Kyle Wagner: (sports editor): So FiveThirtyEight has U.S. Open predictions for the first time, and I’m sure lots of folks have questions about how they work and, more important, why they’re any good. Someone want to give us the 30-second version of how they’re made?Ben Morris (writer/researcher): For player strength and individual match win probabilities, we use our tennis Elo ratings system, tailored to a hard-court tournament like the U.S. Open.Jay Boice (computational journalist): Then we take those Elo ratings and head-to-head win probabilities along with the bracket structure and calculate the chance that each player will reach each round, who their likely opponents would be in that round, and how those opponents would affect their Elo rating. A big tree of conditional probabilities …Kyle Wagner: And that’s basically the same way that we forecast NBA and NFL seasons, yeah?Ben Morris: Pretty similar, yes. Though Elo works somewhat differently in individual sports like tennis than in league sports like the NBA.Reuben Fischer-Baum (visual journalist): One big difference: Tennis Elo doesn’t account for margin of victory, plus some other, more technical differences (NBA and NFL are simulation-based).Ben Morris: This is true, but not necessarily a limitation in my view. Trying to account for margins in tennis often leads to worse predictions. Winning actually matters! Most of the information is carried in who wins and loses, and the information beyond that isn’t super reliable.Reuben Fischer-Baum: I agree with Ben on that. In other major sports, margin of victory tracks much more nicely with quality (with some weird exceptions, like the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who had a surprisingly consistent margin regardless of opponent strength).Kyle Wagner: What would accounting for matchups look like?Carl Bialik (writer): One challenge is the sample size: Most players don’t play any other specific opponent all that often. I’ve wondered if you could overcome that by accounting for matchup style: building taxonomies of player types like we’ve done for NFL quarterbacks and see how certain players do against, say, tall players with big serves or small ones with great backhands and speed.Kyle Wagner: One thing we’ve seen with this projection is that our model likes Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic a lot more than the betting markets. Do you think that’s mainly because of those differences? Or is it something more basic, like the length of a tournament or the fact that Williams’s and Djokovic’s health is uncertain?Reuben Fischer-Baum: In terms of the betting markets, tennis Elo, like NBA and NFL, isn’t accounting for injuries. That could make a big difference! For reference: Betfair has Djokovic at around 36 percent right now and has Djokovic and Andy Murray more or less neck-and-neck. Fifteen Minutes In Flushing: Our U.S. Open Podcast Returns Jay Boice: A good way to judge the model is just to look at its calibration: Did players with an X percent chance of winning a match actually win X percent of the time?Reuben Fischer-Baum: Damn, we’re killing it. Next question.Ben Morris: As with all models that give win percentages, evaluating its performance is tricky. You want the predicted winners to win as often as possible, but you also want people predicted to win 70 percent of the time to win 70 percent of the time, etc.Incidentally, those goals can sometimes be at odds. What if one model predicts the correct winner 70 percent of the time, but another model predicts the correct winner only 69 percent of the time, but the 80 percent guys win 80 percent and the 50 percent guys win 50 percent, etc. Note: For simulation purposes, having the second of those is almost certainly better.Reuben Fischer-Baum: In a much blunter way, our model will sort of inevitably be judged by the performance of Djokovic and Williams at this point — not that that would be our preference!Jay Boice: You can also throw Brier score in there, Ben, and sometimes that’s also at odds with predicting winners and calibration.Ben Morris: Yeah, I mean, the odds of one of Djokovic/Williams winning and the other losing are greater than the odds of both of them winning.Kyle Wagner: Maybe we should start headlining like that.Ben Morris: Yet, if we miss one, Twitter will be all, “LOL 538.”Reuben Fischer-Baum: The lesson is to not predict stuff.CORRECTION (Aug. 31, 12:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect winner of the 2016 Wimbledon men’s singles title. It was Andy Murray, not Novak Djokovic. Reuben Fischer-Baum: This might not be an answerable question, but how far back do you have to go (for Murray and Djokovic) before matches are making negligible impacts on current Elo ratings?Ben Morris: OK, so perspective: When Andy Murray beat Djokovic at the Rome Masters in May, he gained 13.9 Elo points; that was in the final. When he beat Lucas Pouille in the semifinal, he gained 2.1 points. Elo is unimpressed by beating people you’re supposed to beat.Carl Bialik: The faster way for Murray to catch up is for Djokovic to lose more to guys like Sam Querrey, who beat him at Wimbledon.Reuben Fischer-Baum: But Murray’s behind Djokovic by like 170 points!Ben Morris: Yes.Reuben Fischer-Baum: So that means that he’d have to beat Djokovic in like 12 straight finals to pass him?Ben Morris: Djokovic lost 13 points in Rome. So like six straight finals.Reuben Fischer-Baum: Ah, right. Well a little more, because they’d gain and lose less the closer they get in Elo?Ben Morris: Yes. Quick — someone run the simulation on a Murray v. Djokovic only tournament!But there’s also some sense in that. Just because Murray beat Djokovic a bunch of times doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the better player. See, e.g., Nadal and Federer.Carl Bialik: Headline this chat: Federer Is Better Than Nadal Even Though He Always Loses To Him and people will click.Reuben Fischer-Baum: But Nadal-Federer was a surface thing, right? Or nah?Ben Morris: Nadal beat Federer more than he was supposed to on every surface.Carl Bialik: Nadal almost always beats Federer on clay but also is 9-7 against him on hard courts.Kyle Wagner: That gets into why you have a system, though. If we’re pretty sure that one player is the best in the world and another player beats the shit out of him every time they play, this should inform a prediction on what happens in their next match, no?Ben Morris: Well, that’s what we were chatting about. It would be a nice feature to add. But I suspect that there are few cases in which it would make a significant difference. Even Nadal vs. Federer — like the most famous example in all of tennis — wasn’t completely outside the realm of variance.Reuben Fischer-Baum: It certainly wouldn’t boost Murray’s chances in our interactive at the moment.Carl Bialik: Not against Djokovic or Nadal in a possible final, anyway. Murray owns most guys in his half of the draw.Kyle Wagner: OK, “should we have a thing that is better” was probably not the right question — but does the fact that we don’t have a mechanism in place that can deal with that mean we think our projections are more effective in a Player vs. The Field scenario than they are in individual matchups?Ben Morris: No. I think our model is pretty solid for individual matchups, with the caveat that occasionally one player who has dominated another player may be given too low of a chance. But I think those situations are rarer and mean less than people may think.Carl Bialik: I have a question. How will we judge how well this model did? In addition to whether or not Williams and Djokovic win, which is how everyone else will judge it (validly).Posted this Monday night: Related: Baseline Carl Bialik: I agree. The betting markets were showing Djokovic and Williams as odds-on favorites for the U.S. Open after Wimbledon. Their Elo ratings were a little higher then — they both lost early at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — but the bigger change is that they both are struggling with injuries. Here, reporters and fans are reporting from their practices — and canceled practices. Djokovic looked rusty early in his first match, better by the end. Elo doesn’t care about any of that. It just knows he survived and advanced.Reuben Fischer-Baum: If we’re willing to say that the betting market maybe overcorrects for injury/margin/rustiness (and I’m not sure we are), Djokovic’s match on Monday night might be a good one to point to. The announcers couldn’t stop talking about how he looked rusty, and he dropped a set, but he still stomped the guy in the end. The match itself was never really in doubt.Carl Bialik: I was watching behind another writer who kept turning away from the court and to me to say how terrible Djokovic looked as he hit winners and coasted in the last two sets.And it was hilarious after the match when ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi tried to get Djokovic on court to say anything specific about his wrist and Djokovic kept changing the subject to the stadium, the crowd, Phil Collins — didn’t want to give those bettors any info to overreact to. Although I won’t be too quick to dismiss the betting markets, not when Djokovic has to win six more matches and they won’t all be against opponents as overmatched as last night’s.Ben Morris: FWIW, our model is definitely more bullish on Djokovic/Williams than I expected, even before the injury issues. I think this is largely due to the lack of strong second/third tiers that normally grind down the favorites’ chances over the course of a tournament.Jay Boice: Yeah, Elo really, really likes Williams and Djokovic. For example, Williams is about 260 Elo points better than her nearest competitor (Simona Halep) and the rest of the field. That’s kind of like filling the NBA playoffs with the Warriors and all the teams who didn’t make the playoffs last year.Reuben Fischer-Baum: Betfair has Williams at 38 percent to win it all, but Angelique Kerber, the second favorite, at just 13 percent — a much bigger gap than the betting odds in the men’s field.1Kerber is the second favorite in our model, too, even though we rate Halep higher, in part because Kerber, unlike Halep, wouldn’t have to face Williams until the final.Ben Morris: Generally, if I model something and there’s a small gap with betting markets, I might think, “Yeah, I’m doing it better.” But if there’s a big gap, I think, “There’s probably something my model is missing.”Reuben Fischer-Baum: I think injuries are a big deal! This is a pretty obvious point, but an injury in tennis means a lot more than an injury in basketball or football because … there’s just one player.Carl Bialik: Another reason to be a little surprised by the confidence of the model is that players have to win seven matches in a row. Even winning March Madness takes just six. Though favorites at majors get a lot of protection in the draw.On the other hand: Williams has won nine of the last 17 majors. Djokovic has won six of the last nine. Cherry-picked end points and all that, but more often than not lately, they’ve both won. And when they haven’t, they usually have come really close.Kyle Wagner: Is the weak second or third rung the case for just this tournament, or would it be the norm if we did predictions for every major?Carl Bialik: It’s been the norm during this current age of Williams and Djokovic — but particularly here with Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka out.Kyle Wagner: Do injuries to players like Federer or suspensions like Sharapova’s — big chunks of the competitive ecosystem — throw off a zero-sum model like Elo in an outsize way, or should the model be able to adjust for that?Jay Boice: Injuries are just so varied — it’s tough to quantify them and fit them into a model …Reuben Fischer-Baum: I don’t think players missing the tournament throws off Elo though.Ben Morris: Well, our Elo isn’t a zero-sum model. Players missing shouldn’t throw it off in any way. Nor should players retiring, etc. In the long run, the points they take off the table get picked up by new players with the more rapid adjustment to their ratings.Reuben Fischer-Baum: I have a question! So Djokovic has a much higher Elo rating than Andy Murray, which fits how you might think about their two careers, but not necessarily how you’d think about their 2016 performances. Is it possible that part of the difference with the betting markets is that Elo is less reactive?Ben Morris: Well, with or without matchup style, history between players is relevant information that at least in some circumstances can be predictively useful. That is definitely something that could be incorporated, even if the effect is small. But more is possible.Reuben, I think you can definitely say that part of the difference is likely that betting markets ARE more reactive than our Elo to recent performances, especially for players with long careers like these two. A very different question, however, is whether that’s right. Our Elo adjusts slowly for grizzled veterans for a reason — because it works.Carl Bialik: I agree. But also I think markets can make too much of streaks and titles. Murray won 22 in a row recently, but none of those came against Djokovic or Nadal, the two guys we think are the best men besides Murray in the draw. A win over Djokovic is the best way for Murray to gain Elo points and catch up. But he’s lost 13 of the last 15 to him.Ben Morris: Over the course of a long career, players have hot streaks and cold streaks, and when those come later in a player’s career, they mean less. The function we use to update ratings after matches reflects that, and makes better predictions overall as a result. Or put another way, if Murray’s hot year really reflects a huge jump in his ability, that would be the exception to the historical rule. We’re forecasting every match of the 2016 men’s and women’s U.S. Open tournaments. See our predictions here » As FiveThirtyEight’s staff watched U.S. Open results come in Monday and change the probabilities in our forecast — our first ever for a tennis tournament — we started asking ourselves some questions. Such as: Why did we think Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic looked dominant in our model when betting markets weren’t nearly as confident in the favorites? Since we were chatting about it anyway, we decided to have a chat worth publishing. (All numbers are as of when we talked on Tuesday afternoon, after Djokovic’s first match but before Williams’s.) It’s below, lightly edited. Check out our U.S. Open predictions.
Kyrie Irving was on his way to exploding into the upper echelon of NBA players. His ascension was sidetracked, though, when he suffered a broken left index finger, knocking him out of action for at least a month.The Cleveland Cavaliers initially diagnosed it as a bruise before tests revealed a fracture. The NBA’s reigning rookie of the year got hurt in the third quarter Saturday night against Dallas. X-rays were negative and he returned to the game with his finger wrapped.He played Sunday at Philadelphia, but scored a season-low nine points on 4-of-14 shooting as Cleveland dropped its sixth straight game. On Monday, he underwent an MRI and other tests which showed a hairline/non-displaced fracture. The Cavs said Irving’s finger will be taped and placed in a splint. He will be re-evaluated in two weeks.It’s the latest injury for the talented 20-year-old, who broke his right hand during a summer practice when he slammed it in frustration against a padded wall when the team was in Las Vegas. Irving played in just 11 games as a freshman at Duke because of a foot tendon injury, which took more than one year to heal completely.Last season, Irving missed 15 games with a concussion and shoulder injury.As the Cavs opened camp in October, Irving was asked about a label of being fragile.“I’m not worried about being injury prone,” he said. “Not at all.”And yet he is hurt again.Irving added five pounds of muscle during the offseason so he would be able to handle any contact on drives to the basket. But he wound up losing the weight after he had four wisdom teeth pulled.Also with the struggling Cavs, second-year forward Tristan Thompson sustained a nasal fracture in Sunday’s loss to the Sixers. He will be fitted with a protective mask and is projected to be available for Wednesday’s home game against Philadelphia.
We wrote recently that this series might be decided by whichever team’s goalie regressed less sharply. Both goalies have dropped off from the earlier rounds in terms of save percentage, which is normal in the Stanley Cup Final, and Binnington is the one who has regressed less sharply. But Binnington’s footing entering the final was less solid than Rask’s — Binnington’s save percentage entering the final was .914, compared to Rask’s .942. In the six games of the final so far, Rask is down to .925, while Binnington has dropped all the way to .901. This is critical because (I’m beating a dead horse, I know) save percentage accounts for a higher proportion of a team’s success than any other factor in hockey.Rask’s performance in the first three rounds of the playoffs meant the Bruins wouldn’t suffer too badly if he took a few steps down into the basement. Rask has regressed, sure, but he had room to regress. The margin of error was more precarious for Binnington and the Blues, and unfortunately for fans in the Gateway City, their wunderkind is approaching the sub-basement. Binnington’s regression has hurt the Blues’ chances of winning their first-ever Cup.In a way, Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final was a microcosm of Binnington’s series. He was exceptional in Game 5 — it was his second-best game in terms of save percentage in the playoffs — and he made big save after big save in periods one and two of Game 6. But then period three happened, and Binnington gave up two savable goals he’d really prefer to have back.On the other side of the ice, Rask made the saves that were expected of him — and a few saves that might prove iconic. Now the Cup hinges on a one-game series where the winner takes all. And in a series that’s been defined by goaltending, that could be bad news for the Blues.CORRECTION (June 12, 2019, 10 a.m.): A previous version of the photo caption in this story misspelled the name of the Blues’ goalie. It is Jordan Binnington, not Jordan Billington. For just the fourth time since the NHL lockout of 2004-05, the Stanley Cup Final will be decided by a Game 7. The series between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues has been partially defined by one team’s inability to direct shots at its opponent’s goal and the other team’s overpowering possession rate — but goaltending has been the real story.Fortunately for the Bruins, goaltender Tuukka Rask’s playoff performance has been one of the best in recent history; unfortunately for the Blues, goaltender Jordan Binnington’s performance has been mediocre at best and ignominious at worst. Just how much less impressive Binnington has been than Rask in these playoffs is educational.Now the Blues probably wouldn’t have qualified for the playoffs, let alone advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, without some exceptional regular-season goaltending from Binnington. When the rookie Bluenote claimed the No. 1 goalie position, the Blues had the worst record in the Western Conference. Binnington ended the season tied for the fourth-best save percentage,1Minimum 420 minutes. and won 24 of his 30 starts. And while his overall playoff performance hasn’t been one for the record books, Binnington has shown flashes of brilliance. (For example, Games 4, 5, and 6 of the Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks, when he stopped 75 of 77 shots faced, and Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, when he saved 38 of 39.) He just hasn’t been close to the same level as Rask.Since the last championship-canceling lockout, Stanley Cup-winning goalies have averaged a Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA)2GSAA is the goals a goalie prevents given his save percentage and shots faced compared to the league average save percentage on the same number of shots, with a minimum of four shots faced per team game. It’s a close cousin to baseball’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR). of 5.30 in the playoffs, while Stanley Cup-losing goalies have finished with a GSAA of 4.51. Binngton’s GSAA for the 2019 playoffs has been -3.80, a mark that far underperforms both groups.For his part, Rask has saved 15.29 goals above average in this year’s playoffs. Only one Stanley Cup goalie since the lockout has outperformed Boston’s netminder in terms of playoff GSAA: Tim Thomas, who saved an astounding 20.72 goals above average en route to winning the Stanley Cup with the Bruins in 2011. Rask has been better than 27 of 28 post-lockout Stanley Cup goaltenders in terms of GSAA, while Binnington has been worse than all but two of them.
Over time, athletes get stronger and faster, come from a broader talent pool, are better trained, and benefit from ever-growing institutional knowledge of their chosen art. This is most readily apparent with such individual skills as swimming, running and jumping — or kicking a football.One of the biggest stories of the 2016 NFL wild-card round is how the Minnesota Vikings almost toppled the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, only to see their hopes dashed when kicker Blair Walsh shanked an easy 27-yard field-goal attempt that would have given the Vikings the lead with 22 seconds left in the game. The aftermath was dramatic, and once again, the NFL kicking game was thrust into the spotlight for pretty much the only reason it ever is: A kicker screwed up. Perhaps lost in the hubbub is that this was the only field goal missed all weekend.1Kickers made 24 of 26 attempts, including extra points (which are no longer gimmes). Such is the plight of the NFL kicker: They do their jobs remarkably well week in and week out, but get attention for it only when something goes horribly wrong.But not at FiveThirtyEight! We will acknowledge greatness in its many forms.Last year around this time, we published “Kickers Are Forever,” my ode to NFL kickers and the eerily steady progress they have made over the past 80-plus years. In that article, I showed how the kicking improvement has been reliable and has changed things like the fourth-down math. In the offseason, the NFL decided to make kickers’ jobs harder by moving the extra point back from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line.Predictably, this led to some missed extra points. This combined with a down week or two early in the season, and the notion started to emerge that kickers were having a bad year, sucking in some prominent commentators. We debunked the idea of a “Kick-pocalypse” at the time, but given my interest in everything kickers, I’ve once again taken a dive into the numbers to see if the kicking train has actually been in reverse, or stopped, or even slowed.Spoiler: It has not. Indeed, not only was field-goal kicking in the 2015 regular season almost exactly as good as we said it would be, but kickers were the best they’ve ever been at kicking off and punting — with dramatic effects on the game.2These are not as athletically “pure” as field-goal attempts — meaning the results of a kickoff or punt will also depend on a number of factors not in the kicker’s control (such as special teams units). One thing that I mentioned in my previous article is that — with no natural offset like defense to offense — the improvement in kicking has played a central role in the offensive increase we’ve seen over the past decades. However, it seems like the natural offsets are actually kickoffs and punts, which have somewhat counterbalanced the improvement in kickoffs by giving offenses longer fields. I’ve also identified the best players at the different aspects of the kicking game, and I have some awards to hand out to the best of the best.Field-goal kickers have improved almost exactly as predictedYes, field-goal kickers missed 71 extra points this season, after missing only eight last season. This 94.2 percent is the lowest since 1979. No, this is in no way bad or unexpected. Historically, it is quite high for 33-yard attempts — though for kicking, “historical” is not always a good frame for comparison. So to be clear, it is perfectly in line with projections for 2015 kickers.Kickers also made 84.5 percent of their non-extra-point kick attempts — essentially tied for the second-best all time.3This season finishes a hair behind 2008, when kickers made 84.5 percent exactly; in 2015 they made 84.4985 percent — about 1/100th of a single made kick behind. This, despite the fact that they attempted longer kicks than ever. Here’s a plot of field-goal percentage vs. attempt distance over the past 14 seasons: By this metric, kickers had their second-best season of all time (trailing only their miraculous 2013 campaign) and were within a fraction of a percentage point of their projections — well within the margin of error.Using our field goal expected value model, we can see what kickers scored the most and fewest points relative to expectation. I’ve included the results for all players below. Our champion for 2015 was the New England Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, who ran 12.2 points above expectation by making 33 of 36 field-goal tries (for 9.2 points above expectation) and all 52 extra points (for 3.0 points above expectation). Under the new rules this year, 30 NFL kickers missed extra points; Gostkowski still hasn’t missed one since 2006 — his rookie season.The worst kicker was Tampa Bay rookie Kyle Brindza, who missed six of 12 field-goal attempts and two of eight extra points before being cut in October. He ran 12.0 points below expectation on just 20 kicks overall.Touchbacks are the new blackAnother area where kickers can provide significant value, and where we also see creepily constant improvement, is in kickoffs. Of course, kickoff results depend somewhat on special teams kick coverage (though hang time and location matter as well), but one mostly objective metric we can track is frequency of touchbacks (note that the large shift from 2010 to 2011 is a result of the NFL moving the kickoff spot up to the 35): In a big surprise to me — and a big loss for those of us who despise the punting game — punters and kickers seem to affect the game similarly. They each claim five of the 10 players with the highest value added this season,9Gay has been both a punter and kicker (and is identified as both by Pro-Football-Reference.com) but handles only kickoffs in the NFL. with punters taking four of the top five spots. Although most coaches are probably costing their teams points by punting too much instead of going for it, the ones with better punters are costing their teams less.That doesn’t mean punters have quite caught up to their place-kicking counterparts, at least at the very top. Johnny Hekker — the league’s most valuable punter, as well as a guy who admits he’s more comfortable with his Pokémon deck than he is tackling people — falls 3.3 points short of Gostkowski as the most valuable overall. Therefore Stephen Gostkowski of the New England Patriots is our 2015 NFL Football Player10Who actually uses his feet. of the Year.Finally, here, for your perusal, is a sortable table of value added by all punters and kickers this season: The average attempt distance has seen a steady increase, which might logically result in a decrease in efficiency, but the continued improvement of kickers has outpaced the increase in distance.This includes them making 65 percent of their kicks from 50+ yards — second only to the 2013 kickers — despite taking a record 160 such attempts. Here’s how they performed over each distance category:The 2015 kickers struggled a little bit from middle distances of 40 to 50 yards. And by “struggled,” I mean they had top-five all-time seasons but didn’t set records.From 55 to 59 yards, they made 13 of 19 attempts, or 68 percent — the best rate of all time for that range. In the four seasons from 2002 through 2005 (the first four years of the data shown above) they made 13 of 42 such attempts, or 31 percent.To better compare seasons, I’ve created an adjusted field-goal percentage that accounts for the distances of each kick and gives us that season’s expected make percentage for a baseline kick from the 30-yard line (about a 48-yard attempt):4The average kick is much shorter than that, but that’s about the sweet spot for a distance with lots of attempts where performance over time varies the most. It’s also a spot that requires both distance and accuracy and is around the area of the field where kicker improvement has the biggest impact on fourth-down decisions. The differences here are pretty depressingly drastic for punt haters. In the 2002 and 2003 seasons, the average punt from 60 to 90 yards out (the part of the field where end zone locations don’t come into play) netted 37.3 yards, while in the 2014 and 2015 seasons those punts netted an average of 42.7 yards. That’s a 5-plus-yard difference on every punt!So perhaps punt coverage has gotten worse? Nope. If you look at raw punt distance, punts have gotten 4.7 yards longer on average (47.8 vs. 43.1). Although 2015 punters set records at virtually every distance, the absolute margins are smaller when you get closer to the goal. For kicks 30 to 60 yards from the end zone, the gain has been 2.4 yards — but those yards may mean more if they help trap an opponent in dangerous territory. (The value of a single yard only really spikes at both end zones and the outer reaches of field-goal range.)Note that I have not fully modeled punting improvement’s impact on fourth-down decisions as I have with kicking8Mostly because it’s more complicated. When you’re at the 40, the difference between 30 net yards and 32 net yards is greater because trapping an opponent close to its goal line is valuable (which, of course, is yet another reason why kicking a field goal and fourth and goal at the 1 is one of the worst plays in sports). Expected points models may help clear this up, but in some ways using the current models begs the question, since these models make assumptions about punting. — yet — but it’s bound to be significant. Factoring in 10 years of kicking improvement was enough to swing many borderline fourth-down decisions in favor of kicking. Of the 40 situations I looked at, 11 had differences of less than two-tenths of a point — which is probably about the amount that midfield punts have improved. If a fourth-down model doesn’t adequately account for these highly predictable improvements, it could be getting many “go or no” calls wrong.The punting expectation curve is relatively easy to model with a polynomial linear regression, which means we can find the expected distance of each punt and then compare a punter’s results with that expectation.The punter of the year isn’t even a close call. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Johnny Hekker of the St. Louis Rams led the league with a 47.9-yard average punt and netted his team 271 yards relative to expectation in the process.On the other end of the spectrum, the Jets’ Ryan Quigley averaged 43.8 yards per kick and lost his team 297 yards relative to expectation.Football player of the year (who actually uses feet)If we convert those punting yards into points as we did with kickoffs above, we can get down to business and calculate each kicker’s complete value added from kicks.Note that some punters also kick off and some kickers kick off, but there are (presently) no kickers who also punt. So for this chart I’ve plotted value gained from kickoffs vs. value gained from punting and kicking combined. Bubble sizes correspond to the total value the player added or cost his team, in expected points: The rate of touchbacks has been increasing pretty steadily, both before and after the rule change, reaching an all-time high of 57.4 percent in 2015 (not counting onside kick attempts). The average starting field position has clearly flattened, as we would expect, though 2015 still set a record: The average opponent starting position was 21.7 yards from the team’s own end zone, beating last season’s previous best of 22.0.Still, those couple of yards here and there on kickoffs add up. For example, the Colts��� Pat McAfee (aka “The Boomstick”) had touchbacks on 67 of 74 (non-onside kick) kickoffs (91 percent). That’s close to 25 more touchbacks than we would expect from an average kicker. As a rule of thumb, a typical touchback is worth about 4 yards,5This season, the average non-touchback return came out to the 24-yard line. meaning McAfee’s touchbacks alone were likely worth in the neighborhood of 100 yards, or the equivalent of 6 to 8 points over the season. That may not sound like much, but any player (especially a non-QB) who can get his team half a point or so above average per game is doing great.To get a clearer picture of which kickers are most valuable, we can compare each kickoff to league expectation to find total yards saved and then convert those yards saved to point equivalents.6Using a rough conversion of 15 yards per point. (The full results are in the table below.) If you combine kickoff value with field-goal value, Gostkowski’s lead as place-kicking champion widens: Add in the 11.6 points the Patriots earned on kickoffs (not counting onside attempts, which would help Gostkowski even more as the Patriots recovered both of their attempts this season), and Gostkowski earned 23.8 points for them above expectation. Second place is Buffalo kickoff specialist Jordan Gay with 10.8 points above expectation (all from kickoffs).Don’t look now, but punters are also changing the gameFinally, let’s turn to the most reviled of all football plays: the punt. Why teams voluntarily give up possession all the time instead of fighting tooth and nail to keep the ball — particularly with good field position — is an ongoing mystery. But they are getting better at it. Indeed, in recent years, the improvement in punting is perhaps even more marked and consistent than it has been with kicking.7Unlike with field-goal kicking, this rate of improvement seems to be more recent. The average yards per punt appears to have hovered around 40 from the ’50s through the ’80s. Source: ESPNCORRECTION (Jan. 13, 7 p.m.): The original version of this post contained several points that were based on a critical calculation error discovered by a reader, Jason Hahn. In determining the best kickers of 2015, we attempted to exclude onside kicks, but because of an error in how we filtered our data, onside kick recoveries by the kicking team were treated as a touchdown instead of being ignored. After a recalculation, Stephen Gostkowski of the Patriots becomes the most valuable kicker, not Johnny Hekker of the Rams, who moves to second place. In earning kickoff points above expectation, Jordan Gay of the Bills takes second place, not Mike Nugent of the Bengals. The touchbacks kicked by Pat McAfee of the Colts were worth 6 to 8 points over the season, not 8 to 10 points. The rate of all touchbacks reached a high of 57.4 percent in 2015, not 56 percent. The Patriots earned 11.6 points on kickoffs, not 7.7 points. These and other smaller errors have been corrected in the text of the article and in the charts and tables.
Last Sunday, the Ohio State field hockey team won its Big Ten opener at home against Indiana. A last-minute goal propelled the Buckeyes to a thrilling 3-2 victory. This season, the team is led by an experienced defense, allowing just 1.3 goals per game. Senior goalkeeper Lindsay Quintiliani, who was elected team captain, anchors the defense. Quintiliani is a four-year starter in the program and owner of 13 career shutouts, including three in the last four games.Quintiliani began playing field hockey after being encouraged by her friends in 7th grade. Within her first month of playing she settled on being goalie. Ten years later, she’s still in the net and is just two victories short of becoming the all-time leader in OSU history.“I obviously want to win more than two more games this season,” Quintiliani said. “I don’t really like to think about [the record]. It’s not something I want to think about during a game.”What Quintiliani is thinking about this season is winning another Big Ten title. That goal is shared by the entire team and has been since the end of last season, when the Buckeyes suffered a 2-1 overtime loss to Iowa, Quintiliani said.The Bucks can move a step closer to winning the conference this Friday when they play a pivotal game against Penn State in Happy Valley, Pa. A victory would be a big step toward winning the Big Ten and would extend the Buckeyes’ current six-game win streak.The last time the field hockey team won the Big Ten was in 2006, when Quintiliani was a true freshman. She lists winning the conference as the most exciting moment in her career but says because she was just a freshman, she didn’t enjoy being conference champs as much as she should have. That drives her even more to win another Big Ten title, she said.That season, Quintiliani stepped in and started all 19 games for the Buckeyes and posted five shut outs. “That year, I drew confidence from my coach and teammates,” she said. She added that she received encouraging e-mail after a tough loss that kept her going. Quintiliani has since displayed no shortage of confidence in her career at OSU.With a Big Ten championship already to her credit, along with four career Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors, including two this season, and two major OSU records (shutouts and victories) within reach, Quintiliani is poised to finish her career strong.When the star goalkeeper isn’t shutting out opponents on the field, she’s racking up awards for her outstanding work in the classroom. She has been selected as an NFHCA National Academic Squad member three times and is a three-time OSU Scholar-Athlete. She’s also a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree and the recipient of the team’s Harriet Reynolds Scholar-Athlete Award.Quintiliani is studying speech and hearing at OSU and is currently applying for graduate school to pursue a career in speech pathology.
No offense, no problem.Ohio State’s (5-1, 3-0) defense and special teams fueled a 31-13 win over previously unbeaten Wisconsin (5-1, 2-1) Saturday at The Horseshoe.Three of the Buckeyes’ four touchdowns were non-offensive.“When you get two defensive touchdowns and then a kickoff return touchdown, that’s more than you could ever wish for,” coach Jim Tressel said.Senior safety Kurt Coleman returned from a one-game suspension and returned an 89-yard interception for a touchdown to give OSU a 7-0 lead. “I don’t want to take much of the credit for it,” Coleman said. “It was the whole defense that really helped me out with that pick. But it’s definitely a great feeling for me to come back after a week off and really help this team out as much as I can.”After intercepting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the Badgers faked a field goal and rushed for a 12-yard touchdown to tie the game.That score was the only touchdown Wisconsin managed on offense, even though they possessed the football for nearly 43 of the 60 minutes. The Badgers certainly had opportunities, as they ran 89 plays to OSU’s 40.Buckeye coaches “always preach to the defense that we have to be ready to go 60-plus minutes, and more if we have to,” Coleman said. “At the same time, we definitely were looking for a few breaks out there, but we know that we’ve got to be ready for anything at any moment.”Still, the Buckeye defense never really tired, ceding just a pair of field goals after the trick-play touchdown.OSU’s defensive line “got pressure on their quarterback the entire game, and you could tell that he was rattled,” senior linebacker Austin Spitler said. “We did a good job of rotating and keeping players fresh, so we were able to wear them down.”For the brief time the Buckeye offense spent on the field during the first half, it struggled. Pryor led the group to just one first down before an 88-yard touchdown drive gave OSU a 14-10 halftime lead.Pryor connected with sophomore receiver DeVier Posey for a 32-yard score.“We knew we needed to get a touchdown when the score was 10-7,” Posey said. “Coach told us that we were going to get a touchdown, so we pulled together as an offense and got it done.”Wisconsin started the second half with the ball, but only until safety Jermale Hines returned an interception 32 yards for another touchdown, padding OSU’s lead to 11.“We strive to score a defensive touchdown every week,” senior safety Anderson Russell said. “So it was huge to get two.”Following a Wisconsin field goal, senior receiver Ray Small returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to push the Buckeyes’ advantage to 28-13.“It was almost like he was shot out of a gun,” Tressel said. “I saw him take that thing and he downshifted and he was gone.”Despite such a significant advantage in time of possession, Wisconsin never found a rhythm on offense. Sophomore running back John Clay, who entered the game fourth in the nation in rushing, was limited to 59 yards on 20 carries.“It came down to stopping the run first,” defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. “Clay is a great back. And after that, we have to get pressure.”OSU’s defense placed constant pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, sacking him six times.“We just basically attacked,” Heyward said. “We just had so many guys that we could rotate in and out, that we just kept getting off the ball.”Overall, just about every offensive statistic favored Wisconsin. The Badgers recorded 22 first downs to OSU’s eight, and Wisconsin doubled the Buckeyes’ total yardage output, 368 to 184.Even so, OSU’s trio of touchdown returns were too much for Wisconsin to overcome.“Anytime you give Ohio State points without their offense being on the field, you’re going to have problems,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “I’m glad to be heading back home to Wisconsin.”The victory gives OSU sole possession of first place in the Big Ten, with a 3-0 conference record. Iowa, the only other team with an unblemished league record, sits at 2-0.The Buckeyes travel to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on Purdue Saturday at noon.
Saturday’s annual spring kick scrimmage at Ohio Stadium is supposed to be the time when Buckeye special team players can earn a starting position for next year. After a full morning of kicking and punting, there are still plenty of question marks regarding who will start for Ohio State. The field goal kicking competition featured senior Devin Barclay, sophomore Ben Buchanan and freshman Drew Basil. Barclay and Buchanan demonstrated almost identical skills, with Barclay hitting eight of 15 field goal attempts and Buchanan succeeding on eight of 14 attempts. Basil only hit one of his four attempts. The Gray team, which included Buchanan, defeated the Scarlet team in the scrimmage 27-24. Buchanan’s last field goal proved to be the game-winner, as his 39-yard effort sailed through the uprights. Basil had a chance to tie the game, but missed wide left from the same distance. “Spring ball is the time we work on these [close game] situations, so when you’re in front of 105,000 people, we know we have done this before,” Buchanan said. The irony of this statement hits home for the Buckeyes because the kick scrimmage shared an eerie resemblance to the last Big Ten game of the season against Iowa. Ohio State won 27-24 in overtime on a 39-yard field goal by Barclay. Barclay, who received most of the kicking duties when Aaron Pettrey went down with an injury last season, was the front-runner coming into 2010. But, his performance on Saturday did not leave him satisfied. “Up until this day I have only missed two kicks in spring ball,” Barclay said. “So today was frustrating.” Barclay and Buchanan both struggled from beyond 40 yards as they hit one of seven field goals and two of six field goals respectively. Barclay’s advantage in securing the starting job seems to be his in-game experience. Though Barclay’s number has been called in the past, he understands Buchanan is not to be overlooked. “I like the competition,” Barclay said. “You don’t want to be complacent because you want someone to push you, but you also want to know that everything you have done in the past is appreciated and valued.” Though Buchanan believes he has put himself in contention for the starting kicker position, it seems he will edge out sophomore Derek Erwin as the likely replacement for last year’s punter, Jon Thoma. After hitting only a 34-yard and 35-yard punt early in the scrimmage, he was able to bounce back and hit two punts of 55 yards or longer from his own end zone. “I have to be honest, my nerves were getting to me a bit in the beginning, but I think that’s what comes with being a kicker,” Buchanan said. “Kicking is all about being cool under pressure and I was glad I was able to come back.” Basil, who enrolled at Ohio State this Spring quarter, was the only player to kick off. He proved to have the most powerful leg of all of the special team players. His role for the Buckeyes next season is still uncertain. Many spots on this Ohio State team are still up for grabs. Players are constantly competing to move up the depth chart. They will have a chance to prove themselves on a bigger stage for the Ohio State spring game on April 24.
Former Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter is again in trouble with the law. According to multiple reports, Schlichter, 51, appeared in federal court Thursday accused of having cocaine in his system twice during his house arrest in the last few months and refusing to provide urine samples on multiple occasions. He was arrested Wednesday in his Columbus home and will appear before the U.S. District court Friday for a hearing on his charges. He will spend the night in Franklin County jail according to the Columbus Dispatch. Steve Nolder, who has served as Schlichter’s public defender, did not immediately respond to The Lantern‘s request for comment. Schlichter has had well-documented problems with the law. He most recently pleaded guilty to fraud for his part in a ticket scheme which started in 2008 that cheated more than 50 people out of $2.5 million. Schlichter agreed to a plea bargain that would have him serve a sentence of more than 10 years behind bars, but the agreement is awaiting a judge’s approval. While waiting for approval of the deal, Schlichter had been under house arrest. Schlichter played quarterback for OSU from 1978-1981 and was an All-American in 1979. The Baltimore Colts selected him with the fourth pick in the 1982 NFL Draft. Gambling problems dating back to his college days continued into the pros and began to cause Schlichter problems. Threats from bookies led Schlichter to reveal his gambling problems to the FBI. Shortly after, the NFL discovered his gambling problems and suspended him until the 1984 season. His problems continued to persist and Schlichter was banned from the NFL in 1987 after pleading guilty to illegal gambling. After being released from prison in 2006, Schlichter tried to turn around his life. He founded Gambling Prevention Awareness, a non-profit organization, which tried to help compulsive-gamblers with their addiction. And in 2008, Schlichter was hired to cover OSU football by the Columbus radio station 610 WTVN. “I have two kids that I love and I wanted to be there for them, but for many years I wasn’t,” Schlichter said in a phone interview with The Lantern in 2010. “Now that I am, it feels good. Same with my mother. It’s good to be there for her.” But beginning in 2011, Schlichter was connected to a ticket fraud scheme that would eventually get him in more trouble with authorities. He has served more than 10 years in prison since 1994 for a variety of charges including fraud and theft according to multiple reports.
OSU cheerleaders lead OSU football players out of the field at Ohio Stadium prior to the annual Spring Game on April 18. Team Gray defeated Team Scarlet, 17-14. Credit: Muyao Shen / Lantern photographer Despite playing with what coach Urban Meyer called a “makeshift offensive line” during Saturday’s Spring Game, members of the Ohio State football team had nothing but positive things to say about where the starting five blockers are at.And with four of the five starters from last season’s national championship team back in the fold, it is easy to see why.Senior Taylor Decker, redshirt-junior Pat Elflein, redshirt-sophomore Billy Price and senior Jacoby Boren all return as members of the “slobs,” the nickname given to the starting offensive line unit.Only departed tackle Darryl Baldwin’s job was up for grabs before the spring. Meyer announced after the Spring Game, however, that it now belongs to redshirt-senior Chase Farris.“Chase Farris has earned his way, he’s a starting right tackle at Ohio State,” Meyer said.Offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner said having a successful season under a group’s belt is the best thing for an offensive line unit.“It’s amazing how much linemen get better in the offseason, because now they have a visual picture of how it all works,” he said. “Now, when they work on things, it just seems to make sense.”One player who Meyer and Warinner both said they feel has benefited the most from the offseason is Price, whom Meyer described as “night and day” from where he was last fall.“Billy has confidence now,” Warinner said. “Confidence comes from playing well in big games down the stretch. He’s so much further along in his development and where he’s at right now.“Billy’s just so confident in what he’s supposed to do and how he’s supposed to do it and now it just shows.”Price said OSU’s three postseason games marked a turning point in his playing career.“Those final three games, something clicked. When we played Wisconsin, and the whole offensive line’s a cohesive unit, and we continued that into Alabama and continued that into Oregon, it just felt like something finally clicked,” Price said.Despite Boren being held out of the Spring Game as he recovers from offseason surgery, Warinner said he has complete faith in the senior.“Jacoby’s great,” Warinner said. “Rehab’s good, work ethic’s great, leadership’s great, so expect him to be full speed sometime this summer, ready to be his best.”Warinner said sometimes the best practice an offensive lineman can get is competing with his own teammates on the other side of the ball. That can be especially beneficial for OSU — which features some of the best practice a player can find in Associated Press first-team All-American and junior defensive lineman Joey Bosa.“(Elflein) goes against Bosa on a daily basis, and that’s helped him grow and his confidence level,” Warinner said.While the five starting linemen have the full faith of the coaching staff, Meyer expressed some concern about the players waiting in the wings.“The area (of worry) is the offensive line. That’s the problem,” Meyer said. “And once again, not the starters, because I feel good (about them) … I’m very alarmed by the second group of offensive linemen right now.”Price said he feels like a lot of the responsibility in shaping the second unit to be ready to come in on the drop of a hat falls on the starters.“Working with younger guys, it’s like playing with clay,” Price said. “You get to mold them. As older players like Taylor, Pat and Jacoby, you get to really, really show what type of leadership we have in the room, and to fully develop those guys to become part of the ‘slobs.’”The “slobs” are set to look to carry over their strong play from last season’s title run when OSU opens its season against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Sept. 7.
Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett talks about his experiences in prison as a part of the United State Justice Network’s panel Wednesday at the Riffe Center in Columbus on May 3. Credit: Sheridan Hendrix | Oller ReporterMaurice Clarett’s story of college football superstar to convicted felon to inspirational advocate was told again on Wednesday night, but in a different context.At the Davidson Theater inside the Riffe Center in downtown Columbus, Clarett — along with the Director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Gary Mohr, President of the Buckeye Institute Robert Alt and moderator Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, which hosted the event — engaged in discourse on social justice reform in Ohio, specifically the Treatment Continuum Alternative Program (TCAP), which offers alternative sentencing to eligible offenders.Clarett is normally the sole speaker in front of hundreds of students, athletes or incarcerated individuals. His journey began at the bottom of drug and alcohol addiction and more than three years of incarceration after winning a national championship as one of football’s premier running backs at Ohio State. He then turned his life around and has shared his experiences through his speeches, as was the case Wednesday evening. But his experiences were complemented by facts Mohr and Alt referenced on the current social justice practices in Ohio compared to practices that work elsewhere.Clarett’s outpatient treatment organization, The Red Zone, supports the TCAP agenda Mohr and Ohio legislators are pushing in the state senate.“It was making me proud to know that we are doing the thing (Mohr’s) trying to promote,” Clarett said. “He doesn’t even know all what I do, but he’s talking about supporting that space because he knows that space works, which let’s me know I’m doing the right thing because this guy has 43 years of experience and the depth of his knowledge is with merit.”The event opened with members of the Inside Out choir from the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville pronouncing an uplifting message through its voice, which had a few members of the choir and the audience in tears. Republican state Sen. John Eklund and Republican state Majority Whip Robert McColley then spoke individually about efforts to pass Senate Bill 66, which addresses fourth- and fifth-degree felony sentencing and rehabilitation.Eklund is one of the bill’s primary sponsors along with Democratic senator Charleta Tavares, who was in attendance.Before Clarett, Mohr and Alt were called to the stage, a video played for the audience, showing highlights from the 2002 national championship game with Clarett’s 1,237 rushing yards flashed across the screen. Excerpts from the 2013 ESPN 30 for 30 film Youngstown Boys, which featured Clarett’s story, were shown with narration and the occasional interjection of Clarett or his coach at OSU, Jim Tressel.“I can’t cry about it,” Clarett said in one of the excerpts. “I can only move on.”The first question the moderator asked was to Clarett. It was simple: What went wrong?Maurice Clarett (center) listens to Gary Mohr (left) discuss the TCAP program during the criminal justice reform panel on May 3 in Columbus. Credit: Sheridan Hendrix | Oller ReporterHe had told this story over 200 times before in other speaking events across the country, he estimated. As each of those past 200 times, Clarett spoke without a script or notes. He told the story of taking illegal benefits while a student-athlete at OSU, then becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol for two years and struggling with his mental health before receiving help from his warden at the Toledo Correctional Institute, Khellah Konteh.Clarett said that when he first went into the correctional facility, it was an environment he wasn’t used to. As a boy growing up in Youngstown, he was used to being the toughest guy in his group, he admitted, but that wasn’t the case in prison.Konteh taught a class that Clarett was enrolled in, and instructed the members of the class to read “Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah. It’s a memoir about a man in Sierra Leone — Konteh’s native country — who became violent through the nation’s civil war, but was rehabilitated and eventually spoke out on his personal experiences and the atrocities of war.“After going through these classes every day, I was just tapping into something that I wasn’t tapping into before,” he said.Konteh told him that in Sierra Leone, when men get in trouble, their village works to rehabilitate them and send them back out to do their work. In America, Konteh said, society takes the troubled individuals and throws them out. Clarett wrote in the Columbus Dispatch earlier this week that he knows what it’s like to be forgotten about, which is why he’s taking action in criminal-justice reform.Mohr and Alt each said that many times with politicians, they look at numbers when contemplating criminal-justice reform rather than the faces of those incarcerated. Clarett is a rare case of someone who lost everything and was able to gain part of that back and give back much more to the community than he would have been able to give as an athlete. Clarett and the people of the women’s reformatory choir are the faces that Mohr, Alt and all legislators supporting Senate Bill 66 and TCAP want the public to see when considering prison reform.“Maurice has lived it in his almost four years of incarceration. He understands,” Mohr said. “He is more influential than any politician because he has lived it and he’s real. He doesn’t have some facade. He’s real. Quite frankly, I think it’s much more effective than being a politician because I think Maurice’s story is credible.”Mohr was appointed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich to the position of director in January 2011, and said Kasich told him that one of Mohr’s first tasks was to reform the Ohio prison system. Wednesday, Mohr spoke about giving communities the proper resources to monitor former nonviolent felons and develop job skills for future success.“If we’re going to correct a problem, why would we invest the highest degree of dollars at the end of the problem? Don’t we want to intervene at some place where we can be more effective?” Mohr said. Mohr added that the TCAP program would fall within a $60 million bi-annual budget that gives communities resources to find effective drug addiction treatments and develop job skills for roughly 3,400 families.“It’s a win-win,” he said. “And think about it, the public and the communities become safer because we break the addiction cycle more effectively.”Maurice Clarett continues the discussion of prison reform based on what he experienced while incarcerated for nearly four years. Credit: Sheridan Hendrix | Oller ReporterClarett said he’s not a political person — one that doesn’t take sides in an argument. He doesn’t align himself with a political party, not even as an independent. He speaks from his substantial personal experiences, which is why all of his speeches are unscripted. He said he’s able to connect with people on a more genuine level if they know he’s speaking as a human and not just someone pushing an agenda.Yet, Clarett participates in these politically-motivated events because he believes in the cause from experience, not from data. He said he believes in the people, like the women of the Inside Out choir, because he was once that person needing to believe in himself.During the Q&A session at the end of the event, a man, who was holding back tears as he identified himself as a formerly incarcerated man, felt inclined to get up from his seat to acknowledge Clarett and thank him for what he’s doing.“It rejuvenates you because that’s why you do it. You do it to connect with people,” Clarett said. “You could go anywhere around the world, but that person will always talk about that experience you had with him. It’s a humbling thing.”When formerly introduced as the “former Ohio State star football player,” Clarett is reminded of a time before things became bad, before circumstances spiraled downward with no end in sight. As much as he might want to put that time in the past, it has defined him. Not just in Columbus, but it has defined his platform and enabled his career to take off. As much as he just wants to be known as Maurice Clarett the entrepreneur, the philanthropist, his mistakes and shortcomings when he was known as a football player have allowed him to become the entrepreneur and the philanthropist. The man who thanked Clarett continued to tell the modern-day Ishmael Beah that better days were ahead for him.Indeed they are.