Scramble for the Ball: Preseason Review
by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie
Andrew: So we're now at midseason. Or was it last week? The 17-week season violates symmetry. As a fan of right angles and easily divisible entities, I like the elegance of the English Premier League: 38 weeks of games in which each team plays every other team twice. No silly playoff upsets to deny the rightful champion the trophy. No crazy schedule luck like the Panthers have this year. And no always irreducible fractions to describe how much of the season remains.
Last week, we made some predictions for the second 9/17 of the season. Now that we're at the other week with an equal claim to the middle, let's look back at the predictions we made before the season to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. All 11 writers, including us, made predictions in six categories. Wisdom of Crowds style, we can see how the Football Outsiders starting 11 did with their collective crystal ball before patting ourselves on the back for how sage-like we have been. You know, like when you predicted an Eagles-Colts Super Bowl.
Sterling: Scramble readers can be assured they're receiving only A-plus level analysis from someone who was really down on the Panthers and really high on DeVante "most talented receiver on the roster" Parker. Hello professor, indeed.
Andrew: I still think 4-12 is on the table for the Panthers. All right, let's go by categories in the same order as the preseason projections. We both look pretty good in the first one.
Teams Most Likely to Exceed Their FOA Projection
Receiving votes: Dolphins (3), Cardinals (2), Cowboys (2), Packers (2), Broncos (1), Ravens (1)
Furthest from the Truth: Ravens
Closest to the Money: Cardinals
Andrew: Both your prediction (Packers) and mine (Broncos) look pretty good here. Overall, we're on track for 5-6 as a group with the Dolphins, Cowboys, Ravens all looking likely to come in under their projections. Aaron Schatz was disappointed when the new projection system came in so low on the Dolphins, but depth matters and the secondary is as bad as I thought it might be before the season.
Sterling: The Ravens might even come in right around their preseason DVOA projection (eighth) with a hot finish, considering they're ranked 16th at the moment. Even if its DVOA does sneak into top-10 territory, Baltimore will still be considered a disappointment because of its record and likelihood of missing the postseason. A similar fate could await a team many saw as likely to fall short of its preseason projection:
Teams Most Likely to Fall Short of Their FOA Projection
Receiving votes: Rams (5), Steelers (2), 49ers (1), Jets (1), Panthers (1), Vikings (1)
Furthest from the Truth: Panthers
Closest to the Money: 49ers
Sterling: The Rams won't finish fifth overall like we predicted, and this "award" is going to San Diego or Indianapolis. Still, a playoff appearance certainly wouldn't count as a disappointment. A Nick Foles-Jeff Fisher tandem just feels destined to go 8-8, but does mediocrity even qualify St. Louis as a disappointment? It's overly simplistic to boil everything down to Foles, but he's currently ranked 30th in both passing DVOA and DYAR. The Panthers made the postseason last year with Cam Newton finishing 33rd in DVOA and 36th in DYAR, but that was a byproduct of their historically awful division. Plus, Newton at least added 146 DYAR worth of rushing value. The 2011 Broncos similarly benefited from a terrible AFC West, winning the division at 8-8 behind Tim Tebow. If the Rams earn a wild card berth with Foles, the most recent comp would be the 2009 Jets reaching the postseason despite rookie Mark Sanchez finishing 35th in DVOA and 38th in DYAR.
Andrew: On my Panthers prediction, it is impressive to already have no chance to win an over/under wins prop after eight games. I take some pride in that. You and almost half our group picked the Rams and that's looking vaguely like a push so far (FOA prediction was 8.8 wins). They're 4-4 and their remaining schedule ranks 26th. So five more wins and they'd be as close as you can get to the prediction. As a group, we're looking not so great here. Only the 49ers prediction looks clearly in good shape, at least according to record rather than DVOA.
Player Most Likely to Beat His KUBIAK Projection
Receiving votes: Andrew Luck, Doug Martin, Ryan Mathews, Jordan Matthews, Darren McFadden, DeVante Parker, Joseph Randle, Tony Romo, DeSean Jackson, Mike Wallace, Danny Woodhead
Furthest from the Truth: Andrew Luck
Closest to the Money: Doug Martin, Danny Woodhead
Andrew: Woodhead was an inspired choice. KUBIAK had him pegged as the No. 39 running back. The Muscle Hamster, Mr. Doug Martin, came in even lower at No. 44. Both have done just slightly better than DeVante Parker, my pick, who has looked more like the prospect Playmaker Score thought was overrated than a receiver meriting the No. 14 pick. Rough year so far for hyped receivers with names pronounced Duh-VON-tay given the struggles of Adams in Green Bay, too.
Sterling: Freeman's certainly picked up the slack for Duh-VON-tay's around the league though. Anywho, it's astounding to see how many people really fell short, especially since Woodhead is a little more of a borderline starter in non-PPR leagues. The Darren McFadden selection is belatedly coming on, thanks to the implosion of Joseph Randle (another pick on this list). I took Jordan Matthews, piggybacking off his hot second half from 2014 (35 catches, 559 yards, five touchdowns over final eight games) and the fact that DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin had both thrived as top-10 fantasy receivers in Chip Kelly's offense. As far as I know, I'll be the last person to die on that Matthews bandwagon.
Player Most Likely to Fall Short of His KUBIAK Projection
Receiving votes: C.J. Anderson, Mike Evans, Larry Fitzgerald, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy (3), Lamar Miller, Alfred Morris, Latavius Murray
Furthest from the Truth: Larry Fitzgerald
Closest to the Money: C.J. Anderson, Marshawn Lynch
Andrew: KUBIAK had Beast Mode ranked first overall, so let's award the top honors here to whoever was brilliant enough to see that he might hit a wall this year. Lynch has been hurt, but he has also averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and ranks 24th in DVOA. C.J. Anderson projected not too much worse than Lynch and has had an even harder go of it. He ranks 35th in DVOA, next-to-last among qualifying running backs.
Sterling: You can probably pat yourself on the back here for your Lynch pessimism. But at least Lynch is still rosterable given his volume, unlike Denver's Anderson, who will probably become a popular Loser League Part II choice. It's easy to say in retrospect that 40 percent of Anderson's 2014 rushing total came over two consecutive weeks, and that we never should have labeled him a first-round fantasy choice. But hey, over 20 percent of Latavius Murray's production last year came on a single play, and he's been just fine as a solid RB2 this season. Anderson has looked healthier the past couple games, so maybe he wrests a greater share of the carries back from Ronnie Hillman and salvages some value down the stretch.
Super Bowl Winner
Receiving votes: Broncos (2), Eagles (1), Packers (1), Patriots (1), Seahawks (7)
Furthest from the Truth: Eagles
Closest to the Money: Patriots
Sterling: Pretty on the money here. It's a little shaky that Seattle got so many votes and is still a realistic candidate to miss the postseason, but at least the Hawks are still a top 10 DVOA team right now. Meanwhile, three of the other teams have four losses between them, while one doofus went out of his way to pick the Eagles.
Andrew: You were the only one to have the courage to go non-chalky here. I'm not sure you're wrong to be all-in on the Chip bandwagon, but he might have to change the wagon driver to someone other than Sam Bradford, currently 28th in DVOA out of 32 qualifiers.
First Goodell Hug Recipient on Draft Night, 2016
Receiving votes: Browns (4), Jaguars (1), Washington (6)
Furthest from the Truth: Washington
Closest to the Money: Browns
Andrew: The Browns are currently only fourth in the race for the No. 1 pick by our numbers, but I think I'd put them second, behind only Detroit. The remaining schedule is the sixth-hardest and the Browns currently rank 28th in DVOA. In the Super Bowl era, the Browns and Lions have somehow only combined to get the No. 1 pick four times. That feels impossible given that they have made the playoffs just 25 times combined in the last 50 years.
All right, it's time for our weekly segment where you lose money to me. I will take the Browns and Lions in the race for the No. 1 pick. You get the field. The usual amount, Mortimer?
Sterling: Our current playoff odds give you a roughly 51-49 advantage, but I guess that's what happens when I let you make the bets. I guess I'll be the sucker and take the bet -- I think the 49ers, even with three wins, still have a decent shot at the No. 1 pick. Realistically, how many people have gone wrong betting against the Blaine Gabbert-to-Quinton Patton connection? Oh wait, don't answer that.
Advanced Stat O' The Week
Future Schedule Ranking for Carolina: 29th
The 8-0 Panthers face opponents that have an average DVOA of -8.9% the rest of the way. So the Panthers are essentially facing Jacksonville or Washington the rest of the way. But we see a potential danger spot this week against the Titans (see below).
Loser League Part I Recap
Congratulations to William Homonnay from North Andover, Massachusetts, winner of Part I this season! Riding the trio of Nick Foles, Isaiah Crowell, and Jason Myers, William garnered a total of 336 points under the team name "Boston," which seems fitting given the change in Scramble writers and their respective NFL allegiances this year. Soon this site will just be a picture of Ted Kennedy eating chowder while the Dropkick Murphys blare in the background.
As impressive as William's lineup was, the perfect one would have yielded 205 points, based on the following combinations:
Quarterback: Nick Foles was easily the lowest-scoring signal caller with 106 points; the gap between Foles and the second-lowest scorer Teddy Bridgewater was equivalent to the gap between Bridgewater and 12th-ranked Ryan Tannehill. Pairing Foles with either Bridgewater or Joe Flacco would have yielded 75 points. In the case of the Flacco-Foles pairing, you would have had only two weeks where you started a quarterback who garnered double digits, and one of those would have come in Week 6, when Foles' Rams were on a bye. You would have been really happy at the end of September if you had selected Flacco and Sam Bradford, who somehow would have yielded 28 points through four weeks. However, Week 5 would have killed your Loser League dreams, as both went over 20 points that week to take them out of the running worst pairing.
Running Back: Isaiah Crowell was a trendy sleeper in some fantasy drafts before the season, but the Loser League is the only place where he'll end up as a hero. Crowell achieved the perfect combination of inefficiency and volume, avoiding the minimum-carry penalty in every single game yet cracking 70 yards from scrimmage just twice and scoring only one touchdown. The Browns running back finished with 54 points, the lowest scorer by a whopping 16 points over C.J. Anderson and Melvin Gordon. Putting all three together would have yielded a total of just 81 points, but if you had subbed out Gordon for Jeremy Hill (who had just 81 points himself), you would have ended up with 75 points. Penalties are always treacherous for Loser League owners who don't pick the right committees -- the trio of Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and David Johnson would have given you 427 points -- but these faded fantasy stars have generated enough faith from their teams to keep receiving just enough carries.
Wide Receiver: Marlon Brown had the inside track on the Loser League MVP through seven weeks, but a target penalty in Week 8 and bye week in Week 9 knocked the Ravens wide receiver out of the top spot. In his place, Andrew Hawkins and Mike Wallace each tallied 47 points, despite Hawkins garnering two 15-point penalties due to injury and Wallace earning one because of Minnesota's bye week. Combined with Taylor Gabriel, the perfect trio could have given you 41 points. The only time you would have scored double digits would have came during Wallace's Week 5 bye, when Hawkins and Gabriel combined for 11 points. In Hawkins' absence, the Wallace-and-Gabriel tandem accumulated three points over two weeks, including a glorious combined goose egg in Week 9.
Kicker: Andrew Franks didn't experience the spectacular lows of Kyle Brindza or Josh Scobee, but he ultimately kept his job. For that, the Dolphins kicker ended the first half with 38 points, having doinked a pair of extra points while missing two of just eight field goal attempts. Not many owners picked potential Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri in their lineups, but if they had, pairing Vinatieri with Franks would have given them just 13 points. In fact, owners wouldn't have even been out of the red until after Week 5, as the two had -8 points through the first three weeks. Vinatieri and Jason Myers could have taken the best duo title had they clustered things a little better, but Vinatieri's best game (14 points) came during Myers' Week 8 bye. The Vinatieri-Myers tandem had just three points through seven weeks, but ended up with 25 over the past two weeks.
Loser League Part II Preview
Because of the automatic penalty, players from the eight teams with byes remaining are going to be at a significant disadvantage. It might be hard to resist players such as Crowell and Torrey Smith, but players from the Falcons, Colts, Chargers, 49ers, Browns, Steelers, Giants, and Saints are going to see their Loser League values dragged down for Part II. However, these options figure to be among the most popular choices:
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Quarterback: Most of the toughest passing schedules happen to coincide with the league's best quarterbacks, or at least ones you wouldn't be inclined to pick in the Loser League. Based on average pass defense DVOA of remaining opponents, the five toughest passing schedules in the league belong to the Patriots, Giants, Chargers, Cardinals, and Bills. Tyrod Taylor could be a potential choice there, but his rushing value and relatively low volume of passes means a higher floor for the Buffalo quarterback. Moreover, Taylor is a potential injury risk, leaving owners facing the possibility of a 15-point penalty with him.
Jameis Winston might be a good choice here. The Bucs signal-caller has the 11th-ranked remaining schedule (again, looking at pass defense only) and has turned it over 10 times thus far. If you want to put all your eggs in one basket, you could pair Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick together. You'll get one 15-point penalty every week (and you'll just have to eat the 15 points in Week 10), but because we throw out the highest score, you could roll with the San Francisco starter against the ninth-ranked future passing schedule. It also protects against a potential move back to Kaepernick before the end of the season.
Running Back: Say hello to the AFC South. Antonio Andrews has assumed control of Tennessee's backfield just in time to face the league's toughest remaining rushing schedule. The Titans' eight remaining opponents have an average rushing DVOA of -19.6%, and three of their next five games are against the Jaguars and Jets, the top two run defenses this season. Additionally, Houston's Alfred Blue has always been a beacon of inefficiency, and now that he has full control of the Texans' woeful backfield, he could be worth a flier.
First-half heroes Jeremy Hill and Melvin Gordon will face top-10 future run defense schedules and limited workloads, though both should generally get enough carries week to week to avoid the penalty. The likes of C.J. Anderson, Matt Jones, and Ameer Abdullah might also be tempting options, but all those running backs get to face 10 of the easiest run defense schedules moving forward, potentially limiting their Loser League value.
Wide Receiver: Lots of the offenses facing tough passing schedules down the stretch also like to spread the ball out, which should spell good things for Loser League owners. Look for secondary receivers with the Giants, Bills, Bengals, 49ers, and Cowboys to potentially end up as good values. Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Quinton Patton should be on plenty of teams; Patton has seen between three and five targets in seven of San Francisco's first nine games, but has scored only once and eclipsed 60 yards just once. Again, though, the bye week penalty looms large.
One other player worth consideration: Jamison Crowder. Washington's rookie slot receiver has had no issues passing the minimum target total since entering the lineup in Week 3, and should be able to reach the threshold every week. However, despite having 50 targets, Crowder has also yet to score. The wide receiver with the next highest target total to not reach the end zone is Taylor Gabriel, who has 39 targets.
Kicker: Jason Myers remains rostered in Jacksonville, despite missing three field goals and a league-high three extra points so far. The logic behind Myers winning the job was always dubious, but the Jags appear willing to sink on the ship they have chosen. Given that we're still penalizing kickers five points for missed PATs despite the new distance, Myers should be the top choice on the majority of teams.
Mike Nugent also looms as a sneaky choice. The Bengals have attempted only 14 field goals over eight games, and the veteran has missed three of those attempts plus an extra point already. Nugent is kicking at a 78.6 percent conversion rate on field goals, almost exactly matching his mediocre 78.8 percent rate from 2014, so this is probably the type of kicker Cincinnati is going to have the rest of the season. Cincy's high-scoring offense makes Nugent a little riskier, but some owners might want to jump at one of the league's least accurate kickers receiving plenty of attempts in a cold environment.
Click here to enter your team for Part II. It needs to be in before Sunday's games begin.
Super Mega Lock of the Week
Last week, we loved the Rams end of our two-team tease but couldn't help feeling queasy about needing the Falcons to beat Blaine Gabbert in the other end. That's Blaine Gabbert, maybe the worst quarterback of the last decade (or more). Like a poker player who calls out the hands but goes against his read, exactly what we worried about came to pass. What we didn't know was that the method of our destruction would be the single dumbest coaching decision this year.
This week, we are going with a team we almost backed last week. We'll take the Titans getting 5.5 points at home against the undefeated Panthers. The Panthers are fourth in DVOA, while the 2-6 Titans are 25th. While that sounds unpromising, the Titans' number is deflated by 2.5 games of Zach Mettenberger. The Titans' backup quarterback has a league-worst DVOA of -60.4%, which means he's more than twice as far from average as Colin Kaepernick. Marcus Mariota's DVOA, on the other hand, puts him slightly ahead of Cam Newton.
Cinemax Presents Exotic Propositions
Just in the last five years, we have had Super Bowl winners who started the year 2-2 (2014 Patriots), 3-3 (2010 Packers), and 7-7 (2011 Giants). So why not the 4-4 Seahawks this year? The preseason favorites at about 5-1, Seattle is now at 15-1 to win the Super Bowl. With a win over Arizona this week, the Seahawks would be one game out of the division lead. How easy is it to picture the Seahawks at 7-4 in three weeks coming off three straight home wins -- their next two are against the 49ers and the Steelers -- and the team that suddenly looks like the NFC favorite? Seattle should be favored in every game until Week 17 in Arizona.
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John Fox Award
Dan Quinn's decision to kick a field goal with three minutes left facing fourth-and-goal from the 49ers 1-yard line decreased the Falcons' chances of winning by 22 percentage points. Here's another way to think of that number. Quinn's hard-to-believe-this-still-happens mistake hurt the Falcons as much as if the Falcons had spotted the 49ers a touchdown to start the game. (As seven-point favorites, that would have reduced their chances from 77 percent to 55 percent, per Brian Burke's Win Probability Calculator.) Next time, maybe Quinn can save everyone the trouble of another fourth down decision gone awry and just agree to start the game down 7-0.
Keep Choppin' Wood
The Aqib Talib eye poke was its own special brand of stupidity, as was the bizarre defensive holding call on Indianapolis' subsequent field goal attempt, which quashed any hopes the Broncos had at maintaining their unblemished record. The Talib gaffe is really the clear winner here, but given the coverage it has received throughout the interwebs, we should really use this space to draw attention to the Tennessee Titans. In a feat which would have made Rex Ryan proud, Brian Orakpo and David Bass combined to pick up three personal fouls on a single play. Bass' sack of Drew Brees from the Titans' 12-yard line appeared to stifle a New Orleans scoring threat, especially critical considering Tennessee was down 21-20 with 12:22 left in the fourth quarter. However, Bass was called for roughing the passer after his helmet struck the helmet of a ducking Brees, while Orakpo proceeded to lose his freaking mind and pick up both an unsportsmanlike conduct and personal foul after the play. It's a shame the Saints didn't have the ball in their own territory; excluding pass interference, 45 yards worth of penalties on a single play surely would have been close to some sort of record.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Let us not forget Week 17 in 2013, when the Rams committed two personal fouls AND drew an ejection on one play against Seattle, in a stretch where they committed six different personal fouls in less than two minutes of game time. The nightmarish sequence of penalties was described in detail in Audibles that week.)