Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
21 Aug 2008
by Mike Tanier
Question: What do Brett Ratliff, Marcus Mason, and DeSean Jackson have in common?
Answer: They have statistically been the NFL's top players this August, leading the league in quarterback rating, rushing yards, and receptions, respectively, at the end of the second week of the preseason.
Ratliff is the Jets' third-string quarterback. He was an undrafted rookie out of Utah who spent last season as a scout team wide receiver. Eric Mangini once said that he looked so inept at quarterback that it took "an act of Congress" for him to make a proper call in the huddle. Now, after two touchdowns in the preseason opener and a strong showing against the Redskins, Jets fans are calling him "Other Brett," and newspapers are wondering if he's a threat to Kellen Clemens' backup job.
Mason spent last season on the Redskins practice squad. He's trying to find room on a roster that already includes Clinton Portis, Ladell Betts, and Rock Cartwright. He has gained 233 yards on 43 carries and caught a touchdown pass, but he also fumbled a kickoff return, not a good sign for a player who needs to play well on special teams to make the roster.
Jackson, the big name of this group, is the Eagles' second-round pick. He's a nifty speed merchant who weighs as much as I did in ninth grade. The Eagles are giving him extra playing time in the preseason, and he has responded with 12 catches for 122 yards. David Clowney leads all comers in receiving yards (thanks to some long hookups with Ratliff), but a broken collarbone has ended his preseason, and probably his real season.
If preseason games are meaningless, then preseason stats are an insignificant interpretation of the meaningless. They're a quantification of angels dancing on the head of a pin, except that the angels are third-stringers who probably won't make the heavenly choir, and fans paid full price to get a seat on the pincushion. Yet preseason stats exist. They are duly tabulated by the NFL and major Web sites. They are tracked and reported just like real stats, then tossed aside the moment the regular season starts, forgotten by everyone, even number fetishists like us. The NFL Game Statistics and Information System keeps them in a corner of its database for five years, so I can go back and find out Tyler Thigpen's preseason stat line from last year if I am desperate for a Pro Football Prospectus player comment. But nobody studies preseason stats or tries to extract any real meaning from them, for a variety of very valid reasons.
Even casual fans know that preseason stats are highly dependent on who was on the field, in what quarter, and in what role. Particularly in the first two preseason games, it's easy to generate big numbers in the fourth quarter, backup-on-backup pinball that masquerades as pro football. Ratliff, Mason, and Clowney all did most of their damage in meaningless second-half action against nondescript opponents.
What's more, none of the players listed above (except possibly Jackson) are likely to win the preseason passing, rushing, or receiving title, dubious distinctions that they are. Garbage time production is harder to come by in the third preseason game (in which the starters get extra work) and the fourth (when the bottom-feeders have been released and the second-stringers see the most action). To illustrate, here's a list of the preseason passing, rushing, and receiving champions over the last five seasons:
|2007||Sage Rosenfels||Thomas Clayton||Lance Moore, James Jones|
|2006||Jay Cutler||Brandon Jacobs, Quincy Wilson||Jamaica Rector|
|2005||Matt Hasselbeck||Chester Taylor||Mark Bradley|
|2004||Matt Schaub||Steven Jackson||Jason Witten|
|2003||Tom Brady||Damien Anderson||Autry Denton|
There are very few mystery men on the list, a sign that by preseason's end, the statistical leaders are generally up-and-coming young veterans, guys who might be penciled in as the first-team change-up back or slot receiver and the second-team starter, youngsters not established enough to take any nights off with a mildly strained pinkie ligament. That explains the presence of guys like Jacobs, Taylor, Jackson, James Jones, and Bradley. It also explains quarterbacks like Schaub and Cutler, who were good enough to merit first-team reps but inexperienced enough to draw some mop duty.
Low sample sizes help players sneak onto the preseason leaderboard. A guy like Denton (who caught 15 little swing passes for the Lions) can easily reach the list, as can a guy with an 82-yard run that accounts for almost one-third of his production (Anderson). Among quarterbacks, it helps to be a veteran who throws a few touchdown passes, then hits the showers (Brady and Hasselbeck).
Speaking of starting quarterbacks with cameos, you may have read somewhere that Jon Kitna has a perfect preseason passing rating. It's true: He's 9-of-10 for 182 yards and two touchdowns for a perfect rating of 158.3 (my, what a convenient, user-friendly stat!). But Kitna only threw 10 passes, so he doesn't qualify for the league leaderboard. Qualifiers must throw 14 passes per game, so all of the league leaders on our list threw at least 56 passes, not enough to wash out the effects of a fluke touchdown or two, but enough to weed out the dudes who threw six passes in the fourth quarter of the Hall of Fame game (for the record, none of the leaders on our list played a fifth preseason game; Mason is the only current leader with a one-game head start).
Establishing minimum qualifications for preseason stats seems silly, but some of us in the media need to be saved from ourselves. The Perfect Kitna story, for example, achieved national attention, leading to the usual outsized speculation ("The new offense is gonna be great! How else do you explain nine complete passes?"). Last week, David Climer of The Tennessean explained away Vince Young's poor preseason performance (7-of-19, 54 yards) by revealing that Eli Manning â€“- the Super Bowl champion! â€“- had a lower passing rating. At that point, Manning had only played one preseason game, and he was 2-of-6 for 11 yards. Neither data sample is even close to significant, but Climer surely knew he was abusing the stats a bit. By establishing some minimums, the league can at least ensure that the guys on the leaderboards did more than take a few snaps and grab an energy bar.
Despite their meaninglessness, there are kernels of wisdom to be gleaned from preseason stats. Over the past five years, a 50-carry preseason workload has usually put you among the league leaders. That means that backs who are getting a long audition should expect about 12 carries in a game; if you are a third-round pick and you only get four carries, it may be time to worry. Despite the occasional Colt Brennan sighting at the end of an early game, top preseason quarterbacks are usually real prospects like Cutler or veteran placeholders like Gus Frerotte or Jim Sorgi. The receiving stats are largely meaningless, as you might expect from such tiny samples, though if you catch 20 passes like Jamaica Rector did for the Cowboys in 2007, you at least buy yourself a seat on the practice squad.
So don't expect any preseason DVOA or DYAR in the near future, and don't draft Ratliff or Mason (or even Jackson) for your fantasy team just because they are kicking butt in August football. But if Ratliff appears on some roster in two years, competing for the second-string job, or if Mason comes of the bench in Week 5 of 2010 and rushes for 143 yards for some team, try to remember that once upon a time, these "nobodies" were league leaders.
Actually, the NFL counts this as preseason Week Four. In the past, the opening week was Hall of Fame week. Whatever. This is the dress rehearsal, baby! These preseason games are less meaningless than the others, meaning there may be some actual entertainment value to tuning in this weekend.
Niners at Bears: Dueling quarterback controversies: What more can you ask for in preseason football? Kyle Orton is officially the starter in Chicago, at least until the second quarter of the season opener, and you'll get to hear plenty of gushing comments about Kid Whiskey as he tosses pass after pass to Lousaka Polite in the flat. J.T. O'Sullivan is starting his third straight game, but Mike Nolan is yet to name him as the team's starter, largely because Nolan enjoys making Alex Smith twist in the wind. Like most coaches in the dress rehearsal Nolan plans to play his starters into the third quarter. The Bears are likely to do the same, meaning you get a hefty dose of the high-powered Niners and Bears offenses. Yay.
Texans at Cowboys: The Cowboys have snoozed through the preseason thus far. They didn't even bother to blitz the Broncos last week, allowing Jay Cutler to pick apart the starting defense for two scores. Contrary to some weird rumor that never dies, teams actually do blitz in the preseason, and some of the blitzes are fairly complex. Wade Phillips just decided to keep DeMarcus Ware and the boys under wraps for some reason. Phillips makes odd decisions sometimes (see the precedent of Johnson vs. Flutie, 1999). Terrell Owens wants fans to rest assured that the Cowboys will pull it together come September: "Once the preseason is over, I think it's almost like another switch is turned off and another one is turned on," he said. Owens, no doubt, has a lot of switches.
Steelers at Vikings: Tarvaris Jackson has been participating in drills despite a sprained right knee, but Gus Frerotte will likely get the start for the Vikings, whose offense will also likely be without Bernard Berrian (turf toe). So the Steelers defense gets to face an immobile 37-year-old without his top receiver. Maybe Brad Childress can get Wade Phillips to call Mike Tomlin and suggest a game plan.
Steelers fans are pumped, for a variety of reasons. Troy Polamalu's return to practice will give the defense a boost (Polamalu might not play in this game). Ben Roethlisberger has looked good in two starts, and he hasn't gotten sacked yet, a great sign for an offensive line in transition and a quarterback learning to get rid of the ball faster. Rookies Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed have shown promise. And the division-rival Browns laid an ostrich egg on Monday night.
Despite the high Frerotte quotient, this may be the most watchable national game of the week. The Steelers have several interesting young players to audition (Mendenhall, Sweed, Dennis Dixon), the Vikings may give John David Booty some late snaps, and of course there should be a brief Adrian Peterson sighting.
Bills at Colts: The Colts are usually August sleepwalkers, but with Peyton Manning's status for the season opener in doubt, look for there to be some urgency on Sunday night. Jim Sorgi has been working with the first-team offense since the start of camp, and he'll get at least a half to work with the starters, running the full offense. The Bills have plenty of young talent, and you probably didn't see much of them last year, so have a long look at Trent Edwards, Marshawn Lynch, James Hardy, Paul Posluszny, and the rest of the exciting youngsters who will leave Buffalo as soon as their rookie contracts expire.
Seahawks at Chargers: When the Chargers faced the Rams in St. Louis last week, only eight of their 22 projected starters played. Lots of teams bench their regulars early in the preseason, but what the Chargers did was extreme. Give Norv Turner credit for following his own plan; he kept the starting offensive line on the field so Billy Volek could get work in without getting killed, but he used the early part of the game to air out the likes of receiver Legedu Naanee and rookie corner Antoine Cason against the Rams' starters.
Expect no such shenanigans in the vaunted third preseason game, especially when at home and on national television. The Chargers will likely be without injured Shawne Merriman and Antonio Gates, but the healthy big names will be on the field. The fact that veteran coaches, even conservative ones like Turner, are willing to play angles in the preseason ("we're on the road," "our boys don't need work," "let's start Cletis Gordon") tells you all you need to know about August football.
Due to scheduling difficulties, I didn't line up a real guest for Walkthrough this week. Luckily, I scrounged up a fictitious one. Here's an exclusive interview with the Browns' Playoff Hope.
Football Outsiders: How are you feeling right now?
Browns Playoff Hope: Dashed. Really dashed. You saw that Monday night game, right? The Browns were a darling, "sleeper" Super Bowl prediction for some experts. I was riding sky high. Now, people are whispering behind my back and snickering when I walk around town. God, I feel like the Rams' Playoff Hope.
FO: Was there anything positive you could take out of Monday night's loss to the Giants?
BPH: Well, besides Derek Anderson there weren't many injuries. Kellen Winslow didn't run over Braylon Edwards's foot with his motorcycle. The Browns haven't re-signed Charlie Frye. I guess those are positives.
FO: Speaking of Anderson, does the concussion worry you?
BPH:You know how some people have memory loss after a concussion? I am worried that he'll have memory gain. Something will plunk into place, and he'll remember he's Derek Anderson, who wasn't even good enough to beat Frye for a starting job in camp last year. Then we'll have to start Brady Quinn, who was once on the cover of Pro Football Prospectus, which means he is scarred for life. By the way, look at what you jerks are doing to Kellen Clemens. How do you sleep?
FO: Speaking of PFP, our mean projection for the Browns was 6.3 wins. How did that make you feel?
BPH:Oh, c'mon, I'm a Playoff Hope, not a Realistic Evaluation. I see a bad projection in a book like yours and I say, "Stupid stat geeks, the Browns will prove them wrong, they like being the underdog anyway." A Playoff Hope doesn't start to worry until the special teams can't punt or tackle a kick returner and the running back is fumbling at the goal line on national television. Anyway, if you want to know about the impact PFP has, you should call the Ravens' Playoff Hope. He's curled up in the corner of his bedroom hugging your book right now. Want his number?
FO: That's OK. But look: It was only a preseason game on Monday night. It didn't count. Does that provide any solace?
BPH:What the hell are you talking about? Did you see a single play where the Browns offensive line looked good? Did you see anything positive? This wasn't a flat performance. This wasn't a team giving up a few sloppy plays. This wasn't a game where the backups were making dumb mistakes. This was a starter-on-starter beatdown until halftime. Just reliving it is causing shrinkage. Shrinkage. Little Playoff Hope Junior is hiding in the tiniest little crease in my underwear right now.
OK, I've said too much. I am having lunch with the Seahawks' Super Bowl Aspiration and the Broncos' Cautious Optimism. We have a lot to talk about.
It's 7 a.m., the baby is awake, and you tune into NFL Network hoping to see Total Access so you can get caught up on injuries and transactions. But Total Access isn't on. All summer, when there was nothing to talk about but Marshall Faulk's golf swing, NFLN ran the show eight times per morning. Now, with news happening fast, they cannot take time out of their busy schedule of preseason replays to provide an hour of news. So you watch the out-of-town, non-network broadcast. And you realize that while network broadcasts can be bad, regional broadcasts are downright brutal. In fact, they sound something like this:
Overenthusiastic Local Announcer: Hello fans, and welcome to exciting preseason action between the Home Team and the Opponent here on the Homer Television Network. That's right: The NFL allows the teams to produce and control their local preseason telecasts, which makes for high-caliber, unbiased analysis and tons of home team promotion. Joining me in the booth is Obscure Jock, who isn't good enough to be a network color columnist but was hand-picked by the team because he's so obsequious.
Obscure Jock: I'm thrilled to be here and can't wait for the hard-hitting action! Home Team has had an amazing training camp, and they really want to build momentum to carry into what's sure to be an excellent regular season. Coaches told me that Veteran Quarterback has been very sharp in camp, and he'll get one or two series to show his stuff.
OLA: Thanks, Jock. Home Team has won the toss. Back deep is Rookie Receiver. The kick goes to the 5-yard line. Rookie takes it, makes a move, doubles back, and gets hit at the 19-yard line.
OJ: You see some of the moves that kid has. He's dynamic, a real playmaker. Look how he makes the first defender almost miss. He's going to add an element to the Home Team that they lacked last year. Not the Home Team is ever truly lacking, mind you.
OLA: Veteran Quarterback takes the ball on first-and-10. The give is to Free Agent Running Back off tackle. Free Agent is tackled for no gain. Jock, what are your impressions of Free Agent?
OJ: I can't say enough about him. He's explosive. He reminds me a lot of Jerry Rice.
OLA: Rice was a wide receiver.
OJ: That's just it. He's one of those guys who transcends positions and labels.
OLA: Veteran Quarterback's second-down pass is incomplete. Fans, a Personal Seat License isn't just your only way to get season tickets. It's a great way to show your neighbors that you have a higher credit rating than they do! And with the real estate market in the tank and the stock market shaky, calling them an "investment" is only mildly ridiculous. Guarantee your spot on the Home Team waiting list by buying a PSL for the new stadium. Call now. Usurers are standing by.
OJ: Third-and-long and we have Rookie Receiver in the slot. The coaches told me they really want to get him the ball in space.
OLA: Flag before the snap. False start, Disappointing Second-Year Tackle. It's third-and-15.
OJ: Disappointing gave up a few sacks last year. Well, he gave up 20, but that's an unofficial stat. He really rededicated himself in training camp, and coaches can't stop gushing about how he's improved. Yeah, he jumped there, but Veteran Quarterback has that tricky cadence, and sometimes it throws off the offense instead of the defense. Anyway, I like Disappointing's eagerness to get out of his stance and wham somebody.
OLA: Veteran drops to pass, he's under a rush. Fires over the middle. Incomplete, well over the head of Rookie Receiver. Time to bring on the punter, after we see to the injured Home Team player on the field.
OJ: I think there was some pass interference there that wasn't called. Check the replay. Yep, look at Rookie Receiver at the end of this route, he gets bumped. The refs just missed that one. It should be first down for the home team.
OLA: But wasn't than an uncatchable ball?
OJ: Excuse me?
OLA: Well, the ball was 10 yards over the receiver's head. And that contact was ticky-tack. Overall, that wasn't a very good series.
OJ: Producers, we have a Code Red in the booth. Get him!
OLA: No! Wait!
(Sounds of a struggle)
Different Local Announcer: Ahem. Is this headset working? OK, It's fourth down and the totally awesome, infallible Home Team is about to punt.
OJ: The coaches told me they wanted to get a long look at the punt units in this game. After all, the roster is so stacked that the only real way to make the squad is on special teams.
DLA: That's very true. Hey fans, here's your chance to own a part of the new stadium! Purchase your very own paving stone on the Home Team's Walk of Glory. You can engrave the 3- by 5-inch stone with your name, or the name of a loved one, assuming that the name is short enough to fit on the stone. Fans will walk, spit, and puke on your stone as they finish their final beers on the way to the stadium. It's your chance to help a multi-millionaire finance his vanity project. So instead of plunking down money on a stone to fund that Korean War memorial in your own town square, spend far more to purchase 15 square inches of a soulless suburban bowl you can only afford to visit once every five years.
OJ: The injured player is Pro Bowl Lineman. He's being helicoptered off the field, but I don't think it's serious. You hate to lose a guy like that, but the coaches are convinced that Disappointing Second Year Tackle is ready to slide over to the left side to take his place.
DLA: We finally get to punt. The kick is returned for a touchdown! Wait, there's a flag: Roughing the punter. Fifteen yards and a first down.
OJ: Good call by the coaching staff. You're backed up against your own end zone, so why not expose your punter to injury, let him take one for the team, and you get a free first down. I was really impressed by our coverage units on that play, too. They were really flying around, almost making tackles.
DLA: First-and-10. Veteran Quarterback drops back, fires, and completes a 16-yard pass to Rookie Receiver. First down! Jock, are you OK?
OJ: Oh, that's so good. Yes, first down. (Panting). Don't stop. Keep driving, keep driving. You're so awesome, Home Team, it's so exciting, yes... yes...
DLA: Um, Jock?
OJ: Yes! Oh my God yes! We're winning the Super Bowl! Yes! Five Super Bowls! One for the thumb! Going undefeated! Rewrite the record books! Cramming... Lombardi Trophy... up Mercury Morris'... keester... sigh.
DLA: Jock, that was a little...
OJ: Premature? Don't judge me. Wait until you're my age.
DLA: Fair enough. Hey fans, the Home Team Carnival for Diphtheria kicks off this Sunday. It's a great event for the kids. Stand in line for hours to shake hands with a backup linebacker. Enjoy the Virtual Football Experience, which involves running through tires and throwing a football at a cardboard cutout. Ogle the players' wives; even the linemen's wives are pretty hot! Visit the memorial to honor the workers who lost their lives during construction of the new stadium. And best of all, pick up a PSL or buy a walkway paver! Just don't forget where you heard about it: here on the Homer Television Network!
OJ: I need a cigarette. Is it halftime yet?
Next week: I try to research the history of stadium snacks and tailgate goodies, but I may need some help. Perhaps a special guest can help me find the true birthplace of barbecue...
44 comments, Last at 27 Aug 2008, 3:15pm by armchair journeyman quarterback