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Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders talks Eagles

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Thumbnailimage_mediumEarlier this week, I had a chance to talk with Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders about their new Football Outsiders Almanac 2009. Football Outsiders focuses on advanced statistical analysis of the NFL. If you've never heard of them, here's a good primer.  

If you're a hardcore football fan, I don't think there's a better reference than the Football Outsiders Almanac 2009.

We dissected a little bit of the Eagles 2008 season and looked ahead to 2009. I think you'll be surprised to hear an objective perspective on the Eagles' philosophy and some Eagle players.

Actually, until last night I thought this interview would be what Eagles fan were talking about this weekend...

The one stat in the book that really jumped out at me was that the Eagles only pass 5% more than the league average. What would your response be to the "Andy Reid needs to run the ball more" chorus that we hear so often as Eagles fans?

Well, I'd say that there are situations in which the Eagles would be better off running the ball more frequently, but on the whole, the team benefits from passing the ball. We take a very detailed look in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 into the Eagles' playcalling tendencies, and compare them to the league average performance in each of those situations when running and passing the ball.

One situation that definitely stood out in 2008 was second-and-short (three yards or less). When Philly runs the ball in those situations, they pick up 4.1 yards per attempt; the league average is only 3.7 yards per attempt. When they throw the ball, though, despite the fact that they have the much-vaunted big play potential in those second-and-short situations, the Eagles averaged only 4.3 yards per attempt -- barely more than the running plays -- when the league average was 6.0 yards per attempt. They were also far less likely to pick up first downs in that situation when passing.

Stewart Bradley became the Eagles first major loss to injury this season. While he certainly played at a high level and was becoming very popular amongst fans, I always felt that he owed a lot to the play of Mike Patterson and Broderick Bunkley. Do you agree with that and how do you think the Eagles' defense will fare without Bradley?

I absolutely agree that Bradley's level of play had a lot to do with the performance of the two defensive tackles in front of him. Every middle linebacker's play, to an extent, is dictated by the players in front of him keeping blockers off him for as long as possible, but very few middle linebackers have such a great set of tackles in front of them. Philly had the second-best run defense in the league in the second half of 2008, and I felt like a lot of that had to do with Bunkley and Patterson beginning to just dominate opposing linemen as a combination.

Sticking with the linebackers... the book calls strong side LB Chris Gocong "probably the unit's best player." What is is that you guys saw in Gocong that made you feel that way?

Truthfully, the bar for Philly linebackers isn't that high. Gocong was great in pass coverage last year, as his pass defense metrics were superior to any of the other linebackers and ranked among the top linebackers in football. He was a sure tackler, and made his tackles closer to the line than any other one of the team's linebackers. Some of that is his role in the Eagles' scheme, but we've perceived him to be the most reliable of the team's starting linebackers.

We've had a lot of debate here on the blog and amongst all Eagles fans about TE Brent Celek. Some say he's a backup at best, some say the guy is a legit starting TE. Much of the optimism about Celek came from his incredibly strong end to the season and playoff run. Should Eagles fans take those last few games as a sign of what's to come, or should the team be looking to upgrade from Celek at some point?

Well, I think we can all agree on something: He can't be worse than L.J. Smith.

We've appreciated Celek for two years running now, placing him on the "Top 25 Prospects" list in our book. If the expectations for him are that he'll catch ten passes a game, well, he'll end up being a disappointment. A more reasonable expectation is that of a sure-handed receiver who isn't a great blocker, but offers a safety valve in the passing game and has no qualms about going over the middle or up the seam. If he had something like Chad Lewis' career from this point forward (although perhaps without the Pro Bowl selections), I think that might be a fair expectation.

The Eagles were at the top of your DVOA rankings for a good part of last season. Their struggles at certain points led a lot of people to question the rankings. Did you take the Eagles' postseason run as any kind of validation of your system? Piggybacking on that... you talk a lot about luck as it related to the Eagles last season. How much of a factor was luck on their actual record vs their DVOA rank?

I mean, yes and no. The line between success and failure in the NFL is remarkably slim. The Eagles' postseason run came, of course, after the Raiders beat the Buccaneers on the road in a 1:00 game without their best player, Nnamdi Asomugha, or anything to play for. If the Raiders lose that game, Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb probably aren't Eagles right now, and the team's rebuilding.

It's hard for me to justify saying that the Eagles were able to validate our system thanks to a playoff run that never really should have happened in the first place. On the other hand, 16 games isn't a huge sample. There was a really interesting study on a couple of years ago that simulated the 2005 season 10,000 times based upon a set of win percentages that would be taken as each team's "true" talent level.

The idea was to figure out how often the true "best team" in the league -- as measured by that "true" win percentage  -- actually goes on to win the Super Bowl. The answer was about 30 percent of the time.

The reality is that variance can play a huge role in the course of winning one game, let alone a few out of 16. If the referees throw a flag for pass interference on fourth down of the final drive in the Eagles-Cardinals game, and the Eagles go down the field and promptly score, were they the better team? Were they the worse team because the refs didn't?

Our methodology is simple: Go play-by-play and figure out how a team does against the league average. If they play really well and put up good numbers, but don't win, we know that DVOA -- our core metric -- is a better indicator of wins in the subsequent season than wins themselves. Philly's playoff run was nice, and made the act of writing the Eagles' chapter way easier, but it didn't prove anything with regards to our numbers for me.

Finally, we talked a lot this offseason about sentimentality vs actual production as it related to Brian Dawkins. Would you have matched the 5 year $17 million deal the Broncos gave him if you were running the Eagles?

It's hard to say. They can afford it, certainly, considering the amount of cap space they usually have available. But if they were planning on phasing him out of the starting lineup anyway, would Dawkins have wanted to stay? Probably not.

I would've told him after the season that we were moving in a different direction, and that we'd love to have him as a third safety and coach on the field, offering him a deal commensurate with that role. That might have hurt, and it wouldn't have been the $17 million deal, but it would have given Dawkins the option to finish his career in Philly.

This interview just scratches the surface of what football outsiders has in the book in regards to not just the Eagles, but the entire NFL. If you're interested in the book, Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, click the link for more details on how you can get it.