Thursday, September 06, 2007

It's Time to Take On the Outsiders

I honestly don't think that Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo have received enough credit for the job they've done in assembling the current Bears roster, especially their defense. At the beginning of last season, there was a lot of obnoxious talk about whether or not the current Bears can rightly be compared to the 1985 Bears. Frankly, I think that's a question better left ignored. The mythos surrounding that 1985 team is such that any discussion of it among people who care enough to even have the discussion in the first place is inevitably going to lead nowhere, and will likely hinge too much on the matter of Super Bowl victories.

But, leaving aside Super Bowls, the fact is that the Bears were a dominate force for several years in the mid-1980s. They could have very easily made it to and won the Super Bowl either on each side of 1985.

The future looks even brighter for this Bears team, though. The defense has elite talent at every spot on the defense. Not only that, but they have elite talent playing backup at many of the positions, and where they may not have that yet, they have young, extremely athletic players, who show as much as promise of developing into elite talent as one could hope.

On top of that, Lovie Smith doesn't seem content to just let the defense rest. He fired Rivera because we can only assume he wanted the defense to become better, and he thought the best way for that to happen was to put Babich in charge. Whether or not that proves to be a good move remains to be seen, but I think Smith's earned the enough of the benefit of the doubt that we can let that question sit for now and simply let his action represent a desire for continued improvement in an area where they were already dominant.

Here's my point: I cannot think of a single reason why the Bears defense should not be at least as good as it was last year. Which would mean the Bears defense will have been dominant for three straight years, a really substantial feat to have accomplished, since even the best defenses tend not to be consistently dominant from year to year. Which brings me to FootballOutsiders.

I bought PFP a few weeks ago, and it really is a great book to have if your an NFL dork like I am. It's absolutely loaded with information, and in general the essays about statistic gathering and measuring and everything are interesting and informative. But, as with their website, the biggest weakness with their work is with their projections. They have a tendency to trust a rather small data sample to be large or important enough to establish a trend, and they then let those trends become established predictors rather easily. In many places, this isn't too much of a problem, because they're always quick to point out where they believe the projection is wacky because of something.

The book predicts that Green Bay will win the NFC North this year, with no disclaimer. I am so positive that this won't happen, such is my total faith that Chicago will win the NFC North for the third straight year, that I'm willing to go on record right here and now: if Green Bay wins the NFC North I will, I swear, in the grand tradition of Werner Herzon, post a link on this website to a youtube video of Werner Herzog eating his shoe. Anyway, why are the FO guys willing to make such a weird prediction? The reason for this is glossed by Aaron Schatz in their website's DVOA projections as follows: "Simply put, the odds they [Chicago] can continue to dominate on defense and special teams are not good, and it seems unlikely that the offense would improve enough to make up for that." Which is basically the explanation put forth in the PFP for their projection of a regression of the Bears defense. I was a little unclear about why Green Bay was predicted to get so much better, and they cleared that up today in a linked article from Slate in which they explain that Green Bay is predicted to win the division simply because Chicago's regression will leave the NFC North open for someone to take over, and Green Bay is much more likely to do that than the Vikings or the Lions. So, essentially, both Green Bay's projected upsurge and Chicago's projected regression hinge on the fact that Chicago's defense and special teams are unlikely to continue to be as good as they were last year.

As I stated at the opening of this post, I can't think of an reason why the Bears defense will be significantly worse this year than it was last year. The Outsiders obviously do think the Bears defense will get worse, but the only reason they seem to have for thinking this is explained most concisely in the PFP as follows: "Only 17 teams since 1996 have had a defensive DVOA of -20% or better. The Bears, who had a defensive DVOA of -21.8% in 2005, are only the third team in the last eleven seasons to reach -20% in consecutive seasons. The other teams to achieve back-to-back seasons at that level were Baltimore and Tampa Bay. [...] On average, teams with a -20% or better defensive DVOA decline by more than 11 percentage points of DVOA the next season." Frankly, the fact that only two teams have achieved back-to-back levels of defensive dominance in the period the Outsiders have stats doesn't really seem like it makes all that strong of a case for a team thus experiencing an unexplained dropoff in the following season. Beyond that, though, the little explanation given isn't entirely accurate. Baltimore's devensive DVOA in 1999 was -21.5%, followed by -30.0% in 2000, followed by -17.2% in 2001. Tampa's DVOA in 1999 was -24.3%, followed by -17.9% in 2000, -20.3% in 2001, -33.6% in 2002, -21.3% in 2003, -7.0% in 2004. Though the drop for Tampa from -30 to -17 is fairly significant, it's not like the Ravens defense suddenly became shmucks the following year. But beyond that, Tampa Bay actually posted -20% or greater defensive DVOA for three straight years, from 2001 to 2003. Their defense peaked in 2002, the year before they won the Super Bowl.

Minor factual quibbles aside, though, what seems really damning about this analysis to me is that in both of those previous cases listed, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, it is easy to see reasons for their decline. Baltimore lost Jamal Lewis and had Elvis Grbac at quarterback, and poor offensive performance can really hurt a defense's capability of playing at a truly dominant level as opposed to just really good. With Tampa Bay, there was a coaching change, and Jon Gruden is an offensive coach. Minus Dungy at the helm, it wasn't especially surprising that Tampa's defense would slowly fall apart after a season or two.

But for the Bears heading into this season, there's nothing that points so clearly to a reason for a regression. The Outsiders are content rely on their two-team "trend," but I can't say it's got me especially worried. That weird part of me that feels personally offended by all of this, though, really hopes they point out at some point during this season, after the Bears have made it through another season of defensive dominance, just what level of historic achievement the Bears have accomplished, Super Bowls or no.

Probably they won't though. They'll probably just keep saying that the Bears won't win a Super Bowl with Rex at quarterback right up until he either does exactly that, or he gets cut or benched. Until then, that's about the level of analysis we can look forward to of the Bears anywhere outside of the Chicago press. Which, really, is so fucking annoying. And it just makes me hate both East divisions even more.

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