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30 Sep 2014

Clutch Encounters: Week 4

by Scott Kacsmar

Even with some of the best teams in the league on a bye week, this was the week of the blowout. The average margin of victory was 17.6 points. Eight teams won by at least 19 points and each scored at least 33 points. Even the Patriots took a 41-14 walloping in Kansas City, and the Cowboys held on comfortably against the Saints.

That means only five close games, and only two teams pulled off a fourth-quarter comeback/game-winning drive this week. Both were giving a quarterback his first start of the 2014 season, but both should have built their seasons around these guys in the first place.

Game of the Week

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 at Pittsburgh Steelers 24

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (24-17)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 0:40 left): 0.23
Head Coach: Lovie Smith (21-40 at 4QC and 26-42 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Mike Glennon (3-3 at 4QC and 3-4 overall 4QC/GWD record)

In a week of blowouts, leave it to the Steelers to play down to the competition and battle the winless Buccaneers for 60 minutes. If you've followed the Steelers over the years, this game was a microcosm of the problems that have kept this team in a mediocre state. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times in the first half against a Tampa Bay defense that could barely breathe on Matt Ryan a week ago. There were major discipline issues with the Steelers racking up 13 penalties for 125 yards, including six 15-yard flags. Mike Tomlin's game management was suspect, and Todd Haley's play-calling bordered on gutless at times. Dick LeBeau's defense could not generate pressure and the only takeaway was an interception after Mike Evans pulled up on the route with a groin injury.

You could almost see this one coming after last week's results. Big win in Carolina? Forget about it. Tampa Bay's brutal meltdown in Atlanta? That's a thing of the past. The Buccaneers started Mike Glennon, like they should have done all along, and that helped the offense. The impact wasn't immediate, but Glennon moved the ball very well on all five possessions in the second half. The tall receivers, including Louis Murphy, gave Pittsburgh's small defensive backs some problems. In the second half, Tampa Bay completed six of eight passes on third-and-5 or longer.

Pittsburgh could have extended its 24-17 lead, but decided to get cute with a Roethlisberger punt on fourth-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 37 instead of going for it. The Buccaneers answered early in the fourth quarter with a field goal after Murphy nearly hauled in the tying touchdown. Pittsburgh started its drive with an ill-advised end around that lost 7 yards. Haley actually dialed up a great looking flea-flicker at the right moment, but Antonio Brown dropped the ball. Roethlisberger later overthrew Brown down the field and the Steelers punted.

Pre-snap penalties were a problem for Tampa Bay's inexperienced offense, setting up a second-and-23. Glennon helped overcome that with a 21-yard strike to set up third-and-2. This created a situation that was inexcusable for both teams. The Buccaneers have their quarterback coach, a young Marcus Arroyo, calling the plays because offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford is recovering from a heart procedure. That could explain why the play-calling process is so slow, but Glennon was pissing around at the line for a long time while LeBeau's classic cushion was applied for the best receiver on the field, Vincent Jackson.

Now it's one thing to be worried about getting beat deep, but William Gay can't play this far off Jackson when it's just third-and-2. It's at the 4:28 mark that Gay drops back so far he's no longer in the broadcast picture. The Steelers make no adjustments to this coverage and the Buccaneers are still getting this unbelievable look after nearly 20 seconds:

How can anyone justify that coverage on third-and-2? How can Glennon not see this and do a quick snap to get the ball over there? Tampa Bay never capitalized, but the Steelers found a different way to gift them the first down. Arthur Moats jumped offsides for a 5-yard penalty. Glennon drove the Buccaneers into the red zone, but a first-down pass by running back Bobby Rainey did not work. Glennon couldn't make the big throw either, missing Jackson on fourth-and-10.

Pittsburgh held, but this was far from over with 1:44 to go and Tampa Bay having two timeouts left. After a 2-yard run, Maurkice Pouncey was penalized for a big false start (illegal snap). Roethlisberger threw a pass on second-and-13, but only for 8 yards. That brought up a crucial third-and-5, and an incredible graphic from the FOX broadcast:

Yeah, 3-1 teams usually make the playoffs, but why are you flashing a graphic that has the 2-1 Steelers at 3-1 when they're one stop away from giving the ball back in a 24-20 game? You would think after Denver's incredible one-minute drill in Seattle last week that no one would dare call a game at this point. I know David Diehl was calling the game and probably thought lowly Tampa Bay would concede, but come on. That's a joke.

Then came an equally pathetic effort. Roethlisberger had an excellent game against the 32nd-ranked pass defense. He missed five throws (based on accuracy) at most in the entire game and wasn't sacked in the second half. Let him win the game on third-and-5. What do you really gain by running the ball, punting and taking 40 seconds away from the opponent? If we look at Advanced Football Analytics, assuming the punt is the same regardless of the time it was kicked, the win probability difference between a team in Tampa Bay's situation having 80 seconds versus 40 seconds is about 11 percent. Of course, a team having less time just increases the likelihood that you get beat in the final seconds instead of having a little time to answer any score.

What about the run versus the pass on third-and-5? I looked at plays from 1998-2014 fitting the following criteria to match the situation best:

  • Final four minutes of the fourth quarter
  • Offense leading by 1-8 points
  • Third-and-5 only

This makes the sample size much smaller, but at least we know these plays took place with both teams knowing how crucial the down was. No "throwing 5-yard in-cuts with a 35-point deficit in the final minute" diluting the data here. The pass converted on 32.6 percent of 88 plays, and the rush was good 22.1 percent of the time on 95 plays. Some of the rushes were definitely quarterback runs or scrambles from passes, but I don't have this data broken down that far.

For his career (137 plays), Roethlisberger has converted third-and-5 into a first down 43.8 percent of the time. On a day where he was sharp and the undermanned Pittsburgh defense wasn't, that sounds like a reasonable estimate of his chances to convert and end the game right there.

Instead of doing what works best, the Steelers ran the ball with Le'veon Bell for a loss of 2 yards. To make matters worse, Brad Wing's punt traveled 29 yards. Glennon only needed to go 46 yards and he had 40 seconds to do it.

Just like when the 2009 Raiders stunned Pittsburgh, it was Louis Murphy time again. He had 92 yards in the quarter and none were bigger than the 41-yard catch-and-run to take the ball down to the Pittsburgh 5. Another giant cushion and a simple post route did the damage. Glennon spiked the ball on first down and this ending felt inevitable.

The bad defense continued. Knowing the only thing that mattered was the touchdown, why would LeBeau leave Gay in single coverage with Jackson in the end zone? Troy Polamalu blitzed, but this is the closest he ever got to the quarterback:

Yeah, that was really productive. Defend the end zone at all costs. The lack of coverage on Jackson in this quarter was mind-boggling. Sure enough, Tampa Bay went right back to that matchup and Jackson beat Gay for the touchdown with seven seconds left. That's the game. No magical lateral play like Brown almost pulled off against the Dolphins last year. Just another Pittsburgh letdown against a team it was expected to beat.

In 2012 I wrote a pretty scathing analysis of LeBeau's career for NBC Sports. Let's revisit that briefly. These endings are nothing new for his defenses, because his scheme is simply inadequate for non-conventional offenses. Sure, given the right personnel it's usually great at stopping the run and confusing quarterbacks when they hang onto the ball too long. But when teams are forced to pass and they spread the field with multiple receivers and run a hurry-up offense, LeBeau's defense loses its advantage of disguising the blitz or staying in a base 3-4 defense. More cornerbacks are needed and the Steelers just don't have the able bodies at that position right now. When the quarterback is getting rid of the ball quickly, the pass rush fails to get there. When you're giving up such a big cushion, these quick passes can lead to many easy completions. We've seen this time and time again, and the difference now is that even the lesser quarterbacks can exploit this defense. Much like Glennon, Brian Hoyer had a big second half in Week 1 against Pittsburgh. It's like when the offense adjusts, Pittsburgh can't.

When LeBeau was defensive coordinator in Cincinnati for the first time, his defense allowed a league-high 27 game-winning drives in that time (1984-1991). Ever since Tomlin retained him in 2007, he has basically left the defense to LeBeau instead of implementing a defense which fits his own background, which is more 4-3 and Tampa-2 scheme. Since 2007, the Steelers have allowed 24 game-winning drives, tied for the fourth most in the league. The problem is, no defense gives up more drives at the end of the game than Pittsburgh, leaving Roethlisberger no real time to answer.

I broke it down two years ago, but here's an update for 2007-2014. This is where the Pittsburgh defense ranks in terms of game-winning drives allowed where the winning points came in the final two minutes or overtime.

Steelers: Game-Winning Drives Allowed, 2007-2014
Last 2:00 Last 1:00 Last 0:40 Last 0:15 OT Drives Last 0:40 + OT
12 (T-1st) 11 (1st) 11 (1st) 9 (1st) 5 (T-3rd) 16 (1st)
Time is based on remaining time when winning points were scored

Overtime aside, it's almost a clean sweep for the Steelers. They have watched opponents score the game-winning points in the final 15 seconds of nine games since 2007, two more than any other team.

Since winning Super Bowl XLIII (which also included a blown lead of 13 points in the fourth quarter), the Steelers have picked up another nasty habit: playing down to the competition.

This Tampa Bay loss is only the third time in Roethlisberger's career that he has lost a home game in which he was favored by more than seven points (-7.5 on Sunday). In each of those games he led the offense to 24 points, but the Steelers lost 27-24 to a bad Oakland team (2009) and 34-24 to a San Diego (2012) team that entered with a 4-8 record.

Does it seem like this happens a lot to Pittsburgh? I looked at spread data on Pro-Football-Reference and used games from 2009-2014 in which a team was at least a five-point favorite against a team that finished the season with a non-winning record. That way we eliminate some of the early-season guesswork and also don't penalize a team for losing to someone really good like the 2012 Patriots against the 49ers. I only looked at the teams with at least 18 such games, which basically gives us the best 16 teams in the league in recent years.

5+ Point Favorite vs. Non-Winning Team Since 2009 (Min. 18 Games)
Rk Team Straight Up Pct. Games ATS Pct. Rk
1 Atlanta Falcons 21-1 0.955 22 13-8-1 0.614 4
2 Seattle Seahawks 17-1 0.944 18 13-5 0.722 1
3 New England Patriots 43-4 0.915 47 25-21-1 0.543 9
4 San Francisco 49ers 20-2-1 0.891 23 16-6-1 0.717 2
5 Baltimore Ravens 23-3 0.885 26 13-13 0.500 11
6 Green Bay Packers 32-4-1 0.878 37 24-12-1 0.662 3
7 Dallas Cowboys 20-3 0.870 23 9-14 0.391 14
8 Denver Broncos 19-3 0.864 22 12-10 0.545 8
9 Indianapolis Colts 17-3 0.850 20 12-8 0.600 5
10 Chicago Bears 16-3 0.842 19 8-11 0.421 13
11 Houston Texans 16-5 0.762 21 11-9-1 0.548 7
12 New York Giants 16-5 0.762 21 10-10-1 0.500 12
13 San Diego Chargers 22-7 0.759 29 16-13 0.552 6
14 New Orleans Saints 28-10 0.737 38 19-18-1 0.513 10
15 Pittsburgh Steelers 21-8 0.724 29 10-19 0.345 16
16 Philadelphia Eagles 13-7 0.650 20 7-13 0.350 15

The Steelers have the second-worst record straight up and the worst record against the spread. The eight straight-up losses are only surpassed by New Orleans (10). You can move the goal posts if you want, but the end result will be the same. Tomlin loves to talk about standards, but the standards Pittsburgh has apparently set in his tenure is to be the league's top team at losing games in the final seconds and failing to take care of the opponents they were expected to beat.

Tomlin should be glad Mark Davis doesn't own the Steelers, because he would be getting a phone call very soon.

Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind

Atlanta Falcons 28 at Minnesota Vikings 41

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 1 (28-27)
Win Probability (4QC/GWD starting with 14:41 left): 0.48
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (1-0 at 4QC and 1-0 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater (1-0 at 4QC and 1-0 overall 4QC/GWD record)

Looking for big plays and shoddy tackling? Then this was the right game for you in Week 4. The headline was Teddy Bridgewater's starting debut, and he certainly didn't disappoint with 317 yards on 30 pass attempts. His day could have been even bigger with one better throw. After Atlanta came back to take a 28-27 lead in the third quarter, Bridgewater had Jarius Wright wide open down the field for a 76-yard touchdown, but he overthrew him. Wright also had a breakout game with 132 yards on eight catches, because the Falcons are still who we thought they were defensively.

For the fourth quarter, the banged-up Atlanta offensive line had to resort to putting tight end Levine Toilolo at right tackle. Matt Ryan had good protection on third-and-five, but he missed the throw to Julio Jones. Bridgewater had the ball back and embarked on his first game-winning drive. Not facing much of a pass rush, he was on target with three completions for 66 yards, but things started to stall in the red zone. On third-and-goal at the 2, Bridgewater kept the ball on a zone read, but he slid awkwardly and only gained a yard. This is apparently the play on which he sprained his ankle. The Vikings waited too long to decide to go for it on fourth down, costing them their final timeout. With 10:52 left, I think I would have just kicked the field goal to regain the lead and save the timeout.

Things worked out, though, when Matt Asiata easily scored on the ground. Bridgewater stayed in the game and completed the important two-point pass to Rhett Ellison. Minnesota led 35-28. This is where the offensive line deficiencies caught up to Atlanta. Steven Jackson lost two yards on a run, Jake Matthews was penalized for holding, and Anthony Barr sacked Ryan on third down.

Christian Ponder replaced Bridgewater at quarterback, but the Vikings smartly leaned on the running game each play. Blair Walsh made a crucial 55-yard field goal with 3:38 left to take a 38-28 lead. Ryan, in desperation mode, missed a throw and Harrison Smith made the big interception. Minnesota added another field goal and Ryan only had 69 seconds left to score two touchdowns. He ended the game with a spike and second interception, which is a really tough conventional stats-killing finish for any quarterback.

Bridgewater brought some much-needed excitement to the Minnesota offense, which piled up 558 yards, the fourth most in team history. We should temper the excitement because it was only the Atlanta defense, but this was an encouraging debut. Hopefully Bridgewater will be starting this Thursday, because the last thing we need is to see the Vikings with Ponder and without Adrian Peterson. For one Sunday afternoon, that latter name was not missed in Minnesota as there's finally a quarterback worth watching again.

Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind

Eagles at 49ers: Blank Chip

Through three weeks, these teams showed some disturbing trends that would likely not sustain themselves. The 49ers have faded after hot starts and did not score a single point in the fourth quarter. The Eagles started 3-0 despite a double-digit deficit in every game.

On paper this game should have played right into Philadelphia's hands, but Sunday unsurprisingly flipped that script. The unexpected part was Chip Kelly's dynamic offense scoring zero points on 11 offensive drives. Oh, the Eagles still scored 21 points and even led 21-10 in the first half, but that was because of a punt block return, a terrible pick-six thrown by Colin Kaepernick and a punt return touchdown by Darren Sproles. The offense did nada and Nick Foles followed up arguably his most impressive game with one of his worst.

The NFL is not set up for a backup offensive line to work, and that's what the Eagles are stuck with right now. In the last two weeks, the dynamic duo of LeSean McCoy and Sproles has been held to 32 carries for 63 yards. There's just nothing there. The 49ers rediscovered their running game to the tune of 220 yards (excluding kneeldowns). A 23-21 lead to start the fourth quarter soon grew to 26-21 with 6:35 left, but that gave Foles the chance to lead his offense to a go-ahead drive for the fifth consecutive game going back to last year's playoff loss to New Orleans. These guys are paid to score points, so one scoring drive shouldn't be asking for too much.

After failing to run more than six plays on any of their first nine drives, the Eagles actually put together their best march of the day at the perfect moment. Foles started getting into a rhythm, and Jeremy Maclin, who has been incredible this month in the fourth quarter, came up big once again with four catches for 59 yards on the drive. His last catch was a one-handed beauty near the sideline for 22 yards on third-and-14. On the next play, the ball clanked off Riley Cooper's arms in the end zone. It wasn't a flat-out drop, but he made tougher plays last season.

Philadelphia had a first down at the six, but Foles ended up throwing two passes out of bounds, including a crucial fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. The running game wasn't working, but McCoy did have a 5-yard run here. I think the Eagles should have considered at least one run on third or fourth down.

Like we saw with Pittsburgh earlier in the day, this game wasn't over with 1:50 left. The Eagles had all three timeouts and used them after stopping each run. The 49ers faced a third-and-4 with a chance to win the game. They are paying a premium price for their quarterback, who is a dangerous scrambler and could effectively use the clock with a run-pass option, but the 49ers ran Frank Gore for 2 yards and punted. That's a bit mystifying to me when teams refuse to trust their offense and risk losing the game in the final seconds. What helped San Francisco was a 50-yard punt by Andy Lee and a 10-yard illegal block penalty on the Eagles.

Foles needed 69 yards in 1:23, but this drive was a disaster from the start. Jason Peters was penalized for holding, setting up first-and-20. A designed screen (with terrible blocking) for Sproles in the backfield was snuffed out for a 4-yard loss. A third-and-24 pass was well behind Zach Ertz. On fourth-and-24, Foles forced one deep, but Maclin never had a shot and Perrish Cox caught the interception.

I wrote the Eagles chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 and pondered all offseason how Philadelphia would stack up in the NFC where San Francisco and Seattle have been the ruling class. Sunday's litmus test was not a good one, but this could be an interesting rematch in the postseason, assuming these teams aren't just the wild cards (at best) in this conference.

Lions at Jets: Geno and Ivory Not in Perfect Harmony

The Eagles and Jets are the only teams to make this column in all four weeks, but the Jets have trailed for the entire fourth quarter in three straight losses. This one did not appear headed for a one-score opportunity with Detroit controlling most of the game despite little production from Calvin Johnson (12 yards on two targets) and Reggie Bush (65 yards from scrimmage). After the Jets scored a touchdown, Matthew Stafford directed an excellent 90-yard answer drive, capped off by his touchdown scramble on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Down 24-10, Geno Smith threw his only interception of the day, but it was a bad one that sailed on him under some pressure. However, Detroit failed to capitalize after Alex Henery was wide right on a 52-yard field goal. That's already five missed field goals for the Lions this season. Smith again turned the ball over after a safety blitz forced him into a fumble, but Detroit failed to gain a first down. Chris Johnson proved he was still alive by scoring on an impressive 35-yard touchdown run with 6:58 left, and the Jets trailed 24-17. The usually pass-happy Lions kept the ball on the ground, but Bush was stuffed on third-and-1 for another quick three-and-out drive.

Like the past two games, Smith had the ball in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, needing a touchdown drive. Smith did his part on first down, but on second-and-1, Chris Ivory ran into his own lineman, resulting in a 1-yard loss. On third-and-2, Smith checked down to Ivory in the flat, but Ivory dropped the ball. I'm not sure he would have made the first down anyway with the defense closing in, but it wasn't a banner day for Ivory. With 3:49 and two timeouts left at their own 24, the Jets punted. A failure to convert probably ends the game, but Detroit's kicking situation has been shaky to say the least. This certainly could have been a fourth-down decision to make, but the Jets weren't very sharp on offense once again this week.

Detroit closed things out with old-school I-formation football. Bush saved his best runs for the final drive, gaining 5, 16, and 6 yards. On the 16-yard run, Darrin Walls had a chance to tackle Bush for a loss, but his angle was poor and Bush easily juked him. The Jets wasted 11 seconds before calling a timeout, but the Lions were so content to run the ball it probably didn't matter. The clincher came on second down after the two-minute warning when Stafford's naked bootleg fooled everyone for a seven-yard gain. Quarterbacks rarely use the bootleg, but it has a very high success rate.

Bills at Texans: The Unanticipated Battle of 2-1 Teams

What caused the Bills to blow a 10-0 lead in Houston in a game where Ryan Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions and led the team in rushing with just 14 yards? Watt happened, indeed. That's J.J. Watt, the league's best defender coming up with a monster day: nine quarterback hits (same amount as Buffalo's whole defense) and a highlight-worthy pick-six returned 80 yards in the third quarter to put the Texans ahead for good.

This game actually featured a total of 10 possessions in the fourth quarter alone, with Houston often hanging onto a one-score lead. The lead rose to 20-10 with 9:21 left, but EJ Manuel immediately answered with an 80-yard touchdown bomb to Mike Williams after safety D.J. Swearinger was caught peeking into the backfield too long. Fitzpatrick drove the Texans into field-goal range where kicker Randy Bullock, often criticized last year, had a great day with two field goals from 50-plus yards in the quarter.

Down 23-17, Manuel's next deep shot for Williams was defended much better and the Bills went three-and-out. Houston converted on third-and-10 with a catch-and-roll by Arian Foster, who inexplicably was not touched down short by linebacker Keith Rivers. Houston probably would have been punting, but instead Buffalo lost over a minute and both timeouts because of that costly error.

Manuel had the ball back with 1:42 and 71 yards to go. The Texans kept rushing four or five defenders, but Manuel quickly moved the ball to the Houston 41 in just 28 seconds. That helpless, sinking feeling may have started for some Houston fans, but a fast reprieve came from a six-man blitz. Watt applied some pressure low on Manuel as he threw and the ball sailed enough for Darryl Morris to come down with the game-clinching interception.

Thanks to the ill-timed lesson from FOX earlier on Sunday, we know 3-1 teams usually make the playoffs, but neither of these teams feels ready for that kind of leap just yet. They're on the same tier, but Houston has a slight advantage with No. 99 causing havoc.

Based on Monday's news, Watt may have just contributed to ending Manuel's career in Buffalo, a first-place team through the first-quarter mark. It's a crazy league we cover.

Season Summary
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 13
Game-winning drives: 16
Games with 4QC opportunity: 33/61 (54.1 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 11

Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Win Probability comes from Advanced Football Analytics. Screen caps come from NFL Game Rewind.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 30 Sep 2014

7 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2014, 6:16pm by Karl Cuba


by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 3:50pm

I've been waiting for this article a LONG time.

The standard is the standard!

by Hurt Bones :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 4:05pm

Yes, time for Lebeau to retire.

by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 4:40pm

Organizational house cleaning.

The standard is the standard!

by Hurt Bones :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 4:45pm

Starting with the Owner?

by DEW :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 3:57pm

It was nice to see Louis Murphy be a big part of the Bucs' comeback. While his career has never been anything special, I've liked him ever since he was a rookie with the Raiders and on a play while Zach Miller was rumbling the length of the field for a 80-ish-yard touchdown, Murphy was not only blocking on the play, but after blocking one defender, got up, ran down the field to get ahead of Miller, and took out a second defender on the same play. (Looking it up, it was against the Eagles.) It was good to see a WR, a rookie WR for that matter, willing to get in there and get his nose dirty to help his team get a big play, and I've always had a soft spot for him ever since, despite his not being a particularly good receiver.

by CoachDave :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 4:47pm

I have a Pittsburgh-based co-worker who grew up there and played ball at Boston College...so in other words, he's pretty football and Steelers knowledgeable and he's always said that LeBeau makes the worst 2nd half adjustments in the league...in other words he doesn't make any.

Now I counter his assertion with Lovie Smith (actually any coach from the Tony Dungy coaching tree) but long story short, I'm blown away by this article and the Pittsburgh defensive results. Well done on a thought provoking article...it's making me re-think a lot of conventional wisdom I thought I "knew".

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 6:16pm

Can any Texans fans help me get a handle on that team? I have two questions:

Firstly, are they still running an aggressive scheme similar to the one Son of Bum used to deploy or are they more like the defenses Crennel used in New England?

Secondly, how is Darryl Morris playing? I really liked him in preseason for the niners the last two years and was annoyed that we let him go.