The 2017 Football Outsiders Almanac is here. As always, it's a great read for football fans. FO provides great content on all 32 NFL teams - click here for more info on how to get your copy.
In promotion of this year's edition, Mike Tanier (@MikeTanier) was kind enough to answer some questions for Bleeding Green Nation about the Philadelphia Eagles. Mike wrote about the NFC East teams for this year’s FO Almanac and he’s a local guy so he has a good grasp on the Eagles. Read on for the question and answer exchange.
1 - Despite going 7-9, the Eagles finished the 2016 season ranked tied for ninth in point differential and tied for seventh in turnover differential. They also ranked No. 1 in DVOA for a decent stretch last year. To what extent is this an indication the Eagles were better than their record indicated? And how does that bode for their win projection in 2017?
Our Pythagorean Formula saw the Eagles as a 9.0-win team last year. I think that accurately reflects how the season turned out. While the "play here and a play there" game is a fool's errand, it's easy to think the Lions loss and several of the other close games could have gone the Eagles way. (Though we would also have to accept that the Vikings game could also have turned out differently.)
There is nothing unusual or super-unlucky about a team with a 9.0 win projection finishing 7-9, however. In terms of projecting forward, the Eagles did have a series of interlocking problems that contributed to their close losses: a rookie coach and quarterback, which led to both early-game turnovers and late-game mistakes, from Carson Wentz coming up short to Pederson being forced to trust players like Ryan Mathews and Wendell Smallwood with late-game handoffs. These are problems that can be solved through experience and minor personnel changes, like the LeGarrette Blount signing. The Eagles had problems they could put their finger on, and they addressed those problems, which bodes well.
2 - Carson Wentz criticism as a rookie due to a lack of air yards. At the same time, it’s not like he had any legitimate NFL deep threats to target. How much improvement should be expected from him in Year 2 now that he has talent around him? Can he be a top 10 quarterback? Top 15? Top 20?
The Air Yards criticism should not be shrugged off. It's often an indicator of a new quarterback relying too heavily on checkdowns and dink-and-dunk type passes and getting away with it over the short term. In general, a young quarterback who takes more risks downfield, even if the risk result in some interceptions, will develop into a better player than a quarterback who may start his career with a relatively high completion rate, low yards per attempt and a low interception ratio in a don't-lose-the-game, training-wheels offense.
That said, there is a real risk of overreacting to a small sample size and to ignoring context. The original Football Outsiders Air Yards debate started after three games, when Wentz-mania was in full swing after beating two lousy opponents and surprising the Steelers. Lo and behold, Wentz and the Eagles were neither able to throw downfield nor sustain their success in the middle part of the season.
But the futility of the receiving corps had a great deal to do with that, and I think it's important to recognize how much of a difference, say, a dozen passes can make in a data sample. That is to say, if the Eagles receivers turned 12 passes last year (1 per game from Weeks 4 thru 16, excepting the Week 17 Cowboys exhibition) into incomplete passes which otherwise would have been downfield receptions, either by dropping the pass, giving up on the play, not dragging a foot, or what-have-you, it could skew Wentz' results enough to take middle-of-the-road downfield passing and make it look awful. I am sure BGN readers can come up with a dozen receiver mistakes if they try.
I don't think there is any question that Wentz can be a top 20 or "top half" quarterback; beyond that, you get into the quarterback comparison game, which I leave to others. The comparison that matters is not Wentz vs. Dak Prescott or vs. some arbitrary ranking. It's whether Wentz develops enough attributes to become a playoff-caliber quarterback. I think he can do that. I DON'T think he's the kind of quarterback whose "Air Yards" will be a major issue moving forward.
3 - The Eagles’ defensive line projects to be really good. The cornerback group, meanwhile, projects to be really bad. The Eagles’ defense finished fourth in DVOA last year despite a similar situation. To what extent can a good pass rush mask and good safeties mask poor cornerback play? And just how good can the Eagles’ defense be in 2017?
Remember that for the Eagles, it's a great pass rush AND great safety play masking poor cornerback play. Breaking down the DVOA by receiver, the Eagles ranked 1st in the NFL at stopping opposing tight ends last year, evidence that Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod were eliminating that element from opponents' passing games. But the Eagles ranked 24th in allowing deep passes: Jenkins was playing a lot of slot, McLeod is just one man, and those cornerbacks were bound to get toasted when they were isolated.
As Jim Schwartz indicated a few times to us this offseason, the Eagles had a hard time late in the season, when opponents were able to just block the weary front four and pick their shots up top. Adding Chris Long and Derrick Barnett will help the cornerbacks, but the best way to get better at cornerback is to get better at cornerback. I don't think the Eagles did enough there, at least for the start of this season. Things may look different if Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglass are Lito Shepard and Sheldon Brown in 2018.
[BLG Note: The answer above was submitted before the Ronald Darby trade.]
4 - How would you assess Doug Pederson’s rookie year? What does he need to do in 2017 to prove he’s a viable long-term head coach for this franchise?
I liked the aggressiveness on fourth downs, in fourth quarters and in the red zone. Unfortunately, he lacked a great offensive roster for being aggressive. Fourth and inches will look less like a gamble with Blount in the backfield, and with Wentz more confident in what he sees when he lines up..
I spend a lot of time at Eagles camp -- though not as much as you guys -- and I also get to see other team's camps. Last year, Eagles camp was sluggish and turgid. It felt like Pederson didn't have a handle on how he wanted things scheduled and paced, which is odd for an Andy Reid disciple. This year, everything is peppier and more organized, drills seem more specified and purpose-driven, and so forth. I think the quality of practice time is an underappreciated factor for a team's success or failure. It can't be measured analytically, of course, and not even the NFL Network guys visit enough practices often enough to draw comparisons. But I see improvements from Pederson's rookie year, as surely as I see improvements from Wentz or have seen from any developing rookie player.
5 - Metrics indicate the Cowboys and Giants overachieved to some extent last season. Is it fair to say the gap between them and the Eagles has shrunk? Do the Eagles have a reasonable shot to win the NFC East? How about a playoff run?
We project the Cowboys at 9.3 wins (with no Elliott suspensions or the like factored in), Giants at 8.3, Eagles at 7.9 and Skins at 7.8. Basically: four good-but-flawed teams hanging around .500. This really is a division that can go in any direction. The Cowboys have that line and the young backfield, but questions on defense and in the head space. The Giants have the receivers, pass rushers and secondary but no left tackle or kicker. The Skins are super balanced but are not really outstanding in any one area. We have the D-line, safeties, special teams and the offensive tackles, but we have a lot of projecting to do at other positions, including quarterback. It's almost a rock-paper-scissors scenario.
I agree with the FO projections that give the Eagles a very low "crater" risk (just 10 percent) but also give them just a 17 percent chance of winning 11-plus games. The Eagles are still a team of development and transition. There is nothing unusual about that for a team with a second-year quarterback.