The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.
09 Jun 2011
by Mike Tanier
Take one 40-year-old nitwit from Philly. Send him to New York City on a mission: cover six sporting events, live, in just over 24 hours. Using mass transit to get from location to location. With no press credentials. In the rain, possibly.
If it sounds to you like an assignment only a desperate lunatic would accept, you are right. On Friday and Saturday, I will be covering 24 hours of New York City sports for The New York Times. I will be live blogging, with some pictures and video, on the Bats blog, and I will be Tweeting @FO_MTanier. The festivities start with a Major League Soccer game on Friday night, but most of the live insanity will take place on Saturday, starting around dawn at a 10K run in Central Park.
I will be at Yankees Stadium to watch the first few innings of Yankees-Indians, at Belmont Racetrack to see if Animal Kingdom or Shackleford can win the elusive Double Crown, and at Randall's Island for the adidas Grand Prix track meet. I will be in Central Park in the morning and in Newark for a WNBA game at night. The goal is to capture the excitement, diversity, and vastness of the New York Sports Universe through the eyes of a passionate sports fan who has no idea where he is going.
Make sure to tune in to the Times to follow my progress, or get a recap on Sunday or Monday. If you ever wondered what Walkthrough would look like if I had no time to edit, was suffering from sunstroke, and was covering sports I have never written about in my life, this is your chance to find out!
Did you ever notice that when a team throws an incomplete pass on first down, they always follow it with a handoff on second-and-10? I hate it when that happens.
Actually, it doesn't "always" happen. The Football Outsiders Database allows me to look through every second-down situation in the 2010 season to determine how many second-and-10 running plays were called, and how successful they were.
There were 2,444 second-and-10 plays in the NFL last year. A total of 929 were running plays, 33 of them scrambles by quarterbacks. That leaves 1,515 passes. Teams run the ball about 37 percent of the time on second-and-10, so it doesn't happen all that frequently, though it is common enough for fans to notice and grumble about. I also ran the numbers for second down and 10 to 25 yards to go: There were 3,985 such plays (remember the second-and-10 plays are double-counted here), 34 percent of them runs. Again, that run percentage is surprisingly high, especially after adding second-and-20 to the mix. We will stick with second-and-10 for the rest of the study, because the additional data doesn't add much new information.
Second-and-10 runs net just fewer than 4.5 yards per play, scrambles included. That's higher than the every down yards-per-carry average, and it helps explain why coaches run so often in this situation. There's a big difference between having five or six yards to go on third down than 10. Lots of short routes break at about five yards, so defenses must be more wary of smash routes, drags, and quick flat routes on third-and-six.
But just how are those 4.5 yards per play distributed? Table 1 shows the surprising results. Instead of providing 3-6 reliable yards, the second-and-10 run strategy produces boom-and-bust type results.
|Yardage Distribution, Second-and-10 Runs|
If you consider a gain of two or fewer yards a failure, then the failure rate on these runs is 43 percent. At the same time, the chance of getting a first down is more than 11 percent. The data includes a 48-yard run by Peyton Hillis and a 47-yarder by Jamaal Charles, plus a few other 40-plus yarders. There are a few reverses in the set, but only 100 runs marked as draw plays by our game charters. Under most circumstances, a run on second-and-10 lacks surprise value.
Let's compare these numbers to second-and-10 passing data. Teams were 884-of-1,410 (62.6%) for 9,357 net yards, with 105 sacks and 40 interceptions. There were also 86 ineffective completions that gained two or fewer yards, including a pass for a loss of 10 from Drew Brees to ... oh, you know. Combine these ineffective completions with the sacks, interceptions, and incomplete passes, and the failure rate on a second-and-10 pass is just shy of 50 percent.
Running, therefore, is a safer play. While passing provides more yards per attempt and a higher first down rate, rushing provides acceptable averages and rates of its own. Rushing is a viable option, depending on factors like field position and opponent, and rushing about 35 percent on second-and-10 feels like a proper percentage after crunching the numbers.
Next week, I will get to those second-and-short play-action bombs I promised a few weeks ago.
The AFC brings former AFL teams: Hooray! We did the Jets back in January, so let's crank out the other three AFC East teams so I can get back to studying my New York City bus schedule.
1. Jim Kelly. Kelly's stat lines remind us how much NFL offense has evolved in the last 20 years or so. We think of Kelly as a "modern" quarterback, and of his Bills as a wide-open passing team, but Kelly threw for more than 3,500 yards just twice and more than 25 touchdowns just once. He had an All-Pro season in which he threw 15 touchdowns and 17 interceptions and completed less than 60 percent of his passes. There were no tunnel screens or empty backfields in the late 1980s, and that wild-and-crazy K-Gun offense looked a little like the modern Colts offense, but with more running. When we evaluate offensive players statistically, we have to be aware of a constantly sliding scale. We don't just have to adjust players from 1973, but from 1993 as well.
This is not germane to the Bills, but it is going to come up a lot in the next few lists. Kelly threw for nearly 10,000 yards and 83 touchdowns in two USFL seasons. The USFL was not the NFL, but it wasn't the Arena Football League, CFL, or 1970s WFL either. It was something in between. It was more marginal than the AAFC of the 1940s, but not by much, and it was probably just as "major" as the AFL was in 1960 and 1961. Kelly's USFL accomplishments cannot be lumped in with his NFL numbers, but we should always bear in mind that Kelly was the star of a league that played on ABC and earned Sports Illustrated cover stories.
2. Joe Ferguson. Ferguson was a rookie starter the year O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards. You know how that went: Ferguson went 6-of-9 for 63 yards in one game, 2-of-7 for 43 yards (and two touchdowns!) in another, and 3-of-5 in a season finale in which the Bills fed Juice the ball 34 times in search of a record. Ferguson didn't just hand off to Simpson, he also handed off to fullbacks Jim Braxton and Larry Watkins, who combined for 206 carries, as compared to Ferguson's 164 pass attempts. Bills quarterbacks (Ferguson and Dennis Shaw) combined to throw just four touchdowns, but the Bills went 9-5. It was a simpler time.
Ferguson later became a bona fide quarterback, had a brief success cycle in 1980-81, and hung around as a journeyman backup until he was 40. It was a fascinating career, the kind you don't see anymore. Ferguson kept his starting job through a four-year trough of losing seasons in the mid-1970s, then kept it three more years after a 1981 peak that ended in the second round of the playoffs. He would have been benched, cut, or just hounded out of town by the talk radio guys three or four times over in today's football.
3. Jack Kemp. Two-time league champion, classic gunslinger type, almost our Vice President. Kemp holds most of the AFL's passing records. I considered ranking him above Ferguson, but his statistics are pretty terrible even in context, and his championship-caliber Bills teams were like the Ravens of their era. The Packers and Browns would have crushed them like soda cans if there had been a Super Bowl back then.
4. Drew Bledsoe.
5. Doug Flutie. One reason I started doing these Top Fives was to demonstrate just how little historical depth most teams have at quarterback. Theoretically, we are dealing with 160 quarterbacks in this series, but there are many duplicates, and teams like the Ravens and Texans are going to have some silly names on their lists. But here's a team with a 50-year history, and once we get past No. 3, our choices are a couple of veterans who made names for themselves elsewhere or obscure guys like Dennis Shaw, who somehow threw 68 career interceptions despite a job description which read "give ball to O.J."
When this series wraps up, we will probably have covered 100 quarterbacks of historic note. I guarantee that if I called Donovan McNabb one of the 100 greatest quarterbacks in pro football history in a Philly bar, some people would laugh at me or try to fight me. This list is proof that McNabb is a no-brainer for a list like that; that we really have to argue about guys like Wade Wilson or the early career Matt Ryan when picking a Top 100.
The 100th-ranked player on the passing yardage list is Billy Wade, a journeyman who rode the Bears defense to a championship in the early 1960s. The 100th player on the touchdown list is Brian Griese. There have not been 160, or 100, or even 50 truly great quarterbacks in NFL-AFL-AAFC history. We will spend much of our fan lifetimes watching guys like Wade, Griese, and Ferguson, so we need to enjoy the things they do well and not worry about the things they don't.
But back to the quarterbacks at hand. Flutie was such a spunky underdog that he received undue credit for every little accomplishment. Bledsoe (to whom we return in a few paragraphs) was so supremely talented that we hammered him for every little failing. Flutie was a sportswriter's wish fulfillment fantasy made flesh: a scrawny 5-foot-10, 30-something white guy, so you know who guys like us were going to back in a quarterback controversy. He was better than Rob Johnson, and Wade Phillips' decision to bench Flutie in favor of The Human Sack was stupid. But I think Johnson's "self-promoter" accusations were right. When Flutie earned some starts a few seasons later in San Diego, national columnists were ready to bury the young Drew Brees, and Flutie's "Aw shucks, I just want what's best for the team, namely me" response to the controversy didn't help Brees' development.
Flutie's 10-6 and 11-5 Bills teams still had players like Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, and Ted Washington on the roster, so it wasn't like Flutie was using sheer force of will to lead the team to the playoffs. He was just another journeyman veteran having a late-career resurgence after a top prospect flamed out. Thanks to his college glory, his Men of a Certain Age storyline, and his inescapable pluck-moxie-grit, we made him a hero. And when Phillips benched him, a martyr.
1. Tom Brady.
2. Drew Bledsoe. More than a third of Bledsoe's yardage and touchdown production occurred in Buffalo and Dallas. We think of Bledsoe as a long-time Patriots quarterback with short end-of-career stops elsewhere, but that "long" Patriots career is eight seasons and the start of a ninth, while his "short" stops elsewhere are not so short.
You can draw a sharp line through Bledsoe's career using DYAR after the 1998 season. He gained 807 DYAR that year, with 600 or more DYAR in three of the previous five seasons. In 1999, he earned just 103 DYAR, and only cracked 600 again once (with the Bills in 2002), and spent many years as a more-or-less average quarterback who threw a bazillion passes. Bledsoe's sack rate shot up after 1998. Not coincidentally, he returned from a finger injury that ended his 1998 season as an immobile quarterback who wouldn't give up on a play or check down until the last possible second, and that problem slowly got worse until 2006.
I have heard Hall of Fame arguments for Bledsoe. You really have to put a lot of stock in 3,600-yard, 20-touchdown, 15-interception, 45-sack, 8-8 seasons as exemplars of excellence to endorse Bledsoe for Canton. He is eighth on the all-time passing yardage list, but Vinny Testaverde is seventh, and Kerry Collins will creep into the Top 10 if he gets a start or two this season. Bledsoe was a great player for a few years, but he has more in common with Testaverde and Collins than he does with the typical Hall of Famer.
3. Babe Parilli. Vito "Babe" Parilli to Gino Cappelletti has to be the most Italian touchdown combination in pro football history. Parilli was an NFL knock-around guy who kept getting traded from the Packers to the Browns and back before the AFL appeared. He had a few King Kong seasons for the Boston Patriots, throwing 31 touchdowns in 1964, then ended his career as Joe Namath's backup in Super Bowl III.
Cappelletti had a similar career. Both were old to be getting their first shot when the AFL arrived, both hit a steep decline when the common draft marked the beginning of the NFL-AFL merger. It's sacrilege in some historical circles to suggest that the AFL was an inferior league in the early 1960s, but there are lots of players whose AFL numbers from those years are suspiciously awesome, guys who were AFL All-Pros in 1963 or 1964 but who were not playing a few years later, when the league was competing with the NFL on equal footing for talent.
Parilli played a year in Canada, played in the World Football League in the 1970s, and was an Arena Football coach. I don't know if he had any USFL experience, but that's an awesome array of leagues for one player to be involved in.
4. Steve Grogan. The Patriots started trying to get rid of Grogan in 1978 and finally did so in 1990. The team drafted Matt Cavanaugh in 1978 and thought he was the answer when he played three good games at the end of the 1980 season. Cavanaugh flunked three different long starting opportunities in 1981 and 1982, so the Patriots drafted Tony Eason. Eason could not stay healthy for 16 games, so he shared the job with Grogan for many years. Doug Flutie showed up in 1987 to complicate things, as did Marc Wilson a year later, but Grogan still started 4-6 games like clockwork until 1990, always looking exactly like who he was: a 30-something former scrambler left over from an era when quarterbacks completed 51 percent of their passes.
Grogan was famously tough. He was constantly playing through or coming back from some major injury, which made him a fan favorite but a high-risk quarterback. He and No. 5 on the list made a perfect tandem, particularly for third-stringers like Flutie and Tom Ramsey who wanted their shots.
5. Tony Eason. Eason had a great sophomore season in 1984, throwing for 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and was also very good in 1986. He was so-so in 1985 and missed several games with an injury, but came back to play well in the playoffs until he got sick before the Super Bowl and got rolled over by the Bears. Lingering groin injuries plagued him after 1987, and Flutie arrived that year to give the crowd an easy horse to root for in the crowded quarterback field. Flutie led the Patriots to a series of 6-3 and 13-7 wins in 1988, throwing up some "6-of-20 for 78 yards" stat lines but dazzling opponents with his awesomeness. Eason kept his job but had both feet on a banana peel; he was benched after a bad game in Week 3 of 1989. Flutie got hurt a few weeks later, and Grogan wound up starting for most of the year, with Eason playing out the string with the Jets.
Eason lacked the temperament and durability to have a great career, but he probably would have lasted longer if Grogan and Flutie weren't always around. Coaches pretend that they don't bow to fan or media pressure, but Raymond Berry faced the tar-and-feather brigade every time Eason had a so-so game with everyone's two favorite man crushes on the sidelines. Two fine seasons sandwiching a Super Bowl run make Eason a No. 5 quarterback many teams would envy.
Jim Plunkett is the only other Patriots quarterback worth a whiff. His 1971 and 1974 seasons in New England were pretty good when you adjust for the era and the fact that the team was run by nitwits back then.
1. Dan Marino. I played APBA tabletop football in the early 1980s, and my friends and I had the 1984 set with the Dan Marino 48-touchdown card. The "66" roll was a "1" (automatic touchdown), which was pretty common for good quarterback's cards, but the "11" and "33" rolls were "2" (huge gain), the "22" and "44" rolls were "3" (substantial gain), and there were rolls for completions on weird die combinations that usually resulted in sacks for other quarterbacks. The card was so imbalanced that whichever of my friends owned it automatically won all of our tournaments. After playing with the card for two or three years, we turned it over to an 11-year-old neighbor, who could beat high school-aged tacticians like us just by calling "Medium Pass" and rolling the dice over and over.
Marino's stats broke the game's model that year. APBA charts weren't designed for a quarterback completing 65 percent of his passes and averaging nine yards per attempt. When you played against Marino, you used APBA's "D" pass defense as your default, and your opponent could safely use draw plays and screen passes as his "running game" everywhere beyond the red zone. That's essentially what was happening in real football, too: Teams played nickel non-stop against the Dolphins, and Don Shula started using scat backs like Lorenzo Hampton as featured runner-receivers. None of this sounds exotic now, but it was a sea change in the mid-1980s, when you still had teams handing the ball to the fullback 10 times per game. We felt the changing times on our back porches with dice and charts. In the NFL, they are still feeling it.
2. Bob Griese. He joins Bart Starr and Troy Aikman on the axis of winners with paltry stats. All three were great quarterbacks, not "winner sauce" guys, but all played on teams that were incredibly run-oriented for their eras. Griese is probably the weakest of the three, but all are legitimate Hall of Famers, and Griese's numbers would be far more interesting if he didn't spend his entire peak in the Dead Ball Era.
3. Jay Fiedler. Gosh golly, but we got here fast. Blame Griese and Marino, who dominated over two decades of Dolphins history. Fiedler was a very efficient journeyman who taught the Dolphins organization a terrible lesson -- that they could find capable quarterbacks hanging around the bottoms of other team's rosters. That sent them on a five-year odyssey of outsmarting the system, trading for every A.J. Feeley and Cleo Lemon they could find in the hope of getting another Fiedler on the cheap.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, I suppose, could be another Fiedler: Ivy Leaguer, scrambler, getting a shot late in his career. The difference is that Fielder walked onto a Jimmy Johnson-designed roster and got to be a caretaker. He would never have racked up a 37-23 career record for a rebuilding team.
4. Don Strock. Strock is probably the only quarterback on any Top Five list for a "real" team (not a recent expansion team) who was not his team's starter of record in any season. Strock backed up Griese, going 5-2 in seven starts in 1978. He then shared the job with David Woodley for a few years, often relieving the flaky Woodley just in time to lead a comeback. Strock helped engineer two fourth-quarter comebacks each in 1981 and 1982, all in games Woodley started. He threw four touchdowns in the 41-38 Dolphins-Chargers classic playoff game, then relieved Woodley briefly, to no avail, in the Super Bowl a year later. Strock then backed up Marino for five years, which was a do-nothing job.
The Strock-Woodley experiment seems idiotic in retrospect and made little sense at the time. The last thing you want to do to a talented youngster with concentration issues is yank him out of the lineup at the first sign of trouble. Shula kept doing it, and Woodley never developed. It was a strategy at least 15 years out of date. Strock had shown enough in relief of Griese that he should have just been the starter in 1981 and 1982. The Dolphins would have gone just as far.
5. Earl Morrall. Another backup. Morrall started nine regular season and two playoff games for the 1972 Dolphins, winning all of them (natch) and putting up big numbers in a few. Strock ranks above him as a Dolphins quarterback, but Morrall blows Strock away as the greatest backup of all time when you factor in his stint with the Colts.
Great news, Chad Henne! You have two career backups and Jay Fiedler above you on this list. It will only take a few workmanlike seasons for you to vault into position as the third-best quarterback of Dolphins history. Don't just hang around and wait for it to happen, though. Use Woodley as your cautionary tale. Go win some games with your arm, get your team to the playoffs, and cement your standing for a few years. Strock and Morrall won't mind you leaping over them: That's the way they lived their lives!
56 comments, Last at 18 Dec 2012, 1:24am by Spencer Blank