A book that aims to be an evidence-based look at football assumptions is less enlightening than it could be.
Statistical analysis of the NFL lagged behind that of Major League Baseball for a long time. Football had an image of something between gladiatorial combat or trench warfare and analysing that too deeply was seen by some as antithetical to enjoying the sport. Nevertheless, as much as there are always those who enjoy the “how” of sport, there are plenty who enjoy the “why” at least as much. These people began to make ground through the 1970s and 1980s. Writers like Paul ‘Dr Z’ Zimmerman began to look more deeply into how football worked and coaches-turned-pundits like John Madden started explaining previously overlooked elements of the game. Though Dr Z’s Thinking Man’s Guide is a seminal work in this regard, the first football book to centre on analysis was probably 1988’s The Hidden Game of Football by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn.
Skip forward 15 years or so and a generation that grew up with that first wave of football analysts was starting to write about the sport. Websites like Football Outsiders took analytics to a new level, as did author KC Joyner, whose work eventually led to this book. It is nominally an evidence-based look at some football assumptions – the importance of running backs, say, or the value of a right tackle.
In practice, however, it shies away from being a total deep dive into statistical analysis and more often ends up as a series of short polemics on who should or shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame or how the money in the NFL is distributed. These arguments, though backed with statistical evidence, are frequently lacking in rigour. The result is a book that is less enlightening than it could be, though often entertaining.
KC Joyner says he began doing statistical analysis of football in 1984, inspired by the work of baseball analyst Bill James. In 2003, he quit his job to write Scientific Football 2005, an analytic look at the state of the NFL. Annual updates followed, leading to writing roles for ESPN, the New York Times, and numerous media appearances. He now provides his own Paydirt subscription service, which uses his analysis and data to help fantasy football players to gain an advantage in their leagues.
The NFL’s general approach to media coverage has always been to target the fan who isn’t interested in hearing anything negative about players, coaches, or teams. The league often follows the players’ credo that says “always credit, never blame” when it comes to analysis or commentary. I’m all for positivity, but they take that idea and go to ridiculous lengths with it. In some cases the leagues coverage of itself feels like a Norman Vincent Peale cult gone wrong. This tendency will keep the league from effectively competing with other outlets on the strong commentary front.
Starting with the 2007 season, the difference between the NFL’s salary cap and salary floor (which is the minimum amount of money a team must pay to its players) will be approximately $29 million. From a purely financial standpoint, the only reason a team would want to spend up to the salary cap is if that $29 million investment was going to bring in more than $29 million in non-television revenue such as gate receipts. Given the current state of gate receipts in the NFL, this move would rarely be a winning situation for the team.
More than a decade after it was published, Blindsided works better as a collection of contrarian thoughts and debate-starters than it does as a statistical examination of the NFL. Joyner’s statistical work too often rests on questionable assumptions and logical jumps – a sign perhaps of how new he was to the field. It’s also odd that, for all his talk about a new approach to football analysis, Joyner seems unaware of The Hidden Game of Football, which established an analytical approach to football 20 years before Blindsided. The fact-based analysis is frequently ditched entirely for arguments about why Bert Bell shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, which seems a strange and pointless issue to which to devote a chapter, or how Art Rooney’s decision making was the reason for the Steelers’ long championship drought.
Still, there are some thought-provoking sections here and there, such as the analysis of league finances which notes that a side effect of the NFL’s revenue sharing strategy is that too many teams lack an incentive to win. There’s also some fun to be had comparing Joyner’s predictions of players that should be in the Hall of Fame with those who have actually been admitted since the book was written. However, football analytics has come along way since Blindsided was published – with significant contributions by Joyner himself as well as the likes of Football Outsiders and Warren Sharp – leaving this as a far from essential read.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books