The Saints were not better without Reggie Bush in the lineup

There’s some nonsense going around about how the Saints were better off without Reggie Bush playing. Pat Yasinkas (who is a good blogger, this isn’t meant to pick on him) of ESPN.com sums it up pretty well:

Since joining the team in 2006, Bush missed 20 games. In those games, the Saints went 13-7. That’s a .650 winning percentage. In games Bush played, the Saints went 36-24 (.600).

But we have much more than that. In games with Bush since 2006, the Saints averaged 25.9 points. Without him, they averaged 29.8. In games Bush played, the Saints averaged 377.4 yards per game. When he didn’t play, they averaged 419.8.

The Saints completed 66.5 percent of their passes when Bush played. When he didn’t, they completed 67.6.

These stats are so unbelievably superficial that they border on nonsense. There are two problems that jump out right away:

  1. Extremely small sample size. Reggie Bush missed 20 games. When you’re making the sorts of fine distinctions about a football team’s performance that Yasinkas makes, you need to look at a lot more data. Of course, we don’t have more data, which makes it tough.
  2. You can’t draw this type of conclusion like this without looking at context. After all, the games that Reggie missed weren’t against identical teams, so looking at stats without considering the opponents is a bit goofy.

I take this as evidence that ESPN’s stats department is either (1) more interested in providing eye-catching tidbits than actually helping us understand what’s actually happening in the game, or (2) working under the assumption that their readers/viewers don’t care about/can’t understand a more nuanced analysis. Since I have very few readers/viewers, I don’t need to bother with such an assumption, so let me add a minimal amount of context.

I went over to Pro Football Reference to compare the games Reggie Bush missed to those he played in. Specifically, I looked at two key points: (1) the opponents’ final record, and (2) the opponents Defensive SRS, or Simple Rating System, which is PFR’s quick-and-dirty measurement of team quality. SRS is complicated to explain, but easy to understand: an average team should have an SRS of 0, better teams will have positive SRS ratings, and worse teams will have negative SRS ratings. SRS isn’t perfect, but it’ll do for this blog post.

I compared these stats for the 2007-2010 regular seasons. I ignored 2006 because Bush didn’t miss any games. A better analyst than I am with more time than I have would have looked at game-by-game offensive statistics, too, but such is life.

2007 (Reggie missed 4 games)

  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie played in: 8
  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie missed: 6.75
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie played in: 0.26
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie missed: -1.05

2008 (Reggie missed 6 games)

  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie played in: 8.8
  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie missed: 6.5
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie played in: 0.93
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie missed: -1.7

2009 (Reggie missed 2 games)

  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie played in: 6.86
  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie missed: 6.5
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie played in: 0.71
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie missed: 1.7

2010 (Reggie missed 8 games)

  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie played in: 8
  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie missed: 7
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie played in: 0.21
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie missed: -1.06

Overall, without 2006

  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie played in: 7.82
  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie missed: 6.75
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie played in: 0.55
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie missed: -0.98

Overall, including 2006

  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie played in: 7.7
  • Average opponent wins in games Reggie missed: 6.75
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie played in: 0.34
  • Average opponent defensive SRS in games Reggie missed:-0.975

Even if you take ESPN’s stats at face value  and ignore the difficulties of comparing stats between years, the teams that Reggie faced were consistently better than the teams the Saints played without Reggie. You would expect the Saints to do better against the easier teams.

It would take more time than I have to really form an opinion, but there doesn’t appear be a lot of evidence that the Saints’ offense was any better with Reggie in the lineup than without, which is probably why they were comfortable trading him to Miami. Such is the life of a 3rd-down back who was scheduled to make almost $12 million.

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