After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
16 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. Look for Scramble updated every Thursday afternoon during the NFL season, and feel free to email us with any thoughts at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com.
Ian: What a weekend of football. No more questioning if the Panthers are for real. Watching the highlights of the Carolina running backs was like watching the grainy black and white footage of Jim Brown bouncing of people. Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster were simply amazing.
No more questioning if the Chiefs are for real either. On a day when they needed Trent Green to come up big, did he ever: 400 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions. It doesn't get much better than that. He hadn't even surpassed the 300-yard mark yet this season, but with the Chiefs backs up against the wall, he came up huge.
Al: Is there any reason for Carolina to throw more than 10 passes a game with Davis and Foster in the backfield? Carolina ran 61 offensive plays on Sunday. Foster and Davis should each get 20-25 carries apiece. The other 10-15 plays should be play-action passes. There's no reason to put the game in the hands of Jake Delhomme. The offensive line and running backs, supported by top notch special teams and defense, are good enough to carry the Panthers to a Super Bowl victory.
That was a very nice comeback by the Chiefs at Lambeau Field. I wonder, though, how long KC can keep up their streak of return TDs. Jerome Woods kept the streak alive after Dante Hall was shut out. This is the third win in a row for KC that has been determined by a return TD. I've always been wary of teams who rely so much on their defense or special teams for scoring. I'm sure there's absolutely no data to back my opinion, but I'd expect KC to start losing games once their luck on return TDs starts to run out.
Ian: I need to sidetrack for a minute to point out that I know way too much about the rules of football. Turns out that I was right! Last week, you may remember reading the following with regards to the Colts strange-yet-effective onside kick against Tampa Bay: "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." Well, I was probably one of a handful of people that actually watched the Monday Night Football game till the end (another Torry Holt TD and I lost to an improbable fantasy football comeback. You know how it is.) Anyways, the folks at MNF suddenly ran a replay of Vanderjagt's onside kick, and declared it was illegal due to NFL Rule 10-1-4, which essentially states that on a kickoff you have to let the other team catch it unless it hits the ground first. Aha! So not only did Tampa lose to a ticky-tacky "Leaping" call, but they lost to an illegal onside kick. Of course, I was screaming at Tampa to challenge the onside kick and they didn't, so it's their fault as much as it was the officials'.
By the way, various people pointed me to a link on NFL.com citing the kickoff rules which makes no mention of why the kick was illegal. Thanks to those who passed this on, but the rules there are a watered-down version of the full rules, so that casual people can pick up the rules of football. Why aren't the full rules of any sport available on the web? I have no freakin' clue.
One other thing I'd like to say I was right about -- Drew Bledsoe is horrible. Way back in my season predictions I said, "In case you didn't know this already, I hate Drew Bledsoe. I've never before seen a quarterback who so relies on the talent around him to be good. If his team is playing poorly, he stinks; if his team is playing well, he's great." He's proving me right; as the rest of the Bills are struggling, he's doing nothing but going down with the ship. The guy spends more time on his back than Jenna Jameson. Want to blame his troubles on the lack of a running game? Tell that to Steve McNair. Put McNair in Buffalo and the Bills are in first place.
Al: Tampa lost because they keep committing personal fouls and unnecessary roughness penalties in the fourth quarters of close games. If they don't do that, no one cares about the rules of an onside kick. I believe Tampa also had the option of calling for a fair catch on the onside kick, which would have also stopped the Colts from catching the ball on the fly.
It's a little early to play the "look at how great my predictions were" game. It's would be too easy this early in the season for me to talk about what a genius I was for foreseeing the demise of Kurt Warner, the struggles of the Eagles and the successes of the Panthers and Vikings back in July.
It's not too early, though to play the "look how horrible our predictions were" game. Actually, your pre-season standing predictions haven't been too bad so far. If the season ended today, you would have picked 4 out of 6 playoff teams correct in the NFC and 4 out of 6 in the AFC. Mine aren't looking that strong. I have only 3 out of 6 in both the AFC and NFC with both of my Super Bowl teams on the outside looking in.
Really, outside of driving the Panther bandwagon early on, my predictions look to be pretty crappy overall so far. Derrius Thompson as the surprise player of the year? He still has 10 weeks to prove me right. At least I didn't take Kevan Barlow in the second round of a fantasy draft this year.
Ian: As far as the Tampa onside kick ruling, the defense does NOT have to signal for a fair catch. The kicking team has to allow them to catch the ball either way. You're right about individual predictions though -- there's a loooooong way to go this year.
Ian: Every week we've been updating you on the progress of our Survivor League. For those of you that don't know what the deal with that is, Al and I conducted a fantasy draft of six teams each this past summer. No waiver wire pickups, and no active or bench players -- you always get the points for whoever does best on a given week. Each week the team with the lowest score is booted out of the league. Well, we've kicked out six of the teams, most of them losing to untimely injuries and bye weeks. Unfortunately for me, I've lost four of those six teams. Now that most of the garbage is gone, it's a good time to take a look at the remaining six teams and figure out which one is likely to come out on top:
|To Heck With
Running Backs (Ian)
|RB||S. Davis||J. Lewis||E. Smith|
|WR||R. Smith||Key. Johnson||Horn|
|Stone Cutters (Al)||Dick Hatch (Ian)||It Worked
Last Year (Al)
|RB||Thomas||A. Smith||K. Faulk|
The Defending Champs has a very good shot at the title. Assuming the arm injury to Stephen Davis isn't too bad, this team has good players at every spot save for the backup tight end. You know that either McNabb or Trent Green is gonna have a good week, and Tomlinson and Davis are both past bye weeks, with Hearst providing a solid third back. Rod Smith is showing signs of life again, and Shannon Sharpe is contending for the best fantasy tight end of the year award.
Al: I completely agree. If Davis can keep similar production to what he's done so far, I don't see this squad getting knocked out any time soon. Foster's emergence last week is a bit scary, though. Even if Davis is healthy, DeShaun could start vulturing away some of Stephen's fantasy points.
Big Dick McGee could use a good week out of Jay Fiedler against the Pats during Manning's bye week. The WRs are pretty shaky. I don't like having to rely on either of the Catching Johnson Cousins every week.
Ian: Keyshawn may have his up and down weeks, but I don't think you should worry at all about Chad Johnson catching balls. His fantasy points per week so far: 15, 13, 7, 18, 5. Not bad at all. Week 10 could be rough for this team with Portis and Troy Brown on bye, but if it can survive that, it'd be hard to ever go against Portis and Jamal Lewis.
The team least likely to win it all has to be To Heck with Running backs. Living up to its name, the running backs are dropping like flies here. Emmitt's out. Candidate's hurt, and even when he's healthy he's not all that good. And Michael Bennett's returning in the not-too-distant future, which spells less playing time for Moe Williams. Oh yeah, and from the beginning I screwed up by failing to notice that Joe Horn and Terrell Owens share a bye week. D'oh!
Al: In order for the weak RB approach to work, you need your WRs to be huge. Horn and Owens have been big disappointments this year. You'll be lucky if that team lasts until week 10 for you to worry about the shared bye week. At least Freddie Jones found the end zone on Sunday.
I'm not thrilled with the Stone Cutters' chances. I don't like having to rely on Travis Henry and Anthony Thomas to both perform while James keeps sitting out with injury. Hopefully Edge will be back in the starting lineup soon. The Baltimore defense saved this squad last week. I wouldn't be shocked if this was the next squad to go.
Ian: If To Heck with Running backs isn't the worst team left, this is. Garcia and Kitna could easily both have a mediocre week. Burress, Pinkston and Quincy Morgan? The running backs are still playing but aren't all that good. I'm pretty sure Edge will be back next week, but I also wouldn't be surprised if he's relegated to being part of a committee for the rest of the season. "The Other" Ricky Williams and James Mungro have performed well, no need to bench them, especially when Edge is coming back from injury.
Given that my other remaining team is horrible, I need to stake my hopes to Dick Hatch. Hey, he won the real Survivor, why not this one? I actually am very pleased with this team. Kordell may suck in real life, but since the Survivor league doesn't count any negative points, including turnovers, his running game has made him a strong fantasy quarterback. He seems to rush for 50 yards a game! Tony G has been en fuego lately. The biggest worry is the wide receivers; it's not too hard to imagine Booker, Darrell Jackson and Rod Gardner all having an awful week at the same time.
Al: You're not worried about a RB trio of Charlie Garner, Tiki Barber and Antowain Smith? Week 8 will be ugly for this squad. Garner and Gardner are both on bye. Your remaining RB matchups are the Giants at MIN and New England vs. CLE. That second matchup will matter only if Smith gets a carry now that he's the 3rd RB on the Patriot depth chart. You better hope for big passing games out of Chicago and Seattle to carry that team through.
It Worked Last Year is working again this year. It's a pretty easy strategy. Take the two best WRs in football and throw in whoever is left at the other positions. The Colts bye will hurt this week, but the Jets have a decent matchup against Houston. I could really use a Curtis Conway TD.
Ian: I'm surprised you didn't bring up this commentary we had from the Survivor Draft regarding Brees and Ramsey: "One of these guys will be a top 10 QB this year."
Ian: "Ramsey and Brees. That's great. You really think one of those will be top 10? I think Emmitt Smith has a better shot at top 10 this year."
According to Yahoo's fantasy rankings, Ramsey is hanging in there at #10 now. Brees? He's #11. The WRs on this team are tearing it up, but the RBs aren't all that much better than those of To Heck with Running backs. I don't see this team going all the way.
Which teams are in your top three?
Al: I didn't want to brag too much about my brilliant fantasy drafting skills just yet. If Brees and Ramsey get hurt next week, I won't look so brilliant.
My top three:
1 - The Defending Champs (too deep, especially with Fleimister back in the league)
2 - Big Dick McGee (Manning, Portis, Lewis could be enough to carry the team all the way)
3 - It Worked Last Year (Harrison and Moss will have a week where they outscore another team all by themselves)
Ian: I was gonna disagree with you and put Dick Hatch in the top three, but I just saw that Kordell Stewart is out this week with a "sore leg". Sure, that's the problem. I think that's more like in baseball when they put you on the DL with "suck". He may not be back soon, and having two quarterbacks going is a big help in this league. Oh well, I think my teams are screwed.
Al: This just in: the NFL trading deadline has passed with zero trades. Not a single one. There's no reason the NFL should have the deadline this early in the year. Why isn't the deadline December 1? ESPN would have 24 -our coverage of an NFL trade deadline that actually mattered. As it is, it's way too early in the season for teams to give up on the season to trade significant players to a contending team.
Drop us a line at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com and let us know what's on your mind. Ralph Heinrich from all the way out in Geneva, Switzerland writes in with this question:
"Nice site (I came from TMQ). But I don't understand why everyone, including you guys, thinks the Jets' woes will end (only) when Pennington returns. Last time I checked, Testaverde was 7th in the league (and top in the AFC East) in passer rating. In your own DPAR and DVOA systems, he was ranked 4th and 6th, respectively (also tops in the AFC East). Pennington on the other hand has yet to prove that he is more than a one-year (or half year rather) wonder."
Our first international letter! Vinny may be ranked #6 over the first five weeks of this season, but The Chad was #1 over all of last year. Of course, he could be a one-year wonder and it remains to be seen how effective Pennington can be without Laveraneus Coles to throw to. Chad might not have an established record of excellence, but Testaverde has an established record of mediocrity. There have been nine seasons where Vinny has played in at least 14 games. In six of those, he threw more interceptions than TDs. Testaverde really has had two full seasons has a top flight QB, his two Pro Bowl seasons in 1996 and 1998. I think Vinny's high ranking so far is a bit of a fluke based on small sample size and his very good week against the Bills.* Hopefully for the Jets, Pennington will come back before Vinny starts to fade back to his established level of mediocrity.
Ian: As far as my feelings on Vinny go, well, having been a lifelong Tampa Bay fan I refuse to ever give that guy credit for being a good football player. I think you do make a great point Ralph, but I'm a bit biased on this one.
(Aaron's note: That's probably part of it, but also remember that we can't separate the quarterback's performance from the rest of the team yet, and Vinny gets the same offensive line and receivers that Pennington gets. That's probably part of the reason for Vinny's ranking as well. Of course, they also both have to suffer with the same horrible running game...)
Ian: Another slow week for me last week, just 1 for 3. At least I got my Best Bet right thanks to an easy Miami victory. Unfortunately, I finally have to concede that Dallas is for real. Nah, they still suck. You went 2-3, gaining a point on me to make things 25-21, still in my favor. I need a good week for some breathing room.
Best Bet: Baltimore -2 over Cincinnati. Baltimore's defense is finally pulling it together. They know that Jamal Lewis will help them win the field position game, despite the play of Kyle Boller. Cincinnati is showing signs of life, but I don't see them containing Jamal in the least. Baltimore should win by 10 or so.
Pretty Good Bet: Minnesota -3.5 over Denver. Daunte Culpepper is back, and so is Steve Beuerlein. No high altitude advantage for Denver and no win either.
Just a Hunch: Kansas City -3.5 over Oakland. I was tempted to make this my Best Bet, as a 6-0 team should be getting more than 3.5 points against a 2-4 team. But you never know when Oakland will remember "Hey, we're Oakland! We have talent! And we don't need to commit 15 penalties a game!"
Al: It's a weird week for picks. There are a ton of lines I like this week. Luckily you took the three that I didn't like at all.
Best Bet: Tampa -3 over San Francisco: The Bucs have been unstoppable on the road this year. The 49ers are wildly inconsistent. They haven't beaten a team with a decent defense yet this year. This is almost a must win for Tampa and I'll think they'll come through.
Very Good Bet: Washington +3 over Buffalo: I just think the Redskins are the better team in this matchup. Could the Bills beat them? Sure, but with the exception of its game against Tampa, the Redskins have kept every game close this year. Should be more of the same this week.
Just a Hunch: Jets -3 over Houston: I don't think I've picked a Texans game right all year. I guess I don't have a good read on them, but their lines just keep calling me. I'll put my faith in the Team Efficiency rankings here.