The Chiefs Through The Lens Of Gridiron Rank

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A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the extreme contrast in performance by the Chiefs’ offensive and defensive units in the 2013 seasons, and wondered aloud which one was closer to reality.

Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for more numbers that can help tell the story of the 2013 roller coaster and give a better understanding of the team’s strengths and weaknesses. That search led me to Gridiron Rank, a new analytics site put together by Ivy-Leaguers Maxwell and David Lyons.

Gridiron distinguishes itself by ranking teams not by the raw stats that they produce, but by looking at how they performed in each situation as compared to how teams historically have done. For instance, Gridiron Rank does not penalize team defenses for giving up a field goal when their offense turned the ball over forcing them to defend at the 10-yard line. Similarly, their system rewards offenses that are able to make the most out of their field position.

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To cut to the chase for the Chiefs, Kansas City ranked 8th in the league in overall Team Production and 19th in Offensive Production for the year. Meanwhile, the team finished with the 6th-highest Defensive Production, although it ranked 21st in the league for yards allowed.

To go a bit deeper, I got in touch with Gridiron Rank CEO Maxwell Lyons who answered some questions about their system and what it says about the Chiefs’ 2013 season.

Q: It seems like much of your motivation for putting together Gridiron Rank was to counter some of the short-sighted narratives in today’s NFL. Since you’ve been digging into the numbers, what were some of the things that have surprised you through the process?

A: As you mentioned, Gridironrank was definitely created with the intention of telling a more detailed story than the short-sighted metrics like yards or points allowed/gained could tell. With that said, probably the most counter-intuitive thing I have found is that the numbers suggest that teams are too short-sighted with their decision-making in games. The statistics we have created reward teams that take more risks (like going for it on 4th down) once they get close to the red zone because even if they don’t pick up a new set of downs, their opponent has to start a drive in bad field position. Teams seem to put too much weight on the outcome of individual drives instead of thinking in terms of increasing the likelihood that they will score next before their opponents.

Q: Likewise, what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about teams and their performance?

A: I think misconceptions of team performance come from the fact that offenses and defenses can become productive in different ways. For example, the San Diego Chargers had a very productive offense even though they don’t fit the mold of the typical high-powered offense that puts up a ton of points. Based on our Offensive Productivity Statistic (OPS), the Chargers were the 2nd best offense in 2013, despite the fact that ranked 12th in points scored (24.8 points/game). The reason for this is that they actually had the fewest offensive drives of any team last year, but were highly efficient with the few drives that they had. 43% of their drives had a positive OPS score, meaning that they were above average on 43% of their drives. This was good for 2nd most efficient in the league (to Denver’s 46%) and better than the 3rdplace Saints by 4%. This effectiveness doesn’t show up in the traditional statistics because their lack of drives prevented them from being able to increase their points/yardage output.

Similarly, on the defensive side of the ball you could make a similar argument between Cincinatti and Carolina. Traditional stats had Carolina as the 2nd best defense, allowing 15.1 points and 296 yards per game, and Cincinatti  as the 5th best, allowing 19.1 points and 321 yards per game, but Carolina had the 3rd fewest drives to defend against and Cincinnatti had the 13th most. Cincinnatti was more effective per drive, with a positive Defensive Productivity Statistics (DPS) on 77% of their drives, compared to Carolina’s 73%, but the Bengals had 31 more drives to defend against than the Panthers did.

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