Scramble for the Ball: Seasoned Leftovers
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Welcome to Scramble for the Ball, the column where your humble correspondents are not only in completely different time zones on completely separate continents, but we are also now in completely different halves of the calendar if Summer Time means anything like what the name implies. A chill is in the air, leaves tumble to the ground, and what were once August barbecue takes are now consigned to the freezer tubs of history. We need to make room before Thanksgiving, so it's time for a clearout!
Bryan: Nothing like re-heated takes on a crisp November afternoon. Let's bust out the Microwave of Truth and see what we can salvage from our preseason prognostications, and what probably needs to be thrown out before it starts to stink.
Andrew: For those who missed it, our 2016 Staff Predictions article -- also known as that special time of year when a dozen grown men unite against their boss's computer -- can be found here.
NFL TEAM MOST LIKELY TO BEAT FOA 2016 PROJECTION
Staff Picks: Jacksonville Jaguars (3), Cleveland Browns (2), Washington Redskins (2), Carolina Panthers (1), Chicago Bears (1), Houston Texans (1), New England Patriots (1), Oakland Raiders (1)
Bryan: Well, most of this didn't work out exactly as planned. The Jaguars and Browns are toast, so unless we projected them to win, say, minus-two games…
Andrew: You got a sneak preview of next year's projections, I see.
Bryan: From Rob's writeup about Cleveland: "The projection is so abysmally pessimistic that even occasional competence should be enough to best it." Well, occasional competence hasn't exactly been the watchword for Cleveland this year, has it?
THIS IS THE GPODAWUND, BABY pic.twitter.com/DO3byFqqt4
— numberFire (@numberFire) October 30, 2016
Andrew: Occasional quarterbacks, more like. Occasional respectability. Occasionally shopping your entire defensive backfield for trade.
Bryan: Would you say the Patriots pick worked out? They're not first in DVOA, so they're roughly where the preseason projections had them I think, but surely they're in the best situation of any team in the NFL so far, right? Most of us picked bad teams we thought would be average, but picking a good team to be great again is a pretty bold move.
Andrew: Well in the college equivalent article, Rivers noted that nobody ever went broke betting on the Death Star. I think a bit of that applies to New England. Nobody knew what they were getting with Jimmy Garoppolo, and nobody had any idea that Jacoby Brissett would take a single snap, but this is a coach who could probably get his team to 12 wins with a committee of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. Even the one loss they had came when Brissett had a nasty thumb injury on his throwing hand, so they effectively tried to play without a quarterback.
Bryan: It's very much a "death, taxes, and the Patriots winning the AFC East" sort of situation over there. It should be noted, though, that they were projected to finish third in DVOA, and they are currently fourth. So maybe we shouldn't give that the crown for the best prediction there. Maybe that's Aaron taking the Oakland Raiders? Sure, their point differential indicates they're walking on a very thin line, but the team is 6-2 and would win the AFC West on tiebreakers if the season ended today.
Andrew: Their remaining schedule isn't that tough either -- certainly not as tough as it looked before the season -- so this may finally be the year the Raiders return to the postseason. First winning record since Jon Gruden trounced Bill Callahan!
Bryan: Yeah, I'd say the Oakland, New England, and Washington picks all seem to have worked out alright. Four out of 12 ain't bad?
NFL TEAM MOST LIKELY TO FALL SHORT OF FOA 2016 PROJECTION, OTHER THAN DALLAS
Staff Picks: Baltimore Ravens (6), Tennessee Titans (2), San Diego Chargers (1), Detroit Lions (1), Arizona Cardinals (1), Philadelphia Eagles (1)
Andrew: It appeared at the start of October like half the staff was going to be shown up badly by the Baltimore Ravens, as they were 3-0 when September ended. The rest of the league has woken up to them, however, and they have since hit a four-game skid including home losses to Oakland and Washington, and their most recent loss at the
Geno Smith Ryan Fitzpatrick Jets.
Bryan: Yeah. The projection had Baltimore hitting 8.8 wins and reaching the playoffs, which seems like a bit of a longshot at the moment, so we're probably safe there. I think full props has to go to Rob for nailing Arizona's struggles, though. Carson Palmer is 36 years old and has looked every second of it on the field. They are a couple of missed field goals away from being 5-3, but 13th in DVOA is far from the Super Bowl contenders the projections pegged them as before the season began.
Andrew: And as we'll see in a minute, many of us felt the Super Bowl projection was more realistic than Rob's.
Bryan: Our worst prediction here probably has to go to Carl picking the Eagles to sputter. You can see his reasoning -- they had just traded a proven starting quarterback and Carson Wentz was still recovering from rib injuries. No one expected them to get off to the start they have gotten. Still, predicting a team projected as the 27th-best team in football to underperform was a bold move which didn't quite pay off.
Andrew: In Carl's defense, nobody saw Carson Wentz's September coming.
Bryan: Yeah, they would have been a good choice in the previous category. All in all, though, I think our picks to underperform did fairly well; with the exception of the Philadelphia pick and maybe the San Diego one, I think everyone can hold their heads up high here.
SUPER BOWL LI WINNER AND LOSER
AFC Participant: New England Patriots (6), Pittsburgh Steelers (5), Kansas City Chiefs (1)
NFC Participant: Arizona Cardinals (6), Seattle Seahawks (4), Green Bay Packers (2)
Winner: Arizona Cardinals (5), Seattle Seahawks (4), Green Bay Packers (1), New England Patriots (1), Pittsburgh Steelers (1)
Andrew: Interestingly, though half the staff picked the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl, only one (Rob) picked them to actually win it. The same cannot be said for the Cardinals and Seahawks, who were expected to win the Super Bowl by everybody who picked them to make it … apart from yours truly, who thought the Cardinals would lose to the Steelers.
Bryan: Yeah, the wisdom of our crowds loved the Steelers and Cardinals, and… I mean, it's not impossible at this point, but I'd trade my pick for someone else's if I could.
Andrew: Knowing my luck, I'd make that trade blindly and end up with Roberto Aguayo.
Bryan: Which pick is your favorite? The Patriots are the Super Bowl favorites at the moment, so maybe you go with Rob's New England-over-Green Bay pick by default, but I kind of like Scott's Seattle-over-New England when it comes to getting both Super Bowl teams right. Not that the Seahawks looked like Super Bowl contenders this week against New Orleans!
Andrew: The AFC has a clear favorite and other clear contenders. The NFC is muddier than Howard Mudd coaching the C-M-S Stags while the P.A. blares Life on Display.
Bryan: At least I'll be in good company in my wrongness with Arizona over Pittsburgh -- it was our single most common pick. Add in your selection, and it's clear Football Outsiders was just nostalgic for Super Bowl XLIII. Who would you pick today? New England over Dallas, maybe?
Andrew: Atlanta over Tennessee.
Bryan: Now there is a hot take.
Andrew: It's the only chance I have left as a fan to jinx the other teams in my favorite teams' divisions.
WITH THE NO.1 PICK IN THE DRAFT, [TEAM] SELECTS [PLAYER]
Team: San Francisco 49ers (6), Cleveland Browns (4), Tennessee Titans (2)
Player: Deshaun Watson (9), Myles Garrett (2), Brad Kaaya (1)
Bryan: Ha! Take that, haters and doubters. The 49ers aren't in line for the first overall pick; they're in line for the second. Jed York showed you all!
Andrew: Yeah, the wisdom of some parts of the crowd showed up here, as ten of us basically nailed the worst two teams in football. Even the guys who picked San Francisco frequently mentioned it was between them and Cleveland, and so it has proven.
Bryan: Slightly more interesting is the player being chosen. It's early, I know, but Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer has been rising up draft boards in a hurry -- and I'm not actually sure I like any of the quarterbacks at No. 1 at the moment. I've got to do a bunch more scouting before I'm comfortable saying that, though. The Myles Garrett picks might end up being the safer option.
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Andrew: I know nothing about college football, beyond the names of some of the teams and coaches. I'll spare you the reasons why, but that's a conscious choice. So I chose Deshaun Watson as the player because that seemed to be the consensus. I'm simply not in a position to give any further opinion.
Bryan: There's that wisdom of crowds thing again. And I picked Watson for the same reason, and the fact that teams without a quarterback generally grab one at the top of the draft, whether they're the best player available or not.
Andrew: In that respect, I think the identity of the player will be determined by the team winning the losing race. Remember when everybody thought Houston was crazy for passing on Reggie Bush? That's not what they needed, and much as my Saints-fan wife had the cutest celebrity crush on Reggie (including buying a Bush 25 jersey), I think it's safe to say they made the right choice. I don't know whether I trust the 49ers to resist taking a quarterback they don't think is ready, whereas this year proved that Cleveland is at least willing to trade that temptation to somebody else.
Bryan: With two first-round picks thanks to that trade last year, they might be more willing to pull the trigger on a quarterback. I don't think they were expecting the Eagles to do so well, though; that pick is a lot less valuable than they thought it would be!
Andrew: You win some, you lose some. Or in Cleveland's case -- at least since 1999 -- you lose some, you lose some more.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO BEAT/FALL SHORT OF KUBIAK PROJECTION
Fall Short: Kelvin Benjamin (1), Blake Bortles (1), Tom Brady (1), Frank Gore (1), David Johnson (1), Duke Johnson (1), Matt Jones (0.5), Jeremy Langford (1.5), Lamar Miller (1), Jordy Nelson (1), Allen Robinson (1)
Andrew: Relatively open questions like this are always interesting, because we get such a wide range of names and opinions. We won't be able to properly analyze them all, so let's pick a few interesting ones.
Firstly, kudos again to Rob. That Matt Ryan pick was nailed. Even if he didn't expect it to be quite as nailed-on as it was.
Bryan: Yeah, Ryan tore up the league in the first half. Picking Big Ben to exceed his projection looked really good too, up until he got hurt.
Andrew: I've had Ben Roethlisberger in my keeper league since 2006. I always, always draft a solid injury replacement. He just always gets hurt, meaning he's either ineffective for a few games or misses them entirely -- which in fantasy terms is better, because you can simply replace him in the lineup.
Bryan: We didn't do quite so well on picking surprising receivers, though. Neither Markus Wheaton nor Alshon Jeffery have really lit up the field so far. In fact, Wheaton has been replaced by Darrius Heyward-Bey in the starting lineup in Pittsburgh, which is about as far from beating a projection as you can actually get.
Bryan: And if we're giving credit to Rob for nailing Matt Ryan, we also have to point out that he picked David Johnson to fail to live up to expectations. That's near 20-point-a-game David Johnson. Oops.
Bryan: I'm going to toot my own horn with the Duke Johnson selection; he has been locked in a timeshare with Isaiah Crowell and has, if anything, been the lesser of the two. It's not as good as Sterling's Allen Robinson pick, but consider my horn tooted.
Bryan: I've got Johnson in three leagues as well. I don't listen to myself! Consider my horn un-tooted.
Man, I did pretty good in these preseason predictions. Just… maybe don't look at my Loser League team.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: There weren't any obvious standouts in terrible quarterback play this week. The low score of 9 goes to Trevor Siemian who turned the ball over twice against San Diego, throwing a pick-six to Casey Hayward and losing one of his two fumbles on the day. His 276 passing yards did somewhat dampen the blow, but in a week when no one stunk up the joint, Siemian was the worst of the bunch.
Running Back: Alfred Blue had a chance to be involved in the game more this week, with Lamar Miller nursing a shoulder injury. Blue ended up injuring his ribs early, however, and was ineffective for most of the day, ending up with 41 rushing yards on nine attempts. That's good for 4 points, your low score of the day.
Wide Receiver: Plenty of names join the 0-point club this week, including Tyrell Williams, Anquan Boldin, Brandon LaFell, Corey Brown and Jordan Norwood. Each had just one reception for less than 10 yards, earning them the goose egg.
Kicker: Three players managed to score negative points this week -- quite an accomplishment! The bottom score doesn't go to Roberto Aguayo, who missed an extra point. It doesn't go to Mike Nugent, who missed both a field goal and an extra point in Cincinnati's tie. No, it goes to Josh Lambo, who missed a 45-yard field goal and had an extra point blocked. His one made extra point isn't really enough to counterbalance all of that, resulting in a score of minus-6 this week. That's the lowest score of the year, beating out Aguayo's Week 3 and Patrick Murphy's Week 2, each of which scored minus-5.
The Loser League page is now updated for 2016, and you can check out your team's score here. Just one more week! A close fight to the finish!
Keep Choppin' Wood: By most accounts, halftime during a NFL game is a far messier, more chaotic period than most people give it credit for. Fans tend to have an idealistic view of the 13-minute break as a chance for strategizing, for changing the game plan, for the fabled "halftime adjustments." In reality, it's barely long enough to visit the bathroom or grab a bite to eat. Sometimes silly things happen amid the chaos, either before or after players head to their respective locker rooms. One such silly thing happened to the Houston Texans kick return team this past weekend. After Detroit scored a field goal to make the score 14-3 with only 2 seconds left before halftime, Houston lined up to return the ensuing kickoff with only ten players on the field. This caused them to burn their final timeout, and led to a rather animated tirade from under-fire head coach Bill O'Brien, who had to be restrained from confronting special teams coach Larry Izzo. Whether that's because he genuinely had plans for the timeout, or because the additional 30-second pause delayed him from partaking in one of the aforementioned forms of food processing, we will likely never know.
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Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Down 20-10 at home in a crucial divisional game, the Dallas Cowboys desperately needed a scoring drive. What they got, however, was another three-and-out … or so it seemed. As they snapped the ball back to punter Chris Jones, Eagles special teamer Bryan Braman came free quickly chasing the block. Braman, however, could only stumble and chase as Jones instead sprinted around left end for a 30-yard gain. A fake punt when down by two scores in the second half might be predictable for Jeff Fisher and Johnny Hekker, but not so for Jones: it was the first rushing attempt of his career, came on fourth-and-8 from his own 27, and occurred in a game situation which was far from desperate. It was also by far the biggest run of the game for the Cowboys, and comfortably their most aggressive call, even accounting for the fourth-and-1 in overtime.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: There is no such thing as guaranteed field goal range. No matter where you are on the field, no matter what the weather, even on the most perfect autumn day in Denver, there is no such thing as guaranteed field goal range. There is always a chance for the kicker to miss, or the snap to be mishandled, or some crazy linebacker in a "college navy" jersey to hurdle your long snapper and devour your dreams of victory in a single agonizing gulp. The closer you get, the better your odds, so every yard matters. Armed with this knowledge, settling for a field goal on second-and-4, even from the opposing 13-yard line, is a conservative and not particularly inspired call. Actually giving up an extra 3 yards, tacking on an extra 10 percent to the distance of the field goal attempt, by having your quarterback center the ball on second down, is likewise not the greatest idea. That is, however, exactly what Washington's head coach Jay Gruden had his team do against Cincinnati. Well at least the Dustin Hopkins miss didn't lose the game…
Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: You are San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy. With three minutes to go in the game, your team has marched it down to the Denver 2. You're trailing by eight points, and time isn't a huge factor -- you have all three timeouts remaining, as well as the two-minute warning. Melvin Gordon has been having a solid day on the ground; he has carried the ball 22 times for 108 yards already. According to DVOA, Denver has the second-best pass defense in the league, and only the 14th-best run defense. Three of your primary targets -- Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, and Hunter Henry -- were at less than full health coming into the game. You have the chance to pick up a key divisional win and get back to .500 after starting the year 1-4. What do you do? If you said "throw four passes into the end zone, completing a grand total of zero," congratulations! You could be an NFL head coach. While there is something to be said for not bunching everyone up on the field and plowing into the line four times, surely, one run would have been called for in this situation.
"Speed Kills" Fantasy Player of the Week: J.J. Nelson was drafted more for his speed than anything else; he ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at the combine two years ago, and was an undersized fifth-round prospect who most draft experts pegged as a return specialist, if anything. You don't see too many 156-pound receivers stand up to an NFL workload; only two players listed at 160 pounds or less have ever had even 100 receptions in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference. Nelson might be the third, however. He had a breakout performance Sunday, catching eight passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns. It's good enough that the Cardinals have now promoted him to a starting receiver over struggling Michael Floyd. Here's to the little guy!
Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week
Bryan: When I said last week's Washington-Cincinnati matchup would be a close game, I didn't expect it to end up that close. I will take it to the bank, however.
This week, I'm going to back Philadelphia plus-3 against the New York Giants. Yes, the Giants are rested and coming off of a bye, and yes, common perception seems to be that the Eagles laid an egg against the Cowboys last week. Taking a 6-1 team to overtime on the road is far from an embarrassing performance, however, even if they blew a 10-point lead to do so. All of Philadelphia's three losses have been one-score performances against teams that are no worse than .500, while the Giants haven't beaten a winning team since Week 1. I predict a bit of a defensive slugfest in this one, and I give the Eagles the upper hand there -- at least by enough to grab the points and run with them.
Andrew: I'm going with Denver (plus-zero) over Oakland. No favorite here, either by Vegas or by my rooting interests. Oakland has a real chance to open up an actual lead in its division here, but Denver has the defensive backs to shut down Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and Oakland's non-receiver options aren't the best. On defense, Khalil Mack was back to his best against Tampa Bay and should have fun against the Broncos' tackles, but he's not going to be covering their receivers and he's not going to be scoring against their defense. Those things are equally true for the Raiders defensive backs, and for the Raiders offense.
Records so far:
Every year, there's one division that just doesn't live up to the rest. When you split up 32 teams into eight groups, there are decent odds that at least one of those groups will, by chance or by design, fail to live up to the standards of the rest of the league. This year, that honor goes to the AFC South, with no team ranking higher than 22nd in DVOA so far. When you're in a division that bad, you get a little more leeway when it comes to your playoff chances.
All the leeway in the world can't save the Jacksonville Jaguars, however. At 2-5, they are now three games out in the division, and that probably overstates their chances. Two embarrassing losses in four days -- one at home against Oakland and the other on the road in Tennessee -- likely put the capstone on the Jaguars' season. They have fired their offensive coordinator, and head coach Gus Bradley will likely follow him out the door once the season ends. Blake Bortles might be the best garbage-time quarterback in NFL history, but he has regressed significantly this season after making some strides last year. He's not being helped by an offensive line that has heard of the concept of run blocking, but hasn't quite grasped how to put it into practice quite yet; they're 30th in the league with just 3.03 adjusted line yards. Their defense isn't as bad -- and you would hope that to be the case, considering the draft capital they have spent on Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue, and Dante Fowler over the past two years -- but they're on the field more than nearly any other team in the league, and it's taking its toll. The Jaguars will likely start yet another rebuilding process on Black Monday, with a new head coach and a new direction for the long-beleaguered franchise.
Jaguars fans hoped that bringing Bradley in from the Seahawks and Dave Caldwell from the Falcons would bring the Jaguars out of their now decade-long playoff dry spell. But when all is said and done, they have ended up right back where they started. They blew up the team, but it was another 4-12 season all along.
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