A preview in review: Football Outsiders’ predictions for the Rams

The Football Outsiders 2011 Almanac: a 535-page brick of NFL knowlege. And you thought McDaniels’ playbook was thick?

The venerable folks at Football Outsiders have put out yet another tome of football knowledge, the Football Outsiders 2011 Almanac, one that I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of. But their number-crunching for the 2011 season is in, and the forecast for the Rams is pretty much the same as last year: Six wins, give or take. (5.5 actually, but who’s counting?)

If this sounds familiar, it’s essentially the same prediction they made a year ago. And the year before that.

In 2009, the fellows at FO predicted a turnaround season for St Louis under Marc Bulger based on simple statistical precepts: nobody should be that bad, or that incapable in the red zone, three years in a row. (In fact, they were, not only repeating as the worst-ranked offense in 2010, but lowering their mark.)

In 2010, FO once again predicted a turnaround season, easing the rookie quarterback into the league against the easiest schedule in the league, a seemingly well-earned respite for the franchise. This time, their estimates were a shade too conservative, as the Rams were a surprise contender and were only a couple of late containment breakdowns (vs San Francisco and Tampa Bay, notably) from taking the division outright.

And ordinarily, the addition of an offensive wunderkind (Josh McDaniels) to a gifted young passer (Sam Bradford) and a rapidly strengthening defensive foundation might have been enough to lift the team’s projection skyward. But two forces beyond the Rams’ control combine to depress their ranking: the schedule makers and the Lockout.

Writes FO’s Brian McIntyre:

While the new additions will increase competition in training camp and the preseason, particularly at the wide receiver position, their immediate impact could be dampened by only having 38 days to implement McDaniels’ complex system.

McIntyre also points out the brutal opening half of the schedule, opening the season against three teams with a combined 32-16 record last year, and facing the Packers and Cowboys on the road in consecutive weeks. Indeed, the Rams’ strength of schedule, as measured by FO’s stats, has jumped up from 30th to 18th. No doubt it would jump even higher if not for the six games against their woeful division mates. (More on them in a moment.)

In short, FO is singing the same tune that we’ve been singing all along, once the die was cast. If the Rams are going to make a step forward, it will have to come from the Sam Bradford and the offense’s ability to make a quantum leap forward. That’s what makes the speed of his game so important.

There are some nuggets buried in the stats worth highlighting, related to the importance of the play-action to both the offense and defense:

  • The Rams used play-action fakes 50 percent more often than they did in 2009. They ranked fourth in the league at 24.3 percent of pass plays… just behind Josh McDaniels’ Denver offense at 24.5 percent.
  • The Rams ranked 18th in DVOA on plays with play-action, but 29th in plays without it.
  • Once again the Rams defense seriously struggled to stop play-action passing. The Rams had a reasonable 4.9% defensive DVOA on pass plays without a play-fake, but a terrible 41.1% DVOA on pass plays with a fake.

This was all too apparent in the game against Tennessee, as the defense seemingly could not get a handle on when to load up against the run. However, the Rams’ defense was notable in its aggressiveness against Kansas City despite Matt Cassel’s attempts at play-faking. 

As far as the play-action’s importance to the offense, we’ve been talking about it all weekend, and it is yet another reason for the Rams to consider Brit Miller for the final 53

So how does the Rams’ projection stack up against the rest of the West? Here’s a quick synopsis:

Arizona Cardinals’ mean projection: 6.4 wins.

Kevin Kolb is the obvious difference-maker here, and is seen as startlingly underrated:

“Overall, Kolb’s numbers for 2010 featured as many interceptions as touchdowns. That had a lot of people puzzled by the Cardinals’ urgency to lock Kolb in long term. But if you look closer, the difference between Vick and Kolb was far smaller than you might expect.”

San Francisco 49ers’ mean projection: 7.5 wins.

The path to salvation? Jim Harbaugh’s trust in the much-maligned Alex Smith:

“According to the Greek historian Plutarch of Chaeronea, when Alexander the Great arrived at Troy in 334 B.C., he mourned his fallen ancestors by running naked around their graves. We have no evidence that Mike Singletary used nude footraces through cemeteries to determine his starting quarterbacks, but it couldn’t have been any less logical than what actually unfolded.”

Seattle Seahawks’ mean projection: 5.4 wins.

A decent defense props up what shapes up to be the worst offense in the NFL.

“Ah yes, the offensive line. Partly due to bad luck, partly by design, the Seahawks have put together a line in which no two starters have ever played a meaningful snap together.”

Yes, that’s Alexander the Great projected to lead a herd of elephants through the league’s easiest schedule, or something like that. To which I say … this season might come down to a fateful week 17 matchup once again. Only this time, the Rams will be at home.