Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
15 Dec 2010
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Mike's dealing with some family obligations this week (and I'd appreciate it if you keep him and his family in your thoughts), so we're changing things up a little bit this week. He's still around for most of the normal Scramble insanity you know and love (or loathe), but you're not getting a commercial interlude. And rather than our normal opening banter, here is a little essay by yours truly.
At the start of last week's column, I wrote something about the effect of the salary cap on the level of competitiveness, and particularly year-to-year competitiveness, and then the importance of having a good quarterback in the salary cap era. I wrote that mostly as a framing device, and because that's how I started thinking about the issue we wrote about last week, the best quarterback of the past 20 years not to lead his team to the Super Bowl. Year-to-year competitiveness was a separate issue, and one we intentionally did not discuss. Now, I'd like to think about that a little bit.
Over at Pro-Football-Reference, Doug Drinen wrote a series about parity, whether within season, in terms of teams near .500 (Pete Rozelle's dream, as I like to think of it) or in terms of close games, and also in terms of consistency of winning from year-to-year. That last gets at what I'm most interested in, teams being consistently good across a multi-year period.
My working hypothesis there is that this factor is now more closely related to consistently good quarterback play than any other aspect of team-building. Teasing out exactly where to draw this line, and the influence of teammates on a quarterback is difficult, because we have very few things that are close to natural experiments. We mentioned it in the discussion of Trent Green last week, but it's likely that other good quarterbacks would have been successful behind that excellent offensive line, handing the ball off to Priest Holmes and then Larry Johnson, and throwing the ball to Tony Gonzalez and the cast of wideouts. Unfortunately, Green was the only quarterback those Chiefs had with that collection of offensive talent, so we can't say with a great deal of confidence how another quarterback would have done.
Fortunately, we have had a couple natural experiments of late. The most notable ones are New England Patriots from 2007 to 2008, going from Tom Brady to Matt Cassel after a Week 1 injury, and this year's Arizona Cardinals, going from Kurt Warner to
Matt Leinart Derek Anderson Max Hall John Skelton. These examples do tend to support my hypothesis, as the Cardinals' Offensive DVOA is currently down 39.9% from where it was in 2009, and the Patriots' Offensive DVOA fell 28.7% from 2007 to 2008 with mostly the same starting cast around Cassel.
Another interesting data point goes back to last week's column, and that's success at the highest level. In the salary cap era, only three franchises have made it to the Super Bowl with different starting quarterbacks: the Patriots with Drew Bledsoe and then Tom Brady; the Steelers with first Neil O'Donnell and then Ben Roethlisberger; and the Giants with Kerry Collins and then Eli Manning. The Patriots made it in 1996 and then in in 2001, and in between had turned over 19 of their 22 starters, with only Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson, and Lawyer Milloy starting most of the games both times (Adam Vinatieri doesn't count). The Steelers went 10 years between Super Bowls, from 1995 to 2005, and in between turned over their entire starting lineup and their entire roster save Willie Williams. Between 2000 and 2007, the Giants turned over 20 of 22 starters, with Amani Toomer and Michael Strahan the only holdovers on the roster. I contend therefore that the change in quarterback was also associated with a general change in era for a team, and that a team did not make a Super Bowl with a different quarterback without changing the era.
The contrast is to the late years of the pre-Cap era, when you saw two separate franchises win the Super Bowl with different quarterbacks. The Giants make another appearance, winning the Super Bowl in 1986 with Phil Simms and in 1990 with Jeff Hostetler, with eight starters and 22 roster players in common. Similarly, the 1987 and 1991 Washington Redskins had eight starters and 18 roster players in common despite a change from Doug Williams to Mark Rypien at quarterback, a change no doubt mitigated by starting Art Monk, Ricky Sanders, and Gary Clark at wideout in both Super Bowls.
Mind you, I don't mean to understate the influence in the pre-Cap era of having a good quarterback. The San Francisco 49ers awkwardly straddle the pre- and post-cap eras with their 1989 and 1994 championship teams, but Joe Montana was clearly of great value to their four Super Bowl champions of the 1980s, the same way Tom Brady was to the Patriots four Super Bowl appearances in the 2000s. My contention is instead that consistent quarterback play is by far the most important factor currently in consistent team success, and that is truer now than it was 10 and especially 20 and 30 years ago. That is primarily true because the cap era has made it harder to keep a particularly talented team together for an extended run. There is also that other factor about the apparently increasing returns to passing success, but that is a topic for another day.
Tom: I had my crucial No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in the last week of the regular season. Or, as I thought of it, a giant "Who cares?" fest because we were both playoff locks and seeding in the top four isn't very important. My team apparently had the same attitude I did toward the game, as I put up the league's worst score. Ahmad Bradshaw had 17 points, and Reggie Wayne had 10. Nobody else had more than seven. I wasn't helped by leaving Ryan Torain on the bench because his status as of Thursday seemed a little uncertain, and starting Johnny Knox over Santana Moss didn't work out very well.
Mike: Torain would've won the game for me. Heck, pretty much anyone on my bench would've won the game for me. Tom was right, and I was wrong: Denver was a mess. But I still only lost by six points. So David Garrard. Or Matt Ryan. Or Torain. Anyone, really.
Tom: Even I didn't think Denver would be nearly as much of as mess as it actually was.
Mike: Yeah, even a old-fashioned bad game (five or six points) from Kyle Orton would've been enough, and that doesn't cover the second goose egg in a row by Bowe. Really, none of the players I started performed well. Rashard Mendenhall had a bad game, and Greg Jennings for obvious reasons did, also. And I was still within six. Extremely disappointing, but that does it for my season.
Tom: Cruel, cruel fate, you are the mistress of fantasy football doom.
Tom: I'm headed to the fantasy postseason with what ends up being the No. 3 seed. That's a pretty fair assessment of where my team ended up -- not as good as I thought it was earlier, but not too bad. It should be a good competitive game this week, with my team coming in as a slight underdog.
Mike: You're playing the top seed?
Tom: I have the No. 3 seed, playing the No. 2 seed. The other game is No. 1 vs. No. 4 (the fourth seed is probably the best team).
Mike: Nur, right.
Tom: I just hope it doesn't come down to the final play of Monday night's Bears-Vikings game, as last year's glorious fantasy football championship did.
Mike: Haha. It can't get better than that.
Tom: Yeah, that was about as good as it gets, especially the ability to be genuinely happy about the Bears game and enjoy the talk at work. This year, if Adrian Peterson has 300 yards and five touchdowns to lead my team to victory, I'll have to keep my mouth shut.
Tom: Anyway, I'll be sure to regale you next week with tales of postseason success or failure. Assuming Peterson doesn't go for 300 yards and five touchdowns, and I get torn limb from limb by local Bears fans for bragging about my fantasy triumph.
Mike: It probably won't come to that, but good luck. The Bears fans are definitely going to have residual Patriots anger. (I know all about that condition. It lingers.)
Tom: I remember 59-0 well. So don't complain to me too much about 36-7. Got that?
Staff League starts its playoffs this week. Remain in Matt Light (Bill) and That's Great Hustle (Sean) were the top two seeds and had a bye, so we'll start with the winners bracket:
No. 4 Equipo Del Jefe (Aaron) 86 def. No. 5 Consensus Picks (Elias) 53
Aaron comes away with the victory thanks to a complete team effort featuring five players in double digits, topped by Steelers DST's 19 points, to offset leaving Matt Schaub's 25 points on the bench. Elias got almost all of his points from Matt Ryan, Knowshon Moreno, and Marques Colston.
No. 3 Scramble Forever (Ian & Al) 114 def. No. 6 Better Call Saul (Rob) 86
Ian and Al started Aaron Rodgers' one point over Michael Vick's 21 and still put up the league's best score of the week, thanks in large part to Darren McFadden's 38. Rob had four players put up 20+ points, but two of them, Tim Hightower and Deion Branch were left on his bench.
Now, the consolation ladder:
No. 11 Wagstaff's Ringers (Tom) 67 def. No. 12 Team CBORG (Skynet) 60
ESPN's projections failed CBORG this time, as the bench had 63 points to the suggested roster's 60. Swapping Brandon Jacobs in for either Marshawn Lynch or Chris Ivory would have let CBORG to the victory. Tom, meanwhile, was led by Dolphins DST's 21 points.
No. 10 Phanatic Codebreakers (Tanier) 57 def. No. 10 Malice Aforethought (Will) 48
Mike sneaks out a win in the league's lowest-scoring matchup, no thanks to Kyle Orton's -2 or Titans DST's -3. Will was yet another person who left Ryan Torain on his bench and had it cost him a victory.
No. 7 Team Verhei (Vince) 67 def. No. 8 Triple Asian Flu (Doug) 52
Vince had four players in double digits. Unfortunately, three of them were his quarterbacks. Fortunately, the other was DeSean Jackson and his 27 points. That was enough to beat Doug, whose high scorer was Ben Roethlisberger and his 12 points.
Here are next week's matchups:
Winner's Consolation Ladder:
KICKERS: Ryan Succop becomes the latest kicker to learn the joys of getting shut out and ending up with 0 points. Boasting the same total is Graham Gano, whose name appears elsewhere in this column and did make the only extra point he got credit for attempting.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Donald Driver, Steve Smith Esquire, Brian Robiskie, Devin Hester, Jason Avant, Danny Amendola, Antwan Randle El, and Kenny Britt each had 1 point this week, in what I'll just assume is the biggest tie for the lowest score in a single week in Loser League history.
RUNNING BACKS: Adrian Peterson is your low scorer with 2 points. If you had him and an elimination game this week, you have my condolences. Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Shonn Greene, Ricky Williams, C.J. Spiller and Jahvid Best each had 3 points, and if you started any of them, you got what you deserved.
QUARTERBACKS: Kyle Orton and Aaron Rodgers may have helped carry your team at points this season. Well, they put up 0 and 2 points, respectively, this week, below even Jimmy Clausen.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: Graham Ga-NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, with an assist/honorable mention to Hunter Smith and the rest of the Redskins field-goal unit. You're last in the league by a sizable margin for a reason.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: It's rare that an experienced coach makes two decisions in one week that qualify him for this award, but Jeff Fisher pulled it off this week. Tom defended him, somewhat, in Audibles, but Jeff Fisher should not have punted on fourth-and-1 with 4:14 to play, even from his own 34 with three timeouts remaining in a one-score game, and further should not have had his offense exhaust all of the remaining time to get a single touchdown in a two-score game. Rather, Fisher should have kicked a 42-yard field goal with 55 seconds left and gone for the onside. If you picked the Titans to cover, be grateful for his error.
COLBERT AWARD: Did Tom Cable really tell his defense to sit down and let Maurice Jones-Drew score a touchdown right after the two-minute warning to take the lead to give his team more time on offense to score? If he admitted to it, your Scramble writer didn't see it, but it did look like the Raiders defense wasn't trying very hard on the play. Seeing as the strong safety was on the line and the corners were lined up in press coverage with the lone safety playing a middle zone, we're inclined to think the play was thrown. If so, we applaud Cable for enacting "let them score."
DGL: Standard scoring, second week of a two-week first round playoff matchup, and assuming Aaron Rodgers doesn't play, I need to decide one of these four to sit: Mendenhall vs. the Jets, Matt Forte vs. the Vikings, Marques Colston vs. the Ravens, or Jennings vs. Matt Flynn. (If Rodgers does play, then Jennings starts and the question reduces to one of the other three to sit.)
Mike: Er, I think he's asking which of those three, really, since if Rodgers doesn't play Jennings is out.
Tom: Well, as tempting as it is to think of Jennings going up against Matt Flynn, the Packers are playing the Patriots.
Mike: See, I think the Packers can put up a good fight. Unlike the Bears, their defense is well-suited for New England. And also unlike the Bears, they may actually game-plan for the Patriots, but if we spent time talking about every coaching staff that is more competent than Chicago's, this would be an even longer column that it normally is.
Tom: And yes, if Rodgers is out, start the other three. Matt Flynn will probably be blitzed and/or confused into oblivion.
Mike: I don't like Mendenhall, if you absolutely must play Jennings.
Tom: As Aaron mentioned in this week's DVOA column, the Jets have been very strong in run defense both with and without Revis.
Mike: Yes, and the Steelers offensive line is both mediocre and injured. That is exactly what you do not want going up against an elite defense.
Tom: I concur with this. If Flynn starts, sit Jennings. If Rodgers plays, start Jennings and sit Mendenhall.
jay: I'm coming off a bye week into playoffs and I have basically two positions in doubt with three people to fill them: Vincent Jackson, Sidney Rice and Jason Witten. I'm pretty solid on Jackson, but Witten or Rice seems to be a toss-up. You either have Witten going against the Redskins, who are good against the TE and it's a divisional game, or a Vikings team with a problem at QB up against the Bears which will be played who knows where. As an aside, should I go with Matt Ryan or Jon Kitna this week?
Tom: The news today is that the Monday night Vikings-Bears game will be played outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium.
Mike: Matt Ryan. Like I should have last week. The other news is that no matter who is playing quarterback for Minnesota, they are going to get absolutely killed, so I say Witten.
Tom: Both Kitna and Ryan have attractive matchups in the Redskins and Seahawks pass defenses. My worry would be that Atlanta will look to run and have success running, limiting Ryan's chances. Meanwhile, going back to this week's DVOA column, Dallas has had a lot of success passing of late. I'd actually lean Kitna over Ryan.
Mike: I just don't trust the Cowboys offense and the miracle resurgence with the same players plus Jon Freaking Kitna. Not buying it.
Tom: That's a perfectly reasonable position to take. You're probably right that the Vikings are going to get killed. All three quarterbacks are hurt right now, and they're reportedly look to add somebody off the street. The Redskins are decent defending against tight ends, but there's just too high a chance Rice puts up zero.
nick_thunderdome: OK, guys, I won my first round game at the last possible second (Andre Johnson's TD put me up by less than a point). Thanks for the help. Mike Tolbert was worth much more than Stevie Johnson. The only big miss was Hines Ward, who was my No. 2 scorer but was on the bench; no one could have called that. This week I've got a few open questions:
TE: Kevin Boss vs. PHI, Aaron Hernandez vs. GB, or
waiver claim on Owen Daniels (might not get him) vs. TEN, or waiver claim on Kellen Winslow (will almost certainly get him) vs. DET. .5 PPR and a four-point bonus for 100-plus yards.
DEF: KC vs. STL, or waiver -ire choices: Carolina, Arizona and Dallas. Scoring is points for yards allowed, points for points allowed and points for DTD, INT, sacks, fumbles recovered. A defense that holds down the yards and points does better than one that causes turnovers but gives up points.
Thanks in advance guys! Hope to be asking your advice again for the finals.
Mike: I'm actually interested to hear what you have to say about Collins. Normally I'd say play whoever is against Houston, but I have no idea of Collins is an actual quarterback anymore.
Tom: Well, he ranked highly in Quick Reads this week. I think that's a little misleading, as a lot of his value came in what was effectively garbage time. He had trouble completing passes and throwing the ball downfield until the Colts started playing soft coverage and giving up underneath stuff when up two scores with less than three minutes left. He's not an effective thrower of the deep ball, and the Titans have had trouble linking together enough intermediate plays to move the ball down the field.
Mike: I'd probably take Roethlisberger then.
Tom: He's probably an adequate start, but I wouldn't expect a lot of points.
Mike: Denver is a disaster, and Collins sounds shaky.
Tom: I'd start Roethlisberger as well (and will be starting him in the playoffs). The Jets don't have a great pass rush, and they're good but not lockdown like they were last year. As to tight end, this isn't a question. Grab Winslow, and start him, and be grateful he wasn't claimed.
Mike: Good Lord, yes.
Tom: If you can't get him, I'd start Boss, simply because you know he'll get opportunities. Hernandez may lose out in the Patriots Wheel of Underneath Receivers and Dreessen still starts for the Texans.
Mike: Right, the other two are hit and miss.
Tom: In terms of defense, I once again must reference this week's DVOA column. Dallas's defense is still mostly ineffective.
Mike: Stupid DVOA column is doing our job.
Tom: Hey, I'm not complaining. Carolina's defense has actually been sort of adequate this year. And don't put too much stock in last week's Arizona game. Denver was discombobulated and didn't seem to try very hard in the fourth quarter; the Cardinals offense is still terrible. I'll probably be starting Kansas City myself, but the Panthers are a very viable start and probably better than KC this week.
Mike: Kansas City is good enough to be dangerous, but too inconsistent. I'd go with the Panthers.
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26 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2010, 9:33am by Kevin from Philly