Podcast: Rufus Peabody and the NFL Conference Championship Games

Rufus Peabody, ESPN’s predictive analytics expert who makes his living investing in the sports markets, joins me on the Football Analytics Show to discuss the NFL playoffs. He’s also half of the excellent Massey-Peabody rankings and predictions for football.

Among other things, we discuss the following.

  • The balance between a quantitative model and subjective adjustments
  • The one factor for Massey-Peabody that tips the balance against the spread in Green Bay at Atlanta
  • The new results on home field advantage that impacts the NFC title game
  • How our models differ on New England’s pass defense
  • Rufus’s book recommendation for those interested in randomness
  • The perils of small sample size in sports

You’ll find Rufus incredibly humble for someone who has had his success in sports analytics, and I’m lucky to consider him a friend.

To listen on iTunes, click here.

To listen on the site, click on the play button.

How Andy Reid wins football games with interceptions

Andy Reid’s teams throw a low rate of interceptions. The visual shows how his teams in Philadelphia and Kansas City have had a lower than NFL average interception rate (interceptions divided by attempts) in all but 3 of 18 seasons.

Reid’s Eagles had a particularly good stretch of pick suppression from 2000 through 2004. Led by quarterback Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia never won fewer than 11 games in any of those 5 seasons.

Despite a decreasing interception rate across the NFL, Reid has continued to beat the NFL average over the past four years in Kansas City. Led by quarterback Alex Smith, the Chiefs have won 43 regular season games and never dipped below 9 wins in any one season.

The randomness of turnovers

The visual goes against the typical quant narrative that turnovers are random.

For example, I’ve shown this visual that shows the relation between interception rate the first 6 games of the college football season versus the remainder of the season.

The lack of correlation between these quantities shows that you can’t predict a team’s interception rate later in the season based on the same quantity during first 6 games.

This suggests interceptions are random, and a team has a 50% chance to have a better or worse than average interception rate. However, if you assume this for Andy Reid’s teams, there’s only a 0.37% chance his teams would have had 3 or fewer seasons with a below average interception rate.

Randomness certainly plays a role in interceptions. No one who has ever seen a tipped pass fall into the hands of a defender should doubt that.

However, the Reid visual suggests that some coaches can suppress interceptions over a very large sample of games.

Steelers at Chiefs

This has implications in predicting the outcome of the Steelers at the Chiefs playoff game this weekend.

Kansas City doesn’t seem like much of a Super Bowl threat with the 16th and 11th ranked pass offense and defense, respectively, by my adjusted yards per attempt. I use these pass efficiency numbers to evaluate teams for two reasons:

  • My research shows the importance of passing over rushing in the NFL.
  • Turnovers have little impact on yards per pass attempt.

However, if Kansas City is truly skilled at not throwing interceptions, then these pass efficiency numbers will underestimate their team strength.

Team rankings based on adjusted margin of victory might be a better way to evaluate Kansas City. Their low interception rate will impact margin of victory, as I’ve found that an interception is worth 5 points in the NFL.

My member numbers combine both pass efficiency and margin of victory to make Kansas City a 1.3 point favorite against Pittsburgh. However, my team rankings based on only points would make Kansas City a 3 point favorite.

I interviewed Ben Alamar on the Football Analytics Show this week, and his FPI (Football Power Index) makes the Chiefs nearly a 5 point favorite. They use an expected points added, a metric which accounts for interceptions but their own twist. To listen to that part of the discussion, go to 14:50 of my interview with Ben Alamar.

Does Aaron Rodgers draw more pass interference penalties?

On my recent appearance on Beating the Book, we were discussing Aaron Rodgers and why he wasn’t playing as well. Host Gill Alexander thew out the idea that Rodgers’ performance might not seem as bad if we included drawn pass interference penalties.

I dug into the 2016 play by play data through week 10 to find out. Rodgers has drawn 7 pass interference penalties, just above the team average of 6.

Drawing pass interference penalties doesn’t seem like a skill, as Drew Brees has 3 while Blake Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick have 12 and 11 respectively.

Rodgers does seem to draw pass interference penalties deep down the field. Here are the yardage gains on these penalties: 44, 18, 30, 40, 13, 28, 66. If you include these plays, it would help a pass offense that has averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, 26th in the NFL.

Here are the full results for defensive pass interference penalties for all teams during the first 10 weeks of the 2016 season.

  • Arizona, 7.
  • Atlanta, 6.
  • Baltimore, 6.
  • Buffalo, 4.
  • Carolina, 6.
  • Chicago, 4.
  • Cincinnati, 9.
  • Cleveland, 6.
  • Dallas, 2.
  • Denver, 9.
  • Detroit, 9.
  • Green Bay, 7.
  • Houston, 6.
  • Indianapolis, 5.
  • Jacksonville, 12.
  • Kansas City, 1.
  • Los Angeles, 5.
  • Miami, 2.
  • Minnesota, 4.
  • New England, 5.
  • New Orleans, 3.
  • New York Giants, 7.
  • New York Jets, 11.
  • Oakland, 12.
  • Philadelphia, 3.
  • Pittsburgh, 5.
  • San Diego, 8.
  • San Francisco, 3.
  • Seattle, 6.
  • Tampa Bay, 7.
  • Tennessee, 9.
  • Washington, 6.

Predictions for the Superbowl, 2015

bill_belichickYou want to know whether the Patriots or Seahawks will win the Super Bowl.

Can New England overcome the distractions from deflated footballs and exploit the human mismatch of Rob Gronkowski? Will the injuries to Seattle’s defense prevent them from repeating as Super Bowl champions?

I am extremely split on this Super Bowl. In recent previous years, I usually have a pretty good feel for the game after watching each team for almost 20 weeks.

Ed did an ensemble prediction that combined The Power Rank’s numbers with those from 8 other sources on CNBC. It gave the Seahawks a half point edge, the toss up that I expect.

Even in speaking to some sharper bettors, they seem split on this game on both the outcome and the point spread (New England -1 as of Tuesday afternoon). Nonetheless, let’s highlight some match up advantages and disadvantages for each team.

Patriots Offense vs. Seahawks Defense

The big question for the Seattle defense is the health of cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman seemed to injury his elbow pretty badly in the NFC Championship as he used only one arm in bump and run coverage against Jordy Nelson.

If Sherman is affected at all by his elbow, I guarantee the Patriots and Tom Brady do their best to exploit the opportunity. If Sherman is close to healthy, it’ll be interesting to see who the Patriots put on his side of the field.

Richard Sherman lines up on the left side of the defense almost 100% of the time. Thus, the opposing offense can almost pick their match up for Sherman.

For the Seahawks, this strategy eliminates one side of the field and the receiver trying to beat Sherman down field. However, the Patriots have a number of equally dangerous receivers.

The catalyst for the Patriots offense is Rob Gronkowski. Since Gronk probably will not line up against Sherman, it’ll be interesting to see Seattle coordinator Dan Quinn’s approach to slowing him down.

They could certainly bring Kam Chancellor down from the safety position to cover Gronkowski. After seeing the soft spot in the middle of the field get exposed by Aaron Rodgers and his tight ends, I’d guess this is exactly what Dan Quinn ends up doing.

The size, speed, and aggressiveness of Chancellor could slow Gronkowski down as much any team has this season. I don’t think anyone can shut him down completely, but it gives them a chance.

In the games I’ve watched, it seems Brandon LaFell tends to lineup on the opposite side of Sherman. Thus, that leaves either Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola taking up Richard Sherman’s time.

Strangely, I would like the Edelman match up against Sherman. If there is the slightest weakness in Sherman’s game, it’s the crossing routes that drag him the width of the field.

I don’t expect the Patriots to stick to the running game like they did against the Colts. Seattle has the second best run defense in the NFL, and I highly doubt LeGarrette Blount will gash the Seahawks like he did the Colts.

If they are going to have success in the running game, it will have to come from smaller, speedier guys like Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray.

Though I’ve heard some talks about the Seahawks front making Tom Brady uncomfortable, they have an average sack rate this season. The Patriots only trailed Denver and Peyton Manning in sack rate allowed this year. Brady should have plenty of time with his usual quick trigger.

Seahawks Offense vs. Patriots Defense

Frankly, I hate this match up for the Seahawks offense. Bill Belichick had a field day with Andrew Luck last week, and this Seahawks offense is a lot less sophisticated.

I never agree with the run-heavy approach, but this might be the best strategy for the Seahawks. New England ranks just inside the top ten in opposing yards per carry but they could also quickly stunt Seattle’s poor passing game.

Belichick’s typical plan is to put Darrelle Revis out on the offense’s best receiver while allowing Browner, McCourty, and the others to match up against the rest of the wide outs with safety help over the top.

It is looking like Jermaine Kearse will end up on Revis Island on Sunday. Kearse does have some speed and has shown to be a down field threat as of late.

However, much like Sherman, Darrelle Revis eliminates the big play. It’s not a great match up for the Seahawks.

Seattle will more than likely depend upon Doug Baldwin and Luke Willson in the passing game. Baldwin is very similar to Kearse with a little less athleticism and speed.

Luke Willson, on the other hand, has shown to be a little better at tight end than most expected. He’s extremely similar to guys like Heath Miller or Jason Witten with good route running and a great set of hands.

I’d expect Russell Wilson to target his tight ends with some bad match ups on the outside. Speaking of Russell Wilson, it is imperative that he runs the ball himself with more success than last week.

Clay Matthews drew the job of spying Wilson throughout the entire game last week. He got after Wilson and really shut him down in the running game.

Jamie Collins will more than likely get that job this week. For those of you haven’t watched Collins play, he’s even quicker and more explosive than Matthews. Regardless, Wilson must finds ways to extend and make plays with his feet.

The Seahawks will need to expose the Patriots defense much like the Ravens did in New England’s first playoff game. They will have to use Baldwin and Willson in the middle of the field while running Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin out on the edge.

Inevitably, Pete Carroll will be creative enough to set up some quick hitters like wide receiver screens, running back screens, end-arounds, and read-options to keep the ball systematically moving down the field.

However, the Seahawks offense isn’t capable of putting up a lot of points.

Prediction

After the games ended last Sunday, I would have leaned extremely heavily on the Patriots. In the way the Seahawks and the Patriots won their games, the better team was clearly the Patriots.

I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. The line opened on Sunday night at Seahawks -2.5. The sharps crushed that line literally within a few minutes. The line snapped down to pick ’em almost immediately and has now settled around Patriots -1 to -1.5 depending where you look.

The books want to make lines as close to 50-50, in terms of money and number of bets, as possible. It seemed like they completely misjudged the public perception after an emotional Seahawks victory and the bigger money bought the line down right away.

After a week of looking over the match ups, this game is much closer than I initially thought. I foresee both defenses being able to control each offense.

In typical weeks, I almost always lean on the defensive side. That’s the side most undervalued in the eye of the public. In return, you typically get favorable lines on good defenses.

The Seahawks defensive value, though, is typically accurate or even overvalued. The next aspect of the game is the quarterbacks and his protection. This edge is significantly in Brady’s favor.

For the sake of picking a winner, I’ll take the Patriots. I think Deflategate will have the Patriots playing angry and give them a little incentive to run up the score if they get ahead instead of taking the laid back approach that the Packers took.

If anyone has an argument in favor either side, I’d love to hear it in the comments because I don’t have much of a lean in breaking this game down. This is as much as a toss up for a Superbowl as I can remember.

Let’s hope this one comes down to the last possession. Enjoy the game and the next eight months until football comes back again next season.

How safe is Oregon from an upset against Ohio State?

cfb_playoff_trophyOregon looks like a clear favorite over Ohio State in the college football championship game.

The markets opened with Oregon as a 7 point favorite, which implies a 70% win probability. The predicted margin of victory is even higher with my college football team rankings based on margin of victory.

After an early loss to Arizona, Oregon has been dominant. Only UCLA has come within two touchdowns of beating Oregon. This stretch of games included a rematch against Arizona and the playoff semi-final against Florida State.

Ohio State barely made the college football playoff after an early loss to Virginia Tech, a team that went 3-5 in the ACC. They’re playing a third string quarterback lucky to have receivers talented enough to catch his jump balls.

Oregon should win, right?

In reality, Ohio State is a terrible match up for Oregon. Let me explain.

Oregon’s biggest match up problem

Ohio State has an elite ground game. To quantify this, let’s look an efficiency statistic: yards per carry. In college football, sacks count as rushes in the official statistics. Since sacks are pass plays, I exclude these plays in calculating yards per carry.

To adjust yards per carry for strength of schedule, I use a ranking algorithm I developed based on my research in statistical physics. While Ohio State has the 7th best raw yards per carry, these adjustments move them up to first. Ohio State is predicted to gain 6.78 yards per carry against an average FBS rush defense.

And Oregon has essentially an average rush defense (52nd of 128). Ohio State ran all over Wisconsin (13th ranked rush defense) and Alabama (2nd). They should do even better against Oregon.

The visual shows the difficult match up for Oregon. The blue dots represent Ohio State’s pass and rush offense. The smaller green dots show Oregon’s defense, and better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons. You’re looking at how a unit compares to average.

Ohio State's offense vs Oregon's defense

The gap between Ohio State’s rush offense and Oregon’s rush defense shows the clear advantage for the Buckeyes.

They will give most of the carries to Ezekiel Elliott, who has gained 6.9 yards per carry this season. We all saw his speed when he outran the Alabama defense for a 85 yard touchdown in the semi-final game. Quarterback Cardale Jones will also run the ball, and he’s a load to bring down at 6’5″, 250 pounds.

Offensive line coach Ed Warriner deserves much of the credit for Ohio State’s explosive run game. He had to groom four new starters this year, and none of the candidates had 5 star recruiting credentials. While the offensive line came into the season with question marks, it now looks like the strength that could carry them past Oregon.

Oregon’s other match up problem

Oregon, led by Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, excels at throwing the ball. To quantify this, let’s look at yards per pass attempt, an efficiency statistic that includes sacks. After adjusting for schedule, Oregon has the top ranked pass offense. They are predicted to throw for 9.04 yards per attempt against an FBS average pass defense.

However, Ohio State’s strength on defense is against the pass. They had the 9th best pass defense by adjusted yards per attempt. Against Alabama, they didn’t allow star receiver Amari Cooper to make big plays. While Cooper averaged 13.9 yards per catch this season, his longest against Ohio State was 15 yards.

The visual shows how Oregon’s offense matches up with Ohio State’s defense.

Oregon's offense vs Ohio State's defense

The gap between Oregon’s offense and Ohio State’s defense shows the size of the advantage. Oregon should still be able to throw the ball against Ohio State. However, it won’t be as easy as against Florida State.

The visual also show Oregon’s edge in running the ball. They should run it often (and they did on 55.9% of plays this season) and set up play action for Mariota.

Prediction

For college and pro football this season, I started aggregating many predictions into one ensemble prediction. This ensemble, which includes my adjusted numbers and data from the markets, predicts Oregon by 3.2 points, which corresponds to a 59.5% win probability.

However, you should never blindly trust numbers, especially in a game with mismatches. One of the predictors in the ensemble accounts for passing and rushing separately for each team. It considers Ohio State’s significant edge in running the ball and that Ohio State runs the ball on 59.3% of plays.

This matchup model predicts a 50-50 game between Ohio State and Oregon.

I think the game will be very close. Can Mariota have a monster game and carry his team? Or does Elliott break off big run after big run?

This game most likely comes down to a field goal in the final minutes. I give a slight edge to Oregon to win, but don’t be surprised if Ohio State pulls it out.