"Stats are for losers."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris said that on Monday, then again on Wednesday. That's actually a pretty common refrain in the NFL, and Morris is far from the first coach to use it. He probably wasn't the first NFL head coach to say it this week.
The sentiment really isn't as harsh as it sounds. It is generally in response to a question regarding some flaw in a team's play, despite that team's overall success.
You won the game…but you still didn't rush for enough yards.
You've got a winning record…but you're pass-rushing statistics are ugly.
To say stats are for losers, then, is really just another way of saying, "We feel just fine with this (or these) win(s)." After any game, the victor is likely to care far more about the 'W' than any other mark on the stat sheet, whereas the losing team may search the statbook for positive signs of development.
The Buccaneers have done this on their rare occasions on the wrong side of the final score this year; for instance, the team was pleased to note that quarterback Josh Freeman was sacked zero times against a heavy dose of blitzes brought by the New Orleans Saints in Week Six. The stats, in such an instance, are literally more interesting for the loser.
In a larger sense, though, "stats are for losers" also speaks to the idea that some specific stats seem to draw more attention than perhaps is deserved. That certainly seems to be part of Morris' point. In fact, he even invoked the idea on Wednesday when confronted with some of the numbers that paint his team in a very positive light: only 35 second-half points allowed; 10 interceptions on defense; etc.
"Stats are great," he said, "but really it all boils down to the formula I talk about: Play fast, play hard, play smart and play consistent. At the end of the day, you look at your numbers, where you are and what you're doing. If you constantly force your fundamental core beliefs, that stuff will come, that stuff will happen. I like to preach that to our guys every day. Our film study, our classroom work and what these guys put into it has been the difference. That's what I mean when I say stats are for losers. You can't get caught up in whether they're good or whether they're bad. You've got to keep playing and using that formula I talk about."
The statistical shorthand that most coaches will quickly dismiss is the league's offensive and defensive rankings, which are based on yards gained and allowed. There's no question that these numbers can help you pinpoint some of the more productive offenses and defenses in the league – you'll find Indianapolis, Houston and New Orleans near the top of the offensive charts and the Giants, Steelers and Ravens in the top 10 on defense. There is some question, however, as to whether these rankings have much correlation with what really matters – wins and losses.
In fact, this season might be the gold standard for the "stats are for losers" campaign. The San Diego Chargers are ranked first, amazingly, in both offense and defense and yet they have stumbled to a 2-5 record. The Dallas Cowboys are fifth on offense, tied for 10th on defense and wondering how to get on track after a 1-5 start. The defending champion New Orleans Saints still look great in the rankings, standing seventh on offense and third on defense, but most analysts expected them to be better than 4-3 at this point.
There is one statistic, however, that you will rarely hear an NFL head coach impugn: turnover ratio. The correlation between success in that category and success in the standings this year is very strong.
Look at the top nine and the bottom nine teams in the league's turnover-ratio chart (here, it's easier to draw the line at those points on the chart because several teams are tied or the 10th and 23rd spots). The top nine teams have a combined record of 46-17 and include some of the teams that have made the biggest leaps from their 2009 records – Washington, Tampa Bay and Kansas City. The bottom nine teams have a combined record of 21-43 and include some of the teams that have done worse than most analysts predicted – San Francisco, Minnesota and San Diego.
"If you ask anybody in our defensive room, 'What does Raheem say your job is?' they'll say, 'To score and get the ball back,'" said Morris. "That's just one of the stats that help generate wins. That's our core belief. So we score and get the ball back for our offense, and on offense one of their main deals is to maintain possession. They'll tell you that. That's how you win games. You keep it in simple terms. You don't say, 'Today we want to go out and get three interceptions and two fumbles.' No, you just score and get the ball back, period. However it happens, however you can do it, take advantage of your opportunities."
The Buccaneers are a good example, with a 4-2 record and a +6 turnover ratio that is tied for fifth in the NFL and might be a surprise coming from one of the league's youngest teams. The Buccaneers have not lost the turnover battle once this season, having more takeaways than giveaways on four occasions (all four wins) and breaking even on two others (both losses). It's hard to argue that this has been a winning edge for a team that perhaps has been winning more than outsiders expected it would.
Do the Buccaneers have areas in which they need to improve in order to continue being successful, or to ascend to even greater heights? Undoubtedly. Can one pinpoint some of those areas by scanning the statistics? To be sure. It's simply the notion that some of a team's raw numbers can say more about it than the simple matter of wins and losses that coaches and players will take issue with.
"Every game is going to have areas you're going to need to improve in," said always even-keeled guard Davin Joseph. "But right now we're doing good with not turning the ball over."
A Full 60 Minutes
Joseph also believes there's a simple explanation why some teams like the Buccaneers and Chiefs have continued to win games while other teams that probably are quite talented have continued to struggle.
"Some teams just aren't winning in the fourth quarter and that's why they have a losing record," said the Bucs' starting right guard. "We're able to find a way to win in the fourth quarter, and that's why we've been able to keep our winning record going."
The Buccaneers are 29th in the NFL in scoring per game, but they rank 15th in the league in fourth-quarter scoring. On defense, the Bucs are 17th in points allowed per game, but fourth in points allowed in the fourth quarter.
"We're being consistent enough to not put ourselves too far behind the eight ball and giving ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter," said Joseph. "Our defense came up big time last week in the second half and we gave ourselves a chance to win. That's what it's all about."
The Bucs are led by a young quarterback who is rapidly building a reputation as a crunch-time assassin, having produced five fourth-quarter comeback wins in just 15 career starts. Josh Freeman has a passer rating of 91.6 in fourth-quarter play and has thrown four touchdown passes in the final period against just one interception. The only quarterback in the league who has thrown as many fourth-quarter passes as Freeman (64) this year and has fewer interceptions is Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, with zero. Manning is also the only quarterback in the league with more fourth-quarter touchdowns than Freeman, with five.
Of course, the Buccaneers would prefer to be in fewer positions that called for fourth-quarter comebacks, especially ones that require a touchdown pass with 10 seconds left in the game. As Joseph says, Tampa Bay has overcome its slow starts by adjusting and keeping the game close until the end, but they'd like to produce some faster starts, too.
"It can be multiple different things," said Joseph. "This past game they switched it up on us a lot and it took us awhile to really get a hang of what they were doing on defense. But when we made the adjustments we were able to put together a couple drives, end them with some field goals. [Kicker] Connor [Barth] did a great job this week and eventually we were able to get a touchdown. You're going to have to fight in some games. Everything's not going to be predictable. Teams are going to switch it up on you and you've got to be able to adjust hopefully quicker than we did last week."
Morris says the team's current makeup could be a part of it, as a large portion of the roster is still learning the ropes in the NFL.
"It's just being a young team," he said. "We came out and started really well, had the sack-fumble and got the ball back. You'd like to score right there and get the momentum running, hopefully take the game in a different direction. But that wasn't the case and you've got to play the game as it plays out, scenario by scenario. There's no real formula to starting fast. The whole key is smart, fast, hard and consistent. We've got to find a way to do that in the first quarter and we've got to find a way to maintain that for the whole 60 minutes of a football game and whatever else is needed."
Easing Into It
The Buccaneers generally start the week with a practice in pads on Wednesday and gradually lighten up as the week progresses. In response to a heavily bruised roster and two upcoming road trips, however, Morris elected to take it a little slower to begin the team's preparations for the Arizona Cardinals.
"We went in a little slowed-down fashion out there," he said. "We had a little jog-through, so to speak, got some guys off their feet. Tomorrow we'll come out and get to our pads so we can get the physical part of practice going. We had a little bit of a mental day today, longer meetings and getting our stuff done that way this week."
The Bucs certainly had plenty of players that could use a little extra rest. The team's first official injury report of the week included 11 players, seven of whom did not participate in practice on Wednesday.
Center Jeff Faine remains out with a quad injury and definitely will not play this weekend in Arizona. The remaining six will be watched carefully for signs of progress as the week continues. They are linebacker Geno Hayes (knee), wide receiver Preston Parker (knee), defensive tackle Brian Price (pelvis), cornerback Aqib Talib (calf), tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee) and guard Keydrick Vincent (back).
That's an eye-opening list, obviously, as it includes five players listed as starters on the Bucs' depth chart (Faine, Hayes, Talib, Trueblood and Vincent). Price and Vincent are both managing ongoing injury situations and both missed last weekend's game against the Rams. Hayes, Parker, Talib and Trueblood all played in Sunday's game and are new additions to the report. Their level of participation in Thursday's more intense practice will likely be a better barometer for their availability in Arizona.
Trueblood's addition to the list means 60% of the team's starting offensive line is an injury concern for the weekend.
"He didn't participate today," said Morris. "He'll be one of those guys who's wait-and-see. Hopefully he can do something tomorrow or maybe even Friday, see where he is before we get out there to Arizona."
The Cardinals' injury report was a little slimmer, including one just one player, linebacker Clark Haggans (groin), who did not participate at all on Wednesday. Haggans is the starting left outside linebacker in Arizona's 3-4 defensive front and he is tied for the team lead with 2.0 sacks.
Perhaps most notably, rookie quarterback Max Hall passed his concussion tests after being hurt in the Cardinals' loss to Seattle over the weekend and was able to practice. Hall has started the Cards' last two games and is expected to be back under center against the Buccaneers if health allows. He participated fully in Wednesday's workout, while four other Cardinals were limited: wide receiver Steve Breaston (knee), wide receiver Early Doucet (groin), linebacker Joey Porter (groin) and cornerback Greg Toler (back). Breaston, Porter and Toler are listed as starters on Arizona's depth chart.