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Five Good Questions with Football Outsiders

If you don't know about Football Outsiders, now is a good time to learn.  They are the scientific gurus who break down film and provide some unique statistical analysis of what's happening on the field.  And every year, they put out a publication called the Football Outsiders Almanac, filled with all kinds of good statistics you won't find anywhere else.

And the guys from FO were nice enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions about the Miami Dolphins for us.  Four of the questions are answered by Sean McCormick, who wrote the Dolphins' section in the Almanac.  The other question was answered by Bill Barnwell, and you'll understand why in a minute.

Matty: I know this isn't particularly about anything in the book, but I just have to ask. Whenever I read your work, I'm always reminded of a quote you once gave during an ESPN chat in which you said, "A healthy Ronnie Brown on the Vikings would win NFL MVP."  Now that Ronnie is one year removed from his knee surgery and Miami's offensive line should be improved with a healthy Justin Smiley and the acquisition of center Jake Grove, what kind of season do you expect from Ronnie?  And if you were running the Dolphins, would you pony up the cash and give Brown a longterm deal before he hits free agency following the season?

Bill: The thing about that statement is that it makes two very large assumptions: One is that Brown has a great run-blocking offensive line in front of him, and the other is that he's healthy.

Certainly, since I said that, the Dolphins' line has improved, both with regards to talent and level of effort. And if Smiley stays healthy and the other four guys don't go down, of course, the Dolphins will have an excellent offensive line.

If every offensive line stayed healthy, though, everyone would look like an MVP. On the whole, the five offensive line starters for each team miss an average of eight games per season. The Dolphins had Smiley miss four games and Donald Thomas miss 15, which is 19 starts, but it's hard to say whether Thomas would really have held onto the job or played at a starting-caliber level, since he has all of one career game. Certainly, an injury to Jake Long or Vernon Carey would create real issues.

The more difficult thing to predict, though, is Brown's health. Remember: Last year was Brown's first -- and to this point, only -- full season without getting hurt. Players that start their career missing time in season after season like Brown did generally don't have a long shelf life; they occasionally put everything together and stay healthy for a great 16-game season, like Brown and Chad Pennington did a year ago, but that doesn't mean it's likely to happen again the year after.

With that in mind, and generally being averse to giving running backs big money, I probably wouldn't pony up the cash that a healthy Brown would look for on the market, no. Even though I love watching Brown play, and think that he can be a potentially game-changing player, you need to use the precious funds afforded you by the salary cap to build around reliable, consistent players that are more likely to be playing at a high level than Brown is. Running back's also the easiest position to replace in football, so while it will be hard to find a player with Brown's talent, finding a player that has 90% of his ability, is available more frequently, and costs about 20% as much as Brown might would be the better idea.

Matty: In the book, several factors are given for the Dolphins' amazing 2008 turnaround. In your opinion, what was the single biggest factor for the remarkable, and unexpected, resurgence in 2008?

Sean: The single biggest factor was clearly the last minute acquisition on Chad Pennington.  Pennington factors into the discussion when you talk about the most underrated players of the decade--everyone knows what his limitations are, but not many people concentrate on his strengths, which are uncanny accuracy at the short and intermediate levels, a tremendous work ethic, excellent football intelligence and a willingness to be a team leader.  It's not often that you can trade the worst quarterback situation in the league for a veteran capable of putting up one of the most efficient performances in the league, but that's exactly what happened with the Dolphins last year.  The Wildcat may have made the season exciting, but Pennington made the season possible.  Of course, that's not going to keep Fins fans from salivating over Chad Henne's potential in training camp.

Matty: The book points out how teams that go from 4 or fewer wins one season and ten or more the next see an average drop off of 2.7 wins the following season. But aren't there too many variables for that stat to even be meaningful?

Sean: People underestimate just how powerful a factor regression to the mean can be.  The reality is that a 1-15 team is usually a 4-12 team that caught some bad breaks and a 14-2 team is usually a team that had everything go its way.  When a team makes a huge leap the way the Dolphins did, some of that is because of genuine improvement, but some of that is also going to be due to other factors.  In Miami's case, a significant part of the turnaround was a result of a preposterously easy schedule.  That's not to take anything away from the Dolphins, who would have been looked at as the gimme win for the Seattles, Buffalos and San Franciscos of the world before the season started.  But the reality is that Miami won more than their share of games against inferior competition when they didn't play especially well.  The Dolphins went 6-1 in games where their DVOA was within 20 points of average.  They went 3-0 in games against Denver, Oakland and St. Louis despite posting a negative DVOA in each game.  Miami also benefited from good health, which is another factor that fans often overlook when considering how a season turns out.  Seven of the eight healthiest teams in the league made the playoffs last year.  It's unlikely that the Dolphins will enjoy the same degree of health again this season, especially if they plan on trotting out Chad Pennington as their starter.  Pennington has only played two full seasons since becoming a starter in 2002, and last year was one of them.  There are many things you can call Chad, but durable isn't one of them.

Matty: You wrote about the red zone for the Almanac and you consistently referred to the 2008 Dolphins as "overachievers" on the defensive side of the ball in the redzone. What do you mean by "overachieving" - as the word commonly has a negative connotation - and what do you expect from Miami's defense in the redzone in 2009?

Sean: What that means is simply that the Dolphins defense was more effective in the red zone than it was elsewhere on the field.  The red zone plays are a smaller sample size than defensive plays overall, but obviously they have a big impact on the outcomes of games.  And despite all the popular wisdom about how great defenses toughen up in the red zone, our research has found that teams that there is absolutely no carry over from year to year when you overachieve in the red zone.  In fact, it's far more likely that a team that underachieved in the red zone will show dramatic improvement the following season than it is that a team that overachieved will pull off the trick two years in a row.  The teams with the 20 top overachieving defenses since 1995 declined by an average of two wins the following year as their defense regressed towards the mean, so unless the Dolphins are able to pull up their overall defensive performance to match their red zone numbers, it's going to show up in the loss column.

Matty: I wanted to close out this interview with some fantasy football advice for everybody out there.  Which Dolphins do you see as the players with the most "fantasy potential" in 2009?  And is there one "sleeper" on Miami's roster that you'd recommend fantasy football players keep a close eye on?

Sean: It's not a team that jumps out at you with its fantasy potential, that's for sure.  Ronnie Brown should be the first Dolphin off the board, and he looks like a number two back with the potential to put up number one-type numbers.  We like Ted Ginn to have a breakout year, something in the neighborhood of 930 yards and 8 touchdowns, so he could easily outperform his draft spot.  Davone Bess had one of the better DVOA ratings on the team and seems to be having a nice training camp, so he's someone to keep an eye on, but more as a potential waiver wire pickup later in the year than someone you need to nail down on draft day.

A big "thank you" goes out to the guys from Football Outsiders for taking some time to answer my questions.