Numbers Can't Lie: Becoming At Peace With Numbers

This week, I'm going to eschew the inclusion of lots of numbers or tables in my column. (Cue the loud cheers from many of you.)

However, I'm doing this in order to talk to you all about...numbers and tables and statistics.  (Cue the ranting and raving from those same people.)

You see, most of you probably noticed the uproar that broke out here about a week or so ago regarding the influx of statistical discussion and analysis on this site.  To be honest, I've been noticing the backlash ever since I started my weekly column at The Phinsider.  While I've gotten several encouraging responses letting me know that there is a definite population of the readership here that enjoys and wants to see more statistical-based analysis, there has been just as many of you that are, for whatever reason, infuriated by its recent inclusion.

And I'm not sure why that is.

After all, this is a Miami Dolphins fan site - one that is dedicated to more than just following the news aspect of the team.  The writers for this site, particularly those chosen to be regular front-page posters/columnists, strive to analyze what the news actually means and present it in an enjoyable and informative manner.  A majority of that analysis comes in the form of subjective/scouting-based opinion.  But confining ourselves solely to that type of analysis leaves a veritable treasure trove of information and avenues of discussion completely in the dark.  One would think that, as fans, we would all be at least receptive to the possibility of thinking about the team we are passionate about in a new manner.

I don't expect everyone to agree with the conclusions that arise from some of the statistical studies.  But to hear that some members of the site refuse to read these articles or visit the site as often as they used to because of this new content is, quite frankly, troubling and indicative of a more widespread close-mindedness among many of the readers here.

To some degree and on some level, that apprehension is understandable.  By and large, football statistics have remained relatively static since the NFL was created.  Anyone who grew up watching football is inherently comfortable when it comes to your run of the mill statistics like rushing yards and forced fumbles.  To a lot of people, I'm sure many of these new metrics or concepts seem like anathema and that they go against everything they thought they knew about the game of football.  I see this as a basic aversion to change, and the general notion that the way things are must be the best way for them to be.

But that's just a foolish proposition.  The way we think about things should evolve and grow with us.  It may be more comfortable to always think about football the way we did when we first were introduced to it, but for those willing to set aside comfort for a time, there is so much more depth to be found by expanding the ways in which we are willing to examine the game.

I'm not writing this column to try to turn everyone here into a stat-geek like me.  The discussions that we can have amongst each other when we have differing opinions are one of the great attributes of this site.  But that is near impossible to do when people complain about the presence of the content or simply hijack the post and turn it into a two-person conversation that has nothing to do with the original entry, which happens far too often I've noticed.  Instead of complaining about why something was written, tell the author why you disagree and back up your criticism with some evidence or some line of reasoning.  Telling someone that their writing is useless because numbers and tables can't express what it means to love a team is childish and does absolutely nothing to further the conversation.

In case you were unaware, loving numbers and statistical analysis in no way makes you any less of a fan.  Being critical of a player or unit because of what the hard evidence shows does not mean we are against the team.  The reason people like GatorPhan and myself go through the effort to organize these numbers is because of how much we love the Dolphins!  We love them so much we want to know as much as we possibly can about them.  We are not immune to the emotions of fandom simply because we enjoy numbers, but that doesn't prevent us from trying to gain some objective truths about the team at the same time.

In my humble opinion, a player's performance cannot solely be judged simply by watching it.  Obviously, a lot of people here feel that viewing the game on TV is all they need to form the best evaluations of the players they love.  While I deeply respect and appreciate that viewpoint, I do not agree with it.  In the absolutely amazing book Moneyball (I can't recommend it enough) Bill James pointed out that in baseball, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter (essentially the difference between a good hitter and an average hitter) is virtually undetectable through viewing the games.  The difference comes down to one hit every two weeks.  Even if you watched every single at-bat of every player, you'd be hard pressed to notice that kind of difference without a statistic telling you.

And if you can't tell everything accurately just from watching the games, it really helps to start counting things and analyzing the objective data.

For example, let's talk about Nnamdi Asomugha.  Before this offseason, I'm willing to bet a large section of NFL fans had no idea who this player was despite his being the overwhelmingly best cornerback in the league for at least two years running.  Now that he is set to potentially become a free agent, however, everyone seems to know who he is and that he is an amazing talent.  But how can anyone possibly know that unless they think about him statistically?

First of all, he plays in Oakland, so it's fair to say not many of us have seen him play on a week-to-week basis.  Yet, everyone here who vehemently opposes statistics will tell you that he is a great CB.  My question to those people is how do you know that?  Is it because the local columnists and reporters tell you that he is great?  Well how do they know?  I, for one, would never simply sit back and accept who a local reporter tells me is good and who isn't because I don't know how they are arriving at their judgments.

Second, as with most CBs, even if you were to watch a Raiders game on TV, Asomugha will almost never be on the screen when he's in coverage.  So you can't really watch him even if you want to.  So again, I ask, how can you be sure that he is so good?  You certainly can't do it by looking at his simple statistics like tackles and interceptions because any elite CB will never be thrown at enough to compile large numbers of either.  Asomugha compiled 40 tackles and one interception in 2008.  Compare that to Jason Allen's 36 tackles and one interception in far less playing time and one naïve observer may conclude that these players are roughly equal in ability.

No, the only true way to understand how great of a player Asomugha is is to look at less common statistics like charted passes, yards per pass, and success rate.  Charted passes is quite a simple statistic, yet because it is new and not something most people are accustomed to thinking about, it is often cast aside.  But Asomugha was targeted a mere 26 times for the entire season.  That is far and away the fewest number of targets for any starting CB.  His success rate on passes thrown against him was likewise stellar, placing him in the top 5 in the league.

Considering statistics as easy as charted passes and success rate is the only way to separate the performance of Asomugha from Allen.  You may say that you understood that difference already from reading about how Asomugha completely shuts down one half of the field.  Well, those statistics I've mentioned are merely the concrete evidence that backs up those statements.

All I'm trying to get across in this column is that the presence of stats-based articles shouldn't rile everyone up on this site.  This site has a lot of intelligent and civil fans of the Dolphins who should be able to discuss and disagree with one another on any variety of football-related subjects.  It would be a shame if so many of the readers here simply continued to ignore or belittle those community members trying only to further the understanding and enjoyment of the team.

Numbers in football aren't something to be afraid of.  As the Asomugha example shows, most of us already base our judgments of players on statistics, even if we don't know it.  Let's all open up and be a little more receptive of one another from now on, even when it might entail rethinking our own individual approaches to the game.  Who knows, we just may end up learning something from one another.


This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Phinsider's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of The Phinsider writers or editors.

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