Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Jul 2012

FO VIDEO: S.F. 49ers vs. Plexiglass

Our first regular weekly video for the new Sabermetrics Video Network on YouTube is about our mediocre projection for the San Francisco 49ers. I tried to use some graphics instead of just being a talking head for eight minutes, and I think we'll smooth out some of the kinks in the editing as we gain experience making these. Anyway, enjoy.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 19 Jul 2012

50 comments, Last at 23 Jul 2012, 10:07am by Italian Niner


by Aloysius Mephis... :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 3:16pm

Thanks for this explanation, Aaron. One thing that gives me hope for the Niners not regressing (or at least not regressing as much as the numbers suggest) is that I suspect it's extremely unusual for there to be such a large gulf between the performance of a team's personnel department and the performance of its coaching staff as the Niners had before Harbaugh arrived. The personnel department did good job of bringing in front-line talent, but the coaches weren't using it properly. My intuition is that that's rare -- you'd expect a losing organization to be badly run both on the personnel and coaching side of things, and vice versa.

Of course none of that makes another 13-3 season likely, but I'd consider the Niners strong favorites in an improving but still weak NFC West.

by dk240t :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 8:52am

If these rules don't apply to the 49ers because they went from terrible coaching to great coaching with the same, high talent level, does this also not apply to the Texans defense - going from clueless defensive coordinators to someone who actually knew what they were doing?

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 3:01pm

Seems so. Of course, as fans it's so easy for us to come up with reasons why our teams will buck the historical trend, we didn't overachieve last year we were underachieving the previous years, etc.

by jimbohead :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 3:20pm

I actually have a question about that, not having watched many Texans games the last few years. My understanding was that a lot of the problem there was a poor secondary, and that bringing in JJ had a cascading effect on the rest of the D. Do you think that it was really the scheme issues were more significant than that personell change? And, if so, why were pieces already in place for a 4-3 work better in a 3-4 (Williams excluded due to injury)?

by jimbohead :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 4:26pm

As I've said elsewhere, I think the idea of regression to a 5-yr mean is flawed for the 49ers, because, while Harbaugh may not be the second coming of Walsh, Singletary was quite possibly the worst NFL head coach in the last two decades. I don't know if there's an adjustment to previous years' DVOA for "# of times a HC drops his pants during a speech," but maybe there should be.

I also think that AGL may underestimate the true significance of 49ers injuries, I suspect because AGL looks at injuries to starters, and early injuries were discounted because the team didn't have a set line-up at that point.

I agree that it's nuts to suppose that the niners will hit 13 wins this year. I think 9-10 wins is reasonably realistic though. We'll see.

by tuluse :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 4:38pm

Singletary has his flaws, but I'm not sure he's as bad as you think. Truly bad coaches will not drag the team down, but also do a bad job talent evaluation and leave the cupboard empty.

So I'm pretty sure Josh McDaniels has him beat.

by jimbohead :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 4:46pm

McDaniels had the coaching acumen to field a decent offense with Kyle Orton. I'm not willing to credit Singletary's lack of organizational sway to him as decent coaching.

For the record though, the times he did stick his nose into talent evaluation, he was pretty terrible. He famously strongly opposed drafting Patrick Willis (he was overruled because he was not yet HC, Nolan was), and strongly urged the team to draft Taylor Mays, Ketwan Balmer, and Chilo Rachal.

by tuluse :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 1:19pm

Singletary still played his best players (other than Alex Smith), didn't drive off the talent, and in fact had a positive impact on at least Vernon Davis (and I would guess a number of defensive players given how well they play).

In addition to McDaniels and Kotite, I would add Wannstedt as a worse coach.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 2:52pm

I refer you to comment 33.

by Dean :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 1:00pm

"Singletary was quite possibly the worst NFL head coach in the last two decades"

Rich Kotite called. He said, "bitch, please."

by Kevin from Philly :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 2:28pm

Rich Kotite did NOT call - the rain smeared the ink on his telephone book.

by jimbohead :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 4:28pm

Also, Aaron, as a former radio-man, I hope you anticipate getting yourself a decent mic sometime in the future! Especially if this becomes a regular feature, which I really hope for.

by fb29 :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 6:05pm

I second this. New microphone. Collared shirt. Spray tan. It will be like ESPN for smart people.

by drobviousso :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 5:06pm

SF's projection aligns with my previously held notions THEREFOR IT IS RIGHT.

Seriously, I don't see why it's a shock. "Break out team with a history of mediocrity will not be as good next year" is probably the safest prognostication you can make.

by Jimmy :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 5:15pm

That front seven is pretty good and they have plenty of corners and two safeties who played well for them last year - I still haven't made up my mind on Goldson though, is the player from his good years or his bad ones? The offense will probably still be somewhat conservative but they have probably upgraded around Gore, Davis and Crabtree from last year; although possibly not by a great deal. I suppose if Moss plays well they could be a handfull. The biggest question is how far can Smith take them? Great defense and specials, plodding offense, a pretty good team.

by tuluse :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 5:20pm

They were extremely healthy on defense, which is unlikely to repeat.

by Led :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 5:49pm

Has Alex Smith ever had a decent NFL coach before Harbaugh? My hunch is that, particularly in the modern era of high tech passing offenses, QB performance is heavily influenced by coaching and proper system fit. Obviously, QB talent matters on the margin and at the very high and low extremes, but I suspect that, outside the extremes, good quarterbacks are made more than born these days. Reid, McCarthy, Payton, even Norv and McDaniels have tended to produce pretty effective passing offenses consistently with different QBs, while someone like Brian Schottenheimer has never coached a good passing offense regardless of the QB.

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 6:28pm

Yeah, but unless Harbaugh's got a line on some injections that'll make Smith's hands bigger, I think there's a limit to how much Alex will improve on his watch.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 6:33pm

I can't remember which one it was but one of the SF beat writers looked into the small hands thing and found that his hands were average for an NFL qb.

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 11:24pm

OK. I've been hearing about the small hands thing ever since before he was drafted but these things get exaggerated so it could be just that he has smaller hands than other QBs taken #1. I tended to attribute his problems with accuracy and not always throwing a clean spiral to small hands, but he didn't fumble that much last year so maybe his problems aren't due to his hands.

by Theo :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 4:01am

are you serious?
You think his improvement is limited by the size of his hands?

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 3:04pm

I'm a bit bewildered by your tone. Is not every player limited by his physical attributes? Or do you just not think hand size is a significant attribute?

by tuluse :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 6:31pm

Norv Turner and Martz have both been OC for the 49ers during Smith's career

by t.d. :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 6:52pm

and if i recall correctly, smith's year under norv prompted the first batch of 'maybe this guy is turning the corner' speculation. i wouldn't consider martz post-rams (when he had a HoFer anchoring the line)to be a 'good' coordinator

by tuluse :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 6:54pm

I wouldn't either, but I do think he is excellent at coaching QBs specifically.

by t.d. :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 7:13pm

aside from getting them killed. yes

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 11:26pm

Heh. It's funny coz it's true.

by jimbohead :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 7:40pm

Mike Martz was OC for the 2008 season, wherein Alex Smith broke his shoulder bone (apparently a wire left from a previous shoulder surgery was responsible) in preseason, and was put on IR. Martz was gone by 2009.

by drobviousso :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 5:55pm

Defense, outside of the AFC North, is highly volatile. If you don't wear black and another terrible color, you can't expect to be consistently good on D.

Offense is much more stable, year to year.

by AnonymousD (not verified) :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 6:30pm

Since no one has mentioned it yet in the comments, I think the most obvious reason SF will decline is their extreme luck with regard to turnovers.

SF had the least amount of giveaways (10) and the most takeaways (38). Their turnover differential, +28, is tied with the 2010 Patriots for the second best margin since the 1970 season. Additionally, Alex Smith's INT rate was 1.1%. That's below the league average and well below his career average. There is a significant amount of research that suggests INT rates are very inconsistent year to year, and it's likely that his will shoot back up.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 6:52pm

I expected FOA to predict regression, their predictions were always going to hate the very high turnover differential and health of the defense and to expect regression to the mean. FOA's projection also takes account of the five year history, where the 49ers were a rather poor side with worse coaching.

The defense is unlikely to stay as healthy but they will be running Fangio's full scheme this time, I've rarely seen such a limited approach as they used last year. At times it seemed like the biggest wrinkle in their base defense was whether or not they were in Man-2 or Cover-2.

The offense will get the benefit of having more than one veteran receiver as well as getting to know the scheme for more than three weeks before the opening game.

I hope the niners will buck the trend, which also makes me wonder what proportion of the teams in the cohort Aaron cites returned 20 starters from the previous year's team? Plus the two new starters on offense are at right guard and split end, which were the two weakest spots on the team last year (or for the last decade).

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 9:36pm

I wondered about the returning starters and if there were any numbers on how performance correlates to number of returning starters.

I also noticed that their offensive has been steadily improving over the last 5 years(-31.3%, -11.3%, -10.2%, -7.3%, -3.9%). Is that a potentially sustainable trend? It seems that a steady progression is something is less likely to fall off as quickly and even more so since we know offense has a better season to season correlation.

by t.d. :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 7:24pm

I don't think they can get another five interception season out of Smith, but I think they still win 10 games. They're still a well coached team in a lousy division

by Anon (not verified) :: Thu, 07/19/2012 - 8:36pm

Has there been any studies on the amount of starters returning and increased correlation to the previous year's dvoa? It seems to me that having all of last year's starting defense back would make a team at least slightly more likely to put up back to back excellent seasons.

by Tom Gower :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 1:44am

The 2009 Tennessee Titans returned 10 of 11 defensive starters, plus their nickelback, and declined 27.7%. That was almost exactly the difference between the 49ers and the Patriots on defense last year.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 5:30am

And the 11th starter was Albert Haynesworth, just saying.

by Tom Gower :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 11:57pm

Oh, he obviously mattered, though the Titans also had some moments without him in the lineup. A lot of other things went wrong in 2009 that didn't go wrong in 2008; the 2011 Colts notwithstanding, only rarely is a single player that the difference between an elite unit and a lousy one.

by Bigg Johnson :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 3:56am

The niners are overly hyped due to their youth. Lasts years young team that was guaranteed to only get better was tampa bay. Ive seen this and i wonder what the football outsider guys would say, but having an extremely low AGL on defense is not just unattainable, it is also detrimental to future productivity. When the inevitable injury happens to a starter, the backup will have less experience than a player on a team that had more injuries in previous years. And no one actually thinks their offense will be good, but mediocre at best. Offenses are more stable from year to year, defenses are more volatile.

Im suggesting that an unlucky year will plague the niners. When those injuries on defense happen, the starkness could be immense, and i think it should be immense.

With that being said, i do think they have the best chance at winning the NFC West, but i think its something like a 35-50% chance. Maybe after reading the niner section im just repeating a number that they spit out for the niners playoff percentage, but i dont think their numbers will be far off of what actually happens this year.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 9:28am

Generally I'm also interested in whether or not the 'Plexiglass ceiling' effect is likely to be as strong in football as in baseball. While I don't know baseball that well I think it would be true to say that the draft has less of an impact on MLB than it does on the NFL, so that teams that have lost over a period of time will have had more of an opportunity to add talented players to their roster. I also think that coaching has a greater influence in the NFL, that there is more of a difference between poorly and well coached NFL teams than their baseball counterparts. Again, you would expect this to attenuate the plexiglass effect.

For example, under Singletary the 49ers had one of the best young linebackers in the NFC, NaVarro Bowman, on the bench along with one of the best 3-4 ends, Ray McDonald, one of the better young cornerbacks, Tarrell Brown, and were playing one of the better nose tackles, Isaac Sopoaga, at defensive end. That is four quality starters who the niners were not using to their best effect, which would hurt any team. They were also wasting Ahmad Brooks' talent by barely playing him. Even with some regression to the mean I would expect this unit to be better than it was under Singletary and Manusky (who's scheme was a odd fit for the 49ers players).

However, the stats suggest that the plexiglass ceiling is real to some extent.

One other thing that I've been pondering is that the 49ers' defense has been in the top 3 for AGL for three out of the past four years. Does that suggest a higher level of sustainability? (I also think they have pretty decent depth)

by t.d. :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 5:57am

I actually have a bit of a problem with the 'except in the afc north' caveat. either great defense is variable and unlikely to be repeated, or it isn't. the jets and bears are also examples of teams that were loaded on defense and have had at least a while of sustained excellence. i think it's an'injury effect', and as long as justin smith and patrick willis are healthy, they'll be very good to great

by jimbohead :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 9:19am

People keep forgetting this, but Willis was out for 5 games towards the end of the season, and the defense played pretty well in his absence.

I really do think AGL underestimates the 49ers injury situation. Early in the year, they had both safeties and their nickel/dime corners on the injury reports often. When I went through and did my own numbers by FO methods, I had AGL come out a lot higher partially because of this.

I suspect the discrepancy is that, at the beginning of the season, the secondary was not well set. Injuries during training camp to Reggie Smith and Shawntae Spencer, and some others (along with some good old head coach media-related obfuscation) prevented us from understanding who's a starter, and who isn't.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 9:32am

Agreed, a good example of what you are saying would be Tramaine Brock, who I'm sure most people haven't heard of but who was getting significant playing time early in the season. He played as the nickleback for the first three games and picked off two passes before getting hurt for most of the season.

by cantonfootballguy :: Fri, 07/20/2012 - 10:41pm

Two things that were left out of the chapter lead me to believe SF can improve dramatically on offense.

Number one, the performance of SF offense by down. First and second down, the 49ers had a combined -0.9 DVOA, yet on third down, it plummetted to -19.7. As noted in the pregame section, until recently this certainly led to a dramatic improvement in the teams offense. I would be curious to see what percentage of teams who had 19 point regression on third down did not improve for the next year. I would wager that over the DVOA era the chances for improvement are excellent, on the whole.

Secondly is the randomality of red zone performance. In 2010 the SF offense in the redzone was at +5.3 DVOA, good for 11th in the NFL. Last year it plummeted to -31.8 and 29th, respectively. Regression here would be a significant improvement in the offense.

by Anonymous 49er fan (not verified) :: Sat, 07/21/2012 - 6:55am

Sure hope this plexiglass stuff doesn't happen.
In the defensive injury chart in your video, the 49ers were 2nd ,3rd, 22nd, and 3rd in the last 4 years. Does that show that they are more consistent in avoiding injuries? If they regress back to their average, it would still be top 8. Maybe they just have a really good training staff a la the Pheonix Suns. Or a secret bounty system

by t.d. :: Sat, 07/21/2012 - 11:08am

Shiiiiit,10-6 is a step back for this team, and 10-6 probably gets them in the tournament
/and from there, who knows?
//not a niners fan
//but a fan of good football

by tuluse :: Sat, 07/21/2012 - 2:46pm

I liked the info, but I have do have some suggestions on improving the presentation.

1) You come across a little too defensively. It's not awful, but I think going for a lecturing teacher might be a better approach.

2) You used some visual aids, but you could do a lot more. When you're showing the 5 year trends how about some excel graphs? Also feel free to use some colors.

3) When you do show text, use bigger bolder fonts.

by kurtis (not verified) :: Sun, 07/22/2012 - 12:16am

I haven't felt so good about a 49ers team in 11 years and the last thing I need is some bullshit mathematical formulas telling me we will win only 7 games with a 40 percent chance at making the playoffs. See you in New Orleans!

by Deelron :: Sun, 07/22/2012 - 1:32am

I don't know about the bullshit, but..
In FOA 2011 predicted 7.5 wins against opponents who were projected to be 32nd (-3.7%) in the league.
FOA 2012 predicts 7.2 wins against opponents who are projected to be 26th (-2.7%) in the league.

I like their chances ;).

by Buklau (not verified) :: Sun, 07/22/2012 - 7:15pm

Analyze what Jim did in San Diego and at Stanford; did your analysis calculate that?

by Italian Niner (not verified) :: Mon, 07/23/2012 - 10:07am

Big doubt re the whole concept: what's the point of talking about regression to the mean when dealing with non mechanical events? We are not tossing a coin here, we're talking about a 16 game season played by humans in an umpredictable environment. There's no law of averages here, I'm afraid. Whilst I love your work for an ex-post analysis, I'm very skeptical about the way you use it for predictions. Did I miss something?