Eagles and short yardage

I told you last week that we had lined up Bill Barnwell, managing editor of Football Outsiders for an e-mail Q&A here at MTC.

For those unfamiliar with the site, Football Outsiders analyzes football through in-depth, statistical analysis. Bill explains this much better below.

The site puts out an almanac every year with predictions and chapters on every team. This year, they picked the Eagles to win 9.3 games. It's the first time in five years they are projecting the Eagles to win fewer than 10.

Bill wrote the chapter on the Birds so we'll find out how he came to that specific number. This is the first of a multi-part Q&A we'll do with him. If you have specific questions, please include them in the comments below, and I'll do my best to throw them Bill's way.

And at the very bottom is today's video. Les Bowen and I talked about Jeremy Maclin, Stacy Andrews and more.

Q: Please explain the approach that Football Outsiders takes through statistical analysis. What do readers get by purchasing the Football Outsiders Almanac and visiting your site?

A: The difference between what we do at Football Outsiders and what most journalists do when talking about football is very simple.

Most football writers and analysts make an assertion and then back it up with a combination of facts and their opinions. At Football Outsiders, we do the opposite; we take the facts, and then use them to make an assertion.

A good example is the Jay Cutler situation this offseason. There were a fair amount of articles around the country suggesting that Cutler was extremely overrated for a variety of reasons, with most writers pointing out his immaturity (valid, perhaps, but there have been plenty of immature quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls), his win-loss record (which somehow blames him for the Broncos' defense allowing 28 points a game last year). Some writers said that Cutler couldn't come through when he needed to, as indicated by the 11 interceptions he threw on third down a year ago.

We approach this story from a different angle. Instead of making the assertion and then blindly throwing facts of questionable validity or relevance behind it, we actually figure out which stats matter. Take that interception stat. Sure, throwing 11 interceptions on third down isn't a good thing, but is it a refined skill that Cutler lacks, or the variance of a small sample size? That requires looking at multiple years of data, to see if these sort of blips are a sign of a struggling quarterback, or a blip in the data.

The answer is the latter. In 2007, Cutler only threw three picks on 140 third-down attempts, the seventh-best percentage in the league amongst starting quarterbacks. During that season, the obviously overwhelmed quarterback who couldn't handle the pressure of third down and led the league in interception percentage was ... Peyton Manning. In 2006, it was Ben Roethlisberger. No one's suggesting those guys aren't worth acquiring.

On our Web site and in our book, the Football Outsiders Almanac, that's the approach we take. Having endless amounts of useless statistics does no one any good; we attempt to figure out which statistics matter, and then use them to point out trends, identify flukes, and project performance for teams and players alike in the upcoming season. We combine that with the X's and O's split analysis of our Game Charting project, where a flotilla of volunteers (as well as yours truly) watch every single play of every single game from the NFL season, marking down dozens of events and happenings from each play that aren't captured anywhere else.

Finally, you'll find a genuine sense of love and enthusiasm for the game. It would be impossible to put the amount of time we do into analyzing football if we didn't really enjoy the damn thing. On Sunday, we're cursing at the screen and checking our fantasy teams as much as everyone else. Just because we knew that the Eagles had a 9.1 percent chance of making the playoffs heading into Week 17 doesn't mean that we were sitting there with huge calculators wondering what went wrong while they ran over Dallas; if anything, it helps us to appreciate how incredible events like that are.

Q: You took a look at the Eagles' short-yardage problems last season. What did you find?

A: Oh, the short yardage problems. Well, for one, they were real; sometimes, fans will see a couple of failures in short-yardage and think that their team can't convert when it really matters, but the fans are simply forgetting the five or six times they convert successfully and just remembering the failure. It's like hitting on 16 against a five in blackjack; it's a stupid move, but if you do it ten times, you'll remember the one time you spike a five as opposed to the nine times you bust.

There were two problems with Philly inside the five a year ago. First was the lack of a real blocking fullback; that was alleviated by the arrival of Kyle Eckel, upon which the Eagles improved in short-yardage. Leonard Weaver should just make things even better this season.

The second was the team's reluctance to use Donovan McNabb in short-yardage. Quarterbacks are far more likely to pick up a first down in short yardage situations than running backs, especially near the goal line. From the 1-yard line, quarterbacks score a touchdown 67% of the time; running backs only succeed at a 55% clip. From the two, quarterbacks score 66% of the time, but running backs only get in 39% of the time. Once the team got comfortable giving the ball to McNabb in short yardage, they started to improve in short-yardage.