The New England Patriots are my guilty sports pleasure.
By all rights I should hate them-as should all men and women of good character born south of the Connecticut River. For starters, they're a bunch of cheats. And they win so often that they've become the NFL version of the New York Yankees. Rooting for the Pats is, as was once said of the Bronx Bombers, like rooting for Microsoft. Also, they harbored an actual murderer on the team! (Allegedly.) And even worse, they denied the Philadelphia Eagles their best shot at a championship in a generation. The Tuck Rule, Spygate, Aaron Hernandez-pretty much every criticism of the Patriots is true.
Yet while I don't root for New England, I'm something of a Patriots sympathizer. It isn't that I admire them-not exactly. But what they've done over the last 15 years is baffling and amazing, and I doubt very much that I'll see anything like it in football again. So against my better judgment, I appreciate them.
I appreciate the way they ruthlessly manage the salary cap. I appreciate the way they find value in the most unexpected places (such as Corey Dillon). I appreciate the way they marched through the 2008 season with Matt Cassel at quarterback, went 11-5, and missed the playoffs without bellyaching. I appreciate the way they then turned around and shipped Cassel out the door to stockpile early draft picks. And I just love the way Belichick mumbles and is so tight-lipped about player information that the NFL had to change requirements for practice and injury reports.
This last bit hints at what Belichick's greatness is built on. He's clearly a guy who is looking to hack the NFL at every opportunity. He saw that teams weren't strictly required to give early-week injury and practice reports, so he lied about player health, constantly, in an attempt to sow confusion among his opponents. Early on, he understood that NFL rules had evolved to make passing undervalued in the league. Today, his pass-first (and second, and third) theories are conventional wisdom. And I've always been convinced that Belichick had found other, subterranean, ways to hack the league. And today we have evidence that he did.
No, I'm not talking about Deflategate. (My buddy Steve Czaban has the definitive call on that. Short version: Yes, they did it. Long version: No, we shouldn't really care.)
I'm talking about this amazing breakdown of what the Patriots have done with regards to fumbling
Sports stat-head Warren Sharp decided to look at fumbles in the NFL. What he found is that over the last five years, the average NFL team ran 105 offensive plays for every fumble they lost. The worst teams in the league ran 76 offensive plays for every lost fumble. The second-best teams ran 140 plays
The 2015 New England Patriots ran 187 plays per lost fumble. Which, statistically speaking, is insane. This season's Patriots are such a black swan that, as data scientist John Candido explained to Sharp,
Based on the assumption that fumbles per play follow a normal distribution, you'd expect to see, according to random fluctuation, the results that the Patriots have gotten over this period, once in 16,233.77 instances.
Which in layman's terms means that this result only being a coincidence, is like winning a raffle where you have a 0.0000616 probability to win. Which in other words, [makes it] very unlikely that it's a coincidence.
It gets unlikelier still: After finding this outlier, Sharp went digging and expanded his search to the last 25 years. And when he ranked the teams, by season, by the highest number of offensive plays per lost fumble, four of the top six seasons recorded were by the Patriots. And the Patriots have led the NFL in the category in every five-year period since 2007.
This sort of thing doesn't happen by accident. It suggests that while the rest of the league was sleeping, Belichick was in his mad scientist laboratory looking for hidden points of leverage within the game and not only discovering them, but finding out a way to exploit them, too. Is this about deflated footballs? I very much doubt that 1.5 psi could account for such a gigantic disparity. In fact, Deflategate is probably the least likely explanation.