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Aaron Schatz – Football Outsiders

October 13, 2011

Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders  (May 5, 2011)

First, can you tell readers about your site – your focus, how it got started and what readers should expect over the coming weeks/months?

Hey. We consider Football Outsiders to be the site for the intelligent football fan. (The place where nobody writes MY TEAM RULEZZZZZZ with six Z’s.)

It started with advanced statistics for the NFL, similar to what folks like Bill James and Baseball Prospectus had been doing for baseball, and that’s still the centerpiece of our work. However, we also do tape study, write humor and fantasy football columns, and last year we added a weekly column about offensive line technique. We also have been expanding our coverage of college football over the last couple years with new writers and new metrics. And of course we have discussion threads on all our articles, and they get pretty active and interesting. With, as noted earlier, a limited number of “Z’s.”

I got started as just a normal fan who just had some questions about the game, and I ended up putting together some numbers so I could answer them. Once I had some numbers, I created some new metrics and we ended up putting a website together.

We got lucky in the timing, because this was right after Michael Lewis had written Moneyball and everyone went out there on the Internet looking for “the Moneyball of ____.” If you looked for the Moneyball of football, there we were. Once we had been publicized to people, my readership grew and really good writers started coming out of the woodwork, guys who had been waiting years to write for a site like this.

Over the next few weeks or months, readers should expect… more of the same stuff they always love! I don’t really have anything fascinating and new to report. We’re mostly sitting around right now trying to figure out how on earth to write our usual preseason book when there hasn’t been any free agency yet.

We’ll still get Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 out there, we’re just not sure when.

By your metrics who would you have tagged – Lamarr Woodley or Ike Taylor. And why?

From a business point of view, I would have tagged Taylor, and here’s why: When it was time to lay out franchise tags, it seemed likely that there would be some kind of labor impasse. The most likely result of a labor impasse would be to continue the free agency rules of 2010 if there is some sort of court decision that ends the lockout and forces the owners to start the league year without a new CBA.

Lamarr Woodley has four years of experience, which means under those rules he would not need to be Franchised, he would be a restricted free agent. The same would be true if they had negotiated a new CBA and had the rules say that you needed either five or six years for unrestricted free agency.

However, if we were working under the old rules where you COULD get unrestricted free agency after four years, then I would have tagged Woodley. He’s younger and still may be growing as a player.

Taylor, on the other hand, isn’t getting any better. He’s a good cornerback, but not a great one. And when you play primarily zone coverage — the Steelers mostly play Cover-3 behind those blitzes they run — your pass rushers are more important than your cornerbacks. (At least, I think so; if you look at this year’s New England draft, Bill Belichick seems to disagree with me.)

Which teams have more success in the NFL over the past few years – teams that run much more than pass or vice-versa – and why?

Passing is more successful than rushing, period. You need to have some balance, of course… that keeps the defense on its toes, it allows for play-action, it lets you convert short yardage — but in general, passing is more efficient and the best teams are those that pass best and stop the pass best.

What’s the best indicator of a successful quarterback? Yards-per-attempt, completion rate ….another?

If you are talking about standard stats, the answer is net yards per attempt — passing yards minus sack yards, divided by sacks plus attempts. 
What’s most over-rated and overpaid position in NFL in your opinion – and why?

Oh, that’s easy, running back.

The last few years have shown that there are only a handful of running backs who excel to such a level that it is worth paying them big money, and even then, running backs wear out much faster than players at most other positions.  

The difference between a good running back and an average running back isn’t that wide, and the success of the running game has a lot to do with other players, the linemen, rather than the running backs. Look at how many teams have been able to put together successful backfields without spending a lot of money — the Patriots, the Packers, the Broncos for all those years.

Conversely. What’s most Under-rated and underpaid position?

I would say probably nickelback. Last year, teams actually used three or four wide receivers more often than they used two wide receivers. You really need to have three starting-quality cornerbacks in today’s game, and it is worth paying a third cornerback to get a good one.
In your estimation, how successful are pass defenses that rely on blitzing? Do pass blitzes create more positives than negatives throughout the course of a game for a defense?

Yes, I think so. I think the worst strategy is to spend a lot of time rushing four, to be honest. If I were a defensive coordinator, I would alternate blitzes with heavy coverage plays that rushed only three. 
How important is time of possession? Do teams that win the time of possession battle usually win more often than lose – and is that changing with NFL rules making it easier for pass-oriented offenses?

Honestly, it’s not that important. What’s important is to score more points, and to gain more yards which leads to advantageous field position which in turn usually leads to scoring more points.

If you convert first downs, you’ll hold on to the ball longer, so of course a team which converts a lot of first downs will have good time of possession. But what’s important there isn’t the actual time of possession, it’s the process of converting first downs and getting four more opportunities to advance the ball and try to score.

How important is it really for teams to have big plays (40 yard or more gains) in games? Are big plays as important for example as turnovers or do teams win consistently without them?

To be honest, big plays are similar to turnovers in that both are examples of plays that are highly random even though there is some skill involved and talented teams will generally have more than less talented teams. You can win consistently without big plays if you are constantly matriculating the ball down the field and converting first downs to move the chains.

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