by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Now is the time of year where your Scramble writers recap the first-half session of Loser League and make their picks for the best players for the second-half session. I actually broke a new frontier in Loser League this week.
Tom: For the first time in the history of our time writing this column, I actually calculated the best possible Loser League team.
Tom: In the past, we would have said oh, hey, Geno Smith with 118 points and Matt Cassel with 119 points were the two lowest scorers among eligible quarterbacks. You would be in great shape had you picked those.
Tom: But now I can sit here and tell you that Geno and Cassel would have gotten you 91 points. You could have done better.
Mike: Usually we just pay Jim the Hobo to tabulate those results for us. And we get back something about how Brian Hoyer is spying on us through our nose hairs.
Tom: Jim the Hobo still calculates your individual Loser League team's score. (Actually, that's Steve the tech guy. Jim the Hobo is just sitting out there sipping his forty.)
(On behalf of Football Outsiders, Inc., I would like to apologize for the implications of the previous exchange. Rest assured, we hire only the finest and most well-vetted hobos to run essential site functions such as the Loser League Results. -- Ed.)
Derek Carr had the fifth-lowest score among quarterbacks, but if you had paired him with Geno, you would have had only 90 points. Next up were Geno and Shaun Hill at 95, Geno and Josh McCown at 96, Derek Carr and Eli Manning (!) also at 96, Shaun Hill and Derek Carr at 97, and Carr and Ryan Fitzpatrick also at 97. Yes, Shaun Hill had only one game where he scored anything other than the penalty, but he would have been a fine choice as long as you picked one of the low-scoring non-benched quarterbacks.
Mike: Did anyone actually pick Shaun Hill?
Tom: At least one person did. Jim the Hobo still maintains the list of how many people picked who.
Mike: I'll go get the hobo-poking stick....
Tom: Sam Bradford was already out for the year, and he looked like a fine pick as a mediocre quarterback on a Brian Schottenheimer-coordinated offense.
For second-half Loser League, I think you can go with two options. Two directions, even. You can go with two mediocre quarterbacks who seem likely to put up low scores -- say, Derek Carr and first-half ineligible Blake Bortles.
Alternatively, you could go with a likely low scorer like Carr and pick another quarterback who seems likely not to play much, like Johnny Manziel.
Particularly with quarterbacks, having a likely 15 every week gives you downside protection against your main quarterback having a good game or putting up a bunch of garbage time points. The risk the second half of the season is quarterback change, which could either help or hurt your team.
Mike: And, as we saw with Hill, drawing a ton of penalties isn't even fatal to that player's score
Mike: I actually think that this might be the "safest" year for second-half quarterbacks in recent memory. Mostly because the usual suspects are still kicking the tires on young quarterbacks and generally don't have anything better to fall back on.
Tom: Yup. With players like Carr, Bortles, and Zach Mettenberger, they seem pretty likely to start no matter what happens except for injury. Which, as we discussed, probably does not hurt you that much. Carr and Bortles would be my choices.
Mike: I agree, there.
Mike: On the other hand, running back is a mess.
Tom: Interestingly, it also was the highest-scoring position. The best you could have done at running back was 120 points. Doug Martin was the low man at 83, followed by Chris Ivory, Darren McFadden, and LeSean McCoy at 84.
Martin and Ivory were the mainstays of your low scorers. Those two plus Jonathan Stewart (96 total) gave you 120. Those two and Steven Jackson (94) gave you 122. Martin, Ivory, and McFadden was 123. Add Joique Bell (97) and you got 125.
Is it just too easy to roll with Ivory, McFadden, and pick a third back? Maurice Jones-Drew doesn't look likely to steal many of McFadden's carries, though health is still a risk with him. I would say Martin's too much of a usage risk in addition to his current injury issue. For the third back, I'd suggest Bishop Sankey. He seems to have taken on a permanent role in the Titans backfield, but the Titans aren't blocking well and he's not getting yards on his own. If Shonn Greene is healthy, he could approach the ideal 9-30 number instead of the 16-56 and 18-51. He may hurt you some with receiving numbers (part of what makes Ivory such a great choice), but that hasn't been a weekly thing.
Mike: My frustration with singling out surefire losers this year is that coaches have spent a ton of effort balancing out their backfield committees.
Tom: No question, that's a huge issue.
Mike: Which means a lot of the teams that we would run to for bottom-feeders have big red flags for penalties.
Tom: Do not select a St. Louis back.
Mike: Which might not be as huge an issue this year, given the comparatively high production of loser backs this year. As the third, might I suggest Joique Bell?
Tom: Are you on board with the Ivory + McFadden + pick a third back strategy?
Tom: My worry is the Lions offense will improve a lot with the return of Calvin Johnson, plus Bell is the goal-line back.
Mike: I think it will get better, but by then Bush will be back. And an improved passing game will largely benefit him, while Bell will continue to be a terrible situational back getting steady carries that are constantly stuffed.
Tom: If you say so.
Mike: I do say so. And Jim will back me up. Whenever I find him.
- Jerricho Cotchery, 49 points
- Keenan Allen, 50 points
- Andre Johnson, 54 points
- Miles Austin, 58 points
- Rueben Randle and Doug Baldwin, 59 points.
Cotchery and Allen were part of all the best teams. Them and Jarvis Landry (66 total), 61 points. Robert Woods (65), 62 points. Andre Johnson, 64 points. 66 points with each of Riley Cooper (62), Cordarrelle Patterson (65), Jason Avant (67), Cecil Shorts (73), and Kendall Wright (87).
Mike: As an aside, it is strange looking over the list and seeing Johnson and McCoy. I know every half-season there are a few prominent names among the leaders and we shrug them off, but it doesn't make it any less weird.
Tom: By this point, I'm so used to seeing those names up there that I just shrug it off. The only names that register at all to me are the ones you keep seeing up there, like Frank Gore. I swear he's been up there for at least half of the season every year we've done this while still being A) a good NFL back and B) a viable fantasy option. That may or may not have been why I drafted Carlos Hyde this year.
Another pointer for picking wide receivers is to highlight the passing games that are represented by multiple players. Cotchery and Avant being part of a strong triple says a lot about Carolina's passing game. Ditto Patterson and Jarius Wright. I really liked Teddy Bridgewater, but he's completing a lot of short passes. Then again, neither Carolina nor Minnesota has had their bye yet, which makes those not great players to pick.
Mike: As much as I would love to disagree with you, Randle and Austin are pretty amazing loser league pickups. I'm less sold on Cooper.
Tom: I'd love to take a player like Jeremy Kerley, but I see volume as the biggest risk with receivers, so I'm completely avoiding players who have not had their bye.
Mike: I'm going to actually go with Cordarrelle Patterson. Your bye-related concerns are noted, but Patterson has thus far been the really dynamic player that gets a lot of attention and constantly pratfalls. There's too much upside for Loser League glory there.
Tom: My biggest issue with Patterson is that he's a deep threat. That's too big a risk of 3, 4, 5, even 10 or more points on a single play if he and Bridgewater get their deep ball issues sorted out. If I were going for a Vikings receiver, I would pick Wright instead.
Mike: I'm mostly looking at the two Chicago games left on Minnesota's schedule and having nightmares of huge games for Wright
Tom: Then why doesn't the same apply to Patterson?
Mike: Because the Bears are atrocious against No. 2 receivers and actually decent against everyone else
Tom: ...wouldn't Greg Jennings be the No. 1, or maybe the No. 2?
Mike: Jennings is the No. 1, yes.
Tom: Patterson would then be the No. 2, wouldn't he? He's getting volume. He got seven targets against Washington this past week.
Mike: Patterson has more targets but Wright has been much more efficient and has been getting targets in the midrange.
Tom: Eh, it's your team.
Mike: Neither of them have been particularly effective, but despite not being the deep threat he's ahead by yardage and by yards per catch, largely because he actually catches the ball when it's thrown to him.
Tom: At kicker, the low scorer was unsurprisingly Josh Scobee. He had 37 points, a massive lead over Bucs kicker Patrick Murray's 49. Robbie Gould and Sebastian Janikowski were right behind Murray with 50 points. The gap between Scobee and Murray is as big as the difference between Murray and 11th-place Josh Brown.
Mike: "Unsurprising" is the understatement of the year.
Tom: You had a number of good choices at kicker, but your best was a surprising one. The best pairing to have was Scobee and Mike Nugent, who was actually tied for 14th. But his three lowest scores actually matched some of Scobee's higher scores. That pairing got you to 21 points. Scobee and Nick Folk (56 total) and Greg Zuerlein (56) got you to 22.
Also with 22: Murray and Gould, Gould and Phil Dawson (67), and Janikowski and Ryan Succop (58 points). Really, there were enough combinations in the 20s that unless you completely screw up or your kicker gets hurt or cut, you can do fine if you do well at other positions.
The big question is, do you take Scobee, even though he hasn't had his bye week yet, or do you go with, say, Janikowski and Murray?
Mike: Honestly, I think you should treat bye weeks the same way you would treat any sort of sequencing. Your ideal pair illustrates that well, including Mike Nugent. Yes, you're taking a hit because of the guaranteed penalty, but you're always running the risk of the kicker's team randomly having drives stop in makeable field goal range on any given week. Scobee has been bad enough to overcome the bye week shenanigans, and Murray fits the latter bill to a tee; Tampa is the worst or close to the worst offense in the league in the deep, back and mid zones.
Tom: You can have your bye week risk. I will take Janikowski and Murray and bet on Oakland and Tampa Bay continuing their offensive ineptitude.
Click here to enter Part II of the 2014 Loser League!
Mike: I suppose my lesson for this week is that the great Ben Roethlisberger we have seen recently is a bit more resilient than in the past. Yes, his performance against the Colts was one for the ages. He also kept his jersey clean the whole game.
Against Baltimore, he was hit, hit hard, hit late, and as I'm sure everyone saw, hit three times on consecutive plays. I can't escape the notion that old Roethlisberger would have started bailing out on plays, running around like a chicken with his head cut off, and forced himself into a bad situation behind the line or an interception on a terrible decision. But even taking this beating, Ben kept his wits. He stayed mobile, but in the same way Tom Brady at his best was mobile, buying a bit more time and keeping his eyes downfield.
Tom: It's funny, because I think we've seen this version of Roethlisberger for brief stretches before. But it has always been for a game or two, then he went back to his old ways. I remember specifically the 2011 game against the Titans, against what looked like a solid pass defense until that game.
Mike: And yes, we have seen flashes like this from Roethlisberger before, but these past two games are like those prior successes, refined to a point we have yet to see from him. I'm heartily encouraged.
Tom: With so many bye weeks, there were fewer lessons to be learned. The answer might be that there may be more contenders than you might think. The best team in the league was dealt a resounding defeat by their rival. San Diego has gone from "maybe best team in the league" to "worst blowout of the season." Seattle struggled at home with Oakland. San Francisco lost to a heretofore lousy Rams team. The Cowboys are on a slide. Pittsburgh was left for dead and has back-to-back quality wins. Baltimore has gone from AFC North favorite to last place. Fine, Arizona won, but like DVOA I'm still skeptical of just how good they are. Indianapolis, I covered in this space a couple weeks ago. Best team in the division by a large margin, still not sure where they are relative to the rest of the AFC.
In other words, this is back to feeling like a normal NFL season after last year's two best teams feeling like the two best teams pretty much all season long. If it lasts, it should be good for postseason entertainment.
Loser League Update
The introductory section featured the best LL players of the half-season. This section covers the top (low) scorers from only Week 9's action.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers has played some fine football this season. Practically none of that was on display against the Dolphins. Only 138 passing yards, no touchdowns, and four turnovers for -2 points.
Running backs: Chris Ivory was part of a trio of backs with 2 points on the way to his tie for second. Matching him were LeGarrette Blount, who was not part of Pittsburgh's offensive bonanza, and Ben Tate, the least valuable rusher of the week who got all of his points through the air.
Wide receivers: Junior Hemingway of the Chiefs had 0 points, while a whole passel of receivers had 1 point each. That passel included: Tavon Austin, Kelvin Benjamin, John Brown, Pierre Garcon, Andre Johnson, James Jones, Jeremy Kerley, Paul Richardson, and Andre Roberts.
The winner of this half-year's Loser League competition is...
Judd Weeks, from Chicago! His team, Middleburg Mediocrity, is true in both name and form. In function, they sucked more than all the other suckers sucked, and he gets a week of gloating before we all gear up for Round 2!
Click here to see all the results from Part I of the 2014 Loser League!
Keep Chopping Wood: Tavon Austin tried hard. He really wanted to return that missed 49ers field goal at the end of the first half on Sunday. If you're going to return a kick, though, Tavon, run forward!
(Mike is heard screaming "RUN FORWARD!" as far out as the suburbs.)
He nearly retreated into his own end zone to elude a tackler, a feat that almost cost his team two points and may well have changed the outcome of the game and avoided the end-game sequence.
Mike Martz Award: Had Austin in fact been safetied as he tried to do, we would not have Greg Roman to kick around. The deep throw on third-and-5 from the Rams 30 was curious, a shot play rather than an attempt to get a conversion, but clumsy defending and a pass interference call gave the 49ers great field position. Three passes followed, then a crucial third-and-goal call from the 1 with nine seconds to play. The call: a quarterback sneak, an extraordinarily curious decision not because Colin Kaepernick fumbled, but because the sneak typically features the quarterback buried at the bottom of a pile that takes, well, more than eight seconds to untangle. The 49ers could easily have been left in limbo, not knowing whether to call timeout or celebrate a likely winning score and could have been ignored by officials frantically trying to sort out what happened, a potentially truly ignominious ending. As it happened, Kaepernick's fumble made the whole thing moot.
Lock of the Week
Tom: Thanks, Sean Payton. Had I known you were going to let Mark Ingram break his carries in a game record again, there's no way I would have picked against you. I even said you could do that. I didn't think you would, and thought Carolina would move the ball enough. They did not.
Mike: I don't even want to think about what happened to my lock.
Tom: I am now 2-6, while you are 1-7 after Broncos-Patriots. We are approaching Russell and Vinny double Fred Edelstein Lock c. 2005 status, if we are not already there.
Mike: This is because the site has forsaken Catholic Match Girl, isn't it? It's not our fault you stopped advertising with us! And likely existing. (No, I'm not checking.)
Tom: As a reminder, lines are courtesy of Pinnacle Sports and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks.
Mike: What I have learned is that I need to stay away from the AFC. Because this power I have to boost teams to victory must be denied to Steelers rivals.
So I will go with what looks like a completely obvious choice based on respective strength of the teams, only this time firmly avoiding Bill Belichick's orbital mind-control lasers. I will also avoid incredulity that the team sitting in last place in the league by any conceivable measure is engaged in a pick 'em, even at home.
Tom: Any conceivable measure other than record, you mean? And they just changed their starting quarterback. To Josh McCown!
Mike: You say that in jest...
Tom: He threw 13 touchdowns and only one interception last year while completing 67 percent of his passes. He's a great player.
Mike: But you just know this is going to blow up in my face, as the Josh McCown resurgence begins.
Tom: ...whew. I just exorcised The Spirit of Lovie Smith.
Mike: Those Exorcism in Thirty Minutes a Day the Ray Wise Way tapes really paid off, Tom!
Anyway, Atlanta isn't great, but is definitely not "worst in the league and trying to find a way to fall through the floor" bad, like Tampa. Atlanta Falcons +0 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tom: That line was so glaring you just had to take it away from me.
Mike: When your picks start imploding as spectacularly as mine, you get to pick first!
Tom: Of course, with our picks, you readers might as well take Josh McCown in your daily fantasy games and cash in on our curse.
I may really regret this, but I'm looking at another Thursday game. The Bengals did beat the Jaguars at home last week, but their previous home games were a tie against the Panthers and a narrow win against the Ravens. They're still a solid home team, but not the team that played really well at home. That fits with their overall profile. The normal advantage of Thursday night games is you're playing against a familiar opponent. But this is the first time the Bengals have faced Mike Pettine's Cleveland Browns. Yes, Cleveland's run game has not been nearly as effective since Alex Mack went out. But this is still a functional team.
Mike: And a high-stakes game it will be! Quoth ESPN stats and information: "Thursday night's game marks the first time the two will play since Dec. 14, 1986, that both Cincinnati and the Browns are over .500 at this point in the season."
Tom: All hail the glory days of the AFC Central. It was not great football, but it was highly competitive, highly acrimonious, non-terrible football.
Mike: At least it had the appropriate number of teams. Unlike another sport's central division.
Tom: To be fair, unless you were in another NFC Central Division market, the Buccaneers were a phantasm generally glimpsed only on NFL Primetime and other teams' highlight reels. By the time they regained respectability in the mid-1990s, the perfection of the AFC Central had been ruined by expansion. I'm not saying there's a causal mechanism there, but I'm not saying there's not either. Anyway...
I know, the Browns are still starting Buster Skrine. I know, A.J. Green is back. I know what Jeremy Hill did, and my fantasy team thanks him for it. I know many Thursday night games have been uncompetitive. But I'm still taking the Browns and the points. Cleveland Browns +6.5 at Cincinnati Bengals.