This article is part of our East Coast Offense series.Analytics in Context
I'm as much for analytics as the next guy, so long as we define analytics as the process of interpreting relevant data to make sound decisions. But as is often the case when a concept winds up as a dividing line between different camps, the original meaning gets abused, something I saw all summer on Twitter when Jon Gruden's press conference comments were taken to mean he was too backward to coach in 2018 and recently with respect to Bucs coach Dirk Koetter.
Also: Dirk Koetter should pack his things and be escorted out of the building by security, after these moronic comments. "We've studied the analytics, and the problem with looking at it like that is you only win more games over the long term." pic.twitter.com/J5q8lnKdkL— sunset shazz (@sunset_shazz) September 15, 2018
The implication here (and in the ensuing thread) is Koetter is sabotaging his team by ignoring what the analytics tell him is optimal on fourth down over the long haul for the selfish goal of preserving his job. Let's unpack this because I think it's both unfair to Koetter (on whom I've dumped plenty) and also indicative of how analytics can be misused.
For starters, let's stipulate always going for it on fourth-and-short in plus territory gets you some positive number of net points per game. That is, taking into account the extended drives and also the failed conversions, the net is a positive that helps you win some extra fraction of a game every year. Clearly, in a vacuum, coaches should do this. Koetter even acknowledges the practice is beneficial over the long haul.
Let's take the decision out of the vacuum and put it in the context of the modern NFL where virtually every coach from Bill Belichick to Pete Carroll to Pat Shurmur has punted in these situations, and the mainstream NFL media never questions it. Contrast that to the situations when a fourth-and-short attempt fails, and the questions in the post-game press conference fly, the airwaves light up on local talk radio and the sports-section editorialists excoriate the coach for the failure. In such an environment, going for it and failing almost certainly has more downside for your prospects of continued employment than succeeding enhances job security.
Sure, over the long haul, winning is the best thing you can do for extended job security, and going for it leads to more winning. But over a short sample, there's a decent chance you fail and increase the risk of losing your job. When there's short-term risk of ruin, it is perfectly rational to turn down a plus-EV proposition. For example, if someone offered you a coin flip wherein if it's heads you'd triple your net worth, but tails wipes you out, most of us would turn that down. But it's plus-EV!
As for the notion it's selfish of Koetter to give any importance to his meager standing as an NFL head coach in the face of one category of plus-EV on-field decision-making, that's also off base. Not only has his family (if he has one) moved with him to that city for the opportunity, not only have his assistant coaches and their families re-arranged their lives for the mission they're collectively trying to accomplish, but he himself probably has a vision for how the team is going to develop and succeed over the next few seasons. To increase the risk of destroying the entire project over the fourth-down question might be a negative-EV decision if he believes he and his coaching staff have a larger edge than he'd get merely by going for it on fourth down when the math tells him to.
The bottom line, simple, first-order analytics can tell us what's optimal in a vacuum over the long haul, but without taking into account the actual context in which the game is played, using it as a club to excoriate coaches - something of which I'm as guilty as anyone - is probably short-sighted. That's not to say Koetter, aside from his team's improbable 2-0 start with wins over two of the best teams in the league, has ever proven himself to be a good coach, or that he'd be correct that there's value in saving his job. But right or wrong, what he's saying demonstrated both a grasp of first order analytics and its limitations in this context, not that he's some kind of moron or traitor to his organization.
Personal Misconduct Penalties
I wrote last week about how the NFL seems to come up with new rules every year that increase the randomness of the game and make it less likely that outcomes are the result of what happens on the field, but I neglected to mention two old rules that are equally bad: Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Taunting penalties.
It makes perfect sense that teams pay for fouls like holding and pass interference in on-field yardage because it was the player committing the foul that distorted the result of the play. But for the hold, there might have been a sack. But for the PI, there might have been a long pass play. The penalty yardage (when rightly assessed) rights a wrong and does its best to preserve the true on-field outcome of the play.
But the behavior that constitutes taunting or unsportsmanlike conduct never affects the play on the field, and therefore assessing a yardage cost to the guilty team creates a distortion. The referees (and rules committee) are altering the on-field outcome solely to deter behavior they find undesirable. If deterrence is the only purpose of those penalties, surely there's another way to achieve it. Fines, suspensions, electric shocks to the offenders - any number of measures could be instituted. Instead, it's as though the NFL seems to take special enjoyment of making the entire team and its fans pay for a particular player's rudeness or unwillingness to accept authority, even if it risks undermining the integrity of the outcomes. We can speculate as to what that's about, but regardless, it's bad for the game and should be changed.
Narratives vs Uncertainty
After the Redskins crushed the Cardinals last week in Arizona, I thought maybe I had underestimated them, that Alex Smith had not just had a career year in 2017 but actually turned a corner and the the return of Trent Williams at left tackle might be an underrated game changer. Accordingly, they were six-point home favorites against the Colts in Week 2, and even with Andrew Luck back, seemed set for an easy win. Of course, the Colts didn't allow a TD and beat them by 12 despite Andrew Luck throwing two interceptions. The Cardinals, on the other hand, lost 34-0, and their offense looked even more inept in Los Angeles than they did against the Redskins.
I don't mean to imply that now we know for sure why the Redskins rolled in Week 1, i.e., that the Cardinals are terrible, not that Washington is good, because new results this week could change the story further. But given we had only one week's worth of information about a mediocre Redskins team that at best made a lateral move at quarterback, it was fairly insane to concoct a story about how we badly underrated them heading into the year. So why did we
(and when I say "we", I mostly mean Jeff Erickson) make up this story? Because our minds are trained to make sense of the data, and in fact in this case it's our job. Essentially, we have to tell some kind of story about what happened, or just acknowledge that it happened and there's no major takeaway from it for the time being. The latter route is rarely satisfying, and in a vacuum gives us little guidance going forward, but it's usually the best we can do. Moreover, uncertainty can turn into an edge when leveraged against the false certainty of others. For example, if the line in the Colts/Redskins game were only three, we'd be stuck if we thought Week 1 didn't shed much light on either team's true level. But once the betting public declared Week 1 to be important and made the the spread six, there was an edge to be had by betting the Colts. Or maybe that was just what happened in Week 2.
Week 3 Trivia
|Game||My Line||Guessed Line||Actual Line||ML-AL|
|Jets at Browns||3.5||3||3||0.5|
|Saints at Falcons||3||3||3||0|
|Raiders at Dolphins||3.5||5.5||3||0.5|
|Bills at Vikings||16.5||16.5||16.5||0|
|Colts at Eagles||7||7.5||6.5||0.5|
|Packers at Redskins||-2||-2.5||-3||1|
|Bengals at Panthers||3||3.5||3||0|
|Titans at Jaguars||10.5||9.5||6.5||4|
|Broncos at Ravens||5.5||5||5||0.5|
|Giants at Texans||4.5||6||6||-1.5|
|49ers at Chiefs||5.5||6||6||-0.5|
|Chargers at Rams||7||6||7||0|
|Bears at Cardinals||0||-2.5||-4.5||4.5|
|Cowboys at Seahawks||0||-2||-2.5||2.5|
|Patriots at Lions||-4.5||-6||-6.5||2|
|Steelers at Buccaneers||-2.5||-3||-2||-0.5|
At first glance, it looks like I'm big on the Cardinals (what was I thinking setting that at pick 'em?), Cowboys (gross), Lions and Jaguars. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind in Beating the Book.
Week 2 Observations
• The Giants game was an unbearable watch, and that was the 40-minute condensed version. Eli Manning has the pocket presence of a horror-movie victim who hides in the darkest corner with no escape route, waiting in helpless terror for the axe murderer's blade. Not only did Manning hold onto the ball way too long, but he always turned right into the sack, usually an extra 3-5 yards backwards. Consider he took six sacks for 59! yards. What non-running QB averages 10 yards per sack? Granted the offensive line is bad, and the Cowboys front seven is strong, but Manning's presence magnified those traits on both sides. He hasn't been good since 2011, and it's time to see what fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta brings to the table. The only thing Ben McAdoo did right in two years was bench Manning, and unfortunately he was pilloried for it, but Pat Shurmur needs to follow suit sooner rather than later.
• Shurmur for God knows what reason punted on fourth and short from midfield a couple times before coming to his senses and running a couple successful sneaks on 4th-and-1 subsequently. I still believe in him as an offensive coach, but I'm not sure even he can salvage Manning.
•Saquon Barkley (16 targets, 14 catches) looked great despite averaging only 2.5 YPC and 5.7 yards per catch. He broke tackles in the backfield, extended for extra yards and caught Mannings's poorly thrown low balls while shaking off defenders. He's going to be a monster, and I'd take him over Sam Darnold all over again, despite Manning's awful play. (Just because you need a new QB doesn't mean you need one in the first round.)
•Odell Beckham had nine targets, but caught only four. This was on the line and Manning – few of the targets were actually catchable.
•Evan Engram caught all seven targets, one of which went for a score in garbage time. The usage tree is narrow in NY, and he should benefit.
•Dak Prescott played decently against a fairly stout Giants defense, but after his early 64-yard TD to Tavon Austin, was again a Jason Garrett-coached caretaker. Running for 45 yards and taking zero sacks was a lot better than Manning's running for four yards and taking 59 sack yards. It's hard to see much upside for Prescott in this offense.
• Zeke Elliott went 17 for 78 and a score and caught five passes for only nine yards. He's as steady as they come, but the Cowboys have yet to unleash him in the passing game, and I wonder whether they ever will.
• The Cowboys receivers are unstartable.
• The Jaguars-Pats game was in many ways a repeat of their AFC title game, and at one point in the fourth quarter, when Doug Marrone tried to draw New England offsides on 4th-and-1 at midfield rather than going for the game-sealing win, I thought he had failed to learn the lesson. But even though he punted in that situation, Marrone went insane putting the pedal to the ground on subsequent drives, passing rather than running up 11 with three minutes left and even throwing for a first down in the final 90 seconds with the 11-point lead. He took it to a level beyond which even I would have gone, but good for him. Win the game with your offense against a tired defense rather than giving the ball back to Tom Brady.
•Blake Bortles played an impeccable game, looking like Aaron Rodgers with his excellent decision making and scrambling ability. His 45-29-377-4 line with 8.4 YPA, no sacks and one pick (off a ball that went through his tight end's hands) was one of the top performances of the day.
• In Fournette's absence T.J. Yeldon got 10 carries, but Corey Grant saw seven targets and six catches. Both backs looked good, but make no mistake, when healthy, Fournette will get the bulk of both roles.
•Keelan Cole made the catch of the year, a one-handed snag on a ball behind him near the sidelines on the full run. He went 8-7-116, and he's the team's best receiver. Dede Westbrook connected for a 61-yard TD that sealed the game, but he saw only five targets, and Donte Moncrief actually led the team with nine targets and score, but had only four catches for 43 yards.
•James White went 8-7-73 and Chris Hogan caught two TDs, but no one else did much. Rob Gronkowski had a quiet 4-2-15 game. He simply does not get consistent enough volume to be worthy of a top-15 pick in PPR. It'll be interesting to see how the team integrates Josh Gordon and eventually Julian Edelman with Gronkowski.
•Derek Carr rebounded from a poor Week 1 with a 32-29-288 game with a TD and no picks in Denver. He got 9.0 YPA, but it was mostly short stuff, and the efficiency was due to completing 91 percent of his passes.
•Amari Cooper went 10-10-116, firmly putting himself back into the top-15 WR mix. He's still just 24 and should see a lot of work all year.
•Case Keenum had a poor day against a weak Raiders defense at home – just 35-19-222-0 with a pick. He did rush for 16 yards and a TD, however.
• I mocked people for spending 45 percent of their FAAB budgets on Phillip Lindsay, but maybe I was wrong. He had another big game – 14-107 – and looks the part. Still he had only one target and Royce Freeman (8-for-28) scored the TD.
•Emmanuel Sanders had only four targets, but made the most of them for 96 yards. Demaryius Thomas had 11 looks, but had only five catches for 18 yards and a drop that nearly cost them the game. Tight end Jake Butt went 6-4-48.
• The 49ers were awfully lucky a defensive hold on the other side of the field negated a pick that would at least have sent the game to overtime and might have cost them the game in regulation.
•Jimmy Garoppolo still had 7.9 YPA and two TDs, but it wasn't a massive game against a beatable Detroit defense. No single receiver had more than four targets or 57 yards.
•Matt Breida was the team's offensive star with 11-for-138 and a TD in addition to three catches for 21 yards. Alfred Morris had 14 carries for 48 yards and caught both of his targets for 32 more. This is a 50/50 timeshare for now.
• The Lions ran the ball effectively, but were trailing, so they attempted only 17 rushes. Matthew Stafford threw it 53 times for 347 yards, three TDs and no picks, but wasn't especially efficient (6.5 YPA.)
•Golden Tate led the team with 13 targets and 109 yards, but Theo Riddick had 12 targets (nine catches 47 yards), and Kenny Golladay (nine targets) and Marvin Jones (nine targets) each caught TDs. Kerryon Johnson had six targets and five catches, but for only 23 yards. Essentially, the passing game is split between the three wideouts and Riddick.
•Jared Goff should have a monster year, irrespective of game flow. He attempted 34 passes despite the blowout and despite averaging 11.1 YPA (usually efficiency and volume are inversely correlated, especially in a 34-point win.) He had only one TD, but 354 yards. Put differently, 354 yards has to be close to an all-time record in a game where the opposing team scored zero points.
• Thanks to Zuerlein's absence, Gurley was scoring eight-point TDs early as the Rams just gave it to him on the first-two two-point conversions too. He wasn't efficient, and he missed most of the second half, but as usual, he got his with three TDs and three catches.
•David Johnson owners better hope for a QB change. The Sam Bradford offense (3.3 YPA) isn't working, and Johnson's workload (13 carries, two targets, one catch) is suffering. Even Larry Fitzgerald managed only meager 5-3-28 line and left the game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury.
• After the Redskins dominance in Arizona last week, many thought they might have turned a corner. But now we know it's more likely the Cardinals are bad than Washington is good. Alex Smith dinked and dunked to Chris Thompson 13 times, but his longest pass play of the day was 34 yards, and the Redskins failed to score a TD.
•Adrian Peterson was stuffed at home by the Colts, not a great sign, though he did catch another three passes for 30 yards. Paul Richardson, Josh Doctson and Jordan Reed split the targets fairly evenly while Jamison Crowder saw only four. No target other than Thompson has emerged as Smith's favorite yet.
•Jordan Wilkins and Marlon Mack had 10 carries each, with Wilkins being more efficient. Unfortunately for both, Nyheim Hines (four carries for seven yards) scored the TD, but Hines was barely used in the passing game after a prolific Week 1.
• It's hard to believe 35-year old Ryan Fitzpatrick is a different player this year, but the Bucs are 2-0, beating up on the Saints and Eagles defenses. And by beating up, I mean chopping into unrecognizable pieces. Through two games, Fitzpatrick has 819 yards and eight TD passes to go along with 35 rushing yards, another TD and 13.4 YPA. After Week 1, I didn't take seriously the idea he might keep the job after Winston finishes his suspension, but unless Fitzpatrick falls apart against the Steelers this week, I think that's the most likely scenario.
• It's crazy that in QB-flex leagues someone out there must have drafted Pat Mahomes and Jameis Winston and picked up Fitzpatrick for the first three weeks. If so, that person now has 18 TD passes and a rushing TD out of his QB tandem through two weeks.
• No Tampa receiver went crazy this week as the production was evenly split between the big four: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson (concussed or not), Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard. It's worth noting Evans had 12 targets and 10 catches (for only 83 yards), while Godwin had six targets and Howard and Jackson four apiece. I hope if or when Winston returns, he doesn't resurrect Cameron Brate's carcass at the more explosive Howard's expense.
• The Bucs have no running game of which to speak. It might be time to give persona non grata Ronald Jones a shot.
•Nick Foles played better – 334 yards and a TD this week – but much of it was in extended garbage time, and the team clearly misses Alshon Jeffery. Nelson Agholor had 12 more targets and eight catches for a score, but for only 88 yards. Zach Ertz had a 13-11-94 line.
•Corey Clement was their primary receiving back in Darren Sproles' absence and posted 6-5-55 through the air to go along with six carries for 30 yards and a score on the ground. (Jay Ajayi missed some of the game with an injury, but also scored.) Before you get excited about Clement, keep in mind Wendell Smallwood also saw seven carries in Ajayi's temporary absence.
• Pat Mahomes threw six more TDs and now has 10 in two games. He also got 11.6 YPA in a tough road environment and connected for big plays with all three of his key targets. There's a good case for him as the QB1 right now.
•Travis Kelce had a 10-7-109-2 line, putting a quiet Week 1 behind him. And Sammy Watkins (7-6-100) looks like more than a decoy on his new team. Tyreek Hill saw only six targets, but managed 90 yards and a TD on them.
•Kareem Hunt had another relatively disappointing day, given his team put up 42 points, but he still had 75 yards on 18 carries and one five-yard catch for a TD. He's got the opposite problem of David Johnson – Hunt's offense is too good right now, but that's a much better problem to have.
•Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards, but at a pedestrian 7.5 YPA thanks to his whopping 60 attempts. He had three passing TDs, no picks and even scored a rare TD on the ground.
•Jesse James had a monster day, but on only five targets – 5-5-138-1. Juju Smith Schuster led the Steelers with 19-13-121-1, and Antonio Brown managed only 67 yards on 17 targets. James Conner got stuffed as a runner (but scored) and contributed 48 yards through the air on five targets.
•Sam Darnold managed 334 yards and 8.1 YPA, but threw two picks and took three sacks against the Dolphins.
•Quincy Enunwa continues to be Darnold's first look – 11-7-92 – but Terrelle Pryor (8-4-84) appears to have overtaken Robby Anderson (5-3-27) as his No. 2. Bilal Powell had a big game as a receiver (6-5-74-1), while Isaiah Crowell didn't do much (12 carries for 35 yards, two catches for four yards.)
•Ryan Tannehill had a pedestrian passing day, but chipped in 44 yards rushing and didn't throw a pick. Albert Wilson led the team with 37 receiving yards on five targets and a score, but no one else saw more than four targets.
•Tyrod Taylor had a good game, passing for 246 yards on 8.2 YPA and ran for 26 more, but Zane Gonzalez missed a go-ahead extra point in the final minute and then a game-tying field goal in the final seconds.
• With Josh Gordon gone, Antonio Callaway led the team in receiving with 81 yards and a dramatic TD, but on only four targets. Jarvis Landry had seven targets, catching five for 69 yards. Rashard Higgins had a similar (7-5-47) line.
•Drew Brees had only 6.9 YPA and 243 yards, but he threw two TDs and no picks.
•Michael Thomas had another monster day – 13 targets, 12 catches and two more TDs. Ted Ginn had seven targets and Alvin Kamara six. Kamara's day was relatively modest, 3.5 YPC, 99 YFS, six catches, no TDs.
•Deshaun Watson had 310 yards, 9.7 YPA and two TD passes to go along with 44 rushing yards – maybe he's back, even if he squandered the game on the last play by scrambling around too long and using up the entire clock.
• Of course Will Fuller caught a TD – he does whenever Watson plays. He also had nine targets, eight catches and 113 yards. DeAndre Hopkins led the team with 11 targets, and caught six for 110 yards and a score.
•Lamar Miller ran well and had 70 YFS, but no TDs and only two catches. He somehow seems to get lost in this offense despite the narrow tree and no running back competition of which to speak.
• Blane Gabbert started in place of an injured yet strangely active Marcus Mariota and did nothing. Derrick Henry had 56 yards on 18 carries, Dion Lewis 42 on 14. Much of the Titans offense was on a 66-yard TD from Kevin Bayard to Dane Cruikshank on a fake punt.
• Along with Roethisberger, Mahomes, Bortles and Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins had one of the monster QB days of the week – 48-35-425-4 – thanks to overtime, a 75-yard TD to Stefon Diggs and an improbable 25-yard TD to Adam Thielen that split two defenders.
• Diggs had a monstrous 13-9-128-2 line, while Thielen went 13-12-131-1 and Kyle Rudolph went 8-7-72. Throw in Dalvin Cook's 5-3-52, and you have most of what should be a narrow and highly productive usage tree.
• Cook struggled on the ground (10 for 38), but Latavius Murray saw only four carries and didn't have a single target.
• Of course, this game was a joke on two levels. First, the Vikings would not have gotten to overtime, but for a terrible roughing-the-passer call on Clay Matthews which extended the Vikings final regulation drive. And the Vikings would have won in overtime but for a Daniel Carlson missed 35-yard FG, his third of the game.
•Aaron Rodgers had pedestrian game against a tough defense, but didn't appear to aggravate his knee injury.
•Jimmy Graham led the team with an 8-6-95 line and had a TD called back. Davante Adams had 12 targets, but only eight catches for 64 yards, though he did score. Geronimo Allison caught all six targets for 64 yards, and Randall Cobb (6-4-30) was quiet this week.
•Jamaal Williams caught only three of seven targets for 12 yards and managed 3.7 YPC on 16 carries. Aaron Jones returns next week, though given Rodgers' limited mobility, Williams might survive due to his pass protection skills. But Jones is almost certainly the more dynamic player and has a decent chance to take over.
•Philip Rivers did his job against a doormat with 9.5 YPA, three TDs and no picks. No Chargers pass catcher saw more than eight targets or 67 yards. Melvin Gordon had the only performance of note with 7-6-38-2, despite struggling in the running game (9-for-28). In fact, Austin Ekeler led the team with 11 carries for 77 yards.
•LeSean McCoy had nine carries for 39 yards and caught four passes for 29 more before leaving with a rib injury. He yielded a short TD to Chris Ivory too. McCoy's value on this disastrous offense was on the brink, and that's not even considering the injury or unresolved off-field concerns. It's hard to recommend either of his backups – Ivory or Marcus Murphy, either.
•Cam Newton had a big game playing catch-up with 335 yards, three TDs, one pick and 42 yards on the ground. He completed 14 passes to Christian McCaffrey who despite not being a "workhorse" or scoring TDs is still a PPR star. Devin Funchess (9-7-77), Jarius Wright (7-5-62) and D.J. Moore (2-1-51-1) also made impacts. Maybe the team will get Moore more involved next week.
• McCaffrey had only eight carries in a game flow that favored the pass, while C.J. Anderson had three.
• Jones had a modest 9-5-64, Ridley 5-4-64-1 (after being invisible Week 1) and Hooper 5-5-59. The Falcons are better when they get receivers other than Jones in the mix.
•Tevin Coleman ran 16 times for 107 yards, while rookie Ito Smith managed nine for 46. Neither made a major impact in the passing game though Coleman caught four short throws. Expect roughly this split while Devonta Freeman is out.
•Russell Wilson needs more designed bootlegs and less holding the ball in the pocket. A few times the Seahawks faked the bootleg, and Wilson was running in space without the ball while the handoff went into the thick of the line.
• All told, Wilson put up passable fantasy numbers on the road against what's ostensibly a good defense, but the offense was sluggish and predictable while the blocking was poor.
•Tyler Lockett made a great catch on a long TD and saw seven targets, but there's no rhythm or consistency to the offense right now. Brandon Marshall looked okay on a 6-4-44 line. Jaron Brown, Will Dissly (who caught a TD in garbage time) and Nick Vannett each saw a few looks, but Lockett and Marshall seem like the top options for now until Doug Baldwin returns.
•Mitchell Trubisky hasn't passed the eye test for me. Matt Nagy dials up clever schemes and plays, but whenever Trubisky has to do the traditional from-the-pocket job of quarterback, he seems scattershot, and his decision-making is suspect. He's a good scrambler, and the trick plays sometimes work, but it's more DeShone Kizer than Carson Wentz.
• The Bears got nothing going on the ground, but Jordan Howard contributed in the passing game – 4-3-33 – while Tarik Cohen saw only one target, a 17-yard catch. Oddly, Nagy, despite all his offensive sophistication, has used Cohen less than simple-minded John Fox did.
•Allen Robinson is the team's clear top target with a 14-10-83 line. It was dink and dunk, but that's Trubisky's game right now, and the Seattle offense never forced them to look for more. Trey Burton and Anthony Miller had bit roles, but caught the TDs. Taylor Gabriel went 7-4-30 and had three carries for 17 yards. Right now, the Bears seem to have a gimmick offense.
• It was a tough game to watch because I had the Seahawks plus 3.5 in the Supercontest, and just as they were coming back, Wilson threw the pick-six to Prince Amukamara. Maybe the biggest takeaway is the Khalil Mack Bears will be a top-five fantasy defense, though keep in mind the Seahawks at home is about as easy a matchup as it gets.