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Pats Pulpit interviews Football Outsiders

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If you're a football geek like me, you love stats.  And if you love stats, you know about Football Outsiders.  If I'm a five on a scale of 10 for geekiness, these guys are off the charts and have the math chops to back it up.  Everything they write is with an eye towards objectivity and is very informative.  Good stuff all around.

I had a chance to pour over the Football Outsiders Almanac, a comprehensive compilation of statistics and predictions for all 32 NFL teams.  It's brain food for football geeks and I love reading it.  As part of SB Nation's connection to Football Outsiders, us bloggers had a chance to interview the authors of our respective sections in Football Outsiders Almanac.  This was cool, so without further delay, interview after the jump.

 

The Patriots section of the Almanac discussed Cassel's 47 sacks having less to do with the offensive line and more to do with Cassel's pocket presence (or lack thereof).  To my eye, one of the keys to pocket presence is the ability to move "up" in the pocket and not get flustered, thus moving sideways.  Is this what you observed?

Absolutely, and of course, few are better at this than Brady. He is so good at deflecting the side-to-side rush by stepping up and throwing, and it was a bit of a shock early in the season to see Cassel bumbling around in the pocket. He would hold the ball too long, step into pressure - it was ugly. But like the offense overall, Cassel's ability to use his own individual abilities increased exponentially in the second half of the season. New England's Adjusted Sack Rate, our stat which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent) plummeted from 13.5 percent in the first six games to 5.7 percent through the remainder of the season. The Patriots used the shotgun, yards after catch, and more receiver screens than any other team in the NFL to play to Cassel's strengths. The big rainbows to Moss were out of the question - the Cassel Pats were one of the least efficient teams on deep throws - but Cassel turned out to be great at sideline stuff in the end zone. In the second half of the season, the Pats had the highest Offensive DVOA in the NFL - a better DVOA than in the last eight games of the 2007 season. This is a testament to Cassel's growth as a player, and the team's ability to rebuild the offense around him.

Still, we can't blame the sacks on Cassel alone. New England ranked third-worst last year in percentage of blown blocks by their linemen (only Cincinnati and San Francisco were worse), and that must improve if Brady's going to stay upright and healthy all season.

The Almanac mentions that the Patriots have one of the easiest schedules for 2009, but that's based on your poor predictions of the other AFC East teams.  Do you feel your system of predictions is a better indicator of the widely used Strength of Schedule which puts the Patriots at the number three spot for tough schedules?

Aaron Schatz, our Big Kahuna, actually ran some numbers on this. Over the last five seasons, the correlation (relationship of two variables based on a zero-to-one scale, with zero indicating no relationship and one representing an absolute indicator) of the traditional strength-of-schedule and actual wins the following season is .22. The correlation of strength of schedule based on DVOA projections to projected schedule based on DVOA is .72. The reason the DVOA projections are on the right edge of the curve is that DVOA projections are based far more on how good teams actually are, not on how many games they win and lose. The goal with our stats is to reduce the element of luck and magnify the role of efficiency in wins and win projections. For example, DVOA takes into account that every AFC East team had ridiculously easy schedules the year before, whereas simple strength of schedule doesn't adjust for that at all. To that system going into 2009, there's no difference between the 11-5 Dolphins and the 11-5 Ravens, despite the fact that Baltimore had a much harder schedule the year before.

Based on the current 2009 schedule, which team(s) do you see giving the Patriots the most trouble?

Not many! As you intimated, we have the Patriots with the lowest Projected Average Opponent DVOA in the league (-6.6 percent DVOA, which means that New England's entire schedule is below league average). I would say that any team with a power running game could give New England fits - last year, the defense had issues keeping stacked lines and blast runs from succeeding, though adding Ron Brace to the lineup may help that. That's Baltimore and Carolina, who love to overload the line one way or another and beat your brains in. Now that the Dolphins have Pat White, and will look to add an aerial component to the Wildcat, I'll be interested to see how (or if) the Pats can stop it.

Spygate was one of the most controversial happenings of the 2007 season, and it still is today.  Is it possible to prove or disprove, given all the data you guys have crunched over the years, the affect of video taping defensive signals?

There's no empirical data - nothing that says, "Tape this walkthrough or that practice, and your advantage will be this or that." You can assume that it helped the dynasty to a point, but the Patriots put together the best offensive season in NFL history after they were caught. If we did have any data, that'd skew the heck out of it. I liken Spygate to two different sports scandals. First, there's the steroid issue in baseball - we know that certain individuals gained illegal advantages based on bylaws put in place after the horse was out of the barn, but we don't really know who, and when, and for how long. The sport's governing body decided to seal or destroy the evidence (we're betting baseball wishes it had torched the list at this point), and there has been much more speculation than actual evidence. We know they did something, because the NFL isn't going to fine a coach half a million dollars and take a first-round draft pick for nothing. But we don't really know what, and I think the aftereffects of Spygate are murkier than anyone would like. Now, it's just a bunch of replies on message boards: "tHE cheeatriotz cheeted - JETS Ro0L!"

The other scandal I'd compare it to is the Paul Horning/Alex Karras gambling story of the early 1960s. My suspicion is that there were many more players (and probably owners) betting on things they should not have, and those two guys got caught. Similarly, I have very little doubt that other coaches and teams have taped things they should not have. Not to minimize what the Pats did, because I have no rooting interest in the team and they did break the rules, but anyone who believes that New England was the only team doing that is most likely holding on to a very naïve notion.

The Patriots put a significant amount of importance on shoring up their defense this year through free agency and the draft.  The Patriots have been known to be active in free agency, but in your opinion, does NE have the right balance of FA (quick hits) and rookies (long term growth)?

The thread through the narrative in the Patriots chapter of the book boiled down to this: The Patriots didn't miss the playoffs because Matt Cassel was their quarterback. They missed the playoffs because their pass defense was atrocious. They actually gave up more big plays (receptions of 20 or more yards) than they created, a seeming impossibility after what we saw in 2007. But Belichick has never been shy or slow about improving what ails his team, and they really did go after it in the offseason.

I think there is a good mixture of youth and experience on the defense now. In past seasons, Belichick may have valued veterans to a fault, sticking with smart guys who had obvious physical limitations as opposed to developing more gifted players over time. Now, guys like Tedy Bruschi and the newly acquired Shawn Springs are the exceptions to the rule. The linebackers aren't ruled by the scrappy "try-hard" element - now that group is defined by Jerod Mayo and Adalius Thomas.

The secondary is what really interests me. I interviewed Darius Butler and Patrick Chung before the draft, and I think both players could make immediate impacts. Butler has near-elite close coverage ability and trail speed - I thought he was the best cover corner available in the draft. Chung is more a box guy; he'll be exposed in coverage, but he can do a lot of things in the back seven and there's no coaching staff in the league more in love with defensive versatility. As I concluded in the book, if the Patriots want to close out the decade with the Super Bowl win that would cement their status as the team of the new millennium (so far), defense will be the deciding factor. I like the mix in the abstract. Now, we get to see how it looks on the field.