Eli Manning is Retiring

With any good Hall of Fame discussion, the benchmarks for inclusion are critical. In the next few years, we will see those benchmarks defined quite clearly for NFL quarterbacks. Eli Manning will retire this week, having spent his entire career with the New York Giants. Philip Rivers is nearing the end of his career, spent entirely with the Chargers.

If you remember the 2004 draft, Manning had decided he wanted no part of the Chargers, selecting first in the draft. San Diego picked him anyway. The Giants, selecting fourth, picked Rivers. They were immediately exchanged for each other, along with three more picks going to the Chargers.

The two quarterbacks will always be linked in many ways, and this discussion only adds one more link.

Both currently have 125 wins, including playoffs, as quarterbacks, tied for ninth among signal-callers since 1974. That 125 figure alone would likely be enough to satisfy the Hall. Except for two notable benchmarks. Manning has two Super Bowl wins, and was the MVP in both games. But when it comes to statistical achievements, you’d have a hard time understanding how he kept his starting job for so long. His TD/Int ratio is 384/253 and his yardage per pass attempt is 7.04. You can look up other Hall inclusions and candidates and see that his numbers aren’t exceptional in any way.

Rivers has those numbers (411/208, 7.81). But try and remember the last time the Chargers did anything worth celebrating in the playoffs. Only a couple of modern Hall of Fame quarterbacks never played in a Super Bowl. Warren Moon, whose NFL career would have been much longer if not for the absurd idea that quarterbacks must be white (thankfully, long since discarded) and Dan Fouts, who played a major role in defining the modern quarterback.

Manning is on a very short list of players owning two Rozelle trophies: Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, and Manning. Does that defeat the statistical argument against him? Does Rivers, 0-1 in Conference Championship appearances, get in on statistics alone?

With a set of exceptional automatic enshrinees approaching in Peyton Manning, Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, have the sticks moved far enough forward that neither will make it? Or do we celebrate the quarterback enough that there’s room for both extremes?

Patriots and Dynasties

The media seems quite anxious to provide an epitaph for the Patriot dynasty after last night’s 20-13 wild-card loss to Tennessee. Understandable. In today’s click-bait virtual world, it’s harder and harder to make money off of advertising. Declaring that the world is not “on fire” after all is not a hot take that’s going to pay the bills.

Since this site has no advertising (I assume WordPress, which provides the code for this blog, gets some minuscule value out of the metrics generated here – who knows – I don’t track anything myself), I can afford to keep my takes at room temperature. So I’ll start off by writing that the Patriot dynasty could be over. Or maybe it isn’t. It’s not possible, I think, to know.

I’ll pay some homage to the concept that the Patriots have a dynasty. What Bill Belichick and the Patriots have done is perhaps the biggest achievement in American sports history (I don’t know enough about soccer or cricket history to extend the claim). The NFL has a salary cap that prevents the type of talent stockpiling prevalent in other sports, or, for example, the 49ers in the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s not a soft cap, like the NBA’s. It forces teams to make hard decisions.

How would you define a dynasty? I think it requires more than one league title under a specific coach. It requires a year-to-year playoff presence. I could come up with other ideas there, but the most obvious almost-candidate is the Bears, circa 1985. They won only the one title, but had that playoff presence, and a whole host of notable players and dominating performances. If we’re trying to come up with the best single team of all-time, that team is definitely on the short list. But was it a dynasty? Five years in the playoffs, 1-for-3 in the conference championship. A remarkable run and a signature defense, but I’m hesitant to include it in a dynasty list.

What about Indianapolis, before Manning’s injury? That was nine straight playoff appearances, 2-for-3 in the conference championship, at least 10 wins in every season, one title. I’m not sure two dynasties can exist at the same time, and the Patriots beat the Colts in some of those deciding games. Does Manning and the Colts offense belong on a list of great offenses in history? Yes. But, again, I’m hesitant to include it on the dynasty list.

Long story short, here’s a list of considerations:

Broncos, 1996-98, the last team to win two straight Super Bowls – is that enough, given that the team wasn’t nearly as good in the surrounding years?
Cowboys, 1991-96, three Super Bowls – though under two different coaches.
49ers, 1981-90, four Super Bowls.
Steelers, 1972-79, four Super Bowls.
Dolphins, 1970-74, two Super Bowls and appeared in a third, including the undefeated season.
Packers, 1960-67, five championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
Browns, 1946-55, 7-for-10 in league championships (3-for-6 after joining the NFL).

What’s interesting about this list is that, more-or-less, it’s continuous. When one team’s playoff run ends, another begins the following year. That may be coincidence. After the Broncos, the Rams would be next, but that Super Bowl loss after the 2001 season means they fell a little short. Or that could be the post-cap adjustment period (it was instituted in 1994) when teams struggled to understand the new rules.

Now, the Patriots:

2001-2019, 6-3 in Super Bowls, which amounts to more appearances than any other franchise, total. They appeared in the playoffs 17-of-19 seasons. They had a winning record all 19 seasons. Since becoming, in 2008, the only team in the eight-division format ever to go 11-5 and not make the playoffs (this was the season Brady missed with a knee injury), they have won 11 straight division titles. Until this season, they had reached nine straight conference championship games, winning five. Essentially, it’s two dynasties, broken up by the season Brady missed.

If it weren’t for the facts that A) Tom Brady is 42 years old and B) Brady had one of his worst seasons statistically, no one would be all that anxious to write that epitaph.

Can we assume Brady is done? That’s a complicated question. He won’t answer it right now, even if he has a definite idea. The reason is quite simple – Belichick is known for gathering his key staff members the day after the team is eliminated and holding a long meeting. During that meeting, each position group is analyzed thoroughly and a plan is put in place to make that position group a little bit better. Often, the answer is draft priority. Sometimes (like this past draft’s first-round miss on wide receiver N’Keal Harry and subsequent drama with Antonio Brown) the plan fails. But there’s no sentimentality about the meeting. Drew Bledsoe was traded to division rival Buffalo when it was determined that Brady was the best option for the future. Bledsoe isn’t a Hall-of-Famer, but for a long time he wasn’t that far off the pace.

Brady knows that he’ll be discussed in that meeting, and he might not like hearing the results. Belichick will move on if he thinks Brady isn’t going to give the Patriots their best chance of winning a seventh Super Bowl. And I doubt Brady would have it any other way. I think (I don’t know – it’s just my assessment of the man’s insanely competitive nature) if Belichick calls him in a few days and asks him to give it one more year, he’d be delighted. And if not, a very difficult decision about whether to try his arm in another city. His physical skills may be diminished, but there are plenty of teams that would love to have him for a year or two. All the talk about franchise tags and opt-out contracts is immaterial. If he wants to play and Belichick wants him to play, he’ll play.

As for Belichick, he’d laugh at the question. Well, he wouldn’t laugh because he has too much self-control to give you the satisfaction of any kind of reaction. He is both head coach and has full control and authority from owner Robert Kraft to make personnel decisions. He has never been one of those coaches so focused on one side of the ball that he ignores any group of players. He cares just as much about the special team groupings as he cares about the quarterback position. His legacy and eventual enshrinement in Canton are both quite secure. We no longer talk about best ever, we just wonder when he’ll decide he’s had enough. At 67 years old, that may come soon. Or it may not.

Can he win without Brady? Of course he can. Some of the defenses he has put together have been best in the league. He designed an offensive system fit to Brady that worked exceptionally well. When Randy Moss became available, and Belichick realized that Moss had both the talent and the brains to expand that system, all of a sudden that system had that big-play element it lacked before and mostly afterward. He’s designed that offense to use multiple pass-catching tight ends and often none. Sometimes the running backs play a bigger role in the passing game. Sometimes the Patriots are run-first and sometimes they aren’t – often alternating from game to game. It does not belittle Brady’s accomplishments one bit to say that Belichick would still be as good without Brady. Maybe without as many titles. Both men understand that.

There’s no burning desire in Belichick to prove anything other than to approach 2020 as a new season with new challenges. It’s no secret how much he liked Jimmy Garoppolo, and hated having to trade him – holding on as long as he possibly could even though he got less in trade as a result. But that was only because he knew he could adapt his system to Garoppolo’s skills, and that Garoppolo had many of the same qualities that made Brady a great quarterback. Does he have the same in Jarrett Stidham? Probably not, but if he does, that would likely be the end of Brady’s run in New England. Regardless of what happens with Brady, I would be surprised if the Patriots don’t select a quarterback in the upcoming draft. But if you’ve watched New England over the years, it’s exactly when you most expect something that they turn around and go in a different direction.

Crisis Behind the Center?

Much has been made of the sudden influx of new starting quarterbacks in the NFL. In week 3, unfamiliar names of Gardner Minshew, Jacoby Brissett, Luke Falk, Kyle Allen, Teddy Bridgewater and Mason Rudoph headlined depth charts rather than the quarterbacks who were expected to start this season.

Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, injuries to Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton, Sam Darnold’s bout with mononucleosis – is this a sign of crisis?

I came up with a simple metric to take a look at this situation, since detailed injury data is very hard to find going back in time. I took the draft position of a team’s starting quarterback in every game and divided it by the number of games played in a season. For undrafted quarterbacks, I used the number 275 as an estimate. Just to use something – there’s no analysis behind the number.

I started the analysis with 1994, the first year of the salary cap.

Average draft position by year

What this graph shows, first and foremost, is that drafting a franchise quarterback became a big priority in the first decade of the new century. Going into this season, 13 of the 32 teams planned to start a quarterback who was drafted in the top four of the first round (Darnold is sick now and Eli Manning lost his job to this year’s sixth overall pick). Twenty teams planned to use a first-rounder. Only one team (and this may well change after last night’s performance), planned to start an undrafted quarterback.

This season’s average draft position of 55.0 is representative of the last eight seasons. But the question remains whether jump from 63.4 to 51.5 from 2017 to 2018 was an indication that the trend is continuing? Or did the shift effectively end around 2010 and this is just the new normal?

For now, I don’t think there’s a crisis. NFL coaches have complained about the lack of NFL quality quarterbacks for as long as I’ve been watching the game. Some of the new ones impress, some don’t. There have been highly drafted quarterback busts seemingly since the beginning of time itself.

High-profile injuries always seem to arrive in bunches (again, no analysis behind the comment). With Hall of Fame names like Roethlisberger and Brees going down in a space of hours and a third (I could write volumes on his candidacy, pro or con) losing his starting job a week later, there’s a lot of attention on young quarterbacks right now.

Fitzpatrick is Starting… Again

The Miami Dolphins have named their starting quarterback for the 2019 opener – the new face of the franchise – and it’s… Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The 36-year-old, drafted 250th overall in 2005 by St. Louis (in a distant past when St. Louis had an NFL franchise) has started games with seven different teams. He has been on the winning end with six different teams – Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, Houston, the Jets and Tampa Bay. He was 0-3 with the team that drafted him.

Generally, quarterbacks who lose more than they win aren’t in the league very long. But a few of them bounce around a lot, earning backup role and sometimes capturing a bit of Fitzmagic. Fitzpatrick’s career record as a starter is 50-75-1. He’s also known for having scored 48 on the 50-question Wonderlic test given at the NFL Scouting Combine. The test rewards speed and ability to assess problems and make calculations. That might make him an ideal candidate for gaining competency with a complex game plan on short notice. Once you’re on a roster, you never know.

But his record as a starter is unusual. From 1974-2018, ten different quarterbacks were -25 or worse and 29 were +25 or better.

Another member of that group is Josh McCown, who has also started (and won) with six different teams and is now suiting up with his ninth different franchise. He was coaxed out of retirement at age 40 when the Eagles lost their backups to injury. McCown probably won’t be starting with Carson Wentz still the franchise quarterback and Cody Kessler likely able to play soon. McCown’s career record is 23-53.

As far as I can tell, no quarterback has ever won games with seven different teams. That probably changes soon.

Luck of the Draw

Andrew Luck shocked the NFL world by retiring yesterday. In 15 days, the Indianapolis Colts will begin the 2019 season. In 19 days, Luck will reach the age of 30.

Luck has had more than his share of injuries, most notably missing the entire 2017 season after shoulder surgery. Much has been written about this injury, suffered two years earlier. Was it mismanaged? Luck certainly played through pain, and there are legitimate questions as to whether the Colts handled this responsibly. Faced with another painful injury, this time to his lower leg, and perhaps realizing that surgery and another rehabilitation was likely, Luck chose retirement.

Much has been written about the Indianapolis fans and their reaction to the announcement, made late in yesterday’s exhibition game. In today’s era of interpretive (a.k.a. lazy) journalism, where a journalist reacts and molds rather than reports, Indianapolis fans “savagely” booed Luck off of the field. I wonder if this was the case. Luck is/was a franchise quarterback. Franchise quarterbacks seemingly live forever. They don’t, on the eve of a new season at the age of 29, suddenly walk off into the sunset. If I were in the crowd, I’d probably think it was an elaborate prank, and not a funny one at all. The trajectory of the Colts has changed, and true fans, looking forward to a brand new season, suddenly face the unknown. I’d boo the messenger, assuming, maybe hoping as much as assuming, that this wasn’t happening. Instead, the media, desperate for relevance they’ve long since discarded, chooses to try and make a story out of the reaction itself.

The real story is in what led to Luck’s decision in the first place. It’s not a story that can be told in a sound byte or a hot take. It may never be told properly.

Has this happened before? Surely there’s a similar story from the past. I came up with Jake Plummer immediately. Plummer, a free spirit and a remarkably talented quarterback, made news in 2007 when, at the age of 32, healthy, he chose retirement over playing for Tampa Bay after a trade. But that doesn’t hold up. Plummer said he would retire after losing his starting job in Denver the previous season. The Buccaneers traded for him anyway. He wasn’t in training camp.

Overwhelmingly, quarterbacks play until they’re told they will no longer receive playing time. Some don’t want to retire holding a clipboard, some don’t mind. Searching my spreadsheets of quarterback data, I couldn’t find a situation similar to Luck’s. Bert Jones had a similar career trajectory, but a neck injury forced his retirement, under his doctor’s orders, in the spring following missing most of his tenth season. Neil Lomax? Tried to come back for a year from a severely arthritic hip. The Cardinals had plenty of warning, and brought in a free agent replacement a full year before Lomax finally retired. Maybe I’m missing someone, but I don’t think I am. This is the biggest story in the NFL in a long time.

The best comparison I could find was the mysterious and sudden retirement of Barry Sanders as training camp began in 1999. But Sanders played running back and ten seasons accumulating more than 15,000 rushing yards is not only a full career, but a no-thought-about-it Hall of Fame career. Players at most positions age much faster than quarterbacks. The Sanders story is odd, but only because he chose not to tell his coach or announce his retirement a couple of months earlier.

We’re in new territory here. On its surface, the unwillingness to go through another cycle of surgery, rehab, missing games, pain… it’s understandable. But successful quarterbacks Luck’s age have always done it anyway. Today’s quarterbacks are more protected by the rules and surgical techniques are more advanced than they were when Jones was young and we have the recent and notable example of 42-year-old Tom Brady, who seemingly wants to play forever. Brady outlasted the other true legend of his generation, and has now outlasted his first-round, first-pick successor as well.

It’s easy to speculate as to why Luck chose to retire rather than go through the injury recovery cycle. Plenty of hot takes to be had here. Too much money in today’s game? Millennials are spoiled? He never had what it takes? The victim of incessant Twitter trolls? These days, we don’t even have to listen to the guy to think we have all the answers.

But I don’t have an answer here. Quarterbacks are obsessive, crazy people with great leadership skills. They say the most difficult skill in sports is learning to hit a curve ball. I doubt it. It’s becoming a franchise NFL quarterback. Making good decisions within two seconds 95% of the time. Having an arm that would make most Major League pitchers jealous. Digesting playbooks more complicated than the entire works of Shakespeare. Tough enough to take hits from 300-pound linemen, over and over, without flinching. An NFL quarterback has proven himself beyond normal human benchmarks. It has to be part of their DNA.

The older I get, the more I understand that not only is there always more to learn but that I’m comfortable not knowing all the answers, reinventing and challenging my beliefs. Luck’s decision requires some adjustment. Maybe he comes back next year, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the game of football has fundamentally changed in the last few years, and maybe it hasn’t. Listen and learn.

A Non-Update Update

In the interest of providing accurate headlines and in my personal dislike of click-bait, I’m providing an update that tells you perhaps everything you want to hear except what you really want to hear.

A couple of years ago, I joined a partnership with OOTP. This was for the specific purpose of publishing a football game. OOTP is the publisher, and is providing a publishing platform, a GUI platform and GUI programming, custom graphics, marketing and dozens of other valuable insights and functions that are well beyond the scope of a solo developer. On my end, I’m providing the FOF8 base, adapting it to this new GUI, and adding a host of new FOF9 functions.

We’re calling the new project Front Office Football 9. We’re all fairly certain it will have that name upon release. The goal was to have this finished last fall. You might have noticed, however, that there is no new product on the market. That’s why I spent a couple of months last fall adding some features to FOF8 that I was saving for FOF9 – primarily with game planning. I also provided a 2018 player file. All this is work valuable to the FOF9 effort, but our delay meant that it was appropriate to spend extra time putting it into FOF8 as well.

The biggest question you have right now is, I’m sure, whether OOTP still plans to put out FOF9. That answer is a definite yes. We’re still making progress and we’re still expending resources.

The second-biggest question you have right now is, “well, then when the #^$%& are you releasing it?” I just don’t have that answer. None of us do. We would all like to get it out this fall, but we’re not in a position right now to make that determination.

A common theme on the OOTP board these days is discussing and speculating about my own feelings about publicity and marketing. I am the lead developer, after all, and I haven’t said much about the game. Why is that?

Going back to 2001 and the release of The College Years (still, to date, by far my most successful game), I’ve tried very hard to avoid talking a lot about my work. Before 2001, I loved the attention. I knew most of the major reviewers out there and it was fun to talk about my work. I was a reviewer for Computer Gaming World before I started Solecismic Software. That gave me a huge advantage in starting out because I knew who to talk to and we all had a lot in common. That works great when you keep to a specific schedule. I was lucky in that I had a good sense how long everything would take and the market was different back then.

However, soon after I started work on TCY and soon after I hyped it a bit with reviewers, EA Sports wanted more from me with FOF. Wonderful. That was my ticket to “making it big” in this business. I was all-in. And for those of you who know me personally, the most profound disappointment in my career was when a group of lawyers for the NFL and a group of lawyers for AOL could not settle a very simple question for EA that would have allowed us to put FOF3 on the Madden CD, for free, giving people an interface for joining a managed FOF multi-player world. Tiberon (the Madden development group) was terrific. Holding that space for us until they just about had to stamp the gold images. But the lawyers were not making progress and after we missed that window, EA lost interest in FOF. No more “making it big.”

Meanwhile, I was a year behind with TCY and customers were frustrated. The game was a lot bigger than FOF2, and it had a few bugs to work out on release. All was fine within a month, but I was very well aware that the hype had caused significant harm and the initial reviews of TCY suffered from it specifically. For future FOF releases, I adopted a “no-hype” policy. Then, one year, for reasons having nothing to do with the game or the community, I decided to hold back a release announcement until the day before the actual release.

Frankly, I thought I was being quite obnoxious with that. But people seemed to find it refreshing back then, so I decided to let it become part of my community ethos, so to speak. Just shut up and let the work speak for itself. I think that approach works well for solo development. Sure, there’s less excitement during the release, but word of mouth spreads and you end up with more sales in the long run than you would have with the alternate approach.

Am I taking this approach with FOF9, then? No. Not at all. I’m silent about development because I’m part of a bigger whole today. OOTP has professional marketing in place and several teams to help with the release process. It’s not my place to speak for them and set this process in motion. And they will set this process in motion once we have a strong idea about when we will release FOF9.

Naturally, that brings up a lot of questions. Where are we in development? Why are we delayed? Why can’t we at least show screen shots? What new features will be in place when the game is released? I can only answer some of these questions, and the rest, as I am part of a team now, will be handled by OOTP in the proper time frame.

Where are we in development? OOTP has provided a nice new framework for the game. I have learned this framework, and ported the AI and FOF8 engine to a new set of structures that will support it long into the future. In doing so, I focused on elements that will make expansion easier – FOF9 may not support that many different-sized leagues, but it will support a few – and new formats will be easier to add. That was a huge issue for me with my solo framework because of decisions I made maybe ten years ago to save disk space. I took the time to evaluate the new design and remove those limitations when designing the port itself. I’ve also added a few new bells and whistles here and there (providing details about that is part of the pre-release process). We have yet to implement some of the key “show-off” screens, like the in-game module and the piece I’ve designed to replace Solevision. We aren’t showing screen shots because that’s more for the build-up process and because the graphics touches come late in development.

Why are we delayed? Andreas recently posted on the OOTP forum that OOTP has a lot on its plate right now. Those OOTP improvements took precedence over the FOF development. And I have to shoulder some blame, too. There’s more I could be doing related to the GUI and just getting elements on to pages. But I’ve had some personal issues to take care of recently, and my wife and I are completing a move to Canton, Ohio (of all places – we’re just six minutes from the HOF now). An older home that needs some TLC, and we just moved to Ohio.

The positive side is that the delay means I’ve been able to get more, what should we call it… FOF10 function… into FOF9 than we had originally planned. More league formats, more new ideas on how to implement functions, little AI things. FOF9 was originally going to be FOF8 with a new coat of paint. We’re already beyond that.

For me, and for the good people at OOTP, this is a calling rather than just a job. We’re in it for the right reasons. If anything changes with development or we commit to a release schedule, we’ll tell everyone right away. Until then, it’s probably best to keep relatively quiet. When it’s time to set this in motion, there will be plenty of time for a proper marketing plan and we’ll be available to answer as many questions as we can.

Thanks for your patience.

Fitzmagic? Yes, in Many Ways

Ryan Fitzpatrick is a trivia hunter’s dream in many ways, a veritable Walter Mitty in shoulder pads and cleats. A Harvard graduate who seemed unlikely ever to see the field in the NFL, the Rams grabbed him with the 250th pick in the 2005 NFL draft.

For reference, Tom Brady, the poster child for unheralded-to-all-time-great in professional sports, was selected 199th in 2000. An inspiration? Fitzpatrick’s oldest child is named Brady. Their careers, however, have been a bit divergent. Brady took over for injured franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Since, he has led the Patriots to a 5-3 record in Super Bowls, winning the MVP of the title game a record four times. He has started 298 games for New England, including playoffs.

Fitzgerald did not stick with the Rams. He has been the starting quarterback with seven different teams. I don’t know if that’s a record. A brief search came up with clipboard aficionado J.T. O’Sullivan suiting up for ten different teams, but he only started games with one of them. This year, Fitzpatrick is in his second season as backup in Tampa Bay.

Because starter Jameis Winston was suspended, Fitzpatrick led off the season. He threw for 400 yards in the team’s first three games, which is apparently the first time any NFL quarterback has exceeded 400 in three straight games. In the fourth game, a blowout loss at Chicago, he suffered a quick hook and Winston returned. Only to struggle so much himself that Fitzpatrick relieved him in week 8 and has started the last two games. At 3-6, however, the Buccaneers are not playoff material.

There is apparent magic in the quarterback nicknamed “Fitzmagic.” His career record as a quarterback is 53-72, which is remarkable only that quarterbacks with sub-.500 records almost never reach 50 career starts, let alone 125. He’s in the same company as names synonymous with mediocre, like Steve DeBerg and Jim Everett. His 190/145 career TD/Int ratio is ugly for a 21st Century signal-caller. He has never thrown a pass in a playoff game.

The magic lives on, however. In press conferences these days, he looks like his inspiration is Conor McGregor rather than Brady. He performs a ritual “beard rub” with fellow long-beard and backup offensive lineman Evan Smith before each game. But don’t mistake the shtick for stupid. He apparently scored an all-time league quarterback high of 48-of-50 in the Wonderlic test given annually at the NFL Combine.

Sunday, at home against Washington, Fitzpatrick completed 29-of-41 passes for 406 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Buccaneers lost, 16-3. This was Fitzpatrick’s fourth 400-yard game this season (and fourth of his career). What’s remarkable about this result isn’t the loss, because
in the 316 instances in which a quarterback has thrown for 400 yards in the modern era (since 1974), they are an even 156-156-4.

It’s Tampa Bay’s grand total of 3 points that had me shaking my head. The average team with a quarterback throwing for 400 yards scores 32 points. But many of those games are shootouts with late comeback attempts, so the passing yards and points accumulate. I struggled to find any instance in the last 45 years where a quarterback threw for 400 and the team failed to reach the end zone.

Only three times in all those years has a team been held to less than 13 points and yet their quarterback threw for 400 yards. In all three of those games, the losing team did not score a touchdown. I’ll include part of the box score for the first instance, because the quarterback who did that in San Francisco’s 14-6 loss to Washington in week 11 of 1986 is fairly famous.

In the divisional playoffs after the 1988 season, Randall Cunningham threw for 407 yards in Philadelphia’s 20-12 loss at Chicago. And, now, in week 10 exactly 30 seasons later, here’s Fitzpatrick throwing for 406 as his team scored only 3.

Sometimes magic amazes for the wrong reason. That doesn’t change the legacy of a fascinating career.

Box score from 1986

Wide Receivers and Combine Numbers

In the second half of this pre-draft analysis, I’ll write about the “Combine Numbers” associated with wide receivers. As I noted yesterday, the bell cow of the Combine, the 40-yard dash, is random noise when it comes to predicting whether a receiver will be a success in the NFL.

Since some NFL athletes can run almost as fast as Olympic track stars, the score that relates most to track – the 40-yard dash – receives significant attention. However, the receiver with the fastest Combine 40 time in the period I studied, Jacoby Ford (4.22 seconds) in 2010, was selected in the fourth round by Oakland and played only four years in the NFL, accumulating 848 receiving yards. He showed some game-breaking return skills, but fumbled the ball too frequently. This is a decent, normal amount of production for a fourth-round wide receiver.

Darrius Heyward-Bey came in second at 4.25 seconds in 2009. He has stuck around for nine seasons. He accumulated 2,071 yards in his first four years, well under what the Raiders (again) would have hoped for from the seventh overall pick, and another 817 yards since. While he’s signed for just above the veteran minimum, I would not be surprised if he retires this off-season.

Up third is Jerome Mathis (4.26), drafted in the fourth round by Houston in 2005. Like Ford, he made an impact as a kick returner as a rookie, but had an issue with fumbling. He had 80 total receiving yards in a three-year career.

You get the picture. Some speedsters, like Mike Wallace, Julio Jones and Brandin Cooks, are very productive in the league. But just being able to run really, really fast is fairly meaningless on its own.

The other tests include a “bench press,” in which an athlete repeatedly lifts a 225-pound barbell until he feels he must stop. There’s a vertical leap from a standing position, a broad jump from a standing position, a 20-yard “shuttle run,” which measures the ability to accelerate and make turns quickly, a 60-yard version of the shuttle drill and a “three-cone” drill, which measures many of the same agility skills.

Players are also measured, with their height, hand size and arm length recorded within an eighth of an inch. They are also given an intelligence test, subjected to any of a number of medical examinations and (sometimes controversially these days) available for interviews from coaches whose goals are to surprise athletes with unusual questions.

Experts can make a lot of money by taking all this information and coming up with a formula for success. Unfortunately, no one has done that. Since statistical software these days is quite sophisticated, data miners can come up with a formula that fits a large number of past performers. But is that predictive? Even with my sample size of 444 drafted wide receivers, I suspect it’s limited.

A wide receiver needs many skills, and anyone who saw Jerry Rice play could tell you that his speed, while hardly close to the best on the field, was enough to get the job done. Rice reportedly ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash. He was drafted 16th overall in 1985. Larry Fitzgerald, a certain Hall-of-Famer, ran a 4.48 – same as A.J. Green, who is headed to Canton himself if he can maintain his production level a few more years.

What do they have in common that other receivers don’t? Fitzgerald was the third overall pick and Green was the fourth in their respective years. Scouts knew about them. Fitzgerald didn’t take part in most of the Combine events, so scouts likely didn’t have that type of comparative information down to the hundredths of seconds. Green did, and while his numbers were good, you can find better. What makes Green one of the best in his generation and Heyward-Bay, who had slightly better, but similar Combine numbers, disappointing?

I gave the 272 drafted players who ran most of the drills in the study a similarity score to Green’s. Strangely enough, one of the lowest scores came from Chad Johnson, who had an excellent career mostly with Cincinnati as well. But I look at his cone-drill time of 7.51 and his reputation as a bit of an eccentric (well, aren’t all good receivers a bit eccentric?) and I wonder if he simply didn’t feel like running the drill. That’s the worst time in that drill among wide receivers, and more indicative of a defensive lineman or tight end.

But some receivers had almost identical scores to Green’s, and some, like Michael Jenkins (2004) and Sammy Watkins (2014) went in the first round. And some, like Robert Herron (2014) and Pierre Garcon (2008) went in the sixth. Herron barely played and Garcon is one of the better 6th-round picks in recent years. Watkins was average for a number-four overall receiver pick and Jenkins was a bit of a disappointment for a late first-round pick.

There’s no magic in Green’s combination of results. In fact, the 100 receivers least similar to Green were a little bit better than the 100 receivers closest to Green. And the slightly smaller group of receivers between those groups averaged a tiny bit better than both groups. As for draft position, the top 100 averaged being picked 128th, the bottom 100 135th and the middle 71 126th.

Am I saying the Combine times don’t matter? Not even enough to be worth tracking? No. There are slight correlations between times and performance. Vertical leap seems to be the most important number, though it only correlates 15% with output. A receiver’s weight actually matters slightly more (18%).

The shuttle drill and 3-cone drill are difficult to use, because the top scouted players are far more likely to skip these drills. Why risk draft position on a poor performance (unless you’re Chad Johnson)?

I suspect that weight matters because it takes a certain amount of strength to deal with good bump-and-run coverage. And some of the low-round or undrafted receivers who have done wonders (going back to Bill Belichick’s penchant for finding Wes Welkers and Danny Amendolas) work out of the slot much of the time. If you want to find an exceptional athlete who was a little smaller but found enormous success out of the slot early in his career, Randall Cobb was picked by Green Bay at the end of the second round in 2011. More recently, the Chiefs have gotten a lot out of tiny Tyreek Hill, a fifth-rounder with elite speed, in many different roles.

That’s a lot to digest. What about a measure of simple competency? Take the 272 receivers with measurements in every category and look at those who scored in the top half in all of them. So that would mean someone who weighed more than 200 pounds, ran a 4.48 or better in the 40, a 4.20 or better in the shuttle, a 6.92 or better in the cone drill, leaped at least 36 inches and had a broad jump of at least 121 inches.

Who are these extraordinary people? The list is just 12 of the 272. Surely these are all players the scouts would agree are superstars in the making. Not so fast. There were two first-rounders (Heyward-Bey and Javon Walker, who ended up being slightly disappointing his first four years), four second-rounders – two who greatly exceeded expectations (Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith) and two who busted (Tyrone Calico and Chad Jackson). There was a fourth-round pick, Keenan Burton in 2008, who didn’t fare very well. In the fifth round, Roy Hall in 2007 had nine career receiving yards. The pair of sixth-rounders – Garcon and Jeff Webb (2006) were very solid picks. And the two seventh rounders, Marcus Maxwell in 2005 and Jeff Janis in 2014, were forgettable.

More recently, Kevin White (the seventh overall pick in 2015), fits this category and is looking like one of the bigger busts in recent history. DeVante Parker, also a first-rounder in 2015, has been OK. The only player to fit the bill last year was second-rounder Zay Jones, who hasn’t done much. And, notably, undrafted Tyrell Williams (2015) has been quite a find for the Chargers.

At any rate, the simple every-category competency measure is a poor fit for the data. Probably because smaller players are often more agile. Indeed, weight correlates 18% negatively with the shuttle drill and 23% negatively with the 40-yard dash. The broad jump is the only drill where weight seems to help a little.

So I made one last try – finding players who are in the top third by weight and top third in vertical leap. That’s 209 pounds and 37 inches. That gave me a set of 51 drafted receivers from 2001-14. What was their average performance? As a group, they outperformed their draft position by about 5%. Of the 15 first-rounders, eight significantly exceeded expectations and only three were very disappointing. This group also contains some breakout lower-round performers like Brandon Marshall, Josh Morgan, David Givens and Marques Colston. More recently, it identifies second-rounder Devin Funchess (2015), though there hasn’t been a first-rounder meeting the criteria the last three years.

I’m content to stop there. Being invited to the Combine means scouts think a player has a potential NFL career. That implies a minimum competency. This 209/37 test looks decent for identifying additional potential. And I think data mining the rest is only going to identify stupid coincidences in the remaining data set.

Who meets the criteria in the upcoming draft? D.J. Moore, Tre’Quan Smith, Dylan Cantrell, Allen Lazard, Jester Weah, Justin Watson and Reggie Bonnafon, among those with draftable grades. Of those players, Cantrell has unusually good scores in other categories, indicating solid athletic skills. His 4.59 40-yard dash, however, might concern teams and despite high vertical leap and broad jump scores, scouts say he is not an explosive athlete. He has a third-day draft grade. I’d be interested to see if he sneaks into the second round, though.

Just to wrap this up… if you play Front Office Football, you know the Combine plays a much different role in the game. Individual measurable skills correspond to specific potential ratings. This is obviously not realistic. But the alternative is to place more emphasis on the scouting abilities on your staff – with wider variety between teams. This would essentially render the Combine scores within FOF useless.

I think that makes for a less enjoyable game. You’d be drafting purely on scouted ratings and focusing on where your expectations differ from league-wide grades. At that point, it’s just guesswork with no skill at all. Or maybe I’d add something to indicate where your staff member has a particular insight. But if you played a hunch on your own with a Combine number, you’d be making a mistake.

I may change this whole system in the future, but for now, I think it’s a good idea to stick with a simulated Combine that means a lot more than the real-life version. Watching tape and making scouting opinions is full-time work for the few who really do this well. Just as messing with the intricacies of player contracts and agents is full-time work for a GM. That doesn’t make for an enjoyable game. My philosophy is that the game engine itself should be as realistic as I can make it. But the staff experience – your job as the team’s hybrid GM/coach/owner/etc – has to be enjoyable.

Wide Receivers and the NFL Draft

The NFL Draft begins Thursday, and I’ve been taking some time the last few days to study how the draft works. In particular, I’m looking at wide receivers and Combine scores.

This first post, however, will focus on performance alone.

The Amateur Draft is an important piece of team building. Perhaps it’s the most important piece, because teams receive on average eight new draft picks every year and only 53 players are on the team during the season. Trades are still very rare in the NFL, especially involving young players.

When you draft a player, he’s yours for four years. After that, he’s more-or-less a free agent and gets paid based on a combination of experience, expertise and the role he’s expected to play. There are very few important bargains in free agency. You fill holes in free agency; you don’t build a team. And when signing contract extensions after that fourth year, you have to pay the market rate.

To analyze the effectiveness of a draft pick under a hard salary cap, therefore, you should limit your analysis to those first four years. In other sports you can factor in the market and the style of a particular owner. Even the NBA has its “Bird exception” and its “Rose rule” and other odds and ends to turn the cap into something a little different. But in the NFL, the draft gives you that young base that shapes your team.

I chose wide receivers to examine because there’s a simple statistic that defines them quite effectively – at least when applied to hundreds of players over a long period… receiving yards. While you can dig deeper with receivers – adding points for first downs earned in passing situations and for touchdowns – simple accumulated receiving yards are quite meaningful.

The scope of this study is 2001-2014. That’s the last 14 years of receivers who have reached four years of experience. 2001 is a good place to begin a study of the most recent passing emphasis within the game. It was the last year before the eight-division, 32-team format. There were 444 wide receivers drafted during that period – more-or-less evenly dispersed in the seven rounds of the draft with a slight increase in the seventh round.

For each player, I tried to find Combine data (and where that wasn’t available, data from the respective Pro Day). I also tracked total receiving yardage through year four. Eighty-five of these players never caught an NFL pass. The highest of these 0-yard picks (and only second-rounder) was Dexter Jackson, 58th overall in 2008, a shorter (5094) small-college star who ran a 4.37 40-yard dash. Tampa Bay tried him in a few games as a return specialist as a rookie, then waived him late in training camp the following year.

Sixteen of the 444 wide receivers exceeded 4,000 receiving yards in their first four years – all the way up to A.J. Green of Cincinnati with 4,874. Eight of those 16 were first-rounders (five in the top eight picks, including Green), four seconds, two thirds, a fourth (Denver’s Brandon Marshall) and a seventh (Marques Colston of New Orleans). Both Marshall and Colston were drafted in 2006.

In fact, 27 of the 43 receivers who have exceeded 3,000 receiving yards were first-round picks. Part of this is self-fulfilling – you draft a wideout in the first round and you had better feature him in the offense right from the start. But scouting receivers isn’t as hard as scouting quarterbacks and the learning curve isn’t quite as steep, so coaches have a decent idea of who will and who won’t thrive in the NFL.

Average receiving yards by round drafted: 1st – 2,708, 2nd – 1,725, 3rd – 1,139, 4th – 813, 5th – 510, 6th – 340, 7th – 293. I broke down the first round, and while the average tails off noticeably in the last few picks of the round, the sample sizes get too small to provide significant delineation.

I also took a look at how individual teams draft. I did this through assigning a score to every pick based on the expected four-year yardage totals for each round. Every team drafted between 8 and 19 wide receivers during the 2001-14 study period (average of about 14).

The “best” team at drafting wide receivers was Indianapolis by a wide margin. Part of that is likely that the Colts could probably get away with lower receiver skill sets because Peyton Manning was so remarkable. Part was having amazing longevity in the form of Marvin Harrison (before the study) and Reggie Wayne. So Indianapolis was also one of two teams with eight receivers drafted (San Diego – average in quality of picks – was also at eight). Philadelphia, Chicago, Arizona, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Dallas made up the rest of the top quartile. Minnesota, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Seattle, St. Louis, Baltimore, Kansas City and (dead last) New England made up the bottom quartile.

Why New England? Perhaps Bill Belichick just isn’t great at evaluating college receivers. He’s a master at seeing low-round (or even undrafted) guys on other rosters who can help, but when he reaches for draftees, it’s not pretty. His highest receiver picks at New England were Chad Jackson (36th overall, second round) in 2006 and Bethel Johnson (45th overall, second round) in 2003. Combined, they didn’t reach 1,000 yards in their entire careers. New England is also the only team in the NFL that has not drafted a wide receiver in the first round in this millennium (Minnesota and Detroit are tied for first at four). You’d have to go back to 1994 and Michigan’s Derrick Alexander to find a Belichick-led team and a first-round wide receiver.

It’s not easy finding effective wide receivers, though. There is an element of lottery to it. Just look at 2008. In addition to Dexter Jackson, nine other wideouts were chosen in the second round. Four others were below 500 yards in their first four years. Four were above average for the round, including Donnie Avery, Eddie Royal, Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson. Of the group, only DeSean Jackson (4,085) was above 2,600 yards in four years. No receivers were taken in the first round. But second to Jackson in four-year yardage from that entire 2008 class was Davone Bess, who came out of Hawaii, ran a 4.60 40-yard dash, stood 5097 in height and went undrafted. Scouts seemed uncertain whether Hawaii’s incredible passing game in those days worked because of quarterback Colt Brennan (a sixth-round pick in 2008 who never played an NFL game) or Bess.

To wrap up this first post, I’ll talk about Combine numbers. I’ve tried to accumulate as much information as possible about the Combine tests for wide receivers. However, not all prospects run all of the drills and some information comes from Pro Days and some from the NFL Combine itself. I don’t want to throw out information, but a Pro Day might have more favorable (or less favorable) conditions. In addition, not running a test is hardly evenly distributed. Expected top picks are more likely to skip the tests, not wanting to jeopardize their standing with a poor result. And there’s less information about players unlikely to be drafted.

I have a 40-yard time on 441 of the 444 drafted players, ranging from 4.22 (Jacoby Ford, 2010, a fourth-rounder with average fourth-round production through four years) to 4.78 (Jonathan Smith, a seventh-rounder who accumulated 77 career receiving yards). There’s vertical leap data for 372 players, broad jump for 334, a shuttle drill for 297 and a three-cone drill for 288. In addition, I have height for every player and hand size and arm length for most.

I will start out by saying that 40-yard dash time hardly correlates at all with four-year receiving yard totals, despite a positive 16% correlation with draft position. That’s what we’re up against with any study of Combine numbers. More soon.

The Quarterback Marketplace and the Salary Cap

Jimmy Garoppolo, heading into unrestricted free agency after a half-season rental in San Francisco, just signed a $137.5 million deal over five years with the 49ers.

Think about that. A quarterback with seven games’ worth of experience – 183 career completions – is being rewarded at the astonishing rate of three quarters of a million dollars for every past successful throw.

Now it’s not that simple. Even at fair market rate, the Patriots wouldn’t reward Tom Brady with $5 billion for his 6500-plus completions. It’s about future expectations, and Garoppolo is expected to be a franchise quarterback. So $27.5 million per year is the new normal. Which means the next time someone like Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers hits a contract year, agents will be talking about $35 million, hoping to settle above $30 million. And they will, soon enough.

The 2018 NFL salary cap will be about $178 million. Let’s take a look at some ratios.

The NFL rookie minimum salary will be $480,000, which is 0.27% of the salary cap. Garoppolo’s average salary is 15.45% of the salary cap. The ratio between those numbers is 57.3.

Now, let’s go back ten years. I’ll use approximations, but the idea is the same.

In 2008, the rookie minimum salary was $295,000 and the salary cap was $116 million. The crazy-high quarterback contract belonged to Carson Palmer, who was expected to make $67 million over the next five years – or $13.4 million per year.

In 2008 the rookie minimum was 0.25% of the salary cap – that’s consistent. But Palmer’s contract was 11.55% of the salary cap and you could obtain 45.4 undrafted rookies for Palmer’s cap compensation.

What’s going on here? This is an increasing effect of the 2011 renegotiated CBA between the NFL and the NFLPA. It addressed a serious problem – that contracts for first-round picks were getting out of hand and causing the value of top picks to decline. But it created a new problem – that contracts for first-round picks who end up being terrific players eat up far less cap room.

This affected the delicate balance between being able to put together a reasonable roster under the cap without discouraging teams from wanting higher picks. It’s this balance that leads to competitive balance in the NFL. Well run teams are rewarded. Owners willing to push the limits of the cap are rewarded. But no one gains from tanking and bad teams get value from picking high in round one.

I’m not claiming the NFL was broken or is broken. It obviously isn’t. But because of savings from the rookie cap, a quarterback with seven games of experience is getting a contract that would have been impossible for any player ten years ago. And we’re seeing a race developing for franchise quarterback salaries. Garoppolo’s 15.45% means someone will get 18% in the next big renegotiation.

Will that cause harm? Probably not. What will happen is that when the CBA is next renegotiated, there will be pressure to increase the cap as there’s always more attention on the highest contracts and bringing more players up to that standard is impossible without increasing the cap. Most people just see the $27.5 million average, not what that means for cap management itself.

And in this case, San Francisco is willing to channel its savings from the rookie cap adjustment into Garoppolo. Since franchise quarterbacks are hard to find these days, it may end up being a good decision. But there will be more holdouts in the near future as agents want their premier players getting a bigger share of those rookie cap savings.

The balance is changing right now, and things will get a little uncomfortable for the next year or so as teams adjust. But for the last three years – after the crazy-high pre-2011 first-round bonuses completely left the league – there’s been a period of time when it hasn’t hurt to stay under the cap. So ultimately, the Garoppolo deal and the current quarterback race is probably a good thing for the NFL.

And in San Francisco, as long as Garoppolo is as good as he’s looked in his first seven games…