Scramble for the Ball: Touchdown Thieves
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week your humble Scramblettae are reeling like a pair of Rising Sun gamblers. As a Saints fan, I am particularly wary of the upsetting nature of this year's Buccaneers, particularly as they head to a certain house in New Orleans.
Bryan: I was torn watching the Buccaneers-Rams game. As a professional pickster (and no, I can't believe I get paid for this, either), knocking off one of my two Double Survival picks was frustrating, considering my generally poor start to this year. As a fan of the 49ers, however, watching first the Rams and then the Cowboys fall from the ranks of the undefeated was a heck of a lot of fun. Super Bowl-bound, baby?
Don't worry too much about the Buccos, though, Andrew; just score a couple pick-sixes against Jameis Winston and you'll be fine. A blueprint for victory!
Andrew: Still, even the Buccaneers are more consistent than this week's talking point. I admit that I watched the scoring plays in this weekend's Patriots-Bills game with the sort of glee that only bitter fantasy owners can muster. First, we had a touchdown from a running back -- but not one of their esteemed trio of Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead, oh no! This score went to notorious random touchdown vulture Brandon Bolden.
Then, even better, a wide receiver (at least nominally), but not one of the starting trio of Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman, and Phillip Dorsett -- no, this was a first-EVER touchdown for long-serving special teamer Matthew Slater, in his 12th season as a member of the Patriots. While Slater's touchdown came on special teams, so it doesn't really count as a vulturing, Bill Belichick's reputation for enabling vultures was certainly enhanced by the SHOVeLL to Bolden at the goal line.
Bryan: Pray tell, which of those Patriots were you counting on for your fantasy team? Because this sounds like you had a close loss this week.
Andrew: It was not close at all, but your perception is not mistaken. Mr. Edelman is perfectly capable of running a sweep, and his 4-for-30 season-low line was not well received.
Bryan: Well, my friend, you have fallen victim to one of the classic ailments, one that affects fantasy players across the nation. That is why we need to get serious for a moment here, and educate the populace on the dangers faced due to touchdown thieves.
When you check your fantasy team's performance, do you notice some key points missing? Have you experienced the pain of using a first-round pick on a Todd Gurley, only to see Malcolm Brown celebrating in the end zone? Have you attempted to trust a Shanahan running back to carry the load? If so, you may be entitled to financial compensation.
Every year, dozens of touchdowns are stolen from innocent fantasy teams, from the highest levels to the low. A -- and I don't think I'm overstating this -- cabal of men, armed with grit and toughness and other adjectives to describe players who don't gain more than 2 yards a carry, have been rifling through high picks' pockets and taking away their scoring opportunities. Every time a no-name, bottom-of-the-roster player ends up in the end zone, it kills a fantasy comeback. Please, spare some time and think of the poor superstars, having to watch their lesser-paid brethren get their names on the highlight reels. It is a plague upon the world of fantasy.
Andrew: Such a plague, it's a wonder Bob Geldof and Midge Ure haven't teamed up on a charity appeal single and concert series, to raise funds for the victims of vulture-capitalizing coaches and their scamming schemes! Heck, some of these crazies even use backups at the goal line unsuccessfully, with hilariously horrible results.
Bryan: The most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to identify touchdown thieves and preemptively avoid them. That's why we're bringing attention to some of the decade's most notorious thieves today -- players with little to no fantasy value who nevertheless took a cruel glee in scoring points that benefit no one but themselves. And their professional football teams, of course, as well. But mostly themselves.
Andrew: Be warned, we lead you into some of the darkest deeds of fantasy seasons past and present. Yes, some of these men remain at large. If you spot them on a roster near you, we advise you to stay well clear. Remember: always ensure your own safety before assisting others.
Bryan: Get to a safe distance, and then call our touchdown thief hotline -- 1-800-TRIPLETTE -- and ask for a holding penalty. It is the primary way our boys in black-and-white can help protect the integrity of your fantasy league.
Andrew: We begin, as many a football tale does, in the frozen north.
Most Wanted No. 3: Mike Gillislee
Known Aliases: Touchdown Mike
Years of Operation: 2013-2018
Primary Areas of Activity: Buffalo, New England
Partial List of Victims: LeSean McCoy, Tyrod Taylor, Dion Lewis
Bryan: Sometimes, a touchdown thief disguises himself as an actually useful player, but know this -- it never lasts for long. Do not be fooled by short stretches of success in backwater locations and tiny frozen hellscapes like Buffalo.
Andrew: Mike Gillislee was once a darling of this site's advanced statistics, setting the single-season record for individual rushing DVOA in 2016 despite barely slipping past the 100-carry threshold for the leaderboard. Gillislee was in the middle of a stretch in which he scored 20 total touchdowns in only four starts for the Bills and Patriots. He never gained more than 600 rushing yards, and never finished above 27th in fantasy points, so his only value to anybody outside Buffalo was in stripping opponents' star tailbacks of their value.
Bryan: You say despite, I say because. How dastardly of him, limiting his touches to just enough to slip onto leaderboards across the nation! And yet, if you were tricked into taking him in the draft, your fantasy teams were DOOOOOOOMED!
Wait, wrong gimmick. One second, resetting.
Gillislee had one season among the top 50 fantasy running backs -- that 2016 season. Eight touchdowns on 101 carries, and another receiving touchdown on 11 targets, is almost criminal. Pity poor LeSean McCoy, who carried the ball up and down the field, only to watch Gillislee steal seven of those scores from inside the 5-yard line. It only got worse in New England, where all five of his scores came from 1 or 2 yards out. The combined efforts of Gillislee and Rex Burkhead destroyed Dion Lewis' fantasy value! Premeditated destruction, that's what that is.
Andrew: LeGarrette Blount had just freed us from the mantra of "never trust a Belichick running back," too, only for Gillislee to shove us right back to where we started. The snake. Fortunately, Gillislee fumbled his way out of New Orleans within four games last year, before he had a chance to ruin Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. We won't be seeing him again.
Most Wanted No. 2: Mike Tolbert
Known Aliases: The Toldozer; The Vulture
Years of Operation: 2008-2017
Primary Areas of Activity: San Diego, Carolina
Partial List of Victims: Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton, LaDainian Tomlinson
Andrew: Our second former Buffalo Bills vulture is better known for his work south of the Mason-Dixon line, where his victims spanned the breadth of the country from San Diego in the west to Charlotte in the east. Whether in the air or on the ground, Tolbert made his reputation by taking away the touchdowns of finer tailbacks. His trail of victims is so numerous, we have not space to list even just the Pro Bowl runners he swindled.
Bryan: Tolbert is responsible for multiple single-game thefts. Three touchdowns on 10 carries against New Orleans in 2012? Two touchdowns on three carries and one target against the Eagles in 2015? At the peak of his touchdown-stealing prowess, Tolbert scored 11 consecutive touchdowns from inside the 2-yard line, and 19 of 20 from inside the 5, from December 11, 2011 through November 22, 2015. Only five of his 46 career regular-season touchdowns went for more than 10 yards.
Andrew: His lone postseason touchdown in 2014 may not have swindled quite so many fantasy owners, but it only enhanced the bloody reputation of this seasoned veteran larcenist. In the end, perhaps the only thing keeping him from being public enemy No. 1 is that lone season as the true lead back (over rookie Ryan Mathews) in San Diego. Twenty-four touchdowns in three subsequent years without once reaching even 500 rushing yards is a crime against fantasy owners everywhere.
Bryan: And was he roundly condemned for this? No, he was lauded with three Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro nods, as part of the NFL's continued insistence that there is such a position as "fullback." Imagine celebrating a player who didn't have a top-35 fantasy season in Carolina. Fortunately, our compatriots at The League alerted people to Tolbert's points-stealing ways, hence his nickname of "The Vulture." And, like Adrian Toomes, he was a thorn in the side of friendly neighborhood fantasy players for nearly a decade.
But he's not the worst of our Sinister Three. Oh, not by a Longshot.
Most Wanted No. 1: John Kuhn
Known Aliases: The Swiss Army Knife
Years of Operation: 2006-2017
Primary Areas of Activity: Green Bay
Partial List of Victims: Ryan Grant, Eddie Lacy, James Starks
Bryan: Legend has it, on moonless nights, when the wind is still on the vast dairy plains of Wisconsin, you can still hear it echoing over the hills and dales…
Andrew: Sometimes, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the siren song as far afield as New Orleans, Louisiana, where our Most Wanted lived out the final days of his crooked career. Even as retirement loomed, Kuhn's kleptomania never abated. Five touchdowns in 2016, despite averaging only 6.7 total yards per game, and a longest carry of just 4 yards, is a heist on par with the Great Trent Robbery of 2013.
Bryan: Not one -- not one! -- of his 28 career touchdowns came from more than 10 yards out. Only four come from beyond the 5-yard line. Exhibit A in his depravity came with New Orleans in 2016, in their last battle with the San Diego Chargers. The Saints only gave Kuhn three handoffs and two targets. And what does he do with them? Why, naught but find the end zone on three separate occasions. Mark Ingram slogged through waves of defenders to set you up, Kuhn! And you just had to be a glory hog, living for the spotlight, as all fullbacks do -- truly, the most conceited of positions, just eating the cherries on the top any given sundae.
Andrew: At this stage you, the reader, may rightly wonder the object of this exercise. What have the despicable deeds of such pilfering predecessors to do with fantasy football in 2019? Be warned! For your Scrambling detectives have spotted some new bandits prowling the badlands of the waiver wire, seeking unwary travelers whose touchdowns they might devour.
Bryan: While the plague of fullbacks have thankfully almost been eradicated thanks to our 11 Personnel Awareness Program, touchdown thieves have simply mutated into new forms, evolving with the times to take on new roles, inserting themselves into offenses around the league.
Andrew: While it is not true that the fullback has truly been vanquished, as we shall witness shortly, the new plague carries a monicker such as "goal-line back," or "short-yardage specialist." Like many of the great heists of old, the foremost proponent dwells way out west. However, we have other business before we fix your attention on the current Public Enemy No. 1.
The most noteworthy remaining fullback also carries the greatest potential for damage, lurking as he does in the same backfield as the undisputed king of current fantasy running backs.
Bryan: Alex Armah has yet to get much use this season, as the Panthers have wisely committed to running Christian McCaffrey early and often, to the relief of his fantasy owners. Armah has just two carries this season -- but he has already found paydirt on one of them. That had to give Carolina fans flashbacks to a year ago, where Armah scored twice on just nine carries. All three of his career touchdowns have come from the 1 and, perhaps most distressingly, his only carry with less than 5 yards to go this season ended up in the end zone. So far, CMC hasn't required much of a breather, but Armah sits there in the dark, waiting. As the season goes on, McCaffrey may need to be spelled more often, and then, Armah will strike.
But he is more of a potential threat at the moment, unlike our No. 2 most dangerous active thief, up in Cleveland.
Andrew: Nick Chubb exploded for three touchdowns and over 40 fantasy points this weekend, much to the relief of owners everywhere. Coming into Week 4, Chubb was tied with just a single rushing score with backup Dontrell Hilliard. Even this weekend, Chubb's total could have been even more impressive save for Hilliard's vultured single-yarder. Seventeen percent of Hilliard's carries and pass targets have come from within the 5-yard line, making him an alarmingly high threat to take points away from the starter. He doesn't get nearly enough work to be a viable option in his own right -- only 10 total touches for 72 total yards this season -- but he is a threat to vulture points in any goal-line situation. That makes him Active Public Enemy No. 2
However, at least Hilliard's overall share of the backfield workload remains low, unlike the current most dangerous man in fantasy sports.
Bryan: We mentioned earlier how we had learned to never trust a Belichick running back. But Belichick's reign of fantasy terror is nothing compared to the dynastic disaster that is the House of Shanahan. Mike, the first of his name, destroyed fantasy teams with his running back shuffling in Denver in the '90s, and now the heir to his throne is doing the same in San Francisco. Their crimes against fantasy cannot go unmentioned!
Even ignoring, for the moment, the fact that highly paid 49ers running backs Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman are hurt, the 49ers still boast a deep running back rotation. Matt Breida leads the league in rushing DVOA at 48.0%. Raheem Mostert is averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Kyle Juszczyk is worth 42 points in Scrabble. And yet, with all this talent, who is scoring touchdowns? Practice-squadder Jeff Wilson, that's who.
Through four weeks, Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott lead the league with 15 carries inside the red zone. Right behind them, however, is Wilson with 13 -- and Wilson has only played in two games! A whopping 26% of his targets and carries have come from inside the 5-yard line. He is tied for fourth league-wide for touchdowns, despite playing half as many games as the leaders and being the fourth option in San Francisco's backfield at best. The return of Coleman may send Wilson back to the bench, but that doesn't keep a true touchdown thief down for long. Wilson will be there. Watching. Waiting. Beware.
Andrew: We only need to look at DeAngelo Williams' 2012 season to see the damage an established vulture can inflict on a prospective fantasy star. We feel that it is our duty to warn you of impending danger and advise you to get out of harm's way while you still can. While we are absolutely not advising you to trade Christian McCaffrey (though either of us will, naturally, consider the right offer), we can ensure that you are aware of the risks of vulture capitalism, and encourage you to prepare accordingly.
Bryan: Please, be careful out there when setting your weekly lineups. And now, to see us off, a new charity single from S Club 7!
... I'm being told that not only do S Club 7 no longer exist, but that no one in the United States will get that joke. So...
And now, to see us off, the weekly awards!
Keep Choppin' Wood
It's difficult to know who is more deserving of this award this week, the malicious headhunting player who got himself suspended for the year, or the coach and front office who brought that player in as a marquee signing. Vontaze Burfict assaulted Colts tight end Jack Doyle with a ludicrous, gratuitously violent headshot this past week, and as a result has been suspended for the rest of the regular season. Doyle, fortunately, appears to have escaped relatively unharmed. Oakland did hold on to their upset win in Indianapolis, but will now be without both of this offseason's big-name additions for the rest of the year thanks to a cacophony of insanity by the Bay.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Most teams have now come around to the idea, which is barely even an analytics talking point at this stage, that it's more valuable to go for it on fourth-and-1 on the far edge of field goal range than to attempt the long field goal. Broncos coach Vic Fangio did neither on his opening drive against the Jaguars, choosing instead to punt, on fourth-and-1, on the Jaguars 39. That's conservatism above and beyond the call of duty. Or sense. Or good football strategy. The punt did, at least, have the desired result, as the Broncos pinned the Jaguars at the 1 and forced a three-and-out, but the Broncos lost anyway, 26-24.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Many teams in Buffalo's situation -- facing fourth-and-goal from the 3 with their backup quarterback, trailing by six early in the fourth quarter -- would have chosen to kick the field goal and (hopefully) reduce the deficit to three points. Credit to Buffalo and Sean McDermott for instead aggressively playing to win. Sadly for the Bills, though perhaps predictably for everybody else, Matt Barkley's pass to Zay Jones fell incomplete. In a down week for aggressive coaching decisions, this was the bravest of the lot.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
As much as we'd like to give this to everyone involved in the Bears/Vikings kick-punt-timeout-fourth-down-conversion brewhaha, Bill O'Brien continues to place himself above and beyond the rest of his contemporaries in confusing coaching decisions. We could point to numerous issues here. Dialing up the ill-fated DeAndre Hopkins pass attempt, leading to an interception and a 10-3 Panthers lead, was bizarre. Using up all three of his time-outs with more than four minutes to go was terrible -- and it gets worse when one was used on a hopeless challenge where O'Brien seemed unclear on whether he was challenging the catch or the spot of the ball on a stellar Christian McCaffrey catch.
Was hoping we'd get another comment from O'Brien on this today but didn't see one. So, here we go, his post-game words over this challenge. Even one timeout would have made Houston's last drive about 50% more viable. pic.twitter.com/QbtJpkHPrA
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 30, 2019
Add in a generally subpar job of calling plays and a lack of urgency on the failed game-winning drive, and you have the worst coaching job of Week 4.
'Double-Barreled' Fantasy Player of the Week
Ricky Seals-Jones was released from Arizona at the end of training camp. Partly this was because of Kliff Kingsbury's love of four-wide sets, making tight ends more of a luxury item. Partly this was because Seals-Jones' 2018 was the second-worst season for any tight end in the DVOA era. You know, the usual. The Browns picked him up, and he was forced into the lineup with David Njoku out with a broken wrist. The results? Three targets, three receptions, 82 yards, and a touchdown in the most productive game of his career. Man, the 2018 Cardinals' offense really was terrible, wasn't it?
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 29, 2019
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Larry Fitzgerald is an all-time legend, and he continues to deserve better than the situations in which he has found himself in Arizona. With 93 receptions and 1,093 yards when down by more than two scores in the 2010s, Fitzgerald is the Garbage-Time Performer of the decade, thanks to perhaps the single most underwhelming cast of quarterbacks any top receiver has ever had to deal with. Four of Fitzgerald's five catches this week came in the second half of the Cardinals' blowout loss to the Seahawks, including the one that moved him over Tony Gonzalez for second all-time in receptions. Few have done more with less in the history of football than Fitzgerald.
— NFL Canada (@NFLCanada) September 29, 2019
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Fitzgerald was one of the few successes in Arizona's blowout defeat against Seattle. The other success was David Johnson, who went over 100 total yards for the second time in four games. Johnson achieved that feat five times even in last season's abominable Arizona offense, and has once again proven that he can produce even in the worst possible circumstances. One of these days, he might even get to do so in a win.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
The Lions can't buy any luck down by the goal line. Every year, we seem to highlight two or three Lions goal-line plays here -- remember the ten-second runoff non-touchdown against the Falcons two years ago? -- and we have yet another doozy this week.
Good morning No. ChiefsKingdom
— Chiefs Focus (@ChiefsFocus) September 30, 2019
Yes, this is the most bizarre touchdown of the week, and likely of the season. And it's so much more bizarre because the officials were the same ones who prematurely blew the Saints' fumble-touchdown dead two weeks ago. Had they done the same here, the Lions either keep the ball or have the Chiefs backed up on the goal line. This was a 10- to 14-point swing in a game the Lions lost by four; of course it was going to be the game-changing play of the week. How could it not?
The officials got the call right here, so most of the blame here needs to go to Kerryon Johnson for not holding on to the ball. There is an issue, however, with the conflicting standards referees are being asked to use. If they're being told to defer to calling a play a fumble on the field if it's unclear, and then to defer to the call on the field if the replay is unclear, we're going to have a disproportionate number of inconclusive plays ruled as fumbles. Most of them won't be 100-yard touchdown returns , but by erring on the side of replay, rather than just calling what they believe to be correct in the moment, they're giving the defense a significant advantage. Then again, maybe defenses could use a significant advantage in this era of high-octane offense.
Flip the result, and the Lions are sitting in second place in the NFC with a 3-0-1 record. Instead, they're looking up not only at the Packers in the division, but the Bears, Seahawks, and Rams are all ahead of them at 3-1 in the wild-card race; they fall from second to eighth in the conference because of the loss. They're still in decent shape to earn a playoff berth (though the loss did drop them below 50% in our playoff odds), but in a tough NFC, 10.5 wins might be the difference between facing the top and bottom wild-card teams in the first round, or even losing the division altogether. Detroit's good enough that this loss could hurt them come January.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date:
Andrew: I picked the under for the Falcons this year, but I didn't expect them to be as bad as they have been. I picked the over for Houston, who have also been worse than I expected. There's a pretty clear difference, however: Houston's "slightly worse than expected" is still enough to contend for the AFC South. Atlanta's, assuming it continues, has them in contention for nothing. No playoff spot, no top pick, nada. A team that lost by 14 at home to the Titans should not be keeping it close on the road against the Texans. Give me the Texans by at least a touchdown. Houston (-5) over Atlanta.
Bryan: San Francisco (-3.5) over Cleveland. I am so, so jinxing the 49ers this week, it's not even funny. I considered taking the Cowboys as 3.5-point favorites, or the Giants as 6-point underdogs, but no. I think bettors are over-reacting to the win over the Ravens, as the Browns have not looked particularly sharp up to this point. And I think it says something that the teams the 49ers beat have looked a lot better against other opponents -- Mason Rudolph dinked-and-dunked his way to a victory on Monday night; the Buccaneers put up 55 against the Rams; the Bengals, uh, played the Seahawks tough. Bettors may think the 49ers are the last NFC undefeated team because they've played fewer games and haven't played opponents of note. I disagree. The Browns may be their hardest test so far, but I think the 49ers handle them and go to 4-0 for the first time since 1990.
Double Survival League
Bryan: I'm fairly sure this is history for the Double Survival League -- both of us losing on the same team. To be fair, the Rams scored 40 points -- that had to be enough to win, right? Who would have expected the Buccaneers to put up 55? You at least gain a spot on me with the Chargers victory, as I came so close to finding an elusive Broncos win, but no -- a last-second field goal puts me 0-2 on the day. Oof.
Andrew: Live update on last week's Bucs-Rams picks:
This week, I'm taking a chance on a team we've mentioned a couple of times already. There are precisely two games on their schedule that I give the Arizona Cardinals a respectable chance of winning, and one of those is this weekend against Cincinnati. I think I like this better now than I did a week ago, with the Bengals coming off a terrible game in Pittsburgh, so I'll grab them in a middling week for picks and hope for the best.
My other pick is a little closer to home, and I mean that in a literal, physical sense. The Chicago Bears play Oakland in London this weekend, and again this is the game I feel most confident about them winning on their remaining schedule. Chase Daniel doesn't exactly inspire confidence, but that defense certainly does. In a London environment that might actually favor the Bears slightly over the Raiders, I'll play the odds with Chicago's worst remaining opponent.
Bryan: We're going to have a rare head-to-head matchup here! You take Arizona, with a respectable chance of winning. That's probably true, but it also ignores the fact that we do, eventually, need to find a win for the Cincinnati Bengals. My luck picking winless teams isn't great so far, but they have to be taken eventually, and dang it, now is as good a time as any. The only other game I like the Bengals winning in is Week 16 against Miami, and I already have that penciled is as my Dolphins pick. I did pick both sides of a game late last year out of desperation, but I would like to avoid that if possible. So, let's go Bengals -- it can't get worse, right?
I will also stretch to the San Francisco 49ers, coming off of their bye, on Monday Night against Cleveland. It's not the easiest match of the week, by far -- I've used the Patriots, Eagles and Chargers already, but the Chiefs are still out there. Nor is it the easiest game left on the 49ers' schedule; home games against Atlanta and Arizona are still out there, and that's just in the A's. Still, the 49ers seem good enough to slot in whenever no matchup seems super-appealing. It has been a long time coming!