Trevon Diggs' Pursuit of History
NFL Week 8 - Trevon Diggs is chasing a ghost named Tom Morrow.
Morrow holds the all-time NFL-AFL-AAFC record with at least one interception in eight consecutive games. Diggs can tie that record when the Dallas Cowboys face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night. Morrow is also one of five defenders, all of them from the early days of the AFL, to record eight interceptions in the first seven games of the season. Diggs will tie that mark if he can intercept a pass in his next game.
Morrow is a hard player to track down. He recorded 23 interceptions for the Oakland Raiders from 1962 through 1964. He also punted as a rookie. He was a standout for a Southern Mississippi team that went undefeated in 1958. He set the consecutive interception record with picks in the final four games of the 1963 season and the first four games of the 1964 season. He then suffered some sort of career-ending injury and retired to an auto dealership. He passed away in 2018. That was all I could find without tunneling deep into newspaper archives, which is the sort of thing I only have time for in May through July. Morrow is a ghostly shadow in the attic of pro football history.
Here's a list of the other defenders who recorded eight interceptions through the first seven games of a season:
- Austin "Goose" Gonsoulin, 1960: A perennial AFL Pro Bowler and Broncos Ring of Fame inductee.
- Bobby Hunt, 1962: A starter for the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs in the early AFL days. No relation to the Hunt family which owns the Chiefs.
- Pete Jaquess, 1964: A stunningly obscure player who had one great year for the Houston Oilers before bouncing around the AFL. There's even less about him on the Internet than there is about Morrow.
- Johnny Sample, 1961: By far the most famous player on this list, Sample played for both the 1958 Greatest Game Ever Baltimore Colts and the Jets in Super Bowl III. He set the record while playing for a forgettable Steelers team.
At seven interceptions through six games, Diggs is currently tied with Hall of Famer Rod Woodson and a host of AFL stars of varying luminance. Darren Sharper intercepted seven passes through seven games for the Saints in 2009. Emmitt Thomas performed the same feat in 1964. The list of players with six interceptions through six games is a mix of AFL defenders; Hall of Famers such as Ronnie Lott and Lem Barney; and the occasional recent player who clustered a few multi-interception games together early in a season, like Tim Jennings for the 2012 Chicago Bears.
Interestingly, many of these big-interception seasons came early in the defenders' careers. Morrow, like Diggs, was in his second pro season. Gonsoulin and Jaquess were rookies. The logic is easy to follow: young cornerback gets picked on to start the season, grabs some interceptions while getting targeted frequently, then sees his opportunities decrease after he establishes his reputation. It's a little surprising to see such a pattern in the early 1960s AFL, but another variable may have been at work back then.
Quarterbacks averaged over two interceptions per game in the early AFL, so defensive interception totals were naturally high. I often argue that the AFL should be thought of as a minor league until about 1964, when Al Davis took over the Raiders and soon declared a draft war against the NFL. The careers of many stars like Morrow abruptly screech to a halt right around that time, and quarterbacks such as Frank Tripucka and Babe Parilli start giving way to the likes of Joe Namath and Len Dawson.
The early-1960s AFL is so different from the modern NFL that what Diggs is attempting to do is less like tying a record associated with someone such as Woodson and more like a baseball player chasing a record from the days when it was illegal to pitch overhand and sluggers finished the season batting .421 with eight home runs.
It's important to emphasize that Diggs is having a uniquely outstanding season, because not everyone seems to agree. Twitter howled when Kendrick Bourne "burned" Diggs for a 75-yard touchdown just one play after Diggs gave the Cowboys a fourth-quarter lead with a pick-six two Sundays ago. In fact, it was quite clear that Diggs took an outside release, expected deep safety help, and chose not to contest the ball in the air, all of which tracks with the defensive formation and game situation (force the receiver inside to burn timeouts and clock; don't take risks). If Cowboys safety Demontae Kazee didn't decide to chase a passing butterfly instead of minding his assignment, Bourne would have gained about 15 yards at best.
Diggs may be getting a little of the cool-kid treatment from the self-proclaimed film-junkie influencers: you casual fans may be dazzled by Diggs' interception totals, but I see a different game. He has indeed missed a few tackles in run support, but Deion Sanders missed a few tackles in run support. If you're response to a pair of pick-sixes, a two-interception game against the Panthers, and multiple pass breakups for a 4-1 team whose leaky defense relies on turnovers to win shootouts is Umm, actually, he's not a very good tackler, you are really missing the forest from the trees.
We're witnessing one of the most remarkable cornerback seasons in modern history. Let's not micromanage it away by nitpicking flaws. The accomplishments of defenders like Morrow have been forgotten because the game has changed so much: quarterbacks are better, offenses are more sophisticated, and interceptions have become rare. What Diggs is doing this year should be commemorated for exactly the same reason.
Thursday Night Sportsbook: Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
Hey look: an exciting Thursday nighter! Let's expand today's Sportsbook in search of a little extra action.
The Spread at Press Time: Packers +6.5
The Packers are 6-3 both straight-up and against the spread as road underdogs since Matt LaFleur's arrival in 2019. That record includes their 30-28 victory as three-point road dogs against the 49ers in Week 3 (which feels like six billion years ago) and a loss as eight-point dogs in San Francisco in the 2019 playoffs, plus wins in New Orleans, Dallas, and (somehow) Minnesota and Chicago over the last three years.
The public and the house, like Walkthrough, may have gotten into a habit of nitpicking every Packers flaw because we're so familiar with them. That could move the spread by a point or so when they face foes that may be overvalued because of a hot streak or a novel storyline.
No team is as hot or as novel as the Cardinals, and Aaron Schatz Tweeted on Tuesday that the Cardinals have recovered 79% of their fumbles this season. Here at Football Outsiders, when the boss starts talking about fumble luck, you'd better listen. No one is suggesting that the Cardinals are due for a second-half collapse, but that's a strong indicator that they are indeed overvalued.
If Davante Adams' availability (COVID) were certain, Packers +6.5 would be a lock. But if Adams were certain, the line would be closer to +5. An All-Pro wide receiver is worth a point or two of spread, not five or six. It's tempting to overstate Adams' value because Aaron Rodgers might just make a stinky face and throw the ball into the stands 20 times with his favorite target unavailable, but that type of overbaked Rodgers psychoanalysis may be one of the reasons why the Packers cover as road dogs so often.
Also, the Cardinals may be down to their third-string center, and they had a hard time protecting Kyler Murray early in the Texans game. A center crisis can be as devastating to an offense as a receiver crunch.
Walkthrough doesn't like the Cardinals enough to lay points in this game. We're going to wait right up until kickoff to see if the line jumps to +7.5 or so with Adams out, or if it stays put if he's available. We'll take Rodgers plus a touchdown against just about any opponent, even if his receivers are kindergartners in Jake Kumerow masks.
Can We Interest You In a Same-Game Parlay?
Not today, Satan!
Thursday night games are 2-5 at clearing the over-under so far this year. Walkthrough's operating hypothesis: teams are being slightly more conservative about risking semi-injured starters on a short week during a 17-game season. This game, at the very least, is already impacted by the quick turnaround for Adams' COVID tests.
A tempting parlay for those of you worried about the Packers receiver situation: Cardinals moneyline AND under 50.5 at +170. We're not playing that, but it's worth monitoring.
What About a First Quarter Prop?
OK, twist our arms. Both teams are relatively slow starters. The Packers rank 14th in first-quarter offensive DVOA. The Cardinals rank 15th and were lulled to sleep by the Texans in the first quarter last week. The Packers, meanwhile, rank 32nd in defensive DVOA in the first quarter.
After much tinkering, Walkthrough cooked up a first-quarter prop of Cardinals -2.5 AND Under 10.5 at +200. We see the Cardinals leading 7-3 in the first half, Adams or not, and earning a little cash before 9 p.m.
Zach Ertz as an "anytime scorer" +175 leapt off the screen for this longtime Ertz supporter. Kliff Kingsbury appeared eager to play with his new toy last week, and the Packers rank 23rd at stopping their opponents' tight ends.
Packers player props were just starting to appear when we went to press. Rodgers +253.5 passing yards looks tempting, but he has only reached that number once so far this season. (Take the under if you enjoy rooting against Rodgers, but even Walkthrough isn't that hard-hearted).
If you are smelling a shootout or a Cardinals rout, DraftKings is offering +2500 on Kyler Murray over 350 passing yards AND 50 rushing yards. Unfortunately, he's much more likely to do one or the other than both.
After this week, Thursday Night Football becomes very inessential until Thanksgiving: Jets-Colts, then Ravens-Dolphins, then Patriots-Falcons. So enjoy this one. We'll know much more about the NFC playoff chase when it's over.
Leaderboard of the Week
Every Thursday, Walkthrough examines a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.
Dropped passes can alter our perceptions of a quarterback or an offense. But that doesn't necessarily mean that drops distort our perceptions. Some drops are undoubtedly the quarterback's partial fault: bad ball placement, poor timing, unexpected velocity, etc. And while an offense with multiple pass-droppers may simply be unlucky, there could also be an underlying flaw in the way that team's roster was built or how those receivers are being coached.
Here are the 2021 NFL leaders in dropped pass percentage:
The Jets are capable of finishing at the bottom of leaderboards few would ever think to check. Corey Davis has dropped five passes, running back Ty Johnson three, and Braxton Berrios, Jamison Crowder, Tyler Kroft, and Michael Carter two each. The breadth of offenders suggests a system-wide problem: rookie quarterback, weak playmaker corps, etc.
The concern here is that dropped passes may already be hurting Zach Wilson's development: if you want to make a rookie quarterback press too hard and make mistakes, turn would-be completions into third-and-10 situations.
The Panthers are the reason we chose dropped passes as this week's leaderboard. DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson, and Chuba Hubbard have combined for an absurd 19 drops. Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker may not be delivering laser-accurate passes, but the last few Panthers games have featured multiple drops of easy passes by open receivers. Moore and Anderson may simply not be as good as advertised—Anderson has never been the most reliable target—and too much is being asked of Hubbard in the Christian McCaffrey role.
Matt Rhule and Joe Brady, the architects of the Panthers offense, are unassailable football geniuses who are sure to unlock everyone's potential the moment Deshaun Watson arrives or something. Or so we're told.
The good news for the Steelers is that Diontae Johnson has dropped just one pass after dropping a zillion of them (15, to be more precise) last year. The bad news is that Najee Harris has dropped seven passes. It may be a bad idea to make rookie running backs a focal point of your passing game, especially if they weren't Antonio Gibson types in college.
Deebo Samuel has dropped six passes for the 49ers. Two of those drops came against the Cardinals and Seahawks, when Trey Lance was at quarterback much of the time. Lance appears to throw about 20 mph faster than Jimmy Garoppolo and may not have much control over that velocity just yet; his receivers dropped a bunch of Big Unit fastballs in the preseason. It must be tough for receivers to adjust to changing speeds, particularly in-game.
Samuel dropped eight passes in 2019 and three in somewhat-limited action last season. The drops may be the result of constantly working in traffic, iffy quarterbacking, a deficiency in Deebo's game, or a sampler flight of all three. Top targets sometimes have high drop rates. Samuel drops should be well down the list of 49ers worries.
The Chargers are the only team on the list with an MVP candidate quarterback. Keenan Allen, Jared Cook, and Mike Williams have four drops each. Allen, like Samuel, operates constantly in traffic. Cook has always had suspect hands. Williams is being used more as an all-purpose receiver than a deep threat and may still be adjusting. Again, this doesn't look like a hidden flaw, though it bears monitoring when the Chargers face a team with a very low drop rate (keep reading) on Sunday.
We included the Saints because they have thrown so few passes this year: just 155 through six games for a league-low 25.83 attempts per game. (The Bears have attempted just 25.85 passes per game, though including sacks would push them further ahead of the Saints). The Saints don't throw the ball much because they don't have the ball much because they don't throw the ball well. It's about to come back to roost for them. Until then, Alvin Kamara leads the team with just three drops: when a team doesn't throw much, a small number of drops can look like a big deal.
Now for the teams with the lowest drop percentages:
An eclectic list of teams with excellent quarterbacks (Cowboys, Packers, half of Seahawks) and teams that opt for lots and lots of safe, short throws (Broncos, Patriots, other half of Seahawks).
Mac Jones has suffered from just nine drops this year: four by Jonnu Smith, three by Jakobi Meyers, one each by Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. Jones throws lots and lots of flair passes and screens, of course, though his occasional downfield shots are highly catchable. The wisdom of surrounding Jones with reliable (if unspectacular) veteran receivers is clear when you contrast him with Zach Wilson: give Wilson Hunter Henry or James White as a security blanket and his rookie season thus far might look a little less dire.
Then again, we should be careful not to interpret everything the Patriots do as evidence of galactic chess masters at work. The Broncos are also 3-4 thanks to a soft schedule and rely heavily on safe passing. Their offensive roster is better on paper than the Patriots roster when healthy. Yet no one is crediting Vic Fangio and Pat Shurmur with inscrutable sorcery.
Let's wrap with a quick note about the Chiefs. They rank 13th in the NFL with a 6.8% drop rate. Tyreek Hill has dropped six passes, Travis Kelce three. Patrick Mahomes has not been victimized by drops at a noteworthy rate. Chiefs drops appear to ricochet into the hands of defenders a lot, but that may be a perceptual bias: more people watch Chiefs games than Panthers games, and every Mahomes/Hill/Kelce error gets spotlighted.
The Chiefs' overall issues run much deeper than any one fixable flaw. That's bad news for anyone hoping they will climb back into contention.