Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Nov 2017

Scramble for the Ball: Word Gets Around

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: We have finally arrived once more at my very favorite week of the entire NFL season.

Bryan: Cleveland's bye week?

Andrew: The week between British Summer Time ending in the United Kingdom and Daylight Savings ending on the East Coast of the United States. For one week of every season, British NFL fans can function normally on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings. Now if only the EU version of Game Pass and my terrible ADSL would conspire together so that I could actually watch some football, things would be just about perfect.

Bryan: I remember trying to watch Super Bowl XLIII on a tiny screen, dangling out my window to catch the WiFi at 8 o'clock in the morning in Japan. All these "time zones" and "other continents" make watching football highly problematic. I feel your pain!

Andrew: This job was a whole lot easier with a sleep disorder. Of course, there is one genuine season milestone that roughly coincides with the clocks going back across the Atlantic.

Bryan: Very nearly, at least. 14 teams have reached the halfway point of their season, with everyone else playing Game 8 this upcoming week. As it seems implausible to ask the NFL to pause after the early session on Sunday to allow for an emergency edition of Scramble, it's as good a time as any to take a step back and take stock of what's been going on -- a midseason review, as it were.

Andrew: Bearing in mind that Tampa Bay and Miami had to reschedule their Week 11 bye to Week 1 due to a hurricane, we should actually be at exactly 16 teams exactly halfway through their schedule, which is about the best we can hope for as a midway point in an unevenly-scheduled season. At this almost-halfway point, who is in the running for the most coveted awards in the sport? Read on to find out!

Most Valuable Player

Bryan: Nine of the last ten winners of this award were quarterbacks. You have to go back to Lawrence Taylor in 1986 before you get a non-quarterback or running back winning this award. At least that makes narrowing down the field of candidates somewhat easy.

Andrew: I know, I know, it seems like we have this conversation in some form every year, but is there much of an argument for this not being Tom Brady? The Patriots defense is a mess. The offensive line is not so much an impenetrable wall as a row of slightly misplaced bollards. The wide receiver is a mixture of the injured (Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman) and the inexplicably not-currently-injured (Danny Amendola, Phillip Dorsett). They're 6-2, and hit at least 27 points on offense in both of those losses.

Bryan: I mean, the standard argument is, as always "we're tired of giving the award to Tom Brady." It's the same reason why Bill Belichick only has three Coach of the Year awards -- voters get numb, at a certain point, to sustained excellence. I think, if I had a vote right now, I'd go with Brady, but it's worth looking at some of the other candidates to see where the wandering eyes of voters might go.

I think Alex Smith and Kareem Hunt are going to be in the same boat as Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott last year -- they're going to split some of the vote between them, hurting both of their chances to win the award. They're both playing at levels that should make them candidates, though! And it's not just because I like saying "MVP quarterback Alex Smith." Smith is second in passing DVOA, while Hunt is second in rushing DYAR. While there's always the "well, how good would they be if they didn't have each other?" argument, they're both turning in the best seasons of their careers at the moment! Admittedly, that's a stronger statement for the veteran Smith than the rookie Hunt, but still.

Andrew: Drew Brees is another perennial candidate, but I think a lot of credit for the Saints' record will go to the improvement of the defense rather than the consistent excellence of the quarterback. Which is understandable -- he's almost the alt-Brady, in that his great play means more than usual because the supporting cast is better, whereas Brady's means more than usual because his supporting cast is worse.

As for the leading candidate who doesn't usually line up in the offensive backfield, surely that's Antonio Brown? Or are we looking at a defensive player such as Aaron Donald or Jadeveon Clowney (or any of about five players on the Jaguars)?

Bryan Yeah, if I had to go off script, I'd take Donald. He leads the league in pass pressures and is part of a surprising renaissance in Los Angeles -- or at least, surprising to those of you that didn't purchase FOA 2017! At the very least, he'd be my pick over some of the other names people are trying to squeeze into the argument. Carson Wentz was the leader in USA Today's tracker, and while he's having a good season, looking much better than he did as a rookie, I don't think he's quite at the same level as the Bradys and Smiths of the world. I've also seen some talk that Russell Wilson's heroics last week puts him in the conversation, and I just don't quite think I'm there yet; not with the lack of offense that Seattle has generated up to this point.

Andrew: I still can't see past Tom Brady, QB, Patriots at this point. Maybe somebody else will overtake Brady in the second half. Maybe it'll be Deshaun Watson! Or maybe not.

Bryan: Yeah, Brady is my frontrunner at this point as well. He's not running away with the award in my book, but his great play for a team with no defense to speak of shows just how valuable he is.

Offensive Player of the Year

Andrew: This is the more interesting category in most seasons. I'm not so sure this year though. Kareem Hunt is a candidate, but I would guess he is more likely to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Antonio Brown is the league's best, more productive receiver, even with his quarterback struggling.

Bryan: Hunt could do the double; it's not entirely unheard of. The issue with Brown is that no receiver has won this award since Jerry Rice in 1993. Before that, it was Rice in 1987. And that's the only two times a non-quarterback or running back has won this award. No wonder receivers seem to need their egos constantly managed; they get no respect!

Andrew: Maybe we need to change these awards to passer of the year, rusher of the year, receiver of the year, and lineman of the year.

Bryan: Brown would run away with my receiver of the year award at the moment; he's second among wide receivers in DYAR and he has the benefit of being healthy, unlike a number of his usual competitors. He also doesn't get to play the "I'm playing with a spectacular quarterback" card, with Big Ben having something of a down year.

Lineman of the year would be significantly tougher, because I generally don't think of them as individuals to the same extent.

Andrew: It doesn't have to be an individual. We could make it offensive line of the year.

Bryan: My gut would say Philadelphia in that case, but their advanced stats are way down below what I had thought. Maybe I'm not giving Wentz enough credit in the MVP race, because I would have thought the Eagles' offensive line was better than 21st in run blocking and 20th in pass protection.

Andrew: When we take over the league and get to set our own categories, that's just what we'll do. Until then though, we need to pick one non-quarterback. Kareem Hunt is great. Travis Kelce too. Le'Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, and Ezekiel Elliott. DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, and Julio Jones. All are terrific players, but my nod is Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers. Even if I doubt that he'll actually win the thing.

Bryan: I'm sticking with Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City for now. If Steve Sarkisian realizes Freeman is capable of carrying the ball more than a dozen times a game, watch out, but Hunt has been the offensive sensation of the year so far.

Defensive Player of the Year

Andrew: This is another category with one obvious candidate, then a bunch of people looking for reasons not to pick the obvious candidate. Aaron Donald is the best individual player on any of the top five defenses, and probably the best defensive player in the league. He's definitely the best defensive player not on injured reserve right now. Is there any justification right now for him not winning this thing, allowing for the possibility of a second-half dropoff or injury?

Bryan: It's noteworthy that Donald didn't win one of the Player of the Month awards in September, so at least some of the voters have other contenders in mind. Those went to Demarcus Lawrence and Melvin Ingram. Lawrence still leads the league in sacks, which gathers him points, but he slowed down in October. Ingram is doing well now that he has switched to a 4-3 defensive end. So there are at least other names out there. Voters Love Da Sack.

Andrew: There are a lot of good individual performances at other spots too. Jalen Ramsey has been sensational for Jacksonville, as has Calais Campbell. Ryan Shazier is having a good year at the heart of a surprisingly good Steelers defense. Jadeveon Clowney is trying his utmost to hold the Texans defense together without J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, while the Broncos have the best run defense in the league.

Bryan: So yeah, I'm not sure I'd qualify this as "one obvious candidate"; there's a number of people who I could see overtaking Donald if everything goes right.

Andrew: Is there anybody you would actually pick over Donald right now though?

Bryan: No. No there is not. He has been dominant for years, and he doesn't have the Brady-esque sting of "well, we have already given him the award a million times before" to hold him back. I'd put Campbell second, but for now, it's Donald.

Andrew: I agree. It's Aaron Donald, DT, Rams, at least until further notice.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Bryan: Here, we may finally have some disagreement.

Andrew: You mean you don't think it's Kareem Hunt, after you lobbied so hard for him earlier?

Bryan: I assumed you were going to pick Deshaun Watson after you mentioned him in the MVP race!

Andrew: If he keeps going at the rate he's going, and the Texans make the playoffs without two of their three best defensive players, he'll shatter the rookie passing records and propel himself into that conversation. He'll also win this thing unanimously. That doesn't mean he's quite there yet, but he is the other horse in this probable two-horse race.

Bryan: I agree it's a two-horse race, but I want to at least acknowledge Horse No. 3 -- Packers running back Aaron Jones. If Jones had two more carries, he would qualify for our tables and be second in the league in rushing DVOA. He has clearly taken over as Green Bay's top running option over a converted wide receiver and probably is, to date, the best value in the 2017 draft, being a fifth-round pick out of UTEP.

Andrew: In a normal year, Jones would be a leading candidate. Of course, in a normal year Dalvin Cook might not have blown out his knee, in which case Cook might be running away with this award. There's also Leonard Fournette, who has joined the Jacksonville offense and made it look almost functional, as has Cooper Kupp to a lesser extent in Los Angeles.

Bryan: Alvin Kamara for your own New Orleans Saints! Not really enough work yet to be among the tippity-top, but when he has been on the field he has impressed.

Andrew: That's what I was going to say. Kamara isn't even a starter (yet!), but he has already seen off the bizarrely ill-suited Adrian Peterson cameo. He looks like exactly what the Saints hoped he would be: a dynamic receiving back who can also work between the tackles as a change-up. Reggie Sproles, if you like.

Bryan: So, a lot of great "also nominated" names there. But yeah, this is a two-horse race between Hunt and Watson at the moment. If it's close at the end of the year, it's interesting. Normally, tie would go to the quarterback, being the more important and notable position. But what if the Chiefs make the playoffs and the Texans don't? A very interesting scenario.

Either way, I'm sticking with Hunt for now, but don't touch that dial.

Andrew: I can't pick between the two, so for variety I'll go with Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Andrew: This award goes to Marshon Lattimore, with Marshon Lattimore in second place just ahead of Marshon Lattimore. The other Marshon Lattimores got one Marshon Lattimore between them.

Bryan: I'm sensing a strong opinion. Perhaps I could interest you in a Tre'Davious White, who actually has a higher success rate than Lattimore does at the moment. Or T.J. Watt, who has taken James Harrison's job and made it his own. Myles Garrett has looked sharp ever since he got healthy...

Andrew: Counterpoint: the Saints are sixth in pass defense. Sixth! The Saints! You know, the worst overall defense of the entire past five years? Marcus Williams has been an upgrade solely by virtue of not being Jairus Byrd, but Marshon Lattimore already looks like a future All-Pro cornerback. In his rookie season, he's at worst the second-best player on the sixth-ranked DVOA pass defense. It's hard to overstate just how huge an upgrade he is for a defense that has been terrible for half a decade.

Bryan: Yeeeah, I mean, I'm trying to play devil's advocate here, but it's really hard to do. Lattimore has not only been very, very good, but he has been consistently very good on a week-to-week and play-to-play basis. Even great rookies often have times when they look lost out there; that really hasn't been the case for Lattimore at all this season. It's not quite the same runaway that Joey Bosa had at this point last season, but it's dang close. Man, the Saints draft looks really strong this year. Lattimore and Kamara headline the class, but Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, and Alex Anzalone all look Good Enough For Rookies.

Andrew: It's a genuinely exciting year to be a Saints fan. That is ... not common. Drew Brees always gives us hope, but the biggest single difference this campaign is the future Defensive Rookie of the Year. In case we aren't clear, that is Marshon Lattimore, CB, Saints.

Comeback Player of the Year

Andrew: In a strange twist, I don't even really know who the candidates are for this award. Jared Goff is a sophomore, so it's not like he's "coming back" so much as finally arriving. The same is true of 2015 first-round pick Nelson Agholor, who finally looks like a professional wide receiver. Vernon Davis in Washington is having a good year, but award-worthy? Marshawn Lynch at least literally came back, I suppose. We could give it to Matt Ryan, for coming back to Earth after last season, but I don't think that's quite what the award intended.

Bryan: One thing we DO know for certain is that 2018's candidate list will be absolutely loaded with talent. Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham, David Johnson, Julian Edelman, Greg Olsen, Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, J.J. Watt, Eric Berry -- that's an All-Pro team right there, all taken from us this year by various injuries.

I'll throw out a few names here -- players who had season-ending injuries last year. Rob Gronkowski (back), Earl Thomas (broken leg), and Justin Houston (ACL). All three are playing good-to-great this season, and would be my three top candidates for the award.

Andrew: "Coming back from injury" is Rob Gronkowski's new "healthy." Earl Thomas is a good player playing well, but a fractured leg is not the career threat it once was. Justin Houston is probably the best candidate of those three names, as ACL recovery is rough. It's a long, arduous rehabilitation process.

Bryan: This is true -- but I'd argue that Thomas is having the best season of the three so far. So, I suppose, my decision comes down to whether to give the award to the candidate who is playing the best, or to the player who came back from the most difficult situation. I'm going to lean towards Thomas at this point, but it's a close race.

Andrew: I'll take your suggestion of Justin Houston, EDGE, Chiefs, unless maybe Todd Gurley or Doug Martin or somebody tears up the second half of the schedule.

Coach of the Year

Andrew: This is Sean McVay, right? Andy Reid has done a terrific job in Kansas City -- it's easy to forget just how bad a state that franchise was in when he took over -- while Doug Marrone has had unexpected success in Jacksonville, Sean McDermott has the Bills punching above their expected weight, and Doug Pederson has the Eagles flying high in the NFC. McVay took over a team with an apparent historic bust at quarterback and no offense to speak of, and which had fallen apart in the second half of last year, and has them sitting pretty atop a challenging division.

Bryan:I do wonder how much credit will go to Wade Phillips for the defensive bounceback, but it's impossible not to have McVay among the leading candidates at the moment. The one thing that I think might stop them is if the Rams finish behind the Seahawks in the NFC West and the Jaguars win the AFC South. That might be enough for the voters to swing over to Marrone. And don't entirely count out the "first playoff appearance this millennium" factor for McDermott!

Andrew: Oh, do you think Doug Marrone is the biggest threat to McVay's possible crown? I would have thought that Doug Pederson would be the major challenger, after quickly undoing a lot of the Chip Kelly damage to get the Eagles in contention for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Bryan: I would hope voters would see the Jacksonville improvement as a bunch of investment in the defense finally paying off as opposed to Marrone's skill, but you never know with these things. Then again, the Jaguars were actually worse than the Rams were last year (by record, at least), and they're having a great year, so you never know. I'd go with McVay as my leader in the clubhouse for certain, though.

Andrew: Ditto. Jacksonville looks like a plan finally coming together. Philadelphia looks like talent winning through. McDermott looks like undoing what the Ryans did. Sean McVay has turned a very bad quarterback into a competent performer.

Bryan: As a quick aside, who's the opposite of this award; which coach loses his job first? I kind of like Ben McAdoo there, though Chuck Pagano and Hue Jackson are obvious choices, as well.

Andrew: First is the trickiest question. Who has an obvious in-house replacement? I think McAdoo, Pagano, and Jackson are goners. Adam Gase will get a pass for Ryan Tannehill missing the season. Todd Bowles has the Jets competing better than expected. Marvin Lewis appears to have established tenure. John Fox might have saved his job recently, while Deshaun Watson might have saved Bill O'Brien's.

Bryan: The Giants have Steve Spagnuolo on staff. The Browns have Gregg Williams. The Colts have Rob Chudzinski. Failed NFL coaches get new life as coordinators!

Andrew: Spagnuolo could be enough for the Giants to feel they can jettison Ben McAdoo. As we were writing this article, they just announced they were suspending a starting cornerback for the second time this year. There are audible rumblings of discontent in Tampa Bay too, incidentally, which is an unexpected development. If veterans like T.J. Ward, Gerald McCoy, Mike Evans, and DeSean Jackson continue to show public frustration, that seat could become a whole lot warmer as even the Florida weather cools.

Bryan: I'm not sure I can blame them, but usually, a mid-season coaching change is part of an unexpected collapse or years and years of poor performance. Not going from 9-7 to, say, 5-11. That's a recipe for a postseason coaching change, if anything.

Andrew: My guess is that Chuck Pagano will be the first to fall. Which leads nicely into our next, fictional category.

Future Head Coach / Coordinator of the Year

Bryan: Talking about #Sacksonville, Todd Wash has to be in the running here, right? I mean, it's great to gather a bunch of talent together, but you have to make them work well as a unit, and Jacksonville is our top-rated defense halfway through the season.

Andrew: Right. Beyond that though, it's hard to pick anybody out. Oh, we have the usual McDude (c. Nate Jackson) chatter, but a look at the top units is a who's who of either new head coaches having an influence (Buffalo, Los Angeles) or a head guy who will rightly get the credit (Andy Reid, Bill Belichick). I haven't heard, say, Dean Pees mentioned as a head coaching candidate, or Steelers lifer Keith Butler. Joe Woods, who replaced Wade Phillips in Denver, has done good things, but it would be a very rapid ascension for a first-year coordinator.

Bryan: There needs to be a knife-edge here between "future head coach" and "coordinator of the year." Wade Phillips is never sniffing another head coaching job, but he's doing great things in L.A. But someone like Teryl Austin in Detroit or Mike Vrabel in Houston could definitely be getting a few calls this offseason.

Andrew: Sticking to coordinator of the year, then, I think Wade Phillips is the choice unless you think Matt Nagy is the brains behind the Chiefs offense. I'm just not sure I see where the replacements are coming from for all the head coaches I expect to walk this offseason.

Bryan: Maybe it IS the year that Josh McDaniels finally leaves New England for his second head coaching shot. Maybe Pat Shurmur will get a second job, this time with a competent set of quarterbacks. Maybe ... something something NCAA? I need to follow college football more.

Andrew: Or maybe it will be the usual set of retreads, internal promotions, and a left-field special teams coordinator for a bit of spice. Free Dave Toub!

Bryan: Free Dave Toubs? I'll take three, thanks.

Andrew: I note that the Matt Patricia talk has quieted this year. We can safely keep Mike Smith off the retreads list too. Those two defenses are only fit for Loser League.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: A pretty solid week all around for quarterbacks, actually. That means a bad but by no means disastrous day by Jameis Winston is your low mark. He topped 200 passing yards, but two interceptions and a fumble are going to knock your score down every time. He finishes with 5 points, and news that he's been playing through an AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder. With Tampa Bay's season essentially done at 2-5, it's probably for the best if Winston takes a week or two off to heal.

Running Back: Jamaal Charles' triumphant return to Kansas City may not have been as triumphant as he had hoped for. 48 yards on the ground are nothing to sneeze at, but 18 of those came on his very first play; he was held to 3.0 yards per carry after that. He also fumbled, which was returned for a touchdown, to add injury to insult. That's a 2-point day.

Wide Receiver: A couple of Goose Eggs in the Philadelphia-San Francisco game, as neither Torrey Smith nor Marquise Goodwin could catch a pass. Cole Beasley and Cordarrelle Patterson did catch passes, but neither could even gain 10 yards.

Kicker: Two kickers ended up in the negatives this week. While Cody Parkey's missed field goal ensured the Dolphins would remain scoreless, he didn't have the opportunity to do any worse than that. Instead, it was Zane Gonzalez who led all losers. Not only did he miss a 35-yard field goal, he also hooked an extra point. Gonzalez is now 7-of-11 this year on field goals, which is something less than convenient. He earned -3 points.

Check your team's score and the overall leaderboard here!

Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood: This play must be seen to be believed.

That was Travis Benjamin, muffing a punt inside his own 10, scooping it up, and running backwards into his own end zone for a safety. Well it wouldn't be Chargers-Patriots without something like this happening!

John Fox Todd Bowles Award for Conservatism: It's only fitting that this award be claimed by Todd Bowles himself. Down by five at home against a Falcons team in danger of being swept by the AFC East, the Jets took possession with 1:07 remaining. They promptly threw short passes on four of their next five plays, were tackled inbounds on three of them, and eventually lost the game on a false start clock runoff with two seconds left, trying to spike the ball at their own 38-yard line. That's right: the Jets took possession with more than a minute to go, completed four passes, and were still more than 10 yards short of MIDFIELD when the clock expired.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: By both DYAR and DVOA, incomplete passes on third-and-short are bad plays. By both DYAR and DVOA, strip-sack fumbles on third-and-short are terrible plays. Seldom will coaches trade the former for the latter, but this past Sunday Pete Carroll did exactly that. On a first-quarter third-and-2 at the Houston 31, Russell Wilson was hit by Jadeveon Clowney as he threw and the ball fluttered to the ground about 10 yards downfield -- where tight end Luke Willson dived on top of it just in case, as well-coached players do. Carroll then challenged that Wilson had actually fumbled the ball, and Willson had recovered the fumble far enough downfield to earn the Seahawks a first down. The challenge was upheld, earning Carroll's team a new set of downs en route to their first offensive touchdown of the game. The difference between the two play outcomes ends up costing Wilson -23 DYAR, but it was only appropriate for this crazy game that what is normally a great play for the defense ended up hugely in the offense's favor.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching: Quite a few curious strategic decisions to pick from this week -- we're spoiled for choice! We could pick Bill O'Brien taking the ball out of Deshaun Watson's hands at the end of the game. We could pick Kyle Shanahan trying to kick a field goal to turn a three-score deficit into a slightly smaller three-score deficit. But instead, we'll point to Jim Caldwell's odd decision-making on fourth-and-goal. The decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in a 13-12 game makes sense in a vacuum, but not when paired with the decision to kick a field goal in from the same spot six minutes later in a 20-12 game. If anything, going for the touchdown in the second scenario is all the more important; at least a field goal in first situation gives you the lead. All the fourth-quarter field goal did was move the Lions from requiring a touchdown to ... still requiring a touchdown, albeit to win as opposed to just tie.

Further demerits go to the play calling in the red zone in general; when you run 16 red zone plays and end up with zero touchdowns, there are going to be issues. Issues like telegraphing the play call by inserting Nick Bellore in at fullback, keeping Dwayne Washington as the featured goal-line back as opposed to Ameer Abdullah or Zach Zenner -- the Lions need to blow up their red zone strategy and start from scratch.

"Paul is Alive" Fantasy Player of the Week: Without looking, who would you say leads the 2017 Seahawks in touchdown receptions? Is it Pro Bowler Doug Baldwin, who led the team last season? Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham, who has hauled in double-digit touchdowns three times in his career? Pro Bowler Tyler Lockett, the all-purpose speed demon? Luke Willson? Eddie Lacy? Tanner McEvoy? Before the season started, you'd probably have gone through quite a few names before you came to oft-injured Paul Richardson but here we are. His six-reception, 105-yard, two-touchdown performance against Houston gives him five touchdown catches on the year. Three of those have now come in the past two weeks, so he's beginning to turn on the jets. Pick him up if he's still available in your league.

Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Performer of the Week:: After a five straight weeks of losing tight, competitive ballgames, the San Francisco 49ers have now gotten their socks blown off two weeks in a row. If you're playing in some sort of weird league, where you don't start scoring until a team is down by 17 points, and you were rocking both C.J. Beathard and Matt Breida, then you won this week, my friend. Also, you need to find a better fantasy league. Beathard threw for 123 yards and a touchdown, with the score and 30 of those yards coming to Breida. That's more than 22 fantasy points in most formats; garbage-time Breida was a better play than studs like Joe Mixon, C.J. Anderson, or Doug Martin would have been.

"Comfort in Sadness" Stat of the Week: We got nothin', Miami. No, really. Anything positive on the Dolphins offense has either been hurt recently (DeVante Parker) or traded to Philadelphia (Jay Ajayi, at least a hypothetical positive). The team has a terrific recent record in one-score games -- they're 12-2 since Adam Gase took over, with 12 straight victories -- but ask Bruce Arians how quickly the wheel can turn on that score. And in games that are not within one score, the team is 2-7 over the same period. Their wins are generally fortunate, their losses are very much not, and the Dolphins now rank 31st in offense, 23rd in defense, and 31st in overall DVOA this year. The only pretty number the Dolphins have is that 4-3 record, and the smart money says the record won't be so positive when December rolls to its inevitable conclusion.

Game-Changing Play of the Week: There were about 100 little moments in the Seattle-Houston game we could highlight here, but let's talk about the heads-up play by Tyler Lockett at the end of the game. Lockett was a machine in general -- six receptions for 121 yards, the bomb for 54, a great breakup of an errant Russell Wilson throw that probably would have been a game-sealing interception and so on and so forth. But one of his biggest moments doesn't show up on the stat sheet.

With 46 seconds to go, down by four and facing first-and-15, Lockett caught a 19-yard pass, in bounds. A crucial first down in the clutch is big enough, but after the play, Lockett dashed over to the umpire with the ball, allowing him to set it ready for play that much faster. The Texans were discombobulated and not ready for the next play, allowing Jimmy Graham to score the game-winning touchdown. If Lockett had let the refs retrieve the ball themselves, it would have taken a couple extra seconds -- extra seconds that Houston could have used to get ready for the play and to get lined up properly. In a game this tightly fought, it's little moments like that that can make all the difference. A great heads-up play by Lockett, and great situational coaching by Pete Carroll.

Three-Eyed Raven Lock of the Week

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.

Andrew: Per Pro Football Reference (and Bryan), the Jacksonville Jaguars have not been five-point favorites in any game since 2010, when the 8-7 Jaguars hosted the 6-9 Washingtonians. The Jaguars, inevitably, lost that game. They have not covered a five-point spread since 2008. Against a Bengals team trying earnestly to grind its own quarterback into fine powder (or diamond dust, whichever), #Sacksonville should have more than enough to overcome that recent history. That means I'm taking Jacksonville (minus-5) versus Cincinnati.

Bryan: I'll admit, I'm floundering somewhat this year. When in doubt, I go back to first principles, which is homerism. While Jimmy Garoppolo won't be starting this Sunday, I'm still going to take San Francisco (plus-2.5) at home against Arizona. In fact, I'll go one further -- San Francisco will pick up their first win of the season. The 49ers always play the Cardinals tough; they have covered the spread in three of the last four matchups. They also took the Cardinals to overtime when the two teams played back on October 1. Even picking up linemen off the street to start, I think they at least return to their close losing ways.

Records to date:
Andrew: 4-3
Bryan: 3-4

Scenarios

As it stands right now, every NFL team is still technically alive for every playoff seed. That doesn't just mean teams like the Buccaneers or Colts could make the playoffs; it means that any team in football could still, in theory, earn home field advantage. We admit, it's somewhat unlikely to be expecting that Browns-49ers Super Bowl, but it remains an active possibility as of this moment.

That begins to change after this week, however. For the first time in 2017, teams can officially, mathematically be eliminated from contention. Everyone always pores over playoff scenarios, but here at Scramble, we prefer to highlight the dying embers of a team's final, flickering playoff hopes. Here are Week 9's elimination scenarios, ignoring ties because ties are annoying.

Cleveland can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Miami d. Oakland AND Buffalo d. NY Jets.

San Francisco can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Arizona d. San Francisco.
San Francisco can be eliminated from the NFC West IF Arizona d. San Francisco AND LA Rams d. NY Giants AND Seattle d. Washington.

Email us with fantasy questions, award suggestions, crazy videos, outlandish conspiracy theories, disused award plaques, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam at scramble@footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter on 01 Nov 2017

28 comments, Last at 05 Nov 2017, 4:47pm by roguerouge

Comments

1
by serutan :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 1:46pm

Um, I think in the second SF scenario, the first item should be AZ defeats SF otherwise it's a repeat of #1, and the second & third parts are irrelevant.
______
Was wr

4
by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 2:56pm

Maybe I'm misunderstanding your comment, but the second part does say Arizona d. San Francisco.

Basically, if the 49ers lose to the Cardinals, they can no longer mathematically get a bye. If the Rams and Seahawks also win, then they can't win the division, either. If they lose but, say, the Rams also lose, then the 49ers could still win the division, only with the #3 or #4 seeds.

Honestly, I think all three scenarios will fail this week, leaving everyone alive for everything going into NEXT week. Exciting!

2
by ammek :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 2:17pm

Don't like the picture, don't think it adds anything.

It would be interesting to get your midseason reflections on your own preseason predictions. Andrew's assessment of the Raiders (his team most likely to underperform its DVOA projection) has turned out to be accurate. Does Bryan still see a chance of improvement by the Chargers? Which have been the most surprising and most disappointing teams and players through 7-8 games compared with your expectations? Where should we look for second-half improvement/regression?

For me, I was forecasting a decline in Kansas City. I still don't quite understand how they're as good as they are with the receivers and the defense they have, nor how they're getting such productive play out of Alex Smith. I don't get to watch them often enough to judge for myself, but the numbers last year seemed to say 'this is a team whose success feels fragile'.

I feel the Jets have also been surprising. The comments on the 2017 staff predictions thread are all about how the Jets were preparing to tank the season, and then you launched the Gabbert Watch feature; but in fact the Jets might not even be the worst team to play in their division or in their stadium.

The biggest disappointment could be the Baltimore offense. It doesn't seem to be designed to succeed. I think my nomination for future non-head coach would be Marty M.

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by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 2:52pm

We do plan on going back and looking over the over/unders and the other staff predictions; just doing it a little later in the season.

For me right now, I'm looking at "New Orleans: Under 8 wins" as my biggest miss. Who knew that they would finally, after years and years of wandering, assemble an average defense?

Kansas City is another big miss, and worse -- it's one Andrew nailed and I missed! Woe and shame, shame and woe.

Thanks for the feedback on the picture -- we're always tinkering to see what we can do better, so feedback like that helps.

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by ammek :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:21pm

You're welcome.

New Orleans is surprising for exactly the reason you mention. I thought the NFC South was especially hard to forecast this year, with the Panthers' offense and secondary, the Falcons' young defense and Sarkisian, the inconsistency of Jameis Winston, and the knowledge that old QBs can fall off a cliff real quick. No shame, I think, in missing on that one.

You could make up for it by giving your offensive line of the year award to New Orleans. I hadn't realized, but in the 11 years since Hurricane Katrina, the Saints have ranked in the top seven in adjusted line yards in all but three. This season, at the current rate, would be the fourth time they finished #1 under Sean Payton. It's not quite as impressive as the Patriots' run (seven top-three finishes in ALY over the same span, never lower than #12) but their hit rate on offensive linemen in the draft is worth flagging up. The form of Peat and Ramczyk suggests the unit could continue to be successful.

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by Sixknots :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:35pm

Nah, I got a chuckle out of the picture.

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by roguerouge :: Sun, 11/05/2017 - 4:47pm

Me too. I like a good use of a meme.

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by barf :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:47pm

Regarding KC - they are getting some big plays from at least one or all of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt almost every week. Smith has taken shots down the field he wouldn't have in previous seasons, and connecting at an MVP pace. The offense has been pretty consistent all year, except for the Steelers game. The defense has been bad, and special teams decent. They're a lot like the Patriots, but a little luckier getting turnovers. AND they've played one of the tougher schedules of anyone thus far this year and are still 6-2. If they can beat the Cowboys Sunday, then get healthy on the bye week, they're setup to make a good run at HFA. It will be interesting to see if they can keep winning like they have.

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by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 6:09pm

officisally hate "tank" talk as it applies to anyu tema. find it insulting somehow. do nto think any team tanks going into season. there is something called rebuilding which si not tanking. tnaking is purposefully losing games. major difference way I see it.

if tema A is 2-10 and team B is 3-9 and team C is 3-9 anmd all three need a QB and obvious near lock next great QB identified late in college seaopsn, then *maybe* Team A decides, "yesh, maybe we shdo9ul lose rest of season here." Problem is coaching staff amnd players are not programmed to purposefuly lose. There r only so many good players that can be benche.d Certainly could sit regular QB and go to 3rd or 2nd QB either of which may be true bum. Maybe team can secure losses emnd of season with bum quarterback playing and come up wioth some BS thing to tell media. think bills did this in week 17 2016 season with t. taylor benmching although Bills were not tnaking.

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by RobotBoy :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 8:05am

The photo is rather tasteless in that 'Bud Light ad spot' vein.

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by Raiderfan :: Fri, 11/03/2017 - 8:14pm

I thought it was great.

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by Afrocomb :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:06pm

Is it just me who thinks the loser league scoring is a little broken? I thought the point of the penalties was to stop players that don't play being picked, giving them a mimimum but significant points total.

But now and points scored are added on top of the penalties. So a WR could theoretically have two targets that go for 90yd TDs each for a total of 30 points and still be penalised another 15 points for not enough targets!

I don't remember it being like this in previous iterations, but noticed this week when I had three different players penalised and then score points on top of that!

Surely a player who catches one target for 15 yds should not score more points than a player who is inactive?

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by horn :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:37pm

Dougie P really not getting much love for a fantastic coaching job inheriting a franchise left in utter and completely disarray from the Chipster.

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by barf :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:50pm

Brady isn't the only QB compensating for a crap defense this year. Alex Smith is doing that with the Chiefs as well. I don't know if that will continue, but if so, then he definitely should get some MVP votes.

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by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:58pm

I agree, though it's a matter of scale. Brady's compensating for a terrible defense, while I'd describe Kansas City's as more run-of-the-mill bad. Degree of difficulty and all that.

And some people will be more inclined to vote for Hunt, splitting the KC vote.

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by barf :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 8:32am

Degree of difficulty? KC has played one of the tougher schedules in the league, and are within a couple of plays of still being undefeated. Their degree of difficulty, as you say, has been pretty high. And the Chiefs D can't stop the run. Thank goodness Denver started throwing the ball last week, I would have never stopped running the ball if I was OC.

I wish the Chiefs were in the AFC East - playing the Dolphins, Jets and Bills every year (this year may be an exception, but mostly they stink). It's an easy road to a division championship almost every season. Don't get me wrong, the Pats have clearly been one of the all-time great teams for an extended period, but they are almost gifted the division every year, which guarantees them at least one home game. That's a great starting point for getting to the Super Bowl. Great team, but fortunate their division is usually pretty weak.

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by aga :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 10:42am

iirc, this myth about weak afc east was refuted with some numbers etc in comments of one of the articles at the beginning of this season...

42

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by aces4me :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 11:20am

A weak AFCE is a common but flawed opinion. I stole this work from another thread because it outlines that way better than I could. BTW if the author of the original work would reply and claim it I would love to give you credit. I sadly neglected to make a note of the original author.

Here's one more look at non-divisional records, this time looking by season 2009-2016, the period when the AFC East supposedly was weak. (Not by your claim, but by the post that started this thread.)
How many times did teams in each division go at least 5-5 in their non-divisional games? That would tell us that they played well enough to at least deserve a shot at the playoffs if they had a winning divisional record. At any rate, none of these teams would be considered pushovers or automatic wins to mark on the calendar.

Div. Competitive Teams
NFCE 17 (of 32)
NFCN 22
NFCW 14
NFCS 16
AFCE 22
AFCN 19
AFCW 19
AFCS 16

Sure, you might say, but that's just because teams like the Patriots skew their division. If you take out the team with the best non-divisional record from each division, how do the also-rans do? That would really tell you which division was the pushover.

Div. Competitive Also-Rans
NFCE 13 (of 24)
NFCN 14
NFCW 9
NFCS 10
AFCE 14
AFCN 12
AFCW 12
AFCS 10

And there you have it: the AFC East and the NFC North are the divisions (since 2009) with the most competitive teams. The AFC South and the NFC South and West are the divisions with the most potential pushovers.

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by Bryan Knowles :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 2:01pm

See, this is interesting. That method spits out that the NFC North has been particularly strong, but DVOA sees it a little bit differently.

From 2007-2016, here are the number of teams in each division with a positive DVOA (i.e, above 0%).

T1. NFC North (23)
T1. AFC East (23)
T1. AFC North (23)
4. NFC East (21)
T5. NFC South (19)
T5. AFC West (19)
7. NFC West (17)
8. AFC South (16).

Of course, 10 of those AFC East teams are the Patriots -- dang consistantly good Patriots. Take out the top team from each division over that time period -- NE, PIT, IND, DEN, DAL, GB, NO and SEA -- and the list changes to:

1. NFC East (15)
T2. NFC South (14)
T2. NFC North (14)
T2. AFC North (14)
T5. AFC East (13)
T5. AFC West (13)
7. NFC West (11)
8. AFC South (10)

But you might say that using 0% as a cutoff is too low -- you don't care about average teams, you care about good teams. Let's do the same thing, but with the DVOA cutoff at 10%.

Here are all the teams in the last ten years that hit that cutoff:

1. NFC East (19)
2. AFC North (16)
3. AFC East (15)
4. AFC West (13)
5. NFC West (12)
6. NFC North (11)
7. NFC South (10)
8. AFC South (6)

And without the top team in each division:

1. NFC East (11)
T2. AFC West (8)
T2. AFC North (8)
T4. NFC South (7)
T4. NFC West (7)
6. AFC East (5)
T7. AFC South (3)
T7. NFC North (3)

So, the NFC North tends to produce above average but not great teams -- especially once you remove the Packers from the equation. The AFC East and AFC South also tend to fail to produce particularly great teams, once you take out the Bradys and the Mannings of the world.

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by aces4me :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 2:29pm

This would lead me(struggled to pass stats 101 in school) to think DVOA might not be as good at prediction as hoped? It seems the real outcomes were significantly different than would have been predicted by DVOA.

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by aces4me :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 2:28pm

Double post.

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by nat :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 8:45pm

To do this comparison right, you'd need to stick to the original 2009-2016 period (post Brady injury) instead of slipping in 2007-2008. In fact, I can't see a good reason you would change the period this way, and can see at least one bad reason.

0% DVOA is the analog to 5-5 records, too. Tuning the cutoff to get the answer you want seems like hunting for ripe fruit.

More importantly, you'd have to exclude games within the division. That's key to the original point.

Could you repost with the correct period, analogous DVOA cutoff, and excluding divisional games? It would be cool so see how a DVOA analysis compares.

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by Bright Blue Shorts :: Fri, 11/03/2017 - 11:36am

There is a minor problem with doing 2009-16 which is that it's an 8-year period.

Now that's perfect for the interconference divisional games because they play each of the other conferences divisions twice.

But it means they only play the same-conference divisions 2&2/3 times e.g. the AFCE plays AFCS in 2009, 2012, 2015; the AFCN in 2010, 13, 16 but the AFCW only in 2011 and 2014.

Ideally you'd want to go with a 12-year period because that would allow 3 rotations of interconference and 4 rotations of same-conference.

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by nat :: Fri, 11/03/2017 - 12:06pm

The period is somewhat arbitrary.

In the case of this analysis, it was "Aaron Brooks Go..." who set the periods (2002-10 for the Manning Colts in the AFC South, 2009-2016 for the post-injury Brady Patriots in the AFC East) because they fit the topic he was addressing. I did the right thing and stuck with consistent periods.

The key thing here is to compare apples to apples. If you are going to say "DVOA comes up with a different answer" than it's best not to say (or imply) that "DVOA comes up with a different answer if I change periods to capture a really extreme season, forget to leave out games within the division, and reset the threshold from average to an arbitrary level above average to highlight the answer I'm looking for".

It would be interesting to see how close a truly parallel DVOA analysis came to reaching the same conclusions. It's less interesting if we have to deal with moving the goal posts in three dimensions. All we really learn is that an FO writer was willing to move the goal posts that way, which is kind of depressing.

My hope is that it was an accident or oversight.

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by nat :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 8:19pm
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by aces4me :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 8:48pm

Thanks for doing the work.

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by young curmudgeon :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 7:08pm

"I remember trying to watch Super Bowl XLIII on a tiny screen, dangling out my window to catch the WiFi at 8 o'clock in the morning in Japan. All these "time zones" and "other continents" make watching football highly problematic."

And here we have a textbook example of a "first world problem." Dude, you're in Japan! It's exotic (to our provincial Western eyes)! It's far from home! It's (at least potentially) an adventure! You've traveled to the other side of the world! Don't fixate on the super bowl, enjoy yourself!

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by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 7:58pm

Hah, exotic. Alright, fun backstory time.

I lived in Japan for year as an English teacher with a program called the JET Program. They take English speaking college graduates from around the world and bring 'em to Japan. So they decide where you go, to a certain extent.

I had this all built up in my head -- I was either going to be in a huge modern megacity like Tokyo, or this quiet mountain village far away from civilization. Either was going to be a great adventure!

And I did, in fact, have friends in the big cities. And I did, in fact, have friends who lived in hundreds-year-old Japanese homes in the middle of the mountains. I, however, ended up moving from a beachside suburb in California to...a beachside suburb in Ishikawa. I swear to god, they could have been identical, down to the high schoolers hanging outside of the dollar/100 yen store because there was nothing else to do in town.

Don't get me wrong, I had a great time, and it was a fantastic way to spend a year of my life, and I wouldn't trade it for anything -- but it was a big "oh yeah, this is an ~actual place~ and not, like, an exotic fantasy world".

And of course I spent a day watching the Super Bowl! It's the most Super of all Bowls! Can't miss that!