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Evaluating key NFL stats in context

By Jeff Fogle  ( 

January 13, 2020 04:42 PM

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman made headlines last week discussing the role of the running game in the NFL. 

“People say it’s a passing league,” he said. “I get that … (but) the top four passing teams were not in the playoffs, (and) the top four rushing teams were in the playoffs.”

Immediate outcry erupted in analytics circles about the clear oversimplification. 

— First, stat handicappers know that offenses with a lead often pad their rushing stats grinding out the clock, while those falling behind have to emphasize the pass to catch up quickly. That can lead to elite teams having more rushing yards per game as a side effect of success rather than a cause. Extreme example: Teams taking a knee in victory formation have great won-lost records, but knee-taking isn’t a relevant skill set for building a champion.

— Second, if you use raw yardage to evaluate passing, the leaders could be non-playoff teams that had to throw a lot in desperation. Analysts are more likely to isolate quality by using passer rating or other efficiency stats. It’s true that the top four passing teams by yardage — Tampa Bay, Dallas, Atlanta and the L.A. Rams — missed the playoffs. But the top seven teams in passer rating — New Orleans, Baltimore, Tennessee, Seattle, Kansas City, Minnesota and San Francisco — qualified. 

One could easily make the opposite case of Gettleman’s by cherry-picking different categories. Something like: Quarterbacks are much more important than running backs. Ten of the top 13 QBs in passer rating made the playoffs, but only four of the top 11 running backs in rushing yardage.

Bettors must learn how to evaluate key stats in context. There’s always a danger of looking for numbers that confirm your preconceived biases. Don’t be a lawyer looking for evidence to build your case. Do your best to be an unbiased judge or juror who weighs the evidence to draw accurate conclusions. 

— When handicapping football games, look for offenses that can drive the field while maintaining possession and then finish those drives with touchdowns rather than field goals (key stats: yards per play, yards per drive, giveaways, third-down conversion percentage, red-zone touchdown percentage). Look for defenses that disrupt those efforts (key stats: takeaways, sacks and “allowed” for categories mentioned previously).

— When handicapping futures or Regular Season Win Totals, invest in talented, balanced offenses positioned to win consistently for coaches and management who understand the fundamentals of ball movement and protection. Seek out aggressive, deep defenses that shut down opponents while also setting up cheap points for their offenses. Back the best qualifiers. Fade the worst.


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