RiverSide Chat: Vince Verhei Of Football Outsiders

5.6 wins.

That's the Football Outsiders prediction for the Texans. I did my review of the chapter on SB Nation Houston Monday, but now we are lucky enough to be joined by the author of the chapter, Football Outsiders' Vince Verhei, to discuss the data behind that prediction as well as some other Texans' tidbits. How ugly does free safety look this year? How does Glover Quin's rookie year compare to Fred Bennett's? Why must they insist that Matt Schaub is injury prone? Go on and hit the jump, you know you want to be enlightened. 

 

Rivers McCown: The Football Outsiders system projects a rude wakeup call of a season for the Texans, with a mean win total of just 5.6. Can you explain to the average fan why a team that hasn't won this few games since 2006 has been saddled with such a low projection?

Vince Verhei: The three biggest reasons are Brian Cushing's suspension, the harder schedule, and the secondary. Let's start with Cushing. His 2009 wasn't just Defensive Rookie Of The Year good, it was Defensive Player Of The Year Good . (Or at least, it would have been most years. Last year Darrelle Revis was so ridiculously good that nobody else should have even been considered. That the writers still gave it to Charles Woodson is one of the worst decisions ever. But I digress.) Cushing's total of 37 Defeats (turnovers, sacks, stuffs on running plays and stops on third or fourth down) was the most in the league by a healthy margin - Patrick Willis was second with 33. It was the highest total for a rookie in our database (going back to 1993); the only other first-year player over 30 was Brian Urlacher. These are big plays, the kind that stop opposing drives immediately. Without those plays, opponent punts turn into field goals, and and field goals turn into touchdowns. Cushing's absence by itself will probably cost the Texans about three points per game in each contest he misses.

Number two is the schedule. The Texans played the NFC West in 2009; this year they get the NFC East. Even though we're projecting down years for the Giants and Cowboys, it's likely that the worst team in that division could still beat out the Cardinals for the crown out West. The Texans also have to play the Ravens (our Super Bowl favorite) and the improving Jets. Last year, we ranked the Texans' schedule sixth-easiest in the league, and they went 9-7. That same team playing the 2010 schedule would likely go 7-9 or worse - and with Cushing gone for a quarter-year, they are not the same team.

And the woes in the secondary should be pretty obvious. Bernard Pollard is a very good strong safety (as we will discuss later), but he's best against the run. Kareem Jackson is promising, but cornerbacks usually don't play well until their third season. Whoever ends up starting on the other side - Glover Quin, Jacques Reeves, or Fred Bennett - is still going to be one of the worse starting corners in the league. And free safety Eugene Wilson probably shouldn't be on an NFL roster, let alone starting. I plugged Wilson's statistics over the last three years into our Defensive Similarity Scores system to find the ten players most similar to him. Four of those players never started another game, and five more were out of the league within a year. (Editor's Note: Yikes.) This team is going to get shredded.

RM: Despite the poor projection, FO writer Doug Farrar is on record as saying that he thinks the Texans can knock off the Colts, and fellow FO writer Bill Barnwell has also mentioned that he thinks the system is a little harsh on the Texans. What does FO subjectively think the Texans over/under on wins should be?

VV: When the first batch of projections hits the FO e-mails, there's always one team that catches everyone off guard. This year it was the Texans. Last year it was the Cardinals, coming off an NFC championship, facing a projection of 5.6 wins. Coincidentally, I also wrote the chapter on the Cardinals last year, and as I researched that team I looked for reasons they would fall so suddenly. In the end, I didn't see it. Every year on the site, all FO writers pick a team that is most likely to beat their projection, and I picked Arizona (http://footballoutsiders.com/ramblings/2009/2009-fo-staff-predictions). They ended up getting six wins before Thanksgiving.

This year, I'm sure a lot of guys are going to pick the Texans, but I don't know if I'll be one of them, for the reasons I discussed earlier. Do I think they'll win more than 5.6 games? Probably, but not much. I'd put their over/under at 7.5 wins, and -- speaking only for myself here, not for anyone else on the FO staff - I'd probably take the under.

RM: Obviously a big concern for fantasy owners and Texans fans alike is the status of the backfield. Steve Slaton is coming back from a poor injury-plagued year, Arian Foster has scant few games of professional experience, and Ben Tate is the intriguing second round rookie. FOA 2010 projects them all to have a roughly equal number of carries. Who should Texans fans be rooting for to gather the bulk of the carries?

VV: I'd be surprised if Slaton was ever an effective runner again. Injury expert Will Carroll couldn't think of another running back who had undergone neck fusion surgery like Slaton did. It's a common procedure among pro wrestlers, but they have the luxury of telling their opponents not to hit them or drop them on their neck. Slaton, obviously, doesn't. And with two vertebra fused, he won't be able to turn his head to the side as far as he used to, and that's going to cut down on his peripheral vision. He's probably limited to a third-down role from here on out.

Foster played great in two games last year, but that's only two games. There are other reasons to be enthusiastic about him - I've read some reports that he would have been a first-round pick if he had left Tennessee after his junior season - but I'm still taking a wait-and-see approach with him.

Tate likely has the most potential. FO writer Bill Barnwell has devised a metric called Speed Score (in a nutshell, 40-yard dash time, adjusted for weight) that has done a pretty good job of projecting success for rookie runners in the past, and Tate had the highest Speed Score of any runner in this year's Combine.

RM: Matt Schaub finally played 16 games last year, resulting in his first Pro Bowl appearance. Both FO's projection system (which doesn't see him staying particularly healthy) and FO's fantasy forecast, KUBIAK (which sees quite a regression from 2009), weigh against Schaub this year. Which quarterbacks do the systems look at and see as similar to Schaub? Are there any quarterbacks that have successfully bucked durability issues early on in their careers, or is this something you either have or don't?

VV: I turned this over to FO editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz, the man behind all our mathematical projections. Here's what he had to say:

"The overall down projection for the Texans is based mostly on things that have nothing to do with Schaub, and Schaub's own down projection in KUBIAK is caused in large part by that overall Texans projection. In fact, the first step for our projections is to create a QB projection that is done without any team variables whatsoever. We use this, for example, to measure the impact of teams changing quarterbacks, like Oakland going from JaMarcus Russell to Jason Campbell. (With Russell instead of Campbell, the Raiders would project as the worst team in the league.) Schaub's projection with that system isn't as good as what he did last year, but that's generally just the kind of regression to the mean that's part of all our projections. Only seven quarterbacks have a "projection with no team variables" higher than Schaub: Peyton Manning, Brady, Rivers, Brees, Cutler, Favre, and Roethlisberger. Rodgers, Romo, McNabb, and Eli Manning are all below him.

As for similarity scores, it's hard to find quarterbacks who are particularly similar to Schaub using our similarity scores because you just don't get a lot of guys who play 11 games two years in a row. Usually guys either have big injuries and lose large parts of a season, or they play 14 to 16 games each year."

To summarize [in a way] that answer your questions succinctly: Schaub's poor projection says more about his teammates than it does about him, and few quarterbacks with Schaub's durability issues are even given a chance to become a regular starter.

RM: Glover Quin had a fairly solid rookie season for someone who was thrown right into the fire. FOA 2010 says he has a "lot of room to grow", and his success percentage and stuff percentage were both fairly good for a rookie. At the same time, Texans fans are wary after all the FO love given to Fred Bennett after his rookie year ended up being mostly unjustified. What separates these two as prospects? Is Quin, statistically speaking, a better or worse prospect than Bennett was after his rookie year?

VV: The biggest difference between the two is that Quin started 12 games last year. In his excellent 2007 campaign, Bennett played 14 games, but only made eight starts. In other words, he saw a lot of time at nickel back, covering opponents' third and fourth receivers, while Quin lined up almost exclusively against ones and twos. The bad news is that quality of receiver is accounted for in our advanced statistics, and they still graded Bennett as one of the league's best corners in 2007, while Quin was below average last year. There's no question that Bennett had the better rookie season. It's a mystery why he has been so bad since then. The fact that he opened both 2008 and 2009 as a starter before quickly being benched both years indicates that the coaching staff sees potential and talent in him, but for whatever reason he has been unable to channel that talent into production on the field.

RM: FO recently compiled a list of the best organizations in football in terms of young talent (players age 25 or younger), and the Texans came in first. If you had to name one young Texan who you think winds up being a bit overshadowed by his peers despite being a very good prospect in his own right, who would it be?

VV: Probably Bernard Pollard. Not only is he overshadowed by his own teammates, but even when people do talk about him, it's usually because of that one time he hit Tom Brady's knee. Nobody ever mentions him as one of the most active safeties in the league, especially against the run. He was probably one of the ten best safeties in football last year, and unlike Bennett, that wasn't a fluke - he played good football on some very bad Kansas City teams before his arrival in Houston. He doesn't have the superstar potential of Cushing or Andre Johnson or a few others, but he should be a good starter for a half-dozen years and might sneak into a Pro Bowl or two.

We'd like to thank Vince for his time, even if he is a soul-crushing ruiner of dreams. Be sure to check out Football Outsiders for all sorts of football-related data and news this season, and in the epic words of Jay ShermanBUY [THEIR] BOOKBUY [THEIR] BOOKBUY [THEIR] BOOK!

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