Why Football Is a Researcher’s Dream Sport
As a professional sports researcher (formerly for NFL Network and now starting with CBS Sports) and author of the book “Significant Figures: Statistical Stories Throughout NFL History,” I’ve looked at more than my fair share of football stats.
Doing so has deepened my appreciation for the game, and I wanted to take a few minutes to explain why I believe the rules and structure of football make it such a fascinating sport from a statistical perspective and why I think it would’ve been more difficult for me to write a similar book about any other sport.
I’m going to give three main reasons, the first of which is the game's complexity. I’ve previously theorized that sports with large volumes of statistics that can be used to track and analyze players are likely to be more popular.
Numbers are invaluable for contextualizing and evaluating performance, and football gives us a plethora of ways to do so. Quarterbacks are commonly judged by their completion percentage, passing yardage, yards per attempt, touchdown passes, interceptions, and passer rating. One can also look at their rushing stats, and how often they are sacked or fumble the ball.
These metrics are easy to understand and are commonly featured in broadcasts of games and coverage of the sport at large. Of course, there are also much more advanced analytics available.
Keep in mind, that this is just for one position, and that different positions have their own statistics.
Additionally, all of this data can be looked at much more situationally. Teams and players can be examined by how they perform specifically on certain downs, in specific quarters, at different positions on the field such as the red zone, and in individual formations.
A quarterback can be measured by how they perform depending on if they’re throwing short, medium, or long-distance passes. Are they being pressured? Did the other team blitz? How long did they have to throw the ball?
The sheer number of stats that can be found listed in a game summary or box score and the near-endless number of ways to categorize that performance allow researchers to find plenty of interesting facts that provide insight and add to the overall conversation around the game.
Another thing that makes football so unique is how wildly different individual games can be from a statistical perspective. To show this, I’ll use basketball as an example.
I absolutely love basketball. That being said, if you were to watch an NBA game, you’d have a pretty good idea of what you were getting into. Last season, teams scored between 90–130 points in nearly 90% of games.
Because games have similar numbers of total possessions and teams are not hugely different from one another on a per-possession basis, most statistics have these common ranges, making it difficult for a team or player to have a performance that is a real outlier.
There is much less rigidity in football. Just this past Saturday, there was a college football game that saw Iowa beat South Dakota State 7–3 (with two safeties!) at the same time as a game where North Carolina beat Appalachian State 63–61. These games featured 286 and 1,216 total yards of offense, respectively.
It goes without saying that these games were both highly unusual, but the point stands that the possible range of outcomes in football is much wider than in most other sports. Teams regularly score 40+ points in games and can be held scoreless. There have even been instances of teams finishing with negative total yardage.
Drives can last for one play or more than half of an entire quarter. Teams can punt 10 times in a game or not at all. There is so much room for interesting and statistically significant things to happen.
Finally, the season length in football is much shorter than in many other sports. The NFL regular season has 17 games. In college, there are only 12. With each individual game taking up such a high percentage of the season, the stakes are so much higher.
In an 82-game NBA or NHL season, or in a 162-game MLB season, the true “best” teams will likely always finish with strong records and make the postseason while bad teams will be clearly out of the picture.
However, if an NFL team unexpectedly wins or loses their first few games, they can be suddenly in the mix to steal a playoff spot or in need of a quick turnaround to save their season. This, combined with the single-elimination playoffs in the NFL (along with some other factors such as the salary cap), leads to high levels of parity as the best teams don’t always win.
In the college game, all it can take is one game to potentially ruin a team’s season, meaning there’s always a chance for an upset that carries massive weight.
Similarly, from an individual perspective, great QBs can have relative “down” seasons with just a few poor outings while other, less-regarded players can shine over a period of a few games or even an entire year.
I think of how someone like Jamie Morris (a running back who otherwise is fairly unnoteworthy) holds the NFL record for the most carries in a game (45). There are so many stories like this where it seems impossible for there to be parallels in other sports.
Here are all things that have happened in the NFL.
- Charles White started the 1987 season as a backup and ended that season as the league leader in carries, rushing yards, and rush TD.
- The Bears beat Washington 73–0 in the 1940 Championship Game.
- Three teams have finished a game with zero first downs and actually won the game.
- The 2010 Chargers led the NFL in total yards and total yards allowed and missed the playoffs.
- The 1977 Falcons allowed the fewest points per game of any team in the Super Bowl era and also missed the playoffs.
- George Blanda threw 42 INT in 1962 (seven more than any other player in a season in league history) and led the Oilers to an 11–3 record.
- The 2000 Ravens went five straight games without scoring a touchdown and went on to win the Super Bowl.
- The Packers have won three championships in years where they didn’t make a single field goal.
In football, the possibilities are endless. In short, it’s paradise.
Connor Groel is a professional sports researcher and the author of two books, including “Significant Figures: Statistical Stories Throughout NFL History,” published in August 2022. He also manages the Top Level Sports publication here on Medium.