A little tidbit of news happened earlier this week concerning LeSean McCoy being angry that Pro Football Focus didn’t rank him top 100 in their arbitrary rankings list. It was a minor squibble that got a small debate going about whether you can accurately judge football if you haven’t played it. It came and went with little fanfare because currently the country is trapped in a groundhog day cycle of waking up, being flabbergasted by something our new president did or said, and spending the rest of the day freaking out and wondering if we’ll all burn in nuclear hellfire or if this is the thing that finally sinks him. It’s hard to care about LeSean McCoy throwing a twitter tantrum when we are in a constant state of panic for our actual lives.
First things first: LeSean McCoy is a noted bitter angry dumb dumb who doesn’t think really hard and gets in feuds with people for small reasons and he is also a bad tipper. He’s a great football player but seems like a douche. He also 100% would have said nothing had PFF ranked him higher. Players always think they should be rated higher, this is like pro sports ego 101, and the fact that LeSean felt he should have been ranked higher shouldn’t have even been the small story it was. But, you know, offseason.
However, I think he’s right. Pro Football Focus kinda sucks.
I will start by giving PFF credit where it is due. They have a system, they use it, they analyze film and do their best (I hope) to bring a unique statistical edge to football analysis. They are probably the only place online where lineman play gets really any credit or analysis. But honestly, PFF is still kind of terrible. The system they use is studying each player on each play and then assign a grade to that player. The play grades get averaged into game grades, season grades, etc. All very speadsheety. It sounds great on paper. Numbers never tell the whole story in a game with as many complex variables as football, and I’ve always valued film study over just crunching numbers, a big problem I have with Football Outsiders, but I’ll get to that.
The issue is, PFF churns these grades out really fast, like disturbingly fast, and there is no way they employ enough people to give each player the study they deserve. Another larger problem is that they are essentially assigning values to subjective opinion, opinions which are questionably informed. These analysts are judging players based on what they think the player is supposed to do on any given play. They don’t know the player’s actual assignment or job. They are educated enough to make reasonable guesses, but it still ultimately comes down to subjectivity. And they are judging every player on every play, and the grades come out the next day. There’s no way a lot of these aren’t phoned in or affected by bias. It leads to some baffling situations. I remember a game when Eli got a positive grade. He had a mediocre game at absolute best, by both the eye test and the numbers. Something like 200 yards, 1 TD 1 INT, around that. The next week he played great, 400ish yards, 3 TDs, no INTs, but he actually got a lower rating that week because he had like 2 more 3rd down conversions or something equally minor. Basically, it’s an entire site of people throwing numbers in your face about who is good or bad but it has about the same value as Joe Fan next to you at the bar telling you who he likes more. PFF has more cred than that, but not as much as they’d want you to think.
There is a lot of value in PFF’s work, but it needs to be taken with grains of salt and anyone who swears by it and throws PFF rankings in your face as some ironclad argument should probably be disregarded as a sheep. Baaaaaah
I also hate Cris Collinsworth for making it a thing I see on broadcasts now.
Pro Football Focus’s success has lead to one thing I enjoy, the founder of Football Outsiders being bitter about it. I think Aaron Schatz is a big annoying homer who started the site so he could invent a formula to statistically suck the Patriots off in an official capacity instead of just accepting his homerism, but on the whole I value their work more than PFF. FO is basically the opposite of PFF in that it focuses entirely on the stats and goes to extreme lengths to account for every variable that could happen. For example a 1st down pass is good. A 1st down pass on 3rd down is better. A 1st down pass on 3rd and long is even better. Etc. They will never account for every variable (how do you have a number for a WR running the wrong route on an INT, really, which is where PFF’s method typically gets it right, or more right) but I appreciate that they try. I also like that FO focuses more on the team aspects of football, which is closer to what football is, than PFF’s individual focus.
The issue with FO is that they won’t release the formula. We’re told the formula accounts for all these things, but we don’t see the formula. I think Schatz (Who has admitted he had zero experience with statistics when he started the site) is afraid to release it to people because he knows it’ll get ripped apart and judged in all sorts of different ways and it’s his baby and he doesn’t want to have anyone point out the biases (he hates his biases being pointed out, he’s one of my few hate follows on twitter because I enjoy him being a baby about people calling him on it). But on the whole, I still place more value in what FO does, and now that Pro Football Focus sold out, FO is the cool street stat for hip in the know guys, so get on that train yo.
It’ll always be a personal opinion, but I will never put anywhere close to 100% faith in football statistics because I don’t think football is the kind of sport that can be defined by numbers the same way baseball is. Football is too complex with so many factors affecting every single play that trying to bring it down to a simple formula is a futile quest. Analyzing football will always be a good deal of subjectivity over anything else, and stats serve a better main supplement to arguments than the crux of one. It’s why we can still argue over who the best is and never have a true answer.
Outside Trent Dilfer, of course.