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Scramble for the Ball: Stuck at the Starting Line

27 min read
Scramble for the Ball: Stuck at the Starting Line


By Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: Hello, and welcome to Scramble for the Ball. This week, your humble Scrambleneers are intrigued by a topsy-turvy kind of Sunday. The winless Dolphins won! The lossless Patriots lost! The tieless … OK, that one didn’t happen, but you get the idea. It’s quite impressive how Adam Gase continues to ruin the Dolphins’ plans, even though he’s now in charge of losing to them.

Bryan: I am beyond livid that not only do we miss the 0-14 bowl between the Bengals and Dolphins, but we also miss the opportunity for the 0-15 Dolphins to upset the 15-0 Patriots. I mean, what even is the point of having a Dolphins if they’re not going to delve new depths of terribleness? I mean, honestly.

Andrew: The Dolphins can still wrest the No. 1 pick from the Bengals if they lose to them in Week 15, but that assumes they haven’t already beaten, say, the Jets again in the meantime. With the Jets playing the way they currently are, I wouldn’t bet against that happening. Equally, the Jets could lose in Cincinnati in Week 13, meaning they would have deprived us of both the winless Dolphins AND the winless Bengals.

All three of those teams are a mess. It sure seems like we have an uncanny number of recently appointed head coaches, both rookie and veteran, in their first season with their new teams, making an absolute mess of those teams’ positions in the standings. In a normal year, we might see one such situation. In a bad year, we might see two. This year, we have at least three, and possibly a fourth or even fifth depending on our criteria.

Bryan: Six of the eight new full-time coaches (not counting Washington’s interim situation) have records of 2-6 or worse. That sets a record for new coach futility in the 21st century, beating out 2009’s quintet of quality: Todd Haley’s Chiefs, Jim Schwartz’s Lions, Raheem Morris’ Buccaneers, Eric Mangini’s Browns, and Steve Spagnuolo’s Rams. It takes quite a feat to have a class get off to a slower start than that group, but 2019 has been pretty historic in terms of floundering teams so far.

Andrew: Part of that, I imagine, has to do with the approach of bad teams: it sure seems like more teams are open to the idea of, if not outright tanking, at least taking their lumps in the current season to hopefully improve their future prospects. We’ve seen Cleveland go to one extreme recently, and Miami took that to an even greater extreme this year.

Bryan: Mmm, I’m not sure I fully agree with that, at least not for this year’s class. You don’t go trading for a starting quarterback if you’re expecting to tank (Broncos). You don’t go out and spend a gojillion dollars on a running back (Jets) or trade for one of the top receivers in the game (Browns) if you’re expecting to tank.

Andrew: Well, I was making allowances for one or maybe two (Cincinnati), not all six.

Bryan: I’d probably limit it to just the one, and giving Brian Flores the proverbial pass. Even the Bengals entered the season trying to win. I mean, they’re still trying, technically. Only the Dolphins really wrote the season off before it began — they were the only one of the terrible teams to really correctly diagnose just how terrible they were, and act accordingly.

Andrew: That raises another interesting question though, at least to me. Did the other teams incorrectly diagnose how terrible they were, or did they incorrectly diagnose how competent their coaches were? The Browns were 7-8-1 last season and should have improved this year with the addition of Odell Beckham. They appointed the quarterback’s best coaching buddy instead of conducting a proper coaching search, and are now far worse than they were before — at least, than they were between clearing out Hue Jackson’s desk and appointing Freddie Kitchens. The Jets’ appointment of alleged quarterback whisperer Adam Gase was widely, and justifiably, derided at the time. The Bengals went for the tried and trusted “this man wears the same aftershave as Sean McVay” hiring approach, which hasn’t worked out poorly for anybody.

Bryan: As for the Browns, promoting a positional coach to head coach always makes sense. I mean, look at what the 49ers are doing under Jim Tomsula! And whenever you have a chance to hire a coach with a 23-25 record, you have to take that opportunity. After all, Adam Gase knows Peyton Manning. Do you know Peyton Manning? I thought not.

Andrew: If becoming Adam Gase is the price of working with Peyton Manning, I think I’ll stick to working with you. I’m not sure what effect that’ll have on me, but I’ll take my chances.

Bryan: Side effects of working with me involve spending seven hours putting together a spreadsheet of coach debuts after an idle question from your coworker.

Andrew: See, from my perspective, one of the benefits of working with you is that I don’t have to do that. I get to enjoy the result of all your hard work, without it ever actually becoming my hard work. That’s the best possible coworker relationship, at least from my standpoint.

We should probably actually do something with that spreadsheet though. So here’s the idle question that prompted Bryan’s latest bout of sleep deprivation: does a particularly great or, as in this case, particularly terrible first half-season of results tell us anything definitive about a coach’s future prospects? I generally feel that most NFL teams are within a fairly narrow ability band, so a coach’s excellence or incompetence should show up to some degree even in those early results.

Bryan: The counter-argument to that, and one that the Dolphins and Bengals are clinging to, is that it takes time for a coach to really impact a team. It takes a couple of offseasons of roster turnover and playbook installation for a coach’s true value to really be felt — that 2019 is basically a mulligan year, and we’ll see the real Zac Taylor offense and Brian Flores defense in 2020, or maybe 2021 at the latest. Please keep buying those season tickets, fans!

After all, we all have heard about legendary coaches with less than legendary starts. Bill Walsh went 2-14 in his first season in San Francisco. Bill Parcells’ career opened at 3-12-1. The Cowboys are very used to this sort of thing; Tom Landry was 0-11-1 and Jimmy Johnson was 1-15. Add in Chuck Noll’s 1-13 start, and you’ve have an impressive roster of Super Bowl winners, some of the greatest coaches of all time, who looked terrible in their first time out.

Of course, all of those starts happened in the 20th century, before free agency and the salary cap and all the other Agents of Parity that make it so no team should spend too long lingering near the bottom of the league unless they are named the Cleveland Browns. Theoretically, turnarounds should happen faster nowadays. So, which is it? Are the first eight games of a coach’s career at all indicative of their later success? Or are they basically an extended getting-to-know-you period, with the real measure of quality coming down the line?

To find out, we looked at the first eight games of every coach to get a full-time job since 2000 — 138 different tenures. We’re excluding interim coaches if they did not go on to earn the full-time job; just people who were hired to actually run the team. We’re counting each coach’s tenure with different teams to be different datapoints, so Bears John Fox is different than Broncos John Fox, who is different than Panthers John Fox. So, what did we find out?

There is a 0.65 correlation between a coach’s win percentage in their first eight games and their overall win percentage. 49 of the 138 coaches’ overall records are within one game of their initial start — that is, if they start as a .500 coach, their overall record lingers somewhere between .438 (7-9) and .563 (9-7). It’s a little more noisy if you break it down by individual record, as you get to some small sample sizes, but the median total win percentage of coaches generally climbs as their first-eight record improves. There is no evidence that the first eight games are any less (or, to be fair, more) meaningful than any random selection of eight games. You are who you are, and that’s evident from the very start of your tenure.

NFL Coaches by First Eight Games
First 8
Games
No. Median WL% Median Games
Coached
0-8 7 0.156 40
1-7 15 0.298 32
2-6 22 0.297 42
3-5 33 0.421 48
4-4 26 0.479 50
5-3 14 0.506 72
6-2 13 0.563 64
7-1 5 0.656 56
8-0 2 0.609 77

Bryan: It should be noted, however, that there’s only a 0.20 correlation between a coach’s record in their first eight games and the length of their tenure. No matter how terrible you are, you generally get three years on average to try to make something happen, whether you were 0-8 or 3-5.

Andrew: Case in point: Mr. 1-31 himself, Hue Jackson. What we do see, as we go down the table, is that there is a general trend toward longer tenures following better starts. How much of that is raw coaching ability, versus terrible teams remaining terrible no matter who coaches them (why did those Browns fans just twitch?) and firing coaches more quickly as a result, or good teams perpetuating success regardless of who coaches them (Steelers), is probably arguable.

Bryan: It’s also possible some of that is just noise, as a few outliers who get hundreds and hundreds of games in charge do stretch things out a tad. The nice thing about win percentage is that it falls within a narrow window; your Andy Reids and Bill Belichicks can throw off averages pretty significantly (which is why we’re using median results in the table above).

Andrew: That’s a good point. 8-0 is a sample size of two, after all.

Bryan: Without looking, can you name the two? I can, because I spent the time building the dang spreadsheet, so it’s not really fair!

Andrew: I’ve also seen it, but sadly I have not committed it to memory. I’d guess … Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, and Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh.

Bryan: One for two. Jim Caldwell did in fact take over Peyton Manning’s Colts in 2009 and performed the time-honored strategy of not touching anything, for the love of god. Tomlin’s not a bad guess, as his Steelers started 6-2, but the other answer was the previously mentioned Andy Reid, when he took over the Chiefs in 2013.

Andrew: Huh, I thought that Chiefs squad was … oh wait, they’re the ones that fell apart in the second half, aren’t they? Something like 1-5 in the last six games, and out in the wild-card round?

Bryan: 2-5 in their last seven and a loss in the Crazy Andrew Luck comeback game, yup. Still a successful season after going 2-14 the year before under Romeo Crenell and Matt Cassel, but they may have gotten off to a hotter start than their actual talent level could sustain.

Andrew: That situation does exemplify what I was talking about above though: if a coach is legitimately any good, it will probably show up early even if the team is relatively talent-starved. Reid and Sean Payton are good examples of coaches who took over disastrous rosters and immediately made them competitive.

Bryan: For this year, that probably means good things for Kliff Kingsbury, right? Obviously, Matt LaFleur’s 7-1 start inspires confidence in Green Bay, Chargers game or no Chargers game, but Arizona hasn’t exactly been a perennial powerhouse. The Cardinals were a disaster last year, but they’re nearly at .500 this year, and played the 49ers very well on Thursday night.

(Side note: Kingsbury was the very last coach I added to the spreadsheet. The first 137 coaches all had normal, standard, overtime-friendly records in their first eight games. Kingsbury is the only one with a freaking tie. I had to add an extra column and change the win/loss percentage formula for you, Kliff!)

Andrew: So what might be more informative is comparing the coach’s record in his first half-season with, say, the team’s record the year before? I’m just trying to think of ways to fill your next couple of weekends.

Bryan: I think it’s entirely fair to judge a coach by the team’s previous record, adjusted back towards the mean of course (you shouldn’t celebrate a 4-12 season just because the team finished 2-14 the previous year; simple regression to the mean would be expected to get you in the neighborhood of six wins or so). At least as a first approximation; a starting point for expectations going forward.

Andrew: By that method, Freddie Kitchens and Zac Taylor already look pretty darn disastrous. Brian Flores too, but yeesh — this year’s Dolphins roster really does feel like it deserves an enormous asterisk.

Bryan: Yeah, you’d expect a 7-9 team to win seven or eight games the next year, all things being equal. All things are not equal with the Dolphins.

Andrew: By contrast, Kingsbury and LaFleur are in good shape, having both already surpassed last year’s record. Vic Fangio is on shaky ground, but a second-half recovery is at least plausible. Bruce Arians will probably get as long as he can stomach in Tampa Bay, which I believe is unlikely to be all that long.

Then there’s Adam Gase.

Bryan: Oh boy, is there ever Adam Gase.

Andrew: To be completely clear and upfront, Gase was the initial prompt for this entire discussion. He was brought in by the Jets allegedly to ensure that the team gets the very best out of their young franchise quarterback, Sam Darnold. For a snapshot of how that’s going, see this week’s Keep Choppin’ Wood. Gase had a reputation in Miami for alienating players and staff, and a reputation before that for making ridiculous life choices. (A subscription to The Athletic is required. No, not just to read the link, it is required.) His appointment was greeted with varying levels of shock (Dolphins fans), horror (Jets fans), and guffawing (everybody else). His first eight games have somehow actually gone worse than that.

Bryan: Of all the first-year coaches, Gase might have the fewest excuses. The Bengals, Broncos, and Dolphins do not have quarterbacks, so they’re out of the picture. The Packers and Cardinals are doing well, so they don’t need excuses. That just leaves Gase’s Jets, Arians’ Buccaneers, and Kitchens’ Browns. I’d say that Gase’s quarterback’s odd health situation (Mono! Strep! A removed toenail!) might give him a pass, only the Jets haven’t really looked any better with Darnold in the lineup than they did when he was quarantined from all human contact (if only television networks would do the same with regards to Jets games).

Andrew: When the curtain falls on this NFL season, I fully expect the single most baffling result to be Dallas Cowboys 22 at New York Jets 24. I cannot fathom how this team not only has a win, but has a win against an honest-to-goodness playoff-caliber opponent. They lost to both the Browns and the Dolphins, for pity’s sake.

Anyway, the question, prompted by the Jets-Dolphins-Bengals trash can sonata, was what a start this bad means for the team’s long-term prospects under that head coach. The answer appears to be … more than you might think. Excluding this year’s trio, 19 coaches have opened 1-7 or worse in any given job. Three of those have eventually made the playoffs without changing teams: Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville, Todd Haley in Kansas City (!), and Jim Schwartz in Detroit. Not one of those coaches finished above .500, though Del Rio got fairly close at 68-71. Eleven of them finished .333 (which would give an average mark of 4-12) or worse, most notably Gus Bradley, Chan Gailey, and the immortal Hue Jackson. Even if we discount guys such as Cam Cameron (Miami) and Chip Kelly (San Francisco) who only lasted a single season, eight of the 16 finished their career with that team .333 or worse.

Bryan: Of course, Del Rio, Haley, and Schwartz are going to be joined by another name this season in all probability, which is a great segue into talking about coaches who outdid their initial eight-game record. Just because the first eight games are solid indicators of future success for most coaches doesn’t mean there every coach’s slow start led to crashes and burns — nor, for that matter, that every coach who got off to a hot start kept rolling throughout their careers. There are sleepers and frauds that are worth pointing out.

Andrew: Ah, but how do we determine sleepers and frauds? Bryan not only has spreadsheets, he has numbers and formulae.

Bryan: If you just compare a coach’s record in his first eight games to his overall record, you get Jim Caldwell’s Colts tenure as the biggest fraud of all time. After all, he started out 8-0, and didn’t win every game he ever coached in from there on out! I mean, that’s just mean, getting Colts’ fans hopes up like that.

Andrew: Really, that doesn’t work for any opening record above 6-2. Not even Bill Belichick’s Patriots tenure has brought a winning percentage above .750, so it’s simply unrealistic to expect that opening record to be sustained by any mere mortal.

Bryan: Andy Reid’s .676 Chiefs record also pops out as one of the ten worst declines of all time, which, uh, no, so there are a couple of other strategies you can use. You can go back to that table we listed above of the median records for each starting record and compare a coach’s future results to that, in which case Romeo Crenell’s Chiefs tenure pops out as the worst (from 3-5 to 4-15). That’s a little more on the nose, but it’s not the only way to do it. You can also add eight games of .500 ball to each coach to try to better represent their “true” skill level — so a coach that starts 0-8 gets treated like a 4-12 coach, while a coach that starts out 4-4 gets treated like an 8-8 coach. That puts Herm Edwards’ Chiefs tenure as the biggest fraudulent start of all time, going from 5-3 to 15-33.

Chiefs coaches like to start out hot and then collapse, don’t they?

The best thing to do is probably blend all three methods into one overall index. So, uh, I did.

Here are the most fraudulent coaching starts of the 21st century.

Biggest New Coach Frauds, 2000-2018
Coach Team Year First Eight   Total Tenure Dif INDX
W L WL% W L WL%
Jim Zorn WAS 2008 6 2 0.750 12 20 0.375 -0.375 -2.71
Josh McDaniels DEN 2009 6 2 0.750 11 17 0.393 -0.357 -2.53
Herm Edwards KC 2006 5 3 0.625 15 33 0.313 -0.313 -2.52
Mike Pettine CLE 2014 5 3 0.625 10 22 0.313 -0.313 -2.52
Jim Caldwell IND 2009 8 0 1.000 26 22 0.542 -0.458 -2.45
Romeo Crennel KC 2011 3 5 0.375 4 15 0.211 -0.164 -2.01
Todd Bowles NYJ 2015 5 3 0.625 24 40 0.375 -0.250 -1.90
Dennis Allen OAK 2012 3 5 0.375 8 28 0.222 -0.153 -1.89
Scott Linehan STL 2006 4 4 0.500 11 25 0.306 -0.194 -1.88
Art Shell OAK 2006 2 6 0.250 2 14 0.125 -0.125 -1.82

Bryan: It’s Jim Zorn, who doesn’t come out as the worst coach in any specific way of looking at it but manages an impressive level of consistency, who takes the top slot. He finishes in the top five no matter how you slice it — his tenure was just a disaster after that hot start. 2008 Washington wasn’t a phantom team either, winning games with a soft schedule or by sheer luck. They had a 24.8% DVOA through eight games (subscription required)! But Zorn, from all reports, lost the locker room and was very quickly in over his head. A 6-18 stretch to finish his coaching career is disastrous.

Andrew: Zorn and Josh McDaniels are the only two coaches so far to start out 6-2 or better and finish below .500 with the same team, so they seem like a very reasonable top two. They will probably be joined this winter by Dan Quinn, who is currently 37-35 with the freefalling Falcons after starting 6-2. Again, of 19 possible names, only three defied the general trend. That bodes well for Matt LaFleur, who opened 7-1 but has since fallen all the way to 7-2. This list has more active coaches than the previous, for obvious reasons.

Bryan: Caldwell still pops up on this table despite an above-.500 record with the Colts; that initial hot start was just a massive outlier, as it turns out. It was enough to give Caldwell a second gig, where he again got off to a hot start (6-2 with the Lions!), remained above .500 again (36-28!) and still ended up with a negative score index (-0.83!). Dude has a hell of an initial handshake, and sets those expectations much higher than he can reach, leading to fans being disappointed despite a solid overall performance.

Andrew: Caldwell’s situation is just silly though. He’s the best Lions coach of the past what, 20, 25 years, but they fired him after four seasons for the Patriots coordinator du jour. I recall pointing out when that happened that Hue Jackson, who was still employed, could have gone 16-0 for the next two straight seasons and still had a worse four-year winning percentage than Caldwell. Absurd.

Bryan: I think you have to go back to Joe Schmidt in the ’60 and ’70s to find a more successful Lions coach than Caldwell, though that’s an article for a different day.

I also went ahead and calculated the best sleeper coaches of the 21st century — the names that can give the Adam Gases and Zac Taylors of the world hope. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, though; there’s one name that tops the table no matter the formula.

Biggest New Coach Sleepers, 2000-2018
Coach Team Year First Eight   Total Tenure Dif INDX
W L WL% W L T WL%
Bill Belichick NE 2000 2 6 0.250 233 80 0 0.744 0.494 4.37
Kyle Shanahan SF 2017 0 8 0.000 18 22 0 0.450 0.450 3.15
John Fox DEN 2011 3 5 0.375 46 18 0 0.719 0.344 3.08
Tony Dungy IND 2002 4 4 0.500 85 27 0 0.759 0.259 2.66
Ron Rivera CAR 2011 2 6 0.250 76 59 1 0.563 0.313 2.55
Jack Del Rio JAX 2003 1 7 0.125 68 71 0 0.489 0.364 2.44
Dick Vermeil KC 2001 2 6 0.250 44 36 0 0.550 0.300 2.43
Frank Reich IND 2018 3 5 0.375 15 9 0 0.625 0.250 2.14
Mike McCarthy GB 2006 3 5 0.375 125 77 2 0.618 0.243 2.06
Anthony Lynn LAC 2017 3 5 0.375 25 16 0 0.610 0.235 1.99

Bryan: When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing Bill Belichick continued to get a job, you know? He was below .500 in four of his five seasons as a coach in Cleveland, and he took Pete Carroll’s 8-8 Patriots team and turned it around to go 5-11. That’s some impressive patience on Robert Kraft’s part in a league that more and more demands immediate success out of its coaches.

Andrew: At least Belichick still picked up a couple of wins in his first half-season. Jack Del Rio is currently our most successful representative for the one-win-or-fewer club, though Kyle Shanahan is coming up fast on the outside. Del Rio’s time in Jacksonville wasn’t bad, but I suspect our current crop were hoping for slightly more from their offseason appointments. It would seriously defy the odds for any of those guys to become major successes, and it looks like Shanahan Junior has that single winning ticket.

Bryan: The 49ers would have to go 14-2 for Shanahan’s career record to get back to .500; that’s how badly his 49ers tenure started. He’s the guy we referenced earlier to join Del Rio, Haley, and Schwartz; barring an absolute disaster of a second half, he’ll be the first coach in the 21st century to start 0-8 and still end up with a playoff team somewhere down the line.

You’ll note that this list is crowded with active coaches — Ron Rivera, Frank Reich, and Anthony Lynn are all up here along with Belichick and Shanahan. This makes sense; they haven’t had a terrible year or two that leads to them getting fired yet. Most coaches will have a better record if you exclude their final season or two, because you generally don’t get shown the door as long as you’re winning. If you assume that some of them will drop out when their final season goes sour, you’d have guys like Chan Gailey (0-8 Buffalo), Mike Tice (2-6 Vikings), and Mike Sherman (3-5 Packers) waiting to climb back in.

Andrew: So what do we take from this, overall? Maybe not too much. Half a season is a very small sample. Still, I think my initial impression is vindicated: if a head coach is particularly good, that will show up somewhere in the win column even on a talent-starved roster. If he’s going 1-7 or worse, your next successful coach is probably not the guy you currently have in charge. Not a revelation — there will always be more unsuccessful coaches than successful ones — but still nice to have some data on the subject.

Bryan: But there’s always hope. Who knows, maybe Adam Gase will turn things around, and go on a two-decade long Belichickian run through the AFC, leading to us getting sick and tired of all these Jet wins. I mean, it’s not technically impossible! More likely, three years from now he’ll be coaching his own Loser L… dangit, that’s the wrong segue AGAIN.

Andrew: Ahem. What my esteemed colleague meant to say is, more likely, his team will continue to show up in our Awards section for all the wrong reasons.


Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin’ Wood

Hey, remember that video from a couple of seasons back when Sam Darnold and Josh McCown both flicked their hair in exactly the same way on the sideline? McCown appears to have influenced more than just Darnold’s flicking motion:

See? He even has McCown’s exact throwing motion down! Sadly for Sam, that is not a positive.

John Fox Award for Conservatism

The next time we give this award to Pete Carroll, we might have to let him keep it. After his Seahawks allowed Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers to tie the game with a ten-play, 75-yard drive, Seattle drove to second-and-4 at the Tampa Bay 25 with 27 seconds left and one timeout. The reason they had only one timeout is a story in itself — Carroll wasted one on the game-tying drive challenging a play that he knew would not be overturned. Still, even just the one timeout gave the Seahawks a great chance to get closer for a field goal, or even to score a touchdown. Instead, Carroll ran a simple handoff to set up the 40-yard field goal attempt, and called the timeout with three seconds left. You know how this ends by now: Jason Myers missed to send the game to overtime. Seattle still won, but Carroll could have made life so much easier for them to do so.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game

This was a rough week for game-changing aggressive decisions, so we’ll look to slightly different criteria for our winner. We often comment at Miami’s expense about their general approach to this season, but what we cannot question is the commitment of the remaining coaches and players. Against the Jets, the Dolphins trailed 7-0 after the first drive, but rallied to put up 21 points across their next three — three consecutive touchdown drives for a team that had only scored three touchdowns once all season. Miami’s playoff chances have been nil since before the opening kickoff of Week 1, but Dolphins fans did at least have something to celebrate once in 2019. It’s a good job former coach Adam Gase doesn’t embarrass easily — or maybe it would be better if he did.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching

Each of the 11 defensive pass interference calls that have been challenged have been upheld on reply. Of the 24 defensive pass interference challenges that were not originally called, only four have been reversed to interference. The numbers are similar on offensive pass interference. Unless it is plain and obvious, the call on the field is always going to stand — and even in some cases when it is plain and obvious, it will stand. Coaches should almost never challenge these plays with these rules in mind. They especially shouldn’t challenge them with less than three minutes left in a tight game. They especially especially shouldn’t challenge two in a span of 35 in-game seconds. Nobody tell Mike Tomlin that, however. His first challenge was at least understandable — you could make a strong argument that the pass was uncatchable — but the second was just … what? Anger? Frustration? Hope? EIther way, it burned up two of Pittsburgh’s timeouts — timeouts they would have really needed had the Colts managed to kick a field goal correctly!

‘Club Cali’ Fantasy Player of the Week

With Will Dissly’s season-ending Achilles tear a few weeks back, the Seahawks’ tight end position has been opened up somewhat. Still, that doesn’t warrant rostering Jacob Hollister, who had 13 career receptions and no touchdowns in his three-year career; he had never even played 20 offensive snaps in a game before Seattle got desperate this season. Against Tampa Bay, Hollister nearly doubled his career-high snap count with 60, ending up finding the end zone not once but twice, including the game-winner in overtime. Could this be something going forward? He’s out-snapping Luke Willson now, so if you’re desperate at the position, you could do worse…

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

Without a lot of garbage time happening anywhere in the league, we’ll give this award to the sadly benched Gardener Minshew. In the last five minutes of their game against Houston, facing a 23-point deficit, Minshew threw caution to the wind and let it fly. He completed five of his six passes for 87 yards, including 20-yard bombs to Keelan Cole and C.J. Board. He also scrambled for another 16 yards, picking up a first down in the process. Of course, he did fumble the ball twice, ending even the slimmest of comeback chances, but with slim pickings, we’ll always pick the mustache. We’ll all always have the mustache.

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week

Boy, was this week harsh on the Jaguars. Not only did they get blown out in their second home by a division rival, and not only did their rookie quarterback put up the worst game of his young career and might even be about to cede his job to the returning Nick Foles ahead of their bye week, but The Athletic’s Vincent Bonsignore reports that the Jaguars lose their status as London’s Team if the league can persuade, of all teams, the Chargers to quickly abandon their flirtation with Los Angeles in favor of a more receptive home abroad. The good news from this past weekend was not found in the usual spots: Leonard Fournette had just 40 yards rushing, Gardner Minshew had the aforementioned worst game of his career so far, and both D.J. Chark and Chris Conley were held below 35 receiving yards. Instead, it was the ancillary targets who stepped up: Keelan Cole put up his best game in over a year, Ryquell Armstead hit double figures in receiving yards for the first time, and even Seth DeValve had his most productive game since Week 10 of 2017. It still added up to a 26-3 defeat, but all three players will hope to build on those performances to make an impact in the easier back half of the schedule.

Game-Changing Play of the Week

Coming into this season, Adam Vinatieri had an 84.3% field goal rate and a 97.9% extra point rate. If anything, he was getting more accurate in his old age, though kicking indoors in Indianapolis rather than in frigid Massachusetts conditions probably has something to do with that. This season, however, has been a complete nightmare for Vinatieri, who is setting career lows in both rates. His 10 missed kicks so far this season is just one off of his career high, set all the way back when he was a rookie in 1996. This particular miss, however, can be blamed on holder Rigoberto Sanchez — the laces were in!

The loss means the Colts sit alone in the sixth playoff seed, rather than up with a bye week at No. 2 — they’d have the tiebreaker over 6-2 Baltimore thanks to a superior conference record. It also keeps them just a game ahead of the Steelers and Raiders for that wild-card slot, and both of those teams have the head-to-head win over Indianapolis for any tiebreak situations. The Colts are probably still in position to earn a playoff seed, but you hate losses to potential competitors.

For the Steelers … did Vinatieri just kick them into the playoffs? They sit at 4-4, and looking ahead, their schedule is baby-soft. They have five games left against teams with losing records — the Browns twice, plus the Bengals, Cardinals and Jets. They get the Bills at home, who may be 6-2 but are not playing like it. They get the Rams this week in a tough matchup, and then they get the Ravens in Week 17, when it’s possible that Baltimore will be resting starters. It’s not too hard to imagine Pittsburgh getting to 9-7, with something like eight wins in conference and wins over the Colts and Bills making for excellent tiebreakers. A lot of us wrote the Steelers off when Ben Roethlisberger went down, but they’ve rebounded from their 0-3 start and are in position to make some late-season noise.


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
Andrew: 6-3
Bryan: 5-4

Bryan: Why, exactly, are the Raiders underdogs at home to the Chargers? Wait, I can explain that — everyone saw the Chargers beat 7-1 Green Bay and went “ooh, the Chargers are back.” The Chargers are not back. Green Bay had one of those brainfart games that all good-but-not-great teams have from time to time, where everything seems to go wrong and they don’t have the reserves to fire back. The Chargers sputtered out in field goal range on four of their first five drives; the fifth was a punt. Their first touchdown came thanks to an 8-yard JK Scott punt. Their other touchdown only came when a field goal was taken off the board by a penalty. Oakland has quietly put together a very good offense to go with their very bad defense, which makes them fun (if frustrating) to watch. I think they win this one straight up, so yes, I’ll take Oakland (+1.5) on Thursday Night.

Andrew: I’m going to regret this, but I’m doubling down on my own team this week: even at midseason, the Falcons are already reduced to playing out the string under a lame-duck coaching staff, whereas the Saints are in the heart of a battle for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs and invigorated by the return of Drew Brees. With both teams coming off a bye, this really ought to be Thursday Night Football, but the NFL was never the organization for smart scheduling. The Saints will have Brees and Alvin Kamara together for the first time since Week 3; the Falcons will have to wait until 2020 to get back the players who were meant to stop them. New Orleans (+13) over Atlanta.

Double Survival League

Bryan: Well, that could have hardly gone worse. I knew that by taking the Packers and Jaguars, I was hanging on the edge. I hoped to go 1-1 in a tough week and just move on to more fertile ground later, but no — not only did both teams lose, but they did so convincingly, and in a way where I felt a fool for picking them in the first place. This wasn’t a “Browns upset the Ravens, oh well, I’d still take the Ravens in a rematch” situation; this was the sort of game where you wonder what fool would take the losing side at any price. The answer is me. I’m the sort of fool. I only GOT four games wrong last week (I had the Patriots and Jets winning, as well), but it figures that two of them would be the double survival picks. Alas. As a result, Andrew has a comfortable — although not yet commanding — lead, and I’m going to need to make up some serious ground quickly.

So enough with the dancing around — I’m going with the two games I’m most comfortable with this week. Or, at least, the two games I was most comfortable with coming in to this week. I’m sure fairly positive New Orleans is going to essentially score however many points they want against Atlanta — the Falcons do not appear to have bothered to field a secondary this season, and Drew Brees is back to full strength. Someone who may not be back to full strength is Jacoby Brissett, but I think even Brian Hoyer can lead Indianapolis to a win over Miami, Fitzmagic or no Fitzmagic. Fingers crossed.

Andrew: I have the exact same two games pegged for this week. I promise I’m not trolling you; I picked these weeks ago, when it became clear just how bad the Falcons were (we’ve already discussed the Miami default). A win for either Miami or Atlanta would be a major upset this week, so I’m as comfortable with this pair of picks as I’ve been all season. New Orleans and Indianapolis, and here’s to (hopefully) another 4-0 week.

Andrew and Bryan both take Indianapolis and New Orleans


Elimination Scenarios

Bryan: With the Dolphins’ shocking win and the Patriots’ less-shocking-but-still significant loss, the reaper was quiet in Week 9. Four teams faced elimination scenarios, but only Washington, thanks to their loss to Buffalo and the subsequent Panthers win, saw anything come true. You hate to see it, but Washington will not, in fact, earn the top seed in the NFC in 2019.

That means every other seed is still on the table for every other team — 191 different team/seed combinations still technically exist. In fact, it’ll likely be a light week once again, because the Patriots are on a bye and thus can’t push the top of the AFC any higher. We’re still not elimination-free, mind you, and we even have yet another head-to-head matchup of floundering teams with scenarios on the line in New York. That’s the game of choice for the eliminationly inclined.

  • Miami can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Indianapolis d. Miami AND EITHER Buffalo d. Cleveland OR Baltimore d. Cincinnati
  • N.Y. Jets can be eliminated from the AFC East IF N.Y. Giants d. N.Y. Jets
  • Cincinnati can be eliminated from the AFC North IF Baltimore d. Cincinnati
  • Atlanta can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF New Orleans d. Atlanta
  • N.Y. Giants can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF N.Y. Jets d. N.Y. Giants


http://www.footballoutsiders.com/scramble/2019/scramble-ball-stuck-starting-line