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The Outsiders: an introduction

As I mentioned in this website's charter piece, I'm a bit of a stat nerd. Not because I have any formal education in statistics to speak of, but mainly because I enjoy making arguments about Football, and one of the best ways to support these arguments is to rely on data, statistics, and analysis. A healthier understanding of this data makes for a more tightly argued Football discussion.

Ostensibly statistics are supposed to reflect how well a player preforms on the field. If someone has 12 receiving touchdowns, as both Marvin Harrison and Steve Smith did last year, this should reflect something about how these two individuals played.

But not all statistics were created equally. Twelve touchdowns is impressive, but is it more impressive if you did it in 21 fewer receptions (as Harrison did) or if you did it facing frequent double coverages (as Steve Smith did)? Thus we find another strength of statistic gathering; it creates more dialogue for fans of this great game to engage in.

A site you will frequently see me reference is Football Outsiders. These guys are, like me, stat nerds. But unlike me they understand statistical methods and how to implement them and, more importantly, the predictive power of regression analyses.

They are meticulous in their approach to Football Science. They don't just evaluate stats, they evaluate the who, the how, and the why behind statistics. A five yard wide open catch on 3rd and 17 that yields no yards because the receiver dances and stumbles is much less valuable than a five yard reception on 3rd and 4 where a receiver breaks one tackle and stretches for the chain movement -- and these guys account for that. As I said, not all statistics are created equal.

Obviously I didn't just stumble upon these guys. They've made some very favorable claims about the Washington Redskins 2005 season that I took note of. As examples, their complicated yet brilliant DVOA ranking (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) placed the Washington Redskins as the 4th best defense in the league; the Skins also finished 7th in total DVOA last year.

These statistics are meaningless without understanding the vocabulary, so I urge all readers to take the opportunity to check out what DVOA means here. In the most layman terms, it measures every single individual play over the course of an NFL football season and measures the success rate of an individual offensive player vs. the season's historical average. Even this measure is complicated by the mere fact that a 7 yard reception is only a "success" under certain circumstances. On 3rd and 28 it's quite useless. On 1st and 10 it's an enormous gain. Again, they take this into account.

This is all to say that they take Football Statistics far more seriously than any casual fan does -- or should. There's more to enjoying the greatest competition in sports than crunching numbers. But the predictive power of complicated analysis should not be understated either. The Football Outsiders DVOA calculations were eerily accurate when they first came out in 2003 and have been steadily improving since. Unsurprinsingly, they've correctly predicted a Redskins' postseason in 2006.

But statistics are not everything. As even the Pigskin Philosophers at Football Outsiders can admit, the only thing worse than placing too little emphasis on stats is placing too much on the wrong kind -- a point argued brilliantly and thoughtfully by Mike Tanier. As any casual football fan can appreciate, he utilized the example of the quarterback kneel to point out the futility in utilizing the wrong statistical metric for predicting success.

And the reasoning goes: Football teams that kneel the ball score more points. Therefore, teams would score more points if they kneeled the ball.

Of course this observation analysis has the relationship backwards. Teams that score many points are in a position to burn clock by kneeling the ball. The argument has confused correlation with causation in the worst way by reversing the relationship between a cause and an effect.

For Redskins fans this confusion between correlation and causation was suffered virtually every sunday of last year. Not a game would go by for the Redskins where one broadcaster wouldn't point out the obvious fact that the Redskins won more games when Clinton Portis has a lot of carries (and consequently many rushing yards) than when he didn't. Nevermind the fact that Joe Gibbs -- as any intelligent Coach would do -- protects the lead by running the ball. Despite the seemingly obvious fact that rushing yards and carries are both the result of having leads and not the cause, we will likely hear 16 times pregame in the coming Football season how Joe Gibbs needs to give the ball to Clinton Portis 30-35 times because that's when the Redskins win football games.

If the Football Outsiders complicated statistical breakdown is your cup of tea, then I strongly suggest a daily visit to their website for a peerless dose of analytical football insight.

But if you're more of a meat-and-potatos kind of football fan, I urge you to bookmark Hogs Haven immediately; I promise my shameless homerism and frequent fan-based emotional appeals will always be easier to comprehend and critique.