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A Falcons-Centric Interview With Mike Tanier Of Football Outsiders

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We've got a little bit of a treat for you today.

Those of you who are familiar with Football Outsiders are probably aware of what they've done for statistical analysis in the game of football. Baseball has long been the game for those more stats-inclined, and football tended to judge value by the old standbys: scoring, yardage, sacks, passer rating and the like.

That may still be the case, but what Football Outsiders does now elevates the level of discourse. They're concerned first and foremost with the value of players and teams, and you're struck the moment you end up on their site just how much analysis really goes into that. Of course, they also like to write season previews, and their annual Football Outsiders Almanac (purchase here or on Amazon) is an absolute blast to read.

For those of you who would rather read the guys at FO talking about what they do and not listen to me prattle on, here's a great place to start.

But now the good part. Mike Tanier is the author of the Atlanta Falcons chapter in this year's Almanac. With the major help of resident stats guy orang3b—who already had purchased this by the time I read it through—I had the chance to interview him about some of the more interesting portions of that chapter. You'll find those questions (largely thanks to orang3b), right after the jump.

orang3b: Explain just how difficult the schedule that Matt Ryan faced really was (Top 10 DYAR-YAR difference 1993-2009, from Tom Brady's player comment) - thoughts on his "sophomore slump"?

Mike Tanier: We ran a Top 10 list of quarterbacks since 1993 who had significantly more DYAR than YAR: in other words, quarterbacks who faced a schedule full of difficult pass defenses. Tom Brady topped the list, which will happen when you face the Jets twice. Ryan was fourth. To put it in game-by-game terms, Ryan's game against the Jets - 16-of-34, 152 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions - earns a positive DVOA ranking from our metrics, because the Jets pass defense was so good. Ryan's game against the Saints - 19-of-42, 289, one touchdown, three picks - comes out as a slightly above average game. Let me mention right now that the stats aren't as simple as all that; we don't just take the completions and yards and fiddle with them, but base DVOA on down-and-distance performances and other splits. The raw stats just indicate that what looks like a "slump" game could really be a pretty good effort against a great defense.


orang3b: Related - Ryan's player comment mentions he has the only Blue rating of starting QB's (best bet to outperform projection). Thoughts on expected 2010 production - should we be expecting a big step forward?

Mike Tanier: I would expect more of a broad-based improvement. We have the yards and yards-per-attempt improving somewhat, the interception percentage going down a little. We have the touchdown percentage dropping because if the running backs are healthy they will soak up a few touchdowns.


orang3b: The chapter seemed pretty harsh on Grimes. He had the best charting stats of any Falcons CB last season; he's only played in 30 games, and started 14. Are we as fans being overly optimistic that he could be serviceable as a starter, or even "very good" as a Nickle CB? If you wouldn't mind weighing in on Chris Owens, that would also be appreciated.

Mike Tanier: Grimes could be a good nickel or a get-by starter. I tried to point out that he played better late in the season, even though it was against teams like the Bills. The big issues were that he was clearly not ready to start early in the season, and the team tried hard to replace him, and then he had a really bad game in Dallas. I mentioned him once or twice in the article as the "guy who got beat by Miles Austin" or somesuch, and I think I was using him as the face-guy for the whole young secondary. It was less a point about Grimes as a point about the Falcons secondary, that a guy they tried to bench at the end of preseason was pressed into service as their top cornerback for a while.


orang3b: Do you really think Mularkey and Smith "learned not to overuse Turner"? (I'll believe it when I see it).

Mike Tanier: I think so. They are talking a lot about how they didn't overuse him last year, but I think that's just backspin: they are tired of talking about Turner's injury and they don't want to self-incriminate. One of the things about the so-called "Curse of 370" (a Football Outsiders axiom that states that running backs suffer a significant production drop the year after they carry the ball more than 370 times) is that giving one back that many carries is just bad resource management. It's bad strategy, because it means other weapons weren't used properly. In 2008, Ryan was a rookie, the Falcons only had one really good receiver, so Turner had a heavy workload. There's just no good reason to do that now that Ryan is established and the Falcons have other options.


Dave Choate: Are you on board with the NFC South projections, or is New Orleans still your pick for the division crown?

Mike Tanier: It will be close, and I am becoming more comfortable with the Falcons. Most of us have a bad habit of not really "projecting" when we look forward to the next season. Instead, we cut ‘n' paste what happened last year with some obvious fixes, like moving the Cardinals down without Kurt Warner. We look at the 13-3 Saints, and we cut ‘n' paste them as if they are guaranteed to get a million defensive touchdowns this year. We look at the Falcons, and we act as if the team hasn't improved, even though so many young players are still developing and last year's record was severely impacted by an injury crunch. The great thing about DVOA and the Football Outsiders method is that we can keep track of all the variables we can't juggle. The computer isn't going to forget about the Saints run defense or just gloss over it.

But I will reiterate what I said in the book: the Falcons are more interesting in 2011 and 2012 because they are in such great position to be good for a long time.


Dave Choate: Where do you think Michael Jenkins' reputation as a top-flight blocking wide receiver comes from? There's a growing sense among Falcons' fans that he's really not anywhere near that, and he may not have been since the beginning.


Mike Tanier: I'll admit it: when I watch the Falcons, I specifically notice Jenkins' blocking, and that's because I know to look for it. It's a bit of a Wes Welker phenomenon: every time ol' Wes gives a little crack block to slow down a safety, he gets a replay and lotsalovin from the color commentator. Jenkins may get a little bit of a halo.

That being said, I do see him block very well on many plays. Just as even experts are vulnerable to a halo effect brought about by a guy's reputation, some fans may become jaded to a former 1st round pick who has an unexciting offensive role, and they may tire of hearing "he does the little things well" when they want him to catch 80 passes.


Dave Choate: Kroy Biermann was a very pleasant surprise for the Falcons in 2009. Do you see any indication he's capable of sustaining his pass-rushing production for the long-term?

Mike Tanier: He's a hustle guy who will make some second-effort sacks. I didn't scout him intensely enough to know much about his technique. What I like is that there is youth and quality all along that line, and there is competition and depth: Lawrence Sidbury drew great reviews in the offseason, and I don't think anyone is going to be put in a position where he has to play 60 snaps and take on double teams by himself.


A huge thanks to Mike Tanier and Football Outsiders for their time. Please consider purchasing the really is a fantastic read.