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» Scramble for the Ball: Getting it Right?

Instant replay review is one of the cornerstones of the modern NFL. The process and its myriad special rules have been internalized and constantly debated. Mike Kurtz wonders: is it worth it?

08 Oct 2004

Scramble for the Ball: Drugs are Bad, Mmmkay

by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal

Al: Did the Chiefs just turn around their season, or was that just a desperate team laying it all on the line for one week? I'd vote for the latter. It seemed to me like they were just living for the fight since that was all that they've got. Their offensive line played better than they had all year, taking the best defensive player in football completely out of the game. The Chiefs' wide receivers made some very good catches in the face of tight coverage, and Priest Holmes made us all remember why he was taken with the first overall pick in 99% of fantasy football drafts this year.

I was surprised at how little Jamal Lewis was used by Baltimore. Kansas City controlled the clock for the first three quarters, but part of the reason they were able to so was because the Ravens didn't use Lewis to take control of the tempo of the game. When Baltimore finally got around to running the ball in the fourth quarter, they were able to easily march down the field on the Chiefs to get within a field goal.

Vivek: Well, it seems that the Ravens might have to get used to playing without Jamal Lewis for some time now that his plea bargain is finalized. Lewis received four months in prison outside of the NFL season. The point of contention is whether or not the NFL will hand out a suspension to the running back. Is a suspension warranted if the offense occurred before Lewis signed a pro contract? Does Paul Tagliabue take his previous substance abuse violations into consideration? What about the fact that teammate Ray Lewis avoided jail time (but paid a $250,000 fine) after he pled guilty to obstruction of justice?

Al: I'd expect the NFLPA to fight a Lewis suspension, but even if they don't it looks like Lewis is readying a legal challenge. It's a very interesting case, and I wished I knew something about employment law so I could make an intelligent analysis (damn third years closing out all the interesting classes!). A quick reading of the section of the NFL's drug policy doesn't shed much of a light on things. It basically says that if you're convicted or plead to a drug related crime, the commissioner can discipline you pretty much however he wants. The clause is silent on the issue of a conviction while under an NFL contract for actions taken while not under NFL contract.

I think Lewis could put together a solid argument that the NFL shouldn't suspend him for this. Although it would be Lewis' third violation of the NFL's drug policy, the underlying action here actually took place before his first two violations. Lewis paid the price for those indiscretions early in his career, and by all accounts has been a model citizen ever since. Lewis' plea agreement might actually be looked upon as further evidence of his turning over a new leaf. He has accepted responsibility for his past illegal actions, has plead guilty to a federal crime and is willing to spend time in prison as punishment for his actions. Suspending Lewis might actually discourage other players from cooperating with authorities and taking responsibility for their actions from their pre-NFL days if they know it will result with a significant financial loss as a result of their suspension in addition to their potential criminal penalties.

Of course, though, that's not going to happen. The NFL will take a huge PR hit if Lewis doesn't miss at least a couple of games after admitting to using a cell phone to facilitate a drug deal. If this was a baseball player we were talking about, I'd be much more optimistic about Lewis' chances. There you'd have the same union on your side that fought Frank Francisco's suspension after he was shown on videotape throwing a chair into the stands and breaking a fan's nose. Lewis' union allowed some of its members to be fined three game checks for testing positive for banned substances that weren't actually banned when the testing took place. At least he's not in the NHL, where his union would be on strike and he'd be down on his luck. It's tough, so tough. My guess is that Lewis misses at least two games, but there will be at least enough of a fight to keep him on the field until the Ravens are out of contention this year, or the suspension could be delayed to the opening of next season at the very latest.

Vivek: Let's move a few miles down to Redskin land, where Washington is quickly squashing Al's NFC East pre-season pick. When did Clinton Portis develop butterfingers? Portis already has four fumbles on the season, matching his season average for his career. Do you think that Joe Gibbs would have stuck with John Riggins or Earnest Byner if they could not hold onto the ball? It's a different era now, so Portis will not have to worry about losing his job. The Redskins could withstand some early fumbling problems if they were forcing turnovers. So far they have a minus-six takeaway/giveaway ratio, managing one interception and three forced fumbles so far. I still think that the Skins should have held onto Champ Bailey. He may have only recorded two interceptions last year, but that was mostly the result of quarterbacks keeping away from him.

Pop quiz for you readers: What team led the league in the fewest takeaways in 2002 and 2003? Answer: The Buffalo Bills, who were coached by Gregg Williams who, yes, is now the defensive coordinator for the Redskins.

Al: Yeah, the Portis fumbling thing is baffling to me. Nothing kills a team's chances more than a running back with a fumbling problem. You've got to learn how to hold on to what you've got. Maybe he's just getting them all out of the way now and will hold onto the ball the rest of the season. Or maybe these fumbles will continue because he's playing behind an inferior offensive line to the one he used to run behind in Denver. A worse line means more hits behind the line of scrimmage, meaning more chances for the balls to pop free. It might be interesting to see if there's any correlation between an offensive line's play and the number of fumbles that team's running back has. So get right on that Viv! I'll be expecting the results of your study next week.

As for Gregg Williams, don't forget, he's not the defensive coordinator. He's the Assistant Head Coach for Defense. Seriously, though, getting turnovers has always been one of the weaknesses of a Williams coordinated defense. In his four years as Titan defensive coordinator, Tennessee never finished higher than #13 in interceptions, despite ranking in the top half of the league in points allowed in every one of those years.

Vivek: So Al, I couldn't let this go:

"I would worry though about how you blew your first round pick in our keeper league draft at the end of August on Ricky Williams."

-- Al Bogdan, Scramble for the Ball, 9/19/2004.

Again, I already had Tiki Barber, Jamal Lewis, and Ahman Green in my starting backfield, so I figured why not. The pick is not looking too shabby now.

Let's go with the assumption that Ricky Williams will be back next season. If you are Jason Taylor & Co., do you want him back on your team? I would be shocked if Ricky is playing in Miami next year.

Al: First of all, it was a bad pick. You could have grabbed him at least two rounds later, maybe more. Any time you take someone two to four rounds early in a draft it's a bad pick.

I agree, though, that Williams won't play his next NFL game in a Dolphin uniform. I just don't see how they can bring him back after being burned like they were just before the opening of training camp. They can't in their right minds create a game plan going into next season that has Ricky Williams as an integral part of it when they just got screwed over doing the same thing this season. I'd also be shocked if he was able to play this year at all. I can see him working something out where he serves his pending substance abuse suspension over the rest of this year, pays Miami back a small amount of the $8.6 million he owes the Dolphins, and ends up starting for the Arizona Cardinals next year after Miami trades Williams for a conditional second round pick. Seems like a win-win for everyone. Ricky doesn't have to put his six-string in hock to pay off his bills, the Cardinals get a running back that's on the right side of 30 and Miami gets a much needed draft pick in 2005 to help them begin the rebuilding process.

What Did We Learn From Week 3?

Lesson 1 -- Don't Piss Off ex-NFL Kickers

Vivek: In one of the most bizarre episodes of Where Are They Now, police are searching for former Raiders kicker Cole Ford in the September 21 drive-by shooting outside the home of Roy Horn and Siegfried Fischbacher, aka Siegfried & Roy.

Al: Possibly the strangest story I've ever read. And I've read some strange stories in my time. What could possibly drive someone to shoot at the home of Siegfried & Roy? It doesn't sound like Ford is the most logical of thinkers. In this article on the shooting, it's noted that Ford once sued the Monte Carlo casino to get some of the money that was wagered on games he played in. This story is like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective come to life. Ex-kicker shunned from the league after missing a big kick slowly goes off the deep end and commits a ridiculous crime. I'd love to see Jim Carrey as Siegfried in the Cole Ford story.

Lesson 2 -- Tom Brady Deserves to be Mentioned with Culpepper, Manning and McNabb

Vivek: As Aaron argued in the immortal "Last Tom Brady Thread Ever," Brady is somewhat the Derek Jeter of the NFL. There is nothing too flashy about Brady except for his girlfriends; Brady has multiple championship rings but is not considered to be one of the top QBs in his conference; Brady might not have the career stats of some of his counterparts, but many GMs would pick him to start a franchise. There is now a lot of talk about McNabb being the league MVP in his first season with Terrell Owens. But who has been there to help Brady the past few years? You could argue for Troy Brown, but there was no running back to support the air attack either. To throw in another Jeter analogy, you don't have to be a fan of his, but you have to respect him.

Al: A couple of weeks ago, Dan Patrick was interviewing Peyton Manning on Sportscenter. Patrick asked Manning something like, "When are people going to realize that Tom Brady is better than you?" What an awful interview. I mean, how was Manning supposed to respond? "You're right Dan. Tom Brady is much better than I am. I should just quit right now since I'll never be as good as he is."

Keep Choppin' Wood Award

Vivek: This is an easy one. For all you Raiders' who were calling for the benching of Rich Gannon before the season started and for the Giants' fans who thought that Collins would lead the G-men to the promised land, I hope you had a good look at the Oakland-Houston game last weekend. Collins's superficial numbers looked ok (21-38, 237) but then you see five turnovers including one on his last four drives. He was so bad that he even wound up recording negative fantasy points in many common scoring systems! Even worse, the five turnovers resulted in 20 points for the Texans.

Al: I'm in a fantasy league with some folks at my law school. It's a free league and most of the people had never played fantasy football before. As always happens when you are the one person with experience in a league of beginners, I'm currently sitting in seventh place in a ten-team league. The guy I was playing last week needed a QB, so I recommended he pick up Kerry Collins since he looked good the week before and they were playing the Texans. Let's say he wasn't too thrilled when the QB I recommended to him ended up scoring -6 points for the week. Of course he wasn't too upset after Priest Holmes scored 2 TDs and ran for 120+ yards on Monday night so he could pull ahead of me and get the win for the week.

Scramble for the Ball Mailbag

Al: You can email us your questions each week at scramble@footballoutsiders.com. We're also now the official home of fantasy football discussion on FootballOutsiders.com, so if you have any fantasy football questions, feel free to send them our way. You can also post questions on who you should start or bench or pick up on waivers in the discussion thread, where they will be answered by your fellow Football Outsiders readers, or us, or both.

NEPAT1 Don (seems to be a regular here) asks:

Do you think that the 'enforcement' of the 5-yard chuck rule has had any significant impact this year?

Al: No, not really. I've noticed a few more bad pass interference calls than normal, but maybe that's just the games I've been able to watch. Before the season, Aaron looked at the changes seen in the league from 1993 to 1994 -- when the pass interference rule was changed to its current form. Here are some of the things Aaron thought might happen this year if the effects of the enforcement of the no chuck rule were the same this year as they were in 1994.

Increase in Passing Yardage and Attempts

Over the 2003 season, NFL teams averaged 200.4 passing yards per game on 32.2 pass attempts per game. Over the first four weeks this year, teams are averaging 211.1 passing yards per game on 31.7 pass attempts per game. So, total yardage per game is up slightly on half a pass attempt less per game.

Scoring Will Increase

This year, teams are averaging 19.3 points per game. Last year, the league average was 20.8. So scoring is actually down a bit this year. However, no team last year was as abysmal as this year's Miami squad has been at scoring points.

A Few Veteran Receivers Will See Their Aging Patterns Slow a Bit

One name this year jumps to mind -- Isaac Bruce. Bruce is averaging 112 yards/game at the age of 32. This is coming three years of steady decline in his overall receiving yardage numbers. Rod Smith is also putting up decent numbers so far, averaging 66.5 yards per game. Smith hasn't averaged that many yards since 2001.

Rookie Receivers Will Likely Have a Greater Impact Than in Past Years

There's really only one rookie WR making a lot of noise this year -- Roy Williams. But if we broaden the definition of "impact" to include WRs w/over 500 yards in their rookie year (31.25 yards per game), we could be in for a solid rookie year. Michael Clayton, Lee Evans and Chris Horn are all also averaging more than 31 yards receiving per game.

Best Bets

Vivek: (0-3 last week, 3-9 overall) So I was right about Billy Volek having a big day against a bad Chargers' defense, but tell my bookie that I should get partial credit.

Jacksonville -3 over SAN DIEGO

Hopefully the third time is the charm with my pick of the Jaguars this week. Their weak pass rush was evident last week as they did not record a sack against the Colts, but the Jags will look a lot better against the Bolts.

PITTSBURGH -6 over Cleveland

A no-brainer for me. (Quick, bet the house on Cleveland now.)

JETS -6.5 over Buffalo

(Obligatory wrestling reference warning) Whatcha gonna do when CURTIS MARTIN runs WILD on YOU???? (tears shirt) The Buffalo run defense has been stingy, allowing 85 yards per game, but that was also against an Oakland running-game-by-committee, a Fred Taylor who has yet to break out this year, and Corey Dillon, who still rushed for 79 yards on 19 carries. The Jets will keep pace with the Pats this week.

Al: (1-2 last week, 4-8 overall) Four picks for me this week so I can get up to .500.

NEW ENGLAND -13 over Miami

I usually stay away from big lines like this, but I'll make an exception for this game. I mean, Miami, on the road, at New England? The Dolphins haven't beaten the Patriots in New England since Drew Bledsoe was starting for the Pats. Miami hasn't scored more than a single TD in any game this year. New England's topped 20 points every time they've stepped on the field this season. If the Patriots don't cover there should be a federal investigation.

SEATTLE -6.5 over St. Louis

The Seahawks are ridiculous at home. They've won their last four home games by an average of 24.5 points. The Ram defense has been a huge disappointment. They're giving up 360+ yards a game and are #30 in VOA. The Seahawks should have no problem with this one.

NY GIANTS +3.5 over Dallas

Big test for the Giants this week. If they win, then maybe they need to be a part of any discussion of possible NFC playoff teams. A loss this week and they're just a "good bad team." Good enough to take against bad teams at home, but you'd be crazy to pick them against a decent team on the road. On paper, the Giants look to have clear personnel advantages on both sides of the field. The only place where the Cowboys have a significant edge is in protecting the QB, where Dallas has allowed only three sacks so far this year. If Tim Lewis can figure out a way to get some Giants attacking Vinny, I like New York's chances of getting to 4-1.

Minnesota -3.5 over HOUSTON

The Vikings have some huge question marks at running back. Michael Bennett is still a few weeks away from returning from knee surgery. Onterrio Smith is starting his four week drug suspension. It's questionable whether Moe Williams will be able to play in Houston because of a calf or ankle injury. However, I don't think it makes a difference if he makes it or not. The Viking's offense has been carried this year by their passing attack. They're #5 in overall offensive VOA despite being #28 in rushing VOA. Why is that? Because they have the #3 passing offense in football, behind only the Colts and the Pats. I just don't see the Texan corners being able to stop Randy Moss from grabbing a couple of TDs and gaining 100+ yards.

Scramble Survivor League Update

Al: Finally, one of my predictions comes true as Ian's team, U Can't Touch This was barely eliminated. My team, Hit or Miss, staved off elimination by a measly two points. Unfotunately, I think I'll be next to lose a team. I went a little too Chief heavy with First, Last, Everything. With KC on a bye, I'll need Quentin Griffin to be healthy and effective, Itula Mili to do something, and big games from Ashley Lelie and Quincy Morgan. I don't like my chances.

Loser League Contest Update

Al: The clear Week 4 loser was Night and the City. Despite having a penalty from Charlie Garner, Night managed to score only 33 points. "Great" weeks from Todd Peterson, Bobby Wade and Dez White were enough to earn first place honors:

QB: Josh McCown (12-18, 157 yards)
RB: Thomas Jones (13 carries, 32 yards; 6 catches, 40 yards)
RB: Charlie Garner (penalty)
WR: Dez White (2 catches, 23 yards)
WR: Bobby Wade (4 catches, 36 yards)
K: Todd Peterson (0 XP, 0 FG)

Here's the All-Loser team from Week 4, the best performances from players drafted in the contest. The most notable exception is Kerry Collins amazing 1 point performance (237 yards, 3 INTs, 2 fumbles). Don't worry, he'll be on the list for you to take when we do the second half contest.

QB: Chad Pennington (14-24, 143 yards, 1 INT)
RB: Ron Dayne (9 carries, 26 yards)
RB: Dorsey Levens (8 carries, 26 yards)
WR: Dennis Northcutt (2 catches, 11 yards)
WR: Rod Gardner (3 catches, 19 yards)
K: Todd Peterson (0 XP, 0 FG)

My team was awful, and not in a good way. Four out of my six players scored 15 points or higher. Viv's team didn't fare much better with his squad of backup RBs. Chris Perry and Willis McGahee?!?! You did realize this contest only ran for the first eight weeks, right Viv?

We have a tie at the top of the season long standings. Hell Spawn holds onto the top spot, but he's joined there by Mark Stinks. Both teams hold a comfortable nine point lead over their nearest competitor, the Dayton Ducks. I think the Ducks have a shot at making a move to first over the next couple of weeks. Both Mark and Hell have dead weight on their roster. Hell Spawn has the resurgent Tiki Barber, while Mark has the injured Kevin Jones. Both have Emmitt Smith, who has averaged 12.5 points per game. It's tough to keep up a good loser league pace, when you have to play a double-digit running back every week.

Posted by: scramble on 08 Oct 2004

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