Scramble for the Ball: U.S. Against the World
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, where I'm assured by good authority that football was played last weekend.
Andrew: The past weekend was quite odd: while 14 of the 16 games featured at least one team firmly in the playoff hunt, only a few of the games were notably exciting or enthralling. New Orleans beat Arizona in the highest-scoring NFL game of the year, but it was a bit of a dead rubber as both teams are well and truly out of the playoff reckoning.
Bryan: Well, the Saints have a miracle chance to get in, but I see what you're saying -- if I had to spend a week stuck in an airplane sitting on the runway, I picked the right one?
Andrew: I'm not sure I'd go that far, but you at least didn't pick the worst.
Bryan: A fair point. The best week would probably be Pro Bowl week, though I'm looking forward to that dodgeball game that has been announced. Heck, forget the Pro Bowl, just give me a 32-team dodgeball tournament.
Andrew: Sounds like a great way for somebody to get hurt doing something only tenuously related to actual football, so yes it should be an integral part of the Pro Bowl program.
Bryan: Sounds like you're not a fan of the yearly trip to scenic
Andrew: In a sport as brutal as football, I can think of better ways for players to start their offseason than playing a meaningless game alongside teammates they don't usually play or practice with, against opponents in the same situation, in front of a half-interested crowd and barely any interested media.
Wait, are we talking about the Pro Bowl or Bills-Jets in Week 17?
Bryan: Or, indeed, most of the 49ers' regular season games so far this year.
Andrew: At least very few players are likely to feature in both Bills-Jets and the Pro Bowl, thus keeping the number of meaningless games to a relative minimum. Poor LeSean McCoy, maybe.
Bryan: Ah well. At least they're returning to the AFC-NFC format, rather than the quasi-fantasy draft thing they have done for the past few seasons. It's really the only logical way to organize a game like this, if we're going to go through the motions of playing it anyway.
Andrew: ...which we shouldn't. I don't know, as an overseas fan I could see an alternate logical possibility presenting itself if the league continues its expansionist trend.
Bryan: Having one team play in London, the other in Mexico City, and projecting them on the same field using cutting-edge virtual reality technology?
Andrew: We're talking about a league that still uses two sticks, a chain, and Jeff Triplette's best guess to adjudicate one of its most important common decisions. Cutting edge virtual reality technology might be slightly beyond the league office's ken.
No, I'm talking about something much less technologically-enhanced: Pro Bowl "Team USA versus a Rest of the World Select."
Bryan: I'm pretty sure my idea was far more feasible. Forget an entire Pro Bowl team; there aren't enough quality international players to field a starting lineup at this point, surely? I'm fairly sure most of the individual states would blow an international team out of the water.
Bryan: For Delaware, I'll point out Paul Worrilow, pride of Wilmington, but point taken -- the 24 states that could actually field a starting lineup would trump the international roster.
Andrew: OK, you pick a state and I'll pick a rest of the world select, and let's see.
Bryan: I was raised in sunny Santa Cruz, California, so I'll take my Beach Boys against you Crazy Foreigners and we'll see what's what.
Andrew: Giving yourself Tom Brady at quarterback, are we? I see your deal.
Andrew: ...Robert Griffin, born in Okinawa, Japan. That option would have looked a whole lot better four years ago.
Bryan: Well, when you don't have any foreign-born quarterbacks taking more than 100 or so snaps, that's the kind of decision you end up having to make. Quarterback is probably the most difficult position to learn in the league, and it's not like there are many Pop Warner teams in Germany getting quarterbacks ready from a young age.
Andrew: Germany's not the best example, actually. They take their gridiron football pretty seriously, like they do pretty much everything else.
I will, however, say that Griffin has a much better chance behind my international offensive line: Sebastian Vollmer, Mike Iupati, John Urschel, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and Menelik Watson. That's not some pile of B-list scrubs. That's a legitimately NFL-caliber front five, and I get Brett Jones and Orlando Franklin as backups.
Bryan: Foul! Foul I say. Mike Iupati's from American Samoa. It's got America right in the name!
It's better than what Griffin has to work with in Cleveland, at least. I'll grant you that offensive line, and you have got a halfway decent running back to stick behind them, too.
Bryan: It at least matches up with the All-Californian team. Ryan Kalil, Andy Levitre, and Donald Penn are a great start to any offensive line, though it falls off a bit with Chris Chester and Ryan Clady finishing it off. Doug Martin's not a bad back to have carrying the ball, either -- but I might spot your running offense as being better than what California has to offer.
About your receivers, though…
Andrew: Ech. Scrap the I-form, I'm going single-wing. Sigh. Chris Conley and Nelson Agholor are hardly Cris Carter and Randy Moss. At least I get Luke Willson and Ladarius Green at tight end, so I can switch to an effective power or single-back set. I have a solitary backup receiver in T.J. Jones for going three-wide, so I probably won't do that more often than is absolutely necessary.
Bryan: I was a fan of Moritz Böehringer, star of the Schwäbish Hall Unicorns! Going down to the practice squad there at least theoretically gets you a spread set, even if it means you have to bust out the umlauts for your jerseys.
It's only in a fantasy scenario like this where you get to dream of a passing attack featuring Tom Brady throwing to, uh, Julian Edelman. But I'll take it, along with the feisty and immortal Steve Smith and the speedy DeSean Jackson. Add in Delanie Walker and Julius Thomas at tight end, and I'm pretty satisfied with that set of receiving talent. You'd better have a pretty menacing All-World defense to keep up with my passing game.
Andrew: You're relying on Ryan Clady and Chris Chester to block the aforementioned Tamba Hali and Star Lotulelei, while Domata Peko and Ziggy Ansah work the other side of your line. That's, again, a legitimately Pro Bowl-caliber defensive line. (Yes, I know Hali's a linebacker, but I'm going with the EDGE designation.) I even have Brent Urban, Tyrone Crawford, Stefan Charles, and Margus Hunt as backups.
Bryan: Yeah, uh, that might be… that's actually something of an issue for my questionable right side of the line, there. I'll trust Brady to be able to move around that pressure, but that's a line you can build around, for sure. I'm probably trying to build around a combo of Haloti Ngata, Brandon Mebane, Chris Long, and Jurrell Casey on my line -- talent, but not talent that necessarily meshes well together. If that doesn't sum up the Pro Bowl in a single sentence, I don't know what does.
Andrew: Score one for the Rest of the World Select.
Bryan: The trenches seem to be your strong point -- there's probably something to be said about that. Skills from other sports seem to transfer over well there -- and the concepts of "stop that guy from tackling our guys" and "go tackle the guy with the ball" aren't exactly something you need to drill in over years and years of reps, as opposed to an NFL passing tree.
Andrew: Right. I'd be comfortable actually selecting a lot of those guys to the Pro Bowl -- Vollmer when healthy, Hali, Lotulelei, Ansah -- and it's definitely the deepest section of the Rest of the World roster. Linebacker has an adequate number of players, but there's a noticeable dropoff: Kasim Edebali and Jeremiah Attaochu won't be confused with All-Pros anytime soon, and I'm not sure I actually have a true inside 'backer. NFL.com lists Rey Maulauga as an international player, but he was born in Oklahoma.
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Bryan: Foreign capital of culture Fort Sill, Oklahoma!
Andrew: Most of the other Polynesian guys were born in California. I might be forced to use Attaochu and Edebali inside, and use Ansah and Hali off the edge in a 3-4 instead. In fact, that's exactly what I'll do. It's not ideal, but it could be functional.
Bryan: Yeah, things are looking up for California, comparing that lot to Bobby Wagner, Clay Matthews, and Wesley Woodyard. Again, the further you get from the line of scrimmage, the worse off the world team gets.
Andrew: That's especially true when it comes to the defensive secondary, easily the worst unit on my team. When Patrick Chung is arguably the star of the group, you know it's trouble. Mykkele Thompson is on injured reserve, but would be my starting free safety if he wasn't. Mike Jenkins is my only cornerback: the next man up is somebody named Arjen Colquhoun, and I have literally no idea who that is other than he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cowboys. Maybe I can drag Domonique Foxworth out of retirement?
Bryan: On the flip side, it almost seems unfair to cover that group of players you call a "receiving corps" with the likes of Richard Sherman, Sean Smith, Eric Weddle, and Jairus Byrd. Your offensive line might be able to give RG3 years in the pocket, but I'm not sure there's going to be anyone to ever throw to.
Andrew: Jairus Byrd? Of the Saints? Oh, there'll be somebody open somewhere. He'll make sure of it.
Bryan: He who lives in glass houses should not throw stones -- especially if those stones are hurled by Griffin, 'cause they're just going to fall incomplete.
So you have a great team, if you zoom in very close to the line. And wear blinders.
Andrew: Well, the offense could actually be respectable if we were talking about 2012 Griffin. The tight ends and backs are good players, if not necessarily stars. The receivers are also legitimate NFL players, even if they aren't particularly great ones. The World team gets help from a few U.S. Army brats, but the roster is fairly diverse; it's not just a list of CFL free agents and converted Polynesian rugby players like it might have been even ten years ago.
Bryan: This is very true. That is a tangible result of the NFL's attempts, as ham-fisted as they may be, to spread the game internationally. It might still have some gaping holes, but it is an actual team. Ten years from now, it might truly be a competitive one at that.
Interestingly, there are not a lot of players from mainland Asia on your team, and I think South America is entirely unrepresented. I know the NFL has discussed playing games in China -- possibly the Rams and 49ers, which may constitute some sort of violation of the Geneva convention -- and that's possibly a place they can actually gain some ground. After all, Japan won the first two World Cups of American Football... right up until the United States started sending teams of scrubs to compete. They have yet to lose a game.
Andrew: Japan and Germany are the most likely candidates to make sizeable contributions of actual football players (rather than rugby players or Aussie rules players crossing over) from outside North America. If the Rest of the World can address that shortage of talent on the outside -- receiver and cornerback, primarily -- then there might be some actual merit to a Rest of the World All-Pro team in the not-too-distant future. Even now, I'm not 100 percent convinced it wouldn't be a solidly competitive team if they could dig up another defensive back from somewhere, anywhere.
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Bryan: Well, the lack of depth would keep it from being a solidly competitive team, but the lineup itself isn't as bad as I figured it would be at the beginning. I retract a significant portion of my outraged scoffing, and replace it with gentle eye-rolling.
Andrew: I appreciate that, and will look for any further World Select nominations in the comments.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't going to let a little thing like being benched for the rest of the season stop him from climbing up the Loser League ranks! Coming in for an injured Bryce Petty, Fitzpatrick's 10 attempts just avoided the penalty, and he managed to throw an interception on one of those attempts. Good ol' Ryan Fitzsixpicks. He ended up with nul points, to continue our international flavor.
Running Back: A pair of backs ended up with a pair of points! Kenneth Farrow, whom San Diego was forced to turn to thanks to a plethora of injuries, had 53 yards from scrimmage but fumbled once. Isaiah Crowell, who's simply the best the Browns have to trot out there, managed just 28 rushing yards.
Wide Receiver: Four zeros to report this week. All-World squad member Nelson Agholor caught one pass for 9 yards, while Devin Funchess and Marqise Lee were held without a reception. Jamison Crowder had 24 yards receiving, but his fumble knocks him down into this group as well.
Kicker: Missed extra points are Loser League gold, and Phil Dawson was happy to oblige this week, shanking one at the end of the first half for a score of minus-4. Andrew Franks and Josh Lambo also dipped into negative numbers.
Keep Choppin' Wood: Football is an emotional game at the best of times, and those emotions often boil over when things aren't going well. There's a famous Kipling quote about keeping your head when all around you are losing theirs, and it is often cited when discussing the qualities of top-level professional sportsmen. Jordan Reed, with Carolina dominating on the road against his Washington teammates, failed this particular test: Reed was ejected for throwing a punch at Panthers safety Kurt Coleman, which is stupid for two reasons. The more obvious one is that you don't need to get yourself ejected and cost your team 15 yards in the red zone in a critical game for your team's wild card playoff hopes. The somewhat less-cited reason is that punching somebody in the face when they're wearing a football helmet is more likely to hurt you than them. Reed is a terrific player; this was a considerably less terrific play.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has been a regular in this spot, and when his Eagles pulled to within one point with four seconds left against the Baltimore Ravens he added to his record of aggressive coaching by having his team try for two to win. The attempt failed when Carson Wentz's pass for Jordan Matthews was tipped by C.J. Mosley and fell incomplete. We at Scramble love these aggressive calls, and this was exactly the situation in which we like to see them. Fortunately, what we have seen of Pederson suggests he won't be shy of trying for two again should the opportunity present itself.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: Former Eagles head coach Andy Reid is an excellent football coach who is frequently let down by one massive blind spot: game management. Kansas City took a 14-0 lead over Tennessee in a game with major playoff ramifications for both sides by playing smart, aggressive football -- one explosive run by Tyreek Hill and one deep ball reception for Jeremy Maclin contributed heavily to the early lead. Following that, however, the Chiefs reverted to small-ball type and allowed the Titans to gradually erode the lead at Tennessee's own glacial pace. Eventually, the Titans had a chance to tie the game but went for two (detailed below) and failed. Given the reprieve the Chiefs went three-and-out for what seemed like the fifth consecutive epoch, and Tennessee ultimately won the game on a Ryan Succop field goal -- with a mulligan also gifted by Reid's timeout -- as time expired. Even Travis Kelce felt that the Chiefs got too conservative, an ill they will have to cure to take advantage the best chance they have had in years in the AFC playoffs.
Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: We're not necessarily criticizing Mike Mularkey for deciding to attempt the two-point conversion, down 17-16 with a little over three minutes remaining against Kansas City. Kansas City has an above-average defense -- and a good pass defense, which is probably more to the point -- and it's not like Tennessee had been marching the ball up and down the field all day; it was only their second trip to the red zone. There's an argument to be made about whether Tennessee would ever see the ball in scoring range again, and so forth.
But if you're going to dial up a hugely important two-point conversion attempt, a rolling pocket designed to force the ball to Harry Douglas is not the ideal play call.
Los Titans anotaron y en lugar de empatar fueron por la conversión para ganarlo, y esto pasó: pic.twitter.com/wHyIMB1O4O
— El Refrigerador NFL (@RefrigeradorNFL) December 18, 2016
Credit for the gutsy decision, but the play call was pure Mularkey Malarkey.
"The Dolphins Are Alive!" Fantasy Player of the Week: Many people wrote off the Dolphins' offense after Ryan Tannehill sprained his MCL, but the remaining Dolphins had quite the decent showing against the Jets. Backup quarterback Matt Moore threw four touchdown passes and could win this award himself, but at least someone likely was forced to turn to Moore in their fantasy playoffs. Less likely to be rostered is Dion Sims, who was owned in a whopping zero percent of Yahoo! leagues last week. That means that very few people benefitted from his two-touchdown day -- scores we know our fantasy teams could have used.
Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week
Records so far:
Andrew: Oakland (minus-4) versus Indianapolis. That Indianapolis still has a chance of winning their division and making the playoffs is testament to how bad the AFC South is overall, with division leaders Houston benching their quarterback this week and second-placed Tennessee likewise seemingly winning games in spite of their offense. The Colts have the best quarterback in the division, but are in third place because their roster is largely devoid of talent (outside a select few players) and utterly devoid of depth. Oakland is currently the second seed in the AFC, playing at home, better coached, with a much better roster. It would be a real concern for the Raiders not to win this game relatively comfortably.
Bryan: Dang it, I was going to take that.
Things were looking so good for me last week, with underdog Cincinnati jumping out to a 17-3 lead. The Bengals (plus-3) looked great... and then they collapsed, Pittsburgh came back, and they ended up losing by four. The pain of Lock of the Week, I suppose.
Instead, I'll try to stay above .500 by once again falling into the trap of DVOA Darling Philadelphia (plus-3) at home against the New York Giants. They only lost to the Giants by five points back in November, and that was on the road. I think the return match at home will be similarly close, plus a few points to the Eagles. They never get blown out, so they have gotta stick within the spread one of these weeks, right? Right? Right?
Things are coming down to the wire, and for teams still in the running, every game is hyper-important. Teams that are hanging on the playoff bubble have to play each game like it's a playoff matchup, or risk being left in the dust.
That brings us to the Minnesota Vikings. Their midseason slump erased the gains they had from a 5-0 start, but they entered Week 15 still at least in the conversation for taking a wild card slot, and were at least mathematically alive for the division title, as well. They were getting star running back Adrian Peterson back, and could at least force their rivals to keep winning in order to knock the Vikings out.
Then the Colts rode into town and blew the Vikings of the water.
The 34-6 home loss essentially ends the competitive portion of the Vikings season, and it's an ignoble end to a team that was earning some Super Bowl talk after their hot start to the season. They were dominated in every phase of the game. They couldn't sustain a pass rush on defense, giving Andrew Luck all day to throw the ball. They failed to force a single turnover, and turned the ball over three times themselves. Though it's not the worst performance in a must-win game I can remember -- that will forever remain with the Bills losing to the Steelers' backups in Week 17 back in the 2004 season -- this was about as big of a no-show as you'll see in the NFL.
In Week 15, we saw Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Diego, and Arizona all be eliminated, while Green Bay, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Minnesota, Carolina, and New Orleans all survived, at least mathematically. Here are the elimination scenarios for Week 16:
- Baltimore can be eliminated with a loss to Pittsburgh and a win by Miami.
- Minnesota can be eliminated with a loss to Green Bay or a win by Tampa Bay.
- Denver can be eliminated with a loss to Kansas City and a win by either Miami or Baltimore.
- Washington can be eliminated with a loss to Chicago and either a Green Bay or Tampa Bay win.
- Carolina can be eliminated with a loss to Atlanta or a win by Green Bay, Tampa Bay, or Washington.
- Buffalo can be eliminated with a loss to Miami, a win by Baltimore, or wins by both Tennessee and Houston.
- Tennessee can be eliminated with a loss to Jacksonville and wins by Houston and either Miami or Baltimore.
- New Orleans can be eliminated with a loss to Tampa Bay or a win by either Green Bay or Washington.
- Indianapolis can be eliminated with a loss to Oakland or a win by both one of Tennessee or Houston AND one of Miami or Baltimore.
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