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Does Having the Best Player in Football Correlate to Wins?

So how does this math break down across all the various positions in football? Does having the best offensive tackle in the game (as designated by the AP All-Pro award) impact wins more than having the best cornerback? Does having the best offensive players matter more than having the best defensive players?

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The assumptions in this analysis are as follows:

  • If the difference between the best performer and an average performer at a given position is substantial, the greater the impact that having the All-Pro player will have on win totals. The smaller the differential, the smaller the impact. The difference in your team's likelihood of winning a game depending on whether your quarterback was Drew Brees or Josh Freeman exemplifies this point.
  • If performance at one position affects the game more than performance at another position, having the All-Pro player at the more impactful position will have a greater effect on win totals. This point is illustrated, for example, by the difference between Aaron Rodgers' and Blair Walsh's impact on a game.

In performing this analysis, I combed through the AP All-Pro first team players from this year through 1988 (the year after the strike season). What did I find?

It's probably not surprising that having the best quarterback has more of an impact on wins than having the best player at any other position. What is surprising is that having the best quarterback is worth between two and three more wins than having the best player at any other position.

It's also not surprising that having the best punt and kick returner had less of an impact on wins than having the best player at any other position. Having an All-Pro kicker, however, was associated with significantly more wins than having the All-Pro punter or kick returner. Moreover, the All-Pro kicker's impact on win totals was comparable or superior to almost every other position except for quarterback!

The impact of the kicker stems from the fact that this position generates points. A top-notch kicker is given more opportunities to try long kicks than average or sub-par kickers because the coach trusts him to make them. In terms of wins, it's likely that teams with All-Pro kickers generate more points from possessions that stall out on the opponents 35-45 yard line than teams that don't. And more points correlates pretty significantly to more wins.

The other surprise (to me) was that once you got past the quarterback, the kick returner and the punter, there wasn't much difference between premium talent at different individual positions on win total. Having the best safety and kicker correlated to more wins than having the best defensive tackle or cornerback. Contrary to conventional wisdom, having premium skill at individual talent positions, such as running back or wide receiver, isn't more impactful on win totals than having premium skill at unit positions, such as offensive line or defensive line.

This, of course, begs the question: if you combine various players into units, how do differences in premium talent affect win totals?

The impact of having the best players at skill positions (defined as QB, RB, WR and TE) is artificially inflated to an extent by the previously noted impact of quarterbacks. If you subtract quarterbacks from the equation, the average win totals of teams with All-Pro players at skill positions drops to 10.3 the same win totals for teams with premium offensive line, linebacking and secondary talent.

Although the difference isn't severe, it's interesting that premium defensive line talent is worth half a win less than premium talent at all other non-kicking positions. While line players like J.J. Watt, Jared Allen and Jason Pierre-Paul tend to be the most glamorized performers on the defensive side of the ball, there's some data that suggests that either the defensive line is less important than all other non-kicking team units, that the difference between superlative and average defensive line performers isn't great as commonly thought, or both.

If you take this analysis one step further and analyze win totals by side of the ball, the numbers continue to shift.

"Defense wins championships" used to be the platitude most NFL teams aspired to until teams such as Kurt Warner's Rams, Tom Brady's Patriots and Drew Brees' Saints demonstrated sustained excellence and won championships. While this analysis shows that both offense and defense are important, there is a slightly higher win total (about a third of a win) associated with teams having the best offensive players versus having the best defensive players.

And while I certainly sympathize with Chris Kluwe's position on electing punters to the NFL Hall of Fame, unfortunately, having great special teams (outside of the kicker) does not have a meaningful impact on win totals. Special teams certainly can have an effect on a game-by-game basis; a special teams touchdown scored during a game is generally going to represent 10-20 percent of the total points scored, which is more than enough to impact the outcome. But taken as a whole, the data suggests that the difference between premium and average special teams is more visceral than actual.

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Posted in Sports Post Date 05/18/2017


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