Scramble for the Ball

Fantasy football, the Loser League, and general goofiness

Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball. After something of a disappointing Week 10, at least among the highest-profile games, we're gearing up for what looks like a fantastic Week 11 slate, assuming that the Chiefs and Rams find a field to actually play on.

Andrew: Well, it's a field in Mexico City. Just more the sort of field in which you'd plant potatoes than the sort on which you'd want to play professional sports.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: During the writing of this article, the NFL announced they were relocating the Rams-Chiefs game back to Los Angeles due to unplayable conditions in Mexico.)

Bryan: This may be a reason to go back and revisit our "places to relocate" article from a few weeks back and cross Mexico City firmly and permanently off the list, but I'm not going to let that get me down. This is a game we have had circled on our calendars for weeks now, and it should serve as the perfect dessert to a week that seems filled with quality matchups. The most exciting thing about this Chiefs-Rams game, however, is that it feels like Round 1. Not just for this season, mind you -- though they would still be my favorites to meet in the Super Bowl -- but for the foreseeable future, as both teams are not just loaded with talent, but with young talent.

Andrew: I'd caution against making any such assumption. We have said the same about a heap of teams in the past decade -- remember when Seahawks-49ers was the rivalry to end all rivalries? -- and they rarely pan out like that. A lot can change in a very short time.

Bryan: We might have a different definition of the "foreseeable future," because 49ers-Seahawks was great for about three years before Jim Harbaugh: Anger Elemental wore out his welcome in the Bay Area.

Andrew: ... they play in different conferences. They won't meet again the regular season until 2022. There isn't a huge amount of scope for a Round 3, even granting you a near-future Super Bowl as Round 2.

Bryan: OK, maybe it has more of a potential to be a Cowboys-Steelers rivalry rather than a Colts-Patriots one, but you are not going to quash my excitement for this one. You have a fair point, though, that the four-year gap between regular season matchups is, from an NFL perspective, an eternity.

Andrew: Heck, according to Bill James, it's long enough for every single player in Major League Baseball to retire and be replaced, and us not notice the difference.

Bryan: It's worth pulling the full quote from that, because Bill James, as one of the patron deities of statistical analysis in sport, deserves that respect from us -- it's not a Stephen A. Smith hottake where we point and laugh, and then ignore it.

"If the players all retired tomorrow," James wrote in a since-deleted Tweet, "we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are."

This is, of course, crazy talk.

Andrew: Absolutely crazy, I agree. If every player in MLB retired tomorrow, I would not notice the slightest difference in six months, never mind three years.

Bryan: James got a lot of heat for that, which is appropriate as that's a molten-hot hot take of the kind we normally hear on sports talk radio.

Andrew: Honestly, the heat fascinates me more than the take does. I mean, everybody knows this is true, right? So what are people upset about? Is it just that he broke omertà?

Bryan: Even ignoring the "players are exchangeable commodities" bit -- which I don't think was James' intention -- you're kidding me with the "everybody knows this is true" thing, right? It's laughably, ridiculously wrong. Like, he should be embarrassed that the thought even popped into his head, much less was expressed publicly.

Andrew: Well, I can't really speak for MLB, but it's certainly true in the NFL. It might take a little longer due to roster sizes and such -- 30 teams of 25 active players each is 750 players, versus 32 teams of 53 players each meaning roughly 1,700, and baseball can import more talent from abroad than the NFL -- but if every single player in the NFL retired tomorrow, the league would recover most of the way to its current level in around four or five seasons.

Bryan: Four or five seasons is different than three, though. Even four or five years down the line, the NFL would be extraordinarily watered down and weakened by a mass exodus, and in three? It would be an absolute disaster. The game is very much the players involved; they're not just something you can exchange without anyone noticing.

Andrew: Well, he didn't say without anybody noticing. He said in three years, it wouldn't make a difference. Given three years of drafting, coaching, and player development, I'm confident that the NFL could recover to be pretty close to indistinguishable from its current level if every current player retired tomorrow. Heck, we even have a football example of this: colleges turn over basically their entire roster every four years, and the college game isn't ruined by that. (It's ruined by the NCAA instead, but that's a different topic.) For some colleges, it's even more drastic than that, as they have so many top players go to the NFL after three years instead of the usual four.

Bryan: The college game has always flipped over rosters every four years, though, so it's not like there is a difference to notice -- it's not like Bear Bryant's Alabama teams got to keep 10-year seniors and Nick Saban's version loses them every three years. I would argue that if colleges got to keep their players for longer, the quality of football at the college level would drastically increase -- because it would just be the NFL. The quality of college football is limited by the fact that the best players leave on a regular basis!

Andrew: Exactly. Even having all of the pros retire at once, you still have the NFL as the pinnacle of the professional sport. It's still going to draw in all of the best football players, and people are still going to watch it as they do now. They'll just have different names on their jerseys, and maybe follow slightly different teams.

Bryan: Sure, it would be the pinnacle of the sport -- but a landslide of players leaving would oh so slightly reduce its altitude. If we lopped 20,000 feet off every mountain in the world, Everest would still be the tallest, but I'd be much more likely to be able to climb it.

Andrew: In the short term, sure. In three years? Three years of professional-level coaching, and diet, and physical development? I genuinely think the biggest change we'd see would be an improvement in coaching, because a higher standard would be required. Players? As long as the current professionals actually retired rather than, say, moving to a big-money startup league in Asia or something, the NFL would still be the biggest show in town, we'd era-adjust statistics for the next couple of years, and things would settle back down.

This isn't me saying that the players aren't great, or incredible athletes, or awe-inspiring sportsmen, or anything of that sort, but sports has always functioned like this to some degree. One generation leaves, you might have a temporary downturn, then the next generation comes in to replace it. Heck, it was barely three years ago that people were asking what we'd do for quarterbacks when Brady, Brees, Rivers, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger retired. Now, we have Goff, Wentz, Mayfield, Rosen, Darnold, Mahomes, Watson, and so on. Not all of those will turn out to be great, I'm sure, but the faces change and the sport goes on.

Bryan: Oh, I don't think you're not thinking current players are great -- I'll grant you that without a fight. I think you're way, way underestimating the time it would take for the NFL to approach NFL-caliber play if they were starting from scratch. I don't think the NFL would be the biggest show in town at all if they were to boot everyone out and start over -- other sports leagues would be providing a much better product, including likely the college game for at least a couple years, and then there are all sorts of other non-sportsy things that would become a much better use of Sundays rather than watching the equivalent of 32 expansion teams. Heck, not even that -- 32 Replacement Player teams for the first season, at the very least.

You mention the quarterbacks, and then go to "and so on." OK, sure, let's start with the quarterbacks. Let's assume, for a thought experiment, that this was Year 3 after the Great Player Exodus of 2015. Maybe they all won the lottery or became astronauts or Thanos snapped them out of existence, I don't know. But we're three years after every single NFL player up and quit, and we need to find 32 men to stand behind center.

There have been 38 quarterbacks drafted over the last three years. Which ones would you like to replace Brady and Rodgers? Nathan Peterman still has a starting job in this league, surely -- he's probably about league average. You're probably talking about starting quarterbacks like Jeff Driskel, Tanner Lee and Brandon Allen.

Andrew: Sure, but you're also, potentially, talking about starting quarterbacks like Jacoby Brissett, Mason Rudolph, and Lamar Jackson, who are currently stuck behind established veterans. Brissett didn't light the league on fire last year, but he showed enough that a full-time starting gig with an offense tailored to him might have potential. If they're even solid quarterbacks, you're already at a third of the league with a professional-caliber starter just from the players we know about from the past three drafts.

Nathan Peterman had a starting job in this timeline too, so that's not exactly a massive changeup. You're talking about a weekend on which Josh McCown played against Matt Barkley, Alex Smith played against Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brock Osweiler and Blake Bortles started games while Joe Flacco and Case Keenum were on bye weeks.

Bryan: McCown-Barkley would be a marquee matchup in this theoretical league! There have not been 32 starting-caliber quarterbacks entering the league in the last three years.

Even including Brissett, Rudolph, and Jackson with our current list of successful young starters, we're still less than halfway to filling out a league. Depth is something that develops over time; only about one in four or five drafted quarterbacks becomes a player we'd accept at face value as an opening-day starter (Bills not included for the sake of everyone's sanity). From 2006 to 2015, there were 116 quarterbacks drafted; 52 of them (45 percent) racked up 10 career starts, while 49 had at least one full year as a starter. Only 35 received a second shot at starting, and just 24 got a third season as a starter out of the deal. For the 38 drafted players -- and let's throw in 10 undrafted free agents for the sake of argument -- we'd need two-thirds of them to develop into NFL-caliber players, and that has just never been true in the history of the league. Some of them are going to be below what we consider today to be an acceptable standard. Probably 20 or so, to be honest, maybe as few as 15 if you give the benefit of the doubt to players getting a ton more reps in practice with all the veterans off on planet Zeist or wherever.

Even assuming the NFL could raid the Canadian and Arena leagues, they could simply not put out a full group of quality players behind center even pre-injuries. Ryan Fitzpatrick is better than Nate Sudfeld; Alex Smith is a better quarterback than Mike White.

Andrew: Sure, now they are. Would that remain so, if Sudfeld was given first-team reps with Kyle Shanahan or Matt LaFleur or Dave DiGuglielmo every week for three years? Look at guys in NFL Europe who weren't considered good enough to start in the NFL, but who developed and improved with regular practice and playing time in a competitive environment. Not everybody needs to be Kurt Warner either: Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna, and Jake Delhomme were starter-level players in their day. I admit, those are obviously the few carefully selected good outcomes from 16 years of quarterbacks in NFL Europe, but I think we can say with reasonable confidence that the development opportunity will turn up quarterbacks whom we otherwise wouldn't ever know about.

Quarterback is clearly the biggest challenge here, but I don't know that it's the crisis you're making out. An equivalent player to Josh McCown and Matt Barkley would be the same in our hypothetical timeline as it is in this, just with two younger guys in their stead.

Bryan: But there wouldn't be many games better than that. When that's an above-average quarterback matchup, people would notice. Yes, you'd have the occasional Goff-Mahomes matchup to excite people, but there's just not enough depth there. You'd have maybe two games a week between what we'd consider today to be NFL-caliber quarterbacks, maybe another five or six where one team had an NFL-level player, and then a bunch of bums.

Andrew: I guess I don't see how it matters whether the Jets-Bills game is Josh McCown versus Matt Barkley or Joshua Dobbs versus C.J. Beathard. Nick Mullens clearly isn't the long-term answer in San Francisco, but coached well by a talented offensive mind, he has led the 49ers to 57 points in their past two games as a second-year undrafted quarterback. Sure, the defenses he played aren't great, but that isn't going to become more of a challenge in our hypothetical timeline.

Bryan: ... did you watch either of those two Mullens games? Were they the quality of football you'd like to see going forward? I say this as someone who greatly enjoyed watching Nick at Nite, but they were not good football games, and if that was the quality of the league as a whole, I would not be tuning in. You said that giving a poor-quality quarterback extra reps with a guy like Kyle Shanahan would make them NFL-caliber players, but we have seen Shanahan with four QB1s now as head coach, and Jimmy Garoppolo stands heads-and-shoulders above Mullens, Beathard and Brian Hoyer. It's not just a matter of reps, it's a matter of talent, and players who aren't good enough to even make NFL rosters to start the season are generally not good enough to put butts in seats.

If the stands were even three-quarters of the way full for Mullens' two starts, I'd be stunned. And remember, Mullens had the benefit of having Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, Weston Richburg, and Michael Person blocking for him, with Kyle Juszczyk in the backfield and Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin running routes. All of them have been in the league for more than three years, so you'd be replacing all of those players with players who are worse than they are.

Obviously, this scenario has never actually occurred, but I think there are three things that are somewhat close, if not perfectly analogous, that we could use to compare -- expansion teams, the 1987 Replacement Player games, and the AFL in the 1960s. These are the sorts of things our new, veteran-less league would be ultimately compared to, as they're the closest we really have to teams or leagues starting from scratch.

Andrew: I think even those analogies don't fit particularly well, for very specific reasons:

  • The strike players were temporary replacements. They might be equivalent to the standard of play in Year 1, but that would have been surpassed beyond recognition by Year 3.
  • Expansion teams are competing against an existing league, not 30 other teams in the same roster situation as them. Even then, every single expansion team since the 1980s has been competitive (at least 7-9) by its third season. Modern expansion teams are not the 1970s Buccaneers.
  • The 1960s AFL was competing against the NFL for talent. A hypothetical "reset" NFL would not have a serious competitor.

That last is assuming, certainly, that only the players retired, and that the league retained all of its owners and contracts and stadiums, etc. If we're talking about resetting the entire football landscape, that's a completely different argument.

Bryan: No, we're just talking about resetting the players, so that's fair.

I will grant you the replacement-player thing. Yes, that would be the standard of play in Year 1, but James' statement doesn't try to say that a league would look the same the very first year -- of course it would be much, much worse. That's not up for debate. I'll withdraw that one entirely.

The other two points of comparison, however, I still argue work decently as at least starting points for comparison. Yes, expansion teams are competing against established teams, so we shouldn't just look at their records -- naturally, they'll lose to better teams more often than not. But we can still look at the quality of their play compared to those teams that aren't starting from scratch -- the pre-existing teams serve as controls for how long it takes for a team to get up to acceptable levels. And as for the AFL -- yes, you're right in that they were competing with the NFL for players, so expecting them to rev up to speed in three years like our theoretical restarted NFL is unfair. But we can still use it to see how long it took for them to match their NFL counterparts. It's the best we're ever going to get in terms of a direct comparison between a league with established players and one without.

Andrew: I see what you're saying, but I think you're underestimating both the benefits of professional training in terms of player development, and the depth of the talent pool beyond the marquee veterans. Undrafted players start and play well for teams every year. With more coaching time, practice reps, and development, more of those guys would make the jump. Sure, you'd lose a chunk of the very top, peak athletes, and it would be hard to replace those veteran quarterbacks in particular, but the general standard of play would be comparable within three to four years.

To further that specific point: only around 25 percent of players from outside the top two draft rounds last more than three years anyway, and only around 15 percent last more than four. The NFL already has massive roster churn below the top few percent of players. Per Pro Football Reference, over 900 players who have played at least one game this season played their first game within the past three years. I don't know exactly how many players have played in total, and of course some of those guys are going to replace each other for one reason or another, but that is still a massive chunk of the total player pool.

Bryan: As of this writing, there have been 6,512 games started in the NFL this season -- 22 players a team, two teams per game, 148 games played. 2,333 of those starts belong to players in their first three years in the league, or about 35.8 percent. That's not an insignificant chunk, there's no doubt about that. But it also means we're talking about replacing the other 65 percent of those players. For some of those guys, there are young backups waiting in the wings, sure, but outside of quarterback, those backups are usually playing rotational roles themselves, and then those would have to be replaced. I think it's fair to say getting rid of all veterans would mean replacing half the league's talent, and we don't have the benefit of Stan Lee helping us write a conclusion to that Infinity War-level disaster.

Add in fourth-year players, and you get to an even 3,100 games started, which moves us to 47.6 percent of all starts. You're at just about 60 percent with fifth-year guys, 70 percent with sixth-year guys, 80 percent with seventh-year guys, and so on and so forth. You have to go to guys in their eleventh year before you get 95 percent of the starts so far, at which point anyone on the other side is pretty much an outlier. That would seem to track well with the AFL's development back in the '60s; Jason Lisk took a look a decade ago at the relative strengths of the AFL and NFL back then, and found that the AFL hadn't quite hit parity by the 1970 merger, though it improved each season.

Andrew: If we were doing a serious analysis of this, I'd want to go much deeper into those figures. How many of those guys are irreplaceable, how many are veterans signed for specific roles, how many are Gruden Grinders, and so on. Replacing 65 percent of the league sounds like a lot, but the calculation changes when you start replacing Chris Conte with Godwin Igwebuike. Or, admittedly, Tom Brady with Jacoby Brissett, who presumably wouldn't have been traded in our alternative timeline. Certainly, Atlanta's defense shows what happens when you are forced to turn too much of a unit over to young guys at once.

Bryan: Does Approximate Value float your boat as a method of comparison, rather than games started?

Andrew: Aren't those two quite tightly linked? If the young guy isn't getting the reps, he won't accumulate AV.

Bryan: They're more tightly linked on positions without many stats, like the offensive line. But it could differentiate Jon Gruden's Favorite 40-Year-Old Receiver from, say, the third or fourth wideout on the Saints or Chiefs. But your point is a fair one -- all these calculations are based on what's going on now as opposed to what would happen in our theoretical league, with all the nitty-gritty level of specifics you'd get if you had to do this for real.

I do think, on the whole, that the NFL is a rational league. If a young player is better than the veteran ahead of them, they will pass them on the depth chart sooner rather than later. Yes, we can all point out counterexamples, but as a general statement, I think it holds up. So when you're talking about replacing 65 percent of the league, in general, you're talking about putting worse players in more prominent positions. They may perform as well as their veteran counterparts because they're playing against other teams who have also undergone the same transformation, but the quality of the play on the field will be different. The 49ers-Giants game on Monday night was close, as was the Saints-Rams game the week prior. Yet one of them was pretty clearly better-quality football.

Andrew: Yes, but you're also giving young players more development time and opportunities, placing more emphasis on teams to have coaches who can further that development, and you're still importing the very, very best talent from every college in the country. Some of it, perhaps even sooner as guys who weren't confident they would crack NFL lineups before would be more willing to take the chance.

Generally, I don't dispute that there would be some decline in the standard of play. I do think the old stars would be missed. I do think the league on the whole would recover to a high on-field standard quicker than most people realize, even as I recognize that losing so many great players so quickly would have long-term ramifications for the sport.

Bryan: I think it would take a full decade before we could compare the Rebirth NFL to the Pre-Crisis version and see equivalent levels of play. I think casual fans would be able to pick up on it, too. A league without veterans just wouldn't pass the Pepsi Challenge. Show footage of both leagues to fans with the names hidden, and they'd be able to tell which league was woefully overmatched.

Andrew: Now you're just being silly. You're talking about a league in which real, actual, living, otherwise functional people were upset that the Broncos booted Tim Tebow for Peyton Manning. You and I might notice a difference. The average guy buys bright-colored laundry and wants something to gaze at while he chugs beer with his buddies. That, more than anything, is why I don't think it would matter to anybody other than purists of the sport.

Bryan: I have more faith in the common person than you do, I suppose. I agree it would take longer for the fine readers of this Internet periodical to be satisfied with the quality of play on the field, but I think even the casual fan could tell us that Nathan Peterman is terrible. And a league full of Nathan Petermans would be too much to contemplate.

There's only one way to determine which of us is right. We have to trick all the current NFL players to follow Le'Veon Bell's example and hold out, indefinitely, and then convince all the front offices to blackball them all. Then, we can come back here in three years and find out what happened.

Or, you know, we could ask the comments to decide. Either/or.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: It feels like it has been ages since Brock Osweiler, a regular visitor to these parts, finished at the bottom of the Loser League, so a warm welcome back! To be fair, while Miami was dreadful on Sunday, it was far from only Osweiler's fault -- but 23-for-37 for 237 yards with a pick and a third consecutive game with no touchdowns isn't going to cut it in the crazy passing environment of 2018. 6 points.

Running Back: Some thought Alfred Morris might be in line for a big role in San Francisco after Jerick McKinnon went down in preseason with a torn ACL -- he has history with the Shanahans, after all. What those people forgot to take into account is that Alfred Morris is really bad at football, and has been for quite some time. Morris was a bigger part of the action on Monday night because third-string running back Raheem Mostert broke his arm, and her responded with nine carries for just 19 yards. Yeah, no. 1 point.

Wide Receiver: A sextet of Goose Eggers to report on this week. Kelvin Benjamin, Terrelle Pryor, Taylor Gabriel, and Tajae Sharpe were all held without receptions, while Christian Kirk and Equanimeous St. Brown were each limited to under 10 yards. The fact that the Bills put up the numbers they did without their No. 1 and No. 4 receivers doing anything is ... impressive. Nul points.

Kicker: I suppose donks are less concerning than straight up shanks, but WOW, Cody Parkey. Two missed field goals and two extra points, all of which hit aluminum. He has kept his job for now -- no guarantee after a day like that! -- but will earn you -12 points. It makes Chandler Catanzaro's last day as a Buccaneer, missing two field goals of his own, seem positively prolific.

Check your team's score and the Part II leaderboard here!

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood: This is a still of Ryan Fitzpatrick, scrambling around the Washington 10-yard line, trailing 3-0 in the second quarter.

Somehow, this is where Fitzpatrick ended up being tackled on that same play:

That's a full yard back from where he was when he started sideways, and about 4 yards behind where he would have been had he just continued forward. Though far from Fitzpatrick's worst play on a day when the Buccaneers set a record for the most yards gained while scoring only three points, it does provide an example of just how his day went. The Buccaneers advanced inside the Washington 30-yard line six times. Twice, Chandler Catanzaro missed field goals. Twice, Fitzpatrick turned the ball over -- an interception to Josh Norman on the opening drive, and a game-ending strip sack in the fourth quarter. Once, Jacquizz Rodgers somehow fumbled the ball into the end zone for a touchback from the 20-yard line. In between, Fitzpatrick followed up Washington's only touchdown of the game by firing an interception directly to cornerback Greg Stroman, gifting three points to a team who had shown very little on offense themselves despite their 10-point lead. Really, either of Catanzaro or Fitzpatrick could be our culprit here, but Catanzaro was cut yesterday whereas remarkably Fitzpatrick, for the time being, remains the team's starting quarterback. That is enough to make Ryan Fitzpatrick our Keep Choppin' Wood weekly winner.

John Fox Award for Conservatism: Some coaches try to win games. Some coaches try not to lose games. Some coaches try to spare their team from being utterly humiliated. Todd Bowles placed himself firmly into the latter category when, with his team trailing 31-0 to the Buffalo Freaking Bills, Bowles chose not to attempt a Hail Mary as the first half expired. Instead, he sent his kicker out to attempt a 55-yard field goal to reduce his team's four-touchdown halftime deficit to ... a four-touchdown halftime deficit. Still, at least there wasn't a zero on the scoreboard any more. Can't have that.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Most coaches hate admitting they're underdogs. Oh, they're quite happy to spout platitudes about nobody believing in them, and how the world is against them, but when the game starts most coaches play the big underdog role like any other game. It was therefore unexpected and refreshing to see Jon Gruden open the underdog Raiders' home game against the Chargers with a risky, high-variance drive. First, punter Johnny Townsend took a fake punt from his own 37-yard line, veered left, and picked up 42 yards along the sideline. Later, when the Raiders faced fourth-and-goal from the 1, Gruden opted to go for it instead of taking the easy field goal. A SHOVeLL to return specialist Dwayne Harris may not have been the optimal call, but the Raiders got the secondary benefit of going for it: they ended up with a field goal anyway on a short field after the Chargers went three-and-out. The game settled into a more predictable pattern from there, and the Raiders eventually lost 20-6, but the opening-drive bravado was a welcome diversion nonetheless.

Hue Jackson Award for Confusing Coaching:: After half the season, Dirk Koetter had seen enough. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken could stay, but the Buccaneers needed a spark to get their season back on track. A spark that can only be provided by the play-calling prowess of one Dirk Koetter! It's easy to see why he made the decision, as Tampa's terrible start led them to rank ... wait, just 15th in offensive DVOA, at an above-average 2.9%? Including being a top-ten passing offense, which is impressive considering Jameis Winston, our 26th-rated quarterback, had started three of the games? No, that's not setting the world on fire, but it's not that bad. Well, it was Monken's first year calling plays, so perhaps Koetter returning to those duties would help the Buccaneers bounce back to … their 5.2% offensive DVOA from a year ago? Um. Huh. When asked for his reasoning, Koetter gave the clear and concise explanation: he had his "own reasons." Thanks for transparency, coach.

Well, I suppose you can't argue with results, and Koetter's return to play calling produced ... the fewest points Tampa has scored since last October. Tampa Bay did move the ball well enough, but tied the NFL record for most yards gained without scoring a touchdown. I suppose any time your offense can be compared to a Bill Walsh-led one, you must be doing something right.

'Breakout Alert' Fantasy Player of the Week:: Not every breakout game leads to a promising career, but it's important to recognize when a rookie makes his first significant contribution, just in case it ends up being the beginning of a long and fruitful career. Perhaps that's what just happened for Anthony Miller. With Darius Slay missing the Bears game with a knee injury, Miller had his first career game with more than 50 yards receiving, making big play after big play. The rookie out of Memphis caught five passes for 122 yards, including both a 45-yard touchdown and a 55-yard catch-and-scramble. We'll have to see how Miller holds up against stricter competition, with a game against Minnesota in prime time this week. Presumably, Minnesota will consider covering him, unlike the Lions.

Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Performer of the Week: The Panthers got blown out quickly against Pittsburgh -- more on that in in a few paragraphs -- but you can't blame Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey became just the third player in Panthers history to have multiple touchdowns in three straight games, and just the seventh player to have 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in his first 25 career games. Even taking out his work on Carolina's first drive -- that was when the game was competitive, a big no-no for anyone looking to pick up the coveted Bortles trophy -- he still had 58 yards with a pair of touchdowns, helping turn a potentially embarrassing 52-7 loss into a, uh, more respectable 52-21 loss.

'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: For years now, the Cincinnati Bengals have been looking for a good No. 2 receiver to take the pressure off A.J. Green. Since drafting John Ross in the first round last year, they appear to have found their man. No, it's not Ross, who has been mostly a bust thus far. Instead, it's the previous year's second-rounder, Tyler Boyd, who has stepped up since the departure of Brandon LaFell. Boyd had only started three games in his first two years, but has started every game this season and has excelled. Boyd ranks 12th in DYAR and 14th in DVOA, has set career highs in yards and touchdowns, and is currently on pace to become Cincinnati's first 1,000-yard receiver other than A.J. Green since Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson in 2009. With Green out against the Saints, Boyd led the Bengals in receptions and receiving yards. He only needs 45 yards per game over the last seven games to reach the 1,000-yard mark, which would be a significant milestone for both the franchise and their young receiver.

Game-Changing Play of the Week: Let's be honest: this week's top games ended up as something of a bust. There were three games between teams with winning records this week: the Titans knocked off the Patriots to the tune of 34-10, the Saints crushed the Bengals 51-14, and the Steelers blew up the Panthers before most fans had settled into their seats on Thursday night. Of the three, it was the Pittsburgh-Carolina game that had the biggest single impactful play. Carolina had opened the game with a beautiful nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, only to watch the Steelers match that in just one play. We looked all set for a shootout in Pittsburgh as Carolina, set back deep in their own territory after a holding call on the ensuing kickoff, started their second series:

This play was a disaster basically from the word go. No one even chipped T.J. Watt, so when Cam Newton rolled to his right, Watt was right in his face. That would have been bad enough, but rather than taking the sack or throwing the ball out of bounds, Newton backpedaled and slung the ball blindly into the middle of the field, where Vince Williams was waiting for the easy interception and touchdown.

The win, coupled with a Patriots loss, means the Steelers are in position for a bye week at the moment, while Carolina falls to just half a game ahead of Minnesota for the fifth seed and the right to take on whichever NFC East team stumbles into the playoffs. Carolina's loss is a significant boon to the Saints, who might now end up with a two-game cushion rather than just the one, glancing at the schedule to come. Pittsburgh's win, meanwhile, hurts New England's chances at a bye week -- and we all know what issues the Steelers have with the Patriots, so any potential advantage would help. Cincinnati and Baltimore also saw their divisional prospects get that much slimmer, though the Bengals did plenty of damage to their odds without Pittsburgh's help.

Weekly Predictions

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week

All picks are made without reference to FO's Premium picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Records to Date
Bryan: 4-5-1
Andrew 2-7-1

Andrew: Never, ever trust the Buccaneers, for any reason, at any time.

This week, I'm looking elsewhere in the NFC South. The Detroit Lions have been bad this year, but bad in a very weird way. A blowout loss on opening day at home to the Jets set alarm bells ringing, but just two weeks later the Lions blew the doors off the Patriots on Sunday Night Football. Two weeks after that, they beat the Packers, but the only game since that they haven't lost by at least 12 points came against the Brock Osweiler Miami Dolphins. Carolina arrives in Detroit looking to make amends for a blowout loss of their own in Pittsburgh, and with three days of additional rest and preparation time. The Panthers have been inconsistent themselves, but appeared to be rounding into form before being forced to face the Steelers on a short week. They'll be looking to get back to their previous level, and Detroit is a good place to do that. Carolina (-4) at Detroit.

Bryan: Let's dip down into the dregs of the league and take on the Giants-Buccaneers matchup. The Buccaneers are in a bit of turmoil, with confusion as to who is calling the plays, who is playing quarterback, and what to do with the ball when they're in the red zone. It seems like the Buccaneers will be sticking with Ryan Fitzpatrick behind center for this one, which is probably the right choice -- but Fitzmagic has a tendency to run out. Eli Manning may no longer be able to throw an accurate pass more than 10 yards down the field, but with no one on Tampa Bay to provide any coverage, he can just float the ball downfield all game long. Give me New York (-1) at home.

Double Survival League

Andrew: I'm cursing myself for missing out on the Giants against the 49ers, especially after the injury-plagued Eagles blew it against the Cowboys. Still, I'm at least somewhat optimistic about Big Blue against a turnover-prone Buccaneers offense. If the turnovers continue under Dirk Koetter's expert oversight, the Giants might actually be in a better position than the District-of-Columbians to take advantage. Nobody on the Buccaneers can cover Odell Beckham or Sterling Shepard, the Buccaneers aren't exactly stout against the run, and their pass rush had a very limited impact even against the burnt-out shell of Washington's offensive line. The N.Y. Giants have very few winnable games left on their schedule, but this is one of those few.

My second game is another divisional bout, because apparently I learned nothing from last week's NFC East upset. The Bengals have been so bad that they just fired their defensive coordinator and hired ... er, Hue Jackson, as a special (remedial?) assistant to the head coach. Well if anybody knows about shutting down a potentially effective offense, it's Hue Jackson. Unfortunately, the potentially effective Bengals offense is the one being shut down here, as A.J. Green will probably still be out with his injury, Tyler Eifert is long gone with his fractured ankle, and John Ross isn't even in the same playbook as Andy Dalton, never mind on the same page. Yeah, upsets happen, but I do think the Ravens should have enough to overcome what remains of the Bengals offense, even if they have to do it the old-fashioned way. Give me Baltimore, because they at least have a defense.

Bryan: You know what? I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. Oakland is not likely to win another football game this season; at least, not against a team that's actively trying. Maybe Week 17, when the Chiefs have everything locked up, the Raiders might scrap their way to a win, but we don't get to pick Week 17. So you know what? Screw it. We'll take the Raiders on the road in Arizona; it's this, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or Denver, and frankly, the Cardinals are as logical as anyone else.

With my other pick, I'll double down on taking the Giants, for all the reasons Andrew said above. I hate doing that, because I need to gain ground on him, and taking the same team does not accomplish that goal ... but it would be worse if he picks up a Giants victory here, and I'm stuck trying to talk myself into the Giants beating, say, the Titans in December.

Scenarios

We saw our first teams fall out of particular seeds last week. While upset victories by the Browns, Giants, and Bills kept their slim home-field advantage hopes alive, losses by the 49ers, Raiders, and Cardinals saw those teams fall out of their divisional races. Obviously, none were exactly likely to catch the Rams or Chiefs atop those divisions, but now we know, via the power of MATH, that it is impossible.

No teams can be eliminated this week, however -- the bye week for the 49ers really helps there. Oh, the Raiders can get knocked out of the fifth seed; the Broncos and Seahawks are in danger of falling out of divisional contention; the Giants and Lions might kiss their hopes at a bye good-bye; and the Jets, Bills, Browns, Jaguars, and Buccaneers all might be out of top-seed contention by the time Monday is done, but all 32 teams will get to at least enter Thanksgiving weekend with their playoff hopes technically alive.

Oh, and the Rams might clinch a playoff berth, if you're into that sort of thing. Yawn.

Clinching

  • L.A. Rams can clinch the NFC West IF L.A. Rams d. Kansas City AND Green Bay d. Seattle

Eliminations

  • Oakland can be eliminated from a top-five seed IF Arizona d. Oakland OR L.A. Chargers d. Denver
  • Denver can be eliminated from the AFC West IF L.A. Chargers d. Denver OR Kansas City d. L.A. Rams
  • N.Y. Jets can be eliminated from home field advantage IF Kansas City d. L.A. Rams
  • Buffalo can be eliminated from home field advantage IF Kansas City d. L.A. Rams
  • Cleveland can be eliminated from home field advantage IF Kansas City d. L.A. Rams
  • Jacksonville can be eliminated from home field advantage IF Pittsburgh d. Jacksonville AND Kansas City d. L.A. Rams
  • Seattle can be eliminated from the NFC West IF Green Bay d. Seattle AND L.A. Rams d. Kansas City
  • N.Y. Giants can be eliminated from home field advantage IF Tampa Bay d. N.Y. Giants OR L.A. Rams d. Kansas City OR BOTH New Orleans d. Philadelphia AND Carolina d. Detroit
  • N.Y. Giants can be eliminated from a first-round bye IF Tampa Bay d. N.Y. Giants
  • Detroit can be eliminated from home field advantage IF Carolina d. Detroit AND EITHER New Orleans d. Philadelphia OR L.A. Rams d. Kansas City
  • Detroit can be eliminated from a first-round bye IF Carolina d. Detroit AND New Orleans d. Philadelphia AND L.A. Rams d. Kansas City
  • Tampa Bay can be eliminated from home field advantage IF N.Y. Giants d. Tampa Bay AND L.A. Rams d. Kansas City

Email us with fantasy questions, award suggestions, crazy videos, outlandish conspiracy theories, your decision as to which one of us nailed our argument, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam at scramble@footballoutsiders.com.

Comments

17 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2018, 10:55am

1 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by mrt1212 // Nov 14, 2018 - 4:12pm

If you replace players with owners in Bill James statement, the statement is even more true.

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11 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by ChrisS // Nov 15, 2018 - 1:58pm

And you could replace 3 years with 3 days and it would still be true.

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2 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by PatsFan // Nov 14, 2018 - 4:30pm

I think you're overestimating the fans. The NFL may well not be back to its previous standard of play after three years, but I think enough fans won't care. If their team is playing, that's good enough. Even moreso with the rise of FF, DFS, and full sports gambling as that spreads.

You, the people in your world, the people who visit this website, etc. are anomalies.

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3 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by Eddo // Nov 14, 2018 - 4:51pm

Right. I'm guessing James meant - or at least will try to justify his take by saying he meant - that "make no difference" refers to the popularity, in terms of ticket sales and TV ratings. I think he's probably more right about MLB than the NFL, because the former already does a shitty job of promoting individual players over teams, while the latter at least hypes QBs a ton. (And for the NBA, he's very wrong, because it is absolutely a players' league; it would take longest for the NBA to recover.)

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4 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by Jerry // Nov 14, 2018 - 7:34pm

Remember the XFL? With a great TV package, lots of hype, and some deep pockets behind it?

Once people actually saw the level of football, they stopped watching, and those deep pockets were happy to cut the cord after one season.

There are folks who will watch any football-like product, some of whom frequent this site. And that's fine. But, as Bryan suggests, there are plenty of other entertainment options, many of which don't involve watching people be concussed. By the time the NFL ramped up its quality, a lot of people who would have automatically have tuned in might well be doing something else on Sundays.

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5 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by t.d. // Nov 14, 2018 - 11:36pm

Somebody linked to the"they are who we thought they are" thread earlier in the week from 2006. Lotta guys I forgot ever existed in the meantime (tbh some of Tanier's Fantasy football HoF articles had made me aware just how quickly we forget about many even outstanding players when they aren't on your team). I think football's a little different than baseball in this regard (there aren't many quarterbacks and it's easy to keep track of 25 significant guys a year), but still largely true

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6 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by dbostedo // Nov 15, 2018 - 12:50am

I feel like the discussion of the QBs in the "Bill James scenario" was neglecting the fact that many of the "scrub" QBs were stars in college, and that they'd be playing against lesser defenses too, more like what they played against in college.

Sure the overall quality would be down significantly, but some players would still look like stars, there would still be exciting plays, etc. I think college shows what could be fairly quickly (year two?) in the Bill James Scenario NFL.

Also, per the XFL example above, I think that's very, very different because the NFL was still around. The supposition here is that the NFL is still the pinnacle and only game in town.

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7 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by Jeff M. // Nov 15, 2018 - 2:06am

The Seahawks basically turned over their entire roster in the first three years of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era and looked (at least for a bit) like a mini-dynasty at the end of it.

Sure some of the new pieces were veterans from other teams but it's not like Chris Clemons/Michael Bennett/Breno Giacomini/Zach Miller types were high profile names before arriving (Marshawn is the obvious exception, maybe Cliff Avril, and even they both came cheaply). And the only pre-PC/JS Seahawks were 7th-year Jon Ryan, 6th-year Brandon Mebane, 5th-year Red Bryant, and 4th-year Max Unger.

So there are a few additional guys you'd need to replace with young players/street free agents, but again outside of Marshawn I don't think that shifts the team's watchability a ton. And at least some of the young guys at the bottom of those depth charts (Jermaine Kearse, Deshawn Shead, Jeron Johnson, Spencer Ware) have shown they can play some.

They'd certainly be the exception rather than the rule, but that's sort of the point anyway. Some good front offices would put together NFL-caliber squads in three years and some bad ones wouldn't (but they already aren't doing so, see Buffalo/Las Vegas/etc.).

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8 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by johonny // Nov 15, 2018 - 11:18am

Hmm... Marino retired how long ago? Did Miami replace him yet? Nope. Do I think Dolphin fans haven't noticed the difference in product? HaHaHa, they've noticed. I imagine all the NFL QBs retiring at once. Given the low rate of high level QBs being developed by the NFL. It is hard to believe in 3 years, 5 years...we wouldn't notice the change in the level of play. College is a terrible example, because it's hidden secret is that it's terrible. It usually boils down to a lot of games where a team that has horded all the talent pummels a hapless team that has no talent. Few colleges can build anything like an NFL playbook of schemes and formation. There's also a lot of Jets-Bills games in college every week. We don't see them and we're supposed to pretend to care about them as they crawl across the bottom of the screen, but ugh. College football is mostly hot garbage. Frankly, I've never really been able to get into it. It feels more like cult worship than a sport. Sure, some teams in college replace at a high rate because they get like every number one draft pick, every year. Other (most, lets be honest) college teams have one great season every ten, twenty years and spend most of their time struggling to get that magic seventh win a few seasons a decade. Let's not pretend otherwise.

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15 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by mrt1212 // Nov 15, 2018 - 4:07pm

While I agree with parts of your post I think that college football, while an inferior overall product to the NFL across the entire ecosystem has a few aspects that make it an alternative rather than substitute for the NFL.

1. Tactical and Strategic latitude. If there's one thing that drives me up the wall with the NFL it is the relatively slow advancement of tactics that rests heavily on labor changes among coaches which are relatively infrequent. This also gives various teams more character than their NFL counterparts.

2. Talent disparity makes for overall less parity but enhances the 'wow' factor of a lot of college football. Instead of seeing professionals grind at the margins to come out victorious like they're supposed to or we imagine they're supposed to, we instead see superior talent do superior things quite often and that is exciting in its own way. It doesn't conform to an overall competitive atmosphere but it delivers a style of football entertainment that conjures up its own excitement.

I go around in circles in some of my gaming circles about what the participants want out of a game since I often take lead in running these things. A lot of participants want the perception of an even match where most variables are even and its their individual efforts that carry the day (They'd prefer a chess match). Some accept a game on uneven terms and try to do their best because the outcome of victory while being handicapped is that much sweeter (They'd prefer a roguelike dungeon crawler). Some want to tilt the game so much in their favor before it starts while simultaneously preaching about the importance of fairness that you have to assume they're either oblivious to what their own actions do to undermine a stated desire or they're just next level meta gamers (They'd prefer a game of poker where they get to control some of the deck). I invoke this experience to flesh out the premise that what you want out of a game experience influences the games you're attracted to and while we all have our preferences, an aspect that doesn't appeal to you doesn't mean the game is inherently flawed, it just doesn't scratch your itch.

3. ADs get turned over more in the CFB ecosystem than Owners in the NFL ecosystem. Even if you are an alumni of Illinois or Rutgers or Maryland, there is less questioning of why you do or don't devote time towards following the game and there is at least the prospect of a turnaround with AD tenure changes which likely brings along coaching changes. With an owner, the prospects removing malignancy at the top don't really exist. And then to have a for profit enterprise (and okay, CFB is a for profit enterprise that capitalizes on alumni and current students to buoy itself but at least college has a lot of attendant benefits outside of attending games as a student. I hope at least). Having your franchise rooting interests basically be held hostage by a vain glorious owner who would only relinquish the team in their death feels more...existentially draining.

4. Given the sheer amount of games played in CFB there is likely to always be a handful of intriguing and exciting games. I agree totally that there are a lot of bad bad bad college football games, but the sheer amount of games played on Saturday gives the viewer a better opportunity to find a game that comports to their preferences.

5. Second to this is that upsets in college football have so much meaning in college football where an upset in the NFL in the regular season, say if the Bills beat the Pats would likely only mess with playoff seeding rather than completely wreck the Pats season. While that isn't small potatoes in the NFL, the stakes in college football on any given gameday are so much higher than within the NFL for the front runner programs. With college football, you're watching for near misses and car wrecks to the top 25 programs which begets its own form of entertainment. To distill this down, it feels like 1 loss in CFB means so much more (even with the nascent playoff in CFB) than even two losses in the NFL which drives some voyeristic aspect of CFB. Lord knows I've watched more CFB over the NFL out of a sense of reaping a schadenfreude prize.

Part of the reason I'm going to bat for CFB here is that my fandom towards the NFL and CFB is different - I'm not an alumni of any college but follow OSU because of family ties. But I watch a wider breadth of games with CFB. With the NFL I'm watching 3 games a week - Game preceding the Hawks on Sunday Morning, Hawks, Sunday Night Football. And a non trivial amount of that hinges on Point 4 combined with the idea that many if not most NFL games don't conform to my idea of superior football. Any given Sunday there is maybe 1 or 2 games I wish I had Sunday ticket for but not to the extent I'd actually purchase it.

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9 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by jtr // Nov 15, 2018 - 12:11pm

>Well, it's a field in Mexico City. Just more the sort of field in which you'd plant potatoes than the sort on which you'd want to play professional sports

Well there's the mistake right there. If they wanted a surface in Mexico to play sports on, they should have looked for a pitch

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10 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by theslothook // Nov 15, 2018 - 1:57pm

I think we can agree, outside of a very select group of qbs(where replacements don't come in three year periods), everyone else could be replaced without much hiccup in three years.

The number long term veteran non QBs still playing at a high level(think 6-7 years) is very small and rarely do those positions get noticed anyways.

Running back and even elite receivers have pretty short lifespans.

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12 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by ChrisS // Nov 15, 2018 - 2:07pm

I think getting 32 functioning offensive lines that quickly would be difficult. I agree in spirit with what James meant about replacing players, but the time frame was way too short. I am really conflicted over the part about the players not being the game. I mean they are and you cant have a game without the players and as a Lions fan all I have from the last 30 years is Barry and Megatron. But maybe in an alternative universe we would have had Larry and Optimus Prime.

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13 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by theslothook // Nov 15, 2018 - 2:15pm

But the defensive lineplay would also be worse, similar to wide receivers and defensive backs. It's only the long term, rare stars, that will be absent.

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14 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by PatsFan // Nov 15, 2018 - 3:38pm

Yes, you need to have players to have the game. But you don't need to have [i]any particular[/i] players.

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16 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by Subrata Sircar // Nov 16, 2018 - 3:27am

We wouldn't have Brady throwing to Gronk with Revis trying to rake out the ball, no. But we would have some other star QB throwing to a TE while an enterprising safety tries to break up the pass. The relative quality would rebound faster than I think most people realize.

Would we be seeing all time greats? Probably! At least one all-timer is likely to enter the league over any given three-year period, after all.

But all of that is besides the point. If it actually happened, it would be about managing the PR, and if the owners know one thing, they know this: Most fans root for laundry.

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17 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Three and Out

by jtr // Nov 16, 2018 - 10:55am

I think the QB issue is a bit overstated here. Right now we're spoiled, because we're in a bit of a golden age of quarterbacks. Right now every single team in the league has either a reasonably respected veteran or a high-drafted young prospect. I even include the Bills, since they have a first round rookie who's still in his trial period. There isn't a single team that came into this season totally hopeless at QB.

Whereas check out some of the guys in the top 32 in passing attempts in 2011, to pick a year at random:
Colt McCoy, Rex Grossman, Tavaris Jackson, Matt Moore, Christian Ponder, John Skelton, Tim Tebow, Matt Cassel, and Kevin Kolb. I'm not counting Blaine Gabbert, Mark Sanchez, or Josh Freeman, because they weren't known busts yet at this point in their careers.

That's nine teams out of 32 that came into the season without any shot of getting competent QB play. That's how the NFL has usually been, and that's probably about where our three-years-and-less league would be at. It's almost always been a league of quaterback haves and have-nots, and the James League would be no exception.

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