PG-13 Warning - Politics in This Column - Will Likely Offend Many of You
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Variance and Sample Size
It's so easy to be woke with respect to analytics concepts like variance and sample size. Something unexpected happens, we chalk it up to a small sample. A team looks great one week, terrible the next, easy - just variance. It's nice catch-all terminology and so simple to apply in retrospect.
But going forward, not so much. For example, the Patriots got blown out in the Super Bowl for three quarters before the Falcons choked it back to them, then they got soundly beat by the Chiefs at home opening night. So in Week 2 I took the Saints, who are much better at home, plus six against them. After the Patriots blew out the Saints, I thought, "Of course, it's the Patriots - what was I thinking?"
The following week, the Patriots were home against the Texans and their rookie QB who couldn't get even 5.0 YPA against the Bengals. So I took the Patriots minus 13.5, and the Texans nearly won - and should have won but for the abject cowardice of their coach - outright. What is the small sample, the Patriots' win over the Saints, combined with nearly two decades of dominance under Bill Belichick/Tom Brady or the first three quarters of the Super Bowl and the Chiefs and now Texans games? How much of this swing is random variance, and how much is New England moving back to the pack?
(Incidentally, after the Saints failed to show up for the second straight week, I faded them against the Panthers in Carolina. And they blew the previously undefeated Panthers out.)
This is not to doubt the validity of these statistical concepts, but to point out it's much easier to use them retrospectively than prospectively. Every time there's an unexpected result, it's unclear whether it's a variance-driven anomaly or a permanent baseline change. While one's default position might be to chalk it up to variance, as permanent identity shifts are the less likely explanation, how do we then explain how different the power rankings from Week 1 are from those in Week 6 or Week 12? Real baseline change is obviously happening fairly often across the entire league.
There's no cheatsheet for how to balance these possibilites in the face of unexpected results (and I'm not talking about unexpected game outcomes turning on blocked punts or other fluky plays - I mean unexpected results like the Redskins utterly dominating the Raiders or the Jaguars dominating the Ravens on nearly every down.) The best we can do is observe what happened, keep the concepts in mind and use our best judgment, knowing we're going to be wrong much of the time.
I'm reminded of a story my friend told me. He was studying Aikido, a Japanese martial art, and one of his teachers, an older master, was getting set to retire. His underlings, one of whom would have to assume his role, were worried that no one could fill his shoes. The master sensed this and told them that when his master retired, he and his fellow teachers were similarly dubious, but here he was 20 years later. The point is we imagine there's some master of handicapping or player forecasting that knows how to weigh all this disparate data so well and compared to whom we're in the dark. But if you do this for long enough, pay attention and apply your best judgment, suddenly you're wearing the black belt, and you don't even remember putting it on.
Bend the Knee
As with most politically-charged controversies, there's so much b.s. going on, it's hard to know where to begin. First, understand President Trump's comments. I doubt he cares in this instance about the National Anthem or the flag, or whatever else he was purporting to discuss in his speech. He cares about the support of his base many of whom are emotionally attached to these symbols because they've come to associate them with who they are. You disrespect the song or the flag, you disrespect us. Trump knows this, and by saying a few choice words about NFL players, and taking heat for it from said players and media, gains even more cred with that base.
This is important because when he gives away the store to his Goldman Sachs appointees who his base despises, or gives the Pentagon a blank check to line the pockets of the military industrial complex and fight wars that are decidedly not "America First," his base will be more inclined to overlook it. That's all this really is. A hedge against the backlash he'll face when he does exactly what he was not elected to do. Even if you hate Trump, you should acknowledge he was elected not to do what we've always done, and also - distasteful rhetoric aside - his foreign and economic policy are getting more mainstream - and not in a good way - by the day.
The mainstream media is standing (or kneeling as the case may be) with the players because that's who gives them access, and making woke comments about Trump's racially insensitive verbiage plays well with their colleagues and gets them bigger followings. Yes, some believe in the right to free speech - as long as it's speech with which they agree - but mostly the grandstanding is self-serving and careerist.
The right wing media is conflating Colin Kaepernick's protest of racial injustice and police brutality with a protest against the National Anthem, and by extension, the flag and those who served in the military. Nevermind Kaepernick has many times explained that he's protesting racial injustice and police brutality, not the song and that many veterans agree with him. This gets those media outlets credibility with their viewers, especially in contrast to the mainstream outlets that are demonizing Trump and by extension them.
The owners are denouncing Trump's statements and in a non-sequitur making PR-firm-vetted statements about how much good the players do for their communities. They have to do this because many of their fans demand it, and more importantly their employees, the players, will notice who sided with them and who sided with Trump. The owners are of course ignoring the elephant in the room - the fact that none of them are rushing out to sign Kaepernick whose free speech they purport to tolerate and yet simultaneously punish by destroying his livelihood. Any statement about the players' rights to kneel during the National Anthem is an empty platitude if Kaepernick remains unsigned. It might appease some, but it's clear empty platitudes are no longer sufficient to carry the day - otherwise, Hillary Clinton would be president.
From the NFL's perspective, Kaepernick's sin was not protesting racial injustice or exercising free speech, but undermining a lucrative, long-waged and expensive campaign to associate the NFL with "American values," the military and patriotic love of country. The NFL's brand has already taken hits with the domestic violence scandals and the spate of suicides and murders by players with CTE. But Kaepernick's protest threatened to do even more damage by undermining the narrative that NFL stands for USA. Kaepernick's protest questions whether the most powerful nation on earth is necessarily using that power for good. While many would consider questioning wrongs done by the State a higher form of patriotism than "My country, right or wrong," the latter is the predominant model to many, and the one to which the NFL has apparently hitched its wagon.
That's why so many executives were aghast when Kaepernick first protested. It's a threat to the NFL's image as pro-America, and that branding has a lot of value to them. Whether or not owners and players link arms, kneel or issue platitudes about inclusion and community involvement, the NFL is invested in making an example of Kaepernick by keeping him unemployed. It's not: "This is what you get for protesting," because now everyone's protesting, it's "This is what you get for opening this can of worms that could damage the brand." Underneath all the drama about free speech, racial justice and patriotism, for the NFL this is just about protecting its income stream and deterring other players from new forms of protest to similar effect.
The players are the only ones with skin in the game - it's they who can be hired or fired based on the exercise of their rights, and given most of them are black, they who are most affected by racial injustice and police brutality. If there's anyone I'd be inclined to listen to in this absurd circus, it is them.
As for issue of whether Kaepernick would have a job but for his protest, I'll throw a couple stats at you. Despite playing for the 49ers who had arguably the worst supporting cast in the NFL, Kaepernick had 16 TD passes, four picks, 7.2 YPA, 468 rushing yards and two rushing TDs last year. For his career, he's 25th in NFL history in Adjusted Net YPA, arguably the best catch-all stat for QBs. That's not 25th among the 70 or so active QBs, that's 25th all time. Of course, the rules have changed to make the league more QB friendly, but he's 15th among active quarterbacks, and this stat does not include his contributions as a runner.
Week 3 Observations
• I'm all for the NFL expanding to Europe, especially because I live there now, so in principle I think the London game is a good idea. I'm not sure why it needs to start so early, though. That creates 12 hours of NFL to watch on a Sunday which is too much even for a lazy person like me. There are only so many positions one can adjust to on the couch before malaise, backache and skin irritation from the fabric creep in. Full disclosure, I now catch the Sunday night game the following morning on rewind, so it's only nine hours for me. But even that's too much. They should start the game at 6:00 pm London time, i.e., 1 pm ET, along with the first wave of games.
• There was a lot of hype about the Jaguars defense in my circles after they signed Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church, but I tend to fade offseason talk as teams and players often mesh or don't mesh unpredictably. Through three games it looks like the talk might have been justified, something that should benefit Leonard Fournette and even Blake Bortles who can play more conservatively and responsibly as a result.
• Speaking of which Bortles did not turn the ball over against a stout Ravens defense, threw only 31 times and for four touchdowns with solid 7.9 YPA. Tight end Marcedes Lewis, who hadn't caught a pass through two games, scored three times, and Marqise Lee led the team with seven targets and 65 yards. Lee is the Jags' WR to own, while Lewis was likely a fluke.
• No one on the Ravens did anything of note except for maybe Alex Collins who could be the team's best early-down back. But like last year when Kenneth Dixon and Terrance West were rotated almost at random, it's not going to be easy to handicap this situation, and Danny Woodhead could be back at some point, too.
• The Broncos run defense has been awfully stout the last two weeks, shutting down both Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy. Tyrod Taylor had a good game, though – 8.2 YPA, two TDs, no picks – but even he couldn't find room to run.
• Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders had another 24 targets between them. Both will always be relevant as long as the passing-game tree remains so narrow. Jamaal Charles outperformed C.J. Anderson this week, but had only nine carries – it remains to be seen what his ceiling is.
• Ben Roethlisberger continues to struggle on the road – 6.0 YPA, one TD, four sacks, one fumble against the Bears. He's an auto-start at home, but I'd use almost anyone over him when he travels.
• Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell transcend Roethlisberger's struggles to an extent (it affects them, but they're still reliably good), but there's no point in using anyone else on that team including Martavis Bryant except at Heinz Field.
• Jordan Howard had a monster game, and there's was never much reason to doubt him – as long as he can play through his shoulder injury. The Bears don't have another early-down back, and Howard has been effective since he got the job, despite his ill-timed Week 1 drop that cost them the game. Howard even caught five passes. Tarik Cohen was also good, but he's a change-of-pace and not a threat to Howard.
• The Bears receivers and Mike Glennon are unusable. It's a matter of when not if Mitch Trubisky gets his chance this year.
• The Lions got jobbed at the end of the game. On third-and-goal, they threw what was ruled a game-winning TD to Golden Tate, but on review they determined Tate was down inches short of the goal line. There would have been eight seconds left for the Lions to try again on fourth down, but because of the review, the clock had stopped, and before starting it again, it required a 10-second run-off, ending the game. Had the refs simply made the right call initially, the Lions would very likely have run one more play from the three-inch line. This also cheated me out of a cover, incidentally.
• Matt Stafford is grossly overpaid. This game was only close because Matt Ryan threw three picks, one of which was taken to the house. Stafford managed only 5.9 YPA, the same as his meager showing last week against the Giants. Golden Tate is the only Lions receiver you can trust.
• Julio Jones has a rare medical condition whereby the compounds used in end-zone paint cause him to vomit uncontrollably until he dies. This hasn't been confirmed, but by application of Occam's Razor it's the most likely explanation for why he never ever ever scores a touchdown even though he's 6-3, 220 and runs a sub 4.4 40.
• Devonta Freeman is money in the bank every week.
• Matt Prater is the NFC's Justin Tucker.
• Jacoby Brissett isn't Andrew Luck, but he looks like a competent backup. He also added two rushing TDs.
• Frank Gore scored a TD, but managed only 57 yards on 25 carries.
• T.Y. Hilton caught seven of nine targets for 153 yards and a TD, showing he needs merely competent QB play, not necessarily Luck, to perform.
• So much for the Rashard Higgins era. Kenny Britt was the top wideout, but Duke Johnson led the team in receiving and also had a 19-yard TD run. Johnson will be valuable in PPR all year.
• DeShone Kizer isn't ready to be an NFL starter, but his rushing yards and TDs make him viable in fantasy against weak defenses.
• No more "Case closed" or "Cold Case" jokes this week about Case Keenum. (My joke about how if my last name were Case, I'd name my kid Justin, you know just in case, still holds up, however.) Keenum lit up the Bucs, supporting a massive game from Stefon Diggs and a solid one from Adam Thielen. If Sam Bradford misses more time and Keenum has another good couple games, it's hardly a no-brainer to give Bradford the job back, especially when you consider Keenum's struggles last year in context (Jeff Fisher was his coach.)
• With Keenum proving to be competent, Dalvin Cook's stock goes back up. He had 169 YFS and a TD.
• We shouldn't hold Mike Evans' inefficiency – 12 targets, 67 yards – against him too much, given the matchup. But he was inefficient all last year too.
• Why draft O.J. Howard that high if you're only getting him one target. The Giants are complete idiots, and even they get Evan Engram targets.
• Jacquizz Rodgers isn't doing anything to turn Doug Martin into Wally Pipp.
• The Patriots defense apparently can only stop Drew Brees in New Orleans. Alex Smith and DeShaun Watson in Foxboro is too much to ask.
• Watson spread the ball around to eight different receivers rather than solely throwing to DeAndre Hopkins this week.
• D'Onta Foreman caught two passes for 65 yards and had eight carries for 25 more. Lamar Miller was the more effective runner, however.
• When Mike Gillislee doesn't score, he's worthless.
• Brandin Cooks finally got the involvement he deserves, and with the game on the line, no less. I don't see how the Patriots ignore their most explosive player going forward. Chris Hogan also scored twice, but lacks Cooks' quickness and breakaway speed.
• Tom Brady had another five TDs and 378 yards. A season for the ages might yet be in store.
• The Patriots probably should have lost this game, but Texans coach Bill O'Brien did something so moronic, it boggles the mind even to contemplate. Up two points with 2:28 left on the Patriots 18, O'Brien on 4th-and-1 kicked a short field goal to go up five. A one-yard gain effectively ends the game, but O'Brien thought he'd rather take his chances kicking off to Tom Brady and playing defense. While this is not as bad as doing it up three (in that case the field goal doesn't even beat you), O'Brien gave away a ~60 percent chance to win on one play in order to defend against the TD rather than the FG. Put differently, O'Brien had two ways to win (get the first down, prevent the FG) and traded it for one (prevent the TD.)
For those who argue he trusted his defense, that's not true. If he trusted his defense, then he'd have known that it was worth giving his offense a chance to win it outright because his defense could prevent the Patriots from driving into field-goal range in the event the fourth-down play failed. Instead, he didn't trust his defense to prevent the field goal, so he gave up on winning the game with his offense to give them more leeway, a move that not surprisingly failed against arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.
• Maybe the Jets are a garden-variety bad team and not the all-time terrible one we assumed simply because they cut some high-priced veterans before the year.
• DeVante Parker finished with a nice 10-8-76-1 line, but most of that came on the team's final drive in garbage time. His value depends on Jay Cutler and the Dolphins having a credible offense, something I assumed was the case until Sunday. Jay Ajayi is in the same boat. My inclination is to write this off as a one-time anomaly, but Cutler was retired as of six weeks ago.
• Josh McCown had a good game, but for whatever reason doesn't throw to Bilal Powell. I don't want to take too much time analyzing the Jets because I'm not sure it'll be predictive. For all I know Elijah McGuire could start going forward.
• Are the footballs juiced this year? How else does Jake Elliott (cut by the Bengals) hit a 61-yarder with the game on the line?
• The Giants pass defense held up again – after holding Stafford to 5.8 YPA, it held Carson Wentz to 5.7. But the normally stout rush defense got run over by both Wendell Smallwood and LeGarrette Blount.
• Eli Manning showed a pulse in the second half, thanks in part to a long catch and run by Sterling Shepard and some artful work on the end-zone sideline by Odell Beckham. But the ball to Shepard was perfectly placed, and Manning got the ball out of his hands more quickly.
• Zach Ertz had another 10 targets and a score. With Travis Kelce doing nothing this week, Jimmy Graham off to a slow start and both Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen hurt, Ertz is arguably the No. 2 TE right now.
• I was a huge Cam Newton backer this summer, but after a 6.4 YPA showing with three picks and four sacks against the Saints, even I'm worried. Three games is a small enough sample, but Newton's been terrible, faced easy competition and is coming off an equally disastrous 2016. He's also missing Greg Olsen and possibly Kelvin Benjamin. Christian McCaffrey was the team's leading receiver, and Devin Funchess might be its top wideout going forward.
• Penny-slot Ron Rivera actually punted on 4th-and-5 from the Saints 35, down 24-6 in the third quarter.
• There's not much to say about the Saints – they did the job, and Drew Brees and Michael Thomas put up the requisite road numbers their ADPs require.
• If you want to buy low on Derrick Henry, now's the time as he played through a thigh bruise, DeMarco Murray is healthier than we thought (hard to have a 75-yard TD run on a bad hamstring) and Mike Mularkey said Murray's still their starter. I'm not necessarily saying you should, only that if you wanted to, you finally could.
• Russell Wilson finally had some time to throw, and he put up a 373 and four line with 26 rushing yards. Doug Baldwin has a groin injury, the severity of which is unclear, but Jimmy Graham got involved, and C.J. Prosise was used as a downfield receiver a couple times.
• Joe Mixon is the Bengals' starter – 18 carries to Jeremy Hill's and Gio Bernard's combined 10. While Mixon's production was nothing special, he passed the eye test, running with quickness and power.
• Andy Dalton failed to notice some open receivers and also missed some throws, but he put up much more credible numbers, and John Ross should add another dimension when he comes back. A.J. Green usually produces on the road, and this was no exception.
• Geronimo Allison had a big game, including the 72-yard catch to set up the game-winning chip shot in overtime. He's not especially fast, but if Randall Cobb remains out, he's the team's slot receiver. Jordy Nelson no longer operates downfield, but he catches touchdowns.
• Ty Montgomery had 12 targets and eight catches, but only 15 yards receiving.
• Kareem Hunt is playing at a different level than the other running backs this year. He's the No. 1 overall pick right now.
• Tyreek Hill scored a long TD on a busted coverage but I'm still not sold on him as a No. 1 WR. Maybe after Week 8 when he has eight TDs, I'll come around.
• Only start Hunter Henry in even weeks. The Chargers don't throw his way in the odd ones.
• Travis Benjamin is suddenly back in the mix – he got eight targets, five catches and 105 receiving yards. With Antonio Gates refusing to go away, Keenan Allen healthy, Tyrell Williams around and first rounder Mike Williams coming back soon, there are a lot of mouths to feed in the Chargers passing game.
• What a seismic correction for the Raiders. Derek Carr had just 3.8 YPA, two picks and four sacks, and the team had only 150 total yards, most of which were in garbage time. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree (8 targets, 2 catches, 13 yards between them) were both non-factors.
• Chris Thompson had a huge game, but eight carries and seven targets are probably his ceiling. At 5-8, 191, Thompson doesn't have the frame for a heavy workload, and he was injured often earlier in his career. The early production has been great, but so was Tevin Coleman's last year.
• Samaje Perine had a chance to establish himself, but he fumbled, and Mack Brown had to finish off the game. Even before the fumble Perine wasn't doing much 19 carries for 49 yards. Rob Kelley's job doesn't appear to be in much danger when his ribs heal.
• Josh Doctson made an appearance with a 52-yard TD catch over a smaller DB. He could get more work because Terrelle Pryor (four targets, two catches) isn't clicking yet with his new team.
• Maybe Larry Fitzgerald isn't done after all. It's not only the ridiculous number of catches, but also the efficiency – nearly 10 yards per target – and the quality, ripping a ball at its peak out of the hands of a DB near the sidelines and getting behind the defense in the end zone. Fitzgerald still won't make plays down the field (11.3 YPC), but with David Johnson out, the Cardinals will throw even more than usual, so we know the volume will be there, especially if as it appears he hasn't yet hit the aging cliff. Just don't expect that kind of per-play efficiency going forward – Fitzgerald is still largely a short-pass catcher.
• Jaron Brown scored a TD and very nearly had a second one. With John Brown out, he's almost a No. 2 WR for Arizona.
• Andre Ellington is the back to own – if you must – for the Cardinals. He's going to be involved in the passing game for the next two months.
• Carson Palmer threw for a lot of yards, but took six sacks, and managed just 6.8 YPT at home against the Cowboys. Get used to that – he'll throw it a lot, and Fitzgerald is typically inefficient as his No. 1 WR.
• Dak Prescott is the anti-Palmer – high efficiency on low volume, adds points with his legs.
• Dez Bryant is like Rob Gronkowski when he's near the goal line – he'll move a mountain to get across. But the tough slew of cornerbacks he's been up against have taken a toll on his stats. At least he's done with Janoris Jenkins, Aqib Taleb and Patrick Peterson.
• And yes, Arians was an idiot for punting on 4th-and-15 with five minutes left down 11. Sometimes, you have to push your chips in with low odds because those are the best odds you're ever going to see again.
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