Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
by Bill Barnwell
FO readers have it better than NFL teams (except, of course, for those teams that are also FO readers). While the seasons of teams like St. Louis and Miami are kaput outside of playing out the proverbial string, those FO readers who saw nothing but bad things for Derek Anderson and Randy Moss need not forget about their chances at a Loser League title, because it's time for Loser League Part II.
Before that, though, we need to honor the anti-stars of the first nine weeks and award a longtime board member with his free book for winning the first half of our competition.
At quarterback, two players who have been linked since their instant classic bowl game in January 2006 somehow surpassed popular picks like Tarvaris Jackson and Rex Grossman on the road to non-success. The lack of Quarterback Number One's development in the passing game is holding back a potentially legendary defense, while the lack of Number Two's development opened up a hole for a potential legend to get a mean case of the ouchies. Thanks for sucking, Vince Young and Matt Leinart!
Yes, Leinart made it even with four consecutive penalties; he had an almost-impossibly bad 34 through the first six weeks of the season. Tom Brady, for comparison, put up three weeks in a row with more than 38 points. Young's 12 points over the last two weeks propelled him into first place, six points ahead of Leinart. Beyond those two, Joey Harrington, Jackson, and Marc Bulger (only two penalties but had games of -1, 1, and 3 points) rounded out the top five.
At running back, the star man was Falcons halfback Warrick Dunn, who legitimately put up the following weeks consecutively: 4, 6, 3, 2, 2. Those are lines so poor the commissioner should be checking for irregular betting patterns. Dunn was only one point ahead of the second-place running back, the Jets' Thomas Jones, who was only saved from first by Dunn putting up 31 points in the last two weeks. In all fairness, Jones is ranked 34th in the league in DVOA and 31st in DPAR, so while he's not doing well, it's also got something to do with the Jets' defense violently gasping for air.
Their backups would be two of the more disappointing backs in the NFC in Cedric Benson and Shaun Alexander. Benson's gone from being a promising player with breakout potential to a cipher on the Bears offense, while Alexander's fallen from MVP to his team's most hated player in the course of two seasons.
I think wideout is the most difficult position to reliably pick in Loser League because of the inherent variability in the performance of those players who are most likely to put up awful numbers. Projecting a guy to get eight yards on two passes is difficult, if not impossible. A simple rule, apparently? Go for 49ers. Teammates Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson were second and third at the position, Jackson pulling out the otherworldly three-week span of 1-2-1 early in the campaign.
The losingest loser at wide receiver, though, was the Panthers' Keary Colbert, who has only the bye and a first-week penalty keeping him out of single digit-weeks for the entire season. Imagine if he was the one who wasn't watching film.
A pair of old folks are the backups: Ike Hilliard's gotten some pub as the possession receiver in the Buccaneers offense this year, and he's got a very decent DPAR and DVOA, but the Loser League does not approve of his lack of touchdowns and his regular four-catch, 45-yard days. Joe Horn has also kept pretty much silent in Atlanta, presumably hoping he can sneak out without anyone noticing. Horn's season: Two penalties, a bye, six weeks with 3 points or less. Jiminy.
Finally, kicker is where we find the lowest point totals in the league, and we start with a kicker who very well might be losing his last starting job in the next 14 days. Olindo Mare was six-of-12 on field goals after missing two on the weekend, and considering he plays his home games inside a dome, that's not particularly impressive in the slightest. He's joined by, well, an old friend of ours. Mike Nugent isn't to blame for the Jets' problems this year, but hey, neither was Chad Pennington, and we threw him underneath the bus. You're with him, Nuge.
Now, to reward our star. We're pleased to announce that nibiyabi (proposed real name: Greg Sheehan) from our website and his "nibiyabi" team won the first-half loser league competition. Greg didn't pick a single one of the Loser League All-Pros, but picked almost entirely guys who were their backups or close to it, including Joey Harrington, Matt Schaub, Alexander, Horn, Isaac Bruce, and Sebastian Janikowski. Greg wins a copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, available at finer bookstores everywhere come next July with new "Curse your least favorite running back" technology! We include headshots of all 32 NFL starting running backs, and you cut and paste the one you dislike the most onto the front cover. Voila!
Now, though, the second half of the Loser League approaches, and with it, a chance for another reader to earn a free copy of the book. To offer some assistance, let's preview the second half and highlight some superb Loser League choices. We'll be using the same methodology that we did in highlighting those Buy Low, Sell High possibilities two weeks ago (which are looking pretty good in hindsight), looking at the difficulty of team schedules across the rest of the season and matching that up to what we know about their offensive performance.
Note that the deadline for selecting your teams is this Saturday, and the link for the league is here.
At quarterback, the most difficult problem will be health. The worst schedule coming up for a quarterback over the second half of the campaign, by far, is Jacksonville's; the Jaguars have to play the Titans, Colts, and Steelers over the next eight weeks, but we're not sure who will be starting for them. With the key matchup against the Titans this upcoming week, it's hard to pick either Quinn Gray or David Garrard.
One guy almost guaranteed to make an appearance in all his games is Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, whose theoretical "tutelage" under Norv Turner seems to have warped his fragile mind. Rivers gets to avoid the Steelers, but he still has to face the Titans and the Colts. His only saving grace is a Week 15 matchup against the Lions.
The other quarterback whose schedule is really likely to affect him is Kellen Clemens, whose schedule is entirely hit-or-miss: He gets to face the Dolphins and the Browns, but he also has to attempt to throw versus the Steelers, Titans, Patriots, Cowboys, and Chiefs. While down 25 points. In the Meadowlands. In the winter. I just sold myself.
The Redskins running backs should be the stars of the second half Loser League promenade. Not only do Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts already split carries, but they face the Cowboys twice and the Vikings once in the second half. Why not pick them both and save yourself the effort to having to look at two boxscores on Sunday?
Another team in a bad spot will be the Lions, who see the Vikings and Cowboys along with two games against Green Bay. That and the propensity for passing touchdowns in the Mike Martz offense leave Kevin Jones as a good selection.
The only other team with an average rush defense against DVOA of -10.0% or less is the Giants, who face the Vikings, Cowboys, and in a game that might be their last win in an undefeated season, the Patriots. That would downgrade Brandon Jacobs enough to make him eminently viable here.
For those Thomas Jones fantasy owners, well, um, Jones is up against the fifth-worst schedule over the second half. Sorry, man. Better luck next year.
Wide receiver should bear some resemblance to the quarterbacks you'd want to pick; namely, the Jacksonville wideout corps of Ernest Wilford, Reggie Williams, and Dennis Northcutt look like solid picks. Chris Chambers isn't really a smart Loser League pick because of his ability to get downfield, but there might be a spot for Vincent Jackson as the square peg aiming for the round hole already filled by an even-squarer peg in Norv Turner's offense. Laveranues Coles could be a good pick assuming he returns from injury, while the Broncos wideouts are all stealing catches from each other and are good plays.
As for kickers, just go with the teams who score the fewest points and are up against the toughest defenses as a whole. Hey! That happens to be the New York Jets! Come on down, Mike Nugent! Jacksonville kicker John Carney also makes a lot of sense, as long as you are willing to gamble on Josh Scobee's health continuing to keep him off the active roster.
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This week saw several candidates nominated for the coveted KCW award, but as the executive panel for KCW is exactly one, I've chosen to award it to Mike Holmgren.
Holmgren gets it for two ugly play calls, but we're going to focus on the first one, which was the more egregious of the two: With 18 seconds left on the clock, on second-and-10 from the Cleveland 15 and the Seahawks down three points, Holmgren didn't take his All-Pro quarterback who'd thrown for 299 yards and put him up against the porous Cleveland secondary in an attempt to win the game. Instead, he ran the famed Seattle Draw of Hate and Rage, giving the ball to Maurice Morris despite the Seahawks being out of timeouts. Morris ran for 11 yards, and fortunately, the Seahawks were able to spike the ball with a little over a second left on the clock.
There's no logic where this play is justifiable. Hasselbeck's chances of throwing an interception or eating a sack are just as likely as Morris' chances of fumbling or getting stuck inbounds. If he'd run to the one or the two instead of the four, chances are the Seahawks wouldn't have even gotten the play off. Essentially, you're sacrificing the possibility to win the game away in order to turn a kick Josh Brown makes 85 percent of the time into one he'll make virtually all the time, all while risking the wholly significant possibility that Brown won't ever get the chance to get that kick off. If Morris hadn't been able to get down in time, there would be legitimate, justifiable calls for Holmgren's head. That's the criteria for KCW if we ever saw it. Just because the outcome was lucky doesn't mean the process should be ignored.
1-2 last week, 11-12-1 overall
I don't get two victories for successfully predicting the Game of the Century? Sad. I can't even blindly pick the Patriots this week for an easy victory, either.
Also, based upon my calculations, I would've lost $100 on the prop bets I proposed last week. When you can't even set lines in your favor and cheat to win, your ability as a gambler must be brought into question.
Aaron explained in this week's DVOA Ratings just how great the Cowboys are; the same Cowboys abused the Giants in Week 1, and while the Giants look like a dramatically better team since then, this secondary just isn't good enough to keep up with the Cowboys attack. Cowboys by at least a score.
I'm living on the edge with our star teams on the road this week. The Colts should be able to bounce back by beating a Chargers team which has looked better since their bye, but couldn't stop the run on the outside to save their lives last week. Think the Colts have a play or two like that in their arsenal?
After I picked the Browns to make the playoffs this year in our staff predictions piece, I received an e-mail from an FO staffer whose subject line was "Did you mean to pick the Browns for the playoffs?!?" and had no body. I pointed out that they were extremely injured last year, had a bunch of young talent maturing at skill positions, and an improved offensive line, but after Week 1, I was already regretting my pick.
Since then, the Browns have gone 5-2, and they actually have an outside shot of making the playoffs.
They've also beaten the Dolphins and Rams and lost to the Raiders. Color me slightly unimpressed. Steelers roll.