Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Author: admin

Tom Brady: winner, passer, extinct?

As Tom Brady works out which finger to put his seventh Super Bowl ring on, there are plenty of ways to admire his performance and achievements. As a friend (Leo in HK) put it to me today, he’s a statistician’s dream.

But there’s one statistic for me that stands out for Tom Brady, 2021 edition. In the regular season, he rushed for a total of six yards.

Six. Yards.

That’s not a lot for a quarterback in a single game. For a whole season?

OK, so Brady is 43, which means I’m going to cut him some slack. He’s not there to scamper about and pick up yardage with his legs. He’s there to pass in the pocket and run the game like the old pro he is, still the best around.

However, his rushing yards mark him out as a dying breed. Here’s why.

The NFL is a constantly evolving league in terms of tactics. Some are inspired by rule changes. Some rules are coach and stats-led – for example, more teams are now willing to gamble on 4th down and risk giving the ball back to the opposition, rather than punt the ball away. And some tactics evolve given the personnel at teams’ disposal. For example: the running quarterback.

Traditionally, the quarterback passes the ball from the “pocket” – an area where he is protected by his linesmen. Some quarterbacks are more mobile than others, making passes as the pocket breaks down and being able to pass on the run (Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rogers are amazing at this). Others have been known as scrambling quarterbacks – able to run the ball when pass options downfield were covered by the defence. But scrambling was a last resort, when-things-break-down move.

Now, some quarterbacks are now such good runners as well as throwers of the ball that plays are being designed for them to run straight away. Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals are the two brightest examples in the league. More will follow.

This presents defences with a nightmare. Normally, a defence has to guess what the opposing offence is up to: will they try to run the ball, or pass it? And the formation of the offence gives away a lot: you can sometimes see by how players are positioned whether the offence set up to run or pass. If there is no running back and four or more wide receivers on the field, that would mean it’s a passing play. But if a team has Lamar Jackson, that might be misdirection – he could be ready to run.

And Jackson is running – a lot. In both of the past two season he has rushed for over 1,000 yards, a mark that is usually only attained by specialist running backs. Murray rushed for over 800 yards in 2020.

Overall, the total yards rushed by quarterbacks has risen over the last few seasons. In 2020, it was over 9,000 – the highest ever.

Click for full size

Not only that, quarterbacks are rushing at crucial moments – rushing touchdowns by quarterbacks have leaped up – in 2020, there were 126, a record. That’s 40 more than in 2019, and double the number from only five seasons ago. Quarterbacks now account for around a quarter of rushing touchdowns. A decade ago it was about one in ten.

click for full size

The rushing quarterback might also be changing other stats. The recently-completed 2020 season saw the fewest interceptions (on a per game basis) ever. The defence caught opposition throws on only 395 occasions – the first time under 400 since 1982 (a strike-shortened year). Why is that? It could be that quarterbacks are more accurate, or there are softer defences. But it is also noticeable that in crucial moments when a team needs yards to keep a drive going, quarterbacks are trusting themselves to run for it rather than throwing risky passes.

So how will this evolve? There are a current crop of young quarterbacks who are comfortable running if needed – Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen for example – as well as out-and-out runners like Jackson and Murray. And some of the less mobile old guard will retire soon – Tom Brady and Drew Brees, both two of the all time greats, are over 40. Even some of the longer- established quarterbacks are good scramblers – Russel Wilson and Aaron Rogers pick up crucial first downs on the run.

Into the league will come talented players such as Trevor Lawrence, a college player soon to be drafted in the first round and touted as a potential great. Lawrence’s passing ability is hugely exciting, but he can run too. The role of the quarterback is evolving, and defences will have to keep up.

Sources:
https://www.statmuse.com/nfl/ask/qb-rushing-yards-percentage-each-season
https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/NFL/

A visual history of Coups

Was the violent invasion of the US Capitol on 6th January this year a coup? It certainly had the hallmarks of a coup, even it it might be expedient for politicians to refer to it as insurrection.

Because a coup is distinctly un-American, right?

Well, up until now.

The Cline Center of University of Illinois run the Coup D’état Project, and their data reveal a story of coups through the last 75 years.

The history of coups in the post-war period is dominated by personalities – strongmen such as Idi Amin and Col. Gaddafi. But those are the winners – leaders who took power and held it for many years.

So how successful are coups? According to the Project’s data, coups are a less than 50:50 shot – they are successful 45 per cent of the time.

The coup heyday was the 1960s and 70s, in the post-War, post-colonial settlement period where independent statehood was still nascent in many parts of the world. And although Latin America has a reputation for coups, fuelled by spy movies, sub-Saharan Africa is the most coup-prone region.

Since 1980 there has been a move to relative stability – the number of coups has declined, with the 2010s having the fewest of any decade. The last ten years has seen only 17 successful coups, with 30 attempted or conspired.

Some other insights… since 1945:

  • Although Sub-Saharan Africa is the most coup-heavy region, Bolivia is the most coup-prone nation with 37, including 16 successful coups.
  • Coups are more of a Spring / Autumn thing. November is the month with most coups, closely followed by October, April and March.
  • 1975 was the busiest year for coups with 32. 1979 was the most successful with 18 out of 22.

Anyway, here is the visual history – click for the the full size image.

So was 6th Jan a coup? The Cline center say… maybe.

Sport Geek #87: shame, Qatar, and video games

It’s been ages since I last did the newsletter – so welcome to the new people. Due to the long hiatus, a quick recap: I pick interesting sports stories that you should read. That’s it. I try and group them by sport, usually, but not always.

With no further ado, this is the best of the last few months. Savour.

GOLF

How crass can you get? The Tiger vs Phil bet-athon showed that golf has decided to learn all the worst bits from boxing – and still get it wrong. (Note – golf can’t afford to lose Woods).

FOOTBALL

The 36 hours that shamed Argentine football.

It’s 4 years – just 4! – until Qatar completely ruins the World Cup for ever more. I’ve always been a sceptic about Qatar, but I thought Russia would be awful, and it wasn’t, so I could be wrong. However, the Guardian wrote a rather flattering puff piece, which I thought was an advertorial initially, accompanied by a much more hard hitting one on the workers. Odd. The i just went straight for the jugular.

News – Fifa to stage WC every 2 years? 48 teams? They can’t leave a good structure alone.

I’m not sure you can make this argument with a straight face, but apparently Lionel Messi is underrated

RUGBY

Ireland are the best. Here’s how and why.

NFL

You may have missed it, but the recent Rams v Chiefs game was astonishing. This is the new NFL model.

BASEBALL

Meanwhile, baseball is in trouble. Name a famous player? See. Plus, there are now more strike outs than hits.

US

Sports have become video games. Which is to say, the tactics have caught up with the video game age.

CRICKET

The story behind Australia’s great scandal.

TENNIS

There are still no major winners born since 1990. WTF?

DOPER

The Armstrong comeback. Really.

Sport Geek #82: punting, kickoffs and pomnishambles

 

No tennis for now – I’m going to the O2 tennis later this week and might share a few thoughts. For now, some great reading.

NFL

The brain damage story just gets scarier

Colin, GQs person of the year.

Also – could the best player in the league be a punter?

RUGBY

Georgia – stuck in rugby’s equivalent of the middle income trap.

FOOTBALL

Iceland – how did a country of only 330,000 people get to the World Cup?

Why are kickoffs so predictable and poorly executed?

Why sacking the manager is pointless (again).

Plus – an unknown English manager working miracles in Sweden

CRICKET

Ellyse Perry is no ordinary cricketer

Afghanistan – Test status, but now what?

Plus the inside story of the Ashes pomnishambles.

BASEBALL

How the Astros tanked their way to the top.

And the strange tale of how a girl posed as a disgusting man to get ahead in baseball journalism.

 

Cheers

Sport Geek #81: booze, Bills, and the curse of brilliance

Been a few weeks, so here’s a focus on less-timely-but-nontheless-interesting things you should/could read about sport. Crack on.

FOOTBALL

No Russia trip for you! What’s gone wrong with US football? The Economist puts it well – the sporting equivalent of the Middle Income Trap.

The most exciting football team on the planet.

NBA

Quartz on how data analytics have transformed the NBA – and not necessarily for the better.

How LeBron James gets punished for being too brilliant.

CRICKET

Does cricket have a drinking problem? Or is it just simply, nearly, utterly dead?

TRUMP & NFL

Perhaps my favourite headline of the moment: “Inside Donald Trump’s Shady Scheme to Keep Jon Bon Jovi from Buying the Buffalo Bills

F1

A piece full of stats about Lewis Hamilton to prove that he’s more than just statistically great? OK then.

WORLD SERIES

How do you possibly describe everything that happened in the Astro’s 7-6 win over the Dodgers? The NYTimes takes on the near-impossible task.

TENNIS

I love this stat – Nadal is the only player on tour who wins more games than he loses from serving at 15-40.

LASTLY / FFS

Pole dancing: could it one day become an Olympic sport?

Cheerio

Sport Geek #80: Trump vs Sport

Here are six thoughts on the Trump vs Sports saga.

Another day, another unbelievably offensive tweet. Trump just keeps on. The question is, at what point does this go from appealing to his core, to putting them off? Greg Popovich asked that question brilliantly. Love Greg.

If I was an NFL owner, and my team needed a QB backup, I’d sign Colin Kaepernick in a heartbeat. He’s got the tools. Half the league has gone down on one knee now, so surely his brand isn’t that toxic any more? It could be a tactical and marketing masterstroke.

Imagine this in the UK. You can’t. Why not? Well, we don’t ram the national anthem down everyone’s throats every match. Internationals, yes. Premiership games, no. (And our police don’t shoot black guys all the time.) America could do itself a favour by toning down the flag-patriotism-God-on-our-side rhetoric. But it won’t.

The NFL is in a bind. The players are mainly black. The fans are largely white, and right-leaning. The boos at the knee protests are awful. ‘Those uppity black guys disrespecting the flag!’ Owners have taken their players’ side for now, but for how long? If this gets ugly, with crowds staying away and ratings down, how could they reverse the tide? Fire the whole team, as Trump would prefer? That’s not going to work. Their only hope is that it blows over. That’s unlikely – this started over a year ago and is just getting a head of steam. In most sports, the fans and players have a bond; in the NFL, the bond seemed fairly weak in the first place. Now?

The NFL has bigger long term problems: head injuries, fewer kids playing at school, tactics that have made the game a bit dull (short passes in particular), the rise of soccer. This race row isn’t a sport in crisis. It will however distract the league from those other problems, none of which are going away.

At the heart of all this is the utter stupidity of America. A protest about racial injustice (equality and justice being core American ideals) has been morphed into disrespecting your country. I’m not sure if this is alt-right mendacity or just white blood dumbness. Either way, Americans have shown themselves up again. It makes Saudi Arabia look enlightened (hey, women can drive now!).

TRUMP: MORE

Trash talk – sports does it better than Trump.

This story was fading until Trump gave it a shot in the arm.

This might be mainly about the NFL, but LeBron James has been the most eloquent.

TENNIS

Not heard of the Laver Cup? Well, it’s how the Davis Cup should be.

Maria Sharapova’s feud with Serena Williams, explained.

Rafael Nadal is not just the king of clay.

Sloane et al – are we about to see a US revival?

BOXING

Obit of Raging Bull Jake LaMotta. Read.

BASEBALL

Who still likes Friends? Baseball players, that’s who.

FOOTBALL

The rebirth of Leeds United.

It’s raining penalties in the Champions League – but what’s behind the increase?

How professional number crunchers are giving football clubs a competitive advantage.

Bye!

Sport Geek #74: the (nearly) two-hour marathon

Marathon world record, from Sports Geek (published 2016)

In my book, Sports Geek, I bravely (stupidly?) suggested that the two hour marathon was way out of reach. The reasoning was: we’re getting excited by current times, not looking at context. Also, we are not looking at the half marathon as proxy. As I put it:

… we aren’t learning from the past. If we extrapolated the marathon records set in the 1960s, we would have expected the two-hour mark to be broken back in 1977. Clearly, extrapolation isn’t everything.

I then looked at the half marathon as a proxy – the ratio should be around 2.1, and the half marathon world record is nowhere near 57 minutes.

A look at the half marathon record progression shows a more consistent pace of improvement. It also shows that to get to 57 minutes, we are looking at many decades, if ever.

This might simply tell us that runners don’t take the half marathon as seriously. Or, it might give us a warning sign not to expect the 2-hour marathon for many years to come.

So to the recent assault on the two-hour mark. Man, that was close. You can call it either way – as Quartz put it, even in a rigged race they failed. Or, it was a fantastic attempt to show what can be done. Regardless, it has put up for discussion the whole limits of performance issue, and may change running for ever.

THREE THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE

Is LeBron James better in the playoffs? No, he’s always this good.

Swearing makes you stronger. Fucking brilliant.

Women coaching men.  Tough gig.

My blog revived

There’s been a hiatus of two years on this blog – too long, obviously. I won’t bore you with excuses. Just to say that the posts prior to this one are mainly about sport and statistics, whereas from now on, who knows. Sport will figure highly, of course.

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