Football Stats Redux. Inside Real Winning Statistics

So the story is… Football. A facinating new book called “Football Morsels: Quarterbacks” really puts the feet to the fire of a lot of statistics being thrown around football today, and i had chance to talk to the books author Julio C. Castañeda Jr.JC - Pic

Though I enjoy most sports , anything involving a contest really – as my Irish brother Jeremy Brennan once put it, ‘If there’s a winner and a loser, you’ve got my interest”,  no matter how absorbing Baseball gets and how on explosively exciting Basketball can be… football wins my heart every time.  I grew up with the Steel Curtain, America’s team The Cowboys and both the fins Perfect Season era and “Dan the Man” Marino’s dominating seasons, my passion cannot be helped.   As the current season comes to a close – I had the opportunity to interview Castañeda about his book, one of the most insightful books to come out on Football in ages – a guy who’s Fantasy Football handicapping and work with statistics brings back to light the greatness of so many classic quarterbacks of my youth by taking into account statistical inflation, rules changes and all manner of the ephemera that have dropped my beloved Dan Marino down a bit in the All-Time rankings or have been unkind to a stud like Bart Starr.

Sadly, his same book and hard stats have made me recognize the greatness of Tom Brady, a guy who is, and the facts don’t lie – as good as they say he is (despite what happened yesterday). He made this Dolphin fan stop wondering why we gave up Wes Welker, and come to understand that Brady is making Welker look awfully good (although, off the record – I still would never give up Welker). We also touched on Baseball (king of the stats sports) – as well as his approach toward Basketball and Golf with the same kind of analysis. If you’re a football fan or a sports nut think you’ll enjoy our talk. And you’ll prob want to check Julio’s excellent book at Amazon.com or his site http://www.sportsmorsels.com/ and follow him on twitter @FootballMorsels or Facebook.
-bill teck

Julio’s work on his site with his fantasy picks is great – but his even more engrossing book, “Football Morsels: Quarterbacks”, is about as page turning as Sports books get for a stats obsessed sports fan. I loved it. And Julio and I had a great conversation talking Football. An engineer by trade, I spoke to him on the phone while he was living in Hong Kong, working on a project. Our interview, a couple of passionate fans talking about his findings – is one of my favorite things this year, and i think you’ll enjoy it, despite the fact that… one fan is a little more knowledgeable than the other, to say the least.

Bill: Can I talk to you about how you came up with the idea?
Julio: Well, the original idea for the book came when I looked at what has happened to football statistics over the years. When you study the stats on the quarterbacks of today, their stats dwarf the old school quarterbacks, especially guys like Marino, Griese and other QBs from the 60s and 70s. It didn’t look right – their stats looked so much smaller and punier than the current ones. I started thinking, there’s got to be something screwy going on here. I went back and I started looking at the raw data. I found that there is this thing called statistical inflation that has basically ballooned the numbers. The same way that the dollar rises over time — prices from today can’t be compared to the prices from yesteryear without taking inflation into account. The same thing has happened to football statistics and it’s happened for a couple of reasons.
First, it has happened because of changes in the rules and, second, because of changes in the way that the game is played. Back a long time ago in the 60s and 70s, it was really about running the ball and ball control. Now, it is all about wide open and fast break offenses. The rule changes over the years have really had a greater mpact than the style of play when you look at how the defenses are limited in what they can do. I started going back and looking at the stats to see what had happened. Once I started to analyze the raw data, I said to myself “I could write a book on this.” I started collecting data and analyzing the metrics taking into account the statistical inflation. Once I was at a point where I knew where I was heading, then I started to write the book. The first book focuses on the quarterbacks since they hold the most impactful position on the field.

Bill: You’ve always had a head for that kind of analysis?
Julio: Well, my background is in Engineering. Over the years, working as Mechanical Engineer, I have learned a lot of methods for analyzing and generating data. And they are really all the same methods that we use for statistical analysis, whether you’re analyzing a football game or you’re analyzing the engineering of a manufacturing process. In engineering, we use statistical tools such as regression analysis to determine trends and make conclusions based on the data. When I started looking at football metrics from that point of view, from the analytics point of view, everything started falling into place. I could see patterns emerging. I could see the trends forming. It became very clear that I could undo the statistical inflation accumulated over the years so that I could compare quarterbacks fairly. I could look at Brett Favre, Aaron Rogers, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Bart Starr and put them all on the same page and compare them objectively.

Bill:  That’s the funnest part of the book, of your work. Because it allows you do that. For so long that debate has gone on, right? Who would have been better in different eras? You couldn’t really do it, but now you can. Because you made this parity among them.
Julio: Yes. Actually what triggered me to start doing the analysis was a conversation I had with a friend of mine about the best quarterbacks ever. I went online and I looked at the best quarterbacks by QB passer rating. When I looked at the best quarterbacks by QBPR, I was stunned to see that Matt Schaub was number fourteen on the list. Ahead of guys like Marino, Jim Kelly and Roger Staubach – ahead of anybody that’s anybody in the football world. I was scratching my head going, “What the heck is going on here? This doesn’t make any sense.” That’s what triggered me – it was Matt Schaub if you can believe that.

Bill: That’s hilarious. Talk about a random thing.
Julio: Yes. I said, “There’s something wrong with these numbers.” When I started looking at it, sure enough, Schaub dropped out of the top 50. He’s nowhere to be seen when you normalize all the data.
Bill: Oh my goodness. Now, I’m assuming that you grew up in Miami, Florida?
Julio: I did. I came over from the old country (Cuba) when I was 10.
Bill: Okay. Does that tell me that …one of the things that inspired maybe thinking about these things a little heavier was frustrations with Dan Marino not getting … I don’t want to make it all about Dan Marino, but is part of it a frustration of Dan Marino not getting the respect that he might deserve?

Julio: Part of it was to gain an understanding of the metrics to get the ratings right. That was a big part of it. But I was a huge Marino fan growing up. I got to Miami in 1974, so I had just missed the Dolphins big heyday, but I was always a big Miami fan going back to Griese. Over the years, I could see how Marino’s stature as an elite quarterback was starting to be diminished by some of the new players that were coming in. It just didn’t make sense compared to the talent that I knew that he had. That he wasn’t being compared fairly. That was the second part of the driving force.

Bill: That’s very interesting. It’s funny how the people we enjoy watching… we have theories about them.. we want to be able to say, “Oh, man. I wish I could prove this.” But you did it , Right?
Julio: Yes. The first book titled “Football Morsels: The Quarterbacks” focused mainly on the statistical analysis and metrics of the quarterback. One of subjects discussed at the end of the book is that you cannot take just quarterback stats to define the overall football picture. Many other factors come into determining the outcome of football game. The results are highly influenced by the players that surround the quarterback on offense, defense and even special teams. I tackle that subject in my second book in the series called “Football Morsels: The Supporting Cast.” The focus this time around is on the quality of the offensive lines, the receivers, the running backs, the defense and kickers that surrounded the quarterback and how they helped his success and failures. For example, here is a question: Did Joe Montana make Jerry Rice the best receiver ever or did Jerry Rice make Joe Montana one of the best quarterbacks ever? Or was it a combination? Or maybe it was the system that they played in? Was it the West Coast offense from Bill Walsh?
Those are type of subjects that I break down in the second book. It turned out to be a really tough, complicated problem – the kind I find interesting. Not surprisingly, one of the things that I found while doing this book was how horrendous Marino’s supporting cast was. I mean, we know this because we grew up in Miami, but he never had a running back to speak of — ever. The defense was terrible his entire career. And when you break down Marino’s offensive system, his coordinator, Gary Stevens, was executing an offensive schemes that was twenty years behind the times. Everyone else had moved on to the West Coast and Air Coryell systems but he was still playing the old school Pro Style system. It’s amazing what Marino was able to accomplish playing in that offense, especially considering how antiquated it was. In this second book, I am going to re-shuffle the deck again taking into account the supporting cast.

Bill: You know what’s funny, obviously you think about Dan … and then what the Cowboys did with Troy Aikman, who was not half that quarterback Dan was, I think. But he had a running back and a wide receiver and a little bit of defense.
Julio: Yes, that is exactly what the second book tackles. That 90’s Cowboys team had talent across the board. On the other side of the scale, there are a couple of QB’s that had really poor supporting casts. One of them, we just mentioned, was Dan Marino and the other guy was Dan Fouts. Guess what? It is no coincidence that neither of them won Super Bowls.
Bill: Oh man.. Dan Fouts.

Julio: Then, you look at the guys that had the best supporting casts. Take, for example, Terry Bradshaw, who played with one of the best defensive units ever in the Steel Curtain and two Hall of Famers on offense with Lynn Swann and Franco Harris. If that was not enough, he also had a massive offensive line. He had the most help and, coincidentally, he won four rings.

Bill: What was the most begrudging fact that you were like, “As a fan, this bothers the crap out of me. I hate to find this but it’s the truth and the stats don’t lie… “
Julio: Oh, that’s really easy. It was in the first book. It was painful to write how good the Patriots are currently. How good Brady is. I’ve got to take off my hat to him, though. The guy is the best ever. He and Montana are the best by a long shot ahead of everybody else. Especially now in the second book, when I go back and look at their supporting casts, it is even more amazing how good Brady makes the rest of the team. Other than a few years when the Patriots had a really good defense (between 2003 and 2006), Brady has been carrying the team. On offense, he had Randy Moss for a couple of years and now he has Gronk. Other than that, he made Wes Welker and Junior Edelman into All-Pro’s. They are good receivers — good possession and slot receivers but neither is a super star.
When I looked at the receiver data for Welker, breaking it down into the normalized metrics and removing the inflation, sure enough, Welker was nowhere to be found in the top 50 best receivers.

Bill : You’re blowing my mind, because to me, I’m jaded obviously as a Miami fan.  I was always saying, “The Patriots, they make Brady look good.” I was so surprised to hear you say, “No, no, no. It’s Brady.” I always thought, “Oh, look. We let Wes Welker go.” It turns out that guys a superstar. I didn’t understand that. You’re saying ‘That’s not really the case’.
Julio: Yes. This happens across the board. I looked at all the receiving data. When you look at 1970, teams were passing 25 times a game. Nowadays, teams are passing 35 times a game. You are looking at an additional ten passes that the quarterback is throwing per game. Well, that has a huge impact on the numbers for these receivers. Let’s take Welker again, for example. Wes is a good example, because he caught a lot of passes in New England. But he caught a lot of passes, because he was Brady’s go-to guy when everybody else was covered down field. It was all dink and dunk when you break down his metrics.
You look at his yards per reception, they are puny compared to everybody else on the best ever list. When you look at somebody like Paul Warfield, he had nearly 20 yards a catch but he was only getting the ball three or four times a game. Meanwhile Welker, he is getting ten catches a game. When you look at the overall yards, Paul Warfield has maybe 60 yards a game and Welker has 80 yards a game, so you’re thinking, “Oh, Welker is so much better.” But when you normalize the data per catch and take out the inflation over the years, you really level the playing field. Then, you start getting some of the names like Bob Hayes, Paul Warfield back in the mix of the All-Time greats. All the players we knew from the 60s, 70s and 80s come back into the conversation when you even out the playing field.
The same thing happened with the quarterbacks. When I evened out all the data, you had good representation from all the decades, going all the way back to the 60s. In the top-20 QB’s of All-Time, there were two or three quarterbacks from each decade for the last 50 years. That pretty much affirmed that I had done the deflation correctly, because all the great QB names came back up to the top. Guys like Roger Staubach number three on the list, Bart Starr at number six, Johnny Unitas ninth… names like that.

Bill: That is kind of rewarding… to know that we are not crazy. These were great quarterbacks. It’s just that the game has changed around it. That’s really neat to see. Let me ask you about the fantasy world. How do these things play into Fantasy Football?
Julio: Well, for Fantasy Football, the analysis is a quite a bit different. You don’t have to take into account inflation as much, since we are only looking at players for the last two, three, four years. What I’ve been doing for Fantasy Football is regression and trend analysis over the last three and four years to see whether players’ metrics are on the rise or on the decline. Then again, there are a lot of other factors that come into the Fantasy Football. The other factors again come back to the supporting cast. Guys that are gaining or losing key players due to trade, retirement or injury. After I looked at the total data for the supporting cast for the last 50 years, I realized that the success of a Fantasy Football player is also highly dependent on the players around him.
For example, let’s look at the quarterback position. The success of the quarterback is highly dependent on the wide receivers, running backs, the offensive lines and the offensive system that they are playing. Let us take, for example, somebody like Matthew Stafford. The guy had a fantastic first couple of years when he came into the league. But if you break down his success, it is directly related to the success of Calvin Johnson. You take Megatron away from Stafford and he is a journeyman quarterback. His metrics to receivers not named Calvin are average. Over the years, he has not progressed, not gotten better. Last year, 2014, Johnson was hurt and Stafford had a down year. You can recognize the relationships and interactions when you start looking at these trends between the supporting cast and the QB. You can see the correlation in their QB rating and in their Fantasy Football metrics.

Bill: How are people interacting with it? You find that people are going and checking the fantasy stuff and they are appreciating the work that you put into that?
Julio: Yes. The Fantasy Football is a little different in that it is not a static analysis. You have to take it week by week due to multiple factors like opponents, bye weeks and the big one — injuries. It takes a huge effort to choose starters every week when you take into account injuries that just completely change the landscape of the pool of available players every week. Whom you should play and whom you should bench. This year has been a perfect example. Take Andrew Luck, a guy that had been solid for the last three years and was the number two fantasy quarterback last year. This year has been middle of the road, because he’s been injured. You look at Ben Roethlisberger – he went down with a knee injury, then an ankle then a shoulder. Dez Bryant, broken ankle in the first game of the season – done. Injuries wreak havoc with Fantasy Football owners. You have to update rosters continually per the latest status of your players. It is a very fluid field in Fantasy Football.
After I finish the current book on the supporting cast, my focus going forward is going to be on Fantasy Football. There is a lot of strategy that goes behind the scenes into the Fantasy Football. Not just in identifying the best players, but more importantly, in determining the best order to choose the players in the draft. How do I get the most value? Should I draft a running back first? Should I take a quarterback? When do I choose a kicker? When do I pick defense? When do I draft wide receivers?
My Fantasy Football strategy revolves around developing a “positional value” which I discuss on my website. You have to look at the value of a player by position. For example, a kicker is going to give you eight points a game on average. You compare that to a quarterback – a quarterback should be scoring about 17-18 points a game on average. You want to pick a quarterback really early in the draft. You look at running backs – on average they should provide you about 14 points a game. Unless, you have an elite running backs like Le’Veon Bell. He is going to give you around 20 points a game, so he’s more valuable than most quarterbacks. So if Bell is available – take him even over an average to above average QB. Drafting depends on need and availability.
On average, a quarterback is worth more than a running back. Running backs are more valuable than receivers, who in turn, are worth more than kickers. You look at positional value on average and you take that into account when you’re drafting. If there is somebody available that can give you more value than the order where you are picking, then that becomes a value pick.

Bill: Do you want to talk about how this relates to other sports? I’m thinking obviously baseball – you think of statistics and the largest part of that is statistics. I can imagine it would be very arduous to apply this kind of thing to baseball.
Julio: Well, baseball is where this whole analytics thing got started with Bill James back in the 80s. I do not know if you are familiar with who Bill James is, but he was a mathematician, a statistician, and in the late 70s early 80s, he came up with the concept of wins above replacement (WAR). In baseball, WAR is the statistical basis for determining the value of a player. If you take a baseball player and you replace him with another player, how many more wins is your team going to win? That’s basically it – compare the statistics of player A versus player B and depending on whether it is positive or negative, you will win or lose more games. That eventually became the basis for the movie “Moneyball.”
Baseball has been down this analytics road for the last thirty plus years because of Bill James. Football did not really start to become involved heavily into the analytics until the last ten or twenty years. You look at, for example, wide receivers. Since the late nineties, the NFL has been tracking how many times receivers are targeted, how many drops they have, yards after catch, yards in the air, etc. There is a host of new data available today to further break down player metrics. For example, you can analyze whether a receiver is a product of talent or a particular system. Back to what I mentioned before – was Rice a product of Montana and the West Coast system or the other way around.
To come back to football, it becomes really difficult to compare somebody from the 70s or the 80s to a current player, because a lot of this additional data had not yet started to be collected. It is challenging – but it is doable. In the second book, I developed several new metrics based on the basic data that was readily available going back to 1960, the modern era of football. Whereas in baseball, the data really is available — you can track meaningful metrics all the way back to the 40s and 50s, there is so much data available.

Bill: What other sport do you think should fit that the best?
Julio: Basketball has also gone through the same type of transformation. You can see when you watch a game and they show all of the shot attempts and 3-point field goals that were made and missed. The green-red dot charts that show where the players took shots. The green dots are the ones that were made and the red ones are the ones that were missed. When you start looking at that kind of data, you know that they are collecting a lot of information that is going to drive a lot of these analytics. You can start looking at, “Well, this guy from three points is this… from inside three point is that.” But it’s not just generic three point shots. Is it from the corners? Is it from the top of the key? You start looking at areas. You can break down his efficiency by areas. You can break down his efficiency inside the lane when he drives. Shooting percentages in the key versus outside of the key.
There is just so much data available nowadays. But unfortunately that data is not available for guys like Dr. J, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. That data wasn’t being collected back then. It’s a whole new analytics world in sports and it’s just opening up. It is hard to keep up with all the available data. When we only focus on the new metrics, it is impossible for us to comprehend how good these guys were back in the 80s — other than the fact that we know because we watched them.

Bill: Right. That makes perfect sense.
Julio: Golf is another one that is starting to move into the field of analytics with how they can track the ball with GPS. They give you spots where the balls lands off the tee and how far they are from the cup. Putts made from inside five, ten and twenty five feet. They are breaking down this data in all different ways. There is just a huge waterfall of analytics coming at you all the time. Sometimes it’s too much to absorb while you are watching sports. There is so much data being thrown at you.

Bill: Do you find it hard to turn off that kind of thinking? Where you are just analyzing all the time? If you want to just …
Julio: Yes, I can’t turn it off. It’s hard. I’m always thinking about what’s behind a play? Or why was a play successful now but not earlier? What changed? That kind of thing — my hard drive is always spinning. But for the most part, I think sports fans in general are doing some of that.

Bill: Do you think does that affect how much you are able to enjoy the game? Or of course, you enjoy it just as much as ever?
Julio: I think I enjoy it more now than I did before, because I am looking at different aspects of the game. I enjoy some facets now that I used to find really boring. I’ll give you an example. When watching a baseball game nowadays, I really enjoy a pitcher’s duel. Twenty years ago, I really just wanted to see homeruns. I just wanted to see 9-8 baseball games. Now, I enjoy the heck out of a 1-0 game where you have the game within the game. You have the pitcher and catcher executing a pitch strategy to each batter and you’ve got the manager thinking three players ahead – who he’s going to pitch, who he’s going to pinch hit. That excites me now.

You can check out Julio’s excellent site at http://www.sportsmorsels.com/ and follow him on Twitter @FootballMorsels and check him out on Facebook.

Football Stats Redux. Inside Real Winning Statistics

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