Dirty Play in the AFC North?

Yesterday’s episode of Monday Night Football had more than its share of unpleasant moments. Starting with an accidental, but particularly scary back injury to Ryan Shazier. That transcends the game and I’m sure every player in the NFL, even those who really don’t like the Steelers, shares genuine concern here and hopes for a full recovery.

Unfortunately, the game quickly devolved, mostly between Pittsburgh’s offense and Cincinnati’s defense. The Bengals’ George Iloka looked like he was going after Antonio Brown whenever possible, and finally was flagged after a touchdown. He was suspended for a game (strangely, his suspension was the only one retracted this week, since his behavior seemed the most calculated). The Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster head-hunted Vontaze Burfict during a play, then stood over him and received a taunting penalty. He was also suspended for a game.

These incidents, combined with the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski’s disturbing behavior on Sunday, have the NFL once again at the top of the sports news cycle for all the wrong reasons.

Ben Roethlisberger, the Steeler quarterback with two Super Bowl rings to his name and a Hall of Fame resume, was asked about the dirty play after the game. His response? “AFC North.”

That got me thinking… are some teams more prone to dirty play or is it just perception? Is the AFC North some sort of special haven for teams that can’t help but goon it up against each other? How would you study this?

Given that dirty play stemming from high emotion is fairly easy to spot, my assumption is that penalty yardage would correlate to these games. So I constructed a spreadsheet with some penalty numbers from 2013-2017. This covers 1,260 games, including playoffs. I also separated out all the games involving two AFC North teams – a sample of 58 games.

Among these AFC North games, the 239 penalty yards yesterday was the most in a single game. The 173 from Cincinnati was second only to Cleveland’s 188 against Pittsburgh in their first matchup of 2015. Third place – and the only other +200-yard combined penalty performance was the infamous 2015 playoff game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

I think NFL fans remember that game. Cincinnati looked like it had completed a fantastic fourth-quarter comeback. With Pittsburgh ahead, 15-0, Roethlisberger was sacked and injured on the last play of the third quarter. The Bengals scored two touchdowns and a field goal to take the lead with 1:50 remaining. Landry Jones promptly threw an interception and it looked like two decades of playoff futility had finally ended for Cincinnati. To that point, Pittsburgh had been penalized 142 yards to Cincinnati’s 49.

But the Steelers still had time outs, so the Bengals needed one more first down to secure the victory. Jeremy Hill fumbled on the next play. Still, Pittsburgh was back at its own 9. Roethlisberger returned. He moved the ball downfield quickly, but time was running out. He threw a long pass for Brown, maybe their last chance, and it fell incomplete. But Burfict was penalized for a nasty hit on Brown and Adam Jones drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and all of a sudden Pittsburgh was in position for the winning field goal in the closing seconds.

The way that game ended – with Cincinnati losing simply because their defensive players couldn’t control their emotions – cemented the Bengals’ reputation as an undisciplined team and lends a lot of credence to the claims Roethlisberger made yesterday.

Is all of this true? Here are some numbers:

Over the last five years, NFL teams average 56.2 penalty yards per team per game. Cincinnati has averaged 56.0 penalty yards per game. So, no, the Bengals are not a particularly high-penalty team. Teams range from Carolina (49.0 yards) to Seattle (66.3 yards). Baltimore, at 60.8 yards, is the only AFC North team in the top quartile.

Are AFC North games particularly penalty-prone? AFC North teams, overall, average 57.4 yards in penalties per game. However, divisional games average 58.3 yards in penalties. That’s not a huge difference, but Cincinnati’s 70.6-yard average against Pittsburgh (not including yesterday, it’s 57.0 yards) is the highest team versus team average.

The numbers really aren’t all that notable except for one total: in the 30 games against Pittsburgh, opponents are averaging 66.4 yards of penalties while in the 52 games against Pittsburgh played by the rest of the league, they’ve averaged 55.4 yards.

Now, one thing I haven’t done is split all divisions in this manner (I don’t want to turn this into a major project), but Roethlisberger’s perceptions seem valid (53.7 out-of-division committed by Pittsburgh, 58.2 in-division), though that experience does not hold true for the rest of the division. So, over the course of the last five years, Pittsburgh’s AFC North games have averaged about one major penalty per game more than you’d expect based on team averages. That seems significant and worth some extra attention from the NFL.

The End of an Eli?

You have to feel for Eli Manning. If he weren’t the brother of a quarterback whose face would be on a Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks, should such a concept exist, he’d be better loved. He has 118 career wins, including playoffs, and a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies.

No modern quarterback with that many wins isn’t in the Hall of Fame or a lock to get there (like his brother). No player with multiple Super Bowl MVP Awards isn’t in or a lock to get there (like Tom Brady).

Yet somehow, it doesn’t add up. Recently, he passed the elite 30-mile club in career passing yardage. In the modern era, that club includes Brady, Drew Brees, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger (also there this year). That’s it. More than 40 years of the modern passing rules, and he’s one of seven to throw for more than 52,800 yards (Philip Rivers might well make it eight late this season or in the playoffs, should the Chargers qualify).

We’re in the age when the definition of great quarterbacking is changing, and perhaps expectations are too high. Or perhaps there was a run of a few years when random luck produced a group of top quarterbacks. Hard to say. A few months ago, I tried to come up with a Bill James-style formula for calculating quarterbacks reaching the Hall, and Eli is borderline. Only Ken Anderson has more points in this formula of those who aren’t in or still playing (or like Peyton, not yet eligible), but the list of current players is impressive.

I think I’ve made my feelings about Ken Anderson’s qualifications well known (darn it, Canton, it’s time to fix this). But ultimately, I think Eli won’t make it because his brother will, and Brady and Brees and Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers are dead locks to make it. We’ll have quarterback fatigue.

We also have to consider quality of play. My quarterback metric is designed to analyze this across generations, and the fact is that Eli is an average-minus quarterback statistically. His career average in the metric is 49.8, a number that would and should have coaches wondering if they should draft a replacement. Only two of the Hall quarterbacks are below 56 career – Warren Moon (53.8) and Elway (52.7). And Elway is one of a handful to reach 150 wins while Moon had to prove himself in the CFL for years when he should have been in the NFL. None of the other current quarterbacks I’ve mentioned here are below 58 average for their careers (Peyton is at 61.2).

Today, New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo announced that Eli won’t be starting at quarterback the rest of this season. He offered him the opportunity to play a series or two, then come out, because Eli’s streak of 210 straight starts is second all-time among quarterbacks to Favre (though still a few years short). Manning wisely declined, understanding this kind of record is only valid when you’re playing in the fourth quarter.

Is it time for the Giants, 2-9 and mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, to consider alternatives to their 36-year-old leader? Manning’s average score in the metric is down to 44 this year, 27th among NFL starters. There’s reason to wonder if it’s time to retire. The Giants invested a third-round pick this year in Davis Webb, who is rather raw coming off his graduate-transfer year at California, but is huge and has a gifted arm. But Webb won’t start, either. That goes to Geno Smith, who has an 11-19 career record with the Jets and a 42 average in the metric. Smith is in his fifth year, and will be a free agent next spring. I’m not sure he’s worth the look if a look has to be taken. I’m not sure that’s a great decision, given that the Giants will draft high next year and really need to know all they can about Webb whereas the odds are low Smith is worth starting next year.

But decisions have a way of becoming necessary at inconvenient times, and the worry is that Webb isn’t ready or he would get the longest look. Since this is likely the end of Manning with the Giants, fans can appreciate what his long career has brought to New York, even if it’s just a little bit short of Hall quality and he has struggled along with the rest of the team this year.

This Date in History

As the Cleveland Browns stumble toward what could be the second 0-16 season in NFL history, I’m reminded of this date, Halloween, in 1999.

Halloween was unkind to the Browns this year. It’s clear that DeShone Kizer is not ready to lead an NFL team. He’s very young, and many scouts say he has talent. But starting a 21-year-old second-round draft pick at quarterback is not the NFL norm, and Kizer is really struggling.

The trading deadline was at 4:00 today, and the Browns traded for Cincinnati backup A.J. McCarron with minutes to spare. The Bengals called it in to the league office. However, for some reason, the Browns did not beat the deadline. That’s just one of those stories you can’t make up.

Anyway, McCarron, like Jimmy Garoppolo (who the Browns apparently wanted to trade for in the off-season), is in his fourth year and stuck behind an established franchise quarterback. This means he would go into next season restricted as a free agent. So the Bengals would have liked to get something for him. I’m not sure why they’d be willing to trade him in-division, but perhaps that’s another slight against the Browns.

Colin Kaepernick fans should take note of this, as an aside. If there’s one situation in the NFL where Kaepernick fits, it’s this one. As long as he’s willing to play mentor to Kizer and accept fringe starter money (this runs about $6 million for a full season these days), this would be a great road back to the NFL. I can’t say what’s in the heads of NFL GMs and owners, but this seems like a good idea while some of the other openings (backup in Tennessee, more recently) have not seemed like good fits.

But let’s flash back to 1999, the first year of the expansion Cleveland Browns (the “old” Browns became the Baltimore Ravens in 1996). In return for not causing trouble, the city of Cleveland was promised an expansion team no later than 1999, plus the expansion team would “own” the Browns’ history and team colors.

For some reason, and this was apparently unrelated to the move, the Browns also fired their head coach at the time. He found a new gig relatively quickly and has since won five Super Bowls with his new team, but that’s another story so I won’t mention his name here.

The Browns began play again in 1999 and were fairly bad. They headed into their Halloween matchup at New Orleans with an 0-7 record. As NFL games go, it was exciting. The Saints took a two-point lead with 21 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. But quarterback Tim Couch, the first pick in the 1999 draft, was up to the challenge.

Couch completed a 19-yarder to the Browns’ 46-yard line. Time out with 0:02 on the clock. Couch then rolled right and threw the ball as far as he could. Kevin Johnson fought through a crowd in the end zone to give the new Browns their first victory.

Incidentally, as of the last time I messed with these numbers, Couch has by far the highest rate of late fourth-quarter game-winning drives in modern NFL history. No, don’t reserve a bust in Canton – his career quarterback record was 21-36. But 11 of those 21 wins came on plays just like that one (well, not quite just like that one).

Now there’s some connection between this New Orleans team and Front Office Football. For years, it was a running joke that there were too many Billy Joes in the game. When I designed the original game (and perhaps this is still an issue, because the design in this case is still quite similar, but I may have removed the name), any first name that was shared by more than one NFL player was placed on the list of more frequently used first names (IIRC, there were about 500 names on that list).

The Saints had two primary quarterbacks – Billy Joe Hobert (4-8 career record) and Billy Joe Tolliver (15-37 career record). It’s a name that stands out, I guess. In 1999, they shared quarterbacking duties. Both had 1-6 records as a starter that year. Hobert started this Halloween game. He was either hurt or pulled after throwing a second-quarter interception (he is listed as making the tackle, so I’m guessing hurt). Tolliver relieved.

Cleveland ended up winning a second game that season. And that was the Browns’ worst record (new or old) until last year. But they have finished last in the AFC Central/North in 14 of their 18 seasons since expansion and look certain to make that 15-for-19. They have a 0-1 playoff record since expansion and their last playoff victory was on New Year’s Day in 1995 against New England, who was apparently impressed by their head coach because… well… still not mentioning his name.

Finally, back to winless seasons. The Browns won in week 16 last year, beating the Chargers as their kicker missed a game-tying 45-yarder as time expired. Now in Los Angeles, the Chargers have played a bit better (3-4 so far, as opposed to 5-11 last year). They lost their first two games this year essentially on missed game-ending 44-yard field-goal attempts.

This meant YoungHoe Koo, their new kicker this year, lost his job. Koo, by the way, is only the fourth player born in Korea to play in the NFL (and the second with a father not an American stationed with the military). Since one of those four players is Hines Ward, South Korea has by far the highest percentage of native-born Super Bowl MVPs in NFL history. In case you’re interested, the Browns visit the Chargers in week 13.

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.

Two-Point Conversions

From time to time, I like to take the opportunity to challenge my own perceptions about football. One strategy that’s often debated is whether teams should attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown.

Decades ago, legendary coach Dick Vermeil, then a coordinator at UCLA, created a chart that’s still in popular use today. It’s not a chart I used when developing Front Office Football, but it’s not that different. Some of it is obvious; for instance if you trail by two after scoring a touchdown, you should try and tie the game. But even then, when in the game should you start consulting the chart?

Some of it is complex, or even controversial. You’re supposed to go for two when you lead by four after scoring. The idea is that if you make it, a subsequent field goal will give you a two-score lead. But if you miss, a subsequent field goal will leave your opponent the opportunity to tie on a touchdown without going for two.

Since the two-point conversion rate in the NFL is about 45% and the extra-point rate with the new distance rule is about 97%, I’d hesitate to start using any chart until well after halftime. Just take the point.

A few months ago, when working on a percentage win calculator that I’ve yet to put into any product, I analyzed a few seasons’ worth of play-by-play data and compiled a chart that could be useful for making these decisions. As an aside, I do this kind of thing a lot. Most of what I discover on these odysseys never amounts to meaningful work within my products. This might well fall into that category. But it could also be useful in compiling a more fine-tuned chart – one that even incorporates time remaining.

Today, I watched a good part of the Lions’ opener against Arizona. With 3:07 left in the third quarter, the Lions scored to cut the Cardinal lead to two. Some might say it was too early to start using a chart, but no one would question the wisdom of the decision in the closing moments. The Lions tried the conversion and failed. How did that change their win chances?

I have my play-by-play data broken into 100-second increments. To take a broader brush to include as much as is reasonable, I used the categories from the end of the third quarter to 6:40 remaining in the third quarter. There have been 2,797 plays undertaken with the score tied and a team with the ball, 1,031 plays with a one-point lead and 397 with a two-point lead. Not an overwhelming amount of data, especially since you can’t assume a reasonably uniform distribution of field position within that small a data set with the two-point lead. But in 1,629 of the tied scenarios (58%), the team with the ball won (possession matters – Arizona would have possession after the ensuing kick). In 574 of the one-point lead scenarios (56%), the team with the ball won and in 280 of the cases with a two-point lead (71%), the team with the ball won.

This is a great example of where sample size lets you down. The reason I’m writing about this is to give you some insight into my process when examining a particular question. When do you make a conclusion and when do you accept that you just don’t have enough information? This is several seasons’ worth of complete play-by-play data (350,000+ plays broken down by lead and time to go blocks), and the raw data set still isn’t good enough to make solid conclusions.

What the above numbers suggest is that the value of the extra point is immaterial, but there’s a 10-15% game-win cost in going for two and failing. That just doesn’t feel like a reasonable conclusion. When I was doing the initial work with this particular data set, I ran a whole series of rolling averages to come up with a win-percentage chart that supported the data with less precision, but a consistent set of percentages that required the least amount of intervention on my part (making “decisions” about interpretation and then using those decisions to influence how the rolling averages were applied). I feel more confident in presenting that chart as reasonable, at least in the sense that it could be used to help with this kind of decision. If this work results in use in any product, I would use that more processed chart.

Going back to the analysis of the first Lions decision: I come up with a 55.8% Arizona win percentage when tied during that time block, 61.1% with a one-point lead, 64.3% with a two-point lead. So, -3.2% for Detroit with a failure, +5.3% with success. Assuming 45% success on two-point tries and 97% success on extra points, the decision to go for it, in itself, raises Detroit’s win percentage by about a half a percentage point. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that it was a good decision. In general, my data supports this case up to about midway through the third quarter. Earlier than that, I would advise against ever going for a two point conversion except when desperate and in need of multiple positive results (let’s say you score and trail by 18).

The second Lions decision came with 9:27 remaining in the game. This time, they led by four. Vermeil’s chart says “go for it.” I don’t know if Jim Caldwell uses this particular chart, but he went for it. The Lions failed. The value of success and penalty for failure is explained at the start of this article. Now to break down it down using the data…

If the Cardinals gain possession with a six-point deficit (Detroit makes the conversion), they have a 29.2% chance of winning. With a five-point deficit, that’s 36.0% and a four-point deficit, that’s 41.0% percent. Factoring in analysis of success and failure, that amounts to, again, about a half-percentage-point increase in the Lions’ win chances. This surprised me a little, but, as it turns out, a six-point lead is quite a bit better than a five-point lead, even relatively early in the game.

Vermeil’s chart may be old, but it holds up even in the modern game.

NFL Quarterbacks for 2017

Now that the preseason is over and around 1,000 players were released this weekend, we have a good picture of the quarterback situation for 2017. I’ve put together a chart that I use as a quick reference.

Teams usually activate two quarterbacks for a game. Many keep a third quarterback on the 53-man roster and leave him inactive most weeks. This is a good place for a draft pick that isn’t expected to contribute his rookie year. Teams that don’t have three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster often have a quarterback on their practice squad. This is often a young player, but since any team can sign someone else’s practice-squad player by offering a roster spot, it’s not a place to stash a draft pick with a high upside.

There are some exceptions. A handful of teams won’t have a third quarterback, figuring on holding tryouts the next Monday in case of an injury. After all, 37 quarterbacks were released this week. Even though that group has a combined record of 26-78, there’s some talent in there, presumably in playing shape. And there are a few injured quarterbacks who need to be protected because they could be activated later in the season.

Practice squads will be formed this week. These will include at least a few of the quarterbacks released this week. A team will sometimes sign a quarterback to its practice squad that it just released.

A quarterback’s age and NFL record is in parenthesis. For rookies, their draft position is included rather than a record. For a quarterback’s record, I calculate wins and losses much like baseball does. Playoffs are included, though. Age is as of opening day next week.

*A – Indicates player is on Injured Reserve and won’t play this season. *B – Indicates player is on 53-man roster, but is likely to be placed on Injured Reserve with the possibility of returning later in the season. *C – Indicates player is on 53-man roster, is injured, but is likely to be healthy early enough to be worth keeping off of the PUP list. *D – Indicates player is on the non-football injury list and could be reinstated later in the season. *E – Indicates player is on the PUP list and will be eligible to return to the active roster after six weeks.











































AFC East
BuffaloMiamiNew EnglandNew York Jets
Tyrod Taylor (28, 15-15)Jay Cutler (34, 70-70)Tom Brady (40, 207-60)Josh McCown (38, 17-41)
Nathan Peterman (23, 171st)Matt Moore (33, 16-15)Jimmy Garoppolo (25, 2-0)Bryce Petty (26, 1-3)
T.J. Yates (30, 5-3)Ryan Tannehill *A (29, 36-40)
Christian Hackenberg (22, 0-0)
AFC North
BaltimoreCincinnatiClevelandPittsburgh
Joe Flacco (32, 93-59)Andy Dalton (29, 54-39)DeShone Kizer (21, 52nd)Ben Roethlisberger (35, 135-65)
Ryan Mallett (29, 3-5)A.J. McCarron (26, 2-2)Cody Kessler (24, 0-7)Landry Jones (28, 3-2)

Jeff Driskel *B (24, 0-0)Kevin Hogan (24, 0-1)Joshua Dobbs (22, 135th)
AFC South
HoustonIndianapolisJacksonvilleTennessee
Tom Savage (27, 2-2)Andrew Luck *C (27, 46-30)Blake Bortles (25, 11-34)Marcus Mariota (23, 11-16)
Deshaun Watson (21, 12th)Scott Tolzien (30, 0-3)Chad Henne (32, 19-37)Matt Cassel (35, 37-46)

Jacoby Brissett (24, 1-1)
Alex Tanney *A (29, 0-0)
AFC West
DenverKansas CityLos Angeles ChargersOakland
Trevor Siemian (25, 8-6)Alex Smith (33, 80-58)Philip Rivers (35, 98-85)Derek Carr (26, 22-25)
Paxton Lynch *C (23, 1-1)Patrick Mahomes (21, 10th)Cardale Jones (24, 0-0)E.J. Manuel (27, 6-10)
Brock Osweiler (26, 12-9)Tyler Bray (25, 0-0)
Connor Cook (24, 0-1)
Chad Kelly *D (23, 253rd)


NFC East
DallasNew York GiantsPhiladelphiaWashington
Dak Prescott (24, 13-3)Eli Manning (36, 116-94)Carson Wentz (24, 7-9)Kirk Cousins (29, 20-23)
Cooper Rush (23, undrafted)Geno Smith (26, 11-19)Nick Foles (28, 21-18)Colt McCoy (31, 8-17)

Davis Webb (22, 87th)

NFC North
ChicagoDetroitGreen BayMinnesota
Mike Glennon (27, 4-14)Matthew Stafford (29, 52-57)Aaron Rodgers (33, 99-50)Sam Bradford (29, 32-44)
Mitchell Trubisky (23, 2nd)Jake Rudock (24, 0-0)Brett Hundley (24, 0-0)Case Keenum (29, 9-15)
Mark Sanchez (30, 40-39)

Teddy Bridgewater *E (24, 16-12)
NFC South
AtlantaCarolinaNew OrleansTampa Bay
Matt Ryan (32, 87-62)Cam Newton (28, 54-44)Drew Brees (38, 137-105)Jameis Winston (23, 15-17)
Matt Schaub (36, 48-46)Derek Anderson (34, 21-27)Chase Daniel (30, 1-1)Ryan Fitzpatrick (34, 49-67)



Ryan Griffin *B (27, 0-0)
NFC West
ArizonaLos Angeles RamsSan FranciscoSeattle
Carson Palmer (37, 89-85)Jared Goff (22, 0-7)Brian Hoyer (31, 14-16)Russell Wilson (28, 64-27)
Drew Stanton (33, 9-7)Sean Mannion (25, 0-0)C.J. Beathard (23, 104th)Austin Davis (28, 3-8)
Blaine Gabbert (28, 9-29)


Preseason Prodigies

There’s some buzz in Cleveland because the Browns won all four of their preseason games. This coming off a 1-15 season and just 38 wins in the nine seasons since they last posted ten wins.

Is this buzz rational?

It’s easy to dismiss the preseason. Established starters see about 4-5 quarters’ worth of action in four weeks. Playbooks remain vanilla. Youngsters are fighting for jobs and a third of the players won’t play a single down during the regular season. Wins and losses aren’t that important.

I’ll also point out that the 2008 Detroit Lions, the only 0-16 team in NFL history, were 4-0 during that preseason.

Studying the issue going back to the beginning of the eight-division format, 30 teams have gone undefeated in the preseason and 32 teams have gone winless. How have they done?

The undefeated teams are more-or-less average during the regular season, with 7.97 wins per team.

How did they fare the previous season? These teams averaged 8.29 wins. So there was a slight decline – nothing too exciting given the small sample size.

What about teams that won six or less games the previous season? They averaged 1.8 wins more, on average. The Lions even made the playoffs in 2011 after an undefeated preseason following a 6-10 mark in 2010.

I’m not convinced Browns fans should be ecstatic about their 4-0 preseason, but it’s certainly not a negative.

The flip side of this argument is more interesting. Of the 0-4 preseason teams, their average record was only 7.34 wins that season. That’s a bit concerning. It gets even more concerning when you consider that the average wins for these teams the previous season was 8.77. While I’m not certain this is significant with the sample size, either, that’s potentially a study.

The average decline, season-to-season, of teams with ten or more wins the previous season that went winless in the preseason, is 3.9.

Atlanta and Oakland fans, maybe there is something there to worry about this year.

Hall of Fame Quarterbacks

Tony Romo’s announced retirement has people talking about the Hall of Fame and quarterbacks. Is he good enough? What is the criteria? What will the Hall of Fame committee do?

Since I’ve put so much work into my quarterback research, I thought I’d take a shot at answering the question. The simple answer? No. Romo will not reach the Hall of Fame. He simply didn’t play enough games.

But what’s the fun of an analysis without sharing a little more about what went into the conclusion?

I limited my work to quarterbacks who played in the modern NFL. As I’ve written many times, I think analysis of quarterback play before 1974 is completely different from analysis of today’s game. In 1974, the NFL changed the rules to open up the passing game. Before then, receivers could be bumped, tackled, you name it. This greatly limited strategies. The rules were fine-tuned over the next few years, and offenses took some time adjusting to the new NFL.

There have been 15 quarterbacks inducted into the Hall who played in the modern NFL. Roger Staubach, who retired after the 1979 season, was the first. Fran Tarkenton retired a year earlier, but didn’t get in until his third year of eligibility.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame committee is notorious stingy about offering the gold jacket to quarterbacks – about one every two years on average. And when a quarterback has the votes to emerge from the nominating process and is one of the finalists, he’s almost certainly getting the call. Only five quarterbacks haven’t been voted in the first time they were nominated. Of those five, four eventually reached the Hall. There’s only one exception, which I’ll get to later.

Point being: the committee knows what it wants in a quarterback and it’s not that hard to figure out what they did.

In my analysis, I looked at a large number of factors. But I found that the simpler I made the criteria, the more easily I could tell who was in and who was out. The committee doesn’t care about long delays between inducting quarterbacks, and they don’t care about inducting several in a short amount of time if they feel it’s deserved. Five got in between 2004-2006, all when they were first eligible. None got in for the following nine years. We’ve since had three in two years.

I found only two factors mattered. One is purely the number of games the quarterback won. I fine-tuned this a tiny bit by adding an eight-game bonus for a Super Bowl win and a three-game bonus for a Super Bowl loss, but the numbers work almost as well without that. The second is my quarterback metric, which is a way of easily comparing performance across different eras. Obviously, the committee doesn’t call me and ask for my metric. They have different sources of material – probably just experience knowing who, year after year, were the quarterbacks opponents respected the most.

The committee doesn’t seem to care about touchdown passes or total yards or when a player was drafted. It’s just a combination of winning and excellence.

Back in the ’80s, when the first of these modern quarterbacks was eligible, the committee was a little more like baseball’s committee; they seemed to view induction in the first year of eligibility as a special honor. Hence Tarkenton and Bob Griese had to wait, even though they had exceptional careers and weren’t close to the minimum threshold for induction. Later, it was more an up-or-down vote.

Not much needs to be said about the “easy” choices. You know the names: Montana, Favre, Marino, Bradshaw, Young, Elway, Aikman, Staubach, Tarkenton, Griese and Kelly. All excellent quarterbacks who won an enormous number of games.

So I focused more on the four quarterbacks who didn’t seem as though they were easy choices, plus those who were close. The ones who are in: Dan Fouts (1993), Warren Moon (2006), Ken Stabler (2016) and Kurt Warner (2017).

Moon’s case is unique. Generally, the NFL has a very good record when it comes to race, but black quarterbacks faced considerable discrimination for a long time. Despite having all the tools, Moon went undrafted in 1978. So he went to the CFL, and in six years broke so many records and led the Edmonton Eskimos to so many titles that in just that brief amount of time, he’s considered one of the best ever to play the game north of the border.

And then what did he do? He went and had an exceptional career in the NFL, putting up more than 100 wins. So even without the first six years of his career, he’d be on the borderline, maybe a little short. It seems quite reasonable for the committee to give Moon some extra points for what he did in the CFL – it is, after all, a professional league. Moon was inducted in his first year of eligibility.

Stabler is another unique case. His win total puts him solidly in the “long look” category. Not enough to make it automatic, but enough where his statistical excellence should make it an easy call. But Stabler was a character. And controversy followed him. You can look up reports of connections to known gamblers, even some suspicion of thrown games. The committee wrestled with Stabler like no one else. He was a finalist three times, starting in his first year of eligibility. He was a semifinalist six straight years (2004-2009) before dropping out of consideration. After he died, the veteran’s committee inducted him in 2016.

Warner and Fouts did not have high enough win totals. But both were leaders of top offenses and put up exceptional numbers. Fouts was inducted in his first year, Warner not until his third. These are the cases I used to establish minimums for the committee.

Warner is up there with Montana and Young in my quarterback metric. This seems to kick in when a quarterback has more than 75 wins. Warner had 78 (including playoffs) and I bump that to 92 with the Super Bowl title and two losses (no eligible quarterback with three Super Bowl starts isn’t in the Hall). Fouts had 89 wins, as well as 57.3 in the metric, which is one of the top all-time scores for an established quarterback.

There really aren’t that many quarterbacks who have more than 80 wins (even with the Super Bowl bump) and aren’t in – 17 total. I used Elway’s career score of 52.7 in the metric as the bottom of the acceptable range. Elway is in because he won so many games and had such a high winning percentage that it would be ridiculous not to include him. He won Super Bowls. He won 14 playoff games. And 52.7 is solidly above average when it comes to the general quarterback population. Maybe he had the benefit of great teammates. I track fourth-quarter game-winning drives as well – he’s among the best in that category.

I’m not a big believer in clutch quarterbacking – generally teams that are good but not great have more of those drives than teams that consistently dominate. Tom Brady (15%) and Aaron Rodgers (11%) are among the lowest in NFL history when it comes to percentage of their wins that come from late fourth-quarter drives. You want to tell me they aren’t “clutch,” whatever that means? Or that Jay Cutler (29%) is the guy you really want when the game is on the line? Not that Cutler is a bad quarterback – he’s just not someone they’ll consider for the Hall.

Nevertheless, if anyone had that late-game magic, it was Elway. You look at his per-game numbers and wonder how he did what he did, because it stands out. So of the 15 quarterbacks with 80 wins (including the Super Bowl bump) who aren’t in the Hall, I have no problem removing those with a sub-52.7 metric and less than 110 wins. That eliminates eight. Take out those between 52.7 and 54.2 and less than 100 wins and you lose another six. Dave Krieg had 101 wins and a 54.2 in the metric. He’s an excellent example of the best of the “Hall of the Very Good.” As is Rich Gannon (77 wins, 0-1 Super Bowl record, 54.7 in the metric).

And that leaves us with one quarterback who isn’t in the Hall: Ken Anderson. He had 91 wins and a 58.7 in the metric. The 91 wins, especially with just an 0-1 Super Bowl record, isn’t enough on its own. But the 58.7 is behind only Young, Montana, Warner and Griese. Anderson belongs.

I’m hardly the first person to want to campaign for Anderson. Others have broken down the case for Anderson looking at Pro Bowls, years leading the league in passer rating, even showing that he had fewer Pro-Bowl teammates than just about any other candidate. I can’t do a better job than they’ve already done.

But just based on this relatively simple analysis combining my metric with wins, he’s the only modern quarterback not in the Hall that passes these tests. I sincerely hope the veteran’s committee reviews his case soon. He was a finalist in 1996 and 1998 – so he is also the only modern quarterback who has reached the finals not to make it. The committee knows he was great. I think that now that we’ve had another 20 years to digest his candidacy and get a better picture of the role of the modern quarterback in the Hall, this omission stands out like nothing else.

Will the criteria change? I wanted to spend some time discussing the future of the modern quarterback in the Hall.

Of current nominations, none meet the elimination test. Donovan McNabb (first eligible in 2017, but not reaching the semifinals) is the closest. He had 105 wins and an 0-1 Super Bowl record, which puts him in serious consideration. But only a 51.7 career metric. Like Krieg, the Hall of the Very Good. Phil Simms (99 wins, 1 Super Bowl win, 52.0 metric), also nominated but not a semifinalist in 2017, also falls firmly in this category.

As far as new candidates go, there are none until Peyton Manning in 2021. I don’t need to tell you which way that will go. Matt Hasselbeck (91 wins, 0-1 Super Bowl, 52.0 metric) is also eligible in 2021, but won’t get more than a nomination. And Romo will come up in 2022. With an exceptional metric (60.2), Romo deserves a long look. But he only had 80 wins. So on the surface, Romo’s candidacy looks a lot like Warner’s. But here’s where having the three Super Bowl starts makes a difference.

The second piece of this analysis is that quarterbacks are lasting longer these days. While the committee has and should go with the flow when it comes to letting in several quarterbacks in a small number of years, we’re in a slightly different era when it comes to the franchise quarterback. Training methods are improving, and losing an elite guy like Aikman at age 34 or Bradshaw at 35 probably wouldn’t happen as often today. Romo is 36, and his retiring now stands out – but he has faced some unusually unlucky and severe injuries.

Still, we have Tom Brady (207 wins plus 5-2 in Super Bowls, 58.7 metric) coming up. Brady could divide his career in two and each half would make the Hall. Drew Brees (137, 1-0, 60.5), Ben Roethlisberger (135, 2-1, 58.4) and Aaron Rodgers (99, 1-0, 61.6) are also automatic choices (Rodgers still has a few good years left). I have a hard time believing Matt Ryan won’t be automatic – he’ll be only 32 next season. That’s five who are over 30 right now who likely get in on the first ballot, no hesitation.

It’s the next batch of 30-somethings that will force the committee to examine that statistical standard. Eli Manning (age 35, already at 116 wins with a 2-0 record in Super Bowls) may be a lock as well. But his 50.1 career metric isn’t that far from replacement level. Joe Flacco (age 31, 93 wins, 1-0 in Super Bowls plus a remarkable 10-5 playoff record) has a 50.9 career metric. On the other end of the scale, you have Philip Rivers (age 35, 98 wins, no Super Bowls, but a 58.4 career metric).

When you add Peyton Manning, that’s nine potential Hall quarterbacks who entered the league from 1998-2008. Maybe that’s a reflection of the current game, and what we need in the Hall. Or maybe it’s best to draw a line right under Elway from a statistical perspective and ignore Eli Manning and Flacco no matter how many wins they accumulate. Do they add Rivers because the statistics are exceptional? Hard to say which path is best, just that these are the cases that will determine the shape of the Hall in the future.

I’ve included charts of this information at the bottom of this article.




















































































QuarterbackAdjusted WinsIn Hall
Brett Favre210Yes
John Elway186Yes
Joe Montana162Yes
Dan Marino157Yes
Terry Bradshaw151Yes
Fran Tarkenton139Yes
Troy Aikman127Yes
Jim Kelly119Yes
Roger Staubach117Yes
Bob Griese115Yes
Steve Young109Yes
Ken Stabler109Yes
Donovan McNabb108No
Phil Simms107No
Warren Moon105Yes
Drew Bledsoe104No
Dave Krieg101No
Steve McNair96No
Ken Anderson94No
Jim Plunkett94No
Vinny Testaverde93No
Joe Theismann93No
Kurt Warner92Yes
Craig Morton91No
Kerry Collins90No
Dan Fouts89Yes
Boomer Esiason87No
Brad Johnson85No
Mark Brunell84No
Randall Cunningham84No
Ron Jaworski82No
Rich Gannon80No



QuarterbackAverage MetricIn Hall
Steve Young64.2Yes
Kurt Warner61.7Yes
Joe Montana61.5Yes
Bob Griese59.6*Yes
Roger Staubach58.8*Yes
Ken Anderson58.7*No
Ken Stabler57.5*Yes
Dan Fouts57.3*Yes
Fran Tarkenton56.9*Yes
Troy Aikman56.3Yes
Terry Bradshaw56.2*Yes
Brett Favre56.2Yes
Dan Marino56.2Yes
Jim Kelly56.1Yes
Rich Gannon54.7No
Dave Krieg54.2No
Brad Johnson54.1No
Warren Moon53.8Yes
Joe Theismann53.8No
Steve McNair53.4No
Mark Brunell53.3No
Craig Morton53.2*No
Boomer Esiason53.0No
John Elway52.7Yes
Jim Plunkett52.4*No
Phil Simms52.0No
Randall Cunningham51.7No
Donovan McNabb51.7No
Ron Jaworski50.1No
Vinny Testaverde49.8No
Drew Bledsoe49.1No
Kerry Collins46.5No



QuarterbackAge (end of 2016)Adjusted WinsAverage MetricRetired
Tom Brady3925358.7No
Peyton Manning4022261.2Yes
Ben Roethlisberger3415458.4No
Drew Brees3714560.5No
Eli Manning3513250.1No
Aaron Rodgers3310761.6No
Joe Flacco3110150.9No
Philip Rivers359858.4No
Matt Hasselbeck419452.0Yes
Matt Ryan319058.7No
Carson Palmer378953.9No
Tony Romo368060.2Yes
Alex Smith328050.8No
Jay Cutler337051.6No

(* – does not include quarterback metric scores before 1974)

Throwing and throwing and throwing… at the Super Bowl

Much will be written about Super Bowl LI. As Super Bowls go, it was a thriller. As comebacks go, it’s the new definition of extreme comeback. My son was asking me about New England’s chances as they entered the fourth quarter with the Patriots still trailing, 28-9. I said it has to be close to zero percent. He has school tomorrow, so he wanted me to take him back to his mom.

Then the Patriots settled for a field goal on a 4th-and-15 that I thought was ill-advised. So I said, just a couple more minutes, and we’ll head out. And then Dont’a Hightower reached out and knocked the ball away from Matt Ryan, and suddenly, the chances were at least somewhat within the realm of once-in-a-lifetime. So we stuck it out and witnessed something fairly amazing.

I am a Patriot fan these days, as I’ve written before. It’s because I moved to the Nashua, New Hampshire area in 2000 – a few months after the Patriots were forced to use a compensatory pick near the end of the sixth round. Compensatory picks could not be traded. So, reluctantly, no doubt (Bill Belichick is legendary for his love of wheeling and dealing for future draft picks – he could rival Siddhartha himself when it comes to delaying gratification), Belichick picked. And with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft, the Patriots select… yeah, you know.

I cared, though. Tom Brady was the Michigan quarterback following the National Championship in 1997. Never quite got a fair shake under Lloyd Carr, but he had a presence back there. Something Belichick saw. So when franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down with a terrible injury in 2001, the Patriots were in good hands. I felt part of that – something as simple as moving and seeing my home-town guy lead my new home team to their first title… that was cool.

I should note that I grew up in Ann Arbor. My dad was a Michigan professor and all my degrees are from Michigan. It’s why I was fairly neutral about the NFL. Passion in football is about the Maize and Blue. The NFL is about research and work for me. I allow myself this one rooting interest. When Brady retires, I’ll probably return to neutral. I’m back in the Ann Arbor area now, and it would seem hypocritical to get on that bandwagon should the Detroit Lions start winning.

Of course, Deflategate was difficult. I read about Ideal Gas Law and Roger Goodell’s desire to prove that he has the legal right to act as judge, jury and executioner. So this one meant a little more, and it was nice sharing that with my son, who wore his Brady jersey as we watched and went from sad to sad to sad to at least this won’t be a total embarrassment to “I’ve been watching football my entire life and I’ve never seen anything like that.” And we stayed to watch Goodell hand the trophy to Bob Kraft and enjoy the announcement of Brady’s unprecedented fourth MVP award in his unprecedented fifth win as a Super Bowl quarterback.

So, what about the game? What to write? I tried looking up the record for most points scored by an NFL team without a single extra point. According to Pro Football Reference, 34 today ties the Eagles (week 14, 2013) for most in a game since they added extra points to their tracking tool (at least the 1960s). So there’s that.

I’ll stick with one concept for now: Brady’s 62 passing attempts. He went 43-62-466-2-1.

Generally, you don’t get to 60 without a large deficit. As I’ve written many times, I keep a database of quarterback performances dating back to 1974 – when the passing rules in the NFL were changed to open up the passing game. Before 1974 (and a subsequent adjustment in 1977), you could basically pick up a receiver, hog-tie him, carry him to the sideline and put him in the equipment trunk (along with the deflated footballs) without getting a penalty.

Today’s game was the 49th time a quarterback has made 60 or more passing attempts in a game since 1974. Their team’s record in those games: 8-41. Of those 49 games, four were in the playoffs – tonight’s and three divisional-round games. Drew Brees lost in 2012, Steve Young lost in 1996 and Bernie Kosar of the Cleveland Browns mounted a fourth-quarter comeback win over the Jets in 1987, going 33-64-489-1-2.

I don’t know that Brady’s legacy needed any cementing, but, in the end, all I can say about Super Bowl LI and his team’s comeback win is… incredible.

College Football Playoff Discussion

The college football playoffs are set, and definitive statements made. Aftermath?

After the math, it turns out everything came down to the number of losses. Major schools with 0 or 1 losses are in. Major schools with 2 or more losses are out.

There are no egregious omissions here. The controversy comes down to whether you reward conference champions and whether you penalize schools that avoid risk in non-conference games. The playoff committee answered those questions definitively: no and no.

No, Penn State, the Big Ten champion, is not ranked ahead of Ohio State. Perhaps a more convincing head-to-head victory would have made a difference. The Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes on October 22, but only due to a freak play in a contest that the Buckeyes dominated. Washington, the Pac 12 champ, is ranked behind Ohio State as well.

No, Penn State, which lost a close game at 8-4 Pittsburgh (who also defeated Clemson) in September and defeated AAC champion Temple (10-3) a week later, is not given the benefit of the doubt over Washington, which faced a much easier schedule than most major schools – avoiding road non-conference games. Their September challenges? The Sun Belt’s Idaho Vandals, outscored 115-20 in their two-game road trip in the state of Washington. Portland State, a 3-8 FCS team, and Big Ten cellar-dweller Rutgers, which lost to the three top-ten teams in their division by a combined score of 175-0 (accumulating a total of 86 yards on 12-of-51 passing in those games, yet somehow throwing 24-40-168 against Washington).

This is not a claim that any of the four top Big Ten schools were flawless, or robbed, or otherwise dissed. Ohio State faded late and fate rewarded them with a couple of season-ending victories that more than made up for the unlucky loss at Penn State. Penn State finished as strong as any team in the country, but if you had claimed that, at 5-2 and coming off that crazy win over the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions would emerge as conference champion six weeks later, you would have been deluged with offers to purchase real estate near Brooklyn. Michigan’s offense looked anemic in road games. Wisconsin couldn’t close out games.

It’s not an indictment of Washington, either. Non-conference schedules are set years in advance. The Huskies are addicted to that annual FCS candy, but in 2018, they will also take on BYU and will even venture to the southeast for a neutral-site game against Auburn.

Still, the scheduling criticism rings loud and clear. If Penn State had avoided the fan-pleasing challenge of visiting long-time rival Pittsburgh and instead had treated the home fans to an exhibition victory over a spirited, but hopelessly overmatched FCS school, the Nittany Lions would be focused on Clemson’s Tigers right now and not on a Rose Bowl consolation prize against USC – another school that embraced September risk (a devastating drubbing at the hands of Alabama) and finished strong.

At least no one outside of Kalamazoo is claiming that Western Michigan was robbed. The Broncos were 13-0 and did what they could out-of-conference, beating a pair of Big Ten teams on the road that happened to be down this year, but anyone who watched the MAC Championship on Friday and claims that this is a team that deserves a playoff match-up against Alabama probably isn’t watching with an unbiased eye. Under the college football system we have, where schedule strength is incredibly varied, it’s just too much of a stretch to assume this record would hold up in a major conference.

In recent years, the Big Ten has done what it can to improve its schedule. Like the Pac 12, they’ve gone to a nine-game conference schedule. But they’ve also encouraged non-conference challenges, setting up games with the Pac 12 and taking the additional step of banning future non-conference games against FCS opponents. Should scheduling be more flexible? Next year, Washington will venture Piscataway-ward with a road game at Rutgers.

What if the Big Ten/Pac 12 challenge were late in the season and opponents were set a couple of weeks earlier to enhance schedule strength? What if every major conference team had to schedule two non-conference games against other majors? Measures like this would give people confidence that playoff teams were more tested. Given the inequities of recruiting and the need to have almost 100 athletes under scholarship, parity like we have in professional leagues is impossible. But major college football remains the only national sport we have in the United States that doesn’t have a playoff structure designed to address these problems.

If the current structure remains unchanged, today’s committee decisions will result in weaker non-conference games down the road. No one will return Kathy Beauregard’s phone calls this winter*. Arrangements, like Michigan’s home-and-homes with Notre Dame, Oklahoma, UCLA, Texas, Virginia Tech and, yes, even Washington over the next decade will become the exception to the norm.

(* – Beauregard is Western Michigan’s athletic director)

I think the fans lost today, in that it will be harder to schedule non-conference challenges. Though it would be reasonable to say the fans also gained from having four of the major conferences represented rather than three. Inclusion is also a factor here.

All told, I just hope we’re one step closer to a real playoff system in college football.