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How Football Outsiders views the NFC West

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The indispensable Football Outsiders Almanac (FOA) is released every summer, reviewing the prior season and previewing the season to come. Every serious fan should read it. Don’t believe me? Here is last year’s edition sitting on John Schneider’s desk:

I’m going to skip the Seahawks because ESPN’s Sheil Kapadia has already gone over some of the highlights from the Seahawks chapter (i.e., offensive line bad, red zone offense bad, run defense exceptional). After being projected to win 10.5 games in 2016 (and hitting that projection exactly, tie and all), the Seahawks are projected to have 9.8 wins in the average season. This sounds like a low number but these projections are inherently conservative and 9.8 wins is actually the most in the NFC (and 3rd most in the NFL behind NE and PIT).

So how did their NFC West opponents do?

Arizona Cardinals

Mean projection: 8.3 wins (#8 in the NFL), postseason odds: 39.4%

The chapter notes an interesting divergence in age on either side of the ball. In 2016, the Cardinals had the oldest snap-weighted age in the league, and in 2017 their QB, Carson Palmer, will be the 2nd oldest starting QB in the league (turns 38 in December). On the other hand, the 2016 Arizona defense was the 4th-youngest in the league, and that side of the ball will likely get younger with the mass exodus of free agents:

Assorted tidbits:

  • Carson Palmer led the league in QB hits (87) and knockdowns (127). Nine different players started at RT or RG.
  • Arizona is losing 42% of defensive snaps
  • Arizona was #30 in special teams DVOA, including being the worst team in net yards per punt by over 2 yards and having the 2nd worst field goal kicker in the league
  • Arizona has ranked 1st or 2nd in use of empty backfield in 4 straight seasons
  • For the 4th straight season, Arizona benefited from a top 5 rate of opponent penalties

Los Angeles Rams

Mean projection: 8.0 wins (#14 in the NFL), postseason odds: 34.4%

FOA overrating the Rams during the offseason appears to be a time-honored tradition. In 2015, FOA projected the averaged Rams season to have 8.8 wins, making the playoffs in 45.6% percent of simulations and winning at least 11 (!) games 27% of the time. That team won 7 games. In 2016, FOA projected the Rams to win 7.7 games on average, winning at least 8 games in more than half of simulations (52%). That team won 4 games.

Despite bringing back Jared Goff as starting QB, this year’s FOA gives the Rams 8.0 wins in the average season (compare to, for example the Vegas over/under of 5.5 wins). FOA being relatively high on the Rams is largely based on the addition of new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has dramatically improved every defense he’s taken over in his seven new positions since 1988. Of these seven teams, the average pre-Phillips defense DVOA in the season prior to him joining was 6.3% (remember that positive is bad for defense), which has improved to -12.0% in the first year after naming Phillips defensive coordinator. I’m skeptical about how much of this is due to regression to the mean (teams that fire their defensive coordinators probably would improve anyway), but it’s something worth watching.

Other tidbits:

  • The two highest net punting value seasons on record (i.e., since 1989) are Johnny Hekker (2016) and Johnny Hekker (2013)
  • Best sentence: “if Goff can just be a normal level of bad (as opposed to his horrific level from 2016), that should be enough for the Rams to hit their projection”
  • The Rams led the league in penalty yards on defense in 2016. I’m not surprised:

San Francisco 49ers

Mean projection: 6.5 wins (#29 in the NFL), postseason odds: 16.2%

One of the greatest joys of reading FOA is their annual post-Harbaugh roast of the 49ers. The 49ers chapter starts off strong, where the first few paragraphs read:

In hindsight, maybe firing Jim Harbaugh wasn’t such a good idea after all [...] This isn’t just a case of hindsight being 20/20, because it was easy to mock the move at the time. FOA 2015 claimed that the 49ers were ‘about to learn some much-needed lessons in humility.’ [...] Cleveland pips San Francisco to the line for most expected value lost [in the draft] over the past five seasons, but the two teams are in a league of their own when it comes to whiffing on the draft.

The chapter is largely devoted to chronicling all the turnover the 49ers experienced over the offseason, when they added new head coach in Kyle Shanahan and new general manager John Lynch. The 49ers also spent more money in free agency after the 2016 season than they had in the four prior seasons combined. Going forward, there are lots of unknowns, so I don’t have much to add here. Onto the tidbits:

  • SF ran only 10 plays with the QB under center all season
  • Rookie 1st round pick Josh Garnett had the highest blown block rate of any interior lineman in the league (once every 32.5 plays)
  • DeForest Buckner missed one game due to a foot injury and still played more snaps than any defensive lineman in the league (1,005)