Three-Cone Drill: So You Want To Be A Writer
by Rivers McCown
The No. 1 recurring mailbag e-mail we receive at Football Outsiders over the years -- at least, among ones that aren't already covered in a FAQ -- isn't about our stats, our analysis, or past Football Outsiders works. It's a subset of questions I would term as "aspiring writer" questions. High schoolers who want to know what steps they should take in this world, college students who want to know what they should major in, even people who are looking to change their career paths and want some advice on making the transition. And do we have any openings? And here is a resume, please take it so I can feel like I tried.
The problem with these questions isn't that they aren't worthy questions, it's that they are unfocused questions that aren't answered with a series of clicks in a spreadsheet. Guiding someone else's future job prospects is a subject that should be considered carefully. Here at Football Outsiders, a company with three full-time employees, we just don't really have time to answer this question in a nuanced way during the season. So it either gets put on the backburner to be forgotten, or it gets a short complimentary answer just so that it can be done with.
So, after seeing another one of these come through the mailbag last week, I decided that was enough. If you want to know the path to becoming an employed football writer, I will share the best tips I know with you. It's not a path that is always going to be easy, or fun. It's definitely not always going to be a path that pays well. But, much like every other kind of writing, it is its own reward.
I. Definition and Credentials
While you may not be surprised to hear that we get asked about this sort of thing a lot, the part that always surprises me about these aspiring writers is, well, how little they actually write. It's a subject that hits hard for me, as someone who was always complimented on my writing growing up. Put fresh-from-high-school me alone in a room with my own devices, and I could find all sorts of ways to kill time besides writing. Give that same kid an assignment, and he would do it on his own time. He would not be writing for an audience; he would be writing to be heard by an audience. I could always turn a fancy phrase or two, but I never really appreciated and cultivated that into any actual talent until much later.
So, look, I'm not going to lie to you. A lot of you are going to fail this step because you are writing to be heard by an audience. You are going to start a blog, write two or four posts, and quit when you aren't instantly overwhelmed with praise. That praise never really comes -- and when it does, it is to be cherished and clung to, as I'll discuss a little later. The act of writing has to be its own reward first.
But to simplify this: to be a writer, by definition, you must produce content. If you have no formal training in this, it's going to be a slow start, and you are going to write some things you aren't proud of in three years. It's part of the process. If you're blessed with natural talent, that can speed things up a bit. But either way, the important thing is to write. You don't have to write every day. You don't have to write every week. But when you do write, it should be focused, well-edited, truthful, and on-point.
Read the people you are drawn to. Steal things that they do and play with them. Mike Tanier has a wonderful talent for stripping any situation to its barest components. On Tampa Bay's saga with Josh Freeman, Mike noted that "Good organizations manage to transition away from failed QB prospects without the month of character assassination." You can't sum up the situation any better. But what you can do is write three or four paragraphs, each detailing bits of the situation, and then say "what do you think?" And then I will -- if I made it to the end -- stop reading and shake my head. Good writing aims to be concise and have opinions of consequence.
Study those writers you are drawn to. Note passages they include that make you laugh aloud. Over time the osmosis will make you a more complete writer. And being a more complete writer will make you a better reader. And that's when it really starts to pay off. If you want to read a couple of great books on the actual subject of writing, these are my two recommendations.
If you are worried about the more minute details -- putting Google Analytics on your blog, making sure you are Tweeting in the right manner and amount, picking the right skin or texture or color -- then don't. This is the sort of thing you spend six hours on, and when you're done you tell yourself you've accomplished something. You haven't. If it makes you feel good to join the Pro Football Writers Association, do it. But don't kid yourself that it changes anything. All it did for me was get a bunch of Notre Dame media guides delivered to my house. I gave them to my grandfather, since he is a big fan. Thanks, PFWA.
If you are worried about what you bring to the table that no one else does, don't. Don't sell yourself short. Between Mike Tanier and Mark Twain and the prophets, there are no original sentences left in the world. Your goal isn't to have the final take on a subject -- it's just to cover it as efficiently and crisply as possible, then let it go. One of my favorite quotes from the two books I linked a couple of paragraphs back is "Being enough was going to have to be an inside job." No amount of accolades or praise is going to change your basic self-esteem. Do not compare yourself to your more famous brethren in the now. It will never go well in your own head.
Spend that time, instead, on writing. You don't have time not to.
II. Pay Attention to the Companies You Want to Work For
I ran an advertisement looking for interns a few weeks ago, so we could have someone to help me create Audibles at the Line every Sunday. I gave each of these intern hopefuls a test measuring their ability to edit a section of a past Audibles, and I gave them a questionnaire asking them a bit about the lay of the Football Outsiders landscape. You would be surprised how many of the potential interns did not really have a good working knowledge of the basic stature of the company. Without dredging up exactly what they wrote, I felt like some of them wanted to be involved in the industry of football, but had never considered the paradigms of what we work with here.
Football Outsiders represents a niche in the analytic football industry. While there are other sites involved in the niche, I don't think it's hard to see who the major players are and what their core strengths and philosophies embody. If you are trying to get hired by any football company, without considering which ones you think fit you best, you're doing all parties involved a disservice.
To wit: the first Pro Football Prospectus I bought was in 2006. I have an entire row of a bookshelf dedicated to those, Baseball Prospectus, and the now-defunct Pro Basketball Forecast/Prospectus series. I stayed up late into many a night in my early 20's, reading these and eating Hot Cheetos on my bed. They informed a great deal of my gestation period as a sports reader, before I was ready to take the step to becoming a sports writer.
Eventually, I wound up charting games for Football Outsiders in the 2007 season, and would later become an intern as well. When I first started charting games, I literally was charting off a VCR tape of the game. I would commandeer the family TV for three hours and wind back footage of Texans defenses getting shredded.
I did that for quite a few years. I wasn't always very good at it. (In fact, if you are or ever are thinking of becoming a game charter, we have a few training videos that are basically entirely composed of my mistakes in one half.) But, I got better as I gained more experience. I stepped up a little extra in 2010, when I had some more time after I dropped out of school to help my heart-attack stricken mother, and started charting entire games instead of just halves. Aaron began to actually know who I was because of the quality and consistency of my work.
When 2011 hit, my personal life was in chaos. I'd lost my dad in 2010 to a drug overdose, and my mom at the beginning of the year to a stroke. I was about to get booted out of the only place I'd ever called home because my grandfather was selling the property, and I was picking up all your typical retail store applications I could find because I couldn't get much traction on making live-on-you-own money in the writing game.
But Football Outsiders posted an application for this position, and right around my birthday in late June, I got the job. I was lucky.
At the same time, though, consider the history I had with the company. I'm not saying I always agreed with everything the site and book introduced, but the overriding philosophies always matched the way I conducted myself. I made myself available to them for free and continued to improve every chance I got. While I don't believe in destiny, this path had been carved out a long time ago, way back when I was reading the old Prospectuses in bed and couldn't put them down no matter how late it was. The history I had of knowing what kinds of attitudes and philosophies the company embraced shone through when I was tested against other worthy people who wanted this job.
So, while it helps to be lucky, this goes back to what I was saying earlier about finding out what you are truly drawn to. Maybe you're not drawn to Football Outsiders, but instead you were drawn to the columns in your local newspaper. Maybe the idea of asking random head coaches what they think about Tim Tebow -- much to your author's chagrin -- is your idea of a good time. That is swell. Embrace that, and chase that dream. Find people who used to work at your local paper and ask them to coffee, to see what you don't know about that you need to find out. Maybe you prefer what Pro Football Focus does to what we do. Maybe you're a better fit at churning out quick, snappy, opinion pieces, and would do better at Bleacher Report, or SB Nation, or HuffPo. All I'm saying is: find the content you are drawn to most, then do what you can to learn about how you can help that company with an eye towards learning more.
III. Once You're Running, Be a Willing Guest
Once you've been writing for a while, you'll exhaust the natural connections you can make solely in the circle of your niche. To reference my own past: when I was writing as often as I could about the Texans, and I already got the attention of Steph Stradley and sites like Battle Red Blog and Houston Diehards, there was a glass ceiling. I wasn't going to be mentioned by most of the non-progressive media around town, and I wasn't going to make the leap to National NFL writer as long as I stayed in my Texans niche.
What I didn't know then was the art of the guest post. While I had brushed around the idea at times, I didn't commit to it for a cacophony of silly reasons.
Combine that knowledge you have found by deeply trying to understand a company's strengths and values with the time and inclination to write well, and you have a recipe to deliver them a win-win post. They get something thought-provoking and relevant for free, and you get a whole new set of eyes and attention on you and your work.
For an outside example, let's say you've become intimate with pro-football-reference's play index. You've found some neat subjects that you don't think anyone has broached in public. You could put those wherever you normally write ... or you could say to yourself "hey, self, Chase Stuart probably isn't a robot that can crank out a post a day forever, even if he seems like he might be. Maybe he could use a guest post." All of the sudden, Chase has a day off and you've got some new eyes on you.
With Football Outsiders, specifically, there are a ton of different concepts and ideas that could be studied on a weekly basis that we don't have the manpower for. Maybe you could write a post about the top 10 running backs by DYAR of 1989 that provides more color than we had time to add when we posted them earlier this season. Maybe you could break down the biggest failures we had picking against the spread in our 2012 premium picks. Maybe you could take an idea like our play-action pass DVOA stats and see which coaches have traditionally fared better than others. There are a lot of different possibilities. And when most of our freelance writers go fishing after the Super Bowl, there is all sorts of empty space for guest posts. During the season, when we're posting about three times a day, it's much harder to find the time for something like that.
Let's talk about reader-submitted Extra Points, which is another way to get your work on the site. The problem with the vast majority of submissions we get are just that they don't add anything to the common perceptions we've held to be true for a long time. Have you guys heard of this new idea that going for two points might be smart, and that coaches should do it more? How about the idea that passing is more efficient than rushing? Those don't really move the meter. Now, if you have a specific critique of a coach's fourth-down call in last Sunday's game, and you want to go through the math behind that call? That makes a great Extra Point. A chart that shows that passing DVOA for a certain team is down this year and goes into the color of why that is? Another solid Extra Point.
In general, your greatest currency to offer bigger sites is time. As long as you have time and the inclination to offer content that is targeted to be right in a bigger site's wheelhouse, you should be able to use guest posts effectively to grow your audience and gain more notoriety.
IV. Be Kind
If you want to piss off most college kids, tell them that the job market is all about networking. Few college kids know what networking really entails -- it's a word that belongs to people in suits who talk to other people in suits, and it seems phony and unnecessary. So you make small-talk with a bunch of people you don't really know? Sounds awkward. Can I go back to my dorm now?
So let me redefine networking. Remember those people you were drawn to, from way back at the beginning of this article? Networking is the art of telling them that they kick ass at things. That's it. That's the entire process.
I told you earlier that most writers never really receive praise. I don't really consider myself "famous," but the more fame I've received, the more negative the comments have become. Here at Football Outsiders, we have a very engaging commenter base, and while it's usually worth it to read the comments, very few people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt as a writer. If they put this kind of energy into reading something, and you left a rounded point, they are going to attack it -- and rightfully so. I don't respond to many comments here -- though I make it a point to at least try and read them all -- but most of the time when I get slammed, it's either somebody trying to be a little too pedantic, or someone I agree with wholeheartedly. (I'm really sorry about that Any Given Sunday in Week 16 of 2012 that didn't focus on the Vikings at all, Vikings fans. That was something that was really silly in retrospect, even though my desperation that the Texans were blowing their chance at the Super Bowl was confirmed in very short order.)
But once you're used to reading comments like that, with an eye to see who is taking the latest potshot at your work, any compliments on the page just become footnotes. There's a certain shield you have to wear to wade into something like that willingly. And, well, all those people talking 'bout you now? They don't make no difference no. As for the comments on our ESPN.com articles? Let's just say that having the name "Rivers" doesn't give me a great head-start with the homophobes that inhabit a typical internet comment section.
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So, assuming you are here because you actually like us, most of your favorite internet writers are actually pretty compliment-deprived. Aaron practically has an entire Patriots bias meme permanently surrounding him. Someone like Bill Barnwell, with the added visibility of Grantland, is constantly belittled for pointing out that factors projected the 49ers would regress in 2012. Deadspin has a whole weekly post of people bitching them out over things they wrote, though at least most of that has the courtesy to be so incoherent it can easily be dismissed.
You want to know a great and extremely easy way to "network" with a writer you connect with? Find his or her e-mail, and send him or her an e-mail along the lines of "This post on _____ you wrote was awesome. I've been thinking about _______ for a long time and while I think (added insight that shows you care about the subject), I think you did a really great job on this. Thanks for writing it, no response necessary." That's all it takes. You did them a major favor for the day just by treating them like an actual human being instead of a content machine that was only operating at 98 percent instead of 100 and not demanding attention for it.
I'm not saying you should do this with people whose work you don't actually admire -- that's not necessarily evil, but it crosses a line for me personally -- but if you want to build a relationship with a writer, there are much worse ways to start than sincere flattery. The little human touches matter in a world where everyone is coerced into always "being busy."
I'll be the first to admit I don't do this as often as I should. (Hey, Will Brinson, I hate that you got to the Spaceballs reference on the Eagles offense before I could, you damn talented jerk!) But I've collected a nice track record of good results just from complimenting people whose work I admired. Or, hell, even just being nice to people. Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote a Seahawks-Falcons NFC Divisional Round post on our stats that I helped him with, and he wrote another piece on our book prediction for the Falcons this offseason. He called me again to help him with something after they fell to the Saints in Week 1, but I was on deadline for a Raiders piece for ESPN, so I had to pass him off to someone else to get that done. But after I finished, I called him back, and asked him how his piece was going and if he got all the help he needed from the other writer on it. Mr. Bradley will probably write another Football Outsiders-related column sometime soon. If he doesn't get the entire thing done on Monday, I think I know who he'll call for help on it, too.
We all lead lives of quiet desperation, in some way, when going about our jobs. Writers are no different. Treat us like actual people worth reaching out to sometimes, and you'll be amazed at how much more likely we are to pitch in when you need our help. Especially when you're sniffing around a company one of us works for that you might be interested in.
I want to point out one last thing: none of these things I recommended are economically crippling to do. I can empathize with the powerful sense of ineptness that comes with being a recent or soon-to-be graduate. You're surrounded by people telling you that the job market has changed forever, and that the economy is bad. You likely don't have much experience in your career path if you've tried to go through college. You can enter a world of paralysis by analysis just trying to find the right path in a world where one mistake can put you into debt for the rest of your lifetime. You can put off starting. You can wait for times to be perfecter. (They won't ever get that way.) You can aim for something "more realistic."
The cream still rises to the top. Nothing in my background says I should be where I am today. I didn't complete my undergraduate degree. (Yet.) I've been through enough trauma over the past three years to put someone in therapy for decades. None of the steps I took were perfectly measured.
But none of those constructs actually matter. If this is what you want to be your life path, then write. Don't waste another second trying to justify it to yourself and the voices in your head. Andy Benoit self-published his own books all by himself. You can too. All these suggestions really require is action.
Transaction Analysis: Jaguars Flip Monroe to Ravens
Giving this the small-world view, I think it's easy to say that Jaguars did well to move Eugene Monroe for whatever draft picks they could get. (Actual cost: a fourth-round pick and a fifth-round pick.) The more I pull back from it, though, the more I think they settled a little too low.
Mike Tanier will never be confused for a fan, and I'll chip in that I've always thought Monroe was overrated by those who saw him as a Pro Bowl-caliber guy, but there are people out there who see Monroe as that kind of tackle. Even if he's only a solid left tackle rather than a great one -- how many of those are there in the league today? How many teams would kill for Eugene Monroe as a free agent in a league where Jermon Bushrod got five years and about $22.5 million in guarantees?
I don't necessarily have a problem with the Jaguars moving to deal Monroe, because they are going nowhere this season and there's always a chance that he gets hurt, but I've got to think there's a better return out there for Monroe than this. If not now, than next offseason. To not even get a second-day pick for a left tackle that some think this highly of seems like a mistake. Yes, he was going to be a free agent this offseason, but that's a false construct. The Jaguars had the option to franchise him, and in spite of their stated desire to stay on the down low with free agency, the spending floor dictates they spend money on somebody besides Paul Posluszny and Marcedes Lewis.
For Baltimore, it's hard to complain about the move in the now. Under Pressure went over the upgrades Monroe offers over Bryant McKinnie on Friday, and though acquiring Monroe won't make Gino Gradkowski and Kelechi Osemele turn around, Monroe should buy Joe Flacco a little more time in the pocket and be an improvement on the run game.
The sticky point is, as Chase Stuart pointed out, the future. The Ravens were skimming as tightly to the cap as they possibly could this offseason, and had to let a lot of the nucleus of their Super Bowl team walk. Next offseason doesn't look any better, as Flacco's cap hit leaps from $6.8 million to $14.8 million in 2014.
If the Ravens are able to find a way to keep Monroe, this trade will have been worth it. If he walks in the offseason, they'll have traded a fourth- and a fifth-round pick for 12 (not counting playoffs) games of slightly above-average tackle play. While the offensive line was a problem last year too, keep in mind that shifting McKinnie into the starting lineup dramatically changed things in the playoffs. It's not ridiculous to state that the Ravens could have found a move that would produce similar short-term benefits without giving up draft picks.
Taken solely in the short-term, it becomes very clear why these teams did what they did here. Look past that, though, and you'll see a team that had no reason to trade a decent left tackle selling low to a team that doesn't have the cap room to pay a decent left tackle without sacrificing elsewhere.
by Andrew Potter
New England at Cincinnati -- 1:00PM ET (CBS)
New England's offense finally burst into life in Atlanta, putting up 30 points despite the continued absence of top receiving options Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski. Both are expected to return this week, with Gronkowski in particular expected to vastly improve his position's production -- current starter Michael Hoomanawanui has a receiving DVOA of -67.0%, and preseason favorite Zach Sudfeld was waived on Thursday. If Amendola returns, he's likely to draw a very tough assignment against Cincinnati's Leon Hall (Cincinnati has a DVOA of -29.2% against number one receivers), but that could mean more opportunities for Julian Edelman as the Bengals have been less effective against number two receivers (4.0% DVOA). On offense for the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton continues to underwhelm; his struggles reflected not so much in Cincinatti's mediocre passing DVOA (2.1%) as in A.J. Green's -19.5% receiving DVOA. That's unlikely to change this week, as Green will probably match up against New England's star cornerback Aqib Talib -- the Patriots have a DVOA of -32.8% against opposing number one receivers. Dalton's most efficient receiving option has been running back Giovani Bernard (34.2% receiving DVOA), but the Patriots have so far been solid against pass-catching backs (-10.5% DVOA).
Detroit at Green Bay -- 1:00PM ET (FOX)
Don't look now, but Green Bay suddenly has the third-most efficient running game in the league by DVOA (20.1%) to go with their second-ranked pass offense (39.1% DVOA). Detroit's defense is mediocre against both the run (-1.8%) and the pass (-3.7%), so Green Bay should be able to dictate the tempo of the game. They might have to -- Detroit's offense is nowhere near as balanced, but their strength is their passing game (20.2% DVOA) against a defense which has struggled mightily to stop the pass (47.0%, 32nd). Detroit's clear top receiver is Calvin Johnson (four touchdowns in four games, albeit only 1.1% DVOA), but Green Bay has struggled to cover anybody: 30th by DVOA against number two receivers, 25th against tight ends, and 29th against running backs. That last number could be key: the Lions have been very efficient throwing to their backs (Joique Bell has a 40.5% receiving DVOA, and Reggie Bush 24.1%). Whatever the specific matchups, however, it looks like there will be plenty of points in this one -- for both teams.
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Seattle at Indianapolis -- 1:00PM ET (FOX)
Seattle scraped an overtime win in Houston last time out, digging their way out of a 20-3 hole thanks in part to Matt Schaub tossing a burger to a hungry Richard Sherman. The Colts are unlikely to be so generous, with their stated preference for their efficient ground game (23.6% DVOA, second) appearing the wiser choice against Seattle's top-ranked pass defense (-36.9%). The Seahawks have been more efficient in pass offense (31.7%) than run offense (-1.1%) too, but stopping the run is the Colts defense's largest weakness (2.6%, 26th) so a heavy dose of Marshawyn Lynch (-2.3%) may still be the order of the day Starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini both remain out, and center Max Unger is not certain to play, so whether Lynch is successful will depend on improved blocking from Seattle's backup big guys.
Baltimore at Miami -- 1:00PM ET (CBS)
Since Peyton Manning's record-setting dissection in Week 1, the Ravens defense has returned to some semblance of its old self -- its -21.8% DVOA against the pass from Weeks 2 through 4 would rank fourth in the league (its DVOA against the run barely changes). After his five interceptions against Buffalo, Joe Flacco's -22.5 DVOA ranks 29th in the league, and so far this season has been easily the worst of his career. Despite that, Torrey Smith (21.8%) is currently having the best season of his career and the Dolphins are as average as average gets (0.0 DVOA) against number one receivers. If the Ravens defense can perform as it has recently against Miami's average offense (18th by DVOA in passing, 13th in rushing), and if Eugene Monroe upgrades the pass protection as hoped, Flacco should have plenty of opportunities to improve upon his season so far.
New Orleans at Chicago -- 1:00PM ET (FOX)
New Orleans can't run (-20.3% DVOA, 27th) and can't stop the run (8.5%, 30th), but that did them no harm in Weeks 3 (31 points) and 4 (38 points). Primarily, that's because they can both pass (39.4%, third) and stop the pass (-30.4%, also third), and that's simply far more important in 2013. They've also thrived on turnovers -- seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries (out of five) -- which could be a problem for Chicago, as Jay Cutler has already thrown six interceptions and lost two fumbles (out of two) in his four games this season. The Chicago defense continues to force fumbles at an incredible rate (11 in four games, per NFL.com), but that hasn't been quite enough to cover for their other deficiencies -- particularly against the pass (5.7%, 16th). Against Saints quarterback Drew Brees (27.9%) and his array of reliable receivers (three over 100 DYAR, four above 29% DVOA), a struggling pass defense is probably the worst flaw a team could have.
Philadelphia at NY Giants -- 1:00PM ET (FOX)
If there's one thing Chip Kelly's Eagles do well, it's run the ball -- if their 36.8% DVOA holds up, it would surpass even the 2000 Rams (though barely) as the most efficient running game of the DVOA era. You'd be forgiven for not noticing, as running the ball is in fact the one thing Chip Kelly's Eagles do well: DVOA has them 15th in pass offense (13.9%), 30th in pass defense (42.2%), 21st in run defense (-7.4%), and 31st in special teams (-12.9%). The Giants would love to have even one thing they do well -- 31st in offense (-24.7%), 22nd in defense (6.6%), and 32nd in special teams (-17.3%) is not a winning combination as evidenced by their 0-4 start. For fans of special teams disasters, this game features the worst two units in the league this season. For fans of good football, there are several more appealing options on the Game Pass menu.
Kansas City at Tennessee -- 1:00PM ET (CBS)
This game features two of the league's surprise contenders: Andy Reid's Chiefs have famously doubled last year's win total in the first quarter of this season primarily through an excellent pass defense (-35.1%, second), while Mike Munchak coaches a balanced Titans squad which is competent at everything (even their 23rd-ranked special teams DVOA is barely below average) though excellent at nothing. Tennessee starts quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in place of the injured Jake Locker, who had been putting together an efficient season (11.5% DVOA, 7th) right in line with his team's solid-but-not-spectacular over-performance. Fitzpatrick could hardly face a more difficult first start for his new team, especially given its surprising potential impact on the AFC playoff race.
Jacksonville at St. Louis -- 1:00PM ET (CBS)
Jacksonville has average special teams (-0.5%, 17th), which is about the nicest thing anybody can write about the 2013 Jacksonville Jaguars. Historically bad on offense, and having traded away their starting left tackle this week, the Jaguars at least welcomed back Justin Blackmon from suspension on Wednesday. It's a good time for Blackmon to return: the St. Louis pass defense (48.3%) is second only to Green Bay in its awfulness, and was torched by the previously struggling 49ers last Thursday night. The Rams offense (-20.9%) has also been bad, particularly running the ball where their -42.0% DVOA ranks 30th -- but Jacksonville's run defense ranks 29th (6.9%) and their pass defense 25th (-25.8%). If the Rams pass defense continues to struggle in this one, we can officially declare an end to their chances of being the surprise contender many expected before the season. More likely, however, is the better of these bad offenses beating the better of these bad defenses in the worst of this week's bad games.
Carolina at Arizona -- 4:05PM ET (FOX)
Playing against the 2013 Giants can cure all manner of ailments -- Ron Rivera didn't even get the chance to mismanage a close game last time out, as the Panthers defense (-9.4%) shut out an opponent for the first time since October 5th, 2008. They've had a bye week since, and now that defense, above average against both the run (-13.3%, 12th) and the pass (-63%, ninth), goes on the road to face an Arizona offense which is equally poor at both (26th passing, 25th running). The Cardinals defense is stout against the run (-26.9%, third), which matches up well against the strength of the Panthers offense (11.6%, fourth), but the 26th-ranked Arizona pass defense has struggled against number one receivers (72.5 YPG) and tight ends (91.1 YPG) -- Steve Smith (-0.7%) and Greg Olsen (9.0%) just happen to be Cam Newton's most reliable targets.
Denver at Dallas -- 4:25PM ET (CBS)
After putting up 52 points on only six days of preparation against the Eagles, this week Peyton Manning gets to face a defense he saw in practice every day for seven years. Pass defense (14.2%) has been the weak spot for Dallas this year, and Manning (68.1%) has been unstoppable so far. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, and Knowshon Moreno are all top ten in receiving DYAR for their positions, and Eric Decker has recovered from his rough start to post a respectable 9.8% DVOA, so there isn't even one clear option for the Cowboys to take away. On defense, Denver's very good run defense (-22.5%) has a favorable matchup against the Cowboys' 19th-ranked run offense (-10.5%), but Tony Romo (16.8%) and his receivers should be able to put up points against Denver's 24th-ranked pass defense (18.1%). Whether they can put up enough points to keep up with this devastating Broncos offense is another matter.
Houston at San Francisco -- 8:30PM ET (NBC)
Matt Schaub deleted his Twitter account following last week's crushing overtime defeat at home to Seattle, after which some Houston fans burned Schaub jerseys in protest. Schaub leads the league in touchdown passes to the other team, and will need to break that three-game trend against the Seahawks' major rivals. Houston sits a surprising third in the AFC South despite finally adding a viable second receiver (DeAndre Hopkins, 23.6% DVOA), in part due to predictable playcalling and continued awful special teams (-9.7%, 30th). San Francisco got their season up and running against St. Louis, but Houston's defense (-16.1%, fifth) is much tougher than that of the Rams. Defense appears to have the upper hand against both offenses, so the key could be not passing points to the other team's corners. That's only been a problem for one of these quarterbacks so far.
San Diego at Oakland -- 11:35PM ET (NFLN)
Overshadowed by the presence of Peyton Manning not only in the same conference but also in the same division, Philip Rivers is nevertheless having an outstanding season so far. Clearly the best of the non-Peytons by both DVOA (43.4%) and DYAR (+575), Rivers quarterbacks a resurgent Chargers pass offense (66.9%, second) in what has in two years gone from being probably the worst division in the AFC to arguably the best. Their first game inside the division comes on the road against bottom-feeders Oakland, who have struggled both to stop the pass (32.9%, 28th) and to pass the ball (-1.0%, 23rd). At 2-2 after tight in-conference losses to Houston and Tennessee, San Diego will need to avoid a let down here if they're to avoid wasting their quarterback's sudden resurgence.