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Does the preseason matter?

Posted by Andrew Mooney  September 9, 2011 10:55 AM

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There was one key point lost in the general hand-wringing that followed the Patriots’ lackluster showing this preseason: it was the preseason. These are the games during which you fall asleep in the second quarter, not pull your hair out over a blown coverage. Granted, there’s nothing encouraging to be taken from a beating like the one received at the hands of the Detroit Lions, but there isn’t much to lament, either. Preseason results have almost no correlation to regular season success.

To support this assertion, I performed a regression analysis, which shows the extent that one or more variables (in this case, various measures of preseason success) predict another dependent variable (regular season win total). If preseason performance reflects anything meaningful about the true quality of a team, then this performance should correlate with how the team ultimately fares in the regular season, measured in wins.

First, I collected data from the past five preseasons and tested the significance of a number of variables measuring both total offense and total defense—yards/game, points/game, yards/play, penalties, penalty yards, total points, turnover margin, and third down percentage. I also included scoring margin and, to better gauge the effect of teams’ starters on preseason games, first quarter and first half scoring margin.

For the statistically minded, my regression results can be found here. The numbers aside, the conclusion is simple: just one of the preseason variables showed any statistical significance in predicting regular season wins, and only one other was even close.

The significant variable? Offensive penalty yards—and its counterpart, offensive penalties, is close behind it. This is in line with a finding by Football Outsiders: teams in the regular season that commit more penalties on offense usually lose more games, though, oddly, the same doesn’t apply for defense. It’s interesting that offensive discipline is the only element remaining consistent from preseason to the regular season. Perhaps tendencies to hold and jump at the line can’t be broken when the games get serious.

The Pats rank eighth in offensive penalty yards this preseason, and they’re tied with the Broncos and Texans for ninth in offensive penalties. That’s somewhat disconcerting, given that they’ve been in the lower third of the league in those categories the last five seasons. However, this could be more a function of their abbreviated training camp than an accurate predictor of what’s to come. The offense may just have used the preseason as a time to shake off the rust of an extended offseason. Oh, and the team ninth in penalty yards, and seventh in penalties? The New York Jets.

You may wonder why I didn’t include wins in my regression; after all, might not preseason wins correlate with regular season wins? For my purposes, there aren’t enough outcomes possible -- the totals only range from 0-4 -- to draw any solid conclusions.

But a 2004 study conducted by twominutewarning.com was able to provide some insight on the subject. The group found that preseason wins matter most for teams with poor to average records the year before. Three or four wins in this case can herald a successful regular season. For the Pats, their findings were largely insignificant; good teams with at least two preseason wins were just as likely to stay successful as they were to decline.

So the chorus of panicked voices that have arisen over the past few weeks -- should we re-sign Randy Moss? Can we block anybody? Our two defensive tackles weigh what? -- can be largely ignored. It’s useless to read anything into games like these in which the two teams have drastically different levels of urgency in their preparation and execution. Come Monday night, Tom Brady and crew will finally be playing a meaningful game. You can bet they’ll treat it like one.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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