The Football Outsiders Almanac is a must-read every year. The 2015 edition is no exception to that rule and you can find it in the Football Outsiders store. The great Scott Kacsmar wrote the San Diego Chargers section this year and he was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for us about the team.
1. You say the Chargers look like a 9-win team. Is that still the case if Fluker and Barksdale can solidify the right side of the line? Why?
San Diego has hovered right around nine wins in six of the last seven seasons, so there's really nothing bold about predicting another 9-7 type of year. The 2009 team that went 13-3 actually wasn't even balanced with a ranking of 31st in rushing DVOA, 23rd in defensive DVOA and middling special teams. They just got a top-notch year from Philip Rivers and won five games with a late game-winning drive. So while an improved offensive line could help Rivers stay healthy and bolster the running game, you never know when another big problem will pop up like finding out you don't have anyone capable of rushing the passer. This roster doesn't feel like one that's just an offensive line away from doing serious damage. The defensive front seven still feels like a bigger question mark, because the talent of Rivers and expected talent of Melvin Gordon can cover a lot of bad plays up front.
I must say I'm increasingly jaded about how teams can get better once they reach a certain tier. If you want an honest answer: fewer key injuries and a few more bounces and calls go their way. That's the NFL. We can all agree last year would have gone better if Rivers didn't suffer a rib injury, didn't have to take snaps from five different centers, or if a guy like Jason Verrett played 16 games. The only "secret sauce" is finding a competent general manager, head coach and quarterback to set yourself on a path to consistent winning. Few teams can do that. The Chargers have operated as a competitive franchise since 2004 thanks in large part to figuring out the quarterback position in that time. The team's lack of postseason success can really be isolated by a few unfortunate events like some Nate Kaeding field goals gone wrong, a badly-timed torn ACL for Rivers or that time Marlon McCree gone act the fool with a Tom Brady interception in the fourth quarter. I said the Chargers had five game-winning drives in 2009. After the fifth one, San Diego was an unfathomable 2-19 (.095) in their next 21 game-winning drive opportunities. That's how you miss the playoffs three years in a row.
Some fans hate to hear it, but the truth is sometimes s*** just happens in the NFL and you have to live with the results. One year you squeak by the Chase Daniel-led Chiefs in Week 17 to make the playoffs; the next year you score seven points and miss the tournament. No one dominates through a full season anymore like the 1985 Bears. You just want to get in that tournament where anything can happen. Unfortunately for San Diego, a lot of bad things tend to happen in January.
2. Has anyone calculated the number of points or wins squandered over the two seasons by timid coaching?
We don't have that specifically calculated, but we have an Aggressiveness Index that measures coaches on fourth-down decisions, adjusted for things like field position, yards to go and scoring margin. McCoy ranked 27th in 2013 and 30th last season, so he's certainly been conservative for a team that has played a lot of close games.
I personally lost a lot of faith in McCoy when he chose to punt on a fourth-and-4 from the 50-yard line against the Patriots last year with 6:28 remaining and the Chargers down 23-14. Keep in mind Nick Novak was the punter after the injury to Mike Scifres. That was gutless coaching, and naturally the Patriots ran the clock down to 2:05 and made McCoy burn all three timeouts before getting the ball back. You have to show more courage than that, especially against a team like the Patriots, who have given the Chargers so many problems over the years.
3. Given FOA 2015 updated the formula for a team from 3:3:1 (offense, defense, ST) to 4:3:1, does the drafting of Melvin Gordon in the 1st round look any better in retrospect?
Ha, but what If the increase to four is because of the increased importance with the passing game these days? Honestly, the nicest thing we can say so far about the Gordon pick is that it's not as bad as St. Louis taking Todd Gurley at No. 10. There's no Tre Mason in San Diego, though that doesn't mean the Chargers haven't been doing a lot wrong at this position. Taking a first-round back like Ryan Mathews in 2010 meant passing on talent like Earl Thomas and Jason Pierre-Paul. While it's true that many of the most prolific running backs in NFL history were first-round picks, you can still get a very good player later. Le'Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill and LeSean McCoy were all recent second-round picks. Jamaal Charles and DeMarco Murray went in the third. That's mostly the list of the best backs in the game now not named Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. Those two guys, drafted in 2007, are really the last first-round studs at running back.
Ameer Abdullah went to Detroit six picks after the Chargers selected Denzel Perryman in the second round. Is Gordon really going to offer that much of an improvement over what Abdullah could have done? Then the Chargers could have paired up Keenan Allen with Nelson Agholor or Breshad Perriman. Pair Jason Verrett with Kevin Johnson or Marcus Peters as the cornerback duo of the future. Make Cameron Erving the permanent replacement to Nick Hardwick at center. That all seems rather preferable to taking a running back who isn't even a dynamic receiver, which is a big part of Rivers' pressure management.
Danny Woodhead's the receiver/third-down back, Branden Oliver has been a solid find, and the Chargers could be paying Donald Brown a nice sum to get those few touches you pay someone like Shaun Draughn the league minimum to carry out. It's just not a great use of resources. Gordon has to be special quickly to justify the pick.
4. Stevie Johnson is projected to have worse numbers in SD than Eddie Royal did over the last 2 seasons. Any particular reason for the lower projected numbers?
We have Johnson projected to finish with 694 receiving yards. That's pretty close to Royal's 778 yards with Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd at close range a year ago. You also have to remember Royal flourished with 189 yards in the last two games of 2014 while Allen was out with an injury. We expect Danny Woodhead's return to steal some of that production this year, so the Johnson projection is really right in the middle of what Royal has done the last two years behind Allen and Floyd, who aren't going anywhere.
Johnson is probably a guy I should have argued for harder in the projections because I think the potential is there for him to have a really good season. This is by far the best quarterback situation of his career and his route running should fit Rivers' style of play quite well. The problem is you just never know how a veteran receiver will fare when he's moving to his third team in three years. Johnson has finished with fewer than 600 yards in each of the last two years, but I definitely like him as a sleeper in 2015. Any receiver who can crank out three 1,000-yard seasons in Buffalo with Ryan Fitzpatrick has something special in him.
5. You referenced charting and some of FO's advanced stats. What else goes into the preparation of a team's FOA section?
This year's release came after some literal blood, sweat, and tears from our staff given some of the events in our personal lives. I can only speak to my own experiences with writing for FOA the last two years. It's a pretty amazing process in how this thing comes together each year. We had 14 co-authors for this year's book. We live in different states (even different countries), so there are no meetings. We don't even do a big conference call or anything like that. Yet even with all of those different voices and writing styles, I think the book has a certain harmony to it thanks to all the one-on-one editing Aaron Schatz does for each part with each writer. Each co-author has the freedom to attack the team's essay any way they want, but Aaron makes sure it's up to our usual standard of analysis.
For me, the goal of the team essay is to basically "explain last season, forecast this season" to provide a good snapshot of where the team is right now as we get ready for September kickoffs. As an Assistant Editor for FO, I'm one of the few co-authors (Vincent Verhei the other) who really could work on FOA with a full-time effort. The book was mostly what I worked on from May through July, so that leaves plenty of time for research and watching games/players from last season. If I'm going to write some very specific stuff about a rookie like Derek Carr for Oakland, I better watch every play from him last year so I know what the hell I'm talking about. For the veterans I've watched for a decade like Peyton Manning and Philp Rivers, I'm less likely to do the same thing since I know their tendencies well. Plus I watch a lot of them during the season, just as I can tell you every co-author for FOA watches a ton of football.
We're a stat-minded group, but a lot of our ideas come from what we see on the field. So film study is a big part of the process of analyzing each team.
We have a lot of stats in every team's chapter, including projections for wins and schedule difficulty, along with our metrics like snap-weighted age, adjusted games lost (injuries), DVOA by week/splits, and five-year performance trends. There are also the personnel groupings and strategic tendencies, which help us find interesting talking points like how the Chargers used play-action passing the least in 2014, but were the best at doing so.
With those stats prepared for each team, the writers really just have to focus on using them to build a narrative structure. I know the essay always takes me the most time in completing a team's chapter. I put a lot of research into them, especially in finding some of the more advanced data like the table we have on Philip Rivers' decline of 2.0 yards per attempt in the second half of last season. Yeah, anyone can see that happened from the game logs, but how does that compare to other quarterbacks in a 16-game season? That's why you take the time to do the research, which is time you may not always have during a regular week when you're trying to write an article for a website. The book goes deeper than usual.
Following the essay, every team has unit comments for the offensive line, defensive front seven, secondary and special teams. This allows us to showcase a lot of our charting stats like blown blocks for linemen, hurries and hits for pass rushers and the success in coverage for defensive backs. The unit comments are collectively shorter than the essay and focus on the individual players much more, noting the comings-and-goings in each unit after free agency and the draft.
(Thank you, Scott, for taking the time answer our questions. Keep up the great work!)