An Interview with Aaron Schatz

An Interview with Aaron Schatz

An Interview with Aaron Schatz

“People ask me how to get into what I do. The biggest thing is that nobody will pay attention to you unless you do something they can’t get in 100 different places. Another sports commentary blog is boring. I did something nobody else did. We differentiated ourselves.”

“If you listen to conventional TV analysts, they constantly talk about how it doesn’t matter that you’re getting only 2 or 3 yards per carry because you’re establishing the run. That’s nonsense. Winning causes runs – not the other way around.”

“Conventional reporters give you a sense of who the coaches will use. One of the variables is player usage – you can’t really guess…hopefully the reporter can give you a sense of that. But I don’t trust most reporters to talk about how you win games. Honestly, when they say “To win you have to do x” usually it’s just wrong.”

Aaron Schatz: Interviewed on September 22, 2006

Position: Editor-in-Chief, FootballOutsiders.com

Born: 1974, Princeton, NJ

Education: Brown, 1996, Economics

Career: WBRU Radio, Providence 1992-96; WKRO Radio, Daytona Beach, 1996-97; International Data Corp. (storage systems analyst) 1998-99; Venture Development Corp. (market research analyst studying car stereo systems) 1999-2000; Lycos (writer of Lycos 50) 2000-2004; FootballOutsiders.com 2003 –

Personal: Married, one daughter

Favorite Restaurant (home): Apsara’s, Providence. “Vietnamese restaurant in crack neighborhood, where Brown and Providence College students eat cheaply.”

Favorite restaurant (road): any sushi place

Favorite hotel: Hotel Monaco, Seattle.

Author of: “Pro Football Prospectus 2006”

Q. What is Football Outsiders?

A. An intelligent football analysis site – mostly about the NFL. In general the basis is advanced statistics we created that go far beyond anything else available. Also we have columns that are not advanced stats – one is film watching, another is NFL history.

Our writers combine stats with personal observations and jokes. I’m big on humor – it makes it more fun to read rather than dry numbers.

Q. What does Football Outsiders do that newspapers don’t?

A. Research and use of stats based on intensive research. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent on the DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) formula that is the main stat on our site. We question conventional wisdom and do research projects that go past what is happening this week. And we have discussions for our readers.

Q. Whose conventional wisdom?

A. Mainstream newspaper journalists. Mainstream web analysts. TV commentators. I started my analysis in 2002 because I disagreed with something someone in Boston wrote.

Q. Who did you disagree with?

A. Ron Borges (Boston Globe). He wrote that the Patriots did not return to the playoffs in 2002 because they could not establish the run. He was promoting the Raiders as a team that succeeded because it established the run. But the Raiders ran less in the first half than any other team that year – so how could he talk about them establishing the run? I knew Bill James used to go to box scores when he had questions about baseball – I decided to do the same thing. That’s how we got started.

Q. Name a conventional nostrum you challenge?

A. Establishing the run is nonsense – that’s the first one. Running does not win games. It’s running well that wins games. If you listen to conventional TV analysts, they constantly talk about how it doesn’t matter that you’re getting only 2 or 3 yards per carry because you’re establishing the run. That’s nonsense. Winning causes runs – not the other way around. Ron Jaworski, who is the most intelligent NFL analyst, says you score with the pass and you win with the run. The pass gives you the lead and the run solidifies it.

Q. Football Outsiders’ audience?

A. We get 12,000 visitors per day. We also sell copies of Pro Football Prospectus. This year the book peaked at 74 on the Amazon sales list. In 2005 it peaked at 182.

Q. Staff?

A. Counting the people who write regularly plus our cartoonist – about a dozen. I’m the only full time employee. Everyone else has another job or is in law school.

Q. What’s the profile of your typical reader?

A. People who love football and don’t accept the conventional wisdom that’s constantly recycled by standard football journalists, and who are looking for a place to the discuss the NFL that isn’t about gambling and without saying “My team rules” with five z’s at the end of the word.

Mostly professionals. Mostly men. Probably mostly white but who knows. For a while the joke was we had more black writers than readers because of Ryan Wilson. But I’ve seen blogs of our readers and they aren’t all white. A lot are fans of sports in general. A lot came to us because of their relationship with Baseball Prospectus and were looking for something similar in football. I would say we have a higher percentage of non-US football fans than newspaper websites, or ESPN. They find us looking for football info they can’t get in their countries. We have people from Mexico, Israel, England and Germany who are actively in our discussions.

Q. What about gamblers?

A. I’m sure they are. People ask me about it a lot. We have ads from sports books. I know people gamble. I don’t think it’s great but I don’t think it should be illegal. When I started this I said to myself “Hundreds of sites are devoted to gambling and fantasy football, but none to intelligently discussing how teams win games and build contenders.” So while I’m sure our stats are useful in gambling – and we have a column that picks against the spread – in general I don’t try to talk about it because I’m more interested in why teams are winning.

Q. What do newspapers do that you don’t?

A. I don’t go into the locker room to talk to coaches and players. Does that diminish our ability to analyze? When something occurs that I can’t solve with stats I say so. I said last year I couldn’t tell you the effect of the Terrell Owens thing on the Eagles because I’m not in the locker room and I don’t know the personalities.

The nice thing about the blossoming of the Internet is that someone with an interest in football can read the conventional reporters – the good ones like Mike Reiss (Boston Globe) and Mike Sando (Tacoma News Tribune) – and get that angle and then read us for the stats angle. No point in limiting yourself – you can read it all. I wouldn’t want people to only read us and not read conventional reporters.

Q. What do you get from conventional reporters?

A. Conventional reporters give you a sense of who the coaches will use. One of the variables is player usage – you can’t really guess – only Gary Kubiak will tell you which of those terrible running backs he will use this week. Hopefully the reporter can give you a sense of that. But I don’t trust most reporters to talk about how you win games. Honestly, when they say “To win you have to do x” usually it’s just wrong.

We do the power rankings for Foxsports.com based on our DVOA rankings. I have problems with subjective rankings – they’re so subject to the whims of the writers they’re useless. Dr. Z ranked St. Louis third in power rankings when they had won a single game at home by 8 points, completely throwing out everything we knew about the Rams, which was proven the next week when they lost to San Francisco. They had a lucky upset. I’m very big on not over-analyzing upsets. Many of our stats drain the effect of luck out of the performance of the team. In the future you have to figure luck will even out.

Q. How much football do you watch?

A. A lot more than I used to before I started doing this – all day Sunday and Monday night. Sometimes I re-watch one I taped it as part of a game-charting project. I’ll watch the AFC South because I’m writing about it next year for our book. During the week I watch things the NFL replays on the NFL network. I try to combine our stats with a visual.

Saturday is family day for me – I don’t watch much college football.

Q. How do you generate revenue?

A. We have advertisers. Sports books, ticket sales people, fantasy football sites. And also through blog ads, the new Johnny Unitas book, and ‘Catholic Match’ – a singles site.

Q. Are you credentialed by the NFL?

A. No. Some of my guys have talked about it. The NFL doesn’t credential websites – it’s really hard-core. But we’re not totally a website anymore. We write for the New York Sun and Foxsports.com, which is a major website. We went to the Combine in Indy this year – it was the first thing I ever reported in person. I didn’t meet as many coaches as I wanted to but I did meet a lot of national reporters.

Q. Who did you meet at the Combine?

A. I introduced myself to Peter King (Sports Illustrated) – he knew about us and liked us – he’s a reader of Baseball Prospectus. John Clayton (ESPN) was open to what we do. I disagree with a lot of analytical things Peter writes but I get so much from his column I find it very valuable. I like Clayton’s blog but now that I write for Fox I keep forgetting to check it.

Q. Who did you avoid?

A. I didn’t introduce myself to the writers we constantly criticize on the site. I didn’t introduce myself to Don Banks. He does a lot of articles for SI.com I don’t consider too good.

Q. Do you see Football Outsiders covering more events live?

A. I don’t think we would ever become a reporting site – it’s just not our thing. I do what I’m good at.

Q. Who do you read?

A. Gregg Easterbrook (NFL.com) – he was a major part of our becoming popular. He mentioned us in his last ESPN column in 2003 – before he got dumped. I came up with the idea of our readers writing his column for him – as a contest. Gregg found out about it and contacted me – so he wrote for us for two weeks before he went to NFL.com. He links to us and sends people to us.

Like others in my generation I like Bill Simmons – I throw a lot of pop culture into our site but I’m not trying to be Bill Simmons – I was a radio DJ before I was a writer. I read the weblogs of Mike Sando and Mike Reiss. I also have so much respect for Len Pasquarelli (espn.com) – his ability to put out non-fluff useful NFL reporting in the middle of March is astonishing. I’m talking about his reporting – not analysis – we often disagree with his analysis – but as a reporter he is amazing. He finds things when the league is at its slowest point.

Q. How did you build an audience?

A. The first person I e-mailed was Bruce Allen (Boston Sports Media Watch). I had written some things for him – I had to start somewhere. The

second was King Kaufman of salon.com. Next was Easterbrook, who mentioned us in his last column on espn.com before the mishigas.

People ask me how to get into what I do. The biggest thing is that nobody will pay attention to you unless you do something they can’t get in 100 different places. Another sports commentary blog is boring. I did something nobody else did. We differentiated ourselves. Give people a reason to read you when they could be reading a hundred thousand other things. That’s the thing about the Internet: There’s a lot to write about, but unless you’re as funny as Bill Simmons you better have a hook.

Q. What does it feel like to be quoted in a Frank Rich column?

(Frank Rich, NY Times, February 15, 2004: “That a single breast received as much attention as the first attack on United States soil in 60 years is beyond belief,” wrote Aaron Schatz, the columnist on the Lycos Top 50 site.)

A. That was my old life. You’ve got to understand the irony of that. The Lycos 50 had a dual purpose – internal market research and publicity. I was a publicity spokesman-type person – I did a lot of interviews on the most-searched topics of the week, which put Lycos’ name in the papers.

Janet Jackson was the biggest thing to promote the Lycos 50 in my time there. I had started Football Outsiders by that point and here I was reporting on a football-related thing for Lycos. A week later Lycos laid me off. I tried to get a job in market research or in the Internet industry but nothing came up. That’s when Football Outsiders became my whole thing.

(SMG thanks Aaron Schatz for his cooperation)

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Compared to Bill James by the New York Times Magazine, AARON SCHATZ is the creator of Football Outsiders and most of the original statistical methods presented on this website, as well as lead writer on the book Pro Football Prospectus 2006. He also writes the Monday Quick Reads column and Tuesday Power Ratings found on FOXSports.com
, and regular NFL analysis for the New York Sun
. Before Football Outsiders, Aaron spent five years on the radio at WBRU Providence and WKRO Daytona Beach, and three years as the writer and producer of the Lycos 50, the Internet’s foremost authority on the people, places, and things that are searched online. He has appeared on a number of TV and radio stations including ESPN, CNN, and NPR, and written for a number of publications including The New Republic
, The New York Times
, The Boston Globe
, Slate
, The American Prospect
, and the Boston Phoenix
. He lives in Framingham, Massachusetts with his wife and daughter and proudly sports a #93 Richard Seymour jersey on Sundays when he is often told “they can’t hear you in Foxboro through the television.”

February 15, 2004

My Hero, Janet Jackson

By FRANK RICH

IT may be a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Two weeks after the bustier bust, almost no one has come to the defense of Janet Jackson. I do so with a full heart. By baring a single breast in a slam-dunk publicity stunt of two seconds’ duration, this singer also exposed just how many boobs we have in this country. We owe her thanks for a genuine public service.

You can argue that Ms. Jackson is the only honest figure in this Super Bowl of hypocrisy. She was out to accomplish a naked agenda — the resuscitation of her fading career on the eve of her new album’s release — and so she did. She’s not faking much remorse, either. Last Sunday she refused to appear on the Grammys rather than accede to CBS’s demand that she perform a disingenuous, misty-eyed ritual ”apology” to the nation for her crime of a week earlier. By contrast, Justin Timberlake, the wimp who gave the English language the lasting gift of ”wardrobe malfunction,” did as he was told, a would-be pop rebel in a jacket and a tie, looking like a schoolboy reporting to the principal’s office. Ms. Jackson, one suspects, is laughing all the way to the bank.

There are plenty of Americans to laugh at, starting with the public itself. If we are to believe the general outcry, the nation’s families were utterly blindsided by the Janet-Justin pas de deux while watching an entertainment akin to ”Little Women.” As Laura Bush put it, ”Parents wouldn’t know to turn their television off before that happened.” They wouldn’t? In the two-plus hours ”before that happened,” parents saw not only the commercials featuring a crotch-biting dog, a flatulent horse and a potty-mouthed child but also the number in which the crotch-grabbing Nelly successfully commanded a gaggle of cheerleaders to rip off their skirts. What signal were these poor, helpless adults waiting for before pulling their children away from the set? Apparently nothing short of a simulated rape would do.

Once the deed was done, the audience couldn’t stop watching it. TV viewers with TiVo set an instant-replay record as they slowed down the offending imagery with a clinical alacrity heretofore reserved for the Zapruder film. Lycos, the Internet search engine, reported that the number of searches for Janet Jackson tied the record set by 9/11-related searches on and just after 9/11.

”That a single breast received as much attention as the first attack on United States soil in 60 years is beyond belief,” wrote Aaron Schatz, the columnist on the Lycos Top 50 site. (Though not, perhaps, to the fundamentalist zealots who attacked us.)

For those who still couldn’t get enough, the cable news channels giddily played the video over and over to remind us of just how deplorable it was. Even though by this point the networks were blurring the breast with electronic pasties, there was still an erotic kick to be milked: the act of a man tearing off a woman’s clothes was as thrilling to the audience as whatever flesh was revealed therein, perhaps more so. But to say that aloud is to travel down a road that our moral watchdogs do not want to take. It’s the unwritten rule of our culture that the public is always right. The ”folks,” as Bill O’Reilly is fond of condescending to them, are always the innocent victims of the big, bad cultural villains. They’re never complicit in the crime. The idea that the folks might have the free will to tune out tasteless TV programming or do without TV altogether — or that they might eat up the sleaze, with or without young ‘uns in the room — is almost never stated on television, for obvious reasons of fiscal self-interest. You don’t insult your customers.

Since the public is blameless for its role in creating a market for displays like the Super Bowl’s, who should be the scapegoat instead? If you peruse Mr. O’Reilly’s admonitions in his first three programs dealing with the topic, or the tirades of The Wall Street Journal editorial page and right-wing direct-mail mills like the Parents Television Council and Concerned Women for America, you’ll find a revealing pattern: MTV, CBS and their parent corporation, Viacom, are the exclusive targets of the invective. The National Football League is barely mentioned, if at all. To blame the country’s highest-rated sports operation, after all, might risk insulting the football-watching folks to whom these moral watchdogs pander for fun and profit.

But the N.F.L. is in the sex business as assiduously as CBS and MTV, and for the same reason: it wants those prurient eyeballs. It’s now been more than a quarter-century since Super Bowl X, when the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders first caught the attention of the nation. ”The audience deserves a little sex with its violence,” Chuck Milton, a CBS sports producer, said back then.

The N.F.L. has since worked tirelessly to fill that need. This year was not the first MTV halftime show that the league has ordered to try to expand its aging audience beyond the Levitra demographic. The first such collaboration, Super Bowl XXXV three years ago, featured Britney Spears all but falling out of a halter top and numbers in which both Mr. Timberlake (then appearing with ‘NSync) and Nelly grabbed their crotches. There was, to my eye, twice as much crotch-grabbing then as there was this year, but that show generated no outrage whatsoever.

It did, however, attract two million more viewers than the game itself. The N.F.L. wanted more of the same for 2004, which is why the league’s commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, released a statement saying, ”We’re pleased to work again with MTV” when announcing the encore. Or pleased up to a point. When MTV proposed that part of the show be devoted to a performance of the song ”An American Prayer” by Bono to increase awareness of the horrific AIDS epidemic in Africa, the N.F.L. said no — even though Bono had done the league the favor of giving the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show a dignified musical tribute to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The mention of a sexually transmitted disease might dampen the libido of the salacious MTV show that the N.F.L. wanted this year and wanted so badly that the league remained silent even when MTV’s pregame publicity promised that the performance would contain ”some shocking moments.” As one participant in the production told me, the N.F.L. saw ”every camera angle” at the show’s rehearsals and thus was no less aware of its general tone than CBS and MTV were. You don’t hire Ms. Jackson, who’s been steadily exposing more of her breasts for over a decade on magazine covers, to sing ”Rock Your Body” if you have a G-rated game plan. Nonetheless, Joe Browne, the league’s flak, pleaded total innocence after the event, releasing a hilarious statement that the N.F.L., like the public, was the unwitting victim of a show that it had both commissioned and helped supervise: ”We applaud the F.C.C.’s investigation into the MTV-produced halftime. We and our fans were embarrassed by the entire show.”

That investigation, piggybacked by last week’s Congressional hearings, is an election-year stunt as full of hot air as the Bud Light horse flatulence ad. ”Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration,” declared Michael Powell, the F.C.C. chairman, upon announcing that the entire halftime would be examined. A celebration of what, exactly? Didn’t Mr. Powell, the nation’s chief television regulator, watch the previous MTV halftime show?

He promises to conduct the investigation himself — a meaningless gesture, though it may gain him an audience and perhaps a photo op with Ms. Jackson. Mr. Powell’s real agenda here is to conduct a show trial that might counter his well-earned reputation as a wholly owned subsidiary of our media giants. Viacom has been a particularly happy beneficiary of the deregulatory push of his reign, buying up every slice of the media pie that’s not nailed down. Should CBS be found guilty of ”indecency” by the feds, the total penalty would amount to some $5 million, roughly the price of two 30-second Super Bowl commercials. Congress’s new push to increase those fines tenfold is just as laughable. Viacom took in $26.6 billion last year.

Not for nothing did the company’s stock actually go up the day after the Super Bowl. The halftime show was great merchandising for both MTV and CBS, the go-to network for ”Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” Not to be left without a piece of the action, even NBC got into the act. Citing the Jackson flap, it decreed that two split-second shots of an 80-year-old woman’s breast in an emergency room sequence in ”E.R.” be excised. But the ”E.R.” star Noah Wyle then went on NBC’s ”Today” show the morning of the broadcast to joke about the decision, and the network-owned NBC affiliate in New York used the banned breast as a promo for its post-”E.R.” news broadcast: ”What you won’t see on tonight’s episode of ‘E.R.’ — at 11!” Thus did NBC successfully transform its decision not to bare geriatric flesh into a sexual tease to hype ratings. This is true marketing genius, American-style.

What’s next? Some are predicting that all the tape delays being injected into TV events to pre-empt future wardrobe malfunctions will be the death of spontaneous, live TV. But the moment an awards show takes a ratings hit, this new electronic prophylactic will be quietly abandoned by the networks even faster than the N.F.L.’s vague threat not to collaborate with MTV next year.

Ms. Jackson, the biggest winner in this whole escapade, is already back on the air. Her official rehabilitation began right after the Super Bowl, when BET started broadcasting a 10-part series of ”special Black History Month” spots in which she profiles historical luminaries like Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier.

”Her tone is serious and focused, with the air and diction of a seasoned lecturer,” says the network’s news release, which also notes that ”the spots feature Ms. Jackson clad in classic black.” Wasn’t her Super Bowl dominatrix costume classic black as well? Well, never underestimate the power of synergy. BET is another wholly owned subsidiary of Viacom.

The Search Engine as Crystal Ball

To take the pulse of popular culture, no search site analyzes the queries tapped into its search box as single-mindedly as Lycos, the portal owned by Terra Lycos. One employee, Aaron Schatz, writes a daily report that spots trends, called the Lycos 50, and also compiles regular lists of the most-searched-for terms. Those queries can offer a fascinating glimpse into the often mysterious rise and fall of consumer interests. [C10.]

KEEPING SCORE; When Flags Fly, the Referees’ Habits May Be the Reason

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By AARON SCHATZ

Published: August 13, 2006

When the Giants hired Tom Coughlin as coach in January 2004, one of his stated goals was to instill discipline in his players. The Giants had ranked third among all N.F.L. teams in total penalties the year before, and that was unacceptable to Coughlin and to Giants fans.

In Coughlin’s first year, it seemed as if his tough-minded approach to rules and practices might bear fruit. The Giants ranked 11th in total penalties, including those declined or offsetting.

But if Coughlin’s disciplinarian approach helped, it did not help for long. Last year, the Giants were penalized 167 times, tied with the Oakland Raiders for second most in the league behind the Arizona Cardinals. Left tackle Luke Petitgout earned 15 flags on his own, making him the second-most penalized player in the league.

The problem came to a head in November, when the Giants lost to the Seattle Seahawks, 24-21, in overtime. Jay Feely missed a field-goal attempt to win in regulation, and two more in overtime, but it never should have been that close.

The Giants gained 413 yards in regulation, compared with 297 for the Seahawks. But they kept giving back that yardage with penalties: 19 in all, 16 of which were accepted for a total of 114 yards. Petitgout was called for five false starts, and his linemate David Diehl had three false starts and a flag for holding.

But were Petitgout, Diehl and the other Giants entirely to blame for their performance? There are a number of factors that determine how many penalties will be called in an N.F.L. game, and the discipline of the penalized team is just one. Analysis of all regular-season games from the past four years shows that the habits of the officials calling the game have as much impact as a team’s ability to avoid penalties.

The Giants’ loss to Seattle provides a good example. Larry Nemmers was the referee that day, and Nemmers and his crew doled out more penalties per game than any other crew in the National Football League last year: 20.6, significantly ahead of second-place Ed Hochuli’s 19.1 penalties a game. Nemmers called the Giants for 19 penalties, but he also flagged the Seahawks 13 times. That was a season high for Seattle, which ranked 29th in total penalties over 16 regular-season games.

On the other extreme was Bill Vinovich, whose crew called only 12.3 penalties a game. In one San Diego-Oakland contest, Vinovich called three total penalties between the two clubs. The Raiders committed at least seven penalties in every other game last year.

The Giants’ high number of penalties may be largely attributable to the officiating crews that were randomly assigned to their games. The Giants may have finished second in penalties, but they also ranked first in opponent penalties, and by a hefty margin. In fact, the Giants’ opponents had more penalties (170) than the Giants (167). This indicates that referees in Giants games were calling penalties on everyone.

Oakland and Arizona, on the other hand, were among the top three most penalized teams last season, but they ranked near the bottom in opponent penalties. That indicates that the Raiders and the Cardinals, not the referees, were the reason for all the flags.

The average N.F.L. team was penalized 8.5 times a game last year; the Giants drew at least 10 penalties in 10 games, and their opponents drew at least 10 penalties in 11 games. Seattle was one of four teams that marked its season high in penalties in a game against the Giants.

This tendency for highly penalized teams to also draw a lot of penalties was even stronger two years ago. Arizona led the league in both penalties and opponent penalties in 2004; the Jets and the Seahawks, ranked first and second in fewest penalties, were ranked the same way in fewest opponent penalties.

The habits of N.F.L. referees and their officiating crews, for the most part, stay consistent from year to year. Nemmers was third in penalties per game in 2004, and ranked first in penalty yards per game the past two seasons. Gerry Austin and Walt Anderson ranked first and second in fewest penalties in 2004, and tied for second behind Vinovich for fewest penalties in 2005.

Officiating crews also differ in their predilection to call certain penalties and not others. Over the past three years, Hochuli’s crew has called 193 false-start penalties, while Jeff Triplette’s crew has called only 95, despite the same number of games. On the other hand, Triplette led the league in calling defensive pass interference two of the past three seasons, and is annually among the leaders in calling offensive holding.

No matter which teams draw Nemmers as the referee for their opening-week game, they can count on a lot of penalties. The commentators will say the penalties show that the teams are showing early-season jitters. In reality, they may show that Nemmers and his crew are in midseason form.

Aaron Schatz is the lead author of ”Pro Football Prospectus 2006.”

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