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Interview with Football Outsiders

I recently had the chance to speak with Bill Barnwell and Robert Weintraub of Football Outsiders regarding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their take on the 2008 season and the upcoming 2009 season.  While we all have some questions that we want answered, I thought this would be a good opportunity to pick up their book and see what kind of knowledge they could drop on us.  The Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 has a ridiculous amount of info in it.  It covers each team in depth, and looks at players, trends, the college game, recruiting; you name it, it's in there.  You can pick it up here

They were kind enough to answer all my questions, so let's take a look at what they said about the Bucs.

1 - Everyone witnessed the collapse in Tampa last year, starting with the Monday Night game in Carolina.  Was there any idea that the Bucs would fall so hard and so fast?  Were there any stats that supported this collapse? Or can we merely chalk this up to Monte announcing his decision to leave and other bad karma in the air?

The collapse didn't herald itself from a stat standpoint-before the Panthers debacle, the Bucs turned in three straight games with positive DVOA (Minny, Detroit, NO).  Then, the Bucs fell off the cliff.  It was as though the sight of Williams and Stewart carving the defense to pieces was enough to prove to the team that it wasn't good enough, and they checked out after that.  It's easy to blame Monte, and surely he handled the situation poorly, or at least selfishly.  But the players evinced very little professional pride.

2 - Using your special teams ranking, in 2008 you had the Bucs as 19th in the league, yet we had a Pro Bowl returner.  How can that be?

Two aspects of special teams brought the overall ranking down-kicking and punt coverage.  Matt Bryant was 27th in the NFL in placekicking, with -4.8 points, despite his high total points as the league keeps the stat.  He was poor from distance, and his kickoffs also slipped.  That doesn't mean Mike Nugent will be an improvement, but he does have a stronger leg.  And while Josh Bidwell punted well enough, the coverage team fell off badly from a strong '07, dropping the overall punt unit to 23rd in the league.  That said, having a guy go from the taxi squad to the Pro Bowl, as Clifton Smith did, was a fantastic story.  A slip in his numbers seems mandatory, but you never know.

3 - It's mentioned in the 2009 Football Outsider's Almanac that Derrick Ward is predicted to see a pretty big drop off in 2009.  Is this due to uncertainty as to how Tampa's offensive line can handle the change in schemes or more directed at Ward vulturing yards off a good Giants line and defenses worn down by Brandon Jacobs?

A combination of the two.  New York had the best line in the game, so it's natural there will be some dropoff for Ward.  Having said that, I am more optimistic than the projection-the line is athletic, zone blocking appears to be in the wheelhouse, and Ward is an explosive one cut runner who is well suited to the scheme.  Plus, he is used to sharing time in the backfield.

4 - Two part question on the Bucs quarterbacks.  Based on size and talent, who does Josh Freeman remind you of in the last 5 years?  Does Byron Leftwich have any tread left on the tires, or is he a sitting duck in the pocket?

Obviously, the glass-half-full type will see Ben Roethlisberger in Freeman.  Announcers probably won't call him "Josh' like they say "Ben," but that's his ceiling.  It remains to be seen whether Freeman has the instincts that separate Big Ben from other large-framed QBs.  As for Leftwich, he had a couple of moments filling in for the aforementioned Roethlisberger in 2008, but don't expect much from him.  He's just mediocre enough to stay in the lineup and kill the team on a weekly basis, rather than being flat out terrible.

5 - In 2008, what was the biggest surprise for the Bucs when looking at the numbers?  What do you project as being the Bucs weakness in 2009?

The Bucs were far and away the best defense against the shotgun formation in 2008, which speaks to both how disciplined the defense was for much of the season, and how awful the run defense was in the final month.  Allowing only 4.7 yards per play against the gun was a shockingly low number.  It stands to reason that the change away from the cover two style will lead to an uptick in that metric-the question will be whether teams use the shotgun more often against them.

6 - The ALY for the Bucs offensive line in 2008 came in at 4.04 and ranked the Bucs 22nd.  Do you see either of these numbers improving in 2009 with the zone blocking scheme and present personnel?

Yes, for reasons discussed above in the Ward answer.

7- Antonio Bryant came on the scene in 2008 after being out of football the prior year.  From a fantasy perspective, can he repeat?  Is there another Buc that might be worth a gamble on?

.  It's hard to be bullish on Bryant when factoring in the quarterback situation, not to mention the additions of Ward and Winslow.  From a fantasy standpoint, he is almost certain to decline.  Whether that is a little or a lot is up to his mental makeup, and risking anything on that is not something I'd be inclined to do.  Winslow seems to be under the radar, both in fantasy and reality.  He could prove to be a value pick late in your draft.

8 - Michael Clayton has been a tremendous disappointment outside of his rookie year.  When looking at his numbers and statistics, was his rookie year the anomaly or have the last few years been the anomaly?  I'm hoping to see some answer that says with Gruden gone, Clayton will flourish.  Feel free to be swayed!

Clayton definitely won't be watching much Monday Night Football.  As for his improvement, the questions at QB offset any potential "Free at last!" benefits.  His catch % was only 50% last season-it's hard to think a new coach is suddenly going to teach MC how to use his hands.

9 - Jim Bates has had some success in the NFL with reviving careers, particularly on the defensive line.  Can we expect him to have the same impact on Gaines Adams?  Or should we temper our expectations?

.  The best thing Bates can do for Gaines is to get the tackles to stand strong in the middle.  Adams has a limited repertoire of pass rush moves, to put it mildly, but can be effective if attention must be paid to the inside push.  Remember, Adams had 12 hits and 14 hurries in '08-those are respectable numbers that indicate he should finish the job a little more often in '09.

10 - For the 2008 and 2009 season, what stats or metrics were most in the Bucs favor?  What was against them?  (These might be good facts for us fans to remember for bar talk).

The excellence against the shotgun, mentioned above.  Departed QB Jeff Garcia was an improv master, posting a very high DVOA when hurried.  The passing game was heavily tilted toward Bryant's side of the field-Tampa hardly threw to the right (away from Bryant), and when they did, the results were poor-31st in the NFL in DVOA on attempts to that side.

11 - Last question, and it has multiple parts.  Where do you see the Bucs going in 2009?  You've projected them at approximately 7 wins, but is this a step in the right direction or should we settle in for years of mediocrity?

It's impossible to answer that question without seeing Freeman under live fire and knowing what you have with the draft choice that will define Morris' tenure.  If he plays well, and soon, there's no reason the Bucs can't be in the mix in the topsy-turvy NFC South.  If he is just another generic Tampa tosser, the team is in trouble.  Blowing a high pick on a QB, especially one you traded up to get, is a crippling blow, as it becomes very difficult to turn the page and admit defeat (see Alex Smith, for example).  Hopefully, Freeman will come through, and the Bucs can utilize the weaponry they have amassed on offense.

The staff over at Football Outsiders are scientific guru's who break down tape and figure out the hidden game of football through statistics and analysis  Thanks again to Bill and Robert for taking the time to give us their scoop on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.