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WCG-Exclusive: Interview with Football Outsiders' Doug Farrar

Foalmanac_mediumWindy City Gridiron had the opportunity to sit down with Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders last week, and get his insights on the NFL and the Chicago Bears.  Doug, thanks for your time sir!

1- Can you tell us about the beginnings of Football Outsiders... the origins of the website, how it came to be, a little about the history?

Doug: FO began in 2003, when founder Aaron Schatz was looking for something to do with the spreadsheets of football stats he’d put together after being laid off from Lycos. He started out with some college buddies, built a small site called Football Outsiders, and started coming up with some interesting new concepts. Probably the most important thing Aaron developed – and the thing that completely blew me away when I first saw the site in 2004 -- was the concept of opponent and situational adjustments for all stats. I don’t know why it took so long for somebody to come up with a numerical representation of the idea that gains should mean more when they sustain drives against better teams than they do when they’re empty yards against creampuff defenses. Conversely, defensive ratings are harder to come by – as John Houseman used to say, you have to earn them.


2- For those who are not familiar, or who don't understand enough about what you guys do, can you tell us about the analysis that FO does, and why it's so unique?


Doug: Our primary stats are two – the main one is DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which rates players and teams against an average baseline that represents every play through a season. DVOA is shown as a percentage above or below the average, and it’s a per-play metric. DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) is our cumulative metric for players. DYAR takes performances, also based an situation and opponent, against a baseline and translates the performances into a value metric that is shown as yardage above or below the baseline. We have other stats – drive stats, stats based on our game charting, and new stats for college football, but DVOA and DYAR are the big ones. What makes our stats different to me is that they represent the importance of situational efficiency and opponent strength. Even the other sites/entities that bring sabermetric views to football don’t really adjust for opponent, and I think tht’s one thing that keeps us ahead of the pack.


3- What is your role with FO, and how did you get involved?

Doug: I’m a Senior Writer for FO, and my responsibilities include the weekly X-and-O column "Cover-3", adding to our gameday running conversation called "Audibles at the Line", writing occasional pieces to help fulfill FO’s content deal with ESPN, helping with the writing, editing and general oversight for the annual Football Outsiders Almanac book, and adding my voice to the editorial decisions that Aaron is ultimately responsible for. One of things I love about FO is that everyone has a voice – it’s a "benevolent dictatorship". I think that the best organizations strike a balance between group involvement and a string and final voice up top, and we have that.


One thing Aaron didn’t have early on was a voice from the West Coast (he lives near Boston, and I’m in Seattle), and we started an e-mail correspondence in 2005, back when the Seahawks were making their Super Bowl run. I was a Bill James fanatic from way back, but I love football above all, so FO was like the Holy Grail to me. I expressed an interest in writing for the site, started off with some spec and general project work, and was hired on as a staff member in 2006. My involvement with FO has led to other involvements with Yahoo! Sports, ESPN, the Washington Post, and a whole bunch of other stuff.


4- FO's statistical analysis goes back to the 1994 season... Are there any significant trends or changes in the statistics that you've seen when comparing present football to football 15 years ago?

Doug: So much in the game is cyclical, but probably the main thing we’ve seen in the last 15 years is an enormous increase in the use of the shotgun formation. Shotgun sets have tripled in the last 10 years through the NFL. The 2007 Patriots were the first team in NFL history we’re aware of to use the shotgun at least 50 percent of the time, and NFL teams used the ‘gun almost 38 percent of the time in 2009 – that’s up from less than 13 percent in 1999. This year, the Lions are using shotgun sets two-thirds of the time. I think is a real response to the rise of spread offenses and formations in college football; the NFL was going to have to find ways to meet the spread halfway or miss out on too many quality players.


5- The Bears' OL struggles are nothing new, and GM Jerry Angelo has taken quite a beating from the fans regarding his lack of addressing the OL through the draft during his tenure.  OT Chris Williams was an exception to that, being drafted in the 1st round two seasons ago.  But, when you look at the Bears OL issues, what are your thoughts?  We've got rugged veterans like Olin Kreutz and Roberto Garza, a veteran swing tackle in Kevin Shaffer, the previously-mentioned Chris Williams, the unpredictable Frank Omiyale, and newcomers J'Marcus Webb, Brandon Manumaleuna, and Edwin Williams.  Also, we might as well throw in Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark in there.  When you look at all of those names, it doesn't seem like we should be in such disarray.  Is it a lack of talent, bad blocking schemes/ playcalling, or all of the above?

Doug: Yeah … it’s kind of a "where do we start?" situation. In the overall view, Jerry Angelo strikes me as an executive who sees offensive linemen as mere plug-ins. We’re familiar with this in Seattle, because current Bears Director of Player Personnel Tim Ruskell rode Seattle’s line into the ground when he was the Seahawks’ team president. He and Angelo developed their personnel philosophies together in Tampa Bay, and this is what you’re left with. Ruskell hoped that veterans would last longer than they did, made odd choices when he did draft for the line, and filled in the rest with half-decent veteran spackle. Sound familiar?


Perhaps more than any other personnel unit in football, great offensive lines are drafted. You need young players working well together over time, and you have to hope that the mixture of talent, injury luck, and cohesiveness will mesh in the way you want for your blocking schemes. Creating a great line is like winning about three lotteries at the same time. In reality, Angelo hasn’t even been playing that lottery. The Jay Cutler deal took away the draft picks that could have solidified that line for the future, but I’m left wondering if there’s anyone in the current regime who would hit on that talent if it was available to them.


Right now, I’m not sure how the scheme and the personnel fit together. Moving Chris Williams to guard makes no sense to me, because his athleticism is probably his greatest asset, and I’m not sure he has the sheer strength to play inside. On top of all that, you have a new offensive coordinator in Mike Martz who believes that getting his quarterback killed is the base aftereffect of his playcalling.


6- As a follow-up to #5, when the Bears signed Manumaleuna, he was touted as one of the best (if not THE best) blocking TEs in the league.  So far in 2010, his name has been mentioned for poor performance more than anything else.  What is your take on Manumaleuna, and how does he compare to Olsen and Clark in the run-blocking game?

Doug: Well, Manumaleuna is like any other blocking tight end – while he’s got a great history, he’s only as good at the line he’s helping. What’s frequently overlooked in Martz’s history with the Rams is how great those offensive lines were. That allowed Martz to dial up a lot of the crazy stuff that didn’t work as well for him in Detroit and San Francisco, because his protection wasn’t as good. So far, my primary encouragement about the tight end position is that Martz hasn’t buried Greg Olsen as he has so many other quality pass-catching tight ends.


7- Shifting over to Matt Forte, I got to see Forte while still at Tulane, and his skill set seems to be very identifiable: Shiftiness and speed.  We saw his rookie season his ability to start in one direction, have the OL collapse, and him be able to find a seam back the other way.  But, 2009 (granted he was playing injured) and so far in 2010, he seems to be more inconsistent with his approach to the line.  What do you think about Matt Forte, and should the Bears involve Chester Taylor more in the running game?

Doug: I think that Martz is using Forte much better than Ron Turner did last year. I cover the Seahawks for various outlets, and I was at team headquarters for a conference call with Jay Cutler this week. I asked him if Martz saw Forte as that do-it-all running back like Martz had in St. Louis with Marshall Faulk. Cutler seems to believe that was the case. Right now, Forte is the most effective pass-catching running back in the NFL per our metrics, and Cutler leads the league in yards after catch among his targets. I’m not sure what the deal is with Chester Taylor, but it’s safe to say that nobody has seen a better upswing in role and productivity than Forte, and that might have something to do with Taylor’s limited (or non-existent) role.


8- Staying on the offensive side of the ball, the WR corp of Chicago was subjected to a lot of scrutiny this past offseason, while Mike Martz screamed from the top of any hill he could find that the WRs would be a strength of the team in 2010.  When looking at the group, you've got Hester, Knox, Bennett, Aromashodu... but Forte and Olsen have more catches than any of them.  Do you think the current group of WRs are good enough for the Martzfense, or should the Bears have added a veteran WR during the offseason.

Doug: I think that Knox is exactly the kind of deep threat that Cutler and Martz both prefer. Aromashodu has been a disappointment after he came on a bit late last season, but Hester seems to have improved in his route-running. I also think this is always going to be an offense in which Forte and Olsen get the most catches, simply because they are the best offensive players. Adding another receiver to that mix probably would be a good idea, but given his track record, I’m not much more confident in Angelo’s ability to find an elite receiver than I am his knack for finding the Bears’ next great left tackle.


9- Tommie Harris: (Jerry Seinfield voice) What's the deal with Tommie Harris?

Doug: Injuries and regression – it’s pretty simple. Harris actually finished 2009 second in the league in yards per play allowed by any defensive lineman, but the Bears also had to blitz more than in previous years to get pass pressure, and the ginormous deal the team gave Julius Peppers is a pretty good indicator that the awareness of a new superior pass-rusher was there. Harris had the potential to be a Warren Sapp-level difference maker over time, but I think those days may be gone.


10- Zooming back out, let's look at the entire NFC for a moment.  There are several teams ahead of the Bears in the DVOA rankings, but there is the liklihood that the Bears could hit the halfway point of the season  at 7-1.  What are your thoughts on the current state of affairs of the Bears, and are we getting our hopes up way too much in daydreaming about making a significant playoff run this year?

Doug: I have concerns. The pass protection is the primary liability – Martz tends to run offenses that beat the daylights out of this quarterbacks, so you have to wonder if Cutler will last the season. The run defense is very solid – perhaps the best it’s been in years – and Peppers is playing out of his mind right now. I think that any significant playoff run by the Bears will depend on the fortunes of the Packers and Vikings. The bad news is that I don’t see this team as good enough to get to the postseason without help. The good news is that help seems to be on the way, with all of the Packers’ injuries and Minnesota’s offensive inconsistency. Not that they’d luck into the playoffs per se, but I do think their record is a mirage to a degree.


Closing- Is there anything else you'd like our community to know, or any other tidbit of information you'd like to download to us?


Doug: Just that it was a pleasure to participate in this interview, and we always appreciate the interest. You can find my work on Football Outsiders, Yahoo! Sports, The Washington Post, and ESPN, and you can hear me on several weekly national radio spots. To keep up with all of it, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @FO_DougFarrar. Thanks again!