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'Football Outsiders' Breaks Down the 2009 Baltimore Ravens

Football Outsiders ( has recently released their Football Outsiders 2009 Almanac, The Essential Guide to the 2009 NFL and College Football Seasons. It is a 558 page, incredibly detailed publication breaking down both the pro and college games into so many statisitcal categories on every NFL and every major college conference. It goes into such in depth information as even rating the medical staffs of the NFL teams.

Football Outsiders agreed to send me a copy of their 2009 guide, which includes six pages of information, analysis and prediction on the Baltimore Ravens in return for my review of their comments and responding with questions related to their findings and expected outcomes. After reading their section on the purple and black, trying to understand their unique analysis system, I came up with some questions, including one minor mistake that doesn't change their reasoning that the Ravens will not build on their success from 2008 and should see a significant drop off in 2009, both in offensive productivity and defensive scoring.

If you get a chance to visit their site (click here), it is worth your while to see the great lengths they've gone to in researching each and every team and making 2009 predictions based partly on 2008 performances in addition to their value system. Here are my questions for Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders and their responses: 

1.  Why do you think the offensive gains made by the Ravens in 2008 will be "given back" in 2009?

There's a variety of reasons why. When we look at a team's performance in a given season and attempt to project their performance in the following campaign, we look at what they did in a variety of different manners and compare it to what we've seen league-wide in the past, to see what's sustainable and what's, well, fluky.

A good example is a concept we refer to as the "third-down rebound". In the NFL, a disproportionate amount of team success is related to how well a team performs on third down. It's something that's not only borne out in statistics, but makes sense when you think about it -- if a team strikes out on second down, they've got another chance to pick up a first down, but if they fail on third down, most times, they're punting.

What we've found is that teams that have a third down performance that's drastically different from their performance on first and second down tend to see that third down performance look more like their level of play on the other two downs in the following season. It's a very strong, reliable trend.

We track performance on a given down by using DVOA, our core metric. It measures performance on every play versus the league average after adjusting for the down, distance, game situation, and the quality of opposition. It's another concept that just plain makes sense -- four yards on third-and-3 against the Steelers in a tie game means a lot more than those same four yards on second-and-19 against the Lions when you're up 35 points.

The Ravens' DVOA on first down last year was -13.3%, which ranked 27th in the league. They got up to 9.5% on second down, which was 16th, but on third down, they had an impressive 30.0% DVOA, which was seventh-best in football.

While we can point to reasons why they might be ideally suited for third downs (Le'Ron McClain's ability as a short-yardage back and the team's success in power situation comes to mind), that's not enough to explain their dramatic level of success on third down. That's likely to regress to something closer to their play on the other two downs this year, resulting in a decrease in points scored. Baltimore was actually slightly better on third down than would have been expected in 2006 and 2007, but nowhere near the disparity that was in play last year.

Anecdotally, we also have concerns that the style of offense the Ravens were running last year isn't sustainable over the long term. The sort of gimmicky things that were implemented into the offense (unbalanced line, Wildcat, fullback belly handoff as a key component of the scheme) fell out of NFL playbooks for a reason; they're not viable long-term strategies for scoring points.

2. Page 19 has a mistake in that you write that Troy Smith threw a 43 yard TD pass to Joe Flacco from the Wildcat formation against the Raiders. While it was a 43 yard completion, it was NOT a TD, as Flacco fell down on the play and was stopped.

That's true, although it's not a question! We did make a mistake, but the point of the comment -- that the Ravens were, at that time, riding the crest of the Wildcat -- is reasonably valid regardless of whether Flacco fell down at the six-yard line or not.

3. Despite the "aging" Derrick Mason at WR along with either injured or inconsistent and inexperienced wide receivers, the Ravens had some decent success with their offense. Therefore, with a full year under his belt, plus a more experienced offensive line, why in the world would you expect the second year QB, Flacco, to have a "sophomore slump," which rarely happens in football compared to other sports such as baseball?

Of course, you can spin virtually any quarterback's situation in a positive manner (or a negative one, if so inclined). We could take the paragraph above and invert it and suggest that Flacco had an elite running game around him that came out of nowhere and may have been a one-year wonder, played against teams that didn't have any film on him and hadn't learned what he struggles against, has a group of receivers that alternately is unsure about playing (Mason), aging rapidly (Heap), yet to prove anything (Clayton), or an unquestionable mark on Ozzie Newsome's legacy (the execrable L.J. Smith), and an offensive line that's got question marks up and down the line outside of left tackle.

That wouldn't be fair, either, which is why we get past that sort of analysis and try and find the most prominent and reliable indicators of success.

First and foremost would be the third down situation mentioned above. When throwing the ball, Flacco had a -13.3% DVOA on first down, a -3.1% DVOA on second down, but a whopping 24.8% DVOA on third down.

You'd probably chalk that up to Derrick Mason, and you'd be right: Mason had a 7.2% DVOA on first down and a -0.7% DVOA on second down, but a downright-astounding 41.5% DVOA on his 36 attempts on third down.

Mason's unquestionably a superb third down target. But he's not THAT superb of a third down target. In 2007, his third down DVOA was 0.6%; in 2006, with a superior quarterback, it was 8.2%. Mason's a great target on third down (and an incredibly tough player), but his 2008 level of play on third down is just unsustainable, and that's going to affect Flacco's performance.

There's other factors as well. Flacco fumbled 12 times in 2008; he recovered 10 of them, which is luck, not skill; in general, fumble recoveries are a coinflip. (Think about the Cowboys game before you start arguing.)

In fact, the fumble issues were something that we looked at last year, when we projected the Ravens to make the playoffs before the season. In 2007, the Ravens recovered only five of the 25 fumbles that hit the ground; that's a ridiculous stretch of bad "luck", and something that can have a huge impact on a team's season.

4. With the return of key defensive starters lost to injuries most of 2008, there appears to be no reason why the Ravens’ defense can’t be as good, if not better than in the past year(s). Therefore, why can’t they have as many defensive TD’s as they did in 2008?

We actually project the Ravens' defense to be the best in football in 2009, in large part thanks to their already-established excellent play and the return of seemingly half the defense from injuries.

As for the defensive touchdowns, well, a great defense doesn't necessarily yield lots of defensive touchdowns (or vice versa). Last year, the team that led the league in defensive touchdowns was Green Bay; they were such a great defense that they fired their defensive coordinator and changed schemes in the offseason.

It's not impossible to think that they could have six defensive touchdowns (in the regular season) again by any means. It's just that teams don't consistently score defensive touchdowns from year-to-year, even if they have a great defense. The 2000 Ravens -- inarguably one of the best defenses in NFL history -- scored one defensive touchdown. The 2007 Ravens, featuring most of the same personnel as the 2008 team, also had one touchdown.

It's not just with Baltimore, either; it's league-wide. The top 50 scoring defenses from 1995 through 2007 scored an average of 35 defensive points in their big year. In the following season, they scored an average of 14.8 defensive points. Compare that to the 50 defenses that scored the fewest points over the same timeframe; in their scoring-free year, they averaged only 2.4 defensive points, but in the year after that, they averaged 14.2 points -- almost exactly as many as the "great" scoring defenses. Having Ed Reed helps, but you can't count on a team scoring a whole bunch of defensive touchdowns from year-to-year.

5. You say that while Ray Lewis may be considered the best ever to play his position when you look at his entire career, he is currently not in the top ten, although he is probably in the top 25. How can you seriously name 10 better linebackers than him right now? He may not be near the guy he was 10 years ago, but he is such a student of the game and is still as quick sideline-to-sideline as any linebacker, and there is still not anyone I’d rather have man the middle.

Well, in all fairness, you're also a Ravens fan. So that's sort of what you're supposed to say.

I don't know how I can necessarily "seriously name" a group of linebackers better than Lewis, but you have to read back what you said. There are lots of linebackers that are students of the game and study tons of film. Lewis is definitely a smart, cerebral linebacker, but does that make him a top-ten linebacker? No, not necessarily. (It's also really hard to quantify.)

I also don't have a timed measure of Lewis' ability to get sideline-to-sideline, nor do I suspect that anyone does, along with similar readings for each linebacker in the league. So it's hard to say that Lewis is as quick sideline-to-sideline as any linebacker, especially when you consider his age and the speed of younger linebackers.

As for not having anyone else in the middle? I can't say I'd disagree. There's nothing wrong with Ray Lewis; you just have to consider the context of the defense he plays in. He has a consistently very good defensive line in front of him, something that players like Patrick Willis and Barrett Ruud don't enjoy. He also has great players surrounding him at linebacker and in the secondary, players he certainly makes better with his leadership and his experience, but great players nonetheless.

Would I say that Lewis is among the ten best middle linebackers in the game? Sure. When you factor in players coming off the edge, though? I think you could make a pretty capable case for ten guys that, at this point in their careers, are better players than Ray Lewis.