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Just The Sports: 2010-12-12

Just The Sports

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Les Miles Has Virtually Matched Everything Nick Saban Did At LSU

The next time someone questions LSU Tigers head football coach Les Miles' coaching acumen, he should ask them what else they expect from him. Miles might not be the greatest college football head coach to ever walk the planet, but under his tenure, his LSU teams continue to be nationally prominent and perhaps most importantly, in multiple statistical categories, Miles' LSU teams (2005-present) have either surpassed, matched, or come very near to matching the performance of Nick Saban's LSU teams (2000-2004).

Nick Saban is generally agreed upon to be one of college football's best two or three head coaches and for good reason, since he has won two BCS championships. Therefore, it is no great leap to draw the conclusion that another head coach who was able to largely match what Nick Saban did with a school's football program must be a pretty good head coach in his own right.

Offensively, Miles' LSU quarterbacks have been statistically significantly better in completion percentage with their 58.9 completion percentage, bettering the 56.0 completion percentage Saban's LSU quarterbacks had; Saban's LSU quarterbacks have been statistically significantly better in yards per completion (13.8 to 12.6). Saban's LSU quarterbacks can also claim superiority in avoiding sacks with a 5.2 sack percentage; Miles' LSU quarterbacks have not been as proficient in avoiding sacks as their 6.5 sack percentage indicates.

Other than in those three categories, there are really no great differences between the two coaches' passing offenses. Despite having that extra 1.2 yards per completion in their pockets, Saban's LSU quarterbacks have only the slightest edge over Miles' LSU quarterbacks in yards per pass attempt (7.7 to 7.4). Also, the two different sets of quarterbacks have been identical in touchdown percentage, with Saban's LSU quarterbacks and Miles' LSU quarterbacks both posting a 5.9 touchdown percentage, and virtually identical in interception percentages as Saban's LSU quarterbacks have a 3.2 interception percentage to Miles' LSU quarterbacks' 3.1 interception percentage.

For all that is made of the recent struggles of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, it is important to remember that Saban's LSU quarterbacks struggled just as mightily and never set the world on fire with efficient passing.

When it comes to rushing, Miles' offenses and their 4.4 yards per rush are only incrementally better than Saban's offenses and their 4.3 yards per rush.

As a complete team, Miles' LSU squads have scored 30.8 points per game, almost two points per game better than Saban's LSU squads' points per game average of 28.9.

Defensively, it is almost the same story with the two coaches' teams nearly matching each other step for step. The biggest difference is in favor of Miles' LSU teams. They have been statistically significantly better in sacking opposing quarterbacks; their 8.1 sack percentage on opposing quarterbacks is a big improvement over Saban's LSU defenses' 6.4 sack percentage.

In other categories, the two teams are remarkably similar. They are most closely identical in completion percentage, with Saban's LSU defenses allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 50.0 percent of their passes compared to Miles' LSU defenses allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 50.5 percent of their passes, and also yards allowed per pass attempt, with Saban's teams allowing 6.0 yards per pass attempt and Miles' teams allowing 5.9 yards per pass attempt. Miles' teams have a small edge in yards allowed per completion (11.6 to 12.1).

The two coaches' teams have also nearly duplicated each other in touchdown-to-interception ratio. Saban's defenses have allowed a 4.0 touchdown percentage and 3.9 interception percentage so they have come very close to intercepting as many pass attempts as they allowed to be turned into touchdowns (85 touchdowns to 82 interceptions). Miles' defenses have a 3.6 touchdown percentage and 3.6 interception percentage as they have intercepted as many passes as they have allowed to turn into touchdowns (86 touchdowns to 86 interceptions).

Saban's teams and Miles' teams are mirror images of each other when it comes to yards per rush allowed; each coach's teams have allowed 3.3 yards per rush.

In terms of points allowed, Sabans' LSU teams have allowed opponents to score 17.7 points per game, slightly better than the 18.3 points per game that Miles' LSU teams have allowed. Still, Miles' LSU teams have a small advantage in overall point differential since they have outscored opponents by 12.5 points per game; Saban's LSU teams outscored opponents by 11.2 points per game.

When it comes to only SEC games, the same differences in the same categories that occurred in their overall statistics exist, with the exception of yards per rush for the two coaches' offenses and overall point differential.

Miles' LSU quarterbacks still have their statistically significant advantage in completion percentage (58.0 percent to 55.2 percentage) and are still within spitting distance when it comes to yards per pass attempt (7.2 to 7.6). Saban's offenses continue to have a statistically significant advantage in yards per completion (13.9 to 12.3).

Both coaches' quarterbacks get sacked more in SEC games and Saban's quarterbacks continue to get sacked less (5.6 sack percentage to 6.9 sack percentage). Also, Saban's quarterbacks have a small advantage in touchdown percentage (5.6 touchdown percentage to 5.3 interception percentage) while Miles' quarterbacks have a small advantage in interception percentage (3.4 interception percentage to 3.6 interception percentage) so it basically evens out in the end.

Against SEC teams, Saban's running backs still averaged 4.3 yards per rush just like they did against all teams. Conversely, Miles' running backs have seen their overall yards per rush drop from 4.4 per carry to 4.0 per carry.

Defensively, Les Miles' LSU teams and Saban's LSU teams see their defensive performances continue to exhibit more similarities than differences. Miles' defenses maintain their statistically significant edge in sack percentage (8.9 sack percentage to 6.1 sack percentage), but in all other areas, the differences are minimal.

With Les Miles' LSU defenses' statistics listed first, here are how the two coaches' teams stack up against each other defensively in SEC play: completion percentage allowed (51.3 percent to 50.8 percent), yards per pass attempt allowed (6.4 to 6.4), yards per completion allowed (12.4 to 12.6), touchdown percentage allowed (4.4 percent to 4.5 percent), interception percentage allowed (3.9 percent to 3.9 percent), and yards per rush (3.5 to 3.6).

Nick Saban's teams do have a tiny lead in overall SEC point differential; they outscored their SEC foes by 6.7 points per game while Miles' teams have outscored their SEC opponents by 6.0 points per game. Still, that is no great discrepancy by any means.

With what Les Miles has done during his tenure at LSU, either matching, surpassing, or almost matching virtually everything Nick Saban's LSU teams did, he deserves a lot more credit for his coaching ability from all college football enthusiasts.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme: Why Their NFL Production Should Not Surprise Anyone

Seemingly out of nowhere, former University of Kentucky teammates, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson and Indianapolis Colts tight end Jacob Tamme, have exploded onto the NFL landscape this season. After receiving very little playing time his first two seasons in the NFL, Johnson is currently 8th in DYAR (226) and 15th in DVOA (13.3 percent) among the 82 wide receivers who have been thrown at least 45 passes. Tamme had also been little used during his first two seasons, catching only six passes over that time frame, until an injury to Dallas Clark forced him into the Colts' starting lineup. Once there, he acquitted himself quite nicely and despite only being targeted by Peyton Manning in seven games, Tamme still ranks 10th in DYAR (97) and 17th in DVOA (13.7 percent) among the 47 tight ends who have been thrown at least 21 passes.

Whenever two players like Johnson and Tamme have breakout seasons, it is always worth delving into their pasts and seeing if there were not hints that they were capable of such levels of production. Then, armed with that knowledge, we should be able to better predict what other players would be valuable assets if only given playing time.

Unsurprisingly, in both players' college careers, they put up numbers that they have largely carried over into this season.

Steve Johnson started his college football career at Chabot College before transferring to the University of Kentucky, arriving on the campus for the 2006 season. That year, Johnson was barely used. He was only targeted for 20 passes that season, as most passes for the Kentucky football team headed in the direction of Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons, and caught 12 of them for 159 yards for a catch rate of 60.0 percent, 13.3 yards per catch, and 8.0 yards per pass target. For a receiver playing in such a limited capacity, the Kentucky Wildcats could not have asked for much more.

His senior season in 2007 was really when Johnson came into his own. Johnson did not lead the Wildcats in receptions with his 60 grabs because that honor went to Keenan Burton and his 66 catches, but Johnson did lead Kentucky in receiving yards (1,041), yards per catch (17.4), receiving yards per game (80.1), and touchdowns (13). Additionally, Johnson posted a 59.4 percent catch rate and Kentucky quarterbacks enjoyed 8.4 yards per pass attempt whenever throwing in Johnson's direction.

For his Kentucky career, Johnson caught 59.5 percent of the balls thrown in his way, had an incredible 16.7 yards per reception, and gained an impressive 9.9 yards per pass target.

Compared to his current NFL season totals of a 59.5 percent catch rate, 13.2 yards per reception, and 7.9 yards per pass target, there is not much difference between Johnson in a Kentucky Wildcats uniform and Johnson in a Buffalo Bills uniform. He is catching passes at an identical rate; only the fact his routes for the Bills are not as deep keep him from exactly duplicating his Kentucky production.

Disappointingly, the play-by-play data for Kentucky's games in 2004 and 2005 are either non-existent or unreliable so I was unable to examine Tamme's catch rates, yards per reception, and yards per pass target for his entire freshman and sophomore seasons. For those interested, Tamme caught 45 passes for 412 yards those two seasons.

The two seasons, 2006 and 2007, for which there are reliable play-by-play data, Tamme produced at a very efficient rate. Tamme was targeted 123 times and had 88 receptions, giving him an amazing catch rate of 71.5 percent. Since he accumulated 1,005 yards on those 123 targets, Tamme gained 8.2 yards per pass target and 11.4 yards per reception, very productive numbers for a tight end; he had a 10.9 yards per reception when his freshman and sophomore seasons are included.

For the Colts this year, Tamme has a 67.6 percent catch rate (46 receptions on 68 targets), 6.6 yards per pass target, and 9.8 yards per completion. When compared to just his junior and senior seasons, it seems as if Tamme has come up pretty short of equaling his production at Kentucky, but it could very well be that the numbers he is currently putting up for the Colts are even more similar to what he did over his entire Kentucky career.

This looks especially likely when considering that for the 12 of the 22 games he played his freshman and sophomore years for which I do have reliable play-by-play data, Tamme's catch rate was only 60.5 percent, his yards per catch was 10.7, and his yards per pass target was 6.5.

When those games are added to his junior and senior seasons, his catch rate drops from 71.5 percent to 68.9 percent, his yards per pass target drops from 8.2 to 7.8; we already know his career yards per completion without play-by-play data so there is no need to mention it here. Those numbers are closer to what he is doing for the Colts so it is more than likely that with all the play-by-play data, we would see that Tamme is basically producing at the same rate for the Colts as he did for the Kentucky Wildcats.

How Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme have performed this season for their respective NFL teams in relation to how they performed while in college demonstrates once again just how much more valuable actual performance on the field is than any type of measurable such as the 40-yard dash when trying to predict how a college athlete will play as a pro. By using their college numbers, we should have been better able to project their NFL ability, which would have made seasons that seem like breakouts completely ordinary and expected, especially when one considers the fact that Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme are not doing anything this season they have not already done in their football past.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe's Flourishing Relationship is Key to Kansas City Chiefs' Offensive Success

The Kansas City Chiefs' vast improvement on offense that has the team currently sitting atop the AFC West standings has arrived via two avenues, one expected and one less expected but extremely promising for the future.

The improvement in the Chiefs' rushing proficiency was to be expected considering how their main running back, Jamaal Charles, performed in the second half of the 2009 season. Last season, the Chiefs' rushing DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) of -3.0 percent ranked 21st out of the 32 NFL teams, but it was only that poor because the Chiefs spent the first half of the season overly relying on Larry Johnson, who was one of the worst running backs in 2009 by every conceivable measure.

As the guys at Football Outsiders noted in their Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, once the Kansas City Chiefs unleashed Jamaal Charles in week 10, Charles was second in the league behind Chris Johnson with 968 rushing yards, led the league with six yards per carry, and was also first in the league in the second half of the season with 196 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement). Charles finished the season fourth in the league with 233 DYAR and second in the league with a 20.3 percent DVOA; DYAR measures a player's total value and DVOA measures a player's value per play. Due to Charles' breakout performance, the Kansas City Chiefs were fifth in rushing DVOA over the second half of the season.

This season, the Kansas City Chiefs are seventh in rushing offense with a 7.1 percent DVOA, and Charles, individually, is second in the league with 299 DYAR and first in the league with a 30.3 percent DVOA. Taking the way in which the Chiefs ran over the league in the second half of last year into consideration, the Chiefs are merely continuing a trend of elite rushing prowess so no one should be surprised by what the Chiefs have accomplished with their rushing attack.

What is pretty surprising is the leap the passing game has made for the Chiefs, going from 25th in the NFL in passing DVOA (-14.5 percent) in 2009 to 11th in the league this season in passing DVOA (29.7 percent), thanks to Matt Cassel going from a quarterback who was below average in every statistical category, both standard and advanced, and almost the worst NFL quarterback in the league to a quarterback who is only still below average in terms of completion percentage and above average in all other areas.

Really driving the passing game's performance has been the flourishing relationship between Matt Cassel and the Chiefs' best wide receiver, Dwayne Bowe. Last year, Cassel and Bowe played in 10 games together, but their relationship was nothing to get too excited about. On passes targeted to Bowe, Cassel had a .524 completion percentage, gained 6.7 yards per pass attempt and 6.9 adjusted yards per pass attempt, threw for 12.8 yards per completion, had a 3.3 touchdown percentage, and had a 2.7 interception percentage. Throwing to all receivers during that 10-game time frame, Cassel's numbers were a .562 completion percentage, 6.3 yards per pass attempt, 5.8 adjusted yards per pass attempt, 11.2 yards per completion, 3.3 touchdown percentage, and 2.7 interception percentage.

On Cassel's throws to other receivers besides Bowe, he had a .574 completion percentage, 6.2 yards per pass attempt, 5.4 adjusted yards per pass attempt, 10.8 yards per completion, 3.2 touchdown percentage, and 3.2 interception percentage.

As you can see, outside of the differences, which are not even that sizable, between yards per completion and adjusted yards per attempt, Cassel experienced no great advantage when throwing to Bowe.

That all changed this season, however. This year, Cassel is a much better quarterback when throwing in Bowe's direction. In the twelve games in which they have played together, Cassel's overall passing statistics are as follows: .599 completion percentage, 7.1 yards per pass attempt, 7.9 adjusted yards per pass attempt, 11.8 yards per completion, 6.5 touchdown percentage, and 1.1 interception percentage. On his passes thrown to Bowe, Cassel has a .574 completion percentage, 8.5 yards per pass attempt, 10.8 adjusted yards per pass attempt, 14.8 yards per completion, 13.9 touchdown percentage, and 1.0 interception percentage. Take Bowe out of the equation, on attempts to other receivers, Cassel has a .609 completion percentage, 6.5 yards per pass attempt, 6.7 adjusted yards per pass attempt, 10.7 yards per completion, 3.6 touchdown percentage, and 1.2 interception percentage.

There has been a marked improvement in the advantage and increase in production Cassel has experienced when throwing to Bowe compared to when he is throwing to anyone else. The added value of their relationship is extremely important to the Chiefs since Bowe is the only above-average wide receiver on the roster. Therefore, Cassel leans upon Bowe heavily in the passing game, as evidenced as their extremely high correlations to each other.

This season, the correlations between Cassel's overall statistics and when he is targeting Dwayne Bowe are 0.553 for yards per completion, 0.701 for yards per pass attempt, 0.705 for adjusted yards per pass attempt, 0.641 for completion percentage, 0.789 for touchdown percentage, and .354 for interception percentage. All correlations except the one for interception percentage would be high on their own, but when you compare them to last year's correlations of 0.112 for yards per completion percentage, 0.346 for yards per pass attempt, 0.008 for adjusted yards per pass attempt, 0.141 for completion percentage, 0.070 for touchdown percentage, and 0.219 for interception percentage, you can really see just how inextricably linked the two have become this season.

As one goes, so goes the other. Fortunately for the Chiefs, they have been producing at above-average rates so their extreme interdependence has benefited the team greatly.

That the relationship between Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe is resembling greatly the relationship between a quarterback and a true number one wide receiver is promising for the Chiefs' future. The franchise already knew it could depend upon Jamaal Charles and the running game; perhaps now they will be able to depend upon Matt Cassel, Dwayne Bowe, and the passing game to share an equal burden of the offensive load.

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