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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

49ers: Lucky or Good? Mathematician Weighs In

Posted By on Tue, Feb 14, 2012 at 5:59 AM

In Dallas, they attribute this to luck. Still.
  • In Dallas, they attribute this to luck. Still.

San Francisco 49ers fans still in search or a silver lining, take heed: Rather than be blinded with science, embrace it!

Matt Lane, an S.F. native and alumnus of University High, is now a doctoral student in mathematics at UCLA. On his Math Goes Pop! blog, he recently pondered whether the 49ers were lucky this season, or good.

Lane's first analysis concerned the team's luck.

He did this by juxtaposing the quality of the team's opposition in its

putrid 2010 season with this year's scintillating campaign. The 49ers didn't play a monster schedule this year: The team's opposition won 115 games and lost 141, for a .449 winning percentage. Other than New Orleans, that's the worst opposing win percentage in the NFL.

In 2010, the team's opponents went 125-131 (.488) -- middle of the pack in the league. Of course, Lane notes, there is a dangling factor here: Teams in 2010 had the benefit of playing a lousy 49ers squad. Teams in 2011 did not. The record of one's opponents is not outside of a team's control; it's no coincidence the very worst teams in the league faced opponents with the collectively highest winning percentages. Teams playing the St. Louis Rams went 151-105 (.590) -- largely because they had the benefit of playing the abysmal Rams at least once this season.

Lane helpfully factors out head-to-head matchups for both the 2010 and 2011 seasons. And while the 49ers' schedule is still closer to creampuff than thistle, the differences between strength-of-schedule from season to season are arguably negligible. Since the difference between 2010 and 2011 was far from negligible for the 49ers' win sheet, Lane argues the team's progress had more to do with actual improvements than a crap schedule.

Part II of this football-related foray into mathematics analyzes the team's skill. Lane looks at how the team's performance measured up on the stat sheets by using PossessionPoints, a proprietary system that assigns values based on an offense's ability to keep the ball and score and a defense's ability to take the ball away and prevent scoring -- with more points awarded for late-game heroics.

Here's how Lane summarized the above chart:

Offensively and defensively, the 49ers were fairly unremarkable in the 2010 season.  [From 2010 to 2011,] their offensive improvement from 64.00 to 98.55, combined with their defensive improvement from 91.91 to 57.32, gave them a net effect improvement of 69.14, by far the best improvement of any NFL team between these two seasons (the runner up is Carolina, whose net effect improved by 45.23).  The offensive improvement was 4th best in the league by this measure, (behind Carolina, Green Bay, and New Orleans), while their defensive improvement was second only to Houston's.

In short, San Francisco got a lot better between '10 and '11. The fan in Lane hopes the team will be even more improved this year.

Conclusion: While it may be better to be lucky than good -- it's best to be both.


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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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