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Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?

01 Oct 2004

Scramble for the Ball: Off the Wagon

By Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal

Vivek: I tip my hat and call the Jaguars my daddy. I was wrong. That's it. I expected Steve McNair to come out and throw for 300 yards against a weak pass rush, and Chris Brown to have a tougher time against the Jacksonville run stoppers. Exactly the opposite. McNair gets held to 143 yards, Brown rushes for 100-plus yards, and the Jaguars start the season 3-0.

Are the Jaguars the Panthers of 2004, or at least a three-game shadow? Let's take a look:

2003 Panthers 2004 Jaguars
Yards Allowed Per Game 295.3 282.4
Passing Yards Allowed PG 187.7 175.7
Rushing Yards Allowed PG 107.6 106.7

The offensive stats do not match up as well, but the mold was the same with Stephen Davis and Fred Taylor serving as the focus of the offense. One thing in the Jags' favor is that only five of their final 12 games are against 2003 playoff teams. That does not mean as much in these days of parity though.

Don't start buying your post-season tickets yet, because the passing game is going to be their downfall. Everyone remembers the image of Marshall's offensive lineman carrying an injured Byron Leftwich to the line of scrimmage a few years ago, and his leadership and never-say-die attitude has been evident in the three tight wins... but he needs some help around him and time to grow.

Al:Yeah, Viv. Everyone remembers something that happened during a Marshall football game from a few years ago. I've thought all along Jacksonville was good enough to make the wild card, but I'm not going to give them any more than that just yet. Calling them this year's Carolina is a bit premature. Maybe I'll be convinced if they can beat the Colts this weekend, but until then I just don't see the Jaguars winning a division title when they need a better record than Indianapolis to do it. They'll end up as the wild card and need to win three games, all on the road, to repeat the Panthers' feat of a conference championship.

You're giving the Jaguar running game way too much credit. Fred Taylor was a topflight back a few years ago, when he could barely stay on the field, but he hasn't shown himself to be in that class so far this year. He's averaging under four yards a carry, something he's never done in a season where he's played more than two games. He's going to need to be more productive, or we'll need to see a little more of LaBrandon Toefield, if the Jags want to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.

It's nice to see you jumping aboard the Jaguar bandwagon, though. But to jump on one bandwagon, you need to jump off of another. So who's gone Viv? Let's find out during the first installment of what may become yet another semi-regular feature of Scramble for the Ball -- Off the Wagon. Here's how it will work. A couple of weeks ago, we each predicted who we thought would make the playoffs. Some of those predictions are already looking like huge mistakes. Here's an opportunity to admit you were wrong and replace your previous playoff picks with teams who have impressed you over the first three weeks. Here's the catch, though. Once you jump off a team's bandwagon, you can't get back on. So, if you've decided that you want to take back your prediction that the Rams will win the NFC West, that's fine. But if they end up going on a 10-3 run over the rest of the season and taking the title, you've given up the right to say that you predicted it. Sound good? I'll let you go first.

Off the Wagon

Vivek's Preseason Predictions

AFC NFC
East Patriots Eagles
North Ravens Vikings
South Colts Falcons
West Chiefs Rams
Wild Card Broncos Packers
Wild Card Jets Seahawks

Vivek: Even Dick Vermeil can't blame all those people jumping off the Chiefs' bandwagon. The Gunther Cunningham experiment is not working out, and like I said last week, if it is not the defensive scheme, then it must be the players. This has to be a wakeup call to GM Carl Peterson that he needs to make some roster changes if a Super Bowl ring is a possibility. And where did Dante Hall disappear to? You wonder if Priest Holmes will pull a Ricky Williams if this season turns out to be one to forget.

The fall of the Chiefs bumps the Broncos into the AFC West Champion. So who gets the wild card spot? The Steelers? No, their two wins have come against the Browns and Dolphins, and their schedule does not favor them. The Jags? No, I'm not completely jumping onto their bandwagon. My pick -- the Chiefs. I'm not ruling out the possibility of the Chiefs going 9-4 the rest of the way and sneaking into the playoffs.

My NFC picks are looking ok so far with the exception of the Packers, but 1-2 does not require an "Off the Wagon"pick. Lets hope that the defense picks it up. To quote Colin Quinn, "That's my story, and I'm sticking to it."

Al's Preseason Predictions

AFC NFC
East Jets Redskins
North Bengals Vikings
South Titans Buccaneers
West Chiefs Seahawks
Wild Card Jaguars Eagles
Wild Card Patriots Cardinals

Al: I'm definitely off the Bengal bandwagon. I'm a bit surprised that Marvin Lewis hasn't done a better job with that defense in his second year. I just can't pick a team that can't stop the run unless they're playing Miami to win a division. I'm very torn on who to replace them with, though. I'm ruling out Cleveland because they've looked just awful so far. That leaves the Steelers and the Ravens. Baltimore is the obvious choice, because of their defense and because Pittsburgh has a rookie QB. I think, though, I'm going to go with the Steelers. Baltimore's schedule is just a little bit tougher. The Ravens have to face the Eagles, Patriots and Jets on the road, while the Steelers get those three at home. That could be enough of an advantage to push Pittsburgh over the top, especially with a rookie QB at the helm.

I also have to run away from my Titan pick and replace them with Indianapolis. The Titan offense has been a big disappointment this year and things aren't going to get better with Steve McNair on the shelf. This is a team that still has to go play road games at Minnesota, Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Green Bay (a Monday nighter). After this week's game in Jacksonville, the Colts don't look to face any big challenges on the road until possibly Week 17 at Denver.

I'd normally run away from the Chiefs here because of their difficult upcoming schedule, but I'm just not sold on anyone else in that division. Oakland and Denver both have poor running games and question marks on defense. Denver has struggled against the run and Oakland has had trouble defending the pass. I'm just not ready yet to anoint either of them as a division champ.

I'm sticking with my NFC picks for now. I still think Washington will be able to turn it around. They could easily be 3-0 right now if they caught a couple of breaks against the Giants and Cowboys. I'm not jumping on any bandwagon that involves the Lions after only three weeks. I'm going to give the Bucs a few weeks with Michael Pittman in the backfield before I desert them. As for Arizona, I can still see them making a run. If they can stop turning the ball over on offense, with their schedule, I can still see them finishing with a winning record and possibly backdooring their way into the playoff picture.

What Did We Learn From Week 3?

Lesson 1 -- Week 3 was no different than week 2 in the injury department

Vivek: Last week's Scramble talked about the flood of injuries around the league, and today's column could have easily been part two. Rex Grossman knew that he was done for the year as soon as he went down; anyone could tell that Rich Gannon was going to miss time after taking a massive hit from Derrick Brooks; the Charlie Garner era could be done in Tampa Bay after he tore his patella tendon in his right knee; and the Eagles lost another key player for the season when fullback Jon Ritchie tore his ACL.

Al: Shock of shocks. Charlie Garner's a bust.

Lesson 2 -- Maybe the Rams Won't Be Fine

Al: Yeah, back in the first edition of this feature, we thought we learned the Rams would be fine. After losses to Atlanta and New Orleans, it's time to admit we jumped the gun on St. Louis. In the comments after Part II of the pre-season Scramble NFC Over/Under column, a few readers tried to defend Mike Martz after I said that his job was on the line this year. If anything, Martz has done nothing but put himself directly on the hot seat, even if he wasn't on it before. Let's see here. You have one of the greatest RBs of all time and arguably the best back to come out of this year's draft on your team. You're playing a team that had given up almost 350 yards on the ground in its first two games. What do you do? That's right, pass almost 50 times while running only 15 times. Just an awful offensive game plan. Before the season started, I predicted that Mike Martz would not be on the Ram sidelines in 2005. He showed Sunday against New Orleans why I feel even stronger now about that prediction.

Scramble for the Ball Mailbag

Al: Remember, you can send your fantasy (and other) NFL questions to scramble@footballoutsiders.com. We'll answer them all in each column. This week we have a question about fantasy WRs that may be on the waiver wire in your league. Lou from Stoughton writes:

My WRs are horrible and to make things worse Darrell Jackson has a bye this week. I really need to find someone who will be a good starter this week and who I can hopefully use for the rest of the season. Rod Gardner, Keary Colbert, Cedrick Wilson, Randy Hynes and Justin McCareins are all available. Who would you recommend?

Al: Thanks for the email. I can definitely understand where you're coming from. Those sleeper WRs that you liked in the preseason have all fell on their face and you need to regroup quickly to have any shot this year. I've definitely been there before. For this week, the best play may actually be Cedrick Wilson. St. Louis has been one of the worst pass defenses in the league over the first three weeks. Wilson is also the highest rated out of these receivers according to PAR. For the rest of the year, though, I'd recommend Gardner. Brunell relied on Gardner in Week 3, after Laveranues Coles kept dropping passes. Gardner had 10 receptions against the Cowboys. As long as Brunell stays at QB, I can definitely see Gardner's success continue.

Keep Choppin' Wood Award

Vivek: Numbers can be deceiving, especially with this week's recipient, Cardinals (soon-to-be-former ) quarterback Josh McCown. On the surface you see a 20-for-26, 198 yard passing day. What you do not see is his three fumbles, one of which happened in the fourth quarter at the Falcons' 19-yard line in a 6-3 loss. How bad was it? So bad that coach Dennis Green replaced him with Shaun King. Quentin Griffin was lucky that the Broncos topped the Chargers. If they hadn't, he was a prime candidate for this week's award -- 12 carries for only seven yards and a lost fumble. As Al told reader Reinhard in last week's Mailbag, Griffin owners should try to move him now.

Al: Yeah, I can't think of anyone who deserves it more than McCown. The Cardinals defense held Michael Vick to under 200 yards of total offense and the Falcon offense to under a touchdown. If McCown just holds onto the ball, Arizona wins that game and my prediction of a playoff spot for the Cardinals this year doesn't look as ridiculous as it does now. The fumble at the Falcon 19-yard line in the fourth quarter was bad, but his fumble in the third quarter may have been worse. The Cardinals had made it inside the Falcon ten-yard line when McCown coughed up the ball. That's two times Arizona was within field goal range that McCown gave the ball to the other team. If the Cardinals hit those two field goals, they win the game.

Best Bets

Vivek: (1-2 last week, 3-6 overall) I'm seriously considering sending a bill to Byron Leftwich... Mike Vick would have also gotten consideration for the Keep Choppin' Wood Award if the Cardinals squeaked out a win... Is this the year of "Bet against the Fins?"

Redskins -3 over CLEVELAND

How did the Browns knock off the Ravens in week one? How did Jeff Garcia manage a zero passer rating against the Cowboys a few weeks ago? Maybe his mind was distracted with his girlfriend's problems?

Denver - 3 over TAMPA BAY

Chris Berman will have some name-play fun with Mike Alstott getting a few more carries now that Charlie Garner is gone. Michael Pittman returns from a three-game suspension, but neither back will do much against a formidable Broncos rush defense. So that leaves the air game. Do you really want to rely on Bill Schroeder, Michael Clayton and Tim Brown? I think not. Chris Simms anyone?

Tennessee -3 over SAN DIEGO

It looks like the chances of Steve McNair playing this week are not good, but that does not kill the Titans against a dreadful Chargers' passing defense. Jeff Fisher should recognize who his opponent is and let Billy Volek go the entire game.

Al: (2-1 last week, 3-6 overall) I'm just one good week away from getting back to .500. I think this is the week it happens. There are ten home underdogs this week. Ten! That's ridiculous. Let's see if I can take advantage of this and find the three that cover.

SAN DIEGO +3 over Tennessee

I don't know Viv, I smell an upset here. The Titans have struggled against the run, while San Diego has one of the best rushing attacks in football. Having Steve McNair out will be a huge blow to Tennessee's offense. The Titans will be in trouble if they treat this game as a walkover. This has trap game written all over it.

SAN FRANCISCO + 3.5 over St. Louis

What have the Rams done to show that they deserve to be a 3.5 point favorite over anyone on the road? I'm not a big fan of the 49ers, but what's the difference between the two teams this year? Both lost to New Orleans and Atlanta, and San Francisco arguably played those teams tougher than St. Louis did. The 49ers were shut out by a dominant Seattle team while the Rams squeaked by the Cardinals on a fourth quarter TD. This line is based completely on the Rams reputation, not on how they've played this year.

TAMPA BAY +3 over Denver

I'll go against you for one more game. Tampa's defense should have no problem containing the Denver running game. Do you feel confident in Jake Plummer having to carry a team against the Tampa defense? I don't. I think you're underestimating the upgrade Pittman will provide over Charlie Garner. I think he'll have a big game this week against the Bronco defense. This one won't be pretty, but I like Tampa's chances of winning a close, low-scoring game.

Scramble Survivor League Update

Al: Ian finally lost a team this week, as the XFL Wannabes were eliminated. When your kicker is your highest scorer (even if it is John Carney), you can't expect to last another week. Ian was, however, able to get immunity as his Fear Factors and U Can't Touch This tied with 113 points on the week. Thanks to Fear Factor backup QB Brad Johnson's big game they win the tiebreaker and immunity for Week 4. That could mean, however, that U Can't Touch This is getting ready to exit this week. With Randy Moss on bye, that team is left with only Robert Ferguson as an active WR. Even if Brett Favre and Fred Taylor can put up big games that may not be enough to survive another week.

Football Outsiders Loser League Contest Update

Al: This column was the home of Loser League updates last year, so it seems appropriate that it's the home for updates on the Loser League contest this year. Bottomline was the best scorer of Week 3, with an incredible 20 point week. A negative point week from A.J. Feeley and no penalties will do that for you. The Hell Spawn are the overall leaders through three weeks. They had a solid 27 point performance in Week 3. If not for the gift TD to Tim Brown, the Hell Spawn could have more than a one point lead in the season contest. My squad wasn't too shabby, putting up 28 points last week. I just wish Vinny Testaverde would stop putting up respectable numbers.

Posted by: scramble on 01 Oct 2004

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