.NET Q&A - Aaron Schatz, Part Four

On January 19, Seahawks.NET was honored to participate in a phone interview with Aaron Schatz, the Editor-in-Chief of Football Outsiders, the cutting-edge website that endeavors to bring new statistical and analytical factors to the diehard fan's enjoyment of the game.

.NET: One thing both teams have in common is linebacker sets that are effective, but quite possibly underrated. What rankings systems do you have to quantify the performances of linebackers, and how do these two units rate?

Aaron Schatz: We’re still early on in trying to do individual defensive stats. We’ve got some stuff that we play with, but for the most part, when it comes to defense, we’re still looking at overall teams. So, you’ve got your adjusted line yards where Seattle’s defense is #1, and the Carolina defense is #6. Often, a good indicator of linebacker success is teams that are strong in preventing passes to running backs, and a little bit to tight ends. That’s actually a place where Seattle has been good this year – they’re 10th against passes to running backs – and Carolina is 16th against passes to running backs.

We do have some individual defensive stats - Stop Rate, which measures the percentage of plays a defender makes that stop the offense short of success. The problem with that is that you can only measure the plays a guy makes – you can’t measure his opportunities to make plays, because we don’t have any sort of listing of ‘Tackles Missed’, or something line that. We also measure (Stop Rate on) run versus pass, what players are involved in, and what percentage of their team’s tackles they’re involved in.

One of the interesting players is (Seattle rookie SLB) Leroy Hill – our numbers show that Seattle is better at preventing runs to the offensive right, and Leroy Hill has a Stop Rate of 78% on running plays, which is very strong. Of the 27 run tackles that he has been involved in, 21 of them have stopped the offense short of success. Nine of those plays have either stopped the offense in third or fourth down, or resulted in a fumble. So, he’s had a really good year. For all the talk about (rookie MLB Lofa) Tatupu, very few people are talking about Hill, but he was also just an excellent draft pick who was able to come in and play really well right away. I believe he was a third-rounder, right?

.NET: Yes, he was.

Aaron Schatz: There were some good players in that third round this year – (New England CB) Ellis Hobbs, (CB) Domonique Foxworth from Denver, Trai Essex in Pittsburgh, who was not as good as their other left tackle, but was at least passable. Nick Kaczur, who I think was a third-rounder, played left tackle for the Patriots…the third round was filled with good guys this year.

.NET: About Hill – if you look at pure stats, and Leroy Hill’s numbers versus (Defensive Rookie of the Year) Shawne Merriman’s, it’s very interesting that Hill is so under the radar.

Aaron Schatz: Well, Merriman is more of an “impact guy” – when he does make the plays, they’re of huge importance – but he also helped himself by having his biggest game of the year on national television, preventing a team (the Indianapolis Colts) from going undefeated (when Merriman’s Chargers beat the Colts, 26-17 on December 18). I probably would have voted for Lofa Tatupu as Defensive Rookie of the Year.

There were so many strong linebackers (in the draft) in particular this year. There was also Odell Thurman, and then you had the guy who nobody talks about, which is Kirk Morrison in Oakland. Nobody talks about him because that defense was pretty bad, but it was getting better as the year went along, and Morrison stepped in as the middle linebacker and played really well right away.

.NET: One thing that many people may not know is the extent to which Football Outsiders just loves Bobby Engram as a player. How did this affection take root and grow?

Aaron Schatz: The funny thing is that I’ve loved (the Seahawks) ever since we first started doing this. When we first put up the site in 2003, we did our season predictions, and I predicted that Seattle would be the breakout team of the year. We call Bobby Engram “The First-Down Machine”. He’s actually not been as good this year as he has been in years past. I think part of that is that when you move guys into higher-profile roles, their skills are sometimes so suited to a specialty role that when you move them into starting roles, they’re forced to use skills that aren’t necessarily their best. (In 2005, Engram moved out of the full-time slot position and the #3 designation to the #2 spot behind Darrell Jackson),

For example, when the Patriots made Kevin Faulk their full-time running back in 2002, he really wasn’t that good at it. He’s much more a third-down back. Engram as a third-down receiver was the best in Value Per Play of any receiver in the league. He catches an amazing number of the balls that are thrown to him, which is one of the things we measure that nobody does. It’s never made sense to me that you measure quarterbacks based on incomplete passes, but never wide receivers.

I hate it when a quarterback throws a ball away, and they list an intended receiver because a player was standing on the out-of-bounds line, and the pass sailed twenty feet over his head. You’ve got dropped passes, you’ve got guys running the wrong routes or running a little slow, so it is important for a receiver to catch a high percentage of balls. The guys who catch the highest percentage are Engram, Joe Jurevicius, Steve SmithHines Ward is amazing at that.

We’ve been talking about Engram since the site first started, because he is a ‘First Down Machine’. When Seattle had Jackson and Koren Robinson, they’d bring the three receivers and throw to Engram on third down, and it would be a first down. Of all the stats that are ignored by conventional NFL analysis, it is first downs for both running backs and receivers that is so important. You can talk about touchdowns all you want, but you can’t get touchdowns until you get a few first downs that get you to that end of the field.

.NET: Speaking of Jurevicius – in retrospect, would you call him the best free-agent acquisition of 2005?

Aaron Schatz: I’m not sure – probably not. The best was probably (MLB) Antonio Pierce, in the middle of the Giants’ defense. The transformation of the Giants’ defense came down to Pierce and the maturation of DE Osi Umenyiora. Jurevicius was obviously a very, very good free agent pickup – he was exactly what Seattle needed. They needed a receiver who could catch the ball (laughs) – a mature receiver who could run good routes and catch the ball. They had one in Engram, and they needed more. Now they have Jurevicius, and Darrell Jackson has been catching the ball more than in years past. Seattle’s receivers caught something like 55% of passes thrown to then in 2004, and it’s 67% this year, so that’s been a huge change for them.

.NET: No question. Mike Holmgren said last week that after reviewing all the throws in 2005, the dropped passes totaled 43 last year and 23 this year.

Aaron Schatz: One of the most frustrating things for me is that drops aren’t indicated in the official play-by-play. If you go to the Stats, Inc site and hunt around for a little while, you can find total drops for players, but only for receivers and tight ends, not running backs. We’d love to be able to see the play-by-play for the dropped passes so that we could take them out of a quarterback’s rating. That would have had Matt Hasselbeck rated even higher in past years.

.NET: The first interception in the wild-card playoff game against the Rams, which ended Seattle’s 2004 season with a 27-20 loss, was a ball that went out of Darrell Jackson’s hands, right into the hands of St. LouisTravis Fisher.

Aaron Schatz: I remember that. Unfortunately, Bobby Engram will always be remembered for having the pass go off his hands at the end of that game, when he’s actually the most sure-handed of the Seattle receivers.

.NET: If you had the vote, would Tim Ruskell be your Executive of the Year? Which other executives do you think have a legitimate shot at the award?

Aaron Schatz: You know, it’s something I haven’t thought much about, and I should. Football Outsiders should do an Executive of the Year ballot for our awards balloting that we do before the Super Bowl. (I’d also mention) Ernie Accorsi of the Giants. They had three huge holes and he went out and filled every single one of them with a free agent. They needed a linebacker, a middle linebacker and a playmaking receiver, and he went out and got Kareem Mckenzie, Antonio Pierce and Plaxico Burress.

The thing with Seattle is that you’re not only talking about Jurevicius, but you’re also talking about the total rebuilding of the front seven, which has turned it into one of the strongest run defenses in the league. That came with the very high-quality draft, getting Tatupu and Hill in the second and third rounds. If you combine the free agents and the draft, Ruskell might come out ahead.

We don’t really know what’s up with the first-round guy (center Chris Spencer) – he was a developmental project and I believe he still is.

.NET: The thing about Spencer (not playing yet) is that Robbie Tobeck is so good with line calls, and Hasselbeck is so comfortable with him. I think the franchise said, ‘The offense is so close to where we want it to be, that we’re going to draft this guy for the future, being that he’s such a good athlete. We’ll have him develop under Tobeck, who’s also a good mentor, and just do it that way.’

Aaron Schatz: We won’t know whether that was a good pick for a few years. There is a feeling (among some analysts) that if Seattle had known it was going to be on the cusp of the Super Bowl, would it have taken somebody with that pick that would be useful now? They made up for it in the present with the strong second- and third-round picks.

.NET: Based on your analysis, should Shaun Alexander have been the NFL’s MVP?

Aaron Schatz: No, but I didn’t really have a problem with it. He did have an amazing year, but Alexander does get a lot of his value from the offensive line. There’s also the fact that he plays on a team with such a strong passing game – you can’t stack eight in the box, or Hasselbeck will burn you. The backup (running back Maurice Morris) is one of the highest-ranked backups according to our rankings – obviously, the offensive line is really strong.

I don’t think we would have chosen him as MVP, I probably would have chosen (Tom) Brady because of what he did when the Patriots were crumbling all around him at mid-season. (Carson) Palmer would have been a good choice; (Peyton) Manning would have been a good choice. Steve Smith didn’t get any votes, which I think is a little silly given what we saw - he was Carolina’s offense all season.

If I had my choice of a Seattle player to give my vote to, I would give it to Walter Jones. However, offensive linemen don’t win the MVP award.

This obviously goes into the next big question - something that is probably too involved to be addressed here – and that is, “Should they re-sign Alexander?” And I think you have to consider that in a couple years, he’ll be past his prime. Factor in how good the line is, and how well the backups play behind the line, and that’s why there’s the question of re-signing him. Obviously, he’s the best. But if you could get 80% of the performance for 20% of the price, does that make sense? If people are wondering why they haven’t re-signed him yet that’s the question they’re trying to answer.

.NET: Well, that’s an industrial-sized can of worms we won’t open here (laughs). To our last question: I won’t ask you for picks, but I will ask you who you think will win this week.

Aaron Schatz: Yeah…I don’t like making picks, because when you make a pick, people think you’re saying that team will win, rather than, “That team is more likely to win.” While I do make picks, I want people to understand that I’m not saying, 100%, “The team I pick will win.” I think what you have here is four very balanced teams, with Pittsburgh and Carolina both playing better at the end of the year. They’re fairly equal, and I think each one has a 1-in-5 chance of winning the Super Bowl. It’s the slight gradations in that last 1-in-5 chance that make the difference in which team should be favored.

I do think that the most likely outcome is a Seattle-Denver Super Bowl - an AFC West reunion! I just think that as well as Carolina’s defense has played, you have to wonder about Chicago putting up 21 points on them last week. Seattle is better than Carolina at nearly every offensive position except for Steve Smith, and their defense is underrated. The secondary is the problem – they cannot make mistakes with Smith, and the players that need to step up for Carolina are receivers Drew Carter and Ricky Proehl. If they can step up, they can pass on Seattle even if Seattle doesn’t make mistakes covering Smith.

Even if you stick two or three guys on (Smith), he will get his yards. As long as you prevent everything else, Seattle’s offense should be able to score enough, even on the Carolina defense, to win the game. If they screw up by not putting extra guys on Smith, and not leaving a safety deep like Chicago didn’t last week, Carolina’s going to the Super Bowl. If they’re smart in the way that they play defense, and Carter or Proehl can’t step up, their offense will definitely score enough points to win. Seattle just has so many weapons, and can do so many things…whatever Carolina tries to take away, Seattle can do the other thing.

That’s why the Patriots won those championships over the last couple of years – the Patriots could do everything at a “B” level. So, whatever you would take away from them, they would just do something else. They weren’t the best in the league at that “something else”, but they were always pretty good at everything and would do whatever you would give them. Seattle’s offense is pretty similar – they’re “B”-level at everything with the exception of Alexander, who’s an “A+”.

If you take away Alexander, they’ll throw to Jackson. Take away Jackson and Engram, they’ll throw to Jurevicius. Take away that guy, they’ll throw to Stevens. They have so many weapons, they’re going to score on you even if your defense is that good. The question really is, can their secondary control Carolina’s passing game?

.NET: Aaron, thank you for your time – once again, we must mention the excellent site, Football Outsiders, as well as the Pro Football Prospectus book. We appreciate your analysis as we look forward to the NFC Championship game!

Editor's Note - Many thanks to Associate Editor Scott Eklund for his help in transcribing this interview.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.

Aaron Schatz is the Editor-in-Chief of FootballOutsiders.com, Lead Writer and Statistician for the “Football Prospectus” annual volume, and an NFL analyst for FoxSports.com. He has also written for the New York Times, the New York Sun, the Boston Globe, The New Republic Online and Slate, and has done custom research for NFL.com and a number of NFL teams. Before creating Football Outsiders, he spent three years tracking search trends online for the internet column, “The Lycos 50”. He has a B.A. in economics from Brown University and lives in Framingham, Massachusetts, with his wife, Kathryn, and daughter, Mirinae.

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