Aaron Schatz, the founder of FootballOutsiders.com, is the lead author for Pro Football Prospectus 2005. He'll be taking your questions on the NFL playoffs.
Aaron Schatz: Greetings and salutations, football (and baseball) fans. For you baseball folk who are wondering why we are talking about that other sport, my name is Aaron Schatz, I do BP-style stat analysis on the NFL, and I'm the lead writer on a book called Pro Football Prospectus 2005 -- along with the upcoming Pro Football Prospectus 2006. The BP folks are kind enough to let me hijack the chat system a couple of times during the baseball off-season to talk some about America's other favorite sport. No, not NASCAR. Anyway, I'm here to talk playoffs and I'm rockin' the "Velvet Goldmine" soundtrack, so let's get glam with it.
DrLivy (Charleston, WV): This year's NFC playoff are fascinating. You can make a case that the #6 seed (Washington) is better than #1 seed Seattle. It's easy for me to believe that this could be the first year (under the new system) that all four road teams win the first round.
Which one of the road teams this week do you think will be a lock to win? Which one a lock to lose?
Aaron Schatz: I don't think I would say that Washington is better than Seattle. Seattle is better in our main rating, DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) for the entire season, and while Washington is higher in WEIGHTED DVOA which discounts September games, that's only because Seattle didn't care about last week's meaningless game against Green Bay.
Anyway, this is the most apropos question of the week so let's start with it. I do think that Washington has the best chance to win on the road. They are playing very well over the last few weeks, of course, and they also can neutralize Tampa Bay's very strong run defense because they love to run right end -- they run that direction 21% of the time, highest in the league -- and Tampa Bay is vulnerable to runs right end (and left tackle) but awesome against runs everywhere else. In the first game between these teams, Clinton Portis gained his biggest yards left tackle and right end. The first game was strange because Tampa was passing the ball to people like Edell Sheppard, who didn't even show up the rest of the year, while that was the last game of Cadillac Williams' midseason struggles. This time, Tampa will run better but pass worse.
The lock to lose is Jacksonvile. The reason is not "The Patriots playoff experience" or "The Patriots playoff mojo" or any of that silliness. The reason is that the Jaguars defense has collapsed in the second half -- they led the league in pass defense DVOA after 10 weeks and are 28th in the period since. On top of that, they have three very important players with injuries, MLB Mike Peterson and DE's Reggie Hayward and Paul Spicer. Add on the southern team in cold weather factor, and I think you have a Patriots victory, although Byron Leftwich will get his yards in the air against the poor Pats secondary.
I like the Giants but the LB injuries make them a little iffy, and I'm totally and completely 50-50 on the Steelers-Bengals game.
By the way, the FO playoff previews will be up soon with the usual stats and graphs and nonsense.
fitzpams (DC): Much of the Pats coverage has focused on the statistical improvement of the defense since the return of Bruschi. However, that period has also included a steep drop in the quality of the competition and the return of Seymour, Colvin playing every down, and Hawkins at safety. So two interconnected questions, how much better, rather than just more successful, are the Pats, and how do you divide the credit amongst the various factors?
Aaron Schatz: People don't seem to remember that those changes were all in place when the Patriots were completely spanked by Kansas City. The "Patriots are back" talk shows that people still don't want to take opponent strength into account. You too could control Brooks Bollinger and J.P. Losman, so while the Pats did improve their pass defense, it was only for four games and it wasn't really as much improvement as it seemed.
However, the run defense improvement is absolutely real since Seymour returned. In the first half of the season, the Pats allowed 4.1 yards per carry. Since Seymour returned in Week 10, the Pats have allowed just 3.2 yards per carry. And of course, the Patriots lead the league in limiting runs that are over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, and they have led the league in this category for three straight years while no other team has even been in the top ten all three seasons.
jkutolowski (Cleveland): Which team gets moved to L.A. in the next few years... The Saints, Chargers, Colts, Vikings, or none of the above?
Aaron Schatz: Well, the Colts got their new stadium deal, so they are all set in Indianapolis. It's yet another weapon in my ongoing crusade to bring Will Carroll over to the dark side.
I don't really see the Vikings moving, I think we're talking about the Saints or Chargers. I'm not as familiar with the San Diego stadium rent issues as I should be, but for the Chargers to move north wouldn't be much of a big deal, much of the fan base would carry over. In fact, they were based in Los Angeles originally, in the very early days of the AFL.
The Saints, well, the Saints are a huge big deal as we all know and nobody is willing to talk honestly about their situation. The idea that they will move back to New Orleans is silly, since that city will be reduced in population, and they were only there because New Orleans was paying them a huge subsidy. New Orleans needs that money for other things now. (They always needed that money for other things, of course.) I think if Tom Benson had his way, the team would move to San Antonio immediately. If the league had its way, they would move the team to Los Angeles without anyone noticing. But of course, that's impossible, so we're stuck in this weird phase where the team may play in two cities next year and another one the year after. If I had to put money on it, I would bet on the 2007 Los Angeles Saints or Angels or whatever.
lyricalkiller (The OC): Hm, football... let's see ... what do I know about football? Hmmmm...
Any chance Brian Jordan hooks up with some team as a fourth (or fifth) outfielder? Any wheels left on that big rig?
Aaron Schatz: I have no idea about Brian Jordan the baseball player, but this is an opportunity to mention something. In Deion Sanders' final game, Madden and Michaels were talking about all his accomplishments and Michaels started to point out that, on top of all the Super Bowls, this guy played major league baseball for a while and played in the World Series. And you know, he couldn't take a walk but how many athletic achievements have been quite as astonishing as Deion Sanders, with very little minor league experience and an off-season devoted to a different sport, hitting .304 with a .495 slugging percentage back in 1992. The guy had a good stolen base rate, too.
Alan Snedmore (Chicago): Hi! First I wanna say that your book was a million times better for fantasy drafts than the five magazines I wasted my money on. I won't make that mistake next year!!
I read your essay on OPP and wanted to know who your system says will be sleepers next year too. Thanks and I look forward to PFP 2006!
Aaron Schatz: OPP, heh heh. That was Dan Lewis' essay on "OPE" actually, or Opportunity, Perception, and Environment, three ways to figure out a fantasy football sleeper. This is different than the intricate stat analysis I do, of course, because you don't want a running back with a great DVOA who gets the ball six times a game and plays behind an all-pro. I actually dropped Dan a line to ask him about this and he brought up a name that I really agreed with, and that is Carolina running back Eric Shelton. Carolina took Shelton in the second or third round of the draft, I can't remember which, and he promptly broke his foot in the pre-season and went out for the year. But as we pointed out in PFP, "Dan Henning likes big backs, and he cannot lie." Stephen Davis is done, and as everyone knows we think DeShaun Foster is quite overrated. So there is an opportunity to take the job, and we know the team thinks highly of him, and it is a great environment for a running back because they love to run the ball. Plus, Will has said to me that players should come back from broken bones as good as new, as opposed to ACL injuries and the like. The other player I might like, if I knew who it was, would be whoever takes over as the second starting receiver in Pittsburgh if Antwaan Randle El leaves as a free agent.
Ryguy86 (NY): Do you think there is any reason why there is such a big divide between so many great teams and so many terrible teams this year?
Aaron Schatz: Total randomness, I think. We would have to see this continue for two or three years before I really would start exploring it as a trend.
This happens a lot, in all sports. When you have a year with a strange trend, people go looking for reasons, and often it was just a one-year random fluctuation. The best example is last year's "golden age of passing" caused, we all thought, by the officials finally paying attention to the illegal contact rules. Well, maybe that was the cause but if so, defenses adjusted very quickly, and this year offense -- in terms of yards per game -- was lower than any other season since 1993.
By the way, part of the offensive focus of 2004 was that a lot of teams had great defenses but missed the playoffs. Out of the top ten teams in defensive DVOA, only three made the 2004 playoffs: Pittsburgh, Denver, and New England. This year, however, all the top defenses are in the playoffs. The top six or seven defenses in DVOA are all playoff teams.
So this year's trend where lots of playoff teams had terrible special teams, well, that's probably just a one-year fluctuation too.
Ali Nagib (Chicago): Joe Sheehan (and others) have recently commented on the fact that even a 162 game baseball season may be too small a sample size to accurately evalute a player or team. If this is true, how is it even remotely possible that a 16 game NFL season would give us useful data that isn't completely sample size driven?
Aaron Schatz: You are absolutely correct that the 16-game season creates a problem with sample size. This is why I analyze plays, rather than games. The average NFL team will run about 1,000 offensive plays in a season, 1,000 defensive plays, and maybe, I dunno, 300 special teams plays. So analyzing an offense with 1,000 plays is going to be a better sample size than, say, analyzing a hitter with 650 plate appearances. The problem with the 16-game schedule is that you only have 12 opponents, so opponent strength is a big deal. If the team was just having a bad day one day, or had a couple major injuries, it affects 1/16 of the entire season sample. Same if a team plays one of those "we don't care" Week 17 games. Those are starting to drive me insane.
Arathorn (Chicago-area): How unbalanced were the conferences? It seems like the Chiefs (10-6 and not in the playoffs) are/were a better team than nearly all of the NFC entrants. True or false?
Aaron Schatz: True, although our perception of this is going to be skewed by the final game where Cincinnati was picking people out of the local junior high and sending them out to play linebacker. The conferences were not as unbalanced as the last two years, however. Last year, something like 12 of our top 13 teams were AFC teams. I think this year it was more of a division-based imbalance. The AFC East had two mediocre teams and two terrible teams, while the NFC West had one great team and three terrible teams. Meanwhile, the NFC East had three good teams and a team that was good for half the season, and the AFC West had three good teams and a team that was at least mediocre for half the season. So who played who really messed with the records. The NFC South feasted on the AFC East and weak sister New Orleans, while every division game for the AFC West was hard and then they had to go play the NFC East for four games. So when we say "AFC teams that missed the playoffs were better than NFC teams that made it," we're basically saying, "Kansas City and San Diego were better than Carolina and Tampa Bay."
Mike W (Chicago): What the hell happened to Michael Clayton this year? Nagging injuries? Personal crisis? Does anyone know?
Aaron Schatz: The biggest mystery of the year, bar none. The Kevin Jones collapse at least is tied to injuries, a poor offensive line, and Jones himself doing some things wrong. Clayton's team turns things around to go 10-6 and he completely disappears. I think there were injury issues early as well as currently but in the middle he was perfectly healthy and they just were not throwing him the ball at all. Every time I talk to someone actually involved in the game, I try to ask if they know what the heck happened to Clayton.
ChuckR (Addison, IL): Mayor Daley of Chicago recently floated the idea of a domed stadium for the Olympics, Super Bowl, Final Four and to lure a second NFL team. There is still some sensitivity amongst some regarding how Soldier Field ended up, but is it even remotely possible that the NFL would place a second team in Chicago? Is expansion in the offing?
Aaron Schatz: No, this is typical political silliness. The Bears would never let it happen, they would stick a team in Los Angeles first, and expansion isn't in the offing because the 32-team, 8-division setup is basically perfect.
Bryan (MD): Where does Tiki Barber's season rank all-time?
Aaron Schatz: Tune in to Pro Football Prospectus 2006 and find out! Inspired by the huge years for Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson, Edgerrin James, and Barber, my plan is to follow last year's "Top 100 QB Seasons" piece with a huge book-opening piece on "Top 100 RB Seasons." This will be tougher, of course, because at Football Outsiders we value consistent gains of 4-6 yards over boom-and-bust running backs (unless they are named "Sanders") and you can't really get a sense of that from historical stats. I'm hoping that each team's defensive or passing stats might hold a clue as to the way the running back was used.
Oh, and Tiki's season? I believe he passed Curtis Martin to set a new record for rushing yards by a running back age 30 or over. But beware: the age-related decline will inevitably come, and people will not be prepared for it. At least he has a career as a television host ahead of him. Or children's book author. Or perhaps Senator. Everyone loves him.
Matt 'Fire' Millen (Train Wreck in Allen Park): Is it possible for me to turn this thing around next year? What should I do?
Aaron Schatz: 1) Offensive line. 2) You have to get those first-round receivers to understand that they are in the NFL now and they are no longer BMOC, they need to practice hard and learn to block as well as defer to each other. 3) Offensive line. 4) A couple defensive positions could use some improvement, like defensive end. 5) Look, you either have to give Joey Harrington the entire season no matter how he plays, or get rid of him and decide on a quarterback. I would personally choose the latter. 6) I have a personal bias here, but one of the rumored candidates for the Detroit head coaching job happens to be our good friend Jim Schwartz. I don't know if he really is a candidate or if he is interested in the job but obviously we would like to see him hired as a head coach somewhere. If it was Detroit, Michael David Smith could finally be happy.
shamah (DC): OK with Shaun Alexander as the MVP?
Aaron Schatz: Sure. I would have voted for Brady, and I think Manning would have been a better candidate too, but all five of the guys who got votes had awesome offensive seasons for winning teams.
JoseQ (Reston, VA): Baseball Prospectus has developed a system for evaluating Japanese or Mexican league performance. Are you able to do the same when you look at young players from Division I-AA or lower schools? Is there enough reliable information from that level of college football?
Aaron Schatz: Oh, dude, there isn't even yet enough reliable information from Division I-A football. I would love to work on a system that can try to predict NFL success from college stats but first we have to breakdown college stats and then figure out the differences between various conferences and their styles of play. It's years away.
ChuckR (Addison, IL): Is Joe Horn done or was his season a product of injuries and the unique New Orleans situation? Does Aaron Brooks have a chance to succeed again either in NO or elsewhere?
Aaron Schatz: I just ran the two-year similarity scores on Horn and you get a mix of guys who had one more great year, like Art Monk, and guys who were basically done, like Steve Largent, Andre Rison, and Mark Clayton. I would lean towards the second, mostly because Horn's 2004 numbers were themselves a huge increase from his 2003 numbers. It looked like his decline had started in 2003.
As for Aaron Brooks, no, I think the rest of his career he will be a backup quarterback. He just has too many bad habits like the constant 47-step drops. He makes a good choice for a team with a mobile quarterback, because they wouldn't need to change the game plan in case of an injury to the starter. He'd be perfect behind his cousin in Atlanta if they wanted to flip Matt Schaub for draft picks.
BryanM (Toronto): What do you think of the Eagles chances for next season? Assuming relatively good health (a huge assumption for any team) and a decent offseason (reasonable replacement for TO, etc.), I think that they will be set for a big bounce back next year.
Aaron Schatz: Lightning round! Agreed. The 2002 Giants, 2003 Rams, and 2005 Panthers all made the playoffs the year after the "Super Bowl Losers curse."
shamah (DC): Who do you expect the Jets qb to be next year?
Aaron Schatz: Golly, who's available? Maybe a mix of Chad Pennington and Kerry Collins.
Ryguy86 (NY): Has there been a dumber draft trade than a first round pick for Doug Jolley?
Aaron Schatz: Oh, I'm sure we can find one, but not recently.
Greg (Boulder, CO): Great stuff, Aaron. The book and web site are fantastic. How did the relationship with Fox Sports come about, and is it going to continue? Then again, after having to write 500 team blurbs in the weekly rankings, do you want it to continue?
Aaron Schatz: People don't understand how hard it is to write something about every team every week, and I admit there were a couple mailed-in comments each week (the Rams this week, for example) but overall the relationship with FOX has been a great experience for all of us and I definitely expect it to continue next season. They are very hands-off and allow us to be as controversial and anti-conventional wisdom as we want, and they even let me stick in obscure references like my Bobby Engram/Scientology joke. Our material will also be appearing there during the off-season. As for how it came about, they just contacted me, they wanted content and they wanted something distinctive.
Arathorn (near Chicago): True importance of the kicking game? Overrated or underrated?
Aaron Schatz: Field goals overrated, kickoffs underrated.
Andy (Wheaton, IL): Is there any parallel at all between early Tom Brady and 2005 Kyle Orton? Both are talked about as game managers since their teams are winning, but I wanted to know what the numbers say. Sure, Orton is awful, but is the comparison apt at all?
Aaron Schatz: Oh, dear god no. Brady was a league-average quarterback and Orton was horrible.
shamah (DC): It's official: Herm Edwards to the Chiefs for a fourth rounder. Instant reaction?
Aaron Schatz: I don't get it. I actually don't think Herm Edwards is a bad coach -- I know a lot of Jets fans just hate him -- but still, there are so many good candidates among assistant coaches, why not explore one of them, whether it is Jim Schwartz or Mike Singletary or Tim Lewis or any number of guys.
Ari (New York, NY): ok, on the spot, who will hoist the Lombardi trophy this year?
Aaron Schatz: Indianapolis is the best team this year.
Gort (NYC): Most hopeless organization in the NFL? Is there a Devil Ray equivalent?
Aaron Schatz: Arizona
Greg (Boulder, CO): What should the Texans do with the first pick?
Aaron Schatz: Tim Gerheim is writing something about this as we speak.
TomH (Lexington Park MD): Whole Lotta Skins fans near me. Many convinced that the Skins hot finish will bring further success. General Q: In rating teams going forward, how much more (if any) are the most recent half or quarter-season games worth versus the whole year performance?
Aaron Schatz: Some. More on defense than offense, according to my research.
Geoff (NoVa): Kyle Orton in 2008: backup, starter or out of football?
Aaron Schatz: Backup.
Wyrm22 (Washington DC): Despite living in DC, I'm actually a Seahawk fan. Which possible opponent to do think Seattle matches up best with in the first round (NY, WASH, or Carolina)?
Aaron Schatz: Carolina. They only have one receiver, so the Seattle secondary is less of an issue, and I think that Dallas showed you can run on them if you go at Carstens, and Engram and Jurivicius (which I probably spelled wrong) are perfect to attack Carolina's weakness against short passes. Jerramy Stevens too.
Todd S. (Indy): Aaron, great work on FO this year. My question has to do with the Kansas City Chiefs. PFP 2005 predicted a significant decline for the KC offense. However, while Tony Gonzalez did his part, the rest of the offense seemed to play well, and the team ended up quite high in your rankings. Is this a result of the defense playing above expectations? Did the team have fewer injuries than expected? Or did something else help KC overcome the expected decline?
Aaron Schatz: Last one. Fewer injuries than expected, the one big injury was to the one player with a legit backup, Priest Holmes. Otherwise, only Roaf missed time. The defense definitely played above expectations, the pass defense improved (well, on whatever side had Surtain) and the run defense improved, unless a guy got into the secondary (see: Tiki Barber). This was their shot and they missed it and they'll be a year older next year. Not so optimistic.
Aaron Schatz: Thanks everyone, this has been great, I'll see about doing one more chat, maybe about the off-season, before baseball gets underway and I go into hibernation. Please check us out at footballoutsiders.com and foxsports.com and look for the playoff previews up later today. And buy Pro Football Prospectus 2006, available for pre-order at Amazon now. Adios!