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Seven Deadly Statistical Sins in the NFL (Part I)

For anybody who ever attended Sunday school, it was a foregone conclusion that the Saints would win the Super Bowl. Staying with this metaphor, you cannot help but come to the conclusion that where there is one Saint, there must be 31 sinners. 

To understand 31 teams' transgressions and the severity of their sins, I have looked at the 2009 regular season statistics - all 256 games have been put under the statistical microscope - to uncover the seven deadly statistical sins in the NFL that will lead you straight into the hell that is a losing record and deny you postseason heaven.

Here, then, are the first four keys to NFL salvation, with the remainder to follow in the coming days. The percentages and the games won/lost below refer to the probability of losing when committing each of the seven deadly statistical sins.

The message is clear: repent from your sins, for the next Super Bowl is nigh!

More after the jump...

The Seven Deadly Statistical Sins in the NFL

1. Wrath, also known as anger or "rage", may manifest as impatience (offsides), the desire to seek revenge outside of the workings of the justice system (personal fouls) or uncontrolled feelings of anger and frustration (holding).

Allowing more penalty yards: 55 percent (138 losses out of 252 games)

The team that has more penalty yards in a game lost 55 percent of the time in the 2009 season. This is not a lot, in fact it is so close to even, that it may not look like a mortal sin at all. Looking at the penalty yard differential (own penalty yards minus opponents penalty yards), reveals why this remains a deadly sin nevertheless:

Losing probability by penalty yard differential, 2009 regular season

Penalty yard differential 1-10 yards
11-20 yards 21-30 yards 31-40 yards 41-50 yards 50 + yards
Losing %-age 51% 44% 48% 52% 73% 82%
Losing record 29-57 26-59 20-42 21-40 16-22 26-32


If your team gets penalized for up to 40 yards more than your opponent, do not worry. Statistically, this has no correlation with the game outcome whatsoever. This also explains why not just two of the five least penalized teams made the playoffs (SD, IND), but four out of the five most heavily penalized teams (BAL, GB, PHI, DAL) did as well.

However, when you cross the 40-yard threshold, you should start worrying, as the odds of winning that game decline rapidly with every extra penalty yard tacked on.

Notes for the stat geek: Only four games out of 256 were even in terms of penalty yards for both teams. Biggest statistical outlier: Green Bay vs. Detroit in week six - the Packers accrue 90 more penalty yards than the Lions and still go on to win 26-0.

2. Lust, manifesting as the desire to give it up to opposing quarterbacks like it's spring break.

Allowing a 300-yard passer: 64 percent (67 losses out of 104 games)

Now, some of you may argue that 64 percent isn't really that high. Fair enough, but consider that traditionally, the 300+ passer was a 50/50 proposition in the NFL, and only recently has that trend changed.

Never before in the Super Bowl Era have there been more 300+ yards passers in a season than this year (both in absolute terms and and relative to the number of games played). But what's even more astounding is that this year the winning percentage in 300+ passing yard games is an unprecedented .644.

300+ passing yards games per NFL regular season, Super Bowl era, min. 26 teams

70-77 78-93 94-01 02-07 2008 2009
300+ passing games/season 7.5 51.4 62.6 71.7 76 104
No. of teams/season
26 -28 28 30-31 32 32 32
Win percentage .500 .482 .531 .509 .618 .644

The period in NFL history through 1977 is occasionally referred to as the Dead Ball Era, as it was ruled by low scores and stifling defensive play. Many of the most famous defenses of modern NFL history – Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain, our very own Doomsday Defense, Minnesota's Purple People Eaters and the Rams' Fearsome Foursome – all played during that time.

In 1978 the NFL instituted sweeping rule changes to increase the pace of scoring which resulted in significantly higher offensive statistics, particularly in the passing game. Some examples: the league made it illegal for defenders to contact receivers more than five yards off the line, penalties for intentional grounding were reduced, offensive linemen were allowed to open their hands and extend their arms while pass-blocking (read: hold), a seventh official was added to monitor pass interference downfield, and referees were instructed to stop the play when a QB was in the grasp of an opponent.

More recent rule changes have put more emphasis on protecting the quarterback and calling contact down the field on defensive backs, making the passing game easier than ever before. Look at the numbers below: Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub and Tony Romo each had more 300+ passing games in the 2009 season alone than the entire NFL averaged per season between 1970 and 1977.

League Leaders 300+ passing games by QB, 2009 regular season

P.Manning Schaub Romo Brees Brady
Favre Rivers Roethlisberger Rodgers
# of 300+ games
9 9 8 7 7 6 5 5 5
9-0 5-4 7-1 7-0 5-2 4-2 4-1 4-1 3-2


3. Gluttony. Medieval church leaders took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it could also include an obsessive anticipation of meals, or in NFL speak, trying to get off the field as quickly as possible to gorge on the Gatorade or the occasional hot dog.

Losing the Time of Possession battle: 69 percent (168-243, excluding 13 games decided in OT).

This is not rocket science. The longer your opponent has the ball, the more likely it is that he will manage to score and win the game.

Losing probability by TOP, 2009 regular season

30:00 - 28:00
27:59 - 26:00 25:59 - 24:00 < 24:00 minutes
Losing %-age 61% 63% 73% 87%
Losing record 51-83 42-67 30-41 45-52


A TOP differential of up to eight minutes (34:00 TOP for one team, 26:00 TOP for the other) still seems to be manageable with a losing percentage of 62%. It's when you drop below 26:00 TOP that all your troubles suddenly seem a lot closer.

Like any good rule though, there are exceptions. The Colts (27:40 TOP) and the Eagles (28:14 TOP) were the only teams with a season average TOP differential of more than two minutes per game to make it to the postseason. In both teams' cases this inability to dominate the clock may have had something to do with their anemic rushing games.

Rush Yards in % of total yards vs. TOP differential, 2009 regular season

NFL Rank rush yards in % total yards 32 (22%) 28 (29%)
NFL rank TOP 31 (27:40)
28 (28:14)


Notes for the stat aficionado: Indy stands out in TOP in 2009 for a couple of reasons. The 14-2 Colts lost the TOP battle in 11 out of 16 games last season, only Chicago (12) and Kansas City (13) played possum more often. In their week two game against Miami, the Colts held the ball for a 2009 league low total of 14:53, and still managed to win the game 27-23. Oakland, of all teams, is the only team to win twice last year with a TOP below 24 minutes, 13-10 against the Chiefs (21:21 TOP) and 20-17 against the Bengals (21:36).

4. Envy can be defined as an emotion that "occurs when a person lacks another's (perceived) superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it."[1] ... or in NFL terms: Why don't we have Chris Johnson on our team?

Allowing a 100-yard runner: 70 percent (81 losses out of 116 games)

While there admittedly is a high correlation between allowing a 100+ yard rusher and losing, this may be the clearest case of the seven sins where cause and effect are often confused. I may look at this in more detail in a future post, suffice it to say that in general, winning teams generate more rushing yards mostly because their RBs are running out the clock at the end of wins, not because they are dominating early in games. You run when you win, not win when you run. 

For more on correlation and causation, read Football Outsiders classic reflection on genuflection, "On bended Knee".


More in the coming days in Part II of the Seven Deadly Statistical Sins in the NFL. Care to take a guess what they'll be?

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