Talking NFL With Football Outsiders' Rivers McCown

Talking NFL With Football Outsiders' Rivers McCown
  • Two of my favorite passions are the NFL and people with vision. Which is why I'm really pumped for my next guest: Rivers McCown from Football Outsiders. The Football Outsiders were pioneers of applying metrics to better understand the NFL. Every year, they publish the "Football Outsiders Almanc" a must read for hardcore NFL fans and stat heads. The 2013 Almanac hits the e-commerce shelf on July 15th and will soon be available for order on the Football Outsiders site.


    Rivers, welcome to the "show." Is working at Football Outsiders as fun as I imagine it to be? Just so you know, I'm picturing something like the SNL writers room just with more All-22 film.
  • Haha, there is no actual office or anything like that, which is a bit jarring for family members of an older age to learn about -- they still wonder if it's a scam. I have been to and inside of Aaron Schatz's house, though. It's a pretty nice place. But yeah, a lot of the atmosphere you ascribe to it is kind of muted because so much of the staff exchange is just in e-mails.

    Look, obviously I'm deeply passionate about what we do at Football Outsiders. I enjoy it a great deal. At the same time, there is an actual job aspect to it that I think we all sort of forget about when evaluating other people's lives. You haven't lived the true life of an FO editor until it's 1:30 a.m. and you're editing your sixth or seventh in-season piece of the day. But at the same time, there are definitely more moments where I get to step back from my job and really dwell on how awesome it is. Where I get to think "well, I was in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today, that's pretty awesome." It's much more exciting than working at the cracker factory, anyway.
  • I'm going to pretend I didn't read that, because I like to imagine Bill Barnwell coming out of the mini-kitchen yelling "Who ate my ham sandwich?"

    Still, that's got to be a pretty fun email chain to be on right?
  • Well, it is when we're not devoting our lives to putting out a new book. Right now it's very devoted to discussing particular projections, or how we wanted the cover to look, or which players we think will lose playing time in nickel substitution patterns. They can get off-topic and irreverent at times, but we're all very focused on getting this thing out and making it as great as it can be.

    Bill Barnwell, of course, doesn't just eat ham sandwiches anymore. After living in Vegas he's a bit weirded out by food presented outside of the context of a buffet.
  • There is something of a Football Outsiders coaching tree -- obviously people like Barnwell/Schatz have gained even more notoriety at Grantland/ESPN. I know that front offices are reading the Almanac, but are you aware of any FO alumni who have gone to work in house for an NFL front office?
  • Not yet. I do know several that have interviewed with an NFL team, including one who did so very recently. David Lewin, who developed the original Lewin Quarterback Projection System for FO, worked with the Cleveland Cavaliers at one point, and I believe he's now with the Celtics.

    Personally, I'm holding out for my chance to become a mediocre backup NFL quarterback. I'm only 28. Those other McCowns can't stay on rosters forever.
  • HA!

    In your estimation -- and I know this is tough -- what percentage of teams now believe they can gain a significant advantage by breaking football down by metrics?

  • I mean look, everyone in every front office is working with metrics to some extent. It's all just a matter of what they are trying to use it to inform. For instance, I would say that the Texans are very "old school" and reliant on scouting more than anything, but they also tend to use a lot of picks around the middle of the draft on guys with size/speed combinations that can't be taught. I'd bet a large percentage of my paycheck that they have an in-house metric that measures various combine drills to see which player's times and measurements are the most impressive.

    I do think it has a lower foothold in football than it does in baseball and basketball because baseball and basketball don't have as many players or as many additional pieces of context to consider. Take the Eagles. (Especially Nnamdi Asomugha, Eagles fans love to give him away.) It's much harder for a statistical projection system with a certain number of inputs to stab at exactly what the empirical difference will be between Chip Kelly's system and Andy Reid's system. I know some fantasy experts are sky-high on LeSean McCoy this season because of Kelly's offense: That's not something a projection system is really going to capture well on its own.

    (Speaking of projection systems, we just released KUBIAK 2013, our fantasy projection system, on the site today. Pick yours up -- it is constantly updated, so don't worry about the date -- for the low price of $20! http://www.footballoutsider...)
  • Cool.

    This is the first full season with widespread availability of All-22 film. How, if at all, has that shaped the analysis in the this year's almanac?
  • From a scouting perspective, it changes everything. Ben Muth, who writes offensive line breakdowns for our site weekly during the season, commented that the views immensely helped him in figuring out line exchanges and patterns.

    Personally, when I watch games again, I don't even watch the regular camera angles anymore. I don't think I am anywhere near the X's and O's guy that some of our staff is, but it helps me immensely when it comes to trying to single someone out. Especially receivers and cornerbacks on plays they aren't "involved" in.
  • My favorite part of All-22 is that I use my smart phone to record myself breaking down film in a Ron Jaworski voice. It's about as entertaining as the George Michael Star Wars routine on Arrested Development.

    Okay, help me with some numbers here (without giving away too many spoilers). What do the numbers say on Kareem Jackson? Probowl caliber defensive back or lucky season? I couldn't believe how well he played (and consistently) last season. Even when he was beat, he rarely looked out of position, which is about all you can ask of a corner back these days.
  • Kareem Jackson's Adjusted Success Rate last year was 59%, which sandwiched him between Champ Bailey and Patrick Peterson for 12th place in the NFL. Yards per pass allowed and YAC were less kind, but still placed him in the top half of the NFL.

    Honestly, that was one of the goofiest things to watch last season as a fan. How many players go from completely overmatched as rookies to good starters with playing time and coaching? The Texans have two in Duane Brown and Kareem Jackson. I've got to think it's pretty rare to get that kind of improvement, though I haven't necessarily run a study on it or anything.

    As someone who believes in statistical models, I think the odds are that Jackson is going to regress and just be more of a solid cornerback next season. I just don't think he has elite physical tools. But cornerbacks have bucked that trend before. Chris Houston has consistently been good by our charting stats after a rocky start in Atlanta. There's no particular reason Jackson can't do that.

    Have I mentioned how bizarre it is to be talking about this after watching Kareem Jackson turn Seyi Ajirotutu into a fantasy football waiver wire gem all by himself in 2010? It is really bizarre.
  • The Ajirotutu (sp?) game gave me PTSD (Post Texans Stress Syndrome) for the entire 2011 summer.

    A number of stat heads were singing hosannas to JJ Watt last year. Did he break the scale at Football Outsiders as well and are we going to see a regression in 2013?
  • While it's accurate to say that he broke the scale, I think it's more aesthetically pleasing to think of him just batting the scale down at the line, then shaking his finger at it.

    We keep a stat called "Defeats" which is a numeric count of:
    Turnovers (or tipped passes that lead to turnovers)
    Tackles for a loss
    Tackles or passes defensed that prevent conversion on third or fourth down

    Watt had 56 defeats. We have kept this stat since the mid-90's, and the old leader, Ray Lewis in 1999, had 45 defeats. That's an obliteration of the old record.

    And here's a plug for a post I'm hoping to have up some time in the next two weeks. Watt tipped 17 balls at the line last season. We've only tracked this for five years in the charting project, but only two players have had more than 17 tipped balls from 2008-2012 COMBINED.

    So look, does every statistical indicator say he should regress? Of course. Do I think it's kind of silly that people think he could actually improve, or that they bring up his age and shoulder injury and think he could've done better? Yes.

    Am I more likely to believe he can beat regression because he is, historically speaking, a complete freak of nature? The answer is also yes.
  • Wasn't it an elbow injury? Yeah, agreed, though, that story is really just the Chronicle being the Chronicle.

    (Btw please feel free to post a link here when that's finished!)

    FO's -- and stat heads in general -- like to talk about the role that luck plays in football. Did any, not teams, but players stick out as being particularly lucky or unlucky last year?
  • I think the "luck" stat we have that best exemplifies pure player performance is Adjusted Interceptions. Quarterbacks throw a number of balls each year that are dropped by defenders, or the receiver tips the ball before it is picked off, or they just get an interception on the stat line on a Hail Mary that is very likely to get picked.

    By that line of thinking, Andrew Luck had a pretty ... fortunate season. His interception total was 18, and we had him with 30 adjusted interceptions. Of course, he was also throwing the ball deep on practically every down, so you have to factor that context into it. Brandon Weeden was second with 26. Of the guys that started often, Alex Smith had the fewest Adjusted Interceptions.
  • Poor Alex Smith. I hope Arizona doesn't pull him for fake- backup QB Charlie Brown.

    Will Andrew Luck be the most overpriced player at fantasy auctions this year or are you thinking that did someone else have particularly inflated numbers?
  • Actually, one of the KUBIAK projections I think people will be a little curious about is on Percy Harvin. We just don't forecast a lot of fantasy growth for the Seattle passing game in terms of volume, and Harvin is always a threat to miss games. We think he's a very good receiver, of course, but we're not forecasting him as a true WR1 for fantasy purposes.
  • OK. I wanna go a little off the board here. When the Football Outsider team is sitting around watching games, what coach frustrates them the most? What coach (not named Belichick) is most pleasing to the FO eye?
  • Recently, I think the frustrating coach has been Jim Schwartz. He's been a supporter of Football Outsiders for so many years. We've had his quote on the cover of the book a few times. Yet last year his conservative play-calling was just galling and antithetical to everything the statistical movement is actually about.

    Jim Harbaugh is probably the most beloved. Honestly, probably even above Belichick. Harbaugh's got a few very unique quirks, like basically redshirting his rookies and spending a lot of time in jumbo formations that aren't necessarily effective. Yet he gets the most out of his players, and he engineered a few Alex Smith seasons that nobody would have believed were there before Harbaugh arrived.
  • How about GM's or personnel people (Mike Lombardi can't make the list till next year btw)?
  • Well my answer to that is that, generally speaking, the general managers and personnel people that we talk to and like don't want to be identified. Hahah. Tony Kahn of the Jaguars has been great about that recently, though.

    On a personal level, I am a big fan of what John Schneider has done in Seattle. I am not the biggest fan of Tom Telesco's start out in San Diego.
  • My amateurish attempt at gotcha journalism has been foiled!

    Rivers, besides the Almanac, what other features should our readers know about that are going on in the Football Outsiders world? Feel free to include links.

    What's your most popular in-season feature?
  • Well we talked about KUBIAK, which came out today. http://www.footballoutsider...

    Our most popular in-season feature is definitely Word of Muth. You can read the archives of that here: http://www.footballoutsider...
    I'm also a big fan of Matt Waldman's Futures column, which investigates and evaluates college players on their tape. Archives of that are here: http://www.footballoutsider...

    The most popular offseason features have definitely been the projection systems for college players:
    SackSEER (defensive ends and pass-rushing outside linbackers): http://www.footballoutsider...
    Lewin Career Forecast (quarterbacks): http://www.footballoutsider...
    Playmaker Score (wideouts): http://www.footballoutsider...
  • I'm in a 14 team long-snapper league and i have the 5th pick this year (snake auction with actual snakes). Any suggestions as to whom I should grab? Trey Junket?
  • Andrew Economos seems like the value pick at that spot.
  • (Cackles)
  • Hey Rivers, question I've been talking bout with my NY friends this off-season, was Mark Sanchez any worse in 2013 than 2012 or were the results simply worse? Thanks.
  • Both. Sanchez played a little worse than he had in the past, and he also had less slack because the only skill position player that started more than eight games was Jeff Cumberland.

    That said, it's not like throwing Sanchez on the 1999 Rams was going to make him a star or anything. He has issues that can't be hidden over the course of a full season.
  • Jason Added by: Rivers McCown
    Which Pittsburgh Steeler has shown a greater drop-off statistically? Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Polamalu?
  • Polamalu. Roethlisberger has been about as effective as he's ever been when he's suited up.

    Meanwhile, we project the Steelers to finish with the second-worst fantasy defense this year.
  • One more from me btw -- have the advanced stats looked kindly at Mario Williams? I've always felt that he was able to fill a traditional stat line without really dominating.
  • Williams has always had a very good amount of hurries up until this year, so yeah, advanced stats were a fan. The big problem that detracts from Williams' value is his tendency to get dinged up and play through the pain though, and that's not something that advanced statistics would necessarily be helpful at picking up.
  • Raimy Added by: Rivers McCown
    I'd like to ask a follow-up question about the Steelers. Last season, Pittsburgh led the league in yards allowed through the air and was second in yards allowed on the ground. Only five teams gave up fewer points over the course of the season.

    That said, they forced an abysmal 20 TOs (10 INTs, 10 recovered fumbles).

    Going back to 2011, the numbers are remarkably similar: first in the league in points allowed, first in the league in passing defense and eighth against the run. Yet, they were dead last in turnovers with 15.

    My question is this: how much of this anomaly is by design? How much is flukey? And why do you see the trend of disappointing fantasy numbers continuing?
  • The "yards allowed" trap is tempting. But you need the proper context. All that really means is that teams are throwing the ball against the Steelers more often than they are running it, which often is an implication of the scoreboard first.

    I don't think any coach designs his scheme to get fewer turnovers. Pittsburgh just hasn't had appreciably good fumble luck on defense (53% recovery rate, 50% recovery rate) over the past few seasons. If you want to get tricky, you could try and pin the blame for that on what is a very old defense, but that's never been backed up in studies or anything.

    Also, Ike Taylor is regarded as a very good cornerback by both our charting and scouting columns, but he is the crown prince of dropped interceptions.