by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan: Welcome to the penultimate Scramble for the Ball for the 2018 season. We're all excited to see the best of the best square off in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII, but before we get there, there's one more important piece of business for us to get to.
Andrew: As foreshadowed/spoilered last week, we need to take a quick look back at the ridiculous nonsense (and there was a lot of it) that graced the Conference Championship Games, and we've dedicated an entire awards section just to that ridiculous nonsense.
Oh, and there was something about picking a team of bad players or something, but I thought Loser League was done for the year.
2018 All-Keep Choppin' Wood Team
Andrew: Oh, that team of bad players. As has been Scramble tradition for more years than Bryan and I care to count, we present to you this season's All-Keep Choppin' Wood team.
Bryan: A reminder that this isn't strictly a list of the worst players in football -- that would be filled with third-stringers and injury replacements, and people who really had no business being on a football field.
Andrew: *Cough.* Nathan Peterman. *Cough.*
Bryan: Rather, we're looking at players who ended up hurting their team in significant ways. Sometimes that's through off-field distractions, antics, or shenanigans. Sometimes that's a shiny new free-agent signing whose greatest contribution to the season is cashing that new paycheck. Sometimes it's a high draft pick who just will not develop.
And yes, sometimes it's just someone who failed at doing the most basic parts of their job.
Andrew: *Cough.* Jon Gru-- wait, he isn't here, is he?
Bryan: You'll have to read on to find out! Well, you won't, because you wrote the article but … you know what I mean.
Andrew: Knowing what you mean scares me more every time I do it. Aaanyway...
Andrew: Everybody knew, coming into the 2018 season, what the biggest weakness was on the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team had somehow managed to carefully coax competence from one Blake Bortles for just long enough to let their defense win 12 games in 2017, and those 12 wins got them all the way to the AFC Championship Game. It was painfully apparent in the second half of that game that the staff did not quite trust Bortles, but they could certainly argue that the season's body of work proved they could make the best of what they had.
This season did not make the best of what they had. Despite one very noteworthy highlight -- a stunning performance in a 31-20 September victory over the same Patriots who had defeated them last January -- overall Bortles had a terrible season even by his own low standards. Only a pair of rookies named Josh kept Blake from being the worst quarterback in the league by DYAR, as the Jaguars plummeted from the heights of last season's AFC Championship Game appearance all the way back to a top-eight draft pick. Bortles' -220 DYAR was the second-worst of his career, surpassed only by his -955 as a rookie, and he was eventually benched for former Browns third-round pick Cody Kessler -- himself a quarterback so bad that he threw only one touchdown pass across four December starts.
We've all seen the lists by now, so we know who the Jaguars could have had instead -- Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and even Lamar Jackson would be obvious upgrades over Bortles at the sport's most important position -- but even if we expected the Jaguars in general and Bortles in particular to disappoint this year, we don't think anybody expected either to be quite this bad. By our numbers, Bortles edged out Ryan Tannehill as the worst veteran quarterback in the game this season, and that is more than enough to merit the first spot on of this year's All-Keep Choppin' Wood team.
Andrew: One of the theoretical biggest advantages the draft affords to any NFL franchise is the ability to acquire top-shelf talent at discount-rack prices. Take for example Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard, a pair of All-Pro rookies for the Colts. They were both locked into salaries ranked No. 17 and No. 51 at their respective positions despite each being judged, rightly or wrongly, to be at worst the second-best player in his position this season. Or even more extreme, Patrick Mahomes: the most productive quarterback in the league and MVP-elect drew the No. 31 annual salary at his position, behind such luminaries as Chase Daniel and the ghost of Matt Schaub. One of the most persuasive arguments against spending a top draft pick on a running back is precisely that it negates this market advantage: including their prorated signing bonuses, three of the six highest-paid running backs in 2018 were first-round picks on their rookie contracts.
One of those three is Jacksonville's former fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette, who signed a four-year, $27-million contract after he was drafted in 2017. What did the Jaguars get for that investment this season? Fournette played only eight games, averaging a mere 55 yards per contest, and has already missed 13 of his first 32 games as a professional. Most of those absences were caused by lingering hamstring and ankle problems that afflicted him at LSU, but two absences in particular stand out.
During the Week 12 game against the Buffalo Bills, with the Jaguars facing first-and-goal at the 1-yard line and Fournette looking unstoppable throughout the drive, Fournette got involved in a brawl with Bills linebacker Shaq Lawson. Both were ejected from the game, which the Jaguars lost 24-21. Fournette was then suspended by the league for Week 13 against the Colts, which the Jaguars won 6-0.
Following the team's Week 17 loss to Houston, for which Fournette was inactive, the team released a statement criticizing both Fournette and fellow back T.J. Yeldon for "behavior ... unbecoming that of a professional football player." It is still not entirely clear what the pair did, but the conduct appears to have helped persuade the team to void Fournette's contract guarantees, which they are able to do as a result of the Week 13 suspension. The front office appears to have somewhat made up with the player since, but it would still be little surprise if Fournette were to start next season in a different uniform.
Even before accounting for the aforementioned gaping sinkhole at quarterback, the No. 4 overall pick really ought to provide more value than an injured, expensive, and occasionally suspended running back with a bad attitude. At least they get to try again with the No. 7 overall pick this year!
Andrew: Just two short years ago, Kelvin Benjamin was something of a hot commodity: a former first-round draft pick who surpassed 1,000 yards and scored nine touchdowns as a rookie, Benjamin missed his second year after tearing his ACL in an August practice but recovered to post another 900 yards and seven scores in 2016. The Panthers considered it an "easy decision" to pick up the big receiver's fifth-year option that summer.
Since then, nothing has gone right. Benjamin showed up to camp in 2017 overweight and out of shape, loafed his way through half a season in Carolina -- still putting up 475 yards in eight games, mind you -- then was traded to the Buffalo Bills in Week 9. In his new surroundings, his performance plummeted -- partly due, it should be noted, to a lingering knee injury -- and he was a frequent source of disappointment for the rest of 2017.
Benjamin responded this offseason by meticulously burning all remaining bridges with the Panthers, firing especially pointed criticism at Cam Newton -- a quarterback who was named league MVP in the year Benjamin missed -- and stating that he wished the Panthers had never drafted him. Benjamin added to those headlines by shunning Newton during a preseason game between the Bills and Panthers. He put up the lowest catch rate of his career in part because of a large number of drops, pointed thinly veiled criticism at the team's offensive game plans, and made headlines for declining to work on routes with rookie quarterback Josh Allen before an October game. When Bandon Beane was asked later in the year about Benjamin's leadership of the team's young receiver group, he pointedly discussed the contribution Deonte Thompson had made instead. All the while Benjamin's production and snap count faded, which led to him being cut by the Bills in December. He went unclaimed on waivers, then was eventually signed by the Chiefs, for whom he recorded two catches in three end-of-season games. Benjamin finished 80th of 84 qualifying receivers in both DYAR and DVOA, caused way too many headaches for that level of performance, and cost the Bills a third-round pick and a fully guaranteed $8.5 million salary for the privilege.
Bryan: It is our general policy to not penalize a player too harshly for one bad game, or one braindead moment off the field. While one would hope professional athletes would have a certain level of professionalism throughout the year, they are human beings, and they do make mistakes. We normally give a player a pass for individual mistakes like that.
But, Antonio Brown, what on Earth were you doing? We found it odd when Brown was a scratch for Pittsburgh's must-win Week 17 game against Cincinnati -- an unexpected injury? A coach's decision? And then we learned the real story -- or most of it, at least.
In the week leading up to the game, Brown had skipped team meetings and sat out practices. He argued with Ben Roethlisberger and allegedly threw a football at him, going AWOL after the incident. He refused to get a team-ordered MRI on his injured knee. He has refused to return phone calls made by Mike Tomlin and owner Art Rooney II, and has skipped the team's final meetings. This was not the first time he had skipped meetings this season, either -- he'd been sniping at the team all season long, including missing practices and film sessions for a week in September and demanding a trade. It is looking realistically possible that the Steelers might move on from Brown, despite the massive cap hit and the fact that he is, you know, one of the top five receivers in football.
Now, we here at Scramble generally side with the players in battles with management; a lack of guaranteed contracts and the shortness of careers gives players plenty of incentives to look after their own bottom line. That's why you won't see Le'Veon Bell on this list, despite his season-long contract dispute; he was never under contract, and opted not to play for the deal Pittsburgh offered him. That's well within his prerogative. Brown's situation goes above and beyond that, however. Demanding a trade is one thing, but for one of the most embarrassing player spats we can remember, Brown gets to be on this team -- one he'd presumably rather play for than Pittsburgh!
Our final pick came down to our season-long "leaders" in DVOA and DYAR. John Ross was last in our DVOA tables, squeaking out a win over Quincy Enunwa with a -33.3% DVOA. Golden Tate, on account of his heavier usage, finished last in DYAR with -134. Picking between them was difficult, and we thought long and hard about picking Tate. Tate never gelled in Philadelphia after his trade, with only one game over 50 yards receiving. He did, however, catch the game-winning touchdown pass in the win over Chicago, and his 66 percent catch rate implies that at least some of his struggles were usage related, rather than skill related -- note Nelson Agholor also being low on the DVOA tables despite a decent catch rate, as Philadelphia excelled on the short pass. Ross, on the other hand, only managed to catch 36 percent of his targets, the lowest in the league. A receiver's primary job is to catch footballs, and even a failed completion is better than incomplete pass. For failing at his primary job description, John Ross is our man.
Bryan: Ricky Seals-Jones had the second-worst single-season DYAR in history -- -158, just beaten out by Marcedes Lewis' terrible 2011 season. After the former practice squadder impressed with a late-season run in 2017, Seals-Jones caught just 34 passes for 343 yards and one touchdown in a full season as Arizona's primary pass-catching tight end. While a lot of things went wrong in Arizona triggering their offensive disaster -- and yes, we'll get to that momentarily -- Seals-Jones was a terrible disappointment even taking into account that offensive malise. Perhaps the arrival of Kliff Kingsbury will find better ways to use the converted receiver, because whatever the Cardinals were doing in 2018 did not work. At all.
Andrew: No offensive line selection can possibly avoid the Houston Texans, so we'll start there and work our way down. Left tackle Julie'n Davenport had 27 blown blocks through Week 16, according to our charting partners at Sports Info Solutions, which tied for the most at his position -- and the most for any player who had played fewer than 900 snaps. In addition, Davenport had 15 penalties -- second-most among offensive tackles. Penalties are not an indictment on their own -- the leader at the position was Morgan Moses, who is at worst a highly competent player -- but add those to the blown blocks, and Davenport was an easy pick at one tackle spot.
Our other offensive tackle is also one of the league leaders in penalties -- Bobby Hart, now of the Cincinnati Bengals, had only one fewer accepted penalty than Davenport; but an astonishing 10 of his penalties were pre-snap, including a league-leading nine (!) false start penalties (nobody else had more than six). Hart was not among our leaders in blown blocks, but he was a clear liability at right tackle for the Bengals, and finding a replacement for him should be one of the team's top priorities on offense. Hart, you may recall, made this team last year, and the change of scenery did him little good.
(As an aside: in this way, and only in this way, Jadeveon Clowney is the defensive equivalent to Bobby Hart. Sir Alex Ferguson's famous quip about Filippo Inzaghi -- that the Italian "must have been born offside" -- applies just as strongly to Clowney, whose nine accepted offside penalties were three more than any other player.)
On the interior of the line, we cannot foresee the Vikings continuing to give Mike Remmers playing time with any kind of willingness whatsoever. The Vikings offensive line was once again the team's biggest weakness by far this past season, and Remmers was the weakest component of a very weak unit. A former offensive tackle who spent the past season at right guard, Remmers has the strength to play neither position and looks physically overmatched at every spot on the offensive. Remmers may be an acceptable backup due to his experience now at several spots, but he has now demonstrated at several positions and in several different cities that he is not a solution as a starter.
Bryan: For our second guard, we'll finally turn ourselves over to the Arizona Cardinals. Their offensive line was obliterated by injuries, with the entire starting fivesome being replaced over the course of the season. They weren't exactly great when healthy, either. We were torn between Mike Iupati and Justin Pugh here. Iupati did blow more blocks by our charting, but, per usual, he was significantly better as a run blocker than a pass blocker; it may have been his worst year in the NFL, but even then he still provided some value. Pugh was awful in his first season in the desert before tearing his MCL, and he did it on the back of a shiny new five-year, $45 million contract. The Giants got a lot of flack for not offering Pugh a new contract in free agency this year, but the results in Arizona seem to have backed that decision up.
At center, we'll go for Spencer Long. Often, when we critique offensive linemen, we look for blown blocks, sacks allowed, failure to open running lanes -- things like that. Long had all of those, sure, but what puts him over the top is something a little more basic -- the actual act of snapping the football. There was a period in October and November where every Long shotgun snap was an adventure. Sam Darnold would have to try to pluck them out of the air one-handed, or watch them sail over his head or thud to the ground a few feet short of him. The November 5 game against the Dolphins saw Long fire off a bad snap on 12 out of 18 shotgun opportunities, by one count. Long was moved to guard later in the season, and it's possible a finger injury was affecting his snaps significantly (in which case, uh, why was he still in there at center, Jets coaches?), but his near-disaster level of snapping for a month, combined with a lack of success throughout the season, gets our nod.
Defensive Front Seven
Andrew: Dolphins defensive tackle Akeem Spence stood out in our numbers for two reasons: Spence made his average run tackle after a gain of 3.9 yards, the worst figure among defensive tackles, and he had the lowest run stop rate (62 percent) of any player at his position. The Dolphins were not horrible on the interior of the defensive line, but at times that was in spite of Spence rather than because of him. Spence was also ejected from a game against the Raiders in September for removing the helmet of Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele and using it to strike another Raiders player ... which sounds quite impressive in its own way, but it negated a sack by Cameron Wake, and gave the Raiders a first down en route to a field goal.
Two years ago, the Buccaneers finished 26th in DVOA against the run, so they signed Chris Baker from Washington in large part to address that weakness and ascended to 19th. This season, they made a much bigger investment in the defensive line, hoping for further improvement against both run and pass. Out went Chris Baker, and in came former Eagles defensive tackle Beau Allen on a three-year, $15 million contract. It is safe to say that did not work out in Year 1. How much of that is the fault of Allen and how much is the fault of defensive coordinator Mike Smith (more on Smith later) can be debated, but the Buccaneers finished second-to-last against the run with a DVOA that would have been enough for last place in 2017. Allen and Vinny Curry, another former Eagles free-agent acquisition, did not begin to replicate their success from 2017, and there is a growing expectation in the Tampa Bay media that both could be released from their contracts early as the team rebuilds its defense (again) for 2019.
On the edge, no front seven selection would be complete without at least one of this year's Atlanta Falcons. Our nominee is former eighth overall pick Vic Beasley. In 2016, Beasley had a fantastic season: his 15.5 sacks were a critical factor in the Falcons' advance to the Super Bowl, and he appeared destined for stardom even despite the warning that he was converting pressures to sacks at an unsustainable rate. Two seasons later, Beasley barely had 15.5 solo tackles -- he finished the season with only 16 solo tackles, plus four assists, from 16 games -- and recorded only half as many quarterback hits as he did in that apparent outlier of a season. Beasley may not have been the worst player in the Falcons front seven, but most of the worst players were injury replacements for the likes of Deion Jones, not former first-round picks and supposedly established starters. By the end of the year, Beasley no longer fit that description either: he only started two games in the final eight weeks of the season, having been benched for midseason pickup Bruce Irvin. Beasley finished with 5.0 sacks as a situational rusher, and recorded a career low 20 total tackles. With Beasley slated to play on an expensive fifth-year option in 2019, it looks increasingly likely that the Falcons will part ways with him before that option locks in.
Bryan: It may not be fair to blast Frostee Rucker for not being Khalil Mack, but, uh, Frostee Rucker was no Khalil Mack. Oakland had the lowest pressure rate of any team by far, at just 22 percent, and had a franchise-low 13 sacks -- they simply could not put any quarterback in the league under duress. Both Rucker and rookie Arden Key were miscast as three-down players; where once the traded Mack and cut Bruce Irvin would have been the go-to guys in pass rushing situations, it was the aging veteran and the raw rookie asked to be the primary forces off the edge. Rucker ended with just 13.5 pass pressures on the season. This edge rusher slot is really a team award here, but we'll cut the rookie some slack and give the spot to Rucker, who was just asked to do too much for this point in his career.
Speaking of team efforts, we honestly could have listed "the entire Kansas City Chiefs run defense" here and called it a day. Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland were terrible in second-level run support. The Chiefs ranked dead last not only in rushing DVOA, but also in second-level yards. Once opposing backs cleared the defensive line they ... just kept going, as neither Hitchens nor Ragland provided any sort of delaying factor. The Chiefs defense had the third-most broken tackles in the league last season, and Hitchens and Ragland played a major role in that -- Ragland had the most broken tackles on the team and Hitchens was not very far behind. Hitchens actually was a Pro Bowl reserve because of his high tackle total and the Chiefs' overall success; what that hides, however, is the fact that far too many of Hitchens' tackles came downfield as he was chasing down yet another running back making his way into the secondary. Add in his utter lack of success in pass coverage, and Hitchens was one of the year's big free-agent busts.
Andrew: In a season of unprecedented accomplishments, Vontae Davis may well have taken the proverbial biscuit. We at Scramble recognize, if only third-hand, the difficulty many professional athletes face when coming to terms with the end of their professional careers. We appreciate that for many, it is a sobering and challenging decision taken with careful thought and consideration. For some, the decision is made for them by either a major injury or a tough conversation with a coach; for others, reality might hit them one day like a slap to the face.
But not at halftime. Not in the middle of a game. Not when there are still two quarters to play, and you're a starting cornerback on a team that is trailing 28-6. When news broke that Vontae Davis, the former Colts and Dolphins 10-year veteran had retired at halftime of his first game for his new team -- simply told his coaches he was done, got changed, and left the stadium -- nobody could believe it. His teammates felt disrespected. Former players and coaches were stunned. Davis later released a statement above his Damascene moment; some have hailed him for his honesty, and even his courage in making a decision that he must have known invited ridicule and accusations that he simply quit. We at Scramble are not quite sure what to make of it from a holistic perspective; but for something remarkable that harms his team on and off the field, this one is hard to top.
Our second cornerback could have gone to one of two players: Trumaine Johnson was an unmitigated failure for the Jets. Expensive, malcontent, underperforming, insubordinate, and ultimately benched, Johnson was every kind of big-money bust in the first year of his reported five-year contract. Still, at least he didn't call the organization out on his wife's podcast for ... daring to ask him to do his job.
Step forward Brent Grimes. We'll let these quotes largely speak for themselves, courtesy of ESPN's Jemma Lane:
Grimes, 35, said on wife Miko's #IHeartMikoPodcast that, when the Bucs asked him to shadow Brown in Week 3 (Grimes missed the first two games of the season to injury), 'I just couldn't agree with it. It's just disrespectful. People who follow receivers all the time, unless they're on a rookie contract or trying to get paid, are usually making $13-15 million a year.'
Grimes earned a $7 million base salary in 2018, (his contract included $3 million in incentives), with 25 cornerbacks averaging more per year. He preferred playing a zone-style defense and believed the team was asking him to do too much for what he deemed was too little pay.
'That's not right. It's disrespectful,' Grimes said. 'It just f---ed up my whole vibe for the whole year, to be completely honest. It's just disrespectful. I just felt disrespected.'
Yes, Brent. How very dare your coaches ask you to do the job you signed a $7 million contract to do. Those fiends.
Bryan: We'll go straight to the stats for our third and final cornerback. Robert Alford finished last in both success rate and yards per pass allowed per our cornerback charting stats, as well as ranking near the bottom in yards after catch allowed. Alford was successful on just 34 percent of his targets -- the gap between him and second-to-last was the same as the gap between second and 17th. Alford was overrated by standard stats a year ago, but he was still an average cornerback -- a drop-off of this level was very surprising.
At safety, the long reign of Chris Conte is over! We finally have a pair of new safeties to talk about, each of whom would like you to know that tackling is much harder than it looks on TV.
You know who had the most broken tackles in the league this year? Giants fans do -- it was Curtis Riley, who never met a tackle he couldn't give half-effort on. See exhibit A:
— Curt Macysyn (@CurtMac23) December 30, 2018
Yeah, Riley was benched for that, and with good reason. Riley did have four interceptions, which is nothing to sneeze at, but his lack of ability to tackle, well, anybody is just too much to overlook. Twenty-two broken tackles is just far too many to stomach from a defensive back.
You know who had the second-most broken tackles in the league this year? Cowboys fans do -- it was Jeff Heath, with just one fewer missed tackle than Riley. Heath is a liability in open-field tackling -- if perhaps a skosh better than Riley -- but he also pairs that with a limited ability to cover opposing tight ends to create a prototypical Wood-Chopper.
Bryan: Cody Parkey...
— The Loop Sports (@TheLoop_Sports) November 11, 2018
— Eagles Nation (@PHLEaglesNation) January 7, 2019
Parkey made just 76.7 percent of his field goals, third-worst in the league among qualified kickers. He missed three extra points. He also had negative kickoff value, for what it's worth. Other kickers had similarly bad years for playoff contenders -- we see you, Chris Boswell -- but for the sheer number, variety, and high-profile nature of Parkey's misses, he has to be our guy.
Andrew: Colby Wadman achieved something quite remarkable this season. Wadman had the lowest net average of any punter who played at least five games this season ... despite punting in Denver, of all places. Wadman's net average was lower than that of Marquette King, whom he displaced as the Broncos punter after Week 4, and even his gross average was good for only 22nd in the league. Wadman was below average in each of gross average, net average, punts inside the 20, and touchbacks, despite playing in the league's easiest environment for punters. While not a disaster, this is not usually a spot in which disasters occur: just steady, constant, repetitive underperformance.
Bryan: Our kick returner is Ryan Switzer. The Steelers were near the bottom in our kickoff return grades this season, and unlike the teams below them, they stuck with their guy. Switzer ended up with the fourth-most kick returns in the league this season, yet had the lowest average of anyone with at least 16 returns at 20.23 yards per attempt. He barely gained 600 yards on his 30 kickoff returns, and was a major contributing factor to the Steelers having the second-worst average starting field position in the league this year.
Andrew: Bill Belichick is nothing if not succinct, and had this to say this week when discussing the Rams special teams: "I think the main thing when you sent your punt return team out there is you want to make sure you get the ball at the end of the play."
Belichick was, in part, discussing Johnny Hekker's aptitude for punt fakes; you might not think that would be an especially huge challenge after the ball is airborne off the punter's foot.
If you are a Green Bay Packers fan, you know otherwise: Green Bay's punt return team had a terrible time holding onto the ball this season. Tramon Williams fumbled three times on just 12 punt returns; Jaire Alexander, twice in just four attempts; while Randall Cobb had relatively safe hands with just one fumble on his seven return attempts. Even Josh Jackson and Kevin King were credited with a muffed punt each, despite neither recording even a single return yard. Given that record of failure, it is no surprise to see the Packers at the bottom of our punt return ratings; given how widespread the failure was, we see fit to name the entire punt return unit to this spot. If we really must have an individual then Williams is your man, but the Packers have a quite incredible record of failure across multiple players in this spot this season.
Bryan: We decided to save Hue Jackson from this slot last year, "only" crediting him as our offensive coordinator despite his 0-16 season. Well, 12 months later, we're back at it again, and good lord, did Jackson continue to be terrible. From deciding to give Baker Mayfield zero first-team reps in preseason and training camp, to terrible clock and game management during the season, to engaging in power struggles with his coordinators, there was almost nothing that Jackson got right in his final year as Cleveland's head coach. The Browns were a disorganized mess throughout Jackson's tenure; a whirling cesspool of backstabbing and incompetence that hindered the franchise's ability to rise out of the legacy of terrible football they've created since rejoining the league in 1999. Jackson showed no ability to organize his team or put them in the best position to win, and his team quit on him as a result. ESPN's post mortem on the Jackson era is a must-read.
We do not believe it is a coincidence the Browns went 5-3 down the stretch after Jackson was fired. Had the Browns done the logical thing and fired Jackson after his 0-16 year last season, they may well have made the playoffs, possibly even won their division. Before Jackson was fired, the Browns had a DVOA of -19.9%, ranked 27th in the league. Since Jackson was fired, they did nearly a complete 180, ending up around 13.0%. That's not all Jackson and Todd Haley leaving ... but it's certainly not all not that, either.
For our offensive coordinator, we're going with Mike McCoy. In a year when offensive records were shattered and exciting, dynamic offenses ruled the day, McCoy brought his trademark unimaginative, stale, and dreary offense to Arizona. At the time McCoy was fired, Arizona had an offensive DVOA of -39.9%, 31st in the league and only ahead of the similarly moribund Peterman-led Bills. We understand the Cardinals had a lot of injuries to deal with and young players to work in, but McCoy made the worst of a bad situation. His dismissal in Arizona was the third time in 22 months he had been fired by an NFL team; hopefully, it will also be the last.
Andrew: For the second year in a row, now-former Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith gets to discombobulate our defense. In an attempt to generate enough defensive success to aid their relatively powerful offense, the Buccaneers have made a significant investment on that side of the ball over the past two seasons. Chris Baker has come and gone, replaced by the above-mentioned Beau Allen, while Mitch Unrein, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Vinny Curry were all signed, and Vita Vea drafted, to greatly improve last season's league-worst front seven. That front seven ranked 32nd with an adjusted sack rate of only 4.3 percent in 2018, though it was slightly more competent against the run (19th in DVOA). On the back end, the team made another big investment in draft capital, adding cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead to the previous year's selections of safety Justin Evans and linebacker Kendell Beckwith.
The results were horrendous. One year after finishing 32nd in DVOA, 31st against the pass, and 19th against the run, this season the Buccaneers finished 32nd overall, 30th against the pass, and 31st against the run. Augmented by the defensive line additions, the team's adjusted sack rate leapt all the way to eighth, but the back seven couldn't cover a weird selection of classic songs even if you gave them a full Weezer album to do it (not that anybody would ever want to do that, but I digress). Smith was fired after the team allowed at least 30 points in four of its first five games, including allowing 40 points twice (against the Saints, understandably, and the Bears, somewhat less understandably). Linebackers coach Mark Duffner took over and salvaged something from the wreckage, but the damage was already done.
Smith, for his part, announced his retirement after the season, so we will definitely have a new face in this spot next year.
Finally, we're giving a lifetime achievement award to Buccaneers special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor, who takes his infamous kicking roadshow to Landover, Maryland, this offseason as Jay Gruden's latest coaching hire. Tampa Bay continued one of the most astonishing runs of failure in DVOA history this season: the Buccaneers field goal unit has finished worse than minus-12 expected points added in each of the past four years. No other team has fallen into negative-double figures even two straight seasons since the 2013-14 Detroit Lions, and those Lions are the only other team to even do that since ... the 2003-04 Buccaneers. Nobody else has even come close to four straight seasons that bad, at least since the turn of the century.
Bryan: It was a particularly tough year to make selections, as there was a lot of competition for most of these slots. We could probably trot out a second team if we so chose; there was folly and failure around the league. Nevertheless, here is your 2018 Keep Choppin' Wood first team!
|2017 All-Keep Choppin' Wood Team|
|QB||Blake Bortles||EDGE||Vic Beasley||K||Cody Parkey|
|RB||Leonard Fournette||EDGE||Frostee Rucker||P||Coby Wadman|
|WR||Kelvin Benjamin||DL||Akeem Spence||KR||Ryan Switzer|
|WR||Antonio Brown||DL||Beau Allen||PR||Packers Returners|
|WR||John Ross||LB||Anthony Hitchens||Position|
|TE||Ricky Seals-Jones||LB||Reggie Ragland||HC||Hue Jackson|
|OT||Julie'n Davenport||CB||Vontae Davis||OC||Mike McCoy|
|OT||Bobby Hart||CB||Brent Grimes||DC||Mike Smith|
|OG||Mike Remmers||CB||Robert Alford||ST||Nate Kaczor|
|OG||Justin Pugh||S||Curtis Riley|
|C||Spencer Long||S||Jeff Heath|
Staff Playoff Fantasy Update
Bryan: We basically have a three-way race for the championship here. Scott and Bryan are out of players and out of luck, while Andrew has just Julian Edelman and a 14-point deficit to his name. Edelman may be drawing (insane, crazy, two-weeks-of-hype-induced) Hall of Fame calls thanks to his postseason performance, but no. That is not going to be a thing. Thanks to all three of us, but we're toast.
That leaves, in order, Aaron, Dave, and Vince with shots at bringing home the title. This is a much more exciting situation than last year, when Aaron had the trophy in the bag before the Super Bowl kicked off. This year, he has a five-point lead over Dave and a 25-point lead on Vince, but we're not done here quite yet.
Aaron has been carried here by Greg Zuerlein and Brandin Cooks. Sean McVay's habit of calling for field goals on fourth downs when he should probably leave the offense in, combined with Zuerlein's massive leg, has given Aaron a huge boost. Zuerlein has given Aaron 31 points, making him one of the top scorers at any position. Cooks has yet to find the end zone for Aaron, but 172 yards in two games is nothing to sneeze at -- we can't all be Julian Edelman, after all. Rob Gronkowski hasn't done much for Aaron yet so far this postseason, but you can never count out Gronk from smashing his way into the end zone. He also has the Patriots defense, but defense has not done anyone any favors so far in the postseason, so that's probably a wash.
We mocked Dave after the draft, feeling that his team was the weakest by far, and then pointed out that with our history of projections, that meant he would probably win. So, hi Dave! Dave is here for one reason and one reason only -- Sony Michel has gone crazy this postseason, nearly lapping the field in rushing yards and finding the end zone five times; no one else has more than three. The only running back averaging more than 100 yards per game this postseason, Michel has given Dave 53 points so far, more than any other player in football and better than a couple of Best of the Rest teams. Not bad for the ninth running back taken. Dave also has Stephen Gostkowski, so he'll gain some extra points every time the Patriots get into scoring range, and Josh Reynolds and the Rams defense also exist. His team is basically Michel or bust, however.
That leaves Vince. He's much further back than Dave is -- in fifth place overall, at the moment -- but he's the only one left with a quarterback. Tom Brady has only been the third-highest scorer so far this postseason with both Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees standing tall -- but they were both in Florida last week, not Georgia this week, so Brady stands tall yet again. Vince also has a pair of solid running backs in James White and Todd Gurley. We laugh at C.J. Anderson apparently replacing Gurley as the Rams' top running back option, but Gurley's 125 rushing yards and pair of touchdowns are nothing to sneeze at; he's not living up to his status as Vince's first-round draft pick, but he's also not leaving points on the table. Vince's strategy every year is to get the two running backs who will match up in the Super Bowl, and he has succeeded once again, even if he's gambled on the wrong Patriots back this year. He also has Robert Woods which, meh.
If every player matches their postseason average in the Super Bowl, the final standings would be Dave's 191 points, Aaron's 185 and Vince's 174. Can Michel run Dave into playoff glory once again? Will the Rams continue to kick field goals on fourth-and-inches? Does Tom Brady have another Super Bowl shootout left in him? It's anybody's race.
|FO Playoff Fantasy Rosters|
|RB||Sony Michel||53||James White||15|
|WR||Brandin Cooks||16||Robert Woods||9|
|WR||Josh Reynolds||9||Julian Edelman||24|
|K||Greg Zuerlein||31||Stephen Gostkowski||19|
|D||New England||2||L.A. Rams||-1|
Best of the Rest
Our leader at the moment is AlecB's As Luck Would Have It, sitting on an impressive 94 points with Rex Burkhead still alive and kicking. The combination of Burkhead and Andrew Luck is basically all he has going for him, but that has been enough to propel him all the way to the top of the leaderboards … so far.
There are 12 teams left with players in the Super Bowl including AlecB, but only four of them have anything like a realistic chance of taking that top slot; everyone else is either too far down the rankings or have their remaining players covered by someone better. MGilson86 (86 points), Bedfordp (79 points) and MichaelInMelbourne (76 points) are all still alive. All got here by Rex Burkhead, but that won't help them catch the leader at this point. MGilson86 still has Chris Hogan; Bedforp has Hogan and Tyler Higbee; and MichaelInMelbourne has Hogan and Jared Goff, so if Chris Hogan turns out to be a thing in the Super Bowl, any one of these three could catch AlecB.
The best chance at catching him, however, probably comes from RfT and his Backup All-Stars, sitting on 81 points. RfT has both Jared Goff and C.J. Anderson remaining, so a big day from the Rams could be just what he needs to take first place. I think I'd rather still be AlecB in this situation, but we're not wrapped up here quite yet.
1. As Luck Would Have It: 94 points (Rex Burkhead remaining)
2. Chi-Charge-O: 88 points (out of players)
T3. 7th Wheel: 86 points (out of players)
T3. Upside Funk (Rex Burkhead and Chris Hogan remaining)
T3. Over the Rivers and Through the Woods (out of players)
Keep Choppin' Wood: Can any of our readers yet explain what Julian Edelman was doing here?
Julian Edelman got BIG money on the Chiefs for even being close to this football pic.twitter.com/4fuGvxyVKc
— Barstool Sports (@barstooltweetss) January 21, 2019
Somehow, video evidence was sufficient to demonstrate that the ball bounced beyond Edelman without touching him, meaning the initial call of a muff recovered by Kansas City could be overturned, but there is no reason we can see why Edelman should have been close enough for there to be a question. WHAT is he doing?
His good fortune could not last, however: two plays later, Edelman did deflect the ball to a Chiefs player -- this time on a Tom Brady pass attempt, and it was intercepted by safety Daniel Sorensen. The Patriots did claw out an overtime win, and Edelman featured very heavily in that victory, but he also came so very, very close to giving it away for no clear reason we can see.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: Everybody. This was one of the most bewildering Conference Championship weekends we can recall. Every single coach had at least one utterly baffling conservative decision.
- Bill Belichick first punted on fourth-and-6 in Chiefs territory, then later ran a dive play into a stacked box on fourth-and-1. Both actions should be punishable by headset revocation.
- Andy Reid kicked a 39-yard field goal on second-and-10 from the 21-yard line with 11 seconds left in the game, trusting fate and a coin flip instead of taking one more shot at the end zone.
- Sean Payton twice had drives in Rams territory end in punts, including one fourth-and-7 on the Rams side of midfield, and the Saints clearly weren't going to actually go for it when they got lucky with Michael Brockers jumping offside on fourth-and-2 at the Rams 10.
- Sean McVay, in probably the worst offense of the day, kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 (later fourth-and-6 due to a delay-of-game penalty) while trailing 23-20. Outside the two-minute warning of either half, this should require coaches to rescind all future fourth-and-short decision-making in favor of a laminated sheet with the words "Go For It" written in bright red permanent marker.
In a frustratingly conservative day all-around for four NFL coaches with outstanding offenses, Sean McVay probably made the worst of the calls, but all four men were guilty in their own ways.
Hue Jackson Award for Confusing Coaching: Most of the truly confusing moments were covered by Andrew above, but here's one -- why did Todd Gurley spend the entire third quarter stretching on the sidelines, Sean McVay? His first half was terrible, for sure, but I find it hard to believe the Rams decided to just bench the guy around whom they designed their running game, and Gurley came back in for the final quarter. What happened? Is Gurley more hurt than he's letting on? Is he drained from being the workhorse back all year long? Did McVay forget he was standing on the sidelines? This wasn't necessarily a bad decision -- Anderson was more effective in there, anyway -- just a confusing one.
Patriots Running Back Roulette' Fantasy Player of the Week: Rex Burkhead had just 317 yards from scrimmage this season. He has topped 50 yards in a game just twice all year: Week 1 before Sony Michel was ready to go, and Week 16 against the Bills. He has been part of the committee, sure, but a clear third behind Michel and James White when it came to touches. So of course he found the end zone twice against the Chiefs, getting plenty of work as the Patriots ran a mind-boggling 94 plays. You didn't need those touchdowns, did you, White owners?
Rex Burkhead : 12 carries for 41 yards & 2 TD's; 4 catches for 23 yards (Game-winning 2-yard TD run in OT) pic.twitter.com/yMb18u3ERU
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life25) January 21, 2019
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: The two eliminated teams this week were the teams with the best records in each conference. That is quite the opposite of comfort, in this instance, as it means those teams will never have a better chance to reach a Super Bowl -- you simply don't get a better chance than one game, at home, win-and-you're-in. So for next year, where's the comfort?
For the Chiefs, it's obvious: their kid sensation quarterback, in his first year as a starter, led everybody in everything worth leading: DYAR, DVOA, QBR, touchdowns, yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt ... Patrick Mahomes will be back, and so will the Chiefs.
As for the Saints, every single time the team has put together a defense with a DVOA higher than 26th in the Drew Brees era, the Saints have made the playoffs. The talent pool looks good enough that there should be no reason the Saints do not achieve that next year, which should mean the Saints will be back too.
Game-Changing Play of the Week: Yes, we all know what the refs did. Let's move past that for a moment, and honor Greg the Leg.
Greg Zuerlein is definitely getting drug tested tomorrow pic.twitter.com/qWNpvjRGqV
— justin michael jerome (@JstnMchl) January 21, 2019
The 57-yard field goal is tied for the second-longest field goal in NFL postseason history, behind only Graham Gano's 58-yard blast in last year's wild-card round. The previous record for longest field goal attempt in a Conference Championship Game or Super Bowl was Fred Cox's 56-yard miss in Super Bowl IV, while three kickers had made 54-yard field goals in those situations. The previous record for longest game-winning field goal in the postseason was 51 yards, set by Mason Crosby in the divisional round in 2016. The previous record for longest game-winning field goal in the Conference Championship Games or Super Bowl was 48 yards, set by Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXVI. What I'm trying to say is that Zuerlein's 57-yard blast, even indoors, is one of the most impressive kicks in NFL history, considering its distance and the situation of the game. I wouldn't quite call it the most impressive kick ever made, but it's on the shortlist.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Bryan: We did a whole article about this! Go check our Prop Bets column for the full skinny. For the record, I have the Rams (+3) and Andrew has the Patriots (-3); Bovada still has the line at a field goal while everyone else and their brother has it at Patriots -2.5. So, if the Pats win by three, expect much gnashing of teeth.
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