Friday, November 11, 2005

A Review of the Redskins First Half: What’s Luck Got to do with It?

The Redskins have played exactly half of their games and with five wins and three losses they are firmly in control for a playoff spot, which I predicted here. Barring a major injury, they should win the NFC East, but at the very least they will win a wild card spot.

The Redskins have done many things extremely well and several players have exceeded many fans’ expectations. Skins fans would have taken the following in a heart beat: Mark Brunell has a 90.3 passer rating with 12 TDs and only 3 picks and is playing like he did in his prime in Jacksonville; Portis and Betts have combined for over 800 yards and a 4.2 rushing average; Santana Moss is on his way to a 1700-yard, 10-TD season; and, despite several injuries to key guys on the defensive line (especially Griffin), the Redskins are seventh in the NFL in defense.

They also would have taken five wins with LaVar Arrington on the bench. Arrington just got healthy enough to get his first start and significant playing time in the eighth game. And, other than Santana Moss, nobody is having a career year, but most experts expected Moss, a first-round draft pick, to put up the kind of numbers that he is now. It is auspicious that the Skins are playing this well with only one player having a career year. Another thing that bodes well is the likely reversal of their poor luck in one area.

Luck in the NFL
There are three things that can seriously impact an NFL team that can be attributed to luck; injuries to specific players, incorrect calls from the officials, and fumble recoveries. Just about everything else depends on the skills of the people employed by the team. The wind blew the winning field goal into the upright? Well, the kicker should have accounted for it. The runner was about to score the winning touchdown before the safety jarred the ball loose? That is an athletic play by the safety, not bad luck. But, for all the preparation that an NFL team does, it cannot really prepare for injuries, bad calls, and fumble recoveries.

Obviously, the impact of an injury to a specific player can be minimized by developing a staff that can find good, inexpensive players who provide depth, but injuries to specific players is almost completely about luck.

There is little a team can do to prepare for bad calls and this needs little explanation. When bad calls happen in close games, it can make the difference between a win and a loss. With only sixteen games played in a regular season, one bad call can make or break a season.

Finally, some people might argue that because a fumble happens on the field, athleticism makes a difference in who recovers it. I don’t buy it. There is not a huge difference in size, speed, or athleticism between any two groups of eleven players on a field and the oval ball bounces randomly, so when a player puts it on the ground a team should have roughly a 50% chance of recovering it. The statistics bear this out, too—this year NFL offenses recover their own fumbles 50.8% of the time and defenses recover the other team’s fumble 49.2% of the time. So, there should be few arguments on this point. Any significant deviation away from a 50% recovery rate is either bad luck or good luck.

Remember, I am talking about picking up a ball that is already on the ground, not stripping a ball from a player’s hands. There are some defenders that do an excellent job of stripping the ball, and that takes athleticism and skill. You should expect good teams to strip the ball more often than bad ones. But once that ball is on the ground it’s 50/50.

The Importance of Turnovers
In two of the Redskins losses they outplayed their opponent in the important statistical categories of total yards gained and time of possession. So, the Redskins have played well enough to have won seven games. They have only five wins because they have been inefficient in converting all of those yards and long drives into points. The Redskins are inefficient because they have only won the turnover battle in one game—just one. And, more importantly, they have lost the turnover battle mainly because they are not getting enough takeaways. Getting turnovers shortens the field for the offense, which improves a team’s efficiency.

The only game in which the Redskins won the turnover battle was the 49ers game; the score in that game was 52 to 7 half way through the fourth quarter. That is the type of football this team is capable of playing when it wins the turnover battle. The Skins are next to last in the NFL with a -9 turnover ratio—only the Saints are worse.

Only three teams with a winning record have a negative turnover differential—Tampa Bay, San Diego, and the Redskins—but the Skins are far worse than the other two, giving up the ball a net 1.13 times per game compared with a net 0.33 for San Diego and 0.125 for Tampa. The combined record of the seventeen teams with a negative turnover differential is 46 wins and 85 losses.

If the Redskins had been playing average football with this turnover differential they would have needed luck to get three wins. If you did not believe your eyes watching them play this year, this statistic proves that they have played far better than average football in the first half—far better. Imagine what they could do if they win the turnover battle.

It’s the Fumble Recoveries, Stupid
As I said, the main reason the Redskins are losing the turnover battle is a lack of takeaways. With only six takeaways, they are next to last in getting the ball—only the Texans have taken the ball away fewer times. The Redskins fifteen giveaways are right in the middle of the pack (thirteen teams have given it away more, two are tied, and sixteen gave it away less). The Redskins have been average in interceptions—they have gotten four and thrown four—but they have been horrible on fumbles.

Now, comes the interesting part. In their eight games, the football has been fumbled—either by the Redskins or their opponents—a total of 31 times. I’ll repeat that: Either the Redskins or their opponents put the ball on the ground a total of 31 times in the eight Redskins games this year. Of the 31 fumbles, take a guess how many the Redskins recovered. Remember, each team has a 50% chance of getting a recovery. So, did you guess that the Redskins recovered about fifteen or sixteen fumbles?

The Redskins have only recovered six fumbles—only SIX. This finding blew me away. Their opponents recovered 25 fumbles to the Redskins 6. The Redskins recover 19.4% of the fumbles in their games, which is by far the worst percentage in the NFL. The next-worst team is the Saints and they recover 33.3% of the fumbles in their games, so it’s not even close.

Now, the Saints are pretty bad, so you might look at them and think maybe recovering fumbles does have something to do with athleticism and skill. But, if you are thinking that you are wrong because after the Saints, the undefeated Colts are the next worst team with a 34.6% recovery rate. In fact the worst five teams in this area—Washington New Orleans, Indianapolis, Seattle, and Kansas City—have a combined record of 26 wins and 15 losses.

How Do the Redskins Fix a Negative Turnover Differential?
I think there is less to fix than meets the eye. Sure, they could do a better job getting interceptions. They have not gotten a lot of pressure on the quarterback, which is giving receivers time to get separation and quarterbacks lanes to deliver accurate passes, and that has reduced the number of picks. However, this is an area where the Redskins should see some improvement in the second half. Arrington is back. Arrington is a leader and a great athlete, but mostly he’s a quarterback killer. The Redskins will get more pressure on the quarterback and interceptions with Arrington playing, so they simply need to recover more fumbles. And that, as I’ve said, is simply luck.

Given the variance in recoveries among the 32 NFL teams, a simple statistical test shows that any fumble recovery rate less than 35.75% or greater than 64.25% can be attributed to bad or good luck, respectively (80% confidence interval for stats buffs). Recovery rates between these two extremes are close enough to 50% to be considered 50% by statistical analysis.

If there is regression toward the mean in the second half, the Redskins should see a significant improvement in their fumble-recovery rate, which should lead to the NFC East title. And, which team was the luckiest in the first half? The Giants—they had a 69.2% fumble recovery rate, which is a rate that is so high it’s safe to say that the Giants have been lucky. The Giants are due for a fall.


At November 12, 2005 10:41 AM, Blogger Counter Trey said...

It looks like restricting comments to folks with Blogger accounts--who are required to identify themselves--has eliminated the problem of unconstuctive comments from anonymous Giants fans.

I'm sorry Skins fans, but it is very easy to create a Blogger username. You do not have to create a blog to have a Blogger account.


Post a Comment

<< Home