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Talking Cleveland Browns With Football Outsiders, Part 1 - Dropped Passes & OL Production

With the preseason about to begin for the Cleveland Browns, that means it is time to post our annual interview with Football Outsiders! This year, our interview was conducted with Mike Tanier, who wrote the section on the Browns in their 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac.

The Almanac is only $12.50 in PDF format, and consists of 500 pages of unique analytical research for every team in the league, as well as many players. If you're looking to bone up on your knowledge about all 32 teams in the NFL before the season starts, this is certainly worth the purchase to buy, print out, and then read up on one team per day.

The staff at Dawgs By Nature compiled a list of questions for Mike, and I am breaking the interview up into two parts. Part 1 asks him about how Football Outsiders compiles some of their statistics, while Part 2 focuses largely on asking about the defensive improvements the Browns have made in 2013.


DBN: "We often hear how many passes a wideout or running back 'drops.' But when you watch a game, so many factors play a role into a dropped pass, be it behind the WR, perfectly timed hit from a defender, tipped passes, etc. How do you guys judge a dropped pass and how can you keep it consistent in a league with 19,000 passes a season?"

Mike: "We take a 'when in doubt, leave it out' approach to calling something a drop. If the ball glances off the outstretched fingertips of a leaping receiver, or a defender hotly contests the pass, that is not a drop. When we are cleaning up the Game Charting spreadsheets, we do some quality control on anything that looks fishy, and charters can flag a play that they don't know how to classify. Nowadays, lots of different sources tabulate drops -- we do it, our competitors do it, ESPN does it -- and our totals for any player are rarely off by more than one play. For someone like Greg Little in 2011, whether the number is 12 or 13 or 14, all sources agreed there was a problem, which was less of a problem (but still there) in 2012.

If I am writing about a player with a high drop total, I try to watch every drop. That led me to watch lots of Montario Hardesty two years ago, and I would rather not do that again."

DBN: "Likewise, it's notoriously difficult to separate offensive line play from running back production, and even more difficult to separate individual linemen from the group as a whole statistically. Do you believe such a task is really even possible, or are we stuck with subjective grades?"

Mike: "The Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards stat is an imperfect solution to this problem. You can learn a lot about the offensive line by focusing on how often the team's running backs produce 4-6 yard plays, and by 'shaving' the yardage off downfield plays to reflect the fact that the running back is on his own once he is a few yards past the line. A measure like Blown Blocks is somewhat subjective, but like dropped passes, it can be helpful if the charters stick to clear-cut cases: if a guard falls down and lets a defensive lineman stuff the running back 13 times in a season, that is a data point worth focusing on.

What worries me with offensive and defensive line stats are the Fake Objective Subjective stats, where analysts take a bunch of subjective judgments and bury them inside calculations with decimal points. I would rather hear someone say 'Joe Thomas did a great job against Terrell Suggs and opened some holes, but jumped offside once' than see 'Joe Thomas scored a 7.1342 on my Lineman Rankings,' when there are just too many NFL plays where we do not know the player's exact assignment and cannot be 100% clear on how well he filled it."


Thanks to Mike and Football Outsiders for their time; we will be posting Part 2 of our interview with them a little bit later today.