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Football Outsiders thinks the San Francisco 49ers are "an obscure football team"

If you take nothing else from this post, the title says it all.  It's safe to say that the stats at Football Outsiders, and Bill Barnwell in particular (the man who wrote the 49ers section), are not feeling the 49ers in 2009.  Before I go into detail, Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News also took time to run through this.  I have not read his post yet because I wanted to give my impressions unshaded by others.

First off, the sales pitch.  Normally FO produces the Pro Football Prospectus, available in Borders and other bookstores.  This year, due to some contractual issues, they're in between publishers (or something like that) and the book will NOT be available in bookstores.  Instead, you can either purchase a PDF version of it at the FO website now, or it will soon be available through  One plus to getting the PDF is that it's $12, while Amazon will be charging $20.  For a poor law student, that's like 2 beers in San Francisco!

Second, the DISCLAIMER.  If you're planning on purchasing this and really don't want to know what they've said about the 49ers, this is your chance to ignore this post.  I'm not discussing everything in the book, nor even everything they say about the 49ers.  This first post is an overview of their 49ers thoughts.  Over the coming weeks I'll break out more segments (or maybe Florida Danny can join in the act).  You've been sufficiently warned.

For those who don't read Football Outsiders, they basically have come up with alternative statistics that allow them to get a more accurate view of team performance.  Basically they look at every single play from a season and compare to a league average based on given situations.  I'd go into more detail, but there are others who can do it much better than I.  We might even get some insight from Florida Danny before the end of the summer.  In the meantime, here's a rundown of their methods.

The 49ers section will definitely appeal to the Debbie Downers (some may call them realists) here at NN.  As for me, well it teaches me to look for things other than stats.  By far the best and worst description of the 49ers section is this:

That they are merely obscure and not downright awful should be cause for celebration; the difference between the Matt Millen-era Lions and the Scot McCloughan-era Niners is context and luck.

Let the McClueless jokes fly.

Over the last four years (2005-2008), the 49ers have third-worst 4-year stretch of any team in the 15-year history of DVOA.  Who's the worst? The 2004-2007 49ers.  Fantastic.  FO looks at 2009 as a continuance of mediocrity:  "Our projection of another year of mediocrity comes because of a crippling lack of progress over the last four seasons in locating, nurturing, and properly implementing talent up and down the roster.  We'll have some more on that ray of sunshine after we get the projections up:

2008 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 6.9 (NEVER doubt PW!)

2009 Mean Projection: 5.7 wins
On the clock (0-3): 15%
Loserville (4-6): 51%
Mediocrity (7-8): 22%
Playoff Contender (9-10): 10%
Super Bowl Contender (11+): 2%

For those hoping for the playoffs, I think this video sufficiently sums it up.

After the jump we get into some of the nitty-gritty about why the 49ers are apparently going to suck.  Also, I realize there will be plenty of "I told you so" people based on the projections.  There are plenty of folks who will argue against the stats.  Let's try and keep things relatively civil and remember that every person is entitled to their own opinion (that's my "play nice children" speech).

First off, let's take a quick look back at previous projected means from PFP.  I own the 2007 and 2008 Prospectus's (Prospecti?!), which coincides with the time I've been running things here.  In 2008, they projected out 5.3 wins and the 49ers finished with 7. There was a 65% chance the A's would finish with 6 or fewer wins and an 18% chance of 7-8 wins.  In 2007, they projected out 8.1 wins and the 49ers finished with 5 wins in a debacle of a season.  The percentages indicated a 24% chance they'd finish with 6 or fewer wins.  So, for the optimists out there (including myself), maybe they'll strike gold in that 12% range of finishing with 9+ wins!

Before the more traditional FA statistical analysis, Barnwell posted his thoughts on the various issues ailing the 49ers during the McNolan era and into today.  Given the detail he provides, I'll just go with some bullet points:

  • Vernon Davis/Manny Lawson: As much crap as Alex Smith gets, Barnwell points to the pair of first rounders that have not lived up to expectations; particularly from a 1st round class that has done quite well - he refers to Davis's skill set at this point as a poor man's Jim Kleinsasser and gets into the Manny Lawson sack issue in detail
  • Day 2 picks: Indicates SF will only start 1 player they drafted after the second round under McCloughan (Haralson)
  • Shaun Hill: We've had this discussion over and over again here, but basically he points to the schedule Hill has faced (wins against 2-14 Rams twice last year and two more teams mailing it in in 2007)
  • General flux of the offensive coordinators and lack of consistent play.  That and the fact that they don't like Jimmy Raye's prospects
  • Identity: In general the team has struggled to find an identity.  He points specifically to the 3-4/4-3 issues and how that resulted in Justin Smith bouncing around on the line and as linebacker.
  • Singletary: Jury's still out given the same factors as Hill in terms of schedule he faced
  • Crabtree:  As they put it, "...the team's only real threat in the passing game - barring a huge step forward from Josh Morgan or Brandon Jones..." and the fact that rookie receivers take time to develop.

It's more detailed than that, but you get the general gist.  If you'd like more specific information about a particular point, say so in the comments and I'll pass along some more details.  Barnwell closes the essay indicating that there's no real point in discussing the stars of the team (Gore, Willis, and Clements among others) because "they don't matter in this sort of situation.  They could be the best players in the league at their respective positions and it wouldn't be enough to overcome the mediocrity that permeates the majority of the roster."

Odds and Ends
The Almanac goes through each unit on offense and defense providing little tidbits and observations that are certainly intriguing.  I thought I'd post some of them here.  The first one relates to the signing of Marvel Smith and what it means for Joe Staley:

Smith’s signing also means that Joe Staley will play left tackle again this year. Staley is undoubtedly the
49ers’ most talented lineman, and he can handle the responsibilities of protecting Shaun Hill’s (or Alex Smith’s)
blindside, but he’s also an extraordinarily aggressive player who’s "mauler" mentality is far better suited for the
right side, clearing open lanes for Frank Gore (note that Gore’s production has dropped significantly in the two years that Staley has manned the left side).

That's certainly an intriguing thought regarding Staley and his skills as an o-lineman.  At the same time, they make no mention of the fact that he played left tackle in college.  Is it possible that his development as an NFL left tackle will reach a new level this year?  Maybe not, but it's something to pay close attention to.

On the defensive side of things they hit a lot of the notable issues (the OLBs, the cornerback opposite Clements, free safety, etc...).  They have a few interesting comments about Justin Smith with the clarification of the 3-4 defense:

End Justin Smith is by far their most effective and reliable player on the defensive line, and he proved to be
worth every penny of his $45 million contract. In the dedicated 3-4, Smith will no longer be forced to drop back in pass coverage, and instead he can concentrate on rushing the quarterback’s blind side. At 285 pounds, though, he’s undersized for a 3-4 end, so there may be some issues with wear and tear as the season goes along.

As I said, there are plenty of details I'm not including here.  I figured for now this is a good start.  Over the coming weeks we'll have plenty more for discussion.

I thought I'd close with FO's look at the 49ers medical staff.  The Almanac rates the 32 team medical staffs and it's one of the few areas where the team gets some props.  FO has developed a metric called Adjusted Games Lost.  They use injury reports, historical rates of player participation at each injury status, and research into a player's role on the team.  The metric is measured over a three-year period.

The 49ers ranked 7th over the last three years and finished 6th in 2008 with 30.3 adjusted games lost.  Given the less than stellar discussion of the 49ers, I think it's best to close with some kind of positive:

Trend: Slightly positive. Their biggest issue was with Jonas Jennings...[his] release in the offseason is a positive move...The defense only missed a total of four starts, which isn't likely to happen again.