Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
14 Dec 2011
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: With the playoffs approaching, we're now in "figuring out the tiebreaker" season. And one of those tiebreakers that figures heavily, both for the draft and for the playoffs, is strength of schedule. Mike, what do you make of the NFL's use of strength of schedule?
Mike: It seems reasonable. There has to be some way to sort out teams who end the season with the same record, and given the short NFL season, there are going to be a lot of them.
Tom: As do several seemingly non-bothersome things, it kind of annoys me. I don't think it actually tells you what it supposedly tells you.
Mike: Well, it supposedly tells us that the team should be given more credit for its victories, since it dealt with superior competition. What do you think it actually tells us?
Tom: See, I don't think it actually does a good job of telling you that. One of the reasons is that your record is incorporated into your opponents' record. And if you win a division game, that effectively has twice as much impact on your strength of schedule.
Mike: But surely that's not an issue, since you are comparing two teams with the same record -- opponents' records are affected equally.
Tom: Divisional records count twice. So if Team X and Team Y are both 10-6, but Team X is 6-0 in its division and Team Y is 0-6 in its, ceteris paribus Team Y will have a better strength of schedule.
As an example, let's use the 2010 Indianapolis Colts, who went 10-6. The Colts went 4-2 in the AFC South. and Colts opponents had a record of 121-135 last year total. If you remove all games against the Colts, their opponents had an aggregate record of 113-121. Had the Colts gone 6-0 in the AFC South, their opponents’ aggregate record would have been 119-137. Of course, if you remove games against the Colts, I think it also makes sense to remove all of the games that essentially count for double. The Colts played all four teams of the NFC East, who each played six games against the other teams in the NFC East. The results of those games all perfectly offset each other.
Mike: Why are you doing this, though? You need to have some reason to throw out games, like doing so correlates with more accurate tiebreakers.
Tom: From the perspective of the Colts' strength of schedule, it doesn't matter which of the Eagles or the Redskins win their divisional games. I'll fast-forward to the conclusion then: the vast majority of the information in any team's strength of schedule measure comes from two sources: the two intraconference foes you play that your division mates don't, and how your divisional opponents fare against common opponents.
Mike: Wouldn't the latter part of that formulation be extremely helpful? Common opponents is a valid tiebreaker in and of itself.
Tom: It doesn't matter much how good the division you play in the opposite conference is, because a lot of that information comes out in the wash. Sorry, by common opponents, I meant "on your schedule." So it's how the Jaguars, Texans, and Titans do against teams also on the Colts' schedule.
Mike: Right. How is that not helpful? You're able to compare how one team did compared to its division mates.
Tom: If we want to compare the Colts to, say, the Ravens, then that information doesn't strike me as very important.
Mike: True, but we don't just do that. Otherwise Seattle would not have made the playoffs last year.
Tom: Well, it matters for wild card purposes. Think back to 2008, when there was a great hue and cry about the 11-5 Patriots not making the playoffs while the 8-8 Chargers did. Both teams went 7-5 against the AFC, while the Pats went 4-0 against the NFC West and the Chargers went 1-3 against the NFC South. The NFC South was a much better division that year than the NFC West. This is not very disputable.
Mike: Yes, but even for a wild card, the division you are in matters a lot.
Tom: But we're losing the indirect impact of this, because the strength of schedule measure doesn't reward you for playing a much stronger division in the other league. In fact, it hurts your because they're more likely to win games against your divisional foes.
Mike: OK, fair enough. That still only matters if you're in a particularly good or bad division. Most divisions on balance are average.
Tom: It bothers me, as a matter of principle, that playing a strong division in the other conference punishes you doubly: you're less likely to win, and it's likely to hurt your strength of schedule. In fact, you should be viewed as a better team for it.
Mike: How would you suggest we change the system, then?
Tom: It's not that I particularly object to the current measure, since I think it does capture some of the actual variation in the real strength of schedule. You do play the same games as your divisional foes, so the Colts playing the Patriots and Steelers and the Jaguars (who would've tied the Colts at 9-7 if they'd won and the Colts lost Week 17) playing the Bills and Browns essentially is the difference in their schedules. If there was just a widespread acknowledgment of the limits as to the actual information in a team's strength of schedule calculation, I'd be fine with that.
Any tweaks I'd want to see would be too complicated for most people to like. I'd want a team's strength of schedule calculation to formally be the record of the two foes you play that your divisonal mates don't, as well as the intraconference record of the teams in the division in the opposite conference. That, in a nutshell, is the information you're getting already. It probably doesn't put enough emphasis on the quality of your division, but I can more or less live with that.
Mike: I just don't see what, exactly, that gets you compared to the current system. Sure, your data is slightly different, but does that actually give you better results? I don't really see how it would.
Tom: I think it helps capture more of the true differentiation in strength of schedule. I'm not saying it has more than a snowball's chance in heck of getting adopted, but that's the real variation in schedule.
Tom: Thank goodness for unimpressive first round playoff opponents. I put up my worst score in a few weeks, in a week where a number of teams in the league had good games, but I won anyway. Because, frankly, my opponent was not that great. The trio of Aaron Rodgers, Wes Welker, and LeSean McCoy all had great games, but my normally strong IDPs were not impressive.
Mike: It's really weird that you rely on the strength of your IDP. I imagine most of your league forgets that you're even playing IDP.
Tom: We do start 11 of them. I think it's kind of hard to forget. I should point out I won by 31 points. Over the course of the season, I averaged outscoring my opponent by 65. And I'm currently projected to win my next game by 54.
Mike: Woo, projections.
Mike: Only a lazy fool would ever do such a thing!
Tom: By winning that game, I finished eighth (of ten) and made the playoffs. I finished seventh in points, so I didn't end up with an undeserved fate.
Mike: Eight-team playoffs in a ten-team league is kind of insane, especially since it sounds like your championship is Week 17.
Tom: Well, I made the consolation bracket. Not the real playoffs.
Mike: That isn't the playoffs! Do not try and hide your shame from our readers!
Tom: I brainfarted, OK?
Mike: Yeah, sure.
Tom: Did you make the playoffs? Did you win?
Mike: I made the playoffs in both of my leagues. This week was the final regular-season game in one, although it's only a four-team playoff. Of course, it's an eight-team league, so four teams is somewhat standard.
Tom: Quite true.
Mike: I had commanded the top spot in the league for most of the year. In fact, since about Week 3. I fell from grace about four weeks ago, losing two in a row, but in the meantime I clawed my way back and finished the season with the top seed. Sadly, the third-place team put up more points than I expected, so I fell just short of the points crown.
Tom: Well, you're in the playoffs, and that's what really counts.
Mike: If you ever need to know anything about fantasy football, however, take this message to heart: The fourth seed is my friend Simon. He is from the Netherlands. He knows nothing about football. He joined because we needed an eighth, had Yahoo! auto-draft for him. He has defeated each of the other playoff teams once, including myself. I think that is a powerful message, really: Do not take this game very seriously.
Tom: After the mediocre job I did of predicting how the Titans-Saints game would go last Sunday, I am not surprised.
Mike: Of course, those who play a lot already know this. Heck, the first season of The League ended up with the clueless doctor winning the championship. But some people, for some strange reason, think that fantasy football success is a perfectly repeatable skill. It simply is not, which leads me to my other league. It features a fairly lame eight-team playoff in a ten-team league. After a nasty midseason tumble, I ended up with the sixth seed. The top seed was last year's champion, the eighth seed hasn't made it past the first round of the playoffs in the six years we've run this league. The eighth seed won, 166.54-160.04.
Tom: I hope Tim Tebow was involved.
Tom: So did you win?
Mike: I had the largest margin of victory in the league, 154.58-94.60. Third-highest points on the week, close behind the game I just mentioned. Jacksonville was a really, really good pick-up. 35.00 points, thanks to ... how many DST touchdowns? A ton.
Tom: With two D/ST scores? Oh yes. Apparently "giving up" trumps "ridiculously injured".
Mike: Yep. Of course, I have turned around and put in a waiver claim for Atlanta for this week, who are playing Jacksonville and Jackonsville's awful, awful offense. I have priority, so I'll get them. A defense seems like a silly thing to put a claim in for, but the rest of my team is solid, and it's a great matchup. Despite my success in this league, I am somewhat stuck.
Tom: How so?
Mike: I'm staring at my roster, and due to injuries to other players, I am seeing Steven Jackson and Jonathan Stewart. This is a deep league; we have two WR, two RB, W/T and R/W, plus eight bench spots.
Tom: Josh McDaniels did re-discover that the Rams employed Jackson and could give him carries in the red zone in the fourth quarter of Monday night's game. Unfortunately, the Rams are playing Cincinnati.
Tom: I'd guess Jones would be one of the beneficiaries of Greg Jennings' injury.
Mike: On one hand, I'm really not hot on Jackson or Stewart, but then again, I'm not really hot on any of my bench players at this point. Either Moore or Meachem could randomly have a huge game, but there is no way to tell. With Stewart, I'm basically hoping for vulture touchdowns, and as you said, Cincinatti's rushing defense is pretty good; 14th in the league by DVOA. I probably don't have any choice but to throw the dice with Jackson anyway, so I guess it's just between Stewart and Moore unless I wanted to get really, really cute and go with Gresham.
Tom: Gresham in my book is indeed too cute by half.
Mike: Although I'm still somewhat undecided between Gresham and Kellen Winslow for my tight end spot.
Tom: I had no idea St. Louis was tops in the league against tight ends.
Mike: Basically, my team is Drew Brees, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson, Ray Rice and then blaaaaaargh. And yes, St. Louis' tight end defense is really weird since the only other category they're above 20th place in is against No. 1 WRs, which doesn't bode too well for A.J. Green in my other league, but I think he's good enough to overcome that. Anyway, which of Stewart/Moore/Manningham/Jones?
Tom: I lean toward Jones.
Mike: There will be much mulling this week. It would be nice to take the trophy home again.
So, a funny thing happened in the first round of the FO Staff Playoffs: All the top seeds won. All three of them! Madness! Yes, our seedings are all messed up because Tom screwed up the bye week situation. Send all your complaints to him.
Discalculia Plus Ones (No. 1, Will, 8-2) 104 def. Edmonton Eulers (No. 8, Tanier, 4-5) 85
The top seed won in a landslide, which is always a sigh of relief for a standard seeding system. Of course, Tanier started Matt Forte and his mighty zero points. And, uh, Lance Ball? OK? Will didn't have a lot of firepower from any one player, but a great overall effort moved him on to the semis.
That's Great Hustle! (No. 2, Sean, 8-3) 92 def. Intentional Rounding (No. 7, Danny, 5-6) 86
This one was much closer, although the ideal scenario for Danny was only a one-point victory, so it was still a pretty sound defeat. Sean, meanwhile, left a total of 23 points on the board by benching Matt Ryan (11 more points than his starer), Aaron Hernandez (eight more) and Eagles DST (four more). Of course, nobody will ever criticize him for not starting the Eagles DST after the first half of the season.
Known Chumpsky (No. 3, Rivers, 6-5) 126 def. Equipo del Jefe (No. 6, Aaron, 5-6) 108
The new guy defeated the bossman. That's gotta be awkward. Fortunately, FO's equivalent of the water cooler is much more about weird tactical decisions and complaints about officiating than it is about office grudges, so he'll probably be OK. Rivers' team should also be OK, considering three of his players supplied 20 points or more each (Eli Manning with 22, Shonn Greene with 23 and Larry Fitzgerald with 20). His bench? Felix Jones, Andre Johnson (wishful thinking!) and Ryan Mathews. This team is dangerous.
Reverse Jinxes (No. 4, Elias, 6-5) 88 def. Los Pollos Hermanos (No. 5, Rob, 6-5) 88
Yes, you read that correctly. Two teams with the same record had consecutive seeding, and in their playoff matchup they scored the same number of points. No, I have no idea how this tie was resolved. All I know is that the Jinxes won, so yay for Elias?
Rather than mock a commercial this week, your Scramble writers decided to provide you with the most unusual musical accompaniment involving their local metropolis they could find. They believe this song wins that honor.
KICKER: O-lindo lower now. How low can he go? Well, 1 point isn't really that bad a Loser League score for Olindo Mare, but it's still the lowest for the week.
WIDE RECEIVER: Tom is grateful he's in a PPR league, as he earned more than Davone Bess's -1 Loser League score. At 1 point were Andre Caldwell, Harry Douglas, and Seattle Mike Williams.
RUNNING BACK: Tom would also like to note he had Ahmad Bradshaw and his 1 Loser League point on his other fantasy team. At 2 points were Beanie Wells, Donald Brown, Montario Hardesty, and Peyton Hillis.
QUARTERBACK: As bad as Christian Ponder was, he had two touchdowns, and those keep him out of last place. Instead, we're adding insult to injury for Matt Moore, who more than negated his touchdown with two fumbles and an interception for 2 points.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: Marion Barber.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: Beyond MB3, the Bears had great success playing a fairly aggressive man coverage scheme for roughly the first 55 minutes of Sunday's game before switching to a soft deep zone. Lovie Smith and/or Rod Marinelli, why? Why, why, why?
COLBERT AWARD: Can your Scramble writers really say something positive about Norv Turner? It looked like the game was starting to slip away from the Chargers, as a dominating first half and 16-0 lead had become a tight 16-10 game, but Eric Weddle audibled to a fake punt, the Chargers converted, took the ball down the field for a score, then picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick nine seconds later for a 30-10 lead. And all because Norv at least permitted Weddle's boldness. Go NOOOOOOOOORV!
Flores: Thanks so much for all your advice! I'm in the playoffs for my PPR league, and as usual, I can't make up my mind about anything. OK, I've made up my mind that I should play Wes Welker for WR and Darren Sproles for RB. I have no idea if Andre Johnson will play this week, so I'm guessing I'm pretty much compelled to play Julio Jones. For my other RB, as dysfunctional as the Rams are, Cincy isn't that good on run-D, so I'm guess S. Jackson should be my other RB. My flex is a disaster though. Santonio Holmes vs PHI, or Mike Tolbert vs. Ravens D both sound like awful choices. I'm praying desperately I get Felix Jones off of waivers for my flex, but if I don't, which of those? And if AJ by some miracle does play, should he play in place of any of the above choices?
For QB (yes, the Eli Manning vs. Ben Roethlisberger debate again), I'm thinking Eli since Ben might be hurt and SF's pass D is better (though only by a bit)? Finally for DEF, SEA vs CHI or CIN vs STL? SEA DEF is better and Chicago may potentially have no scorer besides Devin Hester depending on if Lovie Smith benches Marion Barber after his stupidity in the last game or not, though STL is about as bad at scoring.
There's also a (pretty crazy) IDP league I play in that has the following scoring for QBs: -.5 per incompletion, .5 per completion, 6 pts TDs (passing or rushing), 1 pt/20 yards, bonus points at 300/400 yards, 1 pt bonus for 40 yard completions and TDs, -.5 fumbles and an extra -2 if the fumble is lost. I drafted Philip Rivers and he's finally been doing decently the past few games...but this week he goes up against the Ravens D. Joe Flacco is the best QB available off of waivers (hurray, 20 person league!). Should I play Flacco over Rivers? Thanks again for all the help this season!
Mike: I'm not sure there is a universe in which you play Flacco over Rivers, especially with that weird scoring and in a game where Baltimore is going to be running with wild abandon.
Tom: A universe where we don't experience time unidirectionally and thus know with certainty which week Rivers is lousy and Flacco has a good fantasy game.
Mike: Fair enough.
Tom: Johnson isn't going to play this week, and I wouldn't trust him to play much even if by some improbability he is active. Double down on your Jones prayers, as with DeMarco Murray's injury I think he's a good play going forward.
Mike: Triple them, really, since your alternatives are Holmes and Tolbert. If you can't get Jones, though, I'd go with Tolbert and hope that San Diego pulls off the upset. (I will be hoping along with you.)
Tom: It's a coin-flip for me between Tolbert and Holmes. An ugly, tarnished coin. In your shoes, I'd probably play Tolbert but personally I would probably rather play Holmes just because I hate San Diego's use of Tolbert v. Ryan Mathews SO MUCH.
Mike: It's true. He's literally angry with rage.
Tom: I have no confidence Ben will be healthy. San Francisco has a good pass defense. Play Eli.
Mike: I'm going with Roethlisberger, actually. He'll be healthy enough, and Rashard Mendenhall is going absolutely nowhere on Monday night. The game will be in his hands. Of course, he only has to score, like, twice, but still, in his hands.
Tom: Well, I concur that Mendenhall is not going anywhere.
nick thunderdome: OK, I've got one for you guys. I've byed into the semis of my league basically on the strength of Arian Foster, Cam Newton, the 49ers DST, and carefully watching the waiver wire. If I'm going to win this week it isn't going to be any different.
Choice No. 1: which DST to play? The scoring in my league is such that limiting yards and points is what's most valuable (30 point baseline for a shutout with under 200 yards given up going down to -8 for giving up 36+ points and 450+ yards with the usual scoring for DST TD, sacks, safeties, and interceptions). I've got the 49ers on roster but don't love the match up they've got with the Steelers. Waiver wire options are the Cardinals vs CLE, Dolphins @ BUF and Lions @ OAK. The Saints @ MIN are also available but I wasn't really considering them.
Choice No. 2: Mario Manningham vs WAS or Eric Decker vs NE's pathetic secondary (this is moot if Andre Johnson doesn't play - I'll start both). Demaryius Thomas is also available on the waiver wire as is Donald Driver. .5 points per reception for WR.
Choice #3: My QB for the year has been Cam Newton but I've also got Tim Tebow on the bench. Cam Newton has a tough match up @ HOU while Tebow has a cake matchup vs NE. Scoring is 6 points per TD whether rushing, passing or receiving (hey, could be relevant - Newton has a 30+ yard reception on the year). As in most leagues, rushing yards count. Love the column and thanks in advance for the advice.
Mike: Wow, someone actually said they love the column.
Tom: I know, and I'm pretty sure nick isn't one of my relatives!
Mike: Anyway. Cardinals DST seems like the best option. Oakland has a bad but non-laughable offense, and Buffalo is definitely dangerous.
Tom: Carson Palmer has been making so many mistakes lately I'd be tempted by the Lions. The problem is if he suddenly stops throwing the ball to the other team, you might be sunk.
Mike: I don't think the Lions can generate enough pressure to force those errors out of Palmer.
Tom: I don't have that much confidence in the Raiders' offensive line, which has not been playing well of late. I like the Lions, but see them as a higher-risk proposition. I don't have much respect for Colt McCoy though, and thus would probably go with the Cardinals as an overall better choice.
Mike: At wideout, assuming that Johnson does not play, this is actually a tricky question. Manningham, against equal defenses, is a better option. Sure, he'll drop a touchdown, but he has a decent chance of also catching one. New England's secondary is just so bad, though.
Tom: I would rank Decker over Manningham myself. I also picked up Thomas off waivers for my good team and plan to play him. But that's over Davone Bess, whose name appears elsewhere in this week’s column.
Mike: Low bar.
Tom: And Jacquizz Rodgers, as well, who I did start on Shady's bye week. Yes, I would start Tebow this week over Newton.
Mike: Tebow is averaging about 17 points per week in a standard league with those scoring rules. Newton is averaging in the mid-20s. Plus, Tebow isn't torching secondaries; he's mixing runs and passes, even against Chicago. Denver's defense won't be able to stop New England's offense, and Bill Belichick isn't going to be stupid enough to shut down his defense (or tell Tom Brady and Wes Welker to cool their jets) when they have a lead. I just don't see Tebow outperforming Newton, even though I don't think Newton will be a world-beater.
Tom: I just think and see Dan Orlovsky throwing for a zillion yards, even if it's late in the game against particularly bad scrubs, and think Tebow will be pretty successful. And Newton's particularized extra value depends on rushing touchdowns, and even for good rushing QBs who get red zone carries, I can't trust that.
The final stretch! Send in your questions to scramble-at-footballoutsiders.com or our handy forum thread!
51 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2011, 1:09pm by Tom Gower