Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
02 Oct 2003
by Al Bogdan and Ian Dembsky
Welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where we discuss all things football. We'll have commentary on the latest NFL stories, as well as our Best Bets of the week and updates to our Survivor League (check the Scramble archives for full details). Al's a long-time Giants fan originally from Long Island, and Ian is a long-time Tampa Bay fan originally from Jersey, and we're both NFL and fantasy sports addicts. Feel free to email us with any thoughts at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com.
Al: Well, so much for the "ball-control" attack of the Colts. That was a terrible job out of New Orleans Sunday night. Without his top running back, Peyton Manning just picked apart the Saints' depleted secondary. This Monday's matchup with Tampa should be a great, if low scoring, game. The winner of that matchup has to be considered the best team in the NFL, at least until the playoffs come around. I'm still not convinced that Tony Dungy and Manning will win a game in January, no matter how good they've looked in September. The Colts have to hope Edgerrin James' back is healthy enough to take the field Monday night. Stephen Davis showed you can run on Tampa when he gained 140+ yards in week 2. James will be the key to Indy's chances Monday night.
Ian: Watching football, it's always exciting to watch a close game. Down to the wire, driving for the game winner, intense football. But every once in awhile, it's nice to see a good ol' fashion ass-whooping, which is what we got to see Sunday night. I haven't seen such a dominating performance in a long time, on both sides of the ball. The best part of that game was seeing the fans throw on the ol' Aints paper bag helmets. Now that's team loyalty. This does set up one heck of a game next Monday night; I'm already jacked and pumped. Last season's Super Bowl was billed as "The Unstoppable Force vs. The Immovable Object". Unfortunately, no one remembered that the coach of the Immovable Object designed the Unstoppable Force, and Tampa's defense dominated. Well, it's time for "The Unstoppable Force vs. The Immovable Object II", only this time the coach of the Unstoppable Force designed the Immovable Object! I think you have to like the Colts chances on Monday night, especially since the defense is flying high, and can turn on the Carolina tapes to see what shut the Bucs down.
Al: This is a pretty important game for Tampa to win considering how well the Panthers have played lately. Carolina's defense and special teams have been getting all the praise for the Panthers' success, but Carolina's offensive line should be getting more accolades. Stephen Davis is back in the top 5 in rushing yards after gaining only 820 last year. Jake Delhomme isn't known for his scrambling ability, yet the Panthers have only allowed him to be sacked six times. Carolina has to be a significant favorite over the Saints this week. Tampa doesn't want to fall two games out of first place only five weeks into the season.
Ian: Speaking of important matchups next week, how about Denver @ KC? That and the Tampa/Indy matchup will make for some great football this weekend. I see this week as the first time Jake Plummer costs Denver a victory. The Kansas City defense has been awesome, while Jake hasn't really been tested yet. Priest and Portis (assuming he plays) should have good but not great weeks, but interceptions could turn the tide in this game. The Broncos barely managed to hold off the Lions this week, while Kansas City beat a formidable opponent in Baltimore.
Al: The Jake Plummer for MVP train might get derailed this week. KC is second in the NFL in interceptions and fifth in sacks. Plummer should be good for at least three picks on Sunday. This will be our first real look at the Bronco rushing defense. Teams are averaging only twenty rushes per week against Denver. I don't think Kansas City will abandon the run with Priest Holmes in the backfield as quickly as Denver's early opponents have abandoned it.
Ian: On another note, I want to ask a random question here -- Why does the NFL still have bye weeks? My understanding is that they initially existed since there were an odd number of teams in the league. Of course then at least one team would be on bye every week of the season. But with 32 teams now, why bother? I think a team that gets a bye week later in the season has a distinct advantage. The best part of a bye week is resting your players and letting some of the injured ones heal. You're gonna have many more injured and tired players later in the season. Not to mention the fantasy football headache bye weeks cause. I think it's time to go back to 16 straight weeks of football. (Editor's note: the bye exists so the TV networks get one more week of games to broadcast; it's money pure and simple.)
Al: I don't have a problem with bye weeks. At the very least the system is better than the one a few years ago where there was a team off every week. A week 1 bye doesn't help anyone. It goes without saying that football is the most injurious of the four major pro sports. I don't see anything wrong with a system that gives teams a week off during the middle of the year to regroup and let their players heal from the inevitable wear, tear and bruising that every player suffers over the first few weeks of the season.
I do think the system should be changed, though. As useless as a week 1 bye is, a week 3 bye isn't that much better. The current system gives four teams each week off between weeks three and ten. I'd propose doubling the number of teams that are off each week, but shrinking the bye week period in half. Eight teams would be off each Sunday between weeks seven and ten. No team will have an advantage of a later bye week and the bye weeks will be more useful to the unlucky teams that would have been off only three weeks into the season.
With eight teams off, there would be the problem of only having eight games each weekend in the middle of the season. The NFL could counteract that, however, by scheduling only divisional matchups during those four weeks to ensure that the few games that are played are worth watching. Over a four week period, you can give every division a week off and have every team play a game against everyone in its division. I'm sure the NFL can even come up with a snappy name for that part of the season and sell t-shirts.
Ian: That's a great idea- Most of America doesn't get to watch more than one or two games at a time anyways. Of course, this would be incredibly difficult for fantasy football players, and given its popularity the NFL can't just ignore the impact there.
Let's tackle the top 5 fantasy surprises thus far, and discuss: Will this player continue to play like the first four weeks, or is it just a Mirage.
5) Anquan Boldin. Back in the Football Outsiders Season Prediction column, Aaron said this: "One Arizona receiver emerges as a fantasy star because of the Cards' easy schedule and the fact that they will play from behind a lot." Gotta give him credit there; he was dead-on. (Editor's note: I also said Kordell Stewart would have a good fantasy year for the same reason. Whoops.) But will it continue? I think it will, both for the reasons Aaron gave above, and because Arizona has no one else. Raise your hand if you know who Arizona's #2 receiver is this year. I didn't raise my hand either. Verdict: Oasis.
Al: Boldin might be the first Florida State WR in a while that doesn't disappoint. Jeff Blake isn't who I would pick to lead my team into contention, but he can usually make a WR into a playable fantasy option. Travis Taylor averaged 10.1 pts/game with Blake quarterbacking Baltimore last year. Joe Horn developed into a valuable WR in 2000 with Blake throwing to him. Darnay Scott had over 1000 yards receiving when Blake was with the Bengals in 1999. Boldin looks to be the WR Blake gets some production out of this year. Verdict: Oasis.
4) Patrick Ramsey has shocked some with his performance this year after his mixed results in 2002. I think Lavernaeus Coles has been a key to Ramsey turning into a startable fantasy QB. Ramsey and Coles appear to have developed similar chemistry to that which developed last year between Coles and Chad Pennington in New York. The one thing holding Ramsey back from being an every week starter is Steve Spurrier's conservative approach once the Redskins have a lead in the second half. Against both the Patriots and the Jets, Washington ran the ball in order to run down the clock and preserve their lead. Last Sunday, Ramsey only threw six times in the second half. I think Ramsey will keep up the good work, but his fantasy viability will depend a lot on whether Washington is playing from ahead or from behind in the second half of their games. Verdict: Oasis.
Ian: Patrick Ramsey has certainly had a good season so far. It'd be hard not to with Laveraneus Coles and Rod Gardner lining up on either side of you. But a lot of the credit has to go to scheduling so far- He's been great against the Jets, Atlanta and the Giants, who rate #27, #24 and #19 respectively in terms of defensive efficiency according to Aaron's VOA (Value Over Average) rankings. When he got matched up against the Pats (#13 in VOA defensive efficiency), he had a rather mediocre day. Look at his matchups over the next few months: @Philly, vs. Tampa, @Buffalo, bye, @Dallas, vs. Seattle, @Carolina, and @Miami. I expect his stock to drop steadily over that time span. He finishes with a great schedule though: New Orleans, @Giants, Dallas, @Chicago, and Philly. For those of you with fantasy football playoffs, I highly recommend buying low on him early in December. As far as Oasis vs. Mirage, he has too many weapons to be considered a Mirage. The two-headed running back approach may be a buzzkill for those guys' values, but it's great for the team and Ramsey. Verdict: Oasis.
3) What the heck happened to Peerless Price? He's currently one of the leading candidates for the coveted Loser League MVP award this season. Check out his game logs (catch-yds): 2-30, 2-28, 6-45, 5-30. Of course, a ton of that has to be attributed to the horrible quarterbacking in Atlanta. Michael's due back mid-October and his presence alone should be enough to juvenate the struggling Price. I wouldn't expect him to become as good as he was projected to be, but certainly better than he has been. Verdict: Mirage.
Al: What happened to Peerless Price? The same thing that happened to Alvin Harper. I'm sure you remember Harper jumping from the Cowboys to the Bucs for big money after a couple of productive seasons as a #2 WR. Like Harper, Price was very effective playing opposite an all-pro #1 WR attracting double teams. Now that he's been asked to be that #1 WR and be double covered, he can't perform. I thought he'd be the biggest bust in the NFL this season. So far, Price is proving me correct. Verdict: Oasis.
2) For my money, Joe Horn has been the most disappointing fantasy WR this side of Terrell Owens. Horn's been a consistent top 10 WR for the past three seasons. So far, Horn isn't even in the top 30. The big problem is that he has only found the end zone once this year. If you took just receiving yards into account, Horn would be back in the top 20. I'd be shocked if he scored only three more times this year as he is currently projected to do based on his current stats. Now is the time to buy low. Verdict: Mirage.
Ian: It's pretty hard trying to figure out the Saints this season. I predicted they'd make it to the playoffs as a wild card, and even go on to beat the Bucs. They've certainly got a lot of talent, despite the injuries to a lot of their defensive starters. But that should only encourage more of a passing attack on offense, and it just isn't happening. The way they've been playing, they've given no indication that they're gonna turn it around. And while I'm sure Joe will find the end zone now and then, he'll pretty much have the same value for the rest of the season as he has now. Verdict: Oasis.
1) Donovan McNabb. It's a good time to talk about McNabb's disappointments on the football field, as we can bring in the controversy circling Rush Limbaugh's comments made on NFL Gameday. In case you hadn't heard, here's what he said: "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team." Before you go crazy calling him a racist, realize that he only said this to get attention, which he has certainly accomplished. Also, what he said about McNabb made no sense whatsoever. Philly's made it to the NFC Championship game the last two seasons, and yes having a great defense was a big part. But no team is headed to the NFC championships without an offense of any kind, and McNabb had nothing around him to help. Duce Staley? James Thrash? Todd Pinkston? They'd be on the bench of most other NFL squads. Donovan has always had the talent, and his slow start is bound to turn for the better. Verdict: Mirage.
Al: Whether or not Limbaugh made his comments about McNabb just to get attention, has nothing to do with whether or not his comments are racist. Nevertheless, as long as McNabb's rushing numbers are there, he's still going to be a top-notch fantasy QB. Even thought the Eagles have struggled, he's still averaging 50 rushing ypg. The passing numbers should come back to normal soon. Another person to try and buy low. Verdict: Mirage.
Our question this week comes from A.J. in Massachusetts:
"Do you believe in always starting your studs? As an example, would you start Payton Manning or Marvin Harrison against Tampa?"
Al: I'll let you answer this one first.
Ian: No one shuts down a passing game like Tampa. Week after week they shut down the opposing quarterback, thanks to their 4-man pass rush allowing the remaining 7 guys to cover the field. Take the underneath stuff against them and you're playing right into Tampa's hands -- they're amazingly sure-handed tacklers. It's very rare that they give up long completions. That being said, I don't like the prospects of playing Manning or Harrison this week. On the other hand, it's all based on the alternatives you have available. If your bench quarterback is a Vinny Testaverde-like backup, unless you have a terrific matchup, I'd stay with Peyton. He's still pretty likely to do better than a standard backup. If you have an average QB going against a crappy defense though, I'd probably give Peyton a rest for once.
The same rule pretty much applies to Marvin Harrison -- even on a bad week, he's likely to do just as well as an average wide receiver on a good week. Note that Tampa's really an exception to this rule; I don't think there's any other team in the league I'd consider benching those guys against. But teams just can't pass the ball against the dominant Bucs D.
Al: You're right; playing Tampa is the biggest exception to the "play your studs" rule. I'm a huge proponent of the rule, but you have to be careful to apply it correctly. The main idea behind it is that if you have stud players as starters, chances are your backups aren't that good to begin with. You didn't waste a first round pick or big money in your auction to bench Ricky Williams because Shawn Bryson has a good matchup. The rule is "play your studs" not "play your starters". There's a big difference between the two. The problem this early in the season is identifying who the studs will be. For the past three years, Joe Horn is someone I would have considered a stud. This week, I'd bench him in favor of Anquan Boldin.
As for the specific question about Manning, it all depends on who your backup is. If it's Jeff Blake, I'm still going to start Manning this week. If it's Patrick Ramsey, I'd be very tempted to bench Peyton this week.
Al: I was two seconds away from going 3-0 last week. Stupid Jaguars couldn't figure out that David Carr was going to sneak the ball in from the one yard line. You've increased your lead to 22-14. I have to make a move soon to stand any kind of chance. Unfortunately, none of the lines really jump out at me this week.
Best Bet: Washington +5.5 over Philadelphia. The Redskins haven't had a game yet this year decided by more than three points. Either they jump out to an early lead and allow their opponents to slowly get back into the game, or they fall behind and stage a furious second half comeback. Philadelphia has been terrible at home this year. I think last week's victory had more to do with the Bills playing poorly than anything Philadelphia did. I like the Skins to upset, but even if they don't they should only lose by a field goal.
Pretty Good Bet: Kansas City -3.5 over Denver. KC has been a beast at home, winning their two games by a combined score of 68-34. Denver hasn't played an above average defense yet this year. According to the VOA rankings the best defense the Broncos have played this year is the #21 ranked Bengals. KC is ranked #3. If Jake Plummer tossed three INTs on the road against Cincinnati, I shudder to think of how many times he'll throw to the Chiefs this week.
Just a Hunch: NYTD Blue Pick 'em over Miami: "You're my boy Blue!" The Giants' strength is stopping the run; the Dolphins' strength is running the ball. Great matchup here. The key to this contest will be NY's running game. Miami has allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league, but they've also had the fewest rushes run against them. They haven't played a RB like Tiki Barber yet this year. I think he'll have a big game and lead the Giants to victory.
Ian: Maybe I should intentionally pick some losers so that it won't be a foregone conclusion as to who's gonna win this thing. Nah, I think I'll go 3-0 again.
Best Bet: Oakland -4 over Chicago: Let me get this straight. Brett Favre had a field day against the Chicago secondary. Chicago can't score points until it's garbage time. And Rich Gannon looked last week like he did all last year. And Oakland is only favored by 4?? I was shocked to see a line less than 7 here, even if it is at Chicago.
Pretty Good Bet: Tennessee -1 over New England: New England really sucks, though the league hasn't quite caught on yet. Partly due to injuries, partly due to no running game, and partly due to Tom Brady not yet fulfilling the potential he showed during their improbable Super Bowl run, but the reasons don't matter -- look for a drubbing at the hand of the Titans this week.
Just a Hunch: Arizona +7 over Dallas: I still don't like Dallas very much. Of course, Arizona is no powerhouse either, but Emmitt Smith getting 7 points at his old stomping grounds? I think the Cards will keep it close, if not win.
Al: Nothing like picking the Arizona Cardinals to let me back into this. Thanks!
Al: All good things must come to an end. My three week run of knocking off your teams has finally stopped. Kerry Collins' bye week and Michael Vick's injury meant no points from the QB for Taking the Browns to the Super Bowl. Still, it took Kordell Stewart's useless scoring drive with less than five minutes left in the game on Monday night to knock my team out this week. Huge weeks from Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss gave my final team, It Worked Last Year, immunity for week five.
Ian: Before we finish up for the week, a quick reminder -- Send us an e-mail! Surely you have burning fantasy questions, or even regular NFL questions. Help us help you: email@example.com. Till next week...