On a weekly basis during the football season, old friends Michael Salfino and Scott Pianowski discuss (and argue about) football and a series of other random topics. You might enjoy the exchange. You might prefer to be mauled by polar bears. The choice is up to you.
From: Michael Salfino
Date: Wed, Sep 25, 2013 at 11:19 AM
Subject: Old School YPA Breakfast
To: scott pianowski
The quant guys like Massey-Peabody have passed me by, but I still like to kick it old school with my back of the napkin rankings in how teams are doing in net yards per pass attempt (including sacks) gained minus allowed. Hat tip to the late, great Bud Goode -- the Bill James of the NFL. Three weeks of data is pretty useful. The basis is that teams that win yards per pass attempt by any margin irrespective of any other stat win 75-80% of games every year since 1965. Yes, kids, it's always been a passing league (football's dirty little secret). Here's a link to the chart.
Of course my first thought is that maybe Mark Stopa was right all along about the Jets making the playoffs. When you are 2.0 or better, you can reasonably be thinking even bigger than the playoffs. The top five: Seattle (plus-3.8), Denver (plus-2.4), Jets (plus-2.0), Detroit (plus-1.9), Saints (plus-1.6). Bottom five: Jaguars (minus-2.4), Redskins (minus-2.1), Rams (minus-1.9), Bears (minus-1.6), Cardinals (minus-1.6). Remember, these numbers only are predictive to the extent they continue. Clearly, there can be randomness to them, especially after just three weeks. But it's a useful check, I firmly believe. The outliers are the key because the records generally line up pretty well with the rankings.
Week 4 big games we should discuss: Bears at Lions, Eagles at Broncos, Patriots at Falcons, Seahawks at Texans and the big Monday nighter that has an old-school importance to it rather than it being as anti-climatic as usual: Dolphins at Saints.
And what about the fantasy story lines here. Is Joique Bell a top 10 back irrespective of Reggie Bush? Bell or Bush right this second, you have to pick just one. Eagles and Broncos is a start-'em-all game if I've ever seen one, which usually means 17-13. What happens when both teams are hurrying up? Are we going to set a record for plays run? The Patriots would be 0-3 if they played a real QB in any game. They play one this week. What do we do now with Gronk? Bell for Gronk: who gets the better of that deal? Wilson's YPA is over 9.0. He and Geno Smith are the only two QBs averaging over nine air yards per completion. But the offense is so muffled and it's not going to change. I think fading the Texans offense is going to end up being a good idea. And it looks like you were right about Arian Foster, though the top of the running back rankings has a lot of minefields. Do you believe in Ryan Tannehill? Why doesn't Pierre Thomas play more? Why does Mark Ingram play at all? The great lab experiment in the value of coaching is taking place in New Orleans and the results show it's pretty damn important, like franchise-QB-level important.
Week Four Breakfast is served.
From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Sep 26, 2013 at 2:24 PM
Subject: don't hunt the rabbits (the elephants will kill you)
To: Michael Salfino
Pierre Thomas doesn't play more because in the Saints world, Payton and Brees are the stars. I suspect if you gave Sean Payton truth serum, he'd suggest his backs generally have high efficiency ratings because of how they're used; framed another way, the moderate workload is partially driving the story. For years I've been curious what Thomas could do if he were prominently featured, but I buried that idea a long time ago. Teams don't give us straight answers to almost anything, but they give us between-the-lines answers. They've done so here.
And heck, Thomas hasn't done much through three games, look at his ground and air YPCs. A tiny sample, obviously.
I don't know what to do with the Jets. I'm with you on the defense being terrific and you were ahead of everyone on the Bilal Powell usefulness curve (even the Jets got this wrong). But Geno Smith is going to have a lot of rookie accidents, like Week 2 at New England (a game there for the taking). And while I see the upside of Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill, I'd hate to rely on them every week. I'm projecting Miami to make the playoffs (along with New England), while the Jets are more of a junkyard dog, say a 7-9 or 8-8 team. No fun to play, but still a year or two away. (I could also see Smith going either way long-term, not that I deny any of the excitement after his brilliant Week 3.)
The Patriots offense looks awful through three weeks and they're damn lucky to be undefeated. And you know I hate the Belichick/Brady fortune cookie logic that carries so much of national analysis here. That said, only full one Brady season since 2006 has failed to produce a higher second-half YPA, and that came in outlier-laced 2007. New England teams get better as the season progresses, for whatever reason. New England reminds me of an ace pitcher who had nothing in the first inning but got out of the jam. They won't be the AFC favorites, but it's their division unless a lot of things go wrong (or they get nothing from Gronkowski, and I don't think it will be quite that bad).
Imagine how good Seattle can be if they get anything out of Percy Harvin later in the year. My favorite throwaway nugget from the 2012 draft - the Jaguars took a punter five selections before Seattle took Russell Wilson. To be fair, everyone missed on Wilson, the entire league. But I like making fun of the Jaguars, their screwy approach, their stupid helmets.
I don't even know what to say about the Broncos offense anymore; a few drops aside, their passing game has been perfect. The Colts routinely stocked the fridge for Peyton Manning but he's never had a loaded group like what Denver currently has. The Ryan Clady injury hurts but you can scheme away from it, especially in pass protection. Your best weapon against anyone's pass rush is an experienced quarterback. Weird stuff happens in every NFL week, but I can't find a logical way for Philly to slow Denver down. "Hope for variance" isn't really much of a strategy.
How good is Miami? How critical is this game for Atlanta? Are the Falcons any good to begin with? I'll let you take the first full step into the Week 4 card.
From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Sep 26, 2013 at 5:14 PM
Subject: Re: don't hunt the rabbits (the elephants will kill you)
To: scott pianowski
Yeah, Thomas is old now and I don't even know what he has left. That ship has sailed. But the USS Ingram should be torpedoed.
How did the Jets get Powell's usefulness wrong? I know it's reflexive for everyone, including me sometimes, to bash the Jets. They traded a fourth rounder for Chris Ivory and Goodson has the veteran's minimum. As soon as the new staff saw Powell in action in minicamps, he was No. 1 on depth chart. He's not an elite talent, so he's going to cede 30-40 percent of carries. We know that. But most cede that many.
Why would you hate to rely on Hill every week? It's only playing a guy like Hill all the time that guarantees you anything. And he's actually been fairly consistent as far as young, raw receivers go (in 2013). He's the 25th scoring receiver in Yahoo! and has one TD in three games. He's not finishing the year with five. More like eight. So I think he keeps this pace and ends up top 30 for the year at the position. Holmes I have no idea because not many receivers have ever had Grade 4 foot tears.
I agree with you on the Jets record. I think 7-9 is reasonable right now. But Sunday is a swing game. If they get that, then I can see some possible path to nine wins because it again means they are even better than the revised upward projection. Also agree with you on Smith possibly going either way. I have no sense of how he will persevere under the constant strain of the position. But I like that the Jets and Marty Mornhinweg have not babied him. They're playing to his strengths, which is finding the tight windows downfield. And we do know already he has more balls than Alex Smith and Sam Bradford and the other check-down kings.
I guess the Patriots get better as the season progresses until January and then what happens, exactly? Of course, Brady is great and he's not going to finish with a 5.5 YPA. He'll get some degree of Gronk back for some indeterminate amount of time. Ditto for Amendola. But what is his YPA going to be going forward? For the Patriots to be plausible Super Bowl contender, it has to be 7.5 or better (not adjusted for sacks; the personal QB YPA). That's just too big a spike for me to confidently project.
According to ProFootballFocus (such an indispensable analytic tool), Peyton has had a league-high 10.7 percentage of his passes dropped. If you add them to his completions, his true accuracy rate is 84.3%. Of course, that would be highest ever recorded by ProFootballFocus. (That note is courtesy of my Splitsville column on Yahoo.)
Prediction time: Lions demolish the overrated Bears who live off the defensive score. One note, the quant guys say defensive scores are a fluke and I agree. The Bears are leading the league this year, of course. But they led it in 2012 and 2011, too. I hate it when teams don't understand randomness. Stop scoring defensive TDs, Chicago! It's math. I'm with you on Broncos versus Eagles, but I think it's one of the games of the year with an all-time record set for offensive plays in a regulation game (157 by the Niners and Patriots last year). Play everybody in this game. I'll call it 38-35, Broncos. Falcons 28, Patriots 20 as Gronkowski sits again and Ryan outplays Brady due to his vastly superior weapons. Seattle smokes the Texans, but it's not an attractive fantasy matchup. The Texans actually lead defenses in three and outs. Monday night, the Dolphins come crashing to earth. Brees should enjoy more revenge against them. Is a punter over Russell Wilson (Jacksonvile!) or Culpepper over Brees the greater football crime? This Rob Ryan defense is for real. Need to improve your defense, hire a Ryan. Saints 34, Dolphins 20.
Fantasy quick hitters: Bush over Bell (until Bush gets hurt again) and Bell is not top 10. Both are top 20 though (assuming that you only get about 8-10 more games out of Bush). I'd trade Bell for Gronk, either Bell. I can't believe in Tannehill yet after seeing what happened to Josh Freeman after his 2010 season (25 TDs, 6 picks). But I am not saying I don't believe him. He does seem to be progressing. But I think you need that second good year to be stamped as legit. Tannehill is maybe on his way to one.
From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Sep 26, 2013 at 5:40 PM
Subject: january jones
To: Michael Salfino
I'll tell you what happens to the Patriots in January - they have this thing called the playoffs where you play better teams. It's hard to win. Your best buddy Peyton Manning is 9-11 in the playoffs, with a rating of 88.4. Brady's playoff rating is 87.4. (Oddly, they have the same rating for the regular season, 96.3.) Dan Marino went to one Super Bowl (obviously a loss). Warren Moon never won a *divisional* playoff game. Post-season analysis is a different animal.
And then you have someone like Eli Manning, who has a history of second-half flops but went on two championship runs. Joe Flacco has a ton of playoff wins and was an overlord last year. So I don't know. That's the joy or the annoying thing about context-driven sports - one can say almost anything and find a way to defend it. (Consider our never-ending debate on the Niners of the Bill Walsh era - there is no definitive way to determine how much credit everyone deserves. At least I think we agree that coaching definitely matters most in the NFL, compared to other sports.)
At least the Dolphins had a medical reason for passing on Brees (they turned out to be wrong, but it wasn't an obvious error at the time). The real screw-up in this exchange is the Chargers, who had Brees and didn't realize it yet. But again, coaching. Without the right setup, not even Brees was Brees yet. (Phlip Rivers picked up a 15-yard flag while I was writing this paragraph.)
The Jets are lucky Chris Ivory and Mark Sanchez got hurt, making it easier to play the right players. Why trade for Ivory in the first place? Why have a balanced rushing split in the first two games? They clearly had no idea what Powell was capable of. Know your personnel, guys. You see him every damn day. (It's so cute to watch you fall in love with your teams, fantasy and reality. I'll be shocked if New York's top yardage day of the year didn't just happen, Week 3. But I guess anything's better than talking yourself into Sanchez.)
Geno has one great game, one middle game and one terrible game thus far. If his rookie season went on to be as good as Tannehill 2012, I think most would take that. Mornhinweg is this generation's Norv Turner, a very smart hire for the Jets. Aggressive coach, creative coach. Does everyone in St. Louis hate Brian Schottenheimer yet?
In some rare cases, I wonder if turnover-happy defenses aren't random. I think you can coach it up to a limited degree. Lovie Smith always talked about wanting his defense to score. Marty Schottenheimer used to bat the ball out of unsuspecting players during practice. Obviously there's a lot of randomness here, but I wouldn't say it's completely random. But offense drives the outcomes, and offenses have more season-to-season continuity. That's where it's at.
Saints win easy. Broncos will win, just a matter of what the Eagles do in garbage time. But I can't imagine Denver getting less than 30. I have no idea what to make of the Falcons, but they need the game more and that often matters. Would you rather have Jay Cutler or Matt Stafford running your team? Give me Chicago just because I like seeing Jim Schwartz pissed off.