I have often talked about the awesomeness of Football Outsiders and the advanced statistics that they put together for football fans like us. They've just recently released their 2011 version of their Football Outsiders Almanac, and unlike most preview-type publications they were able to wait until after the free agency dust had settled to make their projections for 2011.
I had an opportunity to ask a few questions of Football Outsiders' writer Mike Tanier, who wrote the Vikings' preview for the 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac. Here is what he had to say about this year's installment of the team, which is projected by the Almanac for 8.5 wins, which puts them firmly into the category of post-season contender.
1) The Minnesota Vikings had a lot of strange things happen to them during the 2010 season, particularly towards the end of the year. Did any of that stuff play any role in the Football Outsiders' projections for the 2011 version of the team?
When projecting, you have to project neutral luck. There are a lot of factors that fall into the "luck" category for a football team: the percentage of fumbles that are recovered, the general injury rate, and so on. You clearly don’t project things like massive scheduling upheaval or a long stint by a third string quarterback into a team’s future. When you make a new set of projections, you throw away things like Joe Webb’s performance at the end of last year, and you replace them with Donovan McNabb, and even if you factor in the likelihood McNabb will miss time, you project either Christian Ponder or a more prepared Webb, not a receiver working from a minimalist playbook.2) What was the biggest surprise you found when doing your preview of the 2011 Minnesota Vikings?
The high projection shocked me, especially when I began combing deeper into the roster and saw how many older players the Vikings had on their bench. When you cover a national beat like I do, teams that are losing become caricatures: the Vikings became a Favre sideshow with an interim coach and a collapsed roof. You lose sight of the fact that the team was having problems in the secondary, and the fact that their roster was still built for a Super Bowl push and was therefore in bad position to switch suddenly into rebuilding mode.
3) The Vikings are transitioning from Favregeddon to having Donovan McNabb at quarterback. What sort of effect do you think this will have on the offense in 2011?
With Favre and Childress, there was a lot of three-step drop and toss the ball into the middle of the field. Favre was excellent at dropping the ball into the tight end or slot receiver’s body right until the end. The Vikings also ran a lot of course, but the passing game was about spraying passes around the middle of the field. With McNabb, it will be Peterson, Peterson, Peterson, play-fake to Peterson and bombs away. McNabb has lost a lot, and he was never a guy you wanted throwing right away after a three-step drop. He is still a great bomber, and he is not very interception prone. It will be a safe, stable offense.
4) Speaking of quarterbacks, Minnesota selected Christian Ponder as their quarterback of the future in the most recent draft. What do your projections think of Ponder's odds of success when he does finally get to take over in Minnesota?
Our KUBIAK projection of Ponder, had he started this year, came in around 3,400 yards, with 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. It’s important to note that our rookie projections are influenced heavily by the offense itself; we don’t have a lot of variables to separate Ponder from other high first-round picks with his general college background. I think he was overdrafted , because he was a prospect in the Colin Kapernick class in my opinion, but getting McNabb to handle 2011 was a great idea, because it gives Ponder a chance to fix some mechanical problems he started to have in college because he was always playing hurt. I think we have to be extra patient with rookie quarterbacks this year because of the lack of offseason. The "OMG, he was demoted to third string!" headlines about Ponder and others (Gabbert) were exciting, but you have to put yourself in an NFL training facility. These guys just got their parking placards on July 28th. They didn’t know where their lockers were located. Some of them might have needed a GPS just to find their way to work on the first day.They had a lot to absorb in just a few weeks.
5) A lot of places seem to be projecting doom and gloom for Minnesota in 2011, but Football Outsiders sees them as being a potential playoff contender. Why does your outlook for Minnesota seem to be a bit more positive, and what do you personally expect to see from the Vikings in 2011?
First, many outlets do projections by taking last year’s record, moving teams up and down based on some high-profile acquisitions, and fitting everybody into a storyline that works. This year, "Lions are ready to compete" is a big story, and I like some of the things the Lions did, but our system projects lots and lots of variables that operate under the hood of football wins and losses. We look at things like how terrible the Vikings were at red zone passing last year, and we see that number will likely improve, not just because of personnel and scheme changes but because the number was so outlier-low that there has to have been a random element involved. Seemingly small changes like that have a bigger effect than, well, saying a team had a four-game winning streak at the end of last year and now has some kind of momentum.
Second, you know, a lot of outlets are stuck with pre-lockout projections and opinions. Sure, you can take a 5-11 projection for the Vikings and make it 6-10 to account for McNabb, but that is not really scientific, and it’s not doing things like accounting for the moves opponents made. We ran new simulations, based on the whole league’s moves, in late August, so we know about the Bears moves and so on.
When you read projections, remember that some major media personalities went through the league’s records, and someone fact checked him, he had the whole NFL come out 25 games under .500 or something. That’s the "let’s make up a projection" business, not our business. Our projections can surprise us, which is a good sign that there is more going on than the opinions of a few guys.
Big thanks once again to Mike Tanier for taking the time to answer these questions for us about the 2011 Minnesota Vikings. It's nice to see an outlet that doesn't automatically assume doom and gloom based (largely) on rosters that were nowhere near set when the lockout was finally lifted.
If you would like to grab a copy of the 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac, feel free to click on the picture of the cover there. It comes in either PDF format (which you can download straight away) or the traditional book style.