Zach Wilson, Bill Belichick, and Selecting a Loser League Quarterback
There was a point on Sunday when it looked like we'd be recapping an all-time flop of a day. As last week's top scorer, Aaron Schatz, noted:
Zach Wilson currently has -6 Loser League points.
— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) September 19, 2021
At the time, Zach Wilson had just thrown his fourth interception of the day at the beginning of the third quarter; he had just 45 passing yards to offset those mistakes and was knocking on the door of history. The all-time low Loser League score for a quarterback since 1994—which is as far back as PFR's fumble lost data goes—is Jon Kitna's -8 point day for the Seahawks against the Dolphins in Week 1 of 2000; four interceptions and a fumble, with just 54 passing yards to put points in the positive side of the ledger.
Without fumble data from Ye Old Days, we can't be entirely sure what the worst Loser day of all time was, but it looks like that honor would go to Tom O'Malley's 31-yard, six-interception day for the Packers against the Lions in 1950, worth -11 points, followed by Zeke Bratkowski's 27-yard, five-interception day for the Bears against the Browns in 1960, worth -9 points.
This is the company Wilson was threatening to keep, but it's hard to be that bad for an entire game, especially in the modern era. By the end of the game, Wilson was over 200 passing yards and managed to claw his way back to four points—still tied for the worst-day in the league, but a run-of-the-mill terrible day as opposed to anything truly historic.
But of course Wilson had a bad day, you might be tempted to say—he's a rookie! Rookies are going to struggle, especially early on in their careers. They're going to get confused by NFL defenses, they're going to play on bad teams, they're not going to get pulled early. Four of the seven highest-scoring passers this week were rookies, after all. So, obviously, you should plug rookies into your lineup whenever possible.
But of course Wilson had a bad day, you might be tempted to say—he was going up against Bill Belichick! Bill Belichick has had quarterbacks seeing ghosts for decades at this point, leaving wrecked arms and shattered psyches in his wake. While he has been bolstered somewhat by getting to play the AFC East's parade of questionable passers, Belichick has a reputation as being the toughest matchup for an opposing passer, earned ever since he took over the Giants defense in the 1980s. So, obviously, you should plug Belichick's opponents into your lineup whenever possible.
This was an academic discussion in the old Loser League format, but now that you can set your lineups weekly rather than yearly, you have a significant decision to make—do you go for the inexperienced player, or do you go for the player with the toughest matchup? Which is the stronger force guiding Loser League scoring? Obviously, what you want is the intersection of the Venn diagram; Wilson against Belichick. But those kinds of matchups don't happen every week, so who do you trust?
Some numbers might help. In the 21st century, there have been 980 games where a rookie passer started a game and threw at least 10 passing attempts, thus avoiding the penalty. On average, they scored 13.4 loser league points, and scored better (i.e., lower) than the 18-point penalty 70.3% of the time. That's a wide net, catching anyone from Dak Prescott to Josh Rosen, but it works to give us a view from 20,000 feet. By comparison, the average quarterback score this year has been 21.5 points, and it usually hovers around 16 or 17 points in any given season. Rookie quarterbacks: worse than average. This is just one example of the hard-hitting analysis you have come to expect from the experts here at Football Outsiders.
Rookie passers fall to 11.8 points when playing against Bill Belichick, falling below the penalty 86.2% of the time. In fact, only three rookies have ever scored better than the penalty against Belichick's Patriots defenses: Russell Wilson in 2012, Deshaun Watson in 2017 and, er, Geno Smith in 2013. Explaining Geno's day, especially considering he had a five-point outing in his other start against the Patriots that year, is an exercise best left for the reader. That's not exceptionally lower than the overall rookie average, but it's enough to be statistically significant. And Belichick hasn't had the easiest slate of rookie passers to face off against. In addition to Wilson and Watson, Belichick had to go up against Ben Roethlisberger (twice!), Carson Palmer, and Andrew Luck as rookies; that's over 20% of all his matchup against rookie passers, and I'd argue that that's a significantly above-average slate of opponents to go against. Of course, that argument is in and of itself a point in favor of being more concerned about the quality of the rookie than the quality of the defense; Belichick may feast when given someone like Zach Wilson, but he can't control when he gets a Zach Wilson. Even Belichick could only do so much to tamp down rookies who seemed to have a grasp of NFL play by the time they reached him.
What is it about Belichick that makes it so hard on rookie quarterbacks??
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) September 20, 2021
Moving beyond rookies, the average passer against Belichick's Patriots scores 15.7 points, scoring better than the penalty 58.4% of the time. That's worse than your average passer, but not by a ton. You can knock about a point off the top end and improve your odds of scoring under the penalty into the mid-60s by making some fairly obvious cuts—hey, maybe don't start Patrick Mahomes or Peyton Manning, even if they're going against Bill Belichick!—but the point stands; you are better off blindly picking a random rookie than you are blindly picking a random Bill Belichick opponent.
Ah, but we have one more trick up our sleeves to save the reputation of rookie passers. As good as Belichick's reputation is, his defenses haven't always been dominant—in fact, he only has five years of top-10 defense in New England. So forget Belichick for the moment. What if we pretend that we are psychic, and that we know which teams will be the best against the pass in any given season—let's say the top three, for a nice juicy sample size. Can rookie futility beat out the Legion of Boom or the No-Fly Zone?
This isn't quite a fair thing to do, especially early in the season. We can say with a great deal of certainty which team will be coached by Bill Belichick this week; knowing which teams will eventually finish atop the DVOA standings is a tougher bet. But if you look at all teams in the 21st century that finished the year with a top-three finish in pass defense DVOA, the average opposing passer scores 12.3 points, scoring below the penalty 76.2% of the time. So over a sample size of nearly a thousand games on each side, you are slightly better off picking a random quarterback against a top defense than you are picking a rookie passer against a random defense. I'm glad we got that worked out.
Two last things, though, before we recap Week 2's results. Rookie passers against those top defenses? They average 11.0 points and finish below the penalty 82.4% of the time. Those are in spitting distance of Belichick's numbers against rookies; in fact, Belichick's more likely to hold his rookies to a sub-penalty day. The top three defenses, year-in and year-out, are only slightly better than a random Belichick defense against a tougher-than-average slate of rookie passers. That backs up Belichick's reputation; there is something about his schemes that gives inexperienced players a harder time than even other top defensive coaches can manage. If you want to take advantage of that, Belichick may well get to face rookies again in Week 5 (Davis Mills), Week 7 (Zach Wilson), and Week 17 (Trevor Lawrence). Start your engines.
And speaking of Mills, it may not come as a huge surprise to learn that first-round rookies tend to perform better than late-round rookies; better prospects have a higher hit rate than later prospects, even when accounting for flops such as Josh Rosen or JaMarcus Russell. Also, overall rookie numbers are affected by who gets to start when. In September, rookies average 14.1 points per game; you're dealing mostly with players who are considered good enough prospects to get the start right from the very beginning. By December, that falls to 13.2 as the pool begins to get cluttered with players forced into action due to injuries or lost seasons. So, ideally, what you want to find is a later-round rookie forced into a starting role against a top defense. You know, like third-round pick Davis Mills, starting Thursday because of Tyrod Taylor's injuries, against the Panthers and the top defensive DVOA of the year to this point. Good luck, Davis.
Week 2's Biggest Losers
Worst of the Worst
Zach Wilson may have avoided climbing the all-time worst day leaderboards, but his four-interception day still earned him 4 points, tied for worst of the week. Honestly, he's lucky to have scored that high. Wilson looked overwhelmed from the gun against the Patriots; he claimed after the game that he wasn't "seeing ghosts" out there, but it didn't look like he was seeing New England defenders either. Wilson was under pressure all day, for sure, and that had to play a factor in his decision-making, but two of his four picks came from completely clean pockets, and the other two weren't exactly situations where he was immediately swarmed by pass-rushers. He could have been bailed out by his receivers on a couple of these, but he also had a number of other passes which easily could have gone the other way. Young quarterbacks will have days like this, I suppose, but this was one of the more days-like-this days that you could possibly have.
Here is a video of all 4 Zach Wilson interceptions and none of them are the offensive line's fault. Very concerning decision making by the rookie. pic.twitter.com/DyhCcvjSp0
— olinestats (@olinestats) September 19, 2021
But Wilson must share the worst-place honors with Justin Fields. Subbing for an injured Andy Dalton, Fields came in early enough to throw 12 passes and thus avoid the penalty, but late enough that he couldn't generate enough yards to make up for an interception. If Allen Robinson doesn't drop Fields' touchdown, we're having a different conversation today, but as it is, Fields had 4 points of his own.
Other Loser Leaders
We mentioned in the lede that four rookie passers all had single-digit days, so let's complete the set. Trevor Lawrence (7) still thinks he can throw any ball into any window at any time, and is willing to trust his arm to make highlight-reel plays. That may well pay off eventually; those are traits a lot of the great quarterbacks have. That is not paying off right now, stuck in an aimless Urban Meyer offense. Lawrence is going to have more of these two-interception days in his future, though hopefully they'll come with more than 118 yards next time. Mac Jones (9) played clean; the only one of the four rookies with significant playing time to not to throw a pick on Sunday. He also didn't throw a touchdown, or for very many yards; his 4.6-yard average depth of target was second-lowest in the league behind Jimmy Garoppolo. A lot of failed completions and no touchdowns will score well in this format, albeit usually not enough to lead the league.
But veterans also had poor days on Sunday. We urged you to pick Andy Dalton (8), because he is both bad and had a better-than-even chance of being pulled. Well, Dalton was bad again and did get pulled after getting hurt. He just squeaked past the penalty with 11 attempts before leaving with a bone bruise in his knee. The combined Bears QB would have been the ninth-best scorer of the week, so don't be too afraid about riding Fields until Matt Nagy proves he can call an interesting game for his rookie passer.
A lot of people were scared off Jameis Winston (7) after his five-touchdown day in Week 1. Well, the Old Winston was back against the Panthers, with a pair of interceptions that very much looked like the old chuck-and-pray Jameis you got once or twice a game in Tampa Bay. The Saints in general were held to 128 yards of offense, the worst in the Sean Payton era, and now they get Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Rounding out our bottom scorers was Dak Prescott (9) in his first full game without a passing touchdown since Week 16, 2019. He likely won't pop up on this list next week.
We thought Sam Darnold (21) looked like a promising pick against a Saints defense that embarrassed Aaron Rodgers two weeks ago. By halftime, we knew we looked fairly foolish—he was already at 18 points at halftime as he picked New Orleans apart. Sure, he had a bizarre interception that feels like the player we all know and love, but after two weeks, it is beginning to look like Darnold is going to join the "Adam Gase held me back" club.
Worst of the Worst
Rookie Chuba Hubbard saw his snap count almost triple between Week 1 and Week 2. Some of this was by design, occasionally letting Christian McCaffery take a breather, and some of it came when CMC suffered some mild cramping late in the game. BackCAST was a big fan of Hubbard coming out of Oklahoma State. I believe that our model would hope that Hubbard could pick up more than 1.3 yards per carry. Hubbard's eight rushing attempts just squeaks him past the penalty, and his 10 yards holds him to just 1 point, the worst rushing day of the season so far. He does not lose any points for being targeted on Sam Darnold's weird interception, though maybe he should!
Other Loser Leaders
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (2) has now had two rough running days in a row, with less than 50 yards against both the Browns and the Ravens. Of course, against Cleveland, CEH had plenty of passing volume and, crucially, did not fumble the ball when the Chiefs were driving for a game-winning field goal. All fumbles lost count the same for our purposes, but that was one of the costliest fumbles anyone can possibly have; you have to go back more than a decade before you find someone else who fumbled the ball in game-winning field goal range that late in a game. That makes Edwards-Helaire, by far, the headliner of the Loser running backs this week, Chuba Hubbard or no Chuba Hubbard.
Elsewhere, James Conner (2) makes his second appearance in this section in as many weeks, as he's averaging 3.3 yards per touch and getting basically no use in the passing game; he's displaying slug-like tendencies in Arizona, which is one of the reasons we suggested you pick him last week. We also suggested taking Mark Ingram (4), who managed 3.3 yards per carry against Jacksonville; that fell to 2.9 against Cleveland as Ingram ran into brick wall after brick wall in the red zone. Now Ingram has to face a Panthers defense which just shut down Alvin Kamara (2), so good luck there.
Other low scorers include Peyton Barber (3), Sony Michel (4), Mike Davis (5), Kareem Hunt (5), Jonathan Taylor (5), James Robinson (5), Ty Johnson (5), Miles Sanders (5), and Elijah Mitchell (5).
Only three running backs finished above the penalty this week. Of the three, the one you were most likely to be tempted with was Tony Pollard (19). The Cowboys backfield has become a nightmare for those who drafted Ezekiel Elliott in their regular fantasy league. Pollard and Elliott had basically the same number of touches against the Chargers, but Pollard had five plays of 10 or more yards compared to Elliott's two, and Elliott was stuffed six times to Pollard's zero. Pollard, it should be mentioned, is making $800,000 a year compared to Elliott's $15 million. Just, you know, seems worth mentioning.
Worst of the Worst
The Goose Egg Brigade continues to grow, but we have yet to have anyone who actually has gone without a reception. This week, it's Laviska Shenault, Corey Davis, Jalen Reagor, Marquez Calloway, KJ Hamler, Preston Williams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Trent Sherfield who clock in with nul points, with a combined seven receptions on 30 targets for 34 yards.
Shenault is the highlight here, though. Before leaving the game with a shoulder injury, Shenault had seven targets, caught two of them, and gained -3 yards as Urban Meyer's offense continues to try to use him as some sort of gadget player. It has been reported that Shenault became the first player to draw more than five targets and fail to gain any yards, though that's not actually true—Stevie Johnson had such a game in 2013. What is true is that Shenault dropped his two targets that actually could have gained him positive yardage and is averaging just a 5.0-yard aDOT, which would have ranked third-worst in the league in 2020. To produce value with this usage, you need to be a Deebo Samuel-type with a Kyle Shanahan-esque coach. Meyer does not appear to be that sort of playcaller.
What a throw by Trevor. Shenault couldn't come down with it. pic.twitter.com/kHJ7NMIYW8
— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) September 19, 2021
Other Loser Leaders
I certainly wasn't expecting to see Antonio Brown (1) on the Loserboards this year, but he was fifth on Tampa Bay in targets as the Buccaneers ran the offense through Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski. Coming a week after he led Tampa Bay with 121 yards in Week 1, this probably hurt more real fantasy teams than it helped Loser League teams. Same story for DeVonta Smith (1), whom a lot of people thought might have a great day against a questionable San Francisco secondary. Instead, he came down with just two receptions on his seven targets—the volume was there, just not the results. I wouldn't touch either in the Loser League in the immediate future.
Terrace Marshall, DJ Chark, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Van Jefferson round out your one-point scorers.
It's going to be Guess the Receiver with Arizona all year, isn't it? In Week 1, Christian Kirk burned a bunch of teams with a pair of touchdowns. This week, Kirk was back down to six points, and instead it was Rondale Moore (17) driving us batty, with the rookie hauling in a 77-yard touchdown as part of a seven-reception day. Maybe just avoid the Cardinals' receiving corps entirely until all this gets shaken out, or at least until there will be days when Kyler Murray isn't throwing multiple touchdown passes while looking backwards as he escapes the pass rush.
Worst of the Worst
The Jaguars had enough problems with their offense without Josh Lambo (-3) letting them down. Lambo has had three field goal attempts this season, missing from 55, 52, and 48 yards. The fact that all three of his attempts have come from that far out tells you something about how efficient Jacksonville's offense has been, but the fact remains that Lambo is the only player with at least three attempts yet to make a field goal this season. His two-miss day against Denver leads the league.
Other Loser Leaders
You ever have a day at work where you show up, smile at your boss for five minutes, and spend the rest of the day browsing the Internet? Jason Sanders (0) just had that sort of day. With the Dolphins being blown out 35-0 against the Bills, all Sanders had to do all day was the second-half kickoff. Hardly worth even stretching for that one. Because no other Dolphin attempted a field goal, Sanders avoids the penalty. Not a bad day for the kicker with the largest contract in the league. May we all have such easy days, yeah?
Greg Joseph, Jason Myers, Ryan Succop, Joey Slye, and Aldrick Rosas round out your one- or two-point scorers.
Week 2 Contest Results
Well, I can reveal that this week's top scorer was not a member of the Football Outsiders staff, so no fears of collusion here. Our winner is well known to us, however, especially those of us who write Scramble.
Alec B takes home the Week 2 prize—a Football Outsiders shirt and a signed copy of the Almanac. If that name is ringing a bell for you, you may have followed our Best of the Rest competitions each January. After the staff drafts our playoff fantasy teams, we encourage our readers to make a team out of all the players we didn't draft, and Alec B is usually right at the very top of that competition—he won as recently as 2019. It's good to see there's some crossover between being able to pick good football players and being able to pick bad ones!
Alec's roster is exceptionally impressive, as well, clocking in at just nine points. He had Zach Wilson, Corey Davis, and Josh Lambo, all of whom were the top scorers at their respective positions. He had Mark Ingram and James Conner, both of whom we listed above in our Other Loser Leaders section. And his sixth player, Russell Gage, was his weak link with a score of two points. Forget Week 2; that might hold up as the best team put together all year long. A hearty and well-deserved congratulations for an outstanding lineup!
Your top five for Week 2:
1. Alec B (9)
T2. JoeInho69 (12)
T2. Jeremy B (12)
T4. MattJG (15)
T4. OK13 (15)
T4. MSG988 (15)
T4. Roughkat (15)
T4. Barlito (15)
As for the overall standings, Aaron Schatz Has a Posse remains atop the leaderboards—Aaron couldn't match his 16 points from last week, but 26 points is a more than respectable score, and he sits on top with 42 points after two weeks. His main trouble this week compared to last was at quarterback; he had to score Carson Wentz's 17 points, as Sam Darnold performed even better. Mike Davis, Saquon Barkley, Jalen Reagor, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Josh Lambo rounded out his Week 2 team, which was more than enough to keep him in first, for now. But his lead has dropped from four points to two as the rest of our entries begin to reel him in.
Your current top five:
1. Aaron Schatz Has a Posse (42)
2. MSG788 (44)
3. MattJG (47)
4. DVO-EH? (49)
T5. OK13 (53)
T5. Charlie Marx's Blind Dogs (53)
T5. BCarvello17 (53)
T5. Football Team (53)
T5. Uncletbag (53)
I'm willing to say that DVO-EH? Is our best Loser League team name to make a top-five list to this point, but there are some good names bubbling under. I'm making a list, and we'll share the top ones at about midseason or so.
You can check your results and the rest of the Loserboard here!
Plays for Week 3
We teased it earlier in this essay, but Davis Mills seems like almost too easy of a pick to make. The third-round rookie is being forced into action against the Panthers, who boast the top defensive DVOA in the league. If you're looking for an explanation of how the Panthers are doing it, J.P. Acosta broke down their trouncing of the Saints over in Any Given Sunday, but suffice it to say it's going to be a tough draw for the third-round rookie out of Stanford. Mills would have been worth seven points in limited action against a Browns team mostly playing prevent. As for Mills' pocket awareness, well…
Not sure I have ever seen a quarterback less aware of an impending sack, man. pic.twitter.com/yjE7jItvkL
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 19, 2021
Yeah, this might get ugly.
Mac Jones has been the most statistically impressive rookie passer, in part because he has an actual football team around him. But Jones has also not shown any desire to test anything down field; he's basically at Garoppolo levels of aDOT (5.6) and aggressive throws (10.1%, per Next Gen Stats). He has been taking what the defense has been giving him, and when you're playing the Jets, they'll give you quite a bit. The Saints should be a tougher test; if they could make Aaron Rodgers look foolish, they might have a thing or two cooked up for Jones.
Other promising picks: Zach Wilson (@DEN), Jimmy Garoppolo (v. GB)
With seven points in two weeks, James Conner has been the low scorer among all running backs to this point; if you never catch passes and get stuffed at the line on a regular basis, you're not set up to score huge point bonanzas. The Jaguars aren't exactly the world's toughest opponent, but at this point in time, I'm riding with Conner until he shows he can do literally anything that made people intrigued by his potential in Kliff Kingsbury's offense.
I strongly plugged Damien Harris a week ago, which didn't work; with 62 yards and a touchdown, Harris was at 12 points and a non-scorer for most top teams. I'm going to send some good money after bad, however, and double down on Harris again this week. He remains the Patriots' top runner, which means there's little threat of him hitting the penalty, and he wasn't all that explosive, even against the Jets. As the opposing defenses get stiffer, Harris could see some 30-yard, 0-touchdown days in his future, and I want in.
With Josh Jacobs out a week ago, Peyton Barber put up a strong Loser performance—13 carries, 32 yards, three points. Jacobs is reportedly "very questionable" for the Dolphins game with toe and ankle injuries; that's a new injury designation as far as I'm aware but it bodes well for things that bode poorly. Why is Barber the Raiders' lead rusher over Kenyan Drake? Your guess is as good as mine; I continue to be befuddled by the Raiders' offense. But as long as Barber is averaging under 3 yards per attempt, he's worth starting.
Other promising picks: Latavius Murray (@DET), Javonte Williams (v. NYJ), Mark Ingram (v. CAR)
I'm sticking with Russell Gage in my lineups for the time being, as the Falcons aren't good enough to support three viable targets at the moment. And when Gage is getting into the action, he's not doing much—he had five receptions last week, sure, but they went for just 28 yards as he was in and out of the lineup with injuries. So, he's banged up, and yet is almost assuredly going to play against the Giants anyway, as part of an offense that struggles to move the ball and can't give their quarterback enough time in the pocket to try anything deep. Feels like a Loser to me.
It's early, but the Buffalo Bills have been one of the top fantasy defenses against wide receivers. They have only allowed one touchdown pass to date, and less than 300 yards. Some of that is inflated by Miami's disaster last week, but the point stands that the Bills are good enough to create such a potential disaster. As for their opponents? Well, Washington has some potential playmaking ability in Dyami Brown, who is a risky, but not crazy, pick this week. A safer choice is Adam Humphries, who had just 44 yards on seven receptions last week. His aDOT of 1.9 yards is worst among all wide receivers; these are empty targets for easy catches, and he hasn't shown any shake-and-bake ability to do something after the catch yet. I like having one guy I'm almost positive will avoid the penalty, and Humphries is my choice this week.
A slightly bigger gamble is awaiting the return of Jamison Crowder, who has yet to debut this season as he has been nursing a groin injury. The Jets do not have a passing attack; no one has stepped up to be a top guy in Crowder's absence. I foresee Zach Wilson forcing a lot of passes to a well-covered Crowder as Vic Fangio's Broncos clamp down and shut down anything Mike LaFleur tries to dial up on offense.
Other promising picks: Darnell Mooney (@CLE), Jakobi Meyers (v. NO), Elijah Moore (@DEN)
Chasing blown kicks isn't always the wisest strategy, but Josh Lambo has yet to make a field goal all season long. Sometimes, when a kicker gets the yips, they get the yips for keeps. Also, Jacksonville hasn't allowed their kicker to have a field goal attempt inside 48 yards all season long, so I'll take lack of form coupled with lack of opportunity.
Speaking of lack of opportunity, Matt Ammendola continues to toil for the Jets. Eventually, New York will face a soft defense. The Broncos ain't it.
Other promising picks: Austin Seibert (v. BAL), Joey Slye (v. CAR)