18 Questions with Mike Tanier

One of the most popular writers in the Footballoutisders‘ regular rotation,  Mike Tanier has the odd dual life of football writer/math teacher.  His Walkthrough column is one of the weekly highlights of the NFL season.

18to88 has helped out from time to time on Walkthrough, and Mike even showed up during a live in-game chat.  He has generously agreed to answer 18 Questions with 18to88 as a fitting wrap-up to our 2009 Almanac Week.

1. So are you a math teacher/football writer or a football writer/math teacher? 

I try to give them equal billing by staggering them, like Ted Danson’s and Shelly Long’s names in the Cheers credits:

                                                math teacher 

                              football writer 

2. Peyton Manning, DVOA darling, is obviously still writing his legacy, but if you had to guess what people will be saying about him in 20 years, how do you think he’ll be remembered? 

A lot of rancorous things that have been said about Peyton over the years – the “choke artist” or “stat compiler” stuff – will be long forgotten in 20 years. The Colts-Patriots rivalry will be idealized, and there will be a glow around his name and his accomplishments. Right now, if you ask someone “Peyton or Elway,” they’ll say Elway, because Elway has that post-retirement, NFL-Films slow-motion glow, while Peyton’s still a mortal who throws incomplete passes and gets flustered by the Chargers defense. Twenty years from now, I think most people will choose Peyton, and that’s just based on what he’s done so far. 

Even if Peyton Manning never plays a down, he’s one of the top 10 quarterbacks in history, probably among the top 5. Anyone who makes a serious top 10 list and doesn’t include Peyton has some sort of axe to grind.  

3. How long will McNabb have to be retired before he finally achieves universal love from Eagles fans?  They’ll eventually embrace him once he’s gone, right? 

McNabb is in the same boat as Phillies legend Mike Schmidt. Most baseball experts will tell you that Schmidt was one of the 2-3 best third basemen ever, but walk into a Philly-area bar and you’ll find an old-timer who swears Brooks Robinson or Ken Boyer or somebody was a better player, that Schmidt was lousy in the clutch and was too temperamental to be a leader, blah, blah, blah. Julius Erving gets universal love in Philly. There have been a few others: Chuck Bednarik, Richie Ashburn, one or two of the Broad Street Bullies. McNabb will spend eternity on Philly’s loooooong love-to-hate, hate-to-love list. That assumes he doesn’t lead the Eagles to three straight championships in the next three years. 

4. How do you balance being a fan of a team (the Eagles) with having to write knowledgeably about all 32 teams? I mean, there’s only so many hours in a week… 

The hardest part is when the Eagles are a Sunday early game, because it’s easy to focus on them and forget seven or eight important games. I often DVR them and force myself to give at least equal time to an important national game when that happens. When it comes to a bias while writing, the first step is admitting there’s a problem. I know I am biased toward the Eagles and against the Cowboys, so I look to eradicate it from my serious analysis or game predictions. When I’m doing jokes, well, everybody loves a good Terrell Owens joke. 

5. Walkthrough has developed a dedicated following. How do you keep it fresh each week? Do you read the comments or intentionally try not to? 

I’m lucky to do things many other writers don’t. Not many other people diagram plays and explain them, so a play diagram or two can give me a fresh angle on a story. Not many writers take a historic approach, so when I go back and write about Steve McNair’s first training camp, it provides a fresh perspective.

 I do read comments, first to see if readers found obvious mistakes (I get left and right mixed up a lot), then to get impressions about what readers think. At the same time, I have to do what I do. For the Steve McNair memorial I wrote, I knew some readers would think it was a “puff piece,” but I wasn’t interested in writing about his sordid death or his Hall of Fame chances or just a Wikipedia biography. I had to accept that my take on McNair wouldn’t satisfy all readers. 

6. This year you personally wrote up the Ravens, Browns, Saints, and Steelers for the 09 Almanac. Sort of an odd group. How do you guys assign who writes up which team? 

We try to rotate writers so that the same person doesn’t cover the same team year after year. Imagine if I wrote the Eagles every year: everyone would get sick of the McNabb apologetics and dissertations on how crazy the Philadelphia sports media is. Send me to cover a team like the Saints, and I can provide a fresh approach while learning a lot more about a franchise I don’t normally follow intently. 

We get our assignments early in the season, so we know what teams we are supposed to focus upon. I was lucky to get the Super Bowl champions and a local team that’s on television a lot. The hardest team for me to cover was the Browns, who disappeared from all media after Brady Quinn got hurt. Luckily, their story was defined by the front office and coaching changes, so I didn’t need to go watch tape of Ken Dorsey running the team in December to get a sense of where the franchise is going. 

7. Does moonlighting as a football writer make you seem more cool to your students? Or does it just amplify the geek factor of being a math teacher? 

Some students find it impressive; my appearances on NFL’s Top 10 were a big deal to some of them, and the kids who are big football fans love trying to get me off-topic on Monday mornings. I teach in a school where dozens of the students are close friends or relatives of a starting NFL quarterback (Joe Flacco), so I rank a very distant second on the “cool football guy” scale. 

8. Do you consider yourself a football journalist?  A football researcher?  A football columnist?  Do such distinctions even matter anymore?  Do you have any ‘code of ethics’ in your writing other than ‘be honest and funny?’ 

The Football Outsiders are journalists because we can, through our stats, investigate and present original stories. We aren’t very reliant on local media outlets to break stories so we can spin/repackage them: we get the stats and game tape and create much of our content from there. I don’t usually call myself a journalist, but I think of Walkthrough as a “column,” and I value the freedom I have in that space. 

One rule I have, besides honesty, is to always portray NFL fandom and the experience of watching NFL games as a positive experience. I try not to vilify players, to harp on every little arrest, to get carried away with negative remarks. I try not to label players or teams as “chokers” or “busts,” and while I take some shots at television talking heads, I try to avoid “boy, these television guys are stupid/annoying” commentary. Watching football is a cherished Sunday ritual, a chance to spend time with friends or family. It’s something to celebrate, and I try to treat it that way, even when I’m on my fifth paragraph of Al Davis jokes. 

9. Where’s the next frontier of NFL stats? Is there any chance we’ll see DVOA type individual stats for defenders in the next five years, or are we stuck with sacks, tackles, and interceptions for perpetuity? 

Thanks to the Game Charting Project, we are now sitting on a mountain of football data, and we’ve only begun excavation. I think we’re reaching the point where we can better differentiate players from schemes. If we know that a quarterback threw 26% of his passes behind the line of scrimmage for one coach, then 9% behind the line of scrimmage for another coach, we can use that data to analyze changes in that quarterback’s statistics: did he get better/worse, or did his stats change because the scheme changed?  

I think our formation data may soon help us predict strategic changes. Two years ago, we wrote about how much more productive teams were from shotgun sets. Shotgun sets are more prevalent than ever, so we must have seen something that coaches also saw. We may learn the same thing about empty backfield plays, Wildcat plays, or other strategies as we study trends in the data. 

A few years ago, I tried to create a DVOA metric for individual defenders, and it fell apart. Without game film (and I mean coach’s film, not television tape), there’s no statistic to measure a cornerback’s blanket coverage for a full game (leading to zero passes thrown his way, zero tackles, zero interceptions) or to getting double-teamed on every snap. What I’d like to see go mainstream is some variation on our Stops-Defeats stat: don’t tell me how many tackles the linebacker made, but tell me how many of them came after a one-yard gain. 

10. Why should a casual Colts fan buy a copy of the ’09 Almanac? 

The Colts make a great “starter team” for a casual fan who wants to learn more about football and about our methods. It’s one thing to say the Colts “don’t blitz much”, but we’ll tell you they rush with only their front four defenders 84.6% of the time, the highest percentage in the league. The Colts lead the league in three-receiver sets but rank last in outside-the-pocket passes. There are many other strategic categories where the Colts rank either first or last. Working back from the Colts, a new reader can see what tactics other teams use, and they can also see how our analysis makes football more interesting. 

We also provide a sober look at the new coaching staff that’s a lot deeper than any other national publication. If you’re not sure who Larry Coyer is or what to expect from him, we’ll tell you. 

11. footballoutsiders.com is not only one of the smartest sites around, but one of the funniest. Do you guys try to spice up the stats with witty commentary as an intentional strategy, or has that developed naturally? 

From the beginning, humor was a major part of the site. Scramble for the Ball was the very first regular column, and the original writers used it as a chance to riff on wrestling and the XFL while dispensing fantasy advice and over-unders. I don’t think there are many readers who would enjoy statistical treatise after statistical treatise. And after all, this is football, not macro-economics: it’s supposed to be fun. 

12. Could you get fired for weighing in on the irrational Manning/Brady debate? Does the mere mention of the question make you want to bang your head against a door? 

I get hung up on what “better” means. Who had the better career? Who would be better if you needed a quarterback to win just one game? Who could make a bad team more competitive? Who was better in any given year? And if so, what year? You get different answers depending on what you think “better” means, though my answer to just about all of those questions is Peyton Manning. 

Instead of arguing, fans should put these two players into context. Brady is in a class with guys like Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, Bob Griese, and Troy Aikman: great quarterbacks who won multiple championships with phenomenal teams. Manning belongs to the Steve Young-Dan Marino-Fran Tarkenton-Brett Favre group: guys with phenomenal stats and tons of wins but few or no championships. How you rank these players depends on how much credit you give quarterbacks for winning the Super Bowl. That’s more a matter of taste than a matter of analysis.  

13. Why (other than Peyton Manning) should Colts fans feel good about 2009? Why should they be worried? 

The Colts defense looks better than it has in years. The linebackers are young and very solid, and there’s a lot more depth (and size) on the defensive line now that the team drafted Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor. Running back Donald Brown will be a big help: the change-up runner is a big part of the offense, and Dominic Rhodes wasn’t providing much juice. The offensive line survived some injuries last year and is stronger because of it. 

Colts fans should be worried about the schedule. There are no weak divisional foes, and the AFC East is also tough. They do get a respite against the NFC West, but their at-large games (Broncos, Ravens at Baltimore) aren’t gimmies. They also should worry about expectations: a 10-6 season would look like a disaster after years of 12 wins or more, but it may just be part of the process of changing coaches and dealing with the strength of the division. 

14.  Marvin Harrison to the Eagles would make you:

a.  happy

b.  confused

c. wish it was 2002 Marvin that was signing

d.  wimper slightly 

Oh, “c” all the way. A lot of great wide receivers ended their career sojourns in Philly: Art Monk, James Lofton, Roy Green. There’s nothing worse than seeing a great receiver bobble a seven-yard smash route. 

15. The best team in the AFC South in 2009 will be…?  If it’s Indy, who will be second best? 

We have the Jaguars bouncing back in a big way this year. Their mean projection is higher than the Colts’, but I see them as two 11-5 teams, give or take. The Titans are going to regress but still project with a winning record. The Texans are pesky.  

16. Vince Young’s future as an NFL starting quarterback is… 

all but over. He doesn’t seem to want to be a football player all that much, making him a Todd Marinovich type. I don’t think that he can force himself to make the necessary commitment to being a good starter, just to pay the bills.  

17. Do you have a Super Bowl pick? 

I’ll have to make one on Football Outsiders soon. Let me wait until I eyeball these teams in the preseason a little.  

18. When Bob Sanders decapitates a running back and feasts on his brain at the 35 yard line, how does that translate into DVOA for the defense? 

Zombies get penalized by DVOA. Decapitation is a violation of the Roy Williams rule, and most zombies are too slow to play safety, even in-the-box safety. Undead and other mythical creatures are accounted for in DVOA as follows (remember, negative is good for defenders): 

      Robots  – 4

      Cool, dangerous vampires  -3

      DC Comics heroes (not counting Booster Gold, the Art Schlister of superheroes) -2

      Klingons -1

      Zombies +1

      Lame, emo, Stephanie Meyer vampires who don’t bite their girlfriends until they’re “ready”  +5


Wow.  That’s a big thank you to Mike.  Don’t forget you can check out his work every week on footballoutsiders.com.
 

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