An Interview with Football Outsiders' Bill Barnwell

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For the second times in as many years as the Managing Editor of BFTB, I was given an advanced copy of Football Outsiders Almanac. If you like football and you like/appreciate stats, there is absolutely no reason not to pick up this book every single year. It's the best tool for measuring the performance of the team last year, and to predict performance for the upcoming season as well.

After perusing through the Chargers section, written by Bill Barnwell (who does a great job on the Football Outsiders website as well), I was given the chance to submit questions to Bill and have him respond. As you'll see from my line of questioning, I was looking for clarifications on some of the points that me and Bill disagree on. Some of his answers satisfied me, while others didn't. I've written in a few follow-up points to his answers where I felt they were necessary.

Read the full interview, plus my rebuttals, after the jump.

In your write-up you state that "one-trick ponies", teams that are exceedingly good at one thing (like the Chargers' passing offense) but not very good in other phases of the game are too easy to plan for. I believe the biggest reason for the Bolts' success with the passing offense last year was that even when you knew what they were doing, their execution (Rivers' thrown and Turner's play-calling) mixed with physical mis-matches (the league's tallest group of WRs) made them impossible to defend even when other teams knew what was coming. This hasn't really changed this year, so why do you suppose the offense will drop off? Or, to phrase it another way....do your stats and projections factor in things like physical mis-matches?

No, it doesn't, and maybe that's a reason why there won't be the sort of natural regression to the mean that almost always happens. On the other hand, it's hard for a team to be so good at passing the ball without mismatches! Take the 2008 Patriots, as an example. We expected them to decline some after being the best passing offense in league history. If we were doing this same interview with a Pats fan in 2008, they might have said "Moss and Welker (ok, Welkahhh) are mismatches that no team can handle! Just look at last year!" Obviously, the injury to Tom Brady would've forced a decline no matter what, but they weren't anywhere near as good last year, with Brady around for the whole year. It takes a LOT of things to go right for everything to go right and a team to be the league's best at anything. Those things just don't go right every year, regardless of the nature of how those teams got there.

(Editor's Note: I don't think that the Patriots and Chargers are a very good comparison here. As Bill mentioned, probably the biggest part of the drop-off was due to Tom Brady's injury. The team last year, while they had a recovering Brady back, was going through their first season without Josh McDaniels. Also, when you compare them to the 2007 team, you see names like Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney being replaced with the likes of Julian Edelman and Sam Aiken. Not to mention 2007 Laurence Maroney was significantly better than 2009 Laurence Maroney.

The difference here is that with the exception of Vincent Jackson, the entire WR group is returning and the ground game got a boost by replacing an over-the-hill veteran with a hungry, talented rookie. And Philip Rivers may be the healthiest he's been his entire career, which Brady certainly wasn't in 2009.)

 

Your research shows that "high variance" teams, like the Chargers, are just as likely to hold their team DVOA the following year as a team that's more-balanced overall. It also shows that the Chargers, comparing 2008 to 2009, were one of eleven teams that were able to repeat such a high passing DVOA from one year to the next. Then you say "All it would take would be an injury to Rivers or even Jackson, Gates, or Marcus McNeill to slow the passing attack dramatically." You follow this up by saying "They're simply not going to be that good again." Ignoring whether or not McNeill will be with the team this season, since that's up in the air, it seems like you're definitively saying that Chargers' passing attack will be worse in 2010...but the only possible reasons for that happening are luck, the fact that Philip Rivers isn't Peyton Manning, or a major injury. How can you be so sure with just those reasons?

That's just one example of how things could go catastrophically wrong. I'm not saying that the Chargers' passing offense won't be good; I think it will be. I just don't think it will be the best in the league and among the best passing offense in league history again. That's just natural variance. Take any elite, game-changing unit from a given season in league history and look how they did the year after; they were probably very good, but not at the same level. Even Peyton Manning isn't the league's best quarterback every year.

 

Furthermore, while I understand that Peyton Manning has had unparalleled success for his career and will probably retire as the great QB of all time, I think it's a little absurd to throw his teams out of your research as if Rivers' Chargers couldn't possibly be comparable. In terms of DVOA, Rivers was better in 2009 and was only slightly behind Manning as the 2nd best QB in 2008. The only way you could say they're not at least comparable at this point in their careers is if your position on Manning is "He's a freak and there will never be anybody like him again." Is that your position? Looking at Rivers' consistency at NC State, would it be so shocking if he were to remain in the top 5 for DVOA over the next decade?

I don't think it's absurd. Peyton Manning's been playing at this level for a decade, where he's consistently been one of the league's top two quarterbacks. Philip Rivers -- who I think is an incredible player -- has had two great years and two elite years. That's just not the same thing. I absolutely think he'll be a top-five QB in the league for a number of years, although I don't know about the next decade. That's not top-five, though. (I should also note that DVOA, while a useful stat, isn't the be-all, end-all of evaluating quarterbacks by any means.)

(Editor's Note: Peyton Manning had five good-to-great years before he started having elite seasons each year. So, if it took Rivers less time to get to that point....why wouldn't he have the same, or better, chance of matching Manning's longevity?)

 

How in-depth does your research go for offensive-line play? When the Chargers lost Nick Hardwick last year, his Pro Bowl blocking talents were missed second to his talents as the guy calling out the blitz. Scott Mruczkowski and Kris Dielman did a poor job of trying to replace him in that regard, and eventually the job fell on Rivers. That's when the line got back to being average, and really only had one great game when Hardwick came back to play the Titans on Christmas. If Hardwick can stay healthy, and that's a big if, the center of the line gets a blocking boost but also gets a huge boost in terms of brains. Perhaps this is simply me justifying my optimism, but that should count for something, right?

Sure. I think that having Hardwick around more frequently should help, but we can't guarantee by any means that he'll be around for the full 16 games; he's played one full year as a pro.

 

You say, when looking through the Chargers' defensive secondary, "Former first-round pick Antoine Cason played so poorly in the slot that he lost his job in nickel coverage to utility defensive back Steve Gregory, which isn't a good sign for his hopes as a potential starting corner." What we were told, and what I honestly believed, last season is that Cason was ill-suited for the Nickel CB position. He struggled in zone (which our nickel plays a lot of, but the outside CBs really don't), and is better-suited for a spot where his opponent is on the line and then running downfield. In a nutshell, the Chargers' coaching staff stated that the Nickel CB spot is more about brains and quickness while the outside spot is more about speed, strength and agility. Do you have any research that backs up the thought that positive play in the slot can be a predictor of positive play on the outside, or visa versa?

Maybe that's the case. I would trust the judgment of the Chargers' coaches over my own in that case. But if that's really the situation, why was he in the slot to begin with? And I can't think of a comparable young player who was awful in the slot but played really well once he moved to the outside. Maybe he will be. But I have my doubts.

(Editor's Note: I actually sent an e-mail back to Bill about this one. Here's our conversation:

John: Just want to give you the chance to add to one of your answers before this goes up tomorrow. Cason was in the slot because Cromartie's more experienced and has a higher ceiling (and because Jammer has been playing at a Pro Bowl level for years).

Cason actually won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2007, which is pretty impressive when you consider who the other winners have been and how small of a school Arizona seems on this list. He just showed himself to be uncomfortable around the "action" of the play last season, and would much rather be outside the numbers and/or down the field. That's my stance, anyways.

Bill: Oh, I know that you can't put Cason ahead of Cromartie or Jammer, but if a guy is bad in the slot, you can't play him there. And there are plenty of Jim Thorpe winners who have failed -- Michael Huff is a bust, Aaron Ross is mediocre (coming from me, a Giants fan), Derrick Strait had no pro career, Carlos Rogers is almost out of a job, Roy Williams isn't very good...it's hard to find a Jim Thorpe Award winner over the past decade who had any sort of pro ceiling.

This is where I would normally say "That explains why Bill hates the Chargers so much, he's an Eli Manning-lover!", but I won't because that would be ridiculous and mean.)

 

I don't understand why FO in general seems to be so in love with Marty Schottenheimer and so against Norv Turner. Norv has already proven to have slightly better success with roughly the same team. If you take out Norv's stops in Washington (when's the last time a coach had success there who wasn't named Gibbs?) and Oakland (when's the last time a coach had success there that wasn't named Gruden?), Turner looks to be an above-average Head Coach and a fantastic Offensive Coordinator. If Shanahan has a bad few years in Washington, will that make him a bad coach or will it be a reflection of the Ownership/Front Office? Please explain to me, using something other than Norv's time spent bashing his head against the wall in two of the worst-run organizations in the league, why Norv Turner is seen as a poor Head Coach in the eyes of FO.

The fact that Marty Schottenheimer developed most of the talent on this roster and the guys who have come through under Turner have mostly stagnated. (Eric Weddle aside.) That Turner routinely blows playcalling decisions in close games and struggles with timeout usage. That he inherited a 14-2 team and has promptly gone 32-16. My favorite small example is this 2008 exchange:

You've got a chance in this league, the way onside kicks are, you've got a pretty good chance of getting it. About 50-50. - Chargers head coach Norv Turner, on the odds of recovering an onside kick, leading to a Chargers win in Kansas City

(Bleep) no. It's not real high. - Chargers special teams coach Steve Crosby, critiquing Norv's estimate (Actual success rate of expected onside kicks, 2000-2005: 16.6 percent.)

(Editor's Note: Oh Bill, you'll never convince me that you're right on this argument and bringing up an off-hand remark Norv made about Special Teams a few years ago isn't going to help your case. I'm sure Norv wasn't quoting actual league-wide figures. Heck, if he was talking about his own team he may not have been far off...

Scifres specializes in an onside kickoff that takes a high bounce and hangs in the air in front of the return team's second line. It is a kick better suited to an obvious onside situation, Kaeding said, a ploy the Chargers' place kicker has yet to master.

"Some guys can do it, some can't," Kaeding said. "With mine, one time out of three I might not get that high hop. But Mike is so good at it, it just pops over that front line and always puts the pressure on that one guy back there to catch it."

From the same article you quoted. Either way, an off-hand remark after the game about how Norv feels about onside kicks cannot really be your determining factor for thinking the guy's a bad coach.....can it? Also, are you assuming that Marty would be winning 14 games each season as Head Coach of this team? What about the year before when he went 9-7?

In terms of development, it's both difficult and easy to argue your point. Were most of the Chargers stars drafted when Marty was the Head Coach? Absolutely. Were Rivers and Jackson the same players then that they are now? Not even close. Just because Turner came in after the guys were already on the roster doesn't mean he didn't have a big hand in their development. However, on the defensive side of the ball (and by looking at the flops of most recent Chargers draft picks), you're right that there seems to be something missing on the coaching staff. I think this is why Ron Rivera was promoted to DC, and allowed to replace almost the entire defensive coaching staff with his guys from Chicago. We'll see how much affect that has going forward.)

 

I'd like to thank Bill for taking the time to answer my questions and debating us year-in and year-out without getting aggravated with us. If you've never checked out FootballOutsiders.com, I highly recommend you do so when you have enough time to dig through endless piles of meaningful stats. For a wrap-up of last year and preview of this year, pick up a copy of the 2010 Football Outsiders Almanac. You won't regret it. Finally, for football and hilarity mixed together, follow Bill Barnwell on Twitter.

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