By now, almost everyone on the planet has seen Odell Beckham Junior’s miraculous three-finger catch. For those of you who are reading from off-world – thank you, I take my readers where I can get them, and see the link below; for the rest of you who haven’t, I seriously question your life priorities, but I guess you can click below too:
NBC analyst and former Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth said it was the greatest catch he’d ever seen, and I have no reason to doubt it. But the remarkable thing about the catch – as if it needed something else special – was that Brandon Carr, the unfortunate player tasked with trying to prevent Beckham making the catch, committed a pass interference penalty which clearly had little impact on Beckham’s effort.
Ironically, the penalty which made the catch all the more more meritorious also made it less valuable.
NFL gurus track a statistic called by various names, which I’ll call Expected Value (EV)* – the average value of the next score for the team in possession, based on a given down and distance, field position and time remaining. First and 10 after a touchback, at your own 20, is worth around 0.4 points. Being backed up close to your own end zone is a negative EV – the opposition is more likely to score next than you are. And it will come as no surprise that a first down at the six yard line is worth around 5.39 points – teams convert that position into a touchdown the majority of the time (and even when they don’t, they regularly kick an easy field goal). One way of conceptualising that is: of 100 first-and-goals at the six yard line, 539 points are generated – say, 68 touchdowns, 21 field goals and 11 failures to score.
The graph below, featured in this article shows Expected Points (siimilar, but not the same as EV) on any down and distance, from anywhere on the field:
(And yes, it is flipping hard to interpret – I suggest starting with a down and distance, moving rightwards until you get to the correct location on the field (offense is driving rightwards), and using as a guide the solid lines, where the Expected Points equal exactly 0, 1, 2 etc all the way to 5, and if necessary the light lines, which equal 1.5, 2.5 etc. )
On the other hand, teams with a second down and 10, 43 yards out from the end zone – as the Giants would have had with an incomplete pass and no penalty – score an average of around 2.11 points. On that measure, Beckham converted a 2.11 point position into 7 points purely by the other-worldly act of plucking the football out of the air when surely, had any other human been in his position, it would have fallen harmlessly to the turf.
It seems wrong that Carr’s penalty means that the best catch of the season (decade? ever?) merely converted a 5.39 point position to 7 points – and to top it all off, after leading early, the Giants lost the game 31-28.
Never mind. Football lovers will enjoy that particular highlight for decades – and I’m sure those clever folks from NFL Films will manage to find a way to box the yellow flag out of the frame.
*Try as I might, I can’t find an exhaustive list of EVs. I’ve had to cobble it together from a few sources, notably Football Outsiders, which is why I’ve said “about” quite a few times (assistance on finding this resource would be welcome!). Emphasis in this article is not excruciating levels of accuracy but the overall concept, which has been more than enough to cope with on a warm and sleepy Sunday arvo.