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On Football Outsiders’ poor criticism of the Packers’ player acquisition

Alternate title: charts and infographics can too easily mislead their readers.

New England Patriots v Green Bay Packers Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

I love Football Outsiders. Without them, there would be almost no analytics worth anything regarding football, and every stats-minded football fan owes them a debt of gratitude.

That said, they’re not perfect, and occasionally they put something out there that just isn’t a good idea. I remember a few years ago they decided to write this: the Secret Sauce. The “Secret Sauce” stat was initially a Baseball Prospectus staple for a few years, originally created by Nate Silver; however, at some point they realized it didn’t work and retired it.

As it turns out, playoff performance, especially in football, is too small of a sample, and too matchup dependent, for any real trends to develop.

Anyway, last night Scott Kacsmar, who is a smart football writer I have a lot of respect for, tweeted out this chart.

I have a lot of problems with this chart. It’s a bad chart, because charts and infographics are supposed to provide clarity on a complex point through a graphical display. This one obfuscates in pursuit of making a point that isn’t there. Various writers at Football Outsiders have made no bones about their issues with Ted Thompson’s strategy of player acquisition, and that’s fine. Scott made a subsequent “Wasted Prime” tweet, and then we got the stated reason for the chart:

There’s nothing at all wrong with pointing out that there are other player acquisition avenues available, and that the Packers have done themselves a disservice by not using them, but this chart is a terrible way of going about it. Why?

1. The Caveats

So many caveats. If your goal is to show that the Packers have suffered for lack of free agents and trades, you need to compare the players they acquired instead of free agent signings and trades against the players the Patriots acquired. If the Packers have acquired better players using their strategy, then this chart cuts against the Pats, not for them. This chart also leaves off players who were re-signed from 2014, which would include Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga. There’s not really a reason to leave off UDFA signings either, as quality contributors frequently come from that pool. If you leave off all of the ways that Ted Thompson acquires players, it does in fact look like he is bad at acquiring players. That leads me to my next point…

2. The shape of the chart is dishonest

If you look at this chart, the initial impression it creates is that the Patriots have brought in far more players than the Packers. That’s really not true, as the Packers are routinely among the top teams in sheer number of draft picks. In the 2017 draft the Patriots made only 4 selections, none higher than the third round due to the Brandin Cooks trade (among other moves). The Packers made 10 selections. It’s entirely possible that the Patriots were smarter about this, but the gross number of players brought in via a select method is not a good way tell.

3. The context of the chart is also dishonest

This chart includes 2017, a football season that has not yet occurred. New England has 4 “notable contributors” listed in 2017, which is, frankly, ridiculous. It is a complete judgement call as to whether those players will be key contributors or not, and while I’m reasonably certain Cooks will be (though we should keep in mind he disappeared for long stretches in 2016), it seems a bit rich to be doling this out to Gillislee and Burkhead (and yes, I think both are good players).

If you exclude 2017, which you should, you get 4 “notable” Patriots (Hogan, Bennett, Lewis, and Chandler) and 2 “notable” Packers (James Jones, Jared Cook). The very notable Scott Chandler played in 15 games, catching 23 balls for 259 yards in 2015, and suffered a potentially career-ending ACL injury. Basically, in terms of impact players we have Chris Hogan, Marty Bennett, and Dion Lewis, against Jones and Cook. If anyone wants to give Bill Belichick a big plus for bringing in the withered corpse of Reggie Wayne, fine.

4. Comparing teams to the Patriots is pointless

The Patriots are one of the most well-run organizations in pro football history, and maybe in the history of sports. This chart is attempting to show that the Packers are outliers, and they are; but so are the Patriots, who scout talent and scheme fit better than just about everyone else while employing the greatest coach in NFL history and one of the 5 best quarterbacks in NFL history. The Packer strategy is better than 90% of the rest of the league. Most teams who attempt to do what the Pats do end up embarrassing themselves.

Aside from everything else, Scott tweeted the following:

I’m honestly not sure what’s sad about this, or what sin Lance Kendricks committed (after having 50 receptions, 499 yards and 2 TDs in 2016 with Rams quarterbacks [LOL]) while Dwayne Allen (35 catches, 406 yards, 6 TDs, Andrew Luck at QB) gets the designation. I do find it, personally, sadder that the Pats have brought in Notable Scott Chandler, Martellus Bennett, (who, let’s be honest, should cancel out), Clay Harbor, Bear Pascoe, James O’Shaughnessy, and Dwayne Allen to replace a murderer.

Anyway, this chart doesn’t show anything at all about the Packer strategy of player acquisition being inferior, and in many ways it supports them. The Packers have been in constant contention for almost the entire Rodgers run; luck, more than anything else, has cost them additional Super Bowls. There is a case to be made against Thompson, and given the Packers’ recent foray into free agency, it appears that those criticisms have not fallen on deaf ears within the organization. This chart, and the arguments made around it are not what I’ve come to expect from Football Outsiders.