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Stats gone bad

A player or team with a good stat line might not always be as impressive as it seems. Stephen J. Dubner explains why numbers can often mislead as much as they illuminate.

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Sometimes the numbers do lie

By Stephen J. Dubner

What do Dan Marino, Jerry Rice and MarTay Jenkins have in common?

Yes, wise guy, they all played in the NFL. But beyond that? They all hold all-time single-season records.

» Marino (among his other records) passed for 5,084 yards in 1984.

» Rice (among his many other records) gained 1,848 receiving yards in 1995.

» Jenkins had 2,186 kickoff-return yards in 2000 for the Arizona Cardinals.

But Jenkins, unlike the other two, won't be getting a call from Canton any time soon, even though he set a second record that season -- for the number of kickoff returns, with 82. Eighty-two kickoff returns! That's an average of more than five a game.

Care to guess the Cardinals' record in 2000? They were 3-13. Yes, it's great to be a kickoff returner when your team is getting kicked off to over and over and over again.

And so it is that MarTay Jenkins is the poster boy for our latest Freakonomics football video.

Most of us by now are pretty savvy about which stats are meaningful in football and which ones aren't. But as the border between real football and fantasy football shrinks ever thinner, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that big numbers can mean big trouble. How happy were Raiders fans last season to see their team ranked second in the league in pass defense? Pretty happy -- until they realized that was because their run defense was so porous that opponents didn't need to bother passing. Same story for the Buffalo Bills.

Perhaps the most easily misleading stat is big-yardage passing games for quarterbacks. Just as a swinging bunt looks like a line drive in the box score, a massive passing game looks awesome on your stat sheet -- until you realize it's more likely to indicate a bunch of worthless garbage-time yards.

Last season, quarterbacks who threw for 300 or more yards in a game had a combined record of 47-49. Quarterbacks who threw for 400 or more yards were 3-11. This season, we've already seen 10 400-plus yard passing games -- although, interestingly, none since Oct. 9. (Can anyone say "lockout defense"?) The combined record of those quarterbacks was 3-7, with Tom Brady accounting for two of the wins and Aaron Rodgers for the third.

My favorite example of when good stats go bad is career fumble recoveries. Who do you think might top that list -- maybe Jason Taylor or Jim Marshall or Kevin Greene? All those players are on the list, but in fact the top 21 slots are taken up by quarterbacks, the same guys who dropped the ball in the first place.

Coming up next on Football Freakonomics

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Coming Wednesday, Nov. 30