The Electric Commentary

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Philosophy of Football, 101

The first in a three part series.

On Sunday I’ll be watching football with Football Outsider contributor Michael David Smith and other Outsider fans at the Gin Mill, which is, unfortunately, a Michigan State bar. The unfortunate clientele notwithstanding, it should be fun.

I'm a fan of the "Moneyball" phenomenon in sports, and I believe every major sport is still laden with exploitable inefficiencies. That said, here is how I would go about constructing an NFL team.

There are two issues that I would focus on when constructing a team. The first is what I call "Providing Time" (Henceforth, ProTi)

ProTi should not be confused with the largely overrated "time of possession." ProTi encompasses the aspects of football that allow the quarterback to have as much time as possible to throw. There are two ways to improve ProTi. The first is to have an offensive line that excels in pass blocking, and the second is to have an evasive quarterback. By evasive, I do not mean Mike Vick. The ideal "evasive quarterback" can buy more time to throw, and will only take off running as a last resort. Steve Young is an excellent example. This year both Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper have excelled at keeping a play alive.

The second is simply “Limiting Turnovers” (and since we can’t call it LT, we’ll go with LiTur). Turnover differential is one of the most telling statistics, and the reason is very simple. If you have more possessions, you are more likely to score more points. Turnovers are primarily a quarterback phenomenon (Ahman Green and Travis Henry notwithstanding) and limiting the opportunities for a turnover by the quarterback is essential to being successful. All interceptions stem from the quarterback (although some picks are the fault of wide receivers, for purposes of this post all that is important is that the quarterback was passing in the first place) and many fumbles are the result of a prone QB taking a blindside hit. (Note: Most fumbles in a career: Warren Moon, 161. Dave Krieg is #2. Most fumbles in a season: Kerry Collins, 23. In a game: Len Dawson, 7. )

Therefore:

1st Offensive Priority: The Offensive line.

Run blocking is a nice bonus, and most linemen who excel as pass blockers will also be suitable run blockers, but "running a lot" is much more important to winning than "running well." Moreover, pass blocking lines (especially the Indianapolis line) will produce a solid if unspectacular running game most of the time anyway.

Why is ProTi so important? There is an adage in basketball which states that the defense will break down every thirteen seconds. This is largely true in football as well. As a result, having a great offensive line creates secondary benefits for every other offensive position. Quarterbacks will be hit less frequently, resulting in fewer turnovers. Receivers will get more separation, which makes it easier for less talented receivers to get open, and also for the quarterback to find them. It allows for deeper route running, and low-risk deep passes. If you have an offensive line capable of ProTi, great things become possible with less-than-stellar players.

Think of Kurt Warner, Drew Bledsoe, and Troy Aikman. Each played in at least one Super Bowl, and none are considered "Hall of Fame material." (Note: some would make a case for Aikman.) Each QB played behind a great offensive line. Aikman played behind what is debatably the greatest offensive line in history. All are accurate throwers, and all are immobile. However, because each line provided great protection they never had problems finding open men. And while some good receivers played for these guys, there are also the Alvin Harpers, the Ricky Proehls, the Az Hakims, and everyone except Ben Coates (All right, so Terry Glenn was OK for a year).

Moreover, when the offensive lines started to go south on Aikman, Bledsoe, and Warner, they all became very ordinary. Bledsoe became awful. Warner started taking huge shots every game and eventually became expendable enough to let go. Even Aikman saw his yards per pass decline severely (especially in 1997 when he was sacked 33 times).

The bottom line is that as long as your offensive line is dominant, you can save money at the QB position and at the WR position. And, in true Moneyball style, once your receivers (and QBs and RBs) build up a reputation for greatness you can trade them for draft picks or star cornerbacks (See: Champ Bailey, Clinton Portis). At worst you can let them go in free agency and torpedo someone else’s salary cap (See: Alvin Harper, Az Hakim). (Note: This is similar to the "Moneyball" philosophy regarding closers. It is easy to produce a good closer, as saves are relatively easy to record on a winning team. Billy Koch is probably the best example, as he was fine as an A, but terrible as a member of the White Sox. The "real" A's closer at the time was Chad Bradford.)

To sum up:

1. Spending money on the offensive line will save money at other positions.

2. It will also result in fewer turnovers

3. Finally, it will allow for low-risk big plays, and require that an offense execute a minimum number of plays to score. Running fewer plays (especially in third-and-long situations) to score reduces the risk of a turnover.

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