Baltimore Beatdown Q&A With Football Outsiders

Football Outsiders recently released their 2012 Almanac, in which they have our Baltimore Ravens neck and neck with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Based on their review of the team, I had the opportunity to submit a few questions and get extremely detailed answers from research analyst Danny Tuccitto on the 2012 Ravens.

1. With the obvious focus on the passing rather than the running game, can the Baltimore Ravens offense improve to the point that QB Joe Flacco can consistently carry the team on his arm if and when the team's defense cannot win games on their own?
Aside from a drop in completion percentage in 2011 due to throwing more deep passes, Flacco has basically posted the same stats -- both standard and advanced -- for three years running. He's had Ray Rice in the backfield and the same system for his entire career. You can probably see where I'm going with this: We know what to expect from Flacco in the current Baltimore environment. The only wrinkle is that the emergence of Torrey Smith as a deep threat (finally) allows Cam Cameron to put the pedal to the metal on his Air Coryell system, which up until now has featured plenty of signature play-action fakes, but was missing the over-the-top element that takes full advantage of those fakes.

Does Flacco have the skill set to put the fate of the team on his shoulders? Aside from the mobility of a glacier and the pocket awareness of a naive tourist, sure. Will the current regime take that leap on purpose? No. Now, if the defense -- for whatever reason -- falls off a cliff, it'll force their hand. Being down by two or three scores in the second half does that to any team, but what are the odds of it specifically happening in Baltimore, though? As old as they are, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are still on the roster, and not showing signs of drastic age-related decline. Even Terrell Suggs' injury shouldn't have as much of an impact as a comparable loss for most teams because Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger, and Courtney Upshaw can pick up the slack to a reasonable degree.

Bottom line: Flacco has the ability to carry the Ravens, but him having to do so means something has gone horrifically wrong; to the point that his performance won't matter.
(Read more of my Q&A with Football Outsider's Danny Tuccitto after the 'Jump')
2. Do the receivers make the QB or does the QB makes the receivers? Critics have said Flacco has needed better receivers in order to improve his stats, while guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning regularly make stars out of receivers that no one knew.
Kind of alluding to the answer above, I'd put it like this. Every offensive play -- ignoring the most gimmicky ones -- goes through the quarterback. Passes can't get to a receiver without his quarterback. Having nothing to do with statistics, it's just intuitive that quarterbacks make receivers better, not vice versa. If Larry Fitzgerald magically showed up on Baltmore's roster, Flacco would be slightly better. But if Drew Brees magically showed up on Arizona's roster, Fitzgerald would likely return to the video game stats he posted with Kurt Warner around.

With that said, receivers can make quarterbacks better, but mostly on the margins of performance. An emergent deep threat like Torrey Smith can make a quarterback like Flacco better because of his aforementioned effect on the offensive play-calling, as well as the fact that Smith's skill set takes advantage of Flacco's strong arm. It's analogous to the Randy Moss addition in San Francisco. Moss won't turn Alex Smith into a top-5 quarterback, but his skill set allows the coaching staff to do some things that they otherwise couldn't, which Smith will benefit from indirectly.
3. Are there any tangible stats that can determine how good or bad the Ravens defense will be without Ray Lewis? Ed Reed?
This is an incredibly crude way of going about things, but here's what's happened to teams after the departure of a star inside linebacker (since pass defense rules eased in 1978) who was with them for at least the first 10 years or more of his career:

a) TB went from 9-7 in 2008 to 3-13 in 2009 after Derrick Brooks retired.
b) CHI went from 5-11 in 1992 to 7-9 in 1993 after Mike Singletary retired.
c) SD went from 8-8 in 2002 to 4-12 in 2003 after Junior Seau was traded to MIA.
d) MIA went from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008 after Zach Thomas got released.

That's four comparable situations over the past 25 years, which resulted in a combined two-win difference in the season after said linebacker went bye-bye. In other words, the stats say nothing.

With respect to Baltimore's life after Ed Reed, there's literally no comparable player or situation since 1978. If you search Pro Football Reference for the most valuable defensive backs through 10 seasons with one team (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/play-index/psl_finder.cgi?request=1&match=combined&year_min=1978&year_max=2012&season_start=1&season_end=10&age_min=0&age_max=99&draft_round_min=0&draft_round_max=99&league_id=&team_id=&is_active=&is_hof=&pos_is_s=Y&pos_is_db=Y&c1stat=av&c1comp=gt&c1val=100&c2stat=&c2comp=gt&c2val=&c3stat=&c3comp=gt&c3val=&c4stat=&c4comp=gt&c4val=&order_by=av), you get two cornerbacks who converted to safety as they aged (Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson), one full-career corner (Aeneas Williams), a corner who is still playing (Ronde Barber), and a strong safety who is still playing (Troy Polamalu). In other words, the stats say nothing.
4. Any way to determine the value of a placekicker and their effect on the outcome of a game?
The value of a kicker is basically field goals plus kickoff distance, both of which Football Outsiders evaluates using the concept of expected points (i.e. History says a team should score X points when they have the ball at yardline Y). Billy Cundiff led the league which +6.4 expected points of kickoff distance. In other words, if you take all of his kickoffs, ignore the return, and compare them to the average kicker's distances, Baltimore would be expected to score about six points more than the average kicker's team. Now, if you had in the returns, Baltimore ranked 28th at -7.4 expected points, so the coverage unit were the problem there. Field goals were a different story, with Cundiff posting -5.3 expected points, which means that the average NFL kicker would have produced about five points more for the Ravens if he had the same assortment of field goal distances as Cundiff.

Now, presumably, you're bringing this up in the context of blaming Cundiff for the AFC Championship game loss. If we look at things in terms of win probability, the average NFL team scores about two points on 4th-and-1 from the opponents' 14-yard-line when down by three points with 15 seconds left. Of course, that's because some teams choose to go for it instead of trying a field goal. The probability that a field goal in that situation succeeds is about 80 percent, so, yeah, that was an epic fail; but you didn't need stats to tell you that. I think the more interesting thing, though, is that considering all of the above, Baltimore only had a 43 percent chance of winning the game before the kick was missed because they still had to play overtime even if he makes it. So yeah, blame Cundiff for (soul-crushingly) taking that win probability down to zero, but they were by no means a lock to win in an alternative universe where the kick was good.
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