The Football Outsiders On The Lions

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I received my Football Outsiders 2009 Almanac today, and even as I type I have it clutched in my greazy fingers. This is my annual 'little kid' experience - well semi-annual, along with draft weekend. The Outsiders really appeal to my interests in trend analysis and 'Moneyball' concepts. So I guess their work isn't for everyone, but it certainly is for me. Normally when I get books and magazines I employ a certain level of discipline, starting at page 1 and reading every article before getting to my favorite teams and players. Occasionally I will skip those pages entirely, saving them for last. In this case though, my first thought was to blog it up, so in a sense of true altruism I forewent my typical custom and dove right into the Lion pages. Bill Barnwell, another Lion slappy penned the Lion section and the quotes are from him. Without revealing everything, Barnwell discusses four topics in the main narrative; 0-16, Jim Schwartz, player turnover, and Matt Stafford.

While they had the worst record in NFL history, they weren't the worst team. They had the second-worst DVOA of any team in the 15 seasons for which we've calculated DVOA, but they don't come close to the 2005 49ers ... since the merger in 1970 there have been 32 teams whose Pythagorean winning percentage ... was below that of last year's Lions - including last year's Rams.
This sort of touches on something we all knew anyway, it is really hard to go 0-16. Even with a dysfunctional talentless team it very difficult not to luck into at least one win. Pythagorean projections (based on points scored/allowed) put them as a roughly average 'worst team in the league' over the last 40 years. It was just bad luck that kept them from the win column. On Schwartz:
Schwartz knows that a team's performance on third down has a disproportionate impact on their success relative to how they do on first and second down [so practices will concentrate on third down conversions, and stopping the same] ... Schwartz's decision-making will be equally affected, though, by his experiences as a pro coach. As he initially struggled with rebuilding the Tennessee defense, Schwartz realized that all the scheming and analysis in the world was useless if it didn't fit the personnel he had in front of him [go figure!]. As a result, he began to construct his defenses with the primary goal of fitting the personnel he had in place.
Golly, play to your strengths, disguise your weaknesses. Don't make square Lenons fit round holes. Hardly revolutionary but something that was desperately lacking on offense throughout the West Coast days and then on defense in the Marinelli era. Barnwell also notes that last year Tennessee primarily ran Cover-2, which played to the coverage strengths of their linebackers. As for the Stafford comments I'll leave them to anyone who wants to purchase the Almanac. As expected, he doesn't project very well as a pro quarterback but perhaps he can defy projections. So far he appears to be off to a good start. Looking at some of the Lion stats from last year I'll try to extract the wheat from the chaff. The Outsiders acknowledge the limitations of their methods, and really of any statistical discussion of team sport, but perhaps football most of all.
Football is a game in which nearly every action requires the work of two or more teammates - in fact, usually 11 teammates all working in unison. Unfortunately, when it comes to individual player ratings. we are still far from the point at which we can determine the value of a player independent from the performance of his teammates.
For example Calvin Johnson had a DYAR of 256 which is respectable, but also in the range of Steve Breaston and Derrick Mason, whereas the best receivers in the league were close to double that. The rating is understandable, Calvin was targeted 150 times with 79 catches, by contrast Larry Fitzgerald was also targeted ~ 150 times but with 96 receptions for nearly as many Y/C. Context is everything though, Arizona had Kurt Warner throwing to Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston. Detroit had 300 pound quarterbacks fresh from Safeway throwing to Calvin and Keary Colbert.

But anyhoo, a few of the more interesting numbers that should have some significance in '09. The '08 offensive line was surprisingly effective at run blocking. Some of this is due to opponents playing prevent for huge chunks of their contests, but not all. The overall running numbers were very poor, however Detroit finished 9th in the NFL in Power situations (3rd, 4th, goal-line). Looking at the Y/C #s, blocking was increasingly effective going left to right, with Detroit rushers averaging just over 2 Y/C going outside LT while averaging 4.2 going over RT and 4.7 going off the RE. Adding Pettigrew to the blocking mix on the right side makes for a very promising weapon, assuming Cherilus and Peterman can maintain last year's production.

The defensive line also had some surprising production. Both Jared DeVries and Chuck Darby finished in the top 20 in Stop % at their respective positions. DeVries was surprisingly effective as a pass rusher as well, with 3 hits and 10 hurries to go with his 2 sacks. By comparison Dewayne White had 3 hits and 4 hurries.

Finally, while the defensive secondary was a mess, as we all know, there was one rather bright spot, Kalvin Pearson. Pearson finished 10th in the NFL versus the run and 24th versus the pass. The rest of the secondary finished in the 60s and beyond in just about every category. No other db finished in the top 30 in either spot.

Okay, so it's just numbers, and maybe they only really appeal to geeks like me, but in some sense they pass the sniff test. Pearson did appear to be effective in spots last year, even while the rest of the defense flailed. DeVries was steady. Once the offensive line got aligned it was fairly effective at run blocking. The team has a way to go, clearly. The cornerbacks are still awful, the offensive line won't get fixed in a single year, the linebacking may have been fixed a little but it is patchwork, we can't expect either Peterson or Foote to remain effective for long, if they even stay past '09. But even so, maybe the light at the end of this tunnel isn't a train.

Discuss it Here, in The Den