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.
07 Aug 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Welcome to another season of Scramble for the Ball with Tom and Mike.
Mike: As opposed to those other, inferior Scramble for the Balls. Ours is the only legitimate Scramble for the Ball. Do not listen to Jedd. He lies.
Tom: This is Scramble's 11th season, or one more season than each XFL team played regular season games.
Mike: Wait, Tom, wait.
Mike: How can we have 11 seasons of Scramble when Football Outsiders (my web browser helpfully tells me in graphical format) has only been a thing for ten years?
Tom: FO has 10 complete seasons and is entering its 11th season. It's like how you start your 11th year of life on your 10th birthday. Or how your youngest offspring is zero years old yet currently alive.
Mike: I don't know, Tom. This all reeks of dark arts and witchcraft. You know, "math."
Tom: Well, "math" is a four-letter word.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the tradition, Scramble kicks off in the preseason with a series of columns passing judgment on each NFL team by means of commentary on their Over/Unders. Over/Unders are courtesy of Bovada. Actual gambling on Over/Unders includes examination of odds. A team might be Over (+110) and Under (-140). Your Scramble writers do not care. We are passing judgment, not wagering money. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, your Scramble writers do not have actual money on any of their pseudo-bets.
Mike: If we did, we would probably be living in vans down by the river at this point.
Tom: Hey, I won several dollars off a co-worker in 2008 or 2009 when Rex Grossman failed to finish in the top five in passer rating among NFC quarterbacks. Don't tell me I couldn't have spent the past four years living on less than $10. Anyway, here goes.
Mike: I have no idea what FOA 2013’s Dallas 2013 joke is supposed to mean.
Tom: Yeah, I don't get it either, since I'm not seeing a quality wrapping around a crappy core. I like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter at linebacker. It feels weird to say this, but I'm relatively optimistic about their cornerback depth. Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware were both really productive pass rushers. Tony Romo is better than he gets credit for. Dez Bryant is now playing not like a knucklehead. So why don't I like this team more?
Mike: Because safety is still a mess, and you're worried that Ryan's schemes helped Dallas's pass rush play over its head? I also disagree about Romo. I think he is pretty mediocre but surrounded by good receiving talent, even if Miles Austin had a ho-hum year last year.
Tom: Actually, I was thinking the offensive line -- even with the drafting of Travis Frederick -- as well as an inability to make up for Romo's almost inevitable mistake, and "I watched Monte Kiffin's USC defense last year." But, yeah, the safeties too.
Mike: You really think the offensive line is a major concern?
Tom: Tyron Smith is good. The rest of the line is meh at best. And I coined the Grief Per Error metric in Week 17 Audibles last year when Romo seemingly got blamed for both (a) throwing a ghastly pick and (b) the injury-wracked defense's inability to stop the Redskins rushing attack. Anyway, I thought the Cowboys were basically a .500 team last year, and I don't see how they got better in the offseason. Under.
Mike: I agree that Smith is exceptional, but I think the only truly bad player on their line is Doug Free, who hasn't been the same since taking that medicine ball to the face. I think the team is probably actually regressing a bit, so 8-8 even is optimistic. Under.
Mike: I actually ran into a fun stat regarding the New York Baseball Giants during a series between the Pirates and the Cardinals this past week. Everyone simply referred to them as the New York Giants, however. I was quite confused, as you can imagine. All those years of Big Apple pedantry finally make sense!
Tom: Fascinating. I really like the tagline in the Giants chapter, emphasizing the at-times capricious nature of the NFL and its postseason.
Mike: Yes. It takes a lot of luck and good fortune to get in, much less win in, the postseason. Which makes you wonder why the Giants did not retain the Black Unicorn.
Tom: He just wandered down Route 1 to Charm City for a season. He's guaranteed to wander his way back to E. Rutherford to attend the Super Bowl, so maybe the Giants will pick him back up. Then again, what made the Giants good was a couple high-variance, high-upside skills.
Mike: ...He's playing for the Bears now.
Tom: Oh. You were talking about Martellus Bennett.
Mike: Wait, you thought I meant an actual black unicorn? Next thing you'll be confessing that you're really a brony.
Tom: I thought you were using it as a metaphor for why John Harbaugh's [stuff] suddenly worked in the playoffs.
Mike: No, just felt like highlighting the only great self-conferred nickname in history.
Tom: I feel like there's an obvious counterexample to your bold statement, but it's not coming to me right now.
Mike: I'm sure the readers will come up with something. Anyway, the story of the Giants is the story of their defense. In particular, their pass rush.
Tom: And if we're lucky, Buzzfeed will turn it into a listicle. But, yes, the pass rush is what I was getting to. The days of the Four Aces are gone. Instead, the defense was too reliant on Jason Pierre-Paul, who was great in 2011, not so much so in 2012.
Mike: Serious problems getting to the quarterback led to a better team finishing with the same record, as opposing quarterbacks honestly had all day to make the secondary pay.
Mike: I think Pierre-Paul's struggles are tied closely to that over-reliance. If I am correct, then it will be very difficult for the pass rush to bounce back, and once again the vulnerable secondary will be exposed.
Tom: Fortunately, the linebackers will be able to cover ... oh, wait. The Giants seemingly value getting quality linebackers even less than I do, something I didn't expect from an NFL team, and played less Big Nickel last year than they did in the past. Eli Manning's a nice quarterback, but I can't see this team winning 10 games in what should be a competitive NFC East. Under.
Mike: Honestly, I would like the continuity of another 9-7 season. That said, pushes are for losers, so I'm going to stake my prediction on the continued defensive decline and say under.
Tom: I'll add my voice to the consensus: I'm fascinated to see what Chip Kelly does with the Eagles this year.
Mike: I'm reflexively anti-anything related to college football.
Tom: Between the college-to-pros transition, his hurry-up style, and a ground-based rushing attack, there's a lot to look for.
Mike: I have always disliked constantly uptempo offensive teams, dating back to Indianapolis. It's a great strategy and it exploits real weaknesses in defensive roster construction, but it has always felt cheap. Now that the current master of said scheme is in the NFL, I look on with a mix of glee and dread.
Tom: Only Indianapolis? At least your team didn't have heart-breaking losses to the K-Gun Bills.
Mike: Well, the Steelers weren't very good in those days.
Tom: There's also nothing worse than a bad up-tempo team, and I don't know if the Eagles will be good. If Chip Kelly tries to run the Oregon offense, I'm pretty sure they won't be.
Mike: I'm not sure any offense could function properly with Philadelphia's quarterbacks.
Tom: I think you could figure something out. I just wouldn't like it that much.
Mike: A LeSean McCoy resurgence would be genuinely exciting. I have more fun watching him than any back since Barry Sanders retired. The secondary looks to be even worse than last year, however. If such a thing is possible.
Tom: I'll leave that one as another challenge for the readers, though I have to immediately note Marshall Faulk's versatility as a receiver. Watching him on the Greatest Show on Turf Rams was phenomenal. Also, Bryce Brown is good, though also (insert Obligatory Stop Fumbling So Much Note).
Mike: He was quite exciting, although I think McCoy is a more exciting pure runner. And he is going to have to be so exciting in a similar fashion, because lord knows there won't be anyone throwing him the ball. Well, I guess someone will literally be throwing a football in his general direction, but you see where I'm going with this.
Tom: Indeed. My bigger concern may be the defense. I don't get the switch to the 3-4. I don't get the secondary.
Mike: Switching to the 3-4 was really fashionable 5 years ago. I'm not saying that Philadelphia is a half-decade behind trends, but they likely signed Michael Vick after playing a lot of Madden 04. I'm just saying.
Tom: Switching to the 3-4 made some sense when not many teams were running the 3-4 and there was a relative surplus of players who fit the 3-4. The Eagles' surplus was of 4-3 defensive ends, probably about all of whom will see their responsibilities change. I feel like FO has spent a lot of time beating up on Cary Williams, but so has everybody else thanks to his interesting priorities this offseason and at least we're beating him up because he wasn't that good in coverage last year.
Mike: I think we'll have ample opportunity to beat up on all of them. I just can't call this a winning team. Or a .500 team, even. Under.
Tom: Kelly could prove to be a miracle-worker. I thnk he'll need to be to hit the over. Under for me as well.
Mike: I thought Robert Griffin wouldn't be effective. We were both quite wrong.
Tom: We were. I thought Griffin was a good enough passer to be reasonably effective, but he was better than I thought he was.
Mike: I was probably more wrong. Mea culpa.
Tom: Ryan Kerrigan had a boatload of hurries, and the defense ended up average. That was good enough. And being wrong is an inevitable consequence of attempting to predict interesting things about the future. I can live with being wrong.
Mike: I tend to pride myself on being right (preseason predictions notwithstanding), so being that wrong stings a bit. But as you say, that's where the fun is.
Tom: Hey, I like being right too. I just know my first name isn't "Always."
Mike: So, how will I be wrong about the Redskins this year? I'm stupidly going to say Griffin will be less effective. A combination of opponents having a year of tape and whatever small amount of self-preservation is left in his skull will weigh him down, and he's going to be playing with slightly less gas. Hopefully he'll last.
Tom: Despite the vile imprecations we hurled towards Shanahan's player management in January, RG3 is on track to start Week 1. I can easily see him being less effective, but he was so darn good last year that even if he's "just" a pocket passer, I think he can be very effective.
Tom: And while we may think Alfred Morris' success was partly a product of the offensive scheme, it wasn't all just teams overreacting to the threat of RG3. He ran hard, and the line that blocked reasonably well for him returns intact in 2013; always an important factor in zone schemes that benefit from continuity. The offense should continue to be good. The defense gets its best player back. The Redskins were not particularly lucky to go 10-6. Over.
Mike: I worry about Griffin's durability, but they are good in ways that exploit weaknesses in their division, and their own weaknesses match up well against this division. Over.
Tom: Nobody other than Bills fans cares about the Bills. FOA 2013 says 6.9, which is more than 6.5. Over. Next team.
Mike: Hey, now. There are surely some Canadians who care. And the five people left in Buffalo. Although I will note that, on the subject of FOA 2013, the phrase "K-gun offense led by Trent Edwards" never fails to start me giggling.
Tom: Importantly, Dave Wannstedt is not one of them. Or at least, I'm assuming he moved away when the Bills fired him.
Mike: You never know with Wannstedt. Lock your doors. Hide your children.
Tom: That said, I'm not sure a Rex Ryan disciple like Mike Pettine fits Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, both of whom were better penetrating than they were against the run. Stephon Gilmore should be better in his second season, but he's not perfect. Who knows when Jairus Byrd will show up, though past history suggests his ETA may be "30 minutes before this column goes up." The linebackers last year were somewhere between anodyne and ineffective, and I don't trust Kiko Alonso to solve every problem there. Wannstedt's unit may have felt like it was less than the sum of its parts, but I don't think highly of the sum of the parts here.
Mike: I don't know, I think I'm higher on the defensive front seven than you are. And that is ... basically the only nice thing I have to say about the Bills. I think they're on the mend, but that's an issue for 2014. Under.
Tom: I understand why the Dolphins were reluctant to pay Jake Long, even with all the money they dished out this offseason. I'm not basing this just off the Hall of Fame game, but What I saw Sunday night is the same thing that's reportedly been happening in Dolphins camp, which was the same thing I thought based on what happened at right tackle last year, and the same thing I thought based on his tape at Stanford: Jonathan Martin is not good enough to be a starting left tackle in the NFL. As much as I like Ryan Tannehill and Lamar Miller and what Mike Wallace adds to the offense (though not really the price they paid to get him), a glaring weakness like that is enough to get me off a bandwagon I kind of like but don't love.
Mike: I disagree with you to some extent. I don't think the Dolphins' offensive line is made of world-beaters, but they should put Tannehill in position to be effective. As effective as he can be, at least. My concern is that they use that improvement as an excuse to just throw bombs to shiny new toy Wallace all day.
Tom: Are you arguing that's a bad idea in general, bad because of Martin, or what?
Mike: I think it's a bad idea in general, regardless of Martin's stock. Though I do hold him in somewhat higher esteem than you estimate him.
Tom: When Wallace topped the league in DYAR and DVOA in 2010, 27 percent of his targets were bombs.
Mike: Yes, his breakout season with an elite quarterback. Now he's the only weapon in the offense, paired with Tannehill. These are vastly different situations and everyone is going to be staring at Wallace every play.
Tom: Tannehill actually has pocket presence and can throw with anticipation, though. Many rookies (and other) quarterbacks don't have either.
Mike: I'm not going to trash Tannehill. He's young and has potential. But potential doesn't win games now and the dearth of skill position talent the Dolphins have worries me.
Tom: I think Miami has the same problem on the defensive side of the ball that they do on the offense. I like Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, and think Dion Jordan could be really good. But I like the individual pieces more than the sum. After two seasons of injury, I don't trust Brent Grimes to stay healthy. Richard Marshall is another old corner coming off injury.
Mike: As far as the defense, I am actually fairly optimistic.
Tom: I need to update my evaluation of Reshad Jones to figure out if they contract they just gave him was just a lot or too much.
Mike: I like the addition of Dannell Ellerbe in particular.
Tom: See, I was about to mention I think he's okay, but they paid him like a game-changer. I didn't see that.
Mike: The Dolphins have the cap space and they needed a guy with Ellerbe's all-around skillset as they retool the defense. I think he'll provide a fantastic anchor and (most importantly) lift the pass rush from the linebackers. I like their defense, even with the high turnover this offseason. I like it enough to think that even with a mostly-contained Wallace this team is finally going places. Over.
Tom: Ah, we finally disagree. I like them, but not enough to say they'll get 9 wins. Under.
Mike: I am extremely excited for Tim Tebow, Starting Tight End.
Tom: I don't want to talk about T** T**** any more than I want to talk about B**** F****.
Mike: Too bad! Unfortunate injuries to New England tight ends and former associates of New England tight ends have brought us to this sad point.
Tom: Without Rob Gronkowski, this is a modest, not to say motley, collection of targets for Tom Brady. It rivals 2006, when the Patriots went 12-4 splitting carries between a veteran Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney. Stevan Ridley is better than them. The offensive line is good, particularly at tackle. Brady is probably a better quarterback than he was then. Granted, the defense that year was seventh in DVOA, but they were coming off a season where they ranked 27th. The defense was 15th by DVOA last year. I think they can be better than that this year. Sooner or later all those defensive draft picks have to hit out of sheer luck, right? Right?
Mike: Ask the Rams about that.
Tom: You mean the Rams who finished seventh in defensive DVOA last year, or the 2001 Rams who drafted three defensive players in the first round, finished fifth in DVOA, and made the Super Bowl?
Mike: I was mostly referring to all those years in between.
Tom: Oh, well, yeah, those. Rams fans try not to think about most of those years too much.
Mike: I doubt this Patriots team will improve much on last year's squad. Not much has changed and I think that last year's squad played somewhat over their heads. Mike Wallace will be problematic for New England this year, since they don't have the tools to focus their attention and shut him down (in the fashion discussed in the Bills section).
Tom: I agree that the Patriots probably won't improve much on last year's squad. But they've been so good for so long. 2009 was the last season they didn't win at least 11 games, and even then they had 11.7 Pythagorean Wins and 11.2 Estimated Wins.
Mike: So this year's Patriots look a lot like last year's Patriots, but in a division with more upside than last year and without two of its major weapons. I think they win the East, but I definitely can't predict 12 wins. And, again, since pushes are stupid and lame, I'm going with under.
Tom: This team has earned the benefit of the doubt for me. I know the AFC North and NFC South aren't pushovers, but I'm still going over.
Tom: And we come to the perennial question: Just how much will the Jets struggle on offense this year? The last time the Jets ranked in the top half of the league in passing offense DVOA was 2006. The thing about the Jets is we have to determine just what gradation of "they'll be bad on offense" will apply. If they're really awful, they won't win many games. If they're just garden-variety bad, they could push for a playoff spot. (Maybe.)
Mike: This is easy. In fact, it could be the world's easiest Choose Your Own Adventure.:
"You are the coach of a struggling New York football franchise. You have sufficient talent to be a run-first team with a dash of short passing. All you need is a quarterback. Mark Sanchez beckons from the distance, telling you that he's ready to take the next step. If you give him the starting job, turn to page 5."
Page 5 is just a picture of rocks falling on a team jet and everyone dying. Do not turn to page 5.
Tom: "If you give the starting job to the drafted rookie instead, turn to page 7."
"With a collection of backs and receivers that are so distinguished general manager John Idzik spends sleepless nights wondering if he shouldn't just cut them all and replace them with people found on the street. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks."
"There's another Vince Papale out there. He couldn't be worse than Braylon Edwards, could he?"
Mike: John Idzik handing contracts to hobos and developing a severe aversion to feet.
Tom: "Financing employment is down since 2008. Lots of them used to be collegiate athletes. I wonder if any of them can play running back. Sure, they're not used to the rigors of playing football, but they couldn't get hurt as often as Chris Ivory."
Mike: We have now written the wordiest Choose Your Own Adventure in history.
Tom: Mike, we may have written the only FO columns in history to break 10,000 words, and we've done it multiple times. We're wordy. I accept this.
Mike: And since he doesn't pay us by the word, so has Dear Leader Schatz. Anyway, that's a rather roundabout way of saying that the Jets offense is going to be really bad. Again.
Tom: Sure, they'll probably be pretty bad. But if they're not foot-shootingly bad, I can see them going 7-9. Over.
Mike: I think the defense is scary enough for them to put up a fight. Seven wins is easy. Over.
56 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2014, 4:23am by jordan espa