I have no vocal chords as I screamed them out yesterday at the game as the Cardinals beat the Eagles to win the NFC championship. Yesterday's game was one of the more unlikely events I have ever personally witnessed, and caps an incredible playoff run where a team that just 45 days ago was absolutely pathetic somehow found themselves in week 16 of the season. During the final Eagle drive (the one around 2 minutes to go, not the pathetic last play) the crowd was the loudest I have ever heard at any sporting event (the previous personal best was probably some games at the old Palestra in Philly, the home of "Big 5" basketball).
Anyway, this screen shot from weather.com seemed appropriate:
I discussed why I like the Football Outsider rankings of NFL teams and players here. Typically defenses and offenses are ranked by total yards (given up and gained, respectively). This is a really poor metric, as evidenced in part by the fact that Arizona is something like 3rd in the NFC in offense and 5th in defense by these traditional rankings. The better football outsiders team rankings are here.
A couple of observations
- Cincinnati #1 after five weeks. Wow! Both offense and defense in the top 6. I know it is early, but the Outsider's way of ranking teams tends to be more reliable than traditional statistical approaches. For example, last season after week 5 they had Philadelphia and New England ranked #1 and #2, and these two teams eventually met in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati has had a pretty easy schedule to date, which will get harder as the season continues
- San Diego is by far the best 2-3 team out there. They have had a brutal schedule, which gets better going forward. They still should be considered a good playoff bet.
- Washington is easily the worst 3-1 team out there. Expect them to start losing soon, particularly as their schedule remains tough.
- Philadelphia may continue to struggle. The rankings show that their 3-2 record is no fluke, and they have perhaps the toughest schedule left to play of any team in the NFL
- San Francisco and Houston are really, really bad. Historically bad. I had been hoping that Arizona had a chance in the Matt Leinart / Reggie Bush sweepstakes, but SF and Houston will be tough to beat.
- Chicago is working on the Baltimore Ravens award, with the #1 defense to date in the NFL and the third to last offense. Chicago has also been one of the least consistent teams (highest variance), but has one of the easiest schedules for the rest of the year, so still may have a chance if it can just to anything on offense.
- NY Giants and Indianapolis are solid #2 and #3, though you have to worry about the Giant's high special teams score pulling them up - these scores tend to regress to the mean over the season. Is there anyone who wouldn't love to see a Manning-Manning Superbowl?
Forget the UN and judge nominations and other trivial matters. This weekend is the NFL draft. Via Marginal Revolution comes this cool article about the economics of the NFL Draft.
The article is pretty long, so let me summarize the couple of things I thought were pretty interesting. The first was the relative value of draft picks. They did a lot of work quantifying the performance of players selected at different positions in the draft (i.e first pick, second pick, etc). You'll have to see the detailed study as to their methodology, but it struck me as pretty reasonable. They also looked at the cost or salary by draft pick. Combining the two got this curve:
The "surplus" line is the difference of the curves, ie performance value minus compensation cost. Since compensation costs fall faster in the late first round (the first round is 30 picks) and into the second round than does performance, the surplus value peaks in the second round. This does not mean the best players can be found in picks 25-75, but it does mean that the best values can be found there. Since the NFL works under a salary cap that equalizes total compensation, the best team should be the one that consistently picks these value players (this is different than the baseball / NY Yankees model, where there is no cap, and maximum performance presumably comes from getting the top players, irregardless of salary).
If this is correct, teams should be willing to straight-up trade a pick in the top 15 for a pick around 35. However, in reality, they can usually trade a pick in the top 15 for two or more picks in the 25-75 ranges, which should make the trade a no-brainer. Interestingly, the market for picks is actually going the other way:
The researches studied hundreds of past draft day trades of picks to generate these curves. It basically says that early picks are valued exponentially higher than even late first round picks, and this preference for very early picks has actually increased in the past few years. This curve says that a #5 pick might be worth at least 3 and possibly many more picks in the 25-75 band.
Given these two curves, if they are correct, why don't more teams trade their top picks into the 25-75 band. There are at least 3 answers to this:
- Read Moneyball. Once you read it, you will understand that sports GM's do not understand these concepts of value.
- There may be other values, other than player performance, that teams get from top picks. For example, most fans will have heard of the top ten people drafted, but will know few from the 25-75 band. The top, well-known picks generate a disproportionate amount of fan excitement and "hope" which can translate into more paying butts in seats, which this study does not take into account
- Some teams are getting it. In listening to several mock drafts lately, it is clear many teams want to trade down from the top picks this year - no one wants to pay the signing bonuses commanded at these levels. By the way team that has traded for the most picks in this band is ... Philadelphia. Who has been in the NFC championship game 4 years in a row, so maybe someone out there does get it.
Find this week's rankings here. Incredibly, Buffalo ended the year at number 5, and just a hair from #4, and are on the outside looking in at the playoffs. I think the Colts are breathing a huge sigh of relief to be facing Denver rather than the Bills in the first round - a fate which they interestingly controlled by tanking the last game of the season, despite their coaches assurances to the contrary.
For the Super Bowl, I am sticking with the Patriots in the AFC. Its tough not to pick Pittsburgh, who were impressive with even their scrubs beating a surging Buffalo team in the last week. However, I will go with experience. The NFC is a total mess. No one has ever lost much money betting against the Eagles to reach the Super Bowl, but everyone else really, really sucks. Everyone else is an 8-8 team, even the Falcons who should be 8-8 but got away with a few. I'll go with NE and Philly in the Superbowl, with the AFC winner, whoever they are, taking the title.
By the way, the Cards finished 27th in the rankings, which is actually (pathetically enough) one of their best finishes. However, don't get cocky. You can see from this post that the Cardinals are still the standard for mediocrity against which all teams are compared.
Football Outsiders has their week 16 football rankings up here. Previously, I explained why I like Football Outsiders here.
The amazing thing to me is just how bad Atlanta looks in these rankings, at number 19. In fact, much of the NFC playoff mix looks bad, with ATL, SEA, and GB sitting at 19,20,and 21. On the flip side, Buffalo and 5 and Baltimore at 7 could be the best teams to miss the playoffs. Buffalo in particular has really been playing lights out, but they still need some help this week to make the playoffs given their really bad start and the strength of the AFC.
Interestingly, Buffalo gets in if they win and the Colts beat the Broncos. The Colts are likely to play one of these teams in the first round. If I were the Colts, I would much much much rather face the Broncos in the first round than the surging Bills. Bledsoe may be a playoff question mark, but Plummer is even more so. Therefore, the Colts, despite what Dungee is saying lately, have zero incentive to win this weekend and every reason to take a dive.
Football Outsiders has their week 14 football rankings up here. Previously, I explained why I like Football Outsiders here.
The top 4 or 5 teams stay the same, though NE moves to the top, where they belong. The amount the Philly ranking depends on special teams is still a concern, but no other team in the NFC even cracks the top 10, so Philly's route to the Superbowl looks pretty greased. Note that while Rothlesberger gets the press, its the Pittsburgh defense that is doing the heavy lifting, moving to #1 in the league, ahead of even Baltimore.
The underachiever award definitely goes to KC, which is apparently doing well on a play by play basis but can't win games. Conversely, the overachieving goes to Atlanta, which falls in the middle of the rankings but is 10-3.