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2017 Football Outsiders Almanac Q&A: How Will Rams Compete In NFC West?

The 2017 FO Almanac has the Rams competing in 2017 based on an improved defense and a weakened division. I linked up with their Rams writer to understand why.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There might not be a better preview every year for understanding the NFL than the Football Outsiders Almanac. At more than 500 pages long, this year’s almanac contains all kinds of quantifiable outputs that measure everyone and everything that makes up the NFL.

As one of the best and most profound sites covering football, FO constantly offers deep insights into the basic tenets of the game (i.e. “Rushing is more dependent on the offensive line than people realize, but pass protection is more dependent on the quarterback himself than people realize.”) as well as advanced formulas for assessing each team’s (and individual’s) performances.

Their preview of the 2017 Los Angeles Rams should give fans hope.

While they still project a horrible offense to come under new Head Coach Sean McVay, they expect the NFL’s 15th-best defense in 2016 to become one of the best units in the league under new Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, jumping all the way up to the second overall spot.

To understand their methodology better and get a sense of how they think the Rams are shaping up this year, I linked up with Carl Yedor who covers the Rams for FO.

1.) Last year, you guys gave the Rams a mean projection of 7.7 wins. Looking back, they measure out with 3.3 Pythagorean wins, worst in the NFL. What skewed the mean projection higher than what ultimately bore out? And what didn’t the projection account for that did take place?

The first thing to note is that the mean projection is an average result of taking thousands and thousands of simulations of the season. In 10 percent of the simulations last year, the Rams finished with between zero and four wins. In 14 percent of the simulations, they finished with 11 or more. What we saw in 2016 was an outcome that was possible but not incredibly likely at the start of the season. When looking at the mean projections, they are always going to be closer to about eight wins because of the wide range of possible outcomes. Last year there were only 13 teams that had average projections of either less than seven or more than nine wins in preseason. So it isn’t a matter of the projection being “skewed,” per se. Think of it as Jeff Fisher rolling a pair of dice and getting a two or a three, even though it’s more likely that it would have come up as a seven.

The biggest difference from preseason projections to what actually bore out was the decline on both offense and defense. While we projected the Rams to be one of the best defenses in the league and below average on offense, they ended up being just a tick above average on defense and the worst offense in the league by a mile. We didn’t expect Todd Gurley and the rest of the rushing attack to take such a large step back, and we certainly didn’t expect Case Keenum and Jared Goff to be two of the four worst quarterbacks in the league among those who had at least 200 pass attempts.

2.) Clearly, this year’s projections are taking into account a huge increase of quality on the defensive side thanks to new Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips. Last year, the Rams were 15th in defensive DVOA. The projections have them jumping up to 2nd in the entire NFL this year. What accounts for a such a huge jump that other similar teams in terms of defensive DVOA didn’t enjoy with Wade in his first year (1994 Bills went from 19th to 10th, 2006 Cowboys went from 14th to 9th)?

There are a couple of issues at play here with the Rams' huge projection.

First, because of the way the projections work, a team's rank in "average projected DVOA" doesn't necessarily equal their average rank in projected DVOA. In any given simulation, there will be some teams who are much better than their average projection and other teams that are much worse. So while the Rams' have the second-highest average projection, in the average simulation they actually rank sixth in defensive DVOA, not second. The Seahawks, who have the No. 1 defensive projection, are actually fourth in the average simulation. The Saints, who have the worst projection, are 30th in the average simulation. So it's not quite a prediction of specifically going from No. 15 to No. 2.

Second, the two defenses that were closest to the Rams pre-Wade happened to have the smallest increases with Wade, but I don't think that means that "average defenses" should be expected to improve less with Wade than, say, the Denver Broncos when they went from No. 4 in 2014 to No. 1 in 2015. The average defense with Wade Phillips went from an average of 6.3% defensive DVOA and 22nd place to -12.0% DVOA and eighth place. We can expect the Rams to improve a little less than that because for some of these teams, some of the improvement was just regression towards the mean. BUT...

Third, we would have expected the Rams' defense to improve even without hiring Wade Phillips. There's the plexiglass principle, as a defense that drops from seventh to 15th is likely to rebound a bit the next year. There's the fact that the Rams were No. 6 vs. the run and No. 20 vs. the pass, and run defense is more consistent from year to year than pass defense. And there's the fact that the Rams were below-average in takeaways per drive last season, and that tends to regress towards the mean.

3.) How much impact can a punter have? P Johnny Hekker’s the best punter I’ve ever seen, but what do the numbers suggest his value is toward the ultimate outcome of games?

Last season actually gave us a pretty good idea of how much of an impact a punter can have because Hekker had the best season by a punter that we’ve ever measured (our data goes back to 1989). As we saw, the end result was not great for the Rams in 2016. A large part of that comes down to the number of plays per game a punter where will be able to have an impact. Even the punters for the worst offenses in 2016 only had 90-100 punts total on the season. A quarterback sees that many snaps in about a game and a half. As a result, any punter’s impact is limited compared to a quarterback or an edge rusher.

In DVOA, offensive and defensive performance far outweigh the impact of special teams, so it would be difficult for any punter to have an outsize impact on the outcome of a game in a positive manner. This is especially true when the main function of a punter is to give the ball back to the other team, though Hekker’s previous experience as a quarterback helps him be more effective on fake punts.

Punters are the most consistent aspect of special teams from year to year, so in that sense, investing in a punter will be a safer way to ensure that your special teams performance will be at least above average if not top tier. On a team with a bad offense, this carries extra impact because they will be punting frequently, but the impact will not be enough to completely offset the negative from the offense.

4.) How does FO account for free agents like LT Andrew Whitworth? Clearly with the Bengals, he’s performed at a very high rate for nearly a decade. The Rams are hoping he can stave off the impending decline that comes with age at least for a year. But how do you deal with new unit chemistry and any schematic differences between Cincy’s offensive line and the Rams?

When looking at free agent additions, we factor them in when we look at their individual performance from previous years, their age, and other factors. Given that Whitworth is replacing Greg Robinson at left tackle, it’s safe to assume that there is going to be a boost in performance from 2016 to 2017 at that spot. Combined with the fact that there is bound to be at least some positive regression to the mean from the rest of the offensive line, we should see an improvement from the Rams on offense in 2017. They rank 28th, compared to 32nd in 2016, which does not sound like a massive improvement, but finishing at -9.9% on offense would be a major upgrade over their -37.8% from 2016.

Naturally, Whitworth’s advancing age will be a negative factor impacting his performance, and there could be some difficulties adjusting to a new system in Los Angeles. However, to that second point, we don’t have a way to quantify chemistry along the offensive line or differences between the schemes in a way we can project. We aren’t in the offensive line meeting rooms for either team, so we can’t say for certain whether he will struggle or not in adjusting to the new team. But Aaron Kromer, the Rams’ offensive line coach, is entering his first season with the team, so there will be an adjustment period for everyone in the locker room, not just for Whitworth. Given that Whitworth has been in the league for a long time, he will probably be fine, but beyond that, we don’t have a way to specifically measure how long it takes him to adjust to the new scheme/his new teammates.

5.) If you could point to single specific factor that a winning record for the 2017 Rams hinges on, what would it be?

I apologize for being unoriginal, but the biggest individual factor in the Rams having a winning record in 2017 would be Jared Goff taking a major step forward in his second season. It’s hard to overstate just how poorly Goff played as a rookie, but the team made several moves to try to improve his offensive infrastructure over the course of the offseason. Andrew Whitworth replacing Greg Robinson at left tackle and the trade for Sammy Watkins should give Goff more to work with in his second season.

It’s certainly possible that Goff was being dragged down by the bad offensive line and receivers he had to work with, but he finished with the worst DVOA by a rookie quarterback drafted in the top ten since 1987 at -74.7% (with a minimum of 200 pass attempts). Alex Smith was similarly bad as a rookie for San Francisco, but he did not quite reach the threshold of 200 attempts in his debut season. At this point, Sean McVay has his work cut out for him if he’s going to turn Goff into a Pro Bowler, but McVay did oversee the development of Kirk Cousins from a replacement-level backup to someone the Redskins had to franchise tag twice in order to keep him around.

The good news for the Rams is that they don’t need Goff to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player for them to finish with a winning record. All they need is for him to be somewhat below average (instead of worst in the league) and let the defense and special teams take care of the rest.

Thanks to Carl for the time, and I can’t recommend the 2017 FO Almanac enough.