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 Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: So, Mike, we have completed the first half of the Loser League season. And we have a perfect result!
Mike: I wasn't aware we even had a metric for measuring results.
Tom: The team given the moniker Bottom Feeders finished in last place.
Mike: The sad thing is, that is the opposite of the perfect result, since a team full of bottom feeders in the Loser League should, in fact, win the competition.
Tom: I was curious if this was a sort of fake Loser League team, with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers at QB, Adrian Peterson at RB, and that sort of thing. Instead, no, it looks like a completely legitimate attempt to construct a bad team, just one that didn't go well. I think I'm actually more impressed by that than our winner. Congratulations for the best Loser go to BabarsHouse, by Yifan of San Francisco, CA. You can check out the full results here.
Mike: Mason Crosby? Really?
Tom: Crosby missed a ton of kicks last season.
Mike: True, but he's also on what until recently was an extremely high-powered offense.
Tom: It was a bit of a speculative call, sure, but as in fantasy sometimes taking a risk pays off big in Loser League.
Mike: I suppose so.
Tom: In last season's first half Loser League, Crosby was in fact the lowest-scoring kicker.
Mike: Turning to our winner, I approve of any team featuring Yo Gabba Blaine Gabbert.
Tom: You were probably not surprised to be reminded Gabbert was also the lowest-scoring quarterback the first half of last year as well.
Mike: I don't think Blaine Gabbert is surprising anyone.
Tom: Especially now, since he seems to have permanently lost the starting job to Chad Henne.
Mike: Robbie Gould is another player that I wouldn't expect to see on a loser league team. He's been a model of consistency for the past few years. The rest of the team is a bunch of extremely predictable losers, however. Which somewhat puts to lie your theory of taking risks on players with potential upside.
Tom: True. In fact, neither Gould nor Caleb Sturgis has particularly struggled this season. They've more or less switched back and forth between which one has struggled (in terms of Loser League points) in any given week, though, an example of that luck I was talking about. I think kicker and quarterback are the positions where you can take a risk on a player. It's key in Loser League to have the right running backs and wide receivers, because otherwise a random touchdown or big day by an otherwise not very good player can blow up your team. See, for instance, Riley Cooper's 32 points this past Sunday. That from a player who otherwise this year had been an acceptable Loser League choice, four times putting up either 1 or 2 points while only once getting the penalty.
Mike: True. And that is why we watch them play the game! Poorly!
Tom: Yes. But it's also our job to help our readers figure out the right worst players to pick.
Mike: And why I feel eternally sad for the poor readers.
(Click here to pick your Loser League team for Weeks 10-17.)
Mike: Sadly, Gabbert is not an option in the second half.
Tom: Alex Smith was the low scorer in Week 9 with 6 points, but he does not seem like the best quarterback to pick for the second half. Quarterback for me is the toughest position. In the first half, there was no particularly good choice, as low man Gabbert only had three games under the penalty amount. That suggests you might be best off taking a player like Matt Barkley, who seems unlikely to draw regular snaps. The better strategy, though, seems likely to be taking two not very good quarterbacks and hoping at least one of them is in single digits in a given week. The low scorer in the first half of the season with no job security questions was Carson Palmer. As an immobile quarterback behind a bad offensive line, I think he's probably a good option. The ideal complement for him would be a quarterback who gives you the same sort of second half nosedive Mark Sanchez and Brady Quinn had last year. Unfortunately, I don't see any great candidates for that this year. Terrelle Pryor is too mobile and will accumulate too many yards on the ground. Maybe E.J. Manuel, now that he's been cleared to practice. Geno Smith has mixed awful games with some good ones.
Mike: Yes, the players that are performing poorly, like Joe Flacco and Alex Smith, are actually having decent fantasy years.
Tom: Eli Manning is actually the second-lowest scorer of the first half with no job security issues (Gabbert 105, Josh Freeman 110, Palmer 116, Jeff Tuel 122, Eli 125).
Mike: The problem with Manning is that he has something resembling a functional offense around him. I'm not sure we can predict Manning to not have a number of good-but-not great games in the second half, which is death to Loser League teams.
Tom: Yup. One player it might be worth taking a risk on is Case Keenum. Except he has been much more willing than Matt Schaub was to pull the trigger on deep throws.
Mike: Indeed, as Andre Johnson's 45-point week will attest to.
Tom: And one 40-yard TD can kind of wreck a Loser League day.
Mike: Back to Manning, the highest-ranked receiver on the New York Football Giants is Victor Cruz, who has only four touchdowns but good yardage and DYAR. Stevie Johnson has one fewer touchdown, a bit over half as many yards, and is 56th in DYAR. That is Manuel's best weapon.
Tom: I don't think the quality difference between Cruz and Johnson is as great as the numbers suggest, though that's a hard thing to measure. More importantly, though, it suggests the Giants have a better passing offense than the Bills. I don't think you want to pick Eli for your Loser League team, mediocre first half notwithstanding.
Mike: I think my picks are E.J. Manuel and Carson Palmer.
Tom: I'll go with Palmer and a guy we haven't brought up, at least directly, in Chad Henne. Unlike Gabbert, he'll pull the trigger on deeper throws, but he's throw a lot of short passes this year, plays for a bad team, and will throw interceptions because he will pull the trigger.
Tom: The low men in Week 9 were Bilal Powell with 2 points and a trio of 3-point scorers in Ray Rice, Daniel Thomas, and Robert Turbin. I swear we did not make this up, but your first-half low scorer was Trent Richardson with 66 points. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was next with 69, Maurice Jones-Drew and Bilal Powell had 70, Rashard Mendahall had 76, and Montee Ball had 79.
Mike: I seriously have no idea what is going on with Richardson. I kept thinking he was going to spend the year showing flashes of Emmitt Smith.
Tom: By "Emmitt Smith," you did not mean "Smith in Arizona."
Mike: Indeed, instead he seems to have flashed in the pan.
Tom: I assume you read Ben Muth's breakdown of what he's seeing from Richardson.
Mike: I have, yes. It all feeds into the pool of Greater Colts Mistrust.
Tom: I was curious about running backs in general, since looking at last year's results there didn't seem to be that strong an effect from the first half to the second half. The very worst backs the first half weren't the same as the worst backs the second half, necessarily. So I ran the numbers from last year. And among the 71 backs who were eligible for both halves of Loser League, the correlation coefficient for scores was .42.
Mike: That seems to hold in general for receivers as well.
Tom: I would have expected it to hold true for receivers.
Mike: Probably because of the randomness inherent in Loser League scoring for those positions.
Tom: I would have thought backs would be more consistent, since at least there teams can control usage and roles more tightly.
Mike: Yes, but the rule of the day in the modern NFL is running back by committee.
Tom: Sure, but I think the number suggests committees aren't necessarily static.
Mike: Exactly. You have two, often now three running backs per team. The split among carries seems to ostensibly based on things like "hot hand" and "type of runner," but really boils down to "coach's whim."
Tom: This tells me not to automatically take the backs I listed who are at the top of the first half Loser League standings. Mendenhall seems to be losing carries to Andre Ellington, drawing the penalty in Week 8, so you may not want to take him.
Mike: Really, what it tells me is that we're kind of screwed.
Tom: Sure, we're screwed. But we're still going to try, even if technically Aaron didn't require us to pledge our lives, our fortune, and our sacred honor to this enterprise.
Mike: Yes, if we don't want to end up with a baseball bat ritually buried in our guts, we need to pick the worst of the best of the worst.
Tom: And, not to pile on the Jaguars, but I'm still taking Jones-Drew.
Mike: And I think that the Colts are dysfunctional enough to keep giving Richardson enough carries to avoid the penalty while not helping him actually be successful.
Tom: See, I actually am not taking Richardson this time around. I think the Colts will either be more successful with him or stop giving him the ball. We saw the latter happen the second half Sunday night, as they mostly stopped even trying to run.
Mike: I think it's a risk, yes. But as I said, I think the Colts are just enough invested in him to keep pushing the envelope.
Tom: The non-Jones-Drew low scorer I would also take a risk on is Green-Ellis. I think he'll lose some carries to Giovani Bernard, but not enough to fall below the penalty while still being not that productive. Basically, I think he will be the back you think Richardson will be.
Mike: I think Bernard is getting all the productive carries sooner rather than later. But I agree on Jones-Drew. He is basically all the team has. And it ain't pretty.
Tom: I think the Bengals want to run enough and don't trust Bernard to be a 25 carry back regularly. But if we're both taking Jones-Drew and Green-Ellis/Richardson, we both need a third back. That's where I think it becomes tricky, and you can and should take a bit of a risk on a player, hoping he'll be the next Jonathan Dwyer who goes from the top 20 to number one.
Mike: A high-upside (downside?) pick might be Michael Bush.
Tom: Do you think he'll get enough work to avoid the penalty? He hasn't. He's only had eight carries in a game once this year.
Mike: Well, he has also had two six-carry games and a seven-carry game, so maybe, depending on Cutler's health and how the Josh McCown Experience plays out, there is probably going to be more running, particularly short-yardage running, in Bush's future.
Tom: This is definitely taking a risk, but Steven Jackson is a guy I'm more willing to gamble on. He hasn't looked good, but the Falcons will probably give him the ball enough and aren't good enough on offense that he'll get yards or touchdowns. There are definitely issues there, both with his health and the possibility he'll get the penalty regularly decide to play for 2014, but I think it's a risk worth taking.
Mike: I was just about to mention him. The problem is that he's somewhat of a risk without a real high upside. Aside from a collapse against the Cardinals' elite defense (what?), he's putting up Some Guy numbers. Running backs getting 50-70 yards with the threat of 100+ are not good risks in the Loser League.
Tom: What's your flavor then?
Mike: Honestly, I can't find a better candidate than Green-Ellis. As much as I dislike the pick. Picking from the rest of the field is really just guessing.
Tom: Another option I considered was one of the Baltimore backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Both were in the top 20 in the first half, and Pierce was second in the second half last year. I drafted Rice for my real fantasy team, though, and decided that would be just too depressing.
Mike: Baltimore's offense is pretty bad, yes. Good thing they gave Joe Flacco all that money!
Tom: Remember, you can't spell "Elite" without "Flacco". It would just be "Eite", and that just looks ugly. Final picks for me: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew. For you: Green-Ellis, Jones-Drew, Trent Richardson.
Tom: For Week 9, the low scorers were Dexter McCluster with 0 points and Vincent Jackson and Cordarrelle Patterson with 1 point. We noted this in the running backs section, but as the presence of Jackson on that list shows the theme in picking a wide receiver really is you pays your money and you takes your chances. Half of the bottom/top ten the first half of last year weren't in the bottom/top 40 the second half.
Mike: True. And it is true that there is a ton of variance with receivers in the Loser League. That said, Davone Bess still seems like a great option.
Tom: The bottom of the list this year: Davone Bess 36, Donnie Avery 41, Chris Givens 50, Mohamed Sanu 56, Cordarrelle Patterson 56, Jason Avant 57, Tavon Austin 58, Rod Streater 59, and Vincent Brown 61. Bess is one of the names we've seen in this section of the board before, as is Avant.
Mike: The problem with Avant is that he's in a division with some truly terrible defense. I can't trust him to not find some success, even if by accident.
Tom: One pseudo-solution to that would be to pair him with teammate Riley Cooper, since this past week was the only game where the low score between the two of them was more than 3. The downside is you'd be taking a guaranteed 15 in Week 12, since the Eagles haven't had their bye yet.
Mike: That might actually be a good idea, but I'm building on Bess instead.
Tom: I think that's a key at wide receiver. Take players who've already had their bye. Cleveland has theirs this week, which is a reason not to take Bess.
Mike: Bah, stupid linear time. I'm sticking with Bess, but you are correct, stacking Browns is a bad idea. Cordarrelle Patterson might be a good option. The Vikings have fallen into the Devin Hester trap of trying to "get him the ball in space." This is coach-speak for "crappy wide receiver screens," with predictably explosive receptions for 0 yards.
Tom: My worry with Patterson is we've seen him be explosive on kickoff returns, and he was a productive wide receiver in college, unlike Hester. Once you apply the "avoid byes" rules of thumb, though, you're only left with Patterson and Streater in that top nine.
Mike: Kendall Wright then becomes a very appealing option. As Tennessee's passing game is quite bad!
Tom: I recommended Wright at this time last year, and he then stopped being as consistent an option. My worry this year is the opposite, that he'll end up with enough targets that he'll be middle of the pack instead of lousy. The good news for LL purposes is almost all of his completions have been short. The pass he caught 12 yards downfield against the Rams was the deepest completion from Jake Locker on the season.
Mike: That's good enough for me.
Tom: The bad news is he's actually explosive after the catch this year, and sooner or later he'll probably start lucking into some deep completions from Locker. I'd instead go after another young AFC South wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. We know barring injury Andre Johnson will be the first, second, and probably third options in that passing game. Yet unlike with Avant/Cooper behind DeSean Jackson, Hopkins will be the next option at wide receiver every week.
Mike: That's a fine thought. Probably a roll of the dice.
Tom: Beyond Hopkins, I'm going to go with Streater, since I don't trust Pryor as a passer. For my third choice, I'm willing to roll the dice on Brandon LaFell. The Panthers have already had their bye, and he hit the penalty once, plus had two other good games, but also had five games with 6 points or fewer. My final picks: DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon LaFell, Rod Streater. Your final picks: Davone Bess, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kendall Wright.
Tom: An unusual event this week, as we had two kickers finish with 0 points, each of whom offset made kicks with a miss or three. Congratulations, Randy Bullock and Blair Walsh.
Mike: It is depressing to see Sebastian Janikowski palling around with luminaries like Mike Nugent.
Tom: Sadly, all field goal kickers save Matt Stover are doomed to inconsistent seasons and occasional struggles. Also at 50 with Janikowski and Nugent was Texans kicker Randy Bullock, who as of Tuesday evening writing time has not yet been cut by the team. Josh Scobee had 51, Billy Cundiff 53, Greg Zuerlein 56, and Rian Lindell 57. Nugent, Cundiff, and Zuerlein have not yet had their bye, so mentally adjust their scores upward. With that in mind, it's also worth bringing into consideration Blair Walsh (60), Josh Brown (62), and Rob Bironas (62), who have had theirs. I think Scobee is pretty much an auto-pick here and should be for about everybody.
b>Mike: Agreed. Blair Walsh is a strong candidate, considering the state of Minnesota's offensive implosion.
Tom: Walsh is a solid candidate, but last week notwithstanding I think Tampa's offense has imploded even worse. I'd take Lindell over him as my Scobee alternative. Final picks for me: Rian Lindell, Josh Scobee. For you: Josh Scobee, Blair Walsh.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: There is something to be said for taking a game-ending sack in the end zone for a safety. Unfortunately for Andy Dalton, there is not really anything good to say about it.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: It was a difficult challenge to pick a proper honoree this week, as seemingly everyone but Marc Trestman tried to turn himself into a candidate. Before that Dalton safety, Joe Philbin punted on fourth-and-2 from the 40. John Harbaugh twice punted on fourth-and-1 from the 50 or beyond in Baltimore's loss. Mike McCarthy offset a surprise onside kick attempt by eschewing a fine-looking challenge opportunity on a big pass play on third down and some unconventional late-game clock management. With first-and-10 at the Cowboys 41 late in the game after an interception, Leslie Frazier and the Vikings began with a low-percentage pass play on a three-and-out that ended with a punt from the 41 after a delay of game. Sean Payton one-upped 90 flip to Mark Ingram by running tight end around with third-stringer Josh Hill on fourth-and-one. But, really, Rex Ryan, actually running two plays when all you needed to do to win the game was simply taking three knees? For that inexplicable failure to do simple math that unnecessarily put at risk a game that had been won, you are this week's honoree.
Tom: Back to bizarro-world last week, as the Browns not only won but covered, while the Bengals lost. I was right and you were wrong again. This needs to stop happening, or else it'll do something weird like snow in October in Chicago. Oh, wait, already happened. We must somehow carry on anyway.
Mike: ... snow in October is weird?
Tom: As a reminder, all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks.
Mike: The question for Denver's past few games has been whether Manning's offense can make up for the rapidly disintegrating defense. The results we have seen have been a lot of shootouts, but in particular a lot of shootouts where Manning makes an average-to-below-average defense pay. San Diego's offense is surprisingly good, and should gash the Broncos for a good number of points, if only to avenge my preseason slights. San Diego's defense, however, is somehow even worse than Jacksonville's.
Tom: They're really bad, particularly the second outside of (still) Eric Weddle, and Manti Te'o has not been a savior at inside linebacker with Donald Butler on the shelf.
Mike: Both of which are nearly twice as bad as Philadelphia's third-worst squad, by DVOA.
Tom: And Denver's defense played probably their finest game before the bye, against the Redskins.
Mike: I think the Redskins aren't particularly well equipped to take advantage of the Broncos, but maybe I'm selling a league-average defense a bit short. That said, against good offenses, the Broncos have looked very bad, and the Chargers have a good offense.
Tom: I think you're prematurely selling the Broncos short, with the return of Von Miller, but it's your call.
Mike: On the other hand, Manning has been making much better defenses look silly, and as we discussed last week, has made a project this year out of putting games not only away, but completely out of reach in the second halves of games. Denver Broncos -7 at San Diego Chargers.
Tom: I can see that happening, but that was a line I was not touching. Like Cleveland-Baltimore last week, one line jumps out to me. By our numbers, Carolina is a better team than San Francisco. True, the 49ers have played better lately, but so has Carolina. The Weighted DVOA gap is slightly larger than the regular DVOA gap. If we have similar estimates of the team's value, I would all things considered expect the 49ers to be favored by 2 points. Since they are, of course, playing at home. I don't think Aldon Smith's potential return in a limited role is worth 4 points. Nor is a bye, even combined with Carolina taking a cross-country flight. A couple weeks ago, I noted this current stretch as the big test for how good Carolina will be. They passed the first one, beating Atlanta as soundly as they should have. I think they'll show up just fine in the second one. The 49ers should be favored, as they are, but give me Carolina Panthers +6 at San Francisco 49ers.
Kyle: Ethical dilemma for you guys. In the 2nd year of our keeper league where your keeper is assigned the draft pick where the player was chosen. Waiver wire and FA pickups are assigned a round 8 pick. My team of choking dogs has finally given up the ghost when Aaron Rodgers (my first rounder) went down Monday. Now the dilemma, I could drop him and whoever claims him on waivers would get him for a #8 pick next year...and the twist, I am high up on the waiver priority and will likely by #1 in a couple of weeks. Dirty? Perhaps. Clever? Definitely. What should I do if he is out long term? My prospects for this year are done anyways.
Mike: First, I would check your league's waiver rules to see if you can actually pull that off.
Tom: In a proper world, you wouldn't be able to do that.
Mike: Second, I would be prepared for everyone in the league to hate you.
Tom: Even with the nominal No. 1 priority, you wouldn't actually have first dibs on a player you cut yourself.
Mike: And for the commissioner to either undo the transactions or (if he has the flexibility) to assign Rodgers back to the first round.
Tom: If I were commissioner of your league, that's exactly what I would do. I'm aware of people who applaud the clever manipulation of rules like that. I personally want rules never to be exploitable like that. And chances are high that, like Mike said, your leaguemates' sense of fair play will not approve of that even if your league rules permit it.
Mike: As far as playing out the string, you have a unique opportunity to have some fun playing quarterback matchups. Play whichever quarterback is available from the teams playing Jacksonville, San Diego and Oakland. Be happy that you have Rodgers, don't alienate your league, screw around a bit with matchups, and be ready for next year, where you're guaranteed to have an elite quarterback, which is more than nearly anyone else can say.
Tom: Well, particularly Jacksonville and San Diego. Oakland was getting good pressure and disrupting some mediocre opposing pass offenses until last week.
Fred: I'm in a 3 WR - 2 RB league. My WR spot is stacked (Calvin Johnson [acquired in early trade for Doug Martin], A.J. Green, Keenan Allen, and Mike Wallace) but I'm exceedingly weak at RB. Now-injured Darren Sproles was my best bet, and past that, it's just guys I found on the waiver wire like Mike Tolbert and Montee Ball. The other teams in my league noticed this problem and have proposed two trades to me: Green for Shady McCoy or Allen for Andre Ellington? I'm leaning towards Green-McCoy, but I'm not so sure Shady can hit his early season highs again or if Ellington is going to get serious work yet this year (or if the Cards OL can give him space if he does) while Allen breaks out further. Thanks.
Mike: LeSean McCoy is, as of right now, the best running back in the league, on the best rushing offense in the league.
Tom: He's had 44, 48, and 55 yards rushing the past three games and has not had a rushing touchdown.
Mike: Largely because he's been limited to 18, 15 and 12 carries in those games
Tom: I was making the cautionary case. I think with your RB situation you can make the swap of an elite WR (who hasn't had his bye yet) for an elite RB (who has). Notwithstanding the earlier Mendenhall comments, I don't see Ellington as a high-volume back and the Arizona line is still none too good.
Mike: I think considering you're playing the waiver wire, you need to parlay that receiver depth into reliable running back talent. Ellington is not reliable.
Tom: I concur.
I don't really know how to start. I've been drinking. A lot. Aaron Rodgers has a broken collarbone? Break out the f@#?!ing blueberry moonshine because this is a rough one.
I'm distraught as a Packer fan but also as a fantasy owner.
Do I drop Jarret Boykin for Case Keenum? Do I Bench Jordy Nelson or James Jones for Andre Ellington?What about Randall Cobb? DO I.DRINK THE WHOLE.GODDAMN JAR OF BLUEBERRY MOONSHINE-???
Ok, I already dropped Boykin for Keenum because you wait till after my waiver deadline to write the column, no one knows if Twitter is a viable resource for injury updates and I'm almost out of moonshine. At least I ignored your advice about Zac Stacy. What am I to do with these Packer WRs? Bench em? Start em? Pray for Matt Flynn? Throw me a f@#?!ing bone here!
(evenchunkiermonkey wanted to make sure he didn't Incognito himself, continuing:)
Despit.my numerous emails I want u 2 know...
I have NO desire to see anyone die to fulfill my lust for football, be it :: Brandon Merriweather or John Fox. Jermichael Finley or Gary Kubiak. I only hope that I will not. Live to see the day.
Drunk on moonshine,
Mike: Bravo, sir. Bravo.
Tom: If you must root for injuries, I suggest doing what I do. Root for chipped fingernails that suddenly awaken a player to realize the theretofore completely unknown dangers of playing football and cause their immediate retirement.
Mike: I was going to say, just go with the mantra of "you hate to see that sort of thing" and pocket whatever advantage your team can get. Also, how is your waiver deadline Tuesday? That is insane.
Tom: That's how it was when Barnwell set up the "FO Staff League so I can win it without too much competition."
Mike: Let's be fair, Tom. It was also because the FO staff is really bad at fantasy football. Buncha nerds.
Tom: Well, nobody cared about winning Staff League as much as Barnwell did that year, I don't think.
Mike: In any case, the Packers passing offense is probably a lost cause.
Tom: Or at least the next couple weeks, since we're not sure exactly when Rodgers will return. I think it probably will in fact be worth playing Ellington over one of those receivers, at least until Rodgers returns. I'm expecting a lot of Eddie Lacy and as little of the gameplan on Seneca Wallace as Mike McCarthy can manage.
Mike: It also seems that you have the entire Packers roster on your team.
Tom: Also, if the Packers liked Matt Flynn, they would have picked him up already. By now, they've already added Scott Tolzien to the active roster.
Mike: Our condolences, and yes, Ellington. And whatever waiver quality you can scrounge up.