Pro Football Focus Is On Notice
The internet loves secret knowledge.
Open any social media feed and you'll quickly find someone posting about what's "really" going on in the world. Whether it's politics, aliens, or vaccines, someone always seems to know the behind the scenes details of global society.
Football is a game of secret knowledge. Coaches shield their mouths when calling in plays, players huddle closely together to share the information, and playbooks are guarded as closely as state secrets. Play language and diagrams are close to indecipherable if you haven't played the game at a reasonably high level.
To that end, it's understandably seductive when someone comes along claiming that they will explain these nuances to you. Pro Football Focus has filled that role since 2007, claiming to go "beyond the stats" to bring this insider information to the masses... for a price.
What's so bad about Pro Football Focus?
Writers throughout the NFL have adopted their stats, repeating them almost verbatim and often without context. It's fine to utilize the product, but simply replacing traditional stats with PFF's grades without any sort of critical thinking doesn't help anyone.
There are also significant problems with PFF's methodology. For starters, the entire process is non-falsifiable. PFF spins their grades as objective, but they are decidedly not. Every grade, though checked and re-checked, is based on interpretation. Moreover, this method is proprietary and not open for examination. We can either take their grades at face value or we can tediously grade each play ourselves.
Second, the grades often don't take into effect context. Richard Sherman is an excellent example. In the 2014 season opener, the Packers completely avoided Sherman. He was never targeted and basically got a free week off. Pro Football Focus gave him an average grade, but that misses the point: the Packers completely ceded half the field to Sherman. No matter: to PFF he was average that day.
Throw five touchdowns, get a negative grade
Similarly, PFF gave Aaron Rodgers a -0.8 grade for his five touchdown performance against the Chiefs last year, and even wrote an extensive explanation of the grade.
Let's look at some of the highlights:
"This isn't a bad game, just because the number begins with a minus but it is an average grade very close to zero for a player who threw five touchdown passes, which seems crazy on the face of it. It's not."
No, but it is. According to your own grading scale, -0.8 is closer to an "awful throw that should be or is intercepted" than "a good short pass." 0 is average on the PFF scale. You said Aaron Rodgers was below average that game.
"With 12:58 remaining in the third quarter, Rodgers forced a pass that Josh Mauga could and possibly should have returned for six points for Kansas City. If Magua makes this interception, it would have tacked an ugly interception onto Rodgers' stat line."
Okay, let's look at that play.
Bad throw by Rodgers? Sure.
Magua "could and possibly should have been returned for six points"? Eh, not sure I buy that. Bad enough to essentially discount the five touchdown passes Rodgers threw that night? Nope.
"Context is crucial with everything in football," the post goes on to say, and I agree, but the next phrase is what really gets me.
"If you believe we are saying that Rodgers had a poor game last night because his grade had a minus in front of it, then let me set your mind at ease; I do not think Rodgers played a poor, subpar game last night and neither does anybody else at Pro Football Focus."
But you do though!
As I pointed out above, PFF's own grading system says Rodgers' entire night was below average. If your grading system needs that much explanation and still grades a five touchdown performance as below average, the problem might not be with the players on the field.
Who will hold the powerful accountable?
This long digression brings me to my third and final point: PFF is frequently flat out wrong, and they're never called out for it. One huge example is their declaration of Brad Jones as a "secret superstar" in the run up to the 2013 season.
The entire post is laughable in hindsight, as Brad Jones never had anything resembling a "breakout" year and certainly never developed into a superstar.
Pro Football Focus is a great tool. It certainly has added a lot of quality analysis to the NFL world. But it needs to be part of the checks and balances system of NFL media, too. That's a role I want us to fill.
If you see a claim by PFF that needs investigating, let us know. If we see a grade that seems a little off, we'll let you know. I think if you claim to provide the most in-depth, accurate, and thought-provoking information" available about the NFL, someone should be there to check those claims. I think that someone can be The Power Sweep.