Scramble: A Midseason Night's Dream
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan: Week 10 was, I think, what we all needed. A classic game between Pittsburgh and Dallas, a possible Super Bowl preview coming down to the wire between New England and Seattle, a quasi walk-off two-point conversion block for Denver over New Orleans, a crazy scramble-drill play from Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay... this week went a long way towards curing what has been ailing the NFL this past season.
Andrew: Yeah, in what has been a down year for the league (Western world?) as a whole, Sunday was a timely reminder that things aren't necessarily as bad as they seem. Ten hours of great football may not seem big in the grand scheme of things, but boy was it a welcome sight when it finally got here.
Bryan: It's exactly what we needed, I think. And the people seem to agree with us -- after weeks of ratings being down and interest waning, viewership shot through the roof Sunday. Turns out, high-quality football between great teams is still something we can all come together and watch. It has me feeling, strangely, positive -- which makes this column unusually difficult. This is a column about the Loser League and bad coaching decisions; what do we do when football is entertaining?
Andrew: We find something positive to mock, then discuss it! With more than half the season gone now, it's time to start thinking about those end-of-season awards. You know: MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowl ballots… did you know that the Pro Bowl fan ballots have been open since October 13?
Bryan: It always baffles me how early they start allowing fan voting for the Pro Bowl, and if I cared more about the Pro Bowl, I'd be up in arms about it. How the heck are you supposed to know who had the best season before the season is even halfway over? It makes it into a grand popularity contest -- which may well be the point, but that's neither here nor there.
Andrew: I feel much the same way when the talking heads start giving their nominations for things like the MVP award before November has even arrived. It's one thing to say Matt Ryan has been the most valuable player of the first half of the season, but quite another to crown him season MVP before the Falcons are even assured of making the playoffs.
Bryan: That's as good a place to start as any. Is Matt Ryan your MVP? Because there's a certain male model up in New England who might have something to say about that.
Andrew: I've heard Rob Gronkowski called many things, but male model is seldom one of them.
Oh, you mean the other guy.
I'm in the camp that says Tom Brady has only played half the team's games so far, and the team's record is almost identical with or without him, so he can't be a midseason most valuable player. That is not me saying he is just Jimmy Garoppolo with a sillier hairdo, but he's not (yet) the MVP.
Bryan: It is hard to argue with that; Ryan had an absolutely insane September, and NFC Player of the Month honors. Of course, Brady earned the AFC equivalent in October, but Ryan's October, where he played professional football, was better than Brady's September, where he did not.
Andrew: Right. Brady's suspension is one of the stupidest things in the history of stupid NFL things, and at the end of the season if he deserves the award then he deserves the award, but we're not at the end of the season yet and he hasn't lapped the field enough to merit a nine-week award for five weeks of football.
Right now, if I had to make a pick, I'd pick Ryan to win it. With my projection record though, that would just guarantee that he breaks his arm in a freak boating accident during Atlanta's bye.
Bryan: Don't be so hard on yourself. He could always trip over his dog or something instead. Does he have a dog? Maybe he'll trip over someone else's dog.
There are other names worth at least considering -- Ezekiel Elliott is proving to be the exception that proves the "don't draft running backs early" rule, for one. I also think Derek Carr has been very impressive so far down in Oakland, and they are sitting on a huge playoff drought. Stories like that are always good for some love when it comes to voting.
Andrew: Right, and Oakland has a much tougher division than Atlanta, at least in terms of the defenses faced.
Bryan: Still, though, I think we're in agreement: the Midseason MVP goes to Ryan, who now has to try to outlast a number of people coming up fast in his rear-view mirror.
Andrew: Could we agree enough on the other awards to make a Midseason Awards list? We could then do another article at the end of the year comparing the midseason awards to the actual end-of-season awards, giving us two articles for the price of one!
Bryan: Laziness disguised as efficiency? I can get behind that!
Andrew: Alright, so Offensive Player of the Year. This one, I think, should be Elliott. MVP is all about quarterbacks in the modern NFL; seems a waste to give OPOY to one too.
Bryan: While I think I agree, let me play some devil's advocate and throw out one other name. Ryan doesn't do nearly as well without Julio Jones, who is on pace for nearly 1,800 receiving yards for the second year in a row. No one has ever topped 1,800 yards in back-to-back seasons, and only two players -- Antonio Brown and Calvin Johnson -- have even had back-to-back 1,600 yard seasons.
Andrew: Jones is the most common name to come up here from people who think Elliott has a chance to win the overall MVP, but I wouldn't have Elliott as the overall MVP and I think he's currently ahead of Jones among non-quarterbacks. I can see the counter-argument -- Jones is the only receiver for whom I don't even care about matchups in fantasy terms -- but I think if Ryan wins MVP that will mean Jones doesn't get OPOY.
Bryan: Counter-argument there, though. Elliott's going to win Rookie of the Year (spoilers!). Wouldn't that have just as much of a negative effect on his chances for a second award as an MVP quarterback would squelch Jones's chances?
Andrew: I'd say it's the other way around: if he gets OPOY, that counts against him for Rookie of the Year.
Bryan: I just don't think there's any chance Elliott's not your Offensive ROY this year. Maybe if the Eagles had continued their early-season success, you could make an argument for Carson Wentz, and Dak Prescott is hanging out there, too. But Elliott has an outside shot at MVP; if they don't give him the Rookie of the Year award, they might as well stop handing them out.
Andrew: And then what would we do for midseason article ideas?
Bryan: We'll have to agree to disagree here, and see who looks smarter come January -- I've talked myself into Jones as the midseason OPOY, and Elliott as my OROY, against my better judgment.
Andrew: Well remember, these are our midseason awards, not predictions for the real end-of-year results. We can go with Jones for OPOY, Elliott for OROY, and see how it all shakes out.
Bryan: Well, I didn't mean to talk you off of your pick! Elliott has an argument for all three of these awards, which probably will mean a running back or two is massively overdrafted this coming offseason.
Andrew: I'd hope that teams were smart enough to look at Ezekiel Elliott's numbers, then look at Todd Gurley's, and realize that the biggest reason for the difference between the two isn't the identity of the guy carrying the ball.
Bryan: That's the spirit! Keep that blind optimism going strong.
Andrew: You said we were writing a positive column!
Bryan: And if we keep assuming NFL front offices will behave rationally, I'm positive we'll be thrown into the loony bin.
Andrew: Defensive player of the year, then. With no J.J. Watt to wrest the award away and return it for six points, this race is as open as it has been in years.
Bryan: Yeah, there really hasn't been a single standout player this season. My prior is that Von Miller is the best defender in the NFL, but has he really done anything particularly outstanding to earn the award? I'm not so sure.
Andrew: The thing about the great defenses is they're chock-full of really good players. Denver has great edge rushers and a great secondary. Seattle has a fantastic line and also a great secondary. Philadelphia may have the best defensive line in the game right now, though I still think that would be the Jets if they weren't trying to cover receivers with nothing but chunks of dislodged turf and furious hand gestures. Minnesota was great, but they have fallen off a lot during October for a variety of reasons.
Bryan: I'll throw a name into the mix -- what do you think about Khalil Mack? He's beginning to get things rolling, with six sacks in his last four games.
Andrew: I think he's a very good player who, like Aaron Donald, is stuck with a supporting cast not nearly good enough to let him be the wrecking ball he could be if he was on a better defense.
Bryan: Going back to your "Philadelphia has the best line in the game" statement, maybe a Brandon Graham? We're kind of lacking "great individual leader on sure-fire playoff team with a top-tier defense" guys.
Andrew: I was thinking Fletcher Cox, but that only illustrates your point. What about Eric Berry? That Chiefs defense sure has looked great the past few weeks after a couple of wobbly early-season performances, and Berry is their unquestioned leader.
Bryan: I don't have a super-strong argument against him, other than safeties not normally being quite valuable enough in the grand scheme of things to win this award. Then again, Ed Reed, Bob Sanders, and Troy Polamalu all are past winners, so I could go along with that, unless we want to just fall back to Von Miller.
Miller, Berry, Mack -- just give it to the entire AFC West and call it a day.
Andrew: Von Miller is something of a default position at this point, so he's probably the most likely go-to in the absence of any other outstanding player. I'm going to take the approach of the best player on the best defense, though, and with the Eagles still No. 1 in DVOA I think that player is Fletcher Cox.
Bryan: I'll go along with that, but I think this is clearly the hardest award to call at the moment. Someone needs to separate from the pack down the stretch!
Andrew: We'll stay with the defensive theme then: since we have already picked our offensive rookie of the year, who is the defensive equivalent. Only one name here, right?
Bryan: The way I see it, there are three candidates: there's Joey Bosa, there's Joey Bosa, and of course, there's Joey Bosa. Unless you think the fact that he missed the start of the season hurts him in the same way it hurts Brady.
Andrew: There are other legitimate candidates for the MVP award. Who's the other legitimate candidate for defensive rookie of the year? Deion Jones? Playing well, admittedly, but not transcendently so. Jalen Ramsey? I find it hard to give anybody in Jacksonville any award that doesn't involve wood in some fashion, either being spoon-shaped or chopped with an axe (spoilers!).
Bryan: Keanu Neal has had a pretty solid start in Atlanta, and in a lesser class, might be in the conversation as well. But I don't think there's any real argument against Bosa, even if his molten-hot start to the season has cooled down to just "very good" in recent weeks.
Andrew: Right, as you put it during a different conversation: if we picked anybody other than Bosa, we'd spend more time explaining why it wasn't Bosa than explaining why it was the other guy. We aren't picking anybody else; it's Bosa.
So, Comeback Player of the Year.
Bryan: This one's always a bit tough for me, because there are a number of different ways to "come back". Are we talking about missing the 2015 season? Does an injury in the playoffs count? What if you just weren't particularly good the year before? Lots of different definitions you could take here.
Andrew: The one guy whose name I've seen a few times in connection with this award, whom I'd immediately disqualify is Melvin Gordon. He wasn't good as a rookie. He didn't "come back" to be good as a sophomore. You can't "come back" to somewhere you've never been, and until this season "good NFL running back" was uncharted territory for Gordon..
The running back I would say has a good chance at the midseason version of this award is DeMarco Murray.
Bryan Again, though, what is Murray coming back from? Is this just an award for being bad for a year?
Andrew: Being made to walk the plank by Captain Chip of the Green Eagle.
Bryan: Jimmy Graham is coming back from a torn patellar tendon, which I'm reliably told is not a good thing to have if you're trying to play professional football. He is doing pretty darn well in his comeback, I'd say, regaining most of the dominant form that had the Seahawks give up so much for him in a trade a year and a half ago.
Andrew: Jordy Nelson, too, is a candidate. Though he isn't nearly back to his best, it's hard to say how much of that is due to coaching and the general condition of the Packers offense.
Bryan: I've seen someone suggest Tony Romo, which, just, no.
Andrew: Andrew Luck, though, is an option at quarterback. It's just a shame the team around him is … well… every bit as bad as it always is. At least his contract is being coached up for a starting role at cornerback in 2017. Maybe, instead of just criticizing him for playing quarterback like a linebacker, they could try actually inserting him at that position.
Bryan: I could get behind Luck, as that shoulder injury never really cleared up last season. It's always hard to justify giving an award to a player on a team which isn't that great, and Luck's not super-high in DVOA or anything, but I think he's pretty clearly improved over last year's injury-plagued season.
Andrew: He's clearly the best quarterback in that division, and the team is clearly losing in spite of him rather than because of him. I think I'd settle on Luck if we gave the award today, and since that's exactly what we're doing …
Bryan: That just leaves us Coach of the Year.
Andrew: Are we doing actual Coach of the Year, or are we doing what the real NFL does and awarding Coach of the Year (Non-Belichick Edition)?
Bryan: It's our column! We can do what we want! We can make Bill Belichick offensive player of the year, if we so choose!
At the same time … we wrote off the Dallas Cowboys so much, we weren't allowed to pick them as the most likely team to underperform in our preseason awards. Doesn't the fact that they're 8-1 mean Jason Garrett wins this award?
Andrew: Only if you believe a team's record is directly tied to the job done by its head coach, or for that matter that a head coach's performance is solely determined by the team's record. Dak Prescott has been better than anybody envisaged, but that's the best line in football and possibly the best running back in football, and Rod Marinelli has an argument for being the best duct-tape-and-bailing-wire defensive coordinator in the business. Garrett's not a bad shout, but the team's record doesn't necessarily mean he wins it. Belichick, on the other hand, is clearly the brains behind the entire Patriots operation.
Bryan: In addition, Belichick gets credence from the "something needs to go wrong to prove how good a coach you are" crowd thanks to the Brady suspension -- to get the Patriots to 3-1 without their future Hall of Fame quarterback is the sort of coaching job that people are going to remember.
Andrew: Especially when the backup went down after six quarters, so they played a game and a half with the backup-backup, who also got hurt. Their only defeat without Brady came when they were down to the injured backup-backup (who went on injured reserve almost immediately after that game) and a wide receiver as the backup-backup-backup. Also, it was somewhat overlooked that Rob Gronkowski missed most of September as well, so they were without their best two players on offense.
Bryan: So, yeah. Couple all of that with the fact that, you know, Belichick's track record is pretty good, and I think we have our coach of the (first-half-of-the-) year, there.
That gives us:
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- Most Valuable Player: Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
- Offensive Player of the Year: Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
- Defensive Player of the Year: Fletcher Cox, DL, Eagles
- Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys
- Defensive Rookie of the Year: Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers
- Comeback Player of the Year: Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
- Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick, Patriots
You happy with that list?
Andrew: As of November 15, yes. It'll be interesting to see how much, if anything, changes between now and New Year's Day.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: Two very different players tied for the lead this week, with 7 points each. Jay Cutler, the gunslinger, only scored that high thanks to the half-ending Hail Mary touchdown against Tampa Bay, while his two interceptions and his fumble brought him back to Earth. Alex Smith, the dink-and-dunk safety specialist, had only one turnover but no scores to counterbalance it. Two different paths, one result.
Running Back: The 49ers were hoping Carlos Hyde would give them a spark in the running game, after he had missed three straight weeks with a shoulder injury. The spark never came, as Hyde and the 49ers had no room to run against a tough Atlanta defense. Hyde ended up with 14 rushing yards on 13 carries, which will get you 1 point.
Wide Receiver: Six zeroes this week to report. Jeff Janis and Chris Hogan did it the classic, no-catch way. Quincy Enunwa and Nelson Agholor caught passes, but didn't manage to get past 10 yards. J.J. Nelson and Michael Thomas took the road less traveled, however. Nelson fumbled once, and Thomas fumbled twice, undoing all their hard work.
Kicker: Yes, yes, the worst kicker of the week was Nick Folk, who missed an extra point and had nothing else to show for his day, ending up with minus-5 points. But Scramble bids a fond farewell to Blair Walsh, who was released by the Minnesota Vikings after missing an extra point for the fourth time this season. He will be missed by Loser League general managers.
The Loser League page is now updated for 2016, and you can check out your team's score here.
Keep Choppin' Wood: Blake and Chad are walking down the street. Chad says to Blake, "let's have a stone throwing competition. Who can hit the ground first?" Blake says, "you're on!" Picks up a stone, throws it at the ground, and misses.
Yes, it's an old (and not particularly funny) Mick & Paddy joke. Yes, it's totally applicable to the Jaguars quarterbacks. Witness:
Only the great Blake Bortles could pull this off pic.twitter.com/cRi5zdxl05
— The Sports Quotient (@SportsQuotient) November 13, 2016
The video speaks for itself. Blake Bortles, Keep Choppin' that Wood.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Wow, Mike Mularkey, is your team ever defying expectations! Not only are the Titans a surprise playoff contender at 5-5 -- and winning actual honest-to-goodness NFL games against teams other than the Jaguars! -- they're also getting more aggressive and adventurous as the season advances. Against Green Bay, this aggressiveness was most evidenced by two plays: the opening kickoff, which the Titans surprisingly kicked onside in an attempt to steal a possession on the Packers, and a DeMarco Murray halfback pass to Delanie Walker which put the Titans up 14-0 midway through the first quarter. Things settled down after that (though Tennessee did also go for a fourth-and-5 just before halftime), but the damage to Green Bay was already done: Tennessee built a 35-10 lead with five touchdowns in its first six possessions, and won 47-25 to stay within a game of Houston at the top of the AFC South.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: A good week for football appears to have been a good week for coaching, too. Even Jeff Fisher may have finally seen the light! So for once, the Fox Award remains vacant.
Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: There's a serious question floating around at Scramble HQ: what the heck does Mike Tomlin's two-point conversion chart look like? Is he playing some sort of 4D chess that we're just unable to comprehend, or does he randomly remember the option is available and decide to go for it in the name of "aggressiveness?" We're all for teams being aggressive here at Scramble, but Tomlin took it to something of an extreme on Sunday, going for two after each of Pittsburgh's four touchdowns. It was the first time in NFL history a team failed on four conversions in one game. Over the past three years, Pittsburgh has gone for 21 two-point conversions, each and every one of them a passing attempt, per PFR. Perhaps this is setting up for an epic game-winning two-point conversion plunge by Le'Veon in Super Bowl LI, making us all look like fools.
"Home Cooking" Fantasy Player of the Week: The role of the touchdown vulture this week was played by Damien Williams. The San Diego native had a career day in his homecoming game against the Chargers, at least in terms of finding the end zone. He carried the ball twice -- for 2 yards -- scoring a touchdown, and caught a nifty 18-yard reception on his only pass target of the day for a second score. Your league must be pretty darn deep if you rostered Williams, languishing well behind the emergent Jay Ajayi on the Dolphins' depth chart.
Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week
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Andrew: I'm not usually one for picking underdogs to cover yet still lose, but this week I'll make an exception for Baltimore (+7.5) at Dallas. An underrated strength of the Ravens is their outstanding run defense, which matches up well against the strength of the Dallas offense. That should be a fascinating matchup of strength versus strength, leaving the outcome of the game potentially in the hands of Joe Flacco and the Ravens receivers. While I don't expect Baltimore to actually win in Dallas, they should be able to make a contest of it as they have in every other game this season -- the Ravens haven't lost by more than eight points with Joe Flacco at quarterback since Week 16 of 2014. This year's edition is just about good enough to maintain that record in Dallas.
Bryan: We're getting a pick 'em between Minnesota and Arizona? Sure, I'll bite and take the Vikings. Yes, the Vikings are on a four-game losing streak and don't look like the same team that took the league by storm at the beginning of the season, but the Cardinals just nearly lost a game at home to the San Francisco 49ers; not exactly a powerhouse performance there. Larry Fitzgerald is also somewhat in doubt for this one, getting an MRI on his knee this week. I'll take the Vikings to right the ship somewhat this week.
Records so far:
For the 10th time this season, the Cleveland Browns sent their fans home without a win on Thursday. Yet, believe it or not, the faint hopes of playoff stardom have not yet been squelched in the Mistake on the Lake! The Baltimore Ravens current lead the AFC North at only 5-4, giving the Browns a faint, mathematical path to victory.
The path, however, will be blocked off if either the Steelers beat the Browns or the Ravens beat the Cowboys during the early window on Sunday. Cleveland will likely get a helping hand from Dallas, but to stay alive, they're going to have to knock off Pittsburgh for the first time since 2014. Considering the state of their play so far this season, color me highly doubtful.
The broadcast will also point out that, with a loss on Sunday, the Browns will have an all-time losing record for the first time in franchise history; they currently sit at 461-461-10. However, this is only true for their NFL history; the Browns went 47-4-3 in their four years as the best team in the old AAFC, before being absorbed into the NFL in 1950. Players like Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, Frank Gatski, and Bill Willis made Cleveland home to the best football in the world in the '40s and '50s. That team might still be able to beat this year's model, even today.
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