Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Rushmore

Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Rushmore
Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Rushmore
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie

Andrew: Let's start this week by bringing back a couple of Scramble favorites. Folks seem to have missed the weekly homage to on-field player brain farts. And watching Jim Mora choose the world's most questionable intentional safety made me want to check out the math as part of resurrecting a weekly spot on coaching brain farts. So at the end of the column this week, we'll bring back both of the weekly awards for those distinctions. However, before we get to those, I want to talk about the Jaguars' kicker, which is always an easy way for us to artificially inflate our page views.

So Jason Myers missed two kicks at the end of regulation (one that didn't count after Chuck Pagano tried to ice him) and then one in overtime, all around 50 yards. The first one was, as Bob Uecker might say, just a bit outside. Why is a guy who was not even good as a college kicker on an NFL roster?

Sterling: Josh Scobee wasn't yet the tire fire he became in Pittsburgh, but Scobee wasn't exactly great either last season (20-for-26, 10-for-15 from beyond 40 yards). So going with a cheaper alternative wasn't the worst idea. As for why they picked Myers... well, that's anyone's best guess. Excluding Myers, there have been five first-year kickers to attempt at least one field goal this season: Kyle Brindza, Zach Hocker, Josh Lambo, Travis Coons, and Andrew Franks. Only Brindza, whom the Bucs cut this week, has converted less than 75 percent of his field goals. Granted, these are still small sample sizes and maybe these other first-year kickers would have fared worse in different locales. Then again, sunny Jacksonville (or indoors at Lucas Oil Stadium) hardly seems like the toughest place to kick.

Andrew: Myers clearly has a cannon for a leg. And three kicks do not condemn the guy, but there's a decent chance that he's another case of how random personnel evaluation can be. Maybe he got lucky at a tryout, maybe he even got lucky to get the tryout, and that overrode all the evidence from a relatively unsuccessful college career at Marist.

Sterling: The kicker is just one of 99 problems the Jags have. We can't say the same for the Patriots, Packers, Cardinals, or Bengals, the four teams that top this season's first "real" DVOA rankings. That looks like the league's current Rushmore -- the gap between fourth-place Cincinnati and fifth-place Atlanta is nearly double the gap between the Bengals and first-place Patriots. Of these four, is there one team that you see as either particularly likely to pull away from the pack or fall back into the herd?

Andrew: I believe in all of those teams except the Cardinals. They have beaten three teams (the Saints, Bears, and 49ers) that right now rank as the three worst in football. Opponent adjustments are starting to matter for our DVOA rankings, but they're still only at 40 percent. I suspect that these wins will continue to diminish in stature. If Palmer stays healthy, they seem like a playoff team, but I do like the Seahawks to eventually win the division now that SuperKam is back. On the positive side, I believe in both Denver and the Falcons as potential candidates to go 13-3 or better, making five candidates with the Patriots, Packers, and Bengals. I know it seems crazy to think the Bengals won't play on wild-card weekend and I suppose I'd still choose the Patriots and Broncos for the byes, but I lean towards believing in the Bengals.

Sterling: Low-Stakes Cincinnati is absolutely a 13-3 team. I generally hate Easy-Bake narratives like that, but if there's any team that doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt against top-tier opponents until they prove themselves, it's the Bengals. Given the injury issues in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, though, I think there's a good shot we see Cincy host a playoff game and finally get over the wild-card hump.

It's interesting that you mention five candidates to go 13-3. We have only seen three teams reach the 13-win threshold since 2012, and no one has exceeded 13 wins since the 2011 Packers went 15-1 and promptly flamed out against High-Stakes Eli and the Giants. I agree with the DVOA and mainstream rankings in thinking that the Patriots are the best team, but I actually see the Falcons as the likeliest team to win 13 or more games.

Andrew: Oh, that's easy pickin's. You may be overthinking that one a bit, although you certainly were right on the money with your prediction last week for Joe Philbin. I think the Patriots and Packers are clearly the most likely teams to get to 13 wins, even though that Falcons schedule sure is awful. It's almost unbelievable when you look at it. Two games against the Panthers (10th in DVOA) and ten games all against the bottom half of the league. But the Patriots and Packers have easy schedules, too. If you really like the Falcons as the likeliest team to win 13, allow me to offer this wager:

You get: (Falcons wins * 2)
I get: (Patriots wins + Packers wins)

Sterling: I guess Atlanta probably needs to win at least 12 games for this to work out in my favor, huh? I think it's a little sketchy banking on a roster with seemingly average talent to reach that level, and while some first-year head coaches start hot and stay that way (Jim Harbaugh), it seems like just as many flame out (Josh McDaniels). I think the defense could struggle against more stable offenses with better offensive lines, as it looks like a unit heavily reliant on run stuffs to create long down-and-distance situations. Atlanta ranks sixth in stuff percentage but is otherwise a bottom-half run defense in every other category we measure (power, second-level, and open-field yards). In theory, an offense that's more efficient on early downs should be able to exploit an otherwise unspectacular defense and stay in a track meet with Matt Ryan and friends.

Except... basically none of the Falcons' regular-season opponents fit that criteria. The Panthers and Titans are the only two opponents that currently rank among the top 10 in adjusted line yards, and neither of those offenses is necessarily built to eat up big chunks of yardage downfield. We really might not see Atlanta's biggest weaknesses exposed until the postseason. For that, I'm willing to take the Falcons side on this bet.

Andrew: For the record, I'm excited for the Falcons' potential to be like the '72 Dolphins. Suppose they actually did go 15-1 or 16-0 versus that terrible schedule. If it was done unimpressively enough, you could see them as a one-point favorite at home against the Packers or Seahawks in the playoffs, and then perhaps an underdog against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. (The 1972 Dolphins were favored by just one point over a not-great Washington team.) That would be awesome. Anyhow, the usual amount, Mortimer?

Sterling: Loser has to teach Bill Belichick a Social Media 101 course.

Advanced Stat O' The Week

Denver Offensive DVOA: -23.8% (ranked 30th)

Since Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, the Broncos have ranked second, then first, and finally third last year in offensive DVOA. They are 4-0 and it is hard to imagine them staying this low in offensive DVOA barring a Brock Osweiler sighting.

Super Huge Mega Lock of the Week

Jaguars (+3) over BUCS

Last week, we got off the schneid with an easy win in the Jets beating the Dolphins. Just as that one was a bet against Miami, this one is a bet against the Buccaneers. The Bucs have lost three games by double-digit margins. Two of those losses are against the Texans and Titans, two teams that are a combined 0-5 in their other games. By DVOA, the Bucs are one of five teams (the 49ers, Texans, Bears, and Dolphins are the others) on their own level well below the rest of the league. After Week 4, the Bucs' DVOA of -36.5% ranks 29th. Jameis Winston is essentially tied with Colin Kaepernick as the worst quarterback in the league so far.

The Jaguars find themselves only on the level of teams immediately above the Bucs, with a DVOA of -15.9% (25th). That's still good enough for us to think the Jaguars should probably not be getting three points against Winston and the Bucs.

Record: 2-2

Cinemax Presents Exotic Propositions

Andy Dalton to Win MVP (+3500)

All right, we can't quite bring ourselves to pull the trigger on this. But it's tempting. The Bengals are ranked second in offensive DVOA, as is their quarterback. And his struggles against pressure look a little different depending on how you classify the plays where pressure is involved.

It's possible that Dalton would have turned the corner last year if his weapons were healthy, making it even more plausible that the currently dominant Dalton -- who leads the NFL at 10.2 yards per attempt -- is the new and improved real Dalton rather than a small-sample mirage. The next two opponents (the Seahawks and Bills) may provide an acid test for whether the real Dalton stood up in the first four weeks of 2015.

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G.O.A.T. of the Week

It looks like we have our frontrunner for waiver wire pickup of the year. With two monster 37- and 32-point performances, Devonta Freeman is somehow your top-scoring running back of the season. We mentioned Freeman in this space last week, and Vince Verhei talked about Freeman earlier this week in conjunction with the league's best triplets. No matter what you think about Freeman's long-term sustainability, especially when Tevin Coleman returns, it's impossible to deny how incredibly impressive he has been through the first month. Since the merger, only 21 times has a running back compiled more fantasy points through his first four games than Freeman has this year. And that was with him compiling just three points in Week 1 while splitting carries with Coleman! It might not even be worth selling high on Freeman at the moment, since he's the most obvious sell-high candidate in years. For now, the Falcons can't possibly relegate Freeman to solely passing back duties as they did at the start of the year, so the second-year pro should settle in with at least solid RB2 value moving forward.

It was a weird week in fantasy, with an inordinate number of top-tier starters laying eggs. That perfect storm of mediocrity and Andy Reid game management helped make Cairo Santos the second-leading scorer in fantasy this week, behind only Freeman. Santos was owned in less than three percent of ESPN leagues before his monster 27-point outing, as he had failed to crack double-digits in Kansas City's first three games. Apologies to those who took DeMarco Murray, Odell Beckham Jr., and Andrew Luck in the first three rounds of their draft, as Santos is now outscoring all of those players on the season.

Goat of the Week

You know it's been a weird year in fantasy for quarterbacks when Andy Dalton is drawing legitimate discussion as a top-five option moving forward. Congrats to those who splurged on Aaron Rodgers, snatched up Dalton or Carson Palmer off the waiver wire, or placed your faith in Judge Richard Berman. For those currently hanging on to an early-season disappointment, here's a quick gauge of the panic level you should be feeling about their outlooks for the rest of the season:

Andrew Luck

The MVP frontrunner to start the season, Luck is probably the most disappointing fantasy quarterback thus far, even setting aside his ongoing injury woes. Of course, those shoulder issues likely played a part in keeping Luck below the 20-point mark in each of the Colts' first three games of the season. Luck only had one such three-game streak last year, and that came at the end of the regular season when he didn't even finish two of Indianapolis' final three games. It's definitely concerning that the previously indestructible Luck finally cracked after three-plus years of hits, but while he might not take the fantasy QB MVP belt away from Rodgers, Luck should still definitely remain a viable starter.

Panic Level: Remember the 2013 wild-card game against the Chiefs?

Drew Brees

Brees might raise a little more concern on the health meter if only because of his age, but his arm certainly didn't appear too weak against Dallas last week. Yes, the Cowboys are a below-average defense, ranking 20th in pass defense DVOA, but like all South division teams this year, New Orleans benefits from an absurdly easy slate. The Saints only have three games against teams which currently rank in the top half of the league against the pass -- this week at Philadelphia, Week 9 vs. Tennessee and Week 13 vs. Carolina -- so whether or not Brees is actually on the cusp of tumbling over the hill, a meager set of opponents should keep him entrenched as a standard league starter the rest of the year.

Panic Level: You're lost on Bourbon Street late at night, but realize you still have your phone and wallet.

Peyton Manning

Manning is on a whole different level in terms of health concerns, and while his diminished physical tools are worrisome, it's the hits that might eventually cause him to cave in. Manning, who has never taken more than 29 sacks in a season, and has been sacked more than 20 times just once in his past seven season, is on pace to take 40 sacks this year. Sacks obviously aren't the optimal way to measure pressure, but it's also clear that Manning is taking an inordinate number of hits this year. Manning owners usually never need a backup apart from his bye week, but it might be wise to invest in a hefty insurance policy this season.

Panic Level: Like Peyton, you can't feel your fingers. Except you're stranded in the middle of the Arctic.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: This week was a Loser League landmine at quarterback, and the best choice, Ryan Mallett, wasn't even an eligible selection on this week's ballot. Excluding Mallett's five-point showing, the leader at this position was Joe Flacco, the only other quarterback to end up in single digits with nine points on Thursday night. This is the second time Flacco has been the Loser League leader for a week, as his one-point effort against Denver was the best score of Week 1.

Running Back: C.J. Anderson continued his campaign as a worthy weekly must-start in the Loser League with six points against Minnesota, but two other real-life fantasy starters took the mantle from Anderson this week. Derek Newton's forced fumble was enough to knock Arian Foster into the basement with just one point, while Carlos Hyde has floundered for three consecutive weeks in San Francisco's anemic offense. Both just reached the eight-carry minimum to qualify, though Washington's Matt Jones could have tied Foster with one point if he had received one more rushing attempt.

Wide Receiver: Four receivers posted goose eggs this week: Marlon Brown, Corey Brown, Roddy White, and Phillip Dorsett. There still has yet to be a repeat goose egg performance from a single wide receiver this year, giving us 24 unique receivers who have achieved the hallowed feat. However, Marlon Brown is quickly emerging as the MVP of this position: After failing to qualify in Week 1, Brown has since posted point totals of 2, 1, and 0.

Kicker: Glory, thy name is Kyle Brindza. Brindza was on pace to post a Bizarro 1984 Dan Marino type of season, as his minus-4 point total on Sunday brought him to two points on the season and minus-12 over his past two weeks. Alas, Tampa Bay cut ties with him this week, forcing Loser League players to scramble to lesser gods like Jason Myers and Blair Walsh for salvation.

You can see the full Week 4 results and season standings here.

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Keep Chopping Wood Award

Sterling: If only we had brought this back in time to celebrate Brandon Marshall's tomfoolery. Instead, we'll have to settle for Tramon Williams doing the Browns-iest thing possible and jumping offsides to negate Josh Lambo's would-be missed field goal at the end of regulation. Lambo managed to avoid the lede of this piece by nailing his second chance, while Williams' gaffe, which would incite years of incredulity in most cities, probably drew a bunch of shoulder shrugs in Cleveland on Sunday. At least Williams is adapting well to his first season as a Brown.

John Fox Award

Andrew: Trying to emulate Bill Belichick, former NFL coach Jim Mora Jr. managed to cut his team's chances of winning in half or perhaps more with an intentional safety that defied all logic. UCLA trailed 29-23 against Arizona State with 4:16 left, facing fourth-and-six from its own 5-yard line. Undoubtedly thinking he was being innovative, Mora called for the safety to put the Bruins down eight.

I'm going to make some assumptions and ignore some things (e.g., Arizona State scoring after a UCLA touchdown) here to simplify the math, but the general conclusion remains the same no matter how you calculate things.

Let's assume that with the safety, UCLA had a 20 percent chance of stopping Arizona State after the free kick and then scoring a touchdown at the end. They then need to convert the two-point conversion (assume a success rate of 50 percent), and then win in overtime. They were the higher-ranked team, so let's be charitable and given them a 60 percent chance of winning in overtime. To win with the intentional safety, UCLA needs all three things to happen.

After intentional safety:
Prob(win) = Prob(TD)*Prob(2-point)*Prob(win in OT) = 0.20*0.50*0.60 = 0.06

With an intentional safety, UCLA's chances of winning are six percent.

With just a regular punt, the roughly 20 yards of lost field position compared to the safety might reduce the chances of scoring a touchdown by a quarter, so let's say that UCLA had a 15 percent chance of stopping Arizona State and scoring a touchdown following a punt from its own end zone.

(After a punt, Arizona State could have maybe tried a long field goal without a first down. But they could also miss that kick. It really doesn't change much.)

After punt:
Prob(win) = Prob(TD) = 0.15

Mora likely felt intuitively that UCLA would still be down only one score, but the safety left UCLA needing three things to fall their way rather than one. Some people defended Mora's decision, invoking Bill Belichick's intentional safety against the Broncos in 2003. But situational football means responding to the actual situation. The Patriots were down one on their own 1-yard line. UCLA was down six on their own 5. That situation did not call for UCLA voluntarily giving up two points.


9 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2015, 3:18pm

1 Mora's safety dance

What would've been the UCLA's chances for winning had Mora gone with the serious big-balls decision of going for it on 4th-and-6 from his own 5?

7 Re: Mora's safety dance

In reply to by Gold_Star_for_…

Yes! I thought about this, too. My guess is it's pretty close to the punt. I decided that the punt was probably slightly ahead, but I wouldn't be shocked if the big-balls decision was better. And it certainly wouldn't have been clearly wrong like the safety.

2 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Rushmore

"but if there's any team that doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt against top-tier opponents until they prove themselves, it's the Bengals."

Since 2013, the Bengals have beaten the following teams:

New England
Green Bay
Baltimore (x)
New Orleans

Let's not confuse their playoff results with the fact that they've had some really nice wins in the regular season the last few years.

That 2013 team was really good before they started getting felled with injuries (Atkins going down really hurt), and now that they're healthy again they've really picked it up from there.

3 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Rushmore

As long as you're bringing back old favorites, I wouldn't mind a piece on loser league team names. Getting mentioned on that once (for "The Boy Who Cried Wilf") was one of the highlights of my loser league career. I intentionally don't re-use names even if I like them, though I do see many from years past reappear.

That aside there are always a number of new ones each year that make me laugh.... if you ever do a hall of game I think "EJ Manuel In Space" from a few years back deserves some consideration....

5 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Rushmore

I disagree with your numbers at the end. You mention that the 20yards difference reduces the TD probability from 0.2 to 0.15. That is not big enough in my opinion.
Because you have to account for that they need to stop the Offense without them making a field goal. And stopping them is A LOT more difficult when they have 15 yards less to the field goal. Because the field goal is a killer.
Diclaimer: I also dont like the decision. But I think the difference is not as big.

6 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Rushmore

Being a fan of a bad Tampa team is depressing. Being a fan of a Tampa team that is so bad somebody considers them losing to the Jaguars to be the lock of the week flings me into a pit of existential despair so deep even Kierkegaard pities me.

8 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Rushmore

In fairness, the lines are just so good these days that man is it hard to find a clear bet. I don't love the idea of taking Bortles and the Jags getting only three on the road. I would not say that I feel awesome about this one.

Interesting two-team teaser: Atlanta down to -1.5 and Tennessee up to 8, but the Bills are capable of anything. I might actually throw Detroit (up to 8.5) in the teaser with Atlanta.