Saturday, June 30, 2007

Heaven Help Us: Red Zone Breakdown

The Crimson Tide was atrocious in the red zone in 2006, and no one needs any in-depth analysis to figure that one out. But exactly how bad were we, and how much did it hurt us?

Answering the first question, it was as bad as you think, and then probably worse.

After running the numbers, we made 53 visits to the red zone in 2006. Of those 53 visits, we scored on just over 75% of them (40), which is a good -- but certainly not great -- number. The major problem, of course, was being able to put the ball into the end zone. All told, we only scored 20 touchdowns in 53 trips to the red zone, thus putting it in the end zone on only 37.74% of red zone trips.

It gets worse.

When we look at the eight conference games the Tide played (which, of course, we went 2-6), we made 28 trips to the red zone. Of the 28 times that we got into the red zone in SEC play in 2006, we managed a mere 6 touchdowns. 6 touchdowns in 8 conference games. Long story short, we scored a touchdown on only about 20% of our red zone trips in conference play.

Now let's compare that to LSU, who led the conference in both total offense and scoring offense. Believe it or not, LSU had essentially the same number of red zone trips in conference play that we did (LSU had 30 red zone trips, we had 28). But, of course, they did much more with theirs. All told, LSU scored 22 touchdowns in their 30 trips, and, well, that was a big part of the reason why they led the conference in point production.

So exactly how much did the lack of productivity in the red zone hurt us in terms of wins and losses? Quite a bit, it would seem. With even half-way decent red zone production (say, just to quantify that, 14 touchdowns on 28 trips), our final win-loss record would have been drastically different, and the margin of victory in the games we did win would have gone up as well.

Against Hawai'i, despite us leading all night, it turned out to be a close game, with victory ensured only when a time-expiring Colt Brennan heave to the end zone was intercepted by Lionel Mitchell. We went to the red zone five times that night, and emerged with only one touchdown. With decent red zone production, that game never comes down to a last-second heave.

Against Vanderbilt, the following week, we narrowly edged out a 13-10 victory, at home, over the eventual 4-8 Commodores after Leigh Tiffin booted a 47-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter. During that game, we went to the red zone four times, scored no touchdowns, and came away with only six points. Again, with decent red zone production, that game is never that close; we would have by somewhere in the neighborhood of 14-20 points.

Against Arkansas, two weeks later, five trips to the red zone netted only one touchdown and ten points. Even with slightly better than atrocious red zone production, much less decent production, Alabama wins that game in Fayetteville. Instead, horrendous red zone production turns a sure-win into a one-point loss.

The following week against Florida, two red zone trips netted six points and no touchdowns. Decent red zone production might not have turned this game into a win, but it would have made it very close. Most people forget that this was a 14-13 game with under seven minutes to go in the fourth -- and Alabama having the ball. With decent red zone production, we likely have a 17-14 lead at that juncture, and instead of throwing the football -- which led to a Reggie Nelson interception returned for a touchdown that ultimately doomed us -- we are running out the clock. Again, Florida may still have won, but it would have been a much closer game.

Against Ole Miss -- big shock forthcoming -- we actually had solid red zone production. I've written before that it was probably our best offensive performance, and rightfully so. Four trips to the red zone resulted in 20 points (two touchdowns and two successful field goals). And -- big shock again -- we won this one, though one of the poorest defensive efforts of the year turned it into a very close game.

The following week in Knoxville, poor red zone production was largely responsible for a loss to the hated Volunteers. We had three trips to the red zone, and could muster only one touchdown. With just one more touchdown on the other two red zone trips (again, my definition of half-way decent red zone production), we win that game. Instead of leading 13-9 late, we would have been leading 17-9, and Tennessee would have not only needed to score a touchdown, but successfully complete the two-point conversion just to force overtime.

Against Mississippi State, it was more of the same. Four trips to the red zone netted zero touchdowns and only nine points. In a game ultimately decided by eight points, decent red zone production could have gotten us a win.

One week later against LSU, we played the Bayou Bengals surprisingly tough, but again... red zone woes. We made three trips to the red zone, which netted only ten points. Although this is most likely still a win for LSU with decent red zone production, it would have went right down to the wire in a close contest, particularly if Jamie Christensen could have connected on a first quarter field goal.

Against Auburn, in the Iron Bowl, red zone woes played another big role in our loss. Three red zone trips resulted in only one touchdown, and nine total points. Again, with decent red zone production, we may win that one.

At bottom, red zone woes really killed our 2006 team. It wasn't just that our problems in the red zone hurt us some, they have a drastic effect on our overall win-loss record. We finished the regular season at 6-6, but being quite objective about it, and decent red zone production would have probably given us an 8-4 or 9-3 regular season record, with those losses being very close losses at that. That would have put us, likely, in the Peach Bowl, and Mike Shula would still be the head coach of the Crimson Tide.

The good news though, I suppose, is that with nine starters returning on the offense for 2007, this group should be able to finally break through and translate all of that potential into points.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Scary Similarity: Shula and Stovall

When Mike Shula was fired days after the 2006 Iron Bowl, the national response was effectively, "Alabama has too high of expectations, and they shouldn't have fired Shula." Many of those making this argument, though certainly not all or even a majority, were the LSU fans. In reality, though, Mike Shula's tenure at Alabama was almost exactly like Jerry Stovall's tenure at LSU. In fact, they are almost so similar that it's a bit scary.

Jerry Stovall was hired in January of 1980 after the tragic death of Bo Rein. After having success at North Carolina State, LSU selected Rein to be the successor to long-time LSU coach Charlie McClendon. However, as the fates would have it, Rein died on January 10th of 1980 when his plane, returning to Baton Rouge from a recruiting trip to Shreveport, apparently lost internal pressure, causing both Rein and the pilot to go unconscious, and the plain ultimately crashed off the Eastern seaboard in the Atlantic Ocean. Needing an emergency hire in a desperate situation, LSU tapped one of its own former players. It wasn't that LSU really wanted Stovall, otherwise they would have hired him in the first place, but he was the best they could do given a difficult situation.

Mike Shula was hired in May of 2003 after Mike Price was fired as a result of his lack of discretion on a night that included a pit stop at the Arety Angel's strip club. At that point, in the midst of probation, Alabama had to make an emergency hire in a desperate situation, and had to tap into its own alumni base. As a result, Mike Shula was selected to be the man at the Capstone. It wasn't that Alabama really wanted Shula, otherwise they would have hired him instead of Price, but he was the best they could do given a difficult situation.

Jerry Stovall was a legendary player at LSU. He was the successor to Billy Cannon, and in 1962 he made the All-America team, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Only the dazzlings of Oregon State's Terry Baker kept Stovall from hoisting the Heisman at the Downtown Athletic Club.

Mike Shula was a legendary player at Alabama. Although he was never in the league of predecessors such as Starr, Namath, and Stabler, Shula was known for his gutsy play and his legendary comebacks. His last-minute miracle comeback to set up Van Tiffin's 52-yard game winning field goal in the 1985 Iron Bowl will forever be etched in the annals of Alabama football history.

Jerry Stovall, upon taking the LSU job, had no head coaching experience. After Stovall's NFL playing career ended, he became an assistant, and was ultimately an offensive assistant on Charlie McClendon's staff.

Mike Shula, upon taking the Alabama job, had no head coaching experience. After Shula gave up playing football, he moved to coaching and spent the entire time before coming to Alabama as an offensive assistant.

Jerry Stovall had very mixed results in his first two seasons in Baton Rouge. In 1980, he did relatively well, given the circumstances, and went 7-4. In the second season, however, things fell apart, and Stovall went 3-7-1. All told, in his first two years, he only had a winning percentage of roughly 47%

Mike Shula had very mixed results in his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa. In 2003, things went poorly with several close losses, and he went 4-9. The following year, he did relatively well, given the circumstances (tons of injuries), and went 6-6. All told, in his first two years, he had a winning percentage of only roughly 40%.

Jerry Stovall finally found big success in his third season in Baton Rouge. Carrying an undefeated 7-0-1 record late into the season, LSU and Stovall was finally knocked off in a three point loss at the hands of Mississippi State. Shortly thereafter, LSU suffered a disappointing loss to in-state rival Tulane in the last game of the regular season. Nonetheless, though, LSU played in the Orange Bowl, and though they lost a close game to Nebraska, Stovall was nationally lauded for having a great season and putting LSU football back on the map after several years of relative mediocrity.

Mike Shula finally found big success in his third season in Tuscaloosa. Carrying an undefeated 9-0 record late into the season, Shula and Alabama was finally knocked off in a three point loss at the hands of LSU. Shortly thereafter, Alabama suffered a disappointing loss to in-state rival Auburn in the last game of the regular season. Nonetheless, though, Alabama earned a berth in the Cotton Bowl, and beat Texas Tech in a close game. Shula was nationally lauded for having a great season and putting Alabama football back on the map after several years of relative struggles.

Following a successful 1982 campaign, the expectations were quite high for Stovall and his Fighting Tigers in 1983. After a decent start, things soon imploded, and a losing season was guaranteed after a close loss to the Billy Brewer-led Ole Miss Rebels, and another close loss to Alabama in Tiger Stadium. At the end of the year, Stovall was fired. All told, Stovall had a 22-21-2 record at LSU, with a 51.1% winning percentage.

Following a successful 2005 campaign, the expectations were quite high for Shula and his Crimson Tide in 2006. After a decent start, things soon imploded, as the Tide was beaten by quality opponents, and narrowly squeaked by horrible opponents. At the end of the year, Shula was fired. All told, Shula had a 26-23 record at Alabama, with a 53.0% winning percentage.

Long story short, it's really just scary how similar Stovall's tenure at LSU was to Shula's tenure at Alabama. Considering LSU fired Stovall in almost exactly the same situation, they should be the last ones to accuse Alabama of high expectations for firing Shula.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

2006 SEC Football: Offensive Sack Rates

We often hear in traditional media outlets about how certain offensive lines are good because they allowed such a few number of sacks, and others are poor because they allowed so many sacks, but in reality that approach is inherently flawed. Since sacks allowed is a cumulative statistic, people tend to just look at the final number and fail to put that number in any real context. What is almost overlooked is the effect the number of passes thrown have on how many sacks an offensive line will allow.

For an absurd example, say one team gives up 10 sacks in 150 passing attempts while another team gives up 20 sacks in 400 passing attempts. An initial analysis would say the former offensive line is much better, but once you consider passing attempts, the latter was a better pass blocking line.

So how did SEC teams stack up in 2006 in terms of offensive sack rates? Here are the numbers broken-down:

Another important factor to consider is not only the number of sacks allowed, by also how many yards were lost on average per sack. So how did SEC teams stack up in 2006 in terms of average yards lost per sack? Here are the numbers broken-down for that:

We see some pretty interesting things when we go beyond surface-deep. Just a few random notes:

  • The Alabama line was generally thought of as absolutely terrible in 2006. And, while it wasn't very good, it was probably a bit better than most expected. If you had told an Alabama fan immediately after the season was over that we had the eighth best line in the conference in terms of pass protection, nearly everyone would have probably said they were being very overrated. In reality, that's exactly what they were.
  • The real trouble with the Alabama line was the average yards lost per sack, 7.29, which was 11th in the conference. The good news, however, is that number is probably more indicative of the play-calling on Shula's behalf. All year long, I bemoaned about the lack of three and five step drops; almost everything was a seven-stop drops, which made our already relatively poor offensive line have to pass block even longer. As a result of the long drops, when sacks did occur, they were generally for more yardage. More three and five step drops in 2007 will hopefully ameliorate that problem.
  • Auburn was dead last in the conference in sack rate, and actually by a very wide margin. I believe most of that could be chalked up to Brandon Cox's lack of mobility following ankle injuries early in the season. However, Auburn was second in the conference in average yards lost per sack, and this is largely the result of so many quick and short passes called by the Auburn offense. Without doubt, a large amount of credit must go to the Auburn coaching staff here. Faced with an immobile quarterback, they shifted their offensive gameplans to include more short drops and quicker throws. Good job by Borges and company.
  • The Arkansas offensive line was generally regarded as a great run blocking line, but a poor pass blocking line. In reality, though, they pass blocked very well in 2006. They had the second lowest sack rate in the conference, and they allowed the second fewest average yards lost per sack. Certainly, a great deal of credit goes to the strong running game, which yielded a lot of playaction passing, but the fact remains that they consistently got the job done, even though they were protecting for a true freshman quarterback almost all season.
  • Tennessee was simply great up front, leading the conference in offensive sack rate, even though they had to face a non-divisional opponent in LSU that was first in the conference in defensive sack rate, all with a backup quarterback. David Cutcliffe got almost all of the credit for re-invigorating the hapless Erik Ainge, but the offensive line should get a good deal of credit. Teams knew Tennessee was going to throw it a lot (second most pass attempts of any team in the conference), yet they stood up and passed the test anyway.
  • Georgia, much like Arkansas, did a very good job of protecting a true freshman quarterback. They finished third in offensive sack rate, despite not having the greatest of rushing attacks. Much of the success in pass protection came from the tackles, Daniel Inman and Ken Shackleford, both of which will not return in 2007. Inman was one of the best linemen in the conference, and he started 48 games in his career for Georgia. If the Georgia line falls off in pass protection in 2007, the loss of Inman and Shackleford will be the likely reason why.
  • LSU presents an interesting case study. They finished fourth in the conference in offensive sack rate, and that may seem a bit low considering JaMarcus Russell was the quarterback. Russell is often considered almost un-sackable, and that was one reason he went so high in the NFL Draft. So you would expect that to be a bit better. However, on the other hand, while they were fourth, they were very close to first overall, so it's probably best if we don't pay much attention to that. Then, beyond that, they were dead last in the conference in average loss per sack allowed. But maybe that makes sense, too. The 2006 LSU offense was based almost solely on a deep passing threat, and all of the deep passes (which require deep drops and long times to develop) should result in some big sacks for losses. Still, though, for LSU, they remain an interesting case study, particularly in 2007. Most of the offensive line returns, but they will be switching from an offense predicated upon the deep pass to an offense that has a much higher emphasis on short, quick throws, and the mobility of the quarterback should go up a bit. LSU probably has the greatest transition to make in terms of differences in what their line must accomplish in 2007.

Pythagorean Projection: Alabama Football

The Pythagorean Projection is an approximation of how many games a particular team should have won in a particular season that is determined solely by focusing on points scored and points allowed. First created by revolutionary baseball thinker Bill James, the Pythagorean Projection has been equated to many other sports, such as football and basketball.

The basic formula for the Pythagorean Projection is as follows:

For football, the basic formula remains relatively the same. However, Daryl Morey of STATS, Inc. found that for football, the best exponent is not 2, but 2.37, so the formula is slightly tweaked for football.

But what all does it mean? If a team wins fewer games than its projection said it should have, that team underachieved, and if a team wins more games than they should have, that team underachieved. But exactly what does that mean? Well, the Projection can mean different things to different people, but it is generally accepted that, more than anything else, Pythagorean Projections are mainly an indicator of lucks. Teams that overachieve are said to be "lucky" and teams that underachieve are said to be "unlucky." And truthfully, that's probably the foremost thing we should take from this. However, baseball researchers have found two other variables that have an impact besides luck: coaching decisions and bullpen depth. Obviously, there's no bullpen in football, but that could be construed as a measure of overall team depth, and obviously coaching decisions come into play.

So how has the Crimson Tide stacked up in terms of the Pythagorean Projection the past few years? Let's have a look-see.

To begin with, I should note that I only analyzed eight games in most seasons, and only seven in 1990 and 1991. Why only analyze seven or eight games when you play eleven or twelve regular season games? The reason I did so was because I found that when you look at all games played, the Pythagorean Projection seems to be a bit inflated, as teams never seem to win as many games as they should have. Something didn't seem right to me when I ran the numbers that way, and then it suddenly dawned on me that the reason it was happening because all of the weak opponents an SEC program will play in a season. For example, you play Division 1-AA Western Carolina, and you win 52-0, and suddenly your Pythagorean Projection shoots up dramatically. But why should you get credit for beating an East Popcorn State? In MLB, where the Pythagorean Projection has its roots, you don't have East Popcorn States because all MLB teams only play other MLB teams, where the talent levels are much closer, and as a result the Projections are much more accurate. Obviously, if you started counting results from when the Chicago White Sox play the Birmingham Barons, the projections would lose a good bit of their accuracy, and that is essentially what happens when a team like Alabama plays Western Carolina.

So, to get around all of that, I used solely regular season conference games. As a result, the Projections became much more accurate. And hence why there are only seven and eight conference games. Since 1992, the SEC has played eight regular season conference games, and seven were the norm before the expansion of the SEC in 1990 and 1991.

So what do we see about the Crimson Tide?

I noticed that some of the teams that I felt really underachieved were actually some of the ones that underachieved in the Pythagorean Projection. Just to name a few...

  • 1990: You never hear it mentioned, but in actuality the 1990 defense allowed exactly as many points as the 1992 defense. The offense, though, really struggled with a tough schedule and injuries. Siran Stacey, the star of the offense, went out for the year with a torn ACL on the first play from scrimmage in the season opener against Southern Miss, and that really turned the Tide offense stagnant. As a result, the Tide lost narrow games against Georgia and Florida (Spurrier's first year) when the offense couldn't get it going.
  • 2000: The 2000 team underachieved quite a bit, obviously. Some people think of that season as a pure disaster, and it was, but people often forget just how close we were to winning several games. We lost in Fayetteville to Arkansas when two very controversial penalties kept their game-winning drive alive, lost to Central Florida by two points, and lost to LSU in Baton Rouge by two points.
  • 2004: The 2004 season was, in a lot of ways, a clone of the 1990 season. The torn ACL by Brodie Croyle basically ended the season, and we lost a ton of close games due to an impotent offense. In both years, atrocious offensive output spoiled great defensive efforts.
The same goes for a few of the overachievers:

  • 1991: Stallings' second squad went 11-1, but even I questioned how good we were during that time. In the second game of the season, we were annihilated 35-0 in Gainesville by Florida, in what is still the most dominating performance I've ever seen against an Alabama squad. From there, we had a ton of squeaker wins, such as a five point win over 9-3 Tennessee, a six point win over 7-5 Mississippi State (Danny Woodson's last game, I believe), a three point win over 5-6 Memphis, a seven point win over 5-6 Auburn, and a six point win over 8-3-1 Colorado. We were a good team that year, but you don't win that many close games without a good bit of luck on your side.
  • 1994: Going into the 1994 SEC Championship Game, we were 11-0 and 3rd in the country. But we probably weren't that good, to be brutally honest. We looked sloppy in a 17-7 win over Vanderbilt, and Arkansas gave us trouble in Fayetteville, as we won only 13-6 over a 4-7 Danny Ford team. It took a career night from Jay Barker, at home, and luck from the Field Goals Gods on a Michael Proctor kick late in the first half for us to pull out a narrow 29-28 victory over a 6-4-1 Georgia team. We won two road games by a combined four points against solid Mississippi State and Tennessee teams. Finally, we held on to beat Auburn in the closing seconds after their furious comeback ended when Frank Sanders was stopped inches short on a 4th and 6. Again, you just don't do something like that without a good bit of luck on your side.
  • 1999: The 2000 collapse shocked everyone, but should have really shocked no one. We had a projection of a mere five wins in 1999, yet went 7-1 in conference play and won the SEC. The 1999 season, all together, was full of close wins. After squeaking by Arkansas, the Gators had us beat in Florida until we got very lucky with a muffed Florida punt return with under two minutes to go and the Extra Point Gods decided to shine on us twice in overtime. A week later, it was another narrow win over a solid Ole Miss team, led by Deuce McAllister and Romero Miller. After a loss to Tennessee, we faced LSU, a team in the midst of a seven-game losing streak that had blown blown out by the likes of Kentucky, yet we needed a time-expiring Goal Line stand to beat the hapless Dinardo-led Bayou Bengals, in Bryant-Denny. Two weeks later, we trailed Auburn for three quarters, and pulled out a victory only after a dumb play call by Tommy Tuberville great play by Kindal Moorehead to sack Ben Leard for a safety after Auburn held on fourth and goal, and Shaun Alexander re-emerged for the first time in weeks to run wild on the Auburn defense in the last stanza. Long story short, it shouldn't have surprised many that we fell apart in 2000, it was a wonder all along that we won that many games in 1999.
A few other notes...

As noted earlier, bullpen depth seemingly changes the difference between actual and expected wins, so you would think overall team depth in football would do the same. So what about when we were on probation? In 1997-1999, the years most thought would be the worst from the probation era, we overachieved twice in three years. On the other hand, from 2004-2006, the years most thought would be the worst from the second probation era, we underachieved three straight years.

Also as mentioned earlier, the quality of coaching decisions can change the difference between actual and expected wins. Unfortunately for former coach Mike Shula, in his four seasons, we underachieved all four years. Maybe the baseball people have it right when it comes to coaching. After all, luck is probably a big part of the Pythagorean Projection, but I'm sure it's not the only variable.

The 2002 squad really was a great one. Although we lost to Georgia in a narrow game at Bryant-Denny (without our starting quarterback), we actually had more Pythagorean Wins than the Dawgs did in the 2002 season. It just reinforces the fact that we all missed out on a great SEC Championship game. And although it shows the 2002 team as underachieving (we had a projection of roughly seven wins, but won only six), I wouldn't look at them as underachievers. We had a projection of seven wins, and going into the Auburn game we had six wins, coming off of a 31-0 blowout of LSU in Tiger Stadium. Long story short, we were on pace to nail the projection... and then Dennis Franchione decided he was going to be an Aggie, and missed team meetings all week. The lack of preparation resulted in an Iron Bowl loss, and that caused us to underachieve. But did we really? Not in my book.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

2006 Season: How Johns Was Under-Utilized

As mentioned in the previous post, it was much the debate last Fall over whether or not Jimmy Johns was being utilized correctly. After charting every carry Johns had last season over the course of our ten big games, we can take a much closer look at that.

Against Hawai'i, Johns had seven carries in the first half. All seven carries were successes when judged by the Running Back Success Rate, and the seven carries resulted in a grand total of 56 yards, thus averaging eight yards per carry. Moreover, five of the runs either went for a first down, or put the Tide within one yard of a first-down. Yet, for some reason, after picking up nine yards on a second and ten in the second quarter, Johns didn't see another carry until the fourth quarter, and ultimately that carry would be his last of the evening.

The following week against Vanderbilt, it was more of the same. Johns had five carries in the first quarter, three of which were successes, and they ground out 25 yards of rushing. After the initial success in the first quarter, though, Johns didn't see another carry until mid-way through the third quarter, which resulted in a fumble (backup-itis?). All told, after his hot first quarter start, Johns saw two carries the rest of the day.

Against Arkansas, it was another solid start, with four carries for 18 yards in the first half. Then, inexplicably, he dropped off the map. After that, Johns only saw one carry (a draw play on a 3rd and 26) before finally being inserted at the end of the fourth for some token carries to run out the clock, and presumably set up a successful Leigh Tiffin field goal.

Against Ole Miss, more of the same. Johns started out with 29 yards off of just four carries, three of which were successes, in the first quarter. From that hot start, he only saw one carry the rest of the day.

Against Tennessee, Johns was hot early yet again. He had three carries in the first half for 38 yards, including a 26 yard scamper. All three carries were successes, and either picked up first downs for the Tide or put them within two yards of a first down. Yet, after the hot first half start, Johns didn't see another carry for the rest of the day.

Same thing again when we played LSU. Johns started out with four carries for 25 yards in the first half, two of which were successes. Yet, after another good start in the first half, Johns never saw a carry in the second half.

Finally, it all culminated in the Independence Bowl, where Johns again looked good early. In the first half, Johns had 38 yards off of just five carries, four of which were successes. Yet, after the initial first half success, Johns only saw one carry in the entire second half, and if my memory is correct, that was an attempt at a bit of a gimmick play.

The story just keeps repeating itself. Johns would have a lot of success on carries in the first half, and then Shula would rarely, if ever, call his number in the second half.

In the seven games I just mentioned, Johns had 33 first half carries for 229 yards. On average alone, that's 6.93 yards per carry, but moreover, an amazing 24 of his 33 carries were successes, giving him a success rate of 72.72%. Long story short, Johns' productivity on the limited first half carries he had was simply incredible.

And then Shula, for whatever reason, decided Johns shouldn't get the time of day in the second half. All told, despite the great production in the first half from Johns, Shula rewarded him by giving him less than 10 second half carries over a seven game stretch. Even with a stagnant offense and an even more stagnant running game, Shula chose to keep what was statistically by-far his best back on the sideline.

Small wonder Shula is no longer at the Capstone, and an even smaller wonder that he is not calling plays with his new position with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Analyzing Jimmy Johns

Jimmy Johns and his performance in 2006 was very much the hot topic of discussion last Fall. For months, almost from the first snap of the Hawai'i game to the end of the Independence Bowl, Darby v. Johns debates filled Alabama message boards and other mediums of football discussion. Of course, the performance of Johns is not purely one of past relevance for the Crimson Tide. With Darby gone, Johns has the most experience of any returning back, and his performance will likely be a key determinant of the success in our rushing attack in 2007.

Thus, I decided to break down John's performance in the 2006 season.

Just scratching the surface, using the standard statistics, Johns logged 66 carries for 293 yards, and thus averaged 4.4 yards per carry. He had one touchdown, and his longest run from scrimmage was 26 yards. Of course, the purpose of this blog is to go much deeper than anything you will find in a traditional stat-line, so let's start delving further right now.

For starters, I charted every carry that Johns had in ten games this season. The eight games included the standard eight conference games, the season opener against 11-2 Hawai'i, and the Independence Bowl vs. Oklahoma State. I chose to ignore the results from the Duke game and the Florida International game, mainly because both were such terrible teams (0-12 each), and many of the carries by Johns in both games came from the quarterback position where he was running Shula's variant of Meyer's Tim Tebow package, which does us little or no good in evaluating Johns' effectiveness as a tailback.

All told, in those ten games, Johns accumulated 51 carries for 274 yards. However, I decided to omit three of those carries for a variety of reasons (one was a halfback pass gone bad, another was a draw play on third and 25+, and the other was an intentional carry solely to move the ball to the middle of the field at the end of a half). Once adjusted for those carries, Johns carried the ball 48 times for 267 yards, thus averaging 5.56 yards per carry.

Impressive as that yard-per carry number may be, Johns' performance looks better the deeper we go.

Football Outsiders came up with Running Back Success Rate in order to take down and distance into account in whether or not a particular run is successful. Long story short, a run is considered successful if it generated 40% of yards needed for a first down on first down, 60% of yards needed on second down, and 100% of yards needed on third and fourth downs. Obviously, the higher the success rate for a tailback, the more he consistently picks up the needed yardage, and the lower the success rate for a tailback, he's less consistent in picking up the needed yardage. In the NFL, a success rate of 50% or higher is considered very good, while a success rate of 40% or lower is considered very poor. So how did Johns stack up? Of his 48 runs, 28 were successes, which means he had a whopping 58.33% success rate. Though I would imagine success rates for good backs in college football tend to be a bit higher than in professional football (due to greater disparities in talent between good and bad players), a success rate of almost 60% would be considered very high. Any time a player, at any level, can create a successful play almost 60% of the time he touches the ball, it's speaks highly of that particular player, especially when he does so with an offensive line as poor as the line we had in 2006.

Beyond that, Johns did an exceptional job of limiting negative plays. Football Outsiders, again, came up with a statistic to measure negative plays by tailbacks, called the Stuffed Rate. Technically, a back is "stuffed" if he gains zero or negative yards on first down, or if he gains less than one-fourth of the yards needed for another first down on second and third down. Using that metric, Johns was again impressive. Of his 48 carries, he was stuffed a mere 6 times, for a Stuffed Rate of only 12.5 percent. Again, a very impressive statistic that speaks volumes of Johns performance. On the whole, studies have indicated that backs that consistently gain positive yardage have a higher value than backs who are more boom and bust -- those who have big gains sprinkled in with several no gains and negative plays, and that seems to fit Johns to a T. All told, he consistently gained positive yardage at a very high rate all season.

Another thing to consider, largely on those lines, is how a few long gains can impact a back's average. In reality, a couple of very long gains in a season when a back has a relatively few amount of carries can change a tailback's yard-per-carry average by two yards or more (Tide fans may well remember when Santonio Beard averaged over 7 yards per carry in 2001 when that very thing happened). As a result, a few big gains skew the data to make it seem like a particular back consistently gained more yardage, when in reality he wasn't as good, but had a couple of big runs along the way (Again, Beard, 2001). You can get around that, statistically speaking, by capping the runs of more than 10 yards and just counting them as a 10-yard run. For example, a 75-yard run goes down statistically as a 10-yard run. So what effect does that have on Johns' performance? Again, Johns performs well here. Johns had 6 carries of 11 yards or more in 2006, and once you cap those runs at 10 yards, Johns ran for 224 yards on 48 carries, which still yields a yard-per-carry average of 4.66. Again, even when you cap the big runs to keep them from skewing the average, Johns still shows through as a consistent yard-gainer almost every time he touched the football.

Let's go one step further by categorizing Johns' carries by yards gain on each individual carry:

Negative to 2 yards: 14 times (29.17%)
3-5 yards: 15 times (31.25%)
6-10 yards: 13 times (27.08%)
11+ yards: 6 times (12.50%)

Again, Johns looks very impressive. Over 70% of his carries went for three yards or more, and right at 40% of his carries yielded six yards or more. Again, the basis is the same: Johns consistently gained good chunks of positive yards each time he touched the football with relatively few negative plays mixed in.

I, for one, have been a bit harsh on Johns and his performance in 2006. However, perhaps next time I should keep my mouth shut before I do a more thorough analysis. After analyzing his season much closer, Johns looked very good in 2006. Certainly, he needs to improve greatly on the fundamentals of being a tailback, but even with poor fundamentals, he still had a very solid and productive season in 2006. Much of that, of course, can be chalked up to Johns' amazing physical abilities, something everyone has gushed about since he stepped onto campus over two years ago. Without doubt, Johns has a lot of work to do off the football field, but on the football field he looked very good in 2006.

Judging by his performance in 2006, mixed with his amazing natural abilities, if Johns can get it together off-the-field and with his fundamentals, he seems to have the potential to be a truly great back.

Offensive Unbalance

One of the most insightful indicators of offensive balance is the play-calling on first down. With first down and ten, head coaches and offensive coordinators can literally do whatever they want without being overly influenced by more extreme down and distance situations. Quite obviously, given freedom to generally do as they please, it becomes of the utmost importance for coaches to find offensive balance on first and ten. By looking at run / pass ratios on first downs, we can see which teams were the most balanced, and moreover, by looking at which plays teams called in the first half on first downs (where they are less influenced by trying to play catch-up late in games with lots of passes, or trying to run out the clock with several runs), we can get an even purer look at offensive balance.

So how did the Crimson Tide stack up in 2006 in terms of offensive balance in first downs?

Unfortunately, not too well. For the entire season, we were very balanced offensively, with 112 running plays and 111 passing plays on 223 first down plays. Statistically speaking, that's 50.2% run, and 49.8% pass. Balanced, anyone?

However, looking more closely at the individual games, the Tide was, generally speaking, unbalanced offensively, and very unbalanced on first downs in the first half. At times, we ran the ball entirely too much, and at others we threw the ball entirely too much; rare was the occasion in which we achieved any real balance.

Against Vanderbilt, we ran 59.26 percent of the time on first down, and 75% of the time on first down in the first half. Two weeks later against Arkansas in Fayetteville, we ran the ball on 70.37% of first downs, and 64.29% of first downs in the first half. Although the total number of runs were inflated by an attempt to grind out the clock late in the game with hand-offs to Ken Darby, the first half numbers show that we were running the ball at almost a 2-1 ratio even then. It was the same story when we played Tennessee in Knoxville, when we ran the ball 72.73% of the time on first down in the first half.

On the other hand, on a couple of occasions we threw the ball entirely too much. Against Florida, on 29 first down plays, we threw the ball 21 times, i.e. 72.41% of the time. More amazingly, in the first half we had 13 first down plays, and threw the ball on 12 of them. Small wonder we managed a net of only six offensive points in that game. Later in the year, against LSU in Baton Rouge, we threw the ball 73.68% of the time on first down. Of the 19 first down plays that occurred in the first half, we ran the ball only 5 times.

Honestly, the only SEC game that we found a good balance on first down was the Ole Miss game. There, in the first half, we had twelve first down plays, and ran the ball six times and threw the ball six times. As an entire game, we ran the ball a good bit more on first down than we threw it, but that was because Ken Darby took over in the second half and found great success. Certainly no blame can be found there for continuing to give the ball to Darby.

At bottom, the point production was atrocious in 2006, and that was due to a large variety of reasons. However, breaking down the run/pass ratios, we can see one of the major problems of the 2006 offense was a complete lack of offensive balance in conference games. Long story short, the offense was just so predictable in terms of play-calling, and that, too, likely had a very negative impact on overall production. It wasn't the only problem, of course, but it was one problem.

Hopefully the new Saban / Applewhite offense will be able to find the play-calling balance that the Shula offense couldn't find in 2006.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Welcome to Outside The Sidelines.

This blog is a bit of a pet project that seeks to provide in-depth statistical analysis attempting to find the real reasons why teams win and lose, and also to determine what really happened during the course of a game. To be very straightforward, if you are looking for cliches and the like, you are probably not in the right place.

Long story short, this blog will very much be in the mold of the Moneyball analyses, such as Football Outsiders, and others.

The blog will focus mainly on my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide, but it will also focus somewhat on other SEC teams, and might occasionally even focus on other college football teams outside of the SEC.

Posts should be coming shortly. I hope everyone enjoys.