Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

24 Sep 2014

Scramble for the Ball: Rotten Cheeseheads

by Mike Kurtz and Tom Gower

Tom: After our previous seppuku column and some discussion last Sunday, we came to a potentially interesting question: when as fans and analysts can and should we give up on a player? This question is prompted partly by the Audibles discussion we had about the Titans possibly benching Jake Locker.

Mike: I feel this is two separate questions, Tom.

Tom: Oh, I could have mentioned coaches, too, which could make it four separate questions.

Mike: Both are how quickly the fans and analysts abandon hope, but there seem to be different dynamics for quarterbacks and other players. Due to the combination of almost every team's fans dreaming of the big arm of some late-round draft pick, and the fact that a good quarterback is so hard to find.

Tom: Yes, potential, that saddest word there is.

Mike: In Locker's case, is anyone really excited about the promise of more Charlie Whitehurst?

Tom: No, which is why the clamor seems to be for Zach Mettenberger.

Mike: ... Are you serious?

Tom: He did some decent things in the preseason, and if you value preseason results, or liked Mettenberger at LSU, you're really excited about that. And shh, don't tell me no quarterback drafted in the fourth round or later has been an average-caliber starter since approximately the dawn of time.

Mike: I think there are other reasons one would be excited for Mettenberger, but they all involve some form of blunt force trauma.

Tom: I remember the calls for Rusty Smith to play when the Titans were dealing with Vince Young's injury and then Kerry Collins Kerry Collins-ing. Then Rusty Smith played, and that was enough of that.

Mike: It is an odd dynamic, though.

Tom: When you say two separate questions, what you referring to? Is it the separation between the analyst and the fan, or something else?

Mike: The different standards both groups use when giving up on quarterbacks compared to non-quarterbacks.

Tom: OK, now that you mentioned sub-dividing the question, I want to sub-divide it even further.

Mike: And our readers thought the days of 2,000-word Scrambles were done!

Tom: Is the difference between giving up on quarterbacks and non-quarterbacks the same as the difference between giving up on players whose level of performance even casual fans notice and those who they don't?

Mike: I think the major dynamic in all these scenarios is the scarcity of even replacement-level quarterbacks. At least for analysts. I do think for a casual fan, who might not be able to see beyond "throw the bums out," it's much more of a gut reaction. Compared to the analyst, who looks at, say, Jake Locker, and says "yes, but he's not Charlie Whitehurst." And then the other analysts nod sagely as Titans fans silently cry.

Tom: Eh, I think the clamor for Mettenberger suggests at least some fans have an idea who Whitehurst is, or at least they have an idea that they have no idea who he is and he therefore isn't very good.

I want to go deeper into the positional comparison here, because I'm trying to imagine a situation where a change at, say, inside linebacker, draws the same sort of attention as a quarterback controversy, and I'm struggling. At the same time, though, I see running backs drawing a similar sort of attention as quarterbacks in what I perceive to be fan discourse. That is why I'm thinking of the visibility and (apparent) comfort in larger numbers of fans to evaluate performance, if I just expressed that in a way that made any sense outside my head.

Mike: I think it's very easy for fans to fall in and out of love with any football player, but aside from elite tailbacks, they are generally replaceable in the fan's consciousness. The quarterback, good or bad, is always a symbol of the franchise.

Tom: I'm sorry, I'm a Titans fan, a running back just was the face of my franchise for five years.

Mike: He was also excellent for a significant portion of those years! Perhaps, though, I'm conflating quarterbacks and "face of the franchise" players, then. The dynamic may be the same, as Chris Johnson was getting a steady workload way past his expiration date

Tom: Well, maybe. I think it's a conversation you hear most often with quarterbacks, but it's not just with them. Thus my point.

Mike: Oddly, I think there is a lot of player loyalty for older fans. Particularly fans who are also baseball fans. My mother, despite being extremely sharp on both MLB and the NFL, would always "tsk" at the Steelers for letting fan favorites go when they had outlasted their usefulness. She never had a real argument for why, with the league's salary cap, Pittsburgh should keep those players. It was always some mix of loyalty and a sense that players should be rewarded for past contributions.

Tom: I think that varies from market to market. As Mike Tanier chronicled in his The Philly Fan's Code (good even if you aren't a Philadelphia sports fan), some athletes are loved by fans no matter what they do, while others can see a fanbase turn on them even when playing well. While those phenomena may be most prevalent in Philly fandom, I don't think they're exclusive to it by any means.

Mike: True, although it is worth noting that Philly fans are insane.

Tom: I'm not disputing that point. But insanity is the point of fandom. One interesting thing about Nashville in particular is the Titans were the first pro sports team in town. Maybe it's just me, but pro sports fandom is different than college sports fandom.

Mike: It absolutely is. I can say this as someone who adores pro sports and really pays no attention to college sports, despite having attended The Ohio State University.

Tom: For one, college players don't decline as they get older. That calls for a certain cold-bloodedness with aging, declining players, whereas undergraduates are allowed to be forever young. I know you're not an undergraduate sports fan, but how would you say it differs? Am I off the mark in my cold-blooded fandom?

Mike: Probably.

Tom: So I'm just a jerk, then?

Mike: College fans just have the advantage of not being around for the decline phase.

Tom: Sure, but college fans and pro fans are often the same people. With college players, they don't see the decline. With the pros, they do.

Mike: And the short amount of time that most players are prominent on a college team usually allows players that are fan favorites to skate on that reputation, because they only have to stick around for a while. Perhaps college fans, even if they are also pro fans, are simply more attached to the institution itself.

Tom: I do think that's part of it -- some professional fandom is rooting for a particular athlete, whereas college fans are generally rooting for the school.

Mike: Colleges are more expansive entities than just athletics, and since they have a student body it is much easier to feel a part of the institution than a pro sports club that the fanbase never had any chance of being part of.

Tom: And I have said before, in response to comments about my cold-blooded pro fandom, that I root for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back.

Mike: Pithy.

Tom: I just wish it had been convincing as well.

Lesson of the Week

Tom: Mike, what did you learn in Week 3?

Mike: Aside from the fact that Marc Trestman hates my fantasy team?

Tom: I don't think he hates your team, specifically... though I admit I don't know that for sure.

Mike: I learned that Green Bay, as we discuss before picking our locks, is not nearly the juggernaut we thought it was. We've seen dominant teams with dominant performances this year already. We've even seen a few fringe contenders like Cincinnati and Atlanta play up to their upside. Yes, it is very early for all of these teams, but Green Bay has not even shown us flashes of the greatness we all expected coming into this year.

Tom: Shoot, that was going to be my lesson.

Mike: Well, low-hanging fruit and all that. The remarkable thing is that, while Green Bay's defense is still mediocre, it's the offense that has been dragging the the team down. It is, again, still early days, but Eddie Lacy has been terrible, and the spark that really ignited Green Bay's offense two years ago (and the latter part of last year, after Aaron Rodgers' return) was a competent running game. I think wide receiver attrition hasn't helped, but I think their reconfiguration has resulted in an offense that must be balanced to survive, even against unimpressive defenses. As of right now, I'm not a believer.

Tom: I still need to really dive into Green Bay's offense, something I may not have the chance to do until late next week, when bye weeks start in earnest. I'm expecting an interesting watch.

Since you stole what I learned this week, I'll go back to Thursday. I was cautiously optimistic about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season. They were better than their record indicated last year, and had been dealing with men who I didn't believe were well qualified to be NFL coaches for years. They brought in somebody, who despite his faults, has shown he is an NFL coach in Lovie Smith. And they were awful.

Mike: "Stole" is such an ugly word.

Tom: Fine, pre-emptively identified.

Mike: Your fault for letting me go first.

Tom: The Buccaneers have now lost two home games to teams missing their starting quarterback, and been destroyed by a team with theirs. They now travel to Pittsburgh and to New Orleans, which means an excellent shot at being 0-5. Maybe putting Mike Glennon in will change their fortunes, but they'll still be playing without Gerald McCoy. I thought they'd be a very good defense. They certainly don't look like one, and the offensive line has been nearly as problematic as I expected it to be. Unless they get a lot better, quickly, the Buccaneers are going to end up with another very high draft pick. And this time, it won't be because the Glazers are taking advantage of the lack of a salary floor.

Loser League Update

To see how your team did check out the Loser League results page.

Quarterback: If you injured your foot while playing quarterback this week, you had a bad Loser League score. The two lowest passers were Matt Cassel, who had 2 points, and Josh McCown, who offset his 58 yards passing with an interception for 0 points.

Running Back: The Atlanta Falcons played three-quarters of one of the best games in the past 25 years. That bounty was not evenly distributed, as Devonta Freeman managed only 13 yards on his 11 carries and fumbled for -1 points. Next on the list were a pair of running backs that may well have gone in the first round of your fantasy draft, Montee Ball and Eddie Lacy. Both had under 40 rushing yards and a fumble for 1 point.

Wide Receiver: Santonio Holmes was the sole player not to crack 10 yards on multiple receptions this week, so he earned 0 points in his triumphant return to New Jersey. At 1 point were Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, Jason Avant, Justin Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, teammates Donnie Avery and Junior Hemingway, and, impressively, a trio of Bills in Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, and Robert Woods.

Kicker: Shayne Graham and Ryan Succop tied for the worst score in the league at -3, but got there in different ways. Graham made two extra points, but had his third blocked. Succop, on the other hand, made his extra point but missed a pair of field goals.

Awards!

Keep Chopping Wood: Too often, the weekly KCW goes to something dumb but banal: a blown coverage, a penalty in a key situation, the sort of mistake players make many times every weekend. Too rarely do we get a player truly deserving of an award named in honor of a punter accidentally cutting his foot with an axe in the locker room. Your Scramble writers therefore give a hearty thanks to Stephen Tulloch for suffering a season-ending injury not because of a normal football play, but because he was mocking somebody else's dumb celebration.

Mike Martz Award: No, Titans fans, Ken Whisenhunt is not here for continuing to play Jake Locker. No, Dennis Allen, risking one of your timeouts while trailing in the fourth quarter to take away a 6-yard gain on second down is not here, either, though we did consider it. Instead, it goes to John Harbaugh for deciding it was worth a challenge on first-and-goal from the 1 when Joe Flacco was ruled to not have crossed the plane on a sneak. The Ravens, down a timeout, scored on the next play.

Lock of the Week

Tom: Last week, our preseason praise of the Green Bay Packers came back to haunt you, as Aaron Rodgers and company managed a measly touchdown on the road and lost to Detroit. My doubting of Jacksonville, meanwhile, was justified. I am now 1-1 on the season and you are 0-2. As always, lines are courtesy of Pinnacle Sports and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks.

Mike: What a rough start to the year.

Tom: Aren't you glad you aren't wagering real money? We should come up with some column feature, but I can't decide if it should be a word count quota or a word count limit.

Mike: A quota based on specific subject, maybe.

Tom: I was trying to make a joke based on good vs. bad fake gambling results = punishment, but I was not sure if it came across.

Mike: Not remotely.

Tom: OK. I assumed by your response it didn't.

Mike: Good to see we still have a strong rapport after all these years. I actually fielded a question after Week 1 about whether a fantasy owner should automatically start players against Dallas. I did stick up for the Dallas defense a bit, because I don't think you should start absolutely any player against them, but it's pretty close!

Tom: I would not start Josh Hill this week. Unless I was in a really deep league and really desperate. I'm sorry, was that not a helpful response?

Mike: No, Josh Hill is actually the line that you must not cross. Everyone else on the Saints, however, is completely fair game!

Tom: As I mentioned last week, I think you do so at your own risk, but whatever. Also, your Jake Locker/Justin Hunter/etc. owners from Week 2 don't agree with your response. But please, continue, tell me more.

Mike: I think the Titans were my reason for adding the "not absolutely any player" caveat, actually. The Saints had a rocky start, but they're starting to look like their old selves, and the Cowboys have continued to look like their old and present selves. I don't like whole-number lines, but the Saints' offense is explosive and the Cowboys' defense is implosive, so I'm going with New Orleans Saints -3 over Dallas Cowboys.

Tom: This is certainly an opportunity for me to look silly, but I'm confident enough in the Baltimore Ravens, even despite the major loss of Dennis Pitta. I think we saw on Sunday Carolina's vulnerability on the ground, and Baltimore has moved the ball well enough. Meanwhile, I have a massive amount of non-trust in the Panthers' ability to move the ball, especially with their injuries. Yes, VOA (and DAVE) indicates that the Ravens being favored by a home-like spread is right. As I've indicated since the preseason, I like the Ravens more than our numbers do. I'm taking Baltimore Ravens -3 vs. Carolina Panthers.

Send your questions to Scramble-at-footballoutsiders.com!

Posted by: Mike Kurtz and Tom Gower on 24 Sep 2014

22 comments, Last at 26 Sep 2014, 7:26pm by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by killwer :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 4:57pm

re crazy Philly fans. I doubt any team's fans spend as much time complaining about the 5th string back up ILB or 6th string WR as Eagles fans (see Casey Matthews and Jeff Maehl) and no team have complained as much about their starting safeties as Eagles fans (since Dawkins left)

14
by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 09/25/2014 - 8:07am

Please look at a replay of last week's game and follow Mathews and the Eagles safetys. Then reevaluate whether we're overly critical. As for Maehl...who?

2
by theslothook :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 5:52pm

Can anyone who has been to both venues tell me if philly fans are worse than raider fans? Not all raider fans are goons and not all of oakland is a war zone, but riding on bart, ive seen at least three incidents involving raider fans antagonizing bart riders.

3
by Scott C :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 6:40pm

What you saw were thugs that were raider fans, not raider fans in general.

(This comes from a Charger's fan, who has seen Raider fans throw D-cell batteries and strike Charger fans at San Diego -- where the L.A. raider fans often overwhelm the stadium and many Charger season ticket holders sell their tickets for huge profit and avoid the game; I have no reason to defend them).

The correct answer is: yes, a _lot_ of thugs are also raiders fans, and they like to wear raider gear in public. No, raiders fans aren't all thugs. The people instigating things on BART would be thugs whether they were raider fans or not.

4
by Sixknots :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 7:19pm

While Green Bay may not be the "juggernaut" we thought, their problem is not running backs or wide receivers. It's injuries and lack of quality depth on the offensive line. And they've faced three of the nastiest D-lines in the NFL so far. Two on the road.

5
by Perfundle :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 9:45pm

Rodgers has been dealing with that ever since he started playing, and he's never looked this bad. Bad OL play doesn't make you hesitant to run, or make you hold the ball and not willing to throw the check-down.

6
by theslothook :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 9:49pm

I've come to believe that o lines can be mitigated by your qb up to a point. Once it gets too far into the red - the qb functionality actually becomes a serious problem. I think this happened to Phil Rivers and Jay Cutler at separate points. It nearly happened to PM in 2010. I haven't watched GB enough to say if their o line has truly descended into the red, but it wouldn't surprise me if it did.

7
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 10:13pm

Well hell, look at how bad Warner looked for several years, and then look what happened when he was put back into a functional environment (albeit still one with a pretty bad offensive line).

8
by theslothook :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 10:26pm

The irony for the Packers and those Bear teams was that they actually invested in the o line. Two first rounders a piece. Carimi, Williams, and Sherrod are all unmitigated disasters. Bulaga I guess is good, but he can't stay healthy.

9
by Perfundle :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 10:41pm

What about Ryan last year? He was saddled with one of the worst OLs, but still had a pretty decent season. They had to change the offensive scheme to throw mainly short passes (3rd-lowest air yards per completion), but it worked out for them.

15
by dank067 :: Thu, 09/25/2014 - 9:40am

Ryan had a pretty decent year, but he also went through a four game stretch against some good defenses (ARI, CAR, SEA, TB) where he threw 5 TDs vs 9 INTs and averaged around 4 AY/A. Rodgers himself had a three game stretch (CIN, DET, BAL) last year where he didn't play particularly well. Slumps happen, adjustments are made, and there will be lesser defenses to beat up on. It's a safe bet that Rodgers's numbers will look fine by the end of the year.

The bigger issue to me is that with a defense that's average on their best day, the Packers need the offense to be transcendent, and it's obvious that Rodgers and co. are nowhere near that level right now.

20
by Mr Shush :: Fri, 09/26/2014 - 1:09pm

Well yeah, I think the idea is that for every QB there is a level of protective incompetence below which he cannot function, but for some very good QBs, including Ryan and most spectacularly of all Peyton (see 2010) that level is very, very low indeed. So Ryan would have to be put in circumstances even worse than he was last year for his game to fall apart as a result, but maybe if you put him on the 2002 Texans that would do the trick.

18
by mehllageman56 :: Thu, 09/25/2014 - 3:06pm

He looked fine against the Jets at home. I'm thinking playing at Seattle and at Detroit are going to be problems for anyone this year. And don't look now, but the Lions have the number 1 defense by yards in the league.

10
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 11:05pm

The Packers have had problems with injuries and lack of depth on the OL for years. That never stopped Rodgers from beating the Lions. Until last Sunday. Scoring only 7 pts against a (at best) mediocre secondary like Detroit's is a disaster.

11
by theslothook :: Wed, 09/24/2014 - 11:19pm

I probably overrate Rodgers some based on his ridiculous 2010 postseason and 2011 regular season, but I really don't think he has any flaw outside of his penchant for taking sacks. I suppose his pre-snap qualities aren't at the level of PM and Brady in their primes, but it still pretty darn high. And his accuracy and arm strength are both stellar.

All that to say, I have no idea how any defense outside of SEA in SEA held this offense to 7 pts. Can someone who saw the game explain it to me?

12
by Perfundle :: Thu, 09/25/2014 - 12:15am

On a drive-by-drive basis, focusing only on the final unsuccessful series:

1st drive: Lacy fumble-6
2nd drive: Two neutral runs, then 3rd-and-3 drop by Cobb
3rd drive: Lacy failing to bounce it to the outside on 1st, failed back-shoulder throw to Boykin on 2nd, sack on 3rd where Rodgers didn't scramble out of the pocket to his left to prolong the possession
4th drive: TD
5th drive: Horrible run blocking by Lang leading to a Lacy safety
6th drive: Tipped downfield attempt to Nelson on 1st (he looked to be covered well anyway), false start followed by short pass to Nelson on 2nd, sack on 3rd and long
7th drive: 7-yard pass to Nelson on 1st, negative-yardage toss play to Lacy on 2nd, throwaway on third; Rodgers spent a full second looking in Cobb's direction, where he was running an short angle route, but turned away right after he came open, and it looks like it would've gone for a first down had he thrown it.
8th drive: Negative-yardage toss play to Harris on 1st who made an awful decision to scramble backwards instead of just plunging into the pack, short, low pass to Cobb who couldn't catch it on 2nd, probably miscommunication on a route by Boykin on 3rd-and-long
9th drive: 9-yard pass to Lacy on 1st, awful decision to bounce outside by Lacy on 2nd which ended up losing yards, incomplete pass to a well-covered Quarless on 3rd where Rodgers had about all day to throw, endzone incompletion thrown behind Nelson on 4th.

I didn't watch the whole game, but from those series alone the OL looked fine in pass protection. To me it was a combination of the OL being bad at run blocking, the running backs doing too much sideways and backwards running (plus the fumble), receivers other than Nelson not getting open/running correct routes/catching the ball and Rodgers looking hesitant and underthrowing the ball.

16
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Thu, 09/25/2014 - 10:19am

One thing I noticed is that the Lions line collapsed the middle of the pocket consistently, while simply keeping contain on the outside of the pocket. Rodgers did poorly in that situation. Whenever he got out of the pocket and threw on the run, he completed nearly everything.

He also seemed to lock on to Nelson more than he usually does, and Darius Slay had him covered really well most of the time. Suh's sack was a coverage sack, if you can believe it. Rodgers was waiting for Nelson to break open on an in/out double move, but he never did, and Suh got there.

Another factor is that the Packers offense just didn't have the ball enough. The Packers defense only gave up 10 points, but they could not get off the field on 3rd down. Case in point, when the Packers failed on that last 4th down, there were almost 7 minutes left in the game, but they never got the ball again.

13
by DEW :: Thu, 09/25/2014 - 1:34am

I think that if Mettenberger replaces Locker and plays as well as Tony Romo, Brian Hoyer, or, heck, Austin Davis, Titans fans would be ecstatic. (Though guys like Romo and Kurt Warner, as UFAs, may not technically meet the "drafted in the fourth round or later" standard cited...)

17
by jefeweiss :: Thu, 09/25/2014 - 1:26pm

And shh, don't tell me no quarterback drafted in the fourth round or later has been an average-caliber starter since approximately the dawn of time.

Except Tom Brady, Mark Bulger, Matt Hasselback, Matt Flynn who people throw him out of the study because ... small sample size. Well, everything surrounding NFL quarterbacks is small sample size and four of the Top 25 Leaders in Weighted Passing DVOA (1994-2013) are UDFA.

To me there are parallels between starting Jake Locker (or any moderately incompetent high draft pick) and punting on fourth and one. One reason to do it is that fewer coaches have been fired for playing it safe than taking a chance. The other reason to do it is that everyone else is doing it.

I think the fans are on to something when they want to see the new guy and that is because they think they know what they have in Jake Locker. His upside is a Kerry Collins-esque career, where he plays enough years to have one or two good seasons because the ball bounces right. His downside is Jason Campbell, who didn't play enough years to have a few good seasons. I doubt that Zach Mettenberger is the answer, but maybe the guy after him is, or the guy after that guy.

The question is what you want from a quarterback and what you are willing to put up with to find it. It's pretty easy to find a below average performer who is a former first round pick to take your team to 5 and 11, and a coach who does that might keep his job for another year. It's tough sledding to bring in a relative unknown and give him first team reps in practice and hope that he might be the next Tom Brady.

19
by mehllageman56 :: Thu, 09/25/2014 - 3:19pm

According to Collision Low Crossers, the NY Jets brass was wondering what the hell the Titans were doing when they drafted Locker. As far as Locker's upside, I think it's nowhere near Kerry Collins' career. Locker never had a year in college close to Collins' last year at Penn State.
As far as finding the next Brady (or Unitas, since he got drafted in the 14th and the Steelers stupidly cut him), you don't give them first team reps immediately, but you pay attention to their reps if you are the coach. When they constantly impress you, you give them chances.

21
by Tom Gower :: Fri, 09/26/2014 - 3:14pm

Did I not say "as a rookie"? I know all about those guys, but everybody either sat or was below average at best in their first season.

22
by LionInAZ :: Fri, 09/26/2014 - 7:26pm

No, you didn't say 'as a rookie', although you might have meant to.