Sometimes You Eat The Turnover Bar

Sometimes You Eat The Turnover Bar

Submitted by Brian on March 28th, 2012 at 1:24 PM

Turnover margin is a notoriously jittery stat that does not often repeat year to year. Turnovers are infrequent and hugely impactful, so they tend to wander all over the place without much rhyme or reason, slaying or rescuing seasons. Yes, there are obvious repeatable factors that correlate with good or bad turnover margin on a macro level. Get to the quarterback and he will explode in a confetti of bad decisions; allow the opponent to get to yours and watch the same thing occur.

On a micro level, sometimes you eat the bear… sometimes the bear eats you.

Michigan ate the bear last year, recovering around 75% of available fumbles. I know people want to believe there is a narrative that supports this model of football. When I returned from the Mattison coaching clinic presentation, one of the items I mentioned was that Michigan treats all incompletions as live balls in practice. I didn't think that was much of an explanation but a lot of commenters seized on it.

There does not have to be a reason that events transpire. It's not an Eastern thing. Sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you.

Michigan ate the bear last year, and how. SBN's Bill Connolly put together a stat called "adjusted turnover margin" that assumes an NCAA-average fumble recovery rate (50.3% for the D) and NCAA-average PBU-to-INT ratio (21.9%), compares it to your actual turnovers gained, and calculates a points per game figure Connolly figures is just the bounce of the ball. Drum roll…

Five Teams Who Benefited Most From Turnovers Luck
1. Michigan (+3.97 points/game)
2. Maryland (+3.97)
3. N.C. State (+3.61)
4. South Carolina (+3.61)
5. Oklahoma State (+3.40)

I am Jack's utter lack of surprise. Michigan's overall fumble recovery rate of 75% was first in the nation by a whopping eight percent! (Maryland was #2 at 67%.) They were three standard deviations above the mean! They were a full standard deviation above the #2 team in the country! This aggression against regression to the mean will not stand!

------------------------------------

This is the point where I talk about how lucky Michigan got last year and a lot of people say "nuh-uh." This gets a little frustrating on both ends. I get frustrated that something like that Sugar Bowl doesn't bring the point home; people who disagree with me get frustrated that I'm downplaying Michigan's success or being grim about next year.

They're not entirely wrong. I do think that if you replayed the 2011 season 1,000 times Michigan ends up 11-2 in relatively few of them. They were only sort of close in one of their losses*, won two-and-a-half nailbiters** and acquired 10 more turnovers than Connolly's model expects. Michigan also had the benefit of a soft schedule (no Wisconsin or Penn State) in a down Big Ten and an Ohio State team in shambles after tatgate. It was pretty uninspiring in terms of 11-2 years featuring wins over ND, OSU, and a BCS opponent despite undergoing massive transition costs and operating with a slap-dash, attrition-ravaged roster.

Which is to say: WOOOOOOOOOOO. Yes. Score.

But once we get past the woo and start talking about setting expectations for year two we should not base it off what Michigan did last year but what they should have done, what they lost to graduation and attrition, who they return and add, and who they play. We should start with the premise that Michigan was super lucky last year and probably won't be this year.

This doesn't mean their turnover margin is doomed. It just means their turnover margin is doomed unless Denard Robinson becomes a lot more responsible with the ball. Michigan got away with being –7 in interceptions because of the fumble surplus. That covered up a lot of blemishes last year.

What should we expect Michigan's turnover margin to be next year?

 

Happy Arguments

I am arguing it will be worse. I made similar arguments for much of the Rich Rodriguez era when Michigan was hugely negative every year and dammit it never changed. 

Experience at quarterback. This is a double whammy to the good for Michigan: they've got a senior starter entering his third year and—even more important—his second year in Al Borges's system. A number of Michigan's turrible interceptions a year ago came paired with hand-wavingly-open receivers Michigan's quarterbacks just missed, like this one Gardner chucked against Purdue:

flood2-6_thumb[1]

The ball is in the air here, but it's going to the double-covered Gallon instead of the hand-wavingly open Junior Hemingway. This wasn't pressure—Gardner had all day—it was a huge coverage misread. In year two these things should significantly diminish.

Fitzgerald Toussaint could be Mike Hart-like. IIRC Toussaint has not fumbled as a Michigan ballcarrier. As carries move to him from other sources—largely the fumble-prone Denard—Michigan should reduce the number of fumbles that can go against them. Fumble prevention/extraction is a skill.

The defense should be sack happy. Michigan finished 29th last year without getting great production out of its three-tech or weakside defensive end. Will Heininger had one sack last year; Craig Roh and Jibreel Black combined for 5.5. If the moves of Roh and Black inside upgrade the pass rush at three positions, the blitz-mad Mattison D will be in QBs' faces even more than they were last year.

Complicating factor: Mike Martin only had 3.5 sacks last year but his disruption opened things up for other people.

Protection should be good if the line is healthy. Lewan is an all Big Ten left tackle (at least) and Schofield is a touted recruit with a year of quality playing time under his belt with all the tools to pass protect on the edge. Wicked blind-side hits on Denard should be rare.

Sad Arguments

Denard is just turnover-prone. This has been a fact by air and ground ever since he hit the field. While he's going to improve with experience, sometimes players never have that light bulb pop on. Toussaint will shift some carries to his five points of contact but Denard will still get a bunch of carries, and he'll cough the ball up some.

Chucking sure interceptions up to Hemingway will result in interceptions because Hemingway is gone. Unless these are going to Gardner.

Hello massive reversion to the mean on fumble recoveries. If Michigan recovers over 70% of available fumbles this year I'll eat a lemon. Probably at the Rose Bowl.

If a tackle goes down, yeesh. Everyone's assumption is that this would see Kyle Kalis step in at right tackle. Mega-hyped recruit… and a true freshman.

Seriously, Denard is walking variance. I think Michigan will preserve its fairly positive TO margin. If they don't, we will all be sad about Denard's inability to shake the turnover bug. I can't predict he'll be better or worse until we see him play.

There's a reason a couple departing seniors picked Robinson—who was an All-American as a sophomore, remember—as a "breakout player" in that Rothstein article from yesterday($). He could break out. He could run in place, and not know which it will be makes predictions here even more useless than they have been in the past.

You may now return to thinking about Taylor Lewan on a tandem bike.

*[Even if Michigan does score against Iowa they have to get a two-point conversion and then win in OT, which is like a 20% shot.]

**[OSU should not have been since there was no reason to overturn the Toussaint TD that would have ended it.]

Unverified Voracity Took A Daguerreotype Of Greg Mattison

Unverified Voracity Took A Daguerreotype Of Greg Mattison

Submitted by Brian on August 18th, 2011 at 1:13 PM

Regressgreg-mattison-old-timey

regression + old-timey Greg Mattison = ?

Let it breathe. So how about that diary this morning? Man. I'm heartened by the idea that the admittedly rough model contained in it thinks Michigan's defense will bubble up to 71st even though it asserts changing coordinators/coaches is a worth an eight-spot hit to your final rankings.

In this case you can—are compelled to—argue that if anything it will swing the other way once Michigan decides to run one sane defense instead of a mélange of incoherent ones. Regression to the mean is our most favorite friend:

Top Underperforming Defensive Years

Team/Year

Predicted Finish

Actual Finish

Change

Michigan 2010

46th

108th

New HC

Florida State 2009

33rd

92nd

New HC

Washington 2008

55th

112th

New HC

Northwestern 2010

49th

100th

None

San Jose State 2009

55th

105th

New HC

Not only are we bad and expected to regress upwards, we were much worse than expected. Expectations will deflate but even so they will come in well above our finish last year.

The main argument against this is the impact of Michigan's recruiting rankings on the model (quite positive) versus their impact on the field (not so much). The list of the departed is depressing and extensive: Boubacar Cissoko, Brandon Smith, Taylor Hill, Justin Turner, Vlad Emilien, Cullen Christian, and Demar Dorsey are a big chunk of Michigan's four and five star defensive recruits; none are around. Will Campbell and JB Fitzgerald, two of the thin remainder, are badly underperforming expectations. Attrition from the underclass has also hurt.

The numbers point towards a two-year project. Like the 2009 offense, the 2011 defense should be worlds better than its predecessor. Unfortunately that will only get them to average, which isn't that average for a BCS team that will play cupcakes who can't compete with it.

The other interesting thing from the model was a quantification of how important the quarterback is: getting a returning starter there is more than four times more valuable than an average non-QB offensive starter. Guess who's got a returning starter at QB for the first time since 2007? Michigan. You can even argue that 2006 was the last time Michigan really got to use a returning starter to his full capabilities—Chad Henne missed big chunks of 2007 and was never fully healthy until the bowl game.

Oh snap. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is itching for a duel. His statement on Larry Dee:

"If the allegations prove true," he said, "the words irony and hypocrisy don't seem to go far enough."

These corrupt NCAA functionaries would do their cause a favor if they at least required some caricature before they looked like Thomas Nast cartoons. I, mean, seriously:

thomas-nastpaul dee

That Junker guy That Junker guy also looked like a walking editorial cartoon. This is not helping their public image.

Oh snap part II. I was going to make this comparison myself but Grant Wahl beat me to it:

FIFA and NCAA are almost exactly the same in their complete inability to police themselves.

When you can compare an organization to FIFA with little, if any, hyperbole and don't have an obvious breaking point in 2014 there is trouble.

Yahoo continues strafing runs. It's a good combo they've got going at Yahoo: Charles Robinson flies over in the B-52 dropping the big bombs while Wetzel swoops in to pick off any survivors with a machine gun. This time Wetzel's plinking away at the whole damn system:

Guys wanted to party on a yacht. Guys wanted to drink free in a VIP section of a nightclub. Guys wanted some cash, or a mansion to hang out in, or some extra money for a big hit, or maybe even the wildest of parties.

It’s not abnormal behavior from 20-year-olds.

Except in the mind of the NCAA, which is so far backward, it’s wasting time arguing over whether offering players a minor monthly stipend will cut too far into the adults’ gravy train.

Would it be so bad if this stuff was okay? Not the prostitutes, but just hanging out maxing all cool with guys who want to be your pet ATM? I guess that's not in the Spirit of Amateurism but even the Olympics have given up that ghost. Adam Jacobi asked much the same question at CBS, and the only objections I have to it are purely selfish: I don't know if Michigan boosters can dole out the rewards with the same kind of élan other schools can.

I've advocated something less holistic in the past in regards to basketball: let kids enter the draft whenever they want, let them play summer ball with teams, let them sign with agents, let the NBA teams sign them—and then let the kids go back to school and play if the NBA doesn't think they're ready. Where's the harm in that?

The NCAA continues to pretend like it's 1955, and that there wasn't rampant cheating in 1955, and that everyone has the morals of 1880. They could go a long way towards making the system fair without unbalancing it just by acknowledging that pro leagues are not evil. The last people to have that notion rode bicycles with one enormous wheel and one tiny one and thought Irish people were basically livestock. They also looked like Paul Dee—ohhhhh. I get it now.

But it's not so they must burn. A bit more on Pryor getting paid by Sarniak:

Pryor said he and his mother received cash and assistance with car payments from Ted Sarniak, a businessman in Pryor’s hometown of Jeannette, Pa., sometime before leaving school in June, lawyer David Cornwell told ESPN.

Cornwell, who is representing Pryor in his bid to be declared eligible for the NFL supplemental draft, said Pryor informed the NCAA and provided documents in May. As Pryor was being recruited in 2008, the NCAA told Ohio State that Sarniak could not provide anything of value to Pryor once he enrolled.

It's Big Brother-y, but NCAA teams can view the bank accounts of their players, which is probably why AJ Hawk and friends had three thousand dollars in cash on them when they got robbed that one time. Smart people keep their booster money in hard currency. Terrelle Pryor put it in a bank, one that OSU had access to, after his controversial recruitment found that he had received extra benefits in high school from Sarniak. Sarniak was in frequent contact with not only Tressel but the head of compliance at Ohio State. Pryor had lots of suspiciously nice cars. At no point did anyone in the compliance department add two and two together.

Brace yourself for this bit of spin:

Phone records also show that Ohio State compliance director Doug Archie stayed in regular contact with Sarniak.

“It’s expected that a compliance officer is calling constituents involved with the athletics department,” Lynch said. “It speaks to the compliance department’s thoroughness in monitoring such matters.”

Chutzpah!

Available for viewing at the cube. Three Michigan commits made the NTDP U17s: Evan Allen, JT Compher, and Tyler Motte. This was already known, so it's a bit disappointing a couple of the other guys didn't slide their way onto the team. Three is still a good number. No other school has more than two.

Also, the U17 team is an indication of how much college hockey recruiting has accelerated. Only four of the twenty skaters are uncommitted. These guys are 2013 commits with two years of junior in front of them—that's like 80 of the top 100 guys in Shane Morris's football class already being committed.

By that time Michigan will be in the Big Ten, so you can ignore the Miami guys on the list. The only player from the U17 Michigan will see down the road is Michigan State commit Mike McCarron.

Waiting it out. Michigan would very much like to add U18 defenseman Jacob Trouba, one of those weird guys who waits it out. Trouba is a potential first rounder in next year's draft and has yet to make a decision because he plans on sticking to it:

"That's sort of why I haven't (committed), because I don't want to make a commitment and then back down from it," said the 17-year-old on Wednesday. … "My family and I have always been like that -- my parents have always told me that if I make a commitment, that I have to stick with it, at least until the end of the year and then I can do whatever," said the 6-foot-2, 193-pound blueliner. "So, I'm going to wait until I know for sure what I want to do and then I'm going to choose."

Michigan is "in the equation" along with Notre Dame and the OHL's Kitchener.

Etc.: A third oh snap: Braves and Birds defines Clay Travis by calling him "embarrassingly self-congratulatory." Also he demolishes the silly argument about lawsuits he's making in re: Texas A&M to the SEC. (Remember when people cared about that?). Rock M Nation/Football Study Hall/Football Outsiders guru Bill Connolly is profiled by Vox Magazine.

Beating The Shotgun Horse

Beating The Shotgun Horse

Submitted by Brian on July 7th, 2011 at 2:14 PM

MGoBlog: where no sleeping dog is left to lie, and no dead horse is to remain unbeaten.  -Blue in South Bend

beating-a-dead-horsedenard-shotgun

left via

In re: shotgun + Denard + site obsession with Denard in shotgunFootball Study Hall put up a post with interception rates that highlights one of the many problems Michigan had turning yards into points last year: Denard's interception rate. Amongst a sample of 100 D-I quarterbacks* he finishes 84th. The only BCS quarterbacks to do worse were Garrett Gilbert, Stephen Garcia, Jeremiah Masoli, Steven Threet, BJ Daniels, and Jacory Harris. This is not good company. Harris and Garcia are 1-2 on this list

THE ZESTY INTERCEPTION WATCH.

1. Jacory Harris. The nation's leader in zesty interceptions won't let being benched stop him. If it gets too bad with new boss Al Golden, he'll just go throw 'em in the street if he has to, because swag like Jacory's never sleeps, and when it does it lands wherever it wants.

2. Stephen Garcia. With confidence. With verve. With GARCIA.

…and the omission of BJ Daniels, who either throws an 87 yard touchdown or three interceptions every play, must have been an oversight thanks to South Florida's ability to fade into the background.

Denard's interceptions weren't zesty. They were like—and I say this in all seriousness—watching the cutest puppy in the world fly headlong into another puppy's head, killing both. The defense was like watching the puppy blood run into the gutter. This is the most precise analogy ever made. Also the field goal kicking was like watching the deceased puppies reanimate just so they could poop all over everything. The Rich Rodriguez era: defined.

SO, ANYWAY

Right. So forwards into the endless and admittedly pretty pointless discussion about the best thing to do for the team the next couple years when they have a 5'11" dreadlocked bolt of lightning at quarterback. My position is blindingly clear: Shotgun Today, Shotgun Tomorrow, Shotgun Forever. For the next two years, at least.

Objections raised from the comments largely revolve around the idea that last year's turnover and redzone performances were flukes that should be expected to magically repair themselves. An example:

I think its a pretty big reach to say there's any "evidence" to suggest that the offense will revert to the mean.  College Football  red zone offenses are not random occurrences within a normal population.  Oregon and Auburn weren't so good in the red zone because they got randomly lucky.  Michigan wasn't terrible because we weren't randomly unlucky.

The offense was terrible in the red zone because:

1) Nobody could make a FG longer than 25 yards (this isn't something that will revert until someone can kick the ball)

2) Our offense simply didn't work as well in the red zone (I don't know why---playcalling, B1G defenses, nerves, but it isn't something that happened because of random chance)

There is no guaranteed regression to the mean in nonrandom circumstances, like football.  Michigan was terrible in the red zone because being terrible in the red zone WAS the mean for Michigan in 2010.

You hope #1 will be solved by the addition of Matt Wile. We are all gunshy about this but highly rated kickers—which Wile was by the end of the year—usually do well. That actually turns out to be irrelevant, about which see this long footnote**. The redzone issues come down to two things: turnovers, about which see above, and giving the ball back on downs.

Michigan did the latter four times last year, all of them late in already-decided games (one against Wisconsin and OSU, two against Mississippi State). They missed one field goal. They failed to score eleven more times because they straight-up turned the ball over.

As far as #2, the whole reason people do these study things and use stats is to have something to argue against people who use the word "simply" as their conversational gambit. Oh, it's simple to you, is it? Well, fine then. I guess you and your galaxy-spanning intellect win. It is possible that NFL football is so different than college football that studies do not cross over, but it is extremely unlikely, and that FO study showed really good redzone teams one year are almost precisely average the next.

In Michigan's case they should expect more than randomness to work in their favor. The common thread of Rich Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan was young or terrible quarterbacks. Three years of Threet/Sheridan, Forcier/Denard, Denard/Forcier should see you give away turnovers like they're candy. There are no upperclassmen on that list except the walk-on; there's only a few confused snaps from a hopelessly raw Denard preventing that list from having any sophomore starters.

The spread 'n' shred in general and Rodriguez in particular haven't shown they are turnover-prone. On the contrary, being able to run 70% of the time and have a good offense should cut down on turnovers since passes are inherently more risky.

From Maize 'n' Brew:

And that is what this comes down to. Common sense. Your eyes. If your eyes are telling you that you're watching a turd of a football game, well... you are. If your reaction to the Wisconsin Michigan game was that Michigan just got completely curb stomped by Wisconsin in the first half, mounted a minor comeback when Wisconsin took a third quarter nap, and then still got blown out by 20 points at home, well... that's what you saw. Perhaps the stats tell a different story. Maybe. But while the stats say that Michigan ran up an astounding 442 yards against Wisconsin they don't relate what actually happened at the game.

I try to back up my opinions with statistical evidence because the use of tools is the thing that separates bloggers and chimpanzees from other primates like newspaper columnists and sports talk radio hosts not on WTKA.

If you want to go on your gut, I can do that too: Michigan has a 5'11"-ish quarterback who ran for 1700 yards last year and an offensive line that's now 100% recruited to zone block all day. They don't really have a promising running back. I feel, like, not good, man, about Michigan in the I-form.

Or I could say that "common sense" suggests that Wisconsin was not trying to let Michigan score in the third quarter and that the overall results should be taken in appropriate context, but then we're back to feelings, man.

What Is The Core?

I just don't see how the spread offense is responsible for turnovers except insofar as it puts an erratic Denard Robinson on the field instead of a finely-polished artillery piece, and who wants to fix Michigan's issues by replacing Denard Robinson?

/crickets

/Munn Ice Arena

/people stapling each other's hands to their sides just in case they have a hand-raising seizure

Not having Denard drop back from center does not make his throwing mechanics worse. If anything it allows him to ignore a complicated facet of football—NFL coaches are constantly bitching that college quarterbacks no longer know how to execute a five-step drop—and focus on throwing it to the guy who's really open because you're not running the ball.

Meanwhile, the run game was kind of good last year despite having the worst set of tailbacks at Michigan since at least that year BJ Askew got half the carries. This is directly attributable to putting Robinson in a position to run, something an I-form doesn't.

There are quarterback draws and waggle plays, yes. Opponents will be all over them because those are constraint plays—not your base. Smart Football on how you build an offense:

The idea is that you have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see — the pass play that always works against Cover 3, the run play that works against the 4-3 under without the linebackers cheating inside. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don’t live in a perfect world: the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.

Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.

The argument here is about the core of the offense: in the I-form that's Denard dropping back to pass or handing off to someone else. In the shotgun it's the zone running game. As the core of the offense you can't remove Denard from the game. You cheat and then there's a guy wide open. While Denard's legs are a terrifying constraint, Michigan has to force the opponent to cheat to use them.

I'll believe these tailbacks and this offensive line and this almost total lack of fullback and tight end can do that running power up the middle when I see it. If they can't you've just taken the most dangerous weapon in college football*** out of the game. You shouldn't do that. It's common sense.

------------------------------------------------------------------

*[I'm not sure why there were 100 quarterbacks instead of approximately 120 + a few injury replacements, so keep that in mind.]

**[Long aside on Michigan's historically awful field goal kicking goes here. Nonnair posted a diary asserting that the lack of field goal kicking was not a factor in red zone efficiency because Michigan actually scored more points than they could have if they kicked it:

The other seven fourth-down attempts I am dividing into two groups: (1) FG is the likeliest option and only a riverboat gambling coach or a team without a FG kicker would go for it, and (2) FG is only a possible option, either because it'd be very long, or because there was only 1 yard to gain for a first down so going for it is a viable option.

Bottom line?  If we had tried FGs on all seven of those drives last year, even if we had Adam Vinatieri circa 2002 and he went 7-for-7, the most UM could have scored was 21 points.

As it was? UM got 27 points out of those drives. Six more points.

This is only one half of the equation, though, because Michigan did attempt a bunch of field goals and they went like this:

awful-kickin

All that red in the Michigan zone is value earned by the offense that was lost by the kicker on obvious kicking opportunities. So on the field goals Michigan tried last year, we threw away 16 points, versus the six this study shows M getting back by being forced to do a statistically correct thing that teams don't usually do because their fans don't trust statistics.

Misopogon threw this behind a jump on Sunday.

Nonnair turns out to be right: the field goal kicking did not have much of an impact on the red zone efficiency because Michigan's misses are all clustered just outside. However, the statistically correct behavior Michigan engaged in also had no effect. Six of the seven attempts were outside the red zone and the one that was inside it, a fourth and one from the Penn State 13, was converted and led to a field goal anyway.

So we're down to just the massive turnovers. I hope this section has highlighted how goofy red zone efficiency is.]

***[Other than Charles Robinson.]

Shotgun Yesterday, Shotgun Today, Shotgun Tomorrow, Shotgun Forever

Shotgun Yesterday, Shotgun Today, Shotgun Tomorrow, Shotgun Forever

Submitted by Brian on July 1st, 2011 at 1:12 PM

denard-shotgun

via flickr user larrysphatpage

Almost nothing drives me more insane than someone who proclaims certain numbers to be bad because these other numbers are better without suggesting a mechanism that would make this true. Via Slate, Murray Chass provides the canonical example:

The stats freaks who never saw a decimal point they didn't worship were ecstatic last year when Zack Greinke won the American League Cy Young award while winning only 16 games. Felix Hernandez, who won 19 and whose 2.49 earned run average was second to Greinke's 2.16, would have been my choice, but the stats guys "proved" that Greinke was the correct choice because of his statistical standing in formulaic concoctions in which we mere mortals do not imbibe.
—Murray Chass, murraychass.com, May 9, 2010.

This makes me clench and unclench my fists helplessly. It seems impossible that you could be this venerated New York Times baseball writer without picking up on the fact that AL pitchers have no control over how many runs their team scores. The fists clench and unclench because attempting to model an argument with Murray Chass about this quickly leads into a cul-de-sac where Chass says something condescending about something he doesn't understand and repeats it ad nauseum as if he believes "no blood for oil" or "drill, baby, drill" is a coherent, self-contained, impregnable point of view.

Presenting Jonah Lehrer, who actually manages to write for Wired despite being able to compose the following:

Consider the case of J.J. Barea. During the regular season, the backup point guard had perfectly ordinary statistics, averaging 9.5 ppg and shooting 44 percent from the field. His plus/minus rating was slightly negative. There was no reason to expect big things from such a little player in the playoffs.

And yet, by Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Barea was in the starting lineup. (This promotion came despite the fact that he began the Finals with a 5-for-23 shooting slump and a minus-14 rating.) What Dallas coach Rick Carlisle wisely realized is that Barea possessed something that couldn't be captured in a scorecard, that his speed and energy were virtues even when he missed his layups (and he missed a lot of layups), and that when he made those driving floaters their value exceeded the point score. Because nothing messes with your head like seeing a guy that short score in the lane. Although Barea's statistics still look pretty ordinary — his scoring average fell in the Finals despite the fact that he started — the Mavs have declared that re-signing him is a priority. Because it doesn't matter what the numbers say. Barea won games.

A man who writes for Wired ascribes JJ Barea's value to "nothing messes with your head like seeing a guy that short score in the lane." Fists clenching and unclenching due to impossibility of refuting argument that stupid. Plenty of other people have tried to do so. Some guy at Deadspin who pointed out that the Mavs are amongst the most stat-obsessed teams in the league. A Baseball Prospectus guy tore apart Lehrer's introductory car analogy, in which car buyers who focus on a couple of barely relevant but easily understandable numbers instead of the important, hard-to-quantity data are Bill James, not Joe Morgan.

It doesn't matter, though. These articles always have a tautologically number-negating logic. The argument goes:

  1. I don't understand statistics*.
  2. People who understand statistics don't understand intangibles.
  3. ???
  4. Therefore my understanding is superior.

Now let's talk about Denard Robinson and last year's offense.

*[This lack of understanding can be many things but is always at least this: statistics are a suggestive tool, not math gospel. To be fair, some people use statistics like they are a golden hammer. These people are very annoying and should be yelled at. Just don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. ]

Y WE NO SCORE GOALPOINTS

y-u-no-easydenard-fumble

This came up a lot in the aftermath of the Spring Game, when the quarterbacks strove to make themselves indistinguishable from walk-ons and quite a lot of people put finger under collar and went "uggggghhh." This was met with a round of backlash largely consisting of people pointing at select—sometimes hilariously select—statistics from last year's team in an effort to prove the offense wasn't really that good.

The favorite was a focus on the first halves against good opponents, when Michigan did not score points. This did not escape notice even around here:

The Ohio State game has the power to make whatever happens in it seem like Michigan's season in microcosm, and so the overriding theme of the 2010 season is looking up at the scoreboard at halftime to see Michigan on pace for about 500 yards and about twenty points. Michigan had 238 yards and seven points this time around and instead of a competitive game we got the usual.

Michigan was frustratingly spectacular at getting to the half with almost 300 yards and something like ten points on the board. But using points to evaluate the output of an offense is like using wins to evaluate a pitcher. Events outside the entity you are trying to evaluate have so much impact on that number, it is only a fuzzy explanation of the story.

I have engaged in message board fights and observed many more about whether the Wisconsin game was a failure on the offense's part. At the half the score was 28-0 Wisconsin and the game was as good as over, whereupon Michigan came out of the locker room and scored three straight touchdowns against the UW defense. This would have made the game interesting if Michigan could have forced the Badgers to pass, ever.

My fists do the clenching bit whenever anyone tries to claim the Wisconsin game was evidence Michigan should move away from the spread. The Michigan offense's entire first half:

  1. Michigan drives from their own one yard line to the Wisconsin their 35 before punting.
  2. Michigan drives from their 28 to the Wisconsin 13; Seth Broekhuizen misses a 30-yard field goal.
  3. Three and out from the 36.
  4. Three and out from the 40.

(There was also a meaningless two play drive at the end of the half.) That's not a great four drives. It is a great seven drives if you consider the next three. Meanwhile, the final touchdown against UW is often dismissed as "garbage time" but Badger tacklers on that drive include JJ Watt, Patrick Butrym, and Aaron Henry—all starters—and Michigan hit Roundtree three times for more than 20 yards on a three-minute march. That was not Wisconsin's goal. Even if you still dismiss Michigan's last couple drives as garbage you have to acknowledge that the defense's inability to make them meaningful robbed the offense of opportunities to impress for real.

But you're sitting there and your fists are clenching and unclenching and everything is black and doom and blacky black doom, so maybe it's hard to tell.

Transistors don't give a damn

CLOUDcrying-buckeye

This is the disconnect. While what seems like a fairly large subset of the fanbase saw wholesale collapse in the Wisconsin game, computers saw two units failing immensely and an offense that put up 442 yards on a defense that gave up 321 on average, scored 31-ish points (computers will credit the offense with acquiring the field position for the field goal and deduct the miss from the special teams; if they deduct from the garbage TD they will use a lower denominator when trying to figure out expected points) on a defense that gave up 21. Statistically, Michigan's offense was at least a standard deviation above the mean against the Badgers.

While the Wisconsin game is the biggest outlier between the offense's actual and perceived performance, it's instructive. It is often lumped in with the crap from last year along with Iowa (tenuous case indeed there), MSU, OSU, and the bowl game. There is no reasonable case it should be. This is why statistics are useful, because meat-emotions often overwhelm our capacity for reason.

These are the questions I think we should be asking in our most robotic voices:

What aspects of last year's performance project most strongly to next year's?

There are three reasons for the gap between points and yards: field position, field goal kicking, and turnovers. The latter two combined to see Michigan's redzone scoring rate rank 109th nationally. The first two are almost entirely out of the offense's control. The latter was a huge problem all three years under Rodriguez. However, turnovers notoriously do not correlate year to year, are heavily dependent on quarterback, experience and saw Rich Rodriguez consistently in the black at West Virginia.

Michigan's turnover issues aren't fate, should improve naturally, and are not related to the spread. Most of Michigan's other issues at turning yards into points are not really the offense's.

That leaves an inherent flaw in the spread offense as a potential culprit that has the potential to repeat next year. Point in favor: Michigan was even worse in the redzone in 2009, finishing with just 49% of available points. Point against: Auburn and Oregon finished in the top ten last year. Further point against from a Football Outsiders study of the NFL:

We took … 20 overachievers and measured their performances the season after said overachievement; while their DVOA [ed: something value over average, a fancy stat they have designed to smooth out noise.]  in the red zone that initial season exceeded their total offensive DVOA by an average of 33.3 percent, in the following season, their DVOA in the red zone exceeded their total DVOA by an average of 1.3 percent. In other words, the teams' performances in the red zone mirrored how they did outside it, implying the overachieving was a fluke.

We also can measure this by using correlation coefficients, a way of measuring the relationship between two variables that results in a number ranging from minus-1 (at which the two variables have an exact inverse relationship) to plus-1 (at which the variables have a perfectly positive relationship). The correlation between a team's performance in the red zone and its overall offensive performance, year to year, is 0.08 -- essentially nil. Teams simply do not exceed their performance in the first 80 yards once they get to the final 20 on a regular basis.

The evidence suggests Michigan's red zone struggles should revert to the mean; the things that made the offense less than the sum of its yards last year are all small sample size outliers.

What's left that does correlate, or at least correlates better? Everything else. On a play by play basis Michigan's offense does well in standard and advanced metrics, and returns ten starters. If they should be better but weren't (because of things that should revert) and can expect similar performance next year (because of all the returning starters), then what should happen is that the expected and actual meet somewhere south of #2 nationally but well within the schwing range.

Is it better to play to Al Borges's strengths or the offense's strengths?

In 2008 this was easy since the offense had no strengths. In 2011 it's a difficult question. Michigan's transition demands that Borges or Denard (and, importantly, the OL) leaves his comfort zone. This is necessarily going to be suboptimal for someone.

The spring game suggests it will be vastly suboptimal for Denard if Borges gets his way, and it seems a lot easier to change playcalls than turn Denard into Jon Navarre. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. The last few years I've documented the ever-evolving Michigan run offense. Rich Rodriguez kept ahead of the curve by constantly adding new wrinkles to the ground game. He was able to do this because of his vast experience with the spread 'n' shred. Al Borges is a smart guy with a lot of experience but his history suggests his inventiveness may be more oriented towards the passing game. If a good chunk of offensive effectiveness is staying ahead of the game, Borges might be able to do that better from a pro-style offense.

But the following is true even in the NFL:

Shotgun formations are generally more efficient than formations with the quarterback under center.

Over the past three seasons, offenses have averaged 5.9 yards per play from Shotgun, but just 5.1 yards per play with the quarterback under center. This wide split exists even if you analyze the data to try to weed out biases like teams using Shotgun more often on third-and-long, or against prevent defenses in the fourth quarter. Shotgun offense is more efficient if you only look at the first half, on every down, and even if you only look at running back carries rather than passes and scrambles.

With an offense outright designed for the shotgun featuring a quarterback whose main asset is his legs, the cutting-edge effect would have to be absurdly important to make the offense more effective from under center.

Does I-form pro-style help you win in ways undefined by conventional statistics?

This is Brady Hoke's theory when he denigrates the zone-heavy spread offense as an impediment to having a good defense. A quick glance at the top defenses in both conventional and fancy measures suggests this is unlikely. TCU, Boise State, and West Virginia  were the top three teams in yardage defense. WVU, Missouri, Oklahoma, Auburn, Oregon, and Mississippi State are all in the top ten in defensive FEI. There appears to be little if any problem with having a top defense opposite your spread 'n' shred offense as long as you account for the increased pace of the spread.

Is it worth sacrificing effectiveness down the road for immediate results?

Unknowable, but there's no better way to quickly put the question marks on Brady Hoke's resume to rest than by having a breakout first season.

Extensive Conclusion Section

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MOAR SHOTGUN PLZ