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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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Lately I’ve been looking in to NFL penalties, and I’m hoping to have a larger project on them in the near-ish future. But for today, just one penalty: the false start. As football fans, we know what causes false starts: miscommunication and confusion between members of the offense, usually brought on by the home crowd cheering its defense to the tune of more than 100 decibels or so. It’s pretty common knowledge that in CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Seahawks enjoy probably the best home-field advantage in the NFL. That may well be true, and an oft-cited statistic is that the Seahawks have benefited from more opponent false starts at home than any other team in the league. We all know it’s true, everyone in Seattle, and all the visiting offenses that have played there, and of course I took that added difficulty for granted when my 49ers went up north to play there. The thing is, uh… it’s a myth.

Let’s start with that claim, “the most”. ESPN Stats & Information keeps tabs on opponent false starts in every stadium in the league. Then, for reasons I don’t fathom, they hide this information so no one can access it, even people who are willing to pay for it. I found an occasional reference to one or two stadiums in their various blog posts, but no go. The most comprehensive list I can find is only the top four, proudly displayed on the Seahawks’ own website. They proclaim that since 2005, visiting offenses have false started 121 times at CenturyLink Field, 115 at Mall of America Field (Vikings’ home field), 107 at Ford Field (Lions’), and 104 at University of Phoenix Stadium (Cardinals’). Well, that settles it I guess.

Wait, hold on! Since 2005… why? CenturyLink opened for the 2002 NFL Season. The selection of 2005 is what statisticians call “arbitrary endpoints”, or what I call “arbitrary endpoints used to make whoever is using the statistic sound cooler than they really are”.1 By perusing the “Home field advantage” section of CenturyLink’s Wikipedia page, I discovered that counting from 2002, the Vikings actually have the most opponent false starts. (The Seahawks are second.) Hm. The stadium hasn’t changed since then… maybe the fans have? Maybe, or maybe in an infamous 2005 game, the visiting New York Giants false started 11 times in Seattle. Hey, that’s exactly what happened! Without that one game2, the Vikings have the most since 2005 (as well as 2002).

Well still, offenses are false starting in Seattle a lot, right? Well… probably not. NFLPenalties.com has logged every NFL penalty since the 2009 season. Their false start data includes which teams have drawn the most false starts from opponents, although tragically without home/away splits. But in fact, that doesn’t really matter. Over the last five seasons (Week 1, 2009 through Week 15, 2013), 50.79% of all (3,103) false starts have actually come when the offense is at home. Seriously? The data must be wrong right? Well, NFLPenalties.com is just conveniently reformatting the information from NFL.com‘s play-by-play data, so the information should be as accurate as anything else NFL.com compiles, and is quite official.

Back to Seattle. Even without knowing in which stadium, I know how much all of each team’s opponents have false started against them the last five seasons. Even better, these aren’t just raw sums, but come with how many games each team has played. Leading the way is the Arizona Cardinals, with a whopping 1.75 opponent false starts per game; the Vikings are second with 1.46 per game. Seattle is tied for 18th (with Cleveland) at 1.15 opponent false starts per game. Could the Seahawks still be forcing a league-leading number of false starts (on a per game basis) at home, and just be unlucky by having played offenses that seldom false start when the Seahawks themselves go on the road? It’s possible, but quite unlikely, especially over five years’ worth of opponents.

Consider: the 49ers, Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks make up the NFC West, and have eight common opponents each year.3 Any two of those teams, say the Cardinals and Seahawks, have 10 common opponents, the eight plus the 49ers and the Rams, whom they place twice each, once at home and once on the road. So the Seahawks and Cardinals (and 49ers and Rams) have mostly played the same teams over the last five seasons. If the Seahawks were playing a lot teams that just didn’t false start very much (either at home or on the road or both), the Cardinals would play many of them too, and have the same difficulties. But the Cardinals lead the league with 1.75 opponent false starts per game over the last five years, while the Seahawks are tied for 18th with 1.15 per game. This may be because no such Seahawks advantage truly exists, or because teams are preparing for them much better than they used to (while perhaps not taking the Cardinals as seriously). Regardless, the extra false starts in Seattle seem to be a myth of the past. I wonder how long the legend of CenturyLink Field will continue into the future.


  1. Rolls right of the tongue. 
  2. It’s also not clear how many games we’re talking about. Most teams play eight home games a year, with a couple each year playing a “home” game in London. Of course there are also playoff games at home. But we’re looking at 60+ games, at least. 
  3. It’s the brilliance of NFL scheduling. The divisions rotate. Last year, every team in the NFC West played every team in the NFC North & AFC East; this year, every team in the NFC South and AFC South. Next year, it’ll be the NFC East and the AFC West. And so on. 

It’s been a couple of weeks since I checked my notes on silly things announcers say during games, and I thought I’d get back to it. Let’s go!

At home in Week 13, the Texans force a Patriots’ punt and get the ball back just before halftime.

CBS play-by-play veteran Greg Gumbel:

And with 28 seconds on the clock, the Texans will have the ball at their own 20 yard line, and unless something really, really strange happens they’re going to go the locker room with the lead.

I guess this is the equivalent of whatever an honorable mention would be in this series. John Madden said things like this all the time. When you’re public speaking for three hours, you’ll probably end up saying something “really, really” obvious somewhere in there. I’m mostly fine with announcers saying a few things here and there just to fill in the broadcast, but I still thought this was funny.

At home in Week 13, the Panthers gain two yards on 3rd&G from the Bucs’ three yard line with 30 seconds left in the second quarter.

Fox’s play-by-play man Chris Myers:

Now let’s see if he’s going to go for it or not, remember he said he plays percentages, he’s going to let the clock run, of course you can always go for it, if you miss it you pin Tampa Bay back there with your time outs.

Color commentator Tim Ryan, former third round pick of the Chicago Bears in the 1990 NFL Draft:

I’m never chasing points early in games, Riverboat Ron or not, check the analytics, take the points.

Ugh. Tim, I’m taking your advice, and actually checking the analytics. (Although it’s really obvious going for it is the better strategy.) HEY, the analytics say that going for it provides the Panthers a 79% chance of winning and kicking the field goal results in a 74% chance of winning. Tim, if I agreed to give you $3 every day (100% of days) over four weeks, or if I agreed to give you $7 on 19 days within four weeks (68% of days), which would you prefer? The 100% chance of $3 ($3 on average each day, $84 total), or the 68% chance of $7 ($4.76 on average each day, $133 total)? Yes Tim, as the NFL average of converting 4th&1 is 68%1, the deal I’m offering is pretty much analogous to this situation. This is what checking the analytics means, Tim. What do you think?

Tim Ryan:

I think two missed opportunities to give Cam Newton the ball there on second and third down, and it looks like they’re going to be out there and they’re gonna go for it here on fourth down. I would just take the points and go up by a touchdown.

Chris Myers:

Ron Rivera chooses otherwise, if you were going to do that, maybe leave a little more time in case you stop ’em, but let’s see.

Before the play, the Bucs call timeout. Chris Myers:

So how about this call?

Tim Ryan:

I don’t ever want to chase points, especially in the first half of games, you’ve got an opportunity to kick a field goal, Ron knows way more about it than I do, he’s got obviously great trust in his football team, I would not give an opportunity for Tampa to change the momentum, if they can get a stop here.

The Panthers go for it, and Cam Newton dives over the line for a touchdown.

Eventually Ryan says:

I guess if I had that guy and I was Ron Rivera I’d be going for it too. … I don’t care what your cards say, you’re always holding a royal flush when Cam’s out there.

Way to go Tim! Way to go. Next time, maybe have an intern check the analytics for you, and you won’t have to use poker vernacular to distract your audience that you just used the phrase “chasing points” several times like it actually means something, but really you don’t know what you’re talking about.

At home against the Bears in Week 13, the Vikings get a first down at the Bears 21 with 9:03 left in overtime.

Thom Brennaman:

Well they’re going to continue to run plays here, for the time being anyway, after the penalty the ball all the way down to the 21. …

On first down, Peterson loses three yards, setting up 2nd&13 from the Bear 24.

Thom Brennaman:

Right now it would be a 43 yard field goal attempt, maybe 42 yards, and we mentioned earlier Walsh, has been lights out in his career, short albeit it. But a Pro Bowler as a rookie a season ago, and only two misses all of this year.

Brian Billick:

Can Blair Walsh make it from here? Then center it up and kick the ball. There are too many things that can go wrong.

The “Can Blair Walsh make it from here?” question is, well, disturbing coming from a former Super Bowl winning head coach, who presumably took the same logic in his own decisions. As we saw in Week 14, Matt Prater can hit a 64 yard field goal in Denver. Should the Broncos kick every time they get to their opponents’ 47 yard line? Probably not, right? You’ll notice the Broncos only kicked that field goal because there was no time left in the first half. If there was, they would have kept running plays to get closer. And that’s the thing about field goals: closer is always better. Always. Brian Burke’s research suggests that every yard closer increases field goal percentage by 1.6% (between the 10 and 35 yard lines). But anyway, Peterson gained three yards, setting up 3rd&10 from the 21. The Vikings put out their field goal unit.

Brian Billick:

And this is a good call, why do it on fourth down, do it on third down, than god forbid if there’s a bad snap, something happens, then you can fall on the ball and re- and take another kick, so this is a good move by Minnesota, by doing this on third down.

How likely is a bad snap, or a “something happens”, that lets the Vikings get another shot? (Note: a missed field goal ends the offense’s position, even if it’s not on fourth down.) Burke guesses it’s around 0.5%, or one in every two hundred. That seems fair given that of the last 500 extra point attempts, where the process for snapping and holding is exactly the same, only seven have been missed. If all seven are the result of bad snaps or holds (which they probably aren’t), that’s a bad snap/hold rate of 1.4%. But even if you really go crazy and think it’s 2%, the Vikings can increase their chances of winning by 3.2% just by gaining two yards! Adrian Peterson averaged 6 yards per carry in that game, and is around five yards per carry in his career.

As it turned out, Walsh hit the field goal, but a 15 yard penalty on the Vikings set up 3rd&25 from the Bear 36. The Vikings put their offense back out on the field.

Brian Billick:

They feel like they need to grind out a couple more yards, rather than- rather than give Blair Walsh the shot from here.

Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier decided to make the field goal easier here… only for Peterson to actually lose three yards, and see Walsh miss the ensuing 57 yarder. The Bears got the ball and got to a 2nd&7 from the Vikings 29, and sent their field goal unit out to attempt a 47 yard field goal.

Brian Billick:

You know same mentality, why risk the turnover, you’ve got a great deal of faith in your field goal kicker. You know I had a great one in Baltimore Thom in Matt Stover, and by quarter, Matt would tell me exactly where I needed to be in order to attempt these field goals. … There’s no question it’s within his range. Once you cross that 30 as a I said, you set that mark, once you get past it then that’s when you make your decision as a coach. … This is clearly his range.

Again, being incredibly generous to this thinking, we’re looking at a 2% chance of bumbling the snap/hold process, and a 1.6% improvement of making the kick for every yard the Bears continue to advance down the field. A kicker’s “range” is not static: every bit closer the odds go up, every bit farther away the odds go down. Plus, it was only second down! Even if you want to go on third down in the very unlikely event your field goal unit botches it, at least use second down! Yeah, the Bears could turn the ball over, but have the odds of that changed in the last couple plays? If you’re worried about a turnover why not just punt as soon as you get the ball? Anyway, Gould missed wide right; the Vikings eventually won on the next possession.

In Tennessee down 10-7, the Cardinals kick a field goal on 4th&2 from the Titan 7 with 7:25 left in the second quarter.

FOX color commentator Charles Davis:

I think it’s the right call this early in the game, Arizona plenty more opportunities on offense, and moving and clicking pretty well now, you don’t turn down points here, not anywhere close to a desperation move. Munchak, we saw him, head coach of the Titans, happy with his defense coming up with that third down stop and forcing a field goal attempt.

Blegh. Forget the hyperbole of momentum, turning down points, etc. Going for it gave the Cardinals a 50% chance of winning; kicking the field goal, 48%. Oh yeah, and also the Cardinals ended up with a big lead before a Titans comeback led to an eventual Cardinals’ win in overtime. Arizona could have avoided that by actually putting them away and taking the most points, instead of just taking (some of) the points.

A.J. Hawk breaks up a Tony Romo pass on 1st&10 from the Cowboy 23 with 13:23 to go in the second quarter.

Fox color guy Troy Aikman:

Hawk makes a nice play on that ball, and, and A.J. Hawk, I think he’s one of the more under appreciated guys around the league, and, I think a lot of expectations when he came into the league from Ohio State because where he was drafted, but you know he’s probably been their most consistent player defensively, he shows up every week, he used to be a first and second down guy and now he even stays in nickel situations.

Also be wary when “experts”, including former players like Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, make praising statements for being underrated and showing up. Pro Football Focus has A.J. Hawk as the sixth worst inside linebacker on the season. In my mid-season evaluation of inside linebacker contracts, I found his contract quality to be the third worst in the league. He’s been overrated, not underrated, Troy.

While no means a comprehensive list, that’s sans-49ers announcer material I had for the last three weeks. I’ll probably next return to announcers when their playoff assignments are locked down. In fact, after New Year’s Eve I may even pursue a fan suggestion for “The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Sports Television: NFL Announcers”. Stay tuned.


  1. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David probably make the Bucs an above-average short-yardage defense, but Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams probably make the Panthers an above-average short-yardage offense, so 68% is probably pretty close to the Panthers true 4th&1 success rate against the Bucs. 

The football was the most amazing football last Sunday. I’m still processing it, and probably won’t be ready to talk about it until at least Friday. But I must go on with my continuing Economics and Sports Management recurring feature, The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. The end is near!1 We’re finally in the defensive backfield, as I look at cornerback pay and performance. And we have a serious challenger for guard Davin Joseph’s former stranglehold on the worst contract in the league.

First, some usual disclaimers: other things go into a player’s market value besides on-field performance. Measuring those things, how popular a player is, if he makes his teammates better, if he’s a good guy to have around, works well with the coaches, etc, is really, really hard. Certainly performance is a huge component of pay though. Tim Tebow, even Brett Favre, hell even Mike Tyson would still probably sell some tickets, but you don’t see them getting NFL contracts. Also, while certain players may rake in the ticket and jersey sales, that is at least partially controlled for by doing the analysis by position. The backs and receivers, even the tight ends may bring a lot of money in without their play, but take Davin Joseph. Earlier this season I estimated he was overpaid by $10+ million dollars.2 You can’t make a case that he’s helping the Buccaneers recoup that in other ways, certainly not all $10 million. Similarly, with a few exceptions, I don’t think fans go to watch other offensive linemen, or really any defensive players.3

Secondly, the Pro Football Focus grades I use for this analysis are super awesome, but not 100% perfect. I think their main weakness is not controlling for the quality of the opposition, down to the individual level. If a cornerback blankets Calvin Johnson and holds him without a catch on 10 targets with three passes defensed and no penalties, it counts the same as another corner who does exactly the same thing to Greg Little.4 Still, over the course of a season, things should even out a good deal, if not completely. Doing the analysis after one game would be almost meaningless. But after thirteen games of players getting graded on every play, it’s much more compelling.

Cornerbacks! 111 have played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps through Week 14. The Buffalo Bills released Justin Rogers earlier this season, so I dropped him from the sample. (He lost an opportunity to perform, and they stopped paying him, so…) Here are the Top 10 performing cornerbacks on the field this season (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Darrelle Revis, TB (18.1)
  • 2. Tyrann Mathieu, ARI (15.5)
  • 3. Patrick Peterson, ARI (13.1)
  • 4. Brent Grimes, MIA (12.5)
  • 5. William Gay, PIT (11.1)
  • 6. Jason McCourty, TEN (10.9)
  • 7. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DEN (10.8)
  • 8. Tramaine Brock, SF (10.7)
  • 9. Vontae Davis, IND (10.5)
  • 10. Leon Hall, CIN (8.7)

That Derrelle Revis guy, still pretty good it turns out, even after age and injuries have had their say. Poor rookie sensation Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL this past Sunday, ending his season. It’s truly a shame, as Arizona had a good, and entertaining, duo going on with Mathieu and his former LSU teammate Patrick Peterson reunited. And while some of San Francisco’s Tramaine Brock’s grade was as the third corner usually covering the opponent’s third wide receiver, the last few weeks he’s been starting for an injured Tarell Brown, performing very well. On to the Bottom 10:

  • 101. Dee Milliner, NYJ (-9.1)
  • 102. Leonard Johnson, TB (-9.2)
  • 103. David Amerson, WAS (-9.3)
  • 104. Brandon Flowers, KC (-9.7)
  • 105. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ (-10.5)
  • 106. Ike Taylor, PIT (-11.2)
  • 107. Derek Cox, SD (-11.8)
  • 108. Shareece Wright, SD (-12.4)
  • 109. Brice McCain, HOU (-12.7)
  • 110. Cortland Finnegan, STL (-19.7)

Revis left the Jets for Tampa Bay, and his first round draft pick replacement Dee Milliner hasn’t quite fit the bill just yet. (Though note that another thing PFF grades don’t measure is potential.) Antonio Cromartie has played well in the past though, not sure what’s up with him. Down at the bottom, solidly entrenched by his terrible play, is Cortland Finnegan of the Rams. Again, the worst corner so far this season is Cortland Finnegan, by a sound margin. The average grade is a 0.18, with a standard deviation of 6.69. Eeesh, as usual, tremendous variation in player performance.

Here are the Top 10 paid cornerbacks who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps (average annual salaries in millions of dollars, reported by Spotrac.com, in parentheses):

  • 1. Darrelle Revis, TB ($16 million)
  • 2. Brandon Carr, DAL ($10.02m)
  • 3. Cortland Finnegan, STL ($10m)
  • 4. Johnathan Joseph, HOU ($9.75m)
  • 5. Joe Haden, CLE ($8.547m)
  • 6. Leon Hall, CIN ($8.475m)
  • 7. Lardarius Webb, BAL ($8.333m)
  • 8. Brandon Flowers, KC ($8.225m)
  • 9. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ ($8m)
  • 10. Tramon Williams, GB ($7.615m)

Hey, it’s Cortland Finnegan! He is the third most expensive corner in the league and on average makes $10 million a year. Alright! Also Darrelle Revis’ contract is more than two standard deviations above the next most paid player. Remember, while his play was tops as well, it was less than one standard deviation above the next best player. Not looking like a good contract for the Buccaneers. These are the Bottom 10 paid cornerbacks:

  • 101. Alfonzo Dennard, NE ($0.539m)
  • 102. Byron Maxwell, SEA ($0.538m)
  • 103. Jimmy Wilson, MIA ($0.521m)
  • 104. Robert McClain, ATL ($0.51m)
  • 105. Nolan Carroll, MIA ($0.497m)
  • 106. Nickell Robey, BUF & Melvin White, CAR ($0.495m)
  • 108. Leonard Johnson, TB ($0.483m)
  • 109. Chris Harris Jr, DEN ($0.466m)
  • 110. Isaiah Frey, CHI ($0.45m)

The average annual salary is $2.722 million, with a standard deviation of $2.873 million. As with a couple other positions that unusually had a standard deviation greater than the average, this indicates a few players (or in this case, a Derrelle Revis) who are just paid boatloads of money more than their peers. Are they worth it? What do you think?

The Top 10 cornerback contracts so far this season (contract quality5 in parentheses):

  • 1. Tyrann Mathieu, ARI (2.99)
  • 2. Tramaine Brock, SF & William Gay, PIT (2.06)
  • 4. Chris Harris Jr, DEN & Richard Sherman, SEA (1.85)
  • 6. Will Blackmon, JAC (1.84)
  • 7. Alterraun Verner, TEN (1.81)
  • 8. Vontae Davis, IND (1.78)
  • 9. Alan Ball, JAC (1.77)
  • 10. Corey White, NO (1.75)

And it’s Honey Badger in front! Congratulations to Arizona Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim! And apologies to the Cardinals for their bad luck that Mathieu went out for the season two days ago. That just sucks. But hey, at least he’s really good and you’re not paying him very much money and he’s only a rookie! It could be worse…

… and the Worst 10 contracts (so far):

  • 101. Cary Williams, PHI (-1.93)
  • 102. Darrelle Revis, TB (-1.94)
  • 103. Chris Houston, DET (-2.03)
  • 104. Charles Tillman, CHI (-2.11)
  • 105. Derek Cox, SD (-2.58)
  • 106. Brandon Carr, DAL (-2.81)
  • 107. Ike Taylor, PIT (-3.19)
  • 108. Brandon Flowers, KC (-3.39)
  • 109. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ (-3.43)
  • 110. Cortland Finnegan, STL (-5.5)

Ladies and gentlemen, Cortland Finnegan! A -5.5! AAAUUUGGGHHH!!! That is so, so, so bad. A few players had -3 or so (they may have since improved, or worsened ). Guard Davin Joseph had a -4.78. A -5.5 through thirteen games… There are a couple more things I want to point out (like Darrelle Revis!), but I just… I’m done. There are no words. -5.5.


  1. Well, not really. I’ll be doing this all again, bigger and better, with even MOAR analysis, at the end of the season. 
  2. He only makes $7.5 million a year. He’s so bad is just doesn’t even make sense. He broke the analysis. I’m still working on it. 
  3. Yeah, there are some exceptions. I said that! But when you look at all the starting defensive players in the league, that’s 11 * 32 = 352. How many can you name off the top of your head? How many of those don’t play for your team? 20? 30? The vast majority of them lack “star power”. I may not be able to measure it, but I know it when I see it. Most guys don’t have it. If most guys did have it, we’d have to call it something else, or move to Lake Wobegon. 
  4. Currently PFF’s worst graded receiver with a -13.9 through Week 14. 
  5. Reminder: contract quality is determined by how a player’s on-field performance, relative to the average using standard deviations, relates to his salary, relative to the average using standard deviations. CQ = performance SDs above/below the average – salary SDs above/below the average 

The Seahawks trounced the Saints, clinching the first playoff spot in the NFL, leaving 18 others with a somewhat reasonable chance or better of getting the remaining 11 spots (in my opinion). Meanwhile, I move onward with my continuing series, Economics and Sports Management Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. And today, looking at defensive linemen, we may have found it.

As usual, a few notes before beginning. The defensive side is a little bit trickier. Most of the time, most teams have two corner backs and two safeties on the field, and either four linebackers and three defensive lineman, or three linebackers and four defensive linemen. In the former, a 3-4 (linemen-linebackers) defense, an outside linebacker usually takes on the primary pass rushing responsibility, while in a 4-3, it’s one of the outside linemen, a defensive end. But defensive ends in a 3-4 (generally) excel at stopping the run game and occupying offensive linemen, rather than getting to the quarterback. Pro Football Focus categorizes 3-4 and 4-3 defensive ends and outside linebackers all differently, believing their differences warrant it. They’re the player performance experts, so I’ll follow their lead. PFF lumps interior defenders from both formations together into two groups (linemen and linebackers), as their responsibilities are more similar.

Another thing: Corey Wootton has played 25% or more of the Bears’ snaps as a defensive tackle and 25% or more as a 4-3 defensive end. I’ve added his respective grades together to determine his contract quality, but other players move around on the defensive line too, even if they don’t register 25% or more of their snaps in multiple positions. While minor (most of the starters tend to play most of their snaps from the same spot), this analysis doesn’t account for that.

Lastly, there is a distinct possibility that in the beginning, father of football Walter Camp created J.J. Watt, and saw that he was good. Like, really good. Seriously J.J. Watt is pretty good at this whole playing football thing. Anyone who doesn’t think Watt deserves to be the defensive player of the year (an award he certainly won’t win given that the Texans are 2-10) best keep an open mind or stop reading right now. You have been warned.

And here are the Top 5 performing 3-4 defensive ends who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps through 12 games this season (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. J.J. Watt, HOU (89.7)
  • 2. Calais Campbell, ARI (27.2)
  • 3. Cameron Jordan, NO (26.6)
  • 4. Kyle Williams, BUF (25.4)
  • 5. Sheldon Richardson, NYJ (25)

89.7! Excuse me, but like, OMFG! 89.7! Holy moly hot tamale am I right? PFF’s grading system might not be 100% perfect, but it is the same for every player. 89.7. That is 3.3 times more than the second best player at his position. We had a few outliers both at the top and the bottom among the offensive positions, but nothing like this. Nothing even close. Among the 45 3-4 defensive ends with enough snaps to qualify, the average grade counting Watt is a 7.05; without him, it’s a 5.17. The standard deviation with Watt is a 16.62; without him, it’s a 10.96. Fortunately, even a (super tremendous) outlier like Watt doesn’t affect his peers’ contract quality much. CQ = # performance SDs above/below the average – # of salary SDs above/below the average. As both the average and standard deviation are proportionally affected, the contract qualities of 3-4 defensive ends are still comparable among one another and across positions. So just one more time, J.J. Watt with an 89.7 grade through 12 games. Wow.1

Here are the Bottom 5 performing 3-4 defensive ends:

  • 41. Demarcus Dobbs, SF (-7)
  • 42. Datone Jones, GB (-7.8)
  • 43. Ziggy Hood, PIT (-9.2)
  • 44. B.J. Raji, GB (-10.8)
  • 45. Kendall Reyes, SD (-17.8)

B.J. Raji showing yet again that you don’t have to be good to be popular. Raji gets State Farm commercials and so far as I know all Watt does are the fantasy football and NFL Play60 ones.2 Speaking of raking it in, here are the Top 5 paid 3-4 defensive ends (average annual salaries from Spotrac.com, in millions of dollars, in parentheses):

  • 1. Calais Campbell, ARI ($11 million)
  • 2. Tyson Jackson, KC ($10.985m)
  • 3. Darnell Dockett, ARI ($9.333m)
  • 4. Antonio Smith, HOU ($7.1m)
  • 5. Desmond Bryant, CLE ($6.8m)

Campbell is tops of both lists, and goodness, are the Cardinals spending a lot at this position. Here are the Bottom 5 paid 3-4 defensive ends:

  • 41. Cedric Thornton, PHI & Tom Johnson, NO & Demarcus Dobbs, SF ($0.465m)
  • 44. Corbin Bryant, BUF ($0.45m)
  • 45. Tony Jerod-Eddie, SF ($0.43m)

Note that while Dobbs is the fifth worst player so far, he’s the third least paid! With multiple injuries on their line this season, the 49ers have at least not overspent on backup talent. The average salary for 3-4 defensive ends is $2.983 million, with a standard deviation of $2.83 million. Want to guess which team has gotten the most for their money?

Here are the Top 5 contracts among 3-4 defensive ends (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. J.J. Watt, HOU (5.04)
  • 2. Cameron Jordan, NO (1.55)
  • 3. Mike Daniels, GB (1.39)
  • 4. Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ (1.29)
  • 5. John Hughes, CLE (1.28)

Correct, the answer is J.J. Watt, with a 5.04. What a guy. The previous best was a 3.17 from Jimmy Graham. There are still four games left on the season, but… J.J. Watt. That is all. Congratulations to Texans General Manager Rick Smith!

Here are the Worst 5 contracts among 3-4 defensive ends:

  • 41. Stephen Bowen, WAS (-1.64)
  • 42. Desmond Bryant, CLE (-1.83)
  • 43. B.J. Raji, GB (-1.92)
  • 44. Tyson Jackson, KC (-2.63)
  • 45. Darnell Dockett, ARI (-2.79)

So all that money the Cardinals are spending may not be such a good idea. In fact Calais Campbell, also of the Cardinals, is 40th with a -1.62, despite having the second highest grade. Campbell and Dockett just aren’t worth what they’re paid. And I can only assume State Farm Insurance probably knows not to waste money like the Packers and got what they wanted from Raji in those commercials.

Onto 4-3 defensive ends! Here are the Top 5 (so far):

  • 1. Robert Quinn, STL (54.4)
  • 2. Michael Johnson, CIN (24.2)
  • 3. Rob Ninkovich, NE (19.9)
  • 4. Cameron Wake, MIA (17.8)
  • 5. Michael Bennett, SEA (15.8)

Robert Quinn! He’s no J.J. Watt, but that’s still some serious dominance, a grade more than twice as good as second place. Quinn gets pressure (a hurry, a hit, or a sack) on the quarterback 15.5% of the time he rushes the passer, tops in the league at his position by 1.7% over Michael Bennett. (Even Watt only registers a 13.5% in this stat, although it’s also not his primary job as he’s in a 3-4.) And here are the Bottom 5 performing 4-3 defensive ends:

  • 46. Derek Wolfe, DEN (-14.1)
  • 47. Jason Hunter, OAK (-14.8)
  • 48. Shea McClellin, CHI (-18.8)
  • 49. Mathias Kiwanuka, NYG (-22.4)
  • 50. Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, TB (-25.4)

The average grade among these fifty players is a 1.84, with a standard deviation of 12.68. That’s enormous. In the industry, we say there is “a #$*&ton” of variation in the quality of play from 4-3 defensive ends. As for their pay?

Here are the Top 5 paid 4-3 defensive ends:

  • 1. Julius Peppers, CHI ($14m)
  • 2. Charles Johnson, CAR ($12.667m)
  • 3. Jared Allen, MIN ($12.212m)
  • 4. Chris Long, STL ($12.05m)
  • 5. Michael Johnson, CIN ($11.175m)

Lots of big names. And here are the Bottom 5:

  • 46. Everson Griffen, MIN ($0.583m)
  • 47. Jonathan Massaquoi, ATL ($0.567m)
  • 48. David Bass, CHI ($0.552m)
  • 49. Derrick Shelby, MIA ($0.483m)
  • 50. Eugene Sims, STL ($0.473)

The average salary is $4.084 million, with a standard deviation of $3.732 million. Note how much less variation there is among their pay, where the standard deviation is less than the average. This suggests some are greatly overpaid, and some greatly underpaid. Who, specifically?  Here are the Best 5 contracts among 4-3 defensive ends (so far):

  • 1. Robert Quinn, STL (4.61)
  • 2. Rob Ninkovich, NE (1.79)
  • 3. Greg Hardy, CAR (1.75)
  • 4. Shaun Phillips, DEN (1.42)
  • 5. Lamarr Houston, OAK (1.39)

When you so thoroughly dominate your position like Watt and Quinn (but NOT Adrian Peterson, or Calvin Johnson, or a host of other players who are the best but not by a great margin), you are well worth the investment. Congratulations to Rams General Manager Les Snead! Of course, the celebration may be short-lived. Here are the Worst 5 contracts among 4-3 defensive ends:

  • 46. Charles Johnson, CAR (-1.86)
  • 47. Chris Long, STL (-2.06)
  • 48. Mathias Kiwanuka, NYG (-2.27)
  • 49. Jared Allen, MIN (-2.44)
  • 50. Julius Peppers, CHI (-2.74)

Sure enough, Chris Long on the other end of the line has played okay, but for the fourth most expensive contract at $12m+ a year, he needs to do more to earn it. Similarly Jared Allen and Julius Peppers may be the classic, old-school veteran stars, but they haven’t met the bill on the field this season.

Here we are with our last position of the day, or rather, two positions, as nose tackles (of the 3-4 defense) and defensive tackles (of the 4-3 defense) have nearly identical responsibilities. The Top 5 performing interior defensive linemen are:

  • 1. Gerald McCoy, TB (44.9)
  • 2. Ndamukong Suh, DET (32.7)
  • 3. Jurrell Casey, TEN (31.9)
  • 4. Damon Harrison, NYJ (28.7)
  • 5. Jason Hatcher, DAL (27.1)

Gerald McCoy sits firmly atop the field, joining Watt and Quinn in the “Players Offensive Linemen and Quarterbacks Around the League Have Nightmares About” category. Here are the Bottom 5:

  • 65. Akeem Spence, TB & Roy Miller, JAC (-12.4)
  • 67. Domata Peko, CIN (-13.3)
  • 68. Nick Hayden, DAL (-20.8)
  • 69. Chris Jones, NE (-21.6)

Hayden and Jones… blegh. Among interior defensive linemen the average grade is a 5.52, with a standard deviation of 12.53. That’s high, but there’s much less variation among interior defensive linemen than there is on the outside. As for compensation, these are the Top 5 paid interior defensive linemen:

  • 1. Ndamukong Suh, DET ($13.079m)
  • 2. Gerald McCoy, TB ($12.687m)
  • 3. Haloti Ngata, BAL ($9.705m)
  • 4. Geno Atkins, CIN ($9.125m)
  • 5. Randy Starks, MIA ($8.45m)

Suh and McCoy are tops of both lists, while Geno Atkins probably would be up there on performance were it not for his season ending injury some weeks ago. Among the three defensive positions I’ve analyzed, no one has been among the worst players while getting paid the most, which was a regular occurrence on the offensive side. Curious. Here are the Bottom 5 paid interior defensive linemen:

  • 65. Drake Nevis, DAL ($0.555m)
  • 66. Cam Thomas, SD ($0.4953m)
  • 67. Joe Vellarno, NE ($0.495m)
  • 68. Damon Harrison, NYJ ($0.482m)
  • 69. Brandon Deaderick, JAC ($0.458m)

The average salary is $2.652 million, with a standard deviation $2.807 million. Curious that while player performance varies less among interior defensive linemen compared to other positions, their salaries vary more, with the rare salary standard deviation greater than the average. But who got the best deal? These are the Top 5 contracts:

  • 1. Jurrell Casey, TEN (2.81)
  • 2. Damon Harrison, NYJ (2.62)
  • 3. Jason Hatcher, DAL (1.95)
  • 4. Malik Jackson, DEN (1.53)
  • 5. Karl Klug, TEN (1.49)

Congratulations to Titans General Manager Ruston Webster! An inspiration to children named Ruston everywhere. And here are the Worst 5 contracts among interior defensive linemen:

  • 65. Ndamukong Suh, DET (-1.55)
  • 66. Ryan Pickett, GB (-1.61)
  • 67. Kendall Langford, STL (-1.69)
  • 68. Domata Peko, CIN (-2.1)
  • 69. Haloti Ngata, BAL (-2.3)

Ndamukong Suh, divisive, popular, and well paid, is in fact too well paid. Meanwhile Ngata makes the third Raven to perform the worst for his money this season, though a quarter still remains. I’ve been calling it a Flacco, but maybe I should just call it a Raven? We’ll see.

And that’s it for the defensive line! Check back later in the week for linebackers.


  1. I now feel even better about naming one of my fantasy teams “Watt You Talkin’ ‘Bout Willis”. Also in 2012 Watt earned a 101.6 grade, while second place (Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ) was a 49.1. In 2011, as a rookie, he was fifth with a 25.5, while first place was a 46.5 (Justin Smith, SF). J.J. Watt is currently 24 years old. Coming off his senior season in high school as a tight end/ defensive end seven years ago, Rivals.com rated him a two start recruit, not at the top of his class in either position, and only the number seven prospect coming out of Wisconsin. Way to show ’em, J.J. I mean, damn. 
  2. But really how long until Watt’s elbow brace secures a million dollar endorsement deal? Months? 
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