25 May 2011

Charting Colston's Career

With the recent announcement of Marques Colston's inclusion in the top 60 players in NFL in 2010, it seems like a relevant time to examine Colston's career and see how it matches up against his contemporaries. For most of his five-year career, Colston has flown beneath the proverbial radar and, seemingly, has been chronically undervalued by the media and "pundits" outside of the New Orleans/NFC South region. To wit, Colston has yet to receive a Pro Bowl invitation. 

Yet among his peers, Colston has emerged as a top-shelf WR ahead of more heralded playmakers like Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings, and Santonio Holmes. While this might be somewhat surprising to many NFL fans and "experts" alike, it is less surprising to Saints' fans. But is it warranted? 

Let's take a look at how Colston has fared against his fellow WRs from 2006-2010. Using my own rudimentary system for weighing the importance of these basic statistical benchmarks of catches; yards; TDs; and games missed, I ranked fifteen WRs.

Colston ranks 9th among this group, tied with Brandon Marshall. What stands out most glaringly is that Colston has been the least durable WR among this elite group over the five-year span. While Reggie Wayne has been astonishingly durable--missing zero games in the last five regular seasons--Colston has missed eleven. In a league where each game is extremely important, missed games remain significant in all areas, especially when comparing players' values. If staying healthy is a skill--which it probably mostly isn't, though no less impactful to results--Colston is the worst among the elite class in this category. It's a testament to Colston's production--along with the Saints' pass-first philosophy--that he's been able to keep pace statistically with his colleagues. 

Let's dig a little deeper. How exactly does Colston rank in "per game" production. Using a similar methodology for weighing the categories, here are the per-game values and corresponding rankings I generated:

When production is weighted for per-game significance only, Colston's value vaults much higher, falling a notch below the elite tier of A. Johnson, L. Fitzgerald, and R. Wayne. What's more is that Colston is a "smaller" cog in his offense's machinery.  His targets/games played, total targets, and overall% of team targets falls toward the bottom tier of this group, meaning that Colston--when he's playing--is doing more with less. He's producing almost as much as the elite WRs, even though his opportunities are more sparse than theirs. Specifically, his opportunities in relation to his peers look like this: 

What's relevant here is that the top three WR's in terms of production--Wayne, Fitzgerald, Johnson--are also the most targeted. Of these fifteen WRs, Colston is last in target%--which is just his percentage of the team's total targets--and thirteenth in overall targets. Now both of these rankings are attributable, in part, to the fact that Colston has missed eleven games and that the Saints throw more than most teams in the league. What's indisputable, however, is that Colston ranks towards the bottom tier of targets/games played. When he plays, Colston receives fewer opportunities than most of his counterparts in this group yet still outperforms the vast majority of them. 

Emerging from this analysis is Colston's overall high level of efficiency in games played and opportunities granted. We can bolster this claim of high efficiency through two more statistical benchmarks: Catch Rate and Success Rate. These stats are cited from here

Simply, Catch Rate measures the percentage of passes caught that are intended for said WR; just think of this as the "hands" category. Success Rate is a bit more nebulous, but measures the percentage of plays--in which the WR is directly involved--that are considered successful. Within the group of 15 WRs we've used for this exercise, this is how Colston measures up:

In the Catch Rate rankings, Colston essentially ranks in the top tier if you view Welker's rating as a potential outlier. Welker catches mostly short passes--thus greatly increasing the likelihood for catching each pass. The subsequent ratings for Wayne, A. Johnson, Boldin, and Colston are all closely grouped--separated by less than one percentage point--thus indicating an outlier scenario for Welker whose rate shatters that of his peers. Regardless, Colston ranks towards to the top. 

Similarly, Colston ranks near the very top for Success Rate. As Saints' fans already know, when Colston is involved, good things happen. Surprisingly, he ranks higher than both A. Johnson and L. Fitzgerald in this category that essentially defines a player's relation to his team's individual successes. 

It's important to note that in these two categories (Catch Rate and Success Rate), I'm measuring Colston's rates against the other 14 WRs in the group. The rankings in these two categories do not contain the entire class of NFL WRs; instead, I'm ranking these 15 players within their own group, which has been the most statistically productive group over the past five seasons. 

What we can summarize from this examination is that Colston is indeed fit for inclusion in the elite class of NFL WRs, even though he is largely excluded from that group among "experts." While his injury history is both concerning and limiting of production, Colston has nevertheless established himself not only as the best WR on the #1 offense of the last five years, but also as one of the best WRs in the league. 

After all, it's efficient production and Super Bowl wins that largely matter and Colston has both. 

09 May 2011

Landscapes and Snapshots: the '11 schedule and NFC contenders

Let's take a look at the 2011 schedule, see what's ahead, compare it to historical performances over the past 5 years, and then eyeball some other NFC contenders as well. 

Here's the 2011 schedule: 

So what stands out? What are some of the more important factors of this year's schedule? Here are some highlights:

... Of the 16 games, 11 are played in domes
... There are 4 games vs. the AFC, 12 games vs. the NFC
... After wk6, the Saints play one game outside of a dome (wk14 @Tenn) 
... There are 5 games vs. 2010 playoff teams (ATL twice, GB, Chi, Indy)
... Potentially, 5 games vs. rookie QBs loom (Car twice, Jax, Tenn, Minn)
... The farthest the Saints travel is to Minnesota in wk15 (no west coast trips)
... The "bye" in wk11 will provide much-needed rest for a playoff push

In the Payton era, the Saints are 19-15 (55.9%) in non-dome games and 34-18 (65.4%) in domed stadiums. Again, I'm counting games from both the regular and post seasons.  Considering the architecture of the Saints' offense and the makeup of the roster, it's unsurprising that the Saints fare much better indoors. The fact that the Saints play almost 70% of their 2011 schedule indoors bodes well, especially as to how it relates to the final 10 games. 

Additionally, against AFC opponents in the Payton era, the Saints are 12-9 (57.1%). Against NFC opponents, the Saints are a more favorable 41-24 (63.1%). Presumptively, the Saints fare better vs. NFC competition so the fact that 75% of the schedule is NFC-based is another promising factor. 

Now let's look at home and away games, and compare those historically as well. The Saints' eight road opponents this year are Green Bay, Jacksonville, Carolina, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Atlanta, Tennessee, and Minnesota. While it's dangerous and perhaps irresponsible to gauge which games are winnable and which ones are not, we'll go ahead and do it in an indirect fashion. Of the eight games, GB/TB/ATL seem to pose the most difficulty while JAX/CAR seem eminently winnable. The remaining three games against STL/TENN/MINN are less certain to forecast. Over the past five seasons, the Saints are an excellent 26-17 (60.5%) on the road. Based on historical performance and the 2011 road schedule in question, the forecast suggests a road record of 5-3. 

Conversely, yet almost exactly, the Saints are 27-16 (62.8%) at home since 2006. With Chicago, Houston, Indy, Tampa, the Giants, Detroit, Atlanta, and Carolina on the 2011 Superdome docket, the Saints' home schedule poses a real challenge. One could argue that there's only one "easy" game among the eight (that should be Carolina). Again, if you're gauging future success on past performances--and I'm not arguing that you should--the Saints may be destined to go 5-3 at home. 

So are the Saints poised to go 10-6 in 2011? At first glance, that seems like a bit of a disappointment. Peripheral to this analysis is that I'm labeling a potential 10-6 record as a "disappointment;" this is indicative of just how far the Saints franchise has come and just how high expectations in fact are. But really, and this is obvious, we can't just look at past performances and mechanically assign a future outcome. That would be disingenuous and lazy. 10-6 seems more like a baseline. Let's keep going ...

To examine the schedule in greater depth, let's deconstruct the schedule into four quartiles and compare it historically as well. Let's look at how the Saints have fared in each seasonal quartile during the Payton era. 

... Quartile 1: 12-8 (60%)
... Quartile 2: 15-5 (75%)
... Quartile 3: 13-7 (65%)
... Quartile 4 (excludes postseason):  9-11 (45%)

What's most glaring is that the Saints have consistently performed their worst in the season's final four regular season games under Payton. Additionally, the Saints have shown a propensity for high performance in the "middle" eight games during this same span with a combined win percentage of 70%. Both of these benchmarks could be attributable to myriad factors and I'd rather not speculate as to what those are. The reality is that, under Payton, the Saints are at their best after they've played a few games and at their worst as the season winds down. 

Now let's look at the 2011 quartiles:

... Q1: @GB, CHI, HOU, @JAX. 
... Q2: @CAR, @TB, INDY, @STL
... Q3: TB, @ATL, NYG, DET
... Q4:  @TENN, @MINN, ATL, CAR

Reviewing each individual group, it appears that the difficulty of this schedule falls in the 2nd and 3rd quartiles with challenging road games at Tampa, at Atlanta and at an improved St. Louis team. Home challenges include the Colts, the Bucs (who have won three of their last four games in the Superdome), the Giants, and a young Lions team looming as a contender. I'll forecast 5-3 during this stretch which is a bit below historical performance. 

Circling back to the 1st quartile, I'll forecast a 3-1 mark. Other than the 0-4 start in 2007, the Saints have generally started off well and I expect a fast start from them in 2011, looking to redeem themselves from a bitter end to the 2010 campaign in Seattle. 

As for the 4th quartile, I'll forecast a 4-0 mark. One of the greatest attributes that Sean Payton possesses--in my opinion--is the ability to identify weaknesses and design a strategy to remedy them. This has manifested itself during his tenure in the form of, among other things, a desire to improve an inconsistent running game (witnessed in '09 and the '11 offseason); his overhauling of the secondary; his firing of personal friend Gary Gibbs and subsequent hiring of Gregg Williams; and his change of bye week routines. One can be certain Payton is acutely aware of his team's struggles late in the season, and I'm confident "finishing strong" will again be a point of emphasis for the 2011 late-season schedule. 

So that's a 12-4 prediction for 2011.  When you take into consideration historical trends, the talent level on the roster, the expectation of contending for a title, the late season bye week, the potential to face several rookie QB's, and the favorable dome-centric schedule, the Saints are well-positioned for another Super Bowl run. 


Will 12-4 be good enough for homefield advantage? Let's look at some other presumed NFC contenders and make some guesses. 

Green Bay: Super Bowl hangover? Or is their massively talented roster impervious to a letdown? A moderately challenging schedule includes games vs NO, @ATL, @CHI, @SD, vs TB, @NYG, and @KC. I'll say 11-5 which would be an improvement over 2010's record. 

Atlanta: Duplicating a 13-3 record will be monumentally difficult for the Falcons, especially in arguably the toughest division in the league. With an aging, though talented team, 10-6 seems right. 

Philadelphia: A young, fearless, well-coached team. They have as good a shot as anyone in the NFC as long as Vick stays upright. With a less than challenging schedule, I'll pencil them in for 11-5.   

Tampa Bay: Sure to be the media darlings in 2011 as the breakthrough team. But are the young Bucs due for a sophomore slump as they develop? Or will a promising draft help them make the leap? With four games vs NO/ATL, a road trip to GB, home dates vs Indy and Dallas, and a west coast trip to SF, I'll say the Bucs finish 9-7.  

Chicago: I'd be hard-pressed to believe Chicago will repeat its' 2010 success when everything seemed to fall into place for a team with marginal talent and questionable coaching. With what appears to be a fairly difficult schedule, I'll say the Bears finish 7-9. 

Dallas: I don't know why I'm even including them on this list. What have they done to merit consideration besides being popular? I do, however, think that Jason Garrett will ultimately become a very good head coach. With the defense its major area for concern, the Cowboys schedule looks mostly favorable and their offense will be good enough. I'll forecast a rebound year at 10-6. 

Detroit: An up-and-coming team with young talent canvassing its' roster. They are sure to be on plenty of 2011 "sleeper" lists but can Stafford stay healthy? Their schedule looks pretty tough. I say 8-8. 

New York Giants: The Giants quietly had a fantastic draft and will be a tough out in 2011. But the main roadblock is a brutally difficult nine-game stretch to close the season, with a west coast trip thrown in there for good measure. I can't see them surviving the carnage to finish any better than 10-6, which would be commendable. 

St. Louis: This is another team that will make plenty of "sleeper" lists in 2011. In a weak division with a soon-to-be elite QB and a rapidly improving defense, the Rams are poised to make the leap. But not just yet. The schedule is daunting in the first eight weeks before it levels off. We'll learn a lot about the Rams in the early stages of 2011. 9-7 would be a good mark. 

02 May 2011

The Bush Factor

As of May 1, 2011 Reggie Bush's future with the Saints is in uncharted territory and, simply put, uncertain. While the Saints' front office has continued to reiterate their desire to retain Bush as a cog in their offensive machine, speculation remains rampant as to whether Bush will indeed re-work his contract and willingly return to New Orleans.

By now, Bush's infamous tweet that almost immediately followed the first round selection of Mark Ingram ("it's been fun, New Orleans") has been dissected, analyzed, and commented on to the nth degree. At this point, it's seemingly Bush's decision on whether he will or will not remain a member of the Saints.

Reggie Bush occupies a rarefied, unique space in Saints' lore. Bush's arrival in 2006 symbolized a new beginning for the franchise's direction, and the city's love affair with Bush has been as intense as it's been conflicted. While his otherworldly athleticism has tantalized fans and tortured opponents, Bush has also polarized much of the Saints' fan base with his maddening inconsistency and his injury-plagued nature; to this day, his true value to the team remains a hotly-contested topic among Saints' diehards. Regardless, Bush--in my opinion--remains one of the most beloved Saints of the modern era. If you don't believe that, just listen to the Dome chant "Reggie!, Reggie!" at every opportune moment. When it comes down to brass tacks, the fans love him. For the entirety of his tenure in New Orleans, Reggie Bush has maintained a true, team-first professionalism in the face of unrealized expectations, self-inflicted hype, recurring injuries, and lingering NCAA controversy. Yet in the face of continued scrutiny from all angles, Bush has been a valuable, productive player.

So what is Bush's true value to the Saints over his 5-year career? What does his career statistical profile look like?  How have the Saints fared with and without him? And finally, will Bush remain a Saint or will he seek a fresh start elsewhere? Let's take a look.

Bush has been on the Saints' roster for 86 regular + post season games. He has played in 66 of those games and missed the other 20 due to injury. The unfortunate fact is that he's missed 23% of games since he's been a Saint. Without question, the lingering injuries have overshadowed and diminished what has otherwise been effective, if unspectacular, production. 

In the 66 games he's played ...

... he's averaged 13.3 touches (rushes + receptions) for 71.3 yards 
... he's scored 38 TDs for a .58 TD Factor
... he's fumbled (lost fumbles) 11 times for a .16 Fumble Factor

In Saints' victories with Bush, he's averaged 12.9 touches for 72.7 yards and a .68 TD Factor. In Saints' losses with Bush, he's averaged 13.9 touches for 69.1 yards and a .42 TD Factor. So basically, the Saints have won more often when Bush is more efficient with fewer touches and, generally, when he has scored TDs (duh). 

More specifically, in the games Bush has scored a TD, the Saints are 19-8 (70.4%). In the games he's played, but did not score, the Saints are 21-18 (53.8%). The strong correlation between Bush's TDs and Saints' victories means that when Bush scores, the Saints win a high percentage of the time. When he doesn't, the Saints are just mediocre. On top of that, in the 11 games that he's lost a fumble, the Saints are 5-6. 

So are the Saints too dependent on Bush's performance, game in-game out?

The Saints are 40-26 (60.6%) when Bush plays and 13-7 (65%) in games he's missed. In the games he's played, the Saints have averaged 26.3 points/game. In the games he's missed, the Saints have averaged 29.8 points/game.  So according to the sample, without Bush, the Saints won a bit more: +4.4%. And they've scored a bit more: +3.5 points/game.

Are the Saints actually a better team without Reggie Bush? Whether the above numbers are indicative of Bush's value to the Saints is, at best, murky. One, are the sample sizes large enough to reach a meaningful conclusion? Two, are there other factors that contribute to or more effectively determine value (offensive game plans, opposing defensive schemes, leadership/locker room/team chemistry factors, etc.)?

The ultimate question to ask yourself is "Are the Saints better with Reggie Bush on the roster?" I say yes, even though rudimentary statistics might indicate otherwise. We know that Sean Payton has more flexibility in designing a gameplan with Bush at his disposal. We know that opposing defenses have a more complex task of defending the Saints when Bush plays. We know that Bush can singlehandedly win games at his electric best (remember the playoff game vs. Arizona, or the 49ers game in 2006?). We know that Brees fully trusts Bush with protection schemes and blocking (after all, what's more important than protecting Brees?). We know that Bush has been a model teammate and citizen in New Orleans. We might infer that Bush's presence has positively influenced potential free agents into viewing New Orleans as an attractive destination to play. We might surmise that Bush has elevated the level of play of those around him due to his work ethic, professionalism, and winning pedigree.

In the end, I'm hopeful that the Saints and Reggie Bush will come to an agreement. I believe that there's no better place for Bush to play than New Orleans. I believe that if winning Super Bowls is most important to Bush, then New Orleans is the best choice. And I finally believe the Saints have a better shot at winning another Super Bowl with Bush than they do without him. And that's mostly what matters.


Postscript -

If Reggie Bush opts to test the market and ultimately play elsewhere, where might he go? What teams would present the ideal environments for him? When I first considered this question, my initial thought was that he would need to play in a dome as much as possible. But maybe not. Here is the breakdown of Bush's career output in domed vs. non-domed stadiums:

... Domes: 39 games; 12.6 touches/game, 66 ypg, 26 TDs (.66 TD Factor)
... Non-Domes: 27 games; 14.4 touches/game, 78.7 ypg,12 TDs (.44 TD Factor)

The main differences? Reggie scores more in domes, yet gains more yardage with a better avg./touch in outdoor stadiums. If nothing else, these numbers at least refute the notion that Bush can't be effective outside of a dome.

Here are some potential suitors for Reggie's services:

San Diego - This is an obvious destination given that it's Bush's hometown. Additionally, with the pending loss of Darren Sproles to free agency, the Chargers will have an immediate need to fill Sproles' role. Bush fits nicely into this category as a pass-catching RB and punt returner. The prospect of playing with Philip Rivers on a winning team is also likely attractive to Bush. 

Atlanta - Obviously, this is a scary scenario for Saints' fans. But with Atlanta in full 'win-now' mode, Bush makes sense as an additional playmaker for an offense that struggled with explosiveness in 2010. The prospect of remaining in the NFC South and playing the Saints twice a year might be an attractive proposition if Bush feels slighted in any way. Finally, there's a history of top Saints players becoming Falcons later in their careers (B. Hebert, M. Andersen, J. Horn, etc.). Could Bush be next? 

St. Louis - The Rams make a ton of sense as a landing spot for Bush. Playing on a fast track indoors with rising star Sam Bradford in a weak division would be ideal for Bush. Coupled with that fact is the presence of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels who, like Sean Payton, is lauded for creativity and aggressiveness; McDaniels could certainly make use of Bush in a variety of ways offensively and as an ideal complement to Steven Jackson. 

Seattle - Maybe the only reason the Seahawks loom as a potential destination is Pete Carroll. But do we know the true extent of Bush's relationship with his college coach? Is there bad blood between the two stemming from the NCAA investigation and USC's decision to distance itself from Bush in the aftermath? Aside from that possibility, Bush duplicates skill sets with Justin Forsett who has been quietly effective in Seattle. This seems like an unlikely landing spot, in my opinion. 

Indianapolis - The Colts are probably a dark-horse candidate for Bush's services. But Bush's winning pedigree is likely an attractive option, as is his high football IQ, his pass-catching skills, and his explosiveness indoors. Playing aside Peyton Manning would obviously be attractive, while the Colts could seek to diversify to their RB stable and infuse it with big-play ability that was lacking in 2010. 

San Francisco - Playing on the West Coast might be ideal for Bush if he seeks a new start elsewhere. The 49ers could use Bush as a complement to an aging Frank Gore, and to add another weapon to an offense that was inconsistent and sometimes stagnant in 2010. With Jim Harbaugh leading a new era in San Francisco, Bush might be attractive as a veteran leader and proven winner for a resurgent franchise. 

Houston - The Texans are another dark-horse candidate for Bush's services, and coach Gary Kubiak could certainly integrate Bush into an already diverse, explosive offense. Attractive for Bush would be playing indoors; playing with a QB in Matt Schaub who has shown flashes of elite talent; and filling the role of pass-catching RB that Steve Slaton may no longer be around to fill. Lastly, the prospect of playing alongside fellow 2006 draftmate Mario Williams would provide an ironic bit of symmetry and an interesting storyline for 2011.


postpostscript 5/6 - I mindlessly forgot to add Tampa Bay to potential destinations for Reggie. And after all, it might be the most likely landing spot. Let us hope not.