Air Yards to a Dead End
When I was in high school, I was one of the top students in the areas of math and science. It inspired me to take up engineering at Drexel University, which seemed like a natural fit. But when I got there, I struggled with the curriculum at first. In high school, my aptitude came from memorizing formulae and plugging in numbers. But college courses were less concerned with, in the words of my freshman physics professor TS Venkataraman, “plugging, chugging, and cranking” than they were with why things were they way they were. These courses were big on deductive reasoning and concepts, using formulae and base math as tools, a means to an end, rather than as the end itself. It took awhile for me to adjust, and where I thought I had answers before, I was actually left with only a piece of the puzzle.
The debate over Carson Wentz in Football Twitter reminds me of that experience. Wentz is the darling of football fans and media, especially those in Philadelphia (OBVS) for the surprisingly excellent start to his career. However, not everyone is impressed. Normally, I wouldn’t indulge haters; of COURSE Cowboys fans are going to dismiss him, and troll journalists are paid to be contrarian in nature. However, Wentz has found enemies in the analytics community, mainly because his passes don’t travel all that far in the air, which some analytics mavens, Scott Kacsmar from Football Outsiders and Cian “I’LL BLOCK YO’ ASS” Fahey specifically, have deducted means he’s a Captain Checkdown.
On the surface, Wentz’s air yards suggest that he likes to throw short. QBs who only throw short are inefficient, or are effective only because the receiver is getting a lot of yards after catch, or YAC. This is an example “high school TH” thinking. You get an answer after cranking some numbers in an equation, and the teacher gives you a gold star. But is that the real answer? Can football be measured in formulae and spreadsheets with contextless numbers?
I’m a firm believer in statistical analytics, and I have been for a long time in the sport of baseball. However, baseball lends itself to statistical analysis because it is highly compartmentalized. Pitcher throws to catcher while batter tries to interrupt the exchange with his bat. Then the ball goes to a specific part of the field which is manned by one player, hits to buffer zones notwithstanding. If a sport could be constructed on an assembly line, baseball is the most likely candidate. However, while stats can tell you a large story in baseball, they still can’t paint the whole picture. Watching the game is a component. Watching will tell you whether a batter needs to lower his swing, or whether the third baseman needs better footwork to get to more ground balls, and so on and so forth.
With football, hockey, basketball, and ultimately soccer, the story that statistics tell by themselves becomes less and less complete because those games all have moving parts working in congress. Football may have intermittent plays, but it has 22 people on the field at the same time moving around playing a part. Hockey and basketball have fewer players, but they’re always moving. Soccer combines the sheer numbers of football with the constant movement of the other two. So just taking numbers and saying they mean everything fails the smell test in football harder than it would in baseball.
And yes, Wentz throws a lot of short passes, but the thing is Eagles head coach and play caller Doug Pederson calls a lot of screen plays by design. The West Coast Offense means a different thing for the head coach/offensive coordinator who utilizes it, but at its base, it’s an offense that utilizes short screen passes to supplement or even supplant the running game. Wentz is asked to throw a lot of short passes, but the thing is, he’s also adept at throwing the deep ball. I don’t know how anyone could see him escape the pass rush, sense out the line of scrimmage, throw a bullet well past the sticks, and hit an explosive Darren Sproles in stride and call into question his ability to throw the ball:
Yeah, Sproles did a lot of work, but Wentz’s play to get the ball to him was magnificent, maybe the best play I’ve seen all year. And that’s where Kacsmar’s and Fahey’s arguments fall apart, because they ignore plays like this, or his long completions in various games, or even his first interception against the Lions to end the game, where he threw a beaut of a deep ball that, depending on how you look at it, was either picked off on a great defensive play or intercepted only because Nelson Agholor doesn’t know how to use his body as a wide receiver to make a play on that kind of ball.
With the availability of All-22 footage and unprecedented access to real-time game watching, no one should have to rely on secondhand accounts or box scores to see how players perform nowadays. And it’s Kacsmar’s and Fahey’s jobs to keep tabs on these kinds of things. Time is an issue, of course, but again, the reliance on air yards as a tell-all stat feels like their minds are in high school at best. IF they were prepared for college, they might have done some more research, looked at Wentz’s throws on plays that weren’t designed screens. I could do that research, but I’d have to shell out money and take time out from my job, my parenting, or my other leisure time which involves watching pro wrestling or Food Network rather than crunching numbers. I don’t have that data available to me. But Fahey and especially Kacsmar do. So why skimp?
Maybe it’s the “troll journalist” corollary. People like Skip Bayless get paid to give opinions to piss people off, and their business is good. ESPN even has taken that ethos, “embrace debate,” and made it its company slogan for a few years before Fox Sports 1 started poaching all the brainless arguing heads for itself. So maybe Kacsmar is pioneering into the area of “smart trolling.” Which hey, that would be a great brand for him to make some money down the line for him.
But it feels like he sincerely believes that Carson Wentz isn’t a good quarterback because his numbers tell him so. Too bad he’s using high school arithmetic as his divining rod instead of adding a dash of collegiate reasoning in there. For someone who is a part of a site that has a paywall because of its “premium” content, well, one should expect better.
A lot better.