NFL season is here and The annual Football Outsiders almanac available here for just $12.50 and in paperback here for $22.95 is pretty much the only book I read for football stuff. All of the writing is analytical, thought-provoking and written by people who are proficient with both advanced statistics and game tape. More than others on the internet the writers at Football Outsiders take in to account the context of every single play that happens in every meaningful NFL game every year. For example, They weigh a 7 yard run on 3’rd and 11 appropriately by comparing it to the average NFL play in the same situation for that season. They do a great job of identifying garbage time stats, the futility of the term “momentum” in football and the significant causation between a team that is winning comfortably and the ensuing success of their running game.
The writers at Football Outsiders truly respect their audience’s intelligence and have made football watching a far more fulfilling experience for me.
My hope is that those of you who don’t already follow and read Football Outsiders will do so. It is important for future fans of the game that there be fewer Phil Simms and Peter Kings and more Bill Barnwells. So here’s my one service announcement for the month – Please help and support intelligent internet writing by buying and enjoying the content produced by the fine folks at Football Outsiders.
For a taste of what you get when you download the annual Football Outsiders almanac, you can listen to my conversation with one of their writers – Rivers Mccown. Rivers Mccown is one of the many smart writers at Football Outsiders. Rivers is more bullish on the Packers this season than I am and that is one more reason why I am a huge fan of his work. He is also a very strong role model and someone who has withstood tremendous personal adversity (details in the first few minutes of our conversation) to survive and write in a smart and entertaining way on the internet. Rivers and I talk about his growth as a football writer, why he doesn’t think the Bulaga injury will affect the Packers as much as I think it will and why my thoughts on 2013 Packer regression to the mean may not be relevant.
My conversation can be downloaded as a podcast by searching for the “No Sacred Cows’ podcast on your podcast app or from here on Itunes or here on Libsyn. The entire conversation is also transcribed here below –
Please do read/listen and let me know what you think of both the conversation and the Packers 2013 season? And once again please support the folks at Football Outsiders any which way you can!
Interview with Rivers McCown
SHYAM: Hey, is this Rivers?
SHYAM: Hey, can you hear me okay? This is Shyam.
RIVERS: Yeah, I can hear you.
SHYAM: Hey. Thanks for doing this. I appreciate it very much.
SHYAM: Yeah, I’m a huge Packers fan; originally from India. I have a lot of Packer fans who read my blog and a lot of Indian football fans who read my blog and I’ve been reading Football Outsiders since ’06 I think. And I get an excitement and anticipation for the days before your almanac comes out. And when I see the tweet from Aaron Schatz that says it’s available, I buy it as soon as it comes up and then go to the Packers chapter. I always look at the playoff odds and the mean win prediction you guys do because I almost assume that these are going to play out the way you guys call it. I have a lot of faith in your numbers, so to actually to be able to speak to you I’m very honored and thank you for doing this.
RIVERS: Well, we appreciate your patronage.
SHYAM: So, I had five questions, one of which is modified a little bit because of what happened to Bulaga. But I’ll start off by asking you to introduce yourself a little bit to the blog’s audience and how you started writing for Football Outsiders.
RIVERS: Well, I’m a fan. I used to write for SB Nation; they had a Houston website that I ran and edited for about four or five months and got lucky enough to get picked up by Aaron. I think the big factor in that was that I was a game charter for about three or four years. I guess, I guess like the back story of writing isn’t really very interesting. The back story of Football Outsiders in this thing is that at the time I was trying to get the Football Outsiders job, it was basically my last chance to do anything before I was going to have to, you know, give in and get a retail job or get a Starbucks job or something like that because my parents had both passed away in the past two years before that and I was basically living on my own, and it was a dream come true for me to write for Football Outsiders because like you I’ve been with them, you know, reading their stuff since 2006, since 2004, I had one of the first pro football prospectuses copies in 2003 I think it was. And I always enjoyed their writing and it just all – everything kind of came together at that moment and couldn’t be happier that it worked out the way it did.
SHYAM: Sorry to hear about losing your parents. How many years has it been since you lost both of them?
RIVERS: 2011, so it’s about, it was in January so that was about two-and-a-half years. So then my father was a year before that.
SHYAM: Yikes. Still very fresh I imagine. Sorry about that.
RIVERS: Yeah. Yeah, it’s really, it’s pretty crazy to think about how far we’ve come so.
SHYAM: Well, I’m glad Aaron gave you a chance. You’re not only are you analytical like most Football Outsiders writers, you also write really well. I don’t want to, you know, start reading things you wrote because I want people to go in and buy the PDF or buy the book, but there is a premise on which your entire Packers chapter, which is very interesting and very compelling for any Packer fan who whines. So really well done on that.
RIVERS: Well, it’s kind of a manifestation of just everything I think about when…’cause you know, I like for that to make sometime so the Texan side had a weblog I think and you know, I would spend a lot of time on there and 90% of the comments are just whining and whining about counter-whining and, well, I’m like, this is football, this is supposed to be fun. This is supposed to be something you can lose yourself in and enjoy and it’s supposed to be entertainment. And just spending all your time just worrying and tearing your hair over like the offensive line of the Packers or what the Texans have become, is *** the best quarterback to lead the team and the blah blah blah. No. It’s, if it’s not fun then don’t do it.
SHYAM: Yeah. I’m very familiar with DVOA, Rivers, but I’m not sure everyone is. Can you give a brief intro, like a 30-60 second spiel on what DVOA is. DVOA is the most fundamental method that Football Outsiders uses to base all of their analysis and predictions on. But can you, in your own intelligent voice, give a better intro of the metrics than I just did?
RIVERS: Well, the basic off the cup premise of DVOA is that every play in football has a certain value that you need to get to be successful. Like on first down I think we’ve set it at 40%, and at second down it’s 50% of the yards that you need to get another first down to call successful, and then on third and fourth down of course it’s 100%. So basically every step that we run off DVOA, like VR and that stuff, is just based on what happens on the field, how successful teams are, numerically speaking, and we try to put that into a nice, handy percentage of how much better they are from the average, once it’s adjusted for defenses and schedule, things like that.
SHYAM: Thank you. So that leads me into the Packers chapter in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 where you’re projecting, your mean projection says the Packers will win over 10 games and one of the things that surprised me is how bullish your numbers are. I understand these are numbers and I don’t question anything any of the math behind them, but subjectively, just after you write down what the metrics and writing the chapter, did you feel you were a little too bullish? Because, like you mention in the chapter, it’s very rare for a team to finish in the top five in DVOA for four consecutive seasons like the Packers have the last four years, leave alone five consecutive seasons. Any reason why those streaks have been rare? Have you put some thought into that or any analysis behind that?
RIVERS: Well, I think when you get a streak that goes that long, it’s very easy for the system itself to, I don’t want to say fall in love with their team, but you know it’s making sense. Green Bay is a very stable situation and that’s something that DVOA is a big fan of that projects systems looking at Aaron Rodgers being there again for another year, getting back for another year. The parts that get talked out in Green Bay are parts that aren’t really that necessary to a big team anymore. And you know, Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings would be big losses but they were big losses last season. That’s the fact of the matter. They were already lost. So, you know, they’re big names, but as far as predicting future performance, not really that important. As far as how they stack up to teams that have streaks like that; once you get a streak going like that, it usually takes a little more than just bad luck to unfold it. Like with the Patriots, one of the teams that you asked about four-year streak instead of five, the Patriots have actually been I think a top five DVOA team for like eight of the last nine seasons but the reason that they won in 2008 was that Tom Brady you know, lost a whole season to injury basically when Bernard Pollard hit him in the knee. And Cassel who nobody even considered was a great quarterback at this point. Even then, you know, he wasn’t even considered a top prospect, he was an okay guy. And they plucked him in and they still went 10-6, almost made the playoffs. So I guess, statistically speaking, it’s hard for us to really be down on the Packers at all and looking at teams in their situation, even when bad luck befalls them, they still usually tend to do really well.
SHYAM: Gotcha. Can you talk a little bit about their metric adjusted games lost? The fact that the Packers lost a lot of games from their starters last year is one reason why I think their system likes them to have a little bit of a bounce back as far as number of players injured goes. Can you talk a little bit about this metric and whether it is kind of true that teams that lose more than the average number of players one year tend to lose less the next year? Or am I misinterpreting what that metric really means?
RIVERS: Well, just the games lost developed by Bill Barnwell, basically we’re looking at not just the games that have lost but games that are half lost, which is, you know, things we have quantified including when players were probable, doubtful or questionable. You know, it’s just an overall measure to try and figure out how injured a team was. With the Packers last season, you had, you know, Brad Jones was their maybe fourth linebacker coming into the camp and they lost Bishop they lost, somewhere I’m forgetting off the top of my head, but you know he ended up starting at the end of the season. He did so well that, you know, they ended up giving him a big contract after they, after *** started. So not only –
SHYAM: Who are you talking about? Erik Walden?
RIVERS: No, he was outside.
RIVERS: I was talking about inside. But basically, we’ve measured you know, ever since two thousand whatever it is we have the data for now, and the Packers are one of the six teams that were most injured of all time in our database. So analytically speaking we did a study on that in the chapter and looked at, you know, the most – the hundred loss, a hundred lost games and they tend to bounce back to about 60 or 70 next year. The Packers are kind of unique in that with Ted Thompson at the helm, they don’t really have to worry so much about losing players because they had kept the stockpile of young talent that is really the envy of a lot of games. Especially positions like quarterback and wide receiver. But, you know – the one reason we’re really optimistic about them is because we like that to bounce back to a normal level and want their defense to shoot up the rankings because of that.
SHYAM: Great. One last question for you, Rivers, offensive line, I know you’re not a big fan of Packer fans *** about offensive line, but I cannot, I cannot not ask you after their planned left tackle for this season and the future is out for the season. Any initial or early talks on the impact this will have to your numbers and predictions?
RIVERS: Well, you know, you look at last season, Jennings wasn’t healthy, you know, he had probably like four or five games I think. Left tackle was a sieve last season. I I know this is kind of blasphemy and one of the reasons we had to kind of cut this out of the book is because I like Bakhthiari. But I really liked David Bakhthiari coming out of Colorado. I thought he had a – I thought he had a good chance to be a starting left tackle in the league. I didn’t think it would happen this season and, you know, obviously, not come right away but I think he has a chance whereas, you know, a lot of, you know, just based on your generic fourth round tackle prospects, I don’t think most of those guys would, you know, be a rather right tackle. You know, I think there are guys who are athletic enough to play left tackle in the league and I think David has a chance of that. So that’s the reason it does it for me. You know, obviously left tackle it is a big deal. It does lower, I guess you would say, the ceiling of the predictions because part of the reason we were bullish on them debating this is because, you know, theoretically gave more protection on the blind side. So I, it’s not a deal that, you know, it’s not going to wreck their season or anything.
SHYAM: Any numbers that show either left tackle’s or o-line’s impact on the running game? I imagine they’re going to try and use their rookie running backs more at least early on. Anything you can share on that front?
RIVERS: Actually, I wrote on ESPN insider page about three or four weeks ago and, even back in 2008 when the running game was better, with, you know, still kind of in his prime, the Packers didn’t run any, you know, run that much more often at all. It was, you know, there were a consistent stream of like a thousand to eleven hundred rushes a season, now that I think about it. But yeah, it’s, you know, they’re not going to change their game plan too much. As far as run blocking, you know, I think he’s much better than, you know, Don Barclay. I think David’s got the agility and the movement to be able to really catch someone off the outside. The power, I think he might even get that one. So I think he might struggle a little bit.
SHYAM: Okay. I’m also glad you pronounced the word sieve as sieve. I think too many people call it sieve and I don’t know where that came from, but I’m glad you said sieve.
RIVERS: (Laughs) Well, as a creative writer it’ll bug me if I did not. (Laughs)
SHYAM: Hey Rivers. Thanks for making time for this. Once again, I cannot recommend this highly enough. If you consider yourself – if you’re listening to this or reading the transcript of this and you consider yourself intelligent and you watch football, please please buy the Football Outsider Almanac 2013 edited by Aaron Schatz and features the Green Bay Packers chapter written by Rivers McCown. Rivers, how can people find you on Twitter?
RIVERS: fo_riversmccown is the account. And @fboutsiders .
SHYAM: And McCown has two Cs after the M, correct?
SHYAM: Okay. Thank you again for doing this. I really appreciate what you do. It’s very educational. Makes me so much smarter and I look forward to reading this Almanac and your content for many many years to come. Thanks Rivers. Have a good one.
RIVERS: Great. Thanks for having me.
[END OF INTERVIEW]