In case you're new around here, we're big fans of Football Outsiders. This means the BFTB staff and most of our readers geek out when the annual Football Outsiders Almanac is released. If you're looking to pick up a copy yourself, you can do so right here.
Doug Farrar from FO appeared on High Boltage Radio a few weeks ago (listen here) to discuss his write-up on the Chargers with Steve and I. After the rest of the BFTB staff got their and read through the San Diego Chargers section we sent a few questions over that Doug was nice enough to answer.
Bolts from the Blue: You've criticized the Chargers' offensive line. FBO has written numerous times that it's far more valuable for a team to have consistency there rather than to constantly change out parts. The Chargers will be returning exactly the same o-line personnel in 2011 that they had in 2010. Especially given the short off-season, would it really have been better to try and mix things up? Isn't it especially valuable right now to have the consistency?
Doug Farrar: Well, when it came to the 2010 Chargers' offensive line, my primary criticism was of A.J. Smith, and his insistence on playing dollars-and-cents with left tackle Marcus McNeill while Brandyn Dombrowski (through no real fault of his own - there's a reason a guy is a swing tackle) was helping to get Philip Rivers killed. People put the Seattle loss down to special teams, and Leon Washington was the obvious factor in that game, but Chris Clemons absolutely owned Dombrowski from the Seahawks LEO position, and I don't see Clemons doing that to McNeill.
So, yeah - you start with talent, and then you move over to continuity when you can. I think there are aspects of continuity that can make up for a relative lack of talent, but not generally at the left tackle position. With McNeill set up for his future and barring any sort of injury, I think the Chargers' line is set up much more for consistency and success this season. McNeill is very good, Dielman is still a quality guard (though not what he used to be), and they have "glue guys" like Nick Hardwick and Jeromey Clary. Given Philip Rivers' adeptness even behind an iffy line, and the fact that my concern about the team's running game goes past the line, I think their front five is in pretty good shape right now.
BFTB: Considering how vehemently anti-Norv the FO staff has been in the past, I was surprised when it said that "Norv's developed as a head coach to a degree." How exactly has Norv developed as a football coach in your opinion?
DF: I think he's developed to a degree as a leader, at least as much as his situation allows, and his development of Rivers gives him a lot of credibility with the team. In a general sense I think Norv is the perfect type of coach for an arrogant, willful employer like A.J. Smith, and I don't mean that to sound as if Norv is just a yes-man. I would compare his situation to that of Joe Torre's with the Yankees to a certain degree - when you're stuck between a roster with enough talent to keep expectations high, and a head man who keeps stirring the soup when it doesn't need stirring; it takes an even hand to get things progressing. People used to say that anyone could win a World Series with the kind of payroll and talent the Yankees have, but Torre knew how to deflect a lot of crap from up above. I think Norv has learned to do that. He's still an iffy strategist, and there's no specific reason to believe that there won't be another show start, but there are few coaches who would deal as well with the mess A.J. Smith presented last year and I give Norv credit for that.
BFTB: With Bob Sanders in the same defensive secondary (even if only for half a season), do you think that Weddle can become one of the elite safeties in the NFL?
DF: Oh, I think he's already there, Sanders or not. In the Chargers chapter, I follow Bill Barnwell's 2010 lament that Brandon Meriweather kept making first-team Pro Bowl ahead of Weddle. With Meriweather's release on Saturday, it seems even more ridiculous. Weddle can do everything well, and I think most people who study game tape and can get their hands on any All-22 film realize just how good he is. While he's not an elite center fielder per se, he's a great fit for any defense because he can cover all secondary slots from intermediate to deep, and crash down on the run with great consistency. That's his real value - in the number of different things he can do, and do very well. With an overall shift in talent from the front seven to the back seven on San Diego's defense, I believe he's been the Chargers' best defensive player in each of the last two seasons.
BFTB: Speaking of Bob Sanders, this is the longest layoff of his career. He's coming to a training staff that has a good history with injury-prone players (Garay, Burnett, etc.) and the Chargers are taking him off the field on 3rd downs. Do the injury histories you track give any reason to believe that he'll be healthier in San Diego?
DF: It's not so much the injury history as it is the fact that he is a smaller guy playing a position like a bigger safety. No question that he is the proverbial football warrior, and he makes every run defense significantly better with his presence. It's just a matter of how much he can play and what he can do. I love the signing in the abstract. I would love to have Bob Sanders on any team I ran, even if he only played 10 or 20 snaps a game. Now, it's about handling a workload.
BFTB: Is the worry about a lack of pass rush entirely due to the loss of Burnett? Or is it because of the lack of hurries/hits to go along with last year's #2 in the NFL adjusted sack rate?
DF: It's a lot to do with the lack of hits and hurries - but it's really everything, as we detailed in the Chargers chapter. The Chargers were dead last in the NFL in both hits and hurries, and their sack total improved drastically last year without a reasonable spread of sack numbers across different defenders. Losing Burnett is a hit because he had six sacks. Antonio Garay had 5.5 sacks in his miracle year last season, but he's 32 years old and those were the first 5.5 sacks of his NFL career. Many of the Chargers' defenders had higher sack totals than hits and hurries, which generally isn't a repeatable phenomenon, and we tend to believe in the predictive value of high hit and hurry totals to los sack numbers when it comes to estimating higher sack totals in future years. The Chargers would have to pull a number of outlier stunts to evade a disappointing season when it comes to pass pressure.