ITP Mailbag: NFL New Year Edition

Inside the Pylon wants to provide quality, educational and engaging content to our readers. Got a question about football? We will answer it, either here in a future edition of the ITP mailbag or in a longer article. Thanks for reading!

Do the OSR/DSR statistics featured on your homepage have predictive value?

Mike Backherms: In its current state, without adjustments for explosive plays or turnovers, it is not a reliable predictive measure on its own. The stats were mainly meant to measure offensive efficiency, in terms of league wide standings, from a purely results-based standpoint. Defensive statistics were added from there, to show how offenses fare against each team.

What’s the point if it isn’t predictive?

Mike Backherms: While the effectiveness rates are not predictive, I mainly meant to use them as reactive statistics, to chart comparative growth over the course of a season. Doing game breakdowns for a youth-skewed team like the Jacksonville Jaguars, you can see why this data could be useful, especially given that the team is in it’s third year of a rebuild.

Another major purpose was to gain experience gathering/manipulating game data for analytic purposes. Throughout the season, I attempted to expand the data I was collecting to chart out specific areas of success/struggles, such as how well a team starts game, how well a team adjusted after halftime, performed on third downs, etc.

As a side note, I’m not the biggest fan of trying to use predictive stats with football. Advanced statistics likely won’t be able to help predict football games as accurately as other sports – say baseball – because of the high variance that comes with expanded on-field team sizes, game plans, adjusting to injury availability, scheme matchups and other factors. There are up to eleven 1v1 matchups on any given play; the complexity to modeling it is significant.

It’s my opinion, for what it’s worth, that advanced statistics in football can be a good tool to use in conjunction with scheme, player, and progression analysis, but not necessarily as a standalone, predictive measure.

Will you be covering the Pro Bowl this year?
Pro-bowl-sucks

Dave Archibald: Dear God no.

 

What happened to the Philadelphia Eagles this season?

Dave Archibald: The offense took a big step back, but they changed their running back, #1 receiver (for the second time in two offseason), and both starting guards, while also switching quarterbacks. Normally we’d expect a team to take a big step back in that circumstance. Chip Kelly is a great offensive mind and innovator, but he’s not a miracle worker. It’s not as simple as “Chip the GM” letting down “Chip the coach,” as the Eagles were up against cap issues that forced some of these hard decisions.

Mark Schofield: I think Dave hit on most of the issues. The offense took a massive step back, and one that you might expect given the losses in personnel. Heading into this season it seemed like the Eagles were entering a transition season given the changes, so the fact that Kelly was let go makes one think that it was an issue of culture that lead to his firing more than anything.

Why do teams have trouble running out of the shotgun or pistol formation?

Brian Filipiak: I’m not sure this is universally true. If a team struggles to run the ball out of the shotgun, it’s probably because of the same reason teams have trouble running with the QB under center: inconsistencies along the offensive line. If you are spreading the field with 3+ receivers and forcing the defense into a sub-package that removes a linebacker or defensive lineman, it should be easier to run – in theory. But blockers failing to do their job and finish blocks into the second level will negate any numbers/strength advantage.

Dan Hatman: One of the issues with shotgun runs is that they predetermine the direction of the run schemes, making them easier to defend. If the runner is standing to the quarterback’s right, he typically is going to cross the formation to accept the handoff and run the opposite direction. There are some tendency breakers a team can employ, but it eventually adds up to an advantage for the defense. That is why teams started utilizing the pistol, it balances the passing advantages of the shotgun with the ambidextrous nature of a run game.

Who are the best special teams coverage players in the NFL?

Chuck Zodda: On punts, the New England Patriots nominal wide receiver Matthew Slater is the clear top dog in the league, leading the NFL with 12 tackles in punt coverage this year, in addition to leading the league in 2014 with 9 tackles. Slater possesses outstanding speed and play strength, allowing him to beat blocks and get downfield quickly to contain or stop returners.

The Buffalo Bills Marcus Easley has been in the conversation in recent years as well, but recently suffered what
appears to be a
significant knee injury. Arizona Cardinal Justin Bethel is also very strong in this area.Peerman-Good

On kickoffs, the Cincinnati Bengals’ nominal running back Cedric Peerman has been phenomenal this year, currently ranking second in the NFL with 9 tackles in coverage, as well as consistently beating multiple layers of blocks. Bethel is very strong in kick coverage as well, and Houston Texans’ linebacker Brian Peters leads the league with 10 tackles in this phase.

Why aren’t there more great pass defending linebackers? What makes Deone Bucannon so good?

Brian Filipiak: One theory is that a lot of linebackers in the NFL were defensive ends in college. As such, these converted linebackers have limited practice and game reps in coverage because their number one job was getting after the QB and containing the run. Having been rarely asked to drop into coverage, these defensive ends – often due to their size and best scheme fit – are  converted into linebackers, where coverage responsibilities are a new skillset, to be learned on the fly.

Another thought is that pure linebackers in college aren’t often forced in man coverage due to the offensive styles of most college teams (although this has shifted some), while in the NFL spread offenses are prevalent as is the use of a flexed out tight ends or a running back split wide, which often forces a linebacker into man coverage on the outside.

One thing we are seeing is the use of traditional strong safety types in more of a linebacker role within big nickel defenses and even out of base fronts. Bucannon (Cardinals), Mark Barron (St. Louis Rams), and Patrick Chung (Patriots) are linebackers in safety bodies that play in the box. While they weren’t success stories as deep safeties covering half the field, teams have identified a scheme fit that utilizes their combination of size, speed, and coverage ability closer to the line of scrimmage.

Dan Hatman: The mental processing needed to execute underneath coverage is extensive as offensive coordinators work to stretch inside linebackers both vertically and horizontally. In addition, LBs have to take care of their run responsibility first and are in a reactive position vs the pass. To find a human being who is (ideally) 6’1”+ 230+, 4.50 or better, who can physically engage against the run, mirror receivers in space and possesses the mental acumen to read and react to multiple keys in just a second or two is very rare.

New-England-Patriots-Jamie-Collins-Indianapolis-Colts-001
David R. McCullough: Bill Carroll, in addition to being a terrific podcast guest, was driving the Jamie Collins bandwagon years ago, citing Collins’ rare athletic gifts and his background as a safety before growing into a college defensive end. The traits that make a great linebacker blend the strength and tackling of a defensive end with the speed and smarts of a strong safety. The Patriots defense, which is sneaky good this season, suffered through Collins missing a month with an illness. Whether the second-best linebacker in the NFL can recover his form in the playoffs is a something to watch.

Who are the most likely coaches to be fired next Monday?

Editor’s Note: It was announced on December 31 that Pagano likely won’t be back.

Dave Archibald: Shalise Manza Young has been tracking this at Yahoo Shutdown Corner. Interim hires Dan Campbell (Miami Dolphins) and Mike Mularkey (Tennessee Titans) probably haven’t done enough to lock down permanent jobs. Chuck Pagano of the Indianapolis Colts seems like a foregone conclusion at this point. Beyond that, a lot will depend on how much teams value continuity. The Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, and San Diego Chargers all have had disappointing seasons but hired their coaches fairly recently. Further, if those teams clean house in the front office – Detroit already has – and whether the new hires want their own people in place.

Mark Schofield: I think Pagano is the most likely candidate. He turned down the one-year extension last offseason, and a team with Super Bowl expectations is on the verge of missing the playoffs. It is true that they had injury problems, but even in a weak division they have struggled. I think Tom Coughlin’s time with the New York Giants might be up as well. It’s true that he is a two-time Super Bowl winner, which carries a great deal of weight, but for even the great coaches sometimes the voice and the message become stale in a locker room. It might be time for the Giants to bring in a new voice and messenger. Finally, as much as I respect his defensive mind, it might be time for Rex Ryan to be a defensive coordinator again. He will be back next season, as it was recently announced, but i’m not sure the Rex as head coach thing is working.

David R. McCullough: I cannot wait for six weeks of “will-he-or-won’t-he?” Twitter banter about Nick Saban and the Indianapolis job. Quality of ownership means a lot to how good a job is, and it is questionable why Saban would leave Tuscaloosa at all. The best open job is in Tennessee, which has a potential franchise QB under contract for several more seasons, a decent cap situation and a top 3 draft pick.

https://twitter.com/Cianaf/status/682001596276838400

Who should be fired, but won’t be?

Dave Archibald: It seems like an easy fix to replace the head coach, but just as finding a franchise quarterback is no lock, finding a head coach for the next decade is no easy feat. The worst organizations don’t show enough patience and constantly chase quick fixes. Who should be fired? Some of the game’s worst owners, like Jimmy Haslam in Cleveland and Jed York in San Francisco.

Mark Schofield: Dave has a great answer here. Building off the Pagano issue, however, general manager Ryan Grigson missed on a number of decisions over the past few seasons, and they led to the product that was put on the field in 2015.

David R. McCullough: Poor Mike Pettine would be better off if Cleveland fired him because given the atrocious recent drafts, that remains the worst job in the NFL.

Who is the most improved team in the NFL this season?

Dave Archibald: It has to be the Carolina Panthers, who made the playoffs last year without a .500 record. They’re a real contender this year. Significantly, their improvement has largely come from within rather than splashy additions in free agency or the draft. The offensive line and secondary have been much better than expected, largely due to growth of players like Josh Norman and Trai Turner.

Mark Schofield: I’ve been very impressed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season. This is a team that finished 2-14 last season and had the #1 overall selection. They’re 6-9 heading into the final week of the season with a good chance at finishing with 7 wins. Jameis Winston looks to be the real deal at quarterback, and if they can add some pieces on the defense, this could be a wild card team next season.

Also, three little words: “You like that?”Tuck-Rule

David R. McCullough: The most fun team to watch improve this season was the Oakland Raiders. Derek Carr made big strides at quarterback, Amari Cooper just runs great routes, while Khalil Mack is a rolling ball of knives and developing into the most disruptive pass rusher in the league. The retirement of future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson marks a milestone for this football fan; an incredible player responsible for one of the NFL’s most iconic moments. He will be missed.

Which playoff team will not make it next year?

Dave Archibald: The Texans are the obvious choice. Bill O’Brien has done a terrific job, but they still lack a long-term solution at quarterback, which gives them a big disadvantage compared to the Colts and a presumably healthy Andrew Luck. Even if Indianapolis doesn’t rebound, the young quarterbacks in Jacksonville and Tennessee have taken strides and are in a good position to compete in the division.

Andy Wiborg:  I predict that the Arizona Cardinals will not make the playoffs in 2016. Arizona fell apart in 2014 when Carson Palmer went down and backed into the playoffs as a result. They are only a Palmer injury away from having to turn control of the offense over to Drew Stanton or Matt Barkley. The NFC West is a battleground with the Seattle Seahawks capable of dominating the conference and the Rams only needing an average offense to be extremely competitive.

Which young QB-WR tandem (under 26) would you take to build a team around?

Andy Wiborg: Carr (24) and Cooper (21). As Mark Schofield points out in his piece about route running, Cooper has offered the entire route tree from the day he stepped onto the field in Oakland. Add in Cooper’s ability to change directions on a dime and his ability to use his “whole body” in route running, and the wideout can easily be considered one of the top 5 young receivers in the NFL today. Carr was an early second round pick in 2014 and was immediately asked to step in and run the Raiders’ offense as a rookie. The results were predictable, especially as Carr was surrounded by few talented players on offense. However, the second year signal caller has developed remarkably, thanks in part to Cooper, the emergence of running back Latavius Murray, and the signing of Michael Crabtree.

Dave Archibald: I agree with Carr and Cooper. Jameis Winston and Mike Evans in Tampa Bay and Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson in Jacksonville are combinations that give those teams a lot of hope.

Thursday night football sucks…why?

Brian Filipiak: Less time for coaches and teams to prepare could mean simplified game plans and sloppy football. There’s a reason teams practice and study as much as they do during the week. Also, I think Arian Foster put it best: “Nobody is ready to play physically after a Sunday game but you have to go out there and do it.” I can’t imagine the toll it takes on a player to play two games in such a short period of time.

The other factor is that every team has to play one TNF game. There are a lot of mediocre football teams out there that usually don’t receive national exposure. Couple that with a short week and you can get some really bad football.

Mark Schofield: Most of the time the games aren’t great. But there’s a game or two like that every Sunday. The Thursday night issue gets intensified because it’s the only NFL game on TV.

Does the NFL have a quarterback problem?

Mark Schofield: Yes, but not in the way you probably expect. The NFL has a quarterback development problem. For too long the NFL has been treating the NCAA as its developmental league. That was fine when the bulk of college teams were running 21 personnel out on the field and using pro-style concepts. But with the advent of the spread offense and other offensive innovations at the collegiate level, these quarterbacks are given a vastly different decision-making process on Saturdays than they will face on Sundays. On a Saturday afternoon many QBs come to the line of scrimmage, bark out a few signals, and then look to the sideline to read the big piece of cardboard being held up by an assistant with four pictures on it to get the final read and assignment. That doesn’t prepare them for the decisions they face when they transition to the pros.

And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. My favorite example of this is the Urban Meyer era Florida Gators. Meyer’s job wasn’t to fix Tim Tebow’s mechanics, or get him ready to read defenses and execute a five-step drop. His job was to win the SEC Championship and compete for a National Title. So he put together an offensive game plan to meet those goals. If that game plan could be executed with a QB whose throwing motion resembled a trebuchet, so be it.

The issue is that the NFL needs a better system of developing quarterbacks, and colleges aren’t doing it for them. In the not-too-distant past guys would come into the league, and hold a clipboard for a year or two, learning. But Andrew Luck has ruined that: With impatient owners and fanbases, you can’t draft a guy like Jared Goff or Paxton Lynch and then sit him for two years. The last coach to try it was Josh McDaniels, in Denver, with Trebuchet Tebow.

This is a win-now league. With the new CBA restrictions on practice time, there are no longer enough reps for both your starter and your young QB to develop.

Developmental leagues have been tried, but there is usually minimal fan interest in them, and the finances have yet to work out. One league is in operation right now, the Fall Developmental League (http://www.gofxfl.com/) There is another effort underway, Major League Football (http://www.mlfb.com) which is currenlty holding tryouts and looking to launch next season. If those leagues survive, it could be an answer.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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