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An elegant sports blog for a more civilized age. Quantitative and qualitative analysis on sports, particularly the 4 major North American sports

2013 NFL Previews and Predictions: The "Punch-Out" Edition

It is no secret that the NFL is the most popular sports league in American sports.  That is just a known fact at this point.  But what is more interesting to me is the reasons as to why the league has become so popular.  Gambling and fantasy football certainly play a large part.  As does the one game a week format that makes it easier for fans to escape their normal lives for 3-4 hours a week in order to catch all of his/her teams games as opposed to say, baseball, which is about 20 hours per week of your team playing.  

But amongst all that good stuff that the NFL brings, my favorite aspect is a simple one.  Unpredictability.  Because of the small sample size (16 game season) and the overly physical nature of the game (read: more injuries) the NFL is entirely unpredictable.   While that unpredictability makes for a great drama, it does not make the following exercise easy.  Below are my predictions for how the 2013 NFL season will play out.  Yes, this is a futile exercise practiced by many, but in my attempt to make the most accurate prediction possible, I have a few criteria that make up the method to prognostication madness:

 

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Links of The Week: The Dog Days of August

 It's August, and most sports fans around the country are merely playing the waiting game...

The Phoenix Suns unveiled new uniforms! Wait...is this news?!

The Phoenix Suns unveiled new uniforms! Wait...is this news?!

Here is what we got in August, sports fans.  Major League Baseball, which is great, but we are in the midst of the time in the marathon 162 season in which there are probably only 12 or 13 teams with a realistic chance to win it all, but those teams aren't in the heat of their respective playoff races quite yet.  

There's preseason NFL. While I like the fact that the NFL Network is doing a Thursday night "Red Zone Lite" preseason edition (I see you, Scott Hanson), the NFL preseason is far from compelling.  "Hard Knocks" aside, the preseason is mostly defined by bad football and B.S. training camp reports about which mediocre player is "really impressing in Browns camp!" The preseason gives off the effect of real football, but in reality is just the sports calendar's longest and most frustrating cock tease.

I think the old man from Family Guy is a huge Chinese Tapei fan

I think the old man from Family Guy is a huge Chinese Tapei fan

The Little League World Series has started.  I have not watched it since I was 12, and frankly anyone above the age of 21 that is really into the Little League World Series has always given me a bit of a Sandusky-vibe.  

With apologies to the good people involved with the Little League World Series, clearly, the lack of interesting sporting events in August has caused me to get a little testy. It's just that, from a sports perspective, this time of the year makes me angrier than Bernie Kosar watching the St. Louis Rams. And since I imagine many of you feel the same, I wanted to share a few of the best links from the past week, with a particular focus on all the great things we have to look forward to in the coming weeks.

  • News from today -- Charlie Manuel, who managed the Phillies to a World Series championship in 2008, is out as manager.  I think it is pretty clear that he did not resign.  Cubs fan favorite Ryne Sandberg will be replacing him as manager.
  • In on the field baseball news, the Texas Rangers have been playing quite well recently. They have transitioned from a power hitting team featuring Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Michael Young to a pitching dominant team featuring none of those former stars.  Their best pitcher is Yu Darvish, and Rangers blog "The Newberg Report" provides some intriguing context to his dominance this season.
  • Of course the Suns, as mentioned above, debuted their new uniforms in August while nothing else is going on. I don't think they look all that different, but the Suns organization is trying spin that the new uniforms will actually translate to more wins next season. Too bad this psychologist doesn't factor in that Suns GM Ryan McDonaugh cares more about lottery balls than wins in 2013-14.

  • A lot of people have been talking up this RGIII/Mike Shannahan feud because I guess people in sports media need something to report on in August. Jason Whitlock, currently of Fox Sports but moving to ESPN, chimed in and had a interesting take on RGIII
  • Can't wait the 3 weeks until the NFL starts? Well, the English Premier League kicks off tomorrow if you want to fill the void with some football Euro style.  Not an established fan of the league? Well "Sports On Earth" tells you about all the teams.
  • I may be late to the game on this, but if you do not know much about NCAA football in advance of the season starting, I recommend checking out the deep stats and analysis Football Study Hall blog on SB Nation.

The end of August and beginning of September will bring sports fans so much: Pennant races, the tennis U.S. Open, the EPL, NCAA football, and the NFL seasons starting, and yes, the Little League World Series too.  Ever since "back to school" stopped being a thing for me, September has been my favorite month. The sports calendar is a small part of the reason why.

So, in anticipation of all this good stuff, we'll be putting up a good amount of NFL preview content (with some geeky stats - get excited!) in the next couple weeks.  Check back with us and let me know if there is anything else of note from this week by using the comments section.

- J.S. Gunther

Follow us on twitter @EmbraceAnalytix

Daily Links: Trade Deadline Snooze

The MLB trade deadline came and went today without everyone getting what they wanted: An A-Rod suspension! 

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Is it just me, or have the actual trade deadline days lost their luster in recent years?  

In February the biggest move on the NBA's deadline day was a trade featuring J.J. Redick as the headliner.  In the 24 hours leading up to the MLB deadline, we get Jake Peavy and Ian Kennedy.  Recently, the moves involving bigger, more in-their-primes names (i.e. Rudy Gay in the NBA, Matt Garza in the MLB) are happening well in advance of the actual deadline.  

Just an observation, no analysis as to why that is.  Anyway, on to some links...

  • Completely overshadowing the trade deadline in the MLB is the Biogenisis/PED scandal, and the sports world awaits the fate of the highest paid American athelete and centaur enthusiast Alex Rodriguez.  Many are reporting that the stubborn A-Rod may receive a lifetime ban.  This also makes many fans of schadenfreude absolutely thrilled.

  • In basketball news, the Pistons are a weird team that got weirder through a sign-and-trade to bring on PG Brandon Jennings.  Conrad Kaczmarek from Hardwood Paroxysm attempts to explain their moves

  • The Pro Bowl is changing its format.  If the Pro Bowl makes a change and still no one cares at all, does it really make a change? 

  • Intelligence!  For the all too frequent "athletes being dumb athletes" story, today Terence Jones of the Rockets and supposed number 2 WR of the Eagles Riley Cooper offered you their best. Good work, guys!  I'm sure former Florida roommate Tim Tebow is proud of his old pal Riley.  

That's all I got for today, folks.  I'm fresh off a bachelor party in Montreal so I'm like Jackson Browne and my tank is running on empty.  I'd have made a cooler more up-to-date music reference there but, you know, I'm tired.  Add any other gems from the day in comments.

- J.S. Gunther

Follow us on Twitter @EmbraceAnalytix

 

Matthew Stafford: The Richest Quarterback?

 Solo cups, miniature flags, bikini clad girls, and basically infinite wealth.  'Merica has clearly treated Matthew Stafford well...

Matthew Stafford is living the high life

Matthew Stafford is living the high life

The city of Detroit may be bankrupt, but their QB most definitely is not.  Lions QB Matthew Stafford inked a 3-year, $53 million contract extension earlier this month that will allow him to stay with the Lions through 2017, or in other terms, Stafford will hit the free agent market at 29 years old. With this extension, the Lions' full obligation to Stafford (should he not be cut) is $76.5 million dollars over the next five seasons.  Not a bad pay day for a guy in his 20s.  But whatever his price tag may be and despite his many talents, it is clear that Stafford has not been a top of the line "elite QB" (trademark: ESPN) over the course of his 4 seasons in Motown.  Sure, he is still young and likely to improve, and injuries (perhaps the only unlucky things to occur in his career) have played a factor but look at the facts.  

Here's Stafford by the numbers (note, from here on out you'll se me mention DVOA, if you are not familiar with DVOA please find explanation here):

  • Career record as a starter: 17-28, obviously this is highly dependent on many factors but felt its worth noting
  • Career Completion%: 59.8% 
  • Rank in QB Rating the last few years (2009, 2011, 2012)*:  29th, 5th, 22nd
  • Rank in Total QBR the last few years (2009, 2011, 2012)*:  28th, 7th, 13th
  • Rank in DVOA the last few years (2009, 2011, 2012)*: 37th, 10th, 12th
  • Rank in AVNY/A (explained here) the last few years (2009, 2011, 2012)* : 30th, 7th, 18th

*in annual ranking scenarios I did not include 2010 when Stafford only started 3 games

Even if you throw out the rookie season in 2009, Stafford has been more of a "good not great" type of talent at the QB position, with his best overall ranking (across all metrics) being the 5th place finish in QB Rating he posted in 2011.  He has put up impressive numbers in terms of passing yardage, but I'll touch upon the reasons why I do not value that as a raw number as much as I do the efficiency statistics (surprise, surprise) in a moment.  But even if these numbers do not convince the most ardent of Stafford supporters, which is fair because in football stats and "advanced metrics" certainly do not tell even close to the story they tell in a sport like baseball, I can handle that.  But, ask yourself this: have you ever thought to yourself "the Lions are guaranteed to be a solid team because they have Matthew Stafford?"  Think about it, isn't that essentially the subjective, a.k.a. difficult to quantify, way in which we measure QBs?  If you take away much of the team's talent, can "QB X" be good enough to at least keep your team competitive?  That was Peyton Manning in 2010 before we got to see how truly horrid the Colts were without Manning in 2011.  That could be Tom Brady this year given the beating the receiving corps has taken.  I'm not saying Stafford needs to be those two guys (who are obviously all-time greats), but he doesn't even come close to inspiring, especially coming off a 4-12 season, the amount of confidence those guys do.

Yet despite this subjective and objective evidence of being solid but not otherworldly, Matthew Stafford's ultimate destiny will likely not be "league average starter."  No, in fact he has actually now positioned himself to potentially be the highest paid QB of all time.

Ever since he was a student at Highland Park High School in Texas, Matthew Stafford was supposed to become a football star.  In fact, in 2006 (when Stafford was still a HS senior), NFL draft guru and hair style icon Mel Kiper, Jr. predicted that some day Stafford would be the 1st overall pick of the draft.  In this particular instance, Kiper was Nastrodamus as Stafford was indeed selected 1st overall in the 2009 draft by the Lions.  But Kiper's prediction is far from the most intriguing aspect about Stafford's career, not when you can examine the factors seemingly outside of Stafford's control that have helped his earning power so much.  So what I have done, essentially, is breakdown several of the key reasons why (because of where and when he was drafted) Matthew Stafford is simply the luckiest bastard of all time

Important note, in the analysis I use projecting future earnings, even on existing contracts as I do understand that NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed, I am operating under the assumption that these "franchise QBs" will eventually earn at least what is due to them by the terms of the contract.  It's an assumption.  Just know that QBs (good ones) usually get paid, so its not that big of a reach.

(1) The Rookie Wage Scale: Heading into the most recent NFL labor dispute it was clear that something was going to have to be done about the exorbitant contracts being paid to rookie 1st round draft picks.  Due to several picks and contracts in particular, namely Matt Ryan (2008, $72 million total contract value, $34.75 million guaranteed), Stafford (2009, $72 million total, $41.7 million guaranteed), and Sam Bradford (2010, $78 million total, $50 million guaranteed), the "rookie wage scale" was born.

So what is the rookie wage scale (besides the bane of Cam Newton and Andrew Luck's existence)?  Basically after the lockout in 2011 draft picks were going to be paid based upon the spot in which they were drafted and not through a traditional contract negotiation process.  Since these rates are fixed and there is no room for negotiation, accordingly the salaries are typically far below market value and beneficial to the team.  This means that when Andrew Luck went #1 overall in 2012 he already knew that his contract would be 4-years and $22 million.  That total contract value is not even half of just the guaranteed money ($50 million) that Sam Bradford got in 2010 as the last #1 pick before the wage scale was instituted.

Clearly the Sam Bradford's and Matthew Stafford's of the NFL world are very luck men, as the just got into the league before this rule change drastically altered the salaries being given to top draft picks. 

 

(2) Calvin Johnson: It does not hurt having the best WR in the game, right?  Calvin Johnson has ranked 1st in DVAR (a cumulative version of DVOA) the past 2 seasons.  I understand that since the NFL is such a team game a WR ranking so highly should reflect positively on the QB, and I agree and this is part of what makes analytics in football so difficult.  But in 2010 when Stafford was injured and the likes of Shaun Hill was throwing to Johnson he still ranked 7th in DVAR.  Not too big a drop off, especially when you compare it to the also fantastic Larry Fitzgerald who fell from 11th to 71st in the first post-Kurt Warner season with the Cardinals (and that's with Larry playing all 16 games both years).

The point is that Johnson is the undisputed best WR in the league.  You do not really need stats, advanced or otherwise to prove this.  Johnson is a a 6'5" beast that runs a 4.3 40-yd dash and can jump over any and all DBs.  Obviously, this helps his QB, and having Johnson to throw to is yet another notch in Stafford's luck belt. 

 

(3) The Detroit Lions, in general: Stafford has led the league in passing yards the past 2 seasons.  This is certainly impressive, but it may have inflated his value in terms of the contract he should receive.  You see there is an obvious reason why Stafford has led the league in passing and that is simply that he has thrown the ball more than any other QB.  More specifically, he has led the league in attempts the last 2 seasons, by 6 in 2011 and by a whopping 57 in 2012.  In terms of generating raw statistics (i.e., yards), Stafford could not have found himself in a better, more pass happy situation.  A big reason why he has had to throw the ball so much is that the Lions have gotten into a lot of shootouts over the years due consistent mediocrity on defense.  They have ranked 27th, 23rd, 19th, and 32nd in PPG allowed in Stafford's 4 seasons as QB.  And from a more analytical perspective, they have averaged a total defense DVOA rank of 21st and total passing defense DVOA of 19th over the last 4 seasons.

 

(4) Age: Unlike many other NFL QB prospects that enter the league after their senior season and/or take a redshirt year in college, Stafford entered the NFL at 21 years old after his true junior season at Georgia.  Now, I give credit to Stafford for having the talent and production to enter the league at such a young age, but there is not doubt that this decision along with the aforementioned rookie wage scale not being implemented until 2011 has greatly increased Stafford's earning potential.  See the chart below that quantifies this point.

QB Cap Numbers.jpg

Clearly there are older QBs that have earned more, but what this demonstrates is that other similarly aged QBs will not be able to earn as much as Stafford if you project out their potential salaries.  Take Matt Ryan for example.  Ryan's contract expires this season and he will sign a new deal (presumably with the Falcons) at age 29 having made $67.5 million dollars in his NFL career. When Stafford's deal expires at the age of 29 he will have likely earned $125 million dollars, almost double Ryan's earnings.  This is due to the fact that Ryan was older (23) when he entered the league than Stafford was. Essentially Stafford will be able to collect almost a full additional big money contract above what Ryan (as well as Flacco, who also entered the league at 23)  will in their careers. 

Not only is it likely that Stafford, if he can sustain similar levels of production, will earn more than those players drafted around the same time as him, he will also out earn future top draft picks.  For example, if you look at 2012 1st overall pick Andrew Luck in the above table, you will see that, again due to the rookie wage scale, he will earn much less in his first contract than Stafford.  Luck does have an outside chance to catch up to Stafford because his current rookie contract is only 4 years (Stafford's was 6), but even so that would mean Luck would have earned about $25 million less than Stafford at age 26, meaning Luck would need a contract that blows Stafford's away to make up that ground.

In terms of the true veterans on this list, Peyton Manning stands out because of the sheer amount of money he has made in his career (note: I could note find concrete and accurate numbers for Tom Brady, but can say with 99% certainty that he has earned less than Manning).   If, and it is a big if, Manning earns the rest of his $78 million dollars on his current contract which expires when he is 42 years old and is very limited in terms of guaranteed money, then he would have earned an amazing $250.4 million in salary alone (excluding commercials gigs and Papa John's franchises) in his career.  Sounds like too much for ground for Stafford to make up, but in reality that is not the case.  If you go back to Stafford's probable $125 million earnings at age 29, you can see how it would only take one additional big contract (say, like the one Joe Flacco received this offseason) for him to basically be where Peyton would  be at 42.  It is likely the biggest if in this whole scenario, but if Stafford is still deemed the franchise QB by the Lions - or any other team frankly - at the end of this extension, he would likely be due something like Flacco received (6 years, $120.6 million) at age 29.  A contract if this magnitude would bring his career earnings to approximately $246 million, or at or near Manning's age 42 earnings while Stafford is at 35 years young. 

 

In conclusion

I do want to say that I think Matthew Stafford is a good QB.  I believe he has performed these last few years as an above average starting QB, comparable to the likes of Jay Cutler.  As I mentioned earlier, I also do believe he can and will improve, assuming good health.  But neither of those points discount the fact that he has not been performing at the same level as many of the best QBs in the league these past years.  When you break it down,  it is quite obvious that he has had some serendipitous good fortune in terms of his earning potential.   

The bottom line is that this extension was not one of those cap adjustments that simply reallocated payment.  This was not Tom Brady looking like he was taking less money but in reality earning more.  This was a true raise for Stafford, and one that could not have come at a better time for him, leaving him due to earn another big payday before his 30th birthday.  If he plays his cards right, and continues his string of incredible luck (i.e. the assumptions I've made are realized and he stays healthy, plays many years at a high enough level, ect.) then I have no doubt he will be one of the top, if not the highest, salaried QBs in NFL history for a long, long time.  And that...just seems weird to me as things stand now.

- J.S. Gunther

Follow us on twitter @EmbraceAnalytix

Daily Links: Suspension Monday

  LINKS!!

Von Miller is likely upset about today's developments

Von Miller is likely upset about today's developments

Putting up another post a little later tonight, but before I get to finishing that up, here are some of the top stories from an eventful day in the sports world.

  • Just saw this as "Breaking News", but the MLB has apparently suspended Brewers OF Ryan Braun for his connection to PEDs and the biogenesis lab in Miami.  The suspension is not unexpected, but still begs the question of what will become of Alex Rodriguez next

  • More suspensions!   All-World OLB Von Miller of the Denver Broncos was suspended 4 games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.  While I think no word on the substance has been officially confirmed, Broncos blog Mile High Report is linking Miller to marijuana and "molly", or pure MDMA.  That seems pretty aggressive, Von
  • Speaking of Texas A&M stars that like to party, Peter King offered his opinion on Johnny Manziel's rock star ways and claims the Heisman trophy winner is a "red flag."  Cool story, Peter.  In all honesty, I have been more on the "c'mon, he's 20" side of the Manziel argument, but King actually makes a decent argument here about making promises (in this case to the NFL's royal family, the Mannings) and not keeping them.  I still think there is a lot of room and time for maturity when it comes to Manziel, but I can see how some interpret this stuff as inherent character flaws

  • The MMQB site's launch date was obviously strategically positioned (by King and his SI overlords) around the time that training camps will be opening.  It's basically NFL preview season, and Grantland has been doing a good, and early, job of the previews.  Today was Bill Barnwell's column on trade value

That's all I got for now.  Again, as I mentioned earlier I will be posting something new later on tonight that I have been working on to kick off our own focus on previewing the upcoming NFL season.  Stay tuned!

- J.S. Gunther

Follow us on twitter @EmbraceAnalytix

Daily Links: Home Runs & Prodigals Sons

Unless you count NBA Summer League, none of the 4 major sports have any actual games today -- but that doesn't mean there aren't a few links to share

After a monster weekend, Chris Davis has 37 HRs at the All-Star Break

After a monster weekend, Chris Davis has 37 HRs at the All-Star Break

We are just two days away from the quietest and dullest day in the sports calendar (or as ESPN calls it "ESPYs" night), and I am still putting some work into a more extensive examination of the initial NBA free agency fall out.  But in the meantime, I wanted to share some of stories I found interesting today.  Most important items of note; its Home Run Derby night, the Knicks added another crazy person (what is the league record for team technicals in a season?), and it is only 52 days until the NFL season kicks off.

  • The MLB's All-Star week is underway, and tonight Citi Field will be the venue for the 2013 Home Run Derby.  As always, the repetitively incomprehensible Chris Berman will hosting on ESPN, so get your beers ready to sip anytime it sounds like he says something resembling the word "back."  The most intriguing participant this season; Baltimore's Chris Davis, who has come out of nowhere to post 37 HRs, 93 RBIs, and a .717 Slugging% BEFORE the All-Star break.  Today, David Schoenfield of ESPN's SweetSpot blog examined whether or not Chris Davis could be the true single season HR king.

  • The prodigal son has returned!  In a move that has been almost universally viewed as a positive for New York (a confusing and infrequent phenomenon), Metta World Peace has signed a two-year agreement with the Knicks.  Back in his Ron Artest days, MWP starred in high school ("say QUEENSBRIDGE!") and college (St. John's) in New York City, and has now decided that the big city is the best place to (likely) end his career.  Now why have most fans and pundits thought this to be a good move for the Knicks?  Well, John Dorn from Why Me Sports? did a great job at breaking down why the move is such a perfect fit.  Basically Metta, stick to taking and making corner 3s and playing stong defense on opposing forwards and you'll keep Knicks fans happy.
  • In other NBA news, the Dallas Mavericks continue to swing and miss on the big ticket free agents, but hey, settling for Monta Ellis will probably be fun (for everyone except Mavs fans)!

That's all for today.  Check back this week for the other aforementioned stuff (NBA offseason, Stafford) that I'll be providing my two cents on.

 - J.S. Gunther

Follow us on twitter @EmbraceAnalytix