The Football Outsiders Almanac is perhaps the most in-depth NFL publication available right now, with their advanced stats and groundbreaking findings -- such as field goal accuracy not being a consistent stat -- creating a book high in quality and quantity (517 pages). I highly recommend buying it. The writer who composed the Bengal's section, Rob Weintraub, was kind enough to answer some questions about the upcoming season, and Football Outsider's projections for it:
The Bengals have a 2009 mean win projection of 6.9 games (the system used has many, many variables and stats factored in). Why is the projection system not as optimistic as some of our fans?
Because fans are always unrealistic this time of year! Actually, the original projection run foresaw roughly 9.6 wins, but then it was noticed that some of the numbers were wrong. I think an improvement to 7 wins is not only reasonable but quantifiable, whereas the optimistic 9-10 win playoff season, while certainly possible, is dependent on too many x factors (unproven line, pass rush, running game, etc) for the projection to justify.
Offensive line, without question. You don't need to be Anthony Munoz to know that. The unit was at or near the bottom in all of our metrics, including Advanced Line Yards, Power Situations, and Blown Blocks. On a more visceral, less statistical front, the franchise QB got demolished and the offense struggled to achieve a first down per quarter in the early going. The O-line was so bad, the quarterbacking, running game pre-Benson, punting, and pass rush, which were also awful, seemed merely grim by comparison.
Will that weakness be improved this season?
Just the replacement of infirm, immobile bodies (Andrews, Jones, Ghiaciuc) with young, spry bodies (Smith, Livings, Collins, Cook, Luigs) is a positive. Obviously, there will be some time needed to achieve cohesion and a comfort level. With the exception of Bobbie Williams, you have guys at new positions and/or less than five starts at every position on the line. Only actual games can get the unit progressing forward.
Who was the most overrated/underrated player in '08?
I think we had a couple of underrated guys on defense, in particular Domato Peko, who was quite stout by our numbers against the run, and Brandon Johnson, who made dynamic plays when in the lineup (he had 19 Defeats, an FO stat that measures tackles for loss, tackles that prevent a first down on third or fourth down, or cause a turnover--by contrast, newly rich All-Pro Bart Scott had 17).
As for overrated, I'm not sure anyone was thought of highly enough last year to earn that moniker. Chad was obviously a shadow of his old self, due to injury and lack of a real QB. Shayne Graham is about the only guy whose numbers were worse than his rep, but not so much that it was hugely noticeable.
Actually, it was well above average, especially in the second half of the season, especially against the run. Cincy allowed only 3.32 yards per carry in the last ten games, second only to Philly. For the first time in forever, the unit played with a noticeable snarl, and held the team in games, as opposed to letting them down. Instead, the offense's inability to move the chains led to the D gassing out late in games. Now, by "legitimate" do you mean will it happen again, or was it a fluke? Certainly, the Bengals have a history of defensive improvement in second halves, usually long after the playoff elimination. But there is a lot of young talent there, and while I don't see 2000 Ravens-level of dominance, if the secondary can cover well enough (mostly against tight ends, slot guys, and backs), and if someone can hit the damn QB, the defense should be a strength.
What are your thoughts on Bob Bratkowski as offensive coordinator and Mike Zimmer as defensive coordinator? Should the former still have his job?
Palmer's injury was the best thing that could have happened for Brat--it was the built-in excuse that papered over all the other screwups, like having Fitzpatrick as the backup QB in the first place. The Bengals struggled mightily to score in second halves last season, even by their lowly standards, which I put on Brat and his inability to adjust. He seems stuck in 2005-6, when he could simply unleash the talent and it was the opponent who played catch up. Now that he has to win by chess mastery, the game seems beyond him. So, no, I think he shouldn't have his job--but he does, and it greatly behooves him to work on some gameplans beyond three-receiver sets with an emphasis on quick throws.
As for Zimmer, the previous answer says most of it--he brought in some schemes and an attitude that the team took to, and with some alert maneuvers in personnel kept the unit functioning at a solid level despite a rash of injuries. Can't ask for much more, except some sacks from the front four (for the second straight season, the Bengals led the NFL in back seven sacks).
I don't know if it's possible to have a good enough offseason to warrant the muzzling of frustrated, passionate fans, so that whole concept is a non-starter for me. Having and voicing an opinion as a fan is the entire point of following sports--amazing how often teams, leagues, and players forget that. As for the offseason, I thought it was OK, but let's not confuse this team with the '85 Bears just yet. In August, high-risk, high reward draft picks all look like high reward, Palmer's elbow seems fine in 7on7 drills, and everyone is happy. Let's see what changes when the punches fly.
And lastly, do you have any data about how scouting dept size impacts draft success or FA signings?
Sadly, there hasn't been any official FO research. I suspect mainly that's because the answers are self-evident--the fewer scouts, the greater the disadvantage. Scouting isn't the be all and end all, but the size of the department is a clear, definitive statement on the franchise's commitment to winning. As we know all too well, the Bengals are more concerned with dollars and cents than wins and losses.
Thanks to Rob.