NFL Week 5 News and Notes: Moss, Chargers, Titans and More

This week's edition of The Weekly League features:

1. A thought about Randy Moss from St. Isaac the Syrian.
2. A rudimentary, deeply flawed, but maybe still somewhat meaningful attempt at separating running backs from their offensive lines (and vice versa).


3. About as much je ne sais quoi as is safe for an adult human to experience in one sitting.

Soak in the joy, America!

As usual, a glossary of all unfamiliar terms can be found here.

A Note on the Randy Moss Situation

As you are undoubtedly aware, Randy Moss was traded this week from New England to Minnesota. Why was he traded? Well, the popular narrative, which is probably accurate, is that the Vikings were in desparate need of a competent wide receiver and that New England (led by their unfeeling robot-coach Bill Belichick) is a team with almost zero tolerance for distraction. Which, that (i.e. a distraction) is what Moss had become recently, wondering aloud (and very publicly) about his future with the Patriots. (Also, it appears as though Moss got into a halftime argument with quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien, even as the team was on its way to a convincing victory at Miami.)

The problem with this type of story is the amount of noise it creates. A brief glance at the sporting section of Boston.com (the Boston Globe's homepage) reveals no less than eleventy articles on the subject. These articles make precisely the points you'd expect them to, and a number of others that I, for one, would prefer they didn't. Tony Massarotti, for example, states that now the Patriots will "seek to reclaim the magic and karma that made them the preeminent franchise in football."

Magic and karma -- along with grit, sticktoitiveness, and a can-do spirit -- are the abstract concepts to which sportwriters appeal when they're unable to identify the underlying causes of the phenomena they're attempting to describe. Which, it's fine not to know the answer, but the responsible thing -- veryveryvery obviously -- is to say "I don't know."

In any case, the best lesson on the subject -- it almost goes without saying, really -- is from seventh-century anchorite St. Isaac of Syria. We learn the following from St. Isaac's Wikipedia page (which is, itself, obviously infallible):

[He] consciously avoided writing on topics that were disputed or discussed in the contemporary theological debates. This gives Isaac a certain ecumenical potential, and is probably the reason that although he was faithful to his own tradition he has come to be venerated and appreciated far outside his own "Nestorian" church.

In fact, St. Isaac's behavior with regard to the heated theological questions of his day is examplary of the Eastern monastic tradition, generally. While the rationalistic theologians of the Middle Ages all lobbied wildly on behalf of their respective versions at conciliar debates, monastics were generally removed from these dialogues, preferring instead to pursue a distinctly more spiritual theology.

Were St. Isaac -- who, again, quite obviously, was wild about football -- were he to consider this matter, he'd worry about only those things we could possibly know, and then he'd move on.

So what do we know? This stuff, is what:

• Minnesota finished first in offensive EPA last year, at +172.3, and second overall with a 0.16 EPA/P.
• They finished second in Pass EPA with a +182.5 mark and also second in EPA/P, at 0.29.
• Conversely, this year, Minnesota is currently 26th in offensive EPA/P, at -0.08. (Owing to the bye week, total EPA is skewed.)
• They're also currently ranked 30th in Pass EPA/P -- ahead of only Arizona and Carolina (i.e. two teams that are basically without a quarterback) -- with a -0.15 mark.

The question that's tougher to answer is this one: How will Moss's arrival impact Minnesota's offense? Insofar as Randy Moss is good and the Vikings, so far, are very bad, the answer is probably not "Ruin it." Otheriwse, "Hard to say, exactly" is the fairest response.

For what it's worth, here are a couple maybe-helpful facts about Moss and his new team:

• Moss has averaged 0.36 EPA/P over his career while receiving something around 25% of his team's targets.
• Here are the Viking receivers with more than 10% of team targets: V.Shiancoe (0.32 EPA/P, 17.7% of targets), G.Lewis (0.01, 10.4%), P.Harvin (-0.06, 20.8%), and B.Berrian (-0.34, 12.5%).

Running Between the Lines

The absolute best thing about contributing to this site -- besides all the women, fame, and money -- is that I get to, via email, ask Brian Burke all manner of childishly simplistic questions and that, owing to the fact that we're, at some level, "colleagues," he feels compelled to answer them.

One topic about which I asked him recently concerns team rushing, and the sometimes stark differences between a team's Run SR and their Run EPA/P.

As you probably know, Brian has recently found a pretty high correlation between a team's Run SR and both (a) their pass efficiency and (b) overall performance in terms of scoring points.

With that in mind, I found myself looking through the new Advanced Team Stats here, to get a sense of which teams have and have not performed well by Run SR. In so doing, I found what I considered to be an odd thing -- namely, that teams with high Run SRs didn't necessarily perform well in Run EPA/P, and vice versa.

Like, last season, San Diego finished 29th overall in terms of Run EPA/P, but fourth overall in Run SR.

Similarly, Houston finished 31st overall by Run EPA/P, but fifth in Run SR.

I asked Brian what those splits could signify. He replied, very patiently, as follows: "It would mean that they didn't hit a lot of home runs. They were successful grinders, and probably fumbled too much, or at least were unlucky with fumble recoveries."

That makes sense. And not only that, but it also means that we might, at some level, be able to separate a team's offensive line from its running backs. Why? Well, because, generally, an offensive line has a great deal of influence over the running yardage gained (or not gained) close to the line of scrimmage -- which, when it comes to judging "success" (i.e. creating a postive EPA), that's all we really care about, usually. EPA, on the other hand, is also sensitive both to long runs and fumbles -- i.e. things that SR doesn't specifically measure and which are generally the province of the running back himself.

By way of example, imagine a simple off-tacke run to the right. If the running back is hit in the backfield or at the line, it's probably not his fault. Rather, it's probably the case that one of the offensive lineman either missed his assignment or was just generally overmatched by his defensive counterpart. If the running back is able to gain four yards, surely some of the credit should go to the back -- he did, after all, execute the play correctly and find the right hole -- but mostly we can probably say that the offensive line is responsible for those yards. Finally, if the back is able to rush for a much longer gain than would render the play merely "successful" -- well, we can probably say the credit for that belongs mostly with the back himself.

With that in mind, I decided to find the Run SR-EPA/P splits for each team. For each team, I found the z-score (i.e. standard deviations from the mean) both for the team's Run SR and also Run EPA/P. I then found the difference between the two z-scores (RunSR%z - EPA/Pz). The teams with the highest positive scores likely have better offensive lines than running backs; teams with higher negative values likely have better running backs than linemen.

Here are the numbers from 2009:

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Again, to reiterate: there are a number of generalizations being made here, so this isn't intended to be a definitive measure either of running back or O-line talent.

With that caveat shouted loudly and clearly, here are some observations on those numbers:

• It's not shocking to see Tennessee at the very bottom of the list, as Chris Johnson was incredible last season. Seriously, consider: only six backs had at least 300 rushing attempts. Five of them -- Cedric Benson, Steven Jackson, Thomas Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Adrian Peterson -- averaged between 4.2 and 4.5 YPC. Johnson, who actually had the most carries in the NFL last season, averaged 5.6 YPC. Crazy.
• It's also probably not shoocking to see a number of excellent passing teams -- New England, Indianapolis, Houston -- towards the top of the list. Defenses are unable to stack the line against an efficient pass attack the way they could against, you know, Cleveland. Also, it's possible that those teams have good passing games in part because they have better-than-average offensive lines.
• One surprise is Green Bay all the way down towards the bottom there, a suggestion that they're getting better performances from their rushers than linemen. What could explain that? Well, for one thing, Ryan Grant only fumbled once all season. A fumble usually creates about a four-point shift in EPA. For another thing, there's Aaron Rodgers, one of the better rushing QBs in the league.

So that's 2009. Now here are the numbers through the first four weeks of the 2010 season:

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• Green Bay is once again towards the bottom of the list, and Ryan Grant has all of eight carries.
• Denver, who finished with the largest positive split last year, seems to be in roughly the same place this year. Except, in 2009, they at least sported an above-average RUN SR. In any case, it's possible that Knowshon Moreno isn't an NFL feature back.
• With as high as their team Run SR is (51.7%), it's amazing that Houston's Run EPA/P is even higher. Arian Foster is undoubtedlty responsible for that.


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