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It’s Tuesday, Week 11 is in the books, I lost fantasy football 107.22-105.52 (within the margin of a 17 yard Rob Gronkowski catch, or a Matt Prater field goal, or the Seahawks not getting a return touchdown, etc.), and my 49ers lost two games in a row for the second time under Jim Harbaugh, and the second time this season, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to talk about it. But a couple things Harbaugh did are bothering challenging me quite a bit. A couple challenges, as it were.

With two timeouts and 3:33 remaining in the first quarter of a 0-0 game, Harbaugh challenged that Drew Brees had crossed the line of scrimmage before completing an 8 yard pass to Darren Sproles on a 1st&10 from the 49er 25. Many people, including 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco, have pointed out that the challenge was terrible, as replays clearly indicated Drew Brees wasn’t close to crossing the line of scrimmage. After the game, Harbaugh confessed “We didn’t have a video review [on that challenge].” Challenging a ruling that was obviously correct is, uh, obviously bad, and revealing that you challenged it without any evidence to the contrary, um, also obviously bad, but I wondered: why challenge this play in the first place? 2nd&10 is harder than 2nd&2, sure, but worth one of your two (or three) challenges and the risk of losing a time out? This isn’t the Jacksonville Jaguars of Week 8, it’s Drew Brees and the Saints of Week 11. Over the course of the game the Saints averaged 5.8 yards per offensive play. Even if Harbaugh had challenged on firmer ground, and the call was reversed… so what? The Saints were already looking at a 42 yard field goal (in a dome), and there were still a few yards between them and the end zone. To save the touchdown, the defense would need a stop either way, and it could come on a new set of downs. To shut them out, the defense would need to create a turnover. Both of these situations are quite possible whether the Saints have 2nd&10 or 2nd&2, so why risk it?

Surprise! The numbers from Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL StatsWin Probability Calculator suggest there is good value in challenging.1 In the Saints’ resulting situation, 2nd&2 from the opponent’s 17 in a 0-0 game with 3:22 left in the first quarter, their probability of ultimately winning was 0.65.2 If Harbaugh had won the challenge, making it 2nd&10 from the 25, the Saints’ win probability would have been 0.61.3 Increasing your chances of winning by 4% isn’t a lot, only actually it kind of is. (You may remember, this game came down to the final play, when the Saints’ Garrett Hartley kicked a game-winning 31 yard field goal.) In an article last month on AdvancedNFLStats.com, Kevin Meers, Co-President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, laid out some neat work he’s done on coaches’ challenges. Using the difference in win probability resulting from winning the challenge minus that resulting from losing the challenge, which he dubs “leverage”, Meers charts all challenges in the 2012 season.

2012 Challenges by Leverage

Neat huh? That first challenge’s leverage was 0.04, and probably worth going after, again forgetting, as Harbaugh did, the replay which guaranteed the original call would stand. But you know, if what Harbaugh thought had happened had actually happened, it would have been an okay move. And that’s actually more than many NFL coaches can say. 15% of all challenges last season had zero leverage– whether they were successful or not had no discernible impact on the outcome of the game. In that article Meers also attempts to value timeouts, gauging them to be worth around 0.03 in win probability. I won’t get into his methodology (though I may try to build on his foundation in the coming weeks), and you can read it for yourself, but just take that 0.03 number for a moment. In terms of the lost timeout, it’s worth challenging when you yield 0.04 in win probability if you win the challenge 42.9% of the time. While I wouldn’t take that 0.03 number as a universal truth, and it’s worth mentioning again that these win probabilities are averages not personally tailored to a team’s own defense or offense, it’s still interesting. Mostly, it’s suggestive of the cool things we can learn once these types of models are further refined and improved.

Harbaugh’s second challenge was a similar story. Down 7-0 with 10:21 left in the second quarter, Harbaugh challenged that Kaepernick’s pass to Jon Baldwin in the end zone on 1st and 10 from the Saints’ 11, ruled incomplete, was in fact a touchdown. This was the ole’ Calvin Johnson rule about securing the ball for 547 minutes after you make a catch and go out of bounds, and while stupid, is a rule that coaches and players (and fans) know about. Under the rule, it was clearly an incomplete pass, leaving the 49ers with 2nd and 10. This was a little more troubling than the first failed challenge. Harbaugh said of the decision to challenge the play “I was talking to Eric [Mangini, our challenge consultant up in the booth]”. Cleveland Browns fans surely won’t be surprised by Mangini’s involvement, as he, uh, never really panned out as their head coach. Unfortunately he seems to have brought some similar failings to his new post. But failings aside, how often would the 49ers need to win this challenge for it to be worthwhile? 30% of the time.4 Given the replay (and the fact the game was in New Orleans), I’d say the chances of an overturn were zero, maybe 10% being generous. Nonetheless, that wasn’t Harbaugh’s area. Hearing the false possibility from Mangini, and not knowing the 49ers would score on the next play, this Harbaugh challenge was much more defensible.


  1. Assuming the challenges themselves aren’t completely hopeless. That’s still on Harbaugh. Well, actually the truth may be more complicated. More on that later. 
  2. Also, their probability of gaining a first down was 0.75; a field goal 0.41; and a touchdown also 0.41. 
  3. First down probability 0.52, field goal 0.37, touchdown 0.34. 
  4. The 49ers had a 0.48 probability of winning if they won the challenge, and a 0.41 probability if they lost, for a challenge leverage of 0.07. 
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First of all, this evaluation uses player performance through Week 10, and doesn’t include what happened over the weekend. With at least 15 more positions to get through (depending on what I decide to do with blocking and coverage units on special teams), I wanted to move along. But Monday Night Football happens tonight. As I’ll be going back at the end of the season to hand out the official awards for best and worst contract anyway, there’s no point to rush ahead and leave behind the Patriots’ and Panthers’ running backs playing tonight.1

Another note, regarding position: a player’s position may not match what he’s perceived as, or even what’s on his team’s official depth chart. In addition to providing grades on every player on every snap, Pro Football Focus details where each player lines up in relation to each other, and records them in the corresponding position for that snap. So if San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore lines up wide left, for that play PFF lists his position as Left Wide Receiver. Gore’s PFF grade includes such plays; he is listed as a running back because he has played 25% or more of his team’s snaps at “Halfback”, as defined by PFF.2

So, running backs! There have been 55 running backs (using PFF’s classification) seeing significant time this season. Da’Rel Scott, formerly of the New York Giants, was released earlier this year, leaving 54. Here are the Top 10 performers (PFF Grade in parentheses):

  • 1. LeSean McCoy, PHI (17.2)
  • 2. Marshawn Lynch, SEA (14.9)
  • 3. Adrian Peterson, MIN (13.1)
  • 4. Giovani Bernard, CIN (13)
  • 5. Danny Woodhead, SD (11.2)
  • 6. Darren Sproles, NO (11)
  • 7. Frank Gore, SF (10.3)
  • 8. Eddie Lacy, GB (9.3)
  • 9. Pierre Thomas, NO (8.9)
  • 10. Joique Bell, DET (7.9)

A pretty sound group, with rookies Bernard and Lacy getting in alongside superstars like Peterson and some solid play from less famous veterans like Danny Woodhead. Here are the Bottom 10 (grades in parentheses):

  • 45. Chris Ogbonnaya, CLE (-4.8)
  • 46. Chris Ivory, NYJ & Rashard Mendenhall, AZ (-5.3)
  • 48. Chris Johnson, TEN (-5.4)
  • 49. Trent Richardson, IND (-5.7)
  • 50. Bilal Powell, NYJ (-5.9)
  • 51. Doug Martin, TB (-7.8)
  • 52. Darren McFadden, OAK (-7.9)
  • 53. C.J. Spiller, BUF (-9.1)
  • 54. Ray Rice, BAL (-12.8)

Oh dear. The bottom of that list shouldn’t surprise anyone who has played fantasy football this season, especially if you drafted one of them.3 Also, and I hope to write more about this soon, the rest of the NFL must be excited if the Colts would truly trade for Trent Richardson again. The Saints had two players in the Top 10, while the Jets have two players in the Bottom (and the Browns were close, with Ogbonnaya’s teammate Willis McGahee just beating him out with a -4.6). The average running back grade is a 2.23, with a standard deviation of 6.52, reflecting a rather substantial amount of variation in player performance, though not as much as among quarterbacks. As for their compensation, here are the Top 10 best paid running backs, using data from Spotrac.com (average annual salary in parentheses, in millions of dollars):

  • 1. Adrian Peterson, MIN ($13.714 million)
  • 2. Darren McFadden, OAK ($10.002m)
  • 3. Chris Johnson, TEN ($8.996m)
  • 4. Arian Foster, HOU ($8.7m)
  • 5. DeAngelo Williams, CAR ($8.6m)
  • 6. LeSean McCoy, PHI ($7.603m)
  • 7. Matt Forte, CHI ($7.6m)
  • 8. Marshawn Lynch, SEA ($7.5m)
  • 9. Ray Rice, BAL ($7m)
  • 10. Frank Gore, SF ($6.475m)

Once again, players worst in performance make the best paid list! It hasn’t failed yet, with Rice, Johnson, and McFadden joining in. Here are the Bottom 10 paid running backs:

  • 45. Rashad Jennings, OAK ($0.63m)
  • 46. Roy Helu, WAS ($0.628m)
  • 47. Bilal Powell, NYJ ($0.61m)
  • 48. Zac Stacy, STL ($0.584m)
  • 49. Andre Ellington, AZ ($0.565966m)
  • 50. Mike James, TB ($0.565788m)
  • 51. Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL ($0.558m)
  • 52. Alfred Morris, WAS ($0.556m)
  • 53. Daryl Richardson, STL ($0.536m)
  • 54. Brandon Bolden, NE ($0.485m)

Alfred Morris is certainly the most noteworthy, with Stacy and Ellington putting together promising rookie campaigns as well. The average NFL running back makes $3.043 million a year, with a standard deviation of $3.134 actually being lower, if only slightly. Relative to how well they play, there is much less variation among how well running backs are paid. Which teams got the best deals?

The ESPM award for best running back contract (so far) goes to… Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals. Congratulations Bengals General Manager Mike Brown! To calculate a player’s contract quality, we determine the number of standard deviations his performance grade is above/below the average, and subtract the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average. Here are the Best 10 contracts among NFL running backs (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Giovani Bernard, CIN (2.2)
  • 2. Danny Woodhead,SD (1.79)
  • 3. Eddie Lacy, GB (1.78)
  • 4. Joique Bell, DET (1.64)
  • 5. Andre Elleington, AZ (1.63)
  • 6. Mike James, TB (1.52)
  • 7. DeMarco Murray, DAL (1.5)
  • 8. Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL (1.4)
  • 9. Roy Helu, WAS (1.21)
  • 10. Darren Sproles, NO (1.2)

It’s an interesting list. Bernard is a rookie, but he didn’t come as cheap, being more than twice as expensive as most others at $1.313 million a year. Eddie Lacy, chosen 24 picks later in the second round of last year’s draft, makes $0.848 million, while the others are closer to a half million than a full. Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles represent the rare free agent signing success. Still, only three of the top ten most paid running backs have quality contracts (McCoy, Lynch, & Gore). With Alfred Morris at #11 (1.14), Washington seems to have been the best at getting the most out of their money, at this position at least. Here are the 10 Worst contracts:

  • 45. Doug Martin, TB (-1.11)
  • 46. Arian Foster, HOU (-1.29)
  • 47. Matt Forte, CHI (-1.41)
  • 48. Adrian Peterson, MIN (-1.74)
  • 49. Trent Richardson, IND (-1.88)
  • 50. C.J. Spiller, BUF (-1.91)
  • 51. DeAngelo Williams, CAR (-1.92)
  • 52. Chris Johnson, TEN (-3.07)
  • 53. Ray Rice, BAL (-3.57)
  • 54. Darren McFadden, OAK (-3.78)

So while generally using draft picks is better than signing free agents, as players on their first contract generally provide more for the money, there are exceptions. Doug Martin and Trent Richardson were drafted in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft and are still on their rookie deals. But usually, the worst results come from enormous free agent signings, though that is not to say that all enormous free agent signings are the worst. Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, and Darren McFadden are in a world of their own at the bottom, each with, well, an enormous gap between where they stand among their peers in performance (low) and pay (high).

In all, 30 of 54 (55.6%) have “good” contracts, in that their teams are getting as much or more than they pay for. Those numbers for wide receivers were 59 of 109 (54.1%); quarterbacks, 19 of 37 (51.4%). Those numbers are my first glimpse of how efficient (or inefficient) the NFL may be. Even with good players and bad players, rich ones and poor ones, greedy owners and greedy agents, all contracts could (ought to) still be better priced. One should’t expect teams to get the performance they paid for (or better) from every one of their players. But only just over half? Among quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs, NFL teams are overpaying nearly 50% of their players. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done.


  1. Though also, not all players have played the same number of games anyway, as some teams are still waiting for their bye week. But as the Patriots and Panthers did have theirs, they would be two games short of some teams. ANYway, this is not the ultimate assessment, just an intermediate one. 
  2. PFF records a player as a Halfback if they are the only back (besides the quarterback) in the backfield OR if there are multiple backs in the backfield and they are as far back (or farther) from the line of scrimmage than all other backs. 
  3. Chris Johnson did have a sound night on Thursday Night Football, with a +1.8. I think Rice played well yesterday too, but his PFF grade isn’t up yet. (They’re still busy having a few different people watch and grade every snap of that game.) 
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