2013's biggest game-changers
December, 31, 2013
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Tony AvelarAnquan Boldin has made a huge impact in San Francisco this season.The Green Bay Packers needed 8 yards for a first down and roughly 20 to get comfortably into range for the go-ahead field goal try with a playoff berth on the line at Chicago on Sunday. What they got instead was one of the more memorable plays in team history, a 48-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb, enabled by fullback John Kuhn's fantastic block and Rodgers' quick escape from an imploding pocket.
Rodgers ranked the moment No. 1 for his career outside the playoffs. Coach Mike McCarthy reveled in the knowledge that the play would be shown time and again for the rest of his years. From a statistical standpoint, the Rodgers-to-Cobb connection improved the Packers' win probability 58.8 percentage points to 98.9 percent, all but assuring victory for Green Bay. Only six receptions produced larger swings in the NFL all season. We'll run through all of them in a bit.
The methods used to calculate such swings in in-game odds provide the means to rank the highest-impact plays of the 2013 season and determine which players were involved in them most frequently.
We all know Peyton Manning is the MVP and offensive player of the year with his 55 scoring passes. That isn't even up for discussion. Manning was a machine this season, as usual, and often he made it look easy. But while Manning's Denver Broncos were cruising to 10 double-digit victories, other players found themselves in volatile situations more frequently. That is how Ryan Tannehill finished Week 17 with a league-high 13 plays improving his team's win probability by at least 15 percentage points. Tom Brady and Philip Rivers were next with 10 apiece. These guys had to swing for the fences.
Using similar means, we can show how a receiver absent from the Pro Bowl discussion finished with more win probability added (WPA) per target than Calvin Johnson and other superior pass-catchers. Further, by matching changes in the expectation for winning and/or scoring to sacks and interceptions, we can enliven the discussion over the defensive player of the year. How did Robert Mathis' 19.5 sacks measure up for impact against Robert Quinn's 19 sacks or Richard Sherman's eight interceptions?
We start with a look at the receiver whose contributions led the league against all expectations.