Rant About Tom Brady and YPA

It must be July, because here we go again.

I knew immediately that the events on the evening of February 5th would make this a long offseason, but I haven’t really felt the need to go on a long rant about that game or the Patriots in general in the last five-and-a-half months. In fact, this might be the least writing I have done from February to mid-July in any of the last six years.

Personally, I had a string of bad luck — you know, things out of my control — and heartbreak that started around late January (Donald Trump’s inauguration day to be exact) and continued through late March before things eased up. I don’t want to go into details, but I suffered losses (family and pet) and had another health scare that required another CT scan (result: clear). I’ve been working hard on FOA 2017 (available soon) since May or so. In doing six teams (AFC West plus Miami and Detroit), and pushing most of the essays well past 4,000 words, this is probably the most work I have ever done for one of the books. I hope people appreciate it, even the Raiders and Dolphins fans.

But now that work on that is practically complete, I have more free time to think about random things as we wait for training camps to start. So Super Bowl LI has been back on my mind, ranging anywhere from Atlanta’s horrible game management to the history of big comebacks to that Tedy Bruschi style of “heart and leadership” that only Tom Brady can will his teammates to believe in.

I was going to write something in detail about that last part, but maybe we can save that for later this week if I’m still feeling the need to be cathartic. Today is about YPA, because I feel like I need to explain a tweet better from Monday where I admittedly spent way too many hours tweeting.

I often forget that some things that have become obvious to me are completely lost on others. The calculation of YPA and how it works should not be one of those things, but Twitter never ceases to amaze me.

I can only hope that a lot of those favorites are for comical reasons. There were other similar remarks, including the thought that 6.7 YPA is Bill Belichick playing to his team’s strengths, as if any offense would actually plan to have an inefficient attack. I was also told that 6.7 YPA means Brady is dominating. You know who has 6.7 YPA as his career average? Ryan Fitzpatrick. So dominant.

This was all a response to a tweet I made last night that didn’t go over so well once Peter King replied to it. Telling someone like me to “watch the games” is madness, but when typing 140 characters at a time, you can’t always explain nuance.

The “obvious” here was actually not so obvious, especially without turning it into a thread with follow-up points. What I meant was that Brady fans tend to think that he has winning records even in suboptimal situations (6.7 YPA is below average) because he is just that good or “clutch.” In the particular case of the 5-2 Super Bowl record, I see it as a quarterback fortunate to have that team record based on his play. It was the other non-Brady elements of the games that helped produce the record. Things like a Ty Law pick-6 helping the Patriots win a game in which Brady only led the offense to 13 points and failed to convert a third down. The Malcolm Butler interception at the 1-yard line. The absurdity of Seattle and Atlanta not running the ball in the fourth quarter in key spots. Every game was very close (decided by 3-6 points), so going 5-2 is quite fortunate in that regard.

YPA is a stat that has always correlated well with winning. In 2016, the team who won the YPA battle won over 70% of all NFL games. That’s not bad for a stat that does not care about rushing, sacks, turnovers, penalties, special teams, etc. Even in Super Bowl LI, Brady’s YPA was just 6.28 when the Patriots fell behind 28-3. It was 8.61, a league-leading type of number, the rest of the way during the comeback.

YPA correlates well with scoring points, which correlates well with winning games. This has been the case for decades in the NFL regardless of how the Patriots perform. And isn’t that really the point: how the Patriots, not just Brady, perform? His performance alone was rarely good enough to be the difference maker in these games. While Brady fans want to believe their guy has some special skill to win with a low YPA, I am saying he has no secret sauce that makes YPA invalid. The Patriots have just won a lot of close playoff games since 2001 for a variety of reasons.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 9-7 (.563) in the playoffs when Brady averages less than 7.0 YPA (min. 30 attempts). The rest of the NFL is 28-85 (.248) in that time.

The Patriots’ averaging scoring margin in those 16 games was +2.5. The rest of the NFL was -8.2. There were 14 wins by 1-4 points, and Brady’s Patriots had five of them.

Tell someone this, and it will likely get framed as “Brady won 56.3% of the time where other QBs only won 24.8% of the time. UberClutch! GOAT!”

We probably shouldn’t lambaste someone for wanting to think this way, but just so it’s clear, I will never agree with them or see things that way. When I look at the 16 games for Brady, and especially the nine wins, this is what comes to mind:

TBPOgames

(Yes, how fitting is it that of the last two times a quarterback threw a fourth-quarter, fourth-down interception that was fumbled back to his team, it benefited Tom Brady and “hurt” Peyton Manning. At least the Broncos were still up big at the time, but man, you can’t make this stuff up.)

I’m not saying the Patriots should have gone 0-16 in these games, but clearly there were a lot of favorable circumstances to aid Brady in the nine wins, and not many positives to speak of for him in the seven losses. While he still met his demise in 2006 and 2011, those were trips that could have easily been cut shorter if Marlon McCree and Lee Evans didn’t act the fool with the ball in their hands. Or without the greatness of kicker Adam Vinatieri on the types of 40-plus yard field goals that Mike Vanderjagt, Nate Kaeding, Pete Stoyanovich, and Scott Norwood choked on for other quarterbacks, Brady is doomed to start his playoff career 0-2 at home, averaging 12 points per game.

So many fans go wild when you suggest that their player has been the beneficiary of luck, but I think that’s mostly just a semantics issue. Anyone who understands the basic concepts of football can see that this is a team game where many pivotal plays are out of the quarterback’s control. When most games are close, especially in the playoffs, and a lot of improbable events have happened to swing those games, a lot of outcomes are not determined directly by the quarterback’s actions. So many good quarterbacks can repeatedly lead their team to a winning position, but it typically requires much more from the rest of the team to get to a large number of Super Bowls, for example. Luck is even defined as “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.” There’s a lot of skill involved in what the Patriots did in those wins (the field goals, the takeaways), but the common bond is that they weren’t the actions of Brady, but he still benefited with a win on days where he wasn’t at his best.

This isn’t me picking on Brady. This is what tends to happen when inefficient quarterback play is lifted by the slimmest of margins in the playoffs, and I can’t help it that Brady has been in that spot more than anyone in history. I said there were 14 wins by 1-4 points by quarterbacks under 7.0 YPA. Brady had five of them, but I can say similar things about the other games and quarterbacks.

For instance, Matt Hasselbeck needed Terry Glenn to fumble and for Tony Romo to botch the extra point hold in that infamous 21-20 win in 2006.

Donovan McNabb needed a 4th-and-26 conversion against the Packers in 2003, and a Brett Favre arm punt in overtime to get the 17-14 win.

Ben Roethlisberger should have lost his first playoff game against the 2004 Jets, but Doug Brien, after a Ben pick, missed his second field goal in the final two minutes. The Steelers won in overtime.

Mark Sanchez used a long kick return by Antonio Cromartie, and a terrible Jim Caldwell timeout, to down the Colts 17-16 in Peyton Manning’s final game with the team.

Eli Manning’s two NFC-CG wins are on the list. He didn’t play that poorly, but certainly used the field position boost from Brett Favre’s INT (2007) and two Kyle Williams special teams turnovers (2011). Eli did not complete a pass on either GWD in those games, because opponent mistakes did not require any of him.

A Favre interception also helped get Drew Brees to overtime in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, an overlooked “subpar” game for Brees that day. The Vikings had five turnovers in all, and Tracy Porter is the biggest reason Sean Payton isn’t just another Don Coryell at best.

Winning may be the only thing that matters to a team, and it is perfectly fine if a fan wants to feel that way too. However, the source of conflict is when those fans refuse to accept the fact that not everyone’s contribution to the win is equal. Sometimes a team wins in spite of its best player. I feel like we can always debate why a team won or lost a game, and which players were the most responsible for that result. It’s not always going to be agreeable or easy, but I know damn well there’s more to it than “YPA doesn’t matter because they won.” If that’s your logic, then scoring doesn’t matter either if you win. 3-0 win? Hail to the quarterback, I guess. Turnovers don’t matter if you win. Quarterback threw five picks in a 3-0 win? Hail to the quarterback, I guess.

I know this sounds crazy to some, but just check my Twitter mentions sometimes. These people really do exist, and I guess I’ve taken them on as my sworn enemy. Some fanbases are more rabid than others.

It will always be a losing battle when the opponent just wants to count rings, recheck the scoreboard, and deduce that 6.7 YPA is a dominant, never-punt strategy. I know this, but I continue to fight on, because I don’t know any other way to get through this job year after year. So I’ll continue to watch games, add old ones to my always-growing collection, take notes, crunch stats, and just call it like I see it.

Dating back to a snowy night in January 2002, I have simply never once watched Tom Brady play a game and thought I was watching the greatest quarterback ever. Unless he plays deep into his 40s at a level we’ve never seen before, I can’t imagine that I ever will feel that way about him. This ticks some people off, but I really don’t care about that, because I know what I’ve seen and I know I can back it up.

The effort just doesn’t always come across as clearly 140 characters at a time. Maybe I’ll just have to write that book one day, putting 16 years of knowledge to use.

 

 

 

Super Bowl XLIX Preview

I have been on the “Seattle will repeat” bandwagon seemingly ever since last year’s Super Bowl ended. I picked the Seahawks to beat Denver in a rematch, but it’s New England instead. That makes some of the storylines similar, but hopefully the game will be much more competitive.

It’s hard to imagine anything else. This is the closest Super Bowl I’ve ever seen heading into the game. The lack of a real spread from Vegas is further proof of how close this thing is. These are the two best teams in the league and they match up pretty well with each other.

I spent a whole week crafting this study on Russell Wilson’s mobility, so please read that if you haven’t.

I’ll save my conspiracy theory for close to the end, but let’s run through many of the matchups and interesting stats from this game.

Key to the Game: Run to Win

I’m not going to cite any carries-to-wins statistics that lack context or understanding of correlation. I hate to even type this next statement, but I think the team that runs the ball better wins this game. Both teams have too much talent in the secondary and not enough at wide receiver. LeGarrette Blount is a poor man’s version of Marshawn Lynch, but they are similar backs capable of many yards after contact. Both teams like to use play-action passing a lot and not a ton of shotgun. This should be an old-school kind of game.

Statistics certainly favor Seattle to run the ball better. This is the best rushing offense in the league and one of the best since 1989. As Aaron Schatz points out, the Seahawks run the ball most effectively in the directions the Patriots defend the run the worst (middle and off right tackle/end). The Seahawks are also great in short-yardage runs while the Patriots are lousy at getting those stops.

However, the Patriots have improved on the ground since the Jonas Gray game against the Colts and since getting Blount back. The run defense has also improved, though the postseason has done nothing to show that. Baltimore, with injuries to both tackles, ran all over the Patriots with Justin Forsett a week after doing nothing on the ground in Pittsburgh. The Colts even had some decent rushing success, but fell too far behind to stick with it.

I always believe that teams committed to running the ball will find a way to get it done. The Chiefs and Cowboys ran all over the Seahawks in wins, but those two offenses were built for and committed to the run this year. The Patriots tend to have an off/on switch with this year’s running game, and it’s always turned way on against the Colts, but they haven’t gashed many other teams on the ground. They shredded the Bengals good, but that was one of the worst rush defenses in the league. The Seahawks are quite solid in this area, holding nine teams to under 65 rushing yards. They’re even better since getting Bobby Wagner back and adjusting to life without Brandon Mebane. Blount’s going to have to create some yardage himself with broken tackles and cuts like he showed against the Colts.

If Tom Brady has to throw 50 passes, the Seahawks might win by double digits. Seattle usually eats up that dink-and-dunk attack. This postseason, Brady is just 7-of-19 on passes thrown more than 10 yards. He’s not stretching the field, so Seattle needs to pounce on that.

You have to use your backs against this defense even if the carries aren’t overly effective (see San Diego game in Week 2). I also think short passes to backs over the middle work well against this defense as run substitutes, though Blount’s not much of a receiver and they tend to use Shane Vereen out wide where I don’t think he has a great matchup this week.

Will Seattle’s Lack of Weapons Come Home to Roost?

Believe it or not, Dallas was the only defense to keep Seattle under 100 rushing yards this year. Russell Wilson had a really bad day, though I remember highlighting how close the receivers were to several big catches. The offense just had an off day, which they can’t afford to have on Sunday of course.

I’m probably grossly overrating the wide receiver position, but I feel if the Seahawks had Golden Tate, they would be favored by at least four points.

Bill Belichick is going to look at this offense and see that it’s Lynch and Wilson running, then it’s just Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson. There really isn’t a No. 3 WR after Paul Richardson went on IR. Baldwin, the Deion Branch of his era, is good and can play in the slot and get away from Revis Island, but he’s not likely to dominate the game. Kearse makes big plays and maybe he can beat a Brandon Browner or Kyle Arrington deep, but he has four career games with 4-5 catches. He’s not going to make a lot of plays. I really like what Willson has done down the stretch, and maybe he can attack a Pats defense that ranks 30th in DVOA against tight ends. Then again, I thought Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener would have success last time out and they did next to nothing. Again, my faith in numbers gets tested greatly this time of year.

Remember, this is a season where offenses led by Geno Smith and Alex Smith had more success against the Patriots than Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck did. That pisses me off for some reason, but I guess it makes sense. You can’t put everything on the quarterback against a great defensive mind and talented secondary, so the run-based offense is key. In Week 1, it was Knowshon Moreno carrying Miami to victory over the Patriots. So why can’t Lynch play well this week? And we know Seattle won’t shy away from who they are.

And even with the limited number of weapons, this Seattle offense tends to produce anyway. When they played in Arizona in Week 16, this offense piled up 596 yards against a defense with a talented secondary and aggressive play-calling. It was one of the best offensive performances of the season.

Pete Carroll considers any pass that gains 16+ yards and any run that gains 12+ yards to be an Explosive Play. The Seattle offense led the league with 135 Explosive Plays and the defense allowed the fewest Explosive Plays (76).

If the running game’s working, then Seattle has a chance to shrink the game and minimize the number of possessions, which means Brady’s offense has to play even more efficiently against a great defense.

Yeah, it’s nice to be strong on both sides of the ball. Let’s not forget Seattle’s offense is 5th in DVOA this year (10th at passing even) and got better after dumping Percy Harvin and his Screens to Nowhere.

The X-Factor: The Gronk

I’m not sure any individual can have a bigger impact on this Super Bowl than Rob Gronkowski. This is moment the Patriots have been waiting for. They have a healthy Gronk in the Super Bowl and he can play like there’s no tomorrow. He only had three targets in Super Bowl XLVI, because he wasn’t 100 percent. I actually think some of his low-production games this year were just a result of the Patriots saving Gronk for this game. I expect a minimum 12 targets in this one as he’s the only receiver that really can threaten this defense. He can also open things up for someone like Julian Edelman.

Gronk is like that recurring boss in a video game with the monster life bar that you just have to chip away at. However, he never makes it to the final battle because something lame takes him out early like a one-shot RPG, or getting hurt on an extra-point attempt. But he’s in the final battle this year and the Seahawks have to find a way for him not to take over this game. You only get one life in a Super Bowl.

I think the so-called weakness of the Seattle defense against tight ends is a bit overblown since it hasn’t been a problem lately, but we’re talking about the best tight end in the league. Guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham were flat out soft against this defense. The Gronk only knows hard. Yeah, start the next erotica chapter right here.

The Seahawks have the safeties to deal with him, but they’re not at full health right now. Inside the red zone, I’m not sure any defense can stop this guy, and that’s where he really has a chance to score. Most of the touchdowns against Seattle are from inside the 10-yard line and that’s where Brady usually throws his scores anyway.

No tight end has ever won a Super Bowl MVP, though I think Gronkowski is a guy we can look back on one day as the best to ever play the position. Here’s his opportunity for a career highlight.

Pressure vs. Sacks

You have to get after the quarterback, but success for Seattle should be measured in pressures and not sacks. Brady gets rid of the ball very fast and has only taken 15 sacks since October. I wasn’t impressed with Seattle’s rush against Green Bay, but thankfully the coverage is good-to-great. This Seattle defense has to blitz more than last year’s team to get pressure, which could be a problem if they’re not getting to Brady.

Just look at last year’s Super Bowl for a sign of what Seattle needs. Peyton Manning was getting rid of the ball fast, but two quick edge pressures from Cliff Avril on third down basically decided the game. Both led to interceptions, including the pick-six that made it 22-0. That’s two plays to completely turn the game around with pressure. Out of Avril, Michael Bennett, Kevin Williams and Bruce Irvin, they have to get some big pressures.

On the other side, this isn’t a strong New England pass rush and so far it has zero sacks in the playoffs. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with zero sacks in the postseason. I think they have to sack Wilson a couple of times in this game. You can pressure Wilson into bad plays, but taking him down for a sack is a good way to derail a drive for a run-heavy offense.

The Seahawks have allowed a sack in 52 of Wilson’s 55 games. Interestingly enough, he was not sacked in last year’s Super Bowl against Denver.

Unfamiliar Opponent and Playoff Consistency

I don’t really want to draw much of anything from the last meeting between these teams in 2012. I mean, Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown that day. That’s how far back we’re talking. I also think that New England offense was better, the defense was worse, and the Seahawks weren’t a juggernaut yet and are better on defense.

But then you have this stat: since 2001 the Patriots are 10-0 against new playoff opponents and 10-8 in rematches. So they prepare quite well for a new team, though we know that includes a share of close calls against teams like the 2001 Raiders (Tuck Rule), 2003 Panthers, 2006 Chargers (Choke Fest) and 2011 Ravens (Evans/Cundiff). Also this year’s Ravens.

The Seahawks are 6-1 in the playoffs with Wilson and I still say his best playoff game is the only one he lost. They were down 27-7 in the fourth quarter on the road and still came back to take a late lead. They have come back from 14-0 in Washington, 10-0 against San Francisco and of course the incredible comeback against Green Bay in this year’s NFC Championship Game. This team is hard to kill.

Expect a Competitive Game

Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 69 consecutive games, tying the NFL record.

SEANOBLOW

The Patriots have only had two games in their last 82 games where they trailed by double-digits for the entire second half, though two of those games are recent (2013 AFC Championship and in Kansas City this year).

These are arguably the two most competitive teams in the NFL. They just don’t come out with dud performances, and even if you get them down by 21+ points, they can still make a game of it by the fourth quarter.

Don’t forget: all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually. And apparently every New England Super Bowl this century goes down to the wire. So even if it’s a lopsided start, believe in the close finish.

The Comebacks

Both of these teams are fortunate to be here as this is the first ever Super Bowl between teams that trailed by 14+ points in the postseason. Baltimore led New England 14-0 and 28-14. Green Bay led Seattle 16-0. In fact, Sunday’s winner will have the second-largest playoff comeback ever for a Super Bowl champion.

Big comebacks in the Super Bowl are very uncommon, but I think much like last year I would sooner trust Seattle to make the big comeback than the pocket passing team. Belichick’s defenses have surrendered some of the biggest leads in Super Bowl history.

SBDEF

Seattle is 46-7 (.868) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Dallas erased a 10-0 deficit this season in its win, but the Seahawks are really tough to come back against since that usually requires a lot of passing.

That’s where Seattle is unique. This team will almost never abandon the run regardless of the score. Lynch is still part of the offense and Wilson’s rushing can produce chunk plays. Through 55 games (including playoffs), Wilson has yet to throw more than 37 passes in a game. I’ve looked at that as far as the regular season goes and it’s downright historic.

RW37update

Wilson had 45 dropbacks in his career debut in 2012 — just so happens that game was in Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX. He’s only had seven games total with at least 45 dropbacks, and none with more than 48. He averages 33.9 dropbacks per game (excluding spikes and kneeldowns).

Seattle should feel confident with a close first half. In the second half, they have the No. 1 ranked offense and No. 1 ranked defense in DVOA. That’s pretty crazy if you think about it.

Home-field vs. Neutral Field

I think the toughest places to win in the NFL are Seattle and New England. Both teams are more vulnerable away from home, but I think the Patriots lose a bit more here. Teams just don’t come back when they fall behind in New England, yet we see it more frequently on the road, including Seattle’s 13-point 4QC in 2012. This is supposed to be a neutral crowd, though Arizona is a rival of Seattle’s and the locals probably won’t give them a warm welcome. Then again, I like to think the other 31 fanbases hate the Patriots, so the crowd might be a little pro-Seattle.

Seattle’s Points Allowed

The Patriots are not likely to score a lot of points on Seattle. At least not without major contributions from defense/special teams (returns and takeaways).

The Seahawks have led the league in scoring defense three years in a row, but there are even more impressive feats than that.

I’m sick and tired of hearing about Wilson’s 10-0 record against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. The part that matters is the defense held those quarterbacks to 13.8 offensive points per game. None scored more than 23 points, though Brady is the high-point man with 23 in that 2012 loss. That’s incredible work to shut down the best in the game (yeah, Eli aside).

In 71 games since 2011, the Seattle defense has only allowed 30 offensive points four times:

  • 10/2/2011 vs. Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 loss
  • 1/13/2013 at Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 playoff loss, but Matt Ryan needed a GWD in last 31 seconds to get to 30
  • 9/14/2014 at San Diego: 30 points allowed in 30-21 loss, but San Diego got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 5
  • 10/12/2014 vs. Dallas: 30 points allowed in 30-23 loss, but Dallas got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 23

Seattle’s offense turning the ball over on downs deep in its own end is really the reason San Diego and Dallas hit 30 this year.

The good news for New England is you shouldn’t have to score 30+ to win this game. Wilson is 0-6 when the Seahawks allow more than 24 points. He’s 5-8 when Seattle allows more than 20 points.

Super Bowl Windows

It was nearly 10 years ago to the date when the Patriots became the last repeat champion in the NFL. That makes this the longest stretch ever without a repeat champion in the NFL, including even the pre-Super Bowl days. I’m just saying…

Every decade since the 1950’s had a team emerge as a dynasty. Sometimes we didn’t know for sure who that team was until the end of the decade, but it happened. The Seahawks best fit the traits of the next dynasty, but they have to win this game to stay on course.

We know that multiple titles come in small windows.

sbwind

Joe Montana won his titles over the span of nine seasons. Brady is trying to get his fourth over a span of 14 years, which would easily be a record. That sounds hard, though just think of the 49ers winning five titles from 1981-1994, the same 14-year window. The only difference is the 49ers switched over to George Seifert and Steve Young, while Brady and Belichick have been the constants in New England. If you keep building good teams that compete for Super Bowls every year then it’s not that unlikely to stretch out a title window, though history favors Seattle here.

Teams trying to repeat are 8-3 in the Super Bowl. The 1978 Cowboys, 1983 Redskins and 1997 Packers lost.

There’s also the young quarterback vs. old quarterback thing where 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were age 30 or younger. In this era that matters more because of the salary cap and the flexibility to build a deeper roster.

Wilson is 26, Brady is 37, and again I’m just saying…

Tom Brady’s “GOAT” Legacy Game, Take Three

batsb

I probably could have stopped at the picture, but really, what we’re talking about here is that level of silly.

Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time if he wins this game?

So his performance in said game doesn’t even matter? Either way, one game should not decide if you think a player is the greatest of all time or not. The body of work should tell you that. How many chances do we give a player to underperform and lose that big game before we stop asking the question? The same question was out there in 2007 when Brady could have capped off 19-0, then “we’re only going to score 17 points?” happened. The same question was out there in 2011 when the Giants again held Brady in check in another Super Bowl.

If Eli Manning doesn’t engineer two great drives, am I supposed to believe Brady is the best QB ever for leading his offense to 13 points against the 2001 Rams, outdueling Jake Delhomme, watching Donovan McNabb puke and then getting two 14-10 and 17-15 wins over the Giants for his rings? Really?

And has anything changed this year with Brady? I don’t see a better quarterback. I’m not sure 2014 would even rank in the top five of Brady seasons (2004, 2007 and 2010-12 say hello in no order but chronological). If he shreds the Seahawks, then you can likely say he had his best playoff game. He will have won his fourth ring. Congrats. Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr have nine rings between them and I don’t put either in my top 13.

You should already know before Sunday night where Brady ranks for you. A win doesn’t move him anywhere for me. A Craig Morton-caliber performance doesn’t move him out of the top five, which always puts him in that discussion for the best.

The Injuries

It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl preview without some injuries to talk about. Seattle has both of the big ones with Richard Sherman (sprained elbow) and Earl Thomas (dislocated shoulder) not at 100 percent. I think these would be bigger stories, especially Thomas, if there wasn’t so much crap surrounding this build-up with Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch’s media etiquette. We’re talking about arguably the two best defenders on this team playing as one-arm bandits.

Sherman should be fine and likely won’t see much action his way (Brandon LaFell?), but what happens if Thomas lands on that shoulder while trying to tackle an ox like Gronkowski or take down Blount? We might see a play or two go for quite a few more yards than it should have because of these injuries. Throw in a knee injury for Kam Chancellor on the next-to-last play in practice on Friday, and it’s as if the Madden Curse is coming to collect on the Legion of Boom here.

Conspiracy Theory Time

We know the footballs will be at regulation pressure this week, but what about the officiating? All season Seattle has had some interesting penalty splits: most accepted penalties (130) in the league and the beneficiary of the fewest accepted penalties on its opponents (70). Seattle has too many pre-snap penalties on offense, but what gives with the opponents not racking up many calls in their games?

Unfortunately, the NFL has assigned the Super Bowl to Bill Vinovich, one of the worst referees in the league. This guy always has the nervous look of someone that wants to take a shit in a public restroom, but needs a lookout to make sure no one’s coming.

vino

Just the other day Vinovich was publicly confused about the process of signaling this ineligible/eligible farce from the Patriots. Speaking of which, how hard up to win another Super Bowl was Belichick when he decided to break this stuff out down by 14 points in the playoffs? Tackle-eligible plays are nothing new, but the four-OL sets and playing around with running backs as ineligible receivers is right out of the script from 90’s kid sports movies like Little Giants and Rookie of the Year. It’s cheap and I expect the NFL to take a closer look in the offseason.

So combine a bad ref with these tricks and Seattle might allow a big play or a touchdown that shouldn’t even count. I was confused if tackle Nate Solder’s touchdown was legal or not in the AFC Championship Game. Tony Dungy said it was an illegal formation, then said it was okay. Days later, the NFL Network crew said it was illegal. Finally, the NFL’s VP of Officiating Dean Blandino said it was in fact an illegal substitution and should not have counted.  That was a third-down play with the score 17-7 in the third quarter. Would have been nice to get that one right and maybe keep the Colts in the game for another drive. Now imagine this happens in the Super Bowl in a tighter game. That’s why the NFL has to make this a point of emphasis in the offseason.

I promised a conspiracy theory, so here it goes. Put yourself in the NFL’s shoes right now. You’re investigating a team in the Super Bowl, the most watched event of the year, for possibly deflating the pressure in the footballs to gain an unfair advantage. This team has defiantly come out swinging at you in the media, asking for an apology even. The story has been the lead on the national news and everyone knows about it by now.

Can you really let this controversial season end with that team crowned the champion? The investigation will not conclude until after the Super Bowl, but if the Patriots are the champs, you almost have to clear them completely just so your champion isn’t branded a cheater. That would be another PR nightmare for the league if the investigation found wrongdoing. A big asterisk on this postseason would be good, but not enough for many people.

So I say watch the officiating closely in this game, especially in high-leverage situations like on third down. It’s not always about what gets called, but what doesn’t get called can be even bigger. I know Vinovich won’t have his usual crew around him, but whatever. Officiating failures happen under his watch frequently. Let’s look at two from this year’s Denver-Seattle game in Week 3.

Here is Wes Welker being interfered with on a 3rd-and-2 pass. Marcus Burley was all over the receiver as the ball gets there.

seawelk

On the next possession, Denver lined up for a 3rd-and-1 run. The Seahawks clearly jumped offsides and the play was stopped for no gain. A flag was thrown, a long conference took place and Vinovich said the defender did not get into the neutral zone. Are you f’n kidding me? He was lined up beyond the ball. Even CBS’ Mike Carey knew this was a penalty.

seaoffside

Both plays were in the third quarter, both on third down, and each should have been a penalty that extended Denver’s drive. Nothing was called and the Broncos punted twice. Those are big drive-enders, which can be huge against a team like Seattle that can shrink the game with its running attack and make your offense play even more efficiently against that great defense.

By the way, the Seahawks are 5-0 since 2012 when Vinovich is the referee.

Now someone’s going to confuse this for me saying the referees are going to cheat for Seattle. That’s bullshit. I am just throwing out a theory that it would be a bad thing for the NFL for the Patriots to win this game. The Seahawks do not need the referees’ help to win this game. The Seahawks can win this game with their usual officiating disadvantage. I’m just going to keep a close eye on crucial downs and how things are officiated with teams known for their aggressive play.

Special Teams

I saved this for last, because my gut tells me with all the attention on the interesting matchups in this game, special teams are an area that could be big. The Patriots had horrible field position in Super Bowl XLVI (average start: own 16) and that was a contributing factor to the loss and only 17 points. The Patriots have been better this year than Seattle on special teams. I trust Stephen Gostkowski more than Steven Hauschka at kicker. If Edelman’s bottled up at receiver, then maybe punt return is an area where he could break some big ones to give the Patriots an advantage.

The Final Prediction

I promised I wasn’t going to overanalyze another Super Bowl, but I guess I can’t help myself. After all the off-field noise associated with the last two weeks, I just wanted to look at some real football stuff.

So in the game’s simplest terms, I think the offense that achieves balance will win this game. This won’t be an aerial show. This will be an old-school game with running the ball, play-action passing and tight ends contributing big.

I rode the Seahawks all year, and I want to make this very clear: the Seahawks have a great shot of winning this game. Got it?

But I think with two weeks to prepare, Belichick has to find a way to contain Lynch and slow down this limited offensive attack. I don’t think New England’s dink-and-dunk will have a ton of success, but if it does, someone’s going to have to explain to me why it worked while other teams have failed at doing the same.

Remember, it takes some pretty special and unusual plays to beat the Seahawks. Think of the 3rd-and-20 play from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams this year. The crazy punt return touchdown and the fake punt by the Rams. The one-handed catch by Antonio Gates. If we go back to last year, the blocked field goal for a touchdown in Indianapolis and some of those wild T.Y. Hilton catches. The fluky interception kicked up into the air against Arizona.

Gronkowski is the guy that can make those plays. Think about his one-handed catch against Denver this year. He’ll have to play at that level this week and I think the Patriots will give him every opportunity to be that dominant force.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Rob Gronkowski

NFL Week 13 Predictions: Patriots vs. Packers

I had this big Patriots-Packers matchup circled months ago as I was going to do an article I started in summer 2012 about Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. It’s one of only a few articles in my files that I started without finishing a full draft. This was going to be a very eye-opening piece that I still expect to complete at some point. Missing from my plans was the fact that Week 13 was Thanksgiving week, so that put a damper on my hopes of generating a lot of discussion over my article with the holiday. Throw in the fact that I’m experiencing pain in the bottom right side of my body every time I move and I haven’t been able to do much at all this week.

What I will do is provide some thoughts on this important game which should have major playoff implications. After Sunday, I’m not sure either team will lose another regular-season game this year. 

Coaching – The Patriots are believed to have a big advantage with Bill Belichick matching wits with Mike McCarthy, who still rarely gets credit as one of the best coaches in the league. Also, Dom Capers and his 3-4 defense havea lot in common with Dick LeBeau’s system, which Belichick and Tom Brady have picked apart better than anyone. I’m inclined to agree with all of that, but I know in 2010 McCarthy took his team with Matt Flynn at QB and played very well in Foxboro. At a time when the Patriots were blowing everyone out, the Packers only lost 31-27. A few tactical errors did doom them, such as a short kickoff late in the first half that a NE lineman returned for 71 yards. In the fourth quarter, McCarthy chickened out on a 4th-and-1 at the NE 1 and kicked a field goal for a 27-21 lead. Has McCarthy improved as a decision maker, especially in close games? I wouldn’t say  he has, but he’s better than most of the coaches the Patriots have faced this year.

The Quarterbacks – You may have heard five million times already this is the first start between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. I was listening to Sterling Sharpe and the NFL Playbook crew break down the matchup and found their takeaways to be intriguing and accurate. Basically, they said Rodgers just has to show up and be himself, which means making great throws into tight coverage to beat those NE cornerbacks. For Brady, they talked about how he’ll take advantage of your mistakes, especially in the red zone and with breakdowns in coverage that leave guys wide open like Tim Wright on just about every touchdown he has this year.

In layman’s terms, Rodgers can credit a higher percentage of his success to his own greatness while Brady benefits more from schematic advantages.

In caveman terms, Rodgers succeeds by being great and Brady succeeds because the opponent fucked up.

That might sound harsh, but I can’t really disagree with it. That’s a big part of the reason I never bought into Brady being the “best” because you rarely see him make the tough plays. There are throws that Rodgers can routinely make that Brady and just about every other QB in the NFL simply can’t make. When pressured, we know Rodgers will take more sacks because he’s really cautious to not throw picks, but he’s still much better than Brady at making something out of nothing. He has the better individual tools for the position.

But the question is which quarterback will have to do more to win this game? That should be Rodgers, because I think he’s playing the tougher defense. Forget the early-season results. The Patriots held Denver and Indianapolis, two of the best offenses in the league, to 21 and 20 points. Rodgers has gone from having the deepest receiving corps in the NFL to basically playing catch with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, yet he’s still playing like a MVP this year. He’ll have to play at a high level to consistently beat Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in coverage with those receivers. I think Nelson is more dangerous and so much of his success comes near the sideline by adjusting to throws from Rodgers where only Nelson can get the ball. Revis will have studied this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see if they play the size matchups and Revis sees a lot of the faster Cobb. But if the Patriots are winning these matchups, then Green Bay could be in trouble due to a lack of production from tight end and other receivers.

The Running Game – I didn’t even consider the running game in Patriots-Colts, because NE didn’t show any real consistency in that area this season. Of course, the RB position was critical and the Colts made Jonas Gray a star for one night. Of course, the Patriots are the only team in NFL history who would have a guy go off for 200 yards and 4 TD and not even play the following week to teach him a lesson. I have no idea if Gray will contribute this week or if the reacquired LeGarrette Blount will get most of the action. Eddie Lacy has been anything but consistent for GB this year, but he’ll need to have a decent impact. His receiving has been a huge benefit lately, but rarely do you see a Belichick-coached defense look so pathetic on a screen or tackling the way the Bears and Eagles have in recent weeks against GB.

For the year the Patriots have done a better job of stopping the run. A big part of containing the Broncos and Colts was holding those offenses to pathetic rushing numbers. If Lacy has 10 carries for 23 yards, I can promise you the Patriots will win this game decisively. I expect better than that, but I also expect the Patriots to have a better rushing day to help complement Brady’s passing.

Home-field Advantage – It’s good for Green Bay the game is at Lambeau, because they have been landing fatalities before halftime there this season. The problem is they’ve done it against a bunch of weak teams except for the Eagles, who still don’t match up as well as the Patriots can. There’s a pretty big step up in competition here for Green Bay. Still, this is one of the toughest road tests for the Patriots in years, and Indy game be damned, they rarely pass these tests anymore. Keep in mind the Patriots had a bye week to prepare for that Indy game where they went unorthodox by utilizing a sixth offensive lineman to much success in the running game. These are fairly unfamiliar opponents, though I’m not sure that benefits or hurts either team too much after a normal week to prepare. Belichick was playing against a Peyton Manning offense for the 23rd time this year. He was facing the Colts for the 12th season in a row. Did that experience help with those performances? Maybe. I’m just trying to figure out how Geno Smith and the Jets had more offensive success than those teams, and if the Packers are added to that list, then I’m going to be even more confused.

Close Game? – Speaking of first-half fatalities, these teams aren’t playing close games this year at all. They each only have one 4QC/GWD opportunity and both were in Miami. The Packers are 1-0 at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which is stunning since they have three losses. That means they were beaten thoroughly, which is unusual. The Patriots are 0-1 at 4QC/GWDs, because they got their asses kicked in Kansas City and have mostly blown teams out since then. If you want to see a classic shootout between these quarterbacks, you’re probably going to be disappointed. This is more likely to be a rout the Patriots haven’t seen since Drew Brees destroyed them in 2009, or it could be a stomping the Packers haven’t taken under Rodgers since the 2012 Giants made us think they were prepared for another run.

Gronkowski Factor – He’s regained his status as the best TE in the NFL, but Gronkowski can have a big impact without even touching the ball now. Defenses are so afraid of him they’ll allow other guys (like Wright) to get open and Brady has no problem picking out the open guy. Gronk’s actually been held under 80 yards the last two weeks, yet NE continued to score 34-42 points. His touchdown against the Colts, as impressive as it was, came with the game basically decided already. So you can hold down Gronk to respectable numbers, but that doesn’t mean you’ll stop the Patriots. They have too many ways to succeed, and that’s the overall theme I’ve been driving towards with this matchup. Hell, Brady didn’t even average 6.6 YPA against Denver (6.28) or Detroit (6.59), yet the Patriots won by 22+ points. If it’s not Gronk’s amazing catch radius or taking advantage of a poor run defense, you get the defense setting up short fields with takeaways or Julian Edelman making a monster punt return. Did I mention the Patriots are better on special teams? Brandon LaFell has also really come on during this run as a trustworthy third receiver and I wouldn’t be shocked if he outproduced Cobb and Nelson on Sunday. I’m assuming his injury wasn’t a big deal at the end of last week’s game.

Rodgers is certainly having more of a MVP season than Brady, and he could take a significant lead in that race with a brilliant performance here. But it’s also for that reason — needing one player to do more to succeed — that I think the Patriots, the more complete team, get this win.

Final prediction: Patriots 33, Packers 24

NFL Week 13 Predictions

Should the Broncos be worried if Julius Thomas doesn’t play on Sunday night? I don’t think so. Last week’s dominant offensive display was done without Thomas, as was last year’s 35-28 win in Arrowhead. In both games Virgil Green played over 70% of the snaps to give Denver better blocking. While I think the Chiefs will come out strong looking to make up for the Oakland loss and rally around the terrible Eric Berry news, I still think Denver will score enough to get the win. Hopefully this game and NE-GB will live up to the hype, because Thanksgiving really sucked. I picked Detroit, Dallas and Seattle, so there’s a 2-1 start.

Winners in bold:

  • Redskins at Colts
  • Browns at Bills
  • Saints at Steelers
  • Raiders at Rams
  • Giants at Jaguars
  • Chargers at Ravens
  • Titans at Texans
  • Panthers at Vikings
  • Bengals at Buccaneers
  • Cardinals at Falcons
  • Patriots at Packers
  • Broncos at Chiefs
  • Dolphins at Jets

Heavy on the road teams late in the week, I guess.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-5
  • Week 9: 11-2
  • Week 10: 10-3
  • Week 11: 8-6
  • Week 12: 12-3
  • Total: 117-58-1

NFL Week 9 Predictions: Manning vs. Brady Is Coke vs. Pepsi

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are like Coke and Pepsi, the two biggest brands in the world.

You can appreciate both for what they are, but Coke (Manning) has always been better.

That’s my opinion and nothing I’ve seen in 14 years (and even longer on the Pepsi-Coke front) has been good enough to change my mind.

They meet for the 16th time on Sunday and I have already done a game preview at FO, so I implore you to read it if you haven’t yet.

There’s no denying this is the biggest game in the AFC this regular season. It usually is. The winner has had home-field advantage over the other except for the last two years. One of these quarterbacks has had the No. 1 seed in the AFC in eight of the last 11 seasons.

MB1

Rarely does this rivalry bring out the best in each quarterback. Only about half of the games featured both quarterbacks playing very well. An even smaller number of meetings were actually decided by one of these quarterbacks.

Last year’s 34-31 overtime classic in Foxboro was a perfect example. In a 31-31 tie, these quarterbacks had a combined seven drives to put their team ahead, but neither could do so. The Patriots only won after Denver muffed a punt return at its own 15-yard line.

Manning hasn’t won in Foxboro since the 2006 game in which he played very well, but Brady threw four interceptions in his worst performance of the series. Manning’s worst game, the 2003 AFC Championship, saw him throw four interceptions, but Brady tried his hardest to match on a sloppy day.

When you look at the nine games in Foxboro, Manning-led teams are 2-7 and constantly shot themselves in the foot on every side of the ball. Sometimes it was in the most unlikely of ways. I got a copy of the first Brady-Manning game from 2001 and somehow Edgerrin James turned this low pass into a juggling interception for the Patriots:

int

Remember the 2012 game with Denver? Demaryius Thomas fumbled in the red zone after a long gain. Danny Woodhead converted on the ground on a third-and-17 run. Manning lost  a fumble. In the fourth quarter, Willis McGahee single-handedly blew Denver’s comeback attempt by dropping a fourth-down pass and fumbling at the NE 11 with 3:42 to play.

The Brady-Manning game with some of the best quarterbacking from both was the 2004 season opener. In the fourth quarter, down 27-24 with 3:51 left, Edgerrin James fumbled at the 1-yard line on first down. Manning was later sacked by an unblocked Wilile McGinest and Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal with 19 seconds left.

Some have compared this week’s game to the 2005 meeting on Monday Night Football simply due to the alleged superiority of Manning’s team. That 2005 game was the biggest team advantage Manning’s ever had over Brady and it was a 40-21 beatdown. Both quarterbacks played at a high level, but the Colts were just too much for NE that night.

I don’t think the Broncos are that much better than the Patriots right now. It’s also not lost on me that in his five wins in the rivalry, Manning has thrown for a minimum of 321 yards and scored at least 26 points. Can he do both on Sunday? Sure, but it still feels like he’ll have to do both if Denver’s going to win. The teams aren’t uneven enough to expect he can get by with an average day.

If the game was in Denver it would probably be a comfortable win for the home team, but on Halloween weekend, I know Foxboro has been a house of horrors for Manning teams and Belichick will have Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis at his disposal this time around.

Final prediction: Broncos 20, Patriots 24

NFL Week 9 Predictions

I cautiously picked the Saints on TNF, but they delivered on the road.

Winners in bold:

  • Cardinals at Cowboys
  • Redskins at Vikings
  • Chargers at Dolphins
  • Jets at Chiefs
  • Eagles at Texans
  • Jaguars at Bengals
  • Buccaneers at Browns
  • Rams at 49ers
  • Broncos at Patriots
  • Raiders at Seahawks
  • Ravens at Steelers
  • Colts at Giants

Whether it’s ailing Tony Romo or old-but-inexperienced Brandon Weeden, I’ve been big on Arizona this week. This should be the game where DeMarco Murray’s 100-yard game streak ends, but I get the feeling he’ll be force-fed the ball (30 carries if possible) because of the quarterback situation. But I like the aggressive Cardinals on the road in another tight one.

Speaking of tight ones, the Steelers and Ravens should get back to a usual 3-point outcome this week. I think the big hit Ben Roethlisberger suffered at the start of the Week 2 game threw him off that night and the Steelers are playing much better now. I like them to win 23-20 here. Roethlisberger’s stats might be cut in half after last week, but 260 yards and 3 TD sounds more than adequate against Baltimore without Jimmy Smith at CB.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-5
  • Total: 76-44-1

NFL Week 4 Predictions: Ground Control to Major Tom Brady, Your Circuit’s Dead

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”

I’m not here to shovel dirt on Tom Brady’s career today. Technically, everyone’s career is closer to death with each passing day, but the boldness of declaring Brady finished is something I would need far more evidence to dare write.

However, let’s evaluate some troubling numbers.

Just passing for 200 yards and/or multiple touchdowns has become a struggle for Brady dating back to late last season. Brady hasn’t thrown multiple touchdown passes in his last seven games — one shy of the longest streak of his career (came in 2001).

In each of his last eight games, Brady has been held under 8.0 yards per pass attempt, one of the longest streaks in his career. The lowly Oakland defense held him to 6.32 YPA at home last week.

For the second year in a row the Patriots have gotten off to a slow start offensively, but this year isn’t about a massive turnover at receiver. Julian Edelman is impossible to cover underneath and he’s caught 22 out of 28 targets. Rob Gronkowski is back, though he’s been limited in his recovery from a torn ACL. Danny Amendola is there, but he’s not been the success the Patriots gambled on when deciding to move on from Wes Welker. Then there are the outside wide receivers that tend to occupy milk cartons in this offense. Brandon LaFell has caught 4-of-14 targets from Brady. Kenbrell Thompkins has 53 yards on 11 targets. Aaron Dobson has barely seen the field with injuries.

This year’s new problem is the offensive line. Subtract Logan Mankins, and more importantly, subtract OL coach Dante Scarnecchia, and without that pristine pass protection or consistent run blocking, you get an offense that ranks last in the league in yards per play (4.3). Yes, even below the Jaguars (4.6).

Some of the problems are new, but some have been there for Brady’s entire career. They’ve just been masked better by superior coaching and talent. Brady’s not a scrambler. He’s not one for extending plays. He won’t break out of sacks. He’s not a great vertical passer able to stretch the field on any given play. He’ll dink-and-dunk a defense to death, only to set up a big play at the opportune moment.

And at 2-1, the Patriots are still technically winning, even if it’s all about a defense that’s allowed a total of 16 points to Minnesota and Oakland the last two weeks.

Brady winning despite inefficiency with passing the ball is an old story. He has the best record of any QB since 1960 in games with 6.5 YPA or worse (minimum 15 attempts). Only 7 quarterbacks (min. 40 games) have a winning record when they average no more than 6.5 YPA:

  1. Tom Brady (41-25, .621)
  2. Roger Staubach (25-16, .610)
  3. Jim McMahon (25-18, .581)
  4. Kordell Stewart (26-23, .531)
  5. Jake Delhomme (21-19, .525)
  6. Jay Schroeder (21-19, .525)
  7. Jack Kemp (25-24-2, .510)

Some of these players had rushing value you don’t get with Brady, but dominant defense was also a common theme here.

If you lowered the bar to 6.0 YPA (minimum 30 games), Brady again has the best record ever at 27-20 (.547) when including playoffs. That’s more than a full yard per attempt below the league average. Only five quarterbacks since 1960 have a winning record in that situation (McMahon, Stewart, Len Dawson, and Jim Kelly) with a minimum 30 games.

Does that make Brady special? Not really, but it does say a lot for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. They find different ways to win, but if Brady’s playing like this against competition like Miami/Minnesota/Oakland, then how can the Patriots expect to win a championship this year?

I had another theory about Brady’s winning record with bad YPA. Not all sub-6.0 YPA games are created equally. Maybe Brady does other things well on those days, such as a higher completion percentage and good touchdown-interception ratio. So I looked at my growing database of QB game logs (regular season only) and looked at every game (min. 10 attempts) thru 2013 where the QB averaged no better than 6.0 YPA. Then I summed those numbers together to produce the following table (click to enlarge). It’s not a conclusive list — I have about 90 players and many of them are very good — but it gives us an idea of general performance.

Using 85 quarterbacks with a minimum of 400 attempts, I ranked everyone best-to-worst on sub-6.0 days for stats like completion percentage, YPA, TD%, INT%, passer rating (PR) and win pct. I also ranked each QB based on his team’s scoring averages: points for (PF) and points allowed (PA). These scoring numbers were not adjusted for return scores.

sub6

Brady ranks well above average here in everything, but especially in regards to TD% and INT%. Where he’s not as impressive as some of his peers are completion percentage (13th) and the stat this table is built around, YPA (27th). Brady’s 7th in scoring, but he’s had the luxury of the 8th-best scoring defense here, which is true for most of the quarterbacks with a winning record. A guy that actually shows up very well here statistically is Andy Dalton (highest TD%, passer rating and team scoring average), but these numbers could use some opponent adjustments.  Peyton Manning was a tenth away two Dallas QBs from having the highest completion percentage and highest YPA.

Remember, these are all regular-season numbers. Including the playoffs would actually improve Brady’s record, because he somehow went 5-3 when averaging <=6.0 YPA. There’s the rub though. Brady started 5-0 in the playoffs when doing that, but since the 2007 season when the Patriots shifted to an offensive-first team, he’s 0-3 like you would expect from that low average.

When the Patriots take on Kansas City on Monday night, which Brady will show up? A KC win would bring the Chiefs even in record with the Patriots and further add to the AFC’s mediocrity this season. It’s hard to imagine Brady not having his best game this month under the bright lights, but maybe we need to temper expectations for this 37-year-old quarterback. Maybe those dominant performances from 2007-2012 are a thing of the past. Maybe last year was the beginning of the end. All careers have to wind down and end eventually.

Any previous matchup between a Tom Brady offense and an Alex Smith offense would be a no-brainer. But this week, it’s not so clear which quarterback is the one who struggles to stretch the field and must rely on his defense and running game. This is the closest in caliber Brady and Smith have been in their NFL careers.

If that’s not cause for concern in New England, then I don’t know what is. But I like the Patriots this week, because I know this has never truly been a team that lives or die by its quarterback play. Bill Belichick versus Andy Reid is the real mismatch, and I expect The Hood to improve to 5-0 vs. Big Red.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Chiefs 16

Bonus prediction: Brady will end his streak of games without multiple touchdown passes…barely.

NFL Week 4 Predictions

I screwed up my first Thursday pick after Kirk Cousins went full Buccaneer against the Giants. Not every defense plays like Jacksonville and Philadelphia.

Cousins only has 341 official dropbacks in the regular season, but his turnover rate is 5.87 percent. How bad is that? Let’s just say Mark Sanchez (5.29%) and Rex Grossman (5.30%) think it’s too high to remain a starter in today’s NFL.

Winners in bold:

  • Packers at Bears
  • Panthers at Ravens
  • Bills at Texans
  • Lions at Jets
  • Dolphins at Raiders
  • Titans at Colts
  • Buccaneers at Steelers
  • Jaguars at Chargers
  • Falcons at Vikings
  • Eagles at 49ers
  • Saints at Cowboys
  • Patriots at Chiefs

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Total: 28-20

Sport Science Deceives Again After a Controversial Monday Night Football Ending

George Orwell probably could have envisioned a TV feature where propaganda is fed to the masses all under the disguise of “Sport Science.”

Oh, they used science, so us simpletons can’t possibly dispute it!”

ESPN airs Sport Science segments and it just so happens that Monday Night Football has had the two most controversial endings since the 2012 season. Last year it was the Golden Tate play, which of course prompted a Sport Science feature. The NFL supported the call the whole way, but the general public was outraged over the touchdown. Naturally, the feature flat out lied to say M.D. Jennings “made first contact with the ball” even though it’s clear he did not.

tate

Jump to this week and the game-ending play between the Patriots and Panthers. Luke Kuechly certainly makes significant contact with Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone, but the pass was underthrown and intercepted in the front of the end zone by Robert Lester. A flag was thrown, but picked up and the game was over.

The NFL official said Monday night the pass was deemed uncatchable as it was underthrown. On Tuesday, the NFL added that the officials felt the contact on Gronkowski occurred at or about the same time as the pass was intercepted. Once a ball is touched, even by the smallest of fingertips, there is no pass interference.

Hardly the same negative reaction as last year’s play, but many (most?) people think a penalty was warranted. Once again we got a Sport Science feature on the play.

Again, their “scientific analysis” goes against the NFL call (and rules), satisfying the public in the process. Scientific? Hardly. Just as I did with the Golden Tate play last year, I took a copy of the game and broke it down with video editing software.

The first problem is Sport Science (SS) uses this spot for when Kuechly makes contact:

contact

That’s not a penalty. Players touch each other all the time down the field, often considered incidental contact, but for it to be pass interference, you have to do one of the following from the NFL rule book:

Actions that constitute defensive pass interference include but are not limited to:

(a) Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch.

(b) Playing through the back of a receiver in an attempt to make a play on the ball.

(c) Grabbing a receiver’s arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass.

(d) Extending an arm across the body of a receiver thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, regardless of whether the defender is playing the ball.

(e) Cutting off the path of a receiver by making contact with him without playing the ball.

(f) Hooking a receiver in an attempt to get to the ball in such a manner that it causes the receiver’s body to turn prior to the ball arriving.

Now you can say Kuechly did a few of these at some point on the play, but SS determines it was a penalty as soon as he touched him, which is wrong. Also, there’s some very interesting language in the NFL rules about what is not pass interference:

Actions that do not constitute pass interference include but are not limited to:

(a) Incidental contact by a defender’s hands, arms, or body when both players are competing for the ball, or neither player is looking for the ball. If there is any question whether contact is incidental, the ruling shall be no interference.

(b) Inadvertent tangling of feet when both players are playing the ball or neither player is playing the ball.

(c) Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players.

(d) Laying a hand on a receiver that does not restrict the receiver in an attempt to make a play on the ball.

(e) Contact by a defender who has gained position on a receiver in an attempt to catch the ball.

The part in bold is most interesting as the involved players are Gronkowski and Kuechly. Since Lester intercepted the underthrown ball, it’s no stretch to say neither Kuechly or Gronkowski could have caught the ball, so it’s uncatchable and there’s no penalty. We see end-of-game defense played like this all the time with contact in the end zone. That’s why we’ve seen one pass interference on a Hail Mary in the last 15+ years, and that wasn’t even a good call.

So starting from the wrong time frame, SS concludes “the contact in dispute happened two-thirds of a second before the ball was intercepted.”

So they’re saying 0.667 seconds and the argument would be that’s enough time for the refs to see it before the interception. However, it wasn’t 0.667 seconds. We need to find the point where pass interference actually happened.

This element of the play is what I called “patty-cake” on Twitter. It’s just two guys touching hands; not a penalty by any means.

patty

At the end of the patty-cake, Kuechly reaches his left hand to Gronk’s shoulder, which is still not a penalty. The restriction comes when he reaches his right arm and makes that bear-hug that has been captured in many still images this week:

bhug

Now we start to have enough contact where one can call it PI should they feel it was catchable, but look where the ball’s at. It’s nearly arrived, underthrown, and Lester is reaching out to make the impending interception.

les

If we take the time from where Kuechly gets his right hand around Gronkowski to the point where Lester touches the ball, that’s at most 0.43 seconds (about a “one-miss-is”). It took 1.33 seconds for the ball to leave Brady’s hand and be intercepted by Lester, so the meaningful contact came on just under the final third of the play when the ball was in the air and pass interference was possible.

That’s not 0.667, and in live action with an underthrown ball and the defender already motioning to make the interception, it’s easy to see why the referees would declare the contact happened at roughly the time of the interception.

SS did play up the “Gronk’s superhuman, he can catch the ball!” — no really, that was spoken on TV by someone on another network yesterday — angle, but by botching the point of any infraction, there’s no scientific evidence he could have made a play on the ball had he not been contacted. He clearly never expected the pass to be underthrown and was not headed in the direction the ball ultimately did.

So it’s a good no-call, because the last thing we need is an offense getting a second chance for poor execution. This ending also adds to the overwhelming proof that referees would rather go with the result on the field (interception) than to make a critical, game-changing call. It happened with Golden Tate, it happened with Michael Crabtree in the Super Bowl and it will continue to happen. Maybe Gronkowski should have learned from Greg Olsen on how to sell it better.

The only reason a call like this gets so much attention is because it was a prime-time game between two good teams, it was a great game and the final play was everyone’s favorite meathead tight end trying to catch a pass from a golden boy quarterback.

If this was Rams at Panthers in a 1 p.m. Sunday setting on FOX and Kellen Clemens underthrew that pass to Jared Cook, you’d get no outcry over the ending. You would get NBC’s Dan Patrick reading the following over a highlight of the play: “Last chance for the Rams. Kellen Clemens, uhh, not quite enough air. Robert Lester with the interception. Carolina has won six straight. Stay tuned for Hines Ward’s ten words of analysis…”

And you know this, man.

Update, 11/22/2013: It was brought to my attention that the link to the Sport Science video on ESPN no longer works. One link says “NOT FOUND” while clicking on the one I used in this article takes you to this video page:

win

Interesting.

Patriots Should Know Pass Interference Well

Yes, another controversial NFL ending took place on Monday night when Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly grabbed New England tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the final play. The ball was underthrown anyway and intercepted, but there was a flag thrown that was picked up for the pass being uncatchable, so no pass interference. Game over.

By the laws of physics, it really was uncatchable as Gronkowski’s momentum led him to the back of the end zone and he was not expecting such an underthrown pass.

Some people — let’s call them Patriot fans– want to contest that they’ve never seen a team get away with being able to block a receiver out of the play and that it’s okay to call uncatchable because an underthrown pass was intercepted.

Well, they must have forgotten the 2010 season:

PM10

Peyton Manning had the Colts on a comeback attempt, but when he was hit as he threw the ball, it was well underthrown to the intended target, who was Pierre Garcon. That target was also grabbed by the defense, but at least Garcon tries to come back to the ball, which is something Gronkowski never did. The defensive back also had to reach up much higher to make this interception than the Carolina play. Given the reach for the pick and Garcon’s movement, this play was just as close if not closer than what happened Monday night.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. Maybe Gronkowski should have pushed someone in the end zone like he did in 2011 to free himself for a touchdown on fourth down against the Giants. We know referees are afraid to make the big calls.

Gronkd