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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. 
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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. 

I love sports, and of course I love sports announcing. Though a San Francisco Giants fan1, I’ll definitely watch any west coast Dodger game just to enjoy the magnificence that is Vin Scully.2 And where would I be in the Olympics without Bob Costas guiding me along in the studio? I’ve never had quite as much love for any football game commentators, with the possible exception of Pat Summerall and John Madden. Generally, I feel they do a good job– it actually isn’t easy to sit down for three hours and talk during a football game while being appealing to millions of viewers– but they say many silly things. Or things that are just wrong. I find this most aggravating when it’s the “expert” color commentator, guaranteed to be a former player or coach, whom I feel people usually, often wrongly, trust. While they may offer some fascinating insights, they may also offer some terrible ones. It is rare that I watch a game and at no point think to myself “That’s wrong,” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” Yesterday as usual I started watching football at noon, and unusually finished at 11:30 pm thanks to an overtime thriller in Foxborough. While not a comprehensive list, I tried to make a note when a commentator said something silly.3 Here we go.

With the Ravens trailing the Jets 3-0 and 4:10 remaining in the first quarter, Ray Rice gained two yards on a 2nd&1 from the Jet 28.

CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel remarked:

Ray has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.

And color commentator Dan Dierdorf, 13 year NFL veteran, five-time First-team All-Pro selection, replied in his infinite wisdom:

Well he did, an- and because the criticism was all on him, when in reality I saw a whole bunch of tape on these guys where there were no holes whatsoever. Ray Rice was being met at the line of scrimmage.

At the moment Ray Rice has the worst Pro Football Focus grade4 among all running backs in the NFL, and it’s not close. With a -0.2 in the passing game, a -11.6 in the run game, a -3.1 as a blocker, and a -0.5 in penalties, he totals a -15.4. The next worst running back, C.J. Spiller, checks in with a -11.2, and third worst, Darren McFadden, registers a -7.9. PFF’s “Elusive Rating” is a statistic designed to gauge how well a running back evades tacklers, controlling for the quality of his blocking. Ray Rice is dead last among the 50 running backs with enough snaps to qualify with a 7.0; tops is Marshawn Lynch with a 72.7. (The rating roughly scales from 1-100.) So I know Dan Dierdof “saw a whole bunch of tape” and I believe him. But a whole bunch of guys at PFF saw all of the tape, and firmly conclude that Ray Rice has played abysmally this season. So if you caught a few Ravens’ games and heard Dierdof’s remarks and thought “Oh, it isn’t on Ray Rice, it’s the people around him,” rest assured: it is on Ray Rice. He has truly earned the second worst running back contract in football. Which is to say, he has not earned his contract at all.

With the Steelers leading the Browns 10-3 on a 2nd&10 from the Brown 14 with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s pass for Antonio Brown in the end zone was broken up by Joe Haden.

Solomon Wilcots, six year NFL veteran and color commentator of CBS, broke down what happened:

This is a great play by Joe Haden. Watch him knife in underneath. He understands that down around the goal line, look at that play! You have to get between the quarterback and the receiver. He allowed himself to slip underneath, he had great position.

It’s great, except CBS is showing the replay as Wilcots is saying this, the replay in which Haden very clearly grabs Brown’s jersey with his left hand and holds on for a good moment. It wasn’t blatant pass interference, but it was pass interference. It’s one thing for the officials to miss it live; it’s another for Haden to miss it during the slow motion replay, as he remarks what a terrific play it was by Haden. And even though this is the type of penalty that may not be called most of the time, Wilcots doesn’t acknowledge that Haden grabbed Brown at all. Fans at home, Joe Haden is a very good corner in the National Football League, but that doesn’t always mean “slipping underneath”. Sometimes it may mean “gets overly physical without getting whistled”.

Down 10-3 at home after an incomplete Case Keenum pass on 3rd&goal from the Jaguar two yard line with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Texans took their offense off the field to kick a field goal.

Said CBS color commentator Steve Tasker, 13 year veteran, seven-time All-Pro:

And that’s going to force the field goal, the fans aren’t happy about it but it’s the right move.

Of course if you’ve ever heard of Brian Burke, or know the difference between actual good strategy in the NFL and the still-prevailing conventional wisdom, you know that’s the wrong call. A quick rundown of the numbers: on average going for it in that situation produces a win probability of 0.38; kicking a field goal produces a win probability of 0.31.  From up in the press box Kubiak’s decision cost his team a 7% chance of winning the game.5 For going for it to be worthwhile in this situation, the Texans need to convert only 26% of the time. It’s two yards, and lest we forget, THEY’RE PLAYING THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS! For Tasker to dismiss this as “the right move” is just… how can he… it’s so obviously… RAGE!!! Furious George, L.O.L. I didn’t watch the end of the game, which the Texans went on to lose 13-6, but I bet at no point during the Texans’ final drive6 did Tasker point out “HEY, the would only need a field goal right now if they had gone for it on fourth down earlier and scored a touchdown, as was quite likely given that they only had two yards to go. And as it is, they STILL need to score a touchdown and are in a situation where they have to go for it on fourth down anyway, even if it’s way more than two yards to go. Jeez, I guess I was just saying what I always say and talking out of my @#$ earlier, huh Bill?” Of course if he did point that out, then, well, tip of the hat to him. But I kinda doubt it.

On a 1st&10 with 8:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Packers, down 20-7 to the Vikings, replaced Scott Tolzien with Matt Flynn, who promptly completed his first pass for nine yards.

Fox play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt stated:

A completion. And it’s got this crowd back in the game.

Color commentator and 15 year NFL veteran, four-time All-Pro safety John Lynch chimed in:

He goes to Matt Flynn and they get a little momentum right away.

Whether or not you “believe” in momentum in sports or not, you probably know there is no factual evidence for it if you feel strongly about it one way or the other. Bill Barnwell, of the great Grantland.com, has sort of made “Nomentum” a thing this year, bringing facts a bit further into the mainstream. I’ll only say this: what do you mean when you refer to “momentum”, exactly? Lynch said they got “a little momentum right away.” Scott Tolzien, just benched, had pulled off two nifty moves on a six yard touchdown run earlier in the game. Did that play accrue momentum? And if so, it must have disappeared, since Tolzien was benched? So was the momentum from this pass from Flynn more noteworthy than any momentum Tolzien had gained, an indication that the Packers’ fortunes would be reversed and cause for the fans to rejoice? I, uhh, kinda doubt it. On the next play James Starks ran for 34 yards, setting up 1st&10 from the Viking 37. The momentum must really be going now, right!?! Then Starks ran for two yards, Flynn threw an incomplete pass, and Flynn threw a pass for a loss of five yards, leaving the Packers with 4th&13 from the Vikings 40. They punted. Tragically neither Burkhardt nor Lynch explained where that momentum had gone, and what impact, if any, it had on the game.

Up 24-3 facing 3rd&1 from the Colt 45 with 4:13 remaining in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals’ Andre Ellington was stuffed for a loss of two.

After the play, CBS color commentator Dan Fouts, 15 year NFL veteran and two-time First-team All-Pro, praised the Colts for the stop, saying:

It looked like the Colts- er, the Cardinals had momentum.

What a curious statement! It LOOKED like the Cardinals had the momentum. But in fact, the Colts now have the momentum? The Cardinals had the momentum because they were up by three touchdowns at home and driving in their opponent’s territory? But then, in one fell swoop, the Colts got a stop and now they have the momentum? Or some momentum? The Cardinals have less momentum now? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, DAN??? You know, I think I know. I was never the quarterback for any football team, let alone the San Diego Chargers, and I’m not in the NFL Hall of Fame, but hear me out: “momentum” is when a team improves their situation, relative to the previous situation. And it gets thrown around for a variety of situation types: momentum accrued from a winning streak (sometimes dating back to last season!), unanswered points, a string of good plays, or just one good play, or penalty, whatever. So far as I’m aware, there is A LOT of anecdotal, personal claims that such “momentum” helps a team or player perform, but actually zero (scientific) evidence that it does. Certainly, that’s the case in other sports7, and given the fickle nature of momentum’s tangible effects on performance, I sure don’t see a case otherwise.

On 4th&4 down 27-3 with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Andrew Luck’s pass from the Cardinal 36 was batted into the air and nearly intercepted on the Cardinal 20 before hitting the turf.

Fouts pointed out:

Well they’re better off not catching that ball.

And good for him, it’s a good point and he is totally right. On 4th down, unless there’s a good run back opportunity, the defense improves field position by batting the ball down instead of catching it. And then play-by-play man Ian Eagle chimed in:

It doesn’t matter other than the yardage. So you can pad your stats as a defensive player, but you actually are going to benefit if it’s incomplete.

Eagle sort hits on the right point (after Fouts brought it up), but uhhh… “It doesn’t matter other than the yardage”? Yeah, that’s what the teams are doing in football, trying to gain yards and get to the end zone. The yardage matters! According to Advanced NFL Stats‘ Win Probability Calculator, in this situation the yardage matters to the tune of a single percent chance of winning. Starting on their 36, the Cardinals had a win probability of 95%; starting on their 20, it would have been 94%. That’s not a lot, but disregarding yards in a football game, especially 16 of them (nearly a fifth of the field), is pretty silly.

With 4:52 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday Night Football, down 31-24, Wes Welker dropped a pass over the middle on a 1st&10 from the Patriot 36.

Cris Collinsworth, eight year NFL veteran and three-time Second-team All-Pro selection, wondered of Welker’s drop:

How many times do you see that?

Fortunately, NBC play-by-play caller Al Michaels jumped right in:

Once too many for some New England fans.

Fans who don’t obsess over the numbers but just enjoy watching football (God bless ’em) may well think Wes Welker has terrific hands, because nearly without fail, every time he drops a pass, whoever is announcing the game remarks “Oh, a rare drop from Wes Welker!” Except Welker’s drops are hardly rare, so over the course of a season it is a pretty regular occurrence to hear a rare Wes Welker drop proclaimed on television. Going as far back as PFF data goes, through the 2008 season, Welker’s drop rate is the following (league-wide rank among players with 25% of their team’s targets or more in parentheses):

  • 2008: 6.03% (19th of 81)
  • 2009: 4.65% (24th of 101)
  • 2010: 13.13% (70th of 89)
  • 2011: 9.63% (48th of 95)
  • 2012: 11.28% (58th of 82)
  • 2013: 9.72% (54th of 97)

Welker certainly doesn’t have the worst hands in the NFL, but he’s hardly elite. Larry Fitzgerald, for example, finished 13th or higher all of those seasons except 2012, when he finished 24th. To answer Collinsworth’s question, counting 2013, the last four seasons Welker has dropped 9% or more of his catchable passes. Counting last night, so far in 2013 he’s dropped seven passes; only seven players have dropped more than him this season. Kudos to Michaels for hinting to Collinsworth that, in fact, a Wes Welker drop is not all that unusual.

Lastly, I just thought I’d remind everyone who the Top 10 quarterbacks have been in fantasy football this week, pending MNF (standard points in parentheses):

  • 1. Philip Rivers (27.78)
  • 2. Tom Brady (24.76)
  • 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick (24.4)
  • 4. Alex Smith (21.46)
  • 5. Carson Palmer (20.56)
  • 6. Cam Newton (20.06)
  • 7. Drew Brees (18.52)
  • 8. Josh McCown (18.48)
  • 9. Ryan Tannehill (18)
  • 10. Matthew Stafford (16.48)

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, and Josh McCown all cracked the Top 10. What is the world coming to? Although to be fair, yesterday at mid-afternoon Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder, Kellen Clemens, and bad quarterback superstar Brandon Weeden were also in the running. Mike Glennon actually scored more points (16.18) than Peyton Manning (13). I give up. Go 49ers!


  1. And also a Seattle Mariners fan. That Pacific Northwest life, being close to the homeland in Alaska. Incidentally my mother’s two favorite baseball teams are the Washington Nationals, where she grew up, and the Mariners, closest to where she lives now. They are the only two active Major League Baseball franchises that do not have a single appearance in the World Series. (Yes, even before when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos.) It’s a hard life. 
  2. Also, Vin Scully had the call for “The Catch”, so it’s even more okay. 
  3. How did I catch calls from so many different games? DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. God bless DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. 
  4. Among running backs who’ve played 25% or more of their team’s snaps. PFF has multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game. Click here to learn more about PFF’s grading system. 
  5. Poor Kubiak. His recent health scare is keeping him from the sidelines, and after losing to the Jaguars, at home, you’ve got to wonder if he’ll be coaching the Texans next season, or even at the end of this one. I only take issue with his chosen strategy in this case; I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being and I wish him and his family the best. 
  6. Which ended on a Case Keenum interception from the Jaguar 41. If the Texans had only needed a field goal to tie then, they might have squeaked it out. 
  7. See all scientific findings regarding “the hot hand”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot-hand_fallacy 

Waiting for strategic thinking to reach the NFL can be hard. Watching famous, respected people get paid to @$%# up on television is something that should be left to politics, in my opinion.1 And watching other famous, respected people get paid to explain why, in their “expert” opinions, what those first people did was right, should be left to Fox and NBC News. But it isn’t. A decade after Moneyball (by Michael Lewis), many decisions in sports are still, well, bad. Sub-optimal. Downright stupid, sometimes. Still, even at its worst, watching bad decisions play out is entertaining. Unless it’s your team. Then it hurts. Sitting powerlessly by while your team seemingly tries to lose, that can be hard. And that’s currently where I find myself, not sure whether to laugh it off or shriek in frustration.

Yesterday my San Francisco 49ers2 hosted the Carolina Panthers in a game officially decreed “pretty important”. The 49ers were 6-2, the Panthers 5-3, and with both teams trailing their division leaders by a game or more, the consequences for the NFC Wildcard Race were paramount. With 6:21 to go in the second quarter and up 6-0, the 49ers left the offense on the field for a 4th&1 from the Panther two yard line, instead of attempting a field goal (henceforth, “FG”). Brian Billick, broadcasting the game for Fox, said this:

Well you got to kick the field goal he- here, it makes it a two score game. These defenses- although it looks like he’s sending Miller the fullback in, this is quite a statement by Jim Harbaugh. We talking up six nothing, you kick the field goal it makes it nine to nothing, that’s a two score game. Carolina hasn’t even come close to scoring, this is a gutty call by Jim Harbaugh, a statement call by Jim Harbaugh.

Play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman then mentioned:

49ers six out of eight on fourth downs this year, on fourth and one, and that’s what this is right here, on fourth and one they’re a perfect four for four and all four times they have run the ball.

They came to the line of scrimmage, and the Panthers called timeout. Upon returning to play, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick shouted and motioned a lot at the line of scrimmage, and when the Panthers didn’t jump offside, purposefully took a delay of game penalty. (And Phil Dawson kicked a FG to go up 9-0.) Color commentator Brian Billick (former Super Bowl winning coach) again explained the strategy:

Now I like this, I like this Thom, the fans are booing, but again I like the bravado of Jim Harbaugh thinking okay we go for it, but remember, the field goal method, points are at a premium here, yards are at a premium, this makes it a two score game, I like the idea of going for the field goal, he was just trying to draw them offside, see if he could get a cheap one, but this is tactically the right call by Jim Harbaugh, given the circumstances that Carolina hasn’t been able to get into scoring position at all.

Using Brian Burke’s 4th Down Calculator from his website Advanced NFL Stats, one sees the reality. Using NFL averages, Burke’s calculator estimates that by going for it, a team in this situation would win 81% of the time, compared to 79% by attempting a FG. Going for it is worthwhile if the 49ers convert 57% of the time or better. On average, today’s NFL teams convert 4th&1 68% of the time. I have a few things to say to Mr. Billick.

One, this 60 minute game was only 24 minutes old. Going up two scores guarantees a win if the other team only has time for one possession. It wasn’t even halftime. There would be ample time, ample possessions for the Panthers to score. (SPOILER ALERT: The Panthers went on to score 10 points, winning 10-9.) The 49ers do have a good defense and they had played well against the Panthers, but the game was far from over, 36 minutes as a matter of fact. Two, “points are at a premium”… what does that mean? With two above-average defenses, it was going to be harder than usual for both teams to score. So touchdowns, being worth more than twice as much as a FG (usually), become even more valuable. Three, what’s the risk? If the 49ers don’t convert, the Panthers, whom Billick had just pointed out were struggling offensively, would be 98 yards away from the end zone.3 If you expect the 49ers defense to give up points in that situation, maybe you shouldn’t expect them to hold a nine point lead for 36 minutes. (Again, they didn’t.)

The 49ers and Panthers are not the non-existent “average” NFL teams upon which Burke’s calculator is based. The Panthers’s above-average defense (especially that front seven) makes going for it harder. But the 49ers above-average offen– errr, running game, the 49ers above-average running game makes going for it easier. As Brennaman pointed out, the 49ers were 6/8 (75%) on fourth downs on the year and a perfect 4/4 (100%) on 4th&1s. (Again, that running game.) Kudos to Bryan Knowles, who noted in his article on Bleacher Report that coming into the game the Panthers defense had allowed opponents to convert 4/9 attempts on 3rd&1 or 4th&1 (44.4%), and that the 49ers offense had converted 10/13 attempts on 3rd&1 or 4th&1 (76.9%). I’d add that earlier in the game the 49ers lost a yard on 3rd&2 (first drive) and lost a yard on 3rd&1 (second drive), both running plays.

All in all, it was a slightly bad, but acceptable call by Harbaugh. If you split the difference between the teams’ success rates, you’d guess the 49ers would convert 60.7% of “&1TO-GOs” against the Panthers. Given small sample sizes, their true conversation rate could easily be lower than the 57% needed to make going for it worthwhile, but it could also be higher. The Panthers had already stopped the 49ers in short yardage twice, but again, small sample. Strategically, going for it was probably the right call by a slim margin. And Billick’s off-key, over-simplistic, just-take-the-points, make-it-a-two-score-game commentary completely missed the point(s).

Harbaugh made a similar strategic error earlier, during the game’s first drive. On 4th&3 from the Panther 34 in a 0-0 game, the 49ers kicked a 52 yard FG with 10:51 remaining in the first quarter. Said Billick:

49ers deciding that points could be a premium in this game, so they’re opting for the field goal.

If that’s what the 49ers were deciding, it didn’t help them win. First of all, on average an NFL team converts 4th&3 57% of the time, and a 52 yard FG 52% of the time. Going for it looks better already. Additionally, after missing a FG the other team gains 7-8 yards in field position due to the line of scrimmage moving to the spot of the kick. So converting fourth down is better than making the FG because you can still score a touchdown, and failing fourth down is better than missing the FG because the resulting field position is worse for your opponent. Burke’s calculator suggests that by going for it, a team in this situation goes on to win 55% of the time; attempting a FG, 52%; and punting, 50%. 49ers kicker Phil Dawson is 67.6% from 50+ yards in his career, and using those numbers (instead of the league average), kicking the FG results in a win 55% of the time, same as going for it. But those Dawson numbers include shorter FGs of 50 and 51 yards, so 67.6% is slightly artificially high for the 52 yard kick in question. Lastly, for going for it here to be worthwhile, the 49ers need to convert 42% of the time, 15% below the league average. The 49ers have an elite running attack, and at this point in the game still had tight end Vernon Davis as part of  a semi-competent passing attack. The Panthers do have a good defense, but even against a good defense it isn’t that difficult to gain three yards. Even upon a conversion, the 49ers weren’t guaranteed a touchdown. They may have kicked a FG anyway (or even turned the ball over). But kicking a FG here was giving up. Giving up on their offense, and giving up some win probability, a little bit at a time.

The league average numbers suggest that by kicking FGs in these two situations, the 49ers decreased their chances of winning by 5%. Given the nuances of the situations, it may have been as little as 3%, 2%, even 1%. But every bit counts. Jim Harbaugh has a reputation as an old-school competitor going back to his playing days, and the 49ers head coach has given away as little as he possibly can when it comes to information about his team’s injury status, game planning, etc, seeking even the slightest advantage over opponents, often to the annoyance of the press, as well as fans like myself. It frustrates me (not to mention those fans in Candlestick who booed) when he misses an opportunity. It must frustrate him as well. If only he knew.


  1.  As well as those celebrity guest editions of game shows. 
  2.  Some people are troubled when fans say “my” team. Obviously the 49ers are Jed York’s. I watch their games, root for them, even think and write about them. If I’m at a bar and someone says “Oh, the 49ers,” I say “That’s my team!” Get over it. 
  3. Okay, the 49ers could lose yards or turn the ball over. But Burke’s 4th Down Calculator accounts for those possibilities, which are slight. 
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