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football Edit

Football 101: Analytics Part 1 - Value

Dayne Young and Brent Rollins collaborate to discover the nuances of the Georgia Bulldogs and college football.

*All grades and other data via www.PFF.com*

This is part of a football 101 series where we lay out explanations and the merits of different football concepts.

Brent: The nerds are ruining the game.

It's something you often read about concerning many of the major sports nowadays. However, most professional sports teams, and invariably many at the collegiate ranks, employ individuals whose job is to analyze the data and find any possible edge. In the football realm, we at PFF have taken the years of data from the NFL and the now six years worth of college data to "crunch the numbers" in both a descriptive (our grades and other game-based data) and predictive (what are the most valuable elements of the game) sense. Thus, in the first of our two-part series on analytics, we examine and summarize value in today's football, particularly focusing on the elements of the game that most impact winning and losing.


Offense > Defense and Passing > Running

Joe Burrow throws to a spot.
Joe Burrow throws to a spot.

Brent: While many hold on to the old "defense wins championships" adage, the evolution of offensive football—and particularly quarterback play—has made offense king. This was especially the case this season more than ever in both college and the NFL, as Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes simply could not be stopped. No matter how many great players/draft picks were on Clemson's defense; no matter how many first-round defensive linemen the 49ers had—it simply wasn't enough to keep the offensive juggernauts from LSU or Kansas City at bay. While a great defense can dominate opponents with inefficiencies or inadequacies at quarterback, the SEC Championship game showed just how a great quarterback can dictate an entire game and the defense's subsequent strategy. Further, as we've discussed here before, the SEC's road to a championship is now a three-game gauntlet, nearly always composed of elite quarterbacks.

Dayne: Quick, decisive, and accurate. Joe Burrow just completed the greatest season a college football quarterback has ever had because he was a master at those three things. From the Tigers' first game of the season, you could see the confidence Burrow had in throwing the football to a spot. This level of accuracy removes many variables and makes an incompletion the worst-case scenario. He didn't have many of those either.

Lawrence Cager breaks wide open against Florida.
Lawrence Cager breaks wide open against Florida.

Brent: Much like the NBA has evolved because of the math (e.g., shooting 40 percent on threes is worth the same as 60 percent on twos), the math favors throwing the ball. This has shifted even more so as accuracy and completion percentage has increased. In the FBS in 2019, teams averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt and 7.3 yards per passing attempt, with the difference between the two ever more magnified in the NFL. Winning teams are ones who throw to get a lead, and then run to maintain and/or salt away the lead.

Now, does this mean a team should never run the ball? Of course not. However, if you want to be an offense to be reckoned with, you absolutely must threaten the defense in the passing game, and be successful with it.

Dayne: The threat of the run must be present to get the defense to bite on a fake to leave them vulnerable for the pass. What happened for Georgia in 2019 was that defenses developed so little respect for the Bulldogs' passing game, defenders crowded the box and refused to leave. Georgia failed to counter with consistent passing excellence.

Positional Value: QB >>> CB > WR >> DL > OL > RB

George Pickens shows his catch radius
George Pickens shows his catch radius

Brent: The order and magnitude of the heading are both important. Obviously, if offense and the passing game are king, the quarterback is the most valuable position. If you don't get elite quarterback play in today's college football playoff world, your chances of winning a conference championship, playoff, and then national championship game are slim to none. Of the top 25 most valuable players in college football last fall, 20 were quarterbacks, per our Wins Above Average (WAA) metric, which is analogous to Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for the NFL. For the Bulldogs, elite freshman George Pickens was the second most valuable player in terms of WAA, and the third-highest graded offensive player with an 85.5 overall grade.

Dayne: The NFL Draft is the ultimate barometer here. Running backs must be generational to even get first-round attention. If you are not a Saquon Barkley or Todd Gurley, NFL teams find more value later in the draft. Conversely, you see teams reach for quarterbacks all of the time because there is a lack of great ones. We are seeing wide receivers increase their value with increased catch radius and ability to shake defenders. It's why George Pickens gets so much praise. He changes everything.

Eric Stokes prevents a catch.
Eric Stokes prevents a catch.
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