A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
09 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: I ain't gonna lie to ya, I barely watched the Monday night game. I was watching the Red Sox beat Oakland. The only thing I caught was that horrible Grammatica brothers/Carlos Santana segment during halftime. I switched to football after the baseball game was done just in time to see Ronde Barber's TD. With Tampa up 21 and five minutes left I went to sleep. How the hell did the Bucs blow that game?
Ian: I'm no chef, I think Ramen Noodles are my specialty. But let me give you a little recipe here.
1 21 Point Lead With 4 Minutes To Go
5 Key Injuries
3 Horrible Calls By Officials
2 Inexcusable (Actual) Penalties
1. Place 21 Point Lead With 4 Minutes To Go on the counter. Mix in 5 Key Injuries (Keyshawn, Alstott, Pittman, Stecker, Brian Kelly). Allow big kick return.
2. Drop in 1 Horrible Call By An Official during the onside kick, in which the ball never hit the ground before being caught by a Colts player. There's a reason everyone kicks the top half of the ball and hopes for a lucky bounce -- if you just chip it straight up in the air, you have to let an opposing player catch it. I will admit that I'm not 100% certain on this, but we'll find out soon enough -- Since it worked, lots of other teams will try it if it is, in fact, legal.
3. Watch the Colts march down the field to score. Note how well the injury to Brian Kelly is enhancing the flavor here. Is anyone covering Marvin Harrison?
4. When trying to run out the clock, while marveling at how well the Key Injuries are enhancing the aroma, add in a dash of 1 Inexcusable (Actual) Penalty. With 2:04 on the clock and the clock running, commit a personal foul that costs you 15 yards and stops the clock, forcing you to punt after running off another mere 4 seconds.
5. Once that's mixed well, add the other Inexcusable (Actual) Penalty. After a 10-yard completion, with the clock down to 1:40 and running, commit a roughing the passer violation. This will stop the clock and put the other team another 15 yards closer to tying the game.
6. Once again, note how well the Key Injuries are complementing our dish. Especially when they allow Marvin Harrison to run 50 yards straight down the sideline uncovered. Make sure to tackle him at the 5 yard line though, so that after the Colts inevitably score you won't have enough time to come back for a field goal.
7. When driving for the game winning field goal, sprinkle on 1 Horrible Call By An Official. Despite the Bucs player's hand coming down out of bounds before his knee comes down inbounds, say he was down inbounds and force the Bucs to use their last pivotal remaining timeout.
8. Now that we're in overtime, the Key Injuries are really shining, as Brad Johnson looks to pass to the only healthy Buc weapon in Keenan McCardell, who's double covered on every play anyways. After the punt, the Bucs have shifted someone else to try and cover Harrison, as well as shifting the whole defense to account for him. This will leave lots of other Colts WRs wide open on 3rd and long plays as the Colts drive into field goal range.
9. For the perfect finish, spread on the final Horrible Call By An Official: A "Leverage" call on Simeon Rice who clearly didn't gain leverage from anything but his own legs. When he came down, he touched some Tampa players, but his feet went straight to the ground.
Voila, a recipe for disaster.
Al: Bad penalties also killed Tampa at home in week 2 against Carolina. You'd expect that team to play smarter than that. There are no excuses for personal fouls or unnecessary roughness penalties, especially with less than five minutes to go when your team is trying to hang onto the lead. The Bucs now have two games they need to make up just to tie Carolina. As crazy as this sounds, I don't think they'll do it.
Here's Carolina's schedule for the rest of the year: @IND, TEN, @NOR, @HOU, TAM, WAS, @DAL, PHI, @ATL, @ARI, DET, @NYG. You have to like that road schedule. I think you can pencil in wins against the Saints, Texans, Cowboys, Cardinals and Lions. I'll be conservative and say they only go 3-4 over the remaining seven games. That means Tampa can only lose two more games and beat Carolina for tiebreaker purposes to have a shot at the division. Tampa's remaining schedule: @WAS, @SF, DAL, NOR, @CAR, GNB, NYG, @JAC, @NOR, HOU, ATL, @TEN. Tampa's remaining home games should be easy for them, but only if they end their love affair with 15 yard penalties. The Bucs will then have to beat the Panthers in Carolina and win at least one game at Washington, San Francisco or Tennessee. It's definitely doable, but they'll still need Carolina to falter to take the division. I didn't think the Bucs would be out of the driver's seat in the NFC South after Week 5.
Ian: That was definitely the most painful sporting event I've ever had to watch. It was awful. Can we move on?
I want to comment on Pittsburgh's troubles as of late, namely on offense. In the first game of the season, Tommy Maddox threw for Three touchdowns and no interceptions. Since then? Two touchdowns and eight interceptions. What's going on? I liken it to the Patriots offense of last year. They started off the season in a heavy-pass oriented offense. This caught the league by surprise, and they cruised to a 3-0 record with point totals of 40, 44 and 41. Soon after, though, teams finally began to defend the pass heavily, and the offense slumped. They lost the next four games with point totals of 14, 13, 10 and 16.
The bottom line is that a one-dimensional passing offense just doesn't work. The Rams had Marshall Faulk to carry the ball, and Oakland's had a juvenated Charlie Garner. When Travis Henry went down, so did the Bills offense. Favre plays a million times better when Ahman Green is running the ball well. Unless Amos Zereoue turns it around, or Jerome Bettis takes over and turns back the clock, I don't see Tommy Maddox leading the Steelers up and down the field very often.
Al: The Steelers have been a huge disappointment for me. They were my preseason pick for AFC Champion. Their rushing failures are puzzling. According to the Football Outsiders Offensive Line Yard stats, the Steelers were just as poor run blocking as they were last year. In 2002, Pittsburgh's O-Line ranked #24. This year they've actually improved to #23. Their failures have to be tied to the decision to feature Amos Zereoue over Jerome Bettis. Both backs are ranked near where they were ranked last year in our Value Over Average statistic. (Explained here.) This year, Zereoue is #39 in VOA. Last year he was #40. Bettis has improved slightly, moving from #26 to #23. Your team's rushing numbers will naturally go down when the lesser running back gets most of the carries. I originally thought the decision to start Zereoue was the right one since he fit in better with a pass-happy offense. I think the evidence shows, though, that it's now time to bring back the Bus.
Ian: Bringing back Bettis as the starter might actually be a very good thing. Imagine them lining up in the I with Ward and Burress out wide, and Bettis in the backfield. Defenses have gotta honor the running game there, and play action should be very effective. In other news...
Oh, hey, look at that. Mike Alstott is out for the season. You know what that means -- every other fullback in the NFC has a chance at being the starting fullback in the Pro Bowl! It also means a whole lot for the fantasy value of other Tampa offensive players. Perhaps Pittman will get to punch it in at the goal line, or they'll run more of that "Keyshawn as the tight end" formation (which, for some incomprehensible reason actually seems to fool other teams. As if he's in there to block). It really is too bad Alstott's gone though, he makes some really impressive runs out there on the field. Of course, I won't spend all 4th quarter praying he holds on to the ball, either.
Al: Or maybe an actual fullback will make the pro bowl this year. I have no idea why Alstott has been considered a "fullback" for Pro Bowl consideration for the past few years. The NFL should just get rid of the distinction between RB and FB in the Pro Bowl if they keep allowing a featured back like Alstott sneaking into the game every year. I don't know why that bothers me so much, it's not like anyone watches the Pro Bowl anyway.
Al: We've got a few questions for the mailbag this week, not all of them fantasy questions. Since we're the most fan friendly column on the Internet, we'll answer them all anyway. Remember, if you want your question answered in this section email us at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com.
Our first email is from Dan in Herndon, VA. He has two questions for us:
"1. How do you feel about T.J. Duckett and Peerless Price? I picked both of them up on waivers. I feel Duckett has potential now that he's getting the lion's share of the carries over Dunn and have faith that as the return of Vick nears, Price will be money or at least good trade bait.
2. I'm pretty solid with QBs, WRs, and RBs, but my TE is weak (Kleinsasser, JimP). In fact, he's injured and might not even start. The top 18 TEs are taken. I only have a 2nd or 3rd rate RB or WR to offer up for a trade. Should I give up the likes of T.J. Duckett, Javon Walker, or Peerless Price (or a combination of them) for a decent TE like Alge Crumpler or Shockey? Or should I just settle for TE junk?"
Here are my answers:
1. If you can stash Duckett and Price on your bench until Vick comes back, I'd hold onto both of them. You have to assume that the Falcon passing game will improve once Vick is healthy. He has to throw the ball to someone, most likely Price. Vick is still unable to even jog on a treadmill, however, so it's uncertain how long he'll remain out. The original diagnosis had him projected to start this past week. You probably won't find a back better than Duckett on the waiver wire. T.J. is ranked #6 in VOA and has been getting the lion's share of Atlanta's workload in recent weeks. Over the first two weeks, Dunn outcarried Duckett 26-12. In Weeks 4 and 5, Duckett outcarried Dunn 25-7. Stay with T.J..
2. As we discussed in a previous column, this has started out as a pretty crappy year for TEs. Unless you can get Shockey, Gonzo, Crumpler or Sharpe, it really doesn't matter who you have playing there. I wouldn't trade Duckett for one of the top TEs, but if you could deal either of those WRs with maybe Kleinsasser as a throw in for Shockey, I'd do it.
Ian: Our next question comes to us from Tim in Somerville, MA. Tim writes: "I am in a fantasy league and am looking for a site with more up to date information than Yahoo. Do you have any suggestions? Great column by the way..."
Thanks Tim! There are two sites I highly recommend for keeping up with fantasy news of all sports: rotoworld.com and rototimes.com. Both have quick one-liners for all the breaking news. Rotoworld adds some commentary on fantasy impact, which is nice. Fanball.com also has some pretty good updates and articles for fantasy sports, though there are a lot of things they want you to pay for.
Another email comes Rosie in Boston, MA. Rosie writes:
"1. Given that players shoot for them, it seems that scoring systems that include first downs would make sense for fantasy football. 100 yards is nice, but the running back or receiver is more concerned with getting the first down and keeping the drive going than the number the number of yards on each play. It just seems that if that's what they're playing for, we should be playing for it as well. On an interesting side note, this might result in third-down backs and fullbacks becoming more valuable than they currently are.
2. On another RB-related note, I believe that the average-per-carry stat is misleading. If a back runs 25 times for 100 yards, he has a respectable 4.0 average; however, if one of those carries was for a 52 yard score, his average minus this one huge gain would be down to 2.0. I believe that there's some mathematical term that would hence be more applicable when determining a back's value to his team. The median might work well, as it would get to a more realistic middle-point for the back's day. There might in fact be a better term for such a number -- I'll leave that to the math majors to devise."
Two great questions. I'll address the first one. The idea of giving fantasy points for first downs is an interesting one. Do fantasy points really reflect a player's value to his team? One of our friends tried to create a scoring system that truly represented the value of a football player. What he ended up with is by far the most ridiculous scoring system ever. Some example rules: Rushing attempt (RB only): 2 pts. Rushing yards (RB only): 7.5 pts. Rushing yards (everyone else): 5 pts. Reception (WR/TE): 70 pts. Reception (RB Only): 25 pts. Touchdown: 280 pts. Pass completion: 13 pts. You get the idea. Does that scoring system truly reflect how valuable a player is? Heck no, but it's getting there. Would adding value for 1st downs make it better? No, only more confusing. One of the beauties of fantasy football is in its simplicity; how it all boils down to yards, touchdowns, and turnovers. Making it more complex is not something I'm a fan of. True, 3rd down backs would be a little more valuable if 1st downs were worth points, but not enough to crack your starting lineup unless first downs are worth too much or you're in an insanely deep league.
Al: There's always that conflict between making a scoring system a better reflection of the actual game on the field and keeping the scoring system simple enough to keep the game fun. I think adding first downs would push things away from keeping fantasy football fun.
I'd also like to add the footballguys.com forums as a good place for up to date fantasy news. If there's a news item relevant to fantasy football, odds are someone is talking about it there.
As for Rosie's second question, I think he's partly right that the average yards/rush stat is misleading. On a per game basis, it really doesn't tell you a whole lot. Over a 300 carry season, though, the problems of big runs skewing average yards per rush stat should disappear. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that, of course, that stat pales in comparison to VOA and PAR (Points Over Replacement, explained here) in measuring the performance of a running back. There could be some merit to the idea of using the median yards per carry as a better reflection of a running back's performance in an individual game.
Ian: Mathematical analysis of how much value a running back really brings to his team is what Football Outsiders is all about! Check the Running Backs link on the left side of the main page under Just the Stats. You'll see that Jamal Lewis is ranked as the 5th best RB, despite having the best yards per carry of any of the guys ranked ahead of him.
Ian: It was bound to happen. I put up a stinker of a week and went 0-3. I still can't believe how badly Oakland's playing. If the Packers can beat the crap out of the Bears, why can't the Raiders? Al pulled off a 1-3 week himself, but at least it was his Best Bet in taking Washington to help close the overall scoring gap to 22-17. Time for me to rebound...
Best Bet: Miami -3 over Jacksonville. Kudos to Jacksonville, and to the up-and-coming Byron Leftwich for getting their first win of the season last week. The fact that it came against the winless Chargers seems to have escaped Vegas, as they only think the Dolphins can beat the Jaguars by three. Byron, meet Patrick Surtain.
Pretty Good Bet: Philadelphia PK over Dallas. I don't care what the stats say, I don't care how good Dallas has played so far -- they're not beating the Eagles and moving two games ahead of them in the NFC East.
Just a Hunch: Buffalo -2.5 over NY Jets. Until Chad Pennington returns, the Jets will always be a worthy team to pick against. If you have Travis Henry on your fantasy team, start him. Not that you needed me to tell you that.
Al: Damn, I was going to pick MIA and PHI! I can't take the same teams as you if I'm going to make up any ground.
Best Bet: Kansas City +1.5 over Green Bay: I'm committing heresy here by going against Brett Favre at Lambeau Field. The Lambeau mystique is dead. Michael Vick wounded it last season during the playoffs. Daunte Culpepper finally put it out of its misery in Week 1. Kansas City is better than Green Bay in every aspect of the game. I don't know if Dante Hall will have another TD, but he'll put the Chiefs in great position to score at least three TDs.
Very Good Bet: Houston +10 over Tennessee: Ten points seems like it's just a bit too much to give the Titans. It's tough to predict what Houston will do each week, but they played the Titans relatively close last year. I'm really grasping at straws here after you took my two best picks.
Just a Hunch: New England -2.5 over NY Giants: Sunday will be a ridiculous sports day in New England. You have Patriots vs. Giants in their first regular season game in four years. There's also some baseball game that night, too. It's a pretty close matchup, but I don't think NY's secondary is properly built to stop the Patriots. You need to be able to play tight man coverage to stop New England's short passing attack. I just don't think the Giants can do it.
Al: Another week, another Ian team gets knocked out. Sub par performances from Ricky Williams, Aaron Brooks and Amani Toomer knocked out These Guys Are Good. The strategy I used to build It Worked Last Year is working again this year. Harrison/Moss and my sleeper QB tandem of Brees/Ramsey has been a machine, gaining immunity for two straight weeks. I'm pretty confident in my chances of winning this thing. The last two Ian teams look pretty weak. To Heck With Running Backs should get knocked out this week, with a RB group of the injured Emmitt Smith, Moe Williams on a bye and Trung Canidate playing against the Tampa Bay defense.