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Thursday, September 02, 2004

Success in the National Football League 

You'd have to be unconscious, or living somewhere like Key West I suppose, to have missed the central role that the NFL plays in the american cultural obsession with professional sports. Given this obsession, and the attendent rewards for winning, it seems odd that football has not generated anything like baseball's sabermetrics: independent statistical analyses which purport to isolate the ingredients that make good teams good.

In some sense this lack of an external structure makes the game more exciting and changable: the trick being then (if you're a coach or general manager) to modify what you do to best suit the talents of your personnel. However just as clearly it also leads every year to massive copy cat impulses. Other teams see the St. Louis Rams gain success with the 'Greatest Show on Turf' and think, somehow, that this is the next evolution of the game: that they have to change how they play (regardless of whether they have an accurate quaterback and four talented wide receivers) or risk being left behind.

One such remarkably consisent illusion, Aaron Schatz makes the case in Slate, is that a dominating runner is necessary for success. In the piece Schatz offers a number of statistical metrics that stronly suggest that most of the running backs commonly thought of as stars in the league (e.g. Edgerrin James, Deuce McAllister) are just about average (their statistics being wildly inflated by the numbers of carries they receive). While there are actual star running backs (Ladanian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis) Schatz makes the case that it may even in this case pay to do with out the stars in favor of a running back by committee.

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