The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Cowboys’ Initial Drives

Jonathan Bales

Every year, I do an article on the Cowboys’ initial drives: those to start the game and the second half. Here’s this year’s article on initial drives at DallasCowboys.com. A preview:

The first drives to start the second half were even worse for the Cowboys in 2009. The team racked up only 4.94 yards-per-play and 1.06 points-per-drive–less than half of their points-per-drive on all other drives.

One of the things I’ve admired about Garrett has been his ability to improve as a coach and play-caller. He’s really evolved in his short time as the Cowboys’ head coach, and I think that improvement will continue into the future.

Garrett’s adaptability is reflected in the team’s 2010 initial drive stats. After averaging only 1.38 points-per-drive on initial drives (to start both the game and second half) the previous season, Garrett led the team to 2.13 points-per-drive on initial drives in 2010. The team scored 34 total points on their possessions to begin games, and 34 more points on the initial drives coming out of halftime. Those numbers were superior to the team’s average of 1.90 points-per-drive on all other drives.

The trend continued in 2011. The Cowboys averaged a robust 2.35 points-per-drive to start the game and second half—that’s way up from the 1.95 points-per-drive the team totaled on all other drives. On first drives alone, the ‘Boys managed 2.56 points-per-drive.

A recent comment here argued that Jason Garrett isn’t really getting the job done as head coach. The comment, as almost all written here, was well-reasoned. You all know there are areas in which I think Garrett can improve, but I also think he’s made great strides in a number of areas. This is one of them, and it’s further proof Garrett is evolving as a head coach.

Tell me your thoughts.

By Jonathan Bales

Tony Romo’s 2012 Fantasy Value: Why You Should Grab the Cowboys’ Quarterback

This is a guest post from Frank DuPont, author of the book “Game Plan: A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the NFL” which is available now on Amazon. Frank writes about football (real and fantasy) on his site FantasyDouche.com.  He also rants about Buffalo Wild Wings, the Bachelorette, the Sylvestor Stallone classic “Over the Top”, and GNR’s video masterpiece “November Rain” on his twitter acccount @FantasyDouche.

By the way, this is a hell of a post from Frank. He does this sort of work on a consistent basis, and I highly, highly recommend his book. – Jonathan

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One of the most common themes that appear in emails that I get from fantasy football players is the idea that going into 2012 you have to have one of the top quarterbacks. Usually the email goes something like this: “Running backs can get injured or are otherwise now unreliable.  That’s why I think you should go with a sure thing like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady early in the draft.” Most of that sentiment I think comes from the fact that last year’s top four or five quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton) were separated from the rest of the pack.

But the problem with that line of reasoning is that it utilizes only the very recent past to forecast the future. That reasoning is infected with recency bias. I’m not saying that the events of the recent past have no bearing on what will happen in the future, but those recent events tend to have less meaning for forecasting the future than we might tend to think. When those recent events are record-breaking seasons, or what you might call “outliers,” then they probably have even less importance for forecasting the future. The easiest way to get this idea across is with examples.

In 2004, Peyton Manning set the then single-season passing touchdown record in essentially 15 games when he threw 49 touchdowns. Manning was drafted third overall in fantasy leagues the next year and yet he threw only 28 touchdowns (which is less than 60 percent of the 2004 total).

In 2005, Shaun Alexander set the then single-season record for rushing touchdowns when he had 27. Alexander was drafted third overall in fantasy leagues the next year, when he played in only 10 games and had just seven touchdowns.

In 2006, LaDanian Tomlinson broke Alexander’s rushing touchdown record when he scored 28 times on rushing plays. The following seaso,n he would actually lead the NFL in touchdowns again, but did it with just 15 scores (less than 60 percent of the prior year total).

In 2007, Tom Brady broke Manning’s passing touchdown record when he threw 50 touchdowns.  The following season he threw zero touchdowns.

In 2007, Randy Moss broke the single-season receiving touchdown mark when he caught 23 touchdowns. During the following season, he caught just 11 touchdowns (less than 50 percent of the prior year total).

The problem with really outstanding statistical seasons is that they often happen during seasons when a lot of things went right. In football, everything goes right just a small percentage of the time. So when I look at the top of this year’s quarterback pool for fantasy leagues, I see a group of guys who are coming off of seasons where a lot of things went right (at least for fantasy football purposes).

But I think an important question is whether the players in that top group of quarterbacks are actually better quarterbacks than Tony Romo. First, Romo’s Adjusted Yards/Attempt is actually higher than Matthew Stafford. So it’s not like Stafford is actually a better quarterback than Romo. He just had more attempts in 2011.

Aaron Rodgers is a ridiculous QB and he had a ridiculous 2011. But is Rodgers destined to throw 45 touchdowns every year?  His touchdown numbers from 2008-2010 were 28, 30, and 28, respectively. If you take out an injury-shortened 2010, then Romo’s touchdown totals were 36, 26, and 31. My only point here is that the idea that the top-tier quarterbacks are somehow pre-ordained to put up better numbers is probably off base.

Another way to illustrate how close I think Romo is to the top tier of quarterbacks is by looking at his 2011 season relative to Brady’s. What would Brady’s 2011 season have looked like if he had played a good part of the season with a rib injury, also lost Wes Welker for six games, and then Rob Gronkowski had played injured for most of the season? It wouldn’t have been as impressive would it?  We can make a reasonable assumption that it wouldn’t have been as good because Brady did play with a banged up Gronkowski in the Super Bowl and he threw just 276 yards and two touchdowns. You know who averaged about 276 yards and two touchdowns per game last year? Tony Romo. He played most of the season with rib injuries, lost Miles Austin for six games, and had to make do with a banged up Dez Bryant for most of the season.

An interesting exercise I’ve done to see what Romo might have looked like with a healthy Austin and healthy Dez Bryant was to go back and look at quarters where both of the receivers were targeted in the passing game. They didn’t even have to catch the ball. I just looked for quarters in which each receiver was targeted at least once. I found that if you took Romo’s stats during those quarters and multiplied by four to get a full game, Romo would have averaged 310 passing yards per game and about 2.15 touchdowns per game. That pace is within about two fantasy points per game of what Brady averaged last year.

That’s obviously a cherry-picked set of observations meant to make Romo look better, but it’s not crazy to do stuff like that if for no other reason than to give our brains some evidence to counterbalance the powerful effect that the recent past has.

If you asked me who will have a better season this year, Romo or Brady, I would choose Brady and it wouldn’t take me long to decide.  But if you give me odds, I might make a different decision. That’s essentially the decision you have this year when you draft your fantasy team. You can choose between Romo and Brady, and if you choose Romo you get superior odds because he’s cheaper. Auction values are a great illustration of cost and right now Brady is going for about $36 in auction drafts while Romo is going for just $23. That’s like walking up to a window in Vegas and betting Romo to have a better season than Brady, and all you have to do is wager $65 to win $100. I’m probably going to be making that bet with a number of my fantasy teams this year. Here’s why:

A large part of my comfort with Romo comes from the presence of Austin and Bryant. Austin has already shown he’s capable of being a number one receiver by putting up a 1300-yard, 11 touchdown season in 2009.  At 215 pounds and with a sub 4.5 40 yard dash, Austin fits the profile of a number one receiver as well. Receivers of that size and speed tend to stay relevant all over the field. They don’t run into the problems that smaller receivers do where they are good until their team gets into the red zone.

But most of my Romo enthusiasm really originates in relation to Bryant, who has been disappointing to some. But if he’s been a disappointment, he has been the most impressive disappointing player I can remember.

I have a statistical model that ranks wide receiver prospects coming out of college. That model regards Bryant as a top-level prospect, only behind guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson on the “can’t miss” scale. Bryant’s 2008 season at Oklahoma State looks like almost no other college season does. He caught 19 touchdowns, but Oklahoma State only threw 25 touchdowns that year. He caught 19 out of 25 touchdowns! He also caught about 50 percent of the team’s receiving yards. Opposing defenses knew that if the ball went in the air, it was probably going to Bryant, and they couldn’t stop him. My wide receiver prospect model gives a lot of credit when receivers catch a large share of their college team’s yards and touchdowns.

While many regard Bryant as somewhat disappointing as a pro, consider that in 2011 at the age of just 23, he was tied for sixth in the league in receiving touchdowns. I have a tough time calling a 23 year old receiver a disappointment when he finishes in the top 10 in the league in receiving touchdowns.

On a per target basis, Bryant has been ridiculously efficient in his first two years. I have a metric that I call Fantasy Points Over Par (with apologies to the Wages of Wins network for hijacking the name “Points Over Par”), which essentially measures how many fantasy points a receiver scores when compared to an average target from that yard line on the field. The whole thing starts with the following graph which shows the expected fantasy points for a pass play based on the line of scrimmage. The line of scrimmage is on the x-axis (YFOG=Yards from Own Goal) while the expected points are on the y-axis.

Expected Fantasy Points/Target Based on Field Position (League Average)

Using the trend line shown in the graph for expected points, I can look at every target for every receiver and calculate whether they scored more or less points than average. To give you some sense as to what very good receivers might look like in terms of Fantasy Points Over Par, the below graphs show Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald in terms of FPOP/target for their careers.

You can see that Andre Johnson wasn’t actually much above par until Matt Schaub got to Houston. You can also see that Larry Fitzgerald’s 2010 season was actually below par. It’s also obvious that Bryant is every bit as efficient as these other great receivers were early in their careers. Remember that this is essentially a measure that is blind to opportunity. A receiver only ends up in positive territory by doing more with each target than is expected based on field position.  So Bryant’s early career touchdown numbers are actually very impressive.

But it’s also the case that Bryant is probably only now entering the prime of his career. The graph below shows the average percent of peak fantasy production that wide receivers see at each age.  These are just averages to illustrate the basic shape of a wide receiver’s career.  At 24 years old, Bryant is entering the prime of his career this year.

Let’s get back to Romo now.  According to MyFantasyLeague.com, the top five quarterbacks are all going off of the board within the first 20 picks in fantasy drafts. That group includes Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, and Matthew Stafford.  That’s the end of the top tier of quarterbacks.

The next tier of passers are all going between about pick 50 and pick 65 or so. That group contains names like Michael Vick, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, and Matt Ryan. It’s actually worth waiting for Romo in that second tier of quarterbacks because the difference that drafters are assigning to the two groups probably isn’t as large as they think. Romo’s 2011 season was marred by some bad luck that is possible for any of the top passers. Do I know what that bad luck might look like in 2012? No. I only know that in the past, players coming off of huge statistical seasons have had a tough time reproducing that result the next year. It’s not impossible, it’s just not expected.

So rather than assign a premium to the top tier of quarterbacks based on what they did the previous season, I would rather draft a quarterback like Romo who is going to have a lower average cost at his position. Then I’ll hope that some amount of bad luck that he had the prior season doesn’t manifest itself in 2012. If he has that same amount of bad luck, then all I did was pay for what I got, which is a quarterback who will put up middle of the road numbers. But it’s not unrealistic at all to think that if Romo and his receivers stay healthy, he could put up a season closer to what Brady and Stafford put up in 2011. Is it guaranteed? No. But because of Romo’s reduced cost compared to the top tier, you’re getting what I think are really good odds to go that route.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: How to Succeed in the Red Zone in 2012

Jonathan Bales

One of the biggest problems for the Cowboys in recent years has been red zone efficiency. The team has been mediocre in terms of red zone touchdown percentage, and they’ve even been bad in regards to red zone attempts. Over at DallasCowboys.com, I took a look at four ways to improve red zone performance in 2012. Here’s one of them:

Maximize Opportunities

The easiest way to increase red zone success is simply to get there more often. Last year, the New England Patriots recorded the most red zone trips per game with 4.6. The St. Louis Rams reached the red zone fewer times than any other team, getting there only 1.9 times per contest.

Red zone appearances are rather consistent; the same dominant offenses tend to get there the most each year. Red zone conversion rates, however, are fluky. Sub-par offenses like the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings, for example, all ranked in the top 10 in red zone scoring percentage in 2012.

Thus, red zone conversion rates tend to level out over the long run. The best way to score a lot of red zone touchdowns is simply to focus on getting there frequently. However, the Cowboys have ranked 16th or worse in red zone appearances each year since 2009.

Chances are you’ll see this offense improve dramatically in 2012 if they can increase their red zone appearances from 3.2 to around 4.0 per game–a mark only the Patriots, Saints, Eagles and Packers reached last season.

When I say getting to the red zone often will increase productivity, I mean it in the obvious way and a not-so-obvious way. The latter is that acquiring a large sample size of red zone appearances will allow the Cowboys to regress toward the mean in terms of efficiency once in the red zone.

The ‘Boys have been really poor at converting red zone appearances into touchdowns over the years. Part of that is because of a poor short-yardage rushing attack, but most of it, I think, is just bad luck. Over really large sample sizes, teams don’t perform much differently in the red zone than they do on other portions of the field. Simply crossing the opponent’s 20-yard line often and generating even an average touchdown rate will allow the Cowboys to improve in 2012.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Can DeMarcus Ware Break Sack Record?

Jonathan Bales

My latest post at DallasCowboys.com takes a look at DeMarcus Ware’s chances of breaking the single-season sack record in 2012. Using Ware’s historic pressure and sack rates, I deduce just how likely the Pro Bowl outside linebacker is to rack up 23 sacks this season. It turns out it isn’t that unlikely.

If Ware matches his current sack rate of 28.9 percent this season, he’ll need to garner 80 pressures to sack the quarterback a league-record 23 times. Ware is an absolute monster at outside linebacker and there’s a small possibility he can generate that many pressures, but it’s highly, highly unlikely. As a comparison, a player has acquired 54 or more pressures only six times over the past four seasons, per Pro Football Focus. One-third of them were from Ware.

So it appears that for Ware to break the sack record, he’ll need to post a higher sack rate than his 28.9 percent mark from the past three years. In effect, even a player as dominant as Ware needs to get a little bit lucky in order to break an all-time single-season record.

A more appropriate way to determine Ware’s chances of surpassing 22.5 sacks is to project his pressures, then figure out the sack rate he would need to break the record.

Taking Ware’s pass-rush history and the team’s 2012 schedule into account, I think 54 pressures is a solid projection for Ware. That’s seven more than he generated last season, but two less than in 2009 and 2010. Remember, only a handful of pass-rushers have forced that sort of pressure over the past few years, so the fact that Ware is likely to be in that range is astounding.

With 54 pressures, Ware’s 2012 sacks would need to add up to 42.6 percent of his pressures. At a career mark of 28.9 percent, that’s quite a ways off. But just how unlikely is it? Ware actually put up a 41.5 percent sack rate last season, so it isn’t inconceivable.

Head over to the team site to find out what percentage chance I give Ware to break the record.

By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football for Smart People Now Only $6.99 on Amazon

The Kindle version of Fantasy Football for Smart People is available on Amazon for $6.99. The paperback is still $12.99. Those interested in the book might also want to check out some sportsbook reviews.

From the book:

How to Add Positional Consistency Into Projections

One quick and easy method to implement positional consistency into player ratings is to multiply projected points for a position by the correlational strength of consistency.  That is:

C(P), where C is correlational strength and P is projected points

As I stated earlier, these correlations are 0.62 for tight ends, 0.60 for quarterbacks, 0.48 for running backs, and 0.42 for wide receivers.

Thus, if we project a quarterback to score 300 points and a wide receiver to score 200, those value shift to 0.60(300)=180 and 0.42(200)=84, respectively.  Note that those numbers aren’t projected points, but rather weighted values that make comparisons of various players easier.

The primary problem with this method, in my view, is it values the consistent positions too greatly, widening the “scarcity” gap at these spots.  For example, if we assume the 300-point quarterback and 200-point receiver are the top players at their respective positions and that our second-ranked players were projected to score 285 (QB) and 190 (WR), the above formula would change those projections to 171 and 79.

Whereas the second-ranked players were projected to score five percent less than their top-ranked counterparts in the original projections, the new consistency-infused projections have the second quarterback still at five percent behind the top signal-caller, but the second receiver 6.0 percent behind the top pass-catcher.  In effect, multiplying position correlation strength by projected points increases the “scarcity” of the most consistent positions, improperly inflating their worth.

If you want the book, you can buy it here.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Who Will Play the Slot in 2012?

Jonathan Bales

There’s a lot of talk about who will win the No. 3 receiver job in Dallas this season, and everyone is looking for the next Wes Welker. The Cowboys have some small, quick players Dwayne Harris and Danny Coale, a duo that might be battling each other for one roster spot.

Instead of forcing a particular type of player into a specific role, I think the Cowboys should line up with the three best receivers on the field, regardless of their skill sets. If Andre Holmes proves he’s the third-best option on the offense, he should play in three-receiver sets.

The reason for this is that the Cowboys have a ton of flexibility with Miles Austin. In my latest post at DallasCowboys.com, I explain why Austin is basically already the Cowboys’ slot receiver.

In three-receiver sets, the Cowboys have moved Austin into the slot more and more over the years. In 2009, I tracked Austin as playing 15.5 percent of his snaps in the slot. In 2010, it jumped to 32.4 percent. Last season, Austin actually played inside 44.0 percent of the snaps he was on the field. Of his 72 targets, 62.5 percent came when he lined up in the slot. That’s full-time slot duty.

So when you’re trying to predict the Cowboys’ 53-man roster this year, don’t force a guy in there simply because he has “prototypical” slot receiver skills. Jason Garrett will play the top three options, and at this point, my money is one Austin, Bryant, and Holmes.

By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football: Why You Should Avoid Jermichael Finley in 2012

Jonathan Bales

In my Monday morning series “The Xtra Point” over at Roto Experts, I discussed the fantasy value of Packers tight end Jermichael Finley. Here’s a preview of why I will be avoiding Finley in fantasy drafts this season. . .

  • Finley has limited upside.

This one will probably shock some of you, but Finley actually has a rather low ceiling. A big part of that limited outlook is a Packers’ offense that spreads the ball around as well as any in the league. Finley racked up 91 targets last year, good for just 11th among all tight ends. Even if we project Finley at 110 targets, which is pushing it, his ceiling for receptions is around 70, considering his career catch rate. That number would be fine if it were his projection, and thus a likely occurrence, but it’s not a great “best-case scenario.”

  • Finley plays in-line more than you think.

According to Pro Football Focus, Finley played only 145 snaps in the slot in 2012. That was good for 17.4-percent of Finley’s snaps, ranking him 16th in the league. The majority of the time, Finley plays from an “in-line” position that naturally limits his upside.

  • Finley’s efficiency will likely decline.

Finley posted 13.9 yards-per-catch in 2011. That number will probably decrease some in 2012. Using a regression of tight end YPC, I projected Finley to check in at 13.5 YPC. That’s not far behind his career-high of 14.3 YPC, with the point being Finley isn’t as explosive as a player like Jimmy Graham. He needs to haul in a lot of passes to provide top-tier Fantasy points, and he won’t do that in the Packers’ offense.

Fantasy Football for Smart People is now just $6.99 for Kindle and $12.99 in paperback. I also have an article on the Cowboys’ slot receiver plans going up at the team site later today, so check back here or there.

By Jonathan Bales

Dez Bryant Finished Talking to Reporters

Jonathan Bales

Just caught this on Dez Bryant’s Twitter feed:

I can not have this happening to me about a interview I did not say I would do. I am not talking to no reporters or radio shows‪#confirmed

Not trying to rub salt in the wound here, but does this mean he will be talking to all reporters from now on?

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: How Much Do Penalties Hurt NFL Teams?

Jonathan Bales

I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between penalties and winning for a few years now, even though I haven’t necessarily written extensively on the subject in this forum. When the Cowboys signed offensive tackle Alex Barron a few years ago, I wrote an article on the negative impact of Barron’s false starts. The tackle had committed 43 false starts over the previous five seasons in St. Louis.

From that post:

Barron’s false starts were responsible for the loss of 24.4 expected points over the course of five seasons, or about five points per year.  In essence, each false start cost the Rams 1/2 expected point, which is in line with league averages.

Expected points are one thing, but how do the false starts and subsequent loss of expected points affect a team’s win total?  Well, five points over the course of a season translates to just about .12 wins.  Thus, Barron’s (and those of Adams) false starts were annoying, but not as costly to a team’s success as you might believe.

One of the things I may have overlooked in that article on Barron is what sort of style of play accompanies certain types of penalties. False starts and other mental mistakes, although often not devastating to a team in terms of lost yards, come with no benefits. Players who frequently false start likely don’t have a tremendous mental grasp in other aspects of their game, such as blocking assignments and so on.

On the other hand, penalties such as roughing the passer and defensive pass interference are the result of aggressive play. The mindset that accompanies such penalties can lead to benefits for a team, such as interceptions and sacks. Thus, although more detrimental than mental errors in a limited sense, aggressive penalties might be the inevitable result of an attacking style of play.

That’s exactly what I found in my latest Running the Numbers post at DallasCowboys.com. Check it out:

On paper, everything adds up for defensive pass interference to lead to defeat. The call itself can be incredibly disadvantageous to a defense, providing the offense with the ball at the spot of the foul, plus an automatic first down. On top of that, you’d expect poor defenses to commit more pass interference infractions because they get out of position. Lastly, bad teams tend to have their defense on the field a lot, i.e. more time to accrue penalties.

However, teams that generate a lot of pass interference calls aren’t actually more likely to lose than those that limit the penalty. Since 2006, teams that have finished in the top 10 in defensive pass interference (meaning they were flagged the least often) have won 7.9 games per season. Those in the bottom 10 have won 8.0 games per year.

You can see above that in four of the past six seasons teams that finished with the most pass interference calls won the same amount or more games than the teams with the fewest pass interference penalties.

As I tracked different types of penalties, I noticed the same trend; those that come as a result of aggressive play (such as pass interference, roughing the passer and illegal contact) aren’t correlated to losing football games. This is so astounding because these penalties are often the most harmful to a team.

I realize looking at defensive pass interference alone results in a limited sample size, but the trend extends over most “aggressive” penalties. I find this fascinating.

The results of this study suggest teams shouldn’t really do everything possible to limit penalties. Aggressive play without penalties is of course ideal, but probably not possible. Some penalties are the result of a specific style of play that, as the numbers show, leads to more benefits than disadvantages. It’s a medium risk/high reward style of play that is superior to the low risk/low reward style of play that characterized the pre-Rob Ryan Dallas Cowboys defense.

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By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football for Smart People Around the Web: Projections, Rookies, and More

Jonathan Bales

With the launch of Fantasy Football for Smart People, I’ve been writing a lot of content for various fantasy football sites.

There you have it. A ton of useful fantasy football information for those of you who play, and plenty more to come. Fantasy Football for Smart People is similar analysis but on a grander scale, and for those of you who play fantasy football, I’m confident the book will be helpful to you this season.

As always, thanks for the support.