Scramble for the Ball: Can't Win for Losing
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, home of the only fantasy league where it's genuinely better to be sucky than good. And if that's not a spoiler for the upcoming column, then nothing is!
Bryan: We have reached an important milestone of the Football Outsiders season: the end of Loser League Part I! We had a close race to the finish, but one team has finally come out on top, showing remarkable consistency in its ineptitude, incompetence and general inability.
Andrew: Yes, congratulations to Jameson Moore of Medford, Massachusetts. Your team, Better to be sucky than good, led all losers in Weeks 1 to 9 with a low score of 329 points, averaging a mere 35-and-a-half points per week.
Bryan: And what a lineup it was!
- Quarterbacks: Jared Goff and Case Keenum
- Running Backs: Chris Ivory, Rashad Jennings, and Matt Jones
- Wide Receivers: Tavon Austin, Jeremy Kerley, and Rishard Matthews
- Kickers: Patrick Murray, and Roberto Aguayo
Andrew: Wait, he picked Goff and Keenum? Nothing like doubling down on a Jeff Fisher passing attack.
Bryan: He had Tavon Austin there, too! He was all in on that passing game, and it paid off dramatically. Even though Goff picked up the penalty week after week, that plus Keenum's general poor play gave him a powerful one-two punch at the top of his lineup. Brilliantly executed. The Rashad Jennings pick at running back was absolutely inspired as well; Jennings is averaging just 2.6 yards per attempt but remains the Giants' leading rusher due to lack of other options. Roberto Aguayo's struggles have also popped up time and time again, making it a smart choice to draft the rookie kicker.
That does bring us to a rule change for the second half of the season, though. Goff's penalty actually scored for his team in three separate weeks, as Keenum's performance was worth more than 15 points by itself. Thus, to prevent people from stashing two benched quarterbacks and cruising to a guaranteed 15 points per week, we're upping the penalty for inactive quarterbacks to 18 points.
Andrew: A sensible change, I'm sure we'll all agree. One further rule change of note concerns kickers, whose penalty is now 12 points. Remember that this only affects kickers when they don't attempt a kick in their team's game, but somebody else does. For example, there was no penalty for Greg Zuerlein during Los Angeles' Week 1 shutout in San Francisco in which no field goals were attempted by Los Angeles, but former Giants kicker Josh Brown was penalized when Randy Bullock kicked two extra points for Big Blue that same week. Oddly, neither Brown nor Bullock will feature at all in Part II, with Robbie Gould now handling those duties for McAdoo's men.
Bryan: Moore's team included several of the lowest-scoring loser league players, but there were even better picks out there. The lowest scoring players over the first half of the season were:
- Quarterbacks: Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler
- Running Backs: Terrance West, Rashad Jennings, and Todd Gurley
- Wide Receivers: Tyler Boyd, Andrew Hawkins, and Tajae Sharpe
- Kickers: Roberto Aguayo and Dan Carpenter
Andrew: Ah, but was this the lowest possible Loser League score? Is it possible to mash together a roster which, although technically not the lowest scoring roster overall, would actually have scored lower than the team Bryan listed? A shout-out in next week's column plus a potential mystery prize is on offer to any reader who can concoct such a roster.
Bryan: If you find the right combination of good-and-bad weeks, you may just be able to beat that team. Leave it in the comments, and we'll find out who can be the worst of the worst with the benefit of hindsight.
But setting aside hindsight for foresight, Andrew, Loser League Part II signup begins today. What should our loyal readers be doing when they're picking their teams this time? Should they just grab the team we have listed above, or is there a better plan?
Andrew: A better plan than betting that the Rams passing game will continue to tank? I guess it might start with "R" and rhyme with a hat trick? He probably scores just about enough to offset the interceptions though, whereas Keenum just doesn't score at all.
Bryan: I'd probably avoid keeping Todd Gurley on my loser league team, despite his pretty shoddy first-half performance. The guy's too talented to stay down for too long, and if there's any boost at quarterback play -- say, from the introduction of a first overall draft pick? -- that could see his numbers go up quite a bit.
Andrew: Actually, did you know that Keenum doesn't have the fewest passing touchdowns of any regular starting quarterback this year?
Bryan: I did not! Is it...whichever 49er you're counting? Or do neither hit the "regular" starting quarterback cutoff? Because both Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick are very irregular starting quarterbacks, if you ask me.
Andrew: Quarterback to have started at least six of his team's games this year. Gabbert has started five, and has five passing touchdowns. Keenum has started eight, and has nine passing touchdowns. Kaepernick has started three, and has four touchdowns. All three are outside the bottom three for touchdowns per game by a regular starter.
Bryan: Alright, so we're looking for an inept passing attack that hasn't suffered injuries.
Andrew: And averages under a passing touchdown per game.
Bryan: My gut says it's the Brock Lobster down in Houston.
Andrew: Brock Osweiler also has nine touchdowns in eight games, same as Keenum and good for only joint fourth-worst among quarterbacks who have started at least six games.
Bryan: Alright, I'll bite. This is where you tell me it's actually Matt Ryan or something and my eyes have been deceiving me.
Andrew: Final clue: He has a Super Bowl ring, won as a starter in a game you may remember very well (or very poorly).
Bryan: Wait. Wait. Wait. Is he ELITE?
Andrew: Erm, no. But he sure is paid like it.
Bryan: Joe Flacco. I would not have seen that coming.
Andrew: Six passing touchdowns in eight games, including blanks against such powerhouses as the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, and New York Jets. He has added two scores on the ground, but that still puts him one short of Keenum's total.
The name just above him is even crazier though. Russell Wilson has only seven passing touchdowns in eight games, with another one rushing.
Bryan: Yeah, but he's been playing with no knees and no offensive line. Health can really cripple that sort of thing.
Andrew: Delicately phrased. Yes, it's a fair bet that Wilson's second half of the season will be much better than his first half. Flacco, though, has more than an outside shot at being the MVP of Loser League Part II. Ryan Tannehill too, with his eight passing touchdowns in eight games.
Bryan: Some of these spots you have to be careful with. While Flacco won't be getting replaced any time soon, putting your chips on, say, Blair Walsh may not work out for you. He has been terrible at times, but it sounds like the Vikings are working out kickers this week. Accuracy problems won't help you if they're sitting on the bench!
Andrew: You mean you don't think Ryan Mallett is the answer to the Ravens' offensive questions?
Bryan: Consider me skeptical.
Andrew: So let's venture Flacco and Tannehill for Part II. At halfback, it's hard to see past Rashad Jennings again. Chris Ivory should play more often, which might mean he avoids the penalty enough to hit the necessary lows. Matt Asiata would also be a great shout if we could be sure that Adrian Peterson wasn't coming back.
Bryan: He might be alright anyway; a late-season return from Peterson might see him on a snap-count or other timesharing thing until he's at full strength, which might not happen during the regular season.
Andrew: Adrian Peterson's a freak of nature. I wouldn't bet on a timeshare lasting longer than a quarter.
Bryan: Even so, he's probably not coming back until late December -- I think you can ride with Asiata and be OK.
Andrew: Receivers then, what do you have? Quinton Patton has had his random big game for this year, and can safely go back to 1 catch, 3 targets, 8 yards, 0 points like he had against Seattle.
Bryan: Patton has scored five or fewer points in five games so far this year, so he's the sort of solid performer you can count on in a Loser League format.
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Andrew: I'll nominate Marquise Goodwin too, though Goodwin is the kind of guy who can go 0-3 one week and score two 80-yard touchdowns the next, so you'd need some other guys you could trust to make up for that.
Bryan: Seth Roberts in Oakland was the lowest-scoring receiver who never took a penalty; he's an option for consistency, even if he doesn't reach some of the highs (lows?) these other players manage to put up.
Andrew: Where did Chris Conley rank? He might be a safer option than Goodwin.
Bryan: Conley put up 6.3 points per game; better than Goodwin's 8.2, at least.
Andrew: I can live with that. So let's roll with Conley, Roberts, and Patton.
Bryan: And for kicker, it's our totem of Roberto Aguayo. I have not had more fun watching a rookie's career in some time.
Andrew: You're such a misanthrope. You should come watch Mike Thomas with me. Though I suppose on Sunday you got to do just that.
Bryan: And boy, did I have a good time, sassafrassa 49ers...
Andrew: What's not to love? Our other kicker can be Chandler Catanzaro, because nothing screams fourth-quarter excitement quite like a Catanzaro field goal attempt.
Bryan: I actually like Dan Carpenter more for the second slot, especially if the referees are going to continue to conspire against him getting a clean field goal attempt off.
Andrew: I … guess I'm slightly more wary than you are of incurring the wrath of Kaela.
Bryan: Gotta be bold if you want to win the prize! No time for personal safety.
Andrew: Fine, fine. On your head be it. That gives us this lineup:
- Quarterbacks: Joe Flacco, Ryan Tannehill
- Running Backs: Rashad Jennings, Chris Ivory, Matt Asiata
- Wide Receivers: Quinton Patton, Seth Roberts, Chris Conley
- Kickers: Roberto Aguayo, Dan Carpenter
So now we're emotionally invested in this thing, us against the readers! Let's go!
Bryan: Think you can do better, readers? Sign up for Loser League Part II and show your Scramblers just what you can do.
Andrew: And once again, congratulations to Jameson on his victory in Part I.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: Derek Carr was third in Quick Reads this week, with a tidy 20-for-31 passing line for 185 yards against a very tough Denver defense. In a week without any massive amounts of poor play, however, that small yardage total was good for 9 points, the lowest score among quarterbacks. That's two weeks straight of solid quarterback play around the league; a terrifying omen.
Running Back: Kenneth Dixon left Sunday's game with a chest contusion, and wasn't particularly effective beforehand. His nine carries ended up netting only 13 yards, and his two receptions went for a grand total of 0 yards. That earns you 1 point, and the low score in Loser League.
Wide Receiver: Six different wide receivers ended up with goose eggs this week: Marvin Jones, Allen Hurns, DeVante Parker, Charles Johnson, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Sammie Coates. Hurns, Green-Beckham, and Coates were held catchless; the other three were held under 10 yards.
Kicker: Poor Blair Walsh has yet to recover from his miss in last year's playoffs, and his shaky play this year has Vikings fans gnashing their teeth. Walsh missed his third extra point of the season, and had a field goal attempt blocked. That's minus-3 points, and justification for the news that the Vikings are auditioning kickers this week.
Keep Choppin' Wood: Onside kicks are low-percentage plays at the best of times, so while Chris Boswell's epic failure may have been the worst onside kick in the history of professional football, it would probably be an exaggeration to say that it contributed substantially to Pittsburgh's loss in Baltimore. We prefer to see more meaningful impact from our weekly woodcutters, which is why we instead chose a player from a more southerly AFC team. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chiefs quarterback Nick Foles brought back fond memories of a distant age when dragons roamed the skies above Chicago and were occasionally unleashed upon unsuspecting defensive backs. Foles went the full Grossman on a play-action bomb to Albert Wilson, rocketing the ball more than 50 yards downfield -- about 10 yards beyond Wilson -- directly into the hands of Jaguars cornerback Prince Amukamara. But fear not, Chiefs fans, for Jaguars offseason free agent acquisition Tashaun Gipson was on hand with a cry of Zun Haal Viik, blasting Amukamara before he could secure the catch and denying the Jaguars what would have been their only turnover of the game. As millions of would-be Nords will attest, even the best tales of dragons can quite easily become diverted into little more than the sound of chopping wood.
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Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Say what you like about his play calls (though many more people have said what they didn't like about them), but Eagles coach Doug Pederson has thus far not been shy about going for it on fourth-and-short in field goal range. Sometimes it works, as it did repeatedly in September and October; sometimes it doesn't, like on two occasions against the Giants this past Sunday. One of the trials of being a head coach in the NFL is that you are far more likely to be praised for the latter than credited for the former. Pederson has stated the reasoning behind his decisions, and does not sound like he will be deterred by press criticism; we believe that the Eagles are all the better for their coach's aggressiveness, even if it doesn't always work out on a given day.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: It seems like this situation has arisen an uncanny number of times already this season, but it bears repeating over and over: when a team is trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter, its chances of winning are improved by attempting the two-point conversion as early as possible, not delaying it. This gives the coaches time to adjust their strategy in the not-unlikely event that the conversion fails. Mike Mularkey, it will surprise nobody to learn, did not do this against San Diego. Instead, he had his Titans kick the extra point to reduce the score gap to eight points -- ostensibly a one-score game. While not the most egregious strategic error in the annals of NFL history, this is nonetheless an error of strategy, and a decision we can hardly wait to see coaches stop making.
Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: On Thursday night, the Falcons had a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. They faced a third-and-7 from the Tampa Bay 23-yard line, and threw an incomplete pass. However, on the play, Andy Levitre was flagged for a facemask. Dirk Koetter declined the penalty, and the Falcons kicked a 41-yard field goal. Had Koetter instead accepted the penalty, the Falcons would have been looking at third-and-22, and an incompletion would have meant sending Matt Bryant out for a 56-yard field goal attempt. Bryant did hit a 62-yarder way back in 2006, but his longest since then is just 55 yards; he doesn't have the leg he used to. Three points may not seem like a lot in a game that ended 43-28, but in a closer game, that decision to let their opponents attempt a much easier field goal could easily be the difference between winning and losing.
"One Play to Rule Them All" Fantasy Player of the Week: When C.J. Anderson went on injured reserve, fantasy owners around the world picked up rookie Devontae Booker, who looked in line to get the lion's share of the work. Indeed, he did get the majority of the snaps on Sunday night, playing on 46 of Denver's 56 offensive plays. However, it was Kapri Bibbs who stole the show with his nine snaps, with a weaving, 69-yard touchdown reception leading the way. Bibbs had 80 yards on just three touches, outperforming Booker. Expect to see more Bibbs in the coming weeks.
Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week
Andrew: Alex Smith is expected to return this week, which means Carolina being favorites against Kansas City is slightly surprising to me. Having watched Nick Foles spray passes all over the field against Jacksonville -- and I emphasize that the passes hit the field, not his receivers -- I could completely understand the betting line if Foles was still expected to start. And I suppose there's a strengths-and-weaknesses element to this: Carolina's a running team, but Kansas City's defense is better against the pass; while Carolina's weakness is its pass defense, but Kansas City doesn't really have the passing game to exploit that. Still, the Chiefs are a better team overall than the Panthers, and Smith is expected to be under center instead of Foles, so that's enough to entice me into picking Kansas City (+3) at Carolina.
Bryan: What the heck was Philadelphia doing, trying to win the game instead of kicking a field goal to save my pick? Don't they know what's really important?
Well, you know what you say -- if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. So, I'm sticking on the bandwagon of DVOA's No. 1 team and picking Philadelphia (+1) at home against Atlanta. I like Nelson Agholor to have a big day against a pass defense giving up 289.6 passing yards per game. Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia offense will get back on track, and I think Atlanta's sky-high offensive performance is due to come back to Earth a bit. I'll take the Eagles and the point.
Records so far:
Every year, people gather round to read playoff clinching scenarios with bated breath, but their lesser-known cousin sometimes gets ignored.
For the first time this season, a team can be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention this weekend, if everything falls just right. While everyone else fights for playoff positioning, the Cleveland Browns can hang it up and go home if several things games go against them this week:
- Baltimore defeats Cleveland.
- Pittsburgh defeats Dallas.
- Cincinnati defeats N.Y. Giants.
And then either:
- Kansas City defeats Carolina AND Denver defeats New Orleans OR
- Jacksonville defeats Houston AND N.Y. Jets defeats Los Angeles AND San Diego defeats Miami.
Either way, the Browns would fall to 0-10. The other three teams in their division all winning would move them out of range in the AFC North, thanks to the fact that they continue to play each other down the road, and the AFC Wildcard would similarly be pushed out of reach. If all these outcomes went against them, they'd be mathematically knocked out with six games to play.
In all likelihood, the Browns will live to see another day; the Giants and Panthers are both favored, and several of the other games are close enough to make the odds of all of them going against Cleveland small. Cleveland's goal at this point might well be to not be the first team eliminated, and I think they'll dodge that bullet this week.
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