Scramble for the Ball: Trappings of Success
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, a slice of irreverence and irrelevance to help you get through your football week.
Andrew: ...but enough about the Los Angeles Rams. We're here to talk about interesting football teams doing terrible things like conceding impossibly silly punt muffs, trying to cover C.J. Fiedorowicz with only a quarterback's paycheck, and losing to the Miami Dolphins. Not street gang impressionists going the full Schiano on opposition kneeldowns.
Bryan: Speaking of losing to the Miami Dolphins … there was quite a brouhaha in this week's Audibles. The Steelers, by any metric, laid an egg against Miami, getting knocked around to the tune of 30-15 against a really quite bad Dolphins team. This brought in a long discussion of Mike Tomlin and the Steelers' tendency to not show up against weaker competition.
Andrew: Is it a tendency though, or is it simply the occasional random letdown against a pattern of success? In other words, it's far more noticeable when a big favorite blows it than it is when they win, regardless of covering the spread. It's not like the Steelers lose every time they're heavily favored.
Bryan: In fact, they rarely lose at all; that's why they're favorites to begin with. However, that doesn't mean that all is well in Pittsburgh. I did a quick search, and Tomlin's Steelers have lost four games in the past decade where they were favored by 10 or more points, tied for second-most behind the Saints.
Andrew: Of course, the worst record would belong to the Saints.
*Cries into his sodden palms.*
Bryan: The Steelers are 17-4 since 2007 in games favored by 10-plus; the Saints are 14-6. The Patriots are 38-3, by comparison. The Vikings are 9-0, which is the best record.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The records listed are pure win-loss records drawn from Pro Football Reference, not records against the spread.)
Andrew: The Vikings are not often favored by double-digit points, I would expect. That period encompasses the Brett Favre year, but also a lot of Tarvaris Jackson and Christian Ponder, and a not-inconsiderable amount of Matt Cassel.
Bryan: The Vikings pull that feat off about once a year, by which of course I mean "five times in 2009."
And while Mike Tomlin's four losses in those massively favored contests definitely isn't something to highlight on his resume, he might not even have been the worst coach in Pennsylvania in those sorts of trap games. The Philadelphia Eagles are 5-4 since 2007 in games where they've been favored by 10 or more points, and that's actually slightly flattering to Andy Reid as two of those wins came under Chip Kelly. For his entire career, Reid is 17-6 when he has been favored by double digits. That doesn't exactly get Tomlin off the hook or anything, but a little context is sometimes useful.
Andrew: On the subject of context, this would be a good place to reiterate that in order to blow a game as a ten-point favorite, your team has to be good enough to actually be a ten-point favorite in the first place. Only two teams -- New England and Green Bay -- have more of those games than Pittsburgh since Tomlin became a head coach, and only 12 teams have more than one per season. So even with the second-most losses, the Steelers still have the third-most wins as a ten-point favorite since Tomlin was appointed.
Bryan: Right. We're talking about the worst of the best. Many teams would kill to be favored by double digits multiple times per year, and not once a decade or so.
...Which brings me to the fact that only 31 teams are listed as being 10-plus-point favorites at any point in the last decade. Now I get to play "Find the team that hasn't been favored by 10."
Andrew: Cleveland, surely.
Bryan: Nope! They're 1-0 since 2007!
Andrew: Jacksonville then.
Bryan: Nuh-uh; they're actually 3-0.
Andrew: How did Cleveland and Jacksonville end up favored by ten over the past ten years? Who were they playing, Notre Dame?
Bryan: Cleveland has been favored by ten just once -- in the last week of 2007, their 10-6 season. They faced the 5-11 San Francisco 49ers, led by the immortal Chris Weinke. Vegas was not impressed. 2007 was a good year for the Jaguars as well; they were 11-5 and made it to the Divisional Round. They were favored by ten points three times -- against Oakland, Carolina, and Atlanta. Seems like forever ago, but the Jaguars were actually competitive at one time.
Andrew: Fair enough. I forgot that both had that one reasonable year in your timeframe. Since that fateful year in which they both had winning records, those two franchises have been 5-11 or worse in 13 out of 16 seasons and not had a single winning season between them. It's entirely plausible for this year to make it 15 out of 18 seasons combined at 5-11 or worse. That's almost criminal mismanagement.
My other guess would be the Rams. No doubt also in 2007 they played some almost-disbanded NFL Europa team missing its starting quarterback or something though.
Bryan: Nothing nearly so old. It was as recently as 2013, when they had a home game against... the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Rams were actually 1-4 at the time, so that line tells you more about the state of the Jaguars than it does about the Rams. Looking back, the Rams had a -35.5% DVOA entering that game, but the Jaguars were at a terrible -83.8%. Even taking into account DAVE and other methods to avoid early season fluctuations, Jacksonville was still below -50.0%. So, yeah. St. Louis was bad, but Jacksonville was playing in an entirely different league.
Bryan: The team without a single game where they were favored by double digits in the past decade is Oakland. You have to go all the way back to 2003, the year after their Super Bowl appearance, to find them favored by that much. The Rrrrraiders have been terrible for the past decade, but maybe, just maybe, they'll get some respect this year. They get the Colts, at home, in Week 16, so maybe there's your double-digit spread.
Andrew: I really thought there might have been a point in the Jason Campbell-Carson Palmer era when they would have been heavy favorites against somebody like the Cassel Chiefs, but it turns out the division was actually very competitive at that point -- Josh McDaniels notwithstanding -- and the Cassel Chiefs won 17 games across 2010 and 2011. That's when the AFC was loaded too, with very few consistently bad teams like Cleveland, Miami, and Jacksonville are now.
Bryan: Which loops us back around nicely to Miami demolishing Pittsburgh. Sometimes, I guess, weird things happen. While Tomlin certainly has had more than his fair share of slip-ups in those trap games, he has to be credited for keeping his team in contention to be trapped to begin with.
Andrew: And hey, at least one of his losses wasn't arguably the most famous Super Bowl upset in history.
Bryan: Funny, that link doesn't seem to go to Super Bowl III.
Andrew: I said arguably!
Bryan: And I'm arguing!
Andrew:No you aren't! You're just contradicting!
Bryan: Look, if I argue with you, I have to take up a contrary position. If you want abuse, that's next door; I hear that's what Greg Schiano's doing nowadays.
Andrew: I bet Jim Harbaugh does it better. Regardless, I'll pass. We should probably leave those appointments open for the poor souls who actually started our Loser League leaders on their real fantasy teams.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: We may be rapidly approaching the end of Ryan Fitzpatrick's season. Fitzpatrick was benched during the fourth quarter on Monday night, with Geno Smith coming in after Fitzpatrick threw for just 154 yards and an interception. While coach Todd Bowles says that Fitzpatrick will start this week against Baltimore, his performances have been bad enough that at some point, the Jets have to go back to Geno, right? Fitz ended up with 6 points on the day.
Running Back: It wasn't just Fitzpatrick struggling for the Jets Monday, though! Matt Forte rushed for just 19 yards on nine carries against Arizona, and was out-snapped by backup Bilal Powell. The Jets have been behind so early and so often that Forte has been spending most fourth quarters on the bench, making him a valuable Loser League commodity. He ended up scoring 1 point.
Wide Receiver: Only a pair of zeroes this week. Tajae Sharpe and Sammie Coates were each held without a catch on Sunday, and Sharpe's 1 yard rushing wasn't exactly enough to shoot him up the scoreboard, either.
Kicker: Four kickers tied with a score of 1, but they arrived at that total in different ways. Cairo Santos and Steven Hauschka both made two field goals and two extra points, but missed one of each as well to rack up the penalty points. Graham Gano missed a game-tying extra point to go along with his three made extra points and his field goal. Chris Boswell simply didn't get much to do, ending up with just one extra point.
The Loser League page is now updated for 2016, and you can check out your team's score here.
Keep Choppin' Wood: Is this really going to a Chargers player -- and a special teams player at that -- again? Sorry, but yes. Yes it is. Travis Benjamin, when you wave your teammates away from an opposition punt, you really ought to make sure you don't touch it yourself either. In the end, Benjamin sort-of made an attempt to catch the punt, sort-of made an attempt to stay away from it, fully committed to neither, and the punt hit his leg and was recovered by Denver's Will Parks at San Diego's 11-yard line. The Chargers defense only gave up a field goal after forcing Denver to go three-and-out, and San Diego still won the game in the end, but neither of those facts in any way mitigate the bizarre mistake by their veteran returner.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game/John Fox Award for Conservatism: We're going to break with tradition and combine these awards into one section this week, so we can have a chat about end-game strategy. Specifically, when to go for two, and why. Whatever you may have seen and heard in other media this week, Edwards award winner Hue Jackson was absolutely correct to attempt the two-point conversion when his team scored a touchdown to bring them within nine points. The fact that Cleveland's failure to convert is being used to pillory Jackson is a cruel and twisted irony, when Cleveland's failure is exactly why his decision was correct. A failure at that point in the game gives the coach enough time and information to adjust his end-game strategy, knowing that he needs two more scores.
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If Jackson had done the same as Fox Award winner and Martz Award nominee Mike Tomlin -- who seemingly makes his two-point conversion decisions by rolling 1d20 and subtracting a point for the number of quarters played so far -- and kicked the extra point to draw within eight, then he would have left the result of the game up to the coin-flip outcome of one two-point conversion instead of two-plus minutes of actual football. Tomlin would have left his team with no recourse if Pittsburgh had scored instead of Miami and the two-point conversion had failed, whereas Jackson already knew he needed to allow time for a second score even as Cleveland successfully drove for a touchdown. All of this should be obvious to anybody who thinks trying to win is more important than trying to "not quite lose just yet," but the fact that so many people think Jackson made a mistake is one more example of how far even basic game strategy has to go before many in the mainstream media will accept it. Fortunately, Jackson appears to be smarter than those media types, and in a season in which not many things are not looking good for the Browns, the new head coach appears to be one of the few things that is.
Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: I'm tempted to just put the words Chuck Pagano here and call it a day, but I'll go with his fourth-down play calling in particular to highlight some of his odd choices this year. Late in the third quarter, leading by four, the Colts faced fourth-and-inches from the 8-yard line. Seeing as how the Colts lost in overtime, a lot of criticism has been put on Pagano for not taking the field goal there, but that's not the issue -- teams should go for it more often in these situations. No, we question the play call. Frank Gore had been having a good day, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The Texans boast the 25th-ranked rush defense in DVOA. The Colts were winning on the line of scrimmage for most of the game. Maybe plow Gore into the line, or run the Brady-esque quarterback sneak, or something that involves falling forward for an inch. Instead, the Colts went pass-wacky, putting Andrew Luck in the shotgun, spreading out three-wide. Luck stared down his one read, took the sack, and the Colts came away with no points. If you're going to pass in that situation, make it a quick play with the understanding that Luck tucks it and runs if it's not there.
"Well, NOW he does it" Fantasy Player of the Week: We have had Jay Ajayi on one of our teams all year long, waiting for him to finally break out and have the big day he has always seemed capable of having. He had never had more than 48 yards in a game, though, and Arian Foster was coming back from his bum hamstring. Stuck with a tight injury situation, we decided to drop Ajayi to try to field an actual lineup. So, of course, Ajayi quadrupled his career high, busting out for 204 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh. We hate fantasy sometimes.
Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week
Bryan: Hey, you got off the schneid!
Andrew: Once again, this is why I don't gamble. Even when I hedge my bets -- I'll be happy if the division's close, so I'll pick the team with the better record to cover! -- I can't win. Houston won by exactly the margin of the money line, thus leaving me neither happier nor actually winning the bet.
This week, I'm playing it straight: NY Giants -3 "at" Los Angeles (in London). The Giants will be too strong for the beaten-up Rams at Twickenham, even accounting for the possibility that Odell Beckham versus a Jeff Fisher team might result in more scrums than usual at the home of English rugby.
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Bryan: I think you had the right idea by betting against the Colts; you just picked the wrong week. I'll take Tennessee -3 against Indianapolis this week. No one apparently wants to win the AFC South, and crazy things can happen when two bad teams get together. The Titans are on a nine-game losing streak to Indianapolis, but they nearly pulled off the upset last year, blowing a 27-14 lead with less than seven minutes to go. The Titans are better than last year, and the Colts are worse, so maybe this year, they'll hold on. People seem to generally agree with that -- the Titans opened as just 1.5-point favorites -- but no one wants a piece of the Colts after they blew that game on Sunday night. Count me in.
Records so far:
: Since the NFL expanded to a 12-team playoff in 1990, only the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs have bounced back from a 1-5 start to make the playoffs. That doesn't bode well for any of the four 1-5 teams currently haunting the bottom of the standings at the moment. We already discussed the Bears last week, but they've got three new faces joining them among the ranks of the deceased.
No one expected the Carolina Panthers to repeat their 15-1 season from a year ago, but I don't think anyone had a 1-5 start on the menu. It's too simplistic to suggest that not resigning Josh Norman is the only reason the Panthers are floundering, but Carolina's 27th-rated pass defense would probably be boosted if they weren't starting three rookies as their top three cornerbacks. Those rookies are not being helped from the total lack of pass rush the Panthers' front seven is generating. On offense, the Panthers are actually missing Michael Oher, as Dave Gettleman's reluctance to invest heavily at offensive tackle has begun to cause serious problems. They are already 0-3 in the division, too, which will kill them on any tiebreaker. If any 1-5 team is going to pull a '15 Chiefs and get back into playoff contention, it's the Panthers, but everything just seems to be falling apart for them.
On the flip side, everyone expected the San Francisco 49ers to be bad this year. Replacing Blaine Gabbert with Colin Kaepernick is slapping a Band-Aid onto the Titanic; yes, it does help a little bit, but the ship's still going down. The 49ers simply lack talent -- at wide receiver, at inside linebacker, in the pass rush, on the offensive line; the list goes on far beyond the man under center. General manager Trent Baalke has been coasting on solid 2010 and 2011 drafts for years, but he may be going down with this ship.
And then there's the New York Jets. They're terrible. Nothing works on offense, with Ryan Fitzpatrick reduced to locking in on Brandon Marshall and hoping for the best. Nothing works on defense, where the line can't generate pressure, the secondary can't cover, and no one can make a tackle. Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong, and their season is essentially over.
Therefore, I hereby request that Fox, CBS, NBC, and ESPN replace their normal commercial bumper music when these teams are playing, to better reflect the moods of their fanbases. I have a suggestion:
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