Thursday, January 28, 2016

Charles Johnson Vs. The World

In 1996, Chris Ofili used elephant dung in the making of his painting The Holy Virgin Mary (which recently sold for $4.6 million).  In 1985, Dr. Emmett Brown made a time machine out of a DeLorean (Did you know that Back To The Future is banned in China for depicting time travel?).  Recently, an Australian teenager plotted to set loose a kangaroo strapped with plastic explosives, as part of ISIS plot to cause mayhem (Awesome?  Well, we have mixed feelings).  Finally, at some point in the late 1990s (For some reason I can't recall the exact date), I made a bong out of Legos.

I guess what I am trying to suggest here is that people sometimes find peculiar ways to utilize the resources they have at their disposal.

In a similar manner, we often have to wonder about the way that NFL teams choose to make use of the talent on their rosters.  While I could rant for days about offensive linemen, and my continued faith in the neglected and potentially misunderstood Eric Kush, that probably isn't a subject that interests many people.  Instead, we will focus today on the wide receiver position, which has a bit more flash to it.

Despite our attempts to try to quantify a player's abilities, and predict NFL success, we always struggle with the fact that we can't guarantee that someone will get an opportunity.  We still believe that Da'Rick Rogers was a legitimate NFL talent.  The statistics that are available from his brief appearances encourage us to believe that he was a superior player to his former Tennessee teammates Cordarelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, whom we had very little faith in.  Unfortunately, NFL coaches seemed to feel that Da'Rick was a bit of an asshole, a consideration our calculations don't really account for.  Skill doesn't trump a winning personality, evidently.

We also still believe that the Jets should have taken Ryan Spadola (who?) a bit more seriously, rather than continuing to give opportunities to Stephen Hill, whom we felt was probably doomed to fail.  While betting on an undrafted white wide receiver from Lehigh might seem a bit foolish, Spadola's pre-season statistics in 2013 were quite encouraging.  At this point, however, he may never escape the depths of a practice squad.  C'est la vie.

These are things that will always be beyond our control.  Still, we wanted to take another look at one of our other long-shot receivers, who is still dancing on the edge of semi-relevance.  So, we thought we would turn our gaze back to the frustrating subject of Vikings' wide receiver Charles Johnson.


Charles Johnson Vs. Mike Wallace

There are limits to how much we want to criticize Vikings' wide receiver Mike Wallace.  After all, he was one our preferred wide receiver prospects in the 2009 NFL Draft.  While he has his strengths and weaknesses, we thought at the time that his chances of success were reasonably good.  It's true, his salary may have eventually ballooned beyond what we feel is reasonable, but that isn't really what we are here to discuss.

Instead, we are mainly interested in the complicated situation that arose when the Vikings traded for him, prior to the 2015 season.  This worried us because of the way in which his arrival seemed poised to interfere with the possible continuing emergence of our other weird prospect Charles Johnson, who was starting to show some signs of life in 2014.

The reason for this concern, was that both players have mostly appeared to thrive in the role of an intermediate-to-deep range receiver.  Wallace wasn't likely to interfere with the short range role of someone like Jarius Wright.  That's simply not a role where Wallace's strengths appear to lie.  Instead, he was most likely to cut into the playing time for Johnson, which would sort of put a crimp in our deranged plans.

What's frustrating about this, is the question of whether Wallace was really a desirable enough acquisition, at this point in his career, to deserve bumping Johnson out of the way.  How much of Wallace's desirability hinged on his past successes, and reputation for being a deep threat?  How much of this reputation was still justifiable?







While judging a receiver based on his average yards per catch (YPC) is a fairly stupid thing to do, it does appear a bit odd how his numbers have steadily declined in this area, especially after the 2011 season.  From 2012 onward, his numbers have been, at best, rather pedestrian.

We can possibly lay some of the blame for this at the feet of quarterbacks like Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Tannehill, whom he played with from 2013-2015, but that may not explain the entire situation.  Even in 2012, with Roethlisberger throwing the ball, Wallace's numbers already appeared to be slipping.  His usefulness as a deep threat may have already been eroding.




























Like I said, judging a receiver based on YPC probably isn't a great idea.  So, let's instead look at the above chart to see his annual Yards Per Pass Route Run (YPRR).  Despite my occasional criticisms of PFF, I think YPRR might be a reasonably useful statistic.  It has its flaws, but is better than some of the alternatives.  It's basically a very simple sort of measure of a receiver's efficiency on a per play basis.  A YPRR over 2, generally suggests that a player was having a rather rare and exceptional year.  A YPRR under 1, might mean that a player is really just on the fringe of being useful.

We should probably mention that we calculate YPRR slightly differently from the folks at PFF, as they throw out certain plays for mysterious unknown reasons, while we don't.  Despite that, the differences in our results are very minor.  I have some nagging issues with YPRR, but that's a subject for another day.

Nonetheless, Wallace's numbers here would suggest that his only really exceptional years might have come in 2010 and 2011.  Beyond that, he was probably playing at a level that we might associate with a team's 2nd or 3rd receiver, which still isn't a bad thing at all, as long as he is being paid in a manner that fits those expectations.  Then we come to his 2015 season with the Vikings, where his numbers really went into the toilet.

The question is, could we have predicted this outcome in 2015?  I can't really say that this is the case.  While there are issues related to the Vikings' offensive system, and the effectiveness of Teddy Bridgewater, I probably wouldn't have expected Wallace's effectiveness to plummet to this degree.  Another year or two of solid but unspectacular production from Wallace probably wasn't an unrealistic thing to bet on.  This sort of rapid decline was probably unforeseeable.

Of course, there is the other question of whether maintaining his plateau of "good, but not great" performances, was something that the Vikings should have been investing in.  By trading with the Dolphins, to acquire Wallace's services, they also had to take on his salary of $9.9 million for 2015 (which goes up to $11.5 million for 2016 and 2017).  It's been quite a while since a salary of that sort was even halfway reasonable for what Wallace delivered on the field, which brings us to the real issue that interests us.  Would the team have been better off continuing to give playing time to Charles Johnson (who had a $510 thousand salary) instead?

I think comparing the statistics for these two players, prior to the 2015 season, is kind of interesting.  While no individual stat can undeniably answer the question of "Who is the better player?", it may at least spark some debate over what factors the team was considering (or not considering), when they made their decision to trade for Wallace.

Let's start by just examining some of their results from the 2014 season, side by side.  We will include their Catch % (the percentage of plays in which they caught the pass, when targeted), Drop % (percentage of passes dropped), YPC (Yards Per Catch), YPT (Yards Per Target), YPRR (Yards Per Route Run) and Target % (percentage of passing plays they were on the field for,  where they were targeted by their quarterback).


2014               





Player   Catch%   Drop %         YPC         YPT      YPRR  Target%
M. Wallace 62.03 3.70 12.86 7.98 1.60 21.14
C. Johnson 56.36 1.81 15.35 8.65 1.65 19.09


While there are some differences between these two players, I feel they are at best relatively minor.  When it came to Drop %, YPC, YPT and YPRR, Charles Johnson had the advantage.  For Wallace, he seemed to take the lead when it came to catch rate and percentage of plays where he was targeted.  Personally, we think that the difference in individual catch rate can partially be explained by the depth at which the players caught their passes, since deeper passes tend to be lower probability plays.  That would perhaps work in Johnson's favor to some degree.  We also have to remember that 2014 was effectively Johnson's rookie season, for whatever that is worth.  Regardless, we could spin these numbers quite a bit further, but in the end, the question is fairly simple.  Do you believe there was a significant amount of evidence to separate these two players?

So, as we feared, Mike Wallace's 2015 arrival in Minnesota did appear to have a rather dramatic impact on Charles Johnson's playing time (just 94 passing snaps for Johnson, versus Wallace's 517).  Instead of potentially becoming the team's primary receiver, Johnson turned into a ghost, only being targeted by his team's quarterback in 6 games, and spending most of his time on the bench.  This extremely limited playing time makes a direct comparison of their individual numbers in 2015 a bit more unreliable.  Still, we think the statistics are worth looking at.


2015               





Player    Catch%   Drop %         YPC         YPT      YPRR  Target%
M. Wallace 57.97 5.79 12.07 7.00 0.93 13.34
C. Johnson 69.23 0.00 14.11 9.76 1.35 13.82


While we can only speculate on how more playing time would have affected Johnson's numbers, for better or for worse, these results paint a peculiar picture.  In every single category, Johnson appears to have been outperforming Wallace.  Despite that, the team rarely felt it was worth putting Johnson on the field.

None of this is meant to suggest that Johnson would have had a monstrous season if he had played more, because I don't think that is likely.  Still, considering the near parity of their individual Target % results, we could somewhat reasonably propose that Johnson quite likely would have out-produced Wallace in 2015 if given an equal opportunity.  In the end, Wallace finished the season with 40 receptions for 483 yards (when we include the post-season).  If we extrapolate from Johnson's limited 2015 data,  this might have worked out to something like 49.5 receptions for 698 yards if Johnson had been given a similar opportunity, and his other numbers had remained steady.  Of course, this is all a bit speculative.

That would work out to a possible 23.7% improvement in receptions, and a 44.5% improvement in receiving yards, over Wallace's 2015 results.  It would have also put Johnson's productivity into a range that we consider to be slightly above average, relative to most NFL wide receivers, which is all that we are really hoping to find.

Or, perhaps you think Johnson's results from his limited 2015 snaps wouldn't have remained fixed at their current position.  I would actually agree with you on this. Because of the limited sample size of Johnson's snaps this year (again, just 94 passing snaps for Johnson, versus Wallace's 517), it's very hard to say how steady his results would have remained in a larger role.  Personally, I suspect Johnson's 2015 catch rate would have dropped a bit, if he had been a bigger focus of his team's offense.  On the other hand, I think the rate at which Johnson was targeted probably would have risen slightly, if he was serving as his team's primary or secondary receiver, rather than their fourth or fifth option.  If we just averaged out Johnson's 2014 and 2015 results, we might see him with a catch rate of 62.79%, a target percentage of 16.46%, and a YPC of 14.73 yards.  By receiving Wallace's 517 snaps on passing plays (including the post-season), this would result in Johnson possibly generating 53.4 receptions (a 33.4% improvement over Wallace's results) for a total of 787 yards (a 62.9% improvement over Wallace).  Again, this is just speculation, but I don't think these projections are terribly unreasonable.

Or, maybe we are completely nuts.  Perhaps Charles Johnson would have performed as poorly as Mike Wallace.  I certainly can't see any reason to suspect that Johnson would have done any worse than Wallace, but we're open to this possibility.  Johnson still would have had the advantage of costing about 1/19th of Wallace's 2015 salary, as well as retaining the 5th round draft pick that was traded to the Dolphins to acquire Wallace.

I guess what I'm wondering here is, why wasn't Johnson at least worked into the rotation a bit more, considering how poorly Wallace was performing?  It's seems doubtful that he could have done any worse, and most of the numbers would suggest that he might have performed better than Wallace, and at a much lower price.


Charles Johnson Vs. Stefon Diggs

We have no ax to grind when it comes to Stefon Diggs, but we probably have to throw him into this discussion as well.  While Diggs didn't make the cut, when we were putting together our list of 2015 Draft prospects whom we felt had a good chance of becoming successes in the NFL, we're always open to the possibility of someone slipping through the cracks and exceeding our expectations.  These things happen, from time to time.

While we felt that Diggs had too many risks associated with him to merit a draft pick, we can't deny that he did appear to become a productive player.  He also managed to generate a fair bit of hype.  So, we thought we should take a closer look at his 2015 results, in the same categories we just examined for Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson.


2015               





Player    Catch%   Drop %         YPC         YPT      YPRR  Target%
S. Diggs. 67.46 2.4 13.32 8.98 1.65 18.44


Now, just for the sake of argument, go back and compare Diggs' 2015 results to Charles Johnson's 2014 results.  That way we are looking at two players, both of whom are effectively playing as rookies, and who both received a respectable amount of playing time.  In the end, I think it is kind of funny how eerily similar their results actually are, with the only notable difference being their catch rate.  Despite that, there seems to be a different set of expectations that some people hold about their individual futures.

Let's take things a bit further though.  While people seem rather optimistic about Stefon Diggs' future, there are some weird issues with his 2015 results which I think are worth commenting on.  In Diggs' first four NFL games, he had 25 receptions for 419 yards, which averages out to a ridiculous 104.75 yards per game.  In his next 10 games, he produced 31 receptions for 327 yards, or 32.7 yards per game.  There is obviously a rather huge difference in these results, so let's look at his results from these two periods of the 2015 season.



   Catch%   Drop %         YPC         YPT      YPRR  Target%
1st 4 games 69.44 2.77 16.76 11.63 3.05 26.27
last 10 games 65.95 2.12 10.54 6.95 1.04 15.01


While some might argue that Diggs' numbers dropped simply because he was being targeted less frequently in those final 10 games, which is true, I don't think that necessarily explains what is happening here.  After all, it is hard to explain this drop in the rate at which he was targeted, unless some other Vikings' receiver was suddenly becoming a more appealing option, or if opponents started to account for Diggs and shut him down.  The other concern for me is the question of why his YPC (a 37.2% drop) and YPT (a 40.3% drop) have plummeted to such a ridiculous degree.

So, what are we supposed to believe that the future holds for Stefon Diggs?  Do we bet on him returning to the shockingly good 3.05 YPRR we saw in his first four games?  Or, do we bet on the larger sample size of his final ten games, and the rather disappointing 1.04 YPRR he displayed there?  The funny thing about this is that many people seem willing to criticize Mike Wallace (deservedly so) for having a disappointing season, while ignoring the fact that for over 70% of the season Diggs' results really weren't significantly better.  Despite these concerns, we wouldn't argue with the Vikings using Diggs as a starting wide receiver.  After all, it's entirely possible that he was one of the team's better options. 

While I have no real stake in how any of this plays out, I'd have to stick to our initial hunch regarding Diggs.  His numbers in college made us quite wary of him, and so far the bulk of his playing time hasn't persuaded us to change our mind about how things will turn out in the long run.  Those results from his final 10 games are probably closer to what we would have expected of him.  We'll have to wait and see what happens next year.


I guess I've been rambling a bit...

Maybe this all seems a bit pointless.

Perhaps it is a bit odd that we would be focused on such a player, whom we admittedly don't feel was likely to enter into the discussion of the league's most productive receivers.  Then again, we have some doubts that anybody was likely to do so, playing in the Vikings offense.  The team's stubborn focus on giving Adrian Peterson the ball, as well as some possible issues with Bridgewater's development, probably aren't ideal factors for a record setting season by a receiver.

While we have admittedly had some hopes in the past that Charles Johnson could emerge as the next late-round or undrafted receiver to earn comparisons to Victor Cruz, Marques Colston, Wes Welker or Rod Smith, it's entirely possible that this will never happen.  Maybe Johnson will just become a good, somewhat above average receiver, which would still be an excellent outcome for a former 7th round draft pick.  Maybe he won't.  Who really knows?

All we can really say is that whatever potential he might possess won't be discovered by having him sit on the bench, while the players ahead of him continue to under-perform.  The possibility that prime years in a potentially talented player's career might be getting squandered somewhat irritates us.  There's really only a small window where these players are likely to shine, after all.

It would be nice to think that all the talented players eventually rise up to gain the attention of their coaches, but we have our doubts about this.  For every Cameron Wake, who goes undrafted and gets bounced to the CFL, only to return to terrorize the NFL, there are probably numerous other players who never get their shot.  The mistakes made in the NFL Draft have far reaching consequences, and those initial impressions that teams form about a player seem difficult to shake.

Think about this for a second.  Wouldn't we all agree that former top 10 draft selection, Matt Leinart, was a rather significant failure?  Yet, we often seem to forget that Leinart still spent 7 seasons in the NFL.  That means that for seven years, somebody was getting bumped off of a team's roster to make room for Leinart.  While the player's getting cut to make room for Leinart likely wouldn't have gone on to stardom, it was still a potential missed opportunity to explore other options.  It was one less chance, or 7,  to look under some rock looking for talent.  The only explanation for these decisions seems to have been "Well, Leinart was a former 1st round pick".  He certainly didn't seem to possess any other real qualifications.  This is why I sometimes hate the NFL Draft, even while I still obsess over it each year.  Draft status simply matters more than it should.

At this point though, my hopes are rapidly diminishing as to whether we'll ever discover the truth about Charles Johnson.  For now, I'll probably just go back to playing with my Legos, or working on my plans for militarized kangaroos.  It might be a more productive use of my time.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Path of Dalton: Road House Economics

It's quite likely that you have made a horrible mess out of your life.  It happens to most people, so you shouldn't feel too bad.  Maybe you became a doctor, a lawyer, or pursued some other dead-end low wage career that has left you feeling hollow inside.  You are probably wondering where it all went wrong, and the answer undoubtedly lies in having poor role models.

There's really very little I can do to offer you hope.  At this point, most of you are probably too far gone, but there is still a chance to save your children.  Hope still exists for them, which I have discovered through a deep and insightful examination of our society's greatest artistic achievements.  The subtle clues of how to live a meaningful and profitable life have been provided to us all, if only we had paid attention.

Let's just take a moment to consider the 1989 Academy Award winning film Road House.  Beyond it's obvious guidance in the fields of hair spray application and how to rip out another man's throat, there might be some very sound financial advice, just lurking beneath the surface.  This advice might not be applicable to everyone, but if you yearn to breathe free, and live the unfettered life of a rambling, roaming, well-coiffed barroom bouncer, it presents some very exciting possibilities.

Now, you may be thinking that you don't have what it takes for such a lifestyle.  Like most modern "men", you probably have an endless stream of excuses for why you haven't reached the peak masculinity exhibited by this film's main character Dalton.  Let's just give that cowardly attitude a moment of thought.  Do you really believe that you are less deserving of the good things in life than an NYU philosophy student?  Well, that's exactly how Dalton spent his college years, and we all know that philosophy majors are a step below McDonald's fry cooks on the socioeconomic ladder.  Yet Dalton is seen tooling around town in a 1987 Mercedes 560 SEC.  In 1989 that would have been a two year old  car costing $76,380 (or $159,575 in 2015 inflation adjusted dollars).  Not too shabby.  How many philosophy majors do you know who have that kind of cash lying around?

Unfortunately, Dalton wasn't very forthcoming on how he had managed to pull this off.  Even when his doctor (dramatically re-enacted by Kelly Lynch), asked whether he had "Come up with any answers" from his philosophical studies, Dalton played coy.  Whether it was modesty, or a reticence to reveal the golden path to financial success, Dalton wasn't going to confess how he had not only avoided life as a barista, but had managed to thrive.  The one thing he didn't take into account, was that his every action was being recorded, and repeatedly viewed by a sleuthing internet blogger.

DALTON"S SECRETS CAN NOW BE REVEALED!

At the beginning of this fine documentary film, we see the owner of the 'Double Deuce' road house, trying to lure Dalton to come work at his bar.  The incentives Dalton was presented with were as follows:

$5,000 in upfront cash (which we will view as a signing bonus)
$500 per night that he works.
All of Dalton's medical expenses will be covered.

Okay, let's ignore the $5,000 bonus (or $9,570 in inflation adjusted dollars), and the health care coverage.  That's chicken feed.  If Dalton worked just 5 nights a week, 52 weeks a year, that works out to $130,000 per year.  That's in 1989 dollars.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be a yearly salary of $248,820.  Even if the government was hitting Dalton with a 40% tax rate, with some sound investments he could almost certainly retire fairly comfortably by the age of 40 (assuming he started his throat ripping career when he was just out of college).  That strikes me as a fairly attainable life span for a bouncer.

Based on what we know of Dalton, and his free spirited and drifting ways, his finances could really go quite a bit further.  From what we are shown, he has no known family.  Wandering from road house to road house, he only seems to be in town long enough to impregnate the local barmaids before moving on, making child support a non-issue.  Hell, I might be able to argue that he could retire by 35, if the courts can't manage to track him down, which is easily within the time frame that I think his body could still sustain the occasional beatings.

The only real question is how poorly Dalton actually handled his cash, which admittedly is something that brings us back to his purchase of the Mercedes.  I'm kind of torn on this subject, because I am a strong believer in Nazi engineered vehicles, and the possibility that Dalton could have reasonably maintained that car for the next 30 years.  Those cars were built like tanks.  Regardless of my biases, we have no other evidence of frivolous spending, but we do know that he took residence in a barn, which he rented for just $100 per month.  So, his annual rental costs could have been a mere 0.92% of his annual income.  That's rather impressive.

I would also argue that Dalton's pay, upon arriving at the 'Double Deuce', was partly due to his reputation for being able to rip a man's throat out with his bare hands.  Like many legends, there were surely people who doubted the truth of this...umm...skill.  By the time his employment at the 'Double Deuce' had come to an end, Dalton had demonstrated yet another throat ripping, that I suspect would have created further tales which would have circulated among the local populace.  Since criminal charges didn't seem to follow this assault, I have to assume that this would only legitimize the folklore that followed Dalton, and potentially increased the demands for his services, as well as the salary he could demand.  This isn't meant to be viewed as an acceptance of these practices, but merely an acknowledgment of the apparent employment qualifications that are valued in the world of hill-billy road houses.   I'm not sure where salaries top out for bouncers, but I also never would have suspected that a bouncer could earn $130,000 per year.  So, where do we draw the line?  5 verified throat rippings, and a salary of $500,000?  It's very difficult to speculate.

The more thoughtful readers of this blog may have leapt to a rather insightful conclusion, without my assistance.  We have all undoubtedly heard of bartending schools, and while they have their place, I doubt any of us have seen anyone become rich from pursuing this path.  But where are the bouncing schools?  I've certainly never seen one.  The only conclusion I can reach is that the rewards of a successful life for a bouncer are so great, that the path to this life has become rather secretive.  It's sort of like that island in the Caribbean where topless super-models go to engage in dwarf tossing.  You don't hear about it, because you're not traveling in the right social circles.  The one percenters have no interest in letting the plebs in on their fun.  Still, we have to assume that some sort of bouncing school exists, or that there is an apprenticeship program in place.(as exhibited by Dalton's mentor Wade Garret, whose real life is portrayed by Sam Elluitt).

All I can really say is that you should probably stop saving for your children's college fund.  Maybe put them in some Krav Maga classes, and encourage them to start picking fights at a young age.  Save a few bucks, but still manage to reap the rewards further down the road.  It seems like a winning plan to me.

Or, I might be a little drunk.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Flacco: Making It Rain Corrections

In our most recent post, we were looking at the potential ways that a contract renegotiation with Joe Flacco could play out.  We presented 3 different scenarios, which had outcomes that covered Flacco taking a reduced salary to stay with the Ravens, and two possibilities under which it would appear to be favorable for Flacco to force his way off of the team, in order to sign a contract with someone else.  Unfortunately, we had a massive brain-fart when we were doing some of the math that compared the money that Flacco would pocket under these different scenarios.

When comparing the "new money" Flacco would receive in Scenario 2 to Scenario 1, and then comparing the same funds in Scenario 3 to Scenario 1, we repeatedly made the same mistake.  We idiotically forgot that the bonus money would be in Flacco's pocket from day one of signing any of these new contracts.  In the initial posting, we were just summing his cumulative annual salary, over a 2 year span, a 3 year span and a 4 years span, without remembering that this bonus money would be his from the very beginning.  This was very stupid of us.

None of this changes the proposed contracts we were discussing, it simply alters the sections of that post which related to year to year comparisons of how much Joe will receive in these different situations.  The numbers have now been corrected, and currently point even more strongly than before to Scenario 3 being the most advantageous route for Flacco and his agent to take.  Over a 2 year span, Scenario 3 gives Flacco 49.7% more cash.  Over a 3 year span, Scenario 3 gives him 33.3% more cash.  Even in year 4, which Flacco possibly wouldn't reach in the Scenario 1 contract that has him staying with the Ravens, Flacco would be receiving 15.5% more cash by going with Scenario 3. 

We apologize for being morons, but we were on a bit of a caffeine high when we wrote that post.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Flacco: Making It Rain

For anyone who has followed the history of the Baltimore Ravens, it is difficult to not have some appreciation for the contributions of Joe Flacco.  Whatever your opinions of him may be, it is hard to deny that prior to his arrival the quarterbacking in Baltimore could best be described as pathetic.

While local fans probably are a bit too biased towards defending him, and outsiders might underrate him, Reilly and I both agreed that it was important to try to resign him back in 2013.  Of course, Reilly and I also tend to be a bit cheap, but we figured retaining Flacco was still a manageable task.  Well, at least until the Ravens won the Super Bowl, and our initial reaction was something along the lines of "Shit!  They're probably going to pay this idiot $20 million per year now."

Yup, it is fair to say that the contract Flacco received scared the hell out of us.  Unfortunately, many of the locals only looked at his cap hit in the first 3 years of the contract, and downplayed the significance of what was looming in the future.  These optimists are the sort of people who you want to have buying you Christmas gifts on their credit card, or perhaps the market targeted for adjustable rate mortgages.  .

Admittedly, our views on a quarterback's worth probably don't align with those of many other people.  Based on comparing Flacco to his peers (those who aren't operating under the terms of a rookie contract), we think it is obvious that this current contract significantly overpaid him.  When looking at passer rating, touchdown to interception ratios or A/NYA, the best estimate of Flacco's value that we could arrive at was a contract which offered $15.5 million per year.  In some categories, our estimates were even lower.  Regardless, the market has spoken, and our worthless opinions on this subject don't really matter anymore.

This doesn't mean we don't like Flacco.  We do.  He's a perfectly respectable quarterback, and far from the only player we feel is being paid too much.  It just means we would have drawn a different line as to how far we were willing to go to retain him.  Some will say that it is unfair to judge Flacco based purely on his statistical performance, and pin some of the blame for his typically middling output on the talent that surrounds him, or perhaps on his coaches.  That is fine, and possibly even true.  All we are saying is that paying Ferrari money, for a quarterback that you drive like a Honda, is kind of a difficult position to defend.

The likelihood that his current contract is at least somewhat hindering the team from achieving success on the field, seems to be reasonably  likely.  As one individual consumes an ever increasing percentage of the team's cap space, it also becomes more imperative than ever that the team compensate through improved drafting.  We've mentioned before how we think this is also an area where the Ravens have actually been in decline over the past several years.  Combining these salary issues, along with a reduced ability to find cheap young talent, probably explains a fair bit about what has gone wrong with the Ravens 2016 season.

That the Flacco contract was also significantly back-loaded, and gave Joe a ton of leverage on future (current) negotiations was largely overlooked in the past.  Now, the general consensus seems to be that the Ravens will be forced to renegotiate this contract, prior to the start of the 2016 season, in order to free up cap space, and we have some serious doubts/concerns about how this will proceed.


Like the backseat of a Volkswagen?

It is pretty much impossible to accurately guess what a renegotiated contract with Flacco will really look like.  The numbers can be moved around in an almost endless number of ways.  Still, we thought it might be fun to look at some of the complications that could arise in this situation.  We thought we would start by simply laying out the terms of the contract, for the 3 years that still remain on it.


        Year      Base Salary     Guaranteed       Cap Hit   Dead Money          Age
2016 $18 $10.55 $28.55 $25.85 31
2017 $20.60 $10.55 $31.15 $15.30 32
2018 $20 $4.75 $24.75 $4.75 33

*If it isn't perfectly obvious, all these numbers are in millions of dollars.

While there is a significant amount of remaining guaranteed money ($25.85 million in total) that is already prorated over these remaining 3 years, that is really only relevant to the Ravens, and the people who manage the team's cap.  From Flacco's perspective, this money is already in his pocket, and like most NFL players has probably been squandered on strippers, cocaine and the upkeep of illegitimate children.  Granted, I am partially basing this assumption solely on what would happen if I was handed several millions of dollars, while still in my twenties.  Now, regardless of what some people may think, Flacco has little reason to let this past guaranteed money factor into his thoughts on future negotiations.  He/I/We have future baby-mamas we want to support, and that is all about future earnings.

The only thing that Flacco should be concerned with is preserving as much of the future base salary payments, that this contract originally "promised" to him.  While the Ravens have obvious motivations to lower Joe's cap hit, especially in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the only theoretical leverage they have is the threat of cutting Joe, or perhaps begging.  For the most part, this threat of being cut is completely preposterous, and it will be interesting to see how seriously Flacco and his agent view any of this.

For 2016, with a dead money hit of $25.85 million, the leverage is obviously tilted in Flacco's favor.  That means he has every reason to expect to retain the $18 million base salary from that year, at least in some renegotiated form.  There is almost no real savings for the team if they cut Flacco, and even if they did, they would still need to find a replacement for him.  Again, I will say that begging for mercy is the Ravens' best option here.

For 2017, things become slightly more interesting.  The balance between Flacco's cap hit of $31.15 million, versus the dead money hit of $15.3 million is a curious situation.  Sure, the Ravens would save $15.85 million by cutting Joe at this point, but they would again need to address the quarterback position, which is something they have historically been dreadful at.  Who really holds the leverage in this year might be a bit debatable, though we suspect that Flacco would win this game of chicken.  We'd probably continue to bet on Joe retaining his claim on the $20.6 million in base salary from this year, at least in a renegotiated form.

For 2018, Flacco pretty much loses all the leverage he might have formerly possessed, as cutting him with a $4.75 million dead money hit would be laughably easy for the team to absorb.  So, we're going to assume that Flacco has no real expectation of retaining the $20 million in base salary for this year, and it won't really factor into any of the negotiations.

Okey-dokey, it's time to start fiddling with the numbers.  First, we'll throw out the suggestion that Flacco will reduce his 2016 base salary by $15 million.  We will then propose that he reduce his 2017 base salary by $16.6 million.  Since we think Flacco has enough leverage to expect to have earned this money, these won't be real reductions in pay, but the money will be converted into guaranteed money, which will be prorated over the length of his contract.  That would total $31.6 million in new guaranteed money.  Yes, it already sounds insane.

We're going to ignore the possibility of putting this money into future "option bonuses", since we don't think they would necessarily do either side any favors in this negotiation.  Flacco, in particular, would probably be the party most likely to get screwed over by such bonuses, and we see no compelling reason for him to accept that form of payment, at least with the leverage he currently possesses.

Since his current contract only has 3 years remaining on it, prorating this $31.6 million is a bit of a problem, as that would work out to $10.53 million in guaranteed money per year.  That means the team would want to add some more years to Flacco's contract, to allow them to account for this money over a longer period of time (though it would actually go into Flacco's pocket the day he signed his new contract).  The number of years to be added to Flacco's contract is unknowable, but since guaranteed money can only be distributed over a maximum of 5 years, we'll pretend that they will only try to add 2 years to the new contract.

That brings up another complication.  By adding to the number of years that Flacco would be obligated to serve the Ravens, he would probably expect an additional signing bonus, which adds even more guaranteed money to this new contract.  Based on what we are seeing with his peers, who have performed to a similar level, we're going to guess that this would come out to a signing bonus of about $4 million per year that is added to Flacco's original contract, or $8 million in total.  While we find this situation a bit ridiculous, there are actually a number of reasons why we think this could still be a very low estimate, but we'll explain those reasons a bit further on.

Okay, so we now have some sort of basic theory about Flacco agreeing to a 2 year extension, which will take him through the 2020 season, at which point he would be 35 years old.  We also have an estimate of $39.6 million dollars in guaranteed money ($31.6 million from redistributed base salary he was likely to earn, and $8 million in signing bonuses for the extension).  This works out to $7.92 million in new guaranteed money per year, over the course of this 5 year contract.  That makes determining Flacco's numbers for 2016 and 2017 fairly straightforward.  From 2018 onward, we'll just insert a base salary that maintains a fairly steady rate of pay, with some consideration given to Flaaco's average annual "new money" payments.  Here's what it looks like so far.

Scenario 1
      Year      Base Salary         Old Guar.    New Guar.        Cap Hit   Dead Money       Age
2016 $3 $10.55 $7.92 $21.47 $65.45 31
2017 $4 $10.55 $7.92 $22.47 $46.98 32
2018 $11 $4.75 $7.92 $23.67 $28.51 33
2019 $15
$7.92 $22.92 $15.84 34
2020 $15
$7.92 $22.92 $7.92 35

*Once again, all these numbers are in millions of dollars.

Now, this is all just bullshit speculation on our part, and we will happily admit that predicting how Flacco's contract will be renegotiated is a bit of a fool's errand.  There are many ways in which the numbers can be moved around, and depending on your proximity to Baltimore, you might find these numbers ridiculous for different reasons.  To some, the concept of Flacco carrying an average annual cap hit of $22.69 million will seem outrageous.  To others, proposing that Flacco will be given $39.6 million in guaranteed money will be the sticking point.  Your perception/tolerance of these figures will invariably be affected by whether you were born with one of Ozzie Newsome's mind control implants.

From the Ravens' perspective, this proposal would give them some significant cap relief.  In 2016, it would save them $7.08 million in cap space.  In 2017, it would save them $8.68 million in cap space.  From that point onward, Flacco's numbers would remain fairly stable (if still outrageous), and not present the likelihood of giving Joe such a ridiculous amount of leverage in the future.  In theory, the Ravens could escape this contract just prior to the 2019 season, albeit with some minor discomfort.

The real problem, from our perspective, is that this might be an overly optimistic best case scenario. We think Flacco could actually push for significantly more money, if he chose to do so.  The leverage he possesses over the Ravens shouldn't be underestimated.


Suitor Number 2

Let's explore how things could all go terribly wrong for the Ravens.

Many fans seem to support the idea that Flacco will reduce his base salary to a lower level in order to "take one for the team", or some other sort of deranged nonsense.  The idea here is that by reducing his demands, the team will have more money to spend on other players, allowing Joe to perform better, and making his remaining years more enjoyable.  We recall hearing that unicorns and rainbows are somehow involved in all of this, but we can't swear to that.

What people seem to be forgetting is that this is the same guy who supposedly turned down a deal, prior to his Super Bowl wining season, that would have offered him $16 million per year, in order to bet on himself.  Joe clearly won that bet, and we wouldn't put it past him or Joe Linta (his agent), to do so again.

Despite the generally accepted idea that Flacco's contract will be renegotiated this off-season, we really don't think he has much incentive to do so.  The Ravens have almost nothing they can threaten him with, and he could easily tell them to piss off, with no real consequences.  Now, prior to the 2017 season, he might be more amenable to discussing his contract, but even then, he still retains a great deal of power in these negotiations.  Leverage, not team spirit/loyalty, should be what determines the outcome of this situation.

So, let's pretend that the Ravens open negotiations with Joe prior to 2016.  Let's also pretend that the Ravens are in full kamikaze mode, and refuse to accept that Joe has all the leverage, and actually do decide to cut him.  This is extremely unlikely, but let's roll with this lunacy.

This allows us to speculate on what Flacco could draw as a free agent, which is an additional source of leverage he has over the Ravens.  For this imaginary scenario, we will propose that another team would be willing to offer the 31 year old Flacco a 5 year contract worth $80 million in total.  We'll also speculate that the guaranteed portion of this contract would be $44.8 million, since this would be 56% of the total contract, and relatively in line with the percentages we see being given to quarterbacks who are similar to Flacco.  We'll also pretend that the distribution of funds is perfectly flat over the course of these 5 years.  This is what such a contract might look like.


Scenario 2
       Year      Base Salary     Guaranteed       Cap Hit   Dead Money          Age
2016 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $44.8 31
2017 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $35.84 32
2018 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $26.88 33
2019 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $17.92 34
2020 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $8.96 35


Whatever your opinions are of Flacco's abilities as a quarterback, it would be hard to imagine that this wouldn't be a tempting contract to a number of teams.  This imaginary team would be acquiring Flacco for a lower price than what is currently being paid to the likes of piddly old Alex Smith.

It would also present Flacco with some very interesting incentives to depart Baltimore, or at least use the option of departing as leverage.  Despite appearing to be a smaller contract than the previous one we put up in Scenario 1, because of the lower annual cap hits, this actually pays Flacco more actual money.  Let's compare what Joe would be pocketing in "future earnings" with these two different situations.



     Scenario 2
  Scenario 1

              Total         Avg.
           Total         Avg.
2 yr Income $58.8 $29.4
$46.6 $23.3
3 yr Income $65.9 $21.9
$57.6 $19.2
4 yr Income $72.9 $18.2
$72.6 $18.1


In the first 2 years of these contracts, Scenario 2 (which has Joe leave Baltimore for a new team) would give Flacco $12.2 million in additional earnings, compared to what he would receive in Scenario 1.  In the First 3 years, Scenario 2 would give Flacco $8.3 million in additional earnings over the contract in Scenario 1.  It isn't until we get 4 years into these two contracts that the gap really closes, with just a margin of $100,000 to separate them.

Unfortunately, things are still significantly more complicated than that.  While Scenario 1 seems to close the gap after 4 years, this is unlikely to be the case in reality.  In Scenario 1 (where he stays with the Ravens), Flacco's cap hit of $22.92 million, versus his dead money hit of $15.84 million, gives the Raven's some incentive to force Flacco into another renegotiation.  The Ravens would have some leverage here, since they could save $7.08 million by cutting Flacco prior to his 2019 season.

Scenario 2 doesn't present such problems for Flacco.  He would almost certainly receive every penny promised to him through the first four years of this contract, as it would actually cost this new team $1.92 million more to cut him than keep him at this point in time.

Compared to the contract in Scenario 1, Joe actually maintains more leverage in this contract over a longer period of time.  He additionally makes more money per year, and would theoretically be on a team with more cap space, allowing him to be surrounded by more high priced free agents than the Ravens would be able to provide. 

Ah, but this becomes even more complicated.  As we said before, we think it would be borderline suicidal for the Ravens to cut Flacco prior to the 2016 season, even if Flacco refused to renegotiate.  In 2017, however, there is a slightly increased (but still unlikely) possibility that releasing him would be doable.  If Flacco forced his way off the Ravens' roster in 2017 by still refusing to renegotiate, he could pocket the 2016 $18 million in base salary from his current contract, and then pursue the very same free agent contract we proposed in Scenario 2.  Suddenly his overall earnings would gain an additional boost, making departing the Ravens an even more appealing option.

Scenario 3
       Year      Base Salary     Guaranteed        Cap Hit   Dead Money          Age
2016 *$18 *$10.55 *$28.55 *$25.85 31
2017 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $44.8 32
2018 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $35.84 33
2019 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $26.88 34
2020 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $17.92 35
2021 $7.04 $8.96 $16 $8.96 36


*Just remember, in Scenario 3, the 2016 base salary is still being paid by the Ravens, rather than Flacco's "new team".


Let's also again compare how Flacco's earnings compare under these two scenarios, with the "free agent" Scenario 3 receiving the benefit of this additional $18 million from 2016.




     Scenario 3
  Scenario 1

              Total         Avg.
           Total         Avg.
2 yr Income $69.8 $34.9
$46.6 $23.3
3 yr Income $76.8 $26.6
$57.6 $19.2
4 yr Income $83.9 $20.9
$72.6 $18.1
5 yr Income $98 $18.1




Now, departing the Ravens after 2016, rather than prior to it, Scenario 3 becomes an even more appealing option.  In the first 2 years of Scenario 3, Flacco would receive $23.2 million more than he would by staying with the Ravens' Scenario 1 offer.  Over the first 3 years, Scenario 3 would pay Flacco $19.2 million more than Scenario 1.   Over the first 4 years, Scenario 3 would pay Flacco $11.3 million more than Scenario 1, but then we get back to the question of how likely Flacco is to actually reach year 4 in Scenario 1, without being forced to renegotiate.  Under these terms, Flacco would also almost certainly reach year 5 of Scenario 3, which is incredibly unlikely in Scenario 1.

So, Scenario 3 seems like the best option for Flacco. It nets him more guaranteed money, and more leverage, over a greater period of time.  It also puts him on a team that has more cap space, or at least one less burdened by their quarterback's annual cap hit.  This also probably gives Joe a better chance of actually winning games in the future, which probably has some modest value to a professional athlete.

We also shouldn't forget that we are only proposing a fictional free agent contract that pays a mere $16 million per year, to illustrate how cheap it could be for a rival to lure Joe away from the Ravens.  It seems quite likely that another team (perhaps the Texans, Browns or Rams) would be willing to pay more per year than the humble amount we are currently suggesting.  If that is so, it only further strengthens Flacco's motivations to not renegotiate, and to try to get out of Baltimore.  Or, at the very least, it allows Flacco apply significant additional pressure to the Ravens, even beyond his looming cap hit numbers.

Regardless of how you may view all of this, you have to admit one thing.  Whatever Flacco's actual value is, if the Ravens are possibly going to be willing to spend around $22.69 million per year to retain him, it seems reasonable to suggest that some other quarterback needy team would be willing to pay 70.5% of that price, which is what our proposed $16 million per year contract works out to.  If someone else is willing to pay that much, the Ravens should in theory lose this negotiation, as well as their quarterback.  Or, possibly, the Ravens will end up paying a price that nobody else in the league feels it is worth paying for Flacco's services.

Either possibility could be a bit depressing.


The Ravens only have themselves to blame. 

Of course, all of this is just spit-balling.  We really have no idea how this will all work out.  Maybe Joe will take a more significant reduction in salary than we think he should.  Reilly and I certainly have no stake in how any of this unfolds.  Joe isn't going to give us a 10% cut of his new contract, and the Ravens definitely don't take our calls.  All we're saying is that we would try to force Joe Flacco out of Baltimore, if we were his agent.  We're cruel and heartless bastards.  The benefits of leaving seem to outweigh the benefits of sticking around, and we see no reason to believe that Flacco should make his decision based on sentiment or generosity (which is all a bunch of hippie drivel).

If Joe chose to take this path, we certainly couldn't judge him harshly for it, or call him greedy.  It would merely be the result of a poorly structured contract, which gave the player way too much leverage, which is entirely the fault of team management.  Some will say that the Ravens were "forced" to resign Flacco, after the team won the Super Bowl in 2012.  We would just say that any decision you feel "forced" to make has a much higher likelihood of being a bad one.

We'll find out soon enough just how bad their next decision will be.


Monday, October 5, 2015

PFFt...

In general, Reilly and I don't have any great expectation that the subjects which interest us will be seen as particularly fascinating to other people.  For this reason, we tend to be cautious about what topics we bring up, even if it frustrates us a bit.  No, we probably shouldn't discus our collection of ear wax.  Likewise, our fears about the Nazis who live on the dark side of the moon, is something we tend to keep to ourselves.  We could also discuss our belief that slugs are at the top of the food chain (go ahead, name one person who has survived a slug attack), but we don't mention this very often.  Sometimes, we just suspect that the issues we want to explore might cross certain lines, and we'd prefer to avoid stirring up a kerfuffle.  Today, perhaps foolishly, we decided to pursue one of those unfortunate subjects that draws our interest.

The topic we want to examine this time is PFF (Pro Football Focus).  Now, to be perfectly clear, we generally like PFF (sort of), and appreciate the statistical data they provide to the football geeks of the world.  Being critical of what they do makes us feel a bit uncomfortable, particularly since they are a well established site ($$$), while we rely on the prognostications of a dog (-$$$).  Even if we don't always agree with PFF, at least they're trying to apply clearly stated and measurable standards to their analysis of football, and this matters to us.  Geek on geek crime is not something we want to engage in, particularly since analysis of the NFL still hasn't really emerged as something that the football world has strongly embraced yet.  Still, despite some wariness, there are some concerns we have with PFF, that we felt we should discuss.

For those amongst you who aren't familiar with PFF, they run a site that accumulates data from NFL games, and attempt to analyze what all this raw information supposedly means.  It is an attempt to give us a better understanding of the game, something we feel is rather important, or at least interesting.  Reilly and I frequently agree with their assessments of particular players, and often make references to them.  Admittedly, we are more likely to quote PFF when they agree with us, and ignore them when they don't.  That's just the sort of unreliable assholes we are.  Regardless, the information they compile is greatly appreciated by many of the NFL numbers geeks of the world, as it is a challenging task to assemble such quantities of data, and is beyond the means of individuals such as ourselves.

Where we sometimes run into problems with PFF, is in their analysis of these mountains of data.  Different positions require different sorts of examinations, since productivity for a defensive lineman is obviously different than it would be for a wide receiver.  So, based on these different sets of criteria, PFF assigns "grades" in the areas they feel are relevant to the position in question.  The grades themselves are fairly meaningless on their own, and merely a tool for directly comparing players within a given position group.  These numerical grades, either positive or negative, are also highlighted in either green (good!), or red (FIRE BAD!), to give the casual observer a sense as to whether a particular player is performing at an above average level (or not).  This leads to an incredibly simple way of appraising players, though we suspect it is probably a bit too simple...and frequently a bit idiotic.

These grades, and this sort of analysis, is extremely results oriented.  Getting a sack, is better than not getting a sack.  Catching the ball, is better than not catching the ball.  This is all fairly obvious.  While Reilly and I certainly don't want to downplay the importance of actual results, sometimes things get lost in these sorts of examinations.  Sometimes the results fail to convey why a player was able to perform well.  Sometimes we miss out on the context, which might better explain what is really happening. 

I suppose our primary question/criticism is very simple, though its validity depends on what you believe should be the main goal of people who analyze the NFL.  Do we want to know who produced the best numbers?  Or, do we want to know who the best player is, even if their environment isn't exactly helping them out?  PFF might be able to answer the first question, at least to some degree.  The second question is vastly more complicated, and is the topic we want to take a look at today.


Flip a coin: Mediocrity or Star

Let's consider the subject of offensive lineman.  We ramble a lot about offensive linemen around here, and I think that our fascination stems from how boring a subject this probably is to most people.  Plus, fat guys in tight outfits are kind of funny.

When examining the performance of offensive lineman, PFF's criteria is fairly simple and easy to understand.  The method for grading these players comes mainly from two separate areas, their run blocking grade and their pass blocking grade.  For now, to keep things simple, we're just going to discuss how the pass blocking grade works...or doesn't.

Essentially, PFF simply tallies up the number of total pass attempts that a lineman was on the field for, and calculates what percentage of the time this lineman managed to keep their quarterback from being sacked.  This percentage is referred to as the player's Pass Blocking Efficiency, and superficially it seems to make some sort of sense.  Dead quarterback = bad.  Living quarterback = good.  Refer to PFF's handy red or green color code if you still need further clarification.

Now, let's talk about truth with a capital "T".  While Reilly and I are inclined to believe in the merits of examining NFL players based on their measured athletic ability, and statistical production, there are limitations to how much you want to trust such things.  Very simple statistics can suggest that there is an argument to be made that a player might be pretty good.  They don't necessarily always reveal the complete truth though, and sometimes you need to dig a bit deeper.  Do I really believe that the player who allowed the fewest sacks, is in fact the best pass blocker?  Or, do I think these outcomes can be influenced by numerous complicated factors?

Let's use two players, Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin, to provide an example of how the value of this sort of data can become a bit murky.

In 2011, Ryan Clady was rated as PFF's 40th ranked offensive tackle (among tackles who played for 50% of their team's total snaps), when it came to pass blocking.  Since there are 32 teams, each with 2 starting tackles per team (for a total of 64...yes, we know you could do the math), that would mean Clady was viewed by PFF as being a somewhat below average tackle in 2011.  Then, in 2012, Ryan Clady was strangely ranked as the league's 4th best tackle (again, when compared to tackles who played for 50% of their team's total snaps), when it came to pass blocking.  That's a fairly remarkable rise in the rankings, going from the 40th slot, to the 4th, in just a year's time.  What exactly happened here?

Now, let's look at Orlando Franklin, who played at the opposite tackle position from Clady, for the Denver Broncos.  In 2011, Franklin's pass blocking had him ranked as PFF's 41st rated offensive tackle, just one slot shy of where we found his teammate Ryan Clady in that year.  Just like with Ryan Clady, this rating would seem to suggest that Franklin performed like a somewhat below average tackle in 2011.  Then, in the following year, 2012, Franklin's pass blocking performance had him ranked as PFF's 8th rated offensive tackle.  Again, Franklin's rating for this year was just a tad behind where we found Ryan Clady had surged to, and near the top of the league.  That all seems a bit peculiar, doesn't it? 

Though some people may disagree, Reilly and I tend to think that a player is what he is.  The "talent" of a player should be somewhat fixed.  Though experience may lead to improvement, and injury can make one decline, it seems unlikely that what a player is doing from year to year would radically change, even if the outcome from his efforts might vary significantly.  Yet, PFF seems to be suggesting that both of these tackles, playing on the same team at the same time, went from performing at a below average level to suddenly being among the top players at their position, at the same time, over the course of just one year.

What exactly is PFF telling us about these players, and is there any way to figure out why there opinion changed so radically?  Is PFF telling us anything about the quality of these players, or merely pointing towards the circumstances they might have struggled with? 


The sleeper must awaken!

Of course, there is a pretty obvious answer as to why PFF's opinion of these players shifted so dramatically in just one year.  Something very significant happened in 2012 for the Denver Broncos, which likely benefited every player on the team's offense.  This was the arrival of that scrappy, unknown quarterback Peyton Manning, who came to replace the heaven-sent Tim Tebow.  Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin probably didn't change what they were doing at all, from 2011 to 2012.  It seems more likely that it was the perception of their performance that changed, now that they were protecting a competent different quarterback.

Let's consider what the sack rate has been for quarterbacks in Denver, both before and after Manning's arrival.  Below, we will list these sack rates (the percentage of passing plays by the team that resulted in a sack), along with the name of the team's primary quarterback in each year.  We're also including the rate at which the team's quarterback was hurried, even though we personally place much less value on this, and think it is a statistic of questionable worth.


Broncos


        Year       Sack %      Hurry %            Primary QB
2007 5.15 21.74                     J.Cutler
2008 2.05 21.77                     J.Cutler
2009 5.58 23.11                   K.Orton
2010 5.69 25.68                   K.Orton
2011 7.14 34.96                  T. Tebow
2012 3.13 11.39                P. Manning
2013 2.31 17.18                P. Manning
2014 2.09 14.82                P. Manning


So, in the years from 2007 to 2011, Broncos' quarterbacks were getting sacked on average about 5.12% of the time.  Those would arguably be fairly average results for an NFL team.  Only Jay Cutler's 2008 season was a significant improvement in this area (2.05%), and this fluky season probably contributed a great deal towards people's inflated opinion of him, and fed into to the Bears' eagerness to trade for Cutler.  Tebow's 2011 season, was clearly fairly horrible, with a 7.14% sack rate.  From 2012 through the 2014 season, the Manning led Broncos had a sack rate that averaged 2.51%, or about half the average rate of sacks prior to his arrival, or 2.84 times better than it was in Tebow's 2011 season.

That sort of shift could clearly influence people's opinion of how the Broncos offensive line was performing, but how likely is it that a quarterback can really have that sort of effect on a team's sack rate?  Well, let's take a look at what happened to the Indianapolis Colts, both before and after Manning's departure.


Colts


        Year       Sack %      Hurry %            Primary QB
2007 2.99 29.76                P. Manning
2008 2.33 25.29                P. Manning
2009 1.79 19.46                P. Manning
2010 2.16 22.09                P. Manning
2011 5.82 21.16       Painter/Orlovsky
2012 5.13 29.93                    A. Luck
2013 5.05 25.25                    A. Luck
2014 3.36 22.69                    A. Luck


In the years from 2007 to 2010, the chart above shows that the Manning led Colts averaged a sack on 2.31% of their passing plays.  That's roughly the same sack rate that we saw for Manning in Denver, and a fairly ridiculous result.  In the years from 2011 through 2014, after Manning's departure, the Colts have averaged a sack on 4.84% of their passing plays, which again is about twice the rate of the Manning led years.  That's not a terrible result, but it is also quite similar to how the pre-Manning era in Broncos performed.  While Andrew Luck may be improving in this area, based on his 2014 sack rate of 3.36%, it is difficult to say whether his results will ever reach Manning's level in this area.

Admittedly, having Manning change teams gave us a somewhat rare opportunity to examine the degree to which these sorts of peculiar and positive effects are transferable, from one team to another.  Great players often spend the majority of their career in one city, which makes dissecting their real impact complicated.  Dropping them into a different environment, is often the closest we can really get to having a control group.  The only other way we get to test these sorts of things is when someone is injured.

That brings us to Tom Brady, and the time he missed the 2008 season due to a leg injury, and we witnessed the emergence of Matt Cassel.  We'll leave out the 'hurry' statistics this time.


Patriots

           Year        Sack %            Primary QB
2007 2.81                   T. Brady
2008 7.93                 M. Cassel
2009 2.95                   T. Brady

Now, I suspect everyone will recall the 2008 Patriots season, and I suspect everyone will also recall the degree to which people scrutinized the way Matt Cassel filled in for the injured Tom Brady.  For the most part, people seemed to feel that Cassel filled in somewhat admirably for Brady, and in this atmosphere of deranged optimism the Chiefs traded Mike Vrabel and a high 2nd round draft pick to acquire Cassel.  They would also quickly give Cassel a $62 million contract extension.  What was overlooked in all of this lunacy was the precipitous drop in sack rate that occurred during Cassel's time under center for the Patriots.  The Patriots were getting their QB sacked 2.82 times as often in 2008, while Cassel was under center, as they were in 2007.  When Brady would return in 2009, the sack rate would magically go back to very much the same place it was prior to his injury.  There was clearly something missing with Cassel, that Brady seemed to possess.

The real question here is, do you think the Patriots offensive line was performing exceptionally in 2007, suddenly decided to tank in 2008, and then miraculously got their shit together in 2009?

Now, admittedly, using Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as an example of how a quarterback can influence a team's sack rate, can cause people to jump to some weird conclusions.  These guys are clearly rather peculiar players, and their influence over this aspect of the game is a bit unusual.  We're obviously not trying to suggest that all 'elite' (uggh, the "e" word) quarterbacks have this sort of effect on the results of their offensive line.  They don't.  From quarterback to quarterback, the ability to influence a team's sack rate can be wildly different.  For instance, we suspect that Alex Smith kind of makes offensive linemen look terrible, whether in San Francisco or in Kansas City, though that might be a subject for another day..  Without putting each player into a different environment, or having a method of establishing a control group, it's difficult to really pin down the precise degree to which one player influences the outcome of another.

Still, we do know that that this sort of influence from the QB position happens, even if we can't always perfectly measure it.

So, does it seem as if the person playing quarterback might have a fairly stunning influence on the public's perception of how the offensive line is performing?  Does it seem likely that transitioning from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning, was probably the key factor in how the performance of these Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin was perceived by PFF?  It certainly seems that way to us.  It really makes us wonder to what extent we should take PFF's grades for many of these things seriously, when their evaluation of a player seems like it could shift with the wind.  


Context is a bitch.

In this particular case, we were only discussing how an offensive lineman's pass blocking efficiency can be influenced by the person he is protecting.  The context of the situation does appear to matter, and this is something PFF frequently glosses over, or outright ignores.  Unfortunately, this lack of context is an issue that arises at nearly every position one can discuss.

When examining pass rushers, PFF brings out their Pass Rushing Efficiency grades, which are effectively the same thing as the Pass Blocking Efficiency grades, only turned on their head.  It becomes a simple calculation of how often a player was sent after the QB, and what percentage of the time this resulted in a sack (or a hurry).  Now, should a lone pass rusher be evaluated solely on the rate at which he gets to the quarterback, with no consideration given to how his teammates might affect his results?  Maybe a defensive end who gets 8 sacks, on a team that only produced 30 sacks in total, is more impressive than a similar player who produced twelve on a team that had 39 total sacks?  Maybe these two players are effectively the same?  Maybe it's not simply the rate at which sacks are produced by a player, but the degree to which a team's pass rush can come from multiple players, versus one isolated and therefore easily blocked individual? 

Is a wide receiver going to perform better when playing with one of the league's top quarterbacks?  Could having a viable receiving threat on the other side of the field influence a receivers' ability to perform?

Context...context...context.  It always matters, and yet frequently gets ignored by PFF, because it is probably the most difficult part of examining the NFL, and also perhaps the most meaningful question that needs to be solved.  Identifying how and why a player produces results, should get us closer to understanding who is actually contributing the most, rather than who is merely producing numbers.

If Player X performs to the PFF standard one day, they will be graded well.  If Player X perform poorly in the next game out, they will get a poor grade.   If Player X has a bunch of lovely green grades, with positive numbers, will that trend continue when he is placed on another team?  PFF can't/won't say, because their goal clearly isn't to predict the future.  PFF are basically like weathermen, who can only tell you if it rained yesterday.  Of course this approach doesn't really answer our real question, what is the true nature of Player X?  Is he essentially good, or a bum?  

Interestingly, we think PFF has placed themselves in a position where they will never have to admit that they are wrong.  The complex soup of the NFL, and the way teams assemble their rosters, can make pursuing the answers to particular questions very difficult.  That may be where the true genius of PFF really lies.  Rarely, if ever, do I see them say "according the this statistic, we feel that this player is the best at their position".  Instead, they frequently just list players in order, according to their grades in a particular area, and let you come to the conclusion "Hey, this guy must be the best!".  PFF's pretty numbers may nudge you in a particular direction, but you wind up at this conclusion all on your own.

Maybe PFF is misleading.  I don't know, and I'm not sure I would really want to say anything about that.  All I can say is that the degree to which PFF's statistics are being taken for gospel (at least by some people), might be a bit premature, and it makes me a bit uncomfortable.  It's particularly worrisome when I see some fans, reporters and game day announcers, discussing PFF grades without really digging into the subject itself, or questioning what the numbers are based upon.  Don't get me wrong.  PFF does have valuable information buried in their numbers, but people need to really analyze them, and question what the data means, rather than blindly trusting PFF's interpretation of the facts.

There's also a certain utility in these statistics, which can be destructive.  Even when the numbers are possibly flawed, or being applied incorrectly, they can be used to intimidate others, and end debates.  The analysis of what is really going on in football is still so clearly in its infancy, that silencing discussion would seem to be unfortunate, and counterproductive to our real goals. 

I suppose Reilly and I were also motivated to broach this subject because of a recent announcement made by PFF, about how they will be conducting their business in the future. Going forward, it appears PFF will no longer provide access to their raw data (a useful tool to many of us geeks), and instead only deliver their processed and pasteurized grades for players (pretty much worthless).  So, they will continue to provide their analysis of the data, while removing access to the data upon which their judgment is based from the eyes of the public.  As a friend pointed out upon hearing this announcement, they will effectively be charging people for the sort of "Overall Grades" that you find in the Madden video games.  Added context, or second guessing their interpretation of the data, clearly aren't something PFF is interested in.

As they also mention in this announcement, this new (inferior) form of data they will be providing, will be the same as the data that they provide to 19 NFL teams.  If it doesn't worry you that NFL teams could potentially be making decisions based on the grades that PFF has been providing, well, welcome to the new NFL.  Personally, I'm a bit annoyed about where this is all leading.