Football Outsiders, the scientific guru's who break down tape and figure out the hidden game of football through statistics and analysis, were kind enough to answer a few questions about the Jaguars. Doug Farrar, who wrote the chapter on the Jaguars in the must-read Football Outsiders Almanac.
1. You've studied the Jaguars numbers and broken down the film, what "hidden facts" emerge out of the 2008 Jaguars that the average fan might not have seen on TV?
There are a few things that stand out about the 2008 Jags. First of all, just how bad the receivers were. Aside from Maurice Jones-Drew on several little outlet passes, and Dennis Northcutt down the stretch when the season was already over, I don’t know that David Garrard had a reliable target for any real length of time. This was a team with four different receivers that had been drafted in the first round (Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, Marcedes Lewis, and Troy Williamson), and I didn’t see any of them do anything of import for the team last year. You could say that Matt Jones was the best of Jacksonville’s pure receivers last season, but as I wrote in the Jags chapter, that’s a bit like being the best musician in Warrant. Not that any of this is news to even the casual fan, but the extent of the downturn was pretty amazing.
This was a reflection of the problem with Jacksonville’s personnel strategy through the Shack Harris era – a preference for pure athleticism over any particular football sense. Bringing in players like Jerry Porter, and overdrafting so many players over time, meant that for every wise decision that had so many predicting great things for the team before the 2008 season, two holes were opening up. Injuries damned the team to a point, but a lot of what happened in the 2008 season was simply the bill coming due for a lot of mistakes in the front office. We’ll go into more "hidden facts" when we talk about out projections for the 2009 season, but that was the main thing that stood out to me as I researched the chapter – just how many mistakes the previous front office made. We all though that 2007 was a precursor to a nice little run, but it was actually one of those spit-and-baling-wire seasons that fool the fans and prognosticators. This wasn’t a well-built team with bad luck – it was a team on the tail end of a series of bad ideas.
2. Maurice Jones-Drew is clearly the best "fantasy player" on the Jaguars. Is there anyone else on the team that you'd suggest as a late round pickup for the fantasy players out there?
Pocket Hercules isn’t just the best fantasy player on the Jaguars – we project him to be up there with the NFL’s best from a fantasy perspective. Aside from MJD, we really like Torry Holt to produce in his new digs, for a couple of reasons – first of all, there aren’t a lot of other targets for Garrard to hit, and there’s a thought that no matter how bad Jacksonville’s offense may have been, it wasn’t anything in pure suckitude compared to St. Louis’. Now, there may be people in your league who pass him by because of a couple of misbegotten notions: That David Garrard was a one-year wonder, and that Holt is washed up. Neither is true.
Mike Walker is a nice late-round option if he can stay healthy, but that’s the asterisk there. Chauncey Washington, because someone’s going to have to get some of the carries Fred Taylor got. We actually project Marcedes Lewis to have a decent season, but Good Lord – that guy simply can’t catch the ball. I would employ a "hands-off" policy in Marcedes’ case, based on his own example. If you have IDP, we like Derrick Harvey to have a decent second season, and we’re Justin Durant fans in general.
3. How do you factor in changes in defensive philosophy in the predictions for the Jaguars? Mel Tucker and Del Rio have said on several occasions that the 3-4 will be included in the gameplan, with the questions on the defensive line, is this reflected in the numbers?
Well, there are several ways to go about the transition to a 3-4. I didn’t really write about that idea in the book, because I was more concerned about a graphic number of changes and disappointments regarding overall defensive personnel. Unless you’re going to do the hybrid thing and integrate 4-3 and 3-4 looks depending on the situation, you have to have a dominant nose tackle above all. Jacksonville really doesn’t have that. Del Rio is already trying to push John Henderson the wrong way as he has with other players. Rob Meier finished high in Stops and Defeats, but he’s not really that dominant double-team target. And Terrance Knighton has some ability, but you can’t expect him to come in and be Shaun Rogers right away. So, I don’t know how they plan to address that issue. I also don’t know how they plan to use Harvey and Groves in that case, Do both of those guys move outside? Does Groves move back because he’s had trouble staying at a certain weight? Do Meier and Derek Landri kick out to defensive end?
The problem is that some teams seem to think of the 3-4 as some sort of magical cure-all, but it’s like anything else in the game – whatever you intend to run, you have to have the personnel to actually do it. If they’re planning to run a base 4-3 with some 3-4 looks, maybe it will work, but in 2008, the Jags ran a three-man front only 2.4 percent of the time, and they haven’t changed their personnel all that much besides throwing Mike Peterson overboard, losing Paul Spicer, drafting a reserve tackle, and moving their existing linebackers around. It’s hard to predict how that will affect the win probabilities, because we don’t know what they intend to do with the 3-4 – right now, they haven’t fired any bullets from that particular gun.
4. How does Reggie Nelson compare to the other young safeties in the league? 2008 was a pretty down year, but is there any reason to worry that he's not going to develop into a solid player?
There’s no doubt that Nelson was a disappointment last year. Del Rio talked about Nelson missing assignments and giving away coverages with his eyes – a lot of stuff that is also about coaching. Among all safeties involved in at least 20 pass plays, Nelson tied for the sixth-worst yard-per-play average allowed (15.0), and he was down there with a lot of strong safeties who were better in run support. Nelson’s like a lot of players on this team – there’s athletic ability in droves, but the development and on-field consistency isn’t quite where it needs to be. Nelson got by with his pure athleticism at Florida, and to a certain extent in his rookie year. Eventually, the NFL catches up to you, and you have to accelerate the competitive process. That’s his challenge in 2009.
5. Other than Torry Holt and Mike Walker, the Jaguars are taking a pretty unproven group to Training Camp. Will a group of rookies and Troy Williamson be an improvement over Matt Jones and Reggie Williams? (this may be a trick question, anyone may be better than those two).
It is a trick question! As we discussed, the 2008 Jacksonville receiver corps brings forth the concept of negative value, where zero is actually an improvement. Holt still has enough left in the tank to make a difference, though he’s not going to be all he used to be. Walker has injury issues to overcome and I’m not completely sold on Williamson – from what I saw on tape, he seems to be very much one of those fast guys on the field as opposed to an actual receiver – but we’ll see. One of the things that’s so great about football is that everything affects everything else, and the receivers looking better is just as much about giving David Garrard enough time to make more than one read.
6. What do you think of the Jaguars draft class? The fanbase (myself included) thinks that the team has done really well, especially compared to previous drafts where few to none of the players are still in the league, but what does it look like from the scientific perspective?
One thing we have found is that since 1999, teams drafting offensive linemen totaling at least 1,200 points on the ubiquitous Draft Value Chart tend to improve offensively in the following season – to the tune of an average of 15 percentage points of DVOA. 15 percentage points would have taken the 2008 Jacksonville team from 11th (12.6%) to first in Offensive DVOA. The only teams on that list (which you can find in the St. Louis chapter of the book) not to see at least a 10 percent increase in Offensive DVOA were the 2001 Lions and 2007 Cardinals. The Jags were one of three teams to draft over 1,200 points in o-line draft value, the Rams and Bengals being the others, and that is reflected on our positive projections for all three teams. In Jacksonville’s case, Eugene Monroe may be the most well-rounded of a great line class, and most experts had Eben Britton as a low first-round selection. When you add in the healthy versions of Vince Manuwai and Mo Williams, that’s your pass protection and power running game back, and a big change in the offense.
Derek Cox and Knighton are calculated risks – I think they may have overdrafted Cox, but Knighton could be one of those surprise guys. Arizona receiver Mike Thomas is a guy I remember because I saw him run his 40 at the Combine – I was one of the writers who got to go in and watch drills. He’s a super-speed guy who has shown some things. The guy who intrigues a lot of people I’ve talked to is Jarrett Dillard, who ended his career at Rice with the all-time NCAA mark for receiving touchdowns. Overall, the Jags seemed to go more for players with football acumen than sheer athletic ability, which would be a monumental improvement over the way things were done in past years.
7. How long do you think David Garrard can continue to perform at a high level? He's older, but with low miles. Was his 2007 campaign a fluke or something that can be repeated?
When we write about a team for the book, it’s generally that writer’s responsibility to write all the player comments as well. When I wrote Garrard’s comment, I mentioned that "Quarterback Wins" is the dumbest stat in football, and one of the dumbest in sports, because what a quarterback can or can’t do is impacted to such a degree by those around him. In 2008, Garrard lost both his starting guards. He didn’t have his starting center for the first six weeks. His receiver drops doubled from 2007 – 17 to 34. Only Kurt Warner suffered more hits than Garrard’s 73. He led the NFL in knockdowns with 110, and while knockdowns can indicate a quarterback who hangs onto the ball too long, you have to wonder what Garrard was thinking when he scanned the field and saw the motley crew of receivers he had. Garrard ranked sixth in the NFL with 18 passes listed by our game charters as thrown away, but 27th in percentage of passes listed as over- or under-thrown. In short, if you give Garrard more than a crew of CFL-level receivers, and an offense line that isn’t leaking everywhere, you’ve got a quarterback who will give you results that are better than league average. What did he have last year, besides the screen to Pocket Hercules? He’ll have more than that in 2009.
8. Without giving away the work you put into the book, can you give us your thoughts and expectations for the 2009 Jaguars? What is your "best case" situation.
Best case is that they’ll compete for a division title in the AFC South, based on the new receivers, better offensive line, and a Garrard turnaround. That’s what we project them to do, based on the math. Of course, the problem with the math is that you’re dealing with human beings, who over- and under-perform. Not to mention coaching and scheme changes, which is where I have a great many questions about Jacksonville’s defense. There’s a lot of talent, but I don’t know how directed it is. And that’s as good a way as any to summarize the team I watched all season and studied in the offseason to write the chapter and all the comments – talent everywhere, but I don’t know where the GPS is. If the offense is top five and the defense is league average, that should be good enough to seriously compete in a tough division, and it’s not unrealistic to think it could happen.
Thank you Doug for taking the time to do this!