a smart blend of sports analytics and story telling
Feb 2015: Reprinted from the Bonus Morsels chapter of Football Morsels: Quarterbacks
THE BOB BEAMON AWARD
Bob Beamon stands as the case study in all Statistics classes as the classic definition of an outlier in a sports performance. Going into the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Beamon was among the favorites to win the long jump event. His personal best stood at 27’ 4” and the world record set three years earlier was 27’ 4 ¾”. On October 18, Beamon sprinted down the lane, jumped like never before and landed 29’ 2 ½” later, destroying the previous long jump record. In a sport measured in inches, his record-setting performance beat the standing mark by almost 2 feet! This record stood from 1968 until 1991 when Mike Powell finally bettered it by two inches and has remained until today. Beamon never again broke the 27 feet barrier in competition but his Olympic jump remains the second longest jump ever 50 years later.
While researching this book, I stumbled upon an obscure Beamonesque statistic. In 1960, a little known quarterback named Milt Plum led the NFL with a QB passer rating of 110.4. Huh, Milt who? It turns out that Plum was a slightly above average journeyman with a QBPR of 72.2 who was drafted in the second round out of Penn State and played most of his career in Cleveland and Detroit. Outside of a Pro Bowl appearances after the 1960 season, and an above average follow up year, nothing in his resume before or after hinted at such a spectacular season. His best rating before 1960 was 87.2 and after 90.3. While very respectable scores for the time, they were more than 20 points short of his amazing 110.4 season. Statistically, his score is more than two and half standard deviations away from his career average of 72.2. The chance of this occurring was less than 1.3%!
Plum’s record setting performance stood for almost 30 years until Montana broke it in 1989 with a 112.4. Plum’s staggering QBPR score would have rated him number one on the best season ever list but he came up just short on the number of attempts needed to qualify.
So what could explain his unexpected outlier performance? In Beamon’s case, he had the high altitude of Mexico City and the maximum allowable wind helping him down that lane. In Plum’s case, I suspect that the answer partially lies in the dilution of the talent pool created by the start-up AFL that opened its doors that same year. NFL players defected to the new league in the early sixties, and it shows prominently in the short-lived rise in the NFL QB passer rating (light blue line in the chart below). The established NFL QBs quickly took advantage of the depleted defenses. After the merger, the average scores came back down to their normal values in the low 60’s.
As with Beamon’s jump, Plum’s performance was so far out there that even the expert explanations fell short. Scientists determined that the high altitude and aid of the wind would have improved Beamon’s jump by almost a foot, well short of the 21 inches he gained over the previous record. With Plum, even with a hefty 10-point spike in QBPR added to his previous high of 87.2, he would still only score in the high nineties. Some things are just inexplicable – especially in sports.