Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
13 Oct 2013
by Rivers McCown
After I finished taking in PBS' excellent League of Denial documentary yesterday evening, I started perusing the internet for reactions I might have missed. The one that irked me the most was Andrew Brandt's piece for MMQB. Brandt's piece adequately framed the issues that the league faces in the coming years, but it began with this:
As with all things, however, the emotion in the wake of “League of Denial” and the fine work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru will soon wane. And when it does, we will still be left with the underlying challenge for the NFL, union, teams, doctors and agents: protecting players from their strong and culturally-ingrained desire to play.
Well, maybe it shouldn't wane.
There are many great applications for the macro scale. Death isn't one of them. Watching your husband or father succumb to dementia and become the sort of living shell that Mike Webster is portrayed as in the documentary isn't something to marginalize away as part of a bottom line. One is too many. The great thing about League of Denial is that it gave air time to the people who have suffered through the effects of CTE. That it humanized the proceedings in a way that a hundred press conferences, or even a full-length newspaper story, wouldn't.
That is why, instead of letting "the emotion" wane, we should remember it. It's very easy to get caught up in the idea that football players are robots when everyone is wearing a helmet. When you're just approaching these things as a fan, it's very easy to forget that and go off on rants about how much No. 25 is ruining the sport of football. These are all still people with families. They are all still humans, no matter how different their lives are just so that they can play football. These are real stories that needed to be told, and I think that, more than anything, is where Frontline succeeds.
One of the key ideas kicked around League of Denial is the idea of the NFL putting off "a day of reckoning" as long as possible. Looking at the timeline and the way the NFL has repeatedly kept things as close to the in-house view as possible in stacking their committees, I think you'd have to be a real sympathizer to not be extremely skeptical of any action the NFL has taken on this front. It's very clear from the patterns that the league is, indeed, just trying to put off change for as long as it can.
One of the real problems I have with the way this is sometimes handled (and as Brandt pitched it), is the idea that the players have a culture that we can do nothing about. That misses the mark because the NFL, more than any other league, is not really about the players. Very few players are irreplaceable, 53-man rosters are enormous compared to other leagues, and sticking on a roster can come down to things like scheme and past work with a coach rather than pure talent.
The problem the NFL has on this issue is exactly the opposite of that: this is purely an owner's league. The last two times the NFL has tangled -- the lockout in 2011 and the retired players lawsuit this year -- they have walked out with major concessions and no liability. The NFLPA is a pawn at best and a mismanaged collection of buffoons at its worst -- it was practically a footnote in League of Denial.
Part of the reason there is a culture of playing through concussions in the first place is that there are very few guaranteed contracts in the NFL. Yes, there is a Darwinian, kill-or-be-killed element to the NFL. But this is also a question of incentives: if a man spends his entire life knowing he has to fight for his roster spot -- knowing that he is replaceable -- he becomes much less inclined to acknowledge anything that might make him lose it.
The impetus for fixing the problems of the game belongs to the only people with real power: the owners. It's a nice scare tactic to pretend that football is going to die someday, but there's way too much money involved for that to happen. Football will be changed -- and I mean actually changed, not changed as in "players will draw 15-yard flags for hitting defenseless receivers in the head" -- and the march will go on. The path that we take to that change could be progressive and intuitive. It could be proactive and set a tone for the lower levels of football.
Or we could just go on affixing dollar figures to dementia and suffering, and putting off that day of reckoning. See concussion story, donate money to concussion and CTE research, hit the snooze button.
I was not much of a Matt Schaub believer coming into the season, and unfortunately my wildest fears have been confirmed. Even beyond the pick-six problems, he's been dreadful, posting a -18.7% DVOA and -109 DYAR.
I've gone back and forth with cause and effect when viewing the tape over the past few weeks, but I think the unified theory of Schaub is actually very simple at this point. It is as follows:
1. Schaub cannot throw deep anymore:
Schaub has never had upper-echelon arm strength, but this was a thing that Gary Kubiak was always able to scheme around with the play-action game. Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau have done a lot of research on the idea of "methodical" drives versus "explosive" drives in college football. Essentially: you can either slowly churn up the field, or you can get yards in big chunks. Without the deep play-action game functioning for the Texans, their ability to get big chunks of yardage is limited. That creates a whole host of issues for this offense, because Schaub isn't going to air it out and pick up big yards in a regular passing game.
In 2010, Schaub had a 114.8% DVOA on deep passes. The league average was 58.4% -- he finished higher than any starting quarterback not named Tom Brady or Michael Vick. In 2011, Schaub was at 117.1%, and the league average was 61.0%. He finished fourth in the league, behind Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees.
In 2012, Schaub fell to a 36.0% DVOA on deep passes, compared to the league average 51.9%. Over the last four weeks of the season, when the Texans slipped from 11-1 to hosting a first-round game, he had a -14.1% DVOA on deep passes.
At first glance, it might appear that Schaub has solved this problem. After all, he's got a 67.6% DVOA on deep balls in 2013, right around league-average. But there's a glowing neon sign in the numbers here: his average passing yardage on deep balls is insanely low. He's averaging just 20.03 air yards per deep pass -- the lowest mark among any qualifying quarterback -- as compared to the NFL average of 24.75. It would be the lowest mark for a starting quarterback over the past four years by far. Even notably weak-armed starters like Colt McCoy have done much better. In 2012, Schaub's average yards per deep pass was 24.34 -- less than a yard under the NFL average.
2. Without the deep ball, the Texans offense is predictable by nature:
Schaub and the Texans offense have been the topic of a lot of post-mortem over the past couple of weeks. Bill Barnwell took the long-term, stoic, approach to what was happening with the pick-sixes. Doug Farrar looked at how Daryl Smith jumped a Schaub route against the Ravens and noted it was something they'd seen on film during the week. Richard Sherman said pretty much the same thing after his pick-six in the Seattle game.
This is a problem of tendencies. Without any reason to fear the deep ball, defenses have more reign to read what is happening in front of them. Right now, Houston's ideal drive is to get to third-and-3 and convert over and over again. When that doesn't happen, Schaub's limitations kick in.
I agree with Bill that a lot of Schaub's pick-six streak is luck-driven. It's an incredibly unfortunate streak. At the same time, when you intentionally limit your passing area, and you have a quarterback that, even in his salad days, made some mind-boggling reads, you're playing with fire. The Texans shouldn't go out expecting Schaub to throw a pick-six in every game -- but I think it's fair to say the odds of it happening have increased exponentially over the average quarterback, given the circumstances.
3. There is no reason to play zone coverage against the Texans
A lot of Schaub's early success against the Seahawks was a product of zones. The Texans actually have a relatively solid group of receivers, and of course Andre Johnson is just about always open, as he is Andre Johnson. Once Seattle switched to more man concepts in the second half, and sent more rushers at Schaub, he struggled.
As we pointed out in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, Schaub had a problem with the big blitz the last few years:
Houston opponents may want to consider big-blitzing Matt Schaub more often. Last year, Schaub only faced six or more pass rushers on a league-low 4.5 percent of pass plays, but the Texans gained only 5.3 yards per pass on these plays. In 2011, it was also rare for opponents to big-blitz Schaub, while he had only 5.0 yards per pass.
While we haven't begun putting together the charting outputs in an organized fashion yet, anecdotally this has continued to be a problem for the Texans this year. The hope was that DeAndre Hopkins would change that all on his own, but this was not to be. While I've critiqued Schaub pretty heavily here, it should be pointed out that hot routes do involve the coaching staff, and Gary Kubiak has a well-earned reputation in the local media for designing routes that are short of the sticks on third down.
That's what I see when I look at Matt Schaub. Schaub was never an elite athlete, he never had a pristine deep ball, and he didn't make it through many games without an error. Despite that, he cobbled together enough skills and traits to be a very good quarterback for a long time. But when a player like this regresses in any area, he tends to find the end of the line pretty quickly. Think Jake Delhomme or Elvis Grbac.
The Texans are basically in no-man's land at the quarterback spot. Neither of their backup options are actually promising, so Schaub will likely continue to get every chance until the Texans are eliminated. (Or until he throws another pick-six, maybe.)
I will remember Schaub fondly. After the David Carr Era, competent quarterback play was to be appreciated. I have no interest in finding out where he lives and shouting that at his house, so I hope he Googles himself.
Actually, on second thought ... don't Google yourself, Matt.
compiled by Ben Jones
Have we found the spot where a team actually misses Tarvaris Jackson? Following a season-ending concussion for Kevin Kolb, a knee problem for EJ Manuel, and the comedy stylings of Jeff Tuel, the Thaddeus Lewis Show will line up against the Bengals on Sunday. Against the Steelers B-squad, Lewis put up 46 DYAR in a 10-24 loss in Week 17, that's not very predictive, but it's better than having an ugly start on the record. Cincinnati's defense has had some trouble firing early this season -- their pass rush has been a disappointing 22nd in Adjusted Sack Rate so far -- but they did just hold the Patriots without a touchdown. (Yes, in awful weather, but only a few minutes of it.)
Both of this game's starting quarterbacks had a -24 passing DYAR last week. Calvin Johnson is, again, a game-time decision. If he doesn't play, the Lions will resort to their second offensive identity: hoping that teams forget that Reggie Bush can catch a football. The Browns have been a lot of fun to watch ever since they benched Brandon Weeden, traded Trent Richardson, and made Mike Holmgren very unhappy. With Brian Hoyer’s ACL injury last week, Weeden is once again the starting quarterback. Weeden has a -234 DYAR for the season, but didn't get to play with Josh Gordon in his two previous starts, and came off the bench last week. On the other hand, he's Brandon Weeden.
Last year in Week 14, Nick Foles led the Eagles to their only victory in the later portion of the season over the Bucs, who were still in the playoff picture at the time. Lots of things have changed since then: Ronde Barber has retired, and is an announcer for this game; the Buccaneers acquired Darrelle Revis, who according to DeSean Jackson can’t run with him; Chip Kelly built up high expectations that he's spent the last month ruining because he has no viable second receiver. Oh, speaking of Week 14 parallels: Jeremy Maclin won’t be around to catch the winning touchdown pass this time.
For once, this game is not just a rivalry game with no consequences on the playoff picture. The 2-3 Raiders are coming off an upset of the San Diego Chargers, and while they are still have a low DVOA of -21.7%, they may have found their quarterback in Terrelle Pryor. The Chiefs, of course, are 5-0 and are ranked third in DVOA. On the other hand, the Chiefs have three wins against the NFC East, one against Jacksonville, and one against a team starting Ryan Fitzpatrick. Pryor has been a nice surprise, but it probably won't be hard to shoehorn Oakland into that rundown if the Chiefs are 6-0 next week.
Before their game against the Eagles last week, Antrel Rolle predicted that the Giants would run the table and make the playoffs. This week Ryan Clark is predicting that Steelers will make the playoffs. What is it that makes veteran defensive backs predict that their winless teams will make the playoffs?
The Steelers are coming fresh off their bye and trip to London to face a Jets team that has gotten back to their Rex Ryan staples: defense and special teams. They're ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, by DVOA in those areas. Of course, the rush defense is excellent (-42.4% DVOA) while the pass defense is ... not (6.8%). The Steelers, as you may suspect for a winless team, are not above average on offense, defense, or special teams. But they do have a 16.1% passing DVOA. Their rushing DVOA is an abysmal -39.9%, ahead of only the Giants. As Cian Fahey looked at over a week ago, the Pittsburgh run game could continue to improve with Le’Veon Bell in the lineup. This is not the week to look for those improvements to begin.
On the surface the Packers and Ravens match strength against strength, and weakness against weakness. The Packers rank second in offense against the Ravens tenth-ranked defense. The Ravens 25th-ranked offense would be taking on the Packers 28th-ranked defense. Looking a little deeper, Baltimore is ranked fourth against the run, but only 16th against the pass. They suffered a problem called "playing Peyton Manning." Aaron Rodgers is not Peyton Manning, but he's pretty good too. The Ravens are decent against top receivers, but they are ranked 24th against No. 2 receivers and 21st against other receivers. In other words, offenses like the ones in Denver and Green Bay may not be the best fit for them.
Here's a battle of a pair of preseason darlings that haven't lived up to the hype. The Texans rank 27th in DVOA and the Rams rank 30th. Rivers covered the Schaub portion above, so I'll let that stand. Sam Bradford is holding the Rams hostage in similar ways. He's definitely more of a scouting favorite than Schaub, but that has not translated into actual on-field production. Perhaps ideas like "not putting Tavon Austin in a conventional offense and expecting that to carry the day" are worth considering. This is a get-well game for the Texans. If Schaub can't leave the ghost of Cortland Finnegan and the dearth of adequate safety play in the St. Louis secondary behind to post solid numbers, the Texans are heading for a collapse rather than a swoon.
The Vikings won their first game of the season two weeks ago with Matt Cassel at quarterback. Cassel was starting because Christian Ponder was injured. (Not because he's bad. No really, we promise!) Josh Freeman was brought in over the bye week. We're about four weeks from a Jason Whitlock column explaining that Jeff George is still available.
Carolina has similarly watched its offense fall into a black hole, as Mike Shula is continuing to bring the best of the 2006 Alabama Crimson Tide to the NFL. Regardless of which quarterback is starting for Minnesota (all signs point to Cassel), they will have to contend with Carolinas seventh-ranked defense with a sixth-ranked adjusted sack rate of 8.7 percent. Minnesota's edge? Not having Ron Rivera.
Prompted by the record spread on this game, Chase Stuart released a fascinating preview that notes when the best team in the league has played the worst team in the league, the worst team has never won (0-21). After looking recaps of those games I’ve decided to start a pool for the game time when Peyton Manning plays his last snap. Feel free to leave your guess in the comments. I’ll take 11:54 remaining in the third quarter.
The Seahawks previously top-ranked defense has now slipped behind the Chiefs (-19.7% to -19.9% DVOA), but should have plenty of success against the Titans offense (-0.7% DVOA), particularly with Fitzpatrick under center. The ongoing saga for Seattle continues to be how well their offensive line endures without Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini. The answer, so far, has been a lot of Russell Wilson scrambles. Certainly he's the right quarterback to run that offense, but nobody should want to run that offense. Tennessee's defense has been improved with steps forward from Zach Brown and (shockingly!) more aggressive under Gregg Williams. Watch the head, Russell.
By trading the "elite" Levi Brown, the Cardinals improved their offensive line by subtraction. Meanwhile, the 49ers (and the NFL) endured the saga surrounding Aldon Smith’s personal life. Let’s concentrate on who actually is playing; The Cardinals offensive line is slightly above league average in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate; pretty impressive given how poorly they played last year and the loss of Jonathan Cooper. They will face a strong test from the 49ers front seven, though San Francisco may be without Patrick Willis again. The 49ers defense only grades out as slightly above average in adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate so far, which is only natural considering the situation with Smith and injuries. Which unit up front will "live up" to their pre-conceived notions? The dominating 49ers front seven, or the horrendous Cardinals offensive line?
New Orleans has rolled to a 5-0 start this year with a strong offense (16.5% DVOA, ranked sixth) and a surprising defense (-3.2% DVOA, ranked 16th). New England has sputtered as much as a 4-1 team can sputter en route to "America’s Game of the Week." In a throwback to the beginning of Tom Brady’s career, the New England defense and special teams are leading the team, while the offense is lagging behind. There continues to be concern over when Rob Gronkowski will emerge from, we assume, a festival tent.
These two teams have always seem to give the other trouble when one team is perceived as good and the other not. When the Cowboys went 1-15 during the beginning of the Jimmy Johnson era, they beat the 10-6 Redskins. In 2005, when Dallas was an early-season Monday Night favorite, they took a 13-0 lead with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter over the Redskins ... only to be undone by two Santana Moss touchdowns. The point of these flashbacks … when these two teams play they often don’t follow the preconceived narrative. Tony Romo would really like that to be the case this time.
7 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2014, 9:48pm by jordan espa