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Amateur Hour at Pro Football Focus: discussing Aaron Rodgers' 'average' game

was just okay on Monday and Pro Football Focus is here to tell you why!

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Oh lordy lordy, what have we here. Pro Football Focus's Ben Stockwell seems to think that Blake Bortles played better than Aaron Rodgers this week.

(Looks up Bortles' stats.)


Maybe this was his "first take," if you know what I'm saying. I think we should take a deeper look. You see, I've been known to, in the past, judge sports writing and assign number grades to it in an effort to lend my subjective opinions an air of objectivity that pure sports writing statistics can NEVER quite capture. There are so many moving parts, you see. You have to understand the CONTEXT in which the writing is taking place, otherwise objective mathematics can lead you astray. But let's not waste any more time, let's dive right in. PFF's words are in bold.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers ended last night's game with a -0.8 grade overall.

If you think about it, this is actually a pretty insulting grade. Did Aaron Rodgers really play as well as future Hall of Famer Jeff Janis? (Also scoring a -0.8)*

* Note: APC's Jason Hirschhorn wrote this hall of fame level joke.

This isn't a bad game, just because the number begins with a minus, but it is an average grade very close to zero for a player who threw five touchdown passes, which seems crazy on the face of it. It's not.

This is a solid if unspectacular bit of clickbait. The wording isn't catchy and it doesn't leave you with an explicit question like the best clickbait opening paragraphs do, but it still leaves you wondering about why their crazy idea is correct. I give this a -0.5 which sounds bad, but really isn't.

On the surface, Rodgers' raw statistics paint the picture of one of the best games of the season. 333 passing yards, five touchdown passes, no interceptions, a 138.5 passer rating; Rodgers' should be supplanting Carson Palmer in our team of the week as the top quarterback, not earning a grade with a minus in front of it, right?

Modern internet audiences have short attention spans and when you've written the clickbait paragraph there's no real reason to repeat it. Sure, the heat of this take may look blazing on paper, but it is in reality just a restatement or reaffirmation of what he's already written that in some ways undermines the clickbait effect of paragraph 1. -1.0

Well, not if you dig a little deeper into Rodgers' performance on a play-by-play basis. Looking first at his touchdown passes offers a view on how raw stats inflate the perception of a solid performance. Two of his touchdown passes were good or very good throws.

One way to downplay a quarterback's touchdown throws is to counter-intuitively play on the fact that there were a lot of them. This allows you to make the claim that 3 of them, a solid majority, were "bad" or "easy" touchdown passes. Sure, two of his touchdown passes were "good" touchdown passes, but that's outweighed by the "bad" touchdown passes. Because, you see, the fact that there were five touchdown passes can confuse laypeople into thinking that throwing five touchdown passes is a good thing. And if you write "touchdown passes" enough it won't even sound special. Touchdown passes. This is elite clickbait writing. +2.0

His first touchdown pass

See. Booooooooring.

on a whip to Ty Montgomery was a good throw leading his receiver away from the coverage for the score, so it earned a positive grade. His third touchdown pass to James Jones was a good throw on a back-shoulder pass yet again taking advantage of a free play, so it earned a positive grade.

You want to create an air of reasonableness when you write outlandish nonsense, and it's smart to concede to a few popular opinions upfront to give yourself some credibility. +1.0

The other three touchdowns, however, were passes thrown short of the end zone on speed outs to Randall Cobb.

Had Ben consulted the web site "Pro Football Focus" and used their "Premium Stats" section to look at wide receivers, he would have seen that Randall Cobb ranked 4th in "yards after catch" or YAC in 2014 and is currently 9th in 2015. Throwing the ball on time and accurately to Randall Cobb in space is a great idea to drive a productive offense. But I'm a bit of a "stats guy" and I know that not everyone knows about these sites, so we'll cut him some slack. 0.0

Were they bad throws? No, they were expected throws with the credit going to Cobb for fighting through contact or defeating the coverage with speed to the edge. That makes these zero-graded throws: Three passes that have a massive effect on Rodgers' statistical performance but do not increase his grade.

These were easy touchdown passes because in professional football there are certain passes that are easy, and some of those are touchdown passes. I'm sure that had Rodgers' passes made Cobb lunge, or arrived a bit late, allowing the defense to close, that Rodgers would have gotten dinged, but who says that positives and negatives need to balance out. Not PFF! There was no upside on a pass play for Rodgers in this scenario that resulted in a touchdown pass. 0.0

However, those touchdown passes aren't the story of what takes Rodgers' grade from a grade with a plus in front of it to a grade with a minus in front of it. The story of what takes Rodgers' grade below zero are two plays that you aren't likely to see mentioned anywhere else today, but are taken into account of in a play-by-play grading system.

Oh, good. Maybe they'll mention how Rodgers was 5-of-7 for 143 yards and a touchdown on throws over 13 yards like Football Outsiders did.

1. Rodgers had a fumble, which displayed poor pocket management, with 8:39 remaining in the second quarter. That play earned a negative grade.

Or maybe not. It's important to remember that these observations require context, but apparently not too much context because on this 3rd-and-2 play the fumble in question happened after Rodgers spent a very long time moving in the pocket, and was eventually wiped out by an illegal contact penalty on Marcus Cooper. It's entirely likely that Rodgers saw the flag fly, figured out that he had a free play, and tried to buy time for a big strike. But that's a lot of context and it's easier to just call it a fumble, even though it never technically, you know, happened. 1.0 for going with simplicity and clarity over accuracy.

2. With 12:58 remaining in the third quarter, Rodgers forced a pass that Josh Mauga could and possibly should have been returned for six points for Kansas City. If Mauga makes this interception, it would have tacked an ugly interception onto Rodgers' stat line. Instead, Rodgers maintained his interception-less streak at Lambeau field, but it is a negatively graded play regardless. These are poor plays on Rodgers' part that bring his game grade down that won't show up on any widely quoted statistical analysis of his performance.

Another good clickbait trick is to pretend that one-off events are huge, informative samples of data. The fact is that most quarterbacks throw interceptable passes every game. Sometimes players drop them. If you throw fewer, like Rodgers does, then those drops hurt even more because you've wasted a rare opportunity. I'm fine dinging Aaron for an interceptable pass, if that's how you see it, but it was just one pass, and again, technically, not an interception. 1.0 for showing imagination!

Context is crucial with everything in football,

Football Outsiders mentioned those awesome deep passing stats. They also mentioned that Rodgers was 7-for-7 for 75 yards and 3 TDs on throws within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage. PFF would have you believe that he is a big factor in those deep throws but not on the 100% perfect short throws on the three touchdowns to Cobb. So yes, context is really crucial. Especially when you're using a "play-by-play" grading system that isn't allowed to look at other plays for, uhm, context.

and if you believe we are saying that Rodgers had a poor game last night because his grade has a minus in front of it, then let me set your mind at ease; I do not think Rodgers played a poor, subpar game last night and neither does anybody else at Pro Football Focus.

"We do not believe what we are writing here, but we need hits man. Bad." 1.0 for honesty.

Rodgers did his job last night, but his job was executing simple throws, putting the ball quickly in the hands of receivers like Randall Cobb in favorable matchups on short throws, and allowing others to do the heavy lifting.

The idea that credit for YAC on short throws should go primarily to the receiver is an interesting one. It sounds good if you're not thinking about it too hard, which is fantastic for clickbait. But then you start to remember deep throws where big receivers attack the catch point over smaller corners, and you think about how close to the line space is compressed and windows are tighter, how a throw that is off even by a little will allow the defense time to close, and how you can't throw over the line as easily because short passes are thrown with less arc. And then it doesn't seem like such a good clickbait idea. -2.0

But for a couple of poor plays, his overall grade would have matched the sort of grade that you would be expecting to see from him, but those poor plays, coupled with the relative ease of some of his scores mean his performance last night was far closer to average than it was to the fantastic performance the box score suggests.

The degree of difficulty angle hurt Rodgers in the short program. We'll see if he tries a more challenging routine in the free skate. 0.0

The context surrounding his grade is crucial.

Ben keeps saying this, but in play-by-play grading context is almost never present. I mean, he's actually right, that it's crucial, but PFF simply doesn't provide it. They didn't provide it last week when they graded Don Barclay absurdly low even though he obviously executed the game plan well, and they ignored it this week with Rodgers, ignoring his ability to target easy matchups, call plays, and make pre-snap reads. All of those things count as "context." Pretending you are accounting for something important when you're actually ignoring it is classic clickbait. +1.0

The greatness of Rodgers' performance last night was in the intangibles.

Intangibles are things that are not easily quantifiable by statistics, or are otherwise not easily observed. Things like team chemistry and leadership are intangibles. Let's see what intangibles Rodgers excelled at last night!

Recognizing the blitz, drawing the defense offsides, catching the Chiefs in bad situations and exploiting those scenarios with simple passes to open receivers.

Recognizing the blitz is, in fact, so tangible that the website Pro Football Focus, which Ben should really check out, actually issues grades to quarterbacks for it. So far in 2015 Rodgers has an absurdly low +1.0 grade when blitzed, and a solid +6.1 "under pressure". You can see it here, if you have a subscription.

As for drawing people offsides, well...

And most hilariously, regarding simple passes to open receivers, as Ben previously mentioned, we know they happened (and are therefore tangible) but we choose to ignore them as intangible even though we know they happened and are tangible. We'll give that a "Catch +2.2."

But you cannot — and we do not try to — quantify intangibles,

No, I totally can and did. Try it, try it and you may. Try it and you may I say. Just because something is difficult doesn't make it intangible. 0.0, the intangible number.

or what comes pre-snap. Our system grades what can be graded — the execution of the play post-snap — and in that regard Rodgers did not stand out in the same way that his statistics did.

The best clickbait farewell is always to claim that you did everything you could, and people may not like it, but you did everything you could. The idea that PFF measures everything that can be measured is almost hysterically laughable. Compared to baseball, football analytics are still in their infancy. If I made a model that gave me the output PFF is trying to defend here, I would take that model out to a field and set it on fire. Or delete the code and start over. Either way.

This is either stupid or Skip Baylessian, and either way it's awful. I'm sure their hits are up this week, but I'm also sure I will probably never use their numbers again except in this context. Context is everything, after all.

(Total, +4.7. Elite Clickbait)