T.J. Watt and Fire High Heinicke
NFL Week 14 - According to the official NFL statistics, T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers just joined Reggie White as the only players in NFL history to record 13-plus sacks in four consecutive years.
Unfortunately, the official NFL statistics are wrong.
Deacon Jones amassed 13-plus sacks in six consecutive years for the Los Angeles Rams from 1964 through 1969. He produced some of the most amazing defensive seasons in history during that span, recording 20-plus sacks in three different 14-game seasons. Along the way, Jones literally coined the term "sack" in its football sense.
As a Football Outsiders reader, you know what's up: sacks from prior to 1982 are unofficial statistics, tabulated by historians such as John Thuney and Nick Webster from media guides and other sources. Pro Football Reference has made sack data from 1960 through 1981 easy to access, and the data is as meticulously researched and reliable as anything else that comes to us from the pre-digital age.
Jones deserves better than to be memory-wiped due to the NFL's obstinate refusal to embrace valuable information about pro football history because they aren't the ones who compiled it.
Jethro Pugh, a Cowboys great from the late 1960s and early 1970s, also recorded four consecutive 13-plus-sack seasons, as did 1970s Rams Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood. Also, Reggie White performed the feat twice: with the Eagles from 1985 through 1988 and with the Eagles and Packers from 1990 to 1993.
Eleven defenders have cracked the 13-sack plateau in three straight years, most recently Chandler Jones from 2017 through 2019.
Wait a minute … the 13-sack "plateau?" Why, we've stumbled into another Great Moment in Arbitrary Benchmarks. There is nothing special about 13 sacks, except that it's the number Watt reached in 2018, establishing the minimum for a Watt-related streak.
If we lower the sack total to 12 (a colloquial "dozen sacks") several other names appear, most notably Lawrence Taylor. Taylor recorded 12-plus sacks in five consecutive years from 1985 through 1989. His low of 12 sacks during that span came in strike-shortened 1987, when he only played 12 games. The 13-sack threshold excludes Taylor for not crossing a picket line and crippling some insurance salesman trying to live the dream.
Jacob Green, Leslie O'Neal, and Simeon Rice round out the group that recorded 12-plus sacks in four straight seasons: a bunch of near-Hall of Famers who wouldn't generate much engagement on the socials. Lower the threshold to 10 and all heck breaks loose, with seven different defenders recording double-digit sacks in seven consecutive years. Watt hasn't even been in the NFL long enough to crack that list. And yes, 13 sacks is more impressive than 10 or 12 sacks, so there is no good reason to arbitrarily lower an arbitrary milestone when trying to highlight a player's accomplishments.
But Watt tied James Harrison's all-time Steelers record with 16 sacks on Sunday, right? Wrong again. Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb recorded 17.5 sacks for the 1961 Steelers. Lipscomb was a two-time All-Pro for the NFL Champion Baltimore Colts in 1958 and 1959, not some rando who wandered into the NFL during a period of expansion. He's a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association's Hall of Very Good. Just because he's not as famous as Mean Joe Greene or Jack Lambert doesn't mean Lipscomb deserves to be swept under the historical rug.
Watt is an excellent player who is almost single-handedly keeping the Steelers relevant right now. He's on pace to record over 22 sacks, which means he could threaten the all-time single-season record held officially by Michael Strahan with 22.5 but really held by Al "Bubba" Baker with 23.0 for the Detroit Lions in 1978. No one wants to slag Watt. But the whole point of preserving and chasing all-time records is to acknowledge the greats of yesteryear who set those records. The NFL is being a poor custodian of its history by refusing to accept the Thuney-Webster data, and folks who ignore Deacon Jones and Gene Lipscomb in order to praise Watt aren't doing anyone justice.
If we want to celebrate what might be a historic season for Watt, we owe it to everyone to make sure we are getting the history right.
Fire High Heinicke and the Birth of a QB1!?
This little stinkpebble of a tweet crossed my timeline on Monday afternoon and nearly broke me:
Taylor Heinicke ranks among qualified QB since start of November
Win Pct 1.000 t-1st
Comp pct 77.3 2nd
Passer Rating 110.0 3rd
Birth of a QB1 !? pic.twitter.com/Z6VJSHNhwO
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) December 6, 2021
Walkthrough should never respond to such a thirsty engagement pleas. But hey, Washington is on a four-game winning streak and segment hooks can be hard to come by in December. So revel along with my nerdrage as I itemize everything infuriating about that tweet.
Winz as a Quarterback Stat: The fact that Washington has won back-to-back games by 17-15 final scores makes crediting Heinicke for the victories both a little precious and kinda weird. (Seriously: 17 to 15?)
Arbitrary Time Frame: OK, "since November" is not all that arbitrary, especially as it translates to "since Washington's bye week." But Heinicke's two-interception performance in a 17-10 loss to the Broncos on October 31 is strategically omitted.
Completion Percentage as a Measure of Quality/Accuracy: Heinicke was 23-of-30 for just 196 yards against the Raiders. His air-yard figures may be in the middle of the pack, but Heinicke threw a ton of screens and checkdowns on Sunday, many of them not very nourishing. As for accuracy, receivers still must leap into the clouds for most throws more than 10 yards downfield.
Passer Rating as a Measure of Quality: Sure, they're unlikely to use DVOA. But yoking completion percentage and passer rating together is another cutesy-poo maneuver, because passer rating is so heavily influenced by completion percentage. It's a redundancy to make the Heinicke argument more impressive.
Ranking Third in a Sketchy Category During a Short Timeframe Offered as Evidence of Excellence: The quarterbacks ahead of Heinicke in passer rating since November are Mac Jones (fine) and Joe Flacco (LOL). Jones' Monday night data was not included in the data, but it wasn't all that much data.
Coy Little Interrobang at the End of a Vague Question: Are we asking you what you think or telling you what we think!? Neither!?
Seriously, go stick your hand down the garbage disposal, NFL on CBS Twitter social media director.
OK, that was an inappropriately hostile response. The question, if it is a question, does have some merit: are we witnessing the "birth" of a "QB1?"
In a world where Jimmy Garoppolo, Daniel Jones, and Jared Goff are starters with some measure of job security and longevity, Fire High Heinicke can indeed be a "QB1." Technically, he already is: Ryan Fitzpatrick is officially out for the season, and Washington never felt any real urgency to rush him back.
But what the hell does "QB1" even mean? Is Tyrod Taylor one? Do the Panthers even have one? I might define QB1 as a "worthy long-term starting quarterback capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl under a reasonable set of circumstances." But that's just head canon.
The fact that hours/months/careers can be wasted talking about vaguely defined qualifiers such as "QB1," "Elite," or whatever is both the problem with and the beauty of the sports media industry.
Heinicke looks to me like a continuation of Alex Smith and Fitzpatrick: a daring, semi-mobile spray-shooter with a stronger arm but much spottier ball placement than the others. He's already 28 years old, so he is probably at or near his peak. Washington has been a bad-idea factory at quarterback for about 25 years, so it's not surprising that Heinicke has a "hive" of supporters. Hometown fans can talk themselves into all the quarterbacks who lead 17-15 victories they want. It's up to the organization to take winning streaks and inflated completion percentages with a grain of salt.
As for the Washington winning streak: the question to ask in these circumstances is what, if anything, is going really well. The defense is playing better than expected against one great opponent and three scuffling ones, but it's hard to find any defensive indicator that's pointing way up. The offense got Logan Thomas and Curtis Samuel back, then lost Thomas again, and has scored 17 points against second-rate defenses in back-to-back weeks. Washington appears to be "finding a way to win." You probably know how to interpret that.
Heinicke and Washington are about to face an NFC East club sandwich: Cowboys-Eagles-Cowboys-Eagles. I think they will go 1-3 during that stretch, cementing Heinicke's status as a "Win Despite" starter or "Get You Through a Month" backup. If that's the case, the NFL on CBS social media folks had the right instinct by trying to rev up a little Heinicke bandwagon while he was at his peak.
And that's that. I swear off getting all bilious over little nuggets of Twitter ephemera forever and ever…
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) December 7, 2021
(Ed. Note: If you're curious, Heinicke is fifth in passing DVOA since he came back from the bye in Week 10. That's over just a four-game sample, of course. -- Aaron Schatz)
TebowMania Ten Years After: Impact Prater
TebowMania would never have happened without Matt Prater:
- Prater kicked a 52-yard game-winner in overtime in Tim Tebow's first 2011 start, an 18-15 win over the Dolphins. Prater also missed three field goals in that game, but what would TebowMania be without lots of awful football capped off by some late-game heroics?
- Prater kicked three field goals in a 16-13 win over the Chargers.
- Prater kicked two field goals after the two-minute warning of a 35-32 victory over the Vikings.
- Finally, he kicked a 59-yarder at the gun and a 51-yarder in overtime in a 13-10 win over the Bears.
The worse Tebow played, the better Prater got. He was like Samwise at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. "Sure Frodo. You're the protagonist. Now excuse me while I do literally everything to save the world."
When you think of the Tebow era at its most ludicrous, the Chicago game is probably the contest that comes to mind: the Broncos getting shut out for most of the afternoon, Marion Barber running out of bounds with a three-point lead when the Broncos are out of timeouts after the two-minute warning, Prater heroics, Barber fumbling when the Bears reached field goal range, more Prater heroics. Here's the ESPN NFL PrimeTime highlight reel.
Not every Tebow game was this bad, but this was the crystallization of the experience, the final gauntlet thrown at the feet of critical thinking.
Our Audibles at the Line, excerpted here, capture the mood:
Mike Kurtz: Charles Tillman just intercepted Tim Tebow, and it was one of the most beautiful catches I've ever seen. The receiver fell down, but the throw was high, so Tillman fully extended, snatched it out of the air, pivoted on one foot, went rigid, and tagged the second foot as he fell down. I'm not sure he even touched the receiver. Just gorgeous.
Ben Muth: Lance Briggs just got called for roughing the passer on a play where he didn't hit Tebow hard enough to knock him down.
Aaron Schatz: Mike Tanier, I think, wrote about how the Denver offense looked like more of a standard passing offense last week, and I think the same thing is true this week. There's a lot of Tebow in the pocket, looking for receivers like a standard quarterback. The difference is that the Chicago Bears defense isn't blowing coverages right and left the way the Vikings did last week, so Tebow doesn't have open guys most of the time.
Mike Kurtz: Tebow's statline actually looks far worse than it should ... his receivers are dropping everything.
Vince Verhei: Denver comes out with a pistol formation in the second half. They run play-action and Demaryius Thomas runs a post pattern, blowing by Tillman for what should be a long touchdown. Tebow's pass is thrown too far ahead and Thomas can't bring it in. This is a "Tebow Special" incompletion, where it was just barely possible for Thomas to make a superhuman catch, but he couldn't quite pull it off.
Aaron Schatz: Tebow had 11 straight incomplete passes. He's now 10-for-12 since then, primarily in the fourth quarter, and one of those incompletes was a really awful drop by Demaryius Thomas. Ridiculous. Oh, and he just found Thomas wide open in the end zone for a touchdown with 2:08 left to make it 10-7 Chicago.
Vince Verhei: Chicago recovers the onside kick (barely). They run three plays and punt, but they don't kill much clock because the two-minute warning was up after first down, and Marion Barber stupidly ran out of bounds on second down. The Denver Tebows have the ball at their own 19, no timeouts, down three, 56 seconds to go.
And of course, the Bears play the softest zone ever until Denver crosses midfield. It was like they were up 30, not three. Once the Bears decided to play real defense, the drive promptly stalled. They showed Matt Prater drilling 70-yard kicks in practice, so the 59-yarder here is academic, and we're going to overtime.
Aaron Schatz: The Tebow thing is amazing, because it's amazing what kind of crazy mistakes by opponents have helped all these wins. Ponder's pick [for the Vikings against the Broncos the previous week], Barber going out of bounds, just crazy stuff.
Mike Kurtz: I'm not sure any player has ever chopped as much wood as Marion Barber did in the past five minutes of game time.
Vince Verhei: The Broncos are lining up for a 51-yard field goal. Everyone in the bar is crowded under the TV asking "Can he do it again?" "He?" Is Tebow kicking now?
Mike Kurtz: Another week of avoiding football media, I guess.
Mike Tanier: Bad news, son. You ARE football media.
Mike Kurtz: Mind = blown.
I AM THE MONSTERS.
As Vince Verhei wrote in Quick Reads the next day, Tebow didn't even run the ball all that well:
Not even the most ardent Tebow supporter would be surprised to see the Denver quarterback rank so low in passing statistics, but how do you rush 12 times for 49 yards and get -22 rushing DYAR, especially when you don't fumble even once? A lot of Tebow's runs come on third down, and he often comes up short. He had two first downs in seven third-down runs against Chicago, and though he converted a third-and-16, he also had a 0- and 6-yard gains on third-and-10, a 5-yard gain on third-and-6, a 3-yard gain on third-and-5, and a 1-yard gain on third-and-4.
As for avoiding the media, I appeared semi-regularly on a knockoff Pardon the Interruption back then on the Versus channel, which was formerly Outdoor Life Network, would later become the NBC Sports Network and is soon (I believe) going off the air. There was no Zoom back then, so I drove to the 76ers arena, where Comcast had a mini studio with a backdrop. Doug Farrar, who had just left Football Outsiders prior to that season, was sometimes the other talking head, and the host could not keep us straight. If Doug wrote in our prep emails that he wanted to talk about Drew Brees and I chose Aaron Rodgers, the host would invariably tee me off with, "So, you were really impressed by Drew Brees on Sunday," forcing two relative media novices to vamp, which made for some awesome television.
Anyway, we did an MVP segment for that show, and we probably chose Brees and Rodgers. But the host insisted on bringing the topic around to Tebow. I don't believe the clip exists anymore, but as I recall (perhaps self-servingly), Doug and I diplomatically praised Von Miller and the Broncos defense and politely asserted that Tebow still had a way to go in his development as a quarterback.
"But doesn't Tebow deserve consideration because of the way he's controlling the narrative?" the host asked.
Patience exhausted. "We're picking the Most Valuable Player, not characters for a play," I said.
Believe it or not, that was the first time I heard the word narrative used to discuss the storyline superimposed over the NFL season. It was probably a standard industry term used by Monday Night Football producers and such, but it wasn't used the way it is now by every angry fan who doesn't like the way the local team is getting covered. Oh here we go again with the stale Dave Gettleman-is-a-bad-GM narrative.
Tim Tebow was narrative made flesh, dwelling among us, a story the mainstream media wanted to tell because so many fans yearned to hear it. That Versus host, like Chris Berman and Tom Jackson on NFL PrimeTime and everyone else on television, got lots and lots of notes in production meetings such as the one the Sports on Earth staff got from a Gannett bigwig during the first meeting of our high-minded, utterly doomed prestige outlet seven months later: "You can never have too much Tebow."
Sometimes I think the football entertainment industry itself stopped pretending their cereal had any nutritional value and embraced the stupid the moment Prater hit that 59-yarder to force overtime. The dates don't really add up—First Take had already been on the air for years, for example—but TebowMania certainly helped shape the public's relationship with "the media" in the social networking age in subtle ways.
Yet a fork in the road was coming. What Tebow and the Broncos were doing was obviously not sustainable any longer. Either the quarterback had to improve or reality would (temporarily) set in. And despite the optimism we wrote about last week, Tebow proved incapable of improvement.
Next Week in TebowMania: Bill Belichick says ENOUGH.