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What’s More Impressive?

Yesterday, Norwegian Ole Einar Bjørndalen became the most decorated winter Olympian in history, winning his eighth gold medal in the mixed relay, a new Olympic event in the biathlon. He now stands alone atop the list of individual success…in the winter. American Michael Phelps still towers over Olympians at large; why, Phelps won eight gold medals in the Beijing games alone. Who has the most impressive individual Olympic performance: Bjørndalen or Phelps?

Ole Einar Bjørndalen

In the north, one learns to never f%&$ with someone who can both out-ski and out-shoot you.

Michael Fred Phelps II

Whereas further south people are like “Skiing…on the water?”

Individual Medal Count

For both athletes, there is their individual medal count, and then their individual-medal count. Bjørndalen won eight golds, four silvers, and one bronze; his golds tie for the most and his total medals are the most of any winter Olympian. Phelps won 18 golds (freak), two silvers, and two bronze; his 18 golds are the most of any Olympian by far (next closest is nine from Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina), and his 22 total medals are the most by four (also ahead of Latynina).

But then, many of those medals came in relays and team events. Group medals should not be forgotten, but they go beyond the control of one person, even if that one person is Michael Phelps. Remember this?

In purely individual events, Phelps has 11 Olympic golds (second-most is 8 from American Ray Ewry in the early 1900s), one silver, and one bronze; his 13 total rank second-most (yes, behind Latynina). Bjørndalen has five individual golds, tied for 11th-most of all Olympians, and tied for 2nd among winter Olympians. With three silvers and one bronze, his nine individual medals rank tied for 5th among all Olympians, tied for 2nd among winter Olympians (with his countryman Bjørn Dæhlie; it pays to be Bjørn).

Competition

Inspired by Tuesday’s “What If?” XKCD, Fermi estimation will guide this segment. Fifty-one nations have won 1,561 medals in Olympic swimming, beginning with the first summer Olympics in 1900. Twenty-one nations have won 190 medals in Olympic biathlon, beginning with the official introduction of the event in 1960. Curiously, in the most recent Olympics, about 40 men contested both the 100 meter swim and the 20K individual biathlon. Forgetting differences between men and women, changes over time, etc, on average assume a biathlon and a swimming event have 40 competitors at the Olympic level.

How about the competition in getting to the Olympics? Both sports certainly require gear, facilities, and exposure inaccessible to most throughout the world. Likely there are more aspiring swimmers than biathletes in the United States, though perhaps not in Norway.1 Worldwide, perhaps twice as many people try to compete in swimming than biathlon, per country, on average. And say one percent of all competitors make it to the Olympics. (Likely it is much less, but no matter.)

Roughly, that is 51 swimming countries times 11 individual events Phelps won times 40 Olympic competitors per event times 100 for non-Olympic competitors times two for swimming =

51 * 11 * 40 * 100 * 2 = 4 million competitors (with double counting due to crossover between different events) whom Phelps bested in his 11 individual gold medals.

For overall medals (51 * 13 * 40 * 100 * 2), Phelps’ competition pool was maybe 5 million competitors.

For Bjørndalen, his “golden” competitors total some 0.4 million and his total competitors total roughly 0.8 million. Even dropping the “swimming is twice as popular” assumption, Phelps’ competition would seemingly still be double Bjørndalen’s.

Timing

Phelps participated in the Sydney 2000 games, before winning medals in Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, and London 2012, after which he retired from Olympic competition. Bjørndalen participated in the Lillehammer 1994 games, before winning medals in Nagano 1998, Salt Lake City 2002, Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010, and Sochi 2014 (whew!). Bjørndalen won Olympic medals, indeed Olympic golds, for a period eight years longer than Phelps did. Biathletes and swimmers age differently, but Bjørndalen still fended off progressively younger challengers through his 40th birthday.

Is that unusual? Of the 20 Olympians who have eight or more medals in individual events, only 4 (including Bjørndalen) did so over more than eight years. Bjørndalen is the only one of those individuals to win medals (and gold medals) 16 years apart. This cuts both ways; he had more Olympics to win medals in, but he also kept performing at an elite level for sixteen years.

And as they come to the finish, it is…

Michael Phelps, by a nose! Or one one-hundredth of a second, whatever.

Ultimately, Phelps’ dominance–11 individual gold medals–over millions of swimmers around the world for eight whole years is too extreme to ignore. Bjørndalen will always be attached to the modifier: winter Olympian. Being Norwegian, he is probably okay with it.


  1. Norway has one silver and one bronze in 100+ years of Olympic swimming. Norway has 12 golds, 18 silvers, and 9 bronze in 54 years of Olympic biathlon. 
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Last night my roommate told of the similarities between being in an American bar on an autumn Sunday afternoon and being in a Canadian bar for Hockey Night. Football has long overtaken baseball as the most popular sport in the United States, in a general sense1, and imagining Canada without hockey is like imagining 2014 without the Internet–life would be terrible without it.

Which is more impressive: Canada’s love for hockey, or America’s love for football?

Money

The most recent NHL deal for Canadian broadcast rights comes from Rogers Communications, which will pay $4.765 billion (U.S. dollars) over 12 years beginning with the 2014-2015 season.2 The most recent NFL deal with networks Fox, CBS, and NBC for American broadcast totals $27.9 billion over nine years, beginning in 2014.3 The Canadian-broadcast NHL deal averages $0.397 billion a season, while the American-broadcast NFL deal averages $3.1 billion a season. With 1,230 NHL regular season games and approximately 78 playoff games4, and 267 NFL regular season and playoff games, that averages to $303,582 per Canadian-broadcast NHL game and $11,610,487 per American-broadcast NFL game.

These figures are not perfectly accurate; there is inflation to consider, and the potential growth/decline of the Canadian/American dollar, as the Canadian deal is actually in Canadian dollars ($5.232 billion of them). But the contracts begin in the same year and are for similar lengths of time, and honestly no one knows too much about the potential currency changes a decade from now. Certainly, there is a lot more money in the NFL. However…

It’s All Relative

The 2010 U.S. census recorded 308,745,906 people living in the United States.5 The 2011 Canadian census recorded 33,476,688 people living in Canada.6 With only one year of separation, there is no need to get too technical. Canada’s population is about 11 percent of the United States’ population. Though more precise actual Canadian viewership ratings are hard to find, raw numbers are available.

Game seven of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks, is the most watched NHL game in Canadian history, with 8.96 million Canadians tuning in.7 Super Bowl XLVI, between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants in 2012, was at the time the most watched NFL game in American history with 111.3 million American viewers.8 In 2011, 26.8 percent of Canada watched the effective NHL championship game; in 2012, 36 percent of the United States watched the Super Bowl. Point to the NFL.

Is football more popular in America than hockey in Canada? There are two other things to consider.

The 32 NFL teams all reside in the United States; the Buffalo Bills do play a game in Toronto every season, and there are a couple of games in London every year, but at the moment it is still a wholly American league. Of the 30 teams in the NHL, 23 reside in the states, leaving Canada with the other seven. Loving hockey as they do, and with Canadian players spread throughout the league, Canadians presumably still have some interest in the American teams, but it is not the same.

Quant Hockey has broken down the NHL’s various player nationalities for many years. Their data reveals that since the mid 1990s, the NHL has been a little more than 50 percent Canadian. Call it 50 percent, as the NFL is not 100% full of American players. In 2010, the most-watched, American-teams-only Stanley Cup Finals game drew 4.077 million Canadian viewers9, roughly 12% of the country. Yet doubling that to adjust for the significant non-Canadian portion of the league still only yields 24%, while the Super Bowl regularly attracts a third of the United States or more.

Those few Stanley Cup Finals games and Super Bowls are just that: few. Nonetheless it would hardly be surprising to discover that more Americans watch television, per capita or not, and certainly NFL games attract bigger crowds. But in addition to the context of population, there is a context of economy.

Those broadcast deals net the NHL $0.397 billion each year and the NFL $3.1 billion each year, from the Canadian and American television markets, respectively. In 2012, Canada’s gross domestic product totaled $1.821 trillion (U.S. dollars); America’s totaled $15.68 trillion. More or less, Canada’s NHL deal shakes out to 0.02 percent of its economy, which hardly seems like much. But the United States’ NFL deal amounts to 0.008 percent of the American economy. The NHL accounts for more of Canada’s economic pie than the NFL does of America’s, but hey–being American and all–our pie is much, much bigger (as, incidentally, are NFL players).

Bottom Line

The NFL’s popularity in the United States is more impressive than the NHL’s in Canada. The NFL’s numbers are absolutely superior, relatively comparable, and the NFL also competes with several other professional sports. Nonetheless, Canada’s love of hockey is probably more impressive, or at least more instinctual, than America’s passion for football. Call it a draw? But then, if a draw it is, Canada certainly takes it in overtime; the NFL’s post-regulation rules are ridiculous.


  1. The NFL draws higher attendance per game, and while there are only 16 in a team’s season, they still rake in the most in broadcast rights, the Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event, etc. 
  2.  Click here for source. 
  3.  Click here for source. 
  4. Assuming an average NHL playoff series length of 5.2 games, multiplied by the 15 playoff series every postseason. 
  5.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_United_States_Census 
  6.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_of_Canada 
  7.  Click here for source. 
  8.  Click here for source. Super Bowl XLVI’s viewership record withstood the Blackout Bowl featuring San Francisco and Baltimore in 2013 but was just slightly bested by Seattle and Denver this year. See an earlier post which details why that is not actually impressive, as the American television audience grows every year. 
  9.  Click here for source. 

Way back in early September, before the NFL season began, Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell, staff writers at Grantland, ran a podcast in which they made numerous preseason predictions for fun. At the suggestion of one of them during the podcast, I took down their predictions, but then never sent them in to Grantland, and the notes have just been sitting in my Gmail drafts folder for months. No more!

While Bill Barnwell posted an excellent feature about the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, quarterback Russell Wilson, and the best contract in football (click here for my own analysis of the best contracts in football; Wilson is certainly up there), I thought it would be fun to analyze Barnwell, and Mays, to determine who made the better predictions this season. Is one more expert than the other? Check it out!

Player Props

Adrian Peterson: 5.1 Yards per Carry
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Over
Result: Under (4.5)

Say it with me now: regression to the mean. Not just to the league average (about four yards) but to Peterson’s own. Peterson has now had two seasons over 5.1 yards per carry and five seasons under it; among those five seasons, even the highest clip is only 4.8.

J.J. Watt: 15.5 Sacks
Mays: Under
Barnwell: Under
Result: Under (10.5)

Regression scores again! J.J. Watt still put up the best season of any defensive player (highest graded by Pro Football Focus on the season), but 16 sacks is a lot for anyone, especially a 3-4 defensive end whose primary job is not rushing the passer.

John Abraham: 8.5 Sacks
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (11.5)

A surprisingly impressive season from the 35-year-old.

Andrew Luck: 4,200 Passing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: No bet, agrees with logic, no strong feelings.
Result: Under (3,822)

This result is even more impressive given that Trent Richardson was so completely ineffective (averaged 2.9 yards per carry) this season.

Andrew Luck: 15.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Agree? Recognizes similar logic.
Result: Under (9)

The kid is good. Although he did rank 20th among 27 quarterbacks in accuracy percentage (per PFF). Maybe something to consider next season.

Geno Atkins: 9.5 Sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under
Result: Under (6)

Atkins went down on Halloween against the Dolphins and that was it for his season. He only played in seven games. Injury risk is always something to consider.

Greg Olsen: 775.5 Receiving Yards
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (816)

Curious. Prior to 2012, Olsen’s most receiving yards in a season were his 612 with the Bears in 2009. But with Cam Newton he has now gone over 800 twice.

Matt Forte: 1,000.5 Rushing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under, later SWITCHES to Over
Result: Over (1,339)

A wise move as Forte put together his first back-to-back 1,000-plus yard seasons. Staying healthy, and amassing the most rushing attempts since his rookie season, certainly helped.

Charles Tillman: 4.5 Forced Fumbles
Barnwell: Under
Mays: No bet (“HOW DARE YOU?”)
Result: Under (3)

Injury cashes Barnwell in again, as Tillman went down only halfway through the season. But this merely underscores that a lot of things have to go right for a corner, or really anyone, to force five fumbles in one season.

Doug Martin: 8.5 Touchdowns
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Pressed by Mays, only says “8 or 9”
Result: Under (1)
Poor Doug Martin’s fate was sealed the instant I drafted him in the first round of my fantasy draft, as he went out for the season in Week 6. Still, a low total nonetheless.
Aaron Rodgers: 38.5 Touchdown Passes
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Over
Result: Under (17)

More injuries, more problems for the over bets. Although in the eight games in which he played more than a few snaps, he only threw 17, not quite on pace for over. Presumably offensive rookie of the year running back Eddie Lacy had something to do with this.

Robert Griffin III: 575.5 Rushing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (489)
Washington never seemed to recover from their opening day track meet against the Eagles, and Griffin missing the final three games while “sort-of-injured-but-healthy-enough-to-play-but-what’s-the-point” was pretty hard to predict.
Jason Babin: 9.5 Sacks
Barnwell: Under (Barnwell’s lock)
Mays: Under
Result: Under (7.5)

Barnwell’s lock comes through, although this must have been a little exciting as Babin came on and posted 5.5 in December.

Brian Orakpo: 7.5 Sacks
Mays: Over (Mays’ lock)
Barnwell: Over
Result: Over (10)

Mays’ lock comes through, as Orakpo went over on December 1st against the New York Giants. He is pretty good when healthy, it would seem.

Alex Smith: 3,350 Passing Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Over
Result: Under (3,313)

This was about Andy Reid being allergic to running backs in Philadelphia and Alex Smith having Dwayne Bowe to throw to, and, uh, hold that thought…

***BONUS BET***
Dwayne Bowe: 1,000.5 Receiving Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (673)

Ouch.

Dez Bryant: 92.5 Catches
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under
Result: Over (93)

Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Grantland staff writer Robert Mays! Really must have sweat it too, with Bryant needing eight receptions in Week 17 against Philadelphia, without Kyle Orton at quarterback. But he eked it out!

Danny Amendola: 950.5 Receiving Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Over
Result: Under (633)

Ouch. Injuries, injuries, injuries… Amendola missed four games.

Tavon Austin: 7.5 Touchdowns (Rushing, Receiving, & Return)
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (6)

To be fair, Austin would likely have gone over if it had not taken the Rams coaching staff to realize that Austin was on their team (and/or the Rams special teams return unit had not felt the need to hold or block in the back on approximately 371% of their returns).

Richard Sherman: 4.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (8)

An incredible result. Among corners who played half or more of their teams’ snaps, Sherman was targeted only 58 times in the regular season, the sixth-fewest. He led the league with eight interceptions. Sherman grabbed a pick every 7.25 throws into his coverage, easily tops in the league. Goodness.

***Mays’ Prediction***
Jonathan Banks leads the league in interceptions.

Very, very difficult to predict; Banks finished tied for 15th with several players, having recorded three interceptions.

Chris Long: 10 sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (8.5)

Maybe next year; PFF awarded him 10 sacks, as they do not punish players by awarding only a half-sack when another teammate also gets to the quarterback. Also Long’s 46 quarterback hurries were tied for fourth at his position this season. He generated pressure, but sometimes it takes a little luck (or a bad opponent quarterback) to get the sack numbers.

Josh Freeman: 16.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Under (4)

What a year for Freeman, in all the bad ways. Ugh. And he actually was right about on pace, throwing one in every game he played.

Clay Mathews: 11.5 Sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (7.5)

Injuries, oh the injuries…

Russell Wilson: 3,400 Passing Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: No bet
Result: Under (3,357)

Yeeesh. Perhaps if Percy Harvin had played more than 40 snaps…

Division Winners & Playoffs

First Pick in 2014 Draft
Barnwell: OAK
Mays: OAK
Result: HOU
AFC East
Barnwell: NE
Mays: NE
Result: NE
AFC North
Barnwell: PIT
Mays: CIN (PIT last!)
Result: CIN (PIT actually 2nd, 8-8 and ahead of the 8-8 Ravens)
AFC South
Barnwell: HOU
Mays: HOU
Result: IND
AFC West
Barnwell: KC
Mays: DEN
Result: DEN
AFC Wildcards
Barnwell: DEN, CIN
Mays: KC, BAL
Result: KC, SD
NFC East
Barnwell: NYG
Mays: DAL
Result: PHI
NFC North
Barnwell: GB
Mays: GB
Result: GB
NFC South
Barnwell: TB
Mays: TB
Result: CAR
NFC West
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: SF
Result: SEA
NFC Wildcards
Barnwell: SF, DET
Mays: CHI, SEA
Result: SF, NO
AFC Champion
Barnwell: DEN
Mays: DEN
Result: DEN
NFC Champion
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: GB
Result: SEA
Super Bowl Champion
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: DEN
Result: SEA

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Grantland staff writer Bill Barnwell! Correctly predicting BOTH conference champions AND the Super Bowl champions! Barnwell would be the very first one to tell you that this result is due to his prodigious SKILL and not at all due to luck…oh right, he is Bill Barnwell. He is not foolish.

Player & Coach Statistical Leaders and Awards

Defensive Player of the Year
Barnwell: Clay Matthews
Mays: Geno Atkins (15 sacks!)
Result: Luke Kuechly

To be fair, Kuechly totally did not deserve this award at all. (Maybe more on that later.) But then with injuries, neither did their selections.

Passing Leader
Barnwell: Peyton Manning
Mays: Andrew Luck
Result: Peyton Manning
Rushing Leader
Barnwell: Trent Richardson
Mays: LeSean McCoy
Result: LeSean McCoy
Receiving Leader
Barnwell: Calvin Johnson
Mays: Dez Bryant
Result: Josh Gordon (in only 14 games!)
First Pick in 2014 Draft
Barnwell: Jadeveon Clowney
Mays: Teddy Bridgewater
Result: TBD
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Barnwell: Tavon Austin
Mays: Eddie Lacey
Result: Eddie Lacey
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Barnwell: Kenny Vaccaro
Mays: Alec Ogletree
Result: Sheldon Richardson
Coach of the Year
Barnwell: Andy Reid
Mays: Greg Schiano
Result: “Riverboat” Ron Rivera
Most Valuable Player
Barnwell: Russell Wilson
Mays: Aaron Rodgers
Result: Peyton Manning

Final Scorecards

Overall, Mr. Mays went a respectable 15/44, 34% on his picks. In pure props he was 6/20, while going 2/9 on individual awards and statistics and 7/15 on team predictions. Mr. Barnwell edged him slightly, going 17/46, 37%. Barnwell went 9/22 on player props, 1/9 on individual awards and statistics, and 7/15 on team predictions. When both Mays and Barnwell agreed, they went 8/21, 38%; 5/15 on props, 0/1 on awards, and 3/5 on teams.

The lesson? Predictions are not easy, and your gut feeling will not take you very far, even if you know a lot. Consider that among their player predictions, designed to have a 50-50 chance, both Mays and Barnwell did worse than a coin flip. This is not because they do not know about football (they know a great deal), but because this stuff is hard, and luck plays a bigger role than anything else. Nonetheless, one can see why a comprehensive examination of numbers might come in handy.

If you see a supposed pundit make a prediction, remember to think twice before buying in. Okay, that is not news. But remember to ALWAYS think twice (and a third time, a fourth, etc), even when the pundits are quite knowledgeable, even when the predictors tell a story that you find logically sound, and perhaps most importantly, even when you already agree with them (and especially when they are not being 100% serious, à la Mays and Barnwell). Or at the very least, think twice before you put any money down.

In the 1980s, Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson sought to determine a baseline expected value for every pick in the NFL draft. This was a very good idea. Rather than just winging it each year when considering draft pick trades, expected values would provide the Cowboys front office a framework to build upon. Should Dallas trade the 20th and 80th overall picks for the 5th overall pick? How about the 50th pick for a first round pick next season? These questions require a sound process for good answers. Draft picks are precious commodities; aside from players, they are the currency teams use in deals with each other.

Coach Johnson’s system was not perfect. His extensive knowledge of football through years working in the NFL made the chart a good starting place.1 It contributed to the famous Herschel Walker trade (which has its own Wikipedia page), and helped set up the Cowboys three Super Bowls championships in the 1990s. But Coach Johnson’s preliminary valuation lacked a scientific process. Entire decades have gone by. There are oodles of data on players taken in the NFL draft, the length of their careers, salaries earned, touchdowns scored, tackles, expected points and win probability added, etc.

In the fall of 2011, Kevin Meers, of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, revalued NFL draft picks using the Career Approximate Value statistic compiled by Pro Football Reference. (Do read Mr. Meers’ actual article, which details the process.) This system is also presumably not 100 percent perfect, but it is a vast improvement, examining the career output of every single pick from 1980-2005.

How do the two systems compare? These are their respective charts:

Jimmy Johnson’s Draft Pick Value Chart, 1980s

Jimmy Johnson Draft Pick Value Chart

Kevin Meer’s Draft Pick Value Chart, 2011

Kevin Meers Draft Pick Value Chart

Notice first that Johnson’s system is more extreme, valuing the first overall pick at 3,000 and the 224th pick at three.2 Meers’ system values the first pick at 494.6 and the 224th at 39.8. Theoretically, the first pick is probably not worth 1,000 (!) last picks. Even if one of those picks is Tom Brady only one in one hundred times, 1,000 last picks would still yield ten Tom Bradys (Tom Bradies?) while just one first overall pick could yield a maximum of one Tom Brady. Of course, that sentence illustrates that theory is sometimes ridiculous! What would a team do with 1,000 late round draft picks, even over a period of several years? Only 53 people can make the team. Nonetheless, Johnson’s system appears to overvalue the first overall pick by at least a factor of ten, if not a hundred.

The key problem with Johnson’s chart is that it overvalues earlier picks and undervalues later picks. Earlier picks are still better! (Duh.) Meers’ chart, a product of data, still indicates that with each additional pick, the likely career output of the drafted player declines. And Meers’ chart still finds that the rate of decline is decreasing: the drop in expected value from the first to the second pick is many, many times larger than the drop from the 223rd pick to the 224th. The theory and logic behind each chart is the same. Meers’ simply uses actual data, which reflects a different, more accurate picture.

As I wrote yesterday, the San Francsico 49ers are in excellent shape for the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft. Meers’ chart is a big reason why. The 49ers will likely have SIX picks among the first 100 in the draft this spring. That the 49ers first pick comes 30th overall is not a reason to get down in the slightest. The antiquated valuation undervalues such picks: the 100th pick is worth only one-three-hundredth of the first pick in Johnson’s system. But, actual data indicates the 100th pick is more likely worth one-fifth of the first. The 49ers should have six picks with fairly high expected values. And with an already talented roster, they may trade to move up and get a player even more likely to succeed, without giving up all their picks in later rounds.

Remember, draft picks are free money in the NFL; teams get them every year just by being in the league. With the most picks in this draft, the 49ers are rich. Big spending is not just a thing for free agency.


  1. Similar to Dick Vermeil’s Two Point Conversion Chart, which I wrote about here. 
  2. The first overall pick is worth 3,000…what? Dollars? No, just units. The charts have been scaled to simple numerical values, as their purpose is for relatively ranking the picks within them. 

Two things have been on my mind since yesterday’s NFL action. One, can any team replicate the Arizona Cardinals’ shocking success in Seattle, where they won 17-10 as nine-point underdogs? Two, how is it possible the New York Jets can still finish without a losing record? How did they get to seven wins heading into their final game? As these things aren’t really related at all, I made them related in this post, another feature of “What’s More Impressive?“.

A quick rundown of some numbers I’ll be using to answer:

  • DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. Football Outsiders created it to determine relative team strength. The idea is that there are only 16 games a season, a small sample to rank teams on. But there are lots of plays in a season, usually more than a hundred every game, so Football Outsiders looks at how successful a team is on an average play, and then compares that to a league-wide average, using percentages. Feel free to read more.
  • PW% stands for Pythagorean Winning Percentage. This uses the idea that the margin of victory (or defeat) is a significant indicator of team strength, especially over the course of the season. The formula is (Points Scored ^ 2.37) / {(Points Scored ^ 2.37)+(Points Allowed ^ 2.37)}.
  • Point spreads have long been used by Las Vegas casinos. They’re designed to get even action on both sides. Most would bet that the Broncos would beat the Texans, so Vegas increases payouts for betting that the Broncos will win by, say, 10.5 points (the line for yesterday’s game). Casinos frequently adjust spreads to ensure that they see half the action on each side. The more a team is favored, the better their chances are of winning outright. (Duh.)
  • HFA stands for Home Field Advantage. In a recent column on Grantland, Bill Barnwell examined a team’s average margin of victory in its current stadium, and compared that margin to their average margin of victory (or defeat) on the road, going back through the 2002 season. The difference between the two average margins, divided by two, is historically the expected “extra” points for the home team, relative to a neutral site.

Let’s start with the Cardinals. They’ve been pretty good this year, sure. They were 9-5 heading into yesterday’s game, still alive for an NFC Wildcard berth. They have been cursed by their company; the league-leading 12-3 Seahawks, as well as the 10-4 49ers, are also in the NFC West division. They had lost to them each once already, heading into Week 16. They’d beaten the Lions (that meant something for most of the season), and the Panthers (who clinched a playoff spot yesterday), and the Colts (who clinched last week), but all at home. The Cardinals were 6-1 at home, and 3-4 on the road, and that home loss came to… the Seahawks. Second-year Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson was a perfect 14-0 at home heading into yesterday. The Seahawks have looked dominant all year, and, well, unbeatable at home.

Cardinals vs. Seahawks

  • Record: 10-5 (66.57%, tied for 7th); Seahawks’ Record: 12-3 (80%, tied for 1st)
  • DVOA (through Week 15): 10.9% (10th); Seahawks’ DVOA: 40.4% (1st)
  • PW%: 60.29% (9th); Seahaw’s PW%: 79.17%% (1st)
  • Record of nine-point underdogs (since 2003): 28-88 (24.1%)
  • Seattle’s HFA (since 2002): 5.2 points/game (1st)
  • Interceptions Thrown By Carson Palmer: 4 (4!!!)

1 2 Here’s the thing: I was considering taking the points in this game, but ultimately decided the Seahawks were just too good. Worst case scenario, Arizona would hang around, but Seattle would eventually cover (see: Broncos-Texans). But if you had guaranteed to me that Carson Palmer would throw four interceptions, I would have put my life savings on Seattle (or, at least some real money). I can’t believe they won with him throwing four picks. I know they did it with a really, really good defensive performance, aided by an injured Seahawk offensive line, but, like, how did they do that?

As for the Jets, they’ve been, uhh, bad. They now have seven wins (!), five of which are against teams with 5-10 records or worse.3 They lost by 25 to the Titans. (Yes, the Titans.) They lost by 40 to the Bengals. (Yes, 40.) They beat the Bills by seven… and later lost to them by 23. But they’re now 6-2 at home, 1-6 on the road, and a remarkable 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That includes (home) victories over the Patriots by three points4 and the Saints by six points. The thing is that “games decided by a touchdown or less” suggest more luck rather than skill. We love fitting narratives to teams, players, and coaches about how they always pull it out, but a team’s record in close games converges to .500 the more close games they play. The Jets flipped a coin six times and got five victories back. What else suggests the Jets have been lucky?

Jet’s Victories (TB, BUF, @ATL, NE, NO, OAK, CLE)

  • Record: 7-8 (46.67%, tied for 18th); Record of Defeated Opponents: 41-64 (39.05%)
  • DVOA (through Week 15): -13.8% (26th); Average DVOA of Defeated Opponents: -5.27% (Average DVOA Rank of Defeated Opponents: 19.4)
  • PW%: 30.79% (30th); Average PW% of Defeated Opponents: 44.88% (Average PW% Rank of Defeated Opponents: 19.9)
  • Record of teams with Jets’ spread (since 2003) in Jets’ victories: 485-687-1 (41.4%)

That last number is the sum record of teams in match-ups similar to the Jets in their victories, in Vegas’ eyes. The Jets were four-point underdogs in their Week 1 victory over Tampa Bay, and historically four point underdogs have gone 45-91 (straight up, not against the spread). In their Week 3 win over Buffalo, the Jets were 2.5-point favorites, who’ve gone 66-63, etc. Most of the teams the Jets have beaten were bad. But they’re still surprising wins, given that the Jets have seemed even worse (except for, you know, the whole “winning” technicality). What’s more impressive?

Cardinals’ One Win @SEA vs. Jets’ Seven Wins (TB, BUF, @ATL, NE, NO, OAK, CLE)

  • Winning % Gap Between Competition: Cardinals -14.3%; Jets +7.62%
  • DVOA Gap: Cardinals -29.5% (9 ranks); Jets -8.53% (6.6 ranks)
  • PW% Gap: Cardinals -18.88% (8 ranks); Jets -14.09% (10.1 ranks)
  • Historical Winning % Given the Same Spread: Cardinals 24.1%; Jets 41.4%

I feel compelled to declare the New York Jets’ 7-8 record at this point (much) more impressive than the Cardinals’ road victory over the Seahawks, primarily for two reasons. One, ironically this gives the Cardinals more credit. I think they’re a good team, and while I don’t think they’d win in Seattle every time (more like two or three out of ten), this wasn’t a fluke. Two, the Jets have pulled off a bunch of unlikely wins. While the probability of a Jets win in any single one of those games maybe wasn’t as low as the Cardinals’ in Seattle, winning all of them is remarkable.5 Using Vegas spreads, for instance, there was a 24.1% chance the Cardinals won, and on average a 41.4% chance the Jets did. But the Jets won seven times. With an expected winning percentage of 41.4%, the odds you go 7-0 are 0.2%!6 And I think that’s damn impressive.


  1.  http://www.footballoutsiders.com/dvoa-ratings/2013/week-15-dvoa-ratings 
  2.  http://www.teamrankings.com/nfl/odds-history/results/ 
  3. Actually, the Falcons are 5-9. If they beat the 49ers tonight, they would be 6-9. But still. 
  4. Perhaps you recall, this was a bizarre game where the Jets game-winning field goal in overtime actually missed, but then there was some phantom penalty no one had ever heard of on the Patriots, and the Jets got to kick again, from much closer. 
  5. The games are statistically independent, that is, the Jets are a football team with strengths and weaknesses in their match-ups with opponents, and that the outcome of a particular game does not affect the probability (strengths and weaknesses) of an outcome of any other game. 
  6. (414/1000)^7 
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