Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Oct 2016

Scramble for the Ball: Trappings of Success

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Bryan Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, a slice of irreverence and irrelevance to help you get through your football week.

Andrew: ...but enough about the Los Angeles Rams. We're here to talk about interesting football teams doing terrible things like conceding impossibly silly punt muffs, trying to cover C.J. Fiedorowicz with only a quarterback's paycheck, and losing to the Miami Dolphins. Not street gang impressionists going the full Schiano on opposition kneeldowns.

Bryan: Speaking of losing to the Miami Dolphins … there was quite a brouhaha in this week's Audibles. The Steelers, by any metric, laid an egg against Miami, getting knocked around to the tune of 30-15 against a really quite bad Dolphins team. This brought in a long discussion of Mike Tomlin and the Steelers' tendency to not show up against weaker competition.

Andrew: Is it a tendency though, or is it simply the occasional random letdown against a pattern of success? In other words, it's far more noticeable when a big favorite blows it than it is when they win, regardless of covering the spread. It's not like the Steelers lose every time they're heavily favored.

Bryan: In fact, they rarely lose at all; that's why they're favorites to begin with. However, that doesn't mean that all is well in Pittsburgh. I did a quick search, and Tomlin's Steelers have lost four games in the past decade where they were favored by 10 or more points, tied for second-most behind the Saints.

Andrew: Of course, the worst record would belong to the Saints.

*Cries into his sodden palms.*

Bryan: The Steelers are 17-4 since 2007 in games favored by 10-plus; the Saints are 14-6. The Patriots are 38-3, by comparison. The Vikings are 9-0, which is the best record.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The records listed are pure win-loss records drawn from Pro Football Reference, not records against the spread.)

Andrew: The Vikings are not often favored by double-digit points, I would expect. That period encompasses the Brett Favre year, but also a lot of Tarvaris Jackson and Christian Ponder, and a not-inconsiderable amount of Matt Cassel.

Bryan: The Vikings pull that feat off about once a year, by which of course I mean "five times in 2009."

And while Mike Tomlin's four losses in those massively favored contests definitely isn't something to highlight on his resume, he might not even have been the worst coach in Pennsylvania in those sorts of trap games. The Philadelphia Eagles are 5-4 since 2007 in games where they've been favored by 10 or more points, and that's actually slightly flattering to Andy Reid as two of those wins came under Chip Kelly. For his entire career, Reid is 17-6 when he has been favored by double digits. That doesn't exactly get Tomlin off the hook or anything, but a little context is sometimes useful.

Andrew: On the subject of context, this would be a good place to reiterate that in order to blow a game as a ten-point favorite, your team has to be good enough to actually be a ten-point favorite in the first place. Only two teams -- New England and Green Bay -- have more of those games than Pittsburgh since Tomlin became a head coach, and only 12 teams have more than one per season. So even with the second-most losses, the Steelers still have the third-most wins as a ten-point favorite since Tomlin was appointed.

Bryan: Right. We're talking about the worst of the best. Many teams would kill to be favored by double digits multiple times per year, and not once a decade or so.

...Which brings me to the fact that only 31 teams are listed as being 10-plus-point favorites at any point in the last decade. Now I get to play "Find the team that hasn't been favored by 10."

Andrew: Cleveland, surely.

Bryan: Nope! They're 1-0 since 2007!

Andrew: Jacksonville then.

Bryan: Nuh-uh; they're actually 3-0.

Andrew: How did Cleveland and Jacksonville end up favored by ten over the past ten years? Who were they playing, Notre Dame?

Bryan: Cleveland has been favored by ten just once -- in the last week of 2007, their 10-6 season. They faced the 5-11 San Francisco 49ers, led by the immortal Chris Weinke. Vegas was not impressed. 2007 was a good year for the Jaguars as well; they were 11-5 and made it to the Divisional Round. They were favored by ten points three times -- against Oakland, Carolina, and Atlanta. Seems like forever ago, but the Jaguars were actually competitive at one time.

Andrew: Fair enough. I forgot that both had that one reasonable year in your timeframe. Since that fateful year in which they both had winning records, those two franchises have been 5-11 or worse in 13 out of 16 seasons and not had a single winning season between them. It's entirely plausible for this year to make it 15 out of 18 seasons combined at 5-11 or worse. That's almost criminal mismanagement.

My other guess would be the Rams. No doubt also in 2007 they played some almost-disbanded NFL Europa team missing its starting quarterback or something though.

Bryan: Nothing nearly so old. It was as recently as 2013, when they had a home game against... the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Rams were actually 1-4 at the time, so that line tells you more about the state of the Jaguars than it does about the Rams. Looking back, the Rams had a -35.5% DVOA entering that game, but the Jaguars were at a terrible -83.8%. Even taking into account DAVE and other methods to avoid early season fluctuations, Jacksonville was still below -50.0%. So, yeah. St. Louis was bad, but Jacksonville was playing in an entirely different league.

Andrew: Oh yeah, the 2013 Jaguars. Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. A NFL Europa team might have had more chance.

Bryan: The team without a single game where they were favored by double digits in the past decade is Oakland. You have to go all the way back to 2003, the year after their Super Bowl appearance, to find them favored by that much. The Rrrrraiders have been terrible for the past decade, but maybe, just maybe, they'll get some respect this year. They get the Colts, at home, in Week 16, so maybe there's your double-digit spread.

Andrew: I really thought there might have been a point in the Jason Campbell-Carson Palmer era when they would have been heavy favorites against somebody like the Cassel Chiefs, but it turns out the division was actually very competitive at that point -- Josh McDaniels notwithstanding -- and the Cassel Chiefs won 17 games across 2010 and 2011. That's when the AFC was loaded too, with very few consistently bad teams like Cleveland, Miami, and Jacksonville are now.

Bryan: Which loops us back around nicely to Miami demolishing Pittsburgh. Sometimes, I guess, weird things happen. While Tomlin certainly has had more than his fair share of slip-ups in those trap games, he has to be credited for keeping his team in contention to be trapped to begin with.

Andrew: And hey, at least one of his losses wasn't arguably the most famous Super Bowl upset in history.

Bryan: Funny, that link doesn't seem to go to Super Bowl III.

Andrew: I said arguably!

Bryan: And I'm arguing!

Andrew:No you aren't! You're just contradicting!

Bryan: Look, if I argue with you, I have to take up a contrary position. If you want abuse, that's next door; I hear that's what Greg Schiano's doing nowadays.

Andrew: I bet Jim Harbaugh does it better. Regardless, I'll pass. We should probably leave those appointments open for the poor souls who actually started our Loser League leaders on their real fantasy teams.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: We may be rapidly approaching the end of Ryan Fitzpatrick's season. Fitzpatrick was benched during the fourth quarter on Monday night, with Geno Smith coming in after Fitzpatrick threw for just 154 yards and an interception. While coach Todd Bowles says that Fitzpatrick will start this week against Baltimore, his performances have been bad enough that at some point, the Jets have to go back to Geno, right? Fitz ended up with 6 points on the day.

Running Back: It wasn't just Fitzpatrick struggling for the Jets Monday, though! Matt Forte rushed for just 19 yards on nine carries against Arizona, and was out-snapped by backup Bilal Powell. The Jets have been behind so early and so often that Forte has been spending most fourth quarters on the bench, making him a valuable Loser League commodity. He ended up scoring 1 point.

Wide Receiver: Only a pair of zeroes this week. Tajae Sharpe and Sammie Coates were each held without a catch on Sunday, and Sharpe's 1 yard rushing wasn't exactly enough to shoot him up the scoreboard, either.

Kicker: Four kickers tied with a score of 1, but they arrived at that total in different ways. Cairo Santos and Steven Hauschka both made two field goals and two extra points, but missed one of each as well to rack up the penalty points. Graham Gano missed a game-tying extra point to go along with his three made extra points and his field goal. Chris Boswell simply didn't get much to do, ending up with just one extra point.

The Loser League page is now updated for 2016, and you can check out your team's score here.

Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood: Is this really going to a Chargers player -- and a special teams player at that -- again? Sorry, but yes. Yes it is. Travis Benjamin, when you wave your teammates away from an opposition punt, you really ought to make sure you don't touch it yourself either. In the end, Benjamin sort-of made an attempt to catch the punt, sort-of made an attempt to stay away from it, fully committed to neither, and the punt hit his leg and was recovered by Denver's Will Parks at San Diego's 11-yard line. The Chargers defense only gave up a field goal after forcing Denver to go three-and-out, and San Diego still won the game in the end, but neither of those facts in any way mitigate the bizarre mistake by their veteran returner.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game/John Fox Award for Conservatism: We're going to break with tradition and combine these awards into one section this week, so we can have a chat about end-game strategy. Specifically, when to go for two, and why. Whatever you may have seen and heard in other media this week, Edwards award winner Hue Jackson was absolutely correct to attempt the two-point conversion when his team scored a touchdown to bring them within nine points. The fact that Cleveland's failure to convert is being used to pillory Jackson is a cruel and twisted irony, when Cleveland's failure is exactly why his decision was correct. A failure at that point in the game gives the coach enough time and information to adjust his end-game strategy, knowing that he needs two more scores.

If Jackson had done the same as Fox Award winner and Martz Award nominee Mike Tomlin -- who seemingly makes his two-point conversion decisions by rolling 1d20 and subtracting a point for the number of quarters played so far -- and kicked the extra point to draw within eight, then he would have left the result of the game up to the coin-flip outcome of one two-point conversion instead of two-plus minutes of actual football. Tomlin would have left his team with no recourse if Pittsburgh had scored instead of Miami and the two-point conversion had failed, whereas Jackson already knew he needed to allow time for a second score even as Cleveland successfully drove for a touchdown. All of this should be obvious to anybody who thinks trying to win is more important than trying to "not quite lose just yet," but the fact that so many people think Jackson made a mistake is one more example of how far even basic game strategy has to go before many in the mainstream media will accept it. Fortunately, Jackson appears to be smarter than those media types, and in a season in which not many things are not looking good for the Browns, the new head coach appears to be one of the few things that is.

Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: I'm tempted to just put the words Chuck Pagano here and call it a day, but I'll go with his fourth-down play calling in particular to highlight some of his odd choices this year. Late in the third quarter, leading by four, the Colts faced fourth-and-inches from the 8-yard line. Seeing as how the Colts lost in overtime, a lot of criticism has been put on Pagano for not taking the field goal there, but that's not the issue -- teams should go for it more often in these situations. No, we question the play call. Frank Gore had been having a good day, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The Texans boast the 25th-ranked rush defense in DVOA. The Colts were winning on the line of scrimmage for most of the game. Maybe plow Gore into the line, or run the Brady-esque quarterback sneak, or something that involves falling forward for an inch. Instead, the Colts went pass-wacky, putting Andrew Luck in the shotgun, spreading out three-wide. Luck stared down his one read, took the sack, and the Colts came away with no points. If you're going to pass in that situation, make it a quick play with the understanding that Luck tucks it and runs if it's not there.

"Well, NOW he does it" Fantasy Player of the Week: We have had Jay Ajayi on one of our teams all year long, waiting for him to finally break out and have the big day he has always seemed capable of having. He had never had more than 48 yards in a game, though, and Arian Foster was coming back from his bum hamstring. Stuck with a tight injury situation, we decided to drop Ajayi to try to field an actual lineup. So, of course, Ajayi quadrupled his career high, busting out for 204 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh. We hate fantasy sometimes.

Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week

Once again this year, all picks are made without reference to FO's Premium picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Bryan: Hey, you got off the schneid!

Andrew: Once again, this is why I don't gamble. Even when I hedge my bets -- I'll be happy if the division's close, so I'll pick the team with the better record to cover! -- I can't win. Houston won by exactly the margin of the money line, thus leaving me neither happier nor actually winning the bet.

This week, I'm playing it straight: NY Giants -3 "at" Los Angeles (in London). The Giants will be too strong for the beaten-up Rams at Twickenham, even accounting for the possibility that Odell Beckham versus a Jeff Fisher team might result in more scrums than usual at the home of English rugby.

Bryan: I think you had the right idea by betting against the Colts; you just picked the wrong week. I'll take Tennessee -3 against Indianapolis this week. No one apparently wants to win the AFC South, and crazy things can happen when two bad teams get together. The Titans are on a nine-game losing streak to Indianapolis, but they nearly pulled off the upset last year, blowing a 27-14 lead with less than seven minutes to go. The Titans are better than last year, and the Colts are worse, so maybe this year, they'll hold on. People seem to generally agree with that -- the Titans opened as just 1.5-point favorites -- but no one wants a piece of the Colts after they blew that game on Sunday night. Count me in.

Records so far:
Bryan: 4-1
Andrew: 0-4-1

Obituaries

: Since the NFL expanded to a 12-team playoff in 1990, only the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs have bounced back from a 1-5 start to make the playoffs. That doesn't bode well for any of the four 1-5 teams currently haunting the bottom of the standings at the moment. We already discussed the Bears last week, but they've got three new faces joining them among the ranks of the deceased.

No one expected the Carolina Panthers to repeat their 15-1 season from a year ago, but I don't think anyone had a 1-5 start on the menu. It's too simplistic to suggest that not resigning Josh Norman is the only reason the Panthers are floundering, but Carolina's 27th-rated pass defense would probably be boosted if they weren't starting three rookies as their top three cornerbacks. Those rookies are not being helped from the total lack of pass rush the Panthers' front seven is generating. On offense, the Panthers are actually missing Michael Oher, as Dave Gettleman's reluctance to invest heavily at offensive tackle has begun to cause serious problems. They are already 0-3 in the division, too, which will kill them on any tiebreaker. If any 1-5 team is going to pull a '15 Chiefs and get back into playoff contention, it's the Panthers, but everything just seems to be falling apart for them.

On the flip side, everyone expected the San Francisco 49ers to be bad this year. Replacing Blaine Gabbert with Colin Kaepernick is slapping a Band-Aid onto the Titanic; yes, it does help a little bit, but the ship's still going down. The 49ers simply lack talent -- at wide receiver, at inside linebacker, in the pass rush, on the offensive line; the list goes on far beyond the man under center. General manager Trent Baalke has been coasting on solid 2010 and 2011 drafts for years, but he may be going down with this ship.

And then there's the New York Jets. They're terrible. Nothing works on offense, with Ryan Fitzpatrick reduced to locking in on Brandon Marshall and hoping for the best. Nothing works on defense, where the line can't generate pressure, the secondary can't cover, and no one can make a tackle. Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong, and their season is essentially over.

Therefore, I hereby request that Fox, CBS, NBC, and ESPN replace their normal commercial bumper music when these teams are playing, to better reflect the moods of their fanbases. I have a suggestion:

Football Outsiders doesn't answer fantasy questions on Twitter, so if you don't have a Premium subscription and access to the 24-hour Fantasy Answering Service, the Scramble mailbag is one way to get a Football Outsiders answer to your fantasy questions! Email us with fantasy questions, award suggestions, crazy videos, outlandish conspiracy theories, auction listings for Bill Belichick's game-damaged tablets, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam at scramble@footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter on 19 Oct 2016

34 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2016, 12:42am by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by Will Allen :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 11:52am

I can't believe you guys failed to recognize the brilliance of Brad Childress, what with his 9-0 record when the Vikings under his charge were favored by 10 or more.

2
by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 11:59am

Not only was Childress 9-0 as a head coach; he was 4-0 in games as Philadelphia's offensive coordinator. We'll have to see if Kansas City gets into any of those situations this year.

3
by Will Allen :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 12:56pm

Get him fitted for the ugly yellow blazer! Smelt the bronze! The Chiller is Canton-bound!!!!

4
by jtr :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 12:57pm

>coach Todd Bowles says that Fitzpatrick will start this week against Baltimore

Bowles backed Fitzpatrick in his postgame interview, but he's since walked that back. "We have to talk about more than that. There’s a possibility every week there will be some changes made, player-wise."

5
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 3:23pm

What's gone wrong with the Jets this year? Apart from the explanation given above.

After the Rex years, it seemed like Todd Bowles was going to bring a bit more stability. Obviously the QB situation is rubbish but beyond that. Lack of talent? Poor cap management? Stronger opposition?

9
by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 4:42pm

Well, last year's 10-6 record was helped by both one of the easiest schedules in the league (29th by DVOA) and a career-year from Ryan Fitpatrick.

So far, they've played the second-toughest schedule in the league by DVOA; that, at least, should ease up significantly, but they had to come up big in big moments and have mostly shriveled.

I think most people expected Fitzpatrick to fall back to the pack a little bit, but not all the way to the bottom of the DVOA rankings. I was expecting a performance more like he did in Buffalo--below average, but above replacement. That hasn't worked so far this year. When your quarterback slides into a terrible slump, it's really, really hard to get things going offensively, and that was never their strong point, anyway.

As to why the secondary is so bad, though, you've got me--it's mostly the same personnel as last year, but there's a lack of communication that wasn't there a year ago.

18
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 3:10am

Thanks for the detailed reply.

8
by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 4:20pm

Yeah--as of press time, Bowles was on record saying Fitz would start this week, and then today it's Geno, Geno, Geno.

Because it's a really good sign when you flip-flop like that in less than 24 hours.

10
by Andrew Potter :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 5:19pm

Is it a better or worse sign than those two being your options to begin with?

25
by jtr :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 11:22am

It wouldn't be a bad Jets season without confusion and disarray at the QB position. For whatever reason, the Jets can never just be blandly bad. If they're going to have a lousy season, they always have to go full slapstick comedy.

6
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 3:25pm

I like a bit of cultural reference ... was only mentioning to a friend at lunchtime that my hovercraft is full of eels :D

7
by Andrew Potter :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 3:45pm

I always found Flying Circus to be more hit-and-miss than the movies, but -- and I say this as a Brit who has occasionally been employed translating Hungarian into English -- that sketch never, ever fails to crack me up.

20
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 3:16am

Funnily enough my lunch friend was saying pretty much the same. That he enjoys the films more than the series. He was telling me about how his pub quiz team is named after the Life Of Brian words for "Romans go home". At that point a guy standing in the food queue next to our table turned round and start quoting the rest of the scene!

11
by BearDown103 :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 8:17pm

What's the overall record of NFL teams favored by ten or more points since 2007?

12
by Scott Kacsmar :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 8:45pm

This was the table in FOA 2016 (which you can buy as a PDF for $10 now, btw)

https://twitter.com/FO_ScottKacsmar/status/787761376395685888

Road teams favored by 10+ were 41-5 from 2007-2015. Tomlin was 4-3.

Another little Tomlin oddity to point out: Steelers (2-3) are the only team in the league to have a losing record against the Raiders from 2007-2015. If you peg last year's Oakland team as being on the rise, then the record would look even worse at 1-3 against the really lousy Oakland teams.

I'll also never forget when the 2012 Chiefs (1-7), who had yet to run a play in regulation with a lead, went up 10-0 on the Steelers before losing in OT.

Or how Curtis Painter nearly pulled off an upset over Pittsburgh for the 2011 Colts on SNF (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/201109250clt.htm).

It's not always about the wins or losses, but the performance itself is shockingly bad too often for a team of Pittsburgh's caliber against teams of such a poor caliber. I don't think this happened as frequently in 2007-2010, but it's definitely been a problem in the years since.

13
by Will Allen :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 10:22pm

Or it could be just randomness, unless you want to argue that The Chiller has some special 10 point favorite sauce, that he added to the pregame meals, for his 9 game sample.

It is very, very, problematic to draw conclusions about anything being a problem from such sample sizes.

14
by sean.chai :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 10:52pm

Small sample size is always dangerous, but who can resist Tomlin Flambe with Chiller sauce drizzled over the top?

15
by Will Allen :: Wed, 10/19/2016 - 11:39pm

HA!

16
by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 1:04am

I think we have a different definition for what a problem is in the NFL. When 10-6 barely gets you in the playoffs last year (needed Buffalo to beat the Jets) and 12-4 wins the conference, one or two games are very meaningful. And when you continue to show that you're likely to drop a game or two per season that most in your situation would win, that's a problem. When you win 59.4% of your games (n=32) in a situation where the rest of the league wins 73.5%, that looks like a problem. I guess that's now 55.9% for Tomlin after two losses this year on the road as a 3-point favorite (19-15).

I know we can find quirks for other winning coaches too. I've destroyed Mike McCarthy's credibility in close games. Pete Carroll's Seahawks blow more leads than you would expect. The playing down to the competition is Tomlin's thing.

Such things make the NFL interesting to follow. You can chalk them up to randomness, but the game would be pretty boring (and arguably pointless) if everything was explained by randomness.

17
by Will Allen :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 2:15am

Well, give me a few hundred games to examine, than I start getting more convinced that what we are seeing is the result of coaching performance, as opposed to things that are unrelated to coaching performance. Of course, very, very, few coaches ever get to a few hundred games total, much less a few hundred games as favorites of any kind. That means we are going to have a large measure of uncertainty as to whether the "problem" is something the coach had control over. My strong suspicion is that ANY metric, which informs us that The Chiller has never been surpassed in performance, is not especially illuminative.

Why do I say this? Because, although Childress only coached 74 games, he really lost his team in his final year. Guys quit playing hard. I don't see why a guy would be the best at coaching as a 10 point favorite, and then have players quit on him the next season. I thus suspect that his superlative record as a 10 point favorite, compared to the norm, is mostly due to things other than coaching performance. That leads me to suspect that the metric doesn't tell us much.

I never said everything was explained by randomness. I said you need large samples to develop confidence that what you suspect you are seeing is actually the case. I don't think it is boring at all to say, "I really can't have a lot of confidence in my suspicions as to why things happened the way they did, because we just don't have enough information". What's more boring to me is when huge amounts of information is so readily available that it really makes further inquiry pointless. Forgetting the PED issue, is there really any interesting way to pursue the question, "Who was the best MLB hitter of the 1990s?"

19
by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 3:10am

I don't think it's unfair for a coach to be judged by his W-L record, though I would acknowledge that some games are decided by reasons that are outside the coach's control. For a great example, just look at the playoff records for Marty Schottenheimer and Bill Belichick. But I'd also say that someone like Gus Bradley would love to have you own the Jaguars, because he'd get hundreds of games to finally build a winner. I think you realize your quest for statistical significance can't be satisfied, but tell me this. How many games do you need to see before you can reasonably conclude that a coach is not good? I sure as hell don't need hundreds, and I can't really think of a coach who started off so poorly for so long before he turned things around.

The reason I brought up Bradley is because he has the worst record (14-39) of any coach to start his career* since 1940 (min. 50 games). There has been virtually no improvement in Jacksonville under his watch, and this team has routinely been credited with great drafts. I would certainly fire him at the end of this year if things do not turn around, but maybe you see something different in this case.

*Worst career percentage; I do not know if it's the worst record through a coach's first 53 games. That could be an enlightening list.*

As for Childress going 9-0 as a 10-point favorite, I'd simply explain that as five of the games were in 2009 when he had a SB-caliber team. I'd point out that the defense did a fine job, allowing no more than 16 points in any of the games. I'd also point out that five of the games were against the absolutely abysmal Lions. So that particular record doesn't really impress me. It's not something I'd tout when it's so heavily built up in a short period of time against bad division foes.

As for Tomlin, I find this to be troubling for someone with a winning record. Didn't this site originate the guts vs. stomps article? Good teams are expected to roll over weak opponents, then it's more of a coin toss in a closer game with a good team. I know the point spread is more of a reflection of what the betting interest will be rather than a definitive prediction of the final score, but expectations are being factored in. The Steelers habitually crap their pants against those expectations. If that was the norm in other places like NE and GB, then so be it, but we know that hasn't been the case.

I'm doing some Aaron Rodgers stuff now, but I have a variance project in mind. We'll get to it sometime this season. Maybe that can help figure out if we're really seeing something unusual in Pittsburgh's performance in the small games or not.

21
by Will Allen :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 8:50am

You see, once you start throwing out the tiny samples which don't support the hypotheses, with a explanation as to why they should be thrown out, while the ones that support with the hypotheses are kept in, well, then you are on the Confirmation Bias Turnpike, next stop Undueconfidenceville. Which is a really crappy town to hang out in, if you are trying to obtain knowledge. I tend to think it is better to just toss the metric.

To some degree, our differences are semantic. It is one thing to say you see a troubling trend. It is quite another, to me, to label something "habitual", because to me, the latter implies a behavior repeated dozens, or even hundreds of times, meaning we can really have confidence that we are observing what we think we are observing.

To paraphrase a line in a movie, when it comes to making judgement on coaches, "fair's got nuthin' to do with it". No, I wouldn't give Gus Bradley hundreds of games. I'd make a guess based on that data I had, because the business desn't allow me the time to obtain enough data to make decisions on the quality of the coach with confidence. Now, I say this while, for the purpose of argument, pretending that w-l record is all we have. Believe me, we didn't need more than 16 games, in 1984, to know Les Steckel was a lousy coach, because players who had been eminently professional under Bud Grant in 2003 were in open mutiny by mid November 1984. But no, if all you use is w-l record, three or four seasons doesn't tell us much. Bill Parcells is convinced he was a couple losses away from being fired by the Mara family, very early in his tenure.

22
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 9:26am

"How many games do you need to see before you can reasonably conclude that a coach is not good? I sure as hell don't need hundreds, and I can't really think of a coach who started off so poorly for so long before he turned things around."

Tom Landry was 13-38-3 during his first four seasons. That's essentially the same record as Gus Bradley's 14-39.

And his 5th didn't improve things that much.

1960 - 0-11-1
1961 - 4-9-1
1962 - 5-8-1
1963 - 4-10
1964 - 5-8-1

I would definitely have fired him after year 4's step backwards unless there was something on the field that was looking good but not showing up in the results.

I see nothing good happening, or promising to happen, under Bradley.

23
by Will Allen :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 9:59am

Gosh, looking at.......

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Parcells

......I am reminded that....

"When Parcells took over in 1983, the New York Giants were a team that had posted just one winning season in the previous ten years. In his first year, he made a controversial decision to bench Phil Simms in favor of Scott Brunner. The result was a disastrous 3–12–1 season during which the Giants surreptitiously offered Parcells' job to University of Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger after a week 14 loss; however, Schnellenberger declined, and Parcells remained as head coach.[22]"

....so one of the best coaches in NFL history may have been fired after less than a season's worth of games, based on a small sample w-l record.

I'd forgotten about the Landry start as well. Of course, Belichik was 20-27 through his first 3 seasons, 41-55 through his first 6 seasons.

24
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 10:48am

I've seen Parcells say it a couple of times that after the disastrous 3-12-1 season he decided that if he was going to get fired, he'd get fired trying to do it his own way.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3NZPymWsyU

26
by PatsFan :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 11:46am

And Belichick's first year with NE was 5-11 and he followed that up with an 0-2 start the next year and according to a new book, he and his staff were quite worried they'd be fired at the end of the year.

27
by Will Allen :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 12:03pm

So Belichik, acclaimed by many to be the GOAT, lost 57 of his first 98 games. We should all be be circumspect with our judgements. I think it is pretty unlikely that Tomlin, the guy who ranks 14th in winning percentage of the 97 who have coached 100 games or more, the guy who ranks 9th, of the 56 who have coached 150 games or more, is a bad NFL head coach, but it isn't impossible by any means.

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by SandyRiver :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 12:06pm

Of course, Landry started with an expansion team at a time when the crumbs offered such start-up franchises would make the Texans' initial haul seem a grand feast. The Jags had at least some playoff games in their past.

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by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 1:31pm

Yeah, Landry is definitely not your typical case because of the expansion team. And I don't see the point of bringing up Parcells, who made the playoffs in his second season. We're not talking about firing Tomlin here.

You see, once you start throwing out the tiny samples which don't support the hypotheses, with a explanation as to why they should be thrown out, while the ones that support with the hypotheses are kept in, well, then you are on the Confirmation Bias Turnpike, next stop Undueconfidenceville. Which is a really crappy town to hang out in, if you are trying to obtain knowledge. I tend to think it is better to just toss the metric.

Why shouldn't every sample be judged on its own merits? I explained why the Childress thing didn't mean anything. It's too centered over a short period of time, and too skewed by bad division opponents. With Tomlin, we certainly have more than 9 games for starters, and he's in his 10th season now. If his record was skewed by games where Ben left injured, then we'd chalk that up to bad luck and not worry about it. But clearly that's not the case. The common link here is the half-assed efforts the Steelers put forth as a team against opponents they were expected to comfortably beat. And I've said it's not just about W-L, but the performance. Just like with the Seattle blown leads thing. It's not just about the 15 times, essentially one fourth of their games from 2012-2015, that they lost, but it's all the other times the D nearly blew it, only to be bailed out by the offense in OT or something fluky like the Calvin Johnson/illegal bat play and Blair Walsh last year. The performance still fits the overall pattern of "damn, this No. 1 scoring defense breaks down way too often at the worst moments."

And maybe Seattle is going to break that pattern this year, or maybe Tomlin won't drop gimme games anymore. That's fine. Doesn't change the past or mean this stuff wasn't relevant when it happened. I'm sure the Steelers would love a few more division titles and playoff appearances, and at least two more playoff wins (1 SB) for the Seahawks.

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by Will Allen :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 2:25pm

Every (tiny) sample should not be judged on it's own merits, because the tininess of the sample doesn't allow you to know with confidence whether you have actually identified the most important merits. Its why tiny samples are a way to consistently mislead yourself. It's why it is a bad idea to form judgements based on tiny samples.

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by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 3:00pm

But by your own admission, every NFL season is a tiny sample, so we shouldn't draw any conclusions on what's good or bad. To me, that just makes the game pointless to follow. While 5-6 games is a tiny sample, I feel like I could say with confidence that the Browns (0-6) are a bad football team, and that the Vikings (5-0) are going to have one of the best defenses this year. Your counter may be that we have years of Cleveland losing to strengthen that conclusion, and that Minnesota was a good playoff team built around the defense last season. Maybe some unforeseen injuries will cripple the defense before the year's over. I'd probably come back and point out that the previous Cleveland teams had a different coach, front office and quarterback, so it's not exactly apples to apples when the big three elements have changed. Or that Minnesota's improvement behind Zimmer is still only 22 games old going back to last year. Then you might say a team like Buffalo (4-2), with years of futility, does not have the track record for us to conclude they are a legitimate playoff contender this season. You can't get Jacoby Brissett, Case Keenum and Colin Kaepernick in 3 straight weeks again this year. And in that case, I'd agree with you. Buffalo isn't trustworthy enough at this point, but I'm also basing that on how they've reached 4-2 just as much as I'm considering the track record, if not more.

I think we've reached the "agree to disagree" portion of this one.

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by Will Allen :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 3:31pm

Scott, the reason I'm at this site is because I think 16 data points with a binary value, labeled "win" or "loss", is a really poor data set with which to make strong judgements, as to relative quality of team performance. At least the metric is directly measuring what we are judging, however, that is quality of team performance. Using a data set that small to make strong judgement on relative quality of coaching performance, given the binary values of "win" and "loss" aren't actually a direct measure of coaching quality, seems very inadvisable to me.

Yep, we'll agree to differ. Appreciate the exchange.

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by LionInAZ :: Sat, 10/22/2016 - 12:42am

Four unexpected losses in ten seasons is a long way from "a game or two per season ... would win."

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by Will Allen :: Thu, 10/20/2016 - 3:47pm

Actually, in my never-ending effort to nosily tell people how to work, it might be an interesting path of inquiry to tabulate coaches cumulative DVOAs. We only can go back to 1989 at this point, of course, but I bet it would illuminate some unexpected things.