College football’s championship will be decided via a playoff bracket for the first time this year, rather than media polling or the near universally loathed Bowl Championship Series. You can read about the details of the new setup here, but the basic gist is that a 13-person committee of experts will come out with their own weekly rankings of the top 25 teams starting Oct. 28 and culminating in a Dec. 7 ranking of the top four teams in order to seed a four-team playoff.The committee is new and its members have yet to release any rankings, so it’s hard to say what their voting tendencies will be. But it’s probably a good bet that they won’t stray too far from long-standing rankings such as the Coaches Poll and the Associated Press Top 25. And if the AP’s rankings (since 1992) are any guide, now is when the existing Top 4 teams start to solidify their places in the final, pre-bowl edition of the regular-season rankings.Up until Week 5 of the college football season, the schools on the periphery of the AP’s Top 4 typically have a slightly lower probability of finishing the year among the (now-coveted) top quartet of teams than those currently occupying those slots. Starting in Week 6 — and accelerating in Weeks 7-9, the current stage of the 2014 campaign — the teams in the top four slots begin to pull away from the rest of the pack, increasing their probability of ending the regular season among the “Final Four.”That’s good news for Florida State, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, each of which found themselves sitting in the AP’s Top 4 after the dust cleared on this past weekend’s wild spate of upsets. Teams that survive midseason aren’t completely in the clear — historically, there’s still about a two-in-five chance that one of the teams in the existing Top 4 falls out after Week 9 — but teams in that position are significantly more assured of being “in” now than they were just two weeks ago.
“Now that I’m older … I really do think I’m the greatest receiver to ever play this game.” — Randy Moss, before the Super Bowl in 2013.When Randy Moss proclaimed that he was the greatest receiver ever, he was wearing the same-color uniform as Jerry Rice. Rice, the consensus Greatest Receiver Of All Time™, did not have Moss’s up-and-down career. He was not marred by frequent controversy, nor periods where, by his own admission, he didn’t go all-out on every play. He was Jerry Rice, the guy who finished ahead of Moss1And Terrell Owens. in the all-time list of receiving yards and atop the receiving touchdowns list, too, well ahead of Moss.But there’s one widely known football expert who makes an excellent case for Moss: Randy Moss.Here’s the rest of what he had to say in that infamous press conference:I don’t think numbers stand …  has been a down year for me statistically.  was a down year, and Oakland [in 2006] was a down year. I don’t really live on numbers. I really live on impact and what you’re able to do on that field.Moss — despite leading the league with 17 receiving touchdowns as a rookie, holding the all-time single-season receiving TD record (with 23), and posting 10 or more touchdowns in a season nine times in his career — was saying we should ignore his stats. He wanted us, the commentariat, to take stock of some kind of intangible “impact” he had.OK then. In conjunction with ESPN’s new “30 for 30” documentary, “Rand University,” let’s do it.2As it turns out, we both have some experience with this question.Moss may be even more right than he knows. Not necessarily about being “the greatest” — that kind of claim depends too much upon subjective interpretations of greatness to be attackable empirically — but if we put aside his receiving numbers and just measure his impact on the game, Moss is pretty much boss.Moreover — in part by virtue of his many controversies — Moss may have created one the greatest (and most important) data sets in the history of football.If there’s one thing we know about Randy Moss, it’s that he makes QBs look good, going all the way back to 1997, when Moss and Chad Pennington led the nation in touchdown catches (26) and passes (42) for Marshall. Here’s a quick recap of Moss’s NFL career, from the perspective of his quarterbacks:In his first two years in the NFL, Moss helped Randall Cunningham and Jeff George — both on journeymen’s stints in Minnesota after being relegated to bench duty at their previous clubs — have the best years of their careers.From 2000 to 2004 Moss helped make Daunte Culpepper an All Pro. After Moss’s departure, Culpepper struggled to stay a starter in the NFL, ultimately playing five more years for four different teams, with a combined record of 5-22.In 2005, Moss went to Oakland, where he underperformed for a round-robin of QBs.Then, in 2007, he helped Tom Brady break the all-time passing TD record for New England (at the time, such gaudy passing stats were uncharacteristic for Brady).In 2009 he helped Matt Cassel guide New England to a surprising 11-5 record (and Cassel’s best season to-date) with Brady injured.In 2010, Bill Belichick dumped Moss in a shocking move, after which — despite briefly teaming up with Brett Favre — Moss bounced around on his way out of football, seemingly for good.In 2012, he returned to play for the San Francisco 49ers, where he was relegated largely to role-playing and decoy duty. Whether Moss is at all responsible or not, it’s worth noting that Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick both had their best statistical seasons with Moss in the rotation that year.If you’re keeping score at home, that’s somewhere between (inarguably) five and (arguably) seven quarterbacks who have all had career years with Moss on the field with them. And indeed, the “Moss effect” is backed up by numbers. Across a whole slew of different statistics, the QBs Moss has worked with have been better with him than without him. The eight QBs with whom Moss has played at least eight games have averaged 48 more yards per game, seen their completion and touchdown percentages rise by an average of 3.7 percentage points and 1.6 percentage points, respectively, ultimately averaging nearly a full yard per pass attempt more in the games with him than without him. One yard per attempt may not sound like much, but that’s about the difference between Peyton Manning (7.7 YPA) and Neil O’Donnell (6.7 YPA).For most players, this type of analysis generally involves a relatively small number of games for comparison, and other factors can come into play one way or another. The number of variables in football are so great, and the degrees of freedom so few, that we could never compute, say, Adjusted Plus/Minus for players. (This is why disentangling quarterback statistics from those of their supporting casts — especially receivers — is so difficult.) But one way to gain perspective on Moss’s With-Or-Without-You (WOWY) effect is to look at his effect on how efficiently his teams passed the ball — after controlling for how good his quarterbacks were without him — and compare that to the numbers for other receivers in history.3We can do this by tracking the changes to a quarterback’s Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANY/A) relative to league average, after accounting for QB aging effects, when he played with a given receiver compared to when he was throwing to different receivers. Only two receivers in NFL history other than Moss4Among pass-catchers with 5,000 career True Receiving Yards, a statistic that attempts to adjust a player’s raw receiving yards for era and team passing proclivity, with bonuses for receptions and touchdowns. were associated with a larger uptick in passing efficiency from their quarterbacks — former Denver Broncos teammates Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith.McCaffrey and Smith were the primary late-career targets for Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, whose lifetime numbers took a strange arc. As a young QB, Elway enjoyed an elite reputation despite surprisingly pedestrian passing efficiency; only later did he post the quality of statistics we’d normally associate with a passer of his prominence. Smith and McCaffrey were both present for those improved seasons, which boosted their WOWY scores even further because of the advanced age at which Elway produced them.But in terms of individual influence, it’s tricky to disentangle McCaffrey and Smith from each other — and that’s before considering the effect Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan and running back Terrell Davis5Who was so vital to Denver that he was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in both 1996 and 1998. had on Elway’s rehabilitated numbers. Despite the Denver duo’s great WOWY numbers, we still can’t pinpoint which element made the biggest difference to Elway’s statistical upgrade.Moss’s case as a difference-maker is much easier to argue, because his observed effect held up over such a large number of situations, and with many different QBs. Let’s look at YPA difference and touchdown percentage difference for all wide receivers who have played at least eight games with at least three different quarterbacks6The QB also must have played at least eight games without the receiver (but that condition is much more easily met).:The bubble sizes correspond to the number of QBs each receiver worked with. The purple is Moss, and the only player “in his neighborhood” with a similar number of QBs is Harold Jackson, who played from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. Jerry Rice also put up impressive numbers with eight quarterbacks (though his career had a lengthy denouement), but his average “impact” was roughly half Moss’s on both axes.Moreover, Moss’s impact was remarkably consistent. Here’s a quick summary of the WOWY difference for each of the eight QBs Moss played with for at least eight games:It’s possible that some other receiver actually had just as much or more of an impact as Moss, but didn’t have the right combination of good fortune/bad habits to prove himself in such a variety of circumstances. It’s possible. But for any given receiver (even some of the greats), the truth is lost in the informational black hole that is NFL statistical entanglement. At least with Moss, there’s no doubt about his effect — or at least less doubt than with just about anyone else.This is why, ultimately, the sample size is what takes Moss from being a garden-variety outlier to a historically important outlier. It’s great to know that Moss is pretty damn good, but even knowing how good a receiver is (with any degree of certainty) is itself a valuable commodity.When told of the aforementioned comments by Moss, Jerry Rice quipped: “I impacted the game by winning Super Bowls.”While that also sounds like bravado, maybe Rice is more right than he knows, too. If Rice was as good a receiver as we’re pretty sure Moss was, it’s possible San Francisco’s Super Bowls were won in large part by Rice. Joe Montana had 7.6 yards per attempt for his career in San Francisco. If Rice were responsible for 1 YPA of that, Montana’s underlying value might be less Greatest Of All Time and more Rex Grossman (career YPA 6.6).7Note, Montana had 6.9 YPA in Kansas City.But Moss’s greatest contribution may be how his career informs our broader understanding of football: If one man’s ability to run deep and jump high can affect the game so drastically, then the right combination of components, mismatches, or strategies may break the game open at any time. Moss’s career gives us a glimpse at football dynamics that we can usually only speculate about, and it shows us that the game may be even more fascinating and harder to understand than we originally thought.
The IOC has cleared Guor Marial, a marathon runner born in what is now South Sudan, to compete under the Olympic flag at the London Olympics.The IOC executive board agreed today to allow U.S.-based Marial — a former refugee — to take part as an independent athlete.“The voice of South Sudan has been heard,” Marial told The Associated Press. “The South Sudan has finally got a spot in the world community. Even though I will not carry their flag in this Olympic Games, the country itself is there. The dream has come true. The hope of South Sudan is alive.”Marial has no passport and is not represented by a national Olympic committee. South Sudan gained independence last year after breaking away from Sudan but doesn’t yet have a recognized Olympic body.Marial moved to the United States as a refugee when he was a child and even though he has permanent residence in the U.S., he isn’t yet an American citizen.That meant he was unable to compete for the United States, South Sudan or Sudan, the IOC said, despite qualifying for the Olympics last year.IOC spokesman Mark Adams said it was the first case of its kind for the London Olympics.When he was 8 years old, Marial escaped child slavery in a labor camp in Sudan. He is now 28 and lives in Flagstaff, Ariz. — where he was preparing for training when he heard he was allowed to go to the Olympics.“I was getting ready to go for a run. Wow. This is so exciting,” he said. “It’s hard to describe. I’m speechless. The body temperature is up. I have to train like an Olympian now.”The International Olympic Committee said three athletes from Netherlands Antilles also would be allowed to compete under the Olympic flag in London after the group of islands ceased to be an autonomous country.Marial ran a time of 2 hours, 14 minutes, 32 seconds at the Twin Cities marathon last year, his first official race, to qualify for the London Games. He has improved on that time since.A U.S. senator from New Hampshire, where Marial went to high school, also lent support to his Olympic bid. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to the IOC appealing for Marial to compete under the Olympic flag.Marial attended high school in Concord, N.H., after fleeing to the United States. He graduated in 2005, earning an athletic scholarship to Iowa State University and became an All-American in cross country in his junior year.He declined Sudan’s invitation to compete under its flag because he didn’t consider himself a citizen of that country. He said he doesn’t want to compete for Sudan because he lost 28 family members during civil unrest.The athlete’s birth village is in what is now South Sudan and despite it being a newly independent state, it has struggled to form sporting bodies.South Sudan was allowed in as the newest member of world football body FIFA in May but hasn’t yet joined the Olympic family.Athletes can take part at a games under the Olympic flag if politics has prevented them from doing so for a country.
After five decades of prohibiting its boxers from going professional, the Cuban government has done an about face and will allow boxers to participate in the World Series of Boxing, an international semi-professional league.The announcement came Friday from the president of the Cuban Boxing Federation, Alberto Puig. According to the Associated Press, the boxers will fight without headgear and earn between $1,000 and $3,000 a month.Twelve boxing squads will compete in the league from November 15, 2013, to May 2014. Other teams already announced are from Argentina, Mexico, USA, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Poland, Algeria and Germany.”We are extremely pleased to welcome Cuba to the World Series of Boxing,” Amateur International Boxing Association President C.K. Wu said in a statement. ”With a total of 116 world medals and 67 olympic ones, Cuban boxers have always lived at the pinnacle of our sport. … We are convinced that this new franchise will bring WSB to an even higher level,” reported AP.Cuban boxing authorities did not announce how much the Cuban fighters would be paid individually and how much would go to the government. Currently they are paid around $20 a month, an average salary for Cuban workers. Those winning medals at major international amateur competitions, such as the Olympics, receive undisclosed bonuses.Former President Fidel Castro had ruled out professional sports as not being in tune with the country’s Marxist social ideals. In recent years, a small number of Cuban baseball players near retirement age have been allowed to play on contracts in foreign professional leagues.Those favoring the opening to professional sports believe it will allow Cuban athletes to face stiffer competition and be better prepared to represent the island in international events.Source: Havana Times
Photo by USA Today.Adrian Peterson could reach a plea deal in his child abuse case that could allow him to return to the NFL and Minnesota Vikings by the weekend.A hearing is scheduled for tomorrow that could end the legal controversy around his indictment in Texas for reckless or negligent injury to his four-year-old son. If a plea deal is reached, which is expected by those closely following the case, Peterson, one of the premier running backs in the league, would be able to resume his career–barring punishment by the NFL. However, because this is a case the NFL has not experienced, the extent of any further punishment is unknown until commissioner Roger Goodell makes an announcement.The plea deal will lesson his charges to a misdemeanor, which could lighten any penalty the league would levy. The judge will also consider the bond revocation that prosecutors called for after Peterson admitted to smoking marijuana before his initial court date in September.Peterson has missed eight games while under his current deal that allows for him to be paid while the chargers are under investigation. The Vikings have managed without his explosive skill, but would welcome back his talents.Peterson was ridiculed in many circles for what was deemed excessive and abusive in how he disciplined his child. It is likely that protesters will picket at games when/if Peterson returns, with many viewing the severity of the punishment he meted out (based on photographs) quite alarming.Meanwhile, according to TMZ, in a recent police report Peterson texted the mother of his child saying, “Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know their daddy has the biggest heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.”Attitudes around discipling a child have changed significantly over the years. Baby boomers routinely were disciplined with belts or “switches.” It’s different today, especially, in Peterson’s case, considering the extent of the child’s injuries. The case took on a racial element as many African-Americans, particularly in the South, viewed Peterson’s actions as similar to the way they were were disciplined themselves—or the way they still discipline their children.
More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed Embed Code FiveThirtyEight Welcome to the latest episode of Hot Takedown, FiveThirtyEight’s sports podcast. On this week’s show (Jan. 3, 2017), we take a look at the College Football Playoff and explore whether No. 2 Clemson can defeat No. 1 Alabama in Monday’s championship. Next, FiveThirtyEight’s Reuben Fischer-Baum drops by to discuss the NFL and how a plethora of quarterback injuries will make for some interesting games this weekend. Finally, the Houston Rockets are on a roll — but can they keep it going? We investigate. Plus, a significant digit on Ronda Rousey.Links to what we discussed:You can check out FiveThirtyEight’s college football predictions.The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman wrote on the upcoming finals rematch between Alabama and Clemson.The ACC is dominating this bowl season, writes Neil Paine.Keep refreshing our NFL playoff projections as the postseason unfolds.ESPN took a look at how all 32 NFL teams are doing right now.ESPN’s Calvin Watkins recaps the Houston Rockets’ most recent victory.Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer takes a look at how James Harden, Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey are shaping the way Houston plays basketball.Significant Digit: 48, the number of seconds it took bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes to knock out Ronda Rousey in the UFC 207 in Las Vegas on Friday. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN the Magazine was one of only a few reporters Rousey spoke with while attempting her comeback.
It might seem hard to defend Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president who announced his resignation last week in the wake of a global soccer corruption investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.But a few brave souls have tried. Branko Milanović, a developmental economist at the City University of New York Graduate Center, wrote that while FIFA’s corruption may be regrettable, the decentralization of power under Blatter has at least contributed to the “spread of the game to the rest of the world” beyond the traditional European and South American soccer powers.FIFA’s governing structure and its corruption are clearly related. Through its “one country, one vote” principle and its policy of allocating development funds fairly evenly across countries — Comoros and Brunei get about as much money from it as China and Brazil — Blatter can command the loyalty of a majority of FIFA’s members even if they represent a minority of the world’s population, soccer audience and soccer revenue stream.But here’s the problem. Despite FIFA’s having earmarked more than $2 billion in soccer development funds under Blatter, there’s no evidence that the soccer playing field has become more level — at least not when measured by success on the pitch. In international play, the European and South American countries are as dominant as ever, while Africa has made little progress and Asia has perhaps regressed. Nor is there any evidence that poorer countries have become more competitive in soccer relative to wealthier ones. If anything, the disparity has grown since Blatter became president in 1998.The rest of this analysis will be pretty simple. We’ll compare the Elo rating for each country’s men’s1What about women’s soccer? It’s even more dominated by developed countries like the United States, Germany, Japan and Norway. Those four countries account for all four women’s World Cup winners, and all four winners of the Summer Olympics women’s tournament, during Blatter’s tenure. national team as it was on June 8, 1998 — the day Blatter took over as FIFA president, a few days before the 1998 World Cup — to what it is now.2More precisely, the figures represent each country’s Elo rating as of Tuesday, June 6, when I downloaded the data. (For more background on Elo ratings, see here. Higher ratings are better, and 1500 represents an average team. You can find all of the data we’re using in this article at GitHub.)First, we’ll look at performance by region, with countries divided according to the six continental confederations under FIFA.3The analysis excludes countries that didn’t have an Elo rating as of June 8, 1998. For each confederation, we’ve listed Elo ratings for the 10 largest countries in descending order of population, along with the confederation average,4The average includes countries not listed within the top 10. weighted by population.5Population figures are as of 2006, the midpoint of Blatter’s tenure. 60-79th+34 20-39th-34 GDP PER CAPITA PERCENTILEAVERAGE ELO CHANGE, POP. WEIGHTED 80-100th+15 40-59th+4 Nor have poorer nations improved their performance relative to wealthier ones. The next chart divides countries into quintiles based on their per capita GDP9I use the purchasing-power parity version of GDP as of 2006, the midpoint of Blatter’s tenure. and tracks how their Elo ratings have changed since 1998: Europe (UEFA) and South America (CONMEBOL) remain the dominant soccer continents. Although some individual countries in Europe (Germany, Turkey) have improved their national teams since 1998 and others have seen them decline slightly (Italy, Russia), the continent as a whole has seen little overall change under Blatter. UEFA’s average Elo rating, weighted by population, is 1793, almost identical to its 1797 rating when Blatter took over.South America, however, has improved considerably. Although Brazil’s Elo rating is not much changed from where it was in 1998, five of the 10 CONMEBOL countries (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela and Uruguay) have improved their Elo rating by more than 100 points. This is interesting given that CONMEBOL is poorly represented under “one country, one vote,” representing 4.8 percent of FIFA members but 13.5 percent of the World Cup audience.But what about the rest of the world?The closest thing to a success story is the North American confederation, CONCACAF, which has improved its Elo rating by a population-weighted average of 61 points since 1998. Partly that reflects the continued development of the U.S. and Mexican national teams, since the United States and Mexico represent more than three-quarters of CONCACAF’s population, though other members of the confederation have improved on average too. Still, while that might be good news for North American soccer fans, it doesn’t help Blatter’s argument that he’s helped spread the wealth: CONCACAF has the highest per capita GDP among the six confederations.The poorest confederation, by contrast, is Africa (CAF), but it’s shown little improvement soccerwise. In the 2014 World Cup, its countries combined for three wins, three draws and 11 losses.6This tally includes the losses that Nigeria and Algeria had in the opening round of the knockout stage. The 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa, wasn’t much better, with only Ghana advancing to the knockout stage among the six African entrants. Overall, Africa’s combined Elo rating is 1483, no better (indeed, slightly worse) than it was 17 years ago.Asian (AFC) teams seemed to have nowhere to go but up in 1998, with a continental average Elo rating of just 1323 when Blatter took over. The expansion of the World Cup from 24 to 32 teams in 1998 doubled the number of Asian participants, and the continent was host to the World Cup for the first time (in Japan and South Korea) in 2002. Instead, however, Asian nations have mostly seen their performance decline. Of the 45 AFC members to field a national team in 1998, 28 have a lower Elo rating now. This includes the two most-populous countries in the world. China’s men’s team has stagnated, still having qualified for the World Cup only once in its history (2002), while its women’s team, once the major global rival to the United States and Germany, has regressed. India, meanwhile, hasn’t come close to qualifying for the World Cup for many years, a description that also holds for other poor but populous Asian countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam.Finally, in the Oceania confederation (OFC), New Zealand has improved its performance since 1998, while the other, poorer members of the confederation have declined on average. (Australia, which defected from the OFC to the AFC in 2006, is counted under Asia instead.)As a sanity check, I’ve also listed the World Cup record of teams from “the rest of the world” — that is, CONCACAF, AFC, CAF and OFC — in matches against Europe and South America.7The tallies include knockout-round games, and games that go to penalty shootouts are considered draws. In the five men’s World Cups contested under Blatter, the rest of the world had 25 wins, 42 draws and 98 losses against Europe and South America, accumulating 0.71 points per match.8Counting three points for a win and one for a draw. That’s slightly worse than the final three World Cups, 1986, 1990 and 1994, under Blatter’s predecessor João Havelange. And while progress was steadily upward under Havelange — points per match for the rest of the world increased in each World Cup from 1974 through 1994 — their best performance under Blatter, 2002, is now four World Cups behind us. 0-19th-8 There’s not much of a pattern. But if anything, the wealthier countries have gained ground on the poorer ones. The top two quintiles (the richest 40 percent of countries) have seen their Elo ratings improve by a population-weighted average of 24 points, while the bottom two (the poorest 40 percent) have seen them decline by 30 points. In particular, a number of high-population countries that rank somewhere between the 20th and 39th percentile in per capita income, like China, India, Indonesia and Nigeria, have failed to improve their soccer programs at all, at least judging by their results in international play.10Perhaps soccer is at least holding its ground against a rising tide of global inequality? Actually, income and wealth differences between nations have been declining, according to research conducted by Milanović and others, even as they’ve increased within many countries like the United States. The finding is sensitive to the calculation method, however.One last question. Have low-population countries gained ground relative to high-population ones? It’s not clear that this is a desirable outcome, but it might be what we’d expect given that under Blatter, FIFA has allocated developmental funds almost without regard to population. (A few million dollars should go much further in a country of 500,000 people than one of 50 million.) But there’s no evidence of this either. Countries with a population of less than 10 million people had an average Elo rating of 1280 in 1998; it’s virtually unchanged at 1283 now.Perhaps FIFA’s development funds are too small to make a difference. Or perhaps, given the corruption in the organization, a lot of the money earmarked for soccer development is being used to enrich local plutocrats at the expense of their countries’ soccer programs.
15th*11.1– 12th*8.5– The third shows when I stopped counting the linebacker’s movement as “wasted” for the purposes of the study: 8th7.2– More play-action passes do not mean fewer wasted yardsAverage yards wasted by the middle linebacker on each play-action pass in a game 10th7.9– 11th7.2– 14th*6.4– 5th7.5– There is a lot of good research showing that teams don’t run enough play-action. Most of the arguments for limiting its use are unsupported by the evidence. Now, thanks to the NFL’s Next Gen data, we can add evidence that middle linebackers won’t stop biting on the play-action, even if it’s used more than NFL coaches have been comfortable running it. Linebackers bite just about the same amount the 11th time a play-action pass is called in a game as the first time it’s called. It’s only after we get to 12 play-action passes in one game that things start to get wonky — but that may be because of the small sample sizes of those instances.Across the entire sample of 91 games and 1,235 plays, I found no correlation at all between the number of times a team ran the play-action and total yards of wasted ground by middle linebackers.5R-squared of 0.001775, p-value of 0.5766. We’d love more data to examine, to look closer at what happens when more play-actions are run. But given what we know about the effectiveness of the play, the self-imposed threshold set by play-callers of roughly six to nine play-action fakes per game is likely too low.Stopping the run is a major focus at every level of football, and the NFL especially makes it a high priority to effectively defend the run. Teams do this by coaching their linebackers and box safeties to play the run first in nonobvious passing situations. This emphasis on run stopping comes at a cost, however. Defenders must read their “run keys” — movements by the offense that indicate a run is coming — and react quickly to fill their gaps and prepare to make a physical play. It could be the case that defenders simply don’t think about how often the team is faking the run but instead just read and react to their run keys.To play fast in the NFL, it’s often said, you can’t think but instead must react based on instinct and training. Perhaps that instinctual reaction explains why play-action continues to be effective no matter how often it’s used. It’s also probably the case that certain teams and players are more susceptible to play-action than others, and smart NFL teams will identify and exploit their opponents’ tendencies.Those smart NFL teams should also pay attention to exactly how they use the play-action. According to the Sports Info Solutions data, passes thrown 7 yards deep or less are caught less frequently on play-action than on other passes. This could be because defenders have moved toward the line of scrimmage and are in better position to make a play on the ball. Play-action is only more effective than other passes when the ball travels at least 8 yards in the air — over the head of the linebackers who’ve been fooled. PA PassLB Wasted yards 7th7.2– Distance traveled by a defender while biting on a play-action fake is a fairly precise way to quantify just how fooled a defender was on a play. Continuing to move toward the line of scrimmage when the offense is passing is a problem; defenders want to “get depth” as soon as they can if they identify pass. Any movement toward the line of scrimmage is usually wasted.After summing up the total distance traveled for each of the plays, I calculated that on the average play-action pass play, the middle linebacker covers 7.5 yards of wasted ground. In seven instances in our sample, teams ran 15 or more play-action plays in a single game. Those games would have offered the middle linebacker the most opportunities to figure out the play-action, but the average distance traveled was 8.2 yards — even higher than the overall average.I broke out the average wasted distance traveled by linebackers by the number of times a play-action pass was called in a game to see how teams reacted. It turns out that the wasted distance traveled was remarkably stable. The second shows the entire play with the middle linebacker and quarterback isolated: 9th8.4– 6th7.3– 4th7.1– 13th*10.5– 16th*4.7– The play-action pass is one of the most effective calls in all of football. The three teams that use the play-action the most — the Rams, the Patriots and the Chiefs, according to data from Sports Info Solutions — each locked down a first-round bye in the playoffs. Across the league in 2018, quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts average 1.39 yards per attempt more out of play-action than they do on all other plays.1And it’s not just guys like San Francisco’s Nick Mullens and his +4.2 yards per attempt play-action differential who are bringing up the group average. Of 40 qualifying quarterbacks, 77.5 percent have a higher yards per attempt on play-action passes than on other plays. This pattern of play-action success holds true for every year that we have data.22005 through 2018. Yet despite this success, the league average share of plays that are play-action passes is just barely above 20 percent.Why is play-action so effective? When defenders bite on a play-action fake, they move out of position for defending the pass and create clear lanes for the QB to throw to the intermediate and deep parts of the field.But NFL coaches tend to run them only a handful of times per game because they appear to believe that overuse of play-action will cause linebackers to stop biting on the fake. Diminishing returns will set in, defenders will stop respecting the run, and the superiority of play-action will vanish. But is this actually the case? Do linebackers start to ignore the fake handoff if they see it many times in a single game?Until very recently, we had a hard time answering this question with the data that was available. But in the past couple of weeks, the NFL released a tranche of Next Gen tracking data for 91 games from 2017 via its inaugural Big Data Bowl. Michael Lopez, the NFL’s director of analytics, spearheaded the effort to allow analysts to dig into the tracking data and mine it for insights. I was able to use this data to quantify the effect of play-action on the movement of middle linebackers — and to see if a high number of play-action plays had any effect on the outcome of the plays.I took each of the 1,235 play-action plays in the sample and isolated just the middle linebacker’s movement from snap to throw.3Both outside linebackers and box safeties are also influenced by play-action, but their run fit responsibilities are sometimes less clear, so for this study, I focused just on the middle linebacker. I measured the distance traveled by the defender while moving forward toward the line of scrimmage at any angle, and I stopped counting the distance as soon as he turned and retreated into coverage. If two linebackers were playing on the inside, I included only the player who moved the most toward the line of scrimmage during the play. Below are three animations that help illustrate the process.4Animation code courtesy of the NFL.The first shows the entire play with all players involved: 1st7.1– 3rd7.8– 2nd7.7– * Fewer than 20 observationsSource: NFL Next Gen Stats Check out our latest NFL predictions.
OSU junior defenseman Alexa Ranahan (21) and sophomore defenseman Dani Sadek (8) celebrate after a goal during a game against North Dakota on Feb. 20. Credit: Michael Buchsieb | For The LanternPostseason play has arrived for the Ohio State women’s ice hockey team, as the seventh-seeded Buckeyes (10-23-1, 6-21-1) are preparing to head northwest to Minneapolis. There, a best-of-three series with No. 2 seed Minnesota (29-3-1, 24-3-1) awaits OSU in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament.The Buckeyes come into the playoffs having split their final regular-season series against No. 10 North Dakota the weekend prior. Both games were close contests throughout, and the Buckeyes are looking to continue that competitive drive as they look to extend their season against the Golden Gophers.“We didn’t go out there and let them set the tone and have us try to race to catch up. We gave them a strong game,” senior forward Kendall Curtis said on the series against North Dakota. “We were in their zone from the drop of the puck. I think that’s one of the best things we can take into a game like Minnesota. That’s a great team, so when you can bring the pace to them, I think that’s going to offer us our best start.”Impeding the Gopher offenseMinnesota’s offense ranks as the second best in the country, averaging nearly five goals per game. Curtis said she has faith that the team will be able to match Minnesota’s agility, but it will need to play aggressively.“I think our team has quite a bit of speed, and I think we can counter what they offer with that,” Curtis said. “So I think definitely getting pucks deep and really attacking and going after their D and getting in there with our speed will be the best way to slow them down.”Assistant coach Carson Duggan said she believes the team’s mental strength will be tested and it will have to rely on its composure to slow down the high-powered Gophers.“I think we need to be patient and disciplined. We can’t take too many risks because they are very good at capitalizing on opportunities,” Duggan said. “So you just have to play very good defensive hockey and be patient and wait for your opportunities and then execute when you get them. We can’t get too excited. Patience and discipline are the big things.”Two Minnesota forwards, Dani Cameranesi and Hannah Brandt, lead the conference in goals scored this season with 28 and 24, respectively.“In the D-zone, I think just making sure we’re staying tight to our coverage and make sure they don’t have any space to work,” Curtis said. “If you give any player space in this league, they’re going to make something pretty happen with the puck. Just shutting them down and taking away their space.”Blueprint for the upsetMinnesota swept OSU in each of the two series this season, as the Buckeyes were outscored 30-5 over the four games. Still, Duggan said OSU is looking forward to another rematch and is going into the series eager for the challenge.OSU senior defenseman Cara Zubko (2) during a game against North Dakota on Feb. 20. Credit: Michael Buchsieb | For The Lantern“With the playoffs upon us, everyone has that excitement in them. Realizing that for seniors it could be the end of their career, so there’s always that little bit of nervousness and excitement,” Duggan said. “I think the big piece is that there is a big opportunity to go in and prove a lot of people wrong and show what they’ve done since we played them last.”The team went into the week of practice with the same approach it had all season.“I think we try to come in with the same drive and will to get better each and every day at practice,” Curtis said. “I think that’ll help us going into the weekend by not making it into something more than it is. I think just having that same even keel in practice that we’ve had for the whole year is going to help us.”Minnesota swept its last regular-season series against formerly No. 2-ranked Wisconsin. The Golden Gophers have now replaced the Badgers as the No. 2-ranked team in the country in the latest USCHO.com poll.The Buckeyes and Golden Gophers are scheduled to square off in Minneapolis at 8:07 p.m. on Friday and 5:07 p.m. on Saturday. A deciding third game would be played on Sunday at 3:07 p.m. if necessary to decide the quarterfinal winner.
Since Thad Matta took over as coach at Ohio State, no player has asserted himself as the face of the program quite like junior Evan Turner.Although Greg Oden can be considered the most recognized Buckeye under Matta, Turner is pushing to be the most successful during Matta’s tenure.Turner’s legend is growing, from a guy who was barely known when he first enrolled at OSU, to the most prominent basketball Buckeye over the last several years.Very little attention was originally paid to Turner. A modest four-star prospect, he wasn’t even the most heralded prospect in the Buckeyes’ 2007 recruiting class. He wasn’t even the second-most touted player.Those honors belong to Kosta Koufos and Jon Diebler, who both have made a mark on OSU basketball. Turner, however, as both a leader and player, has gone above and beyond the expectations most had for him.The 6 feet 7 inch first-team All-Big Ten selection knew he would get an opportunity to prove himself. Turner’s accomplishments and accolades might be a surprise to some, but not him.The fact that he wasn’t the No. 1 player in the country, or even in his own class, didn’t discourage him.“When you’re younger you always say ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda,’” Turner said of his level of respect coming into OSU. “One of my close friends always told me, it’s not where you start, it’s where you end.”Turner will finish with more accomplishments at Ohio State than any other player in the Matta era thus far. He became only the second Buckeye to record a triple-double, doing it twice so far this season. He earned an All-American honorable mention as a sophomore and many believed after his strong start he was in the running for the Naismith College Player of the Year award.Unfortunately, a freak back injury from a dunk attempt in early December has put a bump in Turner’s road toward a great season.Even in an unfortunate situation, Turner’s popularity and legend is growing.Doctors and trainers said it would take Turner eight weeks to return from two vertebrae fractures. The Buckeyes’ most valuable player cut that recovery time in half. He played against Indiana last week, a little more than a month after his injury. “It felt alright,” Turner said about his back after his first two games. “I was still a little bit out of shape, but I was glad to be playing. I’m starting to get my rhythm back a little bit more; I have to get my feel back a little bit.”It is determination and hard work, which Turner used to overcome his serious injury that has made him a fan favorite.Turner remembers being a freshman and not receiving any attention. Whether it was in class or on the court, he wasn’t anything special, at least not yet. He was fine with being just like any other college student before he became high profile.“I get a little bit of love,” Turner said jokingly about being noticed on campus. “Some people talk, some people do double takes and some people just stare.“It’s kind of different. I remember back when nobody even knew my name, nobody even cared.”People know his name now, and he is probably the greatest example OSU has of what college basketball can produce if a guy isn’t “one and done.”Turner’s projection to the NBA has risen significantly. Along with his fame, his stock has skyrocketed. Analysts believe that if Turner would have left for the NBA after last season, there was a good chance that he could have been a lottery pick. With the kind of season Turner has had so far and with what could be to come, he should project even higher.“I always had a little bit of confidence that I would be superior in certain aspects of the game so I just worked hard and kept working hard,” Turner said of his mentality to improve. “That’s what helped me not just be any old guy on the court.”Matta has had some great players in his time here at OSU. Oden, Michael Conley, Daequan Cook, Koufos and several others have been special, but maybe not as special as Turner.“I think that’s the beauty of it, as you look at it, so much is made about where a kid is ranked,” Matta said of Turner exceeding expectations. “I always use [Evan] as a classic example. He might have been top 100, he probably knows, but he wasn’t a top 10 player. Now I look and I think he’s a top 10 player in college basketball.”