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Making a schedule for a London NFL team

Would the NFL roll out the carpet for London?

Would the NFL roll out the carpet for London?

Bill Barnwell wrote an interesting article about the hurdles the NFL must jump to successfully place a team in London. We don’t know whether the NFL would move an existing team or place an expansion team in London (presumably with the introduction of a second expansion team, likely in Los Angeles, as well). Thirty-four teams is an unwieldy number, so expansion might even bring us to 36 teams (with six teams in three divisions in each conference).

Anecdotally, it seems like most fans are against placing a team in London, or expansion, or change of any kind. For me, the most interesting hurdle to analyze is how to come up with a schedule for a London team. And I think I’ve figured out a decent solution (there are no perfect options). I’m going to use the Buffalo Bills 2013 slate of opponents as a model just because I need to pick some team’s schedule as a model for London’s franchise (I’m going to self-appoint them the Monarchs for purposes of this post). Here are my thoughts:

Week: 1 – Cincinnati Bengals (Home – Friday at 2:30 Eastern)
Week: 2 – Baltimore Ravens (Home)

The big hurdle in creating the schedule is limiting the number of cross-Atlantic trips for the Monarchs.  As a result, you need to bunch together home and road games. And since we want to have the London games in the middle of the season — so we can give the opponents in those games a bye after playing in London — that necessitates a couple of home games early in the year.

The NFL can use the time zone difference to its advantage here, and create a March Madness-style of Friday afternoon fun. On Thursday Night, we have the opener featuring last year’s Super Bowl champion.  And then on Friday afternoon — at 7:30 PM in London — we get another huge event. There would be a Super Bowl-type of atmosphere at the “Week 1 Kickoff Extravaganza” in London on Friday night, and you can be sure that it would get monstrous ratings in England. The NFL doesn’t schedule Friday night games because it doesn’t want to compete with high school football, but the time zone difference works to everyone’s advantage here. The Bengals can fly home after the game and be back in Cincinnati early in the morning on Saturday — which gives them two extra days to prepare for week two.

It also makes sense to have a team that played on Thursday Night in the NFL opener play in London in week two. This year, that would be the Ravens, but it can also be the non-Super Bowl champion appearing in that game.  Baltimore can fly out to London early in the week, using those extra days to help ease some of the travel burden. If they like, the Ravens (or whomever is in the week two slot) can get a Monday Night game in week three.
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Leader in Fu Manchus among active quarterbacks (sorry, Mark)

Leader in Fu Manchus among active quarterbacks (sorry, Mark).

Let’s be honest: we all know Aaron Rodgers is great, so we don’t spend much time talking about him. Debating his ability is pointless, so we instead spend countless hours discussing Tony Romo’s intangibles, Tim Tebow’s throwing motion, Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos, and Joe Flacco’s eliteness. Talk radio dies when it discusses Aaron Rodgers: debating the Packers quarterback is as fun as watching paint dry and as illuminating as asking if water is wet.

But we’re doing a disservice to us all when we ignore how great Rodgers is. I mean, we spend lots of time chronicling the feats of Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson — why not Rodgers?

One way to measure Rodgers’ greatness is to look at passer rating. Now we know that passer rating is wildly overrated, so perhaps you shouldn’t be too impressed to hear that Rodgers has the highest passer rating in history. But consider: Rodgers has a career 104.9 passer rating, well ahead of Steve Young, who is second at 96.8. Chad Pennington sits at #13 on the career passer rating list (an example of why this metric is one I don’t use), but Young is closer to Pennington (90.1) than he is to Rodgers. But there’s an even better way to show Rodgers’ dominance in this statistic.

Passer rating is made up of four metrics. Let’s take a look at how Rodgers ranks in those four categories:
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Mike  Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

Mike Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

In March, Miami signed deep threat extraordinaire Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh. Also this offseason: general manager Jeff Ireland allowed left tackle Jake Long to leave and sign with the Rams, and the Dolphins have filled his position by moving right tackle Jonathan Martin to the blind side.

Much has been made of Martin’s inability to handle that role. Leading up to the 2012 draft, much was made of how Martin only projected as a right tackle in the pros, even though (or perhaps because of what evaluators saw when) Martin played on the left side at Stanford with Andrew Luck. Miami played Martin on the right side of the line for the first eleven games of the season last year, but switched him to the blind side after Long suffered a season-ending injury. Pro Football Focus graded Martin as a terrible pass blocker in his rookie season, and he was even worse in the five starts he made at left tackle: In those games, he allowed an incredible 17 hurries, two hits, and two sacks.

I thought it might be interesting to run some tests on left tackles, building off a study that Jason Lisk ran on offensive linemen:

To do this, I looked at all offensive linemen since 1978 who made at least 1 pro bowl and started 80 or more games in their careers, and then found any season in which that player played in fewer than 10 games before age 34, after starting more than that amount the previous year at the same position. I then compared the team performance in things like points, yards per attempt, sack rate, and rushing yards per carry. As it turns out, we don’t have very many cases that allow us to look at this (19 players). If I had reliable game by game data for offensive linemen participation, I could broaden the study, but for now, I can’t tell which games a lineman missed, like I can with a quarterback or running back. My goal in setting this up the way I did was to find pretty good tackles and try to see if there were any differences the following year when they missed a large chunk of the season.

Our 19 offensive tackles averaged 15.1 games the year before the injury, and only 6.3 games played during the injury season. That’s a difference of 8.8 games played, or over half a season.

In his conclusion, Lisk noted that “The likely effect on a per game basis when playing versus when out with an injury was somewhere between 0.7 to 0.8 Net Yards per Attempt dropoff.” Well, what if we run the same study but (1) limit ourselves to left tackles1 and (2) look at the yards-per-reception average of the team’s leading receiver? There are only 12 situations to examine, a sample size far too small to really use, but here are the results:

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  1. I changed the cutoffs to 14 starts in Year N and fewer than 9 starts in Year N+1 []
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Roethlisberger will be without his best targets this year.

Roethlisberger will be without his best targets this year.

While the state of the Steelers’ receiving corps isn’t as shaky as say, that of the New England Patriots, it could certainly be called an area of potential concern for Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense going into 2013. One of the biggest moves on the first day of free agency involved Mike Wallace departing for Miami; meanwhile, Heath Miller’s injury status — while more encouraging than previously thought — will cost him several games, and probably some effectiveness when he does eventually return. All of this comes on the heels of losing stealth HoFer Hines Ward (albeit an older, drastically less effective version) to retirement after the 2011 season.

For Roethlisberger, this downturn in the quality of his receivers is a pretty new phenomenon. In fact, by one measure of career receiving-corps talent (which I’ll explain below), Big Ben has been blessed with the fourth-most gifted receiving group among current starting quarterbacks with more than two years of experience (behind only Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, and Tony Romo). In fact, Roethlisberger’s 16th-ranked receiving corps in 2012 was by far the least talented group of pass catchers he’s ever had to throw to.

How do you begin to measure the quality of a quarterback’s receiving corps, you ask? Well, pretty much any method is going to fraught with circular logic, especially if a quarterback consistently has the same receivers over several years. His successes are theirs, and vice-versa. However, here’s one stab at shedding at least some light on the issue.

For each team since the NFL-AFL merger, I:

  • Gathered all players with at least 1 catch for the team in the season.
  • Computed their True Receiving Yards in that season; I then determined what percentage of the team’s True Receiving Yards was accumulated by which receiver in each year. For example, Hines Ward had 1,029 TRY in 2009, which represented 25.9% of the 3,979 True Receiving Yards accumulated by all Steelers that year
  • Figured out the most TRY they ever had in a season, a number I’m calling each player’s peak TRY; for Ward, his peak TRY is equal to 1,279.
  • Calculated a weighted average (based on the percentage of team TRY gained by each receiver) of the receivers’ peak TRY (weighted by their TRY during the season in question).

(I also threw out all teams that had a receiver who debuted before 1970, since I don’t know what the real peak TRY of any pre-merger receiver was. I should eventually calculate TRY for pre-merger seasons, of course — thank you Chase & Don Maynard.)

As an example, here are the 2009 Steelers, the most talented corps of receivers Roethlisberger has had in his career:
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Wilson does his best Roethlisberger.

Wilson does his best Roethlisberger.

On the surface, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger have almost nothing in common. Wilson was an undersized, overlooked, third-round pick, while Roethlisberger was a first round pick who is one of the most physically imposing quarterbacks in NFL history. But both players had pretty similar rookie years in a couple of respects.

In 2004, Roethlisbeger went 14-0 as the Steelers quarterback. Pittsburgh finished last in pass attempts that season, but Roethlisberger ranked 7th among quarterbacks with a 6.9 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt average. In 2012, Wilson went 11-5 as starter, the Seahawks ranked 32nd in pass attempts, and Wilson averaged 7.0 ANY/A, the 8th-highest mark in the league. Both teams were powered by great defenses and running games, and for a long time, Roethlisberger carried the label of game manager. He also appeared in three Super Bowls, winning two of them.

Wilson threw 393 passes last season, an average of 24.6 per game. The NFL average was 34.7 pass attempts per game, which means Wilson averaged 10.1 fewer attempts per game than average. I looked at 146 different quarterbacks with at least 50 starts since 1960 and noted how many passes they attempted in their first 16 starts. As it turns out, only four of them — Tom Flores, Chris Chandler, Joe Ferguson, and Roethlisberger — were farther from league average (on the minus side) than Wilson.

In Flores’ case, he was the starter for the Raiders in 1960 but he split time with Babe Parilli: they were essentially running a quarterback-by-committee in Oakland, so that explains why Flores didn’t throw many passes.

Twenty-eight years later, a similar situation unfolded in Indianapolis. Gary Hogeboom started the season, but was quickly benched for Jack Trudeau. Once Trudeau suffered a season-ending knee injury, Chandler took over, but Hogeboom still had 13 or more pass attempts in five of Chandler’s starts.
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Projecting the 2013 Jets

Let’s start with a picture showing just how ugly the Jets passing game has been over the last four years. The chart below displays where New York has ranked in Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, passer rating, Football Outsiders DVOA, and ANS’s Pass EPA/Play in each season starting in 2009. The black line shows an average of the team’s ranks in those five metrics. On the left, is the team’s rank from 1 to 32.

Jets passing

There are a few things that should be pretty obvious: all data points reside in the bottom half of the picture. New York ranked 18th in passer rating in 2011, its highest ranking in any of the five passing measures over the last four years. The Jets passing game was bad last year and looks to be bad this year, but we’re only talking about measures of degrees. The 11-5 Jets in 2010 ranked 20th in ANY/A and made it to the AFC Championship Game. In Mark Sanchez’s rookie year, the Jets ranked 27th in ANY/A and were leading the Colts at halftime of the AFCCG in Indianapolis.

One interpretation is that Sanchez was steadily improving, as he made gains in most metrics in both 2010 and 2011. I don’t think that’s the correct interpretation, however. Yes, the Jets ranked 18th in passer rating and in the top 20 other three other categories, but the real story is that New York only finished 25th in NY/A. The discrepancy between the statistics is the result of a fluke season with respect to passing touchdowns, which are ignored in NY/A but a part of passer rating, ANY/A, DVOA, and EPA. The Jets ranked 2nd in red zone scoring percentage in 2011, but ranked 17th (2009), 28th (2010), and 25th (2012) in that metric the other three years. Sanchez threw 14 touchdowns from inside the ten-yard line that year, more than double his performance in any other season. Some credited his red zone performance in 2011 to offensive guru Tom Moore’s tenure with the team that year, others believed it was due to the addition of Plaxico Burress, while still more thought it was a sign of Sanchez’ improvement as a passer. In retrospect, I think we can chalk most of that up red zone success up to good old fashioned luck and small sample size.
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Last night, David Wilson ran 84 yards for a touchdown on the Giants first play from scrimmage. Without being touched. How does that happen? Let’s start with a look from the end zone right at the snap:

Giants Jets Wilson Snap

The Jets are lined up with four down linemen: from left to right, you can see DE Muhammad Wilkerson, first-round tackle Sheldon Richardson, backup NT Damon Harrison, and outside linebacker/edge rusher Garrett McIntyre. At linebacker, we see Calvin Pace, David Harris, and Demario Davis — the new starter whom Rex Ryan has compared to Ray Lewis — tight inside the tackles. Left cornerback Kyle Wilson is off screen, covering Rueben Randle on the Giants right, while the Jets show a single-high safety look: Dawan Landry, the free agent addition from Jacksonville, is 13 yards off the line of scrimmage, while safety Antonio Allen (the Jets 7th round pick a year ago and expected starter in 2013) has creeped towards the line. What’s not shown: a few seconds earlier, the Giants motioned TE Brandon Myers to the offense’s left before the snap, causing Antonio Cromartie to line up right in the face of Hakeem Nicks and Allen (39) to drop down closer to the line of scrimmage (he was ten yards off the line before Myers moved).

The Giants know what is coming: a handoff to David Wilson, who will read the Jets defense to determine whether he bursts up the gut or bounces outside. From a numbers game, the Giants like what they see: even after Allen comes down, the math looks even. Assuming Nicks can handle Cromartie (he will), the Giants have the center, left guard, left tackle, Myers (a yard off the line) and TE Bear Pascoe (playing the traditional fullback slot) to block five Jets – Harrison and McIntyre on the line, Harris and Davis in the second level, and Allen.

In theory, you would think the Giants would have the C block the NT, the uncovered LG would make a beeline towards Harris (52), the LT would take care of McIntyre, and Pascoe and Myers would be assigned to Davis (56) and Allen (39). Some of that happens — the center (backup Jim Cordle) handles the nose; he also gets an assist from LG Kevin Boothe, who nudges Harrison away from the play a second before he manhandles Harris (a mismatch for most linebackers, so we can’t be too harsh on Harris). LT Will Beatty also overpowers the RDE, McIntyre, unsurprising considering (1) Beatty is a pretty good player and McIntyre is a backup 3-4 OLB, and (2) Beatty outweighs him by 64 pounds. Credit the Giants for good blocking, but blocking your assigned man doesn’t turn into 84-yard runs very often. The real cuprit on the play is Allen, but he was only the last domino to fall.
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This guy's 1982 Chargers sure come up a lot when we do lists like these.

This guy's 1982 Chargers sure come up a lot when we do lists like these.

More than a decade ago (on a side note: how is that possible?), Doug wrote a series of player comments highlighting specific topics as they related to the upcoming fantasy football season. I recommend that you read all of them, if for no other reason than the fact you should make it a policy to read everything Doug Drinen ever wrote about football, but today we’re going to focus on the Isaac Bruce comment, which asked/answered the question:

Is this Ram team the biggest fantasy juggernaut of all time?

“This Ram team,” of course, being the 1999, 2000, & 2001 Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams. At the time, Doug determined that those Rams were not, in fact, the best real-life fantasy team ever assembled, by adding up the collective VBD for the entire roster. They ranked tenth since 1970; the top 10 were:

1. 1. 1975 Buffalo Bills – 550 Simpson (281) Ferguson (98) Braxton (83) Chandler (44) Hill (42)

2. 1982 San Diego Chargers – 542 Chandler (190) Fouts (126) Winslow (121) Muncie (92) Brooks (10) Joiner (1)

3. 1994 San Francisco 49ers – 514 Young (208) Rice (140) Watters (98) Jones (67)

4. 1995 Detroit Lions – 478 Mitchell (136) Moore (132) Sanders (121) Perriman (87)

5. 1984 Miami Dolphins – 470 Marino (243) Clayton (145) Duper (76) Nathan (6)

6. 1998 San Francisco 49ers – 467 Young (200) Hearst (137) Owens (81) Rice (46) Stokes (1)

7. 1986 Miami Dolphins – 456 Marino (210) Duper (94) Clayton (76) Hampton (61) Hardy (13)

8. 2000 Minnesota Vikings – 452 Culpepper (170) Moss (123) Smith (87) Carter (70)

9. 1991 Buffalo Bills – 449 Thomas (157) Kelly (143) Reed (80) Lofton (51) McKeller (17)

10. 1999 St. Louis Rams – 435 Faulk (184) Warner (179) Bruce (71)

As an extension of Chase’s recent post on the The Best Skill Position Groups Ever, we thought it might be useful to update Doug’s study in a weekend data-dump post. I modified the methodology a bit — instead of adding up VBD for the entire roster, for each team-season I isolated the team’s leading QB and top 5 non-QBs by fantasy points (using the same point system I employed when ranking the Biggest Fluke Fantasy Seasons Ever). I then added up the total VBD of just those players, to better treat each roster like it was a “real” fantasy team.

Anyway, here are the results. Remember as well that VBD is scaled up to a 16-game season, so as not to short-change dominant fantasy groups from strike-shortened seasons (:cough:1982 Chargers:cough:).
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Tony Gonzalez is good at not fumbling

Gonzalez has made 13 Pro Bowls.

Gonzalez has made 13 Pro Bowls.

Do you remember Robert Thomas? He was selected by the Rams with the 31st overall pick in the 2002 draft. He started 30 games at linebacker for the team in three years, grabbed a cup of coffee in Green Bay, and then had three forgettable years with the Raiders during the nadir of the Al Davis era.

In week 16 of the 2006 season, the 7-7 Chiefs traveled to Oakland to face the 2-12 Raiders. Kansas City held a 10-6 lead when they took possession with 11:38 left in the second quarter. Trent Green completed a short pass to the right side of the field to Tony Gonzalez, who was tackled by Thomas. In the process, Thomas jarred the ball loose from Gonzalez, and Kansas City’s second-string tight end, Kris Wilson, pounced on the ball and recovered, keeping possession for the Chiefs. Kansas City eventually won 20-9, and clinched the playoffs by winning the following week against Jacksonville. Oakland finished 2-14 and was rewarded with JaMarcus Russell.

Thomas’ fumble wouldn’t even register as a footnote in the game recap, let alone seven years later. But here’s the thing: from the start of the 2000 season until that play began, Gonzalez had caught 547 passes and fumbled zero times. Since that fumble, Gonzalez has caught 526 receptions… and zero fumbles. Thomas’ forced fumble was the only time since 2000 that Gonzalez has ever let the ball hit the ground.

That crazy stat comes courtesy of Bill Barnwell on this podcast. After hearing about it, I decided to see look up career fumble rates. Excluding the postseason, Gonzalez has 6 career fumbles while recording 1242 receptions, 2 rushes, and one pass attempt. That’s a fumble rate of under half-a-percent per touch! That’s the second best rate of any player to enter the league since 1950, minimum 1,000 touches (defined as every time a player touched the ball).

Who is number one? The guy who can’t stop fumbling in the NFL playoffs. Before presenting the list of the players with the top 100 fumble rates, let me get in a quick disclaimer. Fumble rates, in general, are declining. And the fumble rates are dramatically different on returns relative to running plays, which have different fumble rates than quarterbacks on pass plays, which is way higher than the fumble rates on a reception by a receiver. But hey, if you just want a list of fumbles per touch, ignoring context, check out below:
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Football Perspective Partners with FanDuel

Today’s another fun day for all of us at Football Perspective. I’m fortunate to have a smart community of football fans who like to stop by every day. I’m also not the only one to notice that, as a lot advertisers have reached out to me over the last several months because of you guys.

I’m not a fan of most advertising, so I’ve always turned them down. I don’t want you guys to be annoyed when you come here, because I don’t like being annoyed when I’m on somebody else’s site. But after speaking with the folks at FanDuel, we were able to set up something that I think you guys will really enjoy.

FanDuel is fantasy football with a twist: you compete for real money by selecting any player you want each week under a salary cap format. Each player has a price, so the goal is to figure out who are the undervalued players. Instead of drafting a team for a season, you draft a team for a week, as frequently or infrequently as you like (i.e., you can enter every week, or play in week 1, week 3, and then every week the rest of the year starting in week 10 — and not be behind the curve). You can compete in games for as little as $1 or as much as $535 per game. Once you play around with the site, you’ll see all the different options: head-to-head games, 50/50 games, 3-man, 5-man, 10-man, 20-man, or big tournament games.

That’s cool, but what’s really cool is that FanDuel likes you guys. This is a big company — this NFL season, they’ve said that they’ll be paying out over $90 million to their players — but they’ve kept their eyes on us, too. So FanDuel is offering a special 50% deposit bonus to Football Perspective readers. Click here to sign up by clicking the orange “Play Now” button, and the promo code PERSPECTIVE will be entered for you.

But even if you don’t want to spend any money, there’s another cool offer on the table: FanDuel has a free game with a $1500 prize pool for all of us to play on opening weekend. I’ll be in the field competing as ChasePerspective.

You can click here to pick your team for the free game. When you’re finished, click Enter on the bottom of the page. If you didn’t sign up before building your team, you’ll be directed to register a FanDuel account. When you sign up, be sure to type the promo code PERSPECTIVE and your team will be entered into the league. You can edit your team until the first game starts, and then watch the live scoring on FanDuel during the games to track how your team performs against the rest of the field.

Now, the fun stuff: whom should you select? Here are my thoughts:

We have to work within the confines of a $60,000 salary cap and have to fill nine positions: a QB, two RBs, three WRs, a TE, a K, and a D. That’s $6,666 per position, a good baseline to keep in mind. Normally, I’d just go ultra cheap at kicker and defense, but FanDuel doesn’t make things so simple.

At kicker, Phil Dawson (he’s now in San Francisco) and Stephen Gostkowski are the two most expensive kickers at $5400, while just about every other kicker is $5,000. I want a kicker who plays for a team that should be in a close game but will also have trouble getting into the end zone. At a cost of $5K, Robbie Gould fills that description, as the Bears host the Bengals. Chicago will be breaking in a new offense and is up against a tough defense — that could be a three field goal game for Gould.

On defense, it’s all about matchups and home field. The Colts are home against the Raiders, and while Chuck Pagano’s defense was terrible last year, hosting Oakland and Matt Flynn seems like a good matchup. Indianapolis only costs five grand, which leaves me with $50K for the other seven spots, or $7,143 per player.

My next thought is to first find an undervalued player at quarterback and tight end before looking at the backs and receivers. At QB… actually, let’s take a quick break here and review the scoring system. It’s fairly typical — one point per 25 yards passing, 4 points per passing touchdown, 1 point per 10 yards rushing/receiving, and 0.5 points per reception. Some fantasy leagues give 6 points per passing touchdown and one point per 20 yards passing. Those leagues are more passer-friendly; this sort of system is more favorable to running quarterbacks.

How can you not pick this guy?

How can you not pick this guy?

I am pretty bullish on Michael Vick as a fantasy player, at least unless or until he gets benched or hurt. But for one week, the risk is low, and I could easily see him rushing for 50 yards and a touchdown in week one. At $8,100, he’s the 12th-most expensive quarterback, so it’s not like he’s an outright steal. But I think that’s good value, so I’m taking him.

At tight end, I think a lot of people will take New England rookie Zach Sudfeld because he only costs $4500. In large leagues, I think it’s smart to zig when everyone zags: you don’t win your March Madness bracket by doing what everyone else does. The way to win is to have a unique lineup and cross your fingers, not to have a common lineup, cross your fingers, and then hope you’re the best of that group. Still, at $4500, I can’t pass up on the player who may well be Tom Brady’s #2 target in week one against a bad Buffalo defense.

This leaves me with $37,400 for two running backs and three wide receivers, or $7,480 per position. I have avoided it so far, but the Atlanta/New Orleans game screams fantasy paradise, so it’s time to get in on that action. Julio Jones costs $8K and Roddy White $7,100, so I’ll go the cheaper route and hope the torch isn’t passed just yet.

Steve Johnson seems crazy undervalued to me: he’s going against the Patriots, one of the best matchups of the day (the Patriots have given up over 9,500 gross passing yards the last two seasons!). Johnson’s the Bills #1 wide receiver and has three straight 1,000-yard seasons. I know he’s been banged up and the quarterback situation is up in the air, but whether it’s EJ Manuel or Kevin Kolb, Johnson will be able to produce. For $5,900, I’ll gladly take him.

Let’s switch over to running back. Ahmad Bradshaw sticks out to me because of the probable Game Script: for the same reason I like the Colts D, I like having Bradshaw, who should be positioned for 20 carries. That makes him a bargain at $6K. That leaves me with $18,400. As it turns out, picking Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson costs…. $18,300. I guess my work here is done.

So that’s how you enter a FanDuel contest. If you want to sign up and get a 50% first-time deposit bonus, click here. Or, if you just want to enter the free contest and compete again me and your fellow readers, click here. In both cases, the promo code is PERSPECTIVE.

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Can Ware excel as a defensive end?

Can Ware excel as a defensive end?

Depending on whom you ask, Tom Landry either revolutionized or invented the 4-3 front. When he became head coach of the expansion Cowboys, Landry’s teams always fielded four down linemen. And by the time he was forced out, the 3-4 fad that dominated the ’80s had subsided, resulting in Dallas running a 4-3 front every season from 1960 to 2004.

In 2005, several key changes happened in Dallas. Bill Parcells was hired as head coach in ’03, but he didn’t implement a scheme shift right way. After Dallas ranked 27th in points allowed in ’04, though, changes were necessary. With two first round picks, the Cowboys selected 3-4 outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and 3-4 defensive end Marcus Spears. Dallas also signed Jason Ferguson, who had played nose tackle for Parcells with the Jets. With the pieces in place, Dallas ran a 3-4 defense each of the last eight seasons. Ware has become one of, if not the, greatest 3-4 outside linebackers of all time. But after eight years of Parcells, Wade Phillips, and Rob Ryan, Dallas is returning to its 4-3 roots under Monte Kiffin.

Kiffin, of course, is most famous for the outstanding defenses that he and Tony Dungy created in Tampa Bay; the Tampa-2, after all, has became part of football nomenclature. But I don’t want to go into whether the Cowboys are well-positioned to switch fronts (they’re not) or who will play what role in 2013 (Ware and Anthony Spencer are moving to defensive end, Jay Ratliff will move from NT to DT, and newly rich Sean Lee will play as a true middle linebacker, and he might be even more valuable in this system). Instead, I want to take a 30,000 foot view.

In 1974, the 3-4 defense was introduced to the NFL by Bum Phillips in Houston, Lou Saban in Buffalo, and Chuck Fairbanks and Hank Bullough in New England. I thought it would be interesting to see how teams that switched fronts fared in their first season. On caveat: I wanted to exclude schizophrenic teams like the current Bills (4-3 defense in 2009, 3-4 in 2010, 4-3 in 2011 and 2012, and now a 3-4 again in 2013).  According to my records, 74 teams in NFL history have switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, or vice versa, after running the same front for the three prior years.
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The Best Skill Position Groups Ever

Atlanta has a pretty nice set of weapons for Ryan.

Where does Ryan's crew rank?

The Atlanta Falcons have a pretty good group of skill position players. Tony Gonzalez has a comfortable lead on Jerry Rice’s career receptions pace; Gonzalez will one day become the first tight end inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Steven Jackson is a borderline Hall of Famer who was stuck on perpetually lousy teams. Roddy White may not be Hall of Fame caliber, but he’s better than you realize: I ranked him as the 37th best receiver of all time in February and he ranked 21st on the list of best six seasons in True Receiving Yards. And he has shown little sign of slowing down, either: White’s recorded at least 80 catches, 1100 yards, and 6 touchdowns in each of the last six years, a mark previously achieved by only Rice and Marvin Harrison. But White will soon pass the torch to Julio Jones, who will battle with A.J. Green and Dez Bryant over the next decade for the title of most freakishly athletic receiver. As for the quarterback, well, Matt Ryan’s 56 wins is the most of any quarterback through five seasons in NFL history.

With those five men, the Falcons have one of the best quintets in league history. Of course, with eleven men on the field and only five offensive lineman on most plays, “skill position players” generally refers to a group of six players. According to Football Outsiders, Harry Douglas was usually that sixth man last year, as he was on the field for 585 snaps in 2012. Douglas is a fine player as a third receiver, but he will bring down the value of this group.

Which made me wonder: which teams have fielded the best six skill position players ever? It’s tricky to even know what “best” means: a 30-year-old Earl Campbell isn’t the same as the 24-year-old version, but if you look simply at productivity in that season, you’re making a list of the best offenses. So here’s what I did.

1) I included in my data set every player who scored at least 5 points of AV in a particular season. This should minimize players who didn’t make any significant contribution in that season.

2) Next, I measured the top six non-lineman offensive players for each team according to their career AV.

3) Then, I took the geometric mean of the career AV of those six players to come up with a team grade.

This is far from a perfect measure — it’s actually quick and dirty — but it was the easiest thing I could think of. Of course, we’ll have to wait a few years for players like Jones and Ryan to rack up their career AV, so I thought it would be fun to look at the current top ten groups.

Before moving on to them, let’s take a look at those who deserve honorable mentions:
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The new face of the Ravens

The new face of the Ravens.

No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the 20032004 Patriots, which means the last eight champions have failed in their bid to repeat. Three of them — the ’06 and ’09 Steelers and the 2012 Giants — failed to even make the playoffs. Some writers have used this as a reason to suggest that Baltimore may be subject to a Super Bowl curse.

Of course, the idea of a curse — or a sample of data — doesn’t mean much in the abstract. Let’s look at some numbers on the 42 Super Bowl winners between 1970 and 2011. On average, those teams had a 0.676 winning percentage in Year N+1 (i.e., the year after they won the Super Bowl). Thirty of those teams made it back to the playoffs, one out of every six of those teams won the Super Bowl, and three more lost in the Super Bowl (the ’78 Cowboys, ’83 Redskins, and ’97 Packers). Some would use this as evidence of a curse — i.e., only 9 of 42 teams made it back to the Super Bowl — but again, we need some context.

I decided to compare Super Bowl winners since 1970 to three other teams: Super Bowl losers, the Simple Rating System champion from that season (which may or may not be a team that made it to the Super Bowl), and an average of all playoff teams from that year. On average, Super Bowl winners have the best winning percentage of that group in the following year. And Super Bowl winners are the most likely to win the Super Bowl. Super Bowl winners are less likely to lose in the Super Bowl the next season than the Super Bowl loser (thanks, Buffalo) or the SRS champ, but the defending champion is still the team most likely to make it back to the Super Bowl. The two Super Bowl teams and the SRS champ also make the playoffs the following season just north of 70%, well ahead of the average playoff team.

The chart below shows all of these results, which makes it pretty clear that being the defending Super Bowl champion is a good thing for future prospects (and it’s not too shabby on a resume, either):
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As always, the G.O.A.T.

As always, the G.O.A.T.

On Thursday, Neil and I introduced you to the concept of True Receiving Yards. That’s required background reading, but in a nutshell, True Receiving Yards is designed to place all receivers since 1970 into the same environment. It starts with receiving yards, but gives a bonus for receptions and touchdowns, adjusts for how frequently a player’s team passes, adjusts for the league passing environment, and adjusts for the number of games played on the NFL schedule in that season.

Neil and I listen to your comments, and we’ve made a big tweak to the methodology: we agree that True Receiving Yards, version 1.0, was a bit biased in favor of receivers on low-volume passing teams.  Based on yesterday’s research, we are now going to limit the adjustment for how frequently a player’s team passes (relative to league average) to just 50% of the old adjustment.

This now moves Cliff Branch up to #1 on the single-season list, presented below.  Let’s run through the math one time to explain it. In 1974, Branch’s 60-1092-13 stat line translates to 1,652 Adjusted Catch Yards. The Adjusted Catch Yards to Receiving Yards ratio for the entire league that season was 65.6%, so that translates to 1,083 receiving yards for Branch.  Now, the league average team that year passed 401 times, while Oakland had just 359 dropbacks. Instead of an 11.7% adjustment in Branch’s favor (as we did in TRYv1.0), he gets a 5.85% adjustment, bringing him up to 1,146 yards. Next, we multiply that by 214.54 (the average receiving yards per game over the 43-year period) and divide by 171, which represents the low-octane era of 1974; that gives us 1,436 yards. Finally, we pro-rate to 16 games, and end up with 1,641 True Receiving Yards. That’s the most in any season since 1970:
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Calvin Johnson doesn't like adjustments for pass attempts

Calvin Johnson doesn't like adjustments for pass attempts.

On Thursday, Neil and I introduced you to the concept of True Receiving Yards. True Receiving Yards is designed to place every receiver into the same environment. TRY starts with receiving yards, but gives a bonus for receptions and touchdowns, adjusts for how frequently a player’s team passes, adjusts for the league passing environment, and adjusts for the number of games scheduled for the team that season.

The bolded adjustment caused some consternation for some of the commenters. Some folks feel that if Team X passes twice as often as Team Y, we shouldn’t just expect the top WR on Team X to gain as many receiving yards as the top WR on Team Y. There’s some merit to that argument: in general, high-pass teams probably have more receivers on the field on a given play, and low-pass teams are often in more favorable situations. Being the only wide receiver on the field on a play-action pass is probably an easier situation to gain yards than being one of four wide receivers in an obvious passing situation.

In other words, some feel that we shouldn’t expect a one-to-one increase in receiving yards (or Adjusted Catch Yards) relative to team pass attempts. Is there a way to test that? Neil and I came up with three such methods.

Year-to-Year Case Study

Neil looked at all wide receivers since 1970, ages 23-30, who started every game for the same team in back-to-back seasons (Years Y and Y+1). The sample was 245 pairs of player-seasons, after removing 2 extreme outliers: Drew Hill 1985 (went from 335 True Receiving Yards without the team attempt adjustment in 1984 to 1048 in 1985) and Roger Carr 1976 (went from 591 to 1438).
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Did Bill Belichick Invent the Two Tight End Offense?

Gronk can catch, block, and spike.

Gronk can catch, block, and spike..

Here’s the short answer: No.

The Cincinnati Bengals appear to be moving to a two-tight end offense in 2013, with first round pick Tyler Eifert joining former first rounder Jermaine Gresham. Since Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez began dominating the league, the two-tight end offense has become back in vogue in the NFL.

I say “back” because contrary to popular belief, the two-tight end offense didn’t begin with Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Only one team in NFL history has seen its top two leaders in receptions both play tight end, and it wasn’t a team coached by Belichick. That team was the 1998 Titans, with Les Steckel as offensive coordinator. Tennessee had bought high on Yancey Thigpen after the 1997 season, a move that backfired immediately; instead, 27-year-old Frank Wycheck and 30-year-old Jackie Harris led the team in receptions, and each started 16 games.  Seven years later, this time under Norm Chow, Erron Kinney and Ben Troupe each caught 55 passes, just three behind leader Drew Bennett.  The fourth leader in receptions was another tight end, Bo Scaife. The 2005 Titans really liked their tight ends.

Wes Welker led the 2011 Patriots in receptions and receiving yards, but Gronkowski and Hernandez were second and third in both categories.  In addition to those Titans teams, here are some other franchises that had multiple tight ends finish in the top three in receptions:
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Footballguys.com – Why Subscribe?

Here’s the short sell: If you are a hardcore fantasy footballer, you probably already know that Footballguys.com is the single best source for fantasy football information. If you are a more casual fantasy football player, you’ll find that the tools available at Footballguys will make life much, much easier for you to win your league(s). Either way, I think a Footballguys.com subscription is a fantastic value for $29.95.

As for the longer sell: Before the New York Times, before Smart Football, and before Pro-Football-Reference, I was an aspiring young football writer with more energy than brains and more curiosity than experience. For reasons unbeknown to most everyone, Footballguys asked me in the summer of 2002 to join their staff. I’ve been a staff member ever since. At the time, Footballguys was the best kept secret in fantasy football; now it’s the best product in the industry. I continue to publish articles there, and you can find my 2013 articles at this link (the older articles are free, while the more recent ones are subscriber-only content).

I don’t make extra money if more people sign up for Footballguys, but I hope my readers subscribe because I think a subscription is a really good deal. If you play fantasy football and want to win your competitive league or save hours doing research for your local league, a Footballguys subscription is well worth it. For $29.95, you get:

  • Always up to date and informed projections and rankings, along with 50,000 + pages of Footballguys Insider content.
  • The Footballguys Draft Dominator (the single most valuable tool in all of fantasy football, IMO), along with the Lineup Dominator and Projections Dominator. Even if you don’t sign up for Footballguys, you can play around with Doug Drinen’s ultra-cool Rate My Team application for free.
  • The Footballguys Insiders contest, giving you a chance at over $35,000 in prizes — this is 100% free to subscribers.
  • During the season, My FBG is a fantastic customizable tool that makes roster management incredibly easy. If you’re in multiple fantasy leagues, this is a lifesaver, and can be fully integrated with certain league management systems.
  • I won’t list every reason to sign up, but you can check out the Why Subscribe? link or just play around on the FBG homepage.
  • In addition to everything else, a money-back guarantee. In the 11 years I’ve been at Footballguys, they’ve always offered this feature, and it’s almost never used. There’s a reason for that.

Anyway, I’m not very good at the salesman thing, so I’ll wrap things up. Bob Henry, a fellow staffer, puts together four incredible training camp updates during the pre-season. The first of these was released on August 7th, and is free, while the last three are subscriber-only content. Take a look at Bob’s first training camp report if you have any doubts about the quantity and quality of the content FBG provides.

Once you’re a subscriber, you can check out some of my recent articles, such as:

And for those waiting for more info on True Receiving Yards, check back tomorrow.

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True Receiving Yards, Part I

One of many Rams greats to wear #29

One of many Rams greats to wear #29.

As you guys know, Neil Paine is the man. Here’s the latest reason: he came up with a metric called True Receiving Yards, the latest in a long line of thoughts in our Wide Receiver Project. So, what are True Receiving Yards?

We start with Adjusted Catch Yards, defined as 5 * Receptions + Receiving Yards + 20 * Receiving Touchdowns.

1) Then, we convert each player’s Adjusted Catch Yards to the same scale as pure receiving yards using the following formula:

Adjusted Catch Yards * League Receiving Yards / League Adjusted Catch Yards

2) Next, we adjust for how often the receiver’s team passed.  We use the following formula:

[Result in Step 1] * League_Avg_Team_Pass_Attempts / Team_Pass_Attempts

For purposes of this post, Team Pass Attempts include sacks.

3) Then we adjust for the league passing environment, by using this formula:

[Result in Step 2] * by (214.54/Avg_Team_Receiving_Yards_Per_Game).

Why 214.54? Because that’s how many yards the average NFL team has passed for in each season since 1970.

4) Finally, we need to adjust for schedule length. This one’s pretty simple:

[Result in Step 2] * 16 / Team Games

As it turns out, the single-season leader in True Receiving Yards is….. Harold Jackson for the 1973 Rams. That will probably surprise some folks; heck, it surprised me. So let’s walk through Jackson’s season by comparing it to Calvin Johnson’s 2012. Jackson caught 40 passes for 874 yards and 13 touchdowns. That gives him 1,334 Adjusted Catch Yards, while Megatron’s 122-1964-5 translates to 2,674 Adjusted Catch Yards, more than twice what Jackson produced.

1) First, we need to convert those ACY numbers into receiving yards.  In 1973, that conversion ratio is 65.5%, and in 2012, it was 64.5%; this means Jackson is credited with 874 receiving yards (ironically, his actual number) while Johnson is pushed down to only 1,725 yards. This is because Johnson had a ton of yards but only five touchdowns.  In other words, based on his receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, Johnson was more like a 1,725-yard receiver last year.

2) Jackson’s Rams had just 288 Team Pass Attempts, while the average team in 1973 averaged 373.3 pass attempts. So we need to bump Jackson up by 29.6%, which would give him 1,132 receiving yards. The 2012 Lions had 769 Team Pass Attempts compared to a league average of 592.4; therefore, we need to give Johnson credit for only 77% of his ACY, bringing him down to 1,329 receiving yards.

3) Next, we adjust for league environment. In 1973, the average team passed for 159 yards per game, which means we need to bump Jackson up by 34.6% (the result of 214.54 divided by 159); this gives him 1,524 receiving yards. For Megatron, since the average team in 2012 passed for 246 yards per game, we need to multiply his result in step 2 by 87.2%, leaving him with only 1,159 receiving yards.

4) For Calvin Johnson, that’s it: he is credited with 1,159 True Receiving Yards, after reducing his numbers for playing in a pass-happy offense, playing in a pass-happy era, and not having many touchdowns. For Jackson, his 1,524 gets pro-rated to a 16-game season, giving him 1,742 True Receiving Yards.
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Last week, Jason Lisk wrote a great article analyzing a number of key offensive injuries around the league last week. While Football Perspective hasn’t taken a day off since opening, this is not the go-to site for current events. But today, we’ve got something special in store for you. I was able to get thirteen top-notch writers to join me at a virtual roundtable and provide updates on some of the more important injuries to offensive players around the NFL.

How much of Gronk will we see in 2013?

How much of Gronk will we see in 2013?

Let’s start in New England, where the Patriots are having all sorts of tight end problems. Three months ago, the team’s top three tight ends were a relatively healthy Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and a recovering Jake Ballard. Since then, Hernandez has been released, Gronkowski may start the season on the PUP list, and Ballard is a possible camp cut as he recovers from the ACL and microfacture surgery that caused him to miss all of 2012. I’ve brought in Dr. Jene Bramel (@JeneBramel), author of the Second Opinion injury blog at Footballguys.com, to discuss the status of the Patriots tight ends:

It’s really difficult to know what to expect from Gronkowski. He’s had two surgeries at two different disc levels in his lumbar spine. He recovered from the first one well, but it’s fair to wonder whether his lower back will hold up over time. And the infection and back surgery have limited his ability to fully rehab his arm. However, he’s just 24 years old and has seemed superhuman at times. I think Patriots fans can be optimistic that he’ll return close to his normal form this year. Whether that’s during the first month of season or not won’t be known until close to August 31. That’s when the Patriots must decide whether Gronkowski is safe to keep on the final 53.

I’m not expecting much from Ballard at all. Microfracture surgery is still difficult to fully recover from and rehabbing from an ACL tear at the same time adds to the level of difficulty. Even if Ballard does make the roster, it’s not likely that he’ll be healthy enough to play more than 20-30 snaps a game, much less make a meaningful contribution.

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For sportswriters, Freeman is writer's block antidote.

I was not a big fan of Josh Freeman as a prospect — he was a mediocre college quarterback — but I think he can be a very good NFL quarterback. I wrote six paragraphs explaining why I liked Freeman in March, and nothing has changed since then. In the past few weeks, friends-of-the-program Bill Barnwell, Mike Tanier, and Danny Tuccitto have all weighed in on Freeman’s up-and-down 2012 campaign. Doug Farrar, with the help Joe Bussell (@NFLosophy), an Operations Assistant and Coordinator with the Bucs from July 2009 through January 2012, provided another interesting take on the Tampa Bay quarterback last week.

Much has been said about Freeman, so I think we’re officially at the “wait and see” point in the game. This may be the year he quiets all the doubters, or 2013 could be another setback season (see 2011). But here’s one thing we do know: in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton, Freeman is widely considered the worst starting quarterback in the NFC South. Freeman ranked 16th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt last year, but that was still behind Brees (6th), Ryan (7th), and Newton (11th, which ignores the 741 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns he provided on the ground).

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Freeman is again the least valuable quarterback in the NFC South. What does that mean for Tampa Bay’s odds of winning the division? The Bucs had the league’s top rush defense in 2012, and traded for Darrelle Revis, signed Dashon Goldson, and drafted Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks in the offseason. With Doug Martin and the return of guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, the running game should be among the league’s best. You could argue that Tampa Bay could win the division without any improvement from Freeman, if the rest of the team is productive enough.

That made me wonder: how often does the team that ranked last in the division in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt end up winning its division? As it turns out, pretty infrequently. Since 1950, only nine teams have pulled off that feat, with nearly half of them coming since the league moved to a four-teams-per-division-for-each-division format in 2002.
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Foster is thankful for a heavy workload.

Foster is thankful for a heavy workload.

Running back workload is a very difficult topic to tackle, and I don’t expect to make much of an indent into the subject today. But I do want to take a few minutes and look at some ways to measure heavy workloads. One school of thought is that the effect of carries is cumulative: Not only is a 25-carry game more likely to cause a running back trouble than a five-carry game, but it’s more than five times as likely to shorten a player’s shelf life. The cumulative effect of taking hit after hit means that carries 16, 17, and 18 hurt a runner more than carries 1, 2, and 3.

I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s investigate. First, I’m only giving a running back credit for his additional carries after his 15th carry of the game. So an 18-carry game goes down as a “3” and a 25 carry game is a “10.” Using this scoring system, Arian Foster had the highest number of “Carries over 15” from last season, with 117. Such a list mostly corresponds to the number of overall rushing attempts for a player, but the exceptions could be revealing.
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Smith likes ranking receivers by yards per team attempt

Smith likes ranking receivers by yards per team attempt.

When I wrote my ode to Steve Smith earlier this week, I discovered an incredible stat. In 2008, Smith played in 14 games and gained 1,421 receiving yards. But the more incredible part is that the Panthers passed only 352 times in 2008, meaning Smith averaged an absurd 4.04 yards per team pass attempt. At this point, we all know that passing yards is a meaningless way to measure quarterbacks: yards per attempt is a much better indicator of talent. It’s much easier to throw for 4,000 yards on 600 attempts than it is on 500 attempts, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. But most analysts don’t make the same adjustment when dealing with the man catching those passes. But it’s much easier to gain 1,500 receiving yards on a team that passes 700 times than it is to do it on a team that passes only 500 times. Hence my interest in Yards per Team Pass Attempt as a statistic.

So, how absurd was Smith’s 4.04 Yards per attempt average? We have individual player game logs going back to 1960, so I went through and measured every game each receiver “played” in each season since then. I use that word in quotes, because it’s possible that a receiver was active in a game but did not record any statistics, and therefore he may not show up in our game logs. That caveat aside, the table below shows the single-season leaders since 1960 in Receiving Yards per Team Pass Attempt (minimum 170 passes, so I could bring in Paul Warfield), with only the games in which the player “played” counting in the attempts column. As always, the table is sortable and searchable, and you can click the arrows at the bottom to scroll to the next names on the list (the table contains the 138 receivers to average 2.75 Yd/Att.)
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Yesterday, I set up a method for ranking the flukiest fantasy football seasons since the NFL-AFL merger, finding players who had elite fantasy seasons that were completely out of step with the rest of their careers. I highlighted fluke years #21-30, so here’s a recap of the rankings thus far:

30. Lorenzo White, 1992
29. Dwight Clark, 1982
28. Willie Parker, 2006
27. Lynn Dickey, 1983
26. Robert Brooks, 1995
25. Ricky Williams, 2002
24. Jamal Lewis, 2003
23. Mark Brunell, 1996
22. Vinny Testaverde, 1996
21. Garrison Hearst, 1998

Now, let’s get to…

The Top Twenty

20. RB Natrone Means, 1994

Best Season
yeargrushrushydrushtdrecrecydrectdVBD
1994163431,35012392350103.0
2nd-Best Season
yeargrushrushydrushtdrecrecydrectdVBD
199714244823915104012.9

Big, bruising Natrone Means burst onto the scene in 1994 as a newly-minted starter for the Chargers’ eventual Super Bowl team, gaining 1,350 yards on the ground with 12 TDs. In the pantheon of massive backs, he was supposed to be the AFC’s answer to the Rams’ Jerome Bettis, but Means was slowed by a groin injury the following year and never really stayed healthy enough to recapture his old form. The best he could do was to post a pair of 800-yard rushing campaigns for the Jaguars & Chargers in 1997 & ’98 before retiring after the ’99 season.

19. WR Braylon Edwards, 2007

Best Season
yeargrecrecydrectdVBD
200716801,28916107.7
2nd-Best Season
yeargrecrecydrectdVBD
20101653904715.4

The 3rd overall pick in the 2005 Draft out of Michigan, Edwards seemingly had a breakout 2007 season catching passes from fellow Pro Bowler Derek Anderson. But both dropped off significantly the next season, and Edwards was sent packing to the Jets in 2009. He did post 904 yards as a legit starting fantasy wideout in 2010, but he has just 380 receiving yards over the past 2 seasons, and it’s not clear he’ll ever live up to those eye-popping 2007 numbers again.
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I prefer cooking in a Garrison  Hearst replica jersey

I prefer cooking in a Garrison Hearst replica jersey.

There’s nothing like a truly great fluke fantasy season. Because they can help carry you to a league championship (and therefore eternal bragging rights — flags fly forever, after all), a random player who unexpectedly has a great season will often have a special place in the heart of every winning owner. And even if you only use their jerseys as makeshift aprons to cook in, fluke fantasy greats are a part of the fabric of football fandom. That’s why this post is a tribute to the greatest, most bizarre, fluke fantasy seasons of all time (or at least since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger).

First, a bit about the methodology. I’m going to use a very basic fantasy scoring system for the purposes of this post:

  • 1 point for every 20 passing yards
  • 1 point for every 10 rushing or receiving yards
  • 6 points for every rushing or receiving TD
  • 4 points for every passing TD
  • -2 points for every passing INT

I’m also measuring players based on Value Based Drafting (VBD) points rather than raw points. In a nutshell, VBD measures true fantasy value by comparing a player to replacement level, defined here as the number of fantasy points scored by the least valuable starter in your league. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m basing VBD on a 12-team league with a starting lineup of one QB, two RBs, 2.5 WRs, and 1 TE. That means we’re comparing a player at a given position to the #12-ranked QB, the #24 RB, the #30 WR, or the #12 TE in each season. If a player’s VBD is below the replacement threshold at his position, he simply gets a VBD of zero for the year.
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Since Sam Bradford was drafted by the Rams in 2010, the only consistent force in St. Louis has been change. Tackle Rodger Saffold, drafted in the second round of the same draft, is the only other player on the 2010 Rams offense who is still on the team. Bradford has already played under three offensive coordinators (Pat Shurmur as a rookie, Josh McDaniels in 2011, and Brian Schottenheimer last year), which means this is the first time in four years he isn’t learning a new system. And while his rookie season was always overrated, his performance last year was better than you think. After adjusting for one of the league’s toughest schedules, Bradford ranked 18th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, despite being saddled with an inferior set of receivers.

How inferior? The table below shows the top six leaders in receiving yards for St. Louis last season:

Games Receiving
Rk Player Year Age Tm G GS Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G
1 Chris Givens 2012 23 STL 15 12 42 698 16.62 3 46.5
2 Brandon Gibson 2012 25 STL 16 13 51 691 13.55 5 43.2
3 Danny Amendola 2012 27 STL 11 8 63 666 10.57 3 60.5
4 Lance Kendricks 2012 24 STL 16 14 42 519 12.36 4 32.4
5 Steven Jackson 2012 29 STL 16 15 38 321 8.45 0 20.1
6 Austin Pettis 2012 24 STL 14 2 30 261 8.70 4 18.6

Chances are, unless you’re a Rams fan or play fantasy football, you’ve never even heard of four of those names.  And while Amendola was productive when healthy, he missed five games last year (and it’s worth noting that Bradford’s numbers weren’t worse without Amendola in the lineup). Steven Jackson is of course a great player, but there’s only so much help a 29-year-old running back who catches 38 passes can provide to an ailing passing game.
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The Steve Smith Post

Smith has excelled despite playing for a ground-based attack

Smith has excelled despite playing for a ground-based attack.

Over the last decade, Carolina’s Steve Smith has been one of the best receivers in the NFL. He’s also been the most under-appreciated. Let’s stroll down memory lane:

  • As a rookie, Smith was a first-team All-Pro returner but caught only ten passes. In his second year, he caught 54 passes for 872 yards and three touchdowns, and bumped those numbers to 88-1,110-7 in 2003. That season, the Panthers made it to the Super Bowl, with Smith as their number one receiving weapon. He caught 18 passes for 404 yards and 3 touchdowns (including one walk-off touchdown) in four playoff games, a 101 yard/game average that would be a sign of things to come. Smith’s fourth season ended in week one, when a tackle by Packers linebacker Hannibal Navies resulted in a broken leg.
  • In 2005, Smith had one of the greatest receiving seasons in history. He led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns: since 1970, Smith, Sterling Sharpe (1992), and Jerry Rice (1990) are the only players to win the receiving triple crown.1 I ranked Smith’s 2005 as the 12th best regular season by a wide receiver since 1932, and then Smith added 335 receiving yards, 38 rushing yards and five total touchdowns (including a punt return) in three playoff games.
  • In 2006, Smith missed two games early in the season, and Jake Delhomme missed three games late. The backup quarterback was Chris Weinke. How bad was Chris Weinke? Two years before the Wildcat faze landed in South Beach, the Panthers had DeAngelo Williams taking direct snaps in this game against the Falcons (Carolina completed four passes) instead of having Weinke behind center. In the 11 Smith/Delhomme games, Smith totaled 73 receptions for 1,043 yards and 8 TDs, and also rushed for sixty-one yards and a score. That’s over 100 yards from scrimmage and nearly a touchdown a game, slightly better numbers than he produced during his scorched-earth 2005 campaign.
  • In 2007, 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde, David Carr, and 23-year-old Matt Moore started 13 games for Carolina after Jake Delhomme suffered a season-ending elbow injury in week three. Smith still caught 87 passes for 1,002 yards and 7 scores (four in the first two weeks before Delhomme was hurt), and rushed for sixty-six yards. Many give Larry Fitzgerald a pass for poor quarterback play, but Smith deserves extra credit for catching 87 passes when Carolina finished 28th in passing yards and 30th in Net Yards per Attempt. Drew Carter (517 receiving yards), Jeff King (406), Keary Colbert (332) were the only other receivers of note for the ’07 Panthers, which meant all eyes were always on Smith. Perhaps a better measure of Smith’s performance that year: he was responsible for 30.5% of all Panthers receptions in 2007, second in the league only to the first edition of Jay Cutler loves Brandon Marshall (31.3%).
  • In 2008, Delhomme was back, although Smith was suspended for the first two games of the season. But his fourteen game stat line was typical Smith: 78 catches, 1,421 yards, and 6 touchdowns. His 101.5 receiving yards per game average was a league and personal best. But wait: the 2008 Panthers finished 32nd in the league in pass attempts that year. Think for a second how crazy it is to lead the league in receiving yards per game on the least-pass happy team in the NFL. The Seahawks (last year’s cellar dweller in pass attempts), even with Russell Wilson, didn’t produce an 800-yard receiver last year. In terms of receiving yards per team pass attempt, Smith’s 2005 season was the best in modern history, with Smith’s 2008 season as the second best. In the 14 games in which Smith played in 2008, the Panthers passed only 352 times, meaning Smith averaged an absurd 4.04 yards per team pass attempt.

Let’s take a step back now. From 2005 to 2008, Smith played in 48 games (including playoffs) with Delhomme as quarterback, the equivalent of three full seasons. He caught 299 passes for 4,686 yards, averaged 101.3 yards per game from scrimmage, and scored 38 touchdowns. In other words, when not playing with quarterbacks so bad that they make Jake Delhomme look like Joe Montana, Smith was producing average numbers that would be career highs for just about every receiver not named Jerry Rice. And he did it on a run-first team.

But in the team’s postseason game against the Cardinals, the clock struck midnight on Jake Delhomme’s career: the Panthers quarterback went 17/34 for 205 yards with five interceptions, and then threw 8 touchdowns against 18 interceptions in 11 starts in 2009. Delhomme ranked 31st in passer rating and ANY/A that season, ahead of only JaMarcus Russell on both counts. Smith’s production suffered — 65-982-7 — but that falls on the quarterback. Smith sat out the meaningless 2009 finale, but in the final four games of the season — with Matt Moore starting — he caught 19 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns.

Yet things went from bad to worse for Smith. In 2010, Moore and Jimmy Clausen combined to produce some of the worst quarterbacking in NFL history. Carolina finished the season 2-14, with just 2,289 passing yards, and a pitiful 2.9 ANY/A average. As a point of reference, the 2012 Cardinals threw for 3,005 yards and averaged 3.4 ANY/A.2 A 31-year-old Smith had a miserable 46-catch, 554-yard, 2-touchdown season in 14 games, but if any season deserves a pass, it’s that one.

Most thought that after 2010, Smith was washed up. Instead, he experienced a career revival after the team drafted Cam Newton. In 2011, Smith ranked 5th in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,394, even though Carolina team ranked 23rd in pass attempts. The Panthers threw even less frequently last year, but Smith still picked up 1,174 receiving yards at the age of thirty-three (and he ranked 8th in yards per team pass attempt).

Summary

Smith lost prime seasons at age 25 (broken leg), 30 (Delhomme PTSD), and 31 (Clausen/Moore dumpster fire). At age 24, he had a breakout season punctuated by an outstanding postseason. Then, from ages 26 to 29, he was historically excellent whenever he and a halfway respectable quarterback shared the field. At ages 32 and 33, he’s been very productive on run-heavy teams: only Jerry Rice and Don Maynard have gained more receiving yards at those ages than Smith.

Smith, like Jimmy Smith, may never make the Hall of Fame. But for a very long stretch he was one of the best players in the game, and only bad luck prevented him from having a more remarkable career. When Ronde Barber said that Smith — and not Rice, or Randy Moss, or Calvin Johnson — was the toughest receiver he ever faced, I wasn’t surprised. Smith, in a bigger market and with even halfway decent quarterback play (not to mention being hampered by FoxBall), would be a Hall of Fame lock.

There’s still a chance for Smith to wind up in Canton. He’s not washed up just yet, although the clock is certainly ticking on Smith’s chances of getting pregnant. After lining up inside on only 9.5% of all routes last year, new wide receivers coach (and former teammate) Ricky Proehl, is working with Smith as the team plays to use him in the slot more this season. Perhaps Smith has one more dominant season left in him. Carolina wasn’t as bad as its record was last year, so another playoff berth isn’t out of the question, either. One thing I know: I’ll enjoy watching him in 2013, because it’s not often we get a chance to watch an all-time great.

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. Pre-merger list: Lance Alworth (1966), Dave Parks (1965), Johnny Morris (1964), Raymond Berry (1959, 1960), Pete Pihos (1953), Elroy Hirsch (1951), Don Hutson (1936, 1941 through 1944), and Ray Flaherty (1932). []
  2. The 2010 Cardinals, who finished 31st in passing yards and 31st in ANY/A, were at 2,921 yards and 3.7 ANY/A. []
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No, Peyton, you are #1

No, Peyton, you are #1.

Back in March, Chase wrote a post investigating how quarterbacks age, finding that they peak at age 29 (with a generalized peak from 26-30) in terms of value over average. Today, I thought I’d quickly look at how quarterbacks age in terms of their performance rate — specifically, their Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A). For newer readers, ANY/A is based on the following formula: (Passing Yards + 20 * Passing TDs – 45 * INTs – Sack Yards Lost) / (Pass Attempts + Sacks).

First, I need to introduce a way of adjusting ANY/A for era: Relative ANY/A. Relative ANY/A is simply equal to:

QB_ANY/A – LgAvg_ANY/A

The table below lists the 30 single-season leaders in Relative ANY/A since the merger. You won’t be too surprised to see the 2004 version of Peyton Manning at the top. That year, Manning averaged 9.8 ANY/A, while the league average was just 5.6 ANY/A. That means Manning gets a Relative ANY/A grade of +4.1 (with the difference due to rounding).
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Ranking the backup quarterbacks in NFL

Which teams have the best and worst backup quarterbacks? That’s a tricky question, as teams treat the backup quarterback position differently.  For the Eagles, Bills, Jaguars, and Jets, the backup quarterback will be the loser in the training camp battle for the starting job.  In Dallas, Detroit, and Indianapolis, the backup is a savvy veteran who can cover for the star quarterback in a pinch.  Some teams have young quarterback-of-the-future types, the Patriots have a backup who doubles as trade bait (and a third-stringer who doubles as a tight end), and the Steelers are experimenting with a backup who doesn’t have an AARP card.  There are also a number of teams hopelessly lost at the position, perhaps best described as “We learned nothing from watching the 2011 Colts.”

I’ve decided to group the 32 backup quarterbacks, the four eventual winners of the training camp battles, and four other notable backups into four separate categories: The Veterans (30+ years of age), The Quarterbacks of the Future, The Retreads (at least 25 but under 30), and What are they thinking?  Within each category, I’ve listed the quarterbacks from best to worst. For each player, I’ve listed his age as of the opening day of the 2013 season, his draft status, and his number of career passes. The rankings are based on my subjective thoughts.

The Veterans (30+ years of age)

The top of this list consists of starting-caliber quarterbacks, assuming you define “starting-caliber” as a top-twenty quarterback on a good day.  A team could survive starting them for four games and expect to go 2-2. Towards the bottom, you have players who could come off the bench and hold a second-half lead, but don’t expect them to start for more than a week.

1) Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles Age: 33.2. Draft: Rd: 1, Pick 1 (2001). Career Passes: 2889
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Most of you know that counting stats mean little for quarerbacks, but most of you also know that nothing beats meaningless trivia. Last July, I wondered who would lead the NFL in rushing yards from 2012 to 2021? It took a year, but now the natural follow-up question: Who will lead the NFL in passing yards over the next ten seasons?

Did you know that Joe Montana passed for the most yards in the ’80s? Or that Y.A. Tittle passed for the most yards from ’48 to ’57 (AAFC included) and then ’53 to ’62? The table below shows each leader in passing yards for every ten-year period, along with their age and NFL experience during their first season of that decade.
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Two house-keeping notes before we get to today’s post. First, today’s a pretty big day for our friend Neil Paine: he’s getting married. I’ll be there to celebrate with him in Philadelphia, but I know you guys will be with us in spirit. Congrats to Kaitlyn and Neil!

And another set of confetti must be reserve for the seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013: Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Curley Culp, Dave Robinson, and Bill Parcells. Tonight, those men will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a must-see event for any football fan.

Today’s post focuses on one player already enshrined in Canton and one future Hall of Famer. As a general disclaimer, it’s best not to take too seriously what comes out of the mouths of football players, especially this time of year. That said, Adrian Peterson, part-cyborg, part-Minnesota Vikings running back, recently told Dan Wiederer of the Minneapolis Star Tribute that he thinks he will break Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record:

Q Forget about Eric Dickerson’s record for a minute. Last December, we talked about Emmitt Smith’s record and I told you you were on pace to get there in Week 4 of 2019. You said sooner and promised to come back with a timetable. Emmitt had 18,355 yards. You’re now 9,506 away. We need a week and a year. When do you get there?

A Man. Oh boy. I have to do some calculations. I’ve been in the league seven years. I’m already right around [9,000]. Calculate it out … Let’s think. Maybe get a couple 2,000 yard seasons … I’ve got … Hmmm … 2017.

Q What week in 2017?

A Man. I better go late. I’m already getting too far in front of myself. I’ll say Week 16. There it is. Week 16 in 2017. Whoo. That’s pushing it, huh? But hey, pushing it is the only way to do it. You know it.

Just to break it down for you in full, that gives Peterson 79 games to amass the 9,506 yards he needs to reach Smith. That comes out to a per-game average of 120.3 yards per contest with the assumption that Peterson avoids injury and doesn’t miss a game between now and Week 16 of 2017. Yes, it’s pushing it indeed. But good fun to consider, right?

Let’s talk reality. Peterson has rushed for 8,849 rushing yards in his six-year career, and was 27-years-old last year. The first problem for Peterson is that he was 937 yards behind Smith’s pace before Peterson even entered the league. That’s because Peterson, born in March, entered the league at 22, while Smith, born in May, entered at age 21. Unless you think we should compare the two by seasons and not age — and more on why that’s a bad idea later — we need to give Smith full credit for one extra year. In fact, here’s a chart comparing the two players in career rushing yards through age X. Smith also rushed for slightly more yards from ages 22 to 27 (9223-8849) than Peterson, but when you factor in his age 21 performance, Smith has a big lead on Peterson through age twenty-seven. You might recall I presented a similar chart when comparing Jason Witten to Tony Gonzalez and Jerry Rice.
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