Denver Broncos scoring at 3.13 standard deviations above the NFL average

Bill Barnwell puts the scoring of the 2013 Denver Broncos in statistical perspective:

That brings us to z-score (or standard score), the measure that analyzes a figure’s distance from the rest of the data set using the mean and standard deviation from the set. By comparing each team’s points scored to the league average (and calculating the standard deviation) for the points scored of each team from that given season, we can get a measure of how much better or worse it was than the average team from that season. Fortuitously, that measure also allows us to compare teams across different years and eras. It’s not perfect, since it can’t account for things like strength of schedule or whether a team let up late in games or not, but it’s a much better measure than raw points scored.

As it turns out, even after we make these adjustments, the 2013 Denver Broncos have still scored points at a higher rate through four games than anybody else since the merger. The Broncos are scoring points on a per-game basis at a rate of 3.13 standard deviations over the mean, which is unmatched over that 43-year run. No team has ever scored more frequently, relative to its peers, than the Broncos have done relative to the rest of the league in 2013.

Because these are standardized figures, it’s possible to translate each team’s scoring rate in 2013 figures and see how close it is to Denver. In this case, after we account for the different populations, a bunch of teams move closer to Denver’s throne. Chief among them is the 1991 Super Bowl–winning team from Washington, which scored 146 points through four games in a league whose teams averaged a mere 72 points through their first four tilts. Washington’s figure placed it 2.85 standard deviations above the mean and translates to 170.9 points scored in 2013, just 8.1 points behind the Broncos. Other famous teams follow: the 2000 Rams, 1992 Bills, 1996 Packers, 1981 Chargers, 2005 Giants …

And you thought standard deviations were good only for statisticians. If you know your normal distribution, that’s way above the league average. I can only imagine how Sportscenter anchors might try to present this information…

Actually, this is quite useful for two reasons: (1) it allows us to look at the Broncos compared to the rest of the league without having to rely on the actual points scored; (2) it allows us to standardize points scored over the years so you can compare figures over a 43 year stretch. Both advantages are part of the wave of new statistical analysis taking over sports: don’t just look at the absolute value of statistics but put them in comparison to others teams or players and also provide statistics that allow for comparisons across time periods.

Look to the NFL for taypayer funded stadiums, sweet tax deals

Gregg Easterbrook provides a reminder of the amount of public money funneled to NFL owners in recent decades:

Judith Grant Long, a Harvard University professor of urban planning, calculates that league-wide, 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums has been provided by taxpayers, not NFL owners. Many cities, counties, and states also pay the stadiums’ ongoing costs, by providing power, sewer services, other infrastructure, and stadium improvements. When ongoing costs are added, Long’s research finds, the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tennessee Titans have turned a profit on stadium subsidies alone—receiving more money from the public than they needed to build their facilities. Long’s estimates show that just three NFL franchises—the New England Patriots, New York Giants, and New York Jets—have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs.

Many NFL teams have also cut sweetheart deals to avoid taxes. The futuristic new field where the Dallas Cowboys play, with its 80,000 seats, go-go dancers on upper decks, and built-in nightclubs, has been appraised at nearly $1 billion. At the basic property-tax rate of Arlington, Texas, where the stadium is located, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would owe at least $6 million a year in property taxes. Instead he receives no property-tax bill, so Tarrant County taxes the property of average people more than it otherwise would…

The insertion of professional football leagues into the definition of not-for-profit organizations was a transparent sellout of public interest. This decision has saved the NFL uncounted millions in tax obligations, which means that ordinary people must pay higher taxes, public spending must decline, or the national debt must increase to make up for the shortfall. Nonprofit status applies to the NFL’s headquarters, which administers the league and its all-important television contracts. Individual teams are for-profit and presumably pay income taxes—though because all except the Green Bay Packers are privately held and do not disclose their finances, it’s impossible to be sure.

It is more difficult to justify such public spending when it is laid out like this. But, the money spent is complicated by two factors:

1. Americans like football. What if they wanted to provide taxpayer dollars for football? The assumption Easterbrook and others make who point out the public money spent on football is that people who read the stories will get outraged and demand change. But, football is the most popular sport and the money problems aren’t just present in the NFL – look at how college football continues to be a financial juggernaut even as it struggles with issues of amateurism. If the money isn’t spent on football, would the public be confident that money would be spent effectively elsewhere?

2. Individual cities, states, and other bodies of government are put in tough spots when teams threaten to leave unless they get a good stadium deal. Even with studies that show the economic benefits tend to be primarily in the direction of the team owners and not the taxpayers, losing the team might be even worse. Who wants to be the politician who let the team go? On one hand, spending tax money on sports might be unpopular but so would be politicians who let a source of civic pride walk away.

Just thinking out loud, it seems like the main way politicians and local governments could fight back is to all band together and refuse to spend public money this way. In a time of tough economic competition between communities for jobs and prestige, all it takes is one city to be the escape hatch for teams. Look at how NFL teams in recent years have used Los Angeles as a bargaining chip. Even though no one has moved there, they can all say plans are in the works in Los Angeles unless you give us a better deal. At the same time, politicians across the board could examine cities without major football teams and how they “survive” the lack of a team. How does Portland make it? What about Los Angeles? San Antonio? Las Vegas? In other words, having a football team is not a necessity and there are other ways to spend the money that might go towards sports teams. Individually, cities have a hard time standing up to teams but collectively they might have the ability.

Fathers still play catch with their sons? What about football, video games?

I recently saw a review of the new Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 that suggested American fathers still bond with their sons by playing baseball. My first thought: do fathers still do this on a large scale? Here is why I think this may be an outdated sentiment.

Baseball is no longer the most popular sport in the United States. Even with the large number of kids who play baseball or Little League, baseball’s peak has long passed with the NFL taking over the sports lead. The NFL released its 2013 schedule last week and ESPN was breathless for a while looking at the most tantalizing games that have yet to be played. Baseball is no longer the “all-American sport” and surely this must trickle down to the activities of kids and fathers. While it does have the same nostalgic pitch, what about playing catch with a football in the backyard? (This may be impacted today and in the future because of fears of concussions.) Moving in a different direction, as has the racial composition of baseball players, what about kicking around a soccer ball in the backyard?

Here is another possibility for how fathers and sons might now be interacting in the United States: by playing video games together. The generation who grew up with video games has reached adulthood and these video games habits don’t simply disappear. What if fathers and sons don’t play sports together as much as play Madden? What if they enjoy a good session of Call of Duty? This may not be happening on a large scale yet but I imagine this would grow in the future.

All that said, I want to see some data about how exactly fathers are bonding with their kids in 2013. Appeals to playing catch in the backyard might just be nostalgia for a bygone era.

Mapping NFL fandom by county with Facebook likes

Facebook has put their massive data trove to use and examined the geographies of NFL fandom. Here is what they came up with:

The National Football League is one of the most popular sports in America with some incredibly devoted fans. At Facebook we have about 35 million account holders in the United States who have Liked a page for one of the 32 teams in the league, representing one of the most comprehensive samples of sports fanship ever collected. Put another way, more than 1 in 10 Americans have declared their support for an NFL team on Facebook…

While winning seems to matter, NFL teams have local followings that are probably heavily influenced by family ties and/or where a person grew up,  so we were obviously curious to see where the fans for various teams live now. By considering the physical locations of NFL fans, we can construct a map of the top team for each county in the US. It tells an interesting story about the ways that football rivalries and allegiances alternately divide and unite the country, and sometimes even individual states.

In some cases, whole states and even entire regions of the country uniformly support a single team.  For instance the Vikings are easily the only game in town in Minnesota, while New England appears to be comprised of entirely Patriots fans except for a small portion of Connecticut.

There are some states which are divided into regions by teams.  Florida has three teams–the Tampa Bay Bucs, Miami Dolphins, and the Jacksonville Jaguars–and Facebook users there seems fractured in their support, with some counties even defecting to teams from the North. Ohio is another interesting story, with the Cleveland Browns in the North, Cincinatti Bengals in the South, and Pittsburgh Steelers fans occupying the middle of the state.

Some teams, like the Steelers, Cowboys, and Packers, seem to transcend geography, with pockets of fans all over the country. On the other end of the spectrum, the Jets have to share New York with the Giants and are only the most popular team for a single stronghold county in Long Island.

Five quick thoughts:

1. There are few other organizations that could put together such a map without undertaking a major survey (since this is measured at the county level).

2. The best part for Facebook: users voluntarily provided this data.

3. Could Facebook end up being the most important future source for telling us about American society? There are still difficulties: users have to opt in (in this particular case, they had to “like” a NFL team), not everyone is involved (though it seems like pretty close), and not all users are putting everything in their profiles.

4. Is there a way to weight this map with population density? For example, the Cowboys may have a really broad geographic reach but many of those counties have fewer people. In contrast, teams like the Jets or Eagles have smaller reaches yet more people live in those areas.

5. Is there a way to show the percentage of county respondents who liked the dominant team? I imagine there are plenty of counties where one team does not have a strong majority, let alone even much of a plurality. For example, Jets fans barely show up on the map because they are only the top team in one county. Yet, there are plenty of Jets fans.

Lack of black offensive playcallers in the NFL

The NFL has only one black offensive coordinator:

“We are very, very conscious of this issue, and it’s something that needs to be addressed,” said John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization charged with promoting equality of job opportunity in NFL coaching and front office staffs. “We have alluded to it and spoken to it directly, and we feel our only course of action is to push more people up the pipeline.”

Complicating matters for Wooten and the legions of aspiring minority offensive coordinators is that the pipeline is also disproportionately dry…

Right now, the NFL’s sole African-American offensive coordinator is the Buffalo Bills’ Curtis Modkins, who doubles as the team’s running backs coach. However, Bills coach Chan Gailey is the team’s de facto offensive coordinator and primary play-caller. Only two African-Americans, the Houston Texans’ Karl Dorrell and the Minnesota Vikings’ Craig Johnson, are quarterbacks coaches, the position-coach job which most frequently leads to offensive-coordinator opportunities.

“This is the biggest travesty that’s taking place in this league, and every black coach is well aware of it,” said one anonymous African-American assistant for an AFC team. “They don’t promote you from running backs coach or receivers coach to offensive coordinator. When guys do get coordinator titles, they have to be position coaches at the same time, and they don’t get paid as much as other coordinators, because they’re not the play-callers. And in a lot of cases, guys believe they’re really there for locker-room reasons, to ‘take care of’ the minority players.”

A classic example in the sociology of sport of how race plays out in sports is to look at the expectations for and portrayal of black and white quarterbacks: black quarterbacks are expected to be more mobile and use their natural ability while white quarterbacks tend to be viewed as tacticians. I wonder if the same thing is going on here. Defense is said to require more reaction ability and athletic skills while offense is about strategy and throwing off the defense. Offensive playcalling is more of a sacred art that requires an intelligent guru to make things happen. Also, it sounds like this is a social network problem: black playcallers need to be able to have access to lower offensive positions, be able to prove themselves there, and then have the opportunity to move up when jobs become available. Without this chain in place, it could be a very similar issue to what might be behind the unemployment gap between whites and blacks.

The article doesn’t say much about this but the NFL has put policies in place for helping to ensure minority candidates are interviewed for head coaching positions so will something similar happen here?

Thursday Night Football logo takes over Philadelphia skyline

While watching a bit of the match-up last night featuring the Cincinnati Bengals at the Philadelphia Eagles, I saw this image where the Thursday Night Football takes over the Philadelphia skyline:

Sports broadcasts have been using this technique for at least a few years now. I first noticed it on Fox NFL broadcasts. They will often put fake video boards at different points around the stadium and then show the Fox logo or advertisements on this fake board before panning back to the field and game action. The NBA on TNT also uses this quite a bit though I’ve noticed they tend to use the same settings when in certain cities. For example, when they do Bulls home games, the same location is used: the camera, probably mounted on a tall building, looks southeast from Wolf Point with the fake video board mounted on the first bridge, Lake Street, on the South Branch of the Chicago River. Imagine if the board in Chicago moved around a bit: there it is popping out of the trees in Grant Park. There it is on the top of the John Hancock building. There it is on Navy Pier blocking the view of the Ferris Wheel.

However, these examples feature fake video screens built on existing structures while this Thursday Night Football segue involved a giant logo attached to two buildings on the Philadelphia skyline. In my opinion, this stretches the idea a little too far. It doesn’t look very realistic and even among big buildings it looks disproportionately large. At the same time, perhaps it is meant to be commentary about the power of the NFL: it is so big that it dominates the skyline of a major American city!

Correlation and not causation: Redskins games predict results of presidential election

Big events like presidential elections tend to bring out some crazy data patterns. Here is my nomination for the oddest one of this election season: how the Washington Redskins do in their final game before the election predicts the presidential election.

Since 1940 — when the Redskins moved to D.C. — the team’s outcome in its final game before the presidential election has predicted which party would win the White House each time but once.

When the Redskins win their game before the election, the incumbent party wins the presidential vote. If the Redskins lose, the non-incumbent wins.

The only exception was in 2004, when Washington fell to Green Bay, but George W. Bush still went on to win the election over John Kerry.

This is simply a quirk of data: how the Redskins do should have little to no effect on voting in other states. This is exactly what correlation without causation is about; there may be a clear pattern ut it doesn’t necessarily mean the two related facts cause each other. There may be some spurious association here, some variable that predicts both outcomes, but even that is hard to imagine. Yet, the Redskins Rule has garnered a lot of attention in recent days. Why? A few possible reasons:

1. It connects two American obsessions: presidential elections and the NFL. A sidelight: both may involve a lot of betting.

2. So much reporting has been done on the 2012 elections that this adds a more whimsical and mysterious element.

3. Humans like to find patterns, even if these patterns don’t make much sense.

What’s next, an American octopus who can predict presidential elections?

Why would Mayor Daley want a second NFL team? Sounds like he wants prestige, economic development

Chicago’s former Mayor Daley said he wants a second NFL team for Chicago and a new stadium:

“I really believe we could get a second football team,” the former mayor said. “I’ve always believed — the Chicago Cardinals, Bears — why is it that New York has two? Florida has three, San Francisco has two. Now you think of that, we could easily take — Chicago loves sports and we could get a second team in here.

“You could build a new stadium, you could have huge international soccer teams come in, you could do the Final Four, you could do anything you wanted with a brand new stadium.”

Many in Chicago believe the city should have a stadium with a retractable roof to be able to host events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four. Renovations to Solider Field left the stadium as the second smallest in the NFL. That, coupled with the lack of a roof, makes it a longshot to host a Super Bowl…

“It would be privately funded, the government could help a little bit,” Daley said. “But I’ve always believed we could take a second team. And every Sunday we would have a team playing in the National Football League. That would be unbelievable.”

If I had to guess, here is what I think is behind these comments:

1. This is about prestige and status. Chicago is a world-class city yet other cities, including less notable ones like San Francisco/Oakland, have two teams and Chicago does not. Having another NFL team would generate more attention in and for Chicago plus allow other major events to be held in the new stadium. Chicago could become a center for all sports and grab away some of the business places like Indianapolis, New Orleans, Atlanta, and other places get because of having closed stadiums. Mayor Daley is also old enough to remember the days when Chicago did have a second team, the Chicago Cardinals, that ended up leaving for the Sunbelt. Arguments against this line of thinking: is there really fan interest in a second team? Would Chicagoans easily adapt to a team moving to the city from somewhere else (like the Vikings, Chargers, etc.)? Los Angeles is a world-class city and does not have any team – just because a city has a certain population doesn’t necessarily mean it has to have a certain number of NFL teams.

2. This is about economic growth. Having a second team would bring in more money and more events. A new stadium could be viewed as an economic boon. However, research clearly shows that publicly funded stadiums don’t return money to taxpayers and residents will spend their money on other entertainment options if a sports team is not available. Plus, a new stadium would likely have to be located in a suburban locale (the Bears threatened at various points to move to the northwest suburbs or to Warrenville on what later became the Cantera site) so the economic benefits would be spread throughout the region rather than directly in the city of Chicago.

From a social science perspective, I don’t find the second reason compelling. Government officials tend to justify stadium spending by arguing it will bring economic benefits but I think it is also really about prestige: it helps put or keep the city on the map and also attracts more media attention. The same politicians that don’t want to be the ones held responsible for a favorite team leaving the city would also like to take the credit for adding a new team.

SI columnist doesn’t like having “sports sociologists” commenting on football and concussions

A Sports Illustrated columnist takes issue with some recent comments from a sociologist about the future of football considering the growing knowledge about concussions:

Jay Coakley, a “sports sociologist” at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, recently said to a New York Times reporter, “”Football is really on the verge of a turning point here. We may see it in 15 years in pretty much the same place as boxing or ultimate fighting.”

A few things about that:

(1) Can we do a story on this topic now without input from a “sports sociologist”?

(2) That’s crazy.

That puts the NFL in a nice, hedge-rowed suburban box. That’s not where the NFL lives.

I haven’t done a study. Maybe someone has. But I’ve covered the NFL for close to 30 years. It is not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A majority of its players — and certainly, its stars — did not grow up with free and easy access to golf courses, tennis courts or any of the other options that parents evidently will be turning to now. I did a book with the former Chad Johnson. He grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, host of the pre-Super Bowl riot in 1989. Chad wasn’t exactly hanging out at Doral, practicing flop wedges.

Chad is more typical of the league than not. This isn’t to say parents or guardians of kids playing football in places like Liberty City are OK with their charges getting concussed. It’s to say that opportunities there are constricted, but the talent is not. If you want to declare, as Coakley did, that football faces UFC-status, you must also ignore the sociology of the game. Which is a strange thing for a sociologist to do.

A few thoughts:

1. I’m not sure what this writer has against sociologists. Jay Coakley is a sociologist who has written a lot in the sociology of sports, including being a co-author for a textbook on the subject that is now in its 11th edition. Perhaps the writer doesn’t think sociologists are qualified to talk about this specific subject? Perhaps the writer doesn’t think academics can really talk about sports? Both of these ideas seem silly: sociologists of sports do study things such as these and perhaps have more data and evidence to argue on this topic than the accumulated observations of journalists.

2. The writer argues that Coakley is suggesting football is more of a suburban sport (remember: a majority of Americans live in suburbs) while he suggests more NFL players come out of more desperate urban situations and will continue to see football as one of the only ways out, concussions or not. Both commentators could be right: perhaps there will always be some people who will want to play football while those with other options, given their class and income, choose other sports or vocations. But, having a sport with only lower-class urban residents could still change the sport; at the least, talents like Tom Brady would never become part of the game.

Needed in discussion of NFL draft picks: how well they make “sociological adjustments”?

A columnist suggests a new piece to consider when projecting the career of someone selected in the NFL draft:

Nobody knows how these players will pan out because there are too many variables: Injuries, character, sociological adjustments, growth mentally and physically, determination, etc.

The talk leading up to and during the NFL draft is fairly consistent. There are several things to hash over for weeks: physical measureables (which consists of fawning over those with higher ratings with a few suggestions that these may not matter that much), productivity in college (always fun to compare relative successes across games, conferences, and years), and what need a draftee can fill for a NFL team.

But how might the analysts incorporate the “sociological adjustments” a player needs to make? Perhaps we need something far beyond the Wonderlic test which supposedly measures something; we need some measure of how players adapt to new cities, teammates, coaches, locker rooms, and the better gameplay on the NFL field. There could be several ways to do this: have NFL teams hire sociologists who can assess the social skills and adaptability of players. There could be a sort of Survivor type competition for potential draftees before the draft that would allow observers to see how they adjust to changing situations, their social abilities, and how they can perform in mental competition. Don’t you think the NFL Network would love to have some reality TV involving known players?

My guess is that we are a long way from such scenarios yet some of this surfaces when teams and analysts talk about “character.” What they really mean is something more like whether the player can stop himself from getting into trouble long enough to focus solely on football. Wouldn’t teams like to unlock some sort of formula or predictive ability that would help them know which players can avoid these situations better than others? Or perhaps they would want to quantify or measure the idea of “glue guys” or “positive locker room guys” that would help their teams win?