The game of baseball lends itself to endless statistical analysis. You could just talk numbers from now until Tuesday's all-star game about the struggles of the Cubs without even mentioning the sideshows that have dominated the season to this point on the North Side. There is a statistical explanation or trend for everything.
Football isn't broken down in quite the same way, or at least it has not been in the mainstream. But the good folks at Football Outsiders are doing all they can to introduce some new tools for examining the game. Just this past week they released the Football Outsiders Almanac in PDF format. The actual book should be available in a few weeks on Amazon.com. This is the same publication that previously was Pro Football Prospectus.
If you put stock in their work you can call your travel agent. Football Outsiders projects the Bears to win the NFC this season. That's right, they have the Bears returning to Miami three years after losing Super Bowl XLI there.
"We have them with the highest projected record of any team in the NFC,'' managing editor Bill Barnwell said. "Thanks to improvements along the offensive line and a defense that we expect to be much healthier."
The addition of Jay Cutler has a little bit to do with their forecast as well. We've done a little light reading through the 517-page book and it's loaded with some very interesting analysis, some of which we will touch on right here and more of which we'll get into later this week and as we get closer to training camp. The PDF version of the book is available on their Web site here if you want to check it out yourself.
The statistic at the center of almost everything Football Outsiders does is DVOA--Defense Adjusted Value Over Average. It's not quite as simple as yards per carry or even the often misleading passer rating. What DVOA does is put yardage gained into better perspective. An eight-yard pass on third-and-10 isn't very helpful. It's going to lead to a punt. But a one-yard run on third-and-one is effective, right? A one-yard one on third-and-one vs. the Williams Wall or the Pittsburgh Steelers is more impressive, too, than say an identical outcome vs. Detroit. DVOA evaluates every single play during the NFL season and strips out plays such as Hail Mary passes, kneel downs, spikes, and every play is studied after adjusting for down, distance, situation on the field and the quality of the opponent. So every third-and-one play across the entire league is analyzed. Every third-and-12 is studied. Every snap for all 32 teams goes under the microscope. The DVOA is the percentage vs. the league average. So a 10 percent DVOA is pretty good. A running back with a 10 percent DVOA is doing 10 percent better than the league average. On defense, a negative DVOA means a team is allowing fewer yards than the league average.
So where do the Bears stack up? Well, it's been since 1995 that they had a positive DVOA on offense. Erik Kramer's big season when he passed for 3,838 yards and 29 touchdowns hasn't been replicated since. In fact, no Bears' passer has come close. According to Football Outsiders, the Bears had a 17.7 percent DVOA that year as an offense, which is tremendous production. Last year, they were minus-4.3 percent, similar to the minus-4.2 percent they registered during the Super Bowl season of 2006. The worst during their 14-year stretch in which they had just the one positive season (1995) came during the Terry Shea Experiment of 2004 when the Bears were at minus-36.5 percent, worst in the league.
Defensively, the Bears fared much better last season than their total defense ranking of 21st, which measures just yards allowed. When Lovie Smith says there is more to defense than yards allowed, perhaps he has his DVOA in mind. The Bears' DVOA on defense in 2008 was minus-6.8 percent, which ranked seventh. That was one spot better than where they were in 2007. Football Outsiders' system had the Bears as the second-ranked defense in the league in 2006 at minus-19.7 percent and tops in 2005 when they were minus-21.5 percent. The lowest they have finished under Smith was ninth in 2004. We'll get into a few reasons why the DVOA was solid last season a little later on.
First, let's look at a few things on offense.
*** Running back Matt Forte had a minus-7.1 percent DVOA last season. His yards per carry average of 3.9 was a culprit and remember the Bears were not very successful in third- and fourth-and-short situations. Barnwell says with modest improvements by Forte this season he should post an improved DVOA.
*** The Bears' best wide receiver last year according to DVOA was Brandon Lloyd at minus-6.0 percent. Devin Hester was minus-9.5 percent.
*** Tight end Greg Olsen had a DVOA of 0.0 meaning he was right in line with league average.
"Even though the stats are league average I think realistically some of the ridiculous one-handed catches he made and the stuff he did on the field, that probably undersells him a little bit,'' Barnwell said. "But relative to the defenses he was playing and where he was catching the ball, he was right at league average. I think the biggest reason why was he wasn't getting too far down the field. His average was right about 10 yards. When those 10-yard patterns become 12-yard patterns, and if they can keep Cutler up a little bit longer, Olsen's DVOA will improve."
Football Outsiders projects big things for the Bears, though, and that means improvement all around. We'll get into the offensive line, which Barnwell touched on, later in the week. He acknowledged the team needs a vertical threat.
"We would see Hester [being that player],'' Barnwell said. "You look at the offense. They're going to have Earl Bennett, most likely, as a possession guy and Olsen can also be a possession guy. Then you have Hester as the vertical threat. Certainly he has the athleticism. Watching him on film last year, you could really see improvement in his routes. More than one person who watches the Bears for us actually mentioned he was doing a lot better. We have a pretty high projection for Hester this year.''
Just how do they project Hester? 62 receptions, 858 yards (13.8 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. It adds up to a 2.7 percent DVOA.
Olsen? 61 receptions, 738 yards, 7 touchdowns, 17.0 percent DVOA
Matt Forte? 322 rushes, 1,272 yards, 4.0 average, 68 receptions, 417 yards, 14 touchdowns, 2 touchdowns, 8.4 percent DVOA (as a rusher)
And Cutler? 301 completions, 493 attempts, 61.2 percent, 3,409 yards, 20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 3.0 percent DVOA. Cutler had a 22.0 percent DVOA in Denver last season meaning he was 22 percent more productive than the league average at quarterback. The drop they're projecting has to be an indication of what it will be like for him without Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. Make no mistake, Football Outsiders likes the trade for the Bears, "The Bears paid for an elite quarterback and they're getting one."
More on the offense later in the week.
A couple real interesting defensive nuggets:
*** The Bears were first in the league in rushing the passer with seven defenders and fourth in rushing the passer with six defenders. There's plenty to get into on their pass rush, or lack of a pass rush, as we move forward.
*** The Bears were No. 1 in the league in yards after the catch, allowing just 3.9 yards per reception. However, that doesn't mean Football Outsiders was kind to any of the defensive backs with the exception of the departed Mike Brown.
*** The Bears were second in the league in DVOA when they hurried the quarterback, just behind Pittsburgh.
*** One more note, the Bears ranked fifth in the league on special teams in DVOA after being No. 1 in 2006 and 2007.
There is a lot to chew on here and our hope is we introduced some statistical analysis in a manner in which it's easy to understand. We had the benefit of a nice chat with Barnwell. The Football Outsiders Web site is stocked with great information. We'll try to share a little more here in the coming days.