The NFL Stat Machine

As the NFL regular season come to a close, football fans are being inundated with statistics, as sportswriters and announcers seem to have little else to blab about, on and on and on. Sure, several long-standing records are about to be not just broken, but shattered, but what do they mean with today’s rules? And what do they mean for teams in contention to actually win something this year? With one notable exception, they all mean a big pack of nothing.

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First, the one that does mean something is the single season rushing record that Adrian Peterson is approaching, but even that one means virtually nothing for his team, and the real reason why that one is of real interest is due to Peterson’s health. With two games to go, Peterson has gained 1812 yards, and is within reach of Eric Dickerson’s 2105 yards gained in 1984. His Minnesota Vikings are barely hanging on for a possible playoff spot, though the likelihood of that ever actually happening evaporated several weeks ago. But as the Vikings are in contention, each game does mean something, and as the team’s sole source of offense, his production is what has so far

prevented the team’s elimination.

But the interesting and amazing part of Peterson”s performance is that he is doing all this after suffering a catastrophic knee injury at the end of last season, and not only was healed and ready to go when this season began, but has not missed a snap all year. For Peterson, the year to year-and-one-half normal recovery time after surgery for tears to anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments was reduced to about eight months.

But what do such offensive statistics mean in today’s NFL? Rule changes designed to protect players have made the very job of tackling and stopping skill position players a joke in the minds of many. While we see this as a serious matter, given the debilitating and life-changing injuries that significant numbers of football players suffer, making the game safer SHOULD BE the league’s FIRST priority. But such pervasive changes make statistical comparisons themselves a joke. This is even more evident when looking at passing and receiving yardage figures, as it has been wide open and vulnerable receivers who have benefited the most by new protective rules.

This evening, the Lion’s Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s single-season pass receiving yardage record, with a game yet to go. In 1995, Rice gained 1848 yards receiving. As of now, Johnson has gained 1892 yards, and appears likely to become the first wide receiver to pass 2000 yards in a season. But, as commentator Jon Gruden repeatedly pointed out during tonight’s game, oh so many of those yards were meaningless. Unlike Peterson’s Minnesota Vikings, the Lions have never been in playoff contention this season, and have spent most games playing catch-up, with quarterback Matthew Stafford on his own record pace, fueled by throwing pass after

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pass in futile comeback attempts, game after losing game. Rice’s 1995 defending Super Bowl Champ San Francisco 49ers, on the other hand, were division winners and had the second best regular season record in the NFC. Rice’s catches meant something in virtually every game.

Talking about blasting away at stat records in meaningless games, look no further than Johnson’s pitcher, Lion’s QB Stafford. In NFL history prior to last season, only Dan Marino back in 1984 and Drew Brees in 2008 ever threw for over 5,000 yards in a season. Last season, through, three quarterbacks broke that magic number, including Stafford. This year with Stafford making throw after throw in his catch-up attempts, and with Johnson seeking his own records, Stafford is on his way to becoming the first QB ever with back-to-back 5,000 yard seasons (he’s now only 305 yards short) and is in line to shatter the NFL record for pass attempts in a season, needing only seven more to break the record.

Speaking of quarterbacks, two other points merit discussion. First, is how completion percentages have drastically changed over the past three or four decades of play. Is it because quarterbacks today just are infinitely more accurate than were the best of the best back in the 1950s and 1960s, or do all those rule changes enacted to protect the quarterback make the difference? Outlawing the “late hit”, stopping play when “in the grasp”, not hitting with the helmet, ever, have all been the main factors in the change, as we see it, and the change has been dramatic.

Just compare the difference. Hall of Fame quarterbacks from the past completed a significantly lower percentage of their passes: Johnny Unitas – 54.6%, YA Tittle – 55.2%, Bob Waterfield – 50.3%, Roger Staubach – 57%, Otto Graham – 55.8%, Sammy Baugh – 56.5%, Bart Starr – 57.4%, Joe Namath – 50.1%. Terry Bradshaw – 51.9%, Norm Van Brocklin – 53.6%. Contrast that with the numbers seen today: Payton Manning – 65.1%, Tom Brady – 63.8%, Drew Brees – 65.6%, Matt Ryan – 62.5%, Aaron Rodgers – 65.6%. These are all lifetime numbers, not just for this season or some other season. But it is not just seen with the top guys. The Vikings struggling Christian Ponder has completed 63.1% of his passes this year, the now benched Alex Smith completed 70.0% while he was in there this season, and the struggling Joe Flacco is a lifetime 60.4%, down only to 59.1% this year. And rookies Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are at 66.4% and 62.9%, respectively.

Rule changes have made the difference, and you cannot compare records being set today with those of the past.

The final point that I have raised before and that I must again bring up is the utter idiocy of crediting both the quarterback and the receiver with the same yardage. It would be factually correct and infinitely more relevant to credit the QB with passing yards from the line of scrimmage to the point of reception, and the receiver with receiving yards from the point of reception to the spot where he is downed or the goal line if the catch results in a TD.

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2 Responses to The NFL Stat Machine

  1. Well written analysis, Phil. An interesting read for sure, and a conclusion with which I am in agreement.

  2. theHoundDawg says:

    Thanks, Bill.

    Did you realize that your guy Flacco had a higher lifetime completion percentage than any of those Hall-of-Famers I mentioned?

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