Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition

Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition
Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie

Andrew: So I have to say that I'm pretty excited that the undrafted Thomas Rawls (23 carries for 169 yards and a touchdown on Sunday) has burst onto the scene. As far as I can tell, he is the first Rawls ever to play a major sport at the highest level. However, he still has a long way to go to become the most notable Rawls. John Rawls was one of the most notable philosophers/social theorists of the 20th century, and a particularly important non-economist for economists (I'm one). Philosopher Rawls was all about principles of justice and fairness. Nothing is just and fair for an NFL running back, though. Their careers fall off a cliff at the drop of a hat. I argued in Audibles on Sunday that the Seahawks might be better turning over the lead back role to Running Back Rawls right now given that Marshawn Lynch is at an age when we may never see Beast Mode Lynch again. What do you think?

Sterling: Considering we entered the season with many dubbing Lynch the best running back in the league precisely because the Seahawks didn't give him the ball at the end of the Super Bowl, that statement almost feels sacrilegious. But the wear and tear on Lynch is undeniable -- remember, though he didn't miss games in 2014, he played through a back injury that is apparently chronic. Lynch is entering his 10th season, and since the merger, there have only been 18 times where a running back gained 1,000 yards that late in his career. Nearly half of them are from Emmitt Smith, John Riggins, or Walter Payton.

Marshawn isn't going anywhere this season, and it seems likely that he'll experience a revival, then shoot a series of commercials mocking all his doubters next offseason. BUT... Seattle could save $6.5 million against its cap by letting Lynch go next offseason, rather than taking his $11.5 million cap hit. How far away are we from Seahawks fans talking themselves into that statement?

Andrew: I think pretty far. Seahawks fans love him, with good reason. I also think that the Seahawks will go back to Lynch for a while, provided that he's healthy and reasonably effective. But to bring this to another economics idea, it's possible that both the fans and the team will be allowing sunk costs to influence their thinking. The fans have years of emotions invested in Lynch. The team has a $5 million dead money cap hit were they to cut him. After watching the first few weeks, I think Rawls is pretty likely already the better back. That may be wrong. Maybe I just like my slightly crazy preseason prediction looking somewhat less crazy. And maybe Lynch returns to form as he gets healthier. It's just hard for me to see Rawls not being a very effective back. He has been one of the best backs in the league and it's not just about his line. He is second to Chris Ivory in yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information charting, and he sure passes the eye test. In contrast, I can imagine Lynch being ineffective upon his return.

Sterling: As the Dallas Cowboys are finding out, it's a little dangerous to talk about running backs interchangeably like this. Rawls is currently averaging 5.6 yards per attempt on 58 carries, and yes, he has been incredibly impressive. It's also not super uncommon. Since 1960, 70 rookie running backs have essentially done what Rawls has done (5.5 yards per carry or more, at least 50 rushing attempts over first five games). Some of those guys have turned into Jim Brown or Adrian Peterson, others became Kevan Barlow or Tim Biakabutuka. So I don't know that Rawls' hot start means much in a vacuum.

Andrew: I think you're probably undervaluing Rawls' start a bit. Here are the backs as young as Rawls or younger on your list since the merger: Todd Gurley, Rashard Mendenhall, Maurice Jones-Drew, Nathan Wonsley, Ray Rice, Fred Taylor, Clinton Portis, Adrian Peterson. If Rawls is the average of those guys, he is pretty freaking good. Maybe not quite in-his-prime Beast Mode, but a not-insanely-poor man's version of that. In general, I'm certainly on board with valuing running backs lowly. The difference between an effective Rawls and a somewhat diminished Lynch might not even matter much. But that just underscores how even the two-year contract was a mistake. The chance of Lynch being 2012 Adrian Peterson and outperforming that contract are basically zero. And given his age and his mileage, a large dropoff was certainly possible. The key is that undrafted and effective Thomas Rawlses are out there at his position. So the Lynch contract is a poor decision for a very different reason than the Marcell Dareus contract being a poor decision, even though both have basically no upside.

Sterling: To me, this gets into the wisdom of paying for a known quantity with little upside instead of moving on simply because those contracts aren't great values. What Seattle did with Lynch (or what the Vikings have done with Adrian Peterson) isn't necessarily that different from the Bears hanging onto Jay Cutler, simply because the alternative is the Jimmy Clausen Experience. Unless they have a Hall of Famer at quarterback, I don't know if teams can be so picky about value everywhere on the roster. In Seattle's case, overpaying for Lynch may have made sense in the context of their current team. (Dismantling the O-line and letting Jimmy Graham atrophy is another matter.)

Economics adds another layer to the argument about Lynch's value to Seattle, but that's for the offseason. For now, let me ask you this: assuming he returns to health, where does Lynch rank among Seattle's most important players for 2015? And among true blue contenders -- yes, I think the Seahawks still deserve that label -- is any running back more important to his team's championship odds?

Andrew: First, you're killing me by asking me to ignore the economics. In fact, I can't do it. Let's start with the contracts and then get to ranking their roster for 2015. I think Lynch's contract ranked as the worst value on the team even before the season. One thing I found really interesting before the season was looking at Seattle's top guys compared to other teams' top guys. They really have everyone else at either the right price or a discount. You can see Richard Sherman outplaying his deal even at $14 million per season. I think Earl Thomas is a bargain at $10 million, and the same for Kam Chancellor at $7 million. So I think this roster is in better shape than many other observers might think, even beyond 2015.

For 2015, here are the players I put ahead of Lynch in order of importance: Russell Wilson, Sherman, Thomas, Bobby Wagner, Russell Okung, Michael Bennett, Graham, Cliff Avril, Chancellor, Cary Williams, K.J. Wright, and Steven Hauschka. OK, kidding about Hauschka, but I'm serious about the rest. I think losing any of those players would matter significantly more than losing Lynch given what we have seen from Rawls already.

Sterling: Well, if nothing else, I think we have at least done enough to incite the fury of Doug Baldwin. Lynch has never averaged under 4.2 yards per carry in his Seahawks career. If I offer you the under on that, are you biting?

Andrew: With Tyson-like exuberance. You're spotting me his slow start (3.4 yards per carry on 38 carries so far) and he may not be at full strength. This week, when he supposedly will play, he gets the fifth-ranked defense in the Panthers. And who knows how many carries he's going to get going forward. It's not an incredible bet, but I think he's better than even money to go under 4.2 yards per carry. The usual amount?

Sterling: Absolutely. I'm just about that action, boss.

Advanced Stat O' The Week

Average Defensive DVOA of Denver's Opponents in Weeks 1 to 5: 8.3%

The Broncos have the worst offense in football according to DVOA (-26.7%). They look even worse by advanced stats than the standard ones in large part because they are yet to face an above-average defense. Their toughest opponent so far, Oakland, has a defensive DVOA of 3.2% (ranked 18th). If Peyton Manning is going to show signs of life, the schedule stays mostly favorable the next few weeks. Four of the Broncos' next five games come against defenses ranked in the bottom ten of the league.

G.O.A.T. of the Week

We talked about quarterback weirdness last week, so of course Josh McCown and Blake Bortles were two of the top three scorers from in Week 5. It was a huge for quarterbacks in general, with nine signal-callers scoring more than 20 points in ESPN standard leagues. Unfortunately, five of them were owned in less than 50 percent of leagues, with Colin Kaepernick, Philip Rivers, and Tyrod Taylor joining McCown and Bortles.

The bigger story might have been Doug Martin, who was the top-scoring running back with 33 points against Jacksonville. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Martin effectively went on sabbatical after a strong 2012, though fantasy owners probably wish he had also left voluntarily rather than forcing them to squander high draft picks. The artist formerly known as the Muscle Hamster has now rushed for 229 yards and scored three times over the past two weeks. With 405 rushing yards, Martin has almost equaled each of his totals from each of the past two years, as he ran for 456 yards in 2013 and 494 yards in 2014.

It looks like Tampa Bay plans to ride the hot hand, as Martin has steadily eaten up a greater share of the workload each week. After an almost even split to start the season, Martin has earned a roughly two-to-one split over Charles Sims, with Martin receiving 57 touches to Sims' 25 over the past two weeks. The Bucs' supposedly woeful offensive line actually ranks a respectable 17th in adjusted line yards, so if this workload split continues, Martin should be a solid RB2 moving forward, as well as one of the better redemption stories of 2015.

Goat of the Week

It must be pick-on-Seattle week here at Scramble, because we're going to talk about the 6-foot-7 elephant in the room named Jimmy Graham. Owners who spent a high draft pick on Graham are probably stuck with him, given that his trade value is nonexistent at the moment. The more alarming consideration is that Graham might be turning into the exact kind of tight end you can find for nothing on waivers: A touchdown-dependent player who only gets red zone targets.

Watching Seattle this year, it's telling how Russell Wilson's first read almost never seems to be Graham. Graham has still managed to lead his team with six red zone targets, but that's not particularly unique for a tight end. Larry Donnell and Jordan Cameron can claim the same thing. Instead, it's more instructive to look at targets outside of the red zone to see the true degree of Graham's marginalization in 2015. For the sake of this, we're defining our range as the offense's own 1-yard line to the opponent's 30-yard line. The opponent's 21-yard line is still basically the red zone, but an offense's subset of passing plays might reasonably change when you move them 10 yards further from the end zone.

Outside this so-called "scoring zone," Graham has suffered mightily. From 2011 to 2014, when he was the centerpiece of the Saints passing game, Graham garnered 418 total targets outside the scoring zone, an average of 104.5 per year. Graham's total easily topped all tight ends, and ranked 12th among all receivers. This year, Graham has just 20 targets outside the scoring zone, which puts him on pace for only 64 non-scoring zone targets. That's 40 targets lost during his northwest migration.

For reference, Graham's projected target total outside the scoring zone is about equivalent to what Donnell, Jermaine Gresham, and Charles Clay compiled last year. Everyone knew Graham's volume was going down this year, but no one could have anticipated it dropping by almost 40 percent. Maybe Michael Bennett was on to something.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: Nick Foles' disastrous four-pick day at Lambeau was good for 3 Loser League points, but for the second consecutive week, the best choice was actually Ryan Mallett, who was once again off the ballot. Mallett posted a goose egg thanks to a pick and the fact that he just reached the 10-pass minimum before getting pulled, avoiding the dreaded 15-point penalty. However, with Bill O'Brien yo-yoing back to Brian Hoyer, Loser League players will just have to pout along with Mallett as he remains unavailable for selection.

Running Back: Like a politician with endless pockets, we'll keep pushing our message for C.J. Anderson, who posted 3 LL points in the fifth installment of his glorious Loser League campaign. Shout out to "Wither Hutchinson," the only team in the top 15 to include Anderson in their lineup. Serious question: Is 2015 C.J. Anderson a more valuable Loser League player than 2014 C.J. Anderson was in real fantasy? Anyways, the accursed Broncos running back actually finished behind four other backs this week, with Alfred Morris accruing just 1 LL point. Jeremy Hill and Eddie Lacy, in their ongoing quests to infuriate real fantasy owners, also had 2 LL points.

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Wide Receiver: We finally have a repeat goose egg! Marlon Brown, mentioned in this space last week, posted his second goose egg. Who knows where Brown stands in Baltimore's hot mess of a wide receiver depth chart -- as far as I can tell, Andrew is the slot receiver right now -- but over the past four weeks, Brown has accrued exactly four or five targets every game and never topped 29 receiving yards. Brown failed to catch any of his four targets on Sunday, a feat Percy Harvin and Ryan Grant also matched.

Kicker: The ideal Loser League kicker is a strong-legged one whose team unabashedly runs him out for obscenely long field goal attempts. That's exactly what happened this week for Greg Zuerlein (-2), who missed from 50, 53, and 63 yards out on Sunday. Since entering the league in 2012, no one has attempted more 50-plus-yard (26) or 60-plus-yard (three) field goals than Zuerlein, yet the Rams kicker has made just 14 of those attempts, and just one from 60. His 53.8 percent conversion rate from beyond 50 is well below the league's 63.3 percent rate over the past four years, making Zuerlein the perfect combination of inaccuracy and strength for Loser League owners.

You can see the full Week 5 results and season standings here.

Super Mega Lock of the Week

Two-team teaser of Seahawks (-1) and Patriots (-2)

OK, so maybe we should not have locked up Blake Bortles getting only three points last week. As with last week, it's hard to find a super-appealing line, so let's give the previously profitable two-team teaser a try even with the logic of going across the three- and seven-point thresholds less clearly appealing with the new extra point. The Seahawks have underperformed, but they are actually ahead of the Panthers in DVOA because Carolina has faced the second-easiest schedule during their 4-0 start. The Patriots are a dominant 4-0 with the sixth-highest DVOA since 1989, and they might just try to score 1,000 points. I'm more worried about the Patriots side of this one, to be honest, since the Colts may be starting to figure some things out on the offensive line, a la the Patriots of last year.

(Ed. Note: The Colts-Patriots line has actually changed to Colts +10 instead of Colts +8 since this was written, making that bet a little more difficult. But we got our imaginary teaser in at Colts +8 for future imaginary bet-measuring reference!)

Record: 2-3

Cinemax Presents Exotic Propositions

Cowboys (+2.5) in Week 11 over DOLPHINS

If our Mega Locks have been not quite Mega Lock-y, our futures bets have been lights out. Check this out:

Futures Bets Through Week 4
Week Bet Odds at Time Current Odds
1 Broncos to win AFC West Even -1000
2 Todd Bowles for Coach of the Year 1800 800
3 Pass -- --
4 Andy Dalton 3500 1500


10 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2015, 12:18pm

4 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition

John Rawls wrote "A Theory of Justice". It is likely the most important book in English-speaking political philosophy of the second half of the last century, and something I never, never expected to see referenced in an FO column. Lou Rawls long service for the United Negro College Fund is in step with John Rawls point of view.

2 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition

I hated McCarthy's first challenge and posted that in the Audibles comments. I thought it was one of the worst challenges ever. OTOH, I didn't mind the Jones challenge. We all saw how ineffective Green Bay's short yardage game was in last year's NFC Championship against an excellent front seven. Yes, it used up their last challenge but I had very little confidence on their ability to score a TD there. The likely result was handoff to Lacey or Starks on first down for no gain, a second down handoff to FB Kuhn for no gain, an incomplete pass to Cobb or Jones because Rodgers doesn't trust any of his other receivers on third, and FG. Their goal line offense is far too predictable.

10 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition

I not only don't mind the second challenge, I totally support it. To evaluate it, just consider the fact the Packers would not score a TD again in this game. And we would risk that because the Packers would probably score anyway? Nope. Probably scoring is not the same as scoring and the TD was too valuable to risk.

Who, me?

7 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition

Rawls v. Lynch. I think Lynch has more in the tank than people expect, but Rawls has something Lynch never had, speed. Wilson holding the backside on options was much more important to Lynch, and Seattle almost never ran stretch. W/ Rawls you can run stretch consistently and he can both hit the backs side faster and run away from people.

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

9 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition

I was very impressed with Rawls. In his long run it seemed he was going to be sandwiched between a blocked and an unblocked defender downfield but he made a subtle move that bought him a fraction of a second and enabled the gap between the defenders to grow just enough so he could shoot through it for another couple of dozen yards. The announcers said it was only his speed after he broke the line of scrimmage so maybe I'm imagining things, but I'm understandably skeptic of announcers, so I say they simply missed it because of their obligation to be constantly yapping about something.

And did I really see some praise for Cary Williams in the piece? It seemed to me he was on the other end of every single Bengal completion. Really, I don't remember feeling that sorry for a DB in a while.

Who, me?

8 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Beast Mode Edition

Love the veil of ignorance as fairness argument, never was convinced by the leap to maximin. Rawls wrote beautifully which is always is good for philosophers.

I thought Nozick was like a good translator (bringing his interpretation of Locke to the 20th century) but lacked original ideas despite cutting rhetoric- still obviously preferable to pseudo-philosophers like Ayn Rand all the same and like Locke sought to distance himself from his more simple-minded interpreters later I life. The Experience Machine only grows more relevant as technology advances.

It would seem to me that many of the oft-criticized conservative coaches have the veil of ignorance stapled to the heads however and certainly love them some maximin. Maybe we should rename the John Fox award the John Rawls award.