Interview With Pro Football Focus Reveals Excellent Analysis, New Jinx


BTSC writer Neal Coolong met up with one of the writers of Pro Football Focus, a web site dedicated to providing thorough and detailed statistics on every NFL player in every game. Neil and six other members of the site have been in existence since 2007, and were recently mentioned in SI writer Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column (beating Coolong to the punch, he's yelled at King since then). The interview took place over several emails in the past two weeks, here are the highlights:

NC: First off, thanks for doing this. I'll admit, when a co-worker of mine gave me the link to this site, my productivity at work was reduced greatly. So maybe I shouldn't be thanking you. But if I'm pissed at anyone, it's at Peter King for beating me to giving you guys the recognition I feel you deserve (No. 8 of 10 Things I Think I Think). Who does he think he is, anyway? Give me a little background. Who are you guys? How many people do you have on staff? How long has the site been up?

PFF: The site in some form or another has been up since 2006. In it’s initial guise it was more a vehicle for displaying my limited data than anything else. There’s a whole section on how we got going in the "About" tab under the "History" section which explains a lot more about how we started.

At the moment we have 7 guys working on the site. Interestingly (or perhaps shockingly) all bar one of us are based outside the US with the majority of us based in the UK.

 

NC: That brings me to the issue of grading, which is thoroughly explained here.

I'll paraphrase you, "We are not grading style or technique; just result...We've all heard the terms knee-bender, stiff hips, inconsistent footwork or over-extension etc. but as far as we're concerned it doesn't matter whether you know what they mean or not. All we care about is the result."

So you're grading the pure results of the play, black and white, win or lose. Personally, I love that approach in terms of ranking an evaluating individual players. Answer me this, though, in particular reference to the defensive backs, do you feel the amount of statistical data you keep on each player fairly takes into account the roles of that particular player in that particular defense?

For example, Ike Taylor and William Gay play in a different defensive scheme than, say, Antoine Winfield. While I am not surprised Winfield scores as highly as he does, do you feel your evaluations hold up when compared to his peers? Is it fair? Or is your intention more to show the results of individual players, without the concern of how they stack up against their peers?

PFF: I don’t think we’ll ever get a full view on secondary or WR play until the NFL allow us access to game film so we can actually grade each player on each play (I’m led to believe hell will be freezing over shortly so we should be OK). I think until then everything is a fudge to some degree, regardless of the scheme.

That said I think we do more than anyone else with equal access. Most people who delve into advanced type stats will just note down whose in coverage on a play. While we also compile the base stats for coverage we do it more for completeness than anything else. The truth of the matter is we try to use a combination of factors when rating CBs but go more off our grading than anything. The base statistics can tell a lot of lies regardless of whether the coverage is zone, man or some combination. Let me give you a few examples:

  • A team run a WR screen at a CB who is in man coverage. The CB is double-teamed by screen blocks and can do nothing but because of missed tackles by other players the screen goes for 80 yards and a TD. The CB was clearly in coverage and hence the yardage goes against him.
  • A CB is beaten badly for a reception but the WR then drops the ball.
  • Another CB is beaten badly and gives up a 70 yard TD by peeking in the backfield (Chris McAlister has patent pending on this) but the play is called back on a holding call
In the first of these the CB has done nothing wrong and is penalised by having 80 yards and a TD logged against him. In the latter two the CB has been poor but is rewarded with incomplete passes to his credit. Obviously in our grading the CB would not be penalised in the first but marked down significantly in the others.

To come back to the original question of schemes, I think the situation with CBs is fairly straight forward. The CB almost always has initial responsibility for the man across from them, he starts off in their zone and to all intents and purposes is in man coverage until such time as he’s handed off to a LB (on a crossing route) or a Safety (on a deeper route). As soon as he’s handed the guy off (and that point is normally very easy to judge)  he no longer has responsibility. So the CB stats, taking into account my reservations above, are pretty accurate from a standpoint of responsibility and performance.

So I guess the question is back to you… can you give me an example where or why you think a Steeler CB may be at a disadvantage in our ratings? We were pretty high on both Bryant McFadden and William Gay last year.

NC: I wasn't suggesting they were at a disadvantage, I was simply using the Steelers players in a 3-4 zone blitzing scheme as opposed to Antoine Winfield, who plays in a Cover 2. I'd likely be hunted down and beaten up if I brought up Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph.

But since you mentioned Bryant McFadden, and I felt he was a very strong producer on last year's Super Bowl team, do you feel his play has really fallen off that much (currently 79th on your CB rankings)? William Gay hasn't produced, per your stats, nearly as much this year as he did last year.

I'm gonna have to plant a phrase on you: The Pro Football Focus Jinx. For Steelers Players. Cornerbacks in Particular.

There maybe something to be said for an overall scheme benefitting an individual players skills more than another, but that's a separate issue. Lemme ask you this, do you think you could apply your approach on Pro Football Focus to coaching? Do you think there is a measurable way to analyze coaches, beyond the normal wins/losses metrics? I understand any coach will tell you wins are all that matters, but do you think there is a statistical measurement for coaches?

PFF: Certainly Bryant doesn’t look as solid as he was last year. In 2009 he was in coverage for 344 snaps, gave up 342 yards and a TD, defensed 5 passes and intercepted a further 2. In addition he held up well in run defense and was pretty consistent in terms of having very few off days but never particularly setting the world on fire. It was therefore no surprise at all when he was picked up by the Cards who’d got a bit fed up with Rod Hood’s inconsistency and having two corners playing in that style (I’m not sure anybody thinks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will stop being "mercurial" any time soon) was a liability.

That said he appears to have morphed from a relatively safe pair of hands into Rod Hood II. Even excluding the W10 game vs. Seattle, Bryant has already been in coverage only 23 snaps less than last year and has had some decent performances but also some bad games. So far he has been marginally better than Rod Hood in 2008 but isn’t as sure as  he was last year for you guys. In those 321 snaps he hasn’t given up a TD and he’s defensed 8 passes which is great but he’s also given up 467 yards including 171 YAC. All this suggests a more aggressive approach since the move and I’ve seen that on tape too.

Regarding William Gay I’d just be a little cautious when using the rankings in that way (a few points is very insignificant) and what we’ve seen is a reasonably average NFL corner who has had some good days (most notably against the Chargers) but has been less effective of late. Last year he was above average but as a part-time player and he’s already had a good couple of games worth of snaps in coverage more than last year.

If you wish to talk jinx it’s not the Steelers who should be concerned…… we’ve had a far more negative effect on the Bengals at a player level. We name Evan Mathis and Keith Rivers to our mid-season All-Pro and both are injured. You should be paying us to put their CBs on the team too!

On the coaching question it’s something I notice analyzing games; the whole play is executed well but it doesn’t work… at all. You wonder what they were thinking when they drew it up. That said it doesn’t happen often enough to be significant in my view and as we break down each play, 95% of the time I’d guess, a play works or fails because individual players either blow assignments or do something extraordinary.  Obviously this is a coaching responsibility too for either a) not getting someone good enough to do the job b)not teaching them well enough or c)not motivating them sufficiently to see it through.

I suppose something we could do to check at a strategy level what coaches are performing (although I have absolutely no idea as to how relevant it might be) is to compare overall team performances on offense and defense with records. For example I would contend the Saints have a lot of below average players on defense (and some very good ones in the secondary) but haven’t lost a game and rank 17th in points allowed and 21st in defense. It might be expected that they would be a bit worse than that.

NC: Well, we still may see Cincinnati in the playoffs, so there's still time. How much would it cost to ensure the ratings of Joseph, Hall and their impressive nickel back, Morgan Trent, go way down? I'll get with Blitzburgh (our publisher) and work out some kind of payment. I'm not talking dismemberment or death here, just maybe like a debilitating stomach flu... 

Obviously with the amount of games/plays you're watching on a regular basis, you have to develop a sense of overall teams as well. You mentioned the Saints, do you think they are the best team in football through nine weeks? Does any team have a clear advantage over the field in terms of Super Bowl contention right now?

PFF: It’s interesting because no team is without some significant weakness and I could genuinely still see 13 teams winning. My Preseason pick was the Vikings, mostly because of their defense but as it turned out their offense has been better than suspected and their defense worse.

I’m really sorry to tell you this but regardless of last weeks result I still think the Steelers are the best team in the AFC (and probably the NFL); just too much balance, too many quality players in every unit. Apologies for damning you to a  season without playoffs.

In the NFC it’s difficult to look past the Saints but the cracks that have always been in the defense are starting to widen and I’m not going to get off an 8-1 horse at this stage.

NC: I was like you, I called the Steelers and Vikings at the beginning of training camp (pre-Favre) and it was because of the defense of those teams. Both of the Steelers recent championship teams had slides at or right after the mid-season point. There's still a ton of football to be played.

 

There seems to be enough football to play, and a tight enough race to wonder who will be league MVP. Who's your horse in that race?

PFF: For me MVP is all about what would happen if you remove that player from the team. We saw last year without Brady the Patriots were still functional as were the Steelers when Ben was hurt. Minnesota was still a playoff team without Favre. I think the same would be true this year too.

Without Brees and Manning I don’t think either the Saints or the Colts are over .5 and truthfully I believe the Colts record would be 2-7 not 9-0. When we analyze QBs we grade each pass and In the past we have seen games where we have not given Peyton a single negative mark. I think he’s likely to go down as the best of all time and a worthy MVP in 2009.

On a lighter note the most ridiculous comment I’ve ever heard was a sentence from Dan Patrick in SI which started with the phrase "It’s debatable which Manning brother is the better QB………"

NC: Almost as ridiculous as the idea that Kansas City would beat Pittsburgh...any given Sunday, right?

PFF: I’m really sorry, as soon as I said "I liked the Steelers in the AFC", I knew something like this would happen.

NC: Ok, we're blaming you.

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