For the ardent NFL fan, or even the wannabe ardent NFL fan, Pro Football Prospectus 2008 is an indispensable compendium of information and analysis. Its combination of intelligent analysis and efficient, approachable writing is unmatched in the crowded field of magazine rack glossies and big-name, big-book bossies. For many, that's enough review to decide, and I won't bat an eye if you scamper off to your local bookseller to buy. But Football Outsiders and Pro Football Prospectus long ago distanced themselves from their peers, and as the industry leader in intelligent analysis, they now must face a somewhat daunting task. They must compete with themselves. And in the competition to be smarter, more entertaining and more accurate, PFP 2008 is not the great leap forward one might want.
PFP 2008 is subdivided into 3 main parts: team specific essays and unit reports, NFL related research and essays and fantasy related projections. That's not exactly how it's organized, but it's an easy way to classify its disparate sections.
The team specific reports, on the whole, are succinct, readable and do a good job of providing both an effective recapitulation of last season and an accurate look at next season. They may come off as prosaic at times, but one must consider the breath and diversity of their potential readership. The works of Mike Tanier and Doug Farrar stand out.
Tanier is an entertaining and engaging writer. Further, he's a real football fan with an obvious passion for the game. Working long form, and with no doubt more time to revise, the sometimes precious cleverness displayed in his Football Outsiders writing becomes instead energized prose, with a strong voice that is informative and independently interesting. Special praise should be given to his opening lines.
Farrar's work is polished and efficient. It has the easy feeling of a Pixar film. You find yourself deeper, more engaged, more informed and farther along than you expect. Compared to Tanier, his writing is a little more subtle, journalistic, but he excels at creating a strong thesis and holding it throughout the essay.
While not every team essay is a standout, most are well written and comprehensive. Two essays stand out for the wrong reasons. Kevin Lynch's work on the 49ers is busy, lacks cohesion, seems incapable or unwilling to take a realistic look at the franchise and really thuds in its closing paragraph. Mike Nolan is seemingly the focus, but from him we're sort of taken everywhere and nowhere. We're told that hiring offensive coordinator Jim Hostler was a mistake, but also told that San Francisco had "few options" and that "Hostler's game plans were generally good and he called a game similar to Turner". Hostler's problem? "[H]e lacked Turner's authority and gravitas..." Further frustrating is the assertion that Nolan hiring Mike Martz was a "brilliant move" and that "no one can resuscitate an offense better than Mike Martz." The tone and logic of the piece, a piece about the worst team in football, down to the curiously late mention of the 49ers tampering charge, seems better home in a media guide or on sf49ers.com than in a non-partisan, analytical publication like Pro Football Prospectus.
The other essay that runs astray does less so and for less damnable reasons, but must be pointed out nevertheless. Ben Riley's essay on the Seattle Seahawks is an otherwise light, well-written account of Seattle's 2007 and prospects for 2008. But his evaluation of Tim Ruskell's offensive drafting leaves much to be desired. The thrust of his argument is a "hypothetical starting lineup" for Ruskell acquired talent, offense and defense. Not surprisingly, the defense shines. Unfortunately, it ignores one very essential consideration and relies on some very suspect arguments. The essential consideration is simple: Ruskell inherited an above average offense but a well below average defense. It's little wonder then, with no need at quarterback, either tackle spot or running back, that the talent acquired on offense is going to look much worse than the talent acquired on defense. Can we really gripe that Ray Willis is "Never seen" when he's playing behind Walter Jones and Sean Locklear? Is it right to slag third string quarterbacks? Should Ruskell have anticipated the injuries of Deion Branch and Alvin Pearman? It's telling Mansfield Wrotto is knocked as "equally invisible" as Willis, but then appears in a later chapter on the "Top 25 Prospects". Needless to say, whatever the truth of Ruskell's talent evaluation abilities, Riley's argument falls flat.
The NFL related research and essays is the best portion of the book. Bill Barnwell's look at how weight and 40 times combined provide a better idea of a rusher's potential, Five Seconds Can Be a Lifetime, should be credited for admitting its limitations. Still, given the relatively low correlation between Speed Score and DYAR (.37) and the fact that running backs are pre-selected for both qualities (think how many times you heard Jonathan Stewart's weight and 40 time mentioned together this past draft) I can't help but wonder if Speed Score offers anything truly groundbreaking. It may reveal a potential bust or steal and do so with some level of accuracy.
Will Carroll's look at painkillers, Painkillers: The Dirty Secret, left me cold. Injury and debilitation from sacrificing one's body to the NFL sounds concerning enough, but as a blue collar guy, the son of a mechanic, I have a tough time summoning sympathy for rich athletes who must play with pain or injury. The blue collar attitude of the NFL, its ethos of toughness and selflessness, is part of its appeal. Working with pain is an unavoidable part of a huge portion of the population's life. My father, nearing 60, has worked as an auto mechanic for 15 years on a back badly in need of surgical repair. With all due respect for the suffering of others, and I know what it's like to work through back spasms, twisted ankles, bleeding, throbbing fingers, I couldn't embrace Carroll's dirty secret. Playing hurt sucks, but football is entertainment, and football players are paid handsomely for their sacrifice.
The most interesting and perhaps confusing essay is Rob Pitzer's Wide Receivers: Size Matters. In short, we learn that 23 of the top 25 wide receivers in football, as measured by yardage per game, fit one of 4 generic body types. Those body types are squares plotted at the intersections of height and BMI. I don't know enough about this type of analysis to openly question it, it's certainly interesting, but I found no rational explanation for the phenomenon. Height and BMI really should have no bearing on player's ability to get separation, and only an incidental relationship to a player's ability to shield a defender. But sometimes the research outpaces the explanation and this is an theory to look out for. It's certainly interesting.
Touching briefly on PFP 2008's fantasy content, I have two thoughts. If you're interested in dynamic and thoughtful ranking of a player's fantasy value, I'd skip to Football Outsiders' downloadable KUBIAK spreadsheet. Though, I'm not sure any fantasy forecaster is that much better than a little research and a little common sense. As I think Tom Tango said, and I'm very loosely paraphrasing here, any projections system extensive enough will have its share of surprise hits, but that's simple probability.
The second thought is about the top 10 risers and fallers article that's become a bit of a mainstay in the seasonal prospectuses. Listing players who are old, injured, both or will see their playing time increase or decrease this season from obvious causes (new personnel, a change of role) is not particularly insightful. I would hope most people already know that Ryan Grant's rushing totals are likely to increase. He only started 7 games in 2007. Equally, I think most can figure out that Justin Fargas's rushing totals are likely to decrease. The Raiders did draft Darren McFadden. That's two examples, but you can lump in Derrick Mason, Hines Ward, Jon Kitna, Willie Parker, Anthony Gonzalez and Matt Schaub into the "no duh" category. I get that fantasy football is not particularly conducive to thoughtful analysis, but is a however-many million dollar industry that must be appealed to. Nevertheless, this list of risers and fallers is a step below what I would expect out of Athlon.
This all might seem kind of negative, but it shouldn't be thought that I'm really down on Pro Football Prospect as much as kind of disappointed. My final reflection upon reading is kind of my own dirty secret. See, when I approached PFP 2005, 2006 and 2007, I did so as a fan of football but by no means an analyst. It might be just further bastardization of an already pissed on word, but I think I approached PFP 2008 as a Seahawks analyst. Of the few things I truly know in this world, the Seahawks 2007 season is among them--paramount possibly. It is then with some perplexity that I first read Football Outsiders independent defensive statistics for 2007. Though Aaron Schatz prefaces them by saying they are not "unassailable", I couldn't help but wonder if they have any use at all. Deon Grant ranks 1st among all safeties in Run Stop Rate, but 69th in pass stop rate (Success%). Leroy Hill ranks 5th in pass stop rate. Hill made strides, but he's still very much a work in progress as a cover linebacker. On Grant, if I need to offer this, he's a much stronger cover safety, among the best in the NFL, than run stopping safety, where he had a part in some Seattle's longest runs allowed. The problem is that the stats overemphasize the plays a player makes, a very, very small sample, and put no worth into the plays a players doesn't make, the hundreds of snaps that comprise his season. The greater problem is that these stats are so far divorced from a player's actual ability they probably do more harm than worth. To think we complain about yards per carry, but you'll never find a truly awful running back (given any reasonable sample size) over 5, or any truly great running back under 3. These stats do just that, imply bad players are good and good players bad.
Unfortunately, after considering Football Outsiders defensive stats, I began to think about the rest of their numbers. The team totals are strong and reflective of that teams overall quality, and the quarterback numbers are decent, but DVOA, DPAR and DYAR (don't get me started) just do not accurately reflect the ability of an individual skill position player. Famous misses, like "[Randy Moss] A cog not a superstar" or "[Kevin Jones] 2005 rushing champ" were each built off a faulty premise. For Moss, the explanation is simple, Moss' stats, traditional and advanced, were way down after playing for the Raiders. KUBIAK, a system that does projections partially based on similarity scores (I believe) irrespective of the player's innate abilities, wrongly concluded Moss was in the midst of a decline. But Moss couldn't control the overall quality of Oakland's offense and without similarity scores that factor in Moss' incredible speed and athleticism, his comparables are not going to accurately reflect his potential. And they didn't. It sounds eminently retrograde, but the best information about Moss, about Steven Jackson or Dallas Clark is still found through careful, intelligent scouting. Scouting has been maligned thanks to the snowjob done in Moneyball, but from high school, through college and into the pros, across almost every major sport, scouting is still the premiere tool in talent evaluation. While statistical analysis has made major strides in baseball, football is nowhere near as structured or as statistically detailed. Every play in the NFL is akin to measuring a baseball player's defense, except with 11 interworking players, 11 interworking opponents, and no single, defined method of accomplishment. It's hard enough to calculate a centerfielder's ability to run in straight lines to a flyball, how far off are we from quantifying a running back's ability to accelerate, read his blockers, pick through opponents, break tackles, cutback, accelerate or decelerate midstride, and on and on.
That's why, to conclude this too long review, I think the next logical step for Football Outsiders is not a metric or formula, it's a scouting department. Game charting is nice, but attempting to quantify every happening on a football field often misses the forest for the trees. The next step is a rigorous, analytical and logical scouting department. One that doesn't boil everything down into a number stripped of meaning, but instead describes a realistic set of skills. Many publications, from ESPN to the Sporting News, claim to do it, but their "experts" seem ignorant of modern ideas of what is repeatable, the aging curve, and, frankly, reality. Whoever these unnamed and unaccountable scouts are, their reports read too much like scout speak mad libs and their conclusions too often look dubious to even a casual fan.
Pro Football Prospectus 2008 is a great book, indispensable, irreplaceable, but as a longtime reader, and nascent analyst, I do not see a lot of room for growth in the current model. DVOA is a great metric for evaluating a team, but evaluating a player is still best left for one's own eyes.