Any team can win the Super Bowl in any given year. What would it look like for the league's worst team to somehow win it?
25 Sep 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: So, Mike, you may have heard this already, but there was a real, honest-to-goodness trade in the NFL last week.
Mike: I was completely floored. In-season trades are incredibly rare in the NFL, particularly trades involving real talent.
Tom: I know. What does Ryan Grigson think this is, baseball?!? It was actually Grigson's second major player-for-pick deal in as many years as general manager, though 2012's Vontae Davis came in the preseason rather than after the team played actual games. Let's put the Davis deal aside, at least for a while.
Mike: This deal, and its rarity, got your Scramble writers wondering how it stacks up next to other in-season NFL trades.
Tom: I didn't read much of the general Trent Richardson trade coverage, admittedly, but it was only three years ago when a recent first-round running back selection was traded from one team to another during the season.
Mike: I think most of the general Richardson trade coverage was "Holy crap, there was an actual trade!" I don't think you missed that much.
Tom: Truly. Not only that, "There was an actual trade involving a famous player!" Will Witherspoon was a pretty useful player. When the Rams traded him to the Eagles for a rookie wide receiver by the name of Brandon Gibson and a fifth-round pick, we learned Witherspoon was not a name that resonated with a broad portion of the football audience.
That other former first-round running back involved in a trade was his team's lead back his first two seasons, but lost his job in his third season to an older player who'd joined the team as an undrafted free agent the same season he was a first-round pick.
Mike: Let's have a look at a few pre-trade numbers for the players involved.
Tom: It was no surprise the team was interested in parting with the former first-rounder, as he ranked 46th (of 50) with a DVOA of -18.8% that third season, while the man they made their lead back instead ranked a much better 24th, a DVOA of 1.5%. The new lead back also ranked third in receiving DYAR and eighth in receiving DVOA, while the first-rounder ranked 50th (of 52) in both categories. The team then spent their first-round pick, a top-ten selection, on yet another running back the next season, and that former first-rounder was available for the asking.
On October 5, 2010, the Seattle Seahawks sent the Buffalo Bills a 2011 fourth-round pick and a conditional 2012 pick and acquired Marshawn Lynch.
Mike: It wasn't just Lynch's third season that was disappointing, however. Running backs are expected to be immediate impact players from their rookie season, and Lynch was anything but, ranking 33rd and 29th in the league by DVOA in his first and second seasons, respectively.
Tom: True, and Fred Jackson, in a modest sample size in 2007 and a bigger one in 2008, posted better -- though still not great -- numbers. Still, that 2008 performance was enough for the Bills to flip a 2:1 Lynch/Jackson split into a 2:1 Jackson/Lynch one the next season. Exactly why they drafted C.J. Spiller with the ninth pick in 2010 was a bit of a mystery, but they did.
Mike: This trade's raison d'etre was Buffalo's desire to unload an unnecessary and troublesome player they viewed as a bust, perhaps with good reason.
Tom: And of course, Lynch has continued to be a total bust. I mean he's finished second in DYAR the past two seasons. Can't he even trouble himself to finish first?
Mike: Looking just at his pre-trade numbers, Lynch was near the bottom of the league in DVOA, while the Bills featured a fairly competent offensive line, finishing 12th and 14th by ALY in his last two years. Buffalo found itself in a situation where it could get some value from a player who was underperforming in their system, so they jumped at the chance. Seattle, in the meantime, was in the process of overhauling their entire offense after a period of post-Matt Hasselbeck listless mediocrity. With too many holes, the Seahawks were willing to take a chance that Lynch was a good back but a poor fit in his current environment, analysis frequently applied to baseball players but rare to see in an NFL context. I find that surprising, considering football's greater dependence on both other players and playbook scheme.
Anyway, the risk was relatively low, and the pain turned out to be a 2011 fourth-round pick and a 2012 fifth-round pick, spent on Chris Hairston and Tank Carder, respectively. On one hand, Seattle clearly got the better of the deal. Lynch turned out to only need a change of scenery to mature into an elite tailback, and was right in place to benefit when Seattle's offensive line took a huge leap forward.
Tom: I'm not sure we should privilege too much that the picks were spent on Hairston and Carder as opposed to finding better values. Rather, the price was a rightly modest one. Fourth- and fifth-round picks are a useful part of building a complete roster in the days of the salary cap, but few of them end up as key building blocks.
Mike: True, and that's really the main thing we need to take away from this trade: Lynch was terrible in Buffalo, in a set of circumstances reasonably conductive to an elite back finding success. So while Seattle clearly "won," Buffalo didn't "lose." They added some useful bit players in exchange for a player who could not fit in their offense.
Tom: I think "circumstances reasonably conducive" to success includes better quarterbacking than Trent Edwards ever provided, but I concur with your basic point.
Unfortunately, that's about the only major in-season running back trade of recent years. If you're willing to go back a little further in time, there are some other interesting deals. The (in)famous Herschel Walker deal in 1989 was another deal that happened during the season. That trade is both known and has been discussed enough that I do not think there is anything we can add to it. If you go back two more years, you see one of the more fun trades in NFL history.
Complicated multi-team deals rarely happen; there are too many moving parts that you have to put together, and it's hard enough to put together a deal between two teams for one player and a pick or three. The 1987 Bills-Colts-Rams Eric Dickerson trade was something else. Dickerson then occupied more or less the same stature Adrian Peterson does currently. For his services, the Rams got three first-round picks and three second round-picks over the next two drafts, plus a running back from each team. Cornelius Bennett, the second overall pick in that 1987 draft and still a holdout on Halloween, went from Indianapolis to Buffalo.
Mike: The running backs sent to the Rams were Greg Bell from Buffalo and Owen Gill from Indianapolis. The number one picks in 1988 were spent on Gaston Green and Aaron Cox, with the 1988 second-round pick used to draft Fred Strickland. The sole first-round 1989 pick was spend on Cleveland Gary, while the second-rounders were used on Frank Stams and Darryl Henley. This trade had the bizarre result of a team trading one running back for, in the end, four running backs (Bell, Gill, Green and Gary).
Tom: Gill was an interesting story, a fullback chosen in the second round by Seattle in 1985 who didn't make the team out of training camp. The Colts picked him up, but one game with the Rams in 1987 ended up being the entirety of his post-trade time in the league. I hope that contract that led his agent to declare Seattle was "the new Cadillacs in the business" was guaranteed.
Mike: This trade is interesting because in theory, the Rams made out like bandits.
Mike: Yes, they offloaded one of the best running backs in history, but the sheer quantity of draft picks they pulled for a player with a significant but not overwhelming three elite years left is staggering. The problem is that the Rams wasted almost all of these picks on busts and role players.
Tom: Playing the "Why'd they draft X when they could have drafted Y" game is somewhere between dangerous and foolhardy, but it's hard not to, looking back at what the Rams did with their picks. Of course, the Rams were far from the only team back then drafting running backs like they were going out of style.
Mike: The post-Dickerson core of the team with Jim Everett and Henry Ellard was strong enough for playoff pushes in the two years after Dickerson's departure, but the defense collapsed and the offense followed behind when those picks, plus the team's own, somehow could not replenish talent on a former perennial contender.
Tom: Bell wasn't a bad player, finishing sixth in DYAR in 1989 (the earliest year for which we currently have advanced stats), but for whatever reason the Rams collapsed the next season. The 2013 Colts only gave up a first-round pick, but in today's NFL I almost think a smart first-round pick is as valuable as all those picks sent for Dickerson when I look at how teams drafted and remember there was no salary cap, so teams willing to spend could accumulate talent.
Mike: I think both of these trades are instructive when looking at the Richardson trade. Richardson, like Lynch, was a high pick, third in the 2012 draft. Like Lynch, he was expected to make an immediate impact, although Cleveland's offensive line was solidly below average in the running game that year. In the end, Richardson has similarly poor numbers to Lynch's rookie year. The key difference, to my mind, is that the Browns shipped Richardson out after one year, whereas Buffalo ran the Marshawn Lynch Experiment for three, which seems far more reasonable. On the other hand, trading those two years away ensured that the Browns received good value for Richardson, unlike Buffalo's haul for Lynch.
Tom: Yet, I think that's the way of the current NFL. We've been in an age with a lot of turnover, including the pretty annual worst-to-first transition. Deciding on players quickly is the newest thing. Dickerson was a much more experienced player than Richardson, playing in a great situation. Heck, while researching Gill for this piece, I found a note where in 1985 Dickerson was in a secure enough position he was trying to negotiate against the risk of a major injury.
Mike: The Dickerson trade is the precedent that worries me. Less Dickerson, perhaps, and more the Rams organization that blew a ton of extra draft picks and still fell apart. Nothing about the Browns gives me confidence they can use these high-value picks effectively, much less evaluate talent with the celerity and certainty you believe is now required in the NFL.
Tom: Cleveland's brain trust of Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi made a bet on their own ability to draft good players. Jimmy Johnson won that bet. The Rams did not.
QUARTERBACK: Your Scramble writers are absolutely positive that every Loser League team that did not have Eli Manning of 4 points this week could console themselves they instead had runner-up Colin Kaepernick and his 5 points. Right? ... Right?
RUNNING BACK: C.J. Spiller would like to express his opinion of the manifest unfairness that his 10 total yards of offense only gave him 0 Loser League points instead of the 1 he clearly deserved. That was three points clear of Stevan Ridley, Ben Tate, Christine Michael, David Wilson, Rashard Mendenhall, and Knowshon Moreno, most or all of whom probably were also drafted in your fantasy league.
WIDE RECEIVER: Roddy White, Vincent Brown, Greg Little, Kyle Williams, Josh Morgan, and T.Y. Hilton each had 1 point without fumbling.
KICKER: Your Scramble writers wondered where Mike Nugent's -3 points ranked among the worst Loser League score by a kicker who made at least four kicks in that game. Running a simple P-F-R query, it seems likely Nugent has the worst such score since Kris Brown matched Nugent by going four of five on extra points and missed two field goals, not just one, in Houston's 2009 season finale against New England, a game perhaps better remembered for Wes Welker getting hurt.
You can check out the score for your Loser League team here.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: The transition from potential hero to goat in the NFL can be a sudden one. Forced into action by injury, Green Bay Packers running back Jonathan Franklin scored a leaping touchdown as the Packers rallied from a 14-0 deficit to a 30-14 lead. With the Packers clinging to a 30-27 lead with four minutes to play, Mike McCarthy correctly elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Cincinnati 30. Franklin got the handoff, fumbled, and Terence Newman ended up returning the ball for what proved to be the game-winning score.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: One of your Scramble writers covered Chuck Pagano's unthinking decision to kick the extra point up 19-7 in Any Given Sunday, so we will not belabor the point here. Rather, we will emphasize a theme we have contemplated before in this space: that there comes a time and a place where benching an effective running back after a fumble goes from a sensible precaution to hurting your team. Perhaps Mike Tomlin actually has a coherent theory of justice that explains why his reaction to a running back fumble is almost always to bench said back, even if the new back is much less effective. If he does, your Scramble writers would love to know what in fact that theory of justice is.
Tom: Congratulations, Mike. You correctly picked the Bears to cover the spread.
Mike: If only cool, detached, faux-gambler Mike and Steelers fan Mike could coexist in some form.
Tom: You are now 2-0 on the year, while I am a dismal 0-1-1 as I picked a Falcons-Dolphins game that I grew to consider a much more interesting matchup than I did when I made my call last Tuesday evening. As a reminder, all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks are made without reference to FO's Premium picks.
Mike: I told a reader in an unpublished mailbag response last week, Miami's offense is going to sneak up on people this year.
Mike: The line that really pops out at me, since this is a very Browns-centric edition of Scramble for the Ball, is Bengals at Browns. The Bengals are fresh off a heady victory in which their defense neutralized the best offense in the league, despite the Bengals offense constantly coughing the ball up on their own side of the field.
Tom: Are you indicating you don't think last week's win against the Vikings was a sign the Browns are going 8-8?
Mike: I don't think any win against the Vikings counts for much this year.
Tom: Excellent job of anticipatorily downplaying this weekend's forthcoming Steelers win in London, by the way.
Mike: Definitely not engaging on that.
Tom: Too bad.
Mike: The Bengals offense did eventually come around and abuse Green Bay's rather inept defense, winning a tense game between two of the league's best teams. To give less than two field goals to the Browns, even at home, seems insane to me. Cincinnati Bengals -5.5 at Cleveland Browns.
Tom: I meant what I said about this week's forthcoming Steelers win. Analytically, looking at what the two teams have done this year the line makes sense. Looking at what I think they can do, I think the Steelers have a better, more talented passing game. As long as they avoid the plethora of turnovers that plagued them Sunday night, I think they get their first win of the year on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean. Pittsburgh Steelers -1.5 at Minnesota Vikings in London.
Bill: Wither C.J. Spiller? KUBIAK (and other places) had him as a first-round pick, but Fred Jackson keeps getting carries and now he's injured. Should I try to see what I can get for him, or will he bounce back and be the kind of player you projected him to be?
Mike: Personally, I'm not sold on Spiller, and never really was. Buffalo's line isn't fantastic, and they're starting a nobody at quarterback. He's still relatively unknown, it's early in the season, but I'm pretty sure things aren't looking great going forward. Cash in on that high projection now.
Tom: It's hard to disclaim his actual 2012 projection, but Like Mike, I was a bit skeptical, too skeptical to take him at his ADP. Fred Jackson is one of those players I won't discount until he actually stops producing, whether that means getting hurt or finally hitting major age-related decline. If you can find somebody who believes in Spiller, make the move.
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