Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Building a Better Football Poll

One of the things I have been thinking about lately is a way to build a completely objective football ranking system that accounts for the quality of play on the field and can not be "gamed" by coaches.

The original idea of a way to include quality of win was by looking at the win margin. It is obvious that a team that won by a large margin is much better than a team that won by only a small margin against the same team. However football coaches knew that this was a factor so when they played easy teams the would pile on the points to help out their rankings. I believe now the computer components of the BCS are not allowed to take the margin of victory in to account when they make their rankings. So this lead me on to think about ways we can measure how good a team is, more than by just who they beat.

The first measurement I want to propose is to look at the "Time of Win". That is, how much time was left on the game clock when the eventual score that won the game was made. So if a team runs back the opening kickoff and then holds their opponents to less than a touchdown for the whole game, their Time of Win would be essentially 60 minutes, where as a hail marry at then end of the game would result in a Time of Win of a couple of seconds. This measurement would allow polls to take into consideration how much one team dominated another without encouraging the scoring to spiral out of hand. It would, however, make the teams play defense throughout the game.

I thought of a second good measurement last night while laying in bed: Offensive Yards per Point. This number would incorporate a few aspects of a teams performance into one figure. It would measure how well a team can finish off long drives, reward teams for creating turnovers, and also give a bonus for a team that has a good kick return game. It also would be somewhat difficult to game because scoring as many points with the fewest amounts of yards obtained is already a primary goal for coaches, so they can't really make much of a game plan change to reflect this being measured.

Other factors that I would consider would be power rankings, like the Massey rankings, which looks at who beats who. Also if the game was home or away. I would also like to include a couple of other measurements but it is kind of hard to think about relevant ones that can't be taken advantage of. Anyone else have any good ideas for ways to build a better football polling system?

Monday, February 23, 2009


Update: My dad has a follow-up post here.

This morning I read an article about some construction workers that are building a new edition to a cancer treatment building. They have been spray painting the names of the children in the hospital on the girders as they go up. Take a second and read the article about it here. (No really, I would rather you read that article than go on and read the rest of what I have to say.)

There is a video about this on YouTube, where in the comments Katie (well xoxkatie127xox to be correct) says:

the KATIE sign in the window at 40 sec was mine and i was treated at the jimmy fund when i was three and to this day i remember my name oh the iron across the street and remember how excited i would get and how special it made me feel... these men were heros

When I first read this comment I thought: "Those aren't heroes, they didn't do anything heroic." But I thought about it, and I think that my first thought couldn't be further from the truth. I think that these guys are a prime example of being a hero.
We get caught up in what movies and TV shows make out to be heroes, the daring of James Bond, the evil fighting of Batman, and the goodness of Frodo. We forget that we can be heroes, and we don't have to have some super power to do it.
I don't know what the definition of a hero says, and I don't really care, because there is nothing more like a hero to those kids than what these construction workers are doing. They aren't saving the kids from cancer, they are just making them feel special.
Real life heroes don't save the lives and do good deeds, day in and day out, instead they touch lives and make life better for those that they encounter.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why the Bears are not a dynasty

Here are my thoughts on the questions that I posed before. Looking at the data three teams bring up question marks about their place as a dynasty in the NFL. The Bears of 84-88 who were not classified as a dynasty the first time I looked at the data. The Bills of 88-93 who were counted as a dynasty, yet never won a Super Bowl during this time. And the Rams of 99-01, whose rise to power was dramatic however their team was quickly eclipsed by the Patriots. The Rams also never reached the height that other teams that are considered a dynasty did. Below is a plot of those teams with other relevant teams plotted around them. Each point on the plot is the teams' five year average of playoff performance, with a weighting further rounds more heavily.
1. Can there be more than one dynasty at a time?
I do not think so. I think that there can be two really good teams at the same time, but I don't think that the second best team over a span of time can be called a dynasty. This leads me down a path that I don't particularly like though, since I do not like having two dynasties at the same time I must ignore a team that is building until it is the best team, this means that when I look back at when a team is a dynasty I can not include the previous years that it was building up to be the dynasty team.
The larger implication of one dynasty team at a time has is that it is possible that there could be two teams that trade off Super Bowl wins over a couple of years but only one team can be named the dynasty for that time. This is my main argument against the Bears being a dynasty team. It turns out that during the same years that they were good the 49ers were even better. You can see in the chart above that for every spot along the graph the 49ers were still averaging a better playoff performance for the same time. More about this in question three.

2. How important is the regular season, how important is the playoffs?
I agree with most people here. The regular season is important but performance in the playoffs is what makes the team a legend. Lance made a good point of the 15-1 Vikings from 1998, they had an awesome regular season but history generally pushes that off to the side when talking about the 98 season, we know the Falcons went to the Super Bowl that year, we don't all know the Vikings great regular season.
I have though about adding a small component of the analysis that takes into account how well a team did over their regular season, but since I don't have the data already typed up I believe that it isn’t that important.

3. You can't just look at one year at a time, so how many years do we look at?
This is probably the trickiest question here. First because the span of years to look at changes which teams are considered the best, for example for we look at a four year average the Bears do become the best team for two years. Secondly it really seems like there should be a mathematical way to define how long of a span than we should look at, however I can't think of a way that satisfies me completely.
First let me explain the way which I decided upon 5 years. The initial thoughts were because it just seemed like a good round number to deal with; however hunches are not good since we are trying to let the data do the talking for us. So the idea that I came up with is to look at the length of playoff streaks (years in a row that teams went to the playoffs). Below I made a chart of the length of all the playoff streaks.
This seems to suggest that we should look at 4 or more years since a playoff streak of that length is better than the average streak. However if we look at playoff streaks that allow one year skips (so over four years a team goes to the playoffs 3 times, it still would count as a three year streak), we see that 5 or more years is above the ordinary length of a streak.
I will argue that the "One Skip" is a reasonable way to look at this problem, since we agree that missing the playoffs one year during a dominant stretch should not disqualify a team for being considered a dynasty.
Now if we look at a chart of 5,6 and 7 years we find that there isn't too much change among the three graphs, however the longer the span the smoother the ride at the top seems to be. Also with the 7 year average we see then the Bills and Rams are knocked out of being the top team. Does this give credit to the idea of a 7 year span?

4. Is winning the championship the only quality that makes a dynasty?
When I looked at this data I used a scoring system that favored winning in the playoffs. A team got 1 point for losing the Wildcard game, 2 points for losing the Divisional game, 3 points for losing the Conference Championship game, 5 points for losing the Super Bowl and 7 points for winning the Super Bowl. This was my way to weight the teams performance where getting to the Super Bowl was more important than just getting to the playoffs.
Earl suggested that winning the Super Bowl is the only thing that defines a dynasty team, he suggested that if a team wins it 3 times out of 6 years then that would be grounds for declaring a dynasty. Let's see how a chart of winning the Super Bowl looks (over 6 years):

Using this criterion we find three dynasties, the 49ers the Cowboys and the Patriots. I don't think that anyone would argue that these three teams are dynasties, so this method does work. However I believe that it is just a bit too conservative when looking for the good teams (also it is so straight-forward that it isn't much fun to talk about ^_^).

5. Can a dynasty last for only one season?
Take a look at the Steelers and the Raiders here. Both teams are the best team only one year, the Raiders in 1983 and the Steelers in 2008.

My initial thought was to disallow these two teams from being considered a dynasty because they were on the top for only one year. However, I have thought about this a bit more and I think that they are OK. Each point on the plot is actually 5 years of data combined, so that means that over the last 5 years that team was the best, not just that one year. Even if a team later eclipses the teams performance that should not take away the accomplishments made for those five years. Say the Steelers get overtaken next year by the Colts. That still means that for the last 5 years the Steelers have been the best team. (I have run the numbers and basically the only way the Steelers to lose their top spot is for the Colts to make it to the Super Bowl next year.)

That settles it right? :)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sports Dynasties

Some questions that I have when thinking about what makes a dynasty in sports.

1. Can there be more than one dynasty at a time?

2. How important is the regular season, how important is the playoffs?

3. You can't just look at one year at a time, so how many years do we look at?

4. Is winning the championship the only quality that makes a dynasty?

5. Can a dynasty last for only one season? (This question is somewhat related to the first question since only allowing one dynasty at a time means that some dynasties will get clipped to a very short time frame.)

I will give my answers soon to these questions when I think about them a bit more.

Sidenote: Is there anything that Obama can't do?

Friday, February 06, 2009


Currently I am working on a follow up to the last post I made about dynasties in the NFL, addressing questions like how long of a time span should we look at at one time, can there be two dynasties at the same time, does more than playoff performance matter, and other ponderables. If you have any thoughts about what defines a dynasty, and it doesn't just have to be in the NFL, I would like to hear them.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Know Thy Football History (Part II)

First I should congratulate the Cardinals and Steelers on a well played, very entertaining Super Bowl. The Cards weren't given much of a chance going into the game, but I think next year people will take the more seriously. As always we had a good time at the Super Bowl party which was held at Nicole's mom's house this year. You can find out more about our party here and here.

OK, now for the football history. Leading up to the Super Bowl I was thinking about how to define and mathematically find NFL "Dynasties". My first thought would be just to look at overall records for each year including playoffs. However, when I thought about qualities of a successful team in the NFL their regular season record has little consequence in the long run. I don't think anyone would classify Patriot's season this year as successful even though they went 11-5 in the regular season. History really only remembers the teams that make it to the playoffs, so I know that I needed to look solely at the playoffs to find which teams were dominate throughout the recent history of the NFL.

What we decided upon was to give points to each team for how far they made it in the playoffs each year. Then I looked at the 5 year moving average of each teams success in the playoffs. After all the data was compiled I got the following graph. (Note: I removed any team that was not the best team at any point, the lower part of the graph was pretty crowded.)

From this graph we see that the Cowboys have been the most dominate team at any one point, with their height at 1993. (93 Dyn5 means that I am looking at 1991-1995, 93 is the center point of the average.) Also, recently the Patriots have been the team to beat although with the Steelers win in Super Bowl XLIII they are now the team. It is interesting to see that besides the 49ers most teams have a pretty regular peaking cycle that has their rise to power about as swift as their fall.

According to my analysis, these are the football NFL Dynasties for the "modern" era of football (1978 on). I am shifting my years, so that each year listed is at the end of the average, so 1982 means I am looking at playoff performance from 1978 to 1982.

1982: Cowboys
1983: Raiders
1984-85: 49ers
1986-87: Redskins
1988-92: 49ers
1993-94: Bills
1995-96: Cowboys
1997-99: Packers
1999-2001: Broncos
2002-03: Rams
2004-07: Patriots
2008: Steelers
*Both the Packers and the Broncos had the same rating in 1999.

So what does this mean for current football history? It looks like the Patriots are on their way out, it is hard for me to think that this is possible since their team still has a good core but they are heading downwards. Also it looks like the Steelers are on their way to being the dominate team for a couple of years. Looking at the full graph the only other teams that are tracking significantly up are the Giants, Chargers and Cardinals, so they are the teams to watch for the next couple of years.

Know Thy Football History Part I