Scramble for the Ball: Midseason Check Up

Scramble for the Ball: Midseason Check Up
Scramble for the Ball: Midseason Check Up
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy & Sterling Xie

Sterling: It's awards time! No, not the public shaming type of awards, though rest assured that we'll be doing that as usual. Instead, we're doing our midseason check-up ESPYs style, handing out both logical real-life honors and dubious arbitrarily created ones. I'll get the ball rolling with my current list:

MVP: Tom Brady
Best Non-QB: Devonta Freeman (Offense), Josh Norman (Defense)
ROY: Todd Gurley (Offense), Leonard Williams (Defense)
Coach: Chuck Pagano -- just kidding, Mike Zimmer
Best Unit: Rams' D-Line
Surprise Who'll Last: Oakland Raiders
Disappointment Who'll Last: Indianapolis Colts
Hardest to Read: Seattle Seahawks (team category), Russell Wilson (player category)
Positive Regression Alert: New Orleans Saints
Negative Regression Alert: Arizona Cardinals

Andrew: Wow, that was efficient. I'll be similarly efficient.

MVP: Tom Brady
Best Non-QB: Andrew Whitworth (Offense), Josh Norman (Defense)
ROY: Todd Gurley (Offense), Marcus Peters (Defense)
Bizarro Coach: Puppy Pagano
Coach: Riverboat Ron
Best Unit: Bengals' O-Line
Surprise Who'll Last: New York Jets (Ryan Fitzpatrick's beard says he doesn't need left thumb ligaments)
Hardest to Read: Seattle Seahawks (team category), Peyton Manning (player category)
Positive Regression Alert: Baltimore Ravens
Negative Regression Alert: Atlanta Falcons

Now let's explain why you're wrong on all those cases where we disagree. Whitworth gets the nod for best offensive non-QB because the Bengals' line (sixth in adjusted line yards and second in adjusted sack rate) has driven the Bengals' success, and we all know it doesn't matter whether you play Todd Gurley or Todd Gack at running back. Riverboat Ron lived up to his nickname against the Colts to stay undefeated with Michael Oher at left tackle and Butterfingers Ginn his top wideout. Fireman Ed came back for the Jets this year. Peyton Manning's floor was evident for six weeks; his ceiling showed up on Sunday. The Ravens and Falcons each have records very different from their average rankings in DVOA.

Sterling: "The Return of Fireman Ed" absolutely needs to be the title for the 2015 Jets' NFL Yearbook documentary. My best non-QB choice of Devonta Freeman was definitely fantasy-influenced: As a bitter A.J. Green fantasy owner, I'm still upset that a once-in-a-blue-moon Whitworth holding penalty wiped out a 72-yard touchdown. But I can get behind your disagreements at Coach of the Year, Surprise Who'll Last, Hardest Player to Read and Positive Regression Alert. I think we're splitting hairs in those categories.

I want to take issue with the DROY and Negative Regression Alert categories. I also thought about picking a cornerback, but why Marcus Peters over Ronald Darby? Yes, Peters was pressed into a No. 1 CB role with Sean Smith suspended the first three games of the year and currently has three interceptions. However, I've also noticed him getting beaten a fair amount, such as here and here. Darby does have Stephon Gilmore opposite him, but opposing offenses have generally floundered when trying to avoid Gilmore and go after the rookie (i.e., the Colts in Week 1).

As for the Falcons in the Negative Regression Category, Atlanta was already my first choice. However, I don't necessarily see things getting worse for the Falcons, per se, since they play the easiest schedule the rest of the way. Their schedule ranks 26th in DVOA up to this point, so I kind of think Atlanta's second half is going to resemble their first half: ots of cupcake-level opponents and generally inconsistent play that usually ends with the Falcons winning, but occasionally seeing them stub their toe along the way.

Andrew: If the Jets lose out and go 4-12, then "The Return of Fireman Ed" is definitely in play for their yearbook. Quick, you tell me, which of these are NOT actual NFL Films yearbook titles for 2014 teams?

"Silver and Blue Linings Playbook" (Tennessee Titans)
"Cannons Will Fire" (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
"We Believe" (Jacksonville Jaguars)
"12.3 PSI To Glory" (New England Patriots)

Sterling: I so badly want to believe in the Patriots and Titans titles, but those seem like the obvious fake ones. Yearbook is full of way too much cockeyed optimism for such puntastic titles.

Andrew: I swear on Joe Philbin's coaching grave that the Titans title is completely real. In fact, that deserves an award.

Best Title for an NFL Films Yearbook: "Silver and Blue Linings Playbook," the story of the 2014 Tennessee Titans.

Sterling: The Titans deserve an automatic AFC South championship just for that. I'm only half joking.

Andrew: This year, the Titans look like they're heading towards another year with a creative title given their 1-6 start. But with a division that looks even worse than the NFC South last year, they're just one-and-a-half games out of first. Before Zach Mettenberger took over, they were in close to a dead-heat for the best team in the division by DVOA. Aaron Schatz Tweeted this week about how there's almost a 1 percent chance the AFC South winner will be 5-11 or worse. So let's get back to some Razzies, starting with a joint one for the Colts, Texans, Jaguars, and Titans.

Worst Four-Team Division Ever: 2015 AFC South
Worst Strategic Coach: John Fox
Worst Debut for a Head Coach: Jim Tomsula
Worst Career Trajectory: Colin Kaepernick
Biggest Underperformer for a Star Thrower (a.k.a. the BUST award): Andrew Luck
Biggest Underperformer as a Team: Indianapolis Colts
Lamest Scapegoating: Firing of Colts' offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton
Least Successful Offseason Signing: Andre Johnson
Most Overpaid Position Group: Buffalo defensive line

The Bills rank just 29th in adjusted sack rate despite having football's most expensive defensive line, including four of the five highest-paid players on the team. In September, the Bills gave Marcell Dareus close to Suh dollars (six years, $95 million, with $60 million guaranteed) on a contract that Dareus has almost no chance of outplaying and could be an albatross by the end, if not sooner.

Sterling: It's fitting that those Razzies are basically just throwing rocks at the 49ers and Colts. You could sub out Andre Johnson for least successful offseason signing and replace him with Todd Herremans, Torrey Smith, or Shareece Wright and be perfectly justified in your answer. I think the Eagles' running backs also deserve mention as the most overpaid unit. Overspending on running backs isn't nearly as damaging -- Philly outspends every team apart from Minnesota based on cap percentage, but the Eagles spend only 7.8 percent of their cap on the position, whereas the Bills are spending a whopping 30.7 percent of their cap on the defensive line. However, it's understandable that Buffalo would go all-in on a personnel grouping that still possesses oodles of talent, and might turn things around if Rex Ryan can decide on how he wants to deploy them. On the other hand, overspending on the running game is becoming an infuriating case of opportunity cost. Of the top 10 spenders on the position, only the Panthers and Seahawks actually rank in the top 10 in rushing DVOA. Teams like the Jaguars and Titans are paying the biggest bucks to backups, and ending up with bottom-10 DVOA rushing figures. The Eagles seemed like an offense that could simply plug-and-play runners with the requisite traits for Chip Kelly's system; spending premium dollar on multiple backs doesn't make sense when you're not asking the running back to transcend the system and blocking in front of him.

OK, time to put up or shut up. I'm not gonna lie, I kind of missed our bet last week. I think we should focus in on our choices for "Surprise Who'll Last." You picked the Jets, I picked the Raiders. How about just a straight bet on who ends up with the higher win total? I won't even hold Oakland's head-to-head tiebreaker over you! Is there enough luck in Ryan Fitzpatrick's beard to snap whatever ominous Jets-y mojo seems to be going on this week?

Andrew: Fitzpatrick would definitely win our Best Beard award. Do great beards help heal torn thumb ligaments? I'll take the Jets, but I am gulping hard on the thought that I might be riding on Geno Smith or Colin Kaepernick or Bryce Petty or maybe Richard Todd at this point. There's some potential that we're looking at the equivalent of last year's Cardinals where the defense will keep this team afloat even when the quarterback play falls far below competent. But I believe in Todd Bowles and guys with big beards are supposed to be tough. I'll gamble that Fitzpatrick can play through the pain in his left thumb.

But in our running bet based on an American movie classic, I'm Randolph Duke and you're Mortimer Duke. Randolph bet against Harvard-educated Winthorp, so it seems wrong that I'm not betting against the Harvard-educated Fitzpatrick. One day I am going to get you so interested in Trading Places that you won't be able to resist it one of the 30 times a week it pops up on cable. Anyway, I'm in on you watching Trading Places and the Jets winning more games than the Raiders. The usual amount, Mortimer?

Sterling: I'm not exactly sure what all those names mean, but it sounds like you just rattled off an NCAA tournament bracket quarter.

Advanced Stat O' The Week

Detroit's Defensive DVOA: 14.6% (ranked 30th)

A year after finishing the season third in defensive DVOA in a season where everything that could go right did go right, the Lions now rank third from the bottom. A predictable dropoff in the secondary, no DeAndre Levy, and no Ndamukong Suh adds up to a 180 on defense.

Super Mega Lock of the Week

For the second week in a row, our best bet looked to the untrained eye to be on the ropes. The Vikings and Bears were 9.5 points under the pregame line of 42.5 when they hit the two-minute warning with the Vikings at the Bears' 40-yard line. But true NFL experts knew Stefon Diggs was ready for action. The rookie's touchdown tied the game at 20, setting up Blair Walsh to not only win the game for the Vikings but, more importantly, for us.

This week we're going with a two-team teaser of the Rams (+8.5 in Minnesota) and the Falcons (-1 in San Francisco). We love the Rams' side of this one, as St. Louis has climbed to third in defensive DVOA with its three best performances of the season coming in the last three weeks. The other side of this puts us up against Blaine Gabbert, who's coming in for Colin Kaepernick. We don't generally like wading into uncertain waters with teams changing quarterbacks, but are we sure the 49ers are not tanking at this point?

Record: 4-4

Cinemax Presents Exotic Propositions

What are the chances of this scenario happening? The Broncos go 15-1 riding a defense that continues to be historically good. Peyton Manning isn't his 2013 self, but he looks mostly like his Week 7 self. The Patriots and Bengals each end up around 13-3, with Tom Brady and Andy Dalton each regressing a bit. Most importantly, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders combine with better pass protection to enable Peyton Manning to put up close to the best numbers over the second half of the season. All of that combines to get Manning the MVP on the strength of a good narrative.

If you think Manning is the guy from the first six weeks, we're not going to convince you this scenario has a non-zero chance of happening. But with Peyton Manning at 50/1 to be the MVP, that outcome only needs to have a two percent chance of coming true to make his MVP odds worth taking. We kind of like the bet at this price.

G.O.A.T. of the Week

Hopefully you owned a quarterback or wide receiver from the Giants-Saints game. Drew Brees (44 points) and Eli Manning (38 points) posted the two best fantasy passing days of the season, while four of the top eight scoring wide receivers (Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Marques Colston) for the week also played in that game.

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Moving forward, the values of those receivers are fairly straightforward -- Beckham remains a clear No. 1, but the target distribution in New Orleans makes it hard to trust any of their individual receivers as more than a flex play from week to week. However it'll be interesting to see how many owners place their faith in either Brees or Manning moving forward. Before Sunday's game, the duo had combined to post just two games of over 20 points. Manning has proven higher variance, delivering three lineup-killing single-digit performances, two of which came against the middling Cowboys pass defense. Brees, meanwhile, had scored between 12 and 16 points in five of his first six starts before his career-best performance, largely a byproduct of his dip in touchdown passes. Headed into Sunday's game, Brees' touchdown percentage was just 3.2 percent, a rate which would have been his worst since his second season as a starter in 2003. Sunday's game alone bumped that figure up to 5.0 percent, right around his 5.3 percent career touchdown rate.

Both are probably borderline standard league starters at best, but your preference probably depends on whether you need a dependable average starter or a higher-ceiling/lower-floor variance at quarterback. Manning has at least been predictable, with his two huge performances coming against the teams with the two worst pass defense DVOA figures, the 49ers and Saints. If you can run a tandem and stream Manning against teams like Tampa Bay (this week) and Washington (Week 12), the Giants' quarterback might be the wiser play.

Goat of the Week

Truthfully, no player who somehow survived unscathed this week should qualify as a disappointment. Still, we'll turn the spotlight on Randall Cobb, a player who seemingly secured WR1 status following Jordy Nelson's preseason injury. In ESPN drafts, Cobb was taken in the middle of the third round and eighth among wide receivers. But despite leading Green Bay in targets by a wide margin as the coveted No. 1 receiver in that offense, Cobb has been a huge disappointment, ranking 30th at the position and failing to top four fantasy points since Week 3.

Part of this certainly stems from the increasingly clear malfunctioning of the Packers' passing game, which has seen secondary receivers fail to beat man coverage and punish defenses for doubling Cobb. However, for fantasy implications, the bigger problem has been Cobb's lack of volume in the red zone. Last season, Cobb caught a league-high 10 red zone touchdowns, and only three receivers exceeded his 27 red zone targets (one of whom was his teammate Nelson). Cobb has always been one of the league's more efficient red zone scorers -- his 37 percent scoring rate in 2014 ranked 10th among the 35 players with at least 15 red zone targets.

In 2015, his scoring rate has actually been even better at 44 percent. However, Cobb has seen just nine targets in the juicy scoring area this season, putting him on pace to see just two-thirds of the red zone targets he saw in 2015.

Fantasy owners might be inclined to think that James Jones is siphoning away those targets, but Jones only has five red zone targets (though he has scored on all three of his catches on those plays). There's no reason to believe Cobb's fantasy value won't return, presuming that Green Bay's passing game begins to click over the second half of the season. If you can buy low on restless Cobb owners, now might be a good time to pounce, with three of the Packers' next four games coming against the woeful secondaries of Detroit and Chicago.

Loser League Update

First, a mea culpa: FO readers have been rightfully dissatisfied with this scribe's misunderstanding of the Loser League rules. With the Loser League's second half coming up after Week 9, hopefully the backstretch will be much smoother than it's been so far. Remember, Vince Young once bounced back from a terrible eight-start stretch to begin his career and won Rookie of the Year! Oh wait, bad example...uh, let's just get to the results.

Quarterback: No one really benefits from Aaron Rodgers' career-worst day, but the Packers' quarterback managed to score the fewest amount of Loser League points with 6 total. Ryan Tannehill was the only other quarterback to score in single digits (9 points), though Colin Kaepernick delivered in what might be his final start for San Francisco with 10 points.

Running Back: Mike Davis and Chris Polk are probably players who got reluctantly picked up in 14-team leagues, and both ended up with exactly 1 point on Sunday. Isaiah Crowell continued to establish himself as a strong second-half Loser League choice, garnering just 2 points. Despite his woefully inefficient 3.2 yards per carry and -16.6% DVOA figures (30th out of 34 running backs), Crowell has yet to incur a playing time penalty, managing at least eight carries in every game this season.

Wide Receiver: Four receivers posted goose eggs in Week 8: Stedman Bailey (not eligible to be chosen), Eddie Royal, Mike Wallace, and Bruce Ellington. San Francisco's offense figures to remain Loser League gold with Blaine Gabbert at the helm, as Ellington and Torrey Smith (1 point) should both see the perfect mix of middling volume and heinous inefficiency.

Kicker: Quick correction: If you had Kai Forbath on your team in Week 7, you'll actually get -2 points instead of 15 points, as he went 3-of-4 on extra points without any field goal attempts. Forbath's new score was the lowest of Week 7. The lowest score of Week 8 belongs to Travis Coons, who scored -3 points after missing one of his three extra point attempts. The Cleveland rookie has otherwise been perfect on field goals and extra points this season, but the -5 point deduction for the missed PAT loomed large without any field goal attempts to compensate.

You can see the full Week 8 results and season standings here.

John Fox Award

There has to be a way to change how coaches handle timeouts and make obvious mistakes like the one Mike Tomlin made in letting the clock run with 2:38 left holding all three timeouts in a 13-10 game. Instead of getting the ball back down 16-10 with about 2:25 left and no timeouts, he got the ball back with 1:47 left and one timeout. Those 38 seconds or so that Tomlin gave away made a huge difference. The Steelers ended up with one throw into the end zone from the Bengals 16-yard line as time expired.

Tomlin explained his logic after the game this way: "To me, having the timeout was more significant than the 38 seconds. They're a great situational football team, specifically in the two-minute. We wanted to have the ability to work the middle of the field."

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This fits the textbook definition of a decision-making heuristic. Tomlin and some other coaches intuitively feel that you need a timeout to be able to throw in the middle of the field. They don't get past that intuitive judgment to the point of seeing that it takes way less than 38 seconds to get the ball snapped for another play when the clock is running. Some kind of rough cost-benefit analysis isn't happening when the brain is on intuitive autopilot, as it often is.

Of course, the mistake is compounded by the fact that the Steelers actually would have effectively had a timeout -- the two-minute warning -- to work with if they had done the correct thing. There's no excuse for Tomlin's blunder, but understanding why it happens even with successful coaches might help make some progress in correcting it.

Keep Choppin' Wood

Everyone outside of Indianapolis groaned at Ted Ginn Jr.'s egregious drop in Carolina's Monday night overtime game, which would have given the Panthers the win in extra time. I was half-expecting to see Ginn at the bottom of the wide receiver DYAR rankings in this week's Quick Reads, as the nominal No. 1 receiver caught just two of his 10 targets. Luckily for him, those two catches managed to go for 60 yards, giving Ginn 17.2 yards per catch this season.

Ginn is currently working on one of the great boom-or-bust receiving seasons of the past 20 seasons. Since 1992, the first season for which Pro Football Reference has target data, 83 receivers have averaged at least 17.0 yards per catch with at least 45 receptions (which is what Ginn is on pace for this year). Of those 83 players, only two -- Arizona's Rob Moore in 1996 and Kansas City's Willie Davis in 1993 -- posted lower catch rates than Ginn's mark of 42.6 percent. Ginn is truly an all-or-nothing proposition, and on that one overtime play, Cam Newton could only shake his head and wonder how he came up empty.


5 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2015, 10:03pm

1 John Fox Award?

Is that for bad in-game coaching decisions? LOL Like having one of the greatest QBs of all time take a knee with 30 seconds left to go into OT? And then losing the game?

2 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Midseason Check Up

I'll take issue with the Bills D line as "Most Overpaid Position Group." While it's true that the production from the unit has been low, it's obvious on watching the games that the low production is due almost entirely to coaching decisions. The frequency of 3 and 4 man rushes has been absurd, and we've been watching guys named Williams in pass coverage all year long - normally not a big deal, when it's Aaron or Duke, but no, I'm talking about Kyle and Mario.