Our eyes are constantly betraying us when we watch football. We turn to statistics to help us explain what we are watching. However, statistics only tell one truth and they tell us many lies. So what do you do when you want to find out some actual truths about what really happened in any given CFL season?
For me, I turn to the brains and crazy amount of research of Derek Taylor, star of The Details on TSN. Now, he isn’t for everyone. A lot of CFL fans just want to watch the game, make their own judgments about players or teams and be done with it. I fully understand that approach — sports are meant to be a fun diversion. But for a lot of us, we want to know if Matt Nichols statistically got better this year or if Ja’Gared Davis is better than his seven sacks would indicate, or just what is the future of Jonathon Jennings?
There may be a couple columns I enjoy more than my annual Derek Taylor piece, but there are none easier than this one. I throw out about 20 or so questions to DT and he gives me some of the most useful/unique and often contradictory answers. So please enjoy peeking into the mind of an analyst who spends most of his free time breaking down every single play from every CFL game.
1. Interesting: The curious case of William Powell
Did you know that Powell broke 90 tackles this year, or one for every 3.2 touches? That is the highest rate that Derek has seen since he started tracking this statistic four years ago. So does that mean teams should try and break the bank for Powell? In a strange twist, Derek says no. Did you know that Powell is actually by some measurements a slightly below average running back?
This next part is tricky to understand, so I’ll give you the simple version. Derek compared every run by Powell in every situation with every run from all running backs over the past eight years (this really happened!) and discovered that the league average running back would gain about five more yards than Powell did this past season. Okay, I’m a bit confused as well. Basically, Powell had so much success because of all the opportunities he was given in 2018, so his adjusted running value was a tiny tick below league average.
On the other hand, Powell still made more guys miss than Andrew Harris, and was a massive part of the REDBLACKS’ success. Taylor summed it up that yes, Powell has many skills, but maybe not elite skills, and that he should not be given elite-level money. Trust me, Derek is a bit flummoxed by his own numbers and he goes over them all the time.
Oh, the running back with the fewest broken tackles (minimum 100 touches) was Hamilton’s Alex Green.
2. Debate: Trevor Harris or Jeremiah Masoli?
“Uh, that is such a hard question.” I actually started Derek with this question. Hey, why make things easy on the front end? For the moment, Harris has a slight lead over Masoli in part due to a better touchdown to interception ratio against teams who qualified for the post-season. Harris had a 14:6 touchdown to interception ratio compared to Masoli’s 11:10 ratio. Both quarterbacks operate in such different offences with Harris relying on short, quick passes, while Hamilton employs a deeper passing game relying on extra blockers to give Masoli more time for his receivers to get open.
Derek did concede that if Hamilton had not lost Jalen Saunders for half the season and Brandon Banks down the stretch that Masoli would have been his choice, and that going into next year he will more than likely rank Masoli marginally ahead of Harris. But as 2018 comes to an end, Harris gets the title of best quarterback in the East.
3. Oh sure, the Stamps won it all, but it doesn’t mean they were better than the 2017 version.
Defensively the Stamps had a better year statistically in 2017 than they did this past year. But what is remarkable about the Stampeders is they still were nearly as dominant despite losing Tommie Campbell and Charleston Hughes. You may have missed it as he was in Montreal, but Campbell was again one of the best boundary corners in the league and Hughes led the CFL in sacks.
4. The Shiftiest Receiver Award goes to …. Kyran Moore!
The Saskatchewan Roughriders rookie led the league with most yards after the catch (7.7 yards per reception) and made a defender miss every 2.9 receptions. It should be noted he was 10th in targets under 10 yards downfield, so he had plenty of chances of making slower linebackers miss, but that fact shouldn’t take away from a solid first year for Moore.
5. S.J. Green proves that all statistics need proper context.
Green made a tackler miss once every 28 receptions, last in the league. He also only gained 3.3 yards after the catch. So does that mean he is a lesser receiver to Kyran Moore? Green is 33 years old so maybe the statistics point to a player who is regressing. Derek doesn’t think so. Not only did Green still gain over 1,000 yards, but he still is producing those ridiculous acrobatic catches on a regular basis.
The issue that plagued Green in 2018 was the same that hurt the team all year: inconsistent quarterback play. A good quarterback not only throws receivers open but he also hits his targets in stride to allow the receiver to use their athletic ability. But in Toronto, only 66 per cent of the balls thrown his way were considered accurate throws, which was the third-worst rate in the league. Green was not exactly put in a position to succeed this past year.
6. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterbacks got more than their share of luck.
Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler had just 60 per cent of their interceptable passes picked off. Nichols had six passes where defenders had an easy interception only to drop the ball. All quarterbacks benefit from the odd stone-handed corner, but Nichols’ 18 touchdowns to 13 interceptions would have looked a lot different if the opposing secondaries had done their job.
Derek did say that it looked like some of Nichols’ struggles can be traced to his pre-season knee injury and the possibility that Nichols probably rushed himself back in the lineup.
7. You may be shocked by this, but Mike Reilly did not get a ton of help.
Edmonton had a 1,000-yard rusher in CJ Gable and was blessed with stud receivers in D’haquille Williams, Derel Walker and Bryant Mitchell, so everything was set up for Reilly to excel, correct? Not according to Derek Taylor. Reilly was pressured on 28 per cent of his passes, slightly above league average, and saw his targets drop 24 passes, the second-most in the CFL. Reilly also had the most passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage. When you put that all into context, Reilly’s 5,562-yard, 30 TD, 18 INT season looks even more impressive.
8. Who was the pass rusher that deserves more attention, despite his sack numbers?
Calgary’s Ja’Gared Davis. Yes, seven sacks isn’t exactly a total to write home about when you play 17 games and you have players like Micah Johnson creating one-on-one situations for you. However, Davis was third in quarterback pressures with 45, only three back of Shawn Lemon for the CFL lead.
9. Speaking of Micah Johnson … Oh my God!
Go back and look at every season since 2004 and you will discover that no defensive tackle has recorded as many sacks in a single season as Johnson did with 14. As Derek summed it up, Micah “put up defensive end numbers playing at defensive tackle.” Derek has five different categories for sacks: Wins, freebies, clean-up, coverage and sacks on run plays. Most of those categories are self-explanatory, but the “win sack” deserves extra attention.
Not all sacks are created equally; we’ve all seen the linebacker blitz from the edge resulting in an unobstructed path to the quarterback. Then there are the takedowns where the defender had to beat his man and get to the quarterback within 2.5 seconds to record a sack. Both of those scenarios count the same on the stat sheet, but the second one is far more impressive. Thus Derek created the “win sack,” which means the defender had to overwhelm at least one player and get to the quarterback before he had a chance to go through all his progressions. It should come as no surprise that, yes, Micah Johnson led the CFL with 12, two more than Charleston Hughes.
10. Who are two free agents that every team should go after?
At first Derek went full Captain Obvious by saying Bo Levi Mitchell and Mike Reilly. His point was there is a significant gap between these two passers and whomever you deem is the third best quarterback in the CFL. Here are two other names, both from the Eskimos’ roster that should be high on every team’s list: Bryant Mitchell and Kwaku Boateng. From Week 13 on Mitchell was the game’s leading receiver while Boateng, a Canadian who is only 23 years, old finished the year with nine sacks and 25 QB pressures.
11. Craziest stat of the year goes to the Calgary Stampeders’ offensive line.
Calgary was right there with Ottawa and Winnipeg in allowing the fewest pressures on their respective quarterbacks. The biggest difference is that the REDBLACKS and the Blue Bombers rely more on a short passing offence with their average pass going under 10 yards downfield. Calgary is not afraid to go deep, averaging more than 12 yards downfield. That sort of scheme means that Bo Levi Mitchell required a greater amount of time before throwing, which placed a great burden on Calgary’s offensive linemen to hold their blocks.
So then Calgary statistically had the best offensive line in 2018, correct? In a confusing twist, that is not the case, as Derek pointed out that no team saw more rushing attempts end in lost yards than the Stampeders. Strange as it may seem, statistically, Calgary was both the best at pass blocking and the worst at running blocking. I told you these statistics can be contradictory.
12. What about James Franklin and Jonathon Jennings?
Derek isn’t selling his James Franklin stock just yet. Franklin overall was still above average in accuracy statistics but was ill-suited for the short pass philosophy that was built for Ricky Ray. As for Jennings, Derek is finally selling his stock as Jonathon still makes too many throws that make you go ‘really’? Derek does wonder if Jennings would benefit playing for a coach like June Jones, who believes in that max protection, challenge secondaries deep style of attack.
BONUS QUESTION: What about Johnny Manziel?
I was shocked to learn that Montreal only ran 11 designed runs for Manziel. Considering his elusiveness, that number was shockingly low. As for all the other statistics regarding his inaugural year in the CFL … trust me, you don’t want to know. In this case, your eyes were probably not lying to you.