Interview: Football Outsiders' Robert Weintraub sits with Cincy Jungle

If you're one of those truly hardcore fans, like Bengals fans that sit at work, hitting F5 on their browser to refresh Cincy Jungle for the latest updates, most likely you've heard of the gang at Football Outsiders. We've referenced them a lot during the season to qualify and solidify our arguments. Every year they've released a book which provides their modern formulaic stats, projections, and detailed summary and analysis of each team. There really isn't a better book on the market to help edge you into that insane realm of being an educated football fan. The best part is that it's geared towards truly projecting and ranking players and teams based on opponent, game situations, compared to the league as a whole. While the name of this years book changed from Pro Football Prospectus to the Football Outsiders Almanac, it still includes all of the great information they've provided each year.

One of the writers for the new Almanac is Robert Weintraub. He joins us here at Cincy Jungle for a few quick questions.

In the 2009 edition of The Football Outsiders Almanac, it shows that of the top 16 teams with the biggest offensive drop in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) since 1999, all but four teams improved; in some cases dramatically. The Bengals had the 12th biggest drop since 1999 (26.1%). Do you see the 2009 Bengals being one of those teams that dramatically improve?

Robert Weintraub: As you mention, teams generally move away from extreme performances, good or ill, toward the mean. The Bengals can’t get any worse offensively then they were a year ago, so clearly they should improve. The team was the third-hardest hit by injury in the NFL, and that usually means an improvement due to better health. Obviously, Palmer is the key man to return to health—just his playing in all 16 games should show a healthy return to positive offensive DVOA.

Cedric Benson’s past is well known. Coming to Cincinnati midway through 2008, Benson was limited behind a terribly performing offensive line. Once Anthony Collins and Nate Livings started the final six games of the season, things solidified and Benson’s performance in the last three games likely rewarded him with a two-year contract. Dating back to last year, the team’s running backs have seen a massive shuffle in personnel. With all of the team’s changes, do you see the team improving on their 95 yards-per-game average from last year?

Robert Weintraub: Benson was indeed rewarded, but it came after a long look for someone better. It’s hard to see the running game being a huge factor until the O-line gets some cohesiveness. But with the addition of Fui Vakapuna and more two-back attack, plus a full season of Benson, who for all his mediocrity doesn’t fumble and runs hard, Cincy should show some improvement. Again, it can’t get much worse.

The Bengals offensive line was written in The Football Outsiders Almanac as “perhaps the single worst unit in the entire NFL last season.” Stacy Andrews and Eric Ghiaciuc left for free agency and Levi Jones was released. Now the team is left with a lot of unknowns; Kyle Cook at center, Nate Livings at left guard and Andre Smith at right tackle. The Football Outsiders Almanac says the 2009 offensive line will be younger and inexperienced, however shows promise. Why is that?

Robert Weintraub: Addition by subtraction is the key phrase for the ’09 Bengals line. Andrew Whitworth has shown he is capable enough to handle left tackle, and Livings was good in a late-season test as a rookie. Unquestionably, there will be growing pains and a stretch where all the new players aren’t on the same page.Paul Alexander’s job, and it is a crucial one, is to minimize that period.

If you combine Tank Johnson’s numbers with the Bengals numbers from last year, Johnson is ranked as the second-best defensive lineman on the team in terms of stop percentage (81%). However, playing in a 3-4 in Dallas, Johnson’s playing time was limited. Back in a 4-3 defense with the Bengals, combining with Domata Peko and Pat Sims, how much better is the defensive line with Tank Johnson?

Robert Weintraub: Tank gives Cincy something it hasn’t had in many a moon—a legitimate tackle rotation. Individually, Tank, Peko and Sims are all pretty good, not world beaters. But having three players who are decent against the run is critical over the long season, especially in the AFC North. Injury and stamina concerns are lessened by Tank’s presence, and that’s good, regardless of his checkered past. And as you mention, he fits Mike Zimmer’s scheme well, more so than Wade Phillips’.

With Chinedum Ndukwe, Marvin White, Chris Crocker and Roy Williams at safety, the Bengals secondary has a group of hard hitting safeties. The general concern is that where they’re strong against the run, they could be weak against the pass. This means that Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph could be relied upon more this year; perhaps being forced to prove their worth as first-round picks. Where do you see the Bengals secondary heading into 2009?

Robert Weintraub: First and foremost, the secondary needs to stay healthy. Joseph’s injury really set the unit back last season, moving Hall up to #1 WR duty and bringing the odious David Jones onto the field more than anyone wanted to see. Hall and Joseph certainly have the talent to form an excellent CB combo. If they played on a team with even a little pass rush, we might think of them much differently. Marvin White, being the only safety with decent cover skills, could earn more playing time than you might think. The other three will certainly be tested by enemy tight ends and backs early in the season—how each responds will decide who gets the bulk of the playing time.

Which new player with the Bengals do you expect to surprise people?

Robert Weintraub: It’s not very sexy, but Kevin Huber could make a big difference as the new punter. Marvin’s boy Kyle Larson was simply awful in 2008, and Huber has looked good in a small sample in camp. Vakapuna may also become an instant folk hero.

I wanted to thank Robert and Football Outsiders for taking the time out to chat with us. You can pick up a copy of Football Outsiders Almanac through their online store.

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