Review: Pro Football Prospectus 2007

I am known to love books to death. My favorites are a librarian's nightmare: dog-eared, split spine, water damaged, food stained or just lost. Pro Football Prospectus 2005 and 2006 are battered, twisted, torn, lost, found and steadily yellowing. That abuse, for me, is like a big, manly bear hug of appreciation. That's why I say with all due absurdity, but the utmost appreciation, that I've spent the better part of the last week beating Pro Football Prospectus 2007 like a Singaporean jaywalker. It's that good.

At 515 pages and crammed with exclusive stats and analysis, a comprehensive review would be overlong and inappropriate. Likewise, a comparative review is impossible, because while it's not the only football annual, it's light years above and beyond its competitors. Instead, I'll take a little time to review why it's so good and then shine a little specific attention on its NFC West passages in a separate post.

2007 opens with a summation of the studies and findings previously published in Football Outsiders or in the two earlier annuals, appropriately entitled the "Pregame Show". It's self-assured and laconic; an advanced football analysis primer. If every NFL fan could read and digest just these four and half pages, the level of discussion in sports bars across America would still be sodden and slurred, but, methinks, a little less stupid.

The team essays and players comments are smartly written, rich in thoughtful analysis and anecdotal detail. Especially welcome is a movement away from heavy handed pop-culture references and "jokey" passages found in previous editions that came off as awkward and a little pandering. In place, a more confident style that shows the authors trusting their skill, trusting their methods and trusting their readership. It's more clever or witty than truly humorous, but it effectively keeps often stat heavy passages light and entertaining.

The Football Outsiders "killer app", if you will, is their exclusive stats and KUBIAK projection system. Team win/loss and player projections are attained by simulating ten thousand seasons. I especially appreciate how this method allows you to see not just the mean number of wins, but the amount of times a team fell within each win range (i.e. 0-4, 5-6...11+). Unfortunately, a similar range of projections is not given for position players.  

2007 marks the second season of game charting data, Football Outsiders attempt to round out the NFL's inadequate stat database with new stats for common events. With only two years of stats, conclusions are difficult, but the possibility for more in-depth strategy analysis is hinted at in such standout essays as Beyond Sacks and Optimal Play Action Strategy. In addition, game charting is providing the first reliable DB stats.  

My criticisms are few and hardly damning. While Football Outsiders methods' for attaining their projections are smarter and better reasoned than, say, your average fantasy rag, they won't win your league for you. As I stated before, a range of projections is not given for individual skill position players, a sorely missed detail for fans who know when reading Baseball Prospectus' similar PECOTA projections the value not just of a players mean projection, but their Collapse Rate and Breakout Rate. Some of the injury projections are a little confusing, and already seem a little misguided. Warrick Dunn and Frank Gore both receive green lights (it's a simple red, yellow, green system) though both, logically, are injury risk candidates and both are now injured. The Top Ten Fantasy Risers and Fallers is once again a little too obvious, with two players assuming full time duties sort of obviously in the Risers category (Joseph Addai and Laurence Maroney) and two vets who played way over their heads in the Fallers category (Jeff Garcia and Desmond Clark). In other words, PFP is a better resource for football fans than fantasy fans. Still, as I've said before, no one can tell you how to win your fantasy league, and I don't blame the Outsiders for tapping into a lucrative market, even if I doubt their insight alone will win many leagues.

Pro Football Prospectus 2007 is admirable both for maintaining its standard bearer quality and for its commitment to improving. It's sort of knee jerk to decry the establishment, even when they call themselves Outsiders, but FO has maintained their underdog scrappiness and their commitment to hard work, take no prisoners honesty and consistent, incremental improvement. PFP 2007 is the best, most comprehensive annual yet produced by Football Outsiders, an indispensable resource for armchair analysts and aspiring sports writers alike, but also a thoroughly enjoyable read: confident, articulate and witty. It's safe to say following a breakout season, the Outsiders are comfortably within their prime, let's hope their peak is as consistent and as long lived as a Barry Sanders or Peyton Manning. A

Thanks to Doug Farrar for answering some of my questions about how PFP 2007 was constructed. I'll feature some more of his thoughts tomorrow when I focus on the Outsiders NFC West predictions.

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