QUANTIFYING FOOTBALL

Josh Levin has an excellent piece in Slate explaining why football hasn’t had a Bill James. In some senses, this is obvious. As Levin notes,

For one thing, a football game is several orders of magnitude more complex than a baseball game. For another, nobody has yet determined what the most useful data to collect might be. And finally there’s the problem of data points: The 16-game NFL season leaves less stuff to count than Major League Baseball’s 162 games.

Not to mention the constant rule changes in the NFL–compared to relatively few in MLB–that further complicate comparative analysis.

More significantly, baseball–especially hitting–is essentially nine individual efforts; football is, more than any other, a true team sport.

James’ greatest contribution to the baseball base was the simple but powerful idea that “a hitter’s job is not to compile a high batting average. The job is to create runs.” In the years since Carter began stumbling around with his punch cards, nothing so powerful–and certainly nothing so simple–has emerged from the gridiron. And for good reason: It’s easy to determine the result of each event in a baseball game–double, out, strike–and to assign the individuals involved numbers based on the outcome, but football’s not that cut and dried. For one thing, specialization–running backs have entirely different tasks than wide receivers–makes it more difficult to come up with a single, grand, unifying theory of football. But most significantly, though it’s clear that every football player’s end goal is to put points on the scoreboard–or, for a defender, to keep them off–it’s not clear how to extrapolate a pancake block or an open-field tackle into a point total.

Cross-posted at SportsBlog.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.