The 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac was released last week and, as is the case every year, it’s a must-read for fans of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL. Mike Tanier wrote the chapter previewing the Packers upcoming season and focused a good portion of his preview on GM Ted Thompson.
Adam Czech: Do you think Ted Thompson knows what DVOA is? If not, how do you think he would react after you explained it to him?
Mike Tanier: Thompson probably does not know what DVOA is. Every time we have spoken at length to a coach or GM about our methods, we have gotten reactions like this: “We do something similar, though the calculations are different, and it is based off our game film and internal methods.” The coach and GM know exactly what play was called and what each player’s assignment is, so they can analyze film in ways no one outside the organization can. One thing we always hear is that we are doing the right thing by making our stats situation-dependent: coaches want different things on 1st-and-10, 3rd-and-15, and 3rd-and-inches in the red zone, and DVOA reflects those differences.
AC: We’ve seen some major changes in the methods MLB and NBA GMs use to evaluate players and build teams over the last 10 years. Will Thompson’s team-building strategy — finding value players off the scrap heap that fit his coach’s system and provide depth — become the newest NFL team-building trend? Or have teams always been using the Thompson method, but we just haven’t noticed because a) Nobody is as good at the Thompson method as Thompson is or b) Few organizations have the patience to actually see if the Thompson method works?
MT: There is a team that does what Thompson does better than Thompson: the Steelers, who have followed a similar model for 20 years. The best organizations have done what Thompson does for many years. The Eagles do it to a degree, as do the Patriots, and once you get past Peyton Manning and the top five or six guys on the Colts roster there are lots of street free agents and castoffs.
The Steelers do something slightly different than the Packers, in that they are more likely to horde 6th-round picks on the bench for two years and develop them, while the Packers have been plucking guys off of other team’s practice squad. That practice squad market, the “reserve futures” market, is a bigger deal for some teams than others. One GM told me that he always preferred getting another team’s practice squad player to getting a rookie free agent or another 7th round pick: this guy, after all, went through some training camp and survived some cuts. I think a few teams will see what Thompson did and perhaps become more aware of reserve-futures. Remember: it is no substitute for drafting a franchise quarterback and a superstar pass rusher, just a supplement.
AC: Can statistical analysis help identify players like Frank Zombo, Sam Shields and Howard Green? Or will finding these types of depth players that fit a system always be more about good ‘ol fashion scouting and film study?
MT: At Football Outsiders, we have a system called SACKseer that can be used to identify collegiate pass rushers. The system is not perfect, and no statistical scouting tool ever will be, but it is designed to organize a defender’s college sack totals, experience, and Combine numbers into one number you can make sense out of. Identifying safeties, cornerbacks, and interior linemen will always be the realm of scouting informed by stats, not stats themselves. At some point, scouting and stats merge: if I want to create a stat for defensive tackles called “double teams fought off,” and I watch every game the tackle played in and count every double team that didn’t blow him back five yards, well, I am really scouting, aren’t I?
AC: Clay Matthews is the only returning player on the Packers front seven that had more than 6.5 QB hurries last season. Should the Packers be worried?
MT: To a degree. Jenkins was a loss. Remember that Matthews is a special, special player, and that because of injuries and rotating players, a lot of effective players did not produce huge numbers of sacks or hurries. The Packers are a team that can get seven hurries or sacks/hits from seven different players over the course of a game.
AC: The Packers have successfully used a no-huddle offense during each of their first three preseason games. Which is more important if a team wants to run the no-huddle: A talented and cohesive offensive line or a stud quarterback?
MT: The quarterback must be comfortable in the no-huddle. The no-huddle must be something that got the full attention of coaches and players in meetings, walkthroughs, and camp. The exact quality of the personnel matters about as much as it matters in any other element of the offense. When you see a team running a sloppy no-huddle, often it’s because it was implemented as something “off-to-the-side” in their offense.
AC: The Packers actual wins have been fewer than their Pythagorean Projection three years in a row. Why?
MT: The Packers had severe penalty problems in 2008 and 2009 as I recall, and they lost a bizarre number of games by close scores, usually at the end of the game. They often had problems icing wins: they didn’t run the ball very well, and opponents often got two or three possessions late in the fourth quarter. That being said, luck can play a huge part, because three years is just 48 games, which is really a small sample size. Flip a coin 48 times and you will probably not get 24 heads and 24 tails. We always research to see if we are over or under-valuing some specific part of football performance, but there are some things that are almost impossible to responsibly input into a statistical method, like most penalties, and other non-predictive stuff.
A big thanks to Mike Tanier for taking the time to answer these questions and provide some additional insight on the Packers. In addition to the Football Outsiders, Tanier writes for the New York Times Fifth Down Blog and is an excellent follow on Twitter.