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Review: The Pro Football Historical Abstract (And A Look At Football Statistics)

(CN community members note - I'll be reviewing college football books again this off-season. They obviously won't be all about Nebraska, but I believe that Husker fans more than anyone are students of the game of college football. I certainly am.)

A while back, like before the beginning of the season, I received a book called "The Pro Football Historical Abstract" by Sean Lahman. I didn't request it, so someone must have sensed that I needed it. Being the curious type, I opened it and it didn't take long before I understood why.

I'll get to that, but first, a review.

Let's first look at the author, Sean Lahman. Lahman is a pioneer in sports statistics. From his Wikipedia entry:

He is most noted for the Lahman Baseball Database, a collection of baseball statistics for every team and player in Major League history. Starting in 1995, he made this database freely available for download from the Internet helping to launch a new era of baseball research by making the raw data available to everyone.

Lahman's statistical efforts in football are reflected in the "Pro Football Prospectus", released in 2002. He followed it up with three more editions, then in 2008 released "The Pro Football Historical Abstract".

The first section of the book is an overview of pro football history. Lahman breaks down the sport by decades, providing an instant look at best and worst team seasons, the best and worst teams of the decade, tracks when new teams are started as well as those who have gone defunct. In the decades where statistics were tracked, he provides a quick look at the best performances such as best passing performances, rushing yardage and receptions.

For each decade, Lahman includes sections on "Where They Played", "Who Played" and "How They Played", providing an overview of stadiums and turf, the men who played the game, and the offensive strategies as they changed through the decades.

The sport is defined by more than what happened on the field, and Lahman does a decent job of telling that story. He includes a short lament about the quality of sportswriting today compared to that of the 1940s and includes a piece on NFL players who were killed during World War II in that same section. Other obvious entries include the birth of the AFL, the subsequent AFL/NFL merger and the appointment of Pete Rozelle as commissioner.

The second section of the book is where the meat is. Lahman lays out his method for statistical analysis of football. He points out that football statistics are much more difficult to analyze than those associated with other sports, particularly baseball. Baseball players are measured on an individual basis, with stats for pitching, batting, and fielding.

Within football it's difficult (or nearly impossible) to measure the value of a running back versus that of a wide receiver because of the nature of the game. There are some players, offensive linemen, for whom no individual stats are kept.

Lahman does a pretty decent job of rationalizing his formulas. I am not going to post them all here, nor provide a complete transcription for the simple reason that it's unfair to him as an author, nor fair to his publisher, not to mention probably illegal.

The majority of the second section is Lahman's ranking of the top 50 or 100 players in each position on offense and defense. Offensive and defensive linemen are lumped together rather than being separated by individual positions. It's an interesting read, and there are some choices that are sure to turn some heads.

For example, Dick Butkus is listed as the fiftieth best linebacker in pro football history, a ranking that most would find questionable despite Lahman's lengthy explanation as to how and why he's ranked Butkus so low. Other examples include Ray Guy being ranked as the 12th best punter, Gale Sayers as the 98th-ranked running back (although tenth as a kick returner),

However, the rankings are not arrived at by subjective analysis, such as is the prose associated with Butkus, but by another formula Lahman invented called the "Q-Rating". The Q-Rating assigns a score to the player based upon his performance on a yearly basis. The players scores are added up throughout his career and the result is the ranking of the players in the perspective positions.

The third section of the book provides a similar analysis to pro football coaches. Obviously the adjusted yards and Q-Ratings don't apply to coaches, but Lahman provides a formula and rationale for ranking the top pro football coaches of all time. Lahman then goes on to rank the top coaches.

Section four compromises the players statistical information using Lahman's formulas. It constitutes quite a bit of the book, complete with charts, but the ideas behind his formulas can be best seen here.

Adjusted Yards Formula And Q-Rating As Applied to College Football

With Sean Lahman's permission, I give you the formula for what Lahman calls "adjusted yards". It is a formula that can be used to compare offensive players regardless of position or era.

The formula for adjusted yards is as follows:

Passing Yards / 2
+ Receiving Yards / 2
+ Rushing Yards
+ Sack Yards x (-1)
+ Interceptions x (-35)
+ Fumbles Lost x (-40)
+ Punt Return Yards
+ Kick Return Yards - [Kick Returns x 20]
+ (Rushing TDs + Kick Return TDs + Punt Return TDs) x 10
+ (Passing TDs + Receiving TDs) x 5

Lahman provides formulas for measuring other elements. Other formulas include adjusted yardage for kickers and punters, rating offensive line units, the defensive line, and pass defender scores. Other than the offensive line unit formula, I'm not going to post these formulas for the reasons stated above.

The offensive line formula is interesting to me because Nebraska is known for loving their offensive linemen more than most teams and it would be interesting to compare offensive line units over the years. (Ok, I like offensive line units. To me, they're the most important aspect of any football team. So there.)

His offensive line formulas are as follows:

Run Blocking Score:
OLR = (RuYds/RuAtt) - 3.33 (or zero if < 0)
OLRQ = OLR/YrMax x 10

Pass Blocking Score:
LP = [(PaAtt + PaSk)/PaSk] - 10 (or zero if < 0)
OLPQ = OLPScore /YrMax x 10

Offensive Line Score
OLS = OLRQ x [RuAtt /(RuAtt + PaAtt + PaSk)] + OLPQ x [(PaAtt + PaSk) / (RuAtt + PaAtt + PaSk)]
Q = OLS/YrMax x 10

Bottom line is, if you want the rest of the formulas, you need to buy Lahman's book.

I find his formulas interesting relative to Nebraska football because our primary focus now has changed from dominating opponents through a powerful rushing game to a more pass-oriented attack. Quarterbacks Joe Ganz and Zac Taylor set a number of offensive records in the past couple of years, but is it only because they performed decently in an offense skewed towards throwing the ball?

Two years ago, the NCAA expanded college football's regular season to 12 games. Prior to 2002, bowl game statistics were not included in a player's career totals. Given those changes, isn't it a given that records and awards will be heavily skewed towards more recent players?  How do we fairly compare Nate Swift's career performance versus that of Johnny Rodgers if the opportunities are skewed in favor of Swift? How do we realistically compare Joe Ganz and Zac Taylor against Turner Gill or Jerry Gdowksi? Better yet, how do we compare all of the above?

I believe that Lahman's adjusted yards formula gives us a place to begin.

Unfortunately, the Q-Rating doesn't apply very well to college football. Because of the inherent nature of college, players have at the most a four-year career and the vast majority might have only one or two seasons as starters.

This makes it difficult, but not impossible to compare the careers of college players.


Left to my own devices I would have never looked at nor purchased Lahman's book. It's only because the publisher saw fit to deliver it that I realized it's presence because I don't pay that close attention to pro football.

Having said that I'm very glad I got it. The formulas Lahman presents may make for an interesting look at college football.  If you're the kind of geeky football fan who may be into this kind of statistical stuff, it's well worth the price. If nothing else, the book provides a different way of looking at your favorite sport.

I hope to use the statistics above to look at Nebraska's offensive lines and some players over the years. I'm not sure how well it will work, but what the heck, it's a long offseason.