Accounting for Surprising Running Back Performance
There are some odd running back situations this year where reserve scrubs have decisively outplayed pedigreed starters. I'm not talking about Andre Ellington outplaying former first rounder Rashard Mendenhall - situations like that are easy to see coming. I'm referring to Doug Martin - last year's first-rounder with an ADP of 2 - who averaged 3.6 YPC before getting hurt and Mike James coming in and getting 4.9. After James went down, Bobby Rainey got 5.5 YPC, albeit mostly against a soft Falcons defense. Also Trent Richardson - last year's No. 3 overall pick, ADP of 9, getting smoked by Donald Brown (admittedly a former first-rounder, but one on whom the Colts had all but given up). And Darren McFadden (former No. 4 overall pick), whose only issue was supposed to have been durability. Like Martin, he's averaged 3.6 YPC while his backup, Rashad Jennings, is at 5.2. While Bernard Pierce hasn't done much, Ray Rice (ADP 7) has averaged only 3.0 YPC, and that's after torching the Bears last week for 131 yards.
We can venture some explanations as to why these things have happened. In Martin's case, for example, quarterback Josh Freeman was struggling and fighting with his coach, and the Bucs were dealing with a MRSA outbreak in the locker room. By the time rookie Mike Glennon found a rhythm, Martin was hurt. It sounds plausible to me, but that doesn't necessarily make it true.
McFadden was actually bad when he was healthy in 2012, too. In fact, he was even less efficient - 3.3. YPC - then than in 2013 (3.6). Supposedly the Raiders new zone-blocking scheme didn't fit McFadden's style last year, so they vowed to change it, but apparently it didn't help much. As for Jennings, he averaged only 2.8 YPC last year in Jacksonville on 101 carries. But in 2010 (he missed 2011 with a torn ACL), he averaged 5.5 YPC, and now he's another year removed from the injury.
After-the-fact explanations for the unexpected don't mean much, however, unless their accuracy can somehow be tested. The way to do that is to turn whatever conclusion derives from them into a prediction and see whether it pans out. In Martin's case, he'd have to be the back he was in 2012 when he returns in 2014.
Maybe McFadden's injuries have simply caught up with him, and he's no longer the player he once was. If he never cracks 4.0 yards per carry for a season again, you could reasonably believe that explanation holds. Good luck explaining how Richardson went from No. 3 overall pick to mid-to-late first-round trade value to Donald Brown's back-up in a little more than a year without a reported injury. The most plausible explanation might be that many NFL personnel evaluators are out to lunch, and Richardson was never especially good.
There's also the possibility a running back's unexpected performance was in large part due to luck, i.e., he just happened to get the ball in a disproportionate share of easy (or hard) situations. In the chess matches between various offensive and defensive play callers, with different personnel in various states of health, there are going to be a handful of backs who get particularly lucky and others who get particularly unlucky - what Jeff Erickson termed "running back BABIP." I can't say for sure that's what happened to LaDainian Tomlinson early in his career, but on a 4-12 Chargers team in 2003 he averaged 5.3 YPC and then on a 12-4 team the following year, he got only 3.9.
Keep that in mind as you evaluate Mark Ingram (3.9 YPC in 2011 and 2012, 5.4 so far this year) and Donald Brown (5.9 YPC in 2013).
John Moffit Quits. Should We?
Broncos lineman John Moffit retired from the NFL this week, citing the physical toll it was taking on him. He left a good deal of money on the table, as well as a chance for his pension and benefits to vest.
Most of the comments* in the NYTimes article were supportive, and many questioned whether the NFL should even be allowed to continue as a sport, given the long-term damage to so many of its players. Brett Favre's memory loss is but the latest example, and should he - a high-profile superstar quarterback - deteriorate, it could be a turning point, as most of the players who were badly damaged were either linemen or defensive players of whom the public has never heard.
Admittedly, my livelihood depends in large part on the NFL continuing, and it's easily my favorite sport to watch on TV. I also care more about the NY Giants than the Yankees (with their ridiculous payroll advantage), Knicks and Islanders combined. So I have a large stake in this debate and am therefore far from objective. Acknowledging that, I think it's largely a question of where we draw the line on athletes (and people generally) voluntarily (so to speak) engaging in high-risk activities.
For example, all but the most hardcore libertarians among us would be against watching gladiator contests where opponents fight to the death with baseball bats. On the other hand, people have occasionally died in baseball from beanings and crashing into outfield walls, and the late Ryan Freel likely suffered brain damage from concussions sustained while playing, so if you're avoiding all sports that risk serious harm to their athletes, baseball's got to go too. So if boycotting baseball is Level 1 in terms of risk tolerance, and ponying up for pay-per-view fights to the death is Level 10, where does watching NFL games fall on that spectrum?
I don't have a precise answer to that, but I'm not yet ready to quit watching, covering and - let's be honest - promoting interest in it by being part of a fantasy sports site. But just because it's in our financial, professional and personal interest for the NFL to continue that doesn't mean we should ignore pertinent facts about what we do and harm in which we might be complicit.
If anything, Moffit is a probably doing the NFL a favor - the more people who show by example that opting out is a viable choice, the more voluntary the behavior of the players who remain. But let's not kid ourselves - if your parents are suffering from health conditions for which their crappy insurance is inadequate, and you've got a kid or two of your own, walking away is probably not a realistic option for most college grads who majored in football and are coming of age in an era with poor job options and an increasing gap between rich and poor.
* Incidentally, the best comment in the Times article was from a guy named "Bruce" who, citing Moffit's reading of Noam Chomsky and the Dalai Lama as a basis for his decision, wrote:
LAMA, Chomsky. sounds like a dangerous subversive to me. NFL is well rid of him; God knows what would've happened to St. Peyton if he'd been exposed to dangerous thoughts about what goes on off the field. Close escape for the Broncos...
All-Time NFL Fantasy Teams
Sirius XM is doing a pre-recorded special on this for Thanksgiving Day at 2 pm ET. I did the WR segment (Erickson did best Thanksgiving Day performances). Here are some of my notes on the greatest fantasy WR of all-time:
1. JERRY RICE
• 11 straight 1,000 yard seasons
• Four 1,500-yard seasons
• Six 1,480-yard seasons
• Double-digit TDs nine times
• 15 or more TDs five times
• 22 TDs in 1987, a strike-interrupted year, in just 12 games
• 13 or more TD eight times
• 12 seasons of nine or more TDs.
• Went 1,211 and seven at age 40.
• 22,895, career yards, roughly 8,500 more than No. 2 Tony Gonzalez who has played all but two games since 1997.
• 1,549 receptions
• 197 TDs.
2. RANDY MOSS
• 10 1,000-yard seasons
• Three 17 or more TD seasons, including the all-time record of 23.
• Six seasons of 13 or more TDs
• Nine season of 10 or more TDs
• Six 1,300-yard seasons
• 156 career TDs
3. DON HUTSON
• Led league in receptions eight times, yards seven times, TDs nine times
• Went 74-1,211-17 in 1942. Next highest TD WR had eight, third had five, fourth had four.
4. TERRELL OWENS
• Eight Double-digit TD years.
• Seven seasons of 13 or more TDs
• Nine 1,000-yard seasons
• Had a 143-1,722-11 season (all-time receptions record by a mile, useful for PPR).
• Eight 1,000-yard seasons and 10-TDs
• Four-straight 100-catch seasons
• Went 122-1,964-5 in 2013, setting the single-season yardage record.
• Went 96-1,681-15 in 2012.
• Three 12 or more TD seasons, 11 in nine games this year and on pace for a top-five yardage finish again, this time with commensurate TDs.
• Six straight seasons of nine or more TDs, five with 10 in the 1960's
• Seven 1,000-yard seasons
Five out of six seasons of 111 or more receptions, 86 during his one "off" year after surgery.
QB Dan Marino (When he threw 48 TDs in 1984, Neil Lomax was second with 28 and Phil Simms third with 22)
RB Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson
WR Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Don Hutson
TE Rob Gronkowski
Observations from Week 11
• I agree with the refs picking up the flag at the end of the Panthers-Pats game.
It's easy to see why the flag was thrown - Rob Gronkowski was clearly being held by Luke Kuechly, but the ball was five yards short and a couple seconds late, and in any event, Robert Lester was comfortably between Gronkowski and the ball. Had Gronkowski not been held, would he have had a chance to catch the ball? Almost certainly not. He'd have had to stop his momentum, cut back in a few yards and go through Lester on a ball thrown into Lester's body. Had Lester caught the ball high over his head, maybe the 6-7 Gronkowski could have gone up and grabbed it out of his hands. But in this case, he would have had to double back, make it to the spot, play defense on the ball and hope it hit off Lester's knee (or some other body part) and pop into the air. There was no chance he was getting between Lester and the ball, and that's assuming he could get there in the first place. I suppose it could be argued that any infinitesimal chance meant the flag should stand, but when it's so remote, I'd rather not have it turn the outcome of the game.
Some suggested holding should have been called, but that's only before the ball's in the air, and the receiver is prevented from getting open. Once the ball's in the air, it's a judgment call - if there's illegal contact, it's either PI or uncatchable.
• Cam Newton engineered a masterful final drive under pressure, and whether one puts him in the Russell Wilson/Andrew Luck future-superstar category, he's seems good enough to win playoff games with the current team around him.
• As Mark Stopa suggested on Twitter, the teams should have scheduled an MMA contest between Steve Smith and Aqib Talib at halftime. We installed Smith as the favorite not only against Talib, but also any NFL lineman, MMA professional or person in human history. The only player I'd consider taking over Smith is Sebastian Janikowski, presuming sufficient quantities of GHB in his system.
• Tom Brady got 7.4 YPA and 296 yards in Carolina against arguably the league's best defense. His one pick was on the last play of the game. After that and the Pittsburgh game, it's safe to say he's back.
• Shane Vereen had only one carry, but saw a whopping 11 targets and eight catches. There didn't seem to be any "working his way up to speed" given he had a wrist rather than a leg injury.
• The Bengals-Browns game was total junk, but even so, it's amazing A.J. Green had only two catches on five targets for seven yards. (Joe Haden is good, but still). In fact, Mohamed Sanu led all Bengals wideouts with 11 yards on five targets. Andy Dalton's three-game/11-TD stretch seems like a lifetime ago. As does Jordan Cameron's fast start.
• Josh Gordon saw 15 targets, and though he caught only five of them, he had 125 yards and a score. He's a top-10 wideout and would be one of the big five or six if he had a slightly better quarterback.
• Chris Ogbonnaya led the Browns in rushes (8), rushing yards (69) and catches (6). Willis McGahee is past his expiration date, and the Browns might as well see what they have in Ogbonnaya.
• Matt Ryan was never a good fantasy quarterback until Julio Jones arrived in 2011. Prior to that, his career-high in yards was 3,705, and he had averaged 22 TDs over his first three seasons. That said, his defense is so poor, he might throw the ball 650 times this year.
• Matt McGloin played a strong game in Houston and could have had better numbers but for some drops by his receivers. Still he got three TDs and no picks on the road against a decent defense. He's probably an upgrade over Terrelle Pryor.
• You have to feel bad for Matt Schaub setting the pick-six record, having people harass him at his house, getting hurt, losing his job and now taking crap in front of everyone on the sideline from his Hall of Fame receiver. People forget from 2007-2011 (half a decade) Schaub averaged more than 8.0 YPA, but the Texans struggled largely due to a terrible defense.
• Robert Griffin brought the Redskins back from a 24-0 deficit, but his interception on the final drive was one of the worst I've ever seen. It was 2nd-and-10 from the Eagles 27, and Griffin was trying to throw the ball away, but for God knows what reason threw it short of the end line, and it was picked in the end zone. Game over, any long-shot playoff hopes dashed. It's shocking to see a quarterback make such a careless play with the game (and the cover) on the line.
• Speaking of great moments in gambling, there was a near-safety at the end of the Niners-Saints game with the score tied at 20-20. The question was whether a penalty occurred in the end zone, and if it had, it was game over (22-20) with the Saints getting the ball back and kneeling on it. New Orleans was favored by three, and since I had them, I was very relieved to see the Niners get to punt and wind up losing by a FG (a push).
• Why are the Ravens always involved in delayed games? The question of the movable object (the Bears defense) vs. the stoppable force (Ray Rice) was answered at least. Rice went 25 for 131 (5.2 YPC) and a score. Remember, Brandon Jacobs went for 100 and two TDs against the Bears defense too.
• Despite his team being totally shut down by the Bills, Chris Ivory managed another long run and salvaged his day with 98 yards and a score. I have no idea why the Jets bailed on Bilal Powell so abruptly, but Ivory is a viable starter now.
• The Bills have a top-10 real life and fantasy defense now. (They also lead the NFL in turnovers and sacks h/t Mark Stopa).
• I'm not sure what all the Percy Harvin hype is about. Sure, he'll make some highlight-reel plays each game, but even if he were 100 percent healthy and up to speed, he'd be a top 15-20 WR at best on that team. Not knowing his snap count or familiarity with his quarterback and offense, I don't see much reason to get excited. He's basically Tavon Austin until further notice.
• Cordarrelle Patterson had only three catches for 28 yards, but saw nine targets. With Greg Jennings (Achilles') and Jerome Simpson (partying) possibly on the way out, Patterson - a huge talent - is worth a look down the stretch.
• The Giants game was such a dud, there's not much to say about it. Eli Manning's pick was supposedly Louis Murphy's fault - apparently receivers are supposed to signal route adjustments to Manning with "body language," something that's failed many times this season. Maybe it's a bad idea for Manning to have to guess what the receiver (who's simultaneously trying to deceive the DB) is going to do based on his movements and just throw it away if the guy is covered.
• Jason Pierre-Paul had a smooth pick-six which he caught cleanly and easily jogged into the end zone. His shoulder was bothering him last week, but if he gets completely healthy, that's a game changer for an already decent defense. Barring an Eagles collapse, it's probably too little too late for the Giants, though. They still have to play at Detroit and host Seattle. Even if they were to split those games, they'd likely have to go 4-0 in their others (two against Washington, one against Dallas and one at San Diego).
• As much as NBC tried to hype the Broncos-Chiefs game, it was pretty boring. Knowshon Moreno saw a lot of work, but Montee Ball got the goal-line carries twice - and this despite fumbling early in the game. That doesn't bode well for Moreno owners.
• Alex Smith targeted Dwayne Bowe 14 times, but connected on only four (for 57 yards and a score). While it's hard to fault the Chiefs for neglecting Bowe all year given they were 9-0 before Sunday night, maybe had they had worked him into games and not played it so safe, Smith and Bowe would have had a better rapport. There's no way they'll beat teams like Denver, New England and Indy in the playoffs without getting some downfield plays.
• Andy Reid's decision to punt down two scores with 11:48 left in the fourth quarter on 4th-and-7 from Denver's 41 was bad even by Jason Garrett's standards. Let's set aside for a moment that the punt resulted in a touchback for a net of 21 yards. What could Reid possibly be thinking? There are three possessions left in the game at most, and you need touchdowns on two of them. If the Broncos mount any kind of drive, you have two possessions left, and if they score again (which of course they did), you're done. But if you convert one seven-yard play, you've got a good chance to cut the lead to seven with 10 minutes or so left. I get that Reid trusts his defense more, but that's not a luxury one has down two scores. Your offense must execute repeatedly no matter what, so you might as well trust them when the game is still alive.
That this decision isn't a major topic of conversation the way Bill Belichick's failed 4th-and-2 against the Colts was in 2009 is yet another illustration of the writers covering this game not doing their jobs. Maybe they're clueless, or maybe they're just terrified to ask tough questions of coaches after games. Actually, as I speculated last week it's more likely because the incentives for strong coverage are missing.
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