) they’re terrible. And this year, early in the year, ‘They stink.’ But they’ve caught on. They’re a young team that’s catching on."
The accompanying chart presents the recent records of the following NFL teams - illustrating Snead's assertions: the Seattle Seahawks [since 2010], the Carolina Panthers [since 2011], and the St. Louis Rams [since 2012]:
Year Seattle Carolina St. Louis 2010 7 9 2011 7 9 6 10 2012 11 5 7 9 7 8 1 2013 13 3 12 4 7 9
In July, 2013, Football Outsiders/ESPN released its 2013 ranking of NFL teams with the most under-25 talent (link). The Seattle Seahawks secured the number one ranking, and went on to defeat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The accompanying chart presents the average age of NFL rosters heading into the 2013 season. The Rams were the youngest team in the NFL last year, and could very well be the youngest again this season. Interestingly enough, the Seattle Seahawks managed to win the Super Bowl, while fielding the fourth-youngest roster in the league. The chart is courtesy of Jimmy Kempski, Philly.com:
Curiously, Mr. Paine doesn't mention the Seattle Seahawks in his article. It was a glaring omission on his part, for the 2013 Seahawks are a fine example of an NFL team "bucking the trend" suggested by Paine.
Paine's analysis [as he notes in the article]:
The approach Paine uses in his analysis is too narrow in scope, too myopic in its vision, and leans too heavily on statistics. In truth, the NFL doesn't lend itself easily to advanced metrics. Fortunately, the NFL does lend itself to analogical reasoning. While Paine's article indeed doesn't inspire a lot of hope in the hearts of Rams fans, analogical reasoning does inspire plenty of hope.
The Rams are now into year three of building a successful franchise. As Rams GM Les Snead so keenly observed, many rebuilding teams begin reaping the benefits of a successful long-term plan in Year 3. The Rams are building a young, talented team, one that will be able to sustain excellence - and win consistently - for many years to come. I'm certain Pythagoras would have approved.