Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Saints Ain't Gonna Win The Super Bowl. (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

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Last week, I mentioned how sports writers and talkers don't understand stats at all.

This week, I go stats-heavy in what is a pretty in-depth look at how bad the Saints really are. So to lighten that up a bit, I'll present a fun lead-in:

Sometimes things are not exactly what they seem. Sometimes you'll think a thing is one kind of thing, and it's another kind of thing, exactly. Take three examples: Julia Roberts, The New Orleans Saints, and this picture:

None of those three things are what they actually seem to be.

That picture, for example, isn't exactly what it seems to be. It seems to be Mr F, playing at the mall playground with a kid who's being his friend. That's what I captioned it when I texted that to Sweetie yesterday, trying to use up some of the 250 text- and picture-messages I get each month on my phone for five bucks. (Total so far, on Day 6 of December: 17.)

But shortly after that picture was taken, that little boy on the right -- Mr F's new friend -- "borrowed" Mr F's toy (the toy is a snowman with a fishing pole sitting atop a plastic tube full of gum, which is not the most common image of Christmas, but Mr F liked it.) Mr F actually let the kid borrow it, but then the kid walked away with the toy, which upset Mr F, who didn't know he was giving it up. So I tried to talk to the kid, who's obviously-negligent parents were nowhere around. I said to the kid "Could he have his toy back, because he doesn't really understand about sharing." Mr F, meanwhile, hovered nervously near me. The kid tried to walk away again, and so I tapped him on the shoulder in a polite, and non-pedophiley way, and said again "Would you mind giving him his toy back?" As I did that, and the kid looked at me, Mr F grabbed the toy and ran, so to the rest of the world, it probably looked as though I had just cooperated with Mr F in stealing that toy.

Things are not what they seem.

Things like Julia Roberts, who I had always imagined to be a pretty nice person, overall. She had that smile, after all, and that laugh, and seemed to be kind of likeable even after she spite-married that cameraman and gave birth to some spite-kids and more or less stopped acting, so far as I know. Even then, I thought Julia Roberts was a pretty nice person, basing that assumption almost entirely on her character from Pretty Woman.

But then, yesterday, I read an article in Madison's Isthmus newspaper about movies filmed in Madison, and one of those movies was I Love Trouble, which starred Julia Roberts. I read then that she stayed near Middleton, Wisconsin (geographically, Middleton sits like a hat tilted jauntily back on the head of Madison) during the filming. Then I read this:

Julia Roberts stayed in a private home near Middleton during the three-and-a-half-week local shoot for I Love Trouble. (The owners moved out to make room for her, and the house was furnished for her needs.)

(Source.) The house was furnished for her needs? As opposed to, say, for the needs of the presumably-normal people who lived there before?

What you -- or at least I-- could read into that sentence is this: Julia Roberts did not say in a hotel suite or even a regular rental house. She kicked a family out of their own house during her stay in Madison, Wisconsin. That means that she had to pay a whole lot more money to do that, more money than it would have cost to have rented a suite or rental house, because who's going to move out of their house temporarily for low-rent payments? Then, Julia Roberts had the house furnished "for her needs." So she bought, or rented, furnishings for her temporary stay in that house.

Because Julia Roberts can not stay in a house without a chair specially designed for her needs. What, does she have a tail?

I don't know what Julia Roberts had brought in, or moved out, or redesigned, or feng-shuied. I just know that whatever she did, and whatever she spent, it was a horrible waste of money and yet another shameful, degrading display of wealth that for some reason Americans keep putting up with.

I no longer think Julia Roberts is a nice person; I now think she's a selfish pig and we're better off without her making any movies.

Things are not what they seem.

Those two things: Mr F's toy getting stolen, and us stealing it back, and Julie Roberts being a horrible human being, lead into my thinking about the New Orleans Saints today.

I'm excited about the New Orleans Saints being 11-0. I want them and the Indianapolis Colts to both go 16-0, and to meet, undefeated, in the Super Bowl, so that we can have the greatest game ever played, and also so that the sole remaining accomplishment of the Belicheat-Patriots-Asterisk era will be erased; once two teams go 16-0 in the regular season, the Patriots* won't even have that as a claim to fame anymore and we all will finally be done with nonsense about what a genius Belicheat is.

All of us, that is, except ESPN's Mike Greenberg, who is apparently applying for the job of Belicheat Sycophant; Greenberg spent Tuesday morning on the radio suggesting that it was all a part of Belicheat's geniusy master plan to lose to the Saints last Monday night, claiming that it "set up" the Patriots* perfectly for the playoffs while avoiding the limelight and scrutiny that comes with ... you know, winning.

The problem is, the Saints aren't going to go undefeated. And they're not going to make the Super Bowl, either. I'm sorry, New Orleans fans, but that's the way it is, and here's why:

The Saints are not nearly as good as you think they are. Things are not what they seem, and the Saints seem to be an 11-0 team. But they're not. They're not really an 11-0 team, not the kind of "11-0 team" with a legitimate shot at getting to the Super Bowl.

The Saints' eleven wins this year have come against Detroit, Philadelphia, Buffalo, the New York Jets and New York Giants, the Dolphins, Falcons, Panthers and Rams, the Buccaneers and the Patriots*.

Of those teams, only four teams (the Patriots*, Giants, Eagles, and Falcons) have winning records as of today -- and only two of those teams are more than 1 game above 0.500. Those two putatively good teams, the Patriots* and Eagles, play in weak divisions: The Patriots*' division has no other winning teams. The Eagles' division has Washington and the flailing New York Giants.

New Orleans hasn't beaten many good teams this year. Which means they may not be so good, either. It's hard to tell, since they've struggled against terrible teams like the Rams, but then walked all over such ersatz contenders as the Patriots*. Statistically, the Saints are first overall in "total offense," but rank only 4th in passing and 5th in rushing. They don't rush for as many yards per game as the Dolphins, Panthers, Titans, or Jets -- which is a pretty meaningful statistic, because those teams aren't very good, but have gained more yards running than the Saints.

Those four teams which outrush the Saints pass almost as often as the Saints; they just get less out of it, gaining only about 2/3 the yards the Saints do while throwing the ball almost as often: The Saints average 31.2 passing attempts per game, while the Jets, who throw the ball the least in the league, average 25.2 attempts per game, or only 6 less passes per game than the Saints. The other three teams all throw 30 or more times per game -- so they throw almost as often as the Saints do.

Rushing, the statistics are more telling: The Panthers and Titans rank just behind the Saints in rushing attempts per game (all around 31), while the Jets and Dolphins run 33 and 36 times per game, respectively. But all four of those teams have more yards rushing than the Saints. The Jets have nearly 25% more yards -- over 2,000 to the Saints' under-1700.

The Saints, then, throw and run the ball about as often as those four terrible teams, but get less rushing yards. True, they get more passing yards, a lot more -- but what does that mean? Does that mean that the Saints' receivers and quarterbacks are just that much better than those other four teams? Or that their running backs are that much worse?

Or does it mean what I think it means: that the Saints' opponents are that much worse than those other four teams?

That appears to be at least part of the case: Coming in to the season, the Saints' schedule appeared to be the 8th-hardest in the NFL. But the Panthers, Dolphins and Jets all faced tougher schedules on paper. In actuality, the Dolphins', the Jets', the Panthers' and Saints' schedule has largely looked about the same -- as would be expected in the case of the Panthers and the Saints, who play in the same division. The Dolphins played Indianapolis, while the Saints were taking on Detroit, which is one difference -- but not enough to explain the difference between 5-6 and 11-0.

The Titans, though, play a markedly harder schedule. Their 11 games so far have included bouts against Pittsburgh, Houston, Jacksonville, the Colts, and Arizona -- only one of those teams has a losing record: Houston at 5-6, and that only became a losing record when they lost to the Colts last week. The Titans have played a harder schedule, have switched quarterbacks, began the year with a new defensive coordinator and without their best defensive player from last year and started 0-6 -- but have outrushed the Saints and have completed only about 40 passes less than the Saints.

So do the Saints have players that are that much better than the Titans? Or are the Saints a lucky schedule away from being 5-6? The Saints don't run the ball as well as the Titans and haven't faced as tough of a schedule as the Titans. It's not entirely clear whether the Saints' players are really markedly better than the players on those inferior teams -- in part because the Saints' schedule has made it hard to tell.

It will be hard to tell, too, as the season finishes up, because the Saints don't have many real tests left, either: Dallas is the best team remaining for them to play, and Dallas isn't so great (and plays terribly in December under Tony Romo.) So the Saints, whatever their record at the end of the regular season, may not know much about what kind of team they really are -- and neither will we, although my opinion is that they're an 8-8 team (like they were last year) with an easier schedule than last year -- and 8-8 teams don't tend to do well in the playoffs.

Nor do teams that start hot do well in the playoffs, generally. There's another reason, beyond an easy schedule, that the Saints won't make it to the Super Bowl: the 11-0 start.

The 11-0 start and weak schedule to finish, as well as the fact that the Saints will likely clinch a playoff spot today, means trouble for the Saints. Remember all those Indy and Broncos teams that would start the season 9-0, 10-0, 11-0? Remember how many of them won the Super Bowl? None.

That's because teams that don't play meaningful games in December can struggle in the playoffs. Some years, the teams that looked hot and didn't lose until week 12 or 13 sat their starters for much of the games and then came out looking rusty -- like the Colts did the year Pittsburgh beat them as a wild card and went on to win the Super Bowl: The Colts had a better record and were heavily favored but lost to Pittsburgh, in the playoffs, in Indy, because they started out rusty.

Last year, the Titans began the year 10-0 before losing to Brett Favre's Jets. Though they only lost three games the whole year, all three of those losses came after things were largely wrapped up for the season: The Titans were 12-2 on December 14 with 2 games remaining; their closest competitor in the division, the Colts, were 10-4 on that same date and could at best tie the Titans, so the Titans' games in December didn't matter much, and it showed when they lost their first playoff game 13-10 to Baltimore -- a team they'd beaten in the regular season early on when their games still counted.

The Saints haven't played a hard schedule so far, and they don't have to play a hard schedule to finish up. They're competing only with Minnesota, really, for home-field advantage. They have a one-game edge over the Vikings, but the Vikings face games at Arizona, the Bengals, and against the Giants to finish the season. If the Saints win today against the Redskins, and the Vikings stumble against the Cardinals tonight, the Saints will have a two-game cushion with four games remaining, and might start to relax.

Finally, consider defense. Everyone knows the Saints' offense scores a lot of points. And everyone this year now talks up the Saints' "much-improved" defense as the difference between the old, disappointing 8-8 Saints' teams and the new, hopefully-better 11-0 Saints' team.

The "new" "much-improved" defense is ranked only fifteenth in the league, though, giving up 20.1 points per game. Of the teams that have given up more points per game than the Saints, only four have winning records, and those teams barely have winning records. The other 11-0 team, the Colts, by comparison, have the third ranked defense, giving up 25% fewer points per game than the Saints.

So the Saints' defense is middle-of-the-road; is it "much-improved?" Not really: Last year, the Saints ranked 26th at the end of the year, giving up 24.6 points per game -- so they've improved by just over a field goal per game.

The Saints' offense finished last year ranked number one, and has remained there in scoring -- but has increased its average per game from 28.9 to the heady 37+ points per game the team scores now. So the Saints may be better -- their offense may be better and their defense may be better. Or maybe it's that their opponents are worse, remember.

So the defense isn't much better at all -- it's ranked higher but giving up only marginally fewer points per game. It's the offense that's improved a lot, and the schedule that's improved a lot more, even.

To understand the impact the schedule plays in both improving the win-loss record and the statistical improvement on offense and defense, consider:

Last year, the Saints were only 6-5 through 11 games, a record they compiled playing a tougher schedule than they have this year through 11 games. They finished 8-8 in 2008 (going 2-3 down the home stretch). That 8-8 meant they were a mediocre team, and the specific games they won showed that: the Saints got their eight wins largely by beating the bad teams they played and losing to the good teams.

This year, the Saints are 5 games better, and they've begun beating some good teams, too-- but haven't played any of the really good teams they'll face in the playoffs. Instead, they're playing weaker teams, and beating up on those. They haven't yet played any of the really good teams they'll meet in the one playoff game they'll get -- and those teams that they'll meet in the playoffs more than stack up to the Saints.

The Saints will play in the playoffs teams like the Minnesota Vikings, who have lost only one game, and that loss came on the road to the defending Super Bowl champions in a rather fluky series of events, and who have thrown for only 2 less touchdowns than the Saints, gained nearly as many yards, and whose defense gives up only 18 points per game. The Vikings have a better defense, nearly as good an offense, and have racked up those stats against a tougher schedule.

Or the Saints could have to face the Arizona Cardinals, who, at 7-4, don't appear to be a threat but they are: The Cardinals lost to the 49ers, the Colts, the Titans, and the Panthers so far. Two of those losses are understandable: the Colts have beaten everyone they've played this year, while the Titans have beaten everyone they've played the last five weeks. The Cardinals give up fewer points per game on defense than the Saints, and have played an equal- or tougher schedule.

Like I said, I'm not rooting against the Saints -- I'm rooting for them (although I'm also rooting for Brett Favre, which makes things kind of confusing for me at times. I'd like to see, maybe, a three-way football championship, or perhaps a round-robin World Cup type of affair where all the best teams could play each other a couple of times, but that's for a different post.) I just don't think the Saints will be marching into the promised land anytime soon.

They seem like an 11-0 team, but they're not. They're a one-and-done playoff team, destined to watch as another NFC team plays in their stead, yet again.

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