Football Outsiders and the 49ers: Player Stats through Week 11

I was looking through my previous posts and just realized that I haven't given you guys a full-fledged player stats article since the bye week. A lot's changed since then, especially on OFF, so it's just as well I've given the new additions enough time to give us a valid look at their performance. Nevertheless, consider this my atonement. It'll be informative...and short! That's definitely a win-win, no?

This week, QBs need a total of at least 83 passes to qualify as having valid FO stats, RBs need at least 88 carries, WRs need at least 35 targets, and TEs need at least 17 targets. Isaac Bruce has been relegated to "The Invisible Man," but his replacement, Jason Hill, doesn't have nearly enough targets (only 7) to qualify. Also, although Shaun Hill qualifies, it's kind of pointless to talk about his stats. Therefore, the players I'll be breaking down this week are Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, and Vernon Davis. I'll also, of course, be presenting FO stats for the OL, the defensive front 7 (DF7), and the secondary.

QUARTERBACKS

Here are Smith's stats through 167 passes this season (bold = ranked 8th or better [top 25% of starters]; italics = ranked 25th or worse [bottom 25% of starters]):

DYAR per Pass

Rank

EYds per Pass

Rank

DVOA

Rank

0.20

25

5.23

25

-7.9%

25

YAR per Pass

Rank

Yds per Pass

Rank

VOA

Rank

0.12

25

5.81

24

-9.2%

25

You'll notice that I've changed DYAR and YAR into "per-opportunity" statistics. Doing this (a) removes the advantage of having more opportunities to accrue yardage; and (b) allows us to, in a way, look at how valuable a player is to his offense each time his offense gives him an opportunity to show his value. I think that's pretty useful to know.

From the uniformity of Smith's rankings, we can rename him "25th best QB in the NFL." Although this doesn't look so good for him, I'll point out a couple of things that make Smith's glass half-full. First, keep in mind that Smith has a positive DYAR/P, meaning that he's actually more valuable to the 49ers' OFF on a per-pass basis than an average replacement would be. In other words, an average replacement would only be averaging 5.61 yards per pass (i.e., 5.81 minus 0.20), so it's good news for the Niners that Smith is the one out there taking snaps. Second, there are only 25 QBs in the NFL who have a positive DYAR/P, so you can say Smith is among the group of NFL QBs who should not be replaced by an average backup.

Third, keep in mind that, when Smith took over at QB, Shaun Hill had a negative DYAR/P of -0.48 (would currently rank 31st), and a much more negative DVOA of -27.1% (currently ranks 35th). Therefore, what we can say about Smith is that, although there's plenty of room for improvement, his stats provide indisputable evidence that Mike Singletary made the right move in making Smith the 49ers' starting QB. Of course, the move seems to have been about 7 weeks late, but that's a matter for a different day.

After the jump, I'll present and discuss the rest of the stats ...

RUNNING BACKS

Here are Gore's stats through 112 carries so far this season (bold = ranked 8th or better; italics = ranked 25th or worse):

DYAR per Run

Rank

EYds per Run

Rank

DVOA

Rank

0.58

17

4.38

22

6.2%

16

YAR per Run

Rank

Yds per Run

Rank

VOA

Rank

0.48

20

5.46

3

3.6%

18

The moral of the story in this table is three-fold. First, he's over half-a-yard more valuable to the Niners' OFF than an average replacement, who would be giving the team 4.88 yards per run instead of Gore's 5.46. Second, despite the fact that his yards are more valuable than those from an average replacement, he's still only the 17th-most valuable RB in the NFL right now, which goes to show you how minimized his role has become in the OFF.

Finally, and most importantly, it's clear that Gore's astronomical Yards per Run stat is a statistical mirage due to the fact that raw NFL stats assume every yard is created equally; which you should know by now is simply not true. One thing his raw rushing average totally ignores is the effect of game situation. To see what I mean, take a look at the discrepancy between his Yards per Run ranking and his EYds per Run ranking. EYds accounts for both game situation and opponent, but based on the small discrepancy between his DVOA and VOA - which only differ because of opponent adjustments -we can basically rule out strength of schedule as a factor. Therefore, game situation is the major adjustment factor that causes Gore's EYds per Run to be over 1 yard lower than his raw rushing average.

A second thing his rushing average ignores is the difference between a mean, a mode, and a median. In statistics, a mean is just the raw average of a set of numbers, a mode is the most-typical number in the set, and a median is the 50th percentile of the set (i.e., the number smack dab in the middle if you listed the set in ascending order).

Obviously, the mean of Gore's carries is just his raw rushing average of 5.46. To get the mode and median, I've taken the time, using play-by-plays, to find out the yardage Gore gained on each of his 112 carries this season. Much to no one's surprise, the mode and median expose his average's mirage. Specifically, the mode of Gore's carries this season (i.e., his most-typical gain on a given carry) is only 3 yards. Similarly, the median of Gore's carries this season (i.e., the yardage value smack dab in the middle of all 112 carries) is also 3 yards.

So, you see, Gore's rushing average is so high because it totally ignores the fact that he's had 4 carries of over 40 yards this season. In fact, if you take out those 4 carries, his raw rushing average decreases all the way down to 3.21, which, given Gore's mode and median, is a much more accurate reflection of what the 49ers' OFF can expect from him on a given carry. And just so you don't think I'm being unfair by replacing those 4 runs with 0 total yards, his average is still only 3.46 if I instead replace them with 10 yards each. Of course, now I'm probably being too generous because Gore has only 10 carries this season of 10 yards or more (aka only 8.9% of his carries).

Here's why this whole mean, mode, and median thing matters. FO's research shows that, all else being equal, a RB who's consistently "successful" from carry to carry is better for an OFF than a RB who's of the "boom or bust" variety. So far in 2009, Frank Gore has clearly been the latter according to his mode and median. That's because, based on the methods behind DVOA and years of football research, a 3-yard gain can only be "successful" on 2nd & 5 or less and 3rd & 3 or less. In every other down-and-distance situation, Gore's typical 3-yard run is an "unsuccessful" carry. And just in case you don't believe me, here's one more stat for you: Only 39% of Gore's carries this season have been "successful" given the down and distance in which they occurred, which ranks him - wait for it - 32nd among qualifying RBs.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Crabtree's our new #1 WR, so I'll present his stats first. Here they are through 36 targets so far this season (bold = ranked 16th or better; italics = ranked 49th or worse):

DYAR per Target

Rank

EYds per Target

Rank

DVOA

Rank

-0.22

60

5.47

67

-15.7%

62

YAR per Target

Rank

Yds per Target

Rank

VOA

Rank

0.03

58

8.11

33

-12.3%

58

Obviously, this doesn't look very good. I probably don't have to say this but, I'm not worried about Crabs in the least bit, regardless of what these stats say. And, basically, what they're saying is that he's (a) a rookie, and (b) he's been making a lot of pretty-meaningless catches this season. We've seen that he has the talent to be much better than what's displayed above; he just needs time and competent offensive technicians at OC and QB. So the key for me is seeing whether, and by how much, these stats improve as those things emerge. Averaging over 7 Targets per Game is a good start on the "time" front.

Here are Morgan's stats through 43 targets so far this season:

DYAR per Target

Rank

EYds per Target

Rank

DVOA

Rank

0.16

55

6.56

54

-10.5%

55

YAR per Target

Rank

Yds per Target

Rank

VOA

Rank

0.42

50

7.09

51

-7.3%

50

When last I gave you Morgan's stats, which were based on only 16 Targets, his DYAR/T was 2.27 (20th) and his DVOA was 17.2% (also 20th). To say that the last 27 targets have not been kind to him would be a gross understatement. Again, however, I wouldn't be too hard on Morgan right now. As was the case with Crabtree, Morgan's still a youngster, so one thing he needs is time. Furthermore, his last 27 Targets perfectly coincide with Crabtree taking his spot in the starting lineup, the byproduct of which was Morgan's switch from one WR position to the other. In other words, he's learning an entirely new WR position, so, for all intents and purposes, he's a rookie all over again. Honestly, irrespective of the stats, I'm more hopeful about the 49ers' WR corps than I've been at any time since the days of Terrell Owens, Jerry Rice.

TIGHT ENDS

Here are VD's stats through 83 targets (bold = ranked 8th or better; italics = ranked 25th or worse):

DYAR per Target

Rank

EYds per Target

Rank

DVOA

Rank

1.08

17

7.53

21

10.4%

18

YAR per Target

Rank

Yds per Target

Rank

VOA

Rank

1.10

19

7.24

22

10.6%

18

VD's stats are a good illustration of why looking at per-target stats is a more accurate way of going about things. That's because he's actually ranked 10th among TEs in total DYAR right now, but being the most-targeted TE in the NFL has given him an opportunity advantage over the competition. This is not to say that the per-target stats above are some kind of mirage like Gore's were. Rather, it just shows the importance of factoring out targets when looking at the stats; which I've done for you in the table.

The important thing to take away from the table is that VD's DYAR/T and DVOA are easily the best among skill-position players on the 49ers. His targets have been both valuable and efficient this season, and that's what matters most. His lower-than-expected rankings are just a byproduct of the fact that VD's been targeted over twice as many times as the average qualified TE. I'd say being that much of a focus in the game plan is as good a measure as any when it comes to how "valuable" VD is to SF's OFF. Oh, and one other thing, all of the stats in the table are higher than what they were when Smith took over in Week 7.

OFFENSIVE LINE

I already showed you yesterday how much the OL sucks based on their overall ALY, so all that's left is their directional ALY stats. Here's the now-familiar chart, except I've added the now-familiar italics/bold scheme:

2009_49ers_week_11_aly__ol__medium 

Compared to what they were since the last time I presented them, the OFF has fallen even further in love with running up the middle, and the OL has improved considerably on LE runs at the expense of performance in all other directions. You already know my feelings about the "we <3 the middle" thing, but I have absolutely no clue why they're so good at blocking on LE runs when compared to other directions or about why they've improved so much in LE blocking. My only guess is that their RBs have only run to the outside left 13 times this season, so that small of a sample size means (a) their LE ALY might be skewed by a couple of long runs in that direction, and (b) there's a whole lot of volatility in the stat from one carry to the next. I welcome your theories in the comments section.

DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN

I told you yesterday that the Niners' DF7 is flat-out awesome. Below is a chart showing the DF7's awesomeness in specific run directions (bold = top 8; italics = bottom 8):

2009_49ers_week_11_aly__dl__medium 

There are a couple of interesting things shown in this chart. First, when compared with the last time I presented them, the DF7 has gotten unbelievably better in all directions except RE, and are actually now in the top 8 on runs behind LT, where they used to be ranked 29th. Aside from the LT ALY, this is bona fide improvement. However, with LT ALY, this is as much a "regression to the mean" thing as it is bona fide improvement because the DF7 has, to date, still only faced 10 RB carries in that direction. Justin Smith couldn't have been that bad before, after all. Also, similar to what I said about VD, the fact that SF opponents have only run the ball 10 times behind LT says more about how valuable Justin Smith and Patrick Willis are to their run DEF than their LT ALY ever could.

Second, let's go back to that increasing RE ALY. Back when the DF7 was ranked #1 at stopping runs to the outside right, I made the point that it had a lot to do with Nate Clements' SS-like ability to help out in the run game. Therefore, to me, the fact that they've dropped 10 spots in the rankings since Week 5 seems wholly explained by its coincidence with Clements' absence.  As much as I love Terell Brown, he - nor most any other CB - is even in the same universe as Clements when it comes to run-stopping ability. The good news is that they've only dropped 10 spots since Clements got benched/injured, and are still ranked in the top half of the league. Let's see if that continues with Dre "Premature Celebration" Bly taking Brown's place on that side.

DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD

Finally, here's the chart showing stats for the secondary against various intended receivers:

2009_49ers_week_11_aly__vs 

Speaking of Brown's demotion, it turns out that the Niners' secondary actually improved after he took over for Clements: they're now 13.6% more efficient against #1 WRs. Furthermore, they're now the #1 secondary in the league when it comes to defending their opponent's #2 WRs, and have moved up from 6th to 3rd in defending TEs. So, let me get this straight. After Brown replaces Clements, the secondary shows an across-the-board journey into ReallyDamnGoodLand, and the DF7 hasn't lost much in terms of stopping runs to the outside right. So what's the pressing roster move that needs to be made after the Packers loss? Benching Brown and promoting Bly, of course. Makes perfect sense. Seriously, as much as I realize that NFL coaches know more about football than all of the fans combined, it drives me absolutely insane when the stats so clearly show one thing, and they do the exact opposite.

Oh, and by the way, what I've just shown you about the effect of Clements' absence kind of proves my point after 5 games about perhaps moving Clements to SS in the future. It sure looks like the Niners' DEF hasn't lost much without him at LCB. How about letting him focus on the one good thing he's awesome at: stopping the run?

BOTTOM LINE

OK, so through 10 games, we can draw the following conclusions about several players on the 2009 49ers:

  1. Alex Smith: Better than Hill.
  2. Frank Gore: Victim of "up the middle for no gain."
  3. Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan: Give them time.
  4. Vernon Davis: The 49ers' OFF.
  5. The OL: Still not "imposing their will."
  6. The DF7: "Imposing their will."
  7. The secondary: Better without Nate.

Later this morning: 49ers-Jaguars game matchup.

 

 

**DVOA, DYAR, EYds, and ALY statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

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