After a long and (for some of us, anyway) entertaining summer, we're just about ready to get the football season back underway. Just like last year, I'll be breaking down the weekly DVOA rankings, courtesy of Football Outsiders, and discussing just what they mean for the Chargers and our opponents and rivals. The 2010 Football Almanac has been out for some weeks now, but because I'm a cheapskate I didn't pay for it, and I had to wait until the free version of their projections were published on their website. As of today, they are. What Chargers fans may or may not know, however, is that the Football Outsiders projection system does not like San Diego. In fact, they are projected to be in the bottom half of the league this season. Why? Well, let's take a look.
First of all, a brief explanation of what these numbers mean for those of you who are unfamiliar with them. If you want to read a nice, detailed explanation click here for FO's own descriptions and definitions. The quick version is that raw stats like total yards are a bad way of evaluating teams, because not all yards are equal. For example, a 5 yard gain on 4th and 4 is significantly more valuable than a 10 yard gain on 3rd and 20. Many teams rack up meaningless yards late in games because they're very far ahead and the other team has given up, or because they are so far behind the other team is playing prevent defense and running down the clock. For this reason, FO uses a stat called DVOA, which adjusts yards gained or lost for down and distance, opponent, and game situation. This gives us a much better idea of what teams are doing things well, and what teams are not. For example, the Jets may have been the #1 rushing team last year based on total yardage, but they racked up a lot of meaningless yards on the ground that didn't actually help the team. In terms of effectiveness and success running the ball, the Saints were the best, because even though they had fewer total yards than the Jets, they were more successful when they chose to run.
So now that's out of the way, let's look at the projections that FO has put out for the 2010 season. In case you missed the link above, here it is again. The long and short of it is that the FO projection system doesn't like the Chargers very much. They have San Diego ranked 19th overall in the league, with an offense ranked #9, defense #29, and special teams #30.
My first reaction upon reading that was "ouch". Kind of like a slap in the face, eh? What's worse is that the Chargers rank lower than the Chiefs, who are projected to get 9 wins and win the AFC West. Let's break it down and look at each part piece by piece and try to explain what each number means and how they got there.
OFFENSE: 9th overall, DVOA of 12.1%
At the end of last season, the Chargers were #4 in total offense, and even better in the weighted rankings which rate late season performance more heavily than early season performance. In terms of the raw numbers, the Chargers had an offensive DVOA of 22.9%, meaning that the Chargers offense on the whole produced plays that were about 23% better than average. The 2010 projections see the Chargers at 12.1%. That's a drop-off to be sure, but still a top 10 unit. Why do they see that?
A couple reasons. First, and most simply, regression towards the mean in both passing and rushing offense. The 2009 Chargers had a historically good passing offense, and it's extremely unlikely that they would be as good or better the next year, even with zero change in personnel. The same holds true for the ground attack, but in the opposite direction. The rushing offense was extremely bad, and probably would have been at least somewhat better this year without any change in personnel.
But there has been significant change in personnel, which leads to the next reason. The Chargers will be without the services of Vincent Jackson, who FO ranked as one of the top 3 receivers in all of football for two years in a row now. Losing him from the passing offense will hurt. Naanee and Floyd will help mitigate some of that, but probably not all of it. Also, the Chargers will not have Marcus McNeill, who FO rated very highly as a left tackle and whose absence undoubtedly hurts the team's projection as a passing offense. The rushing offense gained Ryan Mathews in the place of Ladainian Tomlinson, which should help us out somewhat, although it's likely the system doesn't rate Mathews as highly as we would subjectively simply because he's a rookie and has shown nothing yet. Moreover, FO places large importance on the offensive line when evaluating a rushing offense. They believe that their Adjusted Line Yards stat paints a good picture of how much an offensive line contributes to the rushing attack, and the Chargers' line ranked in the bottom half of the league in 2009.
This projection seems fairly reasonable. The Chargers should see some decline in the passing offense, which will be partially but not entirely made up for in an improved rushing offense. Obviously we hope for better--we hope improved health on the offensive line, along with a strong rookie campaign from Ryan Mathews will make the rushing offense a real strength, rather than simply "not awful." We'll also rely on Philip Rivers and some of our depth at wide receiver to continue a highly efficient passing game.
DEFENSE: 29th overall, DVOA of 15.4%
This is the projection that hurts the Chargers the most. Last season, the Chargers were ranked 23rd in defense with a 4.4% DVOA. "But wait, 15.4% is better than 4.4%!" Not when we're talking about defense. On defense, you want a negative number, because it's ranking what opposing offenses are being able to do against you. A jump from 4.4% to 15.4% is pretty big, especially without any major turnovers in personnel. The Chargers will essentially be fielding the same team that they did last year, except a year older and minus Antonio Cromartie.
It's not hard to see why they don't like the defense. It wasn't very good last year, and didn't really do a whole lot to get better. No new high draft choices, no big free agents, and no former high draft pick ready to break out (unless you count Larry English, which I guess fits the bill but he doesn't exactly look ready to break out to me). With an offense that projects to be worse, and therefore hold the ball less and score fewer points, it's not surprising that the defense is expected to be worse, even if the magnitude of the drop-off seems large.
On paper, they're probably right. The things we're counting on for improvement--improved health, better performances from players who weren't very good last year, etc--aren't quantifiable and don't have a lot of statistical evidence that could back up such a claim. We can be hopeful the defense will be better, but there isn't a lot of reason to believe they will actually be better until they go out on the field and actually play better.
SPECIAL TEAMS: 30th overall, -2.2% DVOA
A lot of the special teams score comes from the coverage and return units. Some comes from the kicking, but not a lot. As a result, a special teams unit that ranked 16th with a DVOA of 0.3% is expected to be worse. Why? Well, for starters the coverage and return units last year weren't very good, and there isn't really any reason to expect them to get better until they actually perform better on the field. Nate was excellent at field goal kicking (playoffs aside), but wasn't very good at booting the ball far in kickoffs. All these things hurt.
It seems reasonable to expect the special teams unit to, on the whole, be either the same or somewhat worse, especially without Kassim Osgood covering kicks.
So what do we take from this? Well, it's important to remember that these are projections. They aren't always right. The 2009 projections were notorious for being really, really wrong. How correct these will be remains to be seen. However, what they say about the Chargers fits what my eyes see when I watch the team. They will be more balanced on offense, but probably not as explosive. The passing offense will probably be worse than last year, while the rushing offense will probably be better. How much on both sides remains to be seen. The defense, to me, looks to be the same as last year, and if there is any significant improvement I have yet to see it. I hope it will be better, but again until they prove it to me by playing better, I have a hard time believing that will be the case.
The Chargers last year were a good team, no doubt. But they weren't a balanced team. As FO wrote last year, the entire team was essentially being dragged along by Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, and Antonio Gates. This year, they're minus Vincent Jackson. We all hope that void can be filled by Ryan Mathews, Malcom Floyd, and Legedu Naanee, but we have yet to see how it will actually work.
The most controversial part, in my opinion, is FO's prediction that the Chiefs will win the AFC West. They have them as 16th overall, with -0.7% in DVOA. That's not a huge difference between the -5.5% of the Chargers. Essentially, they see improvements on both sides of the ball from Kansas City, and a decline in San Diego, coupled with an easy schedule leading to 9 wins for the Chiefs. It's certainly possible. Personally, I don't see them as being good enough to get past Matt Cassell, who just is not a good quarterback, and I think the Chargers are better than they're being given credit for. It's a legitimate position though, and one Chargers fans should take into account when thinking about the upcoming Monday Night game.
As for my predictions, I think the Chargers are still a top 5 offense, primarily due to the addition of Ryan Mathews and the presence of Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. I do think the defense is bad, but not 3rd-worst-in-the-league bad. Hopefully the season will prove me right on offense and wrong on defense.