What the statistics really say

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"There are lies, damn lies and statistics."

"Figures lie…and liars figure."

Statistics don't always come ready wrapped with a good reputation. And yet, in the world of sports today, statistics are a great trump card in the endless hours of sports talk radio and television debate shows.

You may think you know something to be true, but there's almost always a carefully crafted statistic to rebut that. And so the cycle goes.

For some context a little bit closer to home, let's take a look at the Panthers offense on third down this season.

Cam Newton currently ranks 35th in the NFL with a passer rating of 61.1 on third down. He has been sacked eight times and thrown a league-high nine interceptions. Not good.

But Newton also has 14 first down rushes on third down, which is best in the NFL among all positions. He has 125 rushing yards on third down and has helped Carolina post the second-best third down conversion percentage in the NFL (46.9), which includes a franchise-record 11-of-14 on third down against Miami. Very good.

All of these statistics are true. And they all can be used to bully a certain narrative that doesn't have time, space or characters for a fuller picture.

Sports statistics can be arbitrary. A 100-yard day when compared to 99 yards is quite slight. It's literally three feet on a 300-foot field where balls are marked and remarked hundreds of times over three hours.

And yet, a 100-yard rushing game is a milestone. The same goes for 300 yards passing. Contracts and money and fantasy points are tied to these arbitrary marks. And yet they can be fickle.

In the final clock-killing drive against Atlanta, the Panthers rushed the ball a few times rather than taking a knee and finished with 201 total rushing yards. There was still time for one more play, and if Newton had decided to take a knee after two steps instead of one, Carolina could have gone back to 199 rushing yards. Instead, Newton ran around and threw an incomplete pass as the clock hit zero.

One meaningless play. But the Panthers broke 200 yards rushing for the first time since Oct. 25, 2015. And then they put together back-to-back 200-yard rushing games for the first time in franchise history.

These are significant milestones. They tell the story of an offensive line and rushing attack that is gaining confidence. They are turned into fancy graphics and liked tweets and spread around the internet as evidence that the Panthers are great.

And yet, one knee. One step. One meaningless play. And the arbitrary milestone is not reached.

I saw the other side of this at the beginning of this week. Randall Liu, the NFL's senior director of football communications, posted a stat that said Newton is the only quarterback in NFL history to post two games with at least four passing touchdowns and 95 yards rushing.

The blowback on Twitter was swift.

Comments mocked the random and arbitrary nature of the statement. Why 95 yards? What does that even signify? You're just making stuff up. So on, and so forth.

With Panthers-colored glasses, you can see the value of the accomplishment. Newton performed at a high level throwing and rushing. That stat was a simple comparison to show just how high that level was.

With more cynical glasses, you can see the slippery slope.

Statistics can become muddled with permutations and classifications and minimum requirements that create the exact result you're looking for, rather than the fuller truth of what has happened.

As the @PantherStatsGuy, I perpetrate the obscure statistic crime with the best of them.

For example, Christian McCaffrey currently ranks 43rd in the NFL in receiving yards. Let's narrow that some. He ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards among running backs. Let's narrow some more. McCaffrey is first in the NFL in receiving yards among rookie running backs. Let's narrow some more. McCaffrey has the most yards after catch among rookie running backs with at least 45 receptions.

Phew.

Those are all true statements, but you can see what happens when the focus gets too tight and the clarifiers start to stack up. McCaffrey is having a good season and playing even better as of late, but his yards after catch aren't spectacular, and it's not like he's a Pro Bowl shoe-in.

However, an appropriate use of statistics can paint a good picture of the season so far. The Panthers are finding a groove on offense and establishing a high-powered running game. Newton and McCaffrey are finding more of a rhythm. Carolina is winning games.

But you didn't need any fancy statistics to tell you all that. You already knew.

View the top photos from Panthers vs. Dolphins by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez and second shooter Andrew Dye.

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