By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Advanced analytics have had a major impact on pro sports in recent years. That is indisputable. What’s up for debate is how you feel about them, and how seriously you take comprehensive yet inscrutable stats like WAR.READ MORE: Johnson & Johnson Vaccine 'Particularly Good For Mass Vaccination Campaigns,' Boston Doctor Says
Ultimately, not all advanced stats are bad or meaningless. They can tell you hidden stories about the performance of teams or individual players. You can piece them together to evaluate players, teams, or games. But they’re not the end-all-be-all of sports analysis, either, and sometimes they can get too convoluted for their own good.
That’s where a lot of advanced analytics experts have become the new sports talk contrarians.
Pro Football Focus has been one of the most polarizing entities in this respect. On one hand, their player grades seem fairly accurate and can give you an idea of who’s playing well at positions that don’t have the benefit of “regular” stats. Offensive linemen, for example. Blocking. Coverage.
But on the other hand, as reliable as PFF can be at times, they can also make some baffling assertions after crushing themselves under the weight of over-analysis. Like when Ben Stockwell gathered that Aaron Rodgers was just “average” in a 2015 game against the Chiefs, despite throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions with a decent 138.5 passer rating.
Now, they’ve made a similarly puzzling declaration after ranking all 32 NFL defenses through Week 6. The Patriots, who rank at or near the bottom of the league in several categories, are actually just an average defense.
“For as catastrophic as some of the Patriots bottom line numbers have been, down to down this unit hasn’t been that bad,” the article reads. “Most of the big plays have come on complete coverage busts which, though obviously a major issue, are likely to iron themselves out over a season. Rookie Deatrich Wise has been a major boost to the team’s pass-rush, with 19 total pressures on 140 pass-rushing snaps.”READ MORE: Police Search Woods After Man Fired BB Gun Behind Salem Walmart
The Vikings, Jaguars, Bears, Bills, and Dolphins rank 1-5 on their list of the Top-32 defenses through six weeks.
The article explains that the rankings “aggregate the play-by-play grading for every player on defense by facet of play (run defense, pass-rush, coverage, etc.), weights them by how much each area correlates to wins and losses through our research, and then adjusts for strength of opponent to create the final numbers.”
The confusing part about these rankings is that they’re supposed to be based on the first six weeks of the season, yet the story gives the Patriots credit for fixing their big-play problems over the remainder of the season (they haven’t fixed much yet). Their No. 17 spot would make a heck of a lot more sense if the defenses were being ranked according to how they’re expected to play for the rest of their games.
There’s nothing you can say to legitimately argue that the Patriots have only been mediocre on defense in 2017. Considering their league ranks in opposing passer rating (30th), total touchdowns allowed (29th), total yards allowed (32nd), yards per rush allowed (26th), points per game allowed (30th), and opposing third-down percentage (26th) … it doesn’t matter how much you’ve pored over every play, there’s no way that you can truly name as many as 15 defenses that have been worse.
Could the Patriots eventually work their way up to a mediocre defense? Absolutely. They’ve already shown signs of turning a corner in the past two games. But to posit that the defense we’ve seen through six weeks is merely average right now is to hurt your own reputation. It’s the kind of conclusion that should only induce eye-rolls.MORE NEWS: Wellesley Man Killed In Ipswich Mountain Bike Crash
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.