NFL

Alex Smith, Cam Newton, and Deceptive Numbers

Earlier this week, Alex Smith made some comments about his disdain for yardage totals. In doing so, he invoked Cam Newton’s name as an example of how high yardage totals doesn’t mean wins.

“I could absolutely care less on yards per game,” Smith told a group of reporters. “I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you’re losing games in the second half, guess what, you’re like the Carolina Panthers and you’re going no-huddle the entire second half. Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That’s great. You’re not winning, though.”

Jonathan Beason, the middle linebacker for Carolina who missed most of last season with an Achilles injury, fired back in support of his own quarterback on Twitter. “Alex smith, don’t hate on Cam (because) your stats would’ve gotten u cut if Peyton decided to come 2 San Fran. Truth b told. That’s after a 13-3 yr.”

First, I agree that numbers can be deceptive and yards per game is a bad indicator of quarterback quality.

Of course, judging a quarterback by wins, independent of his defense, is a bad indicator as well. Also, interceptions are the thing that least carries over from year to year among quarterbacks and is a general a bad indicator of success going forward. Alex Smith’s numbers were actually very identical to the previous year, when he was not considered very good, except for one thing: an abnormally low interception rate (1.1%).

That interception rate, league adjusted to the 2012 results, was the 11th best interception rate since 1990. The ten quarterbacks in front of him, the next year? Their interception rate was exactly league average, with 5 finishing better than average and five worse a year later.

We can also compare Alex Smith and Cam Newton’s best games and worst games. Using the top 6 and bottom 6 games for each by adjusted yards per pass, we see that Newton was slightly better in his best games: 9.6 yards per attempt and 12 td’s to 1 int, versus 8.7 yards per attempt and 10 td’s and 0 interceptions for Smith. Newton’s offense scored more as well, 31.5 to 28.5. The difference was on defense. In Smith’s best games, San Francisco gave up 12.3 points, while Carolina gave up an average of 20. Thus, the 49ers were 6-0 when Smith was at his best while the Panthers were 4-2 when Newton was most efficient.

At the other end, Newton had a better yards per attempt in bad games (6.3 vs. 5.5) but a way worse interception rate (5 td/11 int for Newton; 2 td/2 int for Smith). Again, the 49ers were a very similar 14 points per game allowed even when Smith was bad, while the Panthers jumped to 32.7 allowed. The result? San Francisco was still 4-2 in bad Smith games, while the Panthers were 1-5 when Newton struggled.

Interceptions can run both ways. Some of Newton’s no doubt led to the opponent getting better field position and easier scores. Playing with a defense that gave up a lot of points, though, also led to greater risk taking when they fell behind. Similarly, when your defense gives up 14 points a game even when you play poorly, you don’t have to take risks.

Smith may think passing totals are deceptive, and they can be, but so are all numbers. And the numbers suggest that Alex Smith better hope he doesn’t regress to career averages in interception rate like pretty much every other quarterback who posted an extreme low interception year, and that his defense continues to hold teams down when he struggles.

[photo via US Presswire]

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