Mrs. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Statistics and Love the Steelers

via Steelers.com

Last week I published the finale to a series detailing the 2013 AFC North draft and the results thereof. I freely admit that “detailing” is an apt description of the series. The following comment was left by the person also known as “Earthling:”

So….what are your overall conclusions, Rebecca? I’ll admit I normally would never read this kind of grading assessment (or assessment of grading?) except that this one had your name attached. Do you agree that drafting is a crapshoot? Were you hoping to see something in particular in relation to the Steelers or any of the other teams? Did you have an idea you were hoping to see confirmed or the opposite? And while I’m asking questions, I assume you enjoy doing things like this and I’m curious about that as well. 

So many things about other forms of fandom puzzle me. Sometimes I’m a bit appalled, other times just interested in what would never occur to me. Is a study like this just a way to look more closely at the whole process? What did you enjoy about it? Does it change your view of….well, of anything? 

Finally, while I”m asking questions, do you believe there are people who are very good at it and did that show up in the articles you read if pertaining to teams other than the AFC North? I often talk to a Seahawks fan who is convinced that Pete Carroll (as having significant input in the process) is better at drafting than anyone else in the NFL because his college coaching experience both gave him certain assessment skills others lack in terms of how the players translate to the NFL and also created his expectation of an almost complete turnover of players every 2-3 years, I guess so that he wants more than other coaches to draft players who make an immediate impact, then he replaces them. To make that more clear, I’m not claiming that he is the best in the NFL at drafting. I pay almost no attention to the draft but that’s my friend’s belief and the Seahawks do seem to have an enviable talent for finding late round draft picks who are stars. And then–replacing them? I guess we’ll see on that last point.

After beginning a very long comment in reply to this I decided it wasn’t possible to address it in that format. What follows is my answer to Earthling’s questions. As a result it is pretty much focused on how my mind works, and if that thought scares you, come back tomorrow for the game recap.

I used to do regular comparison articles on various aspects of the AFC North teams, and even did some gigantic stats articles comparing the drafting prowess of the entire NFL over the 2000s. But I guess I never stopped to think why on earth I would do this until I read your question.

If you knew me in real life it would be even more apparent what a good question it is. I never, prior to becoming a Steeler fan, took any interest in statistics. I am, after all, a musician. Furthermore, my eldest son worked as a sys admin for Carnegie Mellon University’s Statistics Department for a year, and nothing he told me about his interactions there made me think statistics might be more interesting than I assumed it was.

So why did I take an interest in this sort of data collection? I think part of it is because I’m so late to football fandom. It’s a way for me to try and get a handle on things Steeler fans say (like, Kevin Colbert is awesome, or Kevin Colbert sucks, or the Steelers used to know what they were doing when they drafted under Bill Cowher and now they’ve lost their way, or whatever it might be.) But there may be more to it.

My now-deceased father-in-law was a professor at St. Cross College, Oxford, specializing in computer analysis of crystallographic data. Or something like that. I never knew for sure what he did, other than he was involved with computing back in the 1950s when it was in its infancy. He loved to argue, about almost anything. (He would probably have said we were “discussing” things.) He would take the opposite side of an argument than the one he really believed if necessary, just for the joy of arguing. You could never, ever get an undocumented point past him.

My family has a rather less distinguished academic pedigree, but we always have to be right. So you can see how combining these things would lead me to question the usual sorts of assertions made by fans, and would inevitably lead me down the path of actual research, however reluctantly I might embark upon it.

The thing which got me started was hearing the typical narratives and wondering if they were in fact true. Did the Steelers used to draft better than they do now? Did they used to find awesome value picks and they aren’t so good at it anymore?

And one which really intrigued me was about the Patriots, since it is almost a tenet of Steeler fandom to hate the Pats. Is Bill Belichick really better than everybody else at drafting? And particularly, is he better than the Steelers at it? So I embarked on the full-league comparison to try and get a feel for this.

In case you’re wondering, my conclusion after looking at a whole lot of numbers was, Belichick had about the same amount of misses as everyone else, or at least “everyone else” in the upper echelons, but because he was so good at accumulating large numbers of picks he had more chances to find the people he wanted.

I also compared the absolute value of a player, independent of the team(s) he played on, to the value he accrued to the team who drafted him. Not surprisingly, given Belichick’s ruthless winnowing of players to find those who fit his system and his quick trigger finger on those who he decides don’t, combined with the large number of picks he typically had in a given season, the “value” of Patriots drafts, independent of how much of the value accrued to the team itself, was consistently at the top of the league. On the other hand, if you looked at how much value the team got out of their draft, the Patriots were not as impressive.

And also in case you’re wondering, the Steelers were consistently near the top of the league, but with a disquieting downward trend. (Since I believe the figures ended at 2009, this isn’t too surprising.) I may haul that out and update the numbers — it could be pretty interesting, to me at least.

And as I wrote this I realized that “everyone”, as in “everyone who takes an interest in draft matters” knows the names of Kevin Colbert and Ozzie Newsome, but I have absolutely no idea who the equivalent person is in the Patriots organization. It would be fascinating to know why this is.

And that last paragraph perhaps tells you as much about how my mind works as anything else I could say. Something catches my attention, and it’s sort of an itch I have to scratch. This probably tells you why the site seems so quirky. Ivan and I are cleaning out our mental pockets, and what you find is a strange assortment of broken toothpicks, dryer lint, loose change, and hopefully the occasional treasure.

I realize that none of this has answered what is probably the most insightful part of your first paragraph, Earthling, which is, what are my conclusions?

As stated above, I am relatively new to Steelers fandom. But it isn’t like I took a sort of vague interest in football beforehand but became converted to full-blown Steelers fandom recently. No, I actually took an active disinterest, if there is such a thing, in spectator sports in general and football in particular.

So perhaps my reluctance to make any sort of strong statement in an article such as the AFC North draft assessment is due to the feeling that while I have opinions they may not ultimately be worth much, because I may not really know what I’m talking about.  And naturally this is part of the appeal of data—it is a least some sort of validation of the opinions I do express. 

And I would hate to be unmasked as a charlatan. It is only the growing conviction that I’m not the only Steeler fan who may not always know what I’m talking about that keeps me going.

So in the future I will attempt to be a bit more definite about my opinions, and will allow all of you to shout me down if need be, in the hopes I will learn something from the experience. Because I’m afraid your insight hasn’t dampened my desire to look into these things.

And you’ve probably already gathered the answer to the question “Did you have an idea you were hoping to see confirmed or the opposite?” A good researcher would never hypothesize ahead of her data, but naturally as a Steeler homer I was hoping to find the Steelers are actually better at drafting than most everyone else.

I have to confess, though, that indeed the draft seems to be more of a crapshoot than one would like to think. It is telling that Bill Belichick’s past successes seems to stem as much from the number of picks he has had as any other single factor. To give the devil his due, it was a planned strategy to trade down for more picks on a regular basis. He hasn’t done it as much in recent years, I believe. 

This makes the situation with the Browns in 2013 even more interesting, because they traded away draft picks for what looked like a known quantity—Davone Bess. And as a result the failure of one of the few higher-round picks they had (Janoris Slaughter) combined with the disappointing performance of the “known quantity,” Bess, makes their draft look even worse than it did at the time.

They came away with not nearly enough at a time when they had many holes to fill. Whether they would have done better or worse with the picks they took instead of what they traded for, who knows? And herein lies part of the fascination of the draft—study it as you may, it’s still a gamble. The quarter you put in the slot machine might get swallowed, or it might pay off big time.

Apparently it is possible, at least some of the time, to beat the odds, and some teams seem to do better with that than others over the long haul. That said, it will be interesting to dig out the old charts, update them, and see whether the Steelers are still beating them. 

For instance, the Steelers have had what seems almost a miraculous run of luck in recent years in drafting mid-round wide receivers, Limas Sweed notwithstanding. On the other hand, their record in drafting defensive backs during the same time period is not very good, despite the fact there would appear to be a great many similarities in the scouting and evaluation of those positions. (As Ike Taylor said, if a defensive back had good hands he would be a wideout.) Is this just attributable to the small sample size, or is something else going on?

Hombre de Acero of Steel Curtain Rising wrote an article recently on drafting and came to the conclusion that successful NFL drafting is a combination of art, science, and luck. Here’s a sample of the article:

…the franchise that once established the gold standard for defensive line excellence in the 70’s went 18 years without sending a single defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. It wasn’t as if the Steelers didn’t try. In the 1980’s alone, the Steelers drafted defensive lineman Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera and Aaron Jones in the first round…

…What happened? The Steel Curtain was scouted by a team comprised of Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Bill Nunn Jr. and Tom Modrak, and Chuck Noll [made] his picks based on their reports. Clearly these 6 men didn’t suffer a collective case of defensive line evaluation stupidity the moment the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 1979.

After looking at the history, Hombre believes that while the draft isn’t exactly a crapshoot there is certainly a goodly component of luck.

But perhaps the “luck” factor is only insufficient knowledge. As Nicolas Dawidoff quoted the Jet’s scouting director in Collision Low Crossers, “If there were a meter on heart, a way to measure how much a guy cares, we’d draft only Revises.”

Unfortunately it isn’t even that simple. Take Cortez Allen. He is talented, disciplined, and “hungry,” whatever that means. No one has ever accused him of not working hard enough. But he may or may not turn out to be a big blunder by the front office, both in the scouting and drafting and in signing him to an extension.

No one would predict that someone who went to and survived The Citadel would end up with what are surely mental barriers to performance. And there you have it in a nutshell. Predicting the behavior and performance of people a few years down the road at the tender age NFL players are drafted is pretty difficult.

You can gauge their talent, but you have to guess how well it translates to the professional game. You can employ various means to attempt to measure their heart or desire or work ethic, but you can only hypothesize how those things will be effected by success and a lot of money. You can look at their injury history, but you have no way of knowing whether they will stay healthy in the NFL. You can set them tests to see how quickly they learn, but you have little way of knowing how quickly they can forget, or move on from, their mistakes. As Ike Taylor once said, a defensive back has to have a short memory. A short memory might have helped Limas Sweed as well.

But before I write a whole other post, let’s move on to your third paragraph. I think many teams, including the Steelers, are still adjusting to the fallout from the shortened rookie contracts as instituted by the last CBA. I do believe the desire to get defensive draft picks on the field in an impactful way a lot sooner was a factor in the Steelers allowing Dick LeBeau to leave. (Or encouraging him to leave, as the case may be.)

It is certainly significant that Bud Dupree played in over a third of the defensive snaps in the opener—more, in fact, than any of the OLBs except James Harrison. According to Pro Football Focus, he didn’t do fabulously well—he graded out at a -1.6, which is the worst of any of the Steelers OLBs. Not by much, though—Arthur Moats was given a -1.2, James Harrison a -1.3, and only Jarvis Jones was in the top ten at the position in Week 1. (He received a 1.3.)

And for those of you who may think this proves the PFF guys don’t know what they are talking about, here is a quote from the Post-Gazettes Ed Bouchette:

The stats were not kind to Jones, but watchful eyes were. Jones had his way on several occasions with a good left tackle, Nate Solder. He practically knocked the 6-foot-8, 320-pound Solder off his feet one time and bulldozed him back into quarterback Tom Brady on another. The game-day stats crew credited Jones with only an assisted tackle and no quarterback pressures, but he flashed his ability and showed some strength on the bull rush some thought he might not possess.

Perhaps part of the problem is the Steelers’ DNA as an organization, if you will, has been committed to patiently bringing players along, then slotting them into the system as the time is ripe. Dick LeBeau is gone but the tendencies are probably still there.

Your Seahawks fan friend might have a point—Pete Carroll is perhaps in a better position to evaluate how a player will translate (and how quickly) to the NFL, and was accustomed to having the use of a player for only a few years.

But it might just speak to a difference in philosophy. I think the Steelers front office and coaches would prefer to find the guys they like and then hang onto them.  And maybe this isn’t really sensible in the modern-day NFL. Certainly many other teams seem to get more value out of their rookies, particularly on defense, than the Steelers do. But the times seem to be changing.

And as you note, the next few years will show whether Carroll is in fact able to replace the guys he finds in the lower rounds with equally proficient and cheap guys. But if he is, we know for sure everyone will be trying to do the same—as Mike Tomlin has said, it is a copycat league. Which brings us back around to the Steelers.

Because one of the well-known secrets of Dick LeBeau’s defense was that for a long time he was running one of the few 3-4 defenses. Consequently he was able to draft players cheaply who didn’t fit well into a 4-3 and were undervalued. During the ensuing years a great many teams switched to a 3-4 and such players were no longer undervalued.

This also makes me wonder if the defensive line issues Hombre mentions was as much due to the rest of the league noticing the Steelers were finding bargains in the small black colleges and sending scouts there as well as to anything else. But that is a pure guess on my part, not based on anything other than a vague memory of something I read.

But if true it’s quite reminiscent of the Pirates’ search for what are called “market inefficiencies” in major league baseball. They go all in for something like defensive shifts, or broken pitchers they think they can fix, and when they are successful many teams follow suit in the following season.

The tremendous proliferation of easily accessible information since the early 90s has surely changed the landscape in the NFL, and it is fair to ask whether the Steelers remained mired in the past too long.

I do believe they are changing their approach in a number of ways, and one of those is certainly the desire to get rookies contributing sooner. After all, Art II called the coaching staff out on this very point a few years ago. It’s easier said than done, however, and it is reasonable to ask whether it won’t require somewhat of a philosophical overhaul in the coaching and scouting department to fully implement this.

And in fact this may be the reason they brought in a stats guru. It will be most interesting to see whether the Steelers hire someone permanent after this year, or will find a way to persuade Kassim to ditch his academic career and stay on. They will presumably only do either if they feel they have tangible evidence that such a person can help them. And the more they think it helps them the less we will probably know about it. You can’t hide a 3-4 defensive scheme, but you might be able to disguise some sort of proprietary analytics which help you to draft more effectively. 

I could go on and on, as you all know, but since this is even more disjointed and rambling than most of my articles and I think I’ve addressed everything it’s time to stop. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of my thought processes, and whether you have or not I promise not to do it again. Unless you ask more questions I feel compelled to answer. You have been warned…

UPDATE: Peter King’s MMQB today (9.21) had a section about the 2013 draft, coincidentally, and he noted a few things which are interesting in light of my survey—first of all, the top of the class wasn’t particularly good, with a number of top-of-the-draft “busts,” and second, he apparently agrees with my assessment that the smart money is on having a lot of picks.  If you want to read it click here.

9 comments

  • Statistics really aren’t my cup of tea and I operate very much from the right side of my brain.

    The problem is I often find myself in discussions with fans of opposing teams when I do Ask A Steelers Fan articles on a somewhat regular basis and I don’t have stats to backup the superior play I can visualize. This is where you come in, Rebecca, you explain statistics in a way I can understand them. I am hoping you will consider publishing a weekly (hopefully by mid-week following a game) article of the Steelers’ players/team from a statistical perspective. Including statistics from PFF would be helpful as I don’t have a subscription but I do appreciate their results if I don’t understand their methods.

    Just a suggestion but one I believe would benefit many.

    And

    GO STEELERS! It is game day after all..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sometimes a statistic isn’t needed. A good description works… I like what Bouchette said about JJ.
      ‘X doesn’t show up on the statsheet like JJ Watt, but he’s really good at doing ABC’

      Like

    • I have been thinking about a weekly comparison. My main hesitation, besides the time involved, is I don’t really want to wander into territory better and more thoroughly covered elsewhere. I probably won’t be able to resist, though.

      It’s unlikely to be come out by mid-week, though, as PFF updates their initial “reads” later in the week, and of course don’t even have everything up until a suitable period after the Monday night game. It would probably make the most sense to do it a full week after the games in question, but that wouldn’t help you out, I fear…

      Like

  • The draft is a crapshoot only if you expect that a draft position equates to NFL performance. I see it more as finishing off your undergrad. That diploma signifies all you have done up to that point. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll excel in that field going forward.
    I think scouts and FO folks, generally, do a very good job of grading a player out based on his playing history and his measurables. After all, if a player excels under football situations in big programs, one can reasonably hope that he has room to grow at the next level. You hire a new college grad hoping he pans out..you train him, you let him do things on his own… and sometimes, he just can’t hack it.
    Truth is that the most important factor for any player is the same factor that no scouting team can truly quantify — the mental and emotional side of the game. How a player will react to the situations he will be in going forward.
    Had NFL FOs known how AB’s brain was wired, he would have been a first round pick.

    Like

    • This is a really great point, elpalito, in re “finishing off your undergrad.” And I have always contended that no one team is going to do better with every player—the trick is to get the right fit of coaching philosophy, scheme, and personalities with draft pick.

      Some guys are just obviously massively talented, and they go quickly. But I think there are probably a lot of guys out there who, like Brown, will excel on the right team, but will die on the vine on the wrong one. The “wrong one” might not be wrong for everyone, but it is for that guy.

      For instance, if Brown had gone to a team with a shaky situation at quarterback, it’s hard to see how he could have excelled in quite the same way, however much hard work he put in. Part of his success is due to the fact that he and Ben can look at each other and know what to do. You can’t develop that sort of chemistry when the quarterbacks are turning over faster than funnel cakes at the state fair.

      And the bit about “the most important factor for any player is the same factor that no scouting team can truly quantify”, combined with not knowing for sure what the fit with your team and philosophy is, is one way of saying “crapshoot,” I guess. It’s just interesting to me that despite Belichick’s ruthless winnowing system he doesn’t know exactly who will and won’t fit his team until after he drafts them, or signs them as a FA. He’s just quicker to give up on his mistakes than most people.

      Like

  • Pingback: The All-New, Official, On-Going AFC North Stats Watch | Going Deep:

  • Pingback: The Bye Week Pro Bowl: Insights ‘n At | Going Deep:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s