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Defenses have taken a wide variety of responses to the rise of 11 personnel. Is any one system better than another? And how has the rise of the "moneybacker" changed defensive philosophy?

22 Oct 2015

Scramble for the Ball: Everybody Wants to Be a Cat

by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie

Sterling: The state of the quarterback hierarchy has been super weird this season. Maybe not Kurt-Warner-going-from-stacking-cereal-boxes-to-winning-the-MVP weird, but strange nonetheless. While half of the top 10 passing DYAR leaders from 2014 still occupy a top-10 position so far this season, the other five -- Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Tony Romo and Joe Flacco -- currently hold an average ranking of 25th. Obviously injuries have depressed Romo's ranking there, but despite missing three games now, he actually holds the highest DYAR ranking of that group (15th)!

Injuries and deteriorating supporting casts have played roles in those declines, but I want to turn my attention to two quarterbacks in particular who have filled that quarterback vacuum through six weeks. I think it's fair to argue that Andy Dalton and Cam Newton are the best MVP candidates outside of the Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers two-horse race. Dalton has been the far, far superior quarterback statistically in comparison to Newton, but then again, Cam is playing with a supporting cast that rivals Ohio State's current roster. It's easy to argue that Dalton will continue putting up better numbers, but let me ask you this: If you had one quarterback with which to start a team, who would you want?

Andrew: Super tough question. I think Dalton gets far too little credit from most of us for the Bengals' current success. Dalton deserves the primary credit for the Bengals' offensive success this year. Not A.J. Green. Not Giovani Bernard, nor Jeremy Hill. Not Andrew Whitworth. Not even Ickey Woods. Dalton has been awesome and better under pressure than some of the numbers suggest, as I wrote about a few weeks ago.

But Newton has to carry a burden that no other quarterback does and we have never really seen what he can do with the kind of surrounding talent that Dalton enjoys. Ted Ginn has more than twice the receiving yards of any other Panthers wide receiver. Michael Oher is his starting left tackle, and he's not very good no matter what Sandra Bullock thinks. Still, the G.O.A.T. was tenth in 2006 with the Reche Caldwell-Jabar Gaffney tandem leading the way at receiver. That's an incredibly high bar given what Brady did the next year, but Newton is 26th in our rankings this year. Even with the surrounding cast, that's kind of low when Dalton's fourth. Hmmm.

So I think your answer depends on the team around the quarterback. I think the Panthers are better with Newton than they would be with Dalton and I think the Bengals are better with Dalton than they would be with Newton. I feel more strongly that the Panthers would only succeed with a few quarterbacks and Newton is one of them. Gun to my head then, I guess I'm going with Newton.

Sterling: It's a pretty tough question to answer because of how wildly different they are stylistically. Somehow I don't envision the Red Rifle running many read options or quarterback sweeps. I think Newton indisputably has a superior physical toolkit; basically any other quarterback would have crumbled by now playing behind that offensive line. In Cam's career, Carolina's offensive line has never ranked better than 21st in adjusted sack rate. It's hard to remember a franchise taking a quarterback first overall and then promptly letting his supporting cast disintegrate while asking him to carry the entire load. Drafting tall raw wide receivers every year doesn't count as help. I am confused, though, at the vast disparity between Newton's public perception and his numbers. His fourth-quarter QBR is an obscene 94.1, but his 37.1 mark over the first three quarters is considerably less impressive. Just doing enough to win late only goes so far (hi, Tim Tebow!).

I think Dalton's progress is more easily explained -- the Bengals have built years constructing a deep roster, and better luck from the injury gods means he isn't throwing to Rex Burkhead as his top option. I would be tempted to start a franchise from scratch with Newton instead of Dalton, but in the context of their actual teams, I think Cam (and by association, Carolina) is in a far more precarious position in terms of 2015 contention.

Andrew: I agree completely on that. And we know that I like Dalton as a stealth MVP candidate. It does take a team to win those awards. Brady won the MVP in 2007, but he was probably just as good in 2006. Newton and Dalton started their careers in similar places by our rankings when they had similar supporting casts. Newton still had an in-his-almost-prime Steve Smith back then. As their supporting casts have diverged, Newton has fallen (like an apple?) and Dalton has ascended by the numbers. As good as they are, the numbers can only tell us so much. We can't separate out a quarterback from his receivers very well. We can't even put value on the fact that the Panthers could invest more resources in the defense with the knowledge that they could put a bare-bones offense around Newton and it would work.

Sterling: Or the fact that the Bengals are a much more stably run franchise (that feels weird to type) which wasn't recently in salary cap hell.

We'll leave the "who's better" debate to Skip and Stephen A., but it does seem like a legitimate question as to which quarterback has been more impressive this season. In other words, if Brady and Rodgers shut up shop and take their talents to Canada tomorrow, who's the MVP? Is it clearly Dalton or Newton? I think Big Ben surpasses them eventually, but if we're limiting this to six weeks, I think Roethlisberger has some work to do.

Andrew: I think Dalton would win the Brady-and-Rodgers-move-to-Canada hypothetical MVP. And that decision would make sense. I would be very curious to see what would happen if the Bengals tie for the best record and he ends up with similar stats as either Brady or Rodgers. It's such a huge swing for Dalton's narrative to back him for MVP. Usually the bias is in favor of someone new to win, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Dalton-is-a-product-of-his-team idea overrides that. But it's not impossible. If the somewhat improbable happened and Dalton continued this level of play and everything else fell into place, it would be the most surprising MVP sinceā€¦ Warner? OK, that's getting ahead of ourselves, but it would be pretty wild that a quarterback with the birth name Andrew wins the MVP and it's neither me nor Luck.

Sterling: Dalton really does have a serious case of Romo-itis, in that the general football public doesn't seem to want to take him seriously. Playing with one hand tied behind his back doesn't necessarily make Newton the better quarterback or better MVP candidate, but it sure does help how we perceive him. I'm tempted to start a #FreeCam movement every time I see Ted Ginn drop a pass; no one cares when defenses work like hell to contain A.J. Green and Dalton makes Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert look like stars.

Andrew: I couldn't agree more. Every game, he's hitting Jones and Eifert with great decisions and sublime throws. With two quarterbacks this interesting and misunderstood, I say they both deserve their own prop. I'll start with Dalton. I say that even if he throws for 7,000 yards and 75 touchdowns and the Bengals go undefeated, he doesn't get an MVP vote.

OK, even Dalton would get some love at that point. But I still say he won't get the proper respect. I say that Dalton will still hear audible boos at home at some point this season. All quarterbacks have terrible picks. But Dalton is less likely to be forgiven when he has a few, even now. I say Dalton will both stay above 20.0% passing DVOA for the season and still hear the boobirds. You in?

Sterling: If I only need one of those to not happen, I'll take my chances. I guess I could see a scenario where Dalton gets booed after getting sacked for the fifth time against the Rams in Week 12, but I like his chances to avoid total disaster against the rest of Cincinnati's home schedule (Browns, Texans, Rams, Steelers, and Ravens). And 20.0% passing DVOA is still a pretty lofty benchmark, one that would probably require Dalton to finish among the top five quarterbacks.

Andrew: All right, it's a bet. What's our Cam bet going to be?

Sterling: Remember the five quarterbacks I mentioned at the top of this article? The ones who have regressed in 2015? I say Cam will finish the year with a higher passing DVOA than at least three of Manning, Romo, Brees, Luck, and Flacco. So if I put the over-under at 2.5, which side are you taking?

Andrew: I'll take the under. Of course, I also had the under on Carolina wins before the season at eight, so that's probably not something you want to take to the bank.

Sterling: All right, it's a double down. I would steal your line about the usual amount, but I still haven't looked up the clip.

Advanced Stat O' The Week

Seattle's Defensive DVOA in the Fourth Quarter: 36.3% (ranked 30th)

The Legion of Boom has been the Legion of Poof-There-Went-Our-Big-Lead this year. And their DVOA is slightly worse (40.2%, but ranked 28th) in the four weeks since Kam Chancellor returned, too. It is a stunning dropoff for a group that is still young and has largely the same personnel that started on opening day last year. Just two weeks ago, the Seahawks fielded a starting lineup featuring nine of the same 11 players and all of their core group. The big sample should predict better than the small one of recent fourth quarters, and so we should expect a return to form, but it's getting hard not to wonder.

Super Mega Lock of the Week

New York Jets (+9) over NEW ENGLAND

Given the uncertainty in Seattle, only an idiot would throw them in a two-team teaser at this point. OK, we did it last week. And we had to stop ourselves from doing it again. Yes, we are looking forward to seeing whether we'll end up with more wins than the Lions this year.

In our collective gut, we feel another loss coming on. Betting against the Patriots succeeds as often as a ground invasion of Russia. The Patriots may win 42-10, but this line is a little high. The Jets rank fifth in DVOA and have won four games by double-digits. The Patriots are now dangerously banged up, particularly on the offensive line, and they now face the second-best defense in football that now has Sheldon Richardson back from driving etiquette school. The Jets are the contender nobody is talking about, but they're actually not far behind Cincinnati according to DVOA.

Record: 2-4

Cinemax Presents Exotic Propositions

Chip Kelly for Coach of the Year (50/1)

As always, the bet here just means the odds are intriguing. We don't think it's particularly likely that Chip Kelly wins the award. The two current favorites, Dan Quinn and Todd Bowles (each 4/1), along with Marvin Lewis (9/1) are who we would have as the three most likely winners. But is there a 2 percent chance that the Eagles go on a huge run where they continue to dominate as they have the last couple weeks? We say yes.

G.O.A.T. of the Week

It's time to consider ubiquitous preseason sleeper Chris Ivory a true RB1. Apart from a two-week stretch in which he was hampered by a quad injury, Ivory has posted 21, 22, and 25 fantasy points in his other three games this season. Bilal Powell takes away a handful of snaps on passing downs, but in his three healthy games, Ivory has averaged 23 carries per game, which would be the highest rate in the league. Ivory does face two surprisingly stout run defenses over the next three weeks -- Jacksonville (sixth in run defense DVOA) and Oakland (seventh) -- but eight of his remaining 11 games are against defenses which currently rank 17th or worse in run defense DVOA. Apart from Le'veon Bell, Matt Forte, and perhaps Devonta Freeman, there might not be a safer high-end running back the rest of the way.

Goat of the Week

Speaking of Freeman, the second-year pro's meteoric rise has had a sneaky parasitic effect on the fantasy values of his teammates Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Ryan and Jones were terrific in shredding the Dallas Cowboys defense back in Week 3, Freeman's first week as the starter. In three games since, however, the results have been ugly: From Weeks 4 to 6, Ryan ranks 25th among quarterbacks in fantasy points per game, while Jones ranks 39th among wide receivers in the same category. Quite literally, Freeman has turned bona fide starters into players who are barely roster-worthy in standard leagues.

Obviously we'd expect positive regression to the mean for both Ryan and Jones, given that Freeman has hogged six of Atlanta's 10 offensive touchdowns during that three-game stretch. There's also no indication that a strong pair of triplets needs to have any of its members suffer: Last season, there were seven pairs of running backs and wide receivers who were on the same team yet still finished among the top 15 scorers at their respective positions. There's no reason the Ryan-to-Jones connection shouldn't still represent fantasy gold the rest of the season, but as fantasy leagues approach the second halves of their regular seasons, owners of either player have to feel a little restless.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: In a mostly productive week for quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota stood out with a league-low 6 points. Mariota wasn't an obvious choice against a then-struggling Miami defense, which likely made the difference for this week's winner, "Gisele Dresses Me Too," owned by Greg Hardy. The most popular choice among the leaders was Kirk Cousins, who continued to provide Loser League owners with a steady stream of turnovers en route to a 9-point performance, trailing only Mariota.

Running Back: Our weekly C.J. Anderson watch apparently hasn't generated much traction yet; despite a solid 6-point effort, none of the top 20 Loser League teams owned the Denver running back. Anderson was still a top-10 Loser League back this week, but the trio of Alfred Morris, Isaiah Crowell, and Chris Polk all led the way with 3 points.

Wide Receiver: Marlon Brown continued his breakout campaign as 2015's bizarro Devonta Freeman, posting his third consecutive goose egg. Six receivers in total came up empty this week, but at least Brown caught one pass for 9 yards. Jaron Brown, Jermaine Kearse, and Brian Hartline all went at least 0-for-3, with Brown pulling the 0-for-4 feat.

Kicker: Jason Myers missed his second extra point of the season and didn't even attempt a field goal, giving him a week-low -3 Loser League points. Graham Gano, the only other kicker to finish in the red this week at -2 points, also missed an extra point without receiving a field goal opportunity as reprieve.

You can see the full Week 6 results and season standings here.

John Fox Award

John Fox tried hard to win his own award but was outdone in the end by the yeoman's work of Jim Caldwell on the opposite sideline. With 12:33 left, the Bears pulled within 24-22 on a Matt Forte touchdown run. Befitting a man who loves to kick the football, Fox opted for a Robbie Gould extra point that made it 24-23. Brian Burke's Win Probability Calculator actually has that as a dead heat, with the Bears having about a 43 percent chance of winning either way. That's probably a little off, but Fox's decision probably only hurt the Bears a little.

On the other hand, Caldwell's decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-4 from the Bears' 13-yard line with 2:50 left, trailing 31-24, was a much clearer mistake. This is one of those times where the calculator just does not work at the end of games. (The calculator says that the Bears would have had a 79 percent chance to win from first-and-10 on their own 20 up four with 2:50 to play and a 97 percent chance from first-and-10 on their own 13 up seven with 2:50 left. The difference between the two simply can't be that big.) There's little doubt that this is a significant mistake, however, and made worse by the Lions having a bad defense that made a Bears first down more likely. Of course, Caldwell could have known that he was up against a coach who loves to punt, perhaps. After three Matt Forte runs for 6 yards and a punt, the Lions got the touchdown they needed and eventually won in overtime.

Keep Choppin' Wood

I mean, it could've been worse for the Colts:

Or maybe not. When Jim Zorn starts offering advice, that's probably not a great sign for your season. If Indianapolis needs to make another January trip up north to New England, perhaps the Colts would be well served taking a quick detour to Maine for a tutorial on the swinging gate. If Maine can get the gate legally set on the line of scrimmage, one would think practice at the NFL level extending back a year could at least manage that.

Posted by: Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie on 22 Oct 2015

8 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2015, 11:32am by Noah Arkadia


by DEW :: Thu, 10/22/2015 - 12:54pm

Wait, since when can we change our Loser League teams in-season? I thought they were fixed at the start of the half-year?

by Jerry :: Fri, 10/23/2015 - 6:54am

Exactly. No matter how attractive C.J. Anderson is, or how unattractive Kai Forbath has become, everyone is stuck with their original roster.

by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 10/22/2015 - 2:52pm

Gotta go with Dalton over Cam, though might a Canada scenario open the door for a non-QB MVP?

I have to admit that I can't make sense of that Pats/Jets line. Maybe if this was week four and NE was coming off their 51-17 victory it might make sense, but NY has been convincing in their own right the past couple weeks. They also do several things well that align well with NE weaknesses, Ivory being an obvious one.

Special teams might blow up in NY's face, but otherwise, the only way I can see this as a 14+ win is if Fitz turns into a pumpkin. If someone forced me to wager my house on it, I wouldn't bet on either to happen.

by Led :: Thu, 10/22/2015 - 8:22pm

The Jets' ST woes are almost entirely the punt team, which is awful. The rest of their teams are just meh. But Edelman is virtually certain to make a big play on a punt return.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 10/23/2015 - 11:32am

Dalton has been playing amazing. I don't know how you can NOT pick him, no matter what you think of Cam.

Who, me?

by Parmenides :: Thu, 10/22/2015 - 7:08pm

I need to go back and look at what Cam Newton's pass percentage would be without the clear drops. I think its around his normal average but that still wouldn't tell us how man yards and touchdowns he might have at this point. What I'm saying is that the wide receivers are bad, really, really bad.

by theslothook :: Fri, 10/23/2015 - 1:26am

Ahhh Andrew...the econometrician in you must also be aware of the endogeneity problem with assessing players via DVOA!

by James-London :: Fri, 10/23/2015 - 5:45am

Woo-Hoo! Top-5 LL spot this week. (although no individual player scores showing)

Phil Simms is a Cretin.