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Interview with Pro Football Focus founder Neil Hornsby (Part 1)

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A while back, I had the opportunity to interview the founder of Pro Football Focus, Neil Hornsby,  We have been intrigued by the work that they do at PFF, and have regularly featured their articles on WCG.  But, I wanted to pick Neil's brain a little more... find out more about PFF, and specifically, their grades of Chicago Bears players.

We will be featuring a lot of PFF's grades on our Bears throughout the offseason, but in the meantime, let's jump into the interview.

Please keep in mind that this interview was done December 19, 2010, or Week 14 of the season.

1- The tag line of your website "Every game.  Every player.  Every play."- That essentially defines the thoroughness of what you guys do.  After reading the History of PFF post, the first thing that pops into my head is... "Why?"  Did your fascination with grading these players get kicked off with a desire to create a profitable product, or was it more a hobby for you?

Neil: Profitable? That’s definitely not what this is about. I’m a business consultant by trade and I could probably make as much in a couple of days as I’ll get from the site in a year… and that’s not because I’m expensive either I should hasten to add! No this is purely about enjoyment and getting deeper into the game. The only reason we charge is we need to keep the guys who do the analysis fed and clothed as it’s a full time job.

2- Before jumping head-first into PFF, what was your previous career?

Neil: Answered above… It’s also my current job too! I spend Jan to August doing that and Sept to December on football.

3- Let's get down to the analysis... Tell us why the grading system you guys use is so dependable, and how you are able to stay completely objective all the time.

Neil: The first thing I’d say to anyone is that the systems’ not perfect…. A +13.4 is not always better than a +11.2 but perhaps a +10.3 is 98% certain to be better than a -3.4 etc. It’s just a system like any other but what we aim to do is put context on all plays. If a CB is badly beaten but the WR drops the pass the base stats would say that’s simply an incompletion against the CB but in our system it’s a negative grade. Take unfortunate Aaron Rodgers (there’s an oxymoron on a Bears site!) he throws a perfect strike to Greg Jennings in the Lions game, Jennings bobbles the thing and it’s intercepted. The game book simply says INT… we say great pass, major negative to Jennings. As for staying objective all the time I’m just a fan of football, not a particular team my fanaticism is about objectivity. The other guys who analyse don’t get to do their teams (or hardly ever) to avoid problems but they are far more committed to the integrity of the site than they are to any team anyway. Also what keeps them to track is our Grading bible … it’s a fairly weighty tome of how we do things that they can refer to as a they need.

4- Anytime there are statistics, there are also trends.  In your opinion, do you see any positional groups (RBs, DL, CBs, etc) get better or worse overall as the season progresses?

Neil: You are correct and the biggest one we’ve noticed this year is how far the defenses have got on top of the offenses. In particular the O-Lines seem to have struggled to come together. There are really very few dominating O-Lines at the moment and a lot of very bad ones as you are probably all too aware.

5- Scenario A: Just as the RT is dropping back in pass coverage, he falls to the ground untouched due to pulling a hamstring.  The DE (who came free) hits the QB just as he is throwing the ball (to a semi-covered WR), causing an ugly duck pass to fall right into the LBs hands (who happened to just be standing in the right place at the right time).  How would you hand out grades to the people involved?

Neil:  At a guess…. RT - Big minus (we don’t take account of injuries unfortunately for him), DE – small plus (you don’t get much when you’re unblocked), QB – This is tricky because as it’s not on his blind –side (assume right handed) he may have had some sight of it. Let’s assume he had none and therefore it’s zero on the QB. LB small plus for catching the ball

6- Who are a couple players in the league that people might think are really good, but actually consistently grade very poorly?  What about players who might have a bad rep, but actually consistently grade out well?

Neil:  My favourites are Eric Steinbach and Davin Joseph…. These guys are regularly talked about as Pro Bowlers but are consistently poor. Ernie Sims was awful in Detroit (and initially in Philly) but has turned it up a notch recently and is playing OK. The worst one last year was Kevin Mawae going to the Pro Bowl when he was very poor – no surprise he never got picked up. Talking of players doing well that not many know about how about Jason Babin in Tennessee, Charles Johnson in Carolina and Kareem McKenzie of the Giants. Guys who I like on your team who don’t get much credit… Israel Idonije, Danieal Manning and (although he’s gone of the boil a little recently) Tim Jennings


This concludes part 1 of the interview with Neil Hornsby.  Up next in the series:

Part 2: The offensive line

Part 3: Charles Tillman

Part 4: Jay Cutler