For two weeks now, every NFL analyst has been endlessly riffing on the ‘Key Matchups’ for today’s Super Bowl. Despite the numerous ways that information is packaged, almost all analysis boils down to four categories:
1. Run offense
2. Pass offense
3. Run defense
4. Pass defense
In playing with the best way to visualize those, I decided on radar charts. These charts kind of get a bad rap as being difficult to read — “chart junk” that is more successful at looking interesting than actually communicating or revealing interesting trends. In most cases, that criticism is appropriate.
However, when used simply with single-variable data, they can be a powerful opportunity to paint a portrait. The ‘single-variable’ in this case is a team’s ranking in yards per game for the above categories. By plotting these on four perpendicular axis, we get charts like this:
Learning to read the charts takes a bit of practice, but it’s rather intuitive Offensive powerhouses are heavy on the top. Defensive teams are heavy on the bottom. Hard-nosed physical teams with solid running defense and offense will be heavier on the left side.
And because one team’s run defense matches up against another team’s run offense and so forth, by mirroring one team and overlaying them on a single graphic emerges that encapsulates all the key matchups and shows the mismatches:
With these charts, we can also quickly see how a team has changed balance throughout a season. Below are two charts of the 49ers—one for the first nine games Alex Smith started, and the other for the nine games Colin Kaepernick has started.
Or we can chart the differences between last year’s Ravens and this year’s squad. The chart shows that they are certainly not the defensive powerhouse they were last year, but this year they have a bit more balance on the offensive side of the ball.
Certainly, football is a more complicated game than these four matchups (coaching, special teams, intangibles, as well as more specialized matchups). But as quick snapshots, I find these very effective at capturing the matchups that analysts are so breathlessly going on about. We’ll finish with the five Super Bowl seasons from the 49ers. Notice the consistency of the high-powered offense.