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24 Sep 2015

Scramble for the Ball: Best of the Worst

by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie

Andrew: That was one weird week. Not as crazy as that insane Week 6 from 2001. But still pretty nutty. We've covered the weirdness in other places for the teams, but how about the quarterbacks? Derek Carr, who we think is pretty hopeless, goes 30-for-46 for 351 yards and three touchdowns. Blake Bortles breaks 100.0 in traditional quarterback rating for the first time in his career. Johnny Manziel, who had yet to break 8 yards per attempt, breaks 11. I still believe in none of these quarterbacks.

But I pretty much don't like any quarterbacks not named Mariota. If you had to rank each of Sunday's three quarterbacks on a scale from one (ray of hope) to ten (rays of hope) going forward based on what you saw Sunday, how are you stacking them up?

Sterling: I think 10 Rays of Hope is the next band up on my indie rock Pandora station. Anyways, let me try drawing comps to the quarterbacks that led that huge week of upsets in 2001, which you talked about in this week's Any Given Sunday. Browns fans hardly need more torture, but Tim Couch (11-for-18, 149 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) and Johnny Manziel (8-for-15, 172 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs,) had almost the same weeks. So do with that what you will. Including Couch's Browns, four different underdogs of more than a touchdown won that week, and the other three starting quarterbacks were Rob Johnson, Chris Chandler ... and Tom Brady.

I don't see any Super Bowl MVPs in the futures of the 2014 draftees. Johnson and Chandler were both beacons of mediocrity, and while I don't mean to rain on the underdog lovefest this week, I'm also shrugging my shoulders at one strong week from the kids.

Andrew: Oddly enough, Beacons of Mediocrity was the name of my Soul Asylum cover band. But you didn't answer the question, crybaby Pat Buchanan. The correct answer is one ray of hope for Manziel (yes, small freaking sample, but he went 4-for-11 for 72 yards after a hot start), two rays of hope for Bortles, and a full-fledged four rays of hope for Carr. I still say he sucks long-term, but he threw some lasers on Sunday.

Next issue: Rank the favorites who lost to one of DVOA's bottom five teamsby their chances of having a crappy season. Go on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 means "unlikely to suck" and 10 means "near metaphysical certitude of sucking." I've got it as Saints (8), Dolphins (6), Rams (4), and Ravens (2). The Titans don't qualify here because nobody thought they'd be good. The Saints look like sneaky No. 1 pick contenders if Brees misses some time. The Dolphins are paper-thin and the bottom for their secondary is scary. I think the Ravens will figure things out, though. Mort Kondracke, your thoughts?

Sterling: Mort Kondracke? Crybaby Pat Buchanan? As a '90s child, any crying reference evokes images of Drake for me.

Andrew: Oh, boy. I guess I will need to remember that Joey Buttafuoco and Wayne Fontes' playoff victory predate your existence. Please just watch this. We don't do politics around here, so let's swear on Brett Favre's socks that we're referring to Phil Hartman and not the real Pat Buchanan, who surprisingly is unrelated to former Falcon Ray Buchanan.

Sterling: For all I know, you made up all those names.

Backtracking to your earlier question, it looks like we're basically in agreement on three of those vanquished favorites, but I think Baltimore's in a trickier situation than you do. Though the offensive line hasn't totally yo-yoed back to the level of the horrid 2013 unit, it's a lot closer to that than the line that was so great in 2014. Justin Forsett looks like what we'd expect most 30-year-old journeymen running backs to look like, and I don't know what to think of that secondary. Jimmy Smith is great, but things fell apart when Lardarius Webb left the Raiders game. And I haven't even mentioned the loss of Terrell Suggs.With the Bengals this Sunday and then a road trip to Heinz Field on a short week, an 0-4 start isn't out of the question. I don't think this is a bad team, and it'd be kind of fun if they had a ridiculous second-half run like the 2002 Rams or 2004 Panthers.

Andrew: It's just so hard for me to think that this Ravens team won't be good when they were taking the Patriots to the mat with Rashaan Melvin playing corner. I think your point about the line is a really good one, though. Lots of people were talking about the line as if it was a sure thing it would be great, when it was not that long ago when it was a large problem requiring that trade for Eugene Monroe. Going forward, they face two big questions: 1) Will they get something out of Breshad Perriman? 2) Can they generate a pass rush without Suggs? They may need to have a "yes" to both of those questions to be a contender. The pass rush against the Raiders was really poor, and that's not just on Suggs' absence. They really miss Pernell McPhee, too. I still have faith in John Harbaugh to figure it out given recent history and the pretty solid talent on the roster, but I'm certainly not sure.

Sterling: Of the 0-2 teams, I'd probably roll with the Ravens' long-term forecast over anyone besides Seattle (including Indianapolis -- that Pagano-front office situation stinks, and this Andrew Luck vs. the World movie is starting to look familiar). Our playoff odds disagree with me, but for what it's worth, the DVOA rankings still have the Ravens as the best winless team. Baltimore's preseason over-under was 9.0, and I still might take the over on that.

Andrew: I'd have to take the under there, but I wouldn't feel great about it. Now I need to educate you on something else from before your birth. Remember the end of last week's column, where I said "the usual amount, Mortimer?" Be honest, any idea what the hell I was talking about?

Sterling: About as lost as Harry Potter the first time he tried to find Platform 9¾.

Andrew: OK, there was this movie Trading Places with two actors who looked the guys from the balcony in The Muppet Show. They made a bet in a bathroom about whether they could get Winthorp to turn to crime and Billy Ray Valentine to run their company. They were super rich but the usual bet amount was $1. One of them was named Mortimer. Then they got wiped out when they tried to corner the market for frozen concentrated orange juice. There should really be a course in 1980s-1990s culture you have to take.

To bring this back to football, I think we should make these bets every week because like those two old degenerates, I like to make bets. It's not about the money, it's about the honor. So for this week's bet, I say the Indianapolis Colts do not make the playoffs.

Sterling: Wow, that's a bold move, Cotton. I can't make that leap -- for all the eerie 2014 Niners parallels, Andrew Luck is the differentiating factor that I think keeps the Colts afloat. That and the charity known as the AFC South.

Andrew: All right, the usual amount, Mortimer?

Sterling: Sure. And sorry Professor, but I think I'm cutting that Gen X culture class.

Andrew: Ah, econ is the only class that matters, anyways.

Advanced Stat O' The Week

Arizona's Offensive DVOA of 59.3% (1st)

Aaron Schatz wrote about the Cardinals' dominance over the first two weeks. It is a remarkable start for a team that we had pegged in the bottom half of the league in our preseason predictions.

The Cardinals have feasted on two of the worst defenses in football through two weeks, so caution is very much the order of the day. But under Bruce Arians' guidance, Carson Palmer has found much more in his tank than we would have ever predicted. And for a team that has never posted a season-long offensive DVOA better than 6.8% (2009), it has been one amazing start for the Arizona offense.

Super Huge Mega Lock of the Week

RAVENS (-2.5) over Bengals

All right, that didn't go so well last week. The Titans were down 14 to the Browns before you could say Fahrvergn├╝gen. This week, we are going the opposite way and picking a slow-starting team that might be a little undervalued over a fast-starting team that might be a little overvalued.

But how about the 4-1 record that the Bengals have in the last five matchups against the Ravens, including a sweep last year? Well, we can top that with John Harbaugh's indomitable Week 3 perfection. He ran his record to 7-0 in the third week of the season with a 20-10 win over the Browns last year. In fact, the Ravens have won 12 consecutive Week 3 games.

And this, of course, means literally nothing for this week's game. We are moved a little by how the Bengals seem to be working against some pretty strong gravity when having the potential to ascend into the elite, as when they crashed to Earth after last year's 3-0 start. Also, the Ravens have to have this one, which is a pretty hazy idea analytics-wise, but in a week with no slam-dunk options, we'll go with it.

Record: 1-1

Cinemax Presents Exotic Propositions

Todd Bowles for Coach of the Year (+1800)

As much as finding good bets is primarily fun because you're finding value (and because Andrew is a degenerate gambler), it is even more fun when you get to buy in on something you believe in. It would be better to find a stock that was worth $50 selling for $10 when the company was saving baby seals, than when the same money value was available for a company that was clubbing baby seals. I might even turn down the chance to profit from baby seal clubbing.

This Todd Bowles bet provides great value and on someone who is impossible not to root for. I loved his strategic decisions last year, particularly his willingness to blitz in situations where teams were least prepared to deal with it. His defense has turned in two dominating performances and seems poised for more. The voters like turnaround stories for COY, giving the award to a first-year head coach three times in the last ten years (Sean Payton in 2006, Mike Smith in 2008, and Jim Harbaugh in 2011). This prop is profitable if there's even a six percent chance that Bowles will win the award, and I think his chances are considerably higher than that.

G.O.A.T. of the Week

We could give more Cardinals love here to Carson Palmer and David Johnson, or the lucky 5.9 percent of ESPN owners who started Travis Benjamin last week. But those guys have been great both weeks so far this year (and in the cases of Johnson and Benjamin, with very limited touches). The real reward came for owners who stuck with disappointing Week 1 performers and got rewarded with good ol' regression to the mean.

It doesn't take Nostradamus to stick with Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson, but congrats to those who landed on the right side of coin flips involving Allen Robinson (43.6 percent started, 27 points) and Steve Smith (48.6 percent, 15 points). In general, it was a terrific week for the mid-round fantasy receiver brethren. Check out the ESPN ADP breakdown of the 15 receivers to garner at least 15 fantasy points this week:

Player Team Fantasy Pts. ESPN ADP
Larry Fitzgerald ARI 29 83.0
Travis Benjamin CLE 29 Undrafted
Antonio Brown PIT 27 8.8
Allen Robinson JAC 27 91.1
Julian Edelman NE 22 39.6
Emmanuel Sanders DEN 20 33.6
Torrey Smith SF 20 96.7
Odell Beckham Jr. NYG 20 14.5
Donte Moncrief IND 18 135.6
Michael Crabtree OAK 17 127.9
Brandon Marshall NYJ 16 59.2
Amari Cooper OAK 16 55.8
Steve Smith BAL 15 108.4
Eric Decker NYJ 15 87.0
Doug Baldwin SEA 15 120.9

Two-thirds of that list was selected between the fourth and 11th round in standard 10-team leagues. Wide receivers always look significantly more desirable than running backs after the early rounds of drafts, as it has become clear that most of the best midround values come from the position. Hopefully you managed to luck into one of them as your flex play, because the top three scoring running backs were DeAngelo Williams, Matt Jones, and Dion Lewis. Of course, that leads to some obvious candidates for the next section.

Goat of the Week

Sterling: Congrats if you preempted the increasingly shallow running back pool and snagged Eddie Lacy and Jeremy Hill in the first two rounds. But savvier owners could have snagged Andrew and myself for much better value on waivers, since we (0 combined points) outscored those early-round backs (-1 combined) last week. Still waiting on word from Ted Thompson about my signing bonus demands, however.

Lacy owners couldn't have seen his ankle injury coming, so that's just the breaks of the game. But Hill's two-fumble, 10-carry performance came completely out of left field, and especially hurt those expecting big things against a middling Chargers run defense. With Hill tapping out for Giovani Bernard (23 touches, 139 yards from scrimmage), Sunday was just the second time Bernard has received more touches than Hill (the other came during Week 13 last season). Still, even when Hill compiled 18 fantasy points in Cincy's Week 1 romp over Oakland, the playing time distribution was relatively even (36 snaps for Hill, 30 for Bernard). It's a wonderful committee from a real football perspective, but Hill doesn't look likely to assume the unquestioned alpha dog role typical of elite fantasy running backs.

The same could be said for C.J. Anderson, who seemingly moved himself into that tier last season. Gary Kubiak suggested as much this offseason, but so far, sidekick Ronnie Hillman (21 touches, 75 yards) has outproduced Anderson (29 touches, 45 yards). We might chalk up Anderson's slow start to an ankle injury that has limited him in both games, but it's concerning that he also battled ankle problems during his hot second half in 2014. Durability is a legitimate question mark based on what we have seen from Anderson thus far, and with the struggles of the new-look offensive line, it's not clear whether being the top running back in a Peyton Manning offense is still automatic fantasy gold.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: This was Sam Bradford's spot for about 57 minutes of the Cowboys-Eagles game, but a junk time 80-yard drive actually pushed him over 200 yards passing. The biggest loser was Alex Smith, who ended up with 6 LL points in his first multi-interception game since the 2014 season-opener.

Running Back: You already know about Jeremy Hill, who posted our first negative point total at the position for the season, and C.J. Anderson, who finished with the second-lowest LL point total for the second week in a row. In addition, while Lamar Miller has been an eminently disappointing fantasy pick, he's profiling as Loser League gold: he's getting just enough carries to qualify for the eight-attempt minimum, but Miami's tendency to stray for the running game is capping his ceiling. Upcoming games against the Bills and Jets should make Miller a popular Loser League choice the next two weeks.

Wide Receiver: A whopping seven receivers posted goose eggs, with Mike Evans and Brian Hartline reaching the three-target, zero-catch gold standard. Harry Douglas was probably the most actively harmful receiver of the week. The Titans veteran caught just one of his eight targets for 9 yards, while his lone rush was stuffed for -6 yards.

Kicker: The uptick in missed extra points have been a huge boon for the Loser League, with four kickers posting negative point totals last week. Dan Carpenter, Josh Scobee, and Chandler Catanzaro all missed extra points (-5 LL points) without making a field goal, while Adam Vinatieri is now down to -2 points total after finishing in the red for the second straight week.

Scramble Mailbag

Q: During the MNF broadcast, they showed a statistic saying that no team has ever started 0-2 for two consecutive years and made the playoffs both years. Given the small amount of teams to start 0-2 and make the playoffs, the sample size for this statistic must be stupidly small, or am I missing something?

-- Jonas, Sweden

Sterling: You're not missing anything Jonas -- unless this is Jonas Gray, in which case, insert alarm clock/missed meeting joke here. But seriously, don't rule out Bill Belichick exiling an unwanted running back to Scandanavia.

Anyways, the sample is certainly tiny -- since the NFL adopted its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, 24 teams have reached the playoffs after starting 0-2, a stat that gets cited without fail every year around this time.

And yes, though the Colts have an excellent chance of breaking this streak, no team has started 0-2 twice and again made the playoffs the following year. Here's how the 24 teams fared the season after their 0-2 playoff campaigns. Teams in italics also started 0-2 the following season.

Playoff Teams After 0-2 Starts, And How They Did The Next Season, 1990-2015
Team Year Y+1 Record Y+1 Playoffs? Y+1 DVOA Y+1 DVOA Rank
PHI 1990 10-6 N 17.9% 5
NO 1990 11-5 Y 19.6% 3
HOIL 1990 11-5 Y 11.8% 7
ATL 1991 6-10 N -14.7% 21
SD 1992 8-8 N 17.4% 4
DAL 1993 12-4 Y 32.9% 1
PIT 1993 12-4 Y 29.8% 2
NE 1994 6-10 N -21.2% 27
DET 1995 5-11 N -12.4% 23
NE 1996 10-6 Y 12.0% 7
BUF 1998 11-5 Y 14.9% 6
NYJ 1998 8-8 N 8.2% 14
Team Year Y+1 Record Y+1 Playoffs? Y+1 DVOA Y+1 DVOA Rank
ARI 1998 6-10 N -28.1% 27
NE 2001 9-7 N 15.7% 7
PIT 2002 6-10 N -1.6% 19
ATL 2002 5-11 N -18.0% 28
PHI 2003 13-3 Y 23.7% 6
KC 2006 4-12 N -19.5% 25
NYG 2007 12-4 Y 26.0% 3
MIA 2008 7-9 N 4.4% 16
SD 2008 13-3 Y 13.5% 11
MIN 2008 12-4 Y 18.5% 7
CAR 2013 7-8-1 Y -8.5% 24
IND 2014 ? ? ? ?

Only four teams fall into the same boat as the Colts: the 1992 Falcons, the 1999 Jets, the 2007 Chiefs, and the 2009 Dolphins. None of those teams finished above .500 or higher than 14th in DVOA. Since the early '90s, we really haven't seen many of these teams follow up their playoff runs with similarly strong campaigns the next season. Of the 12 teams to finish with top-10 overall DVOA rankings, half of them came from 1990-1993. There aren't many squads that resemble what the Colts have been the past three years -- a team with a mediocre DVOA ranking that nevertheless cruises into the playoffs.

The 2009 Chargers might be the most promising model for how we'll ultimately view the 2015 Colts. After three consecutive years of playoff frustration without reaching the Super Bowl, the '09 Bolts reeled off 11 consecutive wins following a 2-3 start, only to fall in their first playoff game against the Jets. Like the Colts have done every year in the Andrew Luck era, the Chargers outperformed their shiny 13-3 record, as their 11th-place DVOA ranking and 11.1 Pythagorean wins would indicate.

It's not hard to envision Indy similarly catching fire and running into a tough home playoff game (perhaps against another team in its first year under Rex Ryan). The Colts can make history by reaching the postseason after another 0-2 start, but if they get there, here's the next problem: None of those teams made the Super Bowl in their Y+1 season.

Q: Everyone seems to be saying that the reason the Colts are struggling is because they did not spend any first round draft picks or free agency money on offensive lineman. The Patriots seem to be able to draft guards and centers in the middle rounds and fill these players in without a problem. Is it really better in terms of winning to use draft picks/money on OL rather than skill position players? Perhaps the Colts have spent the money poorly or have picked the wrong people, but I wonder if the overall philosophy of picking OL actually leads to better results.

-- Dr. Montalban, Reading, MA

Andrew: First, you're on to something in terms of the Colts' draft capital on the offensive line. They currently look a lot like the Patriots in terms of where those players were drafted.

Position Colts Patriots
LT Anthony Castonzo (2011 Round 1) Nate Solder (2011 Round 1)
LG Lance Louis (2009 Round 7) Josh Kline (2013 Undrafted)
C Khaled Holmes (2013 Round 4) Bryan Stork (2014 Round 4)
RG Todd Herremans (2005 Round 4) Tre' Jackson (2015 Round 4)
RT Jack Mewhort (2014 Round 2) Sebastian Vollmer (2009 Round 2)

The Colts, like the Patriots, have invested high picks in the tackles, while waiting until later in the draft to find interior linemen. The great Chase Stuart wrote about last year's offensive lines and put the Colts in the middle of the pack in terms of how much draft capital was invested there. And you can see from the team at the top of the list that pouring high picks into the line does not always work.

But I'm going to say that, for the Colts, it would have been better in terms of winning for them to have drafted a lineman and not another wide receiver. They could have even gone defense, but I would have been looking offense first. The Colts have had a problem over the last two seasons. Andrew Luck gets hit. A lot. The Cowboys picked a guard when they were already strong at other positions on the line because it still filled a need. The Colts, on the other hand, had one position on the roster where they had literally no need. And they drafted to fill it, anyway.

Posted by: Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie on 24 Sep 2015

13 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2015, 2:29pm by tballgame


by PirateFreedom :: Thu, 09/24/2015 - 1:38pm

Love the McLaughlin Group references "near metaphysical certitude of sucking"
I haven't seen or even thought about that show in a lot of years but I still got a laugh from the mental picture of John discussing the NFL

by Jerry :: Thu, 09/24/2015 - 6:04pm

Incredibly, I've seen a current version (with some old panelists) on public television while flipping around.

by Dr. Gamera :: Fri, 09/25/2015 - 10:13am

Dr. John McLaughlin is 88 years old, but he's still hosting The McLaughlin Group in its 34th year.

by theslothook :: Thu, 09/24/2015 - 1:40pm

A word on the colts. The softness of the division cannot be overstated. If this was any other division, including the putrid nfc east with the romoless cowboys, I would accept the colts aren't making the playoffs. But this is the land of the AFC South - where pretenders can and do go 11-5.

Another word - I think the offensive scheme is as much a problem with the colts as the personnel. They want to be a power run 49ers esque offense, but the talent is all in the skill positions. They need to make a transition to go with what fits the personnel, not what fits the schematic bent of the coaches.

I think the high level qbs showed, passing a lot does not mean you are going to get hit a lot. Being behind in the down, distance, and score board will.

by Mike B. In Va :: Thu, 09/24/2015 - 5:03pm

That coaching staff (and possibly the GM) would already have been fired if it weren't for Luck. He's literally propping the team up in a Steve Young with the '98 49er's fashion.

The waste of talent is akin to the beginning of Elway's career.

by Ben :: Fri, 09/25/2015 - 9:48am

I want to second both of these comments. The AFC South is truly putrid. Winning the division at 8-8 isn't out of the question. I'll still be surprised if the Colts don't make the playoffs, but they're going to get blasted in game 1.

As for the difference in the Colts line vs the Pats. A lot of it is due to coaching and scheme. This season has given us the best example. In Week 1, the Colts often went max protect and sent two receivers out on long, slow developing routes against the Bills blitzes. In Week 2, the Patriots spread the Bills out and used quick passes to get the ball out to the receivers. They also used formations and route combos that would get receivers open quickly even when the Bills were playing press man coverage.

So, the Colts asked their (not good) lineman to hold up a long time against a good front seven while also minimizing the number of their (good) skill position players out running routes.

Basically, the answer is fire Pep Hamiliton.

by turbohappy :: Fri, 09/25/2015 - 10:04am

Yeah how many passes have been targeted to tight ends this year for the Colts? I'm guessing not many, they were barely even out on routes in the first 2 games from what I could tell (not the easiest thing to see on TV). And they have 2 damn good tight ends. Fleener especially is a terrible blocker but great in some hot read action.

by Ben :: Fri, 09/25/2015 - 11:28am

Neither of the top two TE's were targeted once in the Jets game. They were also usually lined up tight to the line and used as blockers. The backup tackle did get one target on a tackle eligible play, so there's that...

by MilkmanDanimal :: Fri, 09/25/2015 - 1:17pm

Yeah, I don't see how the Colts don't make the playoffs, even if it's at 7-9 or something. You have a Bortles-led Jaguars team, the Hoyer/Mallet poo-poo platter in Houston, and a Tennessee team starting a rookie QB that has holes everywhere. Put the Colts back in the AFC East, I'm on board with no playoffs, but the AFC South this year is the NFC South last year; somebody has to suck a little bit less than everybody else, right?

by tballgame :: Fri, 09/25/2015 - 2:29pm

I agree. In the salary cap era, you cannot have a high investment with every position group on the field. You need to think about your scheme and focus the investment where your scheme depends on top talent and bargain shop where your scheme allows you to hide flaws. Grygson seems to look for talent without consideration of the coach's scheme and Pagano seems to be calling plays without consideration of the limitations of his personnel or the opponent.

Whether it is power running Trent Richardson rather than putting the game in the hands of your best player, failing to adjust to the Patriots' six man offensive line, continually calling slow plays in the face of a constantly blitzing defense. The plan never seems to take into account the strengths of the other team or the plays they are running. Luck should be used to this by now as well.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 09/24/2015 - 2:59pm

Trading Places was a tremendous film ... director John Landis, Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Denholm Elliot at their peak ... and let's not forget Jamie Lee Curtis as Inga from Sveden ...

17min40 for the bet being made ... 1hr10min20 for the reveal that it's only for $1 ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOn_u22375A

by Biebs :: Thu, 09/24/2015 - 5:11pm

I can't speak for the others, but the 1999 Jets lost Testaverde (who had just come off a career season, 2nd best QB in 1998) in the 2nd quarter of the first game. The fact that they were a playoff team in the year prior was almost irrelevant because they replaced Testaverde with Rick Mirer and Ray Lucas.

by nottom :: Fri, 09/25/2015 - 9:53am

How does Keenan Allen's wonderful 16 yard + a lost fumble performance not make the LL notable list?