Have the Jets been playing like the 2nd best team in the NFL?

The saying goes, there are three types of lies; lies, damn lies, and statistics. If statistics can be misleading and often ignore what is readily apparent to those watching the games, by considering all of the data they can sometimes be more accurate than any single observer.  Unfortunately, most football statistics are rather imperfect; there's no distinction between a 10 yard pass completed on 3rd and 14 and 3rd and 9, even though their impact is hugely different. The answer, it seems, shouldn't be to ignore statistics, but to look at them carefully.

I've watched all of the Jets' games this season, and my impression was of a team that was solid but inconsistent, a sense that I think is pretty widespread around these parts. On a whim, I glanced at Football Outsiders' site, probably the best analysis of the most advanced football stats available, which can overcome many of the problems with traditional statistics mentioned above, and was astonished to see that they said that until now in 2011, the Jets' performance has been the 2nd best in the NFL. This seemed crazy to me, so I tried to unpack their numbers, and see if there is anything that their statistics show that my eyes simply missed.

Like the actual NFL, they divide their rankings into three categories; Offense, defense, and special teams. Though we don't discuss it as much, the Jets' special teams this year has seemed to be outstanding, so I thought I'd start by looking there.

They rank the Jets' special teams' performance as being 2nd so far this year. The strength of the team, which shouldn't surprise too many people, has been on kicks; both the Jets' kick returning and kick coverage are ranked by them as not only the strongest in the NFL, but by a large margin. Joe McKnight has been excellent, but according to traditional stats, he doesn't seem to be - that - much better than everybody else. In terms of yards per kick return, for example, the Jets have finished 2nd this year --- excellent, but not a dominant first. What Football Outsiders is claiming, however, is that weather and altitude play a significant role in the effectiveness of a kick returner. Because it's easier to return kicks in good weather, teams that have strong results in bad weather should be overemphasized. This variable, they argue, is important enough that the Jets' successes have been much more than yards per return suggests. Perhaps similarly, even though the Jets' yards per kick return allowed has been 3rd in the NFL, they claim that once all the factors are considered, they are by far the best. The rest of the Jets' special teams are less fantastic, Football Outsiders claim, but still quite good. Nick Folk having finally seemed to have discarded his inconsistencies, is rated according to them the 4th best kicker so far this year; understandable, considering he's gone 11-12 on FGs this year, including 2-3 on kicks 50 yards and further. The Jets' punt coverage team has been quite good; the biggest weak spot in special teams has been punt returns, where they are actually below average. This jives with traditional statistics, which show the returners being 19th.

They rank the Jets' offense as being the 19th best, which didn't seem too astonishing to me. In terms of traditional statistics, the Jets have been 15th in total yards, and 11th in points, suggesting that Football Outsiders thinks those stats are overvaluing the Jets' offense somewhat. Though this would have been a big shock before the year started, they unsurprisingly measure the Jets passing as being the strength of the offense. The passing game ranks 13th, while the rushing game ranks a woeful 21st. 

Probably the most astonishing claim of their's, however, is that the Jets' defense has been the 2nd best this year. This, suffice it to say, has not been readily apparent to most viewers, or people who look at the older stats. The Jets have been 17th in yards given up, and 14th in points given up. I tried to understand their logic, and I'm afraid I don't know enough about these stats to give any solid explanation, but here's what I do get. They rank the Jets' rushing game as being 18th best, though the Jets are 26th in terms of rushing yards per game, but the Jets' passing defense as being 2nd best, though they are only 7th in terms of passing yards per game. The only thing that makes this make some sense to me is that they acknowledge that the Jets have been ludicrously inconsistent, having the most variance (or inconsistency) in their defense statistics. 

The result is that they argue that the Jets have been the 2nd best team in the NFL so far. So how come they haven't won more games? Here's where it gets kind of interesting; even knowing the performance that the Jets have had, which they say was so strong, they would have only predicted that the Jets won 4.5 games (rather than 4). In other words, they don't think the Jets have been that unlucky. Instead, they seem to explain the Jets bad record by inconsistency (21st in terms of all statistics combined), but also simply facing very strong teams. Don't assume, though, that things will get any easier; they predict that the Jets' upcoming opponents will be even tougher.

I hate to make any comments about this because I don't wholly understand it, but the basic argument seems to be that according to these people, who know their shit and their statistics, there is reason to believe that the Jets we've been watching have actually been playing very well, though it seemed otherwise because of a series of factors, from whom they've been playing to the weather. A bigger issue has been the inconsistency, as this site suggests that they have occasionally played outstandingly, and oftentimes, probably because of injuries, very much not so. These are, it seems, just initial indication of what remains a long and unforeseeable season.

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