The 2018 Football Outsiders Almanac is here! I’ve been pouring through it daily and so should you; it’s a fantastic resource for all 32 NFL teams – click here for more info on how to get your copy.
To promote this year’s edition, Mike Tanier dropped by to answer some questions for Bleeding Green Nation about the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Read on for the question and answer exchange.
1. In the Almanac you mention the Eagles finding an “under-tow of market inefficiency” and that they “rode a market correction into the Super Bowl”. Can you expand on that for the gentle readers?
If you ask your basic fan about analytics or Moneyball, they will probably boil it down to: “Oh, you trade expensive dudes for draft picks and stink for a year or three, then you turn all the excess draft picks and dough into great players and win a championship.” Well, what happens when a whole bunch of teams try to play this cocktail napkin version of Moneyball?
Suddenly, the market is full of guys like Ronald Darby and Jay Ajayi, plus high draft picks teams want to trade for a zillion lower draft picks, and because of the market glut you can often get a bargain on both quality young veterans and top draft picks. The Eagles didn’t just fleece the Cleveland Browns (though boy, did they do that), but they got valuable contributors from several teams who have sold their ownership and fanbases on “Gosh golly, it will take years to rebuild this team, let’s get rid of some talented guys so we can play Kevin Costner-Sashi Brown-Stan Hink-“ oops, I said too much there.
Analytics and Moneyball are about beating the market, not following some recipe book from a movie. Markets change. Smart investors change with or ahead of them.
2. Much has been said about Doug Pederson’s let ‘em hang attitude towards fourth downs, but how is it that he only ranked 3rd in your Aggressiveness Index?
Third all time. I don’t know much about the ‘96 Patriots or ‘07 Jaguars ahead of them. Bill Parcells was a pioneer of going for it on 4th-and-short, so it makes sense that Pederson is in his company. That doesn’t explain the Jack Del Rio Jaguars. But it could be a statistical blip. Last year, the Miami Dolphins said “Screw This” and went for it on fourth down a bunch of times in the Week 17 game, and their numbers ended up looking like Eagles numbers. Fourth down gambles are still so rare that a handful of them can look big on an all-time list.
[Update: More clarification from Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz - “Doug Pederson is third in Aggressiveness Index in two ways. 1) He’s third in 2017 in terms of how often he went for it compared to an average coach in similar situations. 2) He’s third all-time (since 1986) in the pure NUMBER of times he went for it on fourth down, which is what Mike was referencing his answer.”]
3. The Eagles offense had a sizeable gap between their early down and third down efficiency. What accounted for this and what can be done to get the Eagles on schedule early in the sticks?
The Eagles were above average on first downs and historic on third downs. Because their third down awesomeness is not really sustainable, a fine way to stay on top of the league would be to improve on first downs. The Eagles averaged about 4.6 yards per rush on first down, which is great, and just under 6 yards per pass, which is OK. Sometimes it’s hard to find the little marginal improvements, which is why sustaining excellence is so difficult.
4. I’ve made the same argument you did about the Eagles experiencing a statistical regression in red zone passing, while also improving their red zone running efficiency. Do you believe those shifts will cancel each other out, or is it more likely based on historical trends that they take a step back from their dominance in the red zone?
I think the Eagles were a great red zone team and that our run-pass split was a little bit of an aberration. The Eagles ran some non-nourishing goal line plays with LeGarrette Blount and others, and while they were not effective, they were part of a system that set up opportunities for Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery etc. Assuming Jeffery is healthy, the Eagles should continue to be a great red zone team, particularly with all the new depth and play-making ability at tight end.
Having a bruiser like Blount is ultimately overrated at the goal line. You need catch-in-traffic and contested-catch receivers, a good line, and most of all, sound play calling.
5. The Eagles have a battle royale taking place for the rights to win the starting WILL job, but your attitude towards it is pretty indifferent. Who do you believe wins the third linebacker job and why should we not worry about it anyway?
I am not there every day, so I have not seen enough to get a sense of Gerry or Kamu, though I liked Gerry a lot coming out of college and like the idea of a converted safety at WILL. But look: the Eagles should create a tremendous bind for offenses with their front four and another one in the secondary, which will be deep enough to win most coverage matchups even when you get to the nickel and dime.
They should be dictating what opponents do with their running backs and tight ends a lot: those guys will be blocking, or else teams will try to funnel everything to them. If opponents are trying to win by beating the WILL linebacker with the running back in the flat, you are going to beat them, even if the running back wins some match-ups, because you’ve shut everything down down the field.
I worry about linebackers on teams with no depth on the defensive line and-or secondary. The Eagles don’t have those problems!