When people give their "keys to success," they'll often say something like "Team needs to not turn the ball over," or "Team needs to shut down the opposing runningback and make the offense one-dimensional." While these comments are somewhat insightful, I also find them sort of obvious too. In other words, it's sort of like "duh." Of course teams should not turn the ball over to win the game. Of course teams should try to limit the offense's offensive production.
To me, I don't really care how a team does it, so long as the goal (winning the game) is reached. Regardless of how a team reaches success, their success can often be seen in their statistics. I do admit, I've been a big critic of statistics because they can hide the true story (for example, and perhaps the biggest statistical myth of recent Cal Football fame is the whole Longshore 4th quarter touchdown to interception ratio - a lot less can be derived from that stat line than the typical lay fan will think). But when you look at statistics over the entire year, as opposed to a single game, the disparities are averaged out, and the team's overall success is fairly apparent. For example, teams who only average 50 rushing yards a game typically only have 3 wins a season. And teams who average 200 yards rushing a game typically have 10 wins a season.
So how many wins will Cal have in 2009? In most years, when I think about Cal's season outlook, I generally just made a prediction on how many games Cal will win because I can guesstimate the team's rushing abilities, passing abilities, and defensive abilities. But this year I am troubled because I cannot make that same prediction. I can't predict how many games Cal will win this year because frankly I just don't know how good Cal will be this year. The big question in my mind is "how will Cal's passing game develop?" I think that same question is the big question in 99% of Cal fans' minds. Without answering that question one can't really predict how the team will perform.
So I think the only way to really make any sort of prediction is to make the predictions couched in conditional phrases, such as "if Cal's passing game turns out to be great, then Cal will have a 10+ win season," or "if Cal's passing game turns out to be dreadful, then Cal will have a 6 win season." (Note, those aren't my real predictions, I'm just giving examples of conditional statements).
But how do you define "great" and "dreadful" and everything inbetween? Well, that's where I like to use stats and magic numbers.
In making my 2009 season outlook predictions, I'm going to use two assumptions. First of all, I'm going to assume that the Cal defense is going to stay just about as dominant as it was last year despite the loss of three starting linebackers. I'm thinking that our new linebackers are talented enough, and the eventual starters have gained enough experience from playing time last year to fill in adequately. Second, I'm going to assume that Cal's running game is going to stay at about the same level as it was last year. In other words, as crazy as it might seem to say this, but I still expect Jahvid Best to average approximately 7.5 to 8.0 yards per carry (which is a ridiculous number). Perhaps Jahvid Best's numbers will drop down towards the 7.5 yards per carry range since defenses will clearly be focusing on him rather than Cal's passing game, but for the most part I don't foresee it dropping any lower than 7.0 yards per carry.
Now, about that passing game. As I said earlier, I believe this is the biggest question to be resolved of the 2009 Cal Football team and its the performance of the passing game that will be determinative of Cal's season. It's because I am unsure as to how good (or bad) Cal's passing game will be that I must use conditional statements. But before I get to the conditional statmeents, let me briefly describe what constitutes good numbers and bad numbers for a QB.
When looking at a QB's statistics, the three most important numbers are his (1) completion percentage, (2) yards per attempt, and (3) interception percentage. Some hardcore statisticians believe that the yards per attempt is the king of the QB's statistics because it incorporates not only completion percentage, but yards gained per completion. Nevertheless, I still like looking at all three of the categories.
So what constitutes a good completion percentage? Par for the course is about 65%. If your QB throws a 65% completion percentage over the year, that's darn good! That's a good number. If he throws for 67%, that's great! If he's up in the 70%+ range, well he's like Tom Brady and that's freakin fantastic. On the down side, a completion percentage of 60% to 64% is okay. Anything less than 60% is unacceptable.
Just to throw some comparisons out there:
In 2002, Kyle Boller threw 53.6% (although perhaps a good 5% of those passes were drops by Ward).
In 2004, Aaron Rodgers threw for 66.1% (!!!).
In 2005, Joe Ayoob threw for 49.2%.
In 2006, Nate Longshore threw for 60.2%.
In 2007, from the start of the season through the Oregon game, Nate Longshore was throwing at 63.8%.
In 2008, Texas' Colt McCoy threw for 76.7% (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
(Note: I am not including Kevin Riley's stats from 2008 because due to the QB switching and substitution into must-pass situations such as the USC game, his stat line is not accurate)
Yards per Attempted Pass
What makes a good yards per attempted pass? A yards per attempt of about 7.0 is par for the course. Once you get into the 7.5 yards per attempt range, that's certainly above average and pretty good. Anything above 8.0 yards per attempt is ridiculous. On the flip side, 6.5 yards per attempt is sub-par, and anything less than 6.0 yards per attempt is fairly pitiful.
To throw some comparisons out there:
In 2002, Kyle Boller threw for 6.68 yards per attempt.
In 2004, Aaron Rodgers threw for 8.2 yards per attempt (!!!)
In 2005, Joe Ayoob threw for 6.72 yards per attempt.
In 2006, Nate Longshore threw for 8.01 yards per attempt (thank you Desean "deep threat" Jackson!)
In 2007, from the start of the season through the Oregon game, Nate Longshore was throwing at 6.98 yards per attempt.
In 2008, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford threw for 9.8 yards per attempt (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
What makes a good interception percentage? A low one. As low as possible. But generally speaking, about 3% is acceptable. Anything more gets to be not good very quickly. When you're at about 2.5% interception percentage, that's great. Less than than 2% is ridiculous.
To throw some comparisons out there:
In 2002, Kyle Boller's interception percentage was 2.37%.
In 2004, Aaron Rodgers' interception percentage was 2.53%.
In 2005, Joe Ayoob's interception percentage was 5.51%.
In 2006, Nate Longshore's interception percentage was 3.45%
In 2007, from the start of the season through the Oregon game, Nate Longshore's interception percentage was 1.23% (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
In 2008, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford's interception percentage was 1.66% (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
As you can see, the stats (more or less) don't lie. When the Cal QBs had a good stats, such as in 2004, 2006, and through the Oregon game in 2007, the Cal teams did great. When the stat lines suffered, such as in 2002 and 2005, the teams didn't do so well.
2009 CAL FOOTBALL SEASON OUTLOOK
So now that we've had a look at some examples of ideal statistics, here is my personal 2009 Cal Football season outlook couched in conditional statements.
I'm only going to use completion percentage because, while it certainly doesn't include yards per completion like the yards per attempt stat, it also isn't subject to skew such as the yards per attempt stat by an offense that completes really long passes. In other words, a team can have a pretty good "yards per attempt" stat by completing a couple of really long passes more often than not and hiding a low completion percentage. A perfect example of this is Georgia's Mathew Stafford in 2008 (#1 overall draft pick in the 2009 NFL draft). He had a fantastic yards per attempt of 9.0 yards per attempt, but had a very mediocre 61.4% completion percentage. In plain English, his completion percentage wasn't that good, but his yards per attempt numbers were great because he had great down-field threat WRs, and completed more longer passes than most QBs. But what matters to me the most is the completion percentage stat because I want to know if the QB is completing passes. If he's completing passes, I'm going to assume he's also gaining at least the average amount of yardage per pass too.
So finally, here's my outlook on the 2009 Cal Football season:
If Cal's starting QB can complete greater than 65% of his passes, Cal will most likely have an 11+ win regular season.
If Cal's starting QB completes between 62%-65% of his passes, Cal will most likely have a 10 win regular season.
If Cal's starting QB completes between 60%-62% of his passes, Cal will most likely have a 9 win regular season.
If Cal's starting QB completes between 58%-60% of his passes, Cal will most likely have a 8 win regular season.
If Cal's starting QB completes between 55%-58% of his passes, Cal will most likely have a 7 win regular season.
If Cal's starting QB completes less than 55% of his passes, the 2nd string QB should probably be starting.
For the past few months, I've been saying in the DBDs that Cal's magic number is probably 60% completion percentage. By that, I mean that if Cal's QB can throw greater than 60% completion percentage, Cal has a great chance at a 10+ win season. But upon further thought, I think that magic number has to be increased from 60% to something a little higher, such as 62%. The following is my reasoning why.
Months ago, when I first was pondering Cal's 2009 outlook, I did a little stat comparison with previous Cal QBs. Most notably I looked at the 2006 team. During that year, Nate Longshore passed for 60.2% completion percentage and Cal almost went to the Rose Bowl. The 2006 team and the 2009 have a lot of similarities so I began thinking that 60% seemed to be the magic number, hence that is the number I've been reciting for months now.
But upon further thought, I began realizing that the reason why the 2006 Cal Football team's passing game was so successful was because of Desean Jackson. He provided a great deep threat for Nate Longshore, as well as being a superb special teams threat. Defenses truly couldn't really focus on Marshawn Lynch without giving up on pass defense and giving up scores to Desean Jackson. But this year, Cal doesn't really have a wide receiver to be Desean Jackson. Cal doesn't really have a really speedy deep threat that will command the attention of the defensive secondary. So to make up for the lack of deep gains and quick touchdowns that Desean Jackson was able to give the team in 2006, the Cal QB and WRs are going to have to complete more passes than normal. In other words, in 2006 Longshore could get away with a 60.2% completion percentage because Cal had a superb deep threat (evidenced in Longshore's 8.01 yards per attempt), but in 2009 since Cal has no deep threat, Cal's starting QB will h ave to complete more pass attempts to make up for the lack of yards per attempt.
By no means are these numbers a 100% indicator of things to come. Cal's QB might be able to throw a 60% completion percentage and Cal could still go 11-1 on the season with some luck and superb play from the other parts of the team. But for the most part, I do see Cal's season riding on the hand of the starting QB.
Some of you may be wondering what the heck the difference is between 60% and 62%? Well, in 2006 Nate Longshore threw 377 attempts on the year (I'm using 2006 because I think the 2009 team most resembles the 2006 team). Assuming Cal's starting QB this year throws for the same amount of passes, then 60% of 377 is about 226 passes completed. Alternatively, 62% of 377 is about 234 passes completed. That's only a difference of about 8 passes. So some of you may be thinking that isn't a significant difference? Well, perhaps it's not. But sometimes, football games come down to one play - one passing play. Perhaps it's a touchdown pass to seal the game, or a crucial first down which eventually leads to a go-ahead field goal to win, etc. But while it's just one pass, it's still a pass. Those eight passes may not seem like a lot, but perhaps three of those eight passes are against USC. Perhaps those three passes are passes that most QBs won't make, but somehow Cal's starting QB nails the throws and Cal gets two critical first downs to burn the clock and one touchdown. That's all Cal may need to win the game. So while a mere eight passes extra might not be a lot - I contend that it could be the difference between winning and losing (theoretically) up to eight football games. Every throw counts.
In sum, I believe that Cal's starting QB needs to have at least a 62% completion percentage for Cal to have a good chance at a 10+ win season.