Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hi-Yo Silver, Away! ('Til Sunday)

In a post to this blog on February 6, 2011, Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas was quoted from an interview before Super Bowl VI between the Cowboys and the Miami Dolpins in 1971. One of the writers asked Thomas how it felt to play in the "ultimate game." Thomas replied: "If it's the ultimate game, how come they're playing it again next year?" Amen, Duane. Super Bowl XLVII will command a massive audience this coming Sunday. However, the super prognosticator — Nate Silver — picks the Niners over the Ravens. Disclaimer: don't bet the farm on that tip. If this is (fair & balanced) pigskin augury, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
Nate Silver Picks The Super Bowl!
By Nate Silver

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Does defense win championships? Stat-geek sports fans like me tend to distrust this old saying. Scoring a point helps just as much as allowing one hurts. And in football, the proposition risks ignoring the role played by the likes of Tom Brady.

It is the case, however, that the better defensive team has usually won the Super Bowl — and done so far more consistently than offensive juggernauts. The Web site Pro Football Reference publishes a statistic called the Simple Rating System (S.R.S.), which evaluates each team’s offense and defense based on the number of points it scored and allowed relative to the league average and adjusted for strength of schedule. Of the 92 teams to have played in the Super Bowl before this year, I identified those with the 20 best defensive and offensive ratings, according to S.R.S. (see charts above). The defensive list contains teams that you would expect, like the 1985 Bears. These teams have compiled a 14-6 record (.700) in the Super Bowl. Their winning percentage is actually nearly 80 percent when you ignore the three cases, Super Bowls IV, VIII and XLV, when two of the all-time great defensive teams faced each other.

The 20 best offensive teams, however, are just 10-10 in the Super Bowl. There have been successes in this group, like the Saints under Drew Brees, but there have been just as many failures, including two of Brady’s Patriots teams. (During his three championships, the Patriots had a much better balance between offense and defense.)

The reasons that exceptional defenses fare so much better in the Super Bowl are still somewhat murky, but this factor bodes well for this year’s 49ers, whose defense belongs in the elite group, according to S.R.S. (it ranks 17th among Super Bowl teams). The Ravens, despite all the hype surrounding Ray Lewis, allowed a rather pedestrian 21.5 points per game this year. The 49ers also have the better offense, according to S.R.S., so there isn’t much to recommend the Ravens... unless you look at the more sophisticated rankings published by Football Outsiders. Their system, known as Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (D.V.O.A.), accounts for a team’s success or failure on every play it ran during the year and not just on final scores.

Those rankings find that while the 49ers had the better offense and defense, the Ravens had the best special teams in the league this year. If they do pull off the upset, on the heels of Steve Weatherford’s game-changing performance for the Giants in last year’s Super Bowl, perhaps it will be time for a new cliché: punters win championships. But don’t count on that. Ω

[Nathaniel Read "Nate" Silver is a statistician, sabermetrician, psephologist, and writer. Silver first gained public recognition for developing PECOTA, a system for forecasting the performance and career development of Major League Baseball players, which he sold to and then managed for Baseball Prospectus from 2003 to 2009. In 2007, writing under the pseudonym "Poblano", Silver began to publish analyses and predictions related to the 2008 United States presidential election. At first this work appeared on the political blog Daily Kos, but in March 2008 Silver established his own website, By summer of that year, after he revealed his identity to his readers, he began to appear as an electoral and political analyst in national print, online, and cable news media. The accuracy of his November 2008 presidential election predictions — he correctly predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states — won Silver further attention and commendation. The only state he missed was Indiana, which went for Barack Obama by one percentage point. He correctly predicted the winner of all 35 U.S. Senate races that year. In the 2012 United States presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, he correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.[9] That same year, Silver's predictions of U.S. Senate races were correct in 31 of 33 states; he predicted Republican victory in North Dakota and Montana, where Democrats won. His book, The Signal and the Noise (2012), reached The New York Times best seller list for nonfiction, and was named by as the #1 best nonfiction book of 2012.]

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