Scramble for the Ball: Pro Bowl Picks
by Ben Riley and Vince Verhei
This week, the Scramble team drives Gregg Easterbrook up the wall by filling out their Pro Bowl ballots five weeks before the season ends! YE GODS! We promise there will be no rambling discussion of NASA, whether a double-reverse is in fact technically a single reverse, or whether any team in the NFL embodies Good or Evil. Now, onto the balloting.
AFC (chosen by Ben Riley)
QB: Jay Cutler, Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington. The first two picks are fairly straightforward, although Cutler's numbers are inflated due to the fact that the Broncos can't play defense or run the ball, and Collins is clearly benefiting from having the league's best offensive line (and suffering with no wide receivers other than Justin Gage to throw to). Brett Favre will get the start of course -- unsurprisingly, he's currently leading the league in Pro Bowl balloting -- but after that whole stunt he pulled with the Lions coaching staff, I can't in good conscience vote for him.
RB: Chris Johnson, Thomas Jones, Steve Slaton. Yikes. My unhealthy man-love for Chris Johnson is well documented, but finding another two running backs in the AFC this year is not fun. I actually think Leon Washington is a more dangerous back than Jones, and every time I watch the Texans I seem to see Slaton failing to convert at the goal line, but who else would you nominate in this conference? A not-quite-but-almost-washed up Jamal Lewis? And please don't argue that LaDainian Tomlinson deserves it again this year, not when he ranks 29th in DYAR (just one slot ahead of Lewis, not coincidentally). As for MJD, our metrics and Doug Farrar love him but the Jaguars running game isn't scaring anyone this year.
WR: Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker. The controversial pick here is Marshall, who has a lower DYAR than his teammate Eddie Royal (but higher EYards), to say nothing of his alleged off-the-field, fast-food-based injury before the season started. Still, it's not Marshall's fault that he's Cutler's first, second and third option, and he's a game-changing player who must be accounted for (and double-teamed) on every play.
Also -- and with apologies to the gang over at Kissing Suzy Kolber -- I recognize that Welkahh's numbers are inflated because Matt Cassell cannot throw an accurate pass deeper than 20 yards, but he (Welkahh) seems to be open across the middle on every fahwkin' play this season.
FB: Le'Ron McClain. Consider this the memorial Mike Alstott Memorial "Fullback Who Goes to Pro Bowl Because of his Running (Rather than Blocking) Ability" Award.
TE: Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez. I know, way to go out on a limb, but I can't justify voting for Anthony "Paisan" Fasano or Zach "Hey, I'm Quietly Having a Good Season But No One Cares" Miller over Gates or Gonzo.
C: Kevin Mawae, Samson Satele. I almost picked Kevin Mawae as the league MVP a few weeks ago, as he is the true heart of the Titans' offensive line. As for Satele, I used to get sick in my mouth thinking about how the Seahawks could have drafted him in 2007, but Josh Wilson's emergence this year makes me feel a little better.
G: Kris Dielman, Justin Smiley. When it comes to Pro Bowl balloting, there is nothing worse than voting for guards. Are these really the best three interior lineman in the AFC? All I know is that they've looked good in the games I've watched.
T: Michael Roos, Ryan Clady, Joe Thomas. In contrast, I feel really good about my picks at tackle (although it baffles me that the NFL does not differentiate between right and left tackles). Roos is my league MVP, Clady is very close to my rookie of the year, and Joe Thomas likes to go fly fishing. 'Nuff said.
DE: Shaun Ellis, Dwight Freeney, Mario Williams. Are we all agreed now that the Texans made the right pick in 2005? Good. Freeney remains the fastest edge rusher in the game, and although Shaun Ellis is benefiting from Kris Jenkins's monster year, it's also true that Kris Jenkins is benefiting from Shaun Ellis's strong play.
DT: Albert Haynesworth, Kris Jenkins, Shaun Rogers. It doesn't pain me all that much to leave Vince Wilfork off this list because Wilfork plays for the Patriots, who I continue to find loathsome with or without Tom Brady.
OLB: Joey Porter, James Harrison, Terrell Suggs. How intense is Joey Porter? Here's Porter this week, talking about his son's pee-wee football team:
I was mad at my son's pee-wee game the other day. They was losing 27-0, and there was two minutes left. They had the twos [second stringers] in the game and we was trying to stop them. They got to fourth down, and [the opposing coach] brought back in the ones and they break a touchdown. I mean, these are kids, 33-0.
What was the point of scoring the extra touchdown for? This was the Super Bowl game. You already won. The kids is already crying. Why would you do that?
Seriously, I went up to the coach. I was pissed off. I just wanted to understand "What is the point? You just won. What's the difference in 27-0 or 33-0?" Seven- and eight-year-olds. He just said "That's life." That's a reminder to let you know how people think. So you can't never let your guard down, even in pee-wee football."
Just to recap, somewhere there is a pee-wee football coach who has the cajones to tell Joey Porter that he is unafraid to run up the score on his team because, hey, "that's life." You have to wonder if said pee-wee coach will continue to be alive if he keeps running up the score on Joey Porter's kid.
ILB: Jerod Mayo, D'Qwell Jackson. Ray Lewis and DeMarco Ryans have the reputation, but Mayo and Jackson are having better seasons.
CB: Cortland Finnegan, Nnamdi Asomugha, Quentin Jammer. What more can we say about Asomugha? Among all defensive backs in the NFL, he ranks 70th -- 70th! -- in passes defensed, because no one will throw anywhere near him. He is the best cornerback in the league, plain and simple. Meanwhile, Finnegan regularly leaves wide receivers in his wake, and Jammer provides quiet competence in the Chargers' secondary.
SS: Troy Polamalu, Chris Hope. When he was negative-three months old, Polamalu tore through the interior amniotic sack that surrounded him in his mother's womb. At age four, he smashed the family coffee table when jumping up and down after the Teletubbies were canceled. Twelve years later, he led his high school basketball team to the state championship but was ejected in the final game for having "hair like a girl." After dominating for three years at USC, he seemed destined to collide with LaDainian Tomlinson in an epic play with harrowing music playing in the background. Unfortunately, Tomlinson was playing on an underachieving team coached by Norv Turner and the hit never happened. Oh well.
FS: Ed Reed. At least one player from the Ravens' defense should make the Pro Bowl.
K: Phil Dawson. Could go Stephen Gostkowski here, but again, the fewer Patriots, the better.
P: Shane Lechler. Somehow the 2-8 Raiders have two representatives on my Pro Bowl ballot, the same number as the 7-3 Steelers. Perhaps I've been drinking while writing this column? (And if you think I'm trying to bait Raiderjoe into commenting, you are correct, sir.)
KR: Josh Cribbs. It could just as easily be Jacoby Jones, Roscoe Parrish, or Leon Washington. When did the returners get so good in the AFC?
Special Teams: Niko Koutouvides. Because he used to play for Seattle, no one cares, and I think he's Greek.
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NFC (chosen by Vince Verhei)
QB: Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Matt Ryan. Brees and Warner are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. Warner ranks first in DYAR and DVOA; Brees ranks second and third. Warner's team is in first place with seven wins; Brees' team is in last place with five. The traditional numbers are pretty even; Warner wins in passer rating and completion percentage; while Brees has more yards and touchdowns. I give the edge to Brees, because Warner has more talent around him. Three of the top five pass-catchers on the Saints have missed at least one game and the two exceptions -- Lance Moore and Devery Henderson -- pale in comparison to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin of the Cards. Brees has not done more than Warner, but he has done it with less. Rounding out the roster is future Rookie of the League Matt Ryan, fourth in the league in DVOA.
RB: Clinton Portis, Adrian Peterson, Brandon Jacobs. Three easy choices. Portis is obvious. Tops in DYAR, third in DVOA, the best player on a fairly strong playoff contender. Peterson only leads the league in rushing. It would be an interesting debate if I had to choose between Jacobs and Peterson. Jacobs is first in DVOA and second in DYAR; Peterson just 13th and 10th. I can't help but notice, though, that Derrick Ward is second in DVOA, and Ahmad Bradshaw would be 10th if he had enough carries to qualify. Then I look at the receivers and quarterback on Jacobs' team, and compare them to those on Peterson's. It's clear that while Jacobs is the pepperoni that makes the perfect topping to the Giants' pizza, Peterson is the crust that supports the Vikings' entire pie.
WR: Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White, Greg Jennings. These are obvious. Boldin leads the league in DVOA, DYAR, touchdowns, and yards per game despite missing two games with a busted face. (Really, he warrants a vote just for playing with said face.) Fitzgerald, meanwhile, leads the NFC in receptions and yards, and is third in the league in DVOA, eighth in DYAR. The "Best WR Tandem Ever" debate is going to be a fun one this offseason. White and Jennings, meanwhile, are in the top four in DVOA and in total receiving yards.
FB: Michael Robinson. It's a crummy, crummy year for NFC fullbacks. Seriously, just look at the names on the ballot. Almost all of them have missed several games already. So we're going with Robinson, the QB/RB/WR/KR/blocker who also lines up from time to time in front of Frank Gore. He's a very useful player, but if I was coaching the NFC squad, I'd probably use a lot of three-wide receiver sets.
TE: Chris Cooley, Jason Witten. Chris Cooley is the only tight end among the league's top ten in receptions. Witten, meanwhile, ranks second among NFC tight ends in catches, first in yards and first in DYAR, despite playing for a team that has seen 95 passes from players not named Tony Romo.
C: Shaun O'Hara, Eric Heitmann. Both players have started every game this season. O'Hara's Giants rank second in ALY, and first in runs up the middle; Heitmann's 49ers, fifth and third.
G: Rich Seubert, Chris Snee, Steve Hutchinson. In addition to those stats I just mentioned, the Giants are sixth in runs to left tackle and tenth in runs to right tackle. And as much as the Giants pull their guards, you have to credit both guys on runs to either side. The Giants are also seventh in adjusted sack rate. Like O'Hara, Snee and Seubert have started every game. According to Pro Football Weekly, the three players have combined for just seven penalties and three sacks allowed. Years from now, we're going to rank this generation's Giants up there with the '60s Packers, '70s Raiders, and '90s Cowboys as one of the greatest offensive lines of all time. Hutchinson, meanwhile, has 10 starts for the Vikings, who rank second in runs to left tackle, 13th in runs up the middle.
T: Jammal Brown, Jon Runyan, Tyson Clabo. Brown has allowed only three sacks on a team that leads the league in pass attempts, and that's against the likes of Julius Peppers, John Abraham, and Gaines Adams in the NFC South. The Saints are also tops in the league in runs to left tackle, despite being mediocre or worse in all other directions. Runyan, meanwhile, is credited with 3.5 sacks allowed for the team that ranks second in pass attempts, and the Eagles are third in runs to right tackle. Clabo makes three Falcons on the roster. Atlanta is fifth in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, eighth in runs to right tackle.
DE: Jared Allen, Justin Tuck, John Abraham. Allen has eight sacks, tied for eighth in the league, and the Vikings are third in the league in defending runs to his side. There's no evidence of any other end having that kind of success against both run and pass. Tuck has Allen beat by half a sack, and also ranks third among NFC ends with 41 total tackles. Abraham is tied for the NFC lead with 11 sacks.
DT: Kevin Williams, Fred Robbins, Brandon Mebane. The Vikings are top 11 in the league against the run in all directions, and Williams leads all NFC tackles with 41 tackles and seven sacks. The Giants are second in the NFC in defending runs up the middle, and Robbins is third among NFC tackles in tackles. I am loath to put any Seahawks on this roster, but Seattle is eighth in the league defending runs up the middle, and Mebane ranks just behind Robbins in tackles.
OLB: Karlos Dansby, DeMarcus Ware, Chad Greenway. Dansby is the leading tackler on the Cardinals' surprisingly stout defense, which ranks 10th against the run and second in defending passes to running backs. Ware leads the NFC with 11 sacks; no other linebacker in the conference has more than the 4.5 of the underrated Parys Haralson of the 49ers. Greenway leads all NFC outside 'backers in tackles, and also has four sacks and three forced fumbles.
ILB: Antonio Pierce, Barrett Ruud, Patrick Willis. Ruud is the top choice here. The Bucs are eighth in defending runs up the middle and in passes to running backs, and Ruud ranks third among NFC inside backers in tackles. Pierce, meanwhile, is the leading tackler on a team that ranks fourth in ALY, third on runs up the middle.
CB: Chris Gamble, Charles Woodson, Asante Samuel. The Panthers lead the league in defending No. 1 receivers, and Gamble leads all NFC corners with 63 tackles. The Packers rank third against No. 1 receivers, and Woodson has five interceptions for 124 yards and two scores. Samuel leads the league in passes defensed, on a team that ranks sixth in defending No. 1s.
SS: Chris Horton, Michael Lewis. I foolishly left Horton off my rookie of the half-year ballot a few weeks ago. Horton is in the top 10 NFC safeties in tackles, and the Redskins lead the league in passes to tight ends and have allowed only 24 plays of 20 or more yards, the lowest figure in the NFC. Lewis is third among conference strong safeties in tackles, and the 49ers are sixth in defending passes to tight ends.
FS: Nick Collins. The Packers are in the top five in the league defending passes to No. 1 receivers, No. 2 receivers, other wide receivers, and tight ends, and have allowed just 21 completions for 20 or more yards, fewer than everyone except Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Indianapolis. Oh, and Collins also leads the league in interceptions (five), return yards (230) and touchdowns (three). Your current leader for defensive player of the year.
K: Jason Hanson. Not a typo, the Lions really have a Pro Bowl candidate! The Lions lead the league in our field goal and extra point stats, and are third in kickoffs, which Hanson also handles. Playing for the Lions, he has very few kickoffs (42) and even fewer field-goal attempts (14), but he's the best choice.
P: Jeff Feagles. It's almost unfair that a defense as good as the Giants gets to play with a Pro Bowl punter too. The Giants are tops in the NFC in our punting stats, and Feagles is second in the conference with a 39.7 net average.
KR: Allen Rossum. Leads the NFC in kickoff average. Niners rank third in our kick return stats, ninth in punt returns. Rossum has five total returns of 40 or more yards (four kickoffs, one punt); nobody else has more than three.
Special Teams: Michael Robinson. Threw multiple blocks to spring Rossum for a kickoff return touchdown on Monday Night Football.
Keep Choppin' Wood
The trophy remains in Philly, but is passed from Andy Reid to Donovan McNabb, who learned all about the mysterious "tie" in the NFL this week. In fact, here's a list of the Top 10 Things Donovan McNabb Should Know About The World But Doesn't:
10. A man's relative importance in the business world is inversely proportional to the amount of time he spends with a Bluetooth plugged into his ear.
9. If you ask Andy Reid to microwave a burrito for three minutes, he will actually let the burrito defrost for one minute, then heat on "HIGH" for 45 seconds before getting confused, hitting the stop button, and then restarting the microwave for six minutes and making the burrito explode. (By "burrito" we mean "Mike Tanier.")
8. Sometimes, it's better to throw the ball away instead of taking a sack.
7. Volvos are boxy, but they're good.
6. It's not a good idea to give L.J. Smith a newborn infant to hold onto.
5. Avoid Asia, North America or Europe when starting a game of Risk; better to seize one of the smaller continents (Australasia or Africa) and build up your army before expanding outward.
4. Do not listen to Hank Baskett's fiancé for relationship advice.
3. Blogging can be fun, but also self-indulgent.
2. Do not trust the "chunks" in Campbell's Chunky Soup.
1. Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
Hard to find good candidates this week. We're going to stick with Herm Edwards for breaking out the pistol offense in Kansas City. The University of Nevada offense relies almost entirely on the pistol, a half-shotgun that puts the quarterback 2 or 3 yards behind the center at the snap; they run lots of option plays, and the pistol gives the quarterback a better look at the defense. The Chiefs, sadly, didn't run the option, but they did often bring an H-back across the line in front of the quarterback to throw a block on running plays.
QB: It was a good week for quarterbacks, statistically speaking. The low score of the week was posted by Philip Rivers, who mixed 164 yards with 2 interceptions for a 4.
RB: Hi. I'm Julius Jones. I had 14 yards from scrimmage and a fumble against the Cardinals. I scored a -1.
WR: The trend of multiple wide receivers posting 1s continues. This week, add Steve Breaston, Brandon Lloyd, Steve Smith (Giants version), Nate Washington, Koren Robinson, and Devin Thomas to the list.
K: Speaking of multiple losers, each of these kickers scored a 2: Matt Stover, Nick Folk, Josh Scobee, Nate Kaeding, Olindo Mare, and Shaun Suisham.