Recently, Football Outsiders released their 2013 Almanac, a look at the NFL through their analysis process. With that release, I got a chance to check out what they said about the Miami Dolphins, then ask them some questions about their views on the Dolphins. You can check out my question and answer session with Danny Tuccitto below.
But, first, if you want to grab a copy of the Almanac for yourself, you can head over to the Football Outsiders products page. The Almanac has an amazing amount of in-depth information about the league and the Dolphins. To grab a physical copy of the book, it will cost $22.95. You can also get a digital PDF file of the entire Almanac for $12.50. Make sure you check it out.
Now, on to my interview with Danny Tuccitto.
Kevin Nogle (KN): Obviously, Jonathan Martin struggled at left tackle after spending the majority of the year at right tackle, only to be thrust to the left side after Jake Long's injury. That's led many to assume Martin will struggle at left tackle this year for the Dolphins. However, it ignores that he played left tackle at Stanford and was trying to return to the position simply off of instinct rather than practice. How does his college performance at the position translate to what Dolphins fans should expect from this year?
Danny Tuccitto (DT): Our concerns about Martin's move to left tackle aren't about Martin, per se. Most scouting reports prior to the 2012 draft said he would benefit from starting out at right tackle before moving to the left side, and that's what's happened. They said one of his weakness was functional strength, and he's spent considerable time bulking up this offseason. Can he succeed at left tackle? Yes. The problems, however, are two-fold. First, he's replacing one of the best left tackles in the history of the Dolphins franchise, so there's a burden of high expectations. More importantly, though, the scouts also noted that he may have a hard time with stunts and bull rushes. (Incidentally, both of these weaknesses were evident against San Francisco last year.) Blocking stunts at left tackle requires a symbiotic relationship with the left guard; both guys need to be good at it, and both need to be on the same page. Unfortunately, Richie Incognito often looks like he has no clue what's going on out there, with many of his blown block sacks allowed coming in the form of standing around blocking no one on a stunt. If Dallas Thomas ends up winning that job, we'll become more optimistic about the situation.
KN: You discussed the tendency for teams to sign a number one wide receiver to not see much offensive production increase that year, which the Dolphins will be looking to avoid. However, if you add in the addition of Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller, how will that impact the Dolphins offense?
DT: I think the main point is that -- surprise! -- improving at quarterback is more important for the offense as a whole than improving at wide receiver (or tight end). But taking your question at face value, if signing a No. 1 receiver hasn't helped offenses very much historically, I don't see why signing a No. 3 receiver or tight end would. New England's massive upgrade at receiver in 2007 led to a 29.1 percentage point improvement in offense DVOA, but they were already No. 5 in 2006 and had Tom Brady. Same thing goes for when they had a 15.8 percentage point improvement in 2010 after a massive upgrade at tight end (i.e., they were already No. 1 in 2009 and had Tom Brady.
If your question is talking about the fact that all of these moves by the Dolphins add up to more improvement than what each single move suggests, well then I don't have much to say because it's almost impossible to quantify how those separate moves will interact with each other from a purely statistical perspective. What I can say, however, is that I don't see Gibson and Keller as vast improvements over Bess and Fasano. Before last year, Gibson had never ranked higher than 69th among wide receivers according to our value and efficiency stats (i.e., DYAR and DVOA). Last year was the first time Keller ranked higher than 20th among tight ends. Meanwhile, Bess had ranked in the top 55 four out of his five years in Miami (including last year), and Fasano had ranked in the top 15 three times from 2008 to 2011 before falling off the face of the earth in 2012. I suppose an optimistic view of those comparisons is that Miami acquired two players on the rise. I wouldn't begrudge Dolphins fans at all for thinking that way. Were they probably good moves in the grand scheme of things? Sure. Are they going to be the difference between Miami's No. 22 offense DVOA ranking in 2012 and a possible top 10 finish in 2013? I don't think so.
One last thing I'll add here about Keller. In watching Dolphins games last year, Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman seem to view tight ends and fullbacks as interchangeable chess pieces, having them line up all over the formation. According to our game charters, Keller lined up at wide receiver or slot tight end with the Jets in 2012 just as much as Fasano did with the Dolphins. However, Fasano lined up in the backfield on 5.5% of his snaps, while Keller only did so on 1.7% of his snaps. So, one thing I'm interested to see is how well Keller adapts to that change in alignment.
KN: Why don't you see Ryan Tannehill improving this year?
DT: Three reasons. First, prior to the 2012 draft, we projected Tannehill as the seventh best quarterback prospect of the first three rounds. Ahead of him (in this order) were Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins, and Brandon Weeden. In other words, Tannehill just didn't fit the profile of a good prospect based on the statistics that seem to matter. For instance, college games started is the biggest predictor of them all, and he only started 19 games. Another big one is passer rating improvement from junior to senior year, and Tannehill's actually dropped from 137.0 to 133.2. For a comparison, Griffin started 40 games and his passer rating improved from 144.2 to 189.5 as a senior. Is Tannehill doomed because of what our projection model says? Of course not, and only someone who knows nothing about statistics would think that football destiny is given by a number. What we say is that our projection should be used in conjunction with scouting, and it does a particularly good job of identifying quarterbacks whose draft stocks are way out of whack. It's not his fault, but Tannehill had no business going eighth overall last year, and I suspect that the blinders being worn by a talent evaluation braintrust that includes his college coach had a lot to do with why he did go that early.
Piggybacking off that point, the second reason why we don't see him improving much is precisely because he's entering his sixth year in the same offense. This isn't a block of granite like Baylor's physically-talented-but-running-a-gimmicky-offense quarterback being chiseled into sculptured-professional-masterpiece Robert Griffin by Mike Shanahan. Ditto Colin Kaepernick under Jim Harbaugh. In fact, ditto Aaron Rodgers under Joe Philbin. No, this is Ryan Tannehill, the finished product, being displayed as-is for NFL consumption by Mike Sherman. It's an interesting almost-unprecented experiment, but it's not one where the ultimate outcome is a major breakthrough.
KN: Early in training camp, the Dolphins secondary seems to be locking in with Brent Grimes and Richard Marshall at cornerback, and Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons at safety. Will this be an improvement over the secondary from last year?
DT: Here's a spot on the Dolphins roster where I'm a little more optimistic, and the reason -- shocking as it may seem -- has nothing to do with stats. Mainly, Grimes and Marshall are just vastly better fits for Kevin Coyle's zone coverage scheme than were Sean Smith and Nolan Carroll (and Vontae Davis for that matter). Smith is a man-to-man corner who looked lost sometimes last year while trying to play disguised Cover-3 and inverted Cover-2. Nolan is just bad, and it's a definite plus that he seems to have been banished to the end of the bench.
My only concern about Miami's corners this season is that they have two rookies providing depth behind Grimes and Marshall. It's pretty well-known in football stats circles -- a rowdy bunch no doubt -- that even the most-talented rookie corners take a year or two to come into their own. Recent examples include Patrick Peterson in 2011 and Morris Claiborne in 2012. (According to our game charting stats, Peterson was pretty bad in coverage as a rookie, but became a bona fide lockdown corner last year.) Now, except as it relates to NFL offenses spending more and more time in three- and four-wide formations, having rookies as your nickel and dime cornerbacks isn't a disaster in a vacuum. However, when both of your starters missed significant time last season because of injury, it has the clear potential to become a disaster outside of the vacuum.
KN: Ultimately, your prediction for the Dolphins is that 8-8 would be over-achieving for the season. Yet, a less talented team went 7-9 last year, and was in the playoff hunt until late December. The best case scenario, as you wrote, is that your scenario be right so the Jeff Ireland era will end and the team can blow everything up and start over. Can you explain why, when so many in the media see the Dolphins as wildcard contenders, you think the team should try rebuilding again?
DT: Well, I think most of my answer to this question was covered in the chapter essay, but I'll give the Cliffs Notes version. Aside from some years in college, I've spent my entire life in Miami. I was born here. I live here. I interact with Dolphins fans all the time, and I've been to four or five games over the past two seasons. My perception is that the fan base -- especially the part of the fan base that's old enough to remember when the Dolphins were the only championship-contending team in town -- is sick and tired of "8-8 wild card contender," and starting to show it on their faces and with their wallets. My entire life, celebrating the '72 team has been woven into the fabric of South Florida as much as going to Calle Ocho for lechón asado and a colada. When I went to the game this past year commemorating that team, I was shocked to find that hardly anyone stayed in their seats for the halftime festivities. I was also shocked that the whole stadium renovations issue was so roundly rejected publicly. (I know it's because of the Marlins fiasco, but it isn't exactly a good thing that South Floridians are now starting to distrust the Dolphins as much as the Marlins.) There's just something amiss about Dolphins fandom down here, and I think the Heat's greatness since Lebron arrived also isn't helping matters.
So, as much as having an 8-8 (or 9-7) wild card contender sounds like a good thing, I don't think -- no, I'm pretty sure -- that the fan base will let out a collective "We've been through this before" sigh if that happens, and nothing will change come 2014. This organization needs a total paradigm shift. Steven Ross needs to understand that orange carpets, celebrity shareholders, and veiled threats to move the team mean nothing down here; championships mean something. Jeff Ireland needs to take his stylized brand of ineptitude to another team. They need to find a bona fide franchise quarterback. This may sound self-serving, but perhaps they might benefit from having an analytics department help them with all of the above. (God knows it's helped San Francisco, New England, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc., etc., etc.) Another mediocre season accomplishes none of this, and I think Dolphins fans want and deserve much more than mediocrity.
A huge thank you to Tuccitto, and seriously consider checking out the Football Outsider 2013 Almanac.