Sam Darnold Traded to the 2021 All-Keep Choppin' Wood Team
NFL Super Bowl - Andrew: Hello and welcome to the penultimate Scramble for the Ball of the 2021 season! As we approach the final game of the year, when we celebrate the great and good of the sport and crown a new champion, we here at Scramble HQ like to sit back, reflect, and ... well, do the complete opposite, if we're honest. We have always been more concerned with slipups than successes, so while the NFL Awards concern themselves with the Most Valuable Player and the Defensive Player of the Year, we shine our light on the other end of the spectrum.
Bryan: It has been an odd year, to say the least, but we have harvested a plentiful bounty of screwups, mishaps, and blunderers for you. That's right, it's once again time for us to fulfill our annual duty, bringing you the worst of the worst—the annual All-Keep Choppin' Wood Team.
Andrew: What a bountiful harvest was presented to us this year! From draft picks gone bad to terrible trades, from coaching crazies to COVID clown shows, and from defensive disasters to, let's say, special events.
Unfortunately, there were also some far more serious nominations, so it's not all sunshine and giggles at the follies of our favorite foes.
Bryan: We have tried to lean into the lighter side of things whenever possible—when we were handed the Scramble keys, we were asked if we were funny, and we might even hit that standard one of these years. That's not to say we have ignored some of the more serious things that have happened this year—far from it—just that, when asked to choose between blackness and pratfalls, we're more than willing to step on the proverbial banana peels of life.
Andrew: This article is always a welcome reminder that, no matter how bad your past five months have gone, at least it went better than ... oops, no spoilers!
Bryan: As usual, we have picked starters by position, along with a full coaching staff. And without further ado, we present…
Scramble's 2021 All-Keep Choppin' Wood Team
Andrew: As is traditional, we begin the All-KCW team with a look at the quarterback position, where this year's field is broad and highly, highly subjective. We could consider Ben Roethlisberger, returning for a final season that served only to prove that he shouldn't have returned for a final season. The future Hall of Famer had his worst non-injury season since 2008, and the second-lowest DVOA of his career.
We could consider somebody who technically could have played this season but didn't: Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson, you may remember, was one of the best young quarterbacks in the league a year ago, before a row with Texans management wiped out any prospect of him playing in Houston this season, then a series of sexual assault allegations wiped out any prospect of him being traded to play anywhere else. We're wary of the legal minefield here, but what can't be disputed is that one of the best quarterbacks in the sport just missed a full season for off-field reasons, turning his team from a prospective playoff contender to one of the worst in the league overnight.
Speaking of minefields, we're also wary of how to approach the COVID contingent. How do we weigh a player such as Aaron Rodgers, reportedly the MVP-elect, who misled reporters about his vaccination status, missed a game earlier in the year because of COVID, and continues to use his public platform to spread dangerous misinformation about a deadly virus? What about Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, Cole Beasley, and others who placed their teammates, their teams, and the public at risk for the sake of not getting a vaccine?
Fortunately, our eventual selection more than earned his status purely through on-field performance. Denied Deshaun Watson by the aforementioned circumstances, the Carolina Panthers instead traded for embattled former Jets first-round pick Sam Darnold. They inserted him ahead of the efficient but uninspiring Teddy Bridgewater, shipping Bridgewater off to Denver for draft compensation. Darnold responded to their faith and confidence by finishing No. 33 of 34 qualifying quarterbacks in DYAR and DVOA, leading a Panthers team that would have been a playoff contender with a competent quarterback to the bottom of the NFC South, throwing a bunch of terrible interceptions, being benched for P.J. Walker and eventually the returning Cam Newton (shambling corpse edition), and generally making the Panthers look very, very silly indeed.
Bryan: The Houston Texans briefly flirted with the worst rushing DVOA of all time. They did eventually climb back up to -33.1%, escaping to the fifth-worst in DVOA history, but that's still bad enough that we figured our winner had to come from their stable. But who to pick? Mark Ingram ended up with the lowest rushing DYAR, even before including his time in New Orleans. Phillip Lindsay ended up with the lowest DVOA among Texans backs with 50 carries. But our resident Texans
victim correspondent Rivers McCown touted hard for David Johnson, and we will defer to his expertise in the field of sadness.
Johnson was right up there (down there?) in both DVOA and DYAR with the worst of the worst, and never had any pop to complement the plod. His longest run of the year went just 15 yards. He couldn't even get solid gains on the rare occasions his line did open up holes for him. He picked up seven first downs on his 67 carries, a 10.4% rate that was worst among all backs with at least 50 carries. He was a massive liability in pass protection. And he did all this with the 12th-highest cap hit at the position, getting paid more than every other Texans running back combined. Plus, Johnson carries a legacy of failure with him—he was our KCW running back last season, and a continuous reminder to Texans fans that hey, you traded away DeAndre Hopkins for this!
David Johnson revenge game pic.twitter.com/ATE62n5wHV
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) October 24, 2021
As for honorable mentions? Myles Gaskin was Andrew's initial top choice; he was in the bottom five in both DYAR and DVOA, and his six-week stretch as a three-down back for Miami resulted in -84 DYAR on 100 carries with a -28.8% DVOA. Mike Davis was highly touted by some in Arthur Smith's offense in Atlanta, but it turns out he's not exactly Derrick Henry; he ended up being replaced by converted receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as Atlanta's primary rusher. And in terms of minimal bang for buck, Saquon Barkley cost the Giants over $10 million in 2021 for -56 DYAR.
Andrew: Our first player selected for off-field issues rather than football performance is, unfortunately, one of the worst NFL stories of the year. Raiders 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs had finally emerged as the team's top receiver in his second year after a solid if unspectacular rookie campaign: his 34.8% receiving DVOA would have led the league if he had sustained it over the full season, and he was well on track for his first 1,000-yard campaign.
Until, that is, in early November, Ruggs reportedly got behind the wheel of his Corvette while inebriated at more than twice the legal limit, drove it at over 150 miles per hour, and collided with another vehicle in a residential area. The coroner's examination concluded that the driver of the other vehicle, a 23-year-old woman named Tina Tintor, died from thermal injuries as a result of the crash, while Ruggs and his girlfriend were also both hospitalized after the wreck. Ruggs was arrested and charged with felony driving under the influence and reckless driving. He faces between a mandatory two years and maximum of more than 50 years in prison if convicted. He remains under house arrest, with locator tags and alcohol monitors, ahead of a hearing scheduled for March 10. The Raiders released him immediately following the crash, and his NFL career appears to be over.
Bryan: Moving on to slightly (slightly!) less depressing stories…
… when we last left our hero Antonio Brown, he was coming off of being named to the 2018 and 2019 Keep Choppin' Wood Teams, as well as being named to the All-2010s KCW team. He had a quiet 2020 by his standards—he started the year with an eight-game suspension due to burglary and battery charges and accusations of intimidating texts and sexual harassment, so, you know, quiet. But 2021 saw him back in fine form.
In November, the reports came out—Brown's COVID vaccination card was a forgery, an odd choice of federal crime to commit in a league where, y'know, you could just go unvaccinated and play every week. That news only became public thanks to a former live-in chef of Brown's, someone whom Brown refused to pay $10,000 he owed—somehow, the second time Brown has refused to pay a personal chef, alongside a list of lawyers, personal assistants, trainers, car detailers, and piranha aquarium installers (... no, really) who all claim or have claimed Brown owes them money. A good lesson there, kids—don't stiff someone who has information about all the crimes you have been doing!
And that's not even the reason he made the team! After serving a suspension, Brown returned to the Buccaneers, and, well, things just soured from there. In the middle of Week 17, Brown engaged in a heated argument on the sideline, and then took off his jersey and pads and stormed shirtless into the locker room, flashing peace signs at the crowd as he went.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 2, 2022
What does this mean for the Bucs and Antonio Brown?
Antonio Brown threw his jersey and shirt into the stands and proceeded to leave the field. pic.twitter.com/HhEdQr31xS
— The Kirby on Sports Podcast (@KirbyOnSports) January 2, 2022
There is still something of a he-said, he-said going on about exactly what happened here, in one of the most bizarre things any of us can remember happening. Brown claims that the Buccaneers were ignoring his injured ankle, forcing him to play, and then cut him midgame when he refused to go back in. The last bit is false; Brown actually remained on the team for half a week after the incident, but the Bucs claim that Brown was cleared to play by the medical staff, refused to see a specialist about his ankle, never informed the medical staff in-game that his ankle had worsened, and was upset because the team had opted not to guarantee $2 million in incentives Brown was close to earning anyway.
Even if Brown's side of the story is 100% correct—and, given his history, and the fact that he was jumping up and down and doing jumping jacks as he left the field, we find that somewhat dubious—it doesn't explain or condone storming off the field midgame, an action even Brown now admits "wasn't professional." In addition, the Buccaneers attempted to get Brown to see a mental health professional before cutting him, claiming a history of erratic behavior, which, uh, yeah. Brown's response has been to say he's not worried about mental health, he has "mental wealth." "I never had a mental health diagnosis," he told CBS. "I never had an issue or problem. I don't take pills. I just got a high IQ." This, after a long-documented history of refusing to talk to therapists because he's from "the pit" while they are from "the palace"—not coincidentally, the title of his new rap single, released less than week after he left the team.
It's a lot, is what we're saying. Though I think I have figured out how I'll finally quit Scramble when all is said and done!
Andrew: Our final wide receiver choice, thankfully, brings us back to performance on the field rather than off it. Here, our choice came down to the three players at the bottom of the DYAR table: Ray-Ray McCloud, Robby Anderson, and eventual winner Laviska Shenault. All three had terrible efficiency numbers, and any would have been a fine choice, but Shenault wins the award for the sheer breadth and volume of his underperformance. Shenault had no touchdowns on 100 targets; no other receiver with more than 80 targets failed to score a touchdown. Only Anderson had fewer yards on triple-digit targets, and Anderson scored five times. Among players with at least 100 targets, only Marquise Brown and Cole Beasley had a lower first-down rate, and nobody had a higher drop rate. Among receivers with at least 10 carries, only Jalen Reagor had a worse DVOA. (Ty Montgomery is listed on that table, too, but the Saints use him as a Patterson-like weapon who switches back and forth between receiver and running back.)
The Jaguars drafted Shenault to be a multi-purpose weapon in the mold of Deebo Samuel. This season, he had much more in common with Tavon Austin.
Bryan: We scratched our head this offseason when the Patriots made Jonnu Smith the fifth-highest paid tight end in league history, signing him to a $50-million deal that didn't really match his history of production. But perhaps Bill Belichick and company were going to bring back the old two-tight end offense from the early 2010s Pats teams, right? Well, not so much. Smith was a non-factor in New England, with 28 receptions for 294 yards and a touchdown—significantly fewer catches than he had had in Tennessee the year before. Smith ended up second-worst in both DYAR and DVOA among tight ends, a huge disappointment for someone making eight digits last season. He added little value as a blocker and ended up playing less than half of New England's snaps down the stretch. Oh, and all $9 million of his base salary is guaranteed for 2022, so he's not going anywhere, either.
Andrew: Our left tackle choice was one of the most straightforward offensive line selections we have ever made. Dolphins rookie Liam Eichenberg led the league with 55 blown blocks according to Sports Info Solutions, and no other tackle even came close: Colts veteran Eric Fisher was the only other starting tackle who blew a block on more than 5% of his snaps, and even that added up to just 43 in total. Eichenberg's pass-blocking was particularly bad: he blew 7.3% of his pass blocks and gave up a league-worst 12 sacks, despite playing in an offense designed around run/pass options and quick passing concepts designed to minimize the stress on the offensive line. He was also flagged for eight penalties. Eichenberg is a rookie, so there is hope for improvement, but it will need to come very quickly for the 2021 second-round pick.
Bryan: We're not putting La'el Collins on the team for bad play; you can count the better run-blocking tackles in the league on one hand with some fingers left over. Instead, we're docking him for his five-game suspension to start the season. Collins was suspended for missing seven drug tests, and then allegedly attempting to bribe one of the NFL's drug testers, which would be bad enough. But it's what happened after the suspension that put things over the top. The NFLPA helped reduce Collins' suspension from five games to two, but Collins chose to appeal anyway. The arbitrator ruled that actually, based on the evidence, the suspension shouldn't have been reduced in the first place, restoring the initial five-game suspension, costing Collins nearly all of September and October. Sometimes, you just have to leave well enough alone.
We also have to give honorable mentions to Storm Norton and Alejandro Villanueva, who finished second and third in blown blocks among tackles behind Eichenberg; they were inferior players to Collins but didn't end up arguing that they should miss extra time in a court setting, so they get a pass for this year.
Andrew: You may have noticed a quirk in my phrasing of the Eichenberg comment above: no other tackle came close to Eichenberg's league-leading blown block total, but one guard did. That guard was Jalen Mayfield of the Falcons, whose 51 blown blocks also blew away the field at his position; the next closest guard had just 40. In fact, Mayfield blew 5.4% of his blocks, the highest rate of any starting offensive lineman. Again, pass-blocking was the big issue: per SIS charting, Mayfield allowed 11 sacks while no other guard allowed more than seven. Mayfield also had trouble even getting into his sets: only Raiders rookie Alex Leatherwood had more than Mayfield's six false starts. Mayfield wasn't meant to start in his rookie season, but injuries forced him into the lineup earlier than the Falcons wanted. It's easy to see why, as even these terrible numbers don't tell the full story of just how badly Mayfield struggled in pass protection.
Bryan: We had to put at least one Bengals lineman on the team, and our choice is Hakeem Adeniji—by far and away the weakest link on a line composed of weak links. The Bengals had to resort to rotating snaps between Adeniji and rookie Jackson Carman in the AFC Championship Game; he had given up three sacks to the Titans the week before and was looking like a turnstile early on against Kansas City, as well. Frankly, we could have stuck Carman here as well and just gone "The Empty Void That Is Cincinnati's Right Guard Position," but we do like at least attaching one name to the spot.
Andrew: Raiders guard John Simpson earns an honorable mention here for his struggles in the run game: Simpson committed a league-leading five holding penalties on run plays and allowed six stuffs, joint third-most among guards. Panthers guard Michael Jordan also earns an honorable mention, as the worst player on the worst offensive line somehow to avoid a single representative in this lineup.
Bryan: Honorable mentions also go to Alex Leatherwood, who was second among guards with 40 blown blocks, as well as Michael Schofield—and yes, that means the entire right side of the Chargers' line gets honorable mentions here.
Andrew: Finally, we had to have a nominee from the league's worst run-blocking offensive line, and who better than the lynchpin of the whole operation? Justin Britt may not have been the worst center in football this year, but that only makes him more suited to represent the Texans. Britt encapsulates Houston's problem: they don't have the worst starter in the league at any one position, but they do have bottom-tier starters at every spot, and that adds up to a 4-13 outfit. Their league-low 3.33 adjusted line yards is the second-worst mark from the past five seasons, and their offensive linemen have absolutely no ability to take on defenders at the second level and generate extra yards. In a vacuum, Max Scharping is probably the worse player, and Laremy Tunsil gives worse bang for buck both in terms of cap dollars and return on his trade investment. However, it is Britt who best represents what the Texans are: a squad of mediocre veteran starters who are pretty much exactly the sum of their parts.
Now if we were to pick the actual worst center in football, the strongest statistical candidate is Falcons center Matt Hennessy, one of only two players to blow at least 15 run blocks and at least 15 pass blocks (the other was David Quessenberry of the Titans). Panthers injury replacement Pat Elflein, who started much of the season instead of preferred starter Matt Paradis, was also terrible at the heart of Carolina's line, and Bears center Sam Mustipher led the league in blown run blocks while sitting at the heart of the line with the worst adjusted sack rate.
Bryan: The Chargers ranked 30th in run defense DVOA, and they were the only team to rank 25th or worse in adjusted line yards, power success, stuff rate, and second-level yards—the Lions and Giants were worse overall, but could at least point to some success somewhere along the line. Not so Los Angeles, and Jerry Tillery is the most prominent culprit there. He was entirely dead weight in the rushing game, being actively targeted by opposing rushing attacks and getting blown off the line of scrimmage over and over again. He had some better numbers as a pass-rusher, but most of his sacks and pressures came from cleaning up plays when Joey Bosa or Linval Joseph were wreaking havoc. But at least he could finish some of those plays; as a run defender, the Chargers may as well have been playing with 10 men.
Jerry Tillery vs. a third-string RT pic.twitter.com/KKYbRi8RHJ
— Daniel Popper (@danielrpopper) September 20, 2021
Andrew: The one defensive interior that was inarguably worse than the Chargers, however, was Minnesota. The Vikings may have ranked No. 25 in run defense DVOA, but that was almost entirely the work of their back end: they ranked No. 32 in adjusted line yards, No. 32 in stuff rate, and No. 24 in power success. Former Giants defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson contributed 2.5 sacks, but he had just two tackles for a loss in 16 starts on the interior of the run defense. Given that Tomlinson is one of the highest-paid players at the position, he's the nominee from an interior that was shockingly weak against opposition running games.
We could just as easily have picked anybody from the Falcons defensive line, where even Grady Jarrett had just one sack and five tackles for a loss in $20.8 million worth of starts, and three different defensive tackles ranked in the bottom 16 by pressure rate (minimum of 100 pass rushes), but we'll get to that front seven in just a moment.
Bryan: We know that Bradley Chubb missed about half the year on injured reserve, so we should expect his numbers to have been down somewhat. But zero sacks and just one tackle for a loss is beyond the worst-case scenario Denver was expecting when they traded away Von Miller halfway through the year. Chubb himself admitted that this was his worst year as a pro; he was worn down physically by COVID and finger, knee, and ankle injuries, and mentally from trying to recover from all the aforementioned problems as well as the extra pressure that came from trying to carry the Broncos' pass rush, such as it was. Chubb did not include his offseason arrest, a failure to appear after some offseason misdemeanor driving citations, but we'll tack it on to boost Chubb over the other injured and/or ineffective players from this year's class.
Andrew: The Atlanta Falcons had 18 sacks in 2021. Forty-two individual players have had more sacks in a single season than the entire Falcons roster had in 2021, and every one of them took fewer games to get there. That's not quite historic ineptitude—the Bengals had a worse adjusted sack rate in 2019, and the Chiefs had just 10 sacks in 2008—but it is the fifth-worst rate of sacks per game since the merger. Only Dante Fowler—yes, the former Jaguars bust—had more than 2.0 sacks for the Falcons, and only Grady Jarrett had more than eight quarterback hits. Unsurprisingly, the team also ranked worst in pressure rate and adjusted sack rate. Our nominee from that team is Steven Means, a veteran edge rusher who somehow started 14 games in 2021 without a single sack and with just two quarterback hits to his name. Means represents something greater than himself, one of the very worst pass rushes in NFL history.
Bryan: On the positive side, Patrick Queen's second season was notably better than his first. This is partially because placing a sack of potatoes in the middle of the field would have been an improvement over Queen's rookie season, mind you. We didn't place Queen on the team last year because we do like to give rookies a break; transitioning to the NFL is hard. But two years in, it's hard not to call Queen an enormous bust. Queen led all linebackers with 25 broken/missed tackles, per SIS charting, most in the league and the most for any linebacker since, uh, Patrick Queen missed 25 as a rookie. Queen's biggest problem at this point appears to be processing. He looks overwhelmed when asked to figure out which gap to fill, where to drop into coverage, and just anything other than being pointed at the quarterback and let loose. It's not all hopeless—Queen had a run of four games midseason where he didn't miss a tackle, in part because Josh Bynes returned and shouldered some of Queen's burden. And there are whispers about Baltimore shifting from an odd to an even front, putting more beef on the line of scrimmage, and letting Queen focus on just coverage. But through two seasons, Queen has been a disaster, and it'll take a massive improvement to get him even past the point of being a liability.
Andrew: Absent some obvious off-field candidate, it's tough to pick another off-ball linebacker for this spot. The Houston Texans had the worst second-level defense against the run, and they cut their top linebacker midseason, but Zach Cunningham immediately joined and started for the division champion Tennessee Titans, so he wasn't the clear problem. Devin White had a poor sophomore season, missing only one fewer tackle than Patrick Queen, but it would be a huge leap to put White in here a year after he was considered one of the best linebackers in the game. Akeem Davis-Gaither struggled for the Bengals, but he was a young backup on a team that reached the Super Bowl.
After much deliberation, we settled on Giants linebacker Tae Crowder, mainly as an excuse to link this highlight.
That missed tackle by Tae Crowder on Tom Brady actually hurt to watch ... pic.twitter.com/FSsdWS6A7s
— Alex Wilson (@AlexWilsonESM) November 23, 2021
Crowder is the player you see sprawling at the feet of the athletic specimen that is 44-year-old Tom Brady, quite probably the slowest scrambler in league history. Brady has made linebackers look silly in the past—notably Bears legend Brian Urlacher—but Crowder didn't even need so much as a juke to completely miss. Crowder is notorious for struggling to diagnose plays and for being out of position even on the ones he does recognize. He may not be near the top of the broken tackle leaderboard, but that's usually because he's not in position to attempt tackles in the first place. Alongside former Texans starter Benardrick McKinney, the Giants may have started the worst pair of inside linebackers in the league this winter. Yes, even worse than the teams that weren't trying to win.
Bryan: Our cornerback picks are, for the most part, not funny. Jeff Gladney was a first-round pick in 2020 and out of the league in 2021. The Vikings released him after he was indicted on third-degree felony domestic violence and spent the offseason in limbo—Gladney allegedly choked, hit, and dragged his then-girlfriend across the ground in April, but due to COVID delays, the case didn't go to grand jury until July. The Vikings left him on the roster, but away from the team, all offseason, meaning (among other things) they didn't end up drafting a replacement for Gladney. Don't get us wrong; the accusations are heinous, and Gladney would be our top corner even if the Vikings had been proactive and cut him back in April. But losing a first-round corner with no replacement in sight added a little insult to injury.
Andrew: Similarly, the Raiders released their 2020 first-round pick, Damon Arnette, after a video emerged on social media showing the player brandishing firearms and making death threats. Arnette was already underperforming and had lost portions of both of his first two seasons to injury, making the decision easier than it might have been. Following his release, he made his way to the Dolphins practice squad, then onto Kansas City ... where he then pointed a semi-automatic pistol at a valet, was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a controlled substance, and was promptly released.
Bryan: Alright, away from the depressing and on to the more traditional "bad at football" pick. Our guidelines for this told me to "Choose Your Own 49er," because Andrew enjoys making me relive significant painful incidents. Fine. Sure thing.
Ambry Thomas struggled significantly for about a month, including one of the worst games I have ever seen against Cincinnati, where Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase took turns blowing past him, when he wasn't busy negating huge plays via penalty. But after the rough start, Thomas calmed down, and was solid-to-good in the postseason. So we're going with Josh Norman instead. Norman clung to a starting job for months on the back of a high number of forced fumbles, which is good! But he was getting those opportunities because he was a disaster in coverage—six pass interference calls, three defensive holds, a 66.7% completion percentage on a 13.7-yard average depth of target and a 12.5% missed/broken tackle rate. Seven forced fumbles are impressive, but not that impressive.
Andrew: The Houston Texans picked Lonnie Johnson in the second round of the 2019 draft. A season and a half later, dissatisfied with his performances at cornerback, they attempted to transition him to safety. That experiment went so well that they moved him back to cornerback in the middle of this year. Johnson did pick up the first three interceptions of his career this year, but he also allowed 9.9 yards per target and missed more than 20% of his tackles. He's a prime example of the other failing blighting the Texans: the seeming inability to either draft or develop talent effectively.
Bryan: The Seahawks didn't stop paying for Jamal Adams when they gave up two first-round picks for him, one of which turned out to be the 10th pick in 2022. No, they then had to give him a four-year extension worth $70 million (with $38 million guaranteed) to keep him around. That's the biggest contract ever given to a safety in terms of average per year, even after adjusting for salary cap inflation. In exchange, the Seahawks have received arguably the worst coverage safety in the league over the past two years—over an 80% deserved catch percentage in each of the last two seasons, per SIS charting, and just nine passes defensed this year. To be fair, the Seahawks know this and have frequently used him as a pass-rusher. That worked in 2020, but in 2021, he had zero sacks and just seven pressures. It's not that Adams had no value whatsoever—he was a very solid run defender, and he was a little unlucky to have zero sacks last season—but that's not at all what the Seahawks thought they were paying for. Using multiple first-round picks on a player should mean you think they are sufficient and necessary to take your team to the next level. Instead, Seattle misses out on a top-10 pick.
Jamal Adams vs. DeSean Jackson is a brutal mismatch with the ball in the air pic.twitter.com/WSgaQY4K8K
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) October 8, 2021
Andrew: A lot went wrong with the Packers special teams this season, and we'll cover the rest of it in more detail shortly. Suffice it to say that Mason Crosby had the worst combined field goal and extra point value in our metrics, and the lowest conversion rate of any kicker to play all 17 games this season.
Of course, Crosby was not the worst kicker in the league. While we love to give a shout-out to the kicker with the best combination of name and performance, Washington's Chris Blewitt, the actual worst-of-the-worst honor goes to forgotten Jets specialist Alex Kessman, who went 0-for-2 on extra points with no field goals in what will likely end up as the only NFL game of his career.
Bryan: It's a repeat! Los Angeles' Ty Long was our winner last season after putting up -37.8 points of punt value, the worst total in the history of DVOA. There was nowhere to go but up from there, and Long did improve … all the way to -15.2, the worst in the league in 2021. Long only managed to put 11 punts inside the 20, the worst for any full-time starter in the league. He only drew five fair catches, too, as a lack of hangtime (and, to be fair, little fear of the Chargers' punt coverage unit) enticed opponents to take their chances on the return. The result was a net of just 37.6 yards per punt, worst in the league. Will Long go for the three-peat in 2021?
Bryan: Once again, I have been instructed to "choose my own 49er," as San Francisco finished last in the league with -9.8 points of kickoff return value. The 49ers had two players in the bottom five of individual kick return value, but we'll pass up Trenton Cannon (-2.9) for JaMycal Hasty and his -4.8. Now, that's only on nine returns; Cannon led the team with 16. But Hasty's nine returns were terrible. None went longer than 28 yards, and he managed to fumble twice on two consecutive kickoffs against the Falcons. He needs to take his time back there, not rush so much…
Hasty is having himself a game pic.twitter.com/VZVT9xL994
— Billy M (@BillyM_91) December 19, 2021
Andrew: While the Miami Dolphins had the worst punt return value in our metrics, the worst individual player was likely Darius Phillips of the Bengals. Not only did Phillips record the shortest average return of any qualifying player, he also had four combined muffs and fumbles in just 25 returns, losing two of them. The Bengals placed Phillips on injured reserve in December, handing punt return duties to Trent Taylor for the postseason, so Phillips won't get the chance to add excitement to next weekend's Super Bowl.
Bryan: Our pick is Scott Fitterer and … you know, I can't do this justice. Scott Spratt, you're our resident Panthers fan; would you care to elaborate?
Scott Spratt: The Panthers traded second-, fourth-, and sixth-rounders for Sam Darnold, then picked up his fifth-year option that will make him close to a $19-million cap hit next season. They did that when they had the No. 8 pick in a draft that everyone agreed was much deeper for top-level quarterback prospects than the 2022 class. And when pretty much everyone agreed that excessive pass pressure on the Jets sabotaged Darnold's development, the Panthers added Cam Erving and Pat Elflein (at less than $10 million guaranteed each) as their "major" upgrades on an offensive line that was 23rd in pass block win rate in 2020, then drafted a cornerback with their No. 8 pick instead of left tackle Rashawn Slater. You'll be surprised to hear that the Panthers had the fourth-worst pass block win rate this season.
Meanwhile, the Panthers traded a third-round pick for cornerback C.J. Henderson during the season, and that will leave the Panthers without their second-, third-, and fourth-round draft picks in a draft when their 5-12 record netted them the sixth pick in every round. Out-foxed by Trent Baalke.
Finally, the Panthers made up-and-coming offensive coordinator Joe Brady the scapegoat for their poor quarterback decisions by telling the media that he didn't establish the run behind an offensive line that was also bottom-10 in adjusted line yards. And that mistreatment led several offensive coordinator candidates to refuse interviews with the Panthers this offseason. They probably realized that Matt Rhule will be fired during the 2022 season, which will be a statement when he still has four-plus years and $35-plus-million left on a seven-year contract that owner David Tepper offered Rhule because he was in a bidding war with an equally bad Giants organization. At least the team's new offensive coordinator and Giants legend Ben McAdoo has head coaching experience. That should make the transition to an interim coach in November seamless.
Bryan: Thanks, Scott. We'll give our honorable mention to Dave Gettleman for the general shambles of the Giants' roster. We want to stress that it's not that Gettleman was a terrible personnel evaluator, just that he didn't evolve as the game did, leading him to make decisions in the draft and free agency that every analytical model or advanced stat theory screams were dead wrong.
Andrew: BOY do we have some doozies for our head coach candidates this year! In a normal season, the ramblings of Joe Judge would have taken some beating. In a normal year, Matt Nagy might even have snatched it. This was not a normal year.
In October, a series of emails emerged from the NFL's investigation into conduct at the Washington Football Team that showed Raiders head coach Jon Gruden using racist, misogynistic, and homophobic language and slurs while communicating with former executive Bruce Allen. Gruden immediately resigned as head coach of the Raiders, a franchise famous for being pioneers of inclusion under the late Al Davis. The team went on to make the playoffs without him. He would be a nailed-on winner in a normal year. This was not a normal year.
This was the year the Jaguars hired Urban Meyer, the single most disastrous head coach hiring since Bobby Petrino. Right from the start, Meyer's tenure was mired in controversy after he hired a strength coach with a background of apparent racist conduct. Meyer went on to bring in Tim Tebow, an aging former quarterback who had been playing baseball for several years, as a tight end. He survived through a public scandal involving a stopover in Ohio and a lap dancer who, media agencies were quick to point out, was not his wife. He appeared not to have a clue who his own players were, and how much playing time they were getting. He got into heated arguments with his own staff, daring them to justify their resumes to him (a staff, we should note, that included Darrell Bevell, a man with an actual Super Bowl ring as a coordinator). He even reportedly assaulted one of his own players on the practice field. All of this for a 2-13 record that ended up 3-14 with the No. 1 overall draft pick for the second straight season.
Bryan: The Giants fired Jason Garrett in November, with the Giants sitting in 27th place in offensive DVOA at -14.4%. They actually got worse after he was fired, but we're still giving Garrett a lot of the blame for the Giants' offensive ineptitude this season. Bad play calling, sloppy execution of that play calling, and no apparent vision or creativity behind the play calling is what buried the Giants' offense. The New York offense featured almost no deep balls, which is basically the only thing Daniel Jones has going for him as a passer at this point. The short passing game was the same dink-and-dunk, stick-and-curl stuff that grew stale in Dallas a decade ago; no new wrinkles, nothing innovative to try to scheme a receiver open. Good playcallers make things easy for their players. We're not saying Garrett was working with a surplus of great players, but he was doing almost nothing to help Jones and the rest of the offense win via scheme or design, leaving it all up to talent. And boy, did that ever not work.
Andrew: Wink Martindale was the early choice for this spot, as the Ravens fired him after posting their worst defensive DVOA since 1996, even with injuries as a mitigating factor. However, our resident Seattle-supporting editor made a very persuasive case for Ken Norton Jr., whom the Seahawks also fired after posting their worst defensive DVOA since ... uh, 2019, but you get the idea. Norton was notorious for playing soft zone defense that gave opposing quarterbacks an easy time of things, and only the Jets had a worse DVOA against short passes. Seattle's best defenders were neutered by Norton's scheme, and the soft zones meant nobody gained more yards on underneath throws to running backs. With a more creative mind, perhaps the Seahawks can finally get some return from the Jamal Adams trade, and get back somewhere close to where they were in their mid-2010s heyday.
Special Teams Coordinator
Andrew: The Packers special teams this season were a disaster so bad, they made the Chargers look competent in comparison. We have already mentioned that they finished No. 32 in field goal and extra point value. They also finished No. 31 in kick return value, No. 30 in punt return value, and No. 24 on kickoffs. The only unit that did not have negative value in the regular season was the punt unit ... so naturally, a blocked punt returned for a touchdown was key to their eventual loss in the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers. Coordinator Maurice Drayton was fired after just one season in the job, with recent Raiders interim head coach Rich Bisaccia arriving as his replacement.
|Scramble's 2021 All-KCW Team|
|QB||Sam Darnold||CAR||DT||Jerry Tillery||LAC||K||Mason Crosby||GB|
|RB||David Johnson||HOU||DT||Dalvin Tomlinson||MIN||P||Ty Long||LAC|
|WR||Henry Ruggs||LV||ER||Bradley Chubb||DEN||KR||Jamycal Hasty||SF|
|WR||Antonio Brown||TB||ER||Steven Means||ATL||PR||Darius Phillips||CIN|
|WR||Laviska Shenault||JAX||LB||Patrick Queen||BAL||Staff|
|TE||Jonnu Smith||NE||LB||Tae Crowder||NYG||GM||Scott Fitterer||CAR|
|LT||Liam Eichengerg||MIA||CB||Jeff Gladney||MIN||HC||Urban Meyer||JAX|
|LG||Jalen Mayfield||ATL||CB||Damon Arnette||LV||OC||Jason Garrett||NYG|
|C||Justin Britt||HOU||CB||Josh Norman||SF||DC||Ken Norton||SEA|
|RG||Hakeem Adeniji||CIN||S||Lonnie Johnson||HOU||ST||Maurice Drayton||GB|
|RT||La'El Collins||DAL||S||Jamal Adams||SEA|
Playoff Fantasy Update
Bryan: It's over.
|2021 Staff Playoff Fantasy Challenge|
|WR||18.4||14.7||25.2||Cooper Kupp||85.4||Tee Higgins||34.9||52.6||18|
|WR||Van Jefferson||14.4||Ja'Marr Chase||56.7||12.2||Odell Beckham||50.33||11.2||1.6||69.3|
|K||26||Evan McPherson||51||17||Matt Gay||33||8||4||6|
The highest fantasy score a player has ever put up in the Super Bowl is 47.9, by James White in Super Bowl LI. Even if both Ja'Marr Chase and Evan McPherson both matched that total, Rivers would only take a 10-point lead, and that's before any of Vince's eight players in the Super Bowl scored any points. Vince went all in on the Rams, with a dash of Cincinnati for spice, and there was no way anyone was beating him with this Super Bowl matchup.
In fact, the leaderboard is mostly frozen. Bryan's not making up a 100-point gap to Rivers with just Van Jefferson on his roster, and both Scott and Dave are locked into sixth and seventh places, respectively. There is a tight battle over fourth, with Andrew's Tee Higgins going up against Aaron's Tyler Higbee in a near-dead heat. It's conceivable, if unlikely, either could make up the 26-point gap between them and Bryan, but at the very least it's a battle for fourth place.
Best of the Rest
Bryan: We're down to four players with a mathematical chance of winning, though our leader is running out some clock here at the end.
Jgov remains in first place with 248.1 points, nearly 30 points clear of the field. He did, however, lose some key players in the conference championships: no Clyde Edwards-Helaire, no Brandon Aiyuk, no Robbie Gould, no 49ers defense. He does have Joe Burrow and Cam Akers, and has likely guaranteed himself a podium finish, but there's still work left to do.
All four of our remaining potential winners are starting Burrow—heck, everyone in the top 11 picked Burrow; he was a requirement for finishing well this year. That means his performance in the Super Bowl is meaningless for the purposes of the title, leaving the ancillary players to decide the crown.
Fizz and Friends is in second place. He has both C.J. Uzomah and the Cincinnati defense, so they'd need to combine to score 28.4 more points than Cam Akers. Uzomah sprained his MCL against the Chiefs, leaving his status for the Super Bowl uncertain—I think it's probably unlikely that he'll suit up, and he'll likely be limited even if he does. If he does play, he has certainly had days this season that are good enough for the Fizz to make a run at this—he has three games with at least three catches, 60 yards and a touchdown, most recently against the Raiders in the wild-card round. That, plus a few bad throws from Stafford, could see Fizz in first place.
StMedard is in third place, with Cam Akers and the Bengals defense remaining. To win, he needs Cincinnati's defense to score at least 30 points, and for Akers to outscore Uzomah by 0.7 points (in order to pass Fizz and Friends). That is a tall ask for the Cincinnati defense; usually, it's the Bengals opponents who put up the high defense scores thanks to a bajillion sacks. A pick-six is only worth eight points, so we're probably talking at least three defensive scores as a bare minimum. It has been done, most recently in a 35-0 win by the 49ers over the Rams in 2009. And in 2017, Matthew Stafford's Lions gave up 28 points to the Saints' defense thanks to a pair of pick-sixes, so even this quarterback has come close in the past. It's a tall ask, however.
Not as tall of an ask as it is for Simon2, mind you. He's in ninth place, but has the unique combination of Burrow, Akers, Uzomah and the Bengals defense. To win, he just needs Uzomah and the Cinci defense to score at least 79 combined points, Akers to score 50.6, and Uzomah to score 49.9. That isn't technically impossible, I suppose, and I'd highly enjoy watching the game which produced those numbers.
Your top five:
- JGov: 248.1 (Joe Burrow and Cam Akers remaining)
- Fizz and Friends: 219.7 (Joe Burrow, C.J. Uzomah and Bengals DEF remaining)
- StMedard: 219 (Joe Burrow, Cam Akers and Bengals DEF remaining)
- Bronco Jeff: 206.4 (Joe Burrow, C.J. Uzomah and Bengals DEF remaining)
- AlecB: 188.8 (Joe Burrow, C.J. Uzomah and Bengals DEF remaining)
Keep Choppin' Wood
In a generally well-played weekend, no single moment of boneheadedness stands out. Even our winner was a desperation play on third-and-13 of a game the 49ers were trailing with a minute and change remaining. It's the tale of Jimmy Garoppolo that he has been both a fine player for San Francisco and also an interception waiting to happen, so it was fitting that his career there ended the way it did.
— NFL (@NFL) January 31, 2022
The 49ers will move on to Trey Lance next season, and Garoppolo will probably get a chance to start somewhere else. It's unlikely that any of that would have changed with the result of this play, or even this game, or even this postseason. So as woodchop moments go, this was a mild one, but it's the best we have from Championship Weekend.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
The Cincinnati Bengals were absolutely shredded in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, with only an ill-advised second-down play call as time expired keeping the Chiefs from scoring every time they had the ball. Rather than continue with a game plan that obviously wasn't working, the Bengals completely revamped their defense on the fly for the second half and held the Chiefs to just a single field goal the rest of the way. Credit for that goes to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, but also to head coach Zac Taylor, who has now led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl since the 1988 postseason.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Rather than Garoppolo pulling off a Houdini act in the final two minutes, what might have changed the outcome for the 49ers would have been some controlled aggression earlier in the game. In the first quarter, the 49ers drove to the Rams 40, where they punted on fourth-and-5. The Rams drove for a touchdown anyway. In the third, the 49ers drove to Rams territory, where they punted on fourth-and-9, and they required a fourth-and-1 stop on their own 43 to avoid giving up points anyway. Then, with 10 minutes remaining, the 49ers took an intentional delay of game on fourth-and-2 from the Rams 45, then punted on fourth-and-7 from midfield. The Rams drove for a field goal anyway. In isolation, each of those decisions is defensible. However in the aggregate, Kyle Shanahan could probably benefit from a little more controlled aggression on the far edge of field goal range.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Challenging spots rarely works out—there has to be a fairly clear and obvious error for them to be overturned, and that's just so rarely the case, especially in the "pile of bodies" situations that generally lead to situations where a coach may wish his team had an extra yard or so to spare. So Sean McVay's challenge on a fourth-down sneak from Matthew Stafford midway through the third quarter was always somewhat questionable—and it was made worse when video replay showed what seemed fairly clear in live action, that the Rams had actually gotten a fairly generous spot initially on one of Stafford's patented "zero leverage" sneaks. Add in a pie-in-the-sky challenge on a potential fumble in the fourth quarter which never had a chance either, and McVay was more than willing to burn multiple time-outs in a close game. While it didn't come back to haunt him this time, we'd advise keeping the challenge flag in his pocket in the Super Bowl.
'Joe Cool is Taken, Find A New One' Fantasy Player of the Week
When Joe Burrow went undrafted in the staff fantasy league, we argued for a bit about whether there was any other logical choice for the Best of the Rest; whether you could make an argument for a Ryan Tannehill or Jalen Hurts or someone. The answer, for the record, is no; Burrow's not only leaps and bounds above any of the other quarterbacks who were available, he's QB4 this postseason behind Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Matthew Stafford and he could catch Allen with a particularly good Super Bowl. Burrow had a pair of touchdowns in the comeback against Kansas City, bringing the Bengals to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1980s. If he can win, he'll be the third passer ever to win both the NCAA and NFL championships, after Joe Namath and Joe Montana. Joe Cool, indeed.
JOE BURROW. TOO COLD.
— NFL (@NFL) January 30, 2022
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
No, again. Don't these teams know we have got awards to hand out? Someone better get blown out this week, I tell you what.
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
This week's comfort in sadness stat is a little different from our usual tack, courtesy of Bryan. We all know for sure that the 49ers are moving on to Trey Lance this offseason, and are therefore likely to trade Jimmy Garoppolo for draft picks. Even before doing that, the 49ers already have nine draft picks, including four in the first three rounds. They received two compensatory picks when the Dolphins hired Mike McDaniel, to add to the picks they have already received for minority hires Robert Saleh and Martin Mayhew. So even without accounting for the existing star power on the roster, the 49ers are already in a strong position ahead of April's draft.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
Both conference championship games more or less ended when the quarterback of the losing team threw a fairly bad interception. That's to be expected, perhaps, from Jimmy Garropolo, especially in a desperate situation, trailing late in the fourth quarter. Patrick Mahomes, on the other hand, had the ball in a tie game—oh, and is the best quarterback in football, in case we forgot. That makes this the more surprising play, and the bigger one in my book.
INTERCEPTED BY VONN BELL.
THE BENGALS CAN WIN IT WITH A FG. #NFLPlayoffs
— NFL (@NFL) January 30, 2022
Vonn Bell has the hands, of course, but I'm not sure he gets enough credit for his positioning; he forces Mahomes to throw a higher arc here to try to squeeze the ball in. And, of course, Jessie Bates plays the post route perfectly, getting over the top and breaking the play up to begin with. No, technically this wasn't the end of the game; the Bengals still had to move a bit to get into field goal range. But this was the moment when it really became clear that yes, the Bengals were going to go to the Super Bowl.
Records to Date:
Bryan: What, you missed last week? We did a whole article about our predictions for the Super Bowl; you should really go check it out! We're both on the Rams (-4); crazier things have happened than the Bengals winning, for sure, but we're both fairly convinced that Los Angeles should be a clear and obvious favorite in this one. Considering our records up to this point, I'd like to be the first to congratulate the Cincinnati Bengals on winning the Super Bowl.