Tom Brady, Cooper Kupp Threatening Records
NFL Week 16 - Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week should see us entering the penultimate round of fixtures, where we traditionally thrust either our annual all-rookie team or our annual Joe Thomas draft at you. Which ... boy am I relieved we aren't doing the annual Joe Thomas Draft this week, because I do not fancy trying to iron out either conference's playoff standings. I'm very relieved to have two more weeks before we deal with that bad boy.
Bryan: Speak for yourself. Cutting through the playoff mess is what makes this the most wonderful time of the year. I'm told there's also some sort of festival going on around now, but to each their own, I suppose.
Andrew: I believe you'll find that there are, in fact, many sorts of festivals going on around now, as the western world grudgingly wakes up to a more ecumenical understanding of the holiday period. What shape those festivities will take this year likely depends on where you are in the Greek alphabet of COVID-19. That's one thing the holiday schedule has in common with the NFL schedule, given that we yet again find ourselves writing before the current round of games has completed.
Bryan: Tuesday night football is not, I admit, what I wanted to bring back from 2020. When we talked about the possibility of more windows of games a month or so back, this isn't exactly what we had in mind. We'll do our best to keep our cursed monkey's paw away from the rest of the year.
Andrew: We do have scheduling on the mind, however, for more reasons than just that. As I mentioned, normally we're right at the sharp end of things at this time of year. Fantasy league finals should be coming up this weekend, followed by the final week of the regular season, then straight into both real and fantasy playoff contests en route to the Super Bowl on the first weekend in February. Instead, we have something of a dead week as we're through the first part of our December article schedule with the hot seats and Pro Bowl voting, but not quite ready for the end-of-season product line. The regular season now doesn't end until mid-January and the Super Bowl is now nearer the middle of February than the beginning. We haven't really looked at this 17-game, 18-week schedule malarkey since we made our preseason picks. Now that we're closing in on the end of it, we figured it's a good time to form some deep-seated, emotionally charged opinions on the whole endeavor.
"Meh" is a deep-seated, emotionally charged opinion, right?
Bryan: It has been more annoying than disruptive, I agree. My brain's still not wrapping around counting to 17 when calculating tiebreakers and scenarios—years of associating 10 wins with six losses will do that—and the fact that the Super Bowl is crashing headfirst into the Winter Olympics for the first time feels wrong on a great many levels, and there's the constant rolling-of-the-eyes, knowing that there's very little chance the NFL sticks with an odd number of games for a significant period of time, making this an annoying stepping stone on the way to an 18-game season. But on the whole? This is probably somewhere down in the thousands on my list of things to complain about, somewhere between them not having the color of Christmas ornaments I was looking to order this year and the lack of a firm release date for Netflix's Sandman adaptation. I'm coping, in other words.
Andrew: I do think that's part of the "meh." We know this is just a temporary layover while we wait for our connection. If it seems to drag on a bit, that's probably in part because we aren't investing as much into it as we could. Well, most of us aren't. The Steelers seem dead-set on proving that you can, in fact, go exactly .500 in a season with an odd number of games, and good on 'em, I say! I'm rooting for that more than I'm rooting for the playoff seeds ... which are also an annoying odd number. Maybe the league is just determined to get us out of our even-numbered comfort zones.
Bryan: They could have picked something other than primes, at the very least. Makes it so hard to chunk things up properly for over-analysis. What do they think we're doing here, anyway?
I do think that, in general, I would mind the expanded season a little less if they had shifted everything BACK a week, rather than tacking on a week to the end of the season, but that was never, ever going to happen.
Andrew: I agree with that, mostly for a bunch of completely trivial reasons. For example, you can no longer talk about teams "still playing in January" when there are now two full weekends of January games.
Bryan: Well, you can thank the Texans, Jets, Lions, and Jaguars for trying to hold up the tradition of being irrelevant in January, even though it's significantly harder now.
Andrew: Don't forget the Bears! They got there in the nick of time, but get there they did!
Bryan: Alright, so I think we're in agreement that, on the whole, the 17-game season is more annoying than problematic in any way, which does not a great article make. But the addition of an extra game is significant, as it turns out tacking 5% more season onto your season can have significant impacts everywhere, both in those super-tight playoff races you were mentioning earlier, and, in a problem MLB has had to struggle with for a century now, in single-season records.
Just to start with the latter real quick. The record for completions in a season is 471, set by Drew Brees in 2016. Tom Brady is on pace for 491—but only 462 in a 16-game season. The record for pass attempts in a season is 727, set by Matthew Stafford in 2012. Tom Brady is on pace for 731—but only 688 in a 16-game season. My most significant thought when looking at those numbers is: good lord, Tom Brady will never age.
Andrew: Though if anything can persuade him to retire, it will be playing the Saints twice every regular season. Maybe that's what the rest of the league needs to do: petition to have the Buccaneers play the Saints home and away in the last two weeks of the regular season and hope it convinces Brady to file retirement papers at the end of Week 16.
There are a couple of different aspects to this. Of course the extra game is going to impact records that are purely counting stats: attempts, completions, yards, receptions, and so on. Those records may be slightly diminished if they surpass the record at a rate lower than it took to set the record. However, there's an argument that it's just as impressive in a 17-game NFL season because of the sheer rigor of getting onto the field for 17 NFL games. Especially considering that the time of year that the extra game is played is usually less well suited for putting up gaudy numbers—admittedly, less of an issue in Tampa Bay than New England.
Bryan: There was a lot of controversy back in the 1960s when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, hitting 61 homers in a 162-game schedule rather than a 154-game slate—or a slightly less expanded season than we're seeing in the NFL. But that has just never been the case in the NFL, even as the season has gone from 12 to 14 to 16 and now to 17 games a year. There has never really been a call for Peyton Manning or Calvin Johnson to have an asterisk next to their performances, and I think that's partially because, well, the NFL has never glorified individual stats on the same level baseball has. Partially that's because it's harder to remember the specifics of four-digit numbers, but I also don't think the passing, receiving, and rushing single-season leaders are as enshrined in people's memory as, say, the home run kings.
One thing it has affected over the years is how significant round-number milestones are. In a 12-game world, 1,000 rushing yards was something saved for the best of the best. By the time the league went to 16 games, it became something any halfway competent running back should be able to accomplish, though funnily enough it's becoming harder and harder now with less rushing and more running back committees.
Andrew: That's true. There's a world of difference between a milestone that requires almost 100 yards a game and one that requires barely 60. With the increase in passing, I do think we're on track to see 2,000 yards become the new elite milestone for receivers, even though we have never yet seen a 2,000 yard receiver. To get to 2,000 yards in an 18-game season would require 111 or 112 yards per game. We have only ever seen 10 receivers average that over a full season—and even that depends on Cooper Kupp sustaining his current pace this year—but half of those have been within the past 10 years. As you note, for backs, that's less likely to happen because so few backs would ever get that workload.
Bryan: Unless the Titans' coaching staff spreads around the league! Then we'll see backs run until their legs perhaps literally explode.
A 2,000-yard receiving season isn't out of the question, mind you. The two Brady records above are the only ones currently on pace to fall thanks to the extra 17th game, but there are a couple more out there which are in range if players pick up their production just a little bit.
If Tom Brady averages 377 passing yards per game, he'll catch 2013 Peyton Manning's record of 5,477; Brady finishes the season with the Panthers, Jets, and then Panthers again.
Before Tuesday's game, Cooper Kupp needed nine receptions per game to catch 2019 Michael Thomas' 149; he will play (will have played?) the Seahawks, Vikings, Ravens, and 49ers. Kupp also needed 119 yards per game to catch 2012 Calvin Johnson's 1,964—not quite 2,000, but close to it.
And defensively, T.J. Watt needs two sacks a game against the Chiefs, Browns, and Ravens to take down the single-season sack record, whether you go with 2001 Michael Strahan's official mark of 22.5 or 1978 Al Baker's unofficial mark of 23.0.
Andrew: Given that half the Browns roster is on the COVID list and half the Ravens roster is on injured reserve, I wouldn't bet against him. And that's with Watt having missed time, so he's not even getting the full benefit of the extra game.
Bryan: Kupp's quest is something I have been following off and on throughout the season, because as good as he is, he isn't at Calvin Johnson-levels of dominance in my mind. Maybe that's just because they play very different styles, but the top of the receiving yardage leaderboard has always been reserved for guys such as Johnson, or Jerry Rice before him—outside receivers that you just can't shut down. When Kupp (and earlier this year, Deebo Samuel) are pushing for 2,000 yards, that feels different.
Andrew: I know what you're saying, but part of the appeal of Kupp for me is that he's attacking by the record by the exact opposite route to how Johnson set it: Johnson had the fourth-most targets of any season in history but just a 59.8% catch rate when he set the record, whereas Kupp has a much lower target volume but the fourth-highest catch rate in history (74.8%) in his pursuit. Note that's not a criticism of Johnson at all, because he was absolutely dominant that year, but just fascination at how divergent their paths are toward the same potential milestone.
Bryan: And more on that same point. Johnson's YAC+ in 2012, when he set the record, was 0.0—dead-on league average. Entering Tuesday's game, Kupp was up at +0.8, 12th in the league. He has been in the top 20 in every single season, as that's much more his game compared to Johnson's deep-ball brilliance. It's an entirely different style, which makes it interesting to see him climb this particular leaderboard.
Andrew: Top it off with the fact that both were catching passes from Matthew Stafford, and the combination of symmetry and divergence is a lot of fun.
Bryan: He's got a real chance, too—he put up 122 yards against the 49ers the last time they played, and the San Francisco secondary has only gotten worse since then, and he had 92 yards against the Seahawks back in October. Honestly, I think the biggest thing working against him is the fact that Sean McVay won't even let his starters into the stadium in Week 18 if they're locked into a wild-card berth.
Andrew: Which somewhat ironically leaves us right where we were lamenting not being in the first place, comparing one 16-game season to another.
Kupp's chase is also fun to follow because he's still on pace near the end of the year. There are always a heap of people on record pace at the start of the year because the weather is good and variance and scheduling have real impacts. It's far less common for somebody to sustain that into mid-December.
Bryan: I have a chart for that! Like I said, I have been a *little* obsessed with the quest for 2,000 receiving yards this year.
I am a little obsessed with the quest for 2K receiving yards. It's been a while since anyone had a real shot at it -- only Calvin Johnson in his crazy 2012 season was on pace after six games. Deebo Samuel and Cooper Kupp could join him; thanks, 17th game! pic.twitter.com/JDzYFQWHsz
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) November 7, 2021
Andrew: Forget 2,000 yards, that Charley Hennigan season is the one that really stands out when we look through these stats. Hennigan's record of 124.7 receiving yards per game still stands, scraping ahead of Crazylegs Hirsch's 124.6 in 1951, followed by Johnson's 122.8 in 2012.
Bryan: Hennigan was playing in the very early AFL, which explains it. That was very much still a minor league at that point in time as they tried to claw their way towards parity with the rival NFL. So when you had a track star such as Hennigan, working with an NFL-caliber quarterback such as George Blanda, against some cornerbacks who couldn't make the big leagues, that helps a lot.
Andrew: That does lead us into the direction I think we'll end up going, if the change in season duration does become an issue. For some figures, we'll talk per-game instead of totals—it's kinda nuts that even in this age of passing, nobody other than Johnson has come within 5 yards of Hirsch and Hennigan—and for some, we'll use rate stats instead of raw totals, so Jim Brown's 6.4 yards per attempt or Kurt Warner's 9.9 yards per attempt. (Using ANY/A, where Peyton Manning's 9.8 in 2004 is the record, is probably still a pipe dream, never mind something like DVOA.)
Bryan: We'll also talk about eras, too. We already kind of group pre- and post-1978 stats when talking about the passing game, thanks to the significant rule changes there, and a lot of people have post-2004 as its own era with the illegal contact rules being reinforced. You get some of that in other sports, with baseball talking about the dead ball era and the steroid era, but it feels to me like football changes more fundamentally over time than the other major American sports. That's another reason why there has never been nearly as much fuss over these sorts of records as there is in baseball—passing and receiving records fall all the time, because there is more passing now. Rushing records seem unattainable for the same reason. So rather than tearing one's hair out about it, you just kind of acknowledge who's the best at any given time rather than enshrining a single number in a block of stone.
Andrew: And for that reason, moving to 17 games and even on to 18 just doesn't seem as big a deal as, say, baseball moving to 162 games did. With 17, it's a little weird specifically because we know it's not going to be an "era." It might be a few seasons, but it will probably end up being lumped in with the 18-game era if any records fall, and with the 16-game era if they don't. The biggest impact will probably be found in playoff tiebreakers, and the playoff race would be a mess this year whether we were playing 16 games, 18 games, or 14 games, and whether we were allowing six, seven, or eight teams in per conference. So for all the hullabaloo at the time, it seems to me to have turned out pretty much business as usual for everything except our article schedule.
Bryan: The one other thing we thought might throw a wrench into things with the 17-game schedule is the new 17th game, a cross-conference game based on previous-season results. Teams getting easier or harder matchups in that extra game might have an outsized impact on the playoff race! Well, at this exact point in time, I can tell you the exact effects so far of the 17th game: nearly, but not quite, bupkis.
If you eliminated that extra game, right now, the Saints would be in the playoffs over the Vikings thanks to not having lost against the Titans and Minnesota's win over the Chargers evaporating. You'd also have the Ravens in over the Bills in the AFC, with Buffalo's September victory over the Football Team no longer in play. The Rams would actually be ahead of the Cardinals in the NFC West, though that's only because they haven't played their 17th game yet. And, if you want to get into the real nitty gritty, the top four seeds in the AFC are rearranged to New England, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Tennessee in that order. That's not much! I mean, it's not nothing, but the changes are more because we have such a car crash at the bottom of each wild-card race rather than something the 17th game alone is causing.
Andrew: Right, and in general, more games should favor better teams by reducing variance, even in the case of uneven schedules, thereby giving us the best possible playoff field. Naturally, it won't work out that way until the games are being played by robots and we can operate a 30-game-per-conference home-and-away schedule. Hopefully, not even the current owners would push for that.
In the meantime, I think I'd have preferred to go straight from a 16-game, 17-week schedule to an 18-game, 20-week schedule. The 18-week, 17-game schedule really is just a stopgap. Its biggest impact may be found on black Monday when somebody—let's say for instance Vic Fangio—ends up one game below .500 or one game above .500 instead of exactly .500. If Tom Brady does beat one of those attempts or completions records, it will only be temporary until somebody surpasses Brady in an 18-game season, and on we go. The needle returns to the start of the song, and we all sing along like before.
Keep Choppin' Wood
Our short national nightmare is over. After a turbulent 10 months filled with crazy staff hirings, bizarre player signings, shameful public scandals, baffling press conferences, heated arguments, and even reports of actual assault on one of his players, Urban Meyer is no longer the Jaguars coach. Even his departure took place in bizarre fashion, as Meyer apparently simply walked out, never to return. His 2-13 record barely scratches the surface of how bad his tenure was; we could easily make a case for it being the worst in the modern history of any major U.S. sport. Freed from Meyer's shackles, the Jaguars responded by ... uh, losing at home to the Houston Texans, who remain only the second-most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Down 13 late against the Colts, the Patriots faced fourth-and-goal from the 7-yard line. With a 13-point deficit, surely Bill Belichick would go for it, right? Instead, Belichick had his team kick the field goal, turning a two-score deficit into a slightly smaller two-score deficit. Belichick spoke about the decision afterward, offering the justification that he felt the odds of the Patriots getting a touchdown and a field goal to tie the game were better than converting the fourth-and-7. That's for him to judge, but the 10 points still only gets you to overtime, whereas the touchdown gives you a chance to win the game. That's a pretty big difference! Belichick's decision was only the third-worst of the week, per EdjSports, but it's the only one of the top four that even non-analytically minded fans were questioning at the time.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
He has been roundly criticized for it since, but nobody can deny that Chargers head coach Brandon Staley played to win the game against the Chiefs. Staley went for it on fourth-down in each of the following situations:
- Fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line on the opening drive.
- Fourth-and-1 from the Chiefs 33 in the second quarter, trailing 10-7.
- Fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line on the last play of the first half, leading 14-10.
- Fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line in the third quarter, leading 14-13.
- Fourth-and-1 from the Chiefs 11-yard line in the fourth quarter, leading 14-13.
Staley, in fact, went for every fourth down his team faced except one, a punt on fourth-and-15 with 25 seconds left in a tied game. Unfortunately, those decisions probably produced a net negative in points scored as the Chargers lost to a Chiefs touchdown in overtime. However, Staley has been consistently aggressive all season, which makes absolute sense for a team with a top-three offense but a bottom-10 defense and the second-worst special teams by our figures.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
It's Wednesday. By now, you have read 532 explanations, 357 defenses, 932 attacks, and 237 deep analysis of John Harbaugh's two-point decisions at the end of the Ravens-Packers game. We'll save you having to read all about that again, and link the article and podcast we have that touch on the subject. But we will ask one question: why go for two down one, and not down nine? Harbaugh has said that he considered it, and decided to wait to make the decision, but spent all night agonizing about it afterwards. I'm just happy that some NFL coaches are at least going through the debate!
John Harbaugh said he considered going for 2 after the Ravens' first fourth quarter touchdown. He said he wanted to delay the ultimate decision on going for two and the win. Harbs said he's thought about the decision all night and criticizes himself for it.
— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) December 20, 2021
'Jet Engine' Fantasy Player of the Week
The New York Jets have allowed 28.3 fantasy points per game to running backs, the most in the league. The average corps picks up 180 yards of offense against them, which is obviously the worst in the league by a substantial margin. Anyone getting to play the Jets has a good week, is what we're saying, and this week, it was Duke Johnson, a surprise bellcow with Myles Gaskin only just coming off of the COVID list. Johnson had the first 100-yard rushing day of his career, as well as his first multiple-rushing touchdown day. If only he could play the Jets every week.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) December 19, 2021
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
I am not surprised to be talking about someone from the Cardinals-Lions game as the Garbage-Time Performer of the Week. I am surprised that I'm talking about someone from Arizona, but, well, here we are. Christian Kirk has taken over as Arizona's deep threat now that DeAndre Hopkins is out, and he had himself a solid game as the Cardinals started flinging the ball all around the field in a desperate attempt to keep up with the—and I must repeat this—1-11-1 Detroit Lions. More than half his catches came on Arizona's final two drives, where he was able to take advantage of some soft zones to pull in five receptions, including this 26-yard score. The tweet claims it closed the gap, which I suppose is technically true, but this one was already over.
Kyler to Kirk closes the gap. #RedSea
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2021
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Only one team was eliminated from the playoffs this week, and that was Matt Nagy's Chicago Bears. It has been a rough season for the Bears, as the defense has failed to live up to their expectations and the offense has definitely played down to theirs. One relative bright spot has been second-year receiver Darnell Mooney, who has posted three 100-yard games en route to a career-best and team-high 803 receiving yards. Mooney has three games remaining, against the Seahawks, Giants, and Vikings, giving him a decent chance to hit the 1,000-yard mark despite his team's ... let's say inconsistent quarterbacking.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
By now, I'm sure you're tired of hearing about it—hell, I'm tired of writing about it—but one of the reasons Baltimore's decision to go for two has been discussed so much is that, well, it was a huge play in a massive game! That's pretty much the dictionary definition of this award, so let's watch it one more time.
— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTB_Vids_YT) December 20, 2021
Had the Ravens won—either by converting the, er, conversion, or kicking the extra point and coming out on top in overtime—they'd be atop the AFC North right now. Instead, they're at the bottom of the 8-6 pile and are currently out of the postseason picture. It's slightly less important for the Packers, but they'd be ranked second of the five 10-4 teams in the NFC had they lost; the Cowboys would have the better conference record and hence the bye week. And, in fact, I suspect both of those will hold true at the end of the year—the Ravens being unable to win this game will cost them a playoff spot, and the Packers' win will keep them one game ahead of the rest of the NFC. We'll let you continue to debate whether the decision was right or wrong, but there's no denying it was important!
Records to Date:
Andrew: I did not see a shutout by the Saints coming in Tampa Bay, but that first home shutout of Tom Brady's career came with the loss of Chris Godwin for the season, and likely Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette for at least a couple of games. The return of Antonio Brown mitigates that somewhat, but far from entirely, and the Panthers defense is feisty enough to cause the Buccaneers trouble even without their top targets. I still think Tampa Bay wins, because the Panthers offense is still terrible, but I'm not convinced a two-touchdown margin is justified. Give me the points and I'll take the Panthers. Carolina (+11) vs. Tampa Bay.
Bryan: Really great to make picks before four teams have finished their schedules for the week, so I'll try to stick with teams that have had as normal a week as possible. I'm taking New England (-2.5) at home against Buffalo. We can't learn too much about either team from the wind-addled game a few weeks ago, except maybe this: the Patriots are more flexible than the Bills are. So, while the Colts knocked New England off, that was in large part due to a powerful running game that the Bills have neither the talent nor the inclination to duplicate. And I'm not buying the Bills' win over the Panthers as a sign that they have suddenly figured everything out—they started slowly and didn't execute cleanly, which is fine to beat Carolina, but maybe not so much New England.
Double Survival League
Records to Date:
Andrew: LAC, NO, NYJ, SEA
Bryan: ATL, BUF, CHI, NYJ
Bryan: Fun times—I'm making this pick before we know what happens in the Philadelphia game I picked last week, so I have no idea if I'm down by one game or two. Gotta love reshuffled schedules.
Fortunately, I'm semi-locked into my last two weeks. I'm not picking the Falcons over the Bills, I'm not picking the Bills over the Patriots, I'm not picking the Bears over the Seahawks, and I'm not picking the Jets over the Buccaneers. That makes my picks this week the Atlanta Falcons against the suddenly plucky Detroit Lions and the New York Jets over the hopeless Jacksonville Jaguars. Obviously, I don't trust either of these teams—hence why they're still available in Week 16!—but they're both taking on teams who have already been mathematically eliminated from the postseason and have nothing to play for. That seems to matter more to the Jags, who have been mentally on a golf course since October, than it does for the Lions, who just beat the leading team in the NFC, but I will just have to live with it.
Andrew: Unfortunately for you, immutable Scramble law strikes again as I too am locked into the New York Jets for this week's pick. That means no matter what, you cannot overtake me this week, even if both of my picks fail and both of your others come through. However, it also means I am unlikely to clinch, as you would need to lose with both the Falcons and Eagles, and I would need the ever-unreliable Los Angeles Chargers to beat Houston. That should be a tasty matchup for Brandon Staley's men, but it would be just like the Chargers to take the Chiefs to overtime then lose at home to the Texans.