The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raheem Morris and the argument for statistics

"I can prove anything by statistics except the truth." George Canning said that.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Benjamin Disraeli said that, although the quotation police are still debating how many other people might have said it first.

"Stats are for losers," Raheem Morris said. Again.

And this time, I agree with Morris … about 54.3 percent, anyway.

First things first: As a sportswriter, I love statistics. I love decimal points and earned run averages and save percentages. I love records and rankings and ratings. When a man earns his bacon with his opinion, statistics are tiny slivers of evidence that help him argue his point. So, yes, I find stats useful and, frankly, fascinating.

Put it this way: If stats are for losers, then why do the Hall of Famers have such impressive numbers on their plaques? If stats are for losers, why do NFL teams own so many stopwatches? And if stats are for losers, why do we use them mostly to define the winners?

That said, I understand where Morris is coming from. His is a world where only one statistic — victories — really matters. As they say, everything else is details. For instance, I don't think it matters a whit to Morris that his run defense is 30th (up from 31st); I think it only matters that it has to get much, much better.

Think of it like this. Morris will not get a contract extension if, say, his pass defense ranks eighth in the NFL. He will not get a raise if, say, his offense is in the top 20. The final measure of Morris, as it is with all coaches, will boil down to one number: How many did he win?

In some ways, Morris' approach is refreshing. There have been coaches — and yes, some of those have worked in Tampa Bay — who have tried to hide behind stats after a defeat. Numbers were their way of saying that the loss wasn't as bad as it looked, and that because of statistics, the won-loss record isn't really as bad as it appears. That, of course, is 94.3 percent hooey (measured on the Dunkel Hooey Scale.)

I'm just guessing, but I suspect what Morris really means is this: At best, statistics are an incomplete truth. Follow them blindly, and you do not get the entire story.

No, I don't think for a minute that Morris is saying that statistics don't count, and I don't think he's saying those who pay attention to stats are losers, and I don't think he means to discredit the athletes who have the most impressive stats. I really don't.

Look, coaches use statistics every day to figure out who should play, and when, and how much. Even play-calling itself is a form of probability of success. So is the decision to kick a field goal or go for it on fourth and 1.

For instance, former Dolphins coach Don Shula liked stats, in particular the one about his '72 team being the only unbeaten Super Bowl champion. The late Bill Walsh liked stats, especially the ones that pointed out how smart he was. For that matter, Albert Einstein liked stats.

For that matter, most of us love stats. We love Cy Young's 511 wins and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Cal Ripken's 2,632 games in a row. We love that Joe Paterno can win his 400th game Saturday, and that John Wooden won 10 titles, and that Wayne Gretzky had 2,857 points. We love it when we agree that Henry Aaron's 755 home runs are more impressive than Barry Bonds' 762. And so on. Those numbers didn't make those performers great; they just provided supporting evidence.

We love WAR and WHIP and plus-minus and 40 times and sack totals and triple-doubles and knockouts and third-down percentages and touchdowns-to-interceptions and walks-to-strikeouts and penalty-kill percentage and everything else you can learn from the Elias Bureau (the premier number-crunchers in sports). Why? Because they are clues to tell us why a team is winning and whether it might continue.

Bill James, the noted baseball statistician, once compared stats to bones. They are all that is left, he said, when everything else decays. Used properly, that is true. Used recklessly, however, they tend to break apart.

Face it: There is a reason sports aren't played with an abacus, and there are reasons uniforms don't have pocket protectors. If they did, we wouldn't have playoffs. We would just have a version of the BCS for the NFL, and another for major-league baseball, and on and on.

It isn't just the BCS. There are a lot of stats that sound as if they are telling the whole truth when they aren't. I suspect Morris is kind of saying that, too.

For instance, take defensive rankings. When the NFL releases them, they sound solid and unassailable, don't they?

But all the NFL defensive rankings consist of is a list of which team has given up the fewest yards. It doesn't count points. It doesn't count quality of opposition. It doesn't count turnovers. It does count when the opposition hits a late play in a game where a team has a four-touchdown lead. For a league that came up with the convoluted quarterback ranking formula, it still amazes me that the NFL can't come up with a better formula for ranking team numbers.

Consider this: The Chargers are first in the NFL on offense, and they're first on defense. In the AFC West standings, on the other hand, they are third. On the other hand, New England is 19th in offense and 28th in defense. Yet, the Patriots are 6-1.

At this point, 91.9 percent of statisticians might say "oops."

And speaking of the quarterback rating, that's only a couple of chapters of the story, too. Yes, quarterback rating tells us something. No, it doesn't tell us all. It doesn't tell us about third down. It doesn't measure fourth quarters. It doesn't count going on the road or playing in the rain or leading a two-minute offense into the end zone.

The point is, statistics can be a great thing. They can whisper some things, and they can shout others. But they are also numbers that should not be swallowed whole.

As Aaron Levenstein once said: "Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital."

Maybe it's me, but that sounds about 98.1 percent right. Give or take.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raheem Morris and the argument for statistics 11/02/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 12:22am]

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