by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Welcome to the 155th and final edition of Mike and Tom's Excellent Scramble for the Ball Adventure.
It's The Final
Scramble Countdown TV Tropes Reference
Yes, that is correct. After covering the NFC and AFC East in today's column, we are hanging up our keyboards and turning Scramble for the Ball and the Scramble-at-Footballoutsiders.com email address over to a new crew.
Beginning next week, New and Improved Scramble will be written by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie. If you have been reading FO lately, you will have noticed Sterling's name plenty. He has written a number of stat pieces lately, including this week's analysis of the history of Any Given Sunday. He also wrote the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 (still available!). Andrew has also written a number of pieces on FO this offseason after taking over Any Given Sunday last season. He also was a contributor to FOA 2015, writing the Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers chapters, plus the essay on his creation QBASE, our new collegiate quarterbacks projection system.
Mike: We know it will be difficult to read a Scramble written by not-us. After all, there's never been such a thing, certainly not this or this or whatever this is. For the past however long we've been doing this, Scramble for the Ball has been the premiere source for fantasy commentary by Chicago-based nippophone attorneys! That is completely irreplaceable, largely because we're pretty sure nobody will ever be quite this crazy again.
Tom: That's a market niche that was crying out to be filled. Cried out by a mute in a soundproof room. An imaginary mute in a fake soundproof room, no less.
I'm sure Andrew and Sterling will have their own ideas of how Scramble should read in a new era of the NFL, and as the next generation of fantasy football comes to prominence, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they have to say.
Mike: Indeed. Nevertheless, it has been a long, strange journey, from the king of the walrii to Isaiah Mustafa, neverending prop bets to obscure Final Fantasy references, and in between all the weird research and analysis projects that we foisted on you because, well, nobody else really wanted to hear them! And you were there. Our particular brand of nerdery may have been a drastic transition from the days of wrestling storylines, but here, at the end, it seems we are so similarity:
Tom: At least until you hit the back button on your browser or closed the tab.
Mike: But that's Andrew and Sterling's problem! Meanwhile, we'll ride off into the sunset. And when you extract yourself from that link's rabbit hole (on Thursday), we'll still be here with the AFC and NFC East. Enjoy!
Regularly Scheduled Nonsense
Tom: Before we hand over the reins, Mike and I have eight more teams whose NFL fate we must decree. A brief reminder of what we are up to here: Mike and I are using the over/unders available at Pinnacle Sports to tell NFL teams how many games they should win relative to those over/unders. NFL teams then proceed to win however many games they actually do, generally ignoring us about as much as we are ignoring the numbers at Pinnacle, where those lines are accompanied by odds indicating whether teams are likelier to go over or under. We are once again, and for the last time, engaging in a grand exercise of passing of judgment, not fake gambling with fake money.
DALLAS COWBOYS (9.5)
Mike: I think the two big questions for Dallas are --
Tom: Is the basic question any different than it was last year?
Mike: Well, dammit, now I have to look up what we said last year. I have trouble remembering what we said last week!
Tom: We've already covered it this year, with Pittsburgh and San Diego. Good offense, bad defense, can they do enough to cover and minimize their weakness? Last year's Cowboys were basically the best possible version of one of those teams, with an unexpectedly hugely dominant offensive line and a very talented running back who finally stayed healthy and mostly held up under a tremendous workload.
Mike: Right. My questions are whether Darren McFadden can even be a league-average back after his massive, four-year fall from grace. The second is whether it even matters with this line. I suspect that the answers are both "no."
Tom: He definitely can't run outside zone the same way Murray did. We learned that pretty definitively in Oakland. So they can't play the same run game. But even last year Dallas didn't go full Kubiak and mixed in some gap plays, which McFadden can run more effectively. And McFadden's not the only back. If he's averaging 3.3 yards per carry, he'll see the bench, woo pig sooie be damned.
Mike: That is some college football thing, isn't it?
Tom: Like Jerrah, McFadden spent his college days in Fayetteville, Arkansas
Mike: Oh, in that case he will never see the bench, because if Jerry Jones loves to do anything, it's meddle with his team in self-serving ways. And frequently self-defeating ways.
Tom: Oh, he hasn't been nearly as bad with that lately. They actually did take Zack Martin in the first round last year.
Mike: Barely, if reports are to be believed.
Mike: True, and strictly from a talent perspective I love the Greg Hardy signing. Last year, Dallas was actually decent defending the run. Their biggest issue by far was the complete lack of pressure, to the tune of fourth-worst ASR in the league.
Tom: It looks even better now that he's suspended for only four games. (Hardy did bad things. He deserved to miss time, and he did. We're ignoring for the purpose of discussing the Cowboys' record the broader issued raised by Hardy and player discipline.)
Tom: If he was remotely deserving of his first-round status, he needs to start showing it with the loss of Orlando Scandrick. I go back and forth on Dallas this year. The defense was respectable last year. They can cobble together enough of a running game. Dez Bryant is awesome. They play the NFC South.
Mike: Starting the season with your starting secondary featuring a cornerback too expensive to cut and another who has done absolutely nothing, without much backing them up, is an iffy proposition. Hardy won't provide that much extra pressure.
Tom: I want to hammer them for massive regression after losing a really good back and finishing second in offensive AGL. But the line is only 8.5 after they went 12-4, so regression is the base expectation. Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 has 8.4 wins, so no strong suggestion from our projections.
Mike: But I love their offensive line, and I love, LOVE their schedule. I think 9 wins is quite reasonable. Over.
Tom: NFC South, and I don't love the division. Over to the tune of 9-7 or 10-6.
NEW YORK GIANTS (8.5)
Tom: I liked the Giants more before William Beatty tore his pec in May. I hope the Giants knew what they were doing when they took Ereck Flowers with the ninth overall pick, because I did not see him as a ninth overall pick.
Mike: Did Flowers play any right tackle in college? Because that might be key going forward.
Tom: Four games in 2012. 25 at left tackle in his last two seasons.
Mike: That entire situation is going to be a mess. While the AFC East and NFC South aren't tremendously long straws to draw in general, there is a concentrated amount of pass rush excellence in that group. Buffalo finished tops in ASR last year, with the New York Football Jets and the Panthers also finishing near the top of the heap.
Tom: My initial reaction is that this isn't good news for Eli Manning, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. Of course, when we saw everything fall apart in 2013, the Giants were 31st in offensive DVOA and only managed to go 7-9 because they had a great pass defense.
Mike: Which is a somewhat more iffy proposition, this year.
Tom: The concentration on shorter routes under Ben McAdoo we saw last year will mitigate that somewhat, but I'm having a hard time being too optimistic about this year's Giants offense.
Mike: It doesn't help that Victor Cruz is already injured. The offense might just sneak by despite its woes along the offensive line, and despite its schedule, if it has the use of its exceptional receivers for most of the year. The year hasn't even started yet and that seems questionable.
Tom: I'm sure the pass rush keyed by Jason Pierre-Paul will explode this year! Maybe with some great health (hah!) the secondary can replicate its 2013 performance. I think it has the talent to do so, but they still seem to be searching at safety, the linebackers are anonymous, and we're still waiting for the Next Generation of Edge Rushers. Sure, Steve Spagnuolo is back, but he's not bringing the Four Aces back with him.
Mike: Now that was just in poor taste, even for this column. We'll have to amputate that line.
Tom: It's our last column, Mike. We can try new things, by which I mean sink to the lowest possible depth. I mean, what can he do, take the column away from us?!
Andrew: Well, that was sudden. The most difficult thing about predicting the Giants' performance is the horrible injury record that has plagued them at every unit.
Sterling: Fine, be that way!
(Mike and Tom both went under.)
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (9.5)
Tom: Sam Bradford is my favorite college quarterback of all time. I just want to get that out of the way. Well, let me clarify that: he's definitely my favorite quarterback prospect of all time. ("Best" does not mean "favorite," and no, I didn't watch Peyton Manning nearly as seriously). "Favorite college quarterback" is a harder question, but he's definitely on the short list.
Mike: The Eagles seem to bring out the hyperbole from all of us, as Tim Tebow, the almost-Eagle, is probably my least-favorite quarterback at any level.
Tom: I would have assumed your least favorite quarterback came from some game you officiated, an underclassman slappy who couldn't complete a bubble screen. 42-0 at the end of the first quarter after three pick-sixes does not make for an interesting game.
Mike: Eh, kids is kids. Professionals deserve ire. It is amusing to think back on the "what will superlative genius Chip Kelly find in Tebow that those slovenly fools in other front offices are too stupid to recognize?" pieces that seemingly everyone ran this summer.
Tom: Anyway, Mark Sanchez is the backup, so the Eagles' playoff (and Over) hopes will be depending a lot on Bradford's fragile body.
Mike: Fragile is a massive understatement.
Tom: We try not to make these bit pieces all about a particular quarterback, partly because quarterbacks are heavily covered and partly because repeatedly saying "it all depends on the quarterback" is boring.
Mike: He has lost a season and a half over the past two years due to the same ACL injury.
Tom: Two different ACL injuries!
Mike: Oh, right. He has really crappy ACLs.
Tom: I don't know if that makes it better or even worse! But I do think their season depends so much on him. Bradford, if healthy and operating in a Kelly system, still has tremendous potential, as he showed in the third preseason game.
Mike: On the other hand, it gives Kelly a chance to be a true mad genius and when Bradford moves on to his PCL or whatever, he can have it replaced with a mastodon tendon or something.
Tom: We've gotten only flashes of that Bradford in the NFL as he has been forced to throw 5-yard crossers while running for his life when he has managed to stay on the field.
Mike: My problem with hanging a hat on that is that after four years of those panicked crossers, that is who you become, quarterback-wise. That is why teams were always so hesitant to throw quarterbacks into the fire their rookie seasons.
Tom: Which is why I think Kelly is great for him. He can still throw, and the decision-making is quick and fairly simplified.
Mike: I will say that it's hard to think of an iffy quarterback who has improved his situation so drastically in one offseason, offensive line-wise. That said, Bradford has shown us less than nothing thus far in his NFL career, so it's hard to make any positive assumptions. And, like you said, this season is all about him.
Tom: When we last saw him on the field, he was 14th in DVOA. Granted, that was only a partial season, but it's out there.
I like the rest of the pieces enough to see double-digit wins if they get quality quarterback play. Sure, they overpaid DeMarco Murray, but between him and Ryan Mathews they'll have a good running back for at least 16 games this year. The receivers are kind of guys; Nelson Agholor might be more than that in time, but they're good enough but not transcendent.
Mike: It's out there. His last full season put him 16th in the league, which sounds kind of OK until you realize that 16th in 2012 was -0.8%.
Tom: I'm much more optimistic about him in Philadelphia than I would be about him in St. Louis, with that mess of a line we covered last week. The defense improved to respectable last year and has plenty of pieces I like well enough, notably Fletcher Cox and a re-signed Brandon Graham.
Mike: The addition of Byron Maxwell alone is a huge plus. Billy Davis has suggested that they might just stick Maxwell on the opposing No. 1 receiver, which would provide a huge boost over last year's miserable showing against their opponents' top wideouts.
Tom: Yet I can't think any of that matters if Mark Sanchez is the quarterback.
Mike: Indeed. This season is going to rest heavily on Bradford and a roster that was reconfigured in large part for no reason. And it follows one of the more nasty (it is Philadelphia, after all) power struggles in recent front-office memory. I like nine wins a lot more than I do ten. Under.
Tom: I mean, maybe if the Giants underachieve and Dallas can't strike the fine balance, they could still be respectable. But this is about the quarterback. And, dammit, I'm going to believe until he turns into Jake Delhomme at 33. Over.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (6.5)
Tom: For purposes of what we do, we ignore the money odds accompanying the base over/unders. But I'll simply note here Washington does not actually have the shortest odds of going under. Both Chicago and the Giants are even shorter. So there.
Mike: That is somehow incredibly depressing.
Tom: I'm actually surprised, because I could see the Giants going 9-7 or 10-6 under some of the "Philadelphia wins the division with Sanchez"-like scenarios. Washington is just incredibly depressing once again because I'm not sure what they're going to do well. OK, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, I'll give you starting receivers.
Mike: Wait a minute, you actually can think of a Sanchez-fueled division championship?
Tom: The offensive line is Trent Williams and Four Guys Who Actually Have an NFL Contract, Really.
Tom: I'm envisioning a 2014 NFC South-like "worst case for everybody" scenario. OK, I thought Morgan Moses was ugly but effective at Virginia, and Brandon Scherff shouldn't be terrible even if I didn't think he should have been the fifth pick in the draft. Scot McCloughan, if he's allowed to do his job and stays sober enough, provides some long-term optimism. But, frankly, I'm not sure where the line would have to be for me to be optimistic relative to it for this team's 2015 chances.
Mike: Well, it is largely the same team. Eventually, McCloughan will put together a solid core of young talent for Dan Snyder in 2017 to hack away at and whoever is coach in 2018 to undermine.
Tom: Or at least he would if Dan Snyder didn't fire him after the first half-decent season like he did Marty Schottenheimer.
Mike: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Tom: At least they'll be able to get a quarterback in next year's draft. Under.
Mike: And since this is my last chance in Scramble: Greatest Coach of All Time Marty Schottenheimer for Hall of Fame! Under.
BUFFALO BILLS (8.5)
Tom: Rex Ryan vs. "having an offense and a quarterback," Pt. XLVII.
Mike: To be fair, of all the available coaches, nobody else comes close to Ryan's success with a non-functioning offense.
Tom: At some point, don't we have to start looking at him the same way we've started looking at Lovie Smith?
Mike: Probably. On the other hand, Lovie Smith went to a Super Bowl and Rex Ryan went to two consecutive AFC Championship games, out of the Patriots' own division.
Tom: Also, I'm not sure I understand the move for the Bills. They had a great defense. Their problem was finding a way to eke out just enough offense to make the playoffs despite questionable talent. Rex is not the guy to do that. I know, they're going to rely on Tyrod Taylor to make a few improvisational plays a game and hope they can manage enough with the defense and a partially functional ground game. "Partially functional" is as good as I see the ground game getting. LeSean McCoy had a bad case of Chris Johnson-itis last year, and I don't like the line.
Mike: And then when that experiment collapses, they'll go back to EJ Manuel and we'll be right back where we started. I like the line more this year than last year. (Again, more disclaimers, based on football ability, not on whether we'd want to be in the same state as any particular player.)
Tom: Well, the line is judged in part on "bailing out a marginal starter at quarterback, a shaky ground game, and some receivers I'd like a lot more on a better team."
Mike: I also think you're being a bit unduly pessimistic about McCoy. I'm willing to ascribe a lot of his problems last year to a pretty terrible performance by the Eagles' line.
Tom: OK, he was only sort of Chris Johnson-esque last year. But he does have more than 1,400 career carries, which tells me we've likely seen the best of him.
Mike: I don't disagree with that! And I don't think there is any universe where Buffalo's offense is good.
Tom: Watching last year's Eagles told me a lot of that was McCoy. ALY is an attempt to separate the back and the line, but it's not perfect.
And you're right, the question is whether they can get to mediocre or remain just bad.
Mike: I have a hard time blaming a running back for being hesitant behind bad blocking.
Tom: Last year, this line was only 6.5, so a great defense and bad offense was enough to make both of us look smart. Going 9-7 again (or better!) is a much taller order.
Mike: But yes, the bar here is "functional."
I think that Buffalo has improved its offensive line and running back situations significantly. I think that could minimize quarterback issues to the point where they make the bar. I think the defense will again be outstanding, and that Rex Ryan teams have always played well within their division even when they were borderline dumpster fires.
Tom: Yeah, good luck with that. The defense isn't going to get much better. The offense has room to grow, but won't. Under.
Mike: In the spirit of Ryan, I'm going to kick the door open, throw caution to the wind, and go with the over.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (8.5)
Tom: Miami Dolphins the past six years: 7-9, 7-9, 6-10, 7-9, 8-8, 8-8.
Tom: The defensive line was already talented and has improved with the addition of Ndamukong Suh (no, really), but I'm not a big fan of the rest of the defense. I'm overall bullish on Ryan Tannehill, but statistical production has yet to like him as much as my eyes. The obvious misfit with Mike Wallace on deep passes was aggravating, though Wallace made up for it with red zone value. I mentioned in the Norths column Wallace led all wide receivers in red zone receiving DYAR in 2014.
Mike: Miami was somehow the best offense in the league in the deep zone, but only average in red zone passing.
Tom: Imagine how bad the other receivers were!
Tom: Both are expected to play, as of Monday's reports. Obviously we'll see and they're worth monitoring going forward. But I don't think we need to anticipate disaster quite yet.
Mike: True, the team hasn't scratched them from anything, yet, but it's not a unit with a great history. Albert's ACL injury last year required some costly reshuffling.
Tom: I worry more about that red zone passing offense, since I wasn't nearly as high on DeVante Parker as they were and I don't know who is going to fill that role.
Mike: That's mostly the thing, if the offensive line can stay healthy, the running game is going to produce a lot better than last year's 20th-ranked effort. I think that will help offset the loss of Wallace immensely. The defensive line is excellent and they play in a division without anything resembling a vertical offense, which will hide their suspect secondary a bit. I'm optimistic, regardless of my low expectations for Ryan Tannehill. Over.
Tom: I like the offense. They may struggle with their divisional foes some, but they managed OK last year mostly. As you point out, those divisional foes aren't the ones to challenge the secondary, and the AFC South won't either. Time for a break with recent franchise history. Over.
NEW YORK JETS (7.5)
Tom: See, this is what I wanted the Bills to do. If you're going to bring in another defensive head coach, at least bring in an offensive coordinator who might be able to mastermind his way to a mediocre offense. No, the normally great defense wasn't good last year, but that had an easy and obvious solution: throw some of that massive available cap space at some much better defensive backs. Welcome back, Darrelle Revis. Brandon Marshall had a down year and is on the older side, but he, Eric Decker, and Jeremy Kerley make for a solid set of receivers. As a leading member of the Ryan Fitzpatrick Defenders Club, he gives them a baseline level of competency at quarterback.
Mike: Your Ryan Fitzpatrick thing is still baffling. Is it an Ivy League thing? I know U of Chicago likes to pretend it is one.
Tom: You need to spend more time watching the worst five quarterbacks in the NFL. I've watched enough AFC South to appreciate non-incompetence. Also, Harvard turned me down for law school. I saved them the rejection latter for undergrad. I assure you it's not a school thing. It's a really bad quarterbacking thing.
Every time in the past 11 years the Jets have had a top-20 offense by DVOA, they have won at least 10 games. All three times.
Mike: I actually think the Jets are a better example of our issues separating line play from running back play. I quite like their offensive line, even if it is getting a bit old, but they have the most unimpressive crop of running backs I have ever seen.
Mike: True, perhaps that was a bit hyperbolic. Not by much, though!
Mike: I'm not going to pick on the expansion-era Browns. Especially when the current Browns are so hilariously bad.
Tom: I grant you the Jets' running back corps isn't exciting. But they're not so bad you can't manufacture offense out of them.
Tom: Being a member of the Ryan Fitzpatrick Defenders Club doesn't mean defending his obvious weaknesses like a popgun arm and his decision-making falling apart as he holds the ball longer, likely because he doesn't see the field well.
Mike: So I'm not expecting a particularly great offense, and the defense still needs to show that it has stopped its decline before I'm ready to make a vote of confidence on a defense-first approach. Under.
Tom: I'm a near-annual pessimist about the Jets. Some years, though not last, they prove me wrong. I'm not expecting greatness, this year, far from it, but .500 against a blah schedule is absolutely reasonable. Over.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10.5)
Tom: For the second season in a row, we end the over/under series with the Super Bowl champion. I cleverly manipulated last year's columns so that we talked about Seattle last. This year, all it took was Judge Berman not issuing his decision in time for last week's column and a slight deviation from alphabetical order in the last division we discussed.
Mike: That, incidentally, is the first and last mention of Judge Berman and that entire ball of hyperbolic nonsense you will find in this column. Kindly do not dwell on it in the comments.
Tom: I have no idea how the Patriots are going to play pass defense this year. Last year's team relied on some great man-to-man coverage led by Mr. Revis, now departed for greener (on and off the field) pastures. Bill Belichick is too smart to try the same strategy with this year's squad, because it would not work.
Yet our numbers still have the Patriots as the best team in the AFC, and I can't disagree with them. Part of that is the weakness, or at least the questions, of the other "top" AFC teams. Part of is the schedule. Part of it is Belichick, Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski, the player whose dominance inspired my thought in last week's column about the best player relative to his peers at the position.
Mike: Part of my concern, as it was last year, was that with Tom Brady's very obvious physical limitations, is there going to be some point where the wheels just fall off? They didn't last year, despite a very rough start.
Tom: The Patriots don't throw downfield at all. And Gronkowski was hurt at the start of last year. They have a better two-tight end offense with Scott Chandler, and Brandon LaFell was a disaster at the start of last year. He's on PUP to start this season, but I feel like they have better non-Gronkowski options if he does miss time. I suppose they could go 3-3 in the division and lose at Dallas, Indianapolis, and Denver.
Mike: I think "they don't throw downfield" is a bit hand-waving. They have thrown downfield at roughly a consistent rate over Brady's past 5 years. He has just been far less effective at it. While being far, far more effective in short range due to aforesaid Gronkitude.
Tom: They're a horizontal stretch offense. Collapsing is them getting complacent or Brady's field vision disappearing. The deep shots they do take and succeed on are mostly a result of their success on those shorter plays.
Mike: You cannot be a successful passing offense without occasionally succeeding deep, and that is becoming less and less frequent for the Patriots. It is a problem. Almost certainly not a fatal one, but a problem nonetheless.
Tom: I think that's a bigger postseason question than one about whether this team can win 11 games.
Mike: Beyond that, I agree they are set up better to deal with the loss of Gronkowski if it happens again this year, and that is incredibly important. One thing I wouldn't be surprised to see would be a lot more blitzes, going back to the secondary issues.
Tom: There's some talent in the front, with Jabaal Sheard joining Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, and of course Jamie Collins is incredibly dynamic. Belichick and company will just have to be creative. He/they have shown plenty of times that they can do that, but it's not as robust a strategy as being able to line up and play or be creative. Again, a postseason question more than a regular season one. Over.
Mike: It's a strategy Belichick has had success with in the past, and depending on how quickly Malcom Brown can get up to speed, he has the skills to anchor the middle and provide more opportunities on the outside, an area of serious weakness over the last few seasons.
It's true, these are all rather attenuated question marks. They're issues of unpredictable decline and weaknesses that require top talent to exploit. The regular season isn't a parade of top talent. It's a marathon, but the competition for this year's Patriots is less a cadre of Kenyans and more like the cast of Fame. It's really hard to see anything other than over.
The Big Goodbye
Tom: Finally, thanks to everybody who clicked to read the column and especially to those of you who left a comment. We said a lot of things over the years, some of them strange even to us. We hope you found at least some of them worth your time.
Mike: Be nice to Andrew and Sterling!