Saints at Seahawks: Advanced Statistics or Any Given Sunday?

Saints are hoping to see Mark Ingram run effectively for the second straight game. - Otto Greule Jr

With the New Orleans Saints set to clash with the Seattle Seahawks in a divisional playoff matchup on Saturday at Century Link Field, should we just throw out the records and the numbers or do they tell us the story of this game?

Numbers lie. No, not all the time, but they do so quite often. If it wasn't the case, every single aspect of life would be flawlessly predictable via trends and statistics. However, to dismiss statistical analysis entirely is just as misguided as solely relying on it to forecast the outcome of any given occurrence, including sporting events.

On Saturday afternoon at Century Link Field, the New Orleans Saints play the Seattle Seahawks in an enormous divisional playoff matchup that will take the winner one game away from the Superbowl. The numbers regarding this upcoming game are really interesting and depending on what side of the fence you stand, you will likely be tempted to either lean heavily on them or take them with a fist-sized grain of salt.

Prior to the first meeting between the Saints and the Seahawks, there is one thing that really struck me: the not-always-so-friendly banter that went on between fans of the Saints on this blog and Seahawks fans from our SB Nation counterpart, Field Gulls.

If you took a step back from all the back and forth (which I did), it seemed as though Saints fans were relying more on basic statistics (I call them the "Total Yards Stats") and the notion of "Any Given Sunday," which is the idea that any given team, on any given day, can beat any given opponent. It essentially says that each game is its own entity and cannot be predicted only based on convoluted analysis.

On the other hand, it appeared that Seahawks fans relied intensely on advanced statistics and most notably the formula developed by Football Outsiders (DVOA), which goes in-depth, analyzing every aspect of a team's performance on the field by using regression analysis.

So which way is best? Can we actually have an idea of what is going to take place in a football game before it happens or are there too many variables to be able to do so? Are all the Field Gulls pundits the football equivalent of Rhode Scholars they fancy themselves to be? And are the Canal Street Chronicles folks just a bunch of dull-witted Southerners who understand nothing of the modern man football statistics as they were often portrayed by our "friends" from the Pacific Northwest?

Here's my take on the subject, and to do so, I will of course focus on our teams of interest: the Saints and the Seahawks.

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Why Are People Still Using the "Total Yards Stats"?

The Total Yards Stats, in my opinion, are like black and white television: it gives you an image with shades of grey and you can see what is happening; yet you do not get the full experience of the bright colors, the depth of each of the colors, the diversity of the colors. In other words, it's reality, but devoid of its essence.

So why are people still using them? In one harsh word: laziness. Total Yards Stats tell you what happened. However, they fail to tell you how it happened, why it happened and when it happened. They are easy to compile, easy to consume, which is why you will hear so many cite them as though they tell the whole story.

Let's take a look at some of the often mentioned Total Yards Stats from the Seahawks and the Saints in the 2013 regular season.

Offense / NFL Rank

Total Yards

Yards/Game

Points/Game

Pass Yards/Game

Rush Yards/Game

Saints

6391 / 4th

399.4 / 4th

25.9 / 10th

307.4 / 2nd

92.1 / 25th

Seahawks

5424 / 17th

339.0 / 17th

26.1 / 8th

202.3 / 26th

136.8 / 4th

If we were to take some of the above stats at face value, we could be tempted to say that there is a huge gap between the Saints offense and the Seahawks'. Let's consider for instance the passing yards per game: New Orleans is second in the league with 307.4 yards per game, while Seattle ranks a distant 26th at 202.3 yards per game.

This obviously completely discounts the fact that The Saints threw the ball a total of 651 times this past regular season, for 420 attempts for the Seahawks (64.5% of the number of attempts by the Saints). Thus, such a disparity in the teams passing numbers should be expected.

Conversely, the Saints rushed the ball 391 times on the season (26th in attempts in the NFL) for a 3.8-yard average per rush. The Seahawks were second in the NFL in attempts (509) with a 4.3-yard average per rush. Had New Orleans elected to run the ball as many times as the Seahawks did this season, they would have likely been a the top 15 rushing team in 2013.

Defense / NFL Rank

Yards/Game

Points/Game

Pass Yards/Game

Rush Yards/Game

Sacks

Saints

305.7 / 4th

19.0 / 4th

194.1 / 2nd

111.6 / 19th

49 / 4th

Seahawks

273.6 / 1st

14.4 / 1st

172.0 / 1st

101.6 / 7th

44 / 8th

Once again, although these statistics describe exactly what happened, they fail to paint a complete picture. Each category and ranking above is influenced by a lot of other variables. Even a seemingly straightforward stat like the number of sacks could be adjusted to such things as the level of the offensive lines faced by the sacking defense throughout the regular season. Is the Saints defensive front really that good or have they feasted on weak competition?

On the other hand, is the Seahawks number one ranking on defense simply the result of facing a string of offensively-challenged teams?

As we all can see, although not inaccurate, Total Yard Stats need help. This is where Advanced Statistics make their apparition. One that I welcome with open arms, as do many others and the number of believers is growing.

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What Is So Great About Advanced Statistics?

Football is about gaining first downs. Duh right? But this is the very base of most advanced statistics. Let's take a look at Field Gulls favorite advanced statisticians, the folks at Football Outsiders and their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA).

If you assigned an arbitrary value to each play, but gave more importance to the ones that gain first downs, the ones in the red zone and the ones that lead to scores, you'd have DVOA covered. I'm obviously oversimplifying, but if you open yourself to this idea, you can see its merits.

Let's illustrate: a player gains five yards on third and four, which results in a first down. This play has a higher value than when the same player gains five yards on first and 10, because it only results in a second and five. Rated even lower than that second play is when our player gains five yards again, but on third and 12. The lower rating is due to the fact that the play not only fails to gain a first down, it likely leads to either a field goal (less than the goal of a touchdown), a punt, or an even more dire situation: a do-or-die attempt to go for it on fourth down.

The DVOA (calculated in percentage) for each team takes in account each play and its context, and then compares it to a league-average baseline (0%). Since it measures the ultimate goal (scoring), on offense a positive DVOA is good, while an above average defense will have a negative DVOA. If you're interested in reading more about DVOA, you'll find it here.

So what are the DVOA for the Saints and the Seahawks?

Offense (DVOA) / NFL Rank

Offense

Passing

Rushing

Def. Schedule

Saints

17.4% / 5th

35.9 % / 3rd

-5.3% / 19th

-3.8% / 7th

Seahawks

8.7% / 9th

27.7% / 8th

6.2% / 7th

-3.1% / 9th

What the chart show is that the Saints offense faced a schedule with an average defensive DVOA of -3.8%, which ranks as the seventh toughest schedule in the NFL to the Seahawks ninth (-3.1%). Despite facing a tougher schedule defensively, New Orleans is 17.4% better than the average offensive team in the NFL, doubling the total offensive DVOA value for Seattle (8.7%).

In the rushing department, the Seahawks are markedly better, with a 6.2% above average rushing game, while the Saints are -5.3% below the average NFL running team.

An important note is that the total offensive DVOA values in the first column are weighted, meaning that they give more importance to games late in the season and less importance to early games. This means that they reflect the most recent quality of play from both teams.

Defense (DVOA) / NFL Rank

Defense

Passing Def.

Rushing Def.

Off. Schedule

Saints

-5.9% / 9th

-9.2 % / 6th

-1.5% / 20th

1.1% / 9th

Seahawks

-30.0% / 1st

-34.3% / 1st

-15.1% / 8th

-3.7% / 31st

These numbers are very interesting for several reasons. One observation is that when it comes to passing and rushing defense, the rankings are quite similar to the Total Yards Stats above, for both teams.

Another eye-opening number is the average offensive DVOA of the teams faced by the vaunted Seahawks defense in 2013. With a combined -3.7% (negative DVOA is bad for offense) Seattle faced the 31st ranked offensive schedule (this means that only one team faced a weaker schedule on the entire season).

Could this explain why the Seahawks defense, although talented, was able to post such great numbers this season? It isn't too far-fetched to think that it certainly helped.

In view of these numbers and their analysis, it is my opinion that advanced statistics give us a slightly more accurate view of each team's performance and a more honest appraisal of the factors that played into said performance over the course of a season.

***

So...What About Any Given Sunday?

The fault with many of the people who believe in advanced statistics is that sometimes they become so entrenched in their analytical views that they lose sight of the fact that the beauty of football lies in its fickle nature. Even the most thorough scientific trends studies cannot tell us exactly what will happen once the lights are turned on and the players take the field.

Let's take the first meeting between the Saints and the Seahawks and take a little GIF tour of what happened and what could have happened instead.

The fumble that didn't matter

Nosea1_medium

Do you remember that play? Safety Kenny Vaccaro hit Marshawn Lynch and forced the ball out, with the game still in a scoreless tie. However, Seattle's Max Unger recovers, allows Seattle to kick a field goal and take a 3-0 lead. What would have happened had the Saints pounced on that ball?

***

The fumble that mattered...a lot

Nosea2_medium

On the very next series, Cliff Avril hits Brees who fumbles the ball right in the waiting hands of Michael Bennett who takes it to the house for a 10-0 lead. Could there be a more fortunate bounce? (wait until the last GIF). Although some will say the Seahawks made their luck by getting to Brees.

***

The interception...that wasn't

Nosea3_medium

With New Orleans trailing 10-0, the Saints had a chance to give themselves a little bit of momentum and thwart another Seahawks attack. Alas, Corey White's hands happened. With that, Russell Wilson continued "not to throw interceptions at home" and Seattle scored five plays later to go up 17-0.

***

And for good measure

Nosea4_medium

Did it seem like I was saying that a lot of things went right for Seattle that night? Yep, that's exactly was I was saying. Also, I thought that voodoo was only practiced in New Orleans? Some in the Pacific Northwest had killed some chickens and burned blood candles that night.

So here we are: will it be "Any Given Sunday" or will the outcome of the game prove the numbers right in two days at the CLINK? Getcha popcorn (and heart medication) ready!

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(Thanks to Clay Wendler for his help with the GIFs)

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