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Bob Angelo

Thoughts On The Game
  • Writer's pictureBob Angelo

“Want To and Will Do:” The Human Element in NFL Analytics

“NFL Next Gen Stats” are showing up weekly on game telecasts and becoming a part of the league’s lexicon. Some of these calculations are extremely cool.

Recently, Miami wide out Tyreek Hill’s peak speed was pinpointed at 21.91 miles per hour during a 44-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the New York Giants. Two weeks earlier, Dolphins’ rookie running back De’Von Achane hit 21.93 mph on a 67-yard TD scamper, the highest reported calculation of the season. Against the Giants, Achane peaked at a mere 21.76 on a 76-yard score.

Must have been dragging an anchor.

All five of this season’s “Speediest Moving-Man Moments” belong to Miami. Hill, the self-proclaimed fastest man in the NFL, is keenly aware of these results. Said Tyreek after his teammate bettered him by two one-hundredths of a second: “I’m the cheetah. I’m the fastest man in the game, and I’m the fastest in real life, too!”

Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt might have something to say here. Bolt once recorded a speed of 27.33 mph, a pace that dwarfs most other human competitors. But NFL players wear shoulder pads and helmets and run on all sorts of different playing surfaces that sometimes are wet and/or muddy—not tracks! All of which makes this “Next Gen Stat” much more tantalizing to tinker with and talk about.

But which NFL statistics translate into winning football games? Certainly speed is among an athlete’s most valued assets. Teams fortunate enough to field multiple world-class sprinters—aka Miami with Hill, Achane and Jaylen Waddle—possess a clear advantage over the competition. Check out several of these “Old School Numbers” (hereafter OSN) concerning Miami’s offense:

Going into its Week 7 contest against Philadelphia, Miami is averaging 498.7 offensive yards per game, a full 103.7 more than the second highest team total of 395 rolled up by the Eagles. The Dolphins lead the league in the following categories: rush yards per attempt, pass yards per attempt and points scored per game. Not surprisingly, Miami is tied with Kansas City at 5-and-1 atop the AFC.

A large percentage of any team’s offensive success—and ultimately, of winning football games—is a direct result of speed! Conversely, the absence of speed on the defensive side of the ball poses problems for position coaches and coordinators.

In most pass coverage schemes, defensive backs eventually must match up then run with receivers who move faster and know where they’re going. Pass rushers must beat larger offensive linemen within 2.5 seconds—or accept the blame when QB’s survey the field then dismantle overwhelmed secondaries. And when running backs streak to the edge and beat contain, big offensive moments often result.

This year’s newest “Next Gen Stats” include new metrics designed to measure pass rush, run stop, and blocking win rates. Ultimately, they’re all measuring the speed at which big strong men are able to accomplish or fail at their individual tasks. The result is a large and varied assortment of “OSN’s” that must be understood in proper context.

Yes, size and strength matter in pro football. And the speed with which big, strong men perform their individual tasks as a team—matters more! But NO“ Next Gen Stat” or “Old School Number”—no measurable or analytic—will ever capture or be able to quantify the essence and impact of “Want To and Will Do.”

As an example, let’s examine: “Average Time of Possession.” Cleveland leads the NFL at 34:36 (out of 60 minutes). The next seven teams are Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco, Kansas City, Dallas, Jacksonville and Baltimore. If the 2023 season ended today, all eight of these teams would qualify for post season playoff games. It goes without saying that speed plays a major role in sustaining offensive drives.

But does “holding onto the football” which “Time of Possession” measures translate into winning NFL games? Not necessarily. Carolina ranks 9th in this category, and they’re still winless. Seattle ranks 26th and Pittsburgh 30th. Yet both teams would play in a wild card game if the season ended today.

How about ‘Offensive Points Scored Per Game?” Miami’s 37.2 number is nearly a full touchdown more than San Francisco’s 30.7. And I could see these two teams meeting in Super Bowl LVIII (58). The same for any of the next eight teams in this category, all of whom would qualify for the playoffs if the 2023 NFL season had ended after last weekend. Again, speed is important in scoring points.

Then there’s the age-old adage: “Defense wins championships!” Yet one scale that ranks the NFL’s Top Ten defenses by “Average Yards Allowed and Total TD’s” lists Cleveland as the NFL’s best unit and includes Denver and New England ,while omitting both the 49ers and Dolphins. Going strictly by “Average Points Per Game Allowed,” San Francisco and Kansas City rank first and second, another possible Super Bowl LVIII matchup. So which metrics truly matter and why?

Last week, despite what all that the analytics and statistics suggested, the NFL’s final two remaining unbeaten teams both lost games on the road.

San Francisco suffered two key offensive injuries in Cleveland and stumbled to a 19-to-17 loss to the Browns—as a potential game-winning field goal by the 49ers sailed wide right at the whistle. In New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, Philly dominated “Time of Possession” but turned the ball over late, handing the New York Jets a 20-to-14 come-from-behind win.

Sometimes the biggest, strongest and fastest NFL teams run into opponents with a bit more WT & WD. The Browns wanted to prove to themselves and their loyal fans that their great defensive numbers weren’t a mirage, that they could do the same against one of the NFC’s elite programs. And teams that want to (WT) sometimes will do (WD). Their pregame skirmish foreshadowed their winning intentions.

The New York Jets defense grew weary of hearing their 2023 efforts were destined to be in vain due to the loss of QB Aaron Rodgers. They wanted to demonstrate to a national TV audience that news of their inevitable collapse was premature.

So they shut out the Eagles in the second half then picked off Jalen Hurts late in the fourth quarter, setting up a game-winning touchdown possession that even Zach Wilson couldn’t screw up. The Eagles won the Time of Possession battle and dominated statistically, but the Jets wanted to win the game. And like I said, teams with more want to, oftentimes will do—and the size, strength, and speed of their opponents simply won’t factor into the outcome.

Modern analytic tools eventually yield numbers. But like the best meteorologists, who measure then provide all sorts of precise numerical information to describe present moment weather conditions, when it comes to forecasts, no predictions are ever 100% certain. And no TV weatherman can be trusted all the time!

Similarly, “Weekly NFL Power Rankings” are NOT a forecasting tool. They can quantify what a team has done and suggest what a team is capable of doing in the future. But on any given Sunday, no metric or formula can measure WT & WD.

So if you’re wondering why teams that post big numbers and dominate statistics don’t win going away each and every week, remember WT & WD—the human elements that modern analytics will never be able to quantify or calculate.

These two very real phenomena will always remain immeasurable—until they show up in the NFL standings!

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