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Football Outsiders Answers Questions About The Arizona Cardinals

Most fans of the NFL know about Football Outsiders. They put together an football almanac every year. The newest version, the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 is now available for purchase, in digital or book form. (I already got my copy!) It is "the essential guide to the 2011 season, the book that correctly predicted 9 of 12 playoff teams last year, fully updated with post-lockout free agency and trades." 

The F/O staff has agreed to take questions from each of the NFL blogs, including Revenge of the Birds. Vince Verhei, one of the F/O staff answered the Cardinals questions. 

1. Based on what your stats say about Kolb in Philly, how would that have projected out for the team record-wise had he remained the guy?

Specifically, we don't have specific numbers where we can plug in Kolb and say "with Kolb instead of Vick, the team's record would have been X."

If you take out Hail Mary interceptions and a meaningless Week 17 performance when several healthy starters rested for Philadelphia, Kolb was only a very slight downgrade from Michael Vick as a passer last season. However, Vick made a monstrous difference in the effectiveness of the rushing game, either running the ball himself or as a decoy, taking the focus off of LeSean McCoy. Defenses always had to worry about Vick faking to McCoy and running a bootleg; as such, McCoy was an ordinary runner with Kolb at quarterback, but looked like an All-Pro when Vick was taking snaps.

On the other hand, Andy Reid is one of the league's most pass-happy coaches. Don't be fooled by the Eagles' 15th-ranking in total carries - a lot of those runs came as Philadelphia was killing clock with second-half leads. In the first half, Philadelphia ran the ball only 34 percent of the time. Only Green Bay and New Orleans were more likely to pass in the second half. With Kolb in at quarterback instead of Vick, the overall results would probably have been pretty similar, but the Eagles would have had to pass more often to get there.

2. How much of the Cardinals' coverage struggles can be attributed to lack of a pass rush?

We're a long, long way from being able to statistically separate the performance of a pass rush and coverage. The two go hand-in-hand, and without detailed film analysis, it's hard to tell which unit deserves credit or blame from one play to the next. What we can do is use a variety of methods to measure the Cardinals' pass rush to see how often they got to the quarterback and how that compared to other teams.

The Cardinals were 19th in both sacks and Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks per pass play, adjusted for opponent, down, and distance of each play). At Football Outsiders, we also track quarterback hits (taken from play-by-play, when quarterbacks were knocked to the ground as they passed or just after) and hurries (taken from our game charting project). The Cardinals had 40 hits (tied for 20th in the league) and 94 hurries (26th). In addition, the Cardinals collected a hit and a hurry on 30 plays, which was tied for 14th.

An essay in Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 shows that hits and hurries by themselves are worth about 25 percent of a sack, and plays with hits and hurries are worth about 40 percent of a sack. Combining these values gives us a stat we call Pressure, which is more consistent year-to-year than any of the individual components, and a better predictor of future sacks than sacks alone.

The Cards' finished with a Pressure of 78.5, which ranked 23rd. The league average was 84.9, about half a sack per game better. Meanwhile, the Cards' overall pass defense was 22nd in our rankings. It looks like the pass rush and coverage deserve equal shares of blame in this case.

3. What are trends with teams and missed tackles? Do they tend to improve from on year to the next or stay even?

We don't have a lot of data on this, but it looks fairly consistent. In 2009, the teams with the most missed tackles were Detroit, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and New Orleans. Those teams averaged 92 missed tackles in 2009; in 2010, they averaged 76. On the other end of the spectrum, the five best-tackling teams of 2009 (Baltimore, Green Bay, the Jets, Denver, and Washington) averaged 53 missed tackles that year, and 56 in 2010. For all teams, the correlation from 2009 to 2010 was .501, which is pretty consistent as far as football stats go.

The Cardinals had the most missed tackles last year, and had the 11th highest total in 2009, so the problem has certainly been consistent for them.

4. Using Kolb's small sample from last season, how different is the 2010 Cardinals' season if he had played in Arizona a year ago?

It's hard to say for sure. Kolb's individual numbers blow away those from anyone in Arizona last season, but those numbers were compiled behind Philadelphia's line, not Arizona's. Kolb was throwing to Philadelphia's receivers, not Arizona's and he played for Andy Reid, not Ken Whisenhunt. Still, it's hard to see how the Cardinals could possibly have played any worse. With Kolb, maybe they beat Minnesota instead of losing in overtime, and maybe they win a close game against Tampa Bay instead of losing by three. That's a two-game swing right there, which would have tied them for the division lead. Find one more win along the way and they go into the playoffs. It's hard to imagine they would have beaten anyone after getting there, but hey, Seattle pulled it off.

5. How much does Joey Porter have left?

Probably, very, very little. Porter is 34 years old. According to our Similarity Scores system, the most similar players to Porter over the last three seasons include Michael Sinclair, Greg Ellis, and Patrick Kerney, none of whom ever got another sack after passing 33 years of age. One bright spot in the list of comparable players: Willie McGinest, who had 6 sacks at age 34, 5 at 35, 3 at 36 and 1 at 37. But when your best-case scenario is "an old Willie McGinest," it's time to look elsewhere.