by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week we write from somewhere closer to the real world after last week's venture into an alternate reality. Normal NFL service was resumed in many ways by the results in Week 4, though we're still some way from obtaining a clear view of much other than the Rams' excellence and the Bills', er, lack thereof.
Bryan: The Bills, at least, can keep clinging on to some hope that their season may still be alive and ticking, as residual good vibes from their destruction of Minnesota should keep them warm in the frozen wasteland that is Buffalo. Cardinals fans, meanwhile, are the only ones sitting at zero wins, and they have to wonder just what might have been if they had actually started Josh Rosen to begin the year, rather than "enjoying" the Sam Bradford Experience for the month of September. They're the only ones who really saw their season crash out and die before Billie Joe Armstrong woke up, so they can be excused for wanting to think of things other than the 2018 NFL season.
Andrew: It's good for them, then, that this week provided exactly the tonic: it's a game of football, Bryan, but not one that involves the Cardinals losing time after time.
Bryan: Some of our younger readers may not realize that the title of this very column isn't just some random football words thrown together, but was born out of a high-profile and failed minor football league. See, in the old XFL, rather than a coin toss, they had two players line up 20 yards away from the ball, and had them both run at it trying to gain possession. This was stupid and dumb, and famously resulted in the first injury in XFL history; the only time a player has been hurt trying to determine whether or not to take the wind. Something that idiotic seemed perfect for the title of a column celebrating all things stupid and dumb, and we keep going long after the XFL has been buried six feet under.
Andrew: I remember doing something similar in an old youth club I helped run, with largely similar results. Fortunately, ten-year-olds do not collide with quite the same force as 200-pound athletes. Still, even if the XFL and its ludicrous ideas have fallen by the wayside, there will, it seems, never be a shortage of induhviduals (hat tip: Scott Adams ) with the money and -- shall we be polite and say initiative? -- to assemble their own league in a vain attempt to take its place.
Bryan: Over the lifespan of Football Outsiders, we have seen the deaths of the Arena Football League (1987-2008), af2 (2000-2009), the United Football League (2009-2012) and the Fall Experimental Football League (2014-2015). They join a long and storied tradition of folded, flopped, and failed leagues, from the horribly mismanaged and overly cocky United States Football League to the quirky and overambitious World Football League.
Andrew: The list of casualties even includes the NFL's own developmental league, NFL Europe, which folded for good in 2007 after a stop-start 16-year run. Hamburg Sea Devils! Amsterdam Admirals! London Monarchs! Berlin Thunder! And who can possibly overlook the magnificent Scottish Claymores, with former Scotland rugby legend Gavin Hastings signed on as a placekicker in a desperate attempt to get the broader Scottish public to, er, notice that the team existed. Even though the team actually won the World Bowl that year, the public's enthusiasm was, politely, muted, and Hastings was not retained.
Bryan: As our resident European, the NFL Europe must have a special place in your heart.
Andrew: My Claymores jersey has pride of place in my sports kit drawer, where it has resided for approximately ever. The team did manage an average attendance of just over 11,000 over the span of its existence, which compares favorably with soccer attendances in our top division, but that was never going to be sustainable and it was eventually replaced with yet another German franchise.
Bryan: I love minor leagues, and I love minor leagues which realize they're minor leagues most of all. They're great breeding grounds for innovation, both on and off the field. One of the reasons the old AFL succeeded was the new ideas they brought to football in the 1960s. That included giving jobs to coaches like John Madden, Buddy Ryan, and Sid Gillman, who had flashy ideas on how to play offense that simply weren't accepted in the NFL at the time, but it also included things like having names on the back of jerseys so you could identify individual players, or having an actual game clock rather than just a stopwatch being held by the referee. Leagues that are trying to find an audience and differentiate themselves get to try outside-the-box ideas, some of which become standard.
Heck, even the XFL's legacy lives on, with the SkyCam look that has become omnipresent in the NFL today getting its birth there. A lot of NBC's coverage ideas actually come from their one-year relationship with Vince McMahon's machismo-dripping product. And even the ideas that don't work can be interesting. The World Football League experimented with having different position groups wear different-colored pants! That's both hilarious and awesome.
Andrew: Awful. You mean awful. You can claim to mean it in the classical sense of "fills me with awe," but you still mean awful. Heck, the Jaguars uniforms look bad enough even when the team all matches. That WFL photo looks like a gaggle of grown men unwittingly staggered out of separate disco nights into the same stag party.
Bryan: I think that just describes the '70s, just like the USFL's failures in the '80s over money and greed describe that decade to a tee. Failed leagues are time capsules.
Andrew: If we are postulating that the success or failure of these minor leagues may be determined by how closely they parallel the society and politics of their era, I cannot ever bear to think about the implications for any minor league in the 2010s and, potentially, 2020s.
Bryan: Well, dread no longer! In two years, we might not only get to see that, but we might have dueling minor leagues. On television! With actual backers and people trying to get you to watch, rather than just four guys on a dirt field in Sheboygan!
Andrew: We are truly nothing if not the most prolific prognosticators on this here website, and thus we must use our expertise and foresight to assess these two would-be contenders!
Bryan: In the red corner, we have the Alliance of American Football, founded by producer Charlie Ebersol and ex-Colts team president Bill Polian. They're kicking off next season, and just announced their team names and logos, as well as the first 515 players signed to the new league. It's a real thing! It's happening!
And in the blue corner, we have the revival of Vince McMahon's XFL, set to kick off in 2020. While it doesn't have team locations or players signed yet, it does have the advantage of brand recognition and a crazy owner who has showed a long and varied career of shoving money at pet projects until they eventually crash and burn -- see the World Bodybuilding Federation from the 1990s. By the by, "XFL" does not, and has never, stood for "eXtreme Football League" -- it doesn't stand for anything.
Andrew: The more attentive and alert among you may have noticed the omission of Don Yee's Pacific Pro Football League, which is still reportedly set to launch in the summer of 2019. We consider the Pacific Pro League more of a salaried developmental competitor to the unholy abomination that is the NCAA than a true professional minor league; the paid apprenticeship to the NCAA's (sarcasm font) "student-athlete" amateur environment.
Bryan: And make no mistake, the AAF and the XFL do view each other as competitors. The AAF has started giving out three-year contracts (with outs in case an NFL team comes calling) specifically to lock up players before the XFL can get off the ground, while XFL commissioner Oliver Luck has sent letters to agents advising them to not have their clients sign with the AAF and to instead wait a season for their league to get off the ground.
Andrew: Oliver Luck, it should be noted, has extensive experience in the day-to-day business of running a minor league, from his time with the aforementioned NFL Europe. He was the general manager for two NFL Europe franchises, and the league president for four seasons from 1996 until 2000. He is a well-known figure to those who are familiar with the NFL's European endeavours.
Bryan: Of course, the XFL isn't the only league bringing in experienced and familiar names. The AAF is overseen by Bill Polian and Troy Polamalu, with names like Hines Ward, Justin Tuck, and former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol as advisors. In addition, they actually have a surprisingly decent list of head coaches. Long-time Scramble idol Mike Martz is heading the awesomely named San Diego Fleet; the Head Ball Coach himself, Steve Spurrier, takes over the Orlando Apollos, and Mike Singletary will be dropping trou for the Memphis Express. Brad Childress, Rick Neuheisel, Dennis Erickson, Mike Riley -- it's actually a pretty darn good list of head coaches, or at least former coaches who can't get a job in the NFL or NCAA anymore. You even have exciting potential coordinators, with Michael Vick signing on to lead the Atlanta Legends' offense. That's quite a bit of talent already locked up, so I think the AAF definitely earns an early point up on their rivals there.
Andrew: That said, few people will pay specifically to watch a glittering lineup of coaches.
Bryan: Some people might pay to see Spurrier; he's revered in Florida.
Andrew: It will be the players, though, who really sell the tickets.
Bryan: That's where everything falls apart, doesn't it? People are bored to tears with the fourth preseason game each year, and yet that's the sort of player the leagues are going to have to work with in order to generate any sort of buzz whatsoever. It should be a better brand of football than those fourth preseason games because teams will be actively trying to win, but, oof. Josh Johnson versus Zach Mettenberger might be the headline quarterback matchup -- at least, among players currently under contract. Trent Richardson might be the best-known player on any team, as he joined the Birmingham Iron.
Andrew: The smart money is on whichever league can consistently attract the hottest college prospects who are not quite up to NFL standards, but still have a strong following from their college days. Somebody like Tim Tebow or even Troy Smith, a Heisman winner from his time at Ohio State, would be the dream signing. Both of those players were drafted and took NFL snaps, of course, but if the Atlanta Legends can grab a core of players from Georgia and Auburn, while the Memphis Express loads up on starters who don't make the grade out of Memphis and Louisville ... I'm really testing the limits of my college football geography already, but you get the idea. Well-placed teams could have a natural market, and that might go a long way toward making the entire system viable, as long as they aren't crazy enough to think that they can compete with THE major league.
Bryan: Location is very interesting here. One reason the old AFL and AAFC were able to succeed is that they could put teams where the NFL simply wasn't. If you were a football fan in Denver or Boston in 1959, you didn't have a local team to root for, until the AFL came calling. The AAF has a few established cities on their list (Atlanta, Memphis, and Tempe), but also has teams in San Diego, which just lost a team, and San Antonio, which has been dying to get one. Birmingham could theoretically draw from both Alabama and Auburn fans (if they could stop hating each other for five minutes), and Salt Lake City and Orlando seem like interesting options, as well.
Andrew: See, there's the other thing: you have a team in Birmingham and a team in Atlanta. If one draws carefully from Georgia, for instance, and the other from Auburn, then you also create a natural rivalry. Nothing, and I mean nothing, sustains interest in sport like good ol' fashioned tribalism.
Bryan: The XFL, by contrast, says they want to play in existing NFL cities. They haven't announced any places yet, but the old XFL had teams in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- large markets which could, theoretically, support minor league teams, especially if they serve as quasi-farm teams for the major clubs. They also had teams in Orlando, Birmingham, and Memphis, but they've been beaten to the punch there.
Andrew: The farm team idea is fine in theory, like say with AAA baseball, but in that case you really are placing yourself at the mercy of NFL interest. If the big team isn't interested in your players, or doesn't like your methods, you really don't have much of a selling point beyond that. The ideal scenario is that, say, die-hard Rams fans will go watch the minor team so that they know something about the dude who was just brought in at the bottom of the roster as a replacement for Dominique Easley, but that's only any use to you if there is a consistent development pipeline between the minor league team and the major.
Bryan: This is true. I went to a number of San Jose Giants games back when I was living out west, but that's because they were close, cheap, and usually had crazy and wacky gimmicks going on. I wasn't super-interested in the double-A prospects, per se -- some fans certainly are, but that's not really enough to sustain a league.
Andrew: It works in soccer and baseball, but that's largely because those are fundamentally different sports in terms of both the physical toll and the depth of the established minor leagues. A baseball player can play for the minor league team, be called up to the majors, and be in game shape the next day. A young soccer player can play the last 15 minutes for the first team on Saturday, then 75 minutes for the development squad on Monday. Football players quite simply cannot do that. Now sure, that's why you keep the season schedules separate, but then there's a tradeoff in terms of preparation, fan interest, keeping players in shape, and so on.
Bryan: That's a good point we haven't mentioned. The AAF season starts in February, one week after the Super Bowl, and ends in April, the same weekend as the NFL Draft. It basically takes up the offseason. The XFL is planning a similar schedule. Neither league is crazy enough to go head-to-head with the NFL, which makes a lot of sense ... but it also means that you won't get that immediate "oh, this guy could help my team today!" factor you get in the minor leagues or lower levels of the soccer pyramid. It will be fodder for "top UDFA" sorts of lists right after the draft, but that's about it.
All in all, I think I like the AAF's strategy better here. Assuming they go with conferences -- which they haven't announced yet -- you've got four teams all in the southeast, all practically in the SEC. That's prime college football country, and there are plenty of college stars who aren't quite good enough for the NFL who could fill out those ranks. The other four teams are roughly in the southwest, so you have solid, geographical rivalries, rather than trying to stretch across the entire country. It's kind of like what the NFL Europe did at the end, moving five of its six teams to Germany to try to create some local rivalries (and, uh, cheaper operating costs), rather than spreading out across all of Europe.
Andrew: That amuses me, because one thing I always hear when talking football with my American brethren is that "the NFL is a northern thing; in the south we follow college"; yet here we have the minor professional league setting all of its teams in the South (and yes, even as a European, I'm aware of the difference between the geographical south -- e.g., San Diego or Miami -- and The South as in Huntsville or Little Rock).
Bryan: I mean, that's one of the reasons Birmingham never is on the list of top NFL relocation destinations; the team would play third fiddle to the two big college teams in the state. The AAF is, presumably, OK with playing third fiddle there.
That's another big difference between the two leagues; the AAF seems alright being "that small football league what plays in the spring," while the XFL has made a point of saying they're going to "learn from the NFL's mistakes." They're not going head-to-head competing with them, but it feels more like they're trying to position themselves as an alternative to the NFL, rather than a supplemental league.
Then again, the AAF already has a TV deal, and the XFL does not. AAF's opening game and championship will be on CBS proper, with the CBS Sports Network broadcasting at least one game per week in between. The XFL is talking a great deal about streaming. McMahon's slightly more prominent venture, the WWE, has an extremely successful streaming service already, with over two million subscribers at (and, if you've watched an episode of Monday Night Raw in the past five years, you'll be able to finish this with me) just $9.99 a month. With Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook all sidling around NFL streaming rights, someone's going to be left out in the cold, and maybe they'll view the XFL as a potential alternative.
Andrew: For the second time, that's advantage: AAF, at least in theory. Though even that is less important than it used to be. Take me, for instance: I'm a digital consumer. I pay for Game Pass, but do not have a home television package, whether terrestrial, satellite, or cable. That has its advantages and disadvantages, but it does mean that I would have to think carefully about whether a further subscription would be worth it. A digital service linked to, say, Amazon Prime or Netflix would greatly increase the likelihood of me taking an interest. For somebody else though, they would only watch it if it was on their existing cable service -- UNLESS the product was so good that they felt they would be missing out.
Bryan: Yeah, if the XFL can hook up with an existing service, that would be big. The AAF is planning their own digital thing, but I'm not subscribed to their own digital thing yet. I've got Netflix! If the XFL is on Netflix, that raises the odds I'll at least check them out dramatically. I can't count the number of times I've gone "ooh, random rugby game on ESPN3!" Would I seek out said random rugby game? No! But if it's right there, I'll take a look at it. A CBS time slot is great, but the CBS Sports Network isn't exactly on the top of everyone's dial.
Andrew: The other thing that could be either a selling point or a massive turn-off is the game itself. I don't mean the players, or quality of competition here, so much as the actual specifics of how the game is managed. Most Europeans I know can't bear the thought of watching a three-hour programme for 15 minutes of genuine action. With soccer, you know that the game will last roughly two hours from first whistle to last, with a break of exactly 15 minutes almost exactly midway through. The pace of play in the NFL, for somebody who is not invested, can be a significant downer. Exciting thing! Commercial. Extra point. Commercial. Kickoff. Touchback. Commercial. What have we spent, five whole minutes watching dross without knowing for sure if we'll miss anything if we go make a cuppa?
Bryan: This is where both leagues agree with you. Both of them have made a point of stressing that they hope to make game shorter, with the AAF again providing specifics on how they're shooting for two and half hours, and the XFL providing generalities about how they'll get to two. That's a big selling point. A bad NFL game that lasts three and a half hours becomes intolerable; that's one of the reasons Red Zone has taken off. Even a good minor league game that threatens that length might get people headed for the exits or reaching for the off switch.
This actually rolls nicely into the last thing I really wanted to be sure we mentioned: the actual rule changes. If either league is going to have a lasting impact, it's probably more likely going to be as a breeding ground for potential rule changes or ideas the NFL adopts, rather than as a long-lasting and running minor league in its own right. If either league lasts three seasons, I'll be somewhat surprised -- but their ideas could end up having a long, lasting impact on the NFL. So really, we should be judging these leagues by the quality of those ideas, rather than the amount of former college stars they can rope in or the platforms they can broadcast from.
Andrew: Some of those ideas have been mooted before, and will finally be tested in live action. The AAF intends to banish the kickoff, instead either handing the team who conceded the most recent points possession on their own 25-yard line, or allowing the team who scored to face "fourth-and-10" on their own 35-yard line: a single shot to gain ten yards and retain possession. That has been suggested a few times recently, most prominently by former Buccaneers drill sergeant Greg Schiano, but never to my knowledge used in a competitive game. That league also intends to banish extra points, making teams go for two or bust, and to reduce the play clock to 30 seconds. None of those ideas is especially terrible, though I would still have extra points on the condition that they are kicked by the player who scored the touchdown.
Bryan: I think we can bicker about whether it should be 10 yards of 15 yards or whathaveyou, but the Schiano Rule is absolutely an improvement on the expected onside kick. Would you rather see Aaron Rodgers lining up behind center for a do-or-die play, or Mason Crosby scooting the ball randomly across the turf right at a defender? I know which one is more interesting to watch as a fan, and more skill-based for a team.
Andrew: The distance can probably be tweaked as the success rate is gradually sussed out. I'd rather see kickoffs turned into punts (or drop kicks, with a nod to Michael Dickson!), which still gives the option for the surprise fake, but almost anything is better than commercial-touchback-commercial.
Bryan: I'm also in favor of banning the extra point in general, because they are boring. Less so now that the NFL moved the distance back, but it's still a play you just assume happens and then are shocked when it doesn't succeed. I also like the fact that the play clock is being cut down to 30 seconds -- teams already hurry to the line, so the full 40 seconds really only comes into play when a team is draining the clock at the end of the game. Again, it's more interesting to see the leading team trying to get first downs than just kneeling three times after the two-minute warning, so that's a positive change. A lack of television timeouts should help the viewing experience, as well, with commercials only coming in during team timeouts and quarter breaks; no more extra point-commercial-kickoff-commercial segments. They do, however, also say that no game will end in a tie, which as we discussed two weeks ago, is rather meh, in the grand scheme of things, especially because they're not otherwise altering overtime.
Andrew: By contrast, what we know about the XFL's rules is immediately a depressing cavalcade through the confluence of modern sport, politics, and the criminal justice system. Flags and anthems, anthems and flags.
Bryan: It's not all bad -- the XFL is taking a stance by banning players with a criminal record from participating. You can contrast that with people like Mychal Kendricks only just now, as we go to press, getting suspended by the NFL. I think that's generally a positive thing! But yes, banning kneeling strikes me as a ploy to a certain kind of fan who has stopped watching the NFL. You know, the kind of fan who, uh, caused the NFL's ratings to jump double-digit points last week compared to 2017 and produced the best Monday Night Football rating in over a year Monday night.
Andrew: ... and who hasn't actually stopped watching, but that's another tale for another time.
The zero tolerance criminal records restriction is 100 percent guaranteed to make a rod for the league's own back, either because they will lose talented players with minor convictions (smoking marijuana or somesuch) to their rivals; or because they will see some silly incident become a major drama; or because they will end up not enforcing it evenly and looking like fools.
Bryan: Vince McMahon, look like a fool for failing to enforce his own policies? Surely, you jest.
Andrew: ... more like fools.
Bryan: All in all, it seems like the AAF's philosophy behind their tweaks makes a lot of sense. "These plays are boring, dangerous or both. Let's replace those with more interesting things." The XFL's announced tweaks are more "this is what the NFL has gotten criticism for, so let's do the exact opposite and get those critics on our side."
Andrew: For the third time, then: advantage AAF.
The big question, of course, is whether either of these leagues will be a success. I hope so, because I think the standard of NFL play suffers in the absence of an effective minor league. Guys like Jon Kitna, Brad Johnson, Jake Delhomme, James Harrison, and most famously Kurt Warner all benefited immensely from the professional reps they gained in NFL Europe.
Bryan: Even the XFL provided a place for players to kick-start their careers, with Tommy Maddox, Mike Furrey, and Steve Gleason finding their way to successful NFL careers after having some success in the minor league. In all honesty, if either of these leagues is going to have a lasting impact, that's what it's likely going to be -- a place for players who slipped through the cracks to try to shine without having to go to Canada or the Arena League.
Andrew: It may simply be a question of which league is most willing to embrace that role. Given his personal history, that seems unlikely to be Vince McMahon, unless he is quite firmly reined in by those around him. I am interested in the AAF primarily because it seems to be interested in putting the best possible product on the field. The XFL's concerns are not my concerns. People will pay, and pay well, to watch good players play entertaining sports, and though I have my doubts that either of these leagues will ever fit that general description, the AAF at least seems conscious of the need to focus its efforts in that direction.
Bryan: Make the games short, the parking and admission cheap, and the hot dogs tasty, and I think they have a shot. Still, I'll take the under on either league existing in 2022.
Andrew: Will Bryan's wager come in? I guess our readers will just have to join us again in four years' time to find out!
Bryan: We'll have to change the name of the column if either league succeeds, so fingers crossed. "The Schiano Rule" would be a terrible name for a column, but a great ...
Andrew: Acronym for some terrible defensive tactic?
Bryan: ... name for a Loser League team.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill, I started you this week! In regular fantasy! Where scoring points is a good thing! And how do you repay me? 100 passing yards and two turnovers! I'll grant you that your center breaking his arm and receivers failing to get open hurts, but that arm-punt of an interception goes on any career lowlight reel. Burn the film, wake up tomorrow, and forget this putrid 1-point performance. Josh Allen outscored you! Josh Allen!
Running Back: With Marlon Mack hurt, Jordan Wilkins has been starting at running back for the Colts. Over the last two weeks, he has just 35 yards on 14 carries so, you know, that's been going really great. He managed just 16 yards on eight carries against Houston, and failed to haul in his one pass target. That'll keep you at just 1 point.
Wide Receiver: A trio of Goose Eggers this time. Andre Holmes and Brandon Marshall both did catch a pass -- two, in Holmes' case! -- but failed to gain 10 yards. Ted Ginn didn't catch any of his three targets, but had one rush for 1 yard. Nul Points!
Kicker: Insert Chargers Kicker Here is a pretty safe pick for your Loser League rosters. Now, it's Caleb Sturgis, who missed not only a field goal, but two extra points! He single-handedly kept the 49ers competitive for far longer than they had any right to be, and earned every bit of his -3 points.
Check your team's score and the leaderboard here!
Keep Choppin' Wood: A dominating display by the Bills in Minnesota gave Bills fans some justification to hope that their rookie quarterback might not be the disaster most prognosticators proclaimed. The follow-up visit to Wisconsin? Not so much. Josh Allen completed only five of his first 19 passes, slinging many of them so wildly off target that neither his receivers nor Packers defenders had a chance to make a play on them. Allen was sacked seven times, fumbled once, and managed to push another two passes close enough to active players that they were intercepted by Packers defenders. The worst of those plays was probably this one:
— Sporting News Canada (@sportingnewsca) September 30, 2018
That was Allen, on his only red zone pass of the day, scrambling right away from pressure before throwing back across his body deep into the middle of the defense, hitting a wide-open Jaire Alexander for a 27-yard interception return.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: When discussing his fourth-down decision-making following Sunday's defeat in Oakland, Hue Jackson really, truly, seriously said this:
Hue Jackson on not going for it on 4th & inches from own 18, felt he was tempting fate all day and would've tested their luck after already cashing in a couple of times #Browns
— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) October 1, 2018
ESPN's Mike Clay said it best:
Hue's decision-making guideline is literally the Gambler's Fallacy
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) October 1, 2018
To be clear, we do not have a specific issue with the decision to punt from Cleveland's own 18-yard line, but the thought process behind it is ridiculous. This is just one more example of what we now take to be a self-evident truth: the only reason the Browns roster has a losing record ... is the Browns coaching staff.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: The AFC South provided us with two massive overtime fourth-down decisions that could eventually prove important in the AFC wild-card race. Our staff debated the Colts decision in Audibles, noting that in those circumstances failure probably cost the Colts more than success would have gained them. Mike Vrabel had an even starker decision to make against the Eagles: a failure to convert on fourth-and-2, in range for a 50-yard field goal attempt, would immediately end the game, whereas converting would give his team a full minute and more to drive for a game-winning touchdown. Vrabel apparently never wavered, specifically sending the field-goal unit onto the field to deceive the Eagles while his offensive staff planned the fourth-down play call. A short throw to Dion Lewis converted, and the Titans did indeed drive for the walk-off touchdown. Their coach's boldness, and the resultant victory, leaves them sitting pretty at 3-1 in a murky AFC.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching: There are a few key differences between Vrabel's decision and Frank Reich's decision. First and foremost, the Titans were already losing; they weren't risking blowing a tie. A 50-yard field goal isn't the hardest kick in the world, but teams only make it about 69 percent of the time (nice); it's far from a gimme. The Titans have historically converted third- and fourth-and-short about 55 percent of the time, and they're up to about 73 percent so far this year. The reward for succeeding (the ball in the red zone, plus the backup plan of kicking a field goal anyway) outweighed the cost of failing.
But let's look at the Colts' decision, in contrast. The Colts were about 25 yards further away from the end zone than the Titans were; even converting would have left them with significant work to do to score, and only about 25 seconds to do it in. The Texans were out of time-outs; even an average punt would have left the Texans deep inside their own territory, with time for just one long sideline pass to set up a game-winning field goal. It was fourth-and-4, rather than fourth-and-2; the Colts are converting that distance less than half the time this season. There was less time on the clock, as well -- had the Titans kicked the field goal, the Eagles would have had about a minute, with at least one timeout, to drive back down the field and kick a field goal themselves! The Colts cost themselves an essentially guaranteed tie chasing a possible win; the Titans merely gambled the possibility of a tie for a greater possibility of either a tie or a win. We love going for it on fourth down here at Scramble, and we know that if the results had been reversed, people would be calling Reich the hero and Vrabel the goat. But you have to take situational context into account when making these sorts of decisions. We applaud Reich for trusting in his team and wanting to win rather than tie, but he picked the wrong time and the wrong situation to gamble.
'Bear Raid' Fantasy Player of the Week: We try to avoid giving this award to starting quarterbacks too often; all but the very worst should find a way to have the occasional three-touchdown day. But three touchdowns aren't as many as six touchdowns (there we go, doling out those advanced stats once again). Mitchell Trubisky had just nine passing touchdowns coming into this week's matchup against Tampa Bay. No, not nine in three games; nine in his career. If Matt Nagy hadn't taken his foot off the gas in a blowout in the second half, Trubisky had a real shot of tying -- or even breaking -- the long-standing NFL record for touchdown passes in a game, first set at seven by fellow Bear Sid Luckman all the way back in 1943. It only feels like the Bears haven't had a successful quarterback since 1943, but Trubisky's performance this week was the first one he's had that really matches his draft pedigree. The Bears would love to see more of that -- maybe not six-score games, but multiple scores in the future.
— HUS Sports (@HUSSports) September 30, 2018
Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Performer of the Week: The old man has some juice in his legs yet. Frank Gore has experienced more than his fair share of blowout losses in his 14-year career, and the 35-year-old running back continues to produce. While the Dolphins were forced to give up on the running game early, Gore outran and out-touched supposed starting running back Kenyan Drake, finishing with 11 carries for 41 yards, as opposed to Drake's three for, uh, 3. In addition, Gore scored the Dolphins' only touchdown of the game, trucking Devin McCourty on a true garbage-time grab from Brock Osweiler. If Gore can continue to out-touch Drake, all of a sudden the idea that he might yet crack the all-time top three in rushing yards doesn't sound quite so crazy. Gore is just 1,104 yards behind Barry Sanders for third, after all…
— Máximo Avance NFL (@NFL_MA) September 30, 2018
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: The most obvious comforting number for Dolphins fans after Sunday's shellacking in Massachusetts is the team's 3-1 record, which means they retain a one-game lead over the Patriots in the AFC East. That is less than encouraging, however, given who each team has played so far and the respective remaining schedules. One clear bright spot in the early going has been the team's top draft pick: Minkah Fitzpatrick ranks second on the team in tackles behind only linebacker Kiko Alonso, and snagged the first interception of his young career against the Patriots. Fitzpatrick is already a key component of a pass defense that has exceeded expectations thus far, even accounting for Sunday's rather less positive performance.
Game-Changing Play of the Week: A.J. Green. Just … A.J. Green.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 30, 2018
Considering the Falcons made the playoffs last year on the back of at least two-last second failures by their opponents in Detroit and Seattle, it is perhaps karmic justice that they're getting hit with last-second successes so far this year.
The victory keeps Cincinnati atop the AFC North and in the two-seed thanks to their Week 2 win over Baltimore; the loss would have bumped them all the way down to the sixth seed as they try to keep pace with the Ravens. It's beginning to look a lot like a Cincinnati-Baltimore race all the way to the finish here, as Pittsburgh sputters and Cleveland, while improved, remains Cleveland. That means getting this win is big -- now, Baltimore will be pressed to match this road victory when they travel to Atlanta in Week 13. A last-second victory like this could be the difference between, say, a 10-win Bengals team hosting a wild-card game, or a nine-win Bengals team having to open up on the road. For a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 1990, a couple of last-second swings like this could be huge.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Andrew: This is one of those weeks in which I don't really like any of the betting lines, but unusually I'm most tempted by the Bengals. The Dolphins were one of the surprise packages of the first three weeks en route to a 3-0 start, but hit the buffers hard in New England. Cincinnati was one of my picks to surprise people this season, as a much improved line gives Andy Dalton the comfortable situation he needs to be successful. Dolphins center Daniel Kilgore is out for the year, which is a problem against the ever-challenging Geno Atkins, but the bigger loss might be cornerback Bobby McCain. Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green have formed a formidable receiving tandem, so McCain's loss could be keenly felt against a Bengals team that just lost a key player of its own in Tyler Eifert. The Bengals don't do anything easily, so the biggest worry is the touchdown line, but in the end I would hope the Bengals could cover that. Cincinnati (-6) vs. Miami.
Bryan: After two straight weeks taking the underdog, it's time to get back on the favorites. There are going to be points scored in the Pittsburgh-Atlanta game. A lot of points. Over the last three weeks, teams are averaging 32 points in games involving one of these two teams, and only last week's Steelers and Week 2's Panthers have been held under 25. I'm tempted to just take the over on the 57.5-point line and calling it a day, to be frank. Instead, I'll take Pittsburgh (-3) to win in a shootout. I like the odds of Pittsburgh getting off of their offensive slide more than I like the odds of banged-up Atlanta learning to play defense. Either way, this looks less like the Super Bowl preview it might have seemed when the schedule was announced.
Double Survival League
Bryan: Finally, I claw back a game! Indianapolis' decision to play for the win backfired. That not only saved Houston's season, but it gave Andrew his second loss of the year. Still miles to go for me to catch up, but at least there's the chance I could take the lead in any given week now. Now, if the 49ers had only managed to complete the comeback against the Chargers ...
Andrew: In the absence of any truly favorable cellar-dweller matchups, I'm going to break with my own approach thus far and throw in a couple of established favorites. The rivalry might be back on according to Ryan Grigson, but on the field the Colts and Patriots do not look nearly close enough in ability to be rivals. Last week, the Colts lost at home, in overtime, to a previously winless Houston squad while the Patriots were blowing the doors off the previously undefeated Dolphins. Rob Gronkowski is an injury doubt, but T.Y. Hilton is even less likely to play. Ten-point favorites have had an oddly wretched time of things this season, as Bryan's previous picks will attest, but a New England win on Thursday night should be as close to a sure thing as there is in the NFL.
Secondly, I'm going to tear off a personal band-aid and pick the Saints. I hate picking for my own team, but there are very few enticing matchups this week involving teams I haven't yet selected. Washington is a solid outfit, but home field for one of the most explosive offenses in the league should make this a straightforward New Orleans Saints victory. I say "should," because nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it looks in the division that defense forgot.
Bryan: My first pick will be what looks like the biggest mismatch of the week -- Carolina hosting the New York Giants. "Of the week" is a pretty big caveat here, as there aren't any huge mismatches on the slate. The Panthers are coming off of their bye week, so they should be good and rested to take on a Giants defense which, shall we say, has had some issues through the first month of the season. Alvin Kamara averaged 7.1 yards per carry with three touchdowns against the Giants, and while Christian McCaffrey is no Alvin Kamara, there should be plenty of room for him to run. Unless Saquon Barkley booms a lot more than he has been so far this season, I think Carolina should win this one rather handily.
I'll join Andrew in picking "our" teams by taking San Francisco over Arizona. Andrew has a big advantage here, as he picked the 49ers back in Week 2 and got to have Jimmy Garoppolo; I get C.J. Beathard's version. That's somewhat less than ideal. The 49ers aren't one of my favorite teams to win this week, all in all, but this may be the softest matchup they have left on their post-ACL schedule. Obviously, the Josh Rosen Cardinals will likely be a tougher out than the Sam Bradford version, but this is still an 0-4 team on the road starting a rookie under center. I could wait to see the 49ers against the Raiders or Giants in the middle of the year, but who knows who will be taking snaps for San Francisco by then? I'll take the 49ers and cross my fingers.
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