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Dc Times Blog | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

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

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The most important stat needed to predict 2013 NFL records

At Dallas Morning News, I went over perhaps the most influential stat in my team record predictions.

Below, I charted each team’s offensive EPA per play, defensive EPA per play, and the total. I used per-play averages because they don’t penalize a team for running fewer plays.

You can see the Cowboys ranked 20th in this metric last year, suggesting they were just slightly lucky to finish with an 8-8 record given how they played. One thing that EPA/play can’t measure is injuries, so we know that Dallas has a good chance of improving with superior defensive health.

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Notes on Cowboys vs Dolphins

I posted two post-game articles today. The first, at NBC, has four post-game notes on the Cowboys.

Lance Dunbar appears to be the clear No. 2 running back.

Dunbar barely got any playing time, but he started the game ahead of Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle. That’s probably a sign that the Cowboys are comfortable with Dunbar as their backup running back. At 191 lbs, Dunbar is undersized, but he’s the right choice for the job. There’s no single metric more strongly correlated with running back success than 40-yard dash time, and Dunbar’s sub-4.50 speed trumps both Tanner and Randle. I think we could actually see all three backs make the roster.

The second, at Dallas News, offers eight more observations.

7. DeVonte Holloman can fly.

His interception might have been a little fluky, but the speed Holloman showed in returning it for a touchdown was not. I’m not sure if he’ll earn a starting job this year, but a linebacker corps of Holloman, Sean Lee, and Bruce Carter might be the best coverage trio in the NFL.

8. Matt Johnson might really be injury-prone.

Most of you know that I think a lot of what people perceive as injury-proneness is an illusion. We’d certainly expect some players to be more susceptible to injuries than others, but since injuries are so random, it’s really difficult to determine if a player is truly injury-prone or just unlucky. Lots of players are labeled as injury-prone and then go on to lead healthy careers. It just takes a lot of injuries to say that a guy is really injury-prone and not the victim of bad luck.

Having said that, we have to start to question if Johnson is truly injury-prone. There have been a handful of injuries in a short period of time, and while it looks like he’ll bounce back from this one, it’s not a good sign that he’s again banged up for a Cowboys defense that was counting on him to provide significant contributions.

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Cowboys vs Dolphins Live Tweeting/3 Players to Watch

Just a heads up that I’ll probably do some tweeting of the game tonight (@BalesFootball), at least until I get sick of it around halftime. Also, I just detailed three specific players to watch for the Cowboys.

S Matt Johnson

Take a look at Johnson’s closest comp:

Johnson: 6-1, 215 pounds, 4.52 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.07 short shuttle, 6.84 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 18 reps

Player X: 6-0, 214 pounds, 4.63 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.06 short shuttle, 6.78 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 15 reps

From a physical standpoint, that’s basically the same player. The only difference is that Johnson was drafted in the fourth round out of Eastern Washington and ‘Player X’ was a first-round safety out of Texas. His name is Kenny Vaccaro, and people seem to have higher hopes for him than they do for Johnson.

Matt Johnson is going to make a big impact in 2013, and it will start tonight.

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100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days, Day 46: Why I’m Bullish on DeMarco Murray

Earlier this year, I broke down four reasons that I’m high on DeMarco Murray in 2013.

Today, I got a chance to do a Cowboys podcast with Ryan Fowler over at FOX Sports, and we hit on the subject of Murray’s 2013 fantasy outlook. Basically, I think Murray is getting drafted as if he’s a middle-aged, injury-prone running back who has never produced when, in reality, he’s a young back with a track record of effectiveness who might be injury-prone, or he might just be someone who has been unlucky with injuries.

You can listen to the full podcast right here.

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Cowboys Analysis: Sean Lee Projection, Reasons VY to Dallas Makes Sense

At NBC, I posted my 2013 projection for linebacker Sean Lee:

Last year, Lee recorded 58 tackles in just six games. Playing only 331 snaps, Lee’s tackle rate was 17.5 percent. That’s a remarkable number and, in all likelihood, Lee won’t be able to sustain it over the course of a full season. In comparison, he posted a 12.1 percent tackle rate in 2012.

The key to projecting Lee’s total tackles is figuring out how many snaps he’ll play. Most argue that Lee is injury prone, but most injuries seem to be the result of randomness. They happen so infrequently that it’s really difficult to tell if a player is really more susceptible to injuries than the average person or if he’s just unlucky. On top of that, even if we did label Lee as injury prone, injuries are rare enough that he’d still be likely to participate in a full season, or close to it.

With those things in mind, we can project Lee for a drop in tackle rate—probably somewhere around 14.0 percent—and around 925 snaps played. If those numbers hold up, Lee would total 130 tackles in 2013.

One of Lee’s most impressive traits is that he’s been really good in coverage despite possessing average athleticism. He’s not that fast and he’s pretty stiff in the hips, yet he’s always in the right position. In his limited 2012 action, Lee allowed 16 receptions on 20 attempts (80.0 percent) for 152 yards (7.6 YPA). The season prior—the one in which he played in 15 games—Lee allowed 50 catches on 63 attempts (79.4 percent) for 497 yards (7.9 YPA).

And at DallasCowboys.com, I suggested Vince Young might not be such a bad fit in Dallas:

6.8: Robert Griffin III’s YPC as a rookie ­– the highest mark in the NFL by nearly a yard.

Why would RGIII’s rushing prowess affect the Cowboys’ quarterback decisions? As Nick and Bryan pointed out, Young can give the defense a unique look in practice. With Griffin and possibly Michael Vick set to run read-option, the Cowboys need to be prepared to defend it. In RGIII’s first game against Dallas, he completed 19 of 27 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and you can bet that much of that passing success was generated indirectly through Griffin’s ability to take off on the ground. Young can imitate Griffin and Vick in practice in a way that Kyle Orton simply can’t.

6.9: Young’s net-YPA during his final two years in Tennessee.

Young struggled with interceptions during his lone season in Philadelphia, but he was quietly really effective in 2009 and 2010 in Tennessee. Net-YPA is a stat that factors sack yards into a quarterback’s yards per attempt. Even though Young has taken too many sacks during his career, including on 7.7 percent of his passes in 2010, he’s still been very efficient as a passer.

A year after finishing in the top 12 in net-YPA in 2009, Young checked in at sixth in 2010. He also tossed 20 touchdowns to only 10 picks during that time, a ratio superior to Tony Romo’s career mark.

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Ranking the NFL’s Top 15 Cornerbacks

At Dallas News, I ranked the NFL’s top 15 cornerbacks:

Cornerbacks are often ranked by YPA (yards per attempt), but I think that’s a poor metric. When Nnamdi Asmougha was in his prime in Oakland, he was targeted about half as often as other top cornerbacks, but he gave up a high completion rate and YPA because quarterbacks threw at him only when they knew his guy was wide open.

To truly capture great cornerback play, I think you need to reward them for not getting targeted. That’s why yards allowed per coverage snap is the best way to grade cornerbacks. Tracked by Pro Football Focus, yards per coverage snap reflects a cornerback’s solid coverage on a play, regardless of whether or not he was targeted.

Below, I’ve ranked my top 15 cornerbacks. Yards per coverage snap (listed) was one of the main stats I considered, but not the only one. I also think there’s a ton of value in play-making ability. While interceptions are fairly volatile, some cornerbacks have proven capable of making more plays than others even over large sample sizes. That’s why Asante Samuel is rated in my top five despite an average mark in yards per coverage snap, for example; he’s demonstrated a consistent ability to haul in interceptions (and he actually doesn’t give up a lot of big plays), and there’s a ton of value in that.

NFL Cornerback Rankings

1. Darrelle Revis, Jets

  • 0.92 yards per target (2011)

2. Richard Sherman, Seahawks

  • 1.07 yards per snap

3. Antonio Cromartie, Jets

  • 0.97 yards per snap

4. Champ Bailey, Broncos

  • 0.82 yards per snap (best in NFL)

5. Asante Samuel, Falcons

  • 1.27 yards per snap

6. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals

  • 1.24 yards per snap

7. Charles Tillman, Bears

  • 1.04 yards per snap

8. Prince Amukamara, Giants

  • 0.86 yards per snap (second in NFL)

See where Brandon Carr checks in.

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Bill Callahan’s Play-Calling History, Tendencies

At Dallas Morning News, I revisited Bill Callahan’s history as a play-caller.

In Callahan’s first year as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator, Oakland posted poor offensive statistics. They checked in at 21st in the NFL in points, primarily because they turned over the football more often than all but two teams. They also ranked only 18th in rushing efficiency and 25th in passing efficiency.

By Callahan’s second season, however, the Raiders were on their way to creating an offense that would be among the league’s best in a number of categories for the next four seasons. From 1999 to 2002, Callahan’s Raiders averaged the following ranks:

  • Net yards-per-attempt: 6th (Best: 3rd, Worst: 8th)
  • Yards-per-carry: 12th (Best: 3rd, Worst: 26th)
  • Points: 4th (Best: 2nd, Worst: 8th)
  • Giveaways: 6th (Best: 2nd, Worst: 12th)

Those are some pretty darn good numbers over a four-year period; the Raiders never ranked worse than 8th in points or net-YPA. In his final season in Oakland, however, Callahan’s offense took asteep drop. They finished 29th in net-YPA—down from 3rd just one year prior—13th in YPC, 26th in points, and 11th in giveaways.

In charting Callahan’s ranks while in Oakland, it’s easy to see that he led an above-average offense for quite some time. Callahan’s tenure in Oakland was bookended by two poor showings, likely leaving a bad taste in the mouths of Raiders fans and even those around the league.

It’s also interesting to see just how closely the Raiders’ rank in net-YPA resembles their final rank in points. If you recall, I’ve argued on numerous occasions that net-YPA is the most important individual stat in all of football. It’s actually a better predictor of future points even than past points scored, which is remarkable. It’s not really too much of a surprise that as the Raiders’ passing game thrived, they scored points. Meanwhile, Oakland ranked 26th in YPC in a season in which they scored the fourth-most points in the NFL and 13th in a season when they ranked second in points.

So yeah, let’s keep saying the Cowboys need to blindly run the ball.

In addition to his successes as a play-caller, I also examined some of Callahan’s tendencies:

54.1: Percentage of first downs on which the Raiders ran the ball

The Raiders ran the ball quite a bit on first down from 2000 to 2003. Their first-down run rate was even higher than the league average of 52.4 percent during that time. The Raiders’ first-down run rate through three quarters (54.5 percent) was even greater, suggesting Callahan really does like to attack on the ground early.

55.9: Raiders’ pass rate in all situations

In general, though, the Raiders passed the ball about as often as the average NFL team. Their overall pass rate through the first three quarters of games (56.3 percent) was slightly higher.

17.3: Raiders’ pass rate on 2nd and 1

Few coaches realize the value of 2nd and 1—a down and distance that holds maximum upside without much risk. Smart teams like the Saints often run play-action and throw deep on 2nd and 1 because they realize that the downside of an incompletion is minimal. Callahan is one of the coaches who has tended to run on 2nd and 1 to pick up the “sure thing.” From 2000 to 2003, the Raiders faced 75 plays on 2nd and 1 and passed on just 13 of them.

68.8: Percentage of 2nd and 10 plays on which Oakland passed

When a team faces 2nd and 10, it’s often because they threw an incomplete pass on first down. A lot of play-callers tend to run the ball on 2nd and 10 following an incompletion because they think they’re “mixing it up.” In their futile attempts to randomize their play-calling, however, coaches actually become quite predictable on 2nd and 10. In 2003, NFL teams passed the ball only 55.8 percent of the time on 2nd and 10; that’s around the same as the overall rate in a situation in which teams should be passing a whole lot more often, regardless of the previous call.

Callahan’s Raiders passed the ball much more frequently on 2nd and 10 than most teams, though, suggesting Callahan could be superior to Jason Garrett as a “randomizer” of plays.

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A Look Back at My 2012 Preseason Predictions

I think every writer and football analyst should make predictions. Most agree. But here’s a crazy idea: we should examine those predictions at the end of the season. Then we might be able to see who knows what the hell they’re talking about and who will continue to repeat that the Cowboys need to run the ball more if they want to win.

My obsession with predictions is why I make so many before the season and why I’ve openly published my game picks (you know, before the games actually happen) right here for the past three years. At Dallas News, I posted every one of my 2012 preseason predictions that I could find. Many were right. Some were wildly wrong.

Looking back at 2012, it was a pretty good year of predictions for me. Here they are:

Dez Bryant Will Be True No. 1 in 2012

Prediction: Bryant will have a 63.0 percent catch rate, 125 targets, 15.5 YPC, 1,224 yards, and 11 touchdowns.

Result: Bryant surpassed my expectations, slightly, with a 67.2 percent catch rate on 137 targets, 15.0 YPC, 1,382 yards, and 12 touchdowns.

Martellus Bennett Could Be Missed in 2012

Prediction: The loss of Bennett—one of the league’s best blocking tight ends—will hurt the running game.

Result: There are lots of reasons the Cowboys’ running game suffered in 2012, but much of it had to do with Bennett’s departure.

DeMarco Murray Won’t Rush for 1,500 Yards

Prediction: Murray will total between 950 and 1,050 rushing yards.

Result: Due to missing six games, Murray rushed for only 663 yards. Otherwise, he was on pace for 1,061.

Jay Ratliff’s Best Days for Cowboys Behind Him

Prediction: Ratliff will have just 20 tackles and two sacks in 2012.

Result: Ratliff ended the season with 10 tackles and zero sacks in six games.

Cowboys’ Interior Line Will Struggle in 2012

Prediction: The Cowboys’ guards and center will struggle at the point-of-attack.

Result: Exactly that.

Jason Witten’s Decline Inevitable

Prediction: Witten’s production will remain stable in 2012 before dropping substantially in 2013.

Result: In terms of receptions, Witten had an historic season. However, he also scored only three times and had the worst efficiency of his career in terms of both YPC and yards per route. We’ll see if his bulk production does indeed dip this year.

Why Barry Church Is Ready to Start at Safety

Prediction: Church will have a strong year as a starter.

Result: Injured in Week 3, we never really saw much of the safety.

Why Tony Romo Will Throw It Deep in 2012

Prediction: Romo’s deep ball rate will increase, perhaps to 15.0 percent.

Result: Romo did throw more deep passes than ever, but his rate—10.8 percent—didn’t increase much over previous seasons.

5 Bold Predictions for Cowboys’ Offense

Predictions: Dez Bryant will lead the NFL in touchdowns, Tyron Smith will allow fewer than four sacks, Jason Witten won’t top 850 receiving yards, DeMarco Murray will catch over 50 passes, and the Cowboys will win the NFC East.

Results: Bryant was second in the NFL in touchdown receptions—one behind Eric Decker, Smith allowed only three sacks, Witten had 1,039 yards with a career-high in targets, Murray was on pace for 56 receptions before getting injured, and the Cowboys clearly didn’t win the NFC East.

You can see more of my predictions right here.

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Talking Daily Fantasy Sports Strategy

I recently did a little interview with GoProFantasySports.com regarding my new book How to Cash in on the Future of the Game and my background in fantasy sports. The full interview is here.

What’s the most common mistake you see new players make when setting their daily fantasy football lineups?

JB: The biggest mistake in terms of the actual lineup creation process would be choosing players independently of one another. If you’re in a tournament, it’s almost a necessity to stack (pairing a quarterback with his receiver, for example) because it creates a dependent relationship that increases your team’s upside. On the flip side, you shouldn’t consistently stack in heads-up leagues because you want to minimize volatility.

Care to share where you go for the statistics that you use to set your lineups?

JB: I use Vegas lines and props, FantasyProsRotoWirerotoVizAdvanced NFL StatsPro Football ReferencePro Football FocusFootball Outsiders, and numberFire.

You’re a winning player, so you must be a gambler, what’s the craziest bet you’ve ever made?

JB: Not really a crazy bet, but when I was a freshman in college, I had two MLB parlays running at one point. I had one game in each remaining that I needed to win a pretty large amount of money for me at the time (well into five figures). The games were close and both in the bottom of the 9th, and I remember sitting at my computer in my dorm watching the games update on MLB.com. One of them was the Braves game. I needed them to win, and they were down one with Jeff Francoeur at the plate with the bases loaded and one out. He ended up grounding into a double-play to lose the game, and within about 20 seconds I lost the other parlay as well in a similar heartbreaking fashion. So I went from thinking I was going to win a salary in a single night to actually losing $50. Losing $50 should have meant nothing, but it hurt pretty bad for a while.

What is the key to dealing with losing streaks?

JB: The key is really in your perception of your bankroll. When you put money into a daily fantasy sports site, think of it as gone. Now ideally you don’t want to lose your money, but if you start to think of how much you’re “winning” or “losing,” it can affect your decisions. You win and lose money all of the time playing daily fantasy sports, so you almost have to forget that the money is real. If you think of it is a sort of currency through which you can play fantasy sports, you won’t be chasing losses. People don’t realize that at almost every point, even the best fantasy owners are below a previous peak in bankroll. It’s not like you can always win and your bankroll never decreases; it drops all of the time. If you’re a long-term winner, just trust the process; the “luck” will even out if you can stay in the game.

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Top 4 Numbers That Prove Tony Romo Isn’t an 8-8 Caliber Quarterback

Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings. He also has a 58.6 percent career completion rate and has averaged 18 interceptions in the eight seasons he’s been a starter.

Drew Brees is widely considered one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. He also tossed 19 interceptions last season—tying Tony Romo for the league-lead—and has thrown at least 15 interceptions seven times in his career.

Coming off of the heels of a miraculous Super Bowl run in which he threw 11 touchdowns and no picks, Joe Flacco just received an exorbitant $120 million contract. He’s also never thrown for 4,000 yards in a season.

And then there’s Romo. Deep down, we all know Romo isn’t truly an 8-8 quarterback, regardless of how the Cowboys finished in the past couple seasons. The love-him-or-hate-him quarterback is such a paradox because all of the signs for future success are there, but he doesn’t have the history of postseason accomplishments to lend credibility to his game. Until he and the Cowboys make a run deep into the playoffs, Romo’s brilliance will continue to go unrecognized.

But there’s good evidence that Dallas won’t finish this season at or below .500. There’s even better evidence that Romo is much, much better than an average quarterback. Here are the top four numbers that back up that claim.

7.94: Career YPA

There’s no individual stat that better predicts team success than a quarterback’s YPA. Year in and year out, the best squads are those led by quarterbacks with great efficiency. We can talk about the Ravens’ offensive “balance” all day, but the fact is they won the Super Bowl because Flacco put together perhaps the best four-game run of his career, averaging a ridiculous 9.05 YPA, allowing Baltimore to overcome 3.64 YPC from Ray Rice.

Romo has averaged 7.94 YPA over the course of his career. So what does that mean? Well, it means that only six players have ever been more efficient, three of whom played prior to 1950. Counting just modern-day quarterbacks, only Aaron Rodgers, Steve Young, and Kurt Warner have posted higher YPA than Romo. The combined record of those passers is 213-124—a .632 winning percentage.

So what’s more likely: Romo has somehow been able to record incredible efficiency but is still a mediocre quarterback, or he’s a superb quarterback whose postseason success doesn’t match the level of plays he’s sustained for years?

Hint: it’s not the first one.

52.0: Percentage of Romo’s 2012 plays that increased the Cowboys’ chances of scoring on a given drive

By looking at historic game data, sites like Advanced NFL Stats are able to determine the exact number of points an offense can expect to score on a given drive or their chances of winning given specific game situations. That’s valuable for all kinds of reasons, one of which is it allows us to grade players based on their success rate: the percentage of plays on which they increase their team’s chances of scoring and winning. Romo ranked fifth in the NFL in success rate in 2012, behind only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers.

33: Romo’s age

Thirty-three is over-the-hill at most NFL positions, but not quarterback. Quarterbacks have proven to be capable of playing at a very high level well into their 30s, especially lately.

Many quarterbacks see a drop in efficiency and total production in their late-30s. At age 33, however, the typical NFL quarterback has produced bulk numbers and efficiency metrics at right around 95 percent of his previous career-high. At least for a few more years, there’s no reason to worry about Romo’s age.

99.9: Romo’s passer rating in the fourth quarter of close games (within seven points)

Romo’s a choke artist. Just ask anyone in the national media. He buckles under the pressure in important situations.

Of course, if that were true, we’d expect it to be reflected in the numbers. If Romo really plays poorly when the stakes are high, his stats should be worse in late-game and late-season situations. But they aren’t.

Actually, in the fourth quarter of close games, Romo has actually raised his level of play. On 464 career passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games, Romo has generated a gaudy 99.9 passer rating. Don’t like passer rating as a metric? You might like Romo’s 8.69 YPA. Or his 6.0 percent touchdown rate. Or his 2.6 percent interception rate. All of those numbers surpass Romo’s overall stats, suggesting he’s not really any worse in crunch time, but better.

I’m not brushing some of Romo’s obvious late-season struggles under the rug. Romo will be the first to tell you that decisions like that which led to the late-game interception in Washington can’t happen. But a quarterback who truly “chokes” in high-pressure situations would never be able to sustain an all-time high passer rating in, well, high-pressure situations.

If the argument boils down to a highly-impressive body of work over a large sample of games versus anecdotal evidence clouded by a recency bias, well, there’s really no argument at all.