On Deion Branch and Distortion in Sports Journalism, Part 2

Link to Part 1

(Note: Since it’s Friday night, I finished up the article with the help of several glasses of wine.  I’m reasonably confident that most of what I meant to say still made it in, though.)

Since I spent most of Part 1 stomping on Peter King’s head with the help of statistics, I thought it might be nice to lead off Part 2 with a more competent journalistic example.  Last week, former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter made an appearance on ESPN to discuss, among other things, his friend and ex-teammate Randy Moss.  Before long though, the topic of conversation shifted to the man who more or less replaced him in New England, Deion Branch, and Carter had some pretty blunt things to say about the ex-Seahawk:

“Deion disappears too much against regular corners.  He disappears in the game.  He’s made, like, three guest appearances since the Super Bowl . . . Look at his stats.  Look at his game.”

“He’s just a guy.  You guys have to be real about it,” Carter added.  “Great players, they don’t get hurt as much as the other players.  There’s a difference between great ones and good ones and average ones.”

In order, Carter is making three separate criticisms: 1) that Branch is ineffective in too many games, 2) that he is hurt too much of the time, and 3) that he is not productive enough in games to be considered an elite talent.  Usually when I encounter comments like Carter’s, I think about them for a few seconds, then promptly dismiss them as opinionated hot air and get on with my life.  This time, though, four little word in the middle of all those declarative statements made me stop and consider Carter’s opinions more seriously: “Look at his stats.”  In other words, “I’ve done the research on this, and the numbers back up every point I’m making.”

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Now, there are two groups of people who make claims like that.  The first is composed of people who really have done their homework on the subject and are convinced that the facts are on their side.  The second group is made up of people who haven’t looked anything up at all, but say they did so that they can win an argument.  In this case, the guy saying that the facts are on his side is a Hall of Fame candidate (I’m not just saying that, either — Carter has been a HoF finalist for three years running) — does a guy like that actually do the legwork, or does he slack off and count on his reputation as a player to ward off any second guessing?  I had to know, so off to the stat databases I went.

If you like, you can skip ahead to the table below comparing Branch’s career stats to those of several other wide receivers and continue on from there, but for those of you who are interested I wanted to take a few moments to explain how I arrived at the numbers and names I included in the chart.  Starting out, I knew I wanted to see if Carter’s three criticisms of Branch were correct, but what stats to use?  Figuring out how often a player misses games (due to injury or otherwise) was easy enough, just tally up the number of games a player missed, divide that by the total number of games he could have possibly played in, and out the other side comes a straightforward, easily comparable percentage.  Gauging a player’s productivity wasn’t too difficult, either — a player’s averages in multiple statistical categories (yards per reception, receptions per game, yards per game, and touchdowns per game) would do the trick well enough for that comparison, and since gaining 1,000 yards in a season is a traditional benchmark for wide receivers I counted them too and added them to the table.

Trying to figure out a way to get the stats to give me an idea of how many times a player was ineffective in a game took a little more thought, though.  Eventually, I decided to look at stats for individual games and tally up how many times each wide receiver was held to two or less catches.  And since it didn’t seem fair to examine ineffective performances without taking in to account how many above-average performances a player has had, I also counted up how many 100-yard games each player had, as well as how many times the players had six or more catches in a single game. 

Admittedly, I have no hard and fast reason to choose six catches as the cutoff rather than five or seven or whatever; it just seemed to me like five catches was a pretty good performance, but six was the start of something a bit more special.  I wasn’t expecting something definitive here, just some figures I could use for a rough comparison.

I now had nine stat categories to use to compare Branch, but now I needed some players to compare him to.  It seemed more fair to compare him to other active wide receivers who had been playing roughly as long as Branch, especially since injuries and missed games were a factor, so I chose from players who were drafted by NFL teams in 2001, 2002, and 2003.  Since Carter said Branch didn’t stack up against top shelf talent, I started by ruling out players with fewer than 400 career catches (sorry, Nate Burleson).  I then threw out anyone who didn’t play wide receiver (thereby kicking guys like Jason Witten and Ladanian Tomlinson off the list), and I found myself with a manageable list of eight productive wide receivers with careers between 8 and 10 years long: Anquan Boldin, Chris Chambers, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Andre Johnson, Santana Moss, Chad Ochocinco, Steve Smith (as in the one playing for Carolina), and Reggie Wayne.

Just for fun, after I got done comparing Branch to those eight players, I calculated and listed the same stats for the two active NFL leaders in receiving yards and touchdowns, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, and since this whole mess is Carter’s fault I put his numbers in too.  I also invited Steve Largent and his stats to the list because, well, why not?  With a current Hall of Fame candidate in Carter and two definite potential future Hall of Fame candidates in Moss and Owens, it seemed only fair to include an actual Hall of Famer, too.

Wow, that took a long time to type out.  Hopefully most of youl just avoide all that and went straight to the sweet, sweet data:

Name % Games
1,000 Yd
Games w/
6+ Rec
Games w/
2 to 0 Rec
A. Boldin 14.7 12.9 6.0 77.1 0.47 30 5 (of 8) 30 8
D. Branch 17.6 12.9 4.0 51.2 0.28 12 0 (of 9) 30 35
C. Chambers 5.2 14.3 3.8 54.5 0.40 20 1 (of 10) 23 39
T.J. Houshm. 14.8 11.5 4.6 53.3 0.32 15 2 (of 10) 48 29
A. Johnson 8.1 13.6 5.8 79.3 0.42 36 5 (of 8) 57 13
S. Moss 10.3 14.5 4.1 59.0 0.36 26 3 (of 10) 37 40
C. Ochocinco 4.4 14.4 5.0 71.3 0.44 31 7 (of 10) 54 16
S. Smith 14.1 14.6 4.6 68.6 0.42 35 5 (of 10) 48 31
R. Wayne 1.7 13.7 5.0 68.8 0.46 36 7 (of 10) 66 26
R. Moss 3.3 15.7 4.9 75.5 0.78 67 10 (of 13) 69 39
T. Owens 9.2 14.7 5.0 73.1 0.69 54 9 (of 15) 84 34
C. Carter 8.1 12.7 4.7 59.6 0.56 44 8 (of 16) 92 50
S. Largent 8.8 16.1 4.1 65.7 0.50 42 8 (of 14) 51 55

(Note: Since several of Branch’s best performances happened in playoff games, each player’s postseason stats have been included in the above table.  The two best stats in each column are highlighted with a green background, and the two worst are highlighted in orange.  The players at the bottom of the table have grey backgrounds because they weren’t part of the comparison — rather, they were just included to serve as additional frames of reference.  Also, in case you’re wondering, breaking 1,000 yards in a season means averaging 62.5 yards per game or better.)

So, it would seem that Carter knew what he was talking about (Peter King, I hope you’re taking notes).  First off, Branch really does miss a high percentage of his games — 17.6%, in fact.  Granted, Houshmandzadeh and Boldin aren’t too far behind him in that category, but both have also received their fair share of criticism for being injured too often.  Moving on to effectiveness in games, Chris Chambers and Santana Moss seem to disappear in games more often than Branch with 39 and 40 games with two or fewer catches, respectively, but Branch also ranks near the bottom in above-average performances with only 30 games with 6 or more catches, 12 games with 100+ receiving yards, and a mere 0.28 touchdowns per game.  And finally, in comparison to other top receiving talent, Branch is either at or near the bottom in every statistical average I listed — and remember, that’s only in comparison to a small subset of top receivers.  Among all active players, Branch ranks 47th in yards per reception and 33rd in receiving yards per game.

Stats are useful tools, but they’re only as good as the person using them; interpret them too narrowly, or rearrange them too creatively, and they’ll cheerfully help you reach some incredibly wrong conclusions.  It’s important to keep in mind here that the main question raised by Carter’s remarks is just about whether or not Deion Branch is an elite player, and according to the stats the most likely answer is that he is not.  That doesn’t mean that Branch is not a good receiver, though. 

The table I put together lists the top nine most successful wide receivers drafted between 2001 and 2003 — Branch may be number nine on that list, but at least he’s still on the list.  You know how many wide receivers were drafted in those three years? Take a look at the list — 104 names, and the vast majority of them turned out to be busts, underachievers, and miscellaneous other varieties of disappointment.  Heck, just look at the bunch of deadbeats who got drafted the same year as Branch in 2002 — compared to them, the man is a monolithic success story.  Not bad for an undersized guy who played his way up from the community college level to become a second round pick.

Getting back to the article from which I took Carter’s remarks, I’d like to point out how well the reporter Alex Speier handled the material.  There were plenty of opportunities to put any number of slants on the story, especially given Carter’s personal friendship with Randy Moss, but instead Speier showed admirable restraint by leaving his own opinion out of the matter, instead surrounding Carter’s words with just enough contextual information to let us know where and why he said them.  I love it when good journalism comes out of hiding to let me know it’s still alive.  If Speier didn’t mostly write about baseball, I’d make an effort to read more of his articles.

I wish I could say the same about the last article I want to discuss, but alas.  Pro Football Talk is a publication I try to avoid like the plague, but this piece was a follow-up to Cris Carter’s critique of Deion Branch, which was a topic I’ve been following lately, and besides, it was written by someone who wasn’t Mike Florio (Florio is to informative, reliable journalism what Mike Tyson is to positive conflict resolution).  I mean, how bad could it be?

As it turns out, pretty bad:

Today Branch was told about [Carter’s] comments by reporters who no doubt were hoping to have a juicy war of words to write about.  But Branch was bland in his response.

“Who me?  I didn’t even hear it,” Branch said.  “That’s cool, whatever he said, that’s cool.  I don’t even know what happened and I really care less.”

Branch won’t say it, but I will: Carter is wrong.  Moss is obviously a more talented athlete than Branch, but Branch is more than “just a guy.” Branch understands his role in the Patriots’ offense and has filled the role quite well.

And those who take Carter’s advice and look at Branch’s stats will see that Branch has 20 more catches for 183 more yards this season than Moss does,  If Branch is “just a guy,” what does that make Moss?

The insinuations made in this passage are so embarrassingly blatant that I’ll be brief here.  Right off the bat, you’ve got to love the way the reporter, Michael David Smith, approaches the subject.  Rather than stoop to trying to goad Deion Branch into saying something bad about Cris Carter to create a “juicy war of words to write about,” Smith simply forgoes that step and attacks Carter on Branch’s behalf.  Why wait for the player to say it when you can say it for him?  Then there’s his futile attempt to suggest that Branch is a better player than Moss by comparing their stats in a narrow, laughably restrictive context.  Yes, as it turns out Moss has not done as well as Branch this year; it only took Moss being eighty-sixed by two teams in one season for being an ass, then landing on a team whose quarterbacks are all legally dead for that statistical upset to occur. 

Ah, PFT, you are the sort of inept that makes me long for the deft insight of Peter King’s “last six playoff games” analysis.

*        *        *

This will probably sound deeply alcoholic (I only drink like twice a month, I swear), but I am starting to have trouble focusing my eyes on the text on the screen.  I do believe my best bet right now is to hit the post button and hope for the best, so my apologies for any typos, errors, or snarled logic my lack of editing has left in this article.  Good night, or good morning, or whatever it is right now!