- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

There aren’t very many apologies the writers behind “Pro Football Prospectus 2005” ($18.95, Workman Publishing, 440 pages) need to make about their initial attempt at a book-length season preview.

The few that are needed, though, are offered in the first few pages. Yet those acknowledged drawbacks aren’t nearly enough to prevent “Prospectus” from becoming almost indispensable to fantasy football players and fans who simply want to dig into the real reasons teams play well other than absurd and unquantifiable explanations of “heart,” “character,” “knowing how to win” and other such nonsense.

Set up much like the popular Baseball Prospectus, Pro Football Prospectus (PFP) offers essays on all 32 NFL teams and provides projections for nearly every significant player at a skill position. It is produced by the same people who run footballoutsiders.com, a Web site launched in 2003 that was the temporary home of Gregg Easterbrook’s excellent TMQ column two years ago before it landed at nfl.com.

PFP explores everything from the best quarterback seasons in history (it comes up with Bert Jones’ MVP campaign in 1976; Peyton Manning’s record-breaking 2004 was second) to why it is unwise to draft a kicker early in the draft (as the New York Jets did in April by selecting Mike Nugent in the second round), offering cogent arguments to arrive at often interesting conclusions.

Most importantly, PFP’s research takes into account down and distance, placing greater value on a 2-yard charge on third-and-one by Jerome Bettis than a 12-yard gallop by Deuce McAllister on third-and-20.

Its analysis of the Washington Redskins is arguably the most entertaining part of the book (well, maybe not as entertaining as the repeated knocks on Ron Dayne). In addition to predicting another wretched season for the burgundy and gold (a 50 percent chance of six or fewer victories), it makes certain to mention the string of “offseason Super Bowls” the Redskins have won in recent years. Needless to say, Football Prospectus is wary of Washington’s messy salary cap future, not to mention its chances of becoming competitive anytime soon. (For the record, PFP expects Philadelphia to roll to another NFC East title, giving the Eagles an 80 percent chance of winning at least 11 games).

Nevertheless, the folks at Football Prospectus still have a ways to go before they catch up to their big brother, Baseball Prospectus. Primary author Aaron Schatz readily admits football sabermetrics is not nearly as refined as its baseball counterparts, in part because there is less data available to work with. It is also in its nascent stages while baseball has more than a quarter-century head start, thanks to Bill James’ work dating back to the 1970s.

Perhaps the most difficult problem facing the people at Football Prospectus (as well as any others who delve into advanced statistical analysis of football) is how to assign values to players at non-skill positions. That would mainly be offensive linemen and defensive players, most of whom have few statistics to their credit (and potentially troublesome numbers at that).

For example, is a cornerback with a lot of tackles really that good? Does he have those tackles because of his team’s defensive scheme allows him to be more active or because he’s allowing wideouts to rip off 15-yard gains? Is he stopping receivers shy of a first down, or is he chasing them down inside the 5 and simply delaying a touchdown?

Those are questions to be answered in the coming years, though these questions are probably far more important to football junkies obsessed with interior line play than a casual fantasy owner who just wants two good running backs.

PFP’s authors boast that their motto is “the best is the enemy of the better,” and they haven’t allowed their current limitations prevent them from laying the groundwork for improved analysis in the future. Though they do seem to have a chip on their collective shoulders (a common problem for sabermetricians, who predictably dislike it when their stat-based criticism is pooh-poohed or ignored by players, front office personnel and media), PFP’s authors probably won’t be considered “outsiders” to title-hungry fantasy owners for much longer.

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