A Damn Analytics Story
I work in sports radio.
Everyone approaches the industry differently. Some try to embrace debate even when none is required, others try to force endless stats or useless hot takes down your ears in hopes that their style will draw you back.
Me? I just like to have fun.
It’s not exactly scientific, it’s definitely a hit and miss proposition but at the core of my CFL-centric morning show in Hamilton, I like to make people laugh because that’s what I would want MY favourite morning show to do.
The natural contradiction of this simplistic approach to radio is that I also love hard facts. The CFL conversation has lacked in advanced metrics to explain what happens in our game for far too long and continues to lag behind the monstrous amounts of media dedicated to covering American football down South.
This juggling act of fun and laughs with CFL facts and knowledge is the constant struggle of my show, but on the best days I find a way to combine the two.
The lifeblood of sports radio is the sound clip. Athletes or coaches saying things that make us think, make us angry or - again - my favourite, make us laugh.
A couple weeks ago I heard a two-minute clip from Dan D’Antoni, the Marshall University Thundering Herd basketball coach.
Dan is the brother of longtime NBA Head Coach Mike D’Antoni and has adopted many of his brothers principles in Huntington, West Virginia. The clip made me laugh, it made me cry, it even made me think as a student reporter got deconstructed for asking arguably the worst question possible of a numbers nerd like D’Antoni.
Besides the fact D’Antoni’s approach and general humour - which needs to be heard in order to be fully appreciated - are amazing, his thoughts on the physical geography of sports got me wondering how a similar concept could be applied to the CFL?
This past season 16 quarterbacks attempted in and around 100 pass attempts. Of those quarterbacks 6,537 pass plays were called.
So where was the best place to throw the football in the 2019 CFL season?
First let’s look at where CFL quarterbacks attempted passes in 2019.
Amazing how symmetrical it all is with minute differences based in the right handed nature of almost every CFL passer, individual passer tendencies and the prominence of the weak side boundary screen game employed by many teams.
If you thought those numbers were fun, how about completion percentages for all the same places..
As we continue to map out the CFL field and how CFL passers attack it there are two overwhelming fundamental storylines that require little nuance to appreciate.
1) Fewer yards in air means a high completion percentage.
2) Each throw zone can be directly correlated with specific route types and offensive style which allows each zone to tell us a story about the game.
I could talk or write about those two points for days, but let’s remember why we’re here: Certified fun numbers coach Dan D’Antoni and his coaching strategy based in the knowledge of which types of attack produce the greatest amount of production and wins.
We know where CFL quarterbacks attempted and completed passes but how do we get to understanding which plays created tangible production?
For every throw over the last three years I have assigned a ‘production grade’.
Before you all close this article because we’re about to get ‘too math-y’ remember I’m just a regular guy employed as a radio host who loves the CFL.. The math isn’t complicated.
Each play is assigned a grade (0-5) based on the end result of the play. The rules are as follows.
0 - Interception, fumble, turnover on downs.
1 - Offence has to leave the field (Turnover on downs, punt or field goal).
2 - Gain of 3 or less on 1st down OR gain on 2nd down that doesn’t allow for short yardage team on 3rd & short).
3 - Gain of 3+ on 1D or gain on 2D allowing short yardage team on 3rd & short).
4 - First down gained.
5 - Touchdown.
These grades are averaged for each throw zone and multiple by twenty to get a grade out of 100. HERE are the results.
The numbers spit out after hours and hours of tracking over the CFL season confirmed something I came to love at a young age and have always believed.
Canadian football rewards the brave.
While touchdowns are king, aggressive throws on any down are the spirit and spice of the CFL game. They create excitement, keep defences off balance and separate the games elite passers from those who will take their first read or a check down before ever challenging vertically to receive the greatest reward.
With great reward of course comes great risk, a conservative attack - such as Edmonton in the CFL’s Eastern Semifinal against Montreal - yielded a ridiculous completion percentage for QB Trevor Harris and a playoff win so what’s not like? The numbers show even aggression on first down is rewarded more in the grade scheme of CFL football as seen below by the heightened production grades beyond ten yards in air.
As for second down passing? All bets are off as the distance married to the down can vary wildly and change the approach, but the deep ball once again remains king as throws between the hashes and 30-40 yard in air led the CFL in production grade in 2019 (59.2)
The same location - between the hashes - at a depth of 20-30 yards in air - was the most productive place the throw the ball last year. So who tried that throw zone the most?
New Argos pivot Matt Nichols led the CFL in target percentage to that zone at 3.2% BUT Ticats QB Dane Evans had the most total attempts to that throw zone with 14. Of course Evans didn’t beat Nichols in target percentage because he had so many throws attempted to a variety of other places in relief of Jeremiah Masoli last season.
As for completion percentage to the CFL’s most productive throw location Redblacks turned Lions QB Will Ardnt (3/3) and Argos QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson (4/4) both topped the CFL with a perfect 100% completion rate but in a larger sample size it was again Evans (12/14) who led the way at 85.7%
So what does all of this mean?
Should CFL teams only attempt passes between the hashes from 20-30 yards in the air the same way many NBA teams seem to only shoot corner threes now?
Football is a varied game that requires accuracy, and execution to every piece of the field depending on down, distance, game situation and many more factors, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep a close eye on the money zone come June when we scrap all of 2019’s tendencies and data to tell a completely new story in 2020.
There, now I’m finished my damn analytics story.
Marshall Ferguson is a former U SPORTS Quarterback, now serving as TSN 1150 Hamilton morning show host, voice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and CFL.ca analyst.