Scramble for the Ball: There's A Man Down
by Vince Verhei and Ben Riley
On September 7, 2008, at 10:14 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, we all heard The Scream. The agony of a season lost before it even began. The horror of looking at the twisted, mangled body of a once-mighty gladiator. The melancholy (and infinite sadness) of a juggernaut destroyed.
Yes, we are talking about those of you who drafted Tom Brady in the first round of your fantasy draft. Boy, are you all screwed.
Or are you? To answer that question, the Scramble team decided to go back over the last 10 years and assess the fantasy impact of losing a top 12 fantasy quarterback to injury (or, occasionally, benching or prison). Our goal is to get some vague sense of how the backup quarterback, running back, and wide receivers perform fantasy-wise, as well as briefly touch on the impact on the football team itself (Here's a hint: it's not good). Now, a thousand caveats apply: Teams obviously change personnel from year to year, along with offensive schemes, so this analysis is hardly definitive. That said, if you own Randy Moss or Wes Welker -- or if you are thinking about trying to swindle their owners in a trade -- the following comparables may help you get a sense of what sort of points production you can expect in Year One of the White Cassel era.
Minnesota Vikings, 1997 to 1998: You remember the 1998 Vikings. Randall Cunningham lobbing touchdown after touchdown to veteran Cris Carter and rookie Randy Moss, Gary Anderson hitting every kick until the closing minutes of the NFC Championship game, two total losses by a combined six points, the highest-scoring offense of all time until last year's Patriots came along. What you probably don't remember is that Cunningham started the season on the bench and only played because Brad Johnson (238 fantasy points in 1997, 11th in the league) broke his leg in Week 2. Carter's numbers were actually slightly worse in '98 than they had been in '97 (1,011 yards and 12 scores, down from 1,069 and 13), but that was just fine because he also moved from WR1 to WR2. Moss, the new WR1, blew those numbers away with 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns. Jake Reed had 1,138 yards and six touchdowns as the WR2 in 1997, but was only fourth on the team in receiving yards in 1998. At RB1, Robert Smith's numbers were virtually identical in both seasons. In 1997, he notched 1,463 total yards and seven touchdowns; the next year, he added 15 yards and one more touchdown.
Detroit Lions, 1997 to 1998: There was no injury involved in this quarterback switch. After Scott Mitchell (240, 10th) opened the season with two losses, three interceptions and four sacks, he was benched for Charlie Batch (yes, that Charlie Batch). Barry Sanders saw his fantasy points plummet from 320 to 202, but after rushing for 2,053 yards in 1997, they could only go down. Both receivers -- Herman Moore and Jonnie Morton -- saw their numbers decline. Moore went for 1,293 yards and 8 touchdowns in 1997; the next year, only 983 and 5. Morton's yards were barely down (1,057 to 1,028) but his touchdowns sunk from six to two. Overall, the Lions won only five games in 1998, after winning nine in 1997. This scenario is obviously not similar to what the Patriots are currently going through (unless you believe Brady was in danger of being benched), but we're including it here because it shows how a whole team can see their numbers affected by a new quarterback.
New York Jets, 1998 to 1999: In 1998, the Jets went 12-4, but that was only good enough to tie them with San Francisco for the league's fourth-best record behind Minnesota (15-1), Denver, and Atlanta (both 14-2). Still, the outlook was bright for 1999 -- until Vinny Testaverde (307, fourth) tore his Achilles tendon in Week 1, ending his season. For the rest of the year, the Jets would be quarterbacked by the likes of Rick Mirer, Tom Tupa, and Ray Lucas on the way to an 8-8 record. For Curtis Martin, the decline was slight. His yards from scrimmage actually went up from 1,652 to 1,723, but his touchdowns fell from nine to five (what a way to make a living). All told, his fantasy points dropped from 219 to 202. At WR1, Keyshawn Johnson was also down just a hair (1,170 yards and eight touchdowns in 1999; 1,131 and 10, plus 60 yards and a rushing touchdown in 1998). WR2 Wayne "Flashlight" Chrebet saw the biggest drop, (1,083 and eight scores in '98; 631 and 3 in '99), though that's partly because he missed five games himself.
San Francisco 49ers, 1998 to 1999: Of all the teams in this study, this may be the best match for the Patriots, simply because Steve Young (440, first) is one of the few quarterbacks, on the field or in fantasy, who can reasonably be said to be about as good as Brady. Three games into the 1999 season, he suffered what was officially his seventh concussion, leading to his retirement. His spot was taken over by Jeff Garcia and Steve Stenstrom. Compounding things for San Francisco, Garrison Hearst missed all of 1999 after notching 2,105 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns in 1998. As you might expect, the bottom fell out for the Niners; their win total dropped from 12 to four. New running back Charlie Garner was a serviceable replacement for Hearst, collecting 1,764 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns. The wide receivers, though, saw their statistics drop to the bottom of the bay. Jerry Rice had been the eighth wide receiver in football in 1998 with 1,157 yards and nine touchdowns; in 1999, those numbers were 830 and five, and Rice ranked 38th. That's nothing compared to the demise of Terrell Owens. In his third season, Owens broke out with 1,097 yards and a whopping 14 touchdowns, the No. 3 receiver in the NFL. In 1999? Just 754 yards and four scores, the 47th wideout in the league. That season, clearly, was the anomaly, not the norm.
St. Louis Rams, 1998 to 1999: "We will rally around Kurt Warner, and we will play good football." Those were the words of Rams coach Dick Vermeil after Trent Green (277, seventh) tore his MCL in the 1999 preseason, and they bore Lombardi fruit as the Rams went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl. This came after a complete offseason overhaul following the team's four-win 1998 campaign. At running back, the quartet of June Henley, Greg Hill, Robert Holcombe, and Amp Lee was broken up, the individuals sent out of town or to the bench. The starting wideouts were also demoted, with Ricky Proehl taking a seat and Eddie Kennison being shipped to New Orleans. (Kennison's stat line for that year reads like a Loser League Hall of Fame entry: 17 catches for 231 yards and just one touchdown in 13 starts.) And the top two quarterbacks, Tony Banks and Steve Bono, were both given their walking papers. The dearly needed replacements for these men came from all sorts of sources. Via trade, Marshall Faulk came over from the Colts, delivering 1,381 yards on the ground, 1,048 through the air and a dozen touchdowns. Via the draft came Torry Holt, who finished his rookie campaign with 788 yards and six scores. Via the trainer's room came Isaac Bruce, who had missed 11 games in 1998 (and still managed to top Kennison in catches and yards). He played every game in 1999 and finished with 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns, the No. 6 wideout in all of football. Finally, via free agency came new passer came Green, fresh off a 3,441-yard, 23-touchdown campaign for Washington. When Green blew out his knee, the team found a fifth source for talent: their own bench, where Warner had languished behind Banks and Bono. The rest is history. While Warner won the MVP, the upgrades at virtually every skill position can not be ignored.
New England Patriots, 2000 to 2001: We all know the legend by now. Drew Bledsoe (307, 7th) goes down, Brady comes in, Patriots win the Super Bowl, and Bridget Moniyhan eventually learns the miracles of Similak. Unsurprisingly, the numbers for WR1 Troy Brown improved with Brady under center, as Brown jumped from 944 to 1199 receiving yards and made the Pro Bowl. The performance of the WR2 is a little harder to assess: Terry Glenn totaled 963 yards and six touchdowns in 2001, but was injured in 2002 and replaced by David Patten, who ended the year with 749 yards and four touchdowns. As for the running game, the Patriots gave fewer touches to pseudo-scatback Kevin Faulk -- who had 570 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground, 465 and one in the air in 2001 -- to kinda-sorta-powerback Antowain Smith, who ran for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught for another 197 yards and one touchdown in 2002. So provided Matt Cassel plays as well as Tom Brady did when he replaced Bledsoe, the Patriots and Patriots-player fantasy owners should be fine.
(By the way, that noise you heard in the distance was Bill Simmons shooting himself.)
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Atlanta Falcons, 2002 to 2003: It is increasingly difficult to remember the time when Michael Vick was considered one of the NFL's elite players. In 2002, only his second year in the league, Vick (325, 3rd) threw for 2,936 yards and 16 touchdowns -- with only eight interceptions -- while running for another 777 yards and eight touchdowns. Just as importantly, he led the Falcons to a 9-6-1 record and a shocking wild card win on the road over the Legend of Brett Favre and His 21 Teammates, before losing to the Eagles in the divisional game. Life was good in the City Too Busy To Notice What The Franchise Quarterback Was Up To In The Offseason. (More on that later.)
On August 16, 2003, however, Vick fractured his fibula in a preseason game against the Ravens, leading Falcons owner Arthur Blank to cradle Vick's limp body while screaming like Sean Penn in Mystic River. And yet, apart from the quarterback position (where Doug Johnson split time with Kurt Kittner before Vick returned in Week 13), the fantasy impact of Vick's injury was mostly negligible. Brian Finneran finished with 838 yards and six touchdowns in 2002, whereas Peerless Price finished with exactly 838 yards in 2003, albeit with three fewer touchdowns. Running back Warrick Dunn did see his production slip from 927 yarsds and seven touchdowns to 672 yards and three scores, but that decline was largely due to the emergence of T.J. Duckett, who rushed for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns and briefly became the single-most hated fantasy-TD vulture without a vehicular nickname.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2003 to 2004: In 2003, one year after leading the Buccaneers to their first and only Super Bowl win, quarterback Brad Johnson (270, 11th) posted a top-12 fantasy performance with 3,811 passing yards and 26 touchdowns (albeit along with 21 interceptions). Despite this, the Bucs finished with a 7-9 record. After a slow start in 2004, head coach Jon Gruden yanked Johnson from the starting lineup and ultimately replaced him with Brian Griese, who finished with a solid 2,632 yards passing and 20 touchdowns (with only 12 interceptions) in 10 games started. Once again, the passing game seemed relatively unaffected by the change in quarterback, as former WR1 Keenan McCardell -- who had 1,174 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2003 -- gave way to rookie phenomenon Michael Clayton, who totaled 1,193 yards, seven touchdowns, and one surprisingly good George Clooney movie with the tagline "The Truth Can Be Adjusted." Unfortunately, Clayton (the wide receiver) forgot that routes could be adjusted too, and he has since disappeared into fantasy obscurity. Meanwhile, Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman dramatically improved his rushing touchdowns (from zero to seven) and accumulated similar yardage totals on the ground (1,348 yards in 2003, 1,317 in 2004).
Cincinnati Bengals, 2003 to 2004: Every year, there are certain quarterbacks who end up posting solid fantasy numbers even though you know, deep down, they just aren't very good. Aaron Brooks was one of those players. And so is Jon Kitna. Back in 2003, Kitna posted a 3,591-yard, 26-touchdown season (with only 15 picks) with the Bungles, ranking him eighth among fantasy quarterbacks with 281 points. Three games into 2004, however, Kitna was (re)introduced to the bench and replaced with apparent franchise quarterback Carson Palmer. As you might expect, Palmer struggled a bit in 2004, starting 13 games and throwing for 2,897 yards with 18 touchdowns -- but also 18 interceptions. And yet, the top Bengals wide receivers hardly noticed the change: Chad Whatever-the-Hell-We're-Supposed-to-Call-Him had 1,355 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2003, and 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns in 2004. The same was true of the WR2: long-since-forgotten Peter Warrick had a career year in 2003 with 819 yards and seven touchdowns, but that production was easily replaced by T.J. Houshmandzadeh the following year (978 yards and four touchdowns.). Perhaps the biggest surprise was Rudi Johnson, who ran for 957 yards and nine touchdowns in 2003 but exploded for 1,454 yards and 12 touchdowns once Palmer took over.
Atlanta Falcons, 2006 to 2007: Who knew that one little rape stand could help improve the Falcons passing game? After Michael Vick (255, 11th) heard the bad newz about serving time as result of his canine-killing hobby, the Falcons turned to Joey Harrington (for 10 games) to lead them through one of the most traumatic seasons any team east of New Orleans has ever endured. Although Harrington is currently unemployed, he managed to revive the career of Roddy White, who posted 1,202 yards receiving and six touchdowns last year, only one year after Michael Jenkins had led the Falcons wide receiving corps with a paltry 436 yards (although, to be fair, Jenkins did have seven touchdowns). This isn't all that surprising given the serious questions related to Vick's decision-making skills prior to his prison sentence. In the running game, Warrick Dunn again dropped about 400 yards in production (from 1,140 yard to 720), although the decline had more to do with age and the emergence of Jerious Norwood than the loss of Vick. One other advantage of finishing 4-12 last year: The Falcons may have found not one but two franchise players in quarterback Matt Ryan and left tackle Sam Baker. Enjoy your DVOA moment while it lasts, Atlanta!
Keep Choppin' Wood
Longtime Scramble readers will recall that the Keep Choppin' Wood award is bestowed on the
head coach who makes the most ignominious mistake that costs his team the game player or coach who does the most to cost his team a chance at winning the game. (An honorary KCW has been awarded to the Scramble writing staff for screwing this up the first time around.) The name goes back to Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, who in his first year decided to place a large tree stump -- complete with axe -- in the Jaguars' locker room to symbolize ... something. For reasons unknown, punter Chris Hanson then tried to swing the axe and ended up slicing off his non-kicking foot and having to go on injured reserve. Much like Fawlty Towers, this story remains as funny today as it did five years ago.
Back to the present. This week, KCW Honorable Mention goes to Mike Holmgren, head coach of the currently imploding Seahawks franchise, who may be wondering already why he didn't retire and buy that coffee shop he wants. Late in the third quarter of the Seahawks-Bills contest, the Bills lined up to kick a field goal to go ahead 23-10. Although the Seahawks were struggling, the defense had just come up with an important stop and provided the Hawks with a little momentum. But as the Bills prepared to kick, neither the Seahawks players nor the coaching staff seemed to notice that the Bills had lined Ryan Denny, a 6-foot-7, 265 pound defensive end, wide to the left. As a result, Denny was ever-so-wide open to receive punter Brian Moorman's pass for the soul-crushing touchdown. Seahawks special teams coach Bruce DeHaven is still believed to be waking up with cold sweats at night, murmuring "hot water burns baby" to himself.
And yet, the first KCW award goes instead to Browns head coach Romeo Crennel. Down 28-7 to the Cowboys with 10 minutes left to play, the Browns faced a fourth-and-3 on the Dallas 17-yard line. You can feel Gregg Easterbrook quivering with anticipation, can't you? And sure enough, Crennel sends in the field goal unit to boot a field goal that still leaves the Browns down by three touchdowns. "I wanted to put some points on the board," Crennel later explained, because "there were 10 minutes left, and if you don't make it, then where do you go?" But the thing is, coach, even if you do make it -- and Dawson did -- then where do you go? Answer: Back to Cleveland with your first loss, and your first KCW trophy.
QB: It seems both cruel and redundant to say this, but the biggest loser among passers this week was Tom Brady. That's what happens when you have two fumbles against only 78 passing yards. Brady's â€“1 would be a huge edge to LL players, if anyone actually had him on their team.
RB: When filling out your LL roster, consider players who are facing good defenses like Baltimore or Tennessee. That's what Chris Perry and Fred Taylor did, and they each scored a 1. Taylor had only 27 yards from scrimmage to Perry's 42, so if you had to pick one guy, it would be him.
WR: Punt returns do not count for LL points, which is why Roscoe Parrish takes the spotlight here. The Bills receiver had only 6 yards receiving.
K: Mike Nugent's injury probably caused him to miss his only field goal try, leaving him with a 0 despite converting a pair of extra points. But hey, at least we got to see Brett Favre score a touchdown on that lob-it-up-and-pray fourth-down play.