Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

We sports fans are besieged with statistics. They can illuminate, but they can often obfuscate.

Case in point: the Raiders' 13-10 win over Kansas City in NFL Week 2.

Don't ask me why, but I watched the whole game. My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker did not, and was incredulous that the Raiders could have won a game in which the Chiefs outgained them 409-166 yards. He was even more incredulous that I could maintain the Raiders actually controlled the game.

Allow me to explain. Let's start with those 409 Chiefs yards. 205 of them were amassed on 4 drives that netted KC exactly zero points (one drive ended in a field goal, one in an interception that led to a Raiders field goal, and two in punts).

So really, I can argue that Kansas City wasted over 200 yards of offense. Shiny numbers, but meaningless.

Oakland's offense was feeble overall, but when it mattered, the Raiders delivered. A 58-yard 2nd-quarter drive led to a long Sebastian Janikowksi field goal (by the way: will this guy make a 70-yarder someday?), and then JaMarcus Russell salvaged his horrible afternoon with the 69-yard 4th-quarter drive that led to their only touchdown.

Total offense? Not so important. Turnovers? Important (KC had two; the Raiders, none). Field position? Yes. KC's average drive started on their own 24, and 7 of their 11 possessions started inside their 21-yard line.

Bottom line: the game stats failed to tell the story of this game. While Steve argues there's wisdom hidden in the stats, I argue the stats can lead you astray. What would a stat-head make of the Miami-Indianapolis game, also in NFL Week 2? That's the one where the Dolphins won the time-of-possession battle by a more than 3-to-1 margin (the Dolphins had the ball for less than 15 minutes), outgained the Colts, and still lost the game.

Statistics are interesting, but it's the game that matters.

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