Shut Out in Week Seven

It probably hasn’t escaped most NFL fans that something unusual is happening in week seven. Three different teams have been shut out.

The Cardinals were beaten, 33-0, by the Rams. In addition to treating London fans to a performance that could, on its own, cause serious harm to the NFL’s popularity overseas, Arizona lost quarterback Carson Palmer to an injury that may end his season.

The Colts fell to the Jaguars, 27-0. Jacksonville’s defense is one of the positive stories of this season – a unit that could drive a playoff run for a team that probably wouldn’t make the playoffs at all based on offense alone. The Jaguar defense has taken all the pressure off of a difficult quarterback situation.

The Broncos, suddenly looking quite bad, lost 21-0 to the Chargers, playing in front of a crowd that seemed made up mostly of family and friends of the players (I exaggerate).

Not only have three teams failed to score this week, but they lost to three teams that had a combined total of 12 wins in 2016.

Is this unusual? The three shutouts brings the 2017 total to five. That’s two more than we had in all of 2016. Since 1978, there have been 345 shutouts (8.6 per year). The most in a season was 17 in 1992. The least was two in 1994. We’re in a down-cycle lately, probably because scoring is up. Just 37 in the last eight years.

Do they come in bunches? Shutouts don’t happen all that often, so one could perceive a bunch just because they’re notable. The last time there were three in a week was week 15 of 2012. There were only two other shutouts the entire year. Three has happened a few times. The last time there were four shutouts in a week was week 12 in 1983. And the only other time there were more than three in the modern era (I go back to 1974 when the passing rules were changed) was the opening week of 1977 with five.

So I don’t think this is a sudden and notable occurrence. Odds are good we won’t have more than a handful of shutouts the rest of the season.

What about scoring in general? Is it down this season? So far this year, NFL teams have averaged 21.9 points per team per game. That’s the lowest since 2009 and down from last year’s near-record of 22.9 (a half point lower than 2013’s record total of 23.4). But 21.9 matches the most from 1968-2007, so it’s not an unusually low total. And prior to this week, teams were averaging 22.2 points, which is certainly in line with recent seasons.

My sense is that scoring is a bit down this year. If I had to put my finger on it, based on a cursory look at statistics, I’d say improved pass rushing is making teams decide to throw a tiny bit less – perhaps that’s also because we have some more inexperienced quarterbacks this season or the league is allowing a little more contact from defensive backs. It’s very hard to tell without a full season of data.

Week 5 NFL Quarterback Ratings

In Week 5 news, Mitchell Trubisky made his long-awaited debut, and while he certainly looks the part, it was not great. Take away the first drive and it was downright scary-bad. But not all rookies are Matt Ryan or apparently Deshaun Watson. Cam Newton had a great game, leading the Panthers to what may be a season-defining road win at Detroit. Carson Wentz continued his breakout season and Jared Goff returned to Earth a little.

Newton, CAR, 90 (60)
Smith, KC, 87 (81)
Wentz, PHI 78 (55)
Hogan, CLE, 73 (65)
Flacco, BAL, 73 (45)
Rodgers, GB, 68 (60)
Keenum, MIN, 65 (59)
Brady, NE, 64 (69)
McCown, NYJ, 62 (56)
Brissett, IND, 62 (48)
Watson, HOU, 58 (50)
Prescott, DAL, 57 (54)
Hoyer, SF, 55 (41)
Dalton, CIN, 53 (55)
Palmer, ARI, 53 (44)
Stafford, DET, 52 (52)
Cassel, TEN, 45 (31)
Winston, TB, 43 (52)
Wilson, SEA, 42 (48)
Manuel, OAK, 41 (40)
Bortles, JAX, 39 (40)
Bradford, MIN, 38 (66)
Manning, NYG, 35 (51)
Rivers, LAC, 31 (48)
Roethlisberger, PIT, 27 (46)
Taylor, BUF, 25 (55)
Goff, LAR, 24 (60)
Cutler, MIA, 22 (41)
Trubisky, CHI, 21 (21)
Kizer, CLE, 18 (24)

The Monday Night game illustrates some of the issue I have in tracking quarterback wins and losses. As far as the league is concerned and the media is concerned, you start a game, it’s your game. Most people would never know that in Super Bowl 26, Jim Kelly was injured and only was 4-7 passing before he left the game. Frank Reich took over in the second quarter and was 18-31. The Bills lost, 52-17.

So, is that Reich’s loss or Kelly’s? It’s Kelly’s by most standards in that he started. In baseball, pitcher wins and losses are determined by who was responsible for the baserunner who scored the run that gave the other team the lead for the last time. Under that standard, Kelly is still the loser – the Bills were down, 14-7, when he left, and never held the lead again. But Reich threw many more passes (both had two interceptions), was quarterback for a longer time. And sometimes in baseball, you see a closer who had a dreadful 1/3-inning blown save end up with a win. Scorekeepers have some discretion in assigning wins, but only when a starter fails to go five innings. I’m not sure this scorer’s ruling is done anymore or even allowed.

As an aside, the Bills had nine turnovers in that Super Bowl, which isn’t that close to the NFL record of 12.

I try to be consistent in how I assign wins and losses myself. I gave Reich the loss because he threw the ball much more, though I think it could go either way and Kelly certainly put the Bills in a deep hole with three turnovers of his own in his brief stint.

So, what about last night’s game? Sam Bradford started for Minnesota and was clearly struggling with his knee. He wasn’t mobile, it just wasn’t working for him. After a turnover near the end of the half, Bradford led the Vikings five yards in three plays and they kicked a field goal to take a 3-2 lead.

Case Keenum relieved Bradford for the last half-minute of the second quarter and the entire second half. The Vikings won, 20-17. Bradford threw for 36 yards and had a game score of 38. Keenum threw for 140 yards (17-of-21) and had a game score of 65. Now Chicago did tie the score late and Keenum led the winning drive right in the final minute. So under baseball’s rules, Keenum would get the win. I had no problem giving him the win.

But would I have done the same if Chicago had failed on its two-point try in the fourth quarter and the Vikings won, 20-15, without ever having lost the lead they gained with Bradford? I think so. It gets complicated. What do you do with a quarterback who enters the game in the fourth quarter, throws an interception, the other team ties the game and sends it to overtime, where that quarterback who gave up the lead (blew the save) leads the team to victory (perhaps without even throwing a pass)?

Since wins are not an official quarterback statistic, the NFL doesn’t worry about this. I don’t really worry, either, but my primary tool in calibrating my quarterback metric is correlating quarterback statistics with wins and losses. So assigning wins and losses more accurately, whatever that means, leads to a more accurate game score.

Week 4 NFL Quarterback Ratings

Quarterback game scores for week 4 in the NFL. Season averages in parentheses. This data has yet to be adjusted to 2017 totals, but shouldn’t vary that much in the end.

Andy Dalton 86 (55)
Cam Newton 85 (53)
Russell Wilson 76 (49)
Deshaun Watson 74 (48)
Alex Smith 73 (80)
Tyrod Taylor 70 (62)
Aaron Rodgers 68 (58)
Tom Brady 65 (71)
Kirk Cousins 64 (61)
Derek Carr 63 (61)
Kevin Hogan 63 (61)
Drew Brees 61 (67)
Jameis Winston 61 (55)
Philip Rivers 60 (53)
Marcus Mariota 55 (52)
Trevor Siemian 55 (50)
Jared Goff 50 (69)
Carson Palmer 49 (42)
Carson Wentz 49 (50)
Josh McCown 49 (55)
Ben Roethlisberger 47 (51)
Case Keenum 46 (56)
Eli Manning 46 (56)
Matthew Stafford 46 (52)
Dak Prescott 45 (53)
Jay Cutler 43 (47)
E.J. Manuel 38 (38)
Mike Glennon 34 (41)
Joe Flacco 30 (38)
Matt Ryan 25 (60)
Brian Hoyer 24 (38)
Jacoby Brissett 24 (44)
Blake Bortles 17 (41)
Matt Cassel 17 (17)
DeShone Kizer 16 (26)

Week 1 Average: 52
Week 2 Average: 52
Week 3 Average: 58
Week 4 Average: 51

Mike Glennon’s weak week four performance, complete with four turnovers, has led to his benching while #2 pick Mitchell Trubisky takes the Bears’ reins. Glennon only has a 5-17 quarterback record over his career. His average game score of 55 is good for a player with his limited experience, but he was signed to keep the Bears competitive while Trubisky developed. The Bears are looking at long odds to reach the playoffs, there’s a bye week coming and Glennon hasn’t been the game manager he was signed to provide. The only reason not to start Trubisky is if there’s worry he will struggle like fellow rookie DeShone Kizer, and playing him too early might cause long-term damage. Hopefully for Chicago fans, this isn’t the case, as head coach John Fox is unlikely to keep his job if the Bears don’t make significant progress the rest of the season and these decisions shouldn’t be made out of desperation.

Top quartile Pass Defenses, by Game Score against:
1. Buffalo 37
2. Jacksonville 38
2. Pittsburgh 38
4. Kansas City 40
5. Baltimore 41
5. Seattle 41
7. Cincinnati 45
8. New York Jets 46
8. Detroit 46

Bottom quartile Pass Defenses, by Game Score against:
31. Miami 73
31. New England 73
30. Cleveland 71
29. New Orleans 66
28. Oakland 64
27. Tampa Bay 62
25. Carolina 61
25. Los Angeles Chargers 61
23. Indianapolis 59
23. Philadelphia 59

It’s much too early for conclusions based on this small a sample size, but asking if certain performances are “for real” can be addressed in a superficial manner, understanding that each of these performances make up one quarter of the opponent’s data this season.

– Notably off of career averages –
Alex Smith, 80 average, 3 bottom quartiles, 1 middle.
Tom Brady, 71 average, 1 bottom, 2 middle, 1 top.
Jared Goff, 69 average, 1 bottom, 3 middle.
Russell Wilson, 49 average, 1 bottom, 3 middle.
Carson Palmer, 42 average, 1 bottom, 2 middle, 1 top.
Mike Glennon, 41 average, 1 bottom, 2 middle, 1 top.
Joe Flacco, 38 average, 1 bottom, 3 top.

– The Rookies –
Deshaun Watson, 48 average, 1 bottom, 1 middle, 2 top.
DeShone Kizer, 26 average, 1 bottom, 3 top.