If you don't purchase and read the Football Outsiders Almanac every year, keeping it close by during the entire NFL regular season and postseason, you're missing out.
There's a reason Football Outsiders does a better job at predicting the future than anyone else, and that is because they are more dedicated to getting answers from the stats and numbers than any other football coverage outlet out there.
This year, after running the numbers, the FO system predicts the San Diego Chargers will win somewhere around 9 or 10 games. We had the opportunity to talk with Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders about this year's Chargers team, which is below. Make sure you educate yourself a pick up a copy of the 2014 Football Outsiders Almanac today.
1. With the Chargers defense ranking 31st in DVOA against the run, how does a healthy Melvin Ingram/Dwight Freeney help improve the run defense, with both of them having higher stoppage rates against the run in 2012 than Thomas Keiser (50%) had last year? Also, how will having a better edge rusher playing behind Corey Liuget affect his 58% run-stopping rate, as opponents saw a higher success rate running the ball towards the right side of the Chargers defensive line last year, averaging 4.4 ALY per carry in this direction, compared to the 4.13 average ALY per carry that Jarrett Johnson and Kendall Reyes’s side attained?
Well, the thing about different Run Stop Rates is small sample size theatre, unfortunately. We had Keiser with only 12 run tackles last year, and Freeney had only six in 2012 with the Colts. Freeney’s always been lousy against the run, honestly. He doesn’t have bad "rate stats" because he doesn’t even make the plays. He’s purely a pass rusher. It will be interesting to see whether Ingram can be a strong all-around player, though. I mean, we really haven’t seen him in the way the Chargers want us to see him -- we saw an inexperienced rookie, and then we saw a guy coming back from injury. Obviously the Chargers are hoping he really takes a step forward this year.
But overall, the intricacies of why the Chargers struggled against the run last year, and how they can improve this year, are more of a scouting question. That’s the limitation of stats, even advanced ones. But the good news is that run defense really doesn’t have a strong correlation from year to year, even less than pass defense. The Chargers could easily be an average run defense this year like they were in 2012 (13th in run defense DVOA) instead of a porous one like last year (31st). - AS
2. Your analysis seemed to imply that 3 rookies (Verrett, Attaochu, and Carrethers) needed to make an immediate impact for the defense to improve. Would it not also be accurate to point out that two second year players (Te'o and Addai), plus a 3rd year player (Ingram) improving their play (or being on the field, healthy, for most of the season) might be enough to improve the defense's performance?
Oh, absolutely. That just didn’t get written into the chapter. We can’t write everything in there! However, I think overall Te’o and Addai aren’t nearly as important as Ingram, Verrett, and Attaochu. Obviously you want the best possible players at every position, but in general, the most important positions on a defense are edge rusher and cornerback. Obviously a really great ILB or 4-3 LB can be hugely important -- Lavonte David, Luke Kuechly, the 49ers guys. There are a few safeties at that level too -- Earl Thomas, maybe Eric Berry, Polamalu and Ed Reed in their primes. But in general, those positions aren’t as important, which is part of why the rookies may make a bigger difference than the second-year guys (although Ingram is probably the most important of all those guys). - AS
3. If none of the 3 rookies mentioned ended up starting, would that change your stance on the 2014 Chargers defense? As it stands at the beginning of camp, Wright/Flowers, Freeney/Ingram, and Lissemore are the starters at those spots.
I don’t know if it changes things much at all. Verrett is still ahead of Richard Marshall for nickelback, right? That’s basically a starting spot in today’s NFL. At the other positions, I mean, you see here one of the reasons why forecasting an NFL season is difficult. Who is more valuable -- a mediocre veteran nose tackle, or a rookie you don’t know much about? Who is more valuable -- a second-round rookie edge rusher who may or may not be ready to play in the NFL right away, or a veteran edge rusher who may or may not have anything left?
Look, I’ll say this: Defense is more variable than offense. That’s one of the strongest truisms in NFL stat analysis. So bad defenses are more likely to improve than bad offenses. Look at the really bad defenses from last year -- the bottom four in DVOA were ATL, DAL, GB, and SD. When you look at the personnel and history of these defenses, not just the 2013 numbers, San Diego and Green Bay are probably the best bets to improve there. They have coaches with good track records. They have strong pass rushers. They added young talent -- the Chargers added more of it, but the Packers added a single player who is the most important, in Clinton-Dix. On the other hand, Atlanta has good coaching and can count on improvement from young DBs but there is no pass rush there. And Dallas just looks like a freakin’ nightmare. Anyway, likely improvement on defense is one reason we have the Chargers as a better shot to return to the playoffs than almost any other website that does similar forecasts (and why we have the Packers as a strong Super Bowl possibility). - AS
4. What changed about the NFL that turned Norv Turner from a QB guru to a QB destroyer? His offense definitely used to work, right?
I know that people in the league speak so highly of Norv -- the guys I know in San Francisco were devastated when the Chargers hired him away back in 2007 -- but his record is really a lot more mixed than people realize. The Raiders offense didn’t really improve when he was running that team. Neither did Miami when he was offensive coordinator there. On the other hand, how much can you really blame him for what happened in Cleveland last year? Weeden was never going to get it done, and while I’ve always felt Jason Campbell has been historically underrated, he’s at the end of the line. As for what happened in San Diego the year before, honestly, I don’t really have an answer. But other than Rivers declining in 2012, I mean, Norv isn’t a QB destroyer. The Cleveland QBs were already destroyed.
Mike Tanier is more negative about Norv’s history than I am, but he wrote the Vikings chapter and pointed out that Norv happens to be very good at exactly what the Vikings need right now -- someone to pick the low-hanging fruit of basic offensive game-planning so that they aren’t the worst offense in history on second-and-short again, and maybe run some play-action every so often, which golly you would think might be a good idea when your opponent is constantly game-planning for Adrian Peterson.
As for Rivers -- one of the interesting questions for 2014 that stats can’t answer is a) how much was last year’s rebound related to coaching changes and b) if it was, how much was McCoy and how much Whisenhunt, and what does Whisenhunt leaving mean for him? - AS
5. Do you really think it's necessary that Peyton Manning be eaten by sharks for San Diego to win the AFC West, or do you think bears could get the job done?
Denver doesn’t play the Bears this year. The Seahawks might get it done. Or maybe Manning will come down with whatever happened to Rich Gannon in 2003 when he suddenly fell off a cliff the year after he won the MVP. (Well, his performance fell off a cliff for seven weeks, then hurt his shoulder which pretty much ended his career.) - AS
(Thank you, Aaron, for taking the time answer our questions. Keep up the great work!)