Moneyball and Caponomics: 27 Outs and 12 Possessions

In Moneyball, the main crux of the entire philosophy lies with the fact that each team only has 27 outs each and winning and losing depends on what you do with those 27 outs. This is why the Moneyball philosophy doesn’t like taking risks like stealing bases or trying to move runners over with sacrifice bunts because they determined that the risks of a stolen base are not worth the reward and giving up one of your 27 outs to move a runner over with a bunt is not worth the reward. In my opinion, Moneyball’s biggest impact on the game of baseball was the increase in the value placed on on-base percentage rather than batting average because it’s more important to get on base than worry about how the player got on base.

If you’re here on Over The Cap, then you probably have an understanding of Moneyball, so I won’t bore you, but the strategies allowed the Oakland Athletics to compete with teams like the Yankees who would spent as much as $80-100 million more than the Athletics on their payroll. Of course, in the NFL, no team can spend that much more than another due to the salary cap, but that just means that finding value where others don’t is just more important because every single team has to do it, rather than just a few small market teams.

Some examples of how we could mirror Moneyball are below. I’ve thought of these while writing Caponomics:

  • They argue that a college baseball player’s chance of MLB success is much higher than a high school player. So in the NFL, we should think about which positions are the easiest to project in the draft and which we can find low-cost, but valuable free agents.
  • What stats are we currently overvaluing like the MLB overvalued batting average for so long and what could we replace them with? What’s our on-base percentage equivalent?
  • We know that tackles are a near useless statistic because of how they’re recorded and because of the difference in schemes that result in certain players having more opportunities for tackles than others. How should teams evaluate defensive players? And for that matter, how should we evaluate offensive players considering that they’re reliant on the players around them and their coaching staff to put them in position to succeed and get noticed?
  • Considering that every team has the same salary cap in the NFL, does that make it all the more important to create your own value system for your organization? Do you have to create your own unique system for finding players who are undervalued by the market?
  • Which positions are over and undervalued?
  • What kind of plays result in the most turnovers? What play’s risk outweighs the reward?
    • Over the years watching football with my dad, we’ve both discussed our disdain for the short out in certain situations because of the risks associated with the short pass being a interception return for a touchdown and the reward being a five yard gain.
  • How important is it to create a unique “x-factor” in your organization that increases the value that you get out of players?
    • For the Belichick reign in New England, he had offensive line coaching legend Dante Scarnecchia and now Dave DeGuglielmo and they have had some of the least expensive offensive lines in the NFL. The average for the starting offensive line for a Super Bowl champion is 11.17%, but the Patriots average for their four champions of the cap era is 6.53%, which is an astounding 58.5% of the Super Bowl average.
    • Like I wrote the other day, the Eagles believe in their sports science program and have a stength, conditioning and injury recovery guru in Shaun Huls. You can check out a great MMQB article on him and his work with retired Navy SEAL Robbie Stock here.

And the biggest question in my opinion:

  • The fact that each MLB team has 27 outs to score more runs than the other team, what’s the equivalent in football that we should start our philosophy from?

Those are just a handful of the questions and ideas we should be considering when we think about NFL Caponomics. There are many more, but for the sake of this article, let’s focus on those as well as the main, critical last question.

Analyzing the last two Super Bowl champions, the Patriots and the Seahawks, has taught me a lot about this Caponomics philosophy I’m trying to create. At the 2105 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in February, Patriots VP of Player Personnel, Nick Caserio, took part in a panel and gave us a little peek behind the curtain when he spoke of their midseason trade for Akeem Ayers. Caserio spoke of Ayers’ on-field production and the numbers we can look at like tackles, assists, sacks, quarterback hurries, quarterback pressures. Then he said “you have to look at the player within the scheme and how he is actually used.” He goes on to talk about how he played off the line of scrimmage at UCLA and during his first three years in Tennessee, but that a scheme change with the new coaching staff didn’t work out for him, which made him an expendable piece for the Titans.

As the old cliché goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and in no sport is that more true than football. Baseball is a team sport with a very individualized component because, while you are reliant on your teammates to play defense if you’re a pitcher or get on base if you’re a hitter, you’re alone up there on the mound or at the plate. In football, a trade could send you from a place where there literally is no use for you because you don’t fit into the new staff’s plans, to a place where you become an All-Pro.

To use an example that’s much easier for us all to picture and understand, Wes Welker isn’t Wes Welker if he’s not in the Patriots offense. If you tried to put Wes Welker in Torrey Smith’s role on the Baltimore Ravens, you’re not going to be successful. We should look at trying to make a two-point stance linebacker into a hand in the ground defensive end the same way. When I was in college and saw some of my teammates get shifted from one position to another, especially the transition that one kid made from fifth-string freshman quarterback to sophomore defensive end in the rotation to starting offensive guard, you realize that unlike any other sport, a position change in football is like changing the entire sport you’re playing, it’s an entire different set of skills and responsibilities.

Another great example is Russell Wilson. He’s become a superstar and a Super Bowl champion because he’s in an offense that’s built to his strengths, which allows him to thrive. If you put him in an offense that’s asking him to throw 40-50 times a game without Marshawn Lynch in the backfield and he won’t have the same success that he’s had in Seattle.

Caserio continued by saying they merge their draft process and pro personnel evaluation process when they look at a fourth year guy like Ayers. The Patriots scouting staff looks at how they evaluated him coming out and his measurables, then analyze his actual production and see if it’s a match that makes sense for the team.
Caserio states, “You’re taking previous information that you’ve accumulated with information that is happening in the league, and ultimately making the decision. In the end, it was just kind of a mismatch probably between scheme and what he was asked to do.” He goes on to mention that you’re never quite sure how things are going to go with a player until you see how he fits into your system on the field, but he showed the kind of versatility that allowed them “to use him in a multitude of roles and he was able to benefit the team as a result.”

He also shared that bit about Chandler Jones in the 2012 draft process saying that his “height and weight met the team’s standards, as did his arm length, while his 10-yard split was a bit lower than desired.” Caserio noted that his “ability to play with leverage, bend and collapse the pocket was much tougher to quantify from a data perspective,” but obviously, they saw enough out of him as a player to draft him.

This goes back something I wrote about in an article titled, “An Agent Perspective on Trent Richardson Signing with the Raiders and Some Raiders Thoughts,” regarding Nick Saban and Alabama’s recruiting process:

What makes Saban such a fantastic coach is that he recruits players who fit his system. One example that I read in The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, is that Saban follows what he called “the blueprint” for success. According to the book, Andy Staples in Sports Illustrated, stated that the “blueprint targeted high school athletes who fit certain character/attitude/intelligence criteria and position-specific height/weight/speed guidelines tailored to Alabama’s offensive and defensive schemes. Cornerbacks, for example, should ideally be between six feet and six feet two inches and about 190 pounds and run a sub-4.5 forty-yard dash; linemen should stand no less than six feet two because as ( Kirby) Smart (defensive coordinator) drily noted, ‘big people beat up little people.’”

They state that they might not be interested in guys who might be five-star players as seen by recruiting websites, if they don’t fit their parameters at Alabama. Smart states, “Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but we don’t want a team full of exceptions.”

It’s no surprise to me that Belichick and Saban are at the front of the industry in the way that they analyze potential players. Saban was Belichick’s defensive coordinator from 1991 to 1994 with the Cleveland Browns, so I’m sure they have had many conversations on these theories over the years. These two coaches know what they need for their team to succeed because they’ve turned the game of football into a science. They’ve taken a hypothesis, tested it, made changes when they needed to be made, hammered it down until it worked and just done it over and over again on every theory or football idea they have.

Similarly to the systems in place in New England and Alabama, in Seattle, Pete Carroll has a connection to Nike’s SPARQ rating, which is “a formula developed with the help of Seahawks strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle” according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. The SPARQ score is calculated using a player’s weight, 40-yard dash time, 20-yard shuttle, vertical jump and kneeling powerball toss.

For years, I’ve heard to Joe DeFranco of DeFranco’s Gym talk about some of the issues with the NFL Combine tests and he agrees that they can be improved, especially on positional basis. Seahawks GM, John Schneider agrees as he thinks the 10-yard split is a better metric for offensive lineman and the broad jump is better in general.

According to Field Gulls, the Seahawks’ 2013 draft class had the NFL’s highest collective SPARQ score and the 2014 class was near the top, if not the top. Some late-round SPARQ stars according to Wesseling are Malcolm Smith, Luke Willson, Jermaine Kears and Jeremy Lane. And the Seahawks and Patriots aren’t the only team looking into different measurements and systems to analyze players.

What this all means is that teams are beginning to find ways to make their scouting process unique to their organization.

I got off on a bit of a tangent there, but I think that covers a lot of what I was alluding to in the first few questions. Let’s get back to that 27 outs question.

During college, our coaches would talk about a few things we needed to do every week to win games. One was to win two of the three phases: offense, defense and special teams. Another thing we always went over after each game were big plays (plays over 20 yards), turnover ratio, third down conversions, red zone scoring, and winning on first downs (four or more yards on offense and less than four on defense). While I’ve begun to look in all of these for Caponomics, analyzing the 2012 Ravens and their playoff run brought the importance of turnovers and turnover ratio to my attention.

During those playoffs, Joe Flacco had a historic 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions, which only Joe Montana has done before in his 1989 Super Bowl run. Overall, they had a turnover ratio of +6 as they had four turnovers to 10 for their four opponents. The Ravens defense forced six interceptions, one from both Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick and two each for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Interestingly, on a per game basis, the Ravens four playoff opponents ran for 7 more yards per game and 24 more passing yards per game. There’s obviously more to a game than offensive yards, but the Patriots had 72 more yards than them, while the 49ers had 101 more yards.

A few weeks ago, I had compiled the regular season stats for the 21 Super Bowl champs of the cap era, so I knew there was something worth looking into, but I also wanted to look at the playoff touchdown-to-interception ratio for the 21 starting quarterbacks of those teams.

Figure 1: Regular Season Turnover Ratio (Click on the figures to enlarge them.)

Regular Season Turnover Ratio for Super Bowl Champs

Figure 2: Playoff Stats for Super Bowl QBs

Super Bowl QB Playoff Stats

So in 71 total games, these 21 quarterbacks have only 35 interceptions to 120 touchdowns. If you divide 71 games by 16, you get 4.4375; so when we divide touchdowns and interceptions by 4.4375, we’ll get the regular season average.

The Super Bowl QBs would have averaged 27.0 touchdowns against 7.9 interceptions over a 16 game season. If you take out Peyton Manning’s 2006 playoff run, which is a real outlier with seven interceptions in four games, the numbers end up at 27.9 touchdowns against 6.7 interceptions.

To put those numbers in perspective, the least interceptions that Peyton Manning has thrown in a season is nine, Joe Flacco’s least is 10, and Drew Brees threw seven in 15 games in 2004. Three of the best quarterbacks in the NFL have two single digit interception seasons between them.

Aaron Rodgers has quite a few single digit pick seasons. In 2009, Rodgers had 30 touchdowns against seven interceptions. In his MVP 2011 season, he had 45 touchdowns with six picks, 39 and eight in 2012 and in his MVP year in 2014, he had 38 touchdowns with a mere five interceptions. Outside of Rodgers’ first season as the starter when he had 13 interceptions, he’s averaged 32 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions per season.

Tom Brady had an astounding 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 2010. Brady had nine in 2014 and eight in 2007 and 2012. Excluding the 2008 season he played part of one game in before tearing his ACL, Brady has averaged 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over the course of his 13 full seasons.

So, the playoff average for these Super Bowl quarterbacks is around what Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are at their best, just without as many touchdowns. I think that’s a real insight into the kind of quarterback play that wins Super Bowls. Those touchdown-to-interception numbers would indicate a fantastic season for any quarterback, but they’re even more impressive when you consider that they’re against the best defenses in the NFL in the playoffs. To be a Super Bowl championship QB, you don’t have to be as good as Brady or Rodgers, you just have to protect the football as well as they do.

Drew Brees only averaged 244 passing yards per game during his 2009 Super Bowl run, which is the worst average of his six-playoff appearances and speaks to the importance of protecting the football over huge yardage totals in the playoffs.

While the Saints had the sixth best rushing offense in the NFL that year with 2106 yards and they went off for 171 yards against the Cardinals in the Divisional Round, they averaged only 59.5 rush yards per game against the Vikings and Colts. Their x-factor was their +7 turnover ratio in the playoffs, Brees threw zero interceptions and their defense created turnovers. During the regular season, the Saints defense was second in the NFL with 39 takeaways and they were third with a +11 turnover ratio.

The Saints were a below average defense, they were 20th in the league in points allowed that season and they were outgained by 218 yards against the Vikings and 100 yards by the Colts, but the turnovers forced saved them. They forced five turnovers against the Vikings, then beat them in overtime and Tracy Porter put the Super Bowl away with a 74-yard interception, while the Colts were driving to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.

Looking at the turnover ratio for all 21 Super Bowl champs really boosted my confidence in this theory.

Figure 3: Playoff Turnover Ratio for Super Bowl Champs

Playoff Turnover Ratio for Super Bowl Champs

These figures are undeniable. The 1999 Rams were the only team with a negative turnover ration, but the only game where they had more turnovers than their opponent was an 11-6 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where they had 309 total yards to the Bucs’ 203.

As parity increases in the NFL, which I argue it has exponentially during the cap era over the years and it will continue to increase, it becomes more and more important to win the turnover battle in the playoffs because the margin for error shrinks.

Aaron Gordon from SportsOnEarth.com wrote an article on December 10, 2013 breaking down what an average 2013 NFL game looked like, up to that point, in terms of things like score of the winner and loser, the amount of plays, how many kickoffs, and, thankfully, the average amount of possessions in a game:

There will be a total of 24.7 possessions, or about 12 per team and 3.2 of them (13 percent) will end in turnovers. There will be 2.3 fumbles, but only 1.2 of those fumbles (50.7 percent) will be lost (because fumbles are recovered randomly, as these numbers demonstrate). Two interceptions will be thrown. There will be 3.1 passing touchdowns and 1.6 rushing touchdowns. You can expect a defensive touchdown every other game. There will be 10.3 punts — 2.5 of them will be fair caught — and of the 4.1 field-goal attempts, 3.6 (87 percent) will be made.

Taking that estimate of 12 possessions per team, per game, if a team plays three playoff games, that means 36 possessions for both sides and four playoff games means 48. This amplifies the importance of your possessions on your playoff run. A positive turnover ratio in the playoffs is exponentially more impactful than the same positive turnover ratio during the regular season.

Back to the 2012 Ravens, for the sake of this example, if they and their four-playoff opponents both start with 48 possessions, then +6 means six possessions that are wiped out for the other team, meaning six possessions where the opponent has a 0% chance at scoring. It also means that the Ravens have six more possessions, while we can subtract six from the other team because, while it was a possession, nothing can happen from it. Now, the Ravens have 54 offensive opportunities, while their opponent has 42. That’s a huge difference.

My philosophy on this is when you get into the playoffs, you’re going against the best in the NFL, and so the margin for error becomes even smaller. When I was playing at Rhode Island in the Colonial Athletic Association, which is the best FCS (D1AA) conference, you understand how small the difference between winning and losing becomes. All the teams in that conference are recruiting the same high school players, they’ve got the same amount of time to train in the offseason, the same amount of time to practice per NCAA rules, the same everything. So when it comes to game day, about five to six plays determine the outcome of the game, even in a 14 or 21 point game, it’s still only a few plays that mean the difference between a win and a loss.

This is only amplified in the NFL because it’s the 0.0001% of players. There are only 1696 players on the 53-man rosters of the 32 teams in the NFL and the competition is obviously fierce. The margin for error in any NFL game is small, it’s even smaller in the playoffs, it’s about who makes the least mistakes, who gives themselves the best chance to win.

The last piece thing I read that got me thinking about all of this was this piece by John Clayton about the 2013 Seahawks Super Bowl win. I knew about Pete Carroll’s competition Tuesdays when he was at USC that have now turned into Wednesdays because of the change from playing on Saturdays to Sundays, but I didn’t know about the rest of the themed practices.

In the article Clayton wrote, he writes the following:

“Carroll translates a plus-two differential into giving a team an 83.6 percent chance of winning. If you go plus-three, forget about it. During the regular season, NFL teams were 21-1 if they had a plus-three or better margin. The Seahawks were plus-four and won the Super Bowl.”

That plus-four doesn’t take into account the safety that started the game for the Broncos where center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball over Manning’s head and recovered by Knowshon Moreno in the end zone. A safety is the worst kind of turnover, two-points for the other team and they get the ball.

Clayton’s article also says that Carroll meets with his quarterbacks on Mondays and stresses the importance of protecting the football in big games. Carroll says, “turnover ratio is the path to victory in the NFL.”

The best teams in the NFL win the turnover battle, that was clear to me from the regular season stats for these Super Bowl champs and looking at the 2014 list as the Packers, Patriots, Texans, Seahawks and Cardinals make up the top 5 and the top 10 had a combined record of 103-53 (.660 winning percentage). The bottom 10 in turnover ratio had a record of 69-87 (.442).

What really makes champions in January and February might just be the team that wins the turnover battle above all else. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but I think this will be a key point of analysis for us moving forward. In terms of the cap, we should look for ways to create turnovers and protect the ball by investing in quarterbacks, left tackles, pass rushers, and cornerbacks above all else.

If we want to create our own Moneyball-esque ’27 outs’ barometer for the NFL, I think 12 possessions is a good place to start. Turning the ball over means that you’re giving up one of your 12, if your defense gets a takeaway, then you’ve got yourself an extra one.

Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Tweet me: @ZackMooreNFL

Check out Joe DeFranco’s latest podcast with New York Giants legend and two-time Super Bowl Champion, David Diehl here.

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  • Derek

    Good article. A little short for my tastes, but good nonetheless.

  • theowl

    Zack, I can’t disagree with much of anything you have written. You have laid out a lot of excellent ideas!

    So where to start…
    First, I would judge team offense and defense by possession and not game totals. And definitely not solely on yards per game or even yards per possession. To me yards are the batting average of football. As you point out turnovers, big plays, red zone proficiency, and first down conversion are key elements. And of course points.

    But football is also a little like boxing where teams like the Seahawks play a little conservative, wear the opponent down and control the 4th quarter. Their offensive stats may look worse than they are because of their system.

    The Patriots, 49ers and probably most 3-4 defenses, try to take away the run on first down with their base defense… forcing opponents to throw the ball. Eventually their opponent will make a mistake or the defense will make a play and it is second and 10. The 3-4 is now a 4-2-5 or 4-1-6, with a distinct advantage. The key to this style is not giving up the big play, thus spending big money on a safety like Devin McCourty is necessary, and why the 49ers moved up in the first round to draft Eric Reid But a style like this can also give up a lot of yards before drives are stopped. Of course a coach like Bill Belichick adapts game to game as we saw when the Patriots played the Broncos a couple years ago and the plan was to shut down Payton Manning. The Broncos gained over 200 yards on the ground, but the Patriots won the game.

    The goal is not to score a lot of points or get more yards than your opponent. It is to win the game.

    • One of the major aspects of the Seahawks in 2013 was their depth. Keeping guys fresh in the fourth quarter. That’s what I love about what the Eagles have done with those three running backs, plus they still have Polk, so they’ll always have fresh legs in the fourth quarter, while the other team is gassed from their fast offense.

      I think that’s a fair analogy that yards are the batting average of football because we put such a premium on it, when they’re not telling you the whole story. They don’t tell you how the yards are gained or why, they don’t tell us that you have 4500 passing yards because you have no running game or you have 1500 rushing yards because you ran the ball 400 times and average 3.75 ypc.

      • Tyler Ferree

        And that is why i prefer FO’s data to the traditional stuff, it’s contextual. Just as OPS+ and ERA+ in baseball account for park effects and run scoring envionment then set relative to league average, FO’s data does basically the same thing, it encorperates the why and the how to get the what.

        • I am starting to look at FO more and more. I’m trying to gain a better understanding, so that I can later communicate it in articles and such. Some of the stuff confuses me, but I have to put some time aside to read the descriptions on all the stats and really work at understanding it because it’s a great tool.

          • theowl

            Love FO, but it is difficult to evaluate the individual players… the team sure, but the individual linemen, separating the quarterback from the wide receiver, even the coaches from the players. Like you say in the article, scheme. That is why I also like Pro Football Focus, each player is evaluated for each play individually. Of course there is debate as to how they evaluate and grade, but the idea is solid. Like FO, they are a great tool. I would love to see a FO, PFF mash-up! …quiet rivals that they are.

        • McGeorge

          Also look at: http://www.advancedfootballanalytics.com/
          They do a good job.

      • McGeorge

        >> Keeping guys fresh in the fourth quarter.

        I don’t buy that. Well coached and trained players should be able to handle it, with the exception of a defense always being on teh field because the offense sucks, or against a hurry up offense (Eagles/Pats) that will tire a defense out in the short term.

        I asked Brian Burke about the theory pf a running game tiring out the defense and he said his analysis does not back that up.

        In teh short term (Chip Kellys offense – the current possession) having lots of players who are well conditioned is important to keep up the tempo and not let the defense rest.

        • theowl

          That gets us to another skewed stat… Time of Possession. I agree plays run at a quick tempo are far more tiring, than plays that keep the clock running as long as possible. TOP used to give an idea on which team was running the ball more and how long a defense was on the field, but that time was never accurate any way. Incomplete passes that wore down the DBs take a small amount of time.

          • McGeorge

            Another misleading stat is the run/pass balance.
            When the Pats are done blowing out a team, they may run the ball more. So at the end of the game the balance is around 50/50. But that wasn’t necessarily the mix when the game started.

          • theowl

            I agree, it seems that for years now the good teams pass for lead.

  • McGeorge

    Zack, long and detailed post, lot’s for me to digest.

    Here are the first comments I have (with more to follow after dinner):

    1. >>So in the NFL, we should think about which positions are the easiest to project in the draft and which we can find low-cost, but valuable free agents.

    Process improvement –

    What I’d like an organization to do is keep detailed records, even video tape the discussion, of each draft choice. Then a year, two years, three years later, go back and look at our results. What did we miss on? Why? What did we hit on? Why?

    I read an comment by Bill Pollian (which could have been BS) about when he and his scouts decided to take Peyton Manning over Ryan leaf.

    “Why did we take Dee Miliner, Kyle Wilson, etc”

    2. >>What stats are we currently overvaluing like the MLB overvalued batting average for so long and what could we replace them with? What’s our on-base percentage equivalent?

    Unless you use general purpose stats like those used on Football Outsiders or AdvancedFootballAnalytics, you will need something like Pro Foot Ball Focus, which is dependent on value judgments. Most football stats are for fans and fantasy football, and less useful for teams deciding who to keep and how much to offer.

    I don’t think it’s possible to come up with very good stats, you need to study the tape and make notes.

    3. >> Considering that every team has the same salary cap in the NFL, does that make it all the more important to create your own value system for your organization? Do you have to create your own unique system for finding players who are undervalued by the market?

    The cap affects all teams equally, so I think teams models should be similar. There is just one way to express a players value, it’s $$$. However, because of scheme, a player may be more/less valuable to team A than B. Both teams should know that, and have the same idea of the players worth, but one may decide they want that player and pay a little more.

    (The Patriots when they took Wes Welker from Miami, and Danny Woodhead from the Jets).

    A great 4-3 DE may be worth X, but if we run a 3-4 defense he’s not worth it to us.

    Supply and demand will raise/lower salaries as well.

    4) The X factor for the Patriots is good coaching and discipline. “We’ll help you improve if you put in the effort”.

    5)>> What kind of plays result in the most turnovers?

    Thats easy – any play that ends up in Geno Smiths hands (and Mark Sanchez before him) 🙂

    6)>> The fact that each MLB team has 27 outs to score more runs than the other team, what’s the equivalent in football that we should start our philosophy from?

    I think Belichick would say turn overs. If you fumble and lose the ball several times a year, you have given away almost 200 yards of gains. Unless you average 5.6 yards per carry, take away those 200 yards, and chances are your stats are just average, and we don’t pay up for average.

    • theowl

      Sorry McGeorge, I didn’t see the rest of this comment and repeated you in regards to PFF.

      Glad we don’t have any of those yahoo commenters from Pro Football Talk here at OTC.