Adventures at Summer Camp: Lehigh Day 2

Because someone has to read all the news coming out of the Eagles training camp.

* * *

When double-negatives attack. Bobby April told the press, in as roundabout a way as he could manage, that DeSean Jackson won’t be the primary punt returner anymore, now that he has his big contract:

"I don’t think that we’re not going to use him," April said. "I just don’t know if he’s going to be the primary guy. … He’ll continue to work at the positiion. He just won’t get as much work as he normally does."

* * *

Can’t lower the bar enough. April also said that while he was looking to bring in competition for Chas Henry, the former Florida punter did well for a rookie. That is simply not true. Among his fellow rookies, Henry had the second-lowest net average and tied for the lowest ratio of punts inside the 20 yard line to touchbacks, a rough measure of placement and touch. Needless to say, those stats look even worse compared to veterans.

UPDATE: Eagles signed former Cowboy Mat McBriar.

* * *

My kingdom for a Washburn post-game press conference. Jim Washburn is so candid. He talked to the press yesterday, and the quotes were flying. On Mike Patterson coming back from brain surgery:

"Mike Patterson might be one of the best people I’ve ever had," said Washburn. "He doesn’t have to come to these rookie meetings at night and in the afternoon, he doesn’t have to be there, but guess what? He’s there. I said, ‘Mike, you don’t have to be here,’ and he said, ‘I like to be here.’ He likes football. He’s a good one. God dang, we miss him now."

On Antonio Dixon:

"I was so disappointed," said Washburn. "I couldn’t tell if he had any talent… I couldn’t tell if the guy was a good player or not. I couldn’t tell if he was a good athlete. He weighed 365 or something like that. His back was killing him. He was out of shape. I couldn’t even tell if he was a player. This spring, he worked his butt off. He’s down, I don’t know how much he weighs, he’s maybe 330 from 360 or whatever it was. He’s in so much better shape and I went, ‘Wow, this guy’s got some quickness.’ He likes to play and he’s tough, but he’s got ability."

On Trent Cole:

“He told me when I first got here, ‘I ain’t rotating,’” Washburn said Tuesday at Eagles training camp. “Said it right up there in that meeting room. I said, ‘Yes, you are … or your ass ain’t going to play.’ He’s a great kid, Trent.”

On Brandon Graham:

"He changed some of the habits in his life, I think," Washburn said. "He got serious. … I don’t know, [he’s] a mild-mannered guy. He was a good player in college, he was. I watched every game he played in college for a year or two. He was a good player. Should be a good player here. Lost his weight. Got too heavy.” Graham, of course, is coming back from knee surgery after losing most of 2011.

* * *

Tearjerker. If you’re not rooting for lifelong Eagles fan Vinny Curry before, you will Be after you read Jeff McLane’s article about him. Plus, bonus Washburn quotes!

* * *

Mini-Asante? Multiple reports talked about UDFA Cliff Harris picking off a few passes during yesterday’s practices, putting him out to an early lead in the Training Camp Darling category. But let’s not go crazy here. There are no good wide receivers at camp, and some of the picks just demonstrate how bad Trent Edwards is.

* * *

On the other hand, I’m starting to let the continued positive reports on Mychal Kendricks get to me. He seems much more prepared than Casey Matthews was, at any rate.

* * *

Poorly Written Articles Edition. Bill Barnwell gives us what he pretends to be a statistical analysis of the top running backs in the game, but somehow concludes that Ray Rice is better than LeSean McCoy without demonstrating any number that backs that up.

Even less insightful was the book excerpt in Fast Company about how Jeff Lurie turned around the Eagles. What a waste of time.

Examining Punter Chas Henry’s Rookie Start

Chas Henry Eagles Punter

It’s common knowledge that the transition from David Akers to Alex Henery hasn’t gone smoothly. After all, Henery’s two missed field goals against San Francisco were a big reason for that loss.

But much less ink has been shed over the change at punter, where Chas Henry replaced veteran Sav Rocca. Back in August I crunched the numbers on Rocca and the rest of the punters in the NFL in 2011, going beyond simple net punting averages to factor in situational field position.

That study showed that Rocca wasn’t elite, but he placed above average among his peers in almost every category. Using the same parameters as last time (please read that one for an explanation), I scored Henry’s punts through his first six games.

Chas Henry 2011 Punting Stats Weeks 1 to 6 At right you can see all of Henry’s punts, with punt distance, return yardage (including touch backs), and the difference between the actual and optimal results. It’s a small sample, but we can start to draw conclusions.

For starters, although this isn’t shown in the table, 16 punts is an exceptionally low number. The Eagles offense has actually punted fewer times than any other team in the league. Leading the NFL in turnovers helps with that.

Second, Henry’s punts have not had the distance of a league average punter. Among players with at least 10 punts, Henery is 27th with a 41.8 yard raw average. That has been his biggest problem so far. Despite allowing fewer big returns, Henry’s average difference from optimal is almost exactly the same as a rookie punter from last season: the Giants’ infamous Matt Dodge, who ranked 33rd among punters.

There is some cause for optimism, however, if you are inclined to grant Henry the benefit of the doubt on his very first NFL start. Of his five worst punts this year, three came in that first game. Since then, Henry hasn’t been good (or even average), but his -8.8 yard difference from optimal would put him closer to 20th in the league.

Hopefully Henry can continue to improve, before he becomes a liability like his fellow rookie specialist.

Photo from Getty

On Aussies and Adjusted NFL Punting Statistics

Sav Rocca Philadelphia Eagles

One of the less heralded but more puzzling moves the Eagles made this offseason was letting punter Sav Rocca walk in free agency. By almost every conventional metric, Rocca had perhaps his finest season.

At age 37, in his fourth year in the NFL, Rocca had the highest punting average, the fewest touchbacks, and the most  punts landing inside the 20 of his career. Yet, despite his performance, Rocca was allowed to take his talents down to Washington, and the Eagles picked up undrafted rookie Chas Henry out of Florida.

Perhaps the move wasn’t so much about Rocca as it was about Bobby April starting fresh with young specialists who he can coach up. Still, the move was at least a minor head-scratcher, considering the veteran’s career year in 2010.

So, naturally, I began to wonder if Rocca’s season was actually as good as we thought. Basic punting statistics are particularly unreliable because they rely heavily on the situation. When a punter is backed up in his own territory, he gets to stretch his leg as far as he can, achieving distance above everything else. However, if a player has more punts from near midfield, he will have to kick for more accuracy and less power. The net punting average will depend heavily on this distribution of situational punts.

Derek Sarley of Iggles Blog tackled this problem last offseason. He compiled the play by play data and came up with a situational-based “optimal” punting scale. It works like so:

Yline = Line of scrimmage for the punting team.  Number 1-99 (theoretically) from their own goal line.

Punt = Punt distance

Return = Return distance

Result = Yline + Punt - Return

Optimal Result = “IF ( Yline < 40 , Yline + 50 ,  90).”  In English, if the line of scrimmage was between the 1 and 39  yard lines, I made the optimal result a 50-yard net punt.  If it was on  the 40-yard line or beyond, I called the optimal result a change of  possesion on the 10-yard line.  There are opportunities for further  refinement here, but as you’ll see in a minute, it won’t matter that  much once we start comparing apples to apples.

Difference = Actual result - Optimal result.

2010 NFL Adjusted Punting StatisticsObviously, “Optimal” doesn’t necessarily mean perfect. But it works to show about the top 10 percent or so of all punts, accounting for field position. All punters average results below the optimal point, but the better punter they are, the closer they come. You can see the full results of the top 36 punters in the NFL in 2010 (compiled and tabulated painstakingly from play by play data) by clicking on the thumbnail picture at right.

Note that ranking the punters by difference from optimal sometimes confirms preconceived notions of greatness, and sometimes it debunks them. This statistic shows that Dallas’s Matt McBriar, for instance, deserved his Pro Bowl nod. Oakland’s Shane Lechler, on the other hand, seems less impressive when you normalize the punting situations.

Overall, Rocca was ranked 11th in the league last year, good enough for the top third. However, we can dig a little bit deeper by comparing Rocca’s stats to those of the average punter at each point on the field. See the chart below with splits from line 1-20, 21-40, and 41+ (small sample size warnings for Rocca’s numbers apply):

2010 Punting Statistics Sav Rocca vs. Average

As you can see from the “Difference” column, Rocca’s punts had better results than the average at every point on the field. He wasn’t an elite punter, by any means, but there wasn’t much cause to let him go either. In other words, he was in about the same place as David Akers: above average but not substantially so.

This supports my theory that clearing out special teams was as much about setting a new tone and bringing in players April could teach as actually improving the results. Still, I’m interested in any other theories or lessons you can take away from this data.

Photo from Getty.