Scramble for the Ball: The Big Smykowski

Scramble for the Ball: The Big Smykowski
Scramble for the Ball: The Big Smykowski
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Bryan: Hello and welcome once again to a brand new season of Scramble for the Ball, Football Outsiders' home for the goofy, inane, and senseless observations that we try to keep isolated from the rest of the site. Please excuse the dust; you may notice that, once again, your faithful Scramble team has regenerated into younger, cheaper writers to help boost the ratings.

Andrew: I'm not totally convinced I'm actually younger than either Andrew Healy or Sterling Xie, you know. I was born in the same year as one of the Doctor's recent previous companions, so like an offensive lineman Pro Bowl selection, I'm probably at least a full season behind the times.

Bryan: I'm probably quite a bit older as well, but never you mind. We've got quite the legacy to live up to, so let's don our brainy specs, overly long scarves, and decorative vegetables and jump right into Week 1, shall we?

Andrew: Ah, NFL Week 1, otherwise known as National Jump to Conclusions Week.

Office Space - Jump To Conclusions Mat by thejumptoconclusionsmat

Bryan: I'm pretty sure Week 1 performances always are significant. That's why Jim Tomsula was able to lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl championship last year: getting off on the right foot with that 20-3 victory over Minnesota in last year's opener really set the tone for their entire season, right?

Andrew: To say nothing of eventual Super Bowl Champion New England's loss to Miami in Week 1 of 2014, or the Giants losing in Washington to start 2011.

Bryan: Yeah, so Week 1 is weird. Of course, we had the idea to write about Jump to Conclusions Week when it looked like Kansas City was going to lose to San Diego, so I suppose you could say we jumped to conclusions about jumping to conclusions?

Andrew: You could say that, but it would make for a seriously short début article. There must be something we can use to heat up our early-season takes. Let's consult the mat.

Ah, square one: offensive lines. That's easy: Seattle's offensive line. Are they really going to be this bad again?

Bryan: The Seahawks have opted to go for the bargain-basement strategy on their offensive line this season. According to Over the Cap, they're spending more than $5 million less than any other team on the position this year. Sometimes, you get what you pay for. In this case, that's a quintet of matadors.

Admittedly, Miami theoretically has one of the stronger defensive lines in the league in Ndamukong Suh, Mario Williams, and Cameron Wake, but so do the Cardinals. And the Rams. And the Panthers. These are lines the Seahawks are going to have to figure out if they're going to be taken seriously as Super Bowl contenders this year. Three sacks, nine QB hits, 3.5 yards per carry, and an injured quarterback aren't going to cut it.

Still, I wouldn't say it's all doom and gloom. Mark Glowinski showed some promise in his second career start, and Justin Britt held up decently at center. Eventually, Germain Ifedi will return and replace J'Marcus Webb in the starting lineup, which almost has to be an improvement. They won't have to face Suh every week, and given some time to gel as a unit, I think the interior line will be OK. Bradley Sowell and Garry Gilliam at tackle, however, feel like they're going to be a problem all year long.

Alright, square two moves us from the movable object to the stoppable force of the defensive line. The Oakland Raiders gave Drew Brees plenty of time to work on Sunday, recording just one sack and one tackle for a loss all game. Are they going to have to get into shootouts every week to keep up?

Andrew: They won't be playing Drew Brees at the Superdome again. That Saints offense is explosive enough even with weeks of film and preparation, and has a bunch of new pieces with very little film. I'd hazard a guess that Oakland won't be trying the show-blitz-and-drop look that allowed a 98-yard touchdown again any time soon, but not every opponent would be happy to go deep in that situation the way the Saints are. This looks like a classic case of the toughest-possible opening day matchup for a defense, particularly the backfield, that hasn't been together very long.

Looking at the rest of their fixtures, the only other established explosive offenses they play outside the division this year are Carolina, Indianapolis, and possibly Jacksonville. None of those is renowned for its top-quality line play. Inside the division, Alex Smith and Trevor Siemian are not Drew Brees, and San Diego's line has been among the worst in the league over the past few years. A one-sack, one-TFL day (plus one grounding penalty) is not encouraging, but they're unlikely to have another day like it all year.

Square three: quarterbacks. Plenty has already been written on the encouraging ones: Jimmy Garoppolo, Trevor Siemian, and Carson Wentz. On the flip side, Case Keenum has to be the first openingday starter (not counting Shaun Hill) benched this season, right?

Bryan: You don't even have to jump to get to that conclusion -- that's more of a Slight Step to the Right to Conclusions. You don't draft a quarterback first overall and plan to have him ride the pine for very long, especially not when Keenum looked so bad on Monday night. The 49ers defense is definitely ahead of their offense when it comes to their rebuild, but Keenum made them look like the '85 Bears out there. He averaged 1.14 adjusted yards per attempt; which isn't very good -- that's the advanced statistical analysis you've come to expect from Football Outsiders right there.

Still, Jeff Fisher claims that Keenum remains the starter for now, and you've already removed Hill from consideration, so we'll have to dig deeper. I would have said Robert Griffin would have been next to be replaced, but now that he's on injured reserve, that's become academic. I'll circle Tyrod Taylor here; Buffalo managed a paltry 160 yards of offense against Baltimore, and the Bills have a former starter in EJ Manuel and a fourth-round rookie in Cardale Jones waiting in the wings.

But no, it'll be Keenum, unless you count Tom Brady's return supplanting Jimmy Garoppolo as a benching. Week 1 brings crazy proclamations, but not that crazy.

One last square for us this week, I think.

Andrew: Ah, which means the end is nigh! For which team though? Whose Week 1 win will look like a total fluke at the end of the year, and whose Week 1 loss will be mostly forgotten by playoff time? I'll say that San Francisco, for the second year running, will look back on Week 1 as easily the high point of their season.

Bryan: You wound me, sir. Just wait until San Francisco's ploy to play all their games at 10 p.m. on Mondays goes through, and then you'll see.

As for losses, I'm pretty sure Arizona can relax. Losing to New England, even at home to a weakened Patriots squad, has happened to plenty of teams before, and will happen to plenty of teams in the future. A home game against Tampa Bay -- another squad who maybe shouldn't be celebrating their Week 1 win too strongly quite yet -- might be just what the doctor ordered.

Andrew: But Tampa Bay is all alone atop the NFC South! Yeah, I'm pretty sure that won't last either. That division's still going to end up with Carolina and New Orleans first and second, not necessarily in that order, opening day home defeats to the Raiders (*Sob*) be damned.

Well that was less controversial than we envisaged. Maybe Loser League can make up for it.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: Speaking of quarterbacks who aren't likely to last the season, Case Keenum did at least lead one category this week. With two interceptions and just 130 yards passing, his score of 3 set the bar in Week 1. It's hard to throw a touchdown when you can't sniff the red zone! Get all the Keenum you can before Jared Goff takes over.

Running Back: One's a former MVP, the other's stuck in a committee. Together, they fight crime put up 3 points. Tennessee was less than concerned with Shaun Hill, so Adrian Peterson found himself running into a brick wall all day, ending up with just 31 yards rushing. Terrance West is a goal-line option for a team that never approached the goal line, leaving him with 32 yards on the ground.

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Wide Receiver: A whopping nine wide receivers hit the three-target threshold and still failed to get 10 yards, ending up with zero points. Josh Huff and Andrew Hawkins did it by not catching any passes, while Albert Wilson, Charles Johnson, Braxton Miller, Dontrelle Inman, John Brown, Devin Funchess, and Dez Bryant simply did nothing after catching the ball. That might well be a record number of goose eggs in one week, so that's a good job all around, everyone.

Kicker: Dan Carpenter is only on the Buffalo Bills to kick field goals and extra points; Jordan Gay is their kickoff specialist. If you're going to have such a specialized job description, you'd better actually make your field goals, but Carpenter hooked a 49-yarder wide right, giving him -1 loser league points on the day.

The Loser League page is now updated for 2016, and you can check out your team's score here.


Keep Choppin' Wood: Your team is trailing by a single point in the fourth quarter, but has possession and is driving across midfield. On third-and-10, with 12 seconds left and no time outs, you are thrown a pass near the sideline which you catch at the other team's 48-yard line. The line to gain is the 44, and the nearest defender is closer to the sideline on the opposition 42. Do you: a) sprint straight out of bounds to stop the clock, potentially allowing time for one more pass attempt on fourth down; b) advance toward the sideline and lunge forward out of bounds in the hope of shortening the field goal attempt; c) cut inside the defender and get tackled inbounds to end the game? If you answered a) or b), your decision is defensible either way. If you answered c), you might be Terrance Williams.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Most of the time, this slot is likely to award the John Fox Award for Conservatism, but this week demands an exception. If unforced two-point conversion attempts are rare in general, two-point conversion attempts inside the two-minute warning when a single point would tie the game are almost unheard-of. Clutch Encounters this week lists all nine such attempts since 1994. Only two such attempts had been made since Herm Edwards' Chiefs failed against San Diego in 2008, and both of those were in meaningless end-of-season games. So when Jack Del Rio had his offense go for two to take the lead in New Orleans, he bucked possibly the most established strategic trend in the NFL. In doing so, he led the Raiders to only their second opening day win since 2002. Just win, baby!

Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: Hue Jackson got the short end of the stick in Oakland, fired after just one 8-8 season that matched the Raiders' post-Super Bowl high-water mark. If he wants to stick around for more than a season in Cleveland, however, he might want to re-think the fake punt that saw 34-year-old punter Andy Lee line up at tight end. The direct-snap jet sweep to Duke Johnson lost six yards on fourth-and-5, and never looked like it had a chance in the world of succeeding, despite Joe Thomas' defense of the play.

"Week 1 is Random" Fantasy Player of the Week: Every week, someone comes out of nowhere to put in an unexpected tremendous performance. Maybe it's a backup forced into the game due to injury. Maybe it's an aging veteran with one glorious throwback day up his sleeve. Maybe it's a coach deciding that the third running back in a three-running-back committee would be the sole ball carrier this week. This is never more the case than in Week 1, when coaches finally tip their hands on just who will be playing a major role this season after showcasing vanilla options all preseason.

With Coby Fleener leaving for New Orleans in free agency, many fans assumed that three-receiver sets would become an even larger part of Indianapolis' offense. However, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski trotted out plenty of two-tight end packages in the red zone on Sunday, leading to Jack Doyle bringing down three catches for 35 yards and two touchdowns, infuriating Dwayne Allen owners everywhere. Doyle had three touchdowns in his entire career up to this point, but maybe he'll get a few more goal-line looks this year; he was in on 39 of Indianapolis' 70 offensive snaps.

Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week

Once again this year, all picks are made without reference to FO's Premium picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Bryan: Arizona -6.5 vs. Tampa Bay. Arizona was my Super Bowl pick, and while their loss to a depleted New England team isn't exactly the way they hoped to start the season, I still think they're going to have more than their fair share of big wins this season. It'll take more than a last-second loss against a Bill Belichick-coached team to get me off the bandwagon quite so soon.

DVOA actually didn't think the Cardinals played too badly in their loss against New England -- they averaged 5.8 yards per play and were successful on 51 percent of their plays. David Johnson looked like the best player on the field, and if it wasn't for a botched snap on a field goal at the end of the game, we'd be talking about the 1-0 Cardinals today. Meanwhile, it feels like Vegas and betters are giving Tampa Bay a bit too much credit after a win over an Atlanta team that hasn't finished over .500 since 2012. Combine an overreaction to the Cardinals' loss and an overreaction to the Buccaneers' win, and I think you have the recipe for a safer pick. I'll take Arizona by a touchdown or more.

Andrew: Detroit -6 vs. Tennessee. I picked Tennessee to earn the first overall pick in the draft. Given that they have both their own first-rounder and Los Angeles', I feel pretty good about their chances one way or the other after Week 1. Mike Mularkey is still Mike Mularkey, which doesn't bode well for Marcus Mariota's chances -- though I should note that DeMarco Murray looks like Cowboys Frontman DeMarco Murray rather than Eagles Reserve Bassist DeMarco Murray. (Not coincidentally, I'm pretty sure the Titans are going to set a record for the number of fullbacks on a single play by the end of the season -- look for three fullbacks and two tackle-eligibles on an opening drive quarterback dive.) Tennessee's defense admittedly didn't look terrible on Sunday, but that was against a 300-year-old third-string quarterback and they still needed Blair Walsh's help to keep the score down.

Detroit is a different kettle of fish: much was (rightly) made of Calvin Johnson's retirement, but the Lions have already had some success with Golden Tate during Johnson's injury layoffs and they've signed some very decent free agent receivers to ensure that Matthew Stafford has options. The offense admittedly won't get to play the Colts' third-string secondary every week, but the defense gets to face the Titans receivers, which is pretty much the offensive equivalent.

Scramble Mailbag

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B.R.: The draft didn't work out so well for me this year, and I'm stuck with Giovani Bernard, Duke Johnson, and Devontae Booker along with Melvin Gordon at RB (standard ESPN 2RB+2WR+1TE+1FLEX format, 12 teams). Have Hopkins & A-Rob at WR, but behind them, Tavon Austin, Travis Benjamin, & Robert Woods.

I know that Benjamin seems like a good flex play with Allen out, so I'm trying to figure out if I need to pick up an RB off waivers... Chris Thompson, Jalen Richard, Travaris Cadet are available... here's the top of the sad list:

J Richard (OAK), C Thompson (WAS), A Janovich (DEN), T Cadet (NO), S Draughn (SF), J Olawale (OAK), D Washington (DET), K Barner (PHI), A Morris (DAL), K Juszczyk (BAL), D Williams (MIA), C West (KC), D Washington (OAK)

Is anyone here is worth grabbing... or do i stick with what I've got?

Andrew: Jalen Richard's production was almost entirely one 75-yard touchdown, on which Jairus Byrd and Ken Crawley took horrible angles and the former tackled the latter out of the play. Richard won't get to play the Saints every week. Dwayne Washington had two carries, and scored on one. Again, that's not happening every week. Giovani Bernard is not going to be playing the outstanding Jets run defense every week either. I'd still have him and Duke Johnson as better options than any of those waiver prospects.

Bryan: Yeah, National Jump to Conclusions Week can take a toll on fantasy rosters, as well, and I wouldn't panic too much after just one week. If you really felt like shaking up your roster, Shaun Draughn got plenty of work on passing downs for the 49ers, and I feel like Blaine Gabbert will be checking down to him early and often this season. That's only really valuable in a PPR league, though; in a standard league, I'd stand pat.

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2 comments, Last at 14 Sep 2016, 8:52pm

1 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Big Smykowski

I think it's quite possible New Orleans is actively bad and Tampa is mediocre, giving the Bucs the opportunity to squeak into 2nd place with a 7-9 record or so. "Hoping for 8-8: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Story".

If they manage to beat Arizona (which I don't vaguely expect), fine, I'll drink some Kool-Aid.

2 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Big Smykowski

I could believe 8-8 and a 2nd place finish for Tampa. I'm not sure I'd call New Orleans actively bad, but Tampa looked very sharp in Week 1.

This could well be the toughest game on their schedule, though-- a cross-country road trip to an Arizona team that is probably a little bit embarrassed after losing Week 1. I dunno, if Week 1 was the "Jameis Winston's taken a step forward!" game, this might be the "...but he still has a ways to go" followup.