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UCLA's quarterback clearly has the talent to succeed as an NFL starter. The question is whether or not he can avoid enough mistakes to become a superstar.

21 Dec 2012

Scramble for the Ball: Shrine of the Inept

by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz

Tom: Well, Mike, you may have realized this before, but DVOA is sometimes an imperfect guide for individual player quality.


(Mike peeks out of the bunker, checking for patrols.)

Mike: Yes. Yes it is.

Tom: We've written about this before. You're clear. And, as we did before, we'll try to bring peace and justice to the galaxy common sense to the disconnection between DVOA and Player Awesomeness.

Mike: Last time we tried to bring peace and justice to the galaxy, Rodney Harrison tried to kill me with a forklift, then joined a mariachi band. I think we're good sticking with the disconnection thing.

Tom: OK, I guess I can live with Autodrafted Second-Round Quarterback Matthew Stafford as the seventh-best quarterback in football because he's seventh in DYAR.

Mike: Mike Wallace was one of the most valuable receivers in football last year, ranking eighth in DVOA and fifth in DYAR. This year, he is slightly more valuable than Greg Little by DVOA and Kenny Britt by DYAR. That puts him around the 70th most valuable wide receiver in the league. Another way of putting it is that he is the fifth-least valuable wide receiver with enough data to have useful statistics.

Tom: Little is terrible. Britt is coming off an ACL injury that cost him all of training camp and has Jake Locker as his quarterback. I presume Wallace is therefore now also terrible. Is this not right?

Mike: The answer is, of course, that it's complicated

Tom: Complicated answers are hard. Let's go shopping.

Mike: Everyone was worried that Wallace's late return to the team would cause him problems learning the new Todd Haley offense. That wasn't really a problem. The problem is that the Todd Haley offense is really bad. It is as if he imagined the Steelers were some kind of Steelers from the mirror universe, and built it around the strengths of a bearded Troy Polamalu and a Mormon Brett Keisel.

Tom: I'm sorry, I thought from time immemorial that the Steelers had a divine right to a super-awesome running game and didn't need to ever throw the ball. Just wanting to run and being the Steelers should be enough on offense, shouldn't it?

Mike: That certainly seems to be the theory! However, Wallace was the best deep threat in football last year. He was phenomenal. The response this year has been a bunch of short crossing routes and generally using him as a possession receiver, which has gone very poorly. partially because the receivers have done a terrible job holding on to the ball. I would single out Wallace, but he's merely the worst of the bunch.

Tom: What this sounds like is the all-too-common problem of round pegs being shoved into square holes because they're the pegs the team has.

Mike: Yes, and considering it's not just Wallace, but really every pass catcher other than Heath Miller, I'm starting to warm to the idea that the players just hate the offense. Considering Mike Tomlin, apropos completely nothing, again reiterated that Ben Roethlisberger was happy with the offense, it's pretty clear that nobody on the team is actually happy with the offense. Because, as you said, it's shoving a lot of round pegs into square holes. The desire to run an offense that protects Roethlisberger is commendable, but it has turned the Steelers into a team with a pathetic offense 75 percent of the game and an elite offense the 25 percent of the game where they absolutely have to score and revert to their old aerial attack. That is a recipe for a lot of close losses.

Tom: With the Steelers deciding to pay Antonio Brown, it seems inevitable that Wallace will go somewhere else as a free agent this offseason. Let's hope whichever team he ends up on chooses to utilize his skills as perhaps the league's best deep threat in a way the Steelers have not this year.

Mike: I actually disagree with that. He is now famous for drops. His price will fall enough that the Steelers can afford him, and I strongly believe after the injury issues and general ineffectiveness that the Steelers will look to restructure Troy Polamalu's mammoth deal this offseason. But enough about the Steelers, who is your pick for wide receiver?

Tom: One of the things we discussed when we wrote about this topic previously is that No. 1 wide receivers are typically a reflection of the overall efficiency of their team's passing offense. That's how Steve Smith (the Rules and Regulations one, not the one that barely plays) kept yo-yo'ing from top three in DVOA and DYAR to like 55th. And it's how Larry Fitzgerald is last in DYAR and third from last in DVOA. Looking at the top receivers, the players who stand out are Michael Crabtree and Sidney Rice, who are high-efficiency players on low-volume passing offenses I haven't quite bothered to figure out yet. I'll simply note I'm not buying Rice as a top-ten receiver or Crabtree as a top-fifteen receiver and leave it at that. Maybe James Jones is a bit of a surprise, but his problem was always that he couldn't catch the ball. Perhaps, like Brandon Lloyd, a few years into his career he finally figured out how to do so with sufficient regularity.

Mike: Having seen him in action quite a bit this year, I think that is a very likely cause.

Tom: I don't want to make this all about our teams, but I'm doing the Titans chapter for FOA2013, which means I'll need to make more sense of Kendall Wright than I have this far. Other fans seem to be impressed by him, but subjectively I've seen him do very little and DVOA, similarly, is not thrilled with him. I suspect he'll end up with a pretty low Catch +/- when we run those numbers at the end of the year. Ah, well, rookie receivers.

Mike: Running backs or quarterbacks?

Tom: I don't know if you've noticed this, Mike, but Mark Ingram is currently eighth in rushing DVOA, 12th in DYAR, and ninth in success rate. He's even averaging 4.1 yards per carry!

Mike: Considering the absolute trashing we have regularly given him and the Saints' usage of him, we probably owe him an apology.

Tom: Of course, he still has a worse rushing DVOA than Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, or Darren Sproles. But yeah, we probably do. Mark, you no longer seem to be a millstone around your team's offense!

Mike: While true, this is real progress!

Tom: Perhaps we should think of him in the same category as Stevan Ridley: a back with some actual talent but whose performance is nonetheless reflective of his role in a pretty powerful overall offensive team that doesn't need his particular services to be effective.

Tom: (For more on Ridley, see this week's League League segment.)

Mike: Loser League.

Tom: Loser League, yes, no idea why I wrote what I did.

Mike: That would be a great concept for a fantasy football sports league. It could be a league made up of teams made up of leagues. Or of actors from The League.

Tom: The better running backs at the bottom of the leaderboard are players like LeSean McCoy on generally dysfunctional offenses. Apparently that's the way the NFL works these days. It's too bad some site hasn't spent time writing about how the passing game is the way to win in the modern NFL.

Mike: To be fair, there are still teams like Minnesota and Seattle that require an elite running back to function. The issue is that nobody actually believes those teams can win a Super Bowl.

Tom: True, and you also have teams like Tennessee that, it was reported Tuesday night plan to pay the 25th-most productive back $10 million next year. I mean, I get the dilemma. There aren't that many really good quarterbacks in the NFL, and teams that don't have one of them can't just completely give up and not try to win.

Mike: Right. On the other hand, you simply cannot overpay players in the NFL. There isn't enough cap space, and there are quality mid-range free agents available every year if you have the cash. Overpaying a bad player by an immense amount incurs a huge opportunity cost for multiple other positions

Tom: As Vince wrote about this week, Johnson has not rated well by success rate even when he was having generally more success, and this is the third consecutive season he's had a below-average DVOA. Committing to this kind of inefficiency as a cornerstone of your team is insane unless, and maybe even if, the player is single-handedly selling 10,000 tickets a game.

Mike: Having a promising future and a recognizable plan to return to contention sells a lot more tickets, I'm willing to bet.

Tom: With a different coach and a different general manger, perhaps. That sort of thing happens, you know. Ah, let's talk about quarterbacks. Though not Arizona quarterbacks.

Mike: Oh, but that's so much fun! Fun for a morbid mind like myself, who adores Mystery Science Theater and reading Final Fantasy XIII message board threads.

Tom: Have you actually watched Arizona play lately? I managed to sit through, though not necessarily pay much attention to, the Cardinals-Jets game. And I voluntarily watched some of Cardinals-Lions just because I didn't want to listen to Phil Simms and Carolina-San Diego got uncompetitive quickly.

Mike: Not in a few weeks. Have they gone from "really bad" to "cover your eyes awful?"

Tom: Fitzgerald said recently that it was one of those "laugh because the alternative is crying" scenarios. The Jets are still funny. Arizona is just sad.

Mike: That is a very accurate assessment. I must admit, however, I have been extremely impressed with Tony Romo this year. He has been playing, if not like a different player, at least a far more disciplined and effective version of himself. Considering the rather poor showings by Dallas' running game and defense, he is driving most of the Cowboys' success, which has surprised me immensely.

Tom: I think it's more the run game and offensive line struggles, combined with the lack of depth at receiver, that have left me more impressed with him. By the numbers, it's not clear that he's playing with that much more discipline. He's been intercepted on 2.8 percent of passes, right at his career average, and up from 1.9 percent last year.

Mike: Perhaps discipline is the wrong word. I hate to use poise, but that is probably the best and most commonly-used football term.

Tom: I agree Romo, while not perfect, is having a very nice season. I'm just not sure it's anything we haven't seen from Tony Romo before. Beyond Romo, my basic problem is aside, from Peytom Branning, I'm having a hard time ranking the league's quarterbacks.

Mike: I think part of the problem with that is that it very much is a passing league, now, so even those of us that avoid using quarterback wins and whatnot to evaluate teams and passers still use team quality as a corollary to quarterback quality. And honestly, there are few exceptional teams this year.

Tom: At this time last year, I had a pretty good hierarchy of Aaron Rodgers, (gap), Tom Brady, Drew Brees, (gap), Roethlisberger/Eli Manning, (gap), and then like Romo, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub, and some jumble with no clear separation until you got around 15-deep. Even last year, though, I could recognize flawed teams and look beyond them to really great quarterback play. I mean, the two ways to beat Rodgers or Brady last year were to be Rodgers or Brady or to play the Packers or Patriots. We have four teams this year that DVOA tells us are in the top-twenty teams of the past 22 years. They are, of course, Peytom Branning's teams and the two NFC West teams I've already noted I haven't quite figured out.

I do want to note, though, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick are separated by all of 3.0% of DVOA. The other non-Arizona team that has had two quarterbacks attempt reasonably similar numbers of passes is Tennessee. Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker are 27th and 28th in both DVOA and DYAR. I guess I should also note Michael Vick and Nick Foles. There's a little bit more separation between them, but not that much, about 13% of DVOA. That's definitely a gap, but it's not like these teams seem to have fundamentally changed their overall passing efficiency profile, even with quarterbacks that are, to some extent, fairly different stylistically.

Mike: To be fair, Vick is basically done. Foles is their path forward. There is significantly more debate around Smith/Kaepernick.

Tom: Sure, Vick is done in Philly and Foles is a way to go forward. I don't agree there's a Smith/Kaepernick debate. Kaepernick will be the quarterback. Smith's limitations and $3 million roster bonus due early next year ensure that.

Mike: I agree that Kaepernick is the quarterback, I'm more saying that aside from the cap considerations, there is a real debate over whether Kaepernick is going to be an appreciably better quarterback. That doesn't change the fact that he clearly is, and helps the team save some money in the process.

Tom: The book on Kaepernick's eventual fate is very open at this point. I'm content to leave it there for now and watch how things unfold.

Fantasy Football Update

Tom: Would you like to update us on fantasy football?

Mike: Did I already talk about how I got booted out of one league's playoffs due to a stat correction in another player's game?

Tom: No. You took the fourth seed by two points. Or at least that's what the news was last Tuesday.

Mike: Yes, well, Yahoo! had other ideas. Another game, between the then-fifth-place and second-to-last place teams had a small-but-significant stat correction in the middle of the week. Around three points were awarded to the fifth-place team, pulling him over the edge to win his contest. His loss was changed to a win, which meant our teams were then tied. By wins, anyway. He had more points, so I was knocked out of the playoffs the day the first of two rounds started.

Tom: How very pleasant.

Mike: The other owner, believing he was out of the playoffs, didn't bother to look at his roster. So a tiny stat correction wiped out both of our teams.

Tom: Congratulations to the first-place finisher on his glorious triumph against a complete tomato can.

Mike: In my other league, I suppose I could complain about Michael Crabtree's completely ridiculous 24.7-point game.

Tom: Yes, that was pretty ridiculous.

Mike: Or Cincinnati DST's completely absurd 27-point game.

Tom: That was ridiculous, too.

Mike: Honestly, though, that would just be sour grapes. My opponent had Eli Manning, who contributed 2.44 points, Bryce Brown, who contributed 4.5, Marques Colston's six, and Connor Barth's zero. So while I was rightfully outraged by Roddy White's 1.6 points and Jimmy Graham's 6.9, the game really should not have been close. Hopefully he goes on to win the championship, so I can take part in that ritual of losers everywhere: pretending that losing to the eventual champion actually means something.

Tom: Ah, a treasured ritual.

Mike: Oh, he also had Marshawn Lynch, who lost three rushing touchdowns to his quarterback. Really should not have been close.

Tom: If you repeat that enough times to yourself, it might stop being annoying. Then again, probably not.


Mike: This, as our readers might know, is a self-referential joke about a different Samsung commercial.

Tom: It is. That commercial was fine. That commercial didn't include the idea of any old people doing things I would not do in public.

Mike: It was fine. Somewhat clever, somewhat uncomfortable. It kept alive the idiotic notion that only Samsung phones can send data over short range to each other, but at least it was less insufferable than hipsters in line for an iPhone pretending they didn't know their phone has been able to do the same thing for ages. Nor was anyone talking about seeing their fellow hipster at the studio later. Man, I hated those commercials.

Tom: Eh, smartphone commercials. Do you have a nifty new phone with a physical keyboard? If so, I'm interested. If not, I'm not.

Mike: So I see what Samsung was trying to do, here. They had a funny and somewhat-risque commercial and tried to turn it into a bit of a parody of itself by applying sexytime to large old people. It pushed the whole thing over the line from awkward and amusing to actually weird and creepy.

Tom: Yes, and I believe Samsung is now under fire from elves rights groups for analogizing the elves to children. Santa's elves may be short, but they're clearly fully-grown and seem to be sentient beings, thus deserving of respect.

Mike: I was not aware you had started a new career as an Elven Rights attorney

Tom: I will start that new career as soon as I have the right client. Anyway, this commercial has a fundamental implausibility that the earlier commercial does not: dad/husband was going on a business trip that involved riding in a plane somebody else was flying. Santa is driving the sleigh. He does not have the chance to watch a video on his sleigh unless he wants to risk fate and the failure of collision-avoidance mechanisms.

Mike: Especially since his sleigh is traveling far in excess of the speed of light.

Tom: Maybe not.


Also, it uses the term centrifugal force!

Tom: SPY magazine

Mike: Yes. But still.

Tom: So, anyway, Samsung, this might have seemed like a good idea, and the sort of cleverness people like us might have applauded. But no. Do not make inferior remakes of your own commercial. If you want to air the same commercial, then just be like Corona and re-air the same commercial 25 or whatever years in a row.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: Fear not, John Skelton. Mark Sanchez may have matched your five turnovers from last week, but he threw for more yards and a touchdown and thus ended with 0 points. Your -7 is pretty secure as the worst score of the season.

Running Back: Stevan Ridley had 23 rushing yards and a fumble for 0 points. You may have thought Jamaal Charles and Doug Martin would be good fantasy plays. If so, your season sadly may be over as each put up only 2 points, a number matched by Ronnie Hillman.

Wide Receiver: Kevin Walter, Mohamed Massaquoi, Roddy White, Louis Murphy, Victor Cruz, Reggie Wayne, and Demaryius Thomas each had 1 point. If you can find a good commonality among them, let your Scramble writers know.

Kicker: Mason Crosby may have had the worst-looking missed field goal of the season, but he actually made a couple kicks on Sunday. Granted, they were extra points, but they still count. Lawrence Tynes missed his only attempt, a field goal, and was low man this week with -2 points.


Keep Chopping Wood: Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Freeman were all drafted in the first round in 2009. By their fourth season in the league, you would hope they would be proficient NFL quarterbacks. Which of them, though, played the best on Sunday? Was it Stafford, who threw two touchdown passes to his teammates to offset the two touchdown passes he threw to members of the Arizona Cardinals? Or was it instead Freeman, who was the only member of the trio to complete more than half of his passes, even if it was only 55 percent against one of the worst defenses in the league? Could it have been the since-benched Sanchez, who threw a touchdown pass and whose team was the only one of the three in a position to win their game in the final minutes? Do you even want to know the answer to this question?

Mike Martz Award: There are times when it makes sense to try a trick play on a punt return. Say, maybe while trailing late in the game with not much time left, or maybe early in a game to try to get an edge. Up two scores in the fourth quarter while playing a team that tends to the inept on offense does not seem like that time. Yet Packers coach Mike McCarthy still called for a throwback play after Randall Cobb received a punt return inside his own 20. Somehow Jeremy Ross failed to field the ball cleanly and the Bears converted free field position into a one-score game. While the Packers still managed a win, the final eight minutes were much more interesting than they needed to be thanks to an unnecessary risk. Rodgers referred to it as "not a very intelligent call," and your Scramble writers agree.

Maybe You Should Play Your Practice Squad, Just to Make Sure

So, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms have devised a brilliant plan for teams with a short amount of time to march down the field: try a few "test" plays to see if your "real" plays have any chance of succeeding. Yes, when you're short on time, you should run a useless draw play. If it works, hurray! Go ahead and dial up that dragon. Doesn't work? Well, it just wasn't meant to be, so go ahead and kneel the half out.

Anyone who followed the Wii knows exactly how well "tests" work out. Essentially, Simms and Nantz have given cowardly coaches a way out of actually running an aggressive offense with a short clock. Why bother with plays that might give you a competitive advantage, when you can run give-up screens and then pack it up when your opponent -- surprise! -- turns out to be better than the average high school squad.

Scramble Mailbag

Matt: Hey, fellas, it's a semifinal week for me and I think my matchup is going to turn on who I start at running back. It's non-PPR, and I need to start two of these guys: Knowshon Moreno (vs. Browns), Chris Johnson (at Packers), Chris Wells (vs. Bears), Shonn Greene (vs. Chargers), and Vick Ballard (at Chiefs). I'm leaning toward CJ and Moreno, but Ballard is tempting. What do you think?

Tom: My default recommendation on CJ for most of this season was as a boom-or-bust RB3-type. He's exceeded that of late, albeit sometimes only in garbage time.

Mike: The issue with Moreno and Johnson is that the Browns and Packers actually have decent rush defenses.

Tom: On the plus side, even a Tennessee defense that's playing better of late should be exploited enough for Green Bay to see garbage time. The Packers are only middle of the, well, pack, ranking 14th in yards allowed and something like 18th in DVOA.

Mike: Considering the other options, I would probably bite the bullet and go with Johnson. I would also take Ballard over Moreno, just because he has a great matchup.

Tom: While the Browns have a moderately-efficient run defense, they've given up an above-average number of total yards. I don't think it's that bad of a matchup, especially as Peyton is likely to give Moreno favorable opportunities. The Colts also gave Mewelde Moore goal-line work last week. Yes, that's as terrible an idea as it sounds, and even if his fumble makes him unlikely to get more, they could just go with Delone Carter if he's healthy. Moreno's no lock to get goal-line carries either, as Jacob Hester's one-yard run last week showed, but I like his overall productivity more than I like Moreno's.

Lock of the Week

Tom: Well, we both got last week's lock right, as the Seahawks blew out the Bills and the Cowboys edged the Steelers in overtime to cover. You continue to hold a 1.5-game lead on me, and now there are only two weeks left in the season. As a reminder, all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing, and all picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks for the week.

Mike: I'm very tempted by Chicago -5 1/2, but I'm not sure I trust Chicago's offense to put any points up on anyone.

Tom: And we can no longer trust Chicago's defense to put up points on anyone either.

Mike: Speaking of teams I can't trust to do anything useful, The Ravens are three-point underdogs against the Giants. I can't help but think this line is depressed by the New York Football Giants' dismal performance this week. While it's a bit trite and cliche, that was not the real Giants team. New York Giants -3 at Baltimore Ravens.

Tom: There were two lines that stood out to me. That was one of them. Except ... the Ravens are not great, but DVOA still rates them as an above-average team. The Giants are not great. With a game in Baltimore, I would expect the Ravens to be slight favorites, not underdogs. Rather than go up against you this week and trust in Jim Caldwell as a play-caller, I'm going instead with my favorite team. The Atlanta Falcons are 4.5 point favorites in Detroit on Saturday night for Monday Night Football. You're never as good as your most recent win or as bad as your most recent loss. Sunday was a terrible performance by the Lions and a great one by the Falcons. I'm not buying either of those is a permanent change in either team's fortunes. Detroit Lions +4.5 vs. Atlanta Falcons.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz and Tom Gower on 21 Dec 2012

10 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2012, 2:42pm by tgt2


by Dave In Tucson (not verified) :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 2:50am

Peytom Branning


I assume from context that you mean Peyton Manning, and that because this was repeated, it's not just a weird typo. Is this some culture reference or something? Anyway, that whooshing sound is this going over my head...

by thejoshbaker :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 3:01am

It's a mash-up of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady...

by Noah Arkadia :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 12:43pm


Kill it.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by Travis :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 10:57am

Was it Stafford, who threw two touchdown passes to his teammates to offset the two touchdown passes he threw to members of the Arizona Cardinals?

Stafford didn't throw any touchdown passes to his own teammates in last week's game.

by jonnyblazin :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 2:39pm

About the Santa commercial, what bothers me is that of course he can watch the video on the sleigh, there's nobody else around! On a plane is different. Its a stupid commercial because they transferred the joke to a different context and now it doesn't make sense.

by theslothook :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 2:57pm

Hold the phone...you mean judging individual players off conventional and even FO stats leaves you perplexed? And sadly, I suspect most people who read this site STILL don't know this.

by Kevin from Philly :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 8:32pm

I got Atlanta -3 1/2. Thanks for jinxing me.

by Kevin from Philly :: Sun, 12/23/2012 - 12:46am

I take it back, please jinx me at any opportunity. Thanks.

by RickD :: Sun, 12/23/2012 - 9:31pm

Hermione Granger is pleased at your embrace of Elven Rights, Tom.

by tgt2 (not verified) :: Wed, 12/26/2012 - 2:42pm

I highly recommend finding an editor. I enjoy your guys' content, but your lack of regard for English grammar makes it hard to read an entire column.