So, look at the points-per-game column. Suppose a player averages one more point per game than another player. His team is likely to average only an additional .17 points with him on the floor because points are 83 percent replaceable. It would take almost six points of his scoring to add one additional point to his team’s tally.For steals, the picture is much different. If a player averages one more steal than another player (say 2.5 steals per game instead of 1.5) his team is likely to average .96 more steals than it would without him (if all else stayed equal). That’s why, as an individual player action, steals are much more irreplaceable than points.Basketball is a game of high scores and small margins. The best team ever — the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls — only won by an average of 12 points per game, and I’d be surprised if more than a handful of players have ever been worth half that on their own (maybe Michael Jordan, probably LeBron James). With steals 96 percent “irreplaceable,” and each worth a couple of points, one extra steal per game puts a good player well on his way to being an excellent one.With this in mind, it’s worth taking another look at Rubio, the quirky sidekick to MVP candidate Love. Rubio seems deficient at the game’s central skill (putting the ball in the hoop) but is gifted at the one that matters to my model (thievery).It’s our good fortune that Rubio and Love have missed a number of games at different times, so we can check whether there’s anything to be gleaned by comparing team performance with and without them. Here are his and Love’s win percentages and average team margin of victory both together and separate since 2011-12:In other words, the Timberwolves have struggled to win games when either one of its duo out, and they’ve lost quite badly with both gone. Despite being an elite scorer and rebounder who is routinely ranked as one of the league’s top players, Love’s observable impact has been only marginally better than Rubio’s.10Note also that in the three years prior to Rubio’s arrival, Love had one of the worst runs that a theoretically great player has ever had. In the 214 games he played in that period, the Timberwolves won only 24.8 percent of their games and had an average margin of victory of -6.3. In other words, the sample of games in which the Timberwolves struggled with only Love on the floor is effectively much greater than the 33 in the table. So far, both are putting up elite numbers. The Timberwolves have played nearly seven points per game worse without Rubio in their lineup. That’s absurdly high. So high that I’d be surprised if either player’s numbers bore out in the long run. But it’s worth noting that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Rubio may be exceeding expectations.Taken alone, this comparison doesn’t answer the question of Rubio’s value, and it doesn’t prove that steals are as valuable as I think they are. But it’s powerfully consistent with that claim. More important, it’s a perfect example of how, even in a storm of complex, causally dynamic, massively intertwined data and information, sometimes odd little things that are known to be reliable and predictable are the most valuable.Editor’s note: A table in this article has been updated to include additional data from the past week. Scoring in professional basketball is one of the most beautiful things in sports. With only moments to set up his shot, a player tosses a ball into a soaring arc, and it drops through a hoop only slightly larger than the ball. That or he flies to the hoop and deposits the ball directly.It’s no wonder, then, that individual players’ scoring abilities get the most attention. But basketball is a complex and dynamic sport, and this skill is only one of many that determine what kind of impact a particular player has on the bottom line.In fact, if you had to pick one statistic from the common box score to tell you as much as possible about whether a player helps or hurts his team, it isn’t how many points he scores. Nor how many rebounds he grabs. Nor how many assists he dishes out.It’s how many steals he gets.This phenomenon — that steals is one of the most informative stats in basketball — has important implications for how we think about sports data. But it can also help us investigate real-life basketball mysteries, such as “What the heck is going on in Minnesota?”Consider the curious case of Ricky Rubio. A professional basketball player since the age of 14, he won a silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (leading a strong Spanish team in assists, steals and even defensive rebounds during the knockout rounds). The Minnesota Timberwolves drafted him in 2009 with the fifth overall pick (age: 18), but he initially stayed in Spain, not making his NBA debut until 2011.During the two years Rubio spent at FC Barcelona, his eventual Minnesota teammate Kevin Love ascended into the ranks of the NBA’s statistical elite. This left many to expect (or hope) that adding Rubio would finally make the Timberwolves a contender. But in his first two seasons, the Timberwolves still haven’t made the playoffs. Going into the 2013-14 season, ESPN’s TrueHoop Network ranked Rubio as the 49th best player in the league (only slightly ahead of teammate Nikola Pekovic). He has struggled with injuries and is considered a terrible, “makes Rajon Rondo look like Reggie Miller”-type shooter.1So far, Rubio has put up the worst effective field goal percentage among regular NBA starters every year of his career.Since entering the NBA, Rubio has been dominant in two major statistical categories: not scoring and steals. Of all players averaging 30-plus minutes, Rubio’s 10 points per game is the third-fewest overall, and the worst of all guards by more than a point.2The second-lowest-scoring guard is Jose Calderon with 11.2 PPG.His 2.4 steals per game, on the other hand, is the second most. It’s only .1 steals behind five-time NBA steals champion Chris Paul (and Rubio edges Paul in steals per minute and steal percentage).What do you do when you have highly divergent indicators such as these? NBA stat geeks have been trying to mash up box score stats for decades. The most famous attempt is John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating, which ostensibly includes steals in its calculation but values them about as much as two-point baskets.3In PER, steals are each worth the value of one possession. A two-point basket is (roughly) worth two points minus the value of one possession. Because a possession is worth about one point, these are both worth about +1 point in Hollinger’s equation. In other words, steals have only a small effect on a player’s PER. Despite his stealing prowess, Rubio has a career PER of 15.6, ranking 82nd in the league for the period. Meanwhile, Love has a PER of 25.7 (fourth in the league) over that same time.Hollinger weights each stat in his formula based on his informed estimation of its intrinsic value. Although this is intuitively neat, empiricists like to test these sorts of things. One way to do it is to compare how teams have performed with and without individual players, using the results to examine what kinds of player statistics most accurately predict the differences.4I used this technique quite a bit throughout my treatise on Dennis Rodman, though it is actually better suited to broader analysis such as this. For this article, I’m using team game “with and without you” (WOWY) comparisons from all player seasons from 1986 to 2011 where a player missed and played at least 20 games. In particular, we’re interested in which player stats best predict whether a team will win or lose more often without him.By this measure, PER vastly undervalues steals. Because steals and baskets seem to be similarly valuable, and there are so many more baskets than steals in a game, it’s hard to see how steals can be all that important. But those steals hold additional value when we predict the impact of the players who get them. A lot more value. So much so that a player’s steals per game is more important to evaluating his worth than his ability to score points, even though steals are so much rarer.To illustrate this, I created a regression using each player’s box score stats (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and turnovers) to predict how much teams would suffer when someone couldn’t play.5As measured by his difference in SRS (simple rating system, or average margin of victory/defeat adjusted for strength of schedule) with or without him. By comparing the regression coefficients for each variable, we can see the relative predictive value of each (all else being equal). Because we’re particularly interested in how each stat compares with points scored, I’ve set the predictive value of a single marginal point as our unit of measure (that is, the predictive value of one point equals one, and something five times more predictive than a point is five, etc.). The results:Yes, this pretty much means a steal is “worth” as much as nine points. To put it more precisely: A marginal steal is weighted nine times more heavily when predicting a player’s impact than a marginal point.6At least when averaged over a sufficient number of games (about 15 or 20). Note that the weighting of steals in PER was approximately equal to a made two-point basket, or roughly equivalent to two PPG (off by nearly a factor of five). Value for turnovers is negative.For example, a player who averages 16 points and two steals per game is predicted (assuming all else is equal) to have a similar impact on his team’s success as one who averages 25 points but only one steal. If these players were on different teams and were both injured at the same time, we would expect their teams to have similar decreases in performance (on average).Steals have considerable intrinsic value. Not only do they kill an opponent’s possession, but a team’s ensuing possession — the one that started with the steal — often leads to fast-break scoring opportunities. But though this explains how a steal can be more valuable than a two-point basket, it doesn’t come close to explaining how we get from that to nine points.I’ve heard a lot of different theories about how steals can be so much more predictively valuable than they seem: Steals “cost” less than other stats,7This is most relevant to comparison between steals and points: Points cost you shots, which cost you possessions, which is why a bad shooter may get a lot of points while hurting his team’s offense. Steals come at a cost as well: By gambling on defense, you sometimes give up a better shot if you fail. But, all things considered, they are probably closer to being “free” than points. or players who get more steals might also play better defense, or maybe steals are just a product of, as pundits like to call it, high basketball IQ. These are all worth considering and may be true to various degrees, but I think there’s a subtler — yet extremely important — explanation.Think about all that occurs in a basketball game — no matter who is playing, there will be plenty of points, rebounds and assists to go around. But some things only happen because somebody makes them happen. If you replaced a player with someone less skilled at that particular thing, it wouldn’t just go to somebody else. It wouldn’t occur at all. Steals are disproportionately those kinds of things.Most people vastly underestimate how much a player’s box score stats are a function of that player’s role and style of play, as opposed to his tangible contribution to his team’s performance. A player averaging one more point per game than another doesn’t actually mean his team scores one more point per game as a result of his presence. He may be shooting more than he should and hurting his team’s offense. Similarly, one player getting a lot of rebounds doesn’t make his team a good rebounding team: He may be getting rebounds that his team could have gotten without him.What we are looking for is a kind of statistical “irreplaceability.” If a player produces one more X (point, rebound, steal, etc.) for his team, and is then taken from the team (by injury, suspension, trade, etc.), how much of that stat does his team really lose? How much of it can be replaced?I tested for this by running a series of regressions using each player’s box score stats (points, rebounds, assists, etc.) to predict how much teams would suffer without a player in each particular area. In other words, for a player who averages X points, Y rebounds, Z assists, etc., how much does his team’s scoring decrease when he’s out? How much does its rebounding decrease? The way I’ve set it up, a stat’s irreplaceability will roughly run from zero (completely replaceable) to one (completely irreplaceable).8I was going to call this “Beyoncé Value” in honor of the singer’s hit song “Irreplaceable,” but editors correctly pointed out that the song title was ironic, and steals actually are irreplaceable. Let’s visualize it like so:9For this case, I ran separate regressions to the WOWY differential for each of the team’s PRABS statistics from all of the corresponding player stats. In a linear regression, the “irreplaceability value” is the coefficient for each variable in its own regression (e.g. player PPG coefficient in the regression to team PPG). Note that while the value approximates a percentage, nothing precludes values below zero or above 1.
Travis Henry, known more for his unconscionable amount of children more than his prowess on the field, was reinstated from the suspended list and is free to sign with an NFL team that might be interested, according to Scout.com.Henry, a 33-year-old running back that played 90 games in the NFL, has not played since 2007. A few months after being cut by the Denver Broncos, Henry was arrested by federal drug agents in October 2008.He pleaded guilty in 2009 to one count of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and was sentenced to three years in prison for financing a drug ring that moved cocaine between Colorado and Montana.Henry has said that at the time of his arrest that he was struggling to keep up with child support payments. So instead of working on getting on with another team, Henry decided to become a drug dealer, which speaks to where his head was.Perhaps that’s the residual that comes with having 11 children with 10 different women. That is not a misprint.His story could be such a feel-good thing. He rose from a childhood of poverty; his single mother picked oranges for a living. But Henry made it happen on the football team, becoming a record-setting running back at the University of Tennessee.He was drafted in 2001 by the Buffalo Bills and joined the Broncos in 2007 after two seasons with the Tennessee Titans. It was all set up for him to create the life he wanted.But one season into a four-year, $22.5 million contract, Henry was cut following allegations of drug use and a perceived lack of commitment.His income gone, Henry turned to the drug trade in part to cover mounting child support payments, according to court documents and testimony.Henry has rushed for 6,086 yards and 38 touchdowns in 90 NFL games. Latching on a team after five years out of the league promise to be a tough chore
NFL All newsletters See more MLB predictions Things That Caught My EyeWorst defeat everThe biggest sports story of the week is by far the collapse of the U.S. Men’s National Team in its World Cup qualifier match against Trinidad and Tobago. Going into the match — the U.S. needed a win or tie to automatically qualify — the U.S. had a 93 percent chance of making the World Cup. But they lost 2-1 to a team playing for nothing but pride, with one of those goals being scored by a U.S. defender on his own net. Then both Panama and Honduras won their games, eliminating the U.S. and propelling Panama to the cup. Going back to 1885, the men have never lost a World Cup match in any stage of the tournament or qualfying in which they were so favored to win. [FiveThirtyEight]Yeah that 2-1 loss has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of consequencesBetween the $425 million television broadcast deal and that wage discrimination lawsuit U.S. soccer will have a harder time contesting and that other antitrust lawsuit they might have an easier time contesting and the potential gutting of the youth soccer movement in America and the sponsorship revenue for Major League Soccer in potential peril, yeah it would have been really cool for a whole bunch of people had the U.S. national team not lost that game. [The Washington Post]Kansas City hustleWith five consecutive wins, the Elo rating of the Kansas City Chiefs is at the highest level since their win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. Only eight weeks in the team’s history have them looking better than they do now, all of them in that Super Bowl season. [FiveThirtyEight]It’s only a lost season if you fail to tankAccording to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Browns have a 49 percent chance of finishing dead last and getting the top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the 49ers have a 32.2 percent chance, the Bears have a 9.3 percent chance, the Colts have a 3.3. percent chance and the Giants have a 3.6 percent chance. [ESPN]Congrats, equivalent of three fourths of Staten IslandIceland qualified for the World Cup — you remember, that thing America screwed up and failed to make — and is now the smallest nation to ever do so with its population of 334,000. [Bleacher Report]Not gonna lie, did not see this comingThe net favorability of the NFL among Trump voters according to a Morning Consult poll is -24 points. The net favorability among Clinton voters is +38 points. Hop in a time machine and go tell yourself that little nugget a year ago and watch an innocent mind explode. [The New York Times]Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions? game!Big Number55.232U.S. gymnast Morgan Hurd took the gold medal in Montreal at the 2017 World All-Around Championship, scoring a 55.232. Canada’s Ellie Black took the silver medal and Russia’s Elena Eremina took bronze. Make a little note of that in your “SMART SMALL TALK TO MENTION DURING OLYMPICS TO SOUND LIKE YOU FOLLOW SPORTS BESIDES DIVING” folder that I assume all other people have as well as me. [Flo Gymnastics]Leaks from Slack: Oh God no, not like this editiongfoster:[8:20 PM] Oh boy. U.S. Losing to Trinidad[8:37 PM] Ahhhhhh 2-0 Trinidad 😱[8:39] At least Costa Rica scoredtchow:[8:52 PM] Meanwhile..Argentina up 2-1meghan:[8:53 PM] So wait — is the US screwed again?tchow:[8:54 PM] No they’re still in at the moment. If results holdmeghan:[8:54 PM] Thanks, Tonywalt:[9:06 PM] oh my godtchow:[9:07 PM] Pulisic. American god[9:32 PM] Honduras up 3-2gfoster:[9:37 PM] Is panama scores and this holds, they are out[9:39] If all these results hold, they play a playoff with Australia…which ain’t good[9:47 PM] Panama scored[9:47] They are going to be eliminatedneil:[9:49 PM] Oh man — so they needed either Panama or Honduras to lose, and they both won?gfoster:[9:49 PM] This really sucks.neil:[9:49 PM] lol[9:50] Sorry, I mean 🇺🇸😿[9:50] (it’s soccer. /shrug )heynawl-enten:[9:51 PM] joined #sport.[9:51 PM] This is TERRIBLE.[9:51 PM] left #sport.gfoster:[9:52 PM] Terrible for traffic.neil:[9:52 PM] More room for baseball coverage. 😉gfoster:[9:53 PM] Nightmare.walt:[9:54] WHAT[9:54] omgemily:[9:54 PM] (do they still get paid more for not even qualifying than the WNT will for winning it?)Predictions MLB Oh, and don’t forgetRandom audience guy with minimal training wins title after combatant pulls out of MMA fight, the jabroni dream See more NFL predictions We’re launching a sports newsletter. 🏆 Join the squad. Subscribe
For the past few seasons, the best defenders in the NBA have been some combination of Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard. But with Leonard and Gobert out for all or much of the season so far and Green’s production falling off just a bit, we’ve got some new blood in contention to be the NBA’s best defender.To put a number to this, we’ll use data from Second Spectrum that shows us both the total number of shots defended by a player and how much he affected those shots. There are a few ways to get at this, but we’re going to use “quantified shot probability” (qSP) — which determines the expected value of shots defended using shot distance, shot location and defender position, among other variables — and “quantified shot making” (qSM) — which subtracts the expected effective field goal percentage on those shots from the actual eFG to determine how much of an effect the defender had. In other words, does the defender make shots worse? And if so, by how much?We’ve used metrics like this in the past, but the rub with this set is it adjusts for who’s taking the shot, meaning weak defenders who guard bad shooters don’t get as much credit, and defenders tasked with guarding superstars aren’t punished for their assignment — the star’s excellence is baked into the stat.The per possession numbers will look a little different from the overall effect — players like Tarik Black and Marreese Speights have defended a lot of shots very well in short minutes — but this chart should demonstrate that there is a wide spread on defender effect. What we’re missing here, though, is how many shots a defender actually affects. Here we’ve got total shots as well as the qSM (the difference a defender makes on each shot) plotted against each other to show who’s affecting how many shots to what degree. This isn’t perfect. For one, a great defender doesn’t simply challenge shots — he denies them from happening, forcing a team to reset its offense. But by the same token, great defenders also work their way back into plays, affecting shots by playing smart help defense and covering acres of ground. Another thing these numbers don’t reflect the is overall quality of the shot — there are a few defenders who don’t depress value of each individual shot by as much as others but who force opponents into low-quality shots in general (through hard work and smart positioning) so that the overall effect is the same. Kevin Durant, Golden State WarriorsThe Warriors are unfair. Draymond Green — for my money the best defensive player in the league — has for whatever reason been a little off during the first quarter of the season, possibly because the Warriors can sleepwalk to a bare-minimum 2-seed. He’s not been bad, mind you, just not quite as dominant as usual. That’s left quite a lot of slack in the Golden State scheme, and Durant has picked up more than his fair share of it. Golden State ranks eighth in defensive rating, down from second a season ago, but that almost feels like a threat more than a falloff given how flat the team has looked at times. Beware, it says, this is a top 10 defense even while almost completely half-assing things, just on the virtue of Kevin Durant showing up to work. Durant has been improving as a defender for years, going back to his time with the Thunder. (If you ever go back and watch the 2016 series between OKC and San Antonio, watch Durant on defense — he was the best defensive big man in that series.) His style is also entirely his own: KD gives up relatively “great” shots — ones his opponents would be expected to turn into 52.3 eFG against an average defender, or about what Austin Rivers gives you as a defender. Not great. But because Durant is so long, so mobile and so smart positionally, the actual shots against him fall at a rate of just 45.2 eFG. This still happens within the overall Golden State system — Andre Iguodala and Steph Curry have similar opponent eFG numbers, albeit on fewer shots defended — but Durant’s role has him not only locking down his own man but also covering up for lapses by his teammates.Green may remain the more important defender for the Warriors — he’s the anchor, and what he does from his position is impossible to replicate. But Durant’s play so far has been the strongest on a Golden State defense that should end up being a top-3-type unit, at minimum. Honorable mentionGiannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid have both been outstanding through the first quarter of the season, but they don’t have quite the same track record as some of the players listed above. Just the same, neither seems to be a fluke. We’ll be a little more certain how permanent their new defensive excellence is by the All-Star break. The same goes for Kristaps Porzingis, who last season was in the tier just behind Gobert and Green for overall defensive value, but this year fell off early before making up some ground in the past few weeks.Some others seem more like early-season mirages — Josh Richardson, Gary Harris and Eric Gordon are all having excessively good years by the metrics but are playing way above the levels they had in previous seasons.Check out our latest NBA predictions. Anthony Davis, New Orleans PelicansFrom the time he was a rookie, Anthony Davis has had all the tools. He’d block shots and steal alley-oops and tug on his shorts and check the opposing point guard 30 feet from the basket. He came into the league as a destructive defensive force, but for reasons ranging from injury to scheme to sheer offensive burden, Davis’s aggregate effect on the defensive end hasn’t always lived up to the promise of those moments. This season, it has. Davis ranks seventh in the league in shots defended overall, and the defense gets 12.7 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits down. That’s nearly double his defensive on/off split from last season, which was already by far the best of his career.Partly this is because of his partnership with DeMarcus Cousins. Defensive intensity hasn’t always been Cousins’s strong point, and that’s still true today, but he has defended the most shots in the league, and done so while holding opponents to a middle-of-the-road 51.4 eFG on shots he defends. Not great, certainly, but it’s a respectable backstop for the defense.Because of Cousins’s role as a reliable constant, Davis is free to cover more ground without making risky moves to get back into plays. And because of that, his personal foul rate is at an all-time low (2.6 fouls per 100 possessions). This allows Davis to do what he does best — stick to his man, rotate to help in the paint without overextending, and blitz spot-up shooters on the perimeter faster than anyone else his size in the league. But despite the limitations, these metrics are a pretty good way to look at who’s having the best defensive season. A few players stand out on the list: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, Boston CelticsThe Celtic defense has continued to crush opponents. Boston is 18-4, with a league-leading defensive rating (100), the second-lowest effective field goal percentage allowed (48.6) and a roster full of live-bodied defenders who can switch practically any assignment. Even Kyrie Irving is chipping in on the effort. But while every Celtic is doing his part, some parts are more critical than others. It’s undeniably been the play from Smart, Brown and Horford that has carried the Celts so far.Smart does not possess the most graceful set of skills, but what he provides is unmistakable to anyone watching. He’s all over the floor, hounding ball handlers, bodying up on bigger players in the post and bumping cutting players he isn’t even guarding, like a middle linebacker jamming a slot receiver.Brown is a little different. While the Boston defense is built on interchangeable pieces switching and denying an offense space, it also needs players who can stick to their man across multiple screens, then square up and check their man as he plants and drives. Brown has stepped into that role and dominated so far. He can fight over screens (or just outright avoid them) to allow the defense to keep its shape, and he has the quicks to shut down first steps with the length to challenge pull-up attempts.Horford, meanwhile, does not have nearly the same reputation as the other two, but this season, he looks livelier than he has in the past when making switches, and he has defended the most shots of any Celtic. The newfound agility in space is especially important — because the defense will semi-regularly ask him to survive on an island against a wing, but also because his role at the center of the defense requires him to scuttle shooters who’ve just run over two or three screens trying to escape Smart or Brown.
USCPac 10200512-12,061200611-22,003 *Season Score is a blend of a team’s final end-of-season Elo, its peak Elo and its overall average Elo throughout the season.Source: ESPN Year 1Year 2 SchoolConferenceYearRecordSeason Sc.YearRecordSeason Sc. PittsburghIndep.198011-12,002198111-12,012 UGA has been great … but not great enoughTeams since 1980 with a Season Score* of 2,000 in back-to-back seasons, but no national championship in either season AlabamaSEC201311-22,066201412-22,099 Ohio StateBig Ten201712-22,002201813-12,057 The hallmark of Georgia’s recent run under Smart might be how complete his teams are. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, UGA had the nation’s fifth-best offense and third-best defense in 2017. They then inverted that with the third-best offense and fifth-best defense last season. The Bulldogs boasted not one but two 1,200-yard rushers (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel) back in 2017, when Fromm was a freshman, but they showcased more passing last season — with Fromm ranking as the third-best QB in the nation according to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, trailing only Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.Georgia does lose five starters apiece on offense and defense from last season, including cornerback Deandre Baker, who won 2018’s Jim Thorpe Award as the country’s top defensive back, and receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley. But Fromm’s return negates one of the biggest factors in an offense’s demise: losing the starting quarterback.According to data collected from the 2001 through 2017 seasons, a previously average offense that loses five starters including the QB would expect to be about 12 percent less efficient than before. However, if the team retains its signal-caller, it can basically expect to carry on without missing a beat — great news for an offense as strong as UGA’s last season. The same can be said for a defense that loses five starters between seasons; our research says that team can also expect no real drop-off in efficiency between seasons, generally speaking.And this Georgia team might be better equipped to handle moderate personnel losses than just about any other program. According to 247Sports.com’s Team Talent Composite, which adds up the total value of all the players on a roster based on their high school recruiting ratings, the Bulldogs rank third nationally going into the 2019 season with a score of 961.85 points. That’s effectively no different from last season, when UGA ranked third with a composite score of 963.87. Add in another year of seasoning for Fromm, who ranks as one of the top QB prospects in next spring’s NFL draft, and the fourth-most returning experience of any team in the SEC according to Phil Steele’s calculations, and the talent in Athens should rival that of almost any other team in the nation.However, one team that still may be running ahead of Georgia in that regard is the same rival that’s been a thorn in the Bulldogs’ side over the past few years: Alabama. The Crimson Tide have scored better than UGA in the Team Talent Composite for five consecutive seasons, and they are also ahead in ESPN’s early season projected FPI right now. It appears Georgia will need another breakthrough to join Clemson and Bama at the very top of the college football mountain, since the gap between Alabama at No. 2 and UGA at No. 3 (5.6 points) is the same as the gap between UGA and No. 10 Oregon.And that’s to say nothing of the Bulldogs’ crushing schedule strength. With games against Texas A&M and Notre Dame on tap, in addition to a trip to Auburn and what looks like a tougher-than-usual matchup with Florida, all before even potentially reaching the SEC title game for a third-straight season, it’s no surprise that FPI has Georgia’s schedule rated as the fourth-most difficult in the country this year. That’s even tougher than Alabama’s slate (which ranks 22nd), and it’s a big reason why FPI gives Georgia only a 2.7 percent chance of navigating through its regular-season schedule without a loss, while Bama has 15.3 percent chance of doing the same.But Georgia has also shown these past few seasons that it belongs squarely in the College Football Playoff conversation, even if it does lose a game during the regular season. Remember, in order to blow late leads over Alabama in crushing fashion, you first have to get late leads over Alabama — and the only other team that can say it has done that recently is Clemson. The Bulldogs have proven they can hang with the game’s top programs, and they have the talent to do it again. Now it’s up to Smart, Fromm and company to finally turn that potential into championship results this season. FloridaSEC19849-12,03319859-12,017 Florida StateIndep.198811-12,004198910-22,034 It’s hard to come closer to a national title without winning one than the Georgia Bulldogs did over the past two seasons. In 2017, UGA had a 20-7 second half lead over Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship — at one point, ESPN’s win probability model gave the Dawgs a 92.5 percent chance of winning — before Bama backup QB Tua Tagovailoa led the Crimson Tide to an incredible comeback win. Last season, the Bulldogs were an elite team again, and yet again they had the Tide on the ropes in the second half of a hugely important game (this time the SEC Championship) before ultimately losing when a backup QB helped engineer another Alabama rally.1In Part II, it was Jalen Hurts relieving an injured Tagovailoa, in a role reversal that Hollywood would have laughed at if you’d pitched it in a movie script. UGA ultimately missed the playoff as a result, despite probably having enough talent to deserve inclusion.If, as they say, the third time is the charm, then this is it for head coach Kirby Smart and Georgia. The team has been good enough to win a championship in each of the previous two seasons, only to be thwarted by extraordinary circumstances — and an extraordinary opponent in the form of Smart’s old boss, Nick Saban. With junior quarterback Jake Fromm coming back for what might be the last time, this could be UGA’s most talented team yet under Smart. But can they finally break through in another college football season that figures to be dominated by Clemson and Alabama?Other teams from history have been as good as the 2017-18 Dawgs in consecutive seasons with zero titles to show for it — but it’s pretty rare. For each team in every season since 1980,2The 1980s can be viewed as the decade that kicked off college football’s true modern era; the Ivy League was moved out of Division I-A in 1982, for instance, while powerhouse programs gained more control over lucrative television revenues, making the sport resemble its professional counterpart more and more. I calculated a “Season Score” based on our Elo ratings. The Season Score takes three measures of a team’s performance — its end-of-season Elo; its average season-long Elo; and its peak Elo3The latter two of which are computed excluding a team’s first three games of the season, to avoid undue influence from preseason ratings (which are based largely on the previous season). — and averages them together to create a composite rating on the same scale as regular Elo, where the FBS average is about 1,500.A Season Score of 2,000 is very impressive; only 100 have happened since 1980, and 33 percent of those teams have won the national championship.4Counting split titles as half-championships. (The best Season Score belongs to Alabama in 2016 — ironically, a team that didn’t win the championship — with a mark of 2,229.) But a score of 2,000 in consecutive seasons is even rarer. Last season, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State joined the ranks of just 43 teams since 1980 to have back-to-back Season Scores of at least 2,000. All but eight of those teams — a number that includes both Georgia and Ohio State — failed to win at least a share of a championship in either season. OregonPac 12201112-22,008201212-12,025 GeorgiaSEC201713-22,077201811-32,007
The NFL released its 2014 schedule Wednesday night, confirming the dates and locations of all 256 matchups (and ending your chance to enter the St. Louis Rams’ schedule-guessing contest, even though you had no chance of winning). With the slate solidified, you can probably expect to see more of the standard strength-of-schedule analysis that averages the 2013 winning percentages of a team’s opponents. Unfortunately, those numbers aren’t especially useful, because they assume each team will be exactly as good in 2014 as it was in 2013; in reality, NFL teams vary quite a bit from season to season, and our ability to predict which ones will and won’t be good in a given year is extremely limited.For example, going into the 2013 season, the Detroit Lions were expected to have the league’s second-hardest schedule based on the 2012 records of their opponents. So, what ended up happening? According to the strength-of-schedule component of Pro-Football-Reference’s Simple Rating System, Detroit actually had the league’s easiest slate of opponents last season.In cases like this, a better tactic is to make regressive predictions. We can use a regression formula to predict each team’s 2014 Simple Rating from its ratings over the previous two seasons, while building in plenty of regression to the mean to reflect our limited knowledge. If we base each team’s projected 2014 strength of schedule on these regressive predictions (while also taking into account a 2.5-point home-field advantage depending on where the game is being played), we arrive at the following projected schedule strengths for 2014:The biggest differences between our projected SOS numbers and the NFL’s official rankings center around a handful of teams in the AFC East and NFC South. The AFC East’s record was better in 2013 than it had been in 2012 — despite posting a poorer point differential — while the NFC South had a better record in 2012 than in 2013 (mainly because the Atlanta Falcons’ record declined so much in 2013).Because the regression is looking at two years’ worth of data (albeit weighing results from 2013 about 2½ times as strongly as those from 2012), it expects Atlanta to be roughly an average team in 2014 — not the 4-12 team it’s perceived to be by the NFL’s official SOS metric — which feeds most heavily into the SOS ratings of Atlanta’s divisional foes in Carolina, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.Meanwhile, the two-year regression is skeptical about the AFC East having as good a record in 2014 as it did in 2013. It’s not so much about the AFC East’s improved out-of-division win-loss record in 2013 (it was 22-18 outside the division in 2013, only a modest improvement over its 19-21 record in 2012), but more about the way the division’s records didn’t match up with its teams’ point differentials. According to Football Outsiders, AFC East teams’ actual wins exceeded their pythagorean wins by 3.9 victories in 2013, including 2.6 for the New York Jets alone. Research has shown that such overachievement is rarely sustainable, so our regression method would be expecting a decline for the Jets (and the division as a whole) in 2014.Such a regression-based system is far from perfect; for example, it doesn’t even know about which players changed teams in the offseason between 2013 and 2014. (But even methods that try to account for such wrinkles do a relatively poor job of prediction compared with simple metrics like our regression.) In other words, the above SOS rankings are going to be wrong — but they’re almost certain to be a more accurate gauge of each team’s schedule difficulty in 2014 than the official rankings that only tap into last year’s records.
In preparation for the 2015 NFL season, FiveThirtyEight is running a series of eight division previews, each highlighting the numbers that may influence a team’s performance (including projections and rankings based on ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index). Today we turn to the AFC South — perhaps the most imbalanced division in football. Andrew Luck’s Colts are potentially the league’s best team; the Texans, Jaguars and Titans are just hoping to keep things competitive. Bruce Gradkowski20.14-934.42-5 FIRST 13 STARTSREST OF STARTING CAREER Indianapolis Colts2014 Record: 11-5 | 2015 Projected Wins: 10.5 | Playoff Odds: 84.0%Offensive Rank: 2nd | Defensive Rank: 20th | Special Teams Rank: 17thSteadily, the Indianapolis Colts are climbing toward the Super Bowl. In Andrew Luck’s first two seasons under center, the team went from out of the playoffs to the wild card game in 2012 and then to the divisional round in 2013. And in 2014, a third straight 11-win season yielded a trip to the AFC Championship game. Now, the Colts enter 2015 with the AFC’s best chance (25.6 percent) of making Super Bowl 50, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).But as much as that probability attests to Indy’s progress as a team, it’s also an indictment of the rest of the AFC South. Luck is the division’s only top-tier quarterback, the Colts are its only top-15 preseason FPI team, and Indianapolis is projected to play one of the easiest schedules in the AFC. So while the Colts have the NFL’s best odds to win their division (73.4 percent) and make the playoffs (84 percent), merely getting to the postseason out of a weak division is no longer enough.And in order for the team to reach the next stage in its ascent, Luck needs help. Last season, he was asked to do more than any other quarterback in the NFL, as the Indianapolis offense passed on 67 percent of its snaps. Saddled with that workload, Luck ranked first in touchdown passes but also 32nd (out of 33 qualified quarterbacks) in turnovers, with many of those miscues resulting from Luck trying to do too much.To take the pressure off of Luck, the Colts need to improve their running game. Last season, Indianapolis ranked seventh1According to TruMedia’s proprietary data, which I accessed as an employee of ESPN. in passing expected points added (EPA) per game but 29th in rushing EPA per game — the biggest such rankings disparity of any team in the NFL. The addition of running back Frank Gore is an upgrade over Trent Richardson,2Really, just about any running back would have been an upgrade over Richardson. but the offensive line, patchy at best (with 11 starting combinations) a year ago, needs to open more holes after ranking 22nd in yards before contact per rush.3A stat that quantifies both O-line run-blocking effectiveness and RB vision by measuring how far, on average, the ball carriers behind them make it before making first contact with a defender.As long as the Colts have a quarterback and the rest of the AFC South does not, they’ll have a successful season. In fact, with 10 games against what FPI considers the two weakest divisions in football (the NFC South and the rest of the AFC South), don’t be surprised if Indy earns the AFC’s No. 1 overall playoff seed.4A feat that FPI gives them an NFL-best 29 percent chance of achieving. But if the Colts want to keep rising ever closer to the league’s summit, they can’t rely on Luck alone. Kellen Clemens24.24-943.14-4 FiveThirtyEight is previewing the 2015 NFL season ahead of the first game of the year. Check out our coverage of every division » QUARTERBACKTOTAL QBRW-LTOTAL QBRW-L Tennessee Titans2014 Record: 2-14 | 2015 Proj. W: 5.7 | Playoff Odds: 5.3%Off. Rank: 29th | Def. Rank: 32nd | S.T. Rank: 5thGood luck finding a 2015 Tennessee Titans preview that doesn’t focus on the No. 2 overall pick in this past spring’s draft, quarterback Marcus Mariota. After a disappointing 2-14 season in which the Titans started three different QBs,18Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst and Zach Mettenberger — all of whom posted a below-average Total QBR. the Titans and their fans are counting on Mariota to step in and revive the offense.At least one projection system (full disclosure: it’s the one developed by my colleagues in ESPN’s Stats & Information Group) expects Mariota to be the top quarterback in his class by 2018, but there are bound to be growing pains as he adapts to the NFL. And even if we pretend Mariota has no trouble transitioning from the spread offense he operated with Heisman-winning efficiency at Oregon to Ken Whisenhunt’s more vertical, pro-style scheme, who is he going to throw to? And how will Tennessee’s rushers help take pressure off Mariota and the passing game?Fantasy rankings have their flaws (for instance, a team might have two good players at the same position), but they can serve as a decent proxy for evaluating individual offensive talent. And they build a pretty convincing case that the Titans possess the least-talented group of non-quarterback skill-position players in the NFL.For starters, Tennessee’s top-rated fantasy player — running back Bishop Sankey — ranks 95th in ESPN’s Fantasy Rankings,19All rankings are as of Sept. 3. 27 spots lower than any other team’s highest-ranked player. The rankings also assign a dollar value to each player (with replacement-level players20In fantasy football terms. receiving no value), and Tennessee’s entire roster of fantasy-eligible players21Including defenses, kickers and offensive skill-position players. is worth a whopping nine bucks. That’s the lowest of any team in the league — and $46 less than the value of Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell, the most expensive player in ESPN’s rankings.After ranking 30th in offensive EPA per play22Again, including an adjustment that reduces the effects of blowouts. (and 29th defensively) last season, the Titans would truly need a “Super Mariota” performance to elevate this group into playoff contention. So though Mariota is getting all the headlines, the true determinant of Tennessee’s success may be whether any other player can step up to take some pressure off of its rookie QB. John Skelton28.98-511.00-4 There’s also no doubt that Bortles needs help. Last season, Jacksonville’s top pass catcher (Allen Hurns) ranked 67th in receiving yards, its top rusher (former quarterback Denard Robinson) ranked 30th in rushing yards and its offensive line ranked 29th in pass protection.16ESPN’s pass protection metric measures the percentage of pass plays in which the offensive line controls the line of scrimmage.Maybe the aforementioned Jaguars defense can come to Bortles’s aid. It ranked 17th in the NFL in EPA per play17This includes a weighting adjustment that downplays the effects of blowouts. and held opponents to the league’s 14th-lowest Total QBR last season. But even if the defense ascends into the NFL’s top 10, the offense will still likely be too much to overcome. That’s why FPI predicts that Jacksonville’s cycle of high draft picks will go unbroken, assigning the Jags a nearly 50 percent chance of picking in the top five for a fifth consecutive season. Jacksonville Jaguars2014 Record: 3-13 | 2015 Proj. W: 5.5 | Playoff Odds: 4.2%Off. Rank: 32nd | Def. Rank: 18th | S.T. Rank: 9thIt’s been four painful seasons since the Jacksonville Jaguars finished with a .500 record (they went 8-8 in 2010).10In fact, they haven’t had a .500 record at any point in a season since Week 2 of the 2011 season. During that span, the team has the worst record in the NFL (14-50) and hasn’t won more than five games in any season.Unfortunately for the Jaguars, that record cannot be attributed to bad luck — they also produced an NFL-low 15 pythagorean wins11A better measure of how many wins a team “deserves” after stripping away the luck of winning close games. — or a lack of draft picks. Despite Jacksonville picking in the top five of a record four consecutive NFL drafts, and having had at least one top-10 pick for eight years running, the talent gap between the Jaguars and the rest of the league continues to grow. And it isn’t likely to decrease in 2015: first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. has already gone down with an ACL tear, while prized free-agent tight end Julius Thomas may be out until Week 4.Jacksonville’s defense isn’t awful (more on this later), which might offer hope. But as any football fan knows, today’s NFL is all about the quarterback, and in order for the Jaguars to take steps toward respectability, they need Blake Bortles to improve on the NFL-worst 25.2 Total QBR he put up in 2014.Based on an admittedly small sample, quarterbacks who start their careers as badly as Bortles has rarely get better. Going back to 2006,12The first year in which Total QBR can be calculated. there have been eight passers13Among the names on the list is Jacksonville’s previous first-round quarterback, Blaine Gabbert. (other than Bortles) who produced a Total QBR of 30.0 or worse through their first 13 starts.14Using data from only games in which the quarterback was his team’s starter. After such rough debuts, the octet combined for a winning percentage of 38.1 and an average Total QBR of 29.7 in their subsequent starts; only Mark Sanchez started more than 16 additional games.15In fairness, these guys’ careers aren’t uniformly over, so they may start again someday. But only Geno Smith and Bortles were projected to be starters going into training camp, and Smith’s status as starter was short-lived. Houston Texans2014 Record: 9-7 | 2015 Proj. W: 8.5 | Playoff Odds: 43.2%Off. Rank: 23rd | Def. Rank: 4th | S.T. Rank: 21stThe Houston Texans are so defined by their best player that the latest edition of “Hard Knocks” should have been renamed “The J.J. Watt Show.” Last season Watt, the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, became the first player since 19825The season the NFL began to officially tally sacks. to post multiple 20-sack seasons in a career, and his impact goes beyond just pressuring the quarterback.Watt led the league in batted passes,6Based on ESPN’s video tracking. fumbles recovered and tackles for loss. Add in five total touchdowns (the most by a defensive lineman in a season since 1944), and it’s not surprising that Watt led the entire league in Approximate Value (AV), Pro-Football-Reference.com’s cross-positional player value metric. He’s also produced more AV through his first four seasons combined than any other defender since the common draft era began in 1967.In other words, Watt might be the best player in football today. And with the Texans adding Vince Wilfork and a healthy Jadeveon Clowney to line up alongside him, Houston’s defense could be even more dominant than it was last season, when it ranked second in defensive EPA.But will any of that matter if Houston’s quarterbacks can’t pass the ball?While developing FPI for the NFL, ESPN’s Stats & Information Group needed a way to estimate each team’s quarterback quality for the upcoming season in order to account for QB injuries when making predictions. The solution: for each starting quarterback (and his backup), FPI generates a per-game EPA projection based on his past performance.7Adjusted for age. In Houston’s case, starting quarterback Brian Hoyer ranks 27th out of 32 expected starters in projected EPA.8Only Josh McCown, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles and rookies Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are lower. Compared with an average starter, Hoyer is expected to cost the Texans about 2.9 points per game. To put that in perspective, if he were an average QB instead, the Texans would rise from 16th overall in preseason FPI to seventh (and fourth in the AFC).There is good news for Houston, though: FPI projects its schedule to be the AFC’s easiest, with interconference games against the historically awful NFC South. Last season, the AFC North drew that division and ended up placing three teams in the playoffs.9It went 12-3-1 versus the NFC South and 26-22 against other divisions. With that schedule and Watt spearheading the fourth-best projected defense in football (according to FPI), Houston might get back to the playoffs in spite of its poor quarterbacking. Mark Sanchez27.46-736.831-26 Read more: 2015 NFL Previews Blaine Gabbert21.03-1024.02-12 JaMarcus Russell23.33-1017.64-8 Blake Bortles24.73-10—— Brandon Weeden29.75-818.90-8 Geno Smith27.76-751.95-11
“A lot of times with those big-depth breaking balls, those sliders that sweep across the front of the zone, they go in and out of the zone,” Garver said. “They are very hard to catch. You have to learn how to catch them properly. I wanted to get underneath the ball when I’m receiving it.”The most conspicuous change Swanson suggested Garver make was employing a variety of one-knee, Tony Peña-style stances, which had gone out of fashion in the professional game. Going lower, Swanson reasoned, would help a catcher get more favorable calls on lower pitches. “We didn’t invent the one-knee setup,” he said. “But those were traditionally done with nobody on base and less than two strikes.”When runners are on base, catchers are taught to go to what Swanson calls a “secondary” stance, sitting higher to position themselves better for throwing out a runner or blocking a ball in the dirt. What Swanson proposed was going to a knee on all counts, even if it adversely affected the ability to throw or block balls.“Only a fraction of the time does the ball actually land in the dirt. Only a fraction of the time does a runner actually try to steal,” Swanson said. “Catchers across the league perform worse … with runners on base. We’ve tried to flip it upside-down.”Since the value of framing is tied to compelling borderline pitches to be called as strikes, FiveThirtyEight examined available Statcast data on called strikes and balls on the edge of the strike zone and the zones just off the plate. The data shows that catchers do receive less favorable calls when runners are on base. That was true of the Twins, too, until this year, when the one-knee stance came to Minnesota.The Twins rank 12th in the majors in pitch framing this season, and Garver is up to 23rd out of 110 catchers. He has used his new stance to better “absorb” borderline pitches, and his frequency of called strikes caught has become more concentrated in the lower zone. As he returned home to New Mexico last winter, Mitch Garver knew he had to be better. In 2018, Garver ranked 110th out of 117 qualifying catchers in fielding runs above average. As a catcher, that meant he struggled mightily with pitch framing18.6 runs saved below average. As measured by Baseball Prospectus, framing is a component of fielding runs above average for catchers. — the skill of a catcher to receive borderline pitches in a way that allows them to get favorable called strikes.Garver turned 28 in January. He had been only a league-average hitter at the plate and a liability behind it. He knew that if he couldn’t receive the ball better, his career would be in jeopardy. He had heard that a coach hired the previous season was working miracles with the Twins’ minor league catchers. So Garver called Tanner Swanson and invited him to Albuquerque.“It’s the only reason I’m still catching,” Garver told FiveThirtyEight. “Really.”The Twins have surprised MLB with their offense this year, with a record five batters — including Garver — hitting 30 home runs as the team broke the single-season home run record in August.2Though the Yankees have overtaken the home run lead. Minnesota is the only major league team with four position players among the top 35 qualifiers in year-to-year gains of wins above replacement. Among those Twins, Garver is the most improved, and he’s the seventh-most-improved player in all of baseball.But Garver’s improvement with his glove has been just as dramatic as his work with his bat. This season, Garver has been worth 4.4 fielding runs above average, achieving the fifth-greatest improvement in the metric.3Among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances in both 2018 and 2019. Per plate appearance, his performance in wins above replacement, which includes framing value, ranks as the eighth-best mark in baseball.The growth with his glove is where Swanson comes in. Swanson never played catcher in college, nor had he coached professionally when he joined the Twins organization in late 2017. But he spent six years working with college catchers at the University of Washington and Santa Clara University, and he attracted the attention of Jeremy Zoll, the Twins’ director of minor league operations, after a presentation Swanson gave at a catching coaching clinic.“I kind of had a clean slate to look at it objectively. I didn’t carry all these biases — ‘Well, this is how I used to do it. This is how I was taught,’” Swanson said. “I think a lot of times as coaches, we have these drill packages that we’ve compiled and we don’t truly understand the ‘why’ or question whether a particular drill leads to improvement.”Since the late 2000s, when analysts first quantified the value of pitch framing, more teams have started to prize catchers who can get more favorable calls for their pitchers. After all, every pitch matters: The difference in batting average on a 2-1 count and a 1-2 count is 178 points this season. Teams began paying for the skill. In 2016, the Twins were graded as the fifth-worst framing team in baseball. One of Derek Falvey’s first acquisitions after being hired as GM late in 2016 was signing pitch-framer extraordinaire Jason Castro. But Swanson believed that framing was not only an innate gift — it could be taught.Swanson employed drills using weighted balls, implements typically reserved for pitchers, to help Twins catchers improve their hand speed and movement patterns. “You’re dealing with timing and getting the ball from point A to B. The faster we can do that the more deceptive we are,” Swanson said. “I don’t want to say fool umpires but [rather] to influence them to call borderline pitches as strikes. That’s their primary job.”Going into this season, Garver graded as a poor receiver on balls in the lower part of the strike zone and below. Swanson said that’s a problem in today’s game, with record rates of breaking balls and changeups — pitches that typically either cross low in the zone or below it. “[Garver] deserves the credit. His desire to improve didn’t stop once he got to the big leagues,” Swanson said. After all, Swanson notes, “He called me.”Check out our latest MLB predictions.
Crunch time. Do or die. Win or go home. Whatever sports cliché you can think of for needing to win, the unranked Ohio State men’s hockey team is at the point of using it. “It’s getting to that time of year where points are really becoming important,” said junior forward Cory Schneider. “The league standings are pretty tight, so this is a huge series for us.” Under the weight of the series, even OSU coach Mark Osiecki jumped onto the cliché bandwagon. “It’s starting to get down to crunch time,” he said, “and people are looking for points.” The Buckeyes have won six of their last eight games — including a sweep of then-No. 7 Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 7–8 — and will look to continue on that track this weekend against No. 8 Notre Dame. The series between Notre Dame (15-8-3, 12-5-1) and OSU (12-9-2, 7-7-2) will be the Buckeyes’ third straight against a team ranked in the top 20. But they aren’t complaining about it. “It’s fun,” Osiecki said. “I think it’s great for our guys.” Osiecki said his players don’t let the tough matchups mess with their heads. “They’re pretty focused,” he said. “You don’t have to say much during the week — they know what’s coming at them.” Osiecki said he also knows that to beat the Fighting Irish, his Buckeyes can’t stray from who they are and begin to worry about the other team. “If we started to worry about what Notre Dame is doing,” he said, “we’re in trouble.” This week’s series is especially important because of the team’s performance against Western Michigan last weekend. The Buckeyes left “that state up north” with a 4-2 loss Friday and a 2-2 tie Saturday, which they clinched, 2-1, in a shootout. Senior forward John Albert said the team didn’t play as well as it should have, despite pulling off a shootout win, but that it shouldn’t dwell on its subpar effort. “We can’t look back at last weekend and be down on ourselves,” he said. Osiecki agreed, focusing on the team’s improved effort Saturday. “We did not play well in the first two periods Friday night. Certainly it was not our best effort,” Osiecki said. “We certainly played a lot better on Saturday.” Osiecki said that rather than focusing on whom they’re playing, the Buckeyes are focusing on how they’re playing leading up to this weekend’s series. OSU will face off against Notre Dame at 7:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Schottenstein Center.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks to the media at a press conference at Gillette Stadium on Thursday. Jan. 22, 2015. The press conference centered around the fact that 11 of 12 Patriot game balls were under-inflated according to NFL rules during the first half of Sunday’s AFC Championship victory over the Colts. Credit: Courtesy of TNSThe NFL announced its punishment for the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady on Monday for the underinflation of footballs used in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, five days after league-appointed attorney Ted Wells released the findings of his lengthy investigation.Wells concluded that it is “more probable than not” that members of Patriots personnel — specifically, Jim McNally, who is the officials’ locker room attendant for New England, and John Jastremski, an equipment assistant for the Pats — deliberately released air from game footballs after they were inspected by the referee.The report also found that Brady, who would go on to be named this year’s Super Bowl MVP, “was at least generally aware” of McNally and Jastremski’s illegal actions “involving the release of air from Patriots game balls.”New England was fined $1 million and was stripped of two future draft picks — a 2016 first-round selection and a fourth-rounder in 2017. Brady received a four-game suspension, without pay, for the start of the 2015-16 NFL season. Additionally, McNally and Jastremski were suspended by the league indefinitely.The Wells report has garnered plenty of criticism. Brady’s agent, Don Yee, said in a statement that there was “no fairness” in the investigation and that it had a “pre-determined” outcome. The use of the language “more probable than not” in the report has drawn flak for not being definitive enough.As for the punishment, Yee called it “ridiculous.” He said they will appeal the suspension.Patriots owner Robert Kraft released a statement Monday night after he was informed of the discipline.“Today’s punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation,” he said. “It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.”He added that they still believe there was “no tampering with footballs” but that their “intention was to accept any discipline levied by the league.”I believe this discipline is fair — for the most part.First off, the comments from Yee and Kraft are expected. Of course they would not flat out say they agree.I looked through the report and read the text messages between McNally and Jastremski. I took note of the other evidence Wells brought forth, and my personal conclusion was that a calculated and purposeful effort was made to deflate the footballs and that Brady knew about it. I do not think that such actions to deflate the balls would happen without the man who would be throwing them during the game — Brady — knowing about it.And because of my personal conclusion drawn from the Wells report, I feel a four-game suspension for Brady is spot on. The argument is that an underinflated football becomes softer, which make it easier to grip, throw and catch. The extent of this competitive advantage is unknown to me but regardless, it is inconsequential.If a cyclist uses banned performance-enhancing drugs but still loses in the Tour De France, he still broke a rule. Or if a wide receiver uses Stickum but still drops a pass, he still broke a rule. The fact of the matter is that a violation occurred. There are rules for a reason. A rule was broken and punishment rightfully should follow.Do I think that if Brady played the AFC Championship Game with properly inflated footballs that they would have lost the game against the Indianapolis Colts? Obviously I can’t say for sure, but I do believe New England still would have won and advanced to Super Bowl XLIX.The fact that they still might have won the game without committing the violation does not make the fact that Brady was “at least generally aware” of the violation any better. He needed to be punished, and I believe he received the proper discipline. It is a matter of protecting the integrity of the game.To me, anything more than a four-game suspension would have been excessive. Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer recently was suspended for four games in 2015 for sending text messages to the sidelines during games. Considering this, I think four games for Brady being “at least generally aware” that the game balls for a crucial AFC Championship Game were being tampered with is totally reasonable and fair.As for the rest of the punishment, there is no question McNally and Jastremski should be suspended indefinitely. The $1 million fine — tied for the largest in league history — given to the organization is also adequate, in my opinion. Bear in mind that this occurred in a game that determined who would play in the Super Bowl. Violating a rule in such a pivotal game should have harsh consequences.The league also took two future draft picks away from the Patriots. This is a relatively common disciplinary action. Since 1980, 14 teams have lost draft choices because of infractions.New England forfeits next year’s first-round selection and a fourth-round pick in 2017. It is only the second time since 1980 that a first-round pick was lost. The first time was in 2008, when the NFL took took away New England’s as a result of illegally videotaping an opposing team’s sideline.The one in 2017 makes sense. However, I feel taking away a first-rounder is steep. The New Orleans Saints did not even lose a first-round pick because of their illegal paying of players to purposely injure the opposition. They lost second-round choices in 2012 and 2013.Losing multiple draft picks is certainly reasonable, but taking away such a high selection seems to be slightly excessive. Vacating a third-round selection next year, instead of the first-rounder, would have satisfied me.With that said though, I believe the NFL handed down mostly appropriate punishments. The “deliberate effort to circumvent the rules” deserved severe discipline, and the league issued just that.The impact this has on Brady’s legacy and the Patriots franchise in the future remains to be seen.But one thing is for sure: Brady’s first game back from his looming suspension is scheduled to be on Oct. 18 at 8:30 p.m. in Indianapolis against the Colts — the same team the Patriots faced during the AFC Championship Game with the deflated balls.Interesting timing, to say the least. Mark your calendars for that one.