Friday, May 11, 2012

NFL Leading Indicators - Review of 2011 & Projection for 2012

Each offseason leading up to a new season I complete an analysis of 4 key statistics – called my “Leading Indicators” – I feel are critical to team success.  Those four stats are point differential (which is simply points scored minus points allowed), yards per play, first downs per game, and turnover margin – those four by themselves are very highly correlated with win/loss performance year after year.  Besides setting up this analysis for the upcoming season, I also go back and check how these stats and the story they told for the prior season wound up working out – remember, there is only so much time in a day, only so much time anyone can spend on breaking down games, so you must continually verify the work you are doing, and that the stats you are analyzing are in fact adding value to your handicapping style.  If they are not, you need to find better information to spend your limited quality time on.  This “looking back analysis” will allow you to focus in on what stats are critical, and better utilize those figures for the upcoming season.

Here is a look at last year’s leading indicators analysis – I will break down 3 of the 4 stats I mentioned above leaving out turnovers for now – they are perhaps the most critical, but I will be performing a more detailed analysis on that stat down the line – which will be featured in its own blog entry – so today I will not spend any time on it.  Not only will I look back in this article, but will also use these statistics to look ahead at what we can expect to happen in the upcoming 2012 season.

  1. Points Differential: simple calculation by taking the average points scored per game minus the average points allowed per game which yields a points differential per game.  There is a pretty standard matrix across the industry that has been put together studying just this figure over the last 30 or so years, which allows you to slot teams into a specific projected record based on this number.  Once you do that the value analysis is then added by comparing the actual record of a team vs. the record their points differential suggest it should have led to – and based on that you can green or red flag specific teams for the upcoming season.
·         Studying the 2010 season before the 2011 season, 7 teams actual records were off by 2+ games either way based on their points differential:
o   DET, GB, OAK, TEN all had actual records in 2010 that were worse than their points differential suggested, meaning a wins increase in 2011 was likely.  What happened?  Three of the four did in fact increase their wins: DET 6 to 10, GB 10 to 15, TEN 6 to 9.  The only team that did not increase was OAK, who stayed flat at 8-8.
o   JAC, SEA, TB all had actual records in 2010 that were better than their points differential suggested, meaning a decrease in wins was likely in 2011.  What happened?  Two of the three did see their win mark drop: JAC 8 to 5 & TB 10 to 4.  The one remaining team SEA stayed flat at 7-9.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Not one team that was expected to go one way went the other.  Five of the seven teams that were expected to move did move where we projected, with the remaining two staying flat.  No team moved against their projection.

·         Based on 2011 figures, for the 2012 season we expect to see:
o   MIA & PHI to increase their wins this year.  I think nearly everyone around the NFL expects PHI to make a push towards the playoffs this season, while MIA could be a sleeper of sorts under new leadership.
o   DEN, KC, OAK, PIT, TB to decrease this year.  DEN is probably an outlier of sorts as the signing of one of the best QBs of all time will essentially eliminate this projection I would say.  KC & OAK both seem like great candidates to see their record drop as their schedule is killer this year playing the NFC South and AFC North, probably the two best divisions in each conference from top to bottom.  PIT lost a lot of personnel on the defensive side of the football and with increasing competition in the AFC North they could drop some, while TB would seem hard pressed to drop from last year’s 4-12 record, although with a very tough schedule I blogged about earlier this week it is definitely possible – or at the very least they could remain at 4-12.

  1. Yards per Play: the calculation is straight forward, and the idea here is to take this number for each team, sort from best to worst, and identify outliers – where teams that are near the top of this metric had a poor record, or vice versa.
·         When examining the 2010 season prior to the 2011 season, here were some of the outliers that could be isolated as teams that had either a green or red flag heading into the season:
o   HOU was #2 in yards per play, but was the only team in the top 8 of this stat that did not post a record at .500 or better.  Seven of the top eight in this stat posted double digit wins in 2010.  HOU however only reached 6 wins, suggesting in 2011 they would be a targeted team to increase their wins.  What happened?  They did just that, improving four games all the way to double digit wins, 10.  What’s more, DAL was the only other team besides HOU in the top 11 that wasn’t at least  .500 – what did the Cowboys do in 2011?  They went from 6 to 8 wins, in fact reaching that .500 mark.
o   CHI & ATL were on the other end of the spectrum, both among the bottom 7 in the NFL as far as the yards per play stat goes, posting a mark below 5.00.  Based on the idea they were near the bottom of the league in this important stat, yet somehow managed to post a strong record in 2010, you would expect them to worsen in 2011.  What happened?  Both teams dropped 3 games off their 2010 win totals.

KEY TAKEAWAY: There is a clear correlation between a team’s win/loss record and their success or failure in the yards per play metric.  Heading into 2011 there were only two teams that were within the top 11 of this stat, yet failed to post a .500 or better record in 2010 – they reversed that in 2011 with both reaching at least 8 wins.  In addition, it works on the flip side as of the bottom 7 teams in the NFL, only two posted a .500 or better mark in 2010 – and both those teams reverted downwards in 2011. 

·          Based upon 2011 figures, for the 2012 season we expect to see:
o   SF & BAL to have a worse record compared to 2011.  I think most experts agree SF will take a step back from the 13-3 mark they posted last season, while BAL, similar to PIT, is competing in an improved AFC North but could wind up, at worst, sticking to their 12-4 mark from 2011.
o   CAR will have a better record, while BUF is on the fringe.  I think you would be hard pressed to find any NFL analyst that does not think CAR will rise above last season’s 6 win total, creeping towards .500 at the least.

  1. First Downs per Game: another straight forward calculation or stat you can pull from just about any website, this gives a good idea of the consistency and success teams have a moving the ball, and hence scoring points.  While the big play isn’t captured in this metric, they are few and far between – and a much more favorable way to measure success of an offense is by their success picking up first downs. 
·         When examining the 2010 season prior to the 2011 season, here were some of the outliers that could be isolated as teams that had either a green or red flag heading into the season:
o   CHI & TB were the only two teams of the bottom 12 in this stat that won double digit games in 2010.  What happened in 2011?  You guessed it, both teams records worsened considerably with CHI going from 11-5 to 8-8, and TB going from 10-6 to 4-12. 
o   HOU, DAL, CIN, DEN were the only teams from the top 15 of this stat that were below .500 record wise in 2010.  When 2011 was over and in the books all 4 saw their wins improve: HOU 6 to 10, DAL 6 to 8, CIN 4 to 9, DEN 4 to 8. 

KEY TAKEAWAY: Just like Points Differential & Yards per Play, the First Downs per Game metric is another sure fire sign of impending doom or celebration for teams the following year.  What makes this stat, along with the prior two amazing is there are no outliers whatsoever amongst them – every time the statistics point to an increase or a decrease in a team’s record, it happens. 

·           Based upon 2011 figures, for the 2012 season we expect to see:
o   SF to have a worse record
o   CAR to have a better record, while BUF again is on the fringe

As mentioned in the beginning of this post, Turnover Margin is the other leading indicator I use, but it will not be discussed here today.  I will feature an entire blog entry on this topic in the coming weeks, and trust me when I tell you that is a must read for any football handicapper.


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