The Truth About Bad Luck

Riley Cooper Philadelphia Eagles

Friend of the blog Justin F. wrote a post at Bleeding Green Nation in which he calculated the Eagles’ Pythagorean win percentage, a metric that estimates a team’s wins based simply on points scored and allowed. Justin notes that the Eagles jump up to just over .500 if you calculate win percentage using the Pythagorean method (compared to .385 in real life). Then he offers a common explanantion:

So why is there a such a discrepancy between the Eagles’ actual win percentage and Pythagenport win percentage?

A very good question, and the answer probably is not what people want to hear and/or believe, although it is true. In one word: luck. In two words: bad luck.

What follows in the comments at BGN is a discussion that unfortunately devolves into rambling incoherency, where the luck explanation is aligned with a belief in stats and doubters read like WIP callers. But the truth is more nuanced.

Explaning the difference between actual and Pythagorean win percentage as “bad luck” is overly simplistic. That is one possible explanation, but should not be used as an all-encompassing default. Rather, we must examine whether bad luck is actually the cause.

There are certain well-known measures for luck in the NFL. For example, fumble recovery, field goal percentage, schedule strength, and injuries. However, the Eagles haven’t had a problem with any of those.

The Eagles have recovered 48 percent of fumbles, just barely below average. They’re 10th-best in field goal percentage, with Alex Henery hitting 86 percent. Meanwhile, Eagles opponents are actually worst in the NFL, making only 65 percent of their attempts. The Eagles have faced the 18th-hardest DVOA schedule, and the three games Michael Vick lost to injury were average. No evidence of bad luck here.

However, there are plenty of other non-luck outlying factors that could account for the actual-Pythagorean discrepancy. Factors like:

  • 30th in the NFL in opponent red zone TD percentage.
  • 26th in fourth quarter points allowed.
  • 32nd in interception percentage.
  • 25th in first down-inducing penalties.
  • 19th in DVOA variance.
  • 27th in missed tackles (as of week nine).

If you’re going to call the 2011 Eagles underachieving — a label I’m not adverse to using — don’t blame it on the easy out. Luck is always involved, but it shouldn’t be an automatic determination. The above factors are much more likely to be the cause.

Photo from Getty.

Offensive Responsibility: Stop the Turnovers

Michael Vick

The number one problem with the Eagles through three games is their defense. By almost every measure other than sacks, Juan Castillo’s unit ranks near the bottom of the league. But I sense there’s a healthy sense of dissatisfaction with the offense as well.

On the surface, those concerns seem overblown. The Eagles offense, after all, ranks 10th in the NFL in points per game and sixth in yards.They have the fourth-most first downs and the fourth-highest third down conversion rate. Moreover, they’ve done all of this despite an offensive line that was hastily stitched together and having their MVP quarterback get knocked out of two games.

So what’s the problem? Obviously, after last week, short yardage and red zone concerns are high on the list of many Eagles fans. We will have to see if those issues linger through the rest of the season.

But perhaps the biggest culprit in the offense’s sporadic ineptitude has simply been turnovers. Against Atlanta Michael Vick threw an interception and lost two fumbles. Then last Sunday the Giants came away with three interceptions, one from Vick and two gifts from Mike Kafka. The Eagles currently have the 6th-worst turnover per drive ratio in the NFL.

Off those six turnovers, the Eagles opponents scored 28 points — easily the difference between winning and losing against the Falcons and Giants. A large portion of that blame rests with the Eagles defense, which needs to step up and protect the lead when the offense makes a mistake. But the defense’s ineptitude doesn’t absolve the offense of responsibility either.

Until Castillo can shore up the Eagles defense, Vick (with injured hand) and company have to be extra smart with the football. Even with a sieve of a linebacker corps, both of the last two games were winnable until the end. A few more points, a couple fewer mistakes, and maybe you start turn things around again.

Photo from Getty.

By the Numbers: Why the Eagles Lost

Michael Turner Falcons Eagles

Last night’s loss was cruel. The Eagles showed extended stretches of dominance on both offense and defense, but made vital mistakes, suffered awful injuries, and came up just short in the end. Let’s break it down with some basic statistics:

14 = The number of targets by Matt Ryan to his wide receivers, for a meager 71 yards.

14 = The number of targets by Ryan to his tight ends and running backs, for a much-less-meager 123 yards. The Eagles defense stifled the wide receivers once again, keeping them to only 5 yards per target. But the linebackers (and Jarrad Page) proved they can’t be trusted to cover at all. They let an aging Tony Gonzalez and “No Afterburner” Michael Turner rack up a ridiculous 9 yards per target, a completion percentage of 71 percent, and 3 touchdowns.

4 = Tackles for a loss by Trent Cole. It’s a testament to the Eagles ineptitude at linebacker that Cole could have such a beast of a day and the defense could still struggle to stop the run. I couldn’t see them on every play, but Casey Matthews especially took horrendous routes to away from the ballcarrier.

222 to 98 = Number of first half yards gained by the Eagles compared to the Falcons. If you’re ever asked how it’s possible to out-gain an opponent by more than twice the yards and still be down going into the half, there’s only one answer: turnovers. Take away one of those fumbles by Michael Vick, the Eagles run away with the game.

1 = Helmet-to-helmet roughing the passer personal foul on Todd Herremans. If Vick doesn’t come out of the game with a concussion at the end of the third quarter, there’s no question in my mind that the Eagles win. On that drive, the Eagles extended their come-from-behind lead to 10 points, having scored 3 touchdowns in the last 4 possessions. Meanwhile, Atlanta was foundering. On their three possessions prior to Vick’s injury, the Falcons ran 7 plays for 0 yards, an interception, and 2 punts. After, they had 2 drives with 19 plays, 170 yards, and 2 touchdowns to retake the lead. That’s called “new life.”

And yet, despite everything, if Jeremy Maclin catches that 4th and 4 pass from AJ Feeley Mike Kafka, the Eagles still might have won this game. What does that tell us? That the Falcons were lucky to sneak out with a win. If Vick comes back healthy and Andy Reid benches his in-over-his-head rookie middle linebacker, I’d make them a two touchdown favorite in a playoff rematch.

Photo from Getty.