Football Outsiders recently released their 2021 Football Almanac, a resource choc full of statistics, analysis, and predictions for the upcoming NFL season. Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders was kind enough to sit down with Hogs Haven for an interview to discuss their Almanac and some of the analysis and predictions most relevant to fans of the Washington Football Team. This is the second part of the interview, the first part was published yesterday here. You can also find the full video of the interview on YouTube.
HH: What does your analysis say about Washington’s QB situation and who should be our starting QB this year?
The logic will say you’re bringing the veteran in and we know he’s volatile. Fitz is probably going to have a 3 or 4 interception game somewhere along the way. We have very little information on Taylor Heinicke; there’s nothing there to suggest this guy should be it, but we all watched the playoff game and he looked okay.
Can Washington’s defense overcome a bad game by their QB? They can. Can they overcome the absolutely miserable game that Fitz sometimes has? Maybe the Steelers could do that, but you can’t necessarily count on that. When we do our DVOA and DYAR on QBs, Fitz comes out as a slightly below average starter over the last 10 years. But it’s like the old joke about the guy who’s got his hand in the oven and his hand in the ice cubes: he’s average! (laughs) On average his temperature is fine! That’s how Fitz is. So reasonably, you would say they didn’t get a rookie, they didn’t get Aaron Rodgers, but they got a competent veteran, which makes sense. I think the big difference with Fitz is most of the time, you’re expecting a competent veteran will just distribute the ball and take what the defense gives you. You don’t get that with Fitz, which is what makes it volatile and interesting for Washington. He’s the anti-Alex Smith.
HH: Do any of Washington’s skill-position players (Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Logan Thomas) stand out to you as guys that will take a big step forward or back this year? Do the stats reveal anything unexpected or especially notable about them?
Curtis Samuel came up really, really high in his catch percentage and really low in the expected yards after catch. I think if you look at regular yards after catch, he’s got a lot of them, but we’ll do a thing where it’s like “it was a two yard pass to the outside, he should have had 10 YAC, but he only had 9 YAC” [so it corrects for the expectations of the play.] He came out really low for that, which is weird because have you seen him? He looks like he’s breaking a million tackles. If you dig into it, you realize they were using him at running back in Carolina for a while, so that could be a fluke thing, but there could be a little bit of a surprise there that this guy doesn’t come out as a YAC machine.
Everything from the catch rates down to the eyeball test says McLaurin has been held back. He’s been held back by Haskins, he’s been held back by Alex Smith, by that offense. Every indicator says he can be a much better player along the way.
Gibson came out around average in YAC, but you saw this is what he’s expected to do. If the question is “how do you make Gibson better in YAC?” Make a defender go more than 3 yards downfield and you’ll get more than 3 yards! Again, like for all of these guys, he passes the eyeball test. I don’t know if you’ve interviewed them, but most of these guys pass the interview test. Like, I want to hire these guys to run my bank. These are great, great individuals, Logan Thomas included. We just need to see them in an offense that’s a little more functional.
HH: What did your analysis reveal about Washington’s offensive scheme last year and is there anything different that you think they should do schematically?
Throw the ball more than two yards downfield! The Air Yards or Yards To Target was the lowest in the league, shockingly low. Then you go to the film and try to make sense of what they’re doing and I’ve never seen so many lateral passes in my life. It’s like when I would play the college football EA Sports game and I was a new team playing Alabama, all I could do was throw the screen in the shell. That was Washington last year for much of the year! So schematically, they have to push the ball downfield, they would have to with any QB. That’s obvious, I think everyone knows it, but it’s legit. Once you start doing that more, then you see more of what you have with Gibson, more of what you have with McLaurin, and more of what you have with some of these other guys.
HH: What did your analysis reveal about Washington’s defensive scheme and is there anything they should change there?
One thing that was interesting is that they used five defensive linemen a lot. Nobody uses five defensive linemen anymore, that’s like 1950s college football. But you look at the defensive linemen they were using and it’s like “yep, let’s get those guys on the field.” I don’t necessarily feel like that’s something that has to change. Sometimes it’s the defensive alignment and it’s using an edge rusher who’s an unbelievable athlete and can drop into coverage.
The closest thing to a weakness is that the linebacker corps is not phenomenal. If you have to be weak somewhere, it’s better to be weak at linebacker. The young man whom you drafted, [Jamin] Davis, I saw him as a run-around guy, exactly the type of guy you have to have there. This is also a team that is so strong in the secondary, you can run nickel almost all of the time, you can run 6 defensive backs and put your Landon Collins type guys in as a WILL linebacker. You also have the option of putting 5 defensive linemen in if it’s a run-heavy situation. Those are such good strengths, you should go with those and worry about linebacker as it comes up when you have to cover a RB into the flat.
HH: What stands out about Washington’s special teams performance last year and do you have any special teams predictions for the upcoming year?
It’s hard to predict special teams. Usually you predict the Ravens will have great special teams because they have a phenomenal kicker and their front office has 6 million guys hanging around on the bench that are phenomenal. Anyway, your punter Tress Way is great. Hopkins had a rough year with field goals last year, but he’s an outstanding kickoff guy. Sometimes field goals go up and down from year to year and then they just bounce back. It’s not like he lost his leg, it’s just that it was windy that day and he missed one. So we have a good kicker and good punter [for you guys]. Your overall strengths dovetail. Your punter is going to drive the length of the field and your kickoff guy is going to make them drive 80, 75 yards each time, so that helps your defense and creates good synergy. Again, if Hopkins bounces back and you’re stuck settling for field goals, you’re going to make more of them. Your return game has issues, but you can find a return man. You can’t always find a kicker, you can’t always find a punter.
HH: Switching gears to the division, the Almanac mentions ways in which Mike McCarthy’s coaching issues from Green Bay carried over to the Cowboys. Can you expound on those issues?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Aaron Rodgers is in the news a lot. Rodgers would complain about McCarthy a lot. My good friend Ty Don wrote an expose about the Packers showing Mike McCarthy was going to get massages in the middle of the day. The team was out there practicing and the assistant coaches were rolling meetings while he was getting rubbed down. He’s maybe not the hardest-working guy in the coaching fraternity.
So he takes over the Cowboys and if you remember, he said he watched every film of every game and then he joked at his press conference “I didn’t really watch film of every game.” Then he gets in there and with COVID, there are no minicamps and there are Zoom meetings. If you watched that Cowboys team, have you ever done that thing where you go to a Zoom meeting, but you have your camera off and your microphone on mute? You’re playing minecraft or you’re messing with your phone or watching TV? The Cowboys looked like that in the middle of the season. You put 2 and 2 together and when a coach has a reputation of not always being dialed in and then the team looks functionally unprepared to do their jobs, that’s what we saw from the Cowboys last year. Now I’ll say, he’s obviously on notice. He changed his coordinators, his assistants are on notice. This year will be a normal camp and I think we’re not going to see that problem this year from the Cowboys.
HH: What does your analysis show about the Giants QB Daniel Jones and do you think he’ll be the long term answer in New York?
I don’t think he’s a long-term answer, but it’s interesting analytically because on short passes, he’s not efficient. On medium passes, he’s not efficient (and we bake in the fact that they dropped a lot of passes when the WRs weren’t great). These are bad indicators, but then his deep passer rating is amazing. If you watch his games, [you’re thinking] “this kid’s a joke, this kid’s a mess,” and then there’s a 65-yard bomb to Slayton and it’s like “what just happened?”
There is an indicator for him pointing up, in addition to the fact that he just got receivers, in addition to the fact that they’ve invested six million draft picks in the offensive line the last 3 years. The indicators are wavering up and down. It’s so rare to take the Josh Allen trademark year 3 [to make that jump]. The reason we mention Josh Allen every time [for a year 3 QB jump] is because it’s so rare, ain’t nobody else that does it. Factor that in with all these long-term indicators, he’s probably not the answer, he’s probably just going to be a kinda okay QB there. The Giants look like they might be a kinda okay team there that after years of building is just at this point where they can kinda compete.
HH: Can Football Outsiders offer any insight into what happened to Carson Wentz last year and his precipitous decline?
A team of psychologists and guidance counselors would be needed to explain this. What happened to Carson Wentz transcends anything in human consciousness. The stats say no QB has gone from pretty good 2 years before to rock bottom, JaMarcus Russell-y level. It has never happened that a guy goes from great to bad unless it’s Peyton Manning at age 40 or whatever. This is unprecedented. So you put it into the data and what you get averaged the last couple of years is a pretty mediocre QB who can kind of start. That’s Wentz this year, but again it’s terra incognita. Anyway, he’s Indianapolis’s problem. As Washington fans looking at Philly, you see a rebuilding team that has a lot of questions, that’s what Philly is right now.
HH: So where can people buy the 2021 Football Outsiders Almanac and what other information can they access on Football Outsiders?
Come to Football Outsiders, you can buy the Almanac there. You can also get a FO+ subscription. It is a buck a week right now. You get access to all of our stats, the database, Scott Spratt’s fantasy predictions and projections that are constantly being updated, all kinds of stuff at footballoutsiders.com. Of course, once you subscribe, you get the online version of the Almanac, which is very easy to use. You can also go to Amazon and buy the 2021 Football Almanac as a print copy. It’s something in print when you’re watching that preseason game to be able to flip and say “who’s that kid?” We’ve got writeups for everybody in there. So footballoutsiders.com to get the subscription or amazon.com to get the print edition.
I’d like to again thank Mike Tanier for his time discussing the Football Outsiders 2021 Almanac and what it has to say for fans of the Washington Football Team. I hope I’ve done Mike justice with the transcript; he was very knowledgeable, friendly, and hilarious to speak to live. Anyone who wants to see the interview can find the full video of the interview on YouTube. For those who missed it, the first part of this interview transcript was published yesterday here.
Which skill-position player is going to take the biggest step forward this year?
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Other (say in comments)
Which of our division rivals do you think will do the best this year?
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New York Giants