Friday, September 30, 2005

Week 4 picks

My Week 4 picks are up over at The Writers' Picks. Standings are also posted. I'm tied with five others for sixth place out of 34 participants (pickers?). I'd be proud that I'm eight games over .500 at 27-19, but I see that all except one participant are .500 or better. This prognostication is both easier and harder than it looks.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Carson and Eli

I'm searching my soul trying to understand why I detest so viscerally the millionaire quarterback picked No. 1 in the 2004 draft at the same time I enjoy cheering for the millionaire quarterback picked No. 1 in the 2003 draft. I guess it boils down to an aphorism you might've heard from your grandpa, who would have attributed it to some football coach in the '20s: Winners play the hand they're dealt. Losers whine that the cards are stacked against them.

Going into the 2003 draft, the Cincinnati Bengals held the first pick. Considering their draft history, littered with the likes of Ki-Jana Carter and Peter Warrick, wthe team was more than willing to deal it away, but no one was sufficiently interested. The Bengals kicked the tires on a number of players, including Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich, Michigan State receiver Charles Rogers and Kansas State corner Terence Newman, before settling on Southern Cal quarterback Carson Palmer.

Now, if any team had a reputation as a Mickey Mouse outfit, it was the Cincinnati Bungles. They'd gone a typically lousy 2-14 the year before and an obscene 19-61 over five years. They'd taken two quarterbacks in the first round -- David Klingler in 1992 and Akili Smith in 1999 -- whom they threw into the deep end as rookies and watched drown. The team was notoriously cheap and hadn't been to the playoffs since 1990.

And if any player had an incentive to ask -- plead -- that he not be that No. 1 pick, it was Carson Palmer. He'd won the Heisman Trophy. He'd helped rebuild Southern Cal into the juggernaut that it remains today. He had spent a lifetime as a winner and probably had little desire to join a group of chronic losers. He was a Southern California kid and probably would have preferred not to settle down to a life of working outdoors in December in sunny southwest Ohio.

Nevertheless, Palmer sent his agent to sit down with the Bengals. (The team with the first pick is the only one allowed to negotiate with a player before the draft.) Two days before the draft, and with a minimum of noise, a deal was in place with close to $20 million in guaranteed money. Some agent, huh? Palmer appeared to think so: "I really didn't get too involved in it," he told "I just kind of went with the flow and did whatever (my agent) told me to do."

That's one way to put it. Look, credit for the particulars of the contract may have gone with the agent, but the person most reponsible for getting this deal done at all was the client himself. If Palmer didn't want to be a Bengal, his agent could have played chicken, and Cincinnati probably would have swerved. But the decision was Palmer's to make, not his agent's. See, despite all the fingers pointed at "difficult" agents -- Drew Rosenhaus, Scott Boras, et al -- the players set the tone for negotiations. Agents take direction from their clients. It's unethical for them to do otherwise. If the player wants to be under contract and in camp at a certain time, he will be. (And if the player doesn't want to sign, or wants more money, or wants out of his contract, or whatever, the agent will work to make it happen -- and will take the heat for it. Think Terrell Owens' holdout was Rosenhaus' idea? Think again.)

On Draft Day 2003, then, Cincinnati announced that Palmer was the first pick, he got up and put on the hat and held up the jersey, and the smile on his face was genuine. He had committed to the team -- and had accepted his role on it. Marvin Lewis told him that he was going to spend his first year as a backup to Jon Kitna. Palmer said OK. From
It will give me a chance to learn instead of being like David Carr and getting thrown in there right away. I think it's great as a quarterback to be able to sit back and learn. It's a lot easier to learn the game on the sideline than it is on the field. To see things unfold and all the defenses and to watch another quarterback make plays and make mistakes, I think you can learn a lot from that. It sounds like I'm going to get that opportunity.
People heard that and said, "Oh, he's just saying the right things." And he was. I have no doubt that he would have preferred to play from Day One. But it wasn't going to happen, and if he had spent his rookie year complaining about sitting on the bench, he'd have poisoned his relationship with the team, alienated the city and earned a reputation around the league as a strong arm connected to a weak head. (Like, say the millionaire quarterback picked No. 1 in the 1990 draft.) Instead, he sat, he practiced, he learned, and today he's the hottest quarterback in the NFL.

Flash forward a year.

Going into the 2004 draft, the San Diego Chargers held the first pick and were looking for their quarterback of the future. Again. The club had been burned in 1998 when it took the unhinged Ryan Leaf as their quarterback of the future with the No. 2 pick. Still smarting three years later, the Chargers traded the No. 1 pick in 2001 to Atlanta, who used it on Michael Vick, their quarterback of the future. The Chargers came out of the deal with LaDanian Tomlinson and Drew Brees, their quarterback of the future. After two years, Brees was still stuck in the nondescript present.

San Diego had gone 4-12 in 2003, the very definition of a non-factor, and 26-54 over five years. Their options at QB in the draft were Eli Manning of Ole Miss and Philip Rivers of North Carolina State. (No one seemed all that impressed with Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger, so, you know ...) Manning had the pedigree, just like Jeff Kemp, and more important, the hype. San Diego believed that hype. Unfortunately, so did the Manning clan. In a frankly appalling display of the same kind of sense of entitlement that we despise in poor people, Manning decided that San Diego just wasn't the right fit for a future Hall of Famer like himself. So he told the Chargers that. Or, more accurately, he had his agent and daddy tell the Chargers that.

And what team would his highness prefer to play for? The New York Giants, of course, who had also just finished 4-12 and had fired coach Jim Fassel, the quarterback guru who rescued Kerry Collins' career and made a winner out of Danny Kannell. A perfect fit for a young QB! The media exposure one gets in New York as opposed to San Diego had absolutely nothing to do with it, and shame on you for thinking otherwise.

Eli Manning's father, Archie (125 career TDs, 173 interceptions), said this week that he had been told by people within the Chargers organization, "Don't let your son come here." Maybe, but it sounds like something he heard because he was listening for it. As in, "Well, Archie, if it's so important that Eli get a chance to appear on The Bachelor, then don't let your son come here."

Ultimately, the Chargers went ahead and picked Manning, not because they were calling his bluff but because they had worked out a trade deal with the Giants. They appear not to have told Eli, though, and he had to get up there and hold up the Chargers jersey and hat and force a smile and look like a sucker, a punk and a sissy in front of all the hard-core fans watching at home. When he found out what was really going down, he told, "I'm a lot happier now than I was 10 minutes ago." That was honest, at least. And: "We wanted a trade to happen." True, true! And: "We never had favorite teams." Liar.

Manning fans will point out that in 1983, John Elway refused to play for the Baltimore Colts, warned them not to choose him with the No. 1 pick, and forced a trade to Denver. Yes, but at least Elway did his own dirty work. And still he spent years trying to live the episode down. Elway was immediately tabbed a crybaby, a label that stuck until he had lost three Super Bowls. Then he was a crybaby and a loser. It wasn't until the twilight of his career, when the Broncos won two NFL titles, that he finally put it behind him. Manning should be so lucky. Even if he makes it to the Super Bowl, he'll have to hear about how his brother should be the one in the big game, and how he got to go only because he plays in the weak NFC.

So Manning got to New York and was told he'd have to sit behind Kurt Warner. Nobody expected him to like it, either, and he didn't. You could see it in his face.

No one can say now who will be the better quarterback, Carson Palmer or Eli Manning. But I can say that one is a hell of a lot easier to pull for.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Ice Colts

The Elias Sports Bureau reports that the 2005 Indianapolis Colts are just the sixth team since World War II to hold its first three opponents to single digits. My wife loves ridiculous stats like that, but it's nevertheless a hell of an accomplishment -- especially for the Colts, whose "defensive" scheme has traditionally been to put up 20 more points than the other team. How far has the Colts defense come? Indianapolis' opponents have scored a combined 16 points in three games. In the Colts' previous 112 regular season games -- from 1998-2004, the Peyton Manning era -- their opponents scored more than 16 points in a single game 82 times, or 73% of the time. The improvement is stark, and remarkable.

But I ask again, as I have every week: What's up with the offense? I understand that the Colts have faced three tough defenses: the Ravens, the Jaguars and Romeo Crennel's rebuilt Browns. But they've scored only 47 points in three games -- and seven of those points came on an interception return. Teams around the league are finally catching on to what Bill Belichick has been doing for several years. Defenders are bouncing around before the snap, switching looks to confound Manning's audibles. They're jamming Colts receivers repeatedly within the 5-yard contact zone, throwing off their timing. The Colts have responded by going to the run, and Edgerrin James is pounding it out, no doubt. Yet, the team that averaged 33 points a game last year is averaging less than 16 in 2005. The offense has four touchdowns and four field goals. Peyton Manning averaged three passing TDs a game in 2004 but has just two in three games in 2005, none since Week 1.

The 47 points the Colts have scored is their lowest output over a three-game span since the middle of the 2002 season. Here are the bleakest scoring stretches for the Colts since Manning took over as quarterback in 1998:

at NE6-29L
at NYJ6-44L
4620027-9at PIT10-28L
at WSH21-26L
4720051-3at BAL24-7W
4820013-6at NE13-44L

What jumps out here: 1) This is the first time the Colts have been so anemic during a winning streak. That's a credit to the defense. 2) The Manning-led Colts' lowest-scoring stretch of all was the first four games of 1998. Those were also Manning's first four games as a pro. The team finished 3-13 in 1998. (Manning's backup that year was Kelly Holcomb. Suppose the fans in Indy were calling for him? Probably. Memo to J.P. Losman: Holcomb is the most popular guy wherever he doesn't play.) 3) The 48-point stretch in 2001 included two games against the Super Bowl-champions-to-be Patriots. Those were two of the first four games Tom Brady started. Brady may own the Colts, but the Colts made Brady.

The Colts' next four games are against the Titans, 49ers, Rams and Texans. If they can't get the offense back on track against those leaky defenses, there's going to be real trouble when they play New England, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville (again). Of course, they'll also play the Cardinals, Seahawks, Titans (again), Texans (again) and Chargers. So they could stay in the same rut and still go 12-4.

But good Lord, it'd be nice to see some touchdowns.

Week 3 postmortem

This is a little better. I went 9-5 for the week with my picks. A pretty good step up from last week, especially considering that I was on the wrong end of only one blowout. By the end of Sunday, my four losses had come by a combined 20 points. Then Denver-Kansas City came along and doubled that. The Chiefs could have at least tried to look alive out there.

What I got right, what I got wrong:

Philadelphia over Oakland: If you've ever doubted that the kicker is one of the most critical positions, you know better now. Thanks to David Akers' sore stick, the Eagles missed one extra point, which meant the game would be tied at the end, and their strategy at times was predicated on going for TDs because field goals weren't an option. Speaking of kicks: I've never seen it take three tries to get the game-opening kickoff away. The TV shot of the day came when Akers kicked off the first time, then fell to the ground. Behind him, you could see two grounds crew guys watching. One taps the other on the shoulder and points to the crumpled Akers. Next play, when Akers goes down again, you can see the same guys react again.

Cincinnati over Chicago: Last week I wrote of the Bengals and Carson Palmer's disturbing end-zone interceptions: "One of these days (next Sunday), they'll be playing a team (Bears) much closer, and some DB (Mike Brown) will take one of those back 100 yards." Sunday, up just 7-0 on the Bears, Palmer hit Brown square in the numbers at the goal line. Brown, shocked at having seen his future laid out for him so crisply in Down and Distance, was so rattled that he dropped the ball. Bengals defensive backs weren't as accommodating for Kyle Orton. With 6 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, Orton's line was 5 of 16 for 42 yards, 0 TD, 5 INT. His passer rating was 1.0. Lovie Smith should've pulled him right then. That's the stuff of legend.

Tampa Bay over Green Bay: The Bucs hadn't won at Lambeau since the Lindy Infante era. The Packers haven't been this bad since the Lindy Infante era. What did you think was going to happen? We can keep coming up with these Lambeau-mystique stats, but they don't matter anymore.

Indianapolis over Cleveland: Lot of angles in this game. 1) How do the Browns receivers -- Browns receivers! -- draw two taunting penalties? Who on Earth can they taunt convincingly? 2) How much longer will we focus on the improved Indy defense before we notice that defenses appear to have figured out the Indy offense?

Minnesota over New Orleans: Either Daunte Culpepper got a lot better or Minnesota finally started game-planning for a universe in which Randy Moss isn't in purple. Or maybe it was just the effect of playing the Saints. When fatigue starts to set in, the mind slips before the body. And the Saints made a lot of mental mistakes.

St. Louis over Tennessee: Torry Holt took a certain rookie corner to school: 9 catches for 163 yards, 1 TD. It's like Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Sue were running the routes.

Seattle over Arizona: Season stats: Neil Rackers, 32 points. The other 52 Cardinals, 12 points. And another Kurt Warner experiment closes down for the year.

Dallas over San Francisco: Julian Peterson, stand over there next to Derek Smith. I see neither of you guys is available at Oughta be.

San Diego over N.Y. Giants: This was a matter of deciding whether the Chargers were really an 0-2 team or the Giants were really a 2-0 team. Losses to Dallas and Denver were just more convincing than victories over New Orleans and Arizona. Sorry. On another matter, I don't easily declare certain penalties ticky-tack. If the rule's in the book, you've got to enforce it. But the roughing-the-passer call on Chargers D-lineman Luis Castillo that cost Drayton Florence a INT-return touchdown was about as close as you can get to letter-of-the-law-but-not-the-spirit. Castillo's hand brushed Eli Manning's facemask while he was being rassled by his blocker. Castillo didn't grab the mask, and he certainly didn't strike Manning in the head. Though God knows he should have.

N.Y. Jets over Jacksonville: The theory goes like this: When in doubt, pick the home dog. Bad dog. The only thing that kept this one close was that the Jaguars' offense doesn't play very good defense. As for the Jets, we could spend a long time making a list of what they need. But it's obvious what they don't need: a weak-armed quarterback underthrowing interceptions in his own territory in OT. At least they don't have one of those anymore. A lot of people in the stands are going to have to get new jerseys.

Buffalo over Atlanta: I see now it's foolish to read anything into a victory over the Texans. J.P. Losman's line: 10 of 23 for 75 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT. Dink, dunk, punt. If Drew Drew Bledsoe had still been the Bills' quarterback, he'd have gone 23 of 42 for 256 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT. And yet Buffalo still would have lost by eight. That'll learn me.

Carolina over Miami: I can understand getting caught off guard in Week 1. I can understand then coming back fired up for Week 2 and catching the defending champions off guard. But by Week 3, you're supposed to beat "weaker" teams -- if you're a legitimate Super Bowl threat. On the Miami side of the ball, Ronnie Brown's 58-yard run was great, but I couldn't help noticing how it ended. Brown got through the entire Panther defense and had a 5-yard lead on his closest pursuers. Two caught up with him within 20 yards, including linebacker Dan Morgan. When a linebacker, even a first-rounder, can outrun the running back who went No. 2 in the draft, that's not a good thing. Tell me again why Brown was a better pick than Cadillac Williams?

Pittsburgh over New England: The Colts can't beat the Patriots in New England? The Steelers can't beat the Patriots in Pittsburgh. Notes: 1) The hook-and-ladder is more effective when the guy who gets the lateral knows there's a lateral coming. 2) A fourth-quarter comeback is more inspiring when it isn't followed by a complete defensive collapse. 3) A cut block is more useful when the person who throws it (Dan Koppen, NE) takes out the intended opponent (Larry Foote, PIT) rather than injuring his own teammate (Matt Light, NE).

Kansas City over Denver: Going into this one, I would have thought the Chiefs would be fine even if they fell behind by 10. When they actually did fall behind by 10, it was over, and everyone knew it.

SEASON: 27-19

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet. The formula behind them predicted 10 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners -- and 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the POW-R-'ANKINGS system. Unlike with other, lesser ranking systems, no opinion is involved. None. It's hard-core science. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. (Key: WK3 = This week's ranking. WK2 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

POW-R-'ANKINGS explained

Who's the most powerful team in the NFL? It's a debate that begins long before the season starts and is renewed every week until February. Then comes the draft, the free agent signings and the cap cuts, and it starts all over again. Every publication, every website, every football guru has a preferred way of hashing out who's the strongest and who's the weakest. Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z draws up his Power Rankings every week (here's this week's) based on his analysis of team performance. They're entirely subjective. Very 19th century of him. USA Today Sports Weekly polls its writers college-football style, then ranks the 32 teams. That's an attempt to quantify opinion -- a scientific gloss on the back of a hunch. Jeff Sagarin and others of his ilk drop science all over, pouring sacks of statistics into a hopper that churns and burns and spits out rankings bathed in the sweet smell of objectivity.

I wanted to have my own rankings, with their own high-tech-sounding name, so I devised the exclusive Down and Distance POW-R-'ANKINGS. First I came up with the name. Catchy! Then I went fishing for a simple statistic that I could dress up and pass off as some sort of advanced analysis. My first thought was simply to rank teams by the number of points scored. But it'd very quickly be clear that I was cheating, and no one would take me seriously (anymore). So then I thought about point differential -- points scored minus points allowed. The team with biggest differential in their favor would be the league's strongest; the team deepest in the hole would be the weakest. Simple, straightforward and actually a pretty good predictor of team strength. But it still wasn't sexy enough. So I made one little tweak ...

And damned if I didn't come up with a spookily accurate way of gauging team strength. The POW-R-'ANKINGS are determined by a simple relationship of the two most important stats a team has (beyond wins and losses). POW-R is defined as point differential as a percentage of total points scored. Take the number of points a team scores ("P.F." in the typical standings) and subtract the number of points that team allowed ("P.A."). That's your point differential. (Teams that have allowed more points than they've scored obviously have a negative differential.) Now take that differential and divide it by the total number of points scored in all the team's games. That gives you what I call the POW-R rating. Here's the formula:

POW-R = (P.F. - P.A.) / (P.F. + P.A.)

The number you get is a percentage, expressed as a decimal. Last year's Patriots, for example, scored 437 points in the regular season and allowed 260. That's a differential of 177 points on a total of 697. Divide 177 by 697 for a POW-R rating of 0.25395, or 25.40%, which was tops in the league. Last year's 49ers, on the other hand, scored 259 and allowed 452, for a differential of -193 and a POW-R rating of -0.27145, or -27.40%, by far the worst in the league.

Let's see how the rankings play out in context. I ran every team of the last 15 seasons through the formula, which involved hours hunched over a spreadsheet, which is what I was trying to avoid in the first place. These were the teams with the five highest POW-R ratings since 1990:

1999 Rams13-336.98%
1996 Packers13-336.94%
1991 Redskins14-236.81%
2000 Ravens12-4 33.73%

Each of those teams except the 1992 49ers won the Super Bowl. Now, you can look at these numbers and say, "You don't need a mathematical formula to figure out that a 13-3 or 14-2 team is going to win the Super Bowl." Maybe not, but of the four Super Bowl champs in the chart above, only two had the best record in the league that year: the '91 Redskins, and the '96 Packers (who actually tied Denver for the best record but beat the Broncos head-to-head in the regular season). In fact, the team with the league's best record, after tiebreakers are taken into account, won the Super Bowl in only four of the past 15 years.

You could also point to the fact that three of the four Super Bowl winners in the chart led the league in scoring ('99 Rams, '96 Packers and '91 Redskins), and two led the league in scoring defense ('96 Packers and '00 Ravens). But in the past 15 years, the top-scoring team has won the Super Bowl just five times, and the team with stingiest scoring defense has also won just five times. POW-R's reliance on point differential takes into account what we know about football: You need both offense and defense. A great offense puts fans in the seats, but without a competent defense, the team isn't going anywhere. (Ask Dick Vermeil. His '99 Rams had the No. 4 scoring defense. His perennially high-scoring Chiefs have been in the toilet defensively since before he arrived.) On the flip side, a great defense needs an effective offense -- or at the very least a mistake-free one. (The 1992 Saints, for example, gave up only 202 points, the fourth-lowest total in the past 15 years, but their offense was weak. They finished 12-4 but were one and done in the playoffs.) The point-differential component of POW-R takes into account the need for both offense and defense. Point differential rewards the Bengals for scoring 58 points in a game last year, but it also punishes them for allowing the Browns to score 48 in the same game.

Just picking the team with the biggest point differential gives us the correct Super Bowl winner in eight of the past 15 seasons. That's a majority, and I could have stopped there and proclaimed myself the next Aaron Schatz. But by the time I had figured that out, I had so much time invested that I added the twist: dividing the differential by total points scored. There's a reason for this. In Week 1 of this season, two teams beat their opponents by 14 points: Detroit over Green Bay 17-3, and Cincinnati over Cleveland 27-13. Which win is stronger? I'd argue that it's Detroit's. Not all 14-point victories -- or 10-point or 3-point or 1-point victories -- are created equal. The Lions allowed only one score, a field goal; the Bengals allowed a touchdown and two FGs. There has to be a way to give the Lions a tad more credit than the Bengals. The POW-R formula does that. The Lions' differential of 14 points is equal to 70% of the 20 points scored in their game. The Bengals' 27 points equals 67.5% of the 40 scored in theirs. Detroit thus gets a 2.5-percentage-point edge for Week 1.

You'll notice that POW-R doesn't even try to consider several supposedly critical things:
  • Yardage gained or surrendered. Irrelevant. Only points matter.
  • Who earned the points -- offense or defense. Seven points on the board is seven points, regardless of whether they came on a long drive, an interception return, a kick return, or a short drive set up by a fumble.
  • Home vs. road performance. Good teams win on the road. Bad teams don't. Any questions?
  • Strength of opponent. I've discovered that the formula is self-correcting. Over the course of a season, each team settles to its proper level. That's why when I post my weekly results, I point out that the rankings get more accurate as the season progresses.
So now you understand where the POW-R-'ANKINGS come from. Let's see how they stack up in predicting Super Bowl winners over the past 15 years against other measures we've discussed: won-lost record; most points scored (P.F.); fewest points allowed (P.A.); and widest point differential:


(*Tiebreakers: 2002: PHI won conference tiebreaker over GB and TB. 1997: KC held strength-of-schedule advantage over SF and GB. 1996: GB beat DEN in regular season. 1993: BUF won conference tiebreaker over HOU and beat DAL in regular season.

The POW-R-'ANKINGS predicted 10 of 15 Super Bowl winners (including the 1997 Broncos ... and you thought the Broncos upset the Packers). That's two-thirds, and that's about as good as you're going to get. No formula can predict every year's NFL champ, simply because of the any-given-Sunday nature of the league. Even the strongest teams will have one or two down games. Unfortunately for the 1998 Vikings (30.52% POW-R), that game was against the Falcons (20.93%) for the NFC title game. Who was POW-R's No. 2 team for 1998? NFL champion Denver (23.70%).

With that in mind, here's a look at the five years in which POW-R failed to predict the champ:

NO. 1

Scoring at home? Fourteen out of 15 years, the Super Bowl champ was the No. 1 or 2 POW-R team.

This chart tells us a number of things. First, Brett Favre wasn't the only one who had trouble with the Cowboys in the 1990s. When Steve Young spent years talking about the monkey on his back, he was referring to the one wearing the star. Second, it makes perfect sense that the Bills-Giants Super Bowl after the 1990 season was the closest ever. And third, the 2001 Patriots' victory over the Rams was the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, Joe Namath be damned. Any way you slice the numbers from that year, the Rams were by far the superior team. Even if you count only the 14 regular season games Tom Brady started, or only the last 12, after Brady had settled down, the Patriots still were only the No. 4 POW-R team in the NFL in 2001. The numbers really reinforce how the Patriots' 2001 championship was a freak occurrence. Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick were building a champion, no doubt about it, but the plan was not to win it all in 2001. The Pats' 9-7 finish in 2002 wasn't so much a down year; their NFL title in 2001 was a totally unbelievable up year.

Earlier I gave the top five POW-R teams of the past 15 years, and we've spent a lot of time talking about winners. Just for farts and giggles, here are the worst POW-R teams of that same period:

1991 Colts 1-15 -45.42
2000 Browns 2-14 -44.48
1990 Patriots 1-15 -42.26
1992 Seahawks 2-14 -38.05
1998 Eagles 3-13 -36.24
2000 Cardinals 3-13 -35.68
1990 Browns 3-13 -33.91
1999 Browns 2-14 -33.64
2003 Cardinals 4-12 -33.53
1993 Colts 4-12 -33.33
2000 Bengals 4-12 -31.99
1991 Buccaneers 3-13 -29.45
1992 Patriots 2-14 -27.82
1991 Cardinals 4-12 -27.41
2004 49ers 2-14 -27.15
1993 Bengals 3-13 -26.09
1998 Bengals 3-13 -25.56
2002 Texans 4-12 -25.13
1999 Saints 3-13 -25.07
1991 Rams 3-13 -25.00

A lot of these teams didn't even get the top draft pick the next season. But it's worth it to go 4-12 rather than 3-13!

We'll have some more fun with POW-R analysis in the future. But there's one other thing to talk about, and that's the centigrade scale. The raw percentages allow teams to be compared from year to year. Within a season, however, there's another way to rank the teams: on a scale of 0 to 100. We simply make the strongest team's POW-R ranking equivalent to 100 and the weakest team's to 0. We then apply a multiplier that converts all the scores in between. The centigrade rankings can't be compared from year to year, but they give us a sense of how close your team is to the league's best and worst.

So there you have it: As good a ranking system as any. How's that for a ringing vote of confidence?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Week 3 picks

My picks for Week 3 have been posted over at The Writers' Picks, along with the standings after Week 2. After my less-than-dominating 7-9 showing (thanks for nothing, Dallas secondary), Down and Distance is 18-14 for the season. I'm alone in seventh place out of 34 prognosticators. Time for Bledsoe to get hurt and Brady to come in.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Helmet to helmet

I don't usually watch Playbook on the NFL Network. Too much Solomon Wilcots and Brian Baldinger. Not enough people who aren't Solomon Wilcots or Brian Baldinger. But for whatever reason, here I am watching it. At the end of the show, there's a segment called "Hit Parade," sponsored by the heartburn remedy Prilosec OTC (for once, something in the NFL sponsored by a drug other than alcohol or boner pills). This segment features the hardest hits from the past weekend, including Byron Leftwich getting pancaked by Dwight Freeney, and Ben Roethlisberger getting blown up by Antwan Peek.

That's all fine. NFL football ain't played in short pants. Hitting's part of the game. But the hit featured most prominently was Bears safety Mike Brown headhunting Lions tight end Marcus Pollard. Brown not only led with his helmet, which is a penalty, he also blasted Pollard in the head, which is another penalty. The local radio call, played over the highlight, mentions the four flags thrown on the play. The hit was shown at full speed, then in slow motion, and then we got to see a dazed Pollard rolling around on the turf. The play was a textbook example of the type of hit the NFL tells its players to avoid, the type thats put both tackler and tacklee in jeopardy.

This isn't ESPN's "Jacked Up" segment, mind you. "Jacked Up" usually shows only clean -- or at least borderline -- hits. This was a production of the NFL, the same NFL that regularly fines players for leading with the helmet when tackling. The same NFL that makes a blow to the head a 15-yard foul. We can praise the NFL for giving its network a certain measure of independence, but the network is still an arm of the league. And the league can't have it both ways. It can't tell players not to hit with the helmet, then turn around and make music-video moments out of helmet hits. That stuff's gotta make Tagliabue reach for the Prilosec.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Richie Petitbon kind of week

Going 7-9 for Week 2 pretty much stinks. But it could have been worse. Evidence: Svelte consummate NFL insider Peter King going 4-12. I picked Green Bay over Cleveland, too, but even I didn't think the Packers would win by 27 points. Not saying King is a fool; just pointing out the folly of thinking we can know who's good and who's bad after only one game.

Week 2 postmortem

Sigh. After beginning the season a strong -- and league-leading -- 11-5 in Week 1, I fell back to Earth with my Week 2 selections in The Writers' Picks. I came in at 7-9 (still good enough to make the playoffs in the NFC!). Sloppy, I know, but no sloppier than the play this weekend: Poor tackling. Players caught on camera smiling after costly penalties. The Ravens' offense. The 49ers' defense. The Vikings' offense, defense, special teams and coaching. And 10 teams had nine or more penalties, the unofficial definition of "way too many": Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Washington, New England, Baltimore, Miami, Seattle, Kansas City and the Giants.

On to what I got right, what I got wrong and why:

Cincinnati over Minnesota: "The game wasn't at close as the score indicated." You tend to hear that when the final score is more like 24-10, and the loser's touchdown came in the last six minutes. But there's no other way to describe the Bengals' 37-8 humiliation of the Vikings. The score could easily have been 58-0: Carson Palmer overthrew Chad Johnson by inches in the end zone twice and also threw a pick in the end zone. Cincinnati had an astounding 17 penalties, which kept the game from getting even farther out of hand. As in Week 1 vs. Tampa Bay, nothing Minnesota did was working. Nothing came close to working. The Vikings have had 24 possessions this year; 12 of them -- half -- have ended in turnovers. Daunte Culpepper has eight interceptions in two games. He looked completely lost Sunday, and it's clear why. Without Randy Moss drawing double coverage, defenses have a free guy to do with what they please. Culpepper is facing coverages and fronts that he's never seen before and isn't prepared for. At the same time, on defense, Palmer exposed the Vikings' secondary on the second play of the game and just kept doing it. Are you picking up what I'm laying down? Lemme spell it out: Mike Tice, who's survived this long only because Red McCombs could pay him peanuts, better sharpen his pencil and get cracking on the resume. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis will probably be screaming in Palmer's face this week. Palmer's end zone interception was his second in two games. One of these days (next Sunday), they'll be playing a team (Bears) much closer, and some DB (Mike Brown) will take one of those back 100 yards. Just saying.

Pittsburgh over Houston: The wonder, really, is that anybody would have picked the Texans in this game. No, I can't and won't say whether Pittsburgh will be as good this year as in 2004, but come on: It was Houston! Four years into the life of the franchise, and the team is still getting its ass handed to it weekly (and fumbling the exchange). Monday, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer lost his job. Yes, that Chris Palmer. Tim Couch is the lucky one: Palmer's schemes only destroyed his career. David Carr is being beaten within an inch of his life. No rest for Carr, however: Palmer's replacement is Joe Pendry, who has spent the past three years keeping the turnstiles greased as the Texans' offensive line coach. Fun fact: Dom Capers fired Pendry as O-coordinator in Carolina. Heads up, Dave.

Indianapolis over Jacksonville: Neither the score of the game nor its bruising nature was a surprise. This is what the Jags and Colts do. But I wonder when people are going to start talking about the switch from Astroturf to FieldTurf at the RCA Dome. Easier on the joints, harder on the 40 times.

Tampa Bay over Buffalo: Three of the top five picks in the draft were running backs. Only one reported to camp on time. In other news, Cadillac Williams has 276 yards and a 5.4 average; Ronnie Brown has 92 (2.7 avg.); and Cedric Benson, 59 (3.1). This game wasn't as hard to pick as it seemed to some. The Bills won handily last week, but they were playing Houston, and they still couldn't move the ball. This game featured the penalty of the week: Michael Clayton flagged for offensive pass interference, even though the ball wasn't even thrown his way.

Philadelphia over San Francisco: Last week, you could see the Eagles' loss to the Falcons coming from a mile away: too many distractions for Philly, too much motivation for Atlanta. Also last week, no one saw San Francisco's upset of St. Louis coming. This week, no one was going to be fooled. The Eagles were already angry over the Monday night loss; Derek Smith's trash talk about T.O. just helped them focus. When bad teams infuriate good teams, the bad teams get their teeth kicked in. Confidential to M.N. in S.F.: Going for a field goal when down by four touchdowns was a nice touch.

New York Jets over Miami: It's not so much that the Jets aren't as bad as they looked against the Chiefs. More like, the Dolphins aren't as good as they looked against the Broncos.

New York Giants over New Orleans: For all the talk about how the Saints got jobbed because the NFL was forced to make a quick decision on where to play this one, no one wants to dwell on the fact that Jim Haslett-coached teams have been far better on the road (24-16 before Monday) than at home (18-22). That said, it's going to be a long season for the Saints. The win at Carolina is already sepia-toned. Highlight of this game: Aaron Brooks and Eli Manning taking turns dropping ever-farther back to pass. Manning completed one pass that went about 15 yards forward yet gained only about three.

New England over Carolina: Looking back, I can't remember why this seemed obvious to me. Everything I said last week about Philadelphia-Atlanta and Carolina-New Orleans applied double here. New England expected to win, but Carolina wanted to win. New England wanted a victory, Carolina wanted revenge. Only a fool would declare the dynasty in danger based on one lousy game, but this makes two weeks in a row the Pats came stumbling out of the tunnel. And they had 10 days to prepare for this game.

Detroit over Chicago: Two rushing TDs, one passing TD, one punt-return TD and one interception-return TD. At least no one Lions player was burned over and over. Except Joey Harrington. Who does he think he is, Daunte Culpepper? Perhaps no one wants to win the NFC North. Or maybe Chicago really is that good. We'll see. Up next: Cincinnati.

Baltimore over Tennessee: As it turns out, it wasn't Kyle Boller's fault. The Ravens' offense is utterly toothless regardless of who's calling the signals. And I don't care how good the defense is, or at least once was; it can't prevent touchdown passes when Baltimore's QB throws them. I'm sure Brian Billick is tired of hearing what Trent Dilfer is up to. Hey, speaking of which ...

Green Bay over Cleveland: I get the message. The Packers are done. Brett Favre's line from Sunday was typical of his career: 32/44, 342 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 98.9 passer rating. But he's all alone out there now. There was a time when Favre's desperate last-minute drives were game-winning, playoff-clinching. Now they produce meaningless, face-saving TDs. He's still better than a lot of QBs in the league, but he isn't among the best. It's time to plan a graceful exit, because no one wants another Jimmy Johnson-and-Dan Marino situation.

San Diego over Denver: The question of which team is "for real" has been answered: Neither.

Atlanta over Seattle: Within three games, Matt Schaub will be filling in for the injured Michael Vick in the first quarter, not the fourth. This was a toss-up, and like all my toss-ups this week, it poked me in the goddam eye. Seattle is not a top-tier team -- at least, I don't think so -- but the Seahawks didn't have to fly all the way across the country to play after a short week. So don't let it go to your watermelon head, Holmgren.

Arizona over St. Louis: There's a certain nobility in a last-minute drive that comes up just short of a game-winning touchdown. There's nothing but shame in one that ends in a false-start penalty. The Cardinals were actually favored by some, but I still viewed this as my upset special. I was half right: The Cards continue to be nothing special, and I wound up upset. The Arizona bandwagon stops here.

Oakland over Kansas City: Oakland could and should have won this game. However, the Raiders may never win another game until a) the offense understands that if you go long on every throw, opposing defenders catch on eventually; and b) the defense learns that tackling involves more than launching your body helmet-first at the ball-carrier, then waving your arms at him you sail by.

Dallas over Washington: Oh, like you saw that coming. This was my Best Bet. The Cowboys were 13-1 vs. the Redskins in the past seven years. This was a rivalry the way a hammer and a nail are rivals. And yet, ahead by 13 in the fourth quarter, Dallas' offense went feckless and its defense went witless. Pass plays on first down when all you need to do is run out the clock? Letting Santana Moss get behind the secondary not once but twice? Giving up two long TDs to the corpse of Mark Brunell? Unreal. And the worst part of it, besides seeing Joe Gibbs suffer a near-stroke on national television, is that we'll have to hear playoff talk from Redskins fans. Oh, and someone explain to me: On a night when the Cowboys were inducting Aikman, Smith and Irvin -- the core of their early-'90s dynasty -- into the ring of honor, why was the team wearing throwbacks from the early '60s? The team went a combined 13-38-3 in those outfits.

SEASON: 18-14

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet. The formula behind them, a proprietary analysis of key statistics, successfully predicted 11 of the past 15 Super Bowl winners. Unlike with other, lesser ranking systems, no opinion is involved. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest.

1. Steelers100.0012. Redskins52.8923. Saints32.19
2. Colts93.1313. Cowboys50.2024. Raiders31.95
3. Eagles89.90 14. Rams49.0625. Packers27.66
4. Bengals89.7815. Falcons48.3426. Broncos25.06
5. Bears89.29 16. Patriots 46.9927. Lions23.20
6. Bucs85.7017. Bills 45.3328. Cardinals20.68
7. Giants81.5218. Chargers 40.3429. 49ers15.92
8. Chiefs76.71 19. Seahawks 37.3630. Ravens5.98
9. Dolphins64.4120. Browns 35.7131. Vikings5.73
10. Jaguars54.9721. Titans 33.6432. Texans0.00
11.Panthers53.8022. Jets 32.41

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Programming genius

UPDATE 9/19: Yeah, oops. Sunday night's Chiefs-Raiders game was called by Mike Tirico and Sterling Sharpe, not the usual ESPN idiots. That crew got the Monday night game at the Meadowlands. Even so, bizarre programming decisions this weekend ...

CBS' No. 2 broadcast team, Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf, will be calling New England at Carolina, which many people believe could be a preview of Super Bowl XL.

CBS' No. 1 broadcast team, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, will be calling Cleveland at Green Bay, two teams that lost last week by a combined score of 44-16 to opponents that have failed to make the playoffs for, respectively, the past 14 seasons and the past five seasons.

Fox's No. 2 broadcast team, Dick Stockton and Daryl Johnston, will be calling San Francisco at Philadelphia, featuring last year's NFC champion and the first appearance of Terrell Owens against his former team.

Fox's No. 1 broadcast team, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, will be calling Detroit at Chicago, featuring, well, Detroit and Chicago.

ABC's only NFL broadcast team, Al Michaels and John Madden, will be calling Washington at Dallas, which gets put on Monday night year after year for no explicable reason.

Possibly the two most compelling games of the weekend -- New York Giants vs. New Orleans and Kansas City at Oakland -- will be in the capable hands of ESPN's Mike "Would You Believe" Patrick, Paul "Let Me Just Say This" Maguire and Joe "Now Here's a Guy Who" Theismann.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Week 2 picks

My picks for Week 2 are now up at The Writers' Picks at Check 'em out, and be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the picks page for the prognosticators' standings after Week 1. Who's that tied for first place at 11-5? Why, it's my main man Down and Distance. I know that's right.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

But kickers

UPDATE 9/16: I just saw that this post is similar to some of the material in the Jets chapter of Pro Football Prospectus, the best pro football guide out there. The similarities are unintentional, but what I say still stands: The Jets were stupid.

When a team loses its opener by 20 points, when only a garbage-time TD prevents a shutout, when its starting quarterback fumbles six times, when its featured back averages less than 3 yards a carry, the fact that the kicker missed a field goal shouldn't merit much mention. Unless the team is the New York Jets.

As noted everywhere, then-Jets kicker Doug Brien missed the winning field goal -- twice -- in the closing minutes against the Steelers in last year's divisional playoffs. The team responded by throwing him off the metaphorical ledge, then going down to the metaphorical street and kicking his body under the metaphorical bus. The Jets then used their first pick in the draft -- a second-rounder -- on Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent. Sunday against the Chiefs, Nugent slipped as he planted his foot and bricked his first NFL field goal attempt.

Any other time a rookie kicker misses a 28-yard FG when his team's already down by 17, it maybe makes it into the "Notes" section of the game report in the next day's paper. (You know ... those little one-sentence items shirt-tailed onto the end of the main game story, usually under a clever heading like "Squib Kicks" or "Extra Points" or "Fair Catches" or "Torn ACLs.") But because of the Jets' hysterical reaction to Brien's breakdown, Nugent's blown figgie drew national notoriety.

Which is too bad, because Nugent doesn't deserve the opprobrium (look it up) that's bound to ensue. It isn't his fault that the Jets weren't satisfied merely with cutting Brien; they had to draft a kicker so it'd really sink in that he sucks. Nugent probably expected to get drafted -- he was the No. 1 kicker on the board -- but he also probably, and rightly, expected that he wouldn't go until the second day of the draft. Since 1982, only five kickers have been drafted in the second round or higher. Only three kickers were their team's first pick: Chip Lohmiller (Washington, Round 2, 1988), the absurd Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland, Round 1, 2000), and Nugent.

So everything Nugent does is under the microscope. And with every miss, the pressure will build, until the Jets cut him. And they will cut him, because that's what happens to most kickers. They get cut, and they move on. Brien, for example. He was a third-round pick by the 49ers in 1994. They cut him the next year. He cycled through the Saints, Colts, Buccaneers and Vikings organizations before landing in a Jets uniform and exploding all over Heinz Field. Now he's with the Bears, and that won't be his last stop. Who's kicking now for the 49ers, the team that originally drafted Brien? Why, it's Joe Nedney, who was signed as a rookie free agent by the Packers in 1995. He wasn't in Green Bay long, and he put in time with the Raiders, the Dolphins, the Cardinals, the Raiders again, the Broncos, the Panthers and the Titans before signing with San Francisco. For every team like Detroit, which has had Jason Hanson kicking since the Lions drafted him in 1992, there is a team like the Vikings, who in the same period have trotted out Fuad Reveiz, Scott Sisson, Greg Davis, Eddie Murray, Gary Anderson, Hayden Epstein, Aaron Elling, Morten Anderson and Paul Edinger.

Nugent's grim welcome to the NFL came the same weekend that two of the league's PK stalwarts kicked themselves in the teeth. David Akers went 1-for-3 on field goals in a game the Eagles lost by four points. (Those two missed FGs, by the way, were not the "difference in the game." E-mail me if you want an explanation.) Meanwhile, Matt Stover, who is in his 15th year with the Browns-cum-Ravens, honked all three of his field goal attempts. Here's what their coaches said:

"David is so consistent, he will work through this. He came back and hit one after missing two, and I am not worried about David."
-- Eagles coach Andy Reid

"Sometimes a kicker just doesn't have it."
-- Ravens coach Brian Billick

Akers wasn't a high draft choice. He wasn't drafted at all. The Panthers signed him in 1997, and he later went to the Falcons; the Eagles got him cheap as a free agent in '99. Stover was a comparative draft darling: the Giants took him in the 12th round in 1990, as the third-to-last player chosen. The 12th round doesn't exist anymore. Nor do Rounds 8-11.

Sure, Billick and Reid can afford to be sanguine about their kickers' struggles. After all, Stover was critical in getting the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2000, and Akers has been a vital cog in the Eagles' run of excellence. But are the coaches willing to cut them a little slack because they usually deliver, or do they usually deliver because the coaches are willing to cut them a little slack?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Week 1 postmortem

I went 11-5 for Week 1 with my selections on The Writers' Picks.
How I got it right, and how I got it wrong:

New England over Oakland: There's really no compelling reason not to pick the Patriots, regardless of who they're playing. Certainly not the fantasy football all-stars.

Washington over Chicago: The Redskins' offense can't do anything, but this week they were playing a team that can do even less. Kyle Orton may very well put it together, but he wasn't going to this week.

Cincinnati over Cleveland: Too much change in Cleveland in too little time, particularly when the opponent is an intrastate rival who sees this as a must-win. Carson Palmer made a couple dumb mistakes (one interception in the end zone, another returned for a TD but called back on a phantom penalty), but at times looked scary good.

Buffalo over Houston: Buffalo's defense is just too good for a Houston offense that, four years on, has yet to show much of anything.

Kansas City over New York Jets: Chad Pennington was supposed to be healthy, but that just doesn't matter. Though Pennington is not a bad quarterback, too many people forget that he's a star more because he plays in New York than because of his ability. Six fumbles? He had five total in 13 games last year. Six words, one for each fumble: Kurt Warner in the 2003 opener.

Jacksonville over Seattle: When two overrated teams play, go with the home team.

Tampa Bay over Minnesota: No team reads its own press more closely than the Minnesota Vikings. Yes, the defense has been upgraded and will be better. And, yes, the team will be better off without Randy Moss, because when one player becomes that much larger than the rest, there's no incentive for the others to perform. But neither the defense nor the offense is better yet, various Super Bowl predictions notwithstanding. And Tampa Bay just has Minnesota's number.

Pittsburgh over Tennessee: Of course the Steelers won't go 15-1 again. But it seems everyone decided to be "bold" and "contrarian" and pick them to fall off the table. Feh. Didn't suprise me that Ben Roethlisberger completed 80% of his passes. Or that he only had to attempt 11 passes.

New York Giants over Arizona: Arizona has a very good chance of winning the NFC West. The Giants have no chance of winning the NFC East. Still, this was easy.

Indianapolis over Baltimore: No special insight here. The Colts are just better than the Ravens. The ol' WWW is abuzz with discussion of the Ravens' last-minute timeout while trailing 24-0. Both sides of the argument have some merit, but in the end, it was a waste of time. The Colts were just trying to get out of the game and not make the Ravens look bad unnecessarily. Am I saying the Ravens should have just rolled over at that point? Of course not. They'd rolled over long before that. They couldn't win. Pulling out all the stops to pull within 17 points with 13 seconds left is no less pathetic than being shut out. Me, I love scores like 41-3 and 56-7 because it's fun to imagine what was going through the losing team's heads when they scored that one time.

Atlanta over Philadelphia: This was just a gut pick. The Falcons were going to be up for this game, and the Eagles weren't. I don't know why Donovan McNabb turned the ball over three times, but it wasn't because Jeremiah Trotter got thrown out of the game.


Denver over Miami: Denver isn't going to be very good this year, but I thought they could take a team undergoing a complete overhaul, humidity or no humidity. Boy was I wrong.

Carolina over New Orleans: I could never say with any certainty what role emotion played in this game, but I wouldn't discount anything. Carolina expected to win. New Orleans wanted to win. My bad. (Also, I want to address some things I heard in the past week about America "pulling" for a team. As much as I pray for the people in New Orleans, as much as I was glad to see LSU beat Arizona State, as much as I smiled at the Saints' victory, it just isn't right to declare that "all of America" was pulling for the Saints. So Panthers fans are bad Americans? Are Giants fans bad Americans this week? Similarly, last week, before the Patriots-Raiders game, there were the inevitable rehashes of the Snow Bowl in the 2001 playoffs. On SportsCenter one night, in describing Adam Vinatieri's incredible kick that tied the game, one of the commentators -- I can't be sure whom, though I have my suspicions -- said he believes God himself guided the ball because after the horrors of 9/11, America needed a team called the "Patriots" to win. Talk about asinine. Talk about bathetic. Talk about blasphemy. To say that God wouldn't intervene to stop the murder of 3,000 innocents, but would change the outcome of a football game to make us feel better about it? Sad.

Dallas over San Diego: I couldn't believe Dallas' roster of castoffs and second-chancers would grease the Chargers like that. Dan Snyder must be kicking himself. I also admit I forgot that Antonio Gates would be sitting. Duh.

Green Bay over Detroit: I thought the Lions were going to be better than the Packers this year. I just didn't think they were already better.

St. Louis over San Francisco: This was less a pick for the Rams than against the 49ers. Either way, I have no explanation. But I am not alone.


Down and Distance's exclusive Pow-R-'Ankings are the finest ratings of NFL team strength available to the public. They are based on proprietary analysis of key statistical indicators. Opinion plays no role. Be warned, however, that because the season is only a week old, the data set is still small, and these rankings may at this point be skewed.
1. Lions9. Bengals17. Rams25. Cardinals
2. Steelers10. Jaguars18. Panthers26. Texans
3. Bucs11. Patriots19. Chargers27. Broncos
4. Chiefs12. Falcons20. Bears28. Ravens
5. Colts13. Redskins21. Eagles29. Jets
6. Dolphins14. Cowboys22. Raiders30. Vikings
7. Bills15. Saints23. Seahawks31. Titans
8. Giants16. 49ers24. Browns32. Packers

Monday, September 12, 2005

Field guide to wide receivers

The call of a team on the rise
"This don't mean nothing. It's Game 1. Too soon. Holler at me when we're 5-0 or 7-0, and then we're knocking on the door of the playoffs."
-- Chad Johnson, WR, Cincinnati, after 27-13 win over Cleveland

The call of a team on the decline
"It goes to show that the best team doesn't always win. I think we were the better team at times today. Stats-wise, we showed we were a better team."
-- Torry Holt, WR, St. Louis, after 28-25 loss to San Francisco

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Cloudy forecasts

If it's the brink of the NFL season, you're sure to find newspapers, sports magazines and sports-oriented websites offering their predictions for the coming season. All have their picks for division winners, wild cards, league champions and the Super Bowl winner. It's all fodder for debate, and there's nothing wrong with any of it. (But doesn't anyone expect Pittsburgh to be better than Cincinnati this year?)

Some sources go further, however, and try to predict the regular season record of each team. Even the people who make these predictions know they're on a fool's errand. Indianapolis can't win 13 games if Peyton Manning breaks his leg. If Neil Rackers suddenly gets the yips, Arizona finishes with three fewer wins. Some team expected to win 10 games will in fact win five, and a team expected to win maybe five or six games will instead win 11 or 12 and get at least one playoff game at home. The best a prognosticator can hope to do is say Team A should be good, Team B will probably stink and Team C should improve. But that kind of equivocation doesn't sell newspapers, move magazine subscriptions or drive Web traffic. So you get exact forecasts of won-loss records.

Writers have their reasons -- good reasons -- for predicting that, say, Arizona will go 9-7 and win the NFC West. Or that Atlanta will go 13-3. Anything's possible, and I have yet to see a preseason prediction that defies all logic. No one is saying Cleveland will go 14-2 this year. Or predicting a 3-13 finish for New England. So it's pointless to quibble with specific predictions before a down has been played.

All that said, however, there are some things every NFL seer should be taking into account when dishing up his or her predictions for the year about to kick off. Basic stuff that should be central to any attempt to forecast exact records. Whether a season preview gets those things right -- now that's something worth critiquing.

I looked at six sources that predicted final records for the 32 teams: a national magazine, a national newspaper, two local newspapers and two independent websites. They are:
  • Sports Illustrated. Picks
  • USA Today. AFC | NFC (projected records appeared in print edition; not available online)
  • Tampa Tribune. Picks
  • Buffalo News. AFC | NFC
  • The Sports E-Cyclopedia. Picks
  • Insider. Picks
The first issue that must be considered is league-wide record. Get a calculator and go to Doug Drinen's definitive Pick an NFL season and add up the wins of all the teams in the league. Then add up all the teams' losses. Compare the numbers. Try another year. Or let me save you the trouble: The numbers are always equal. Every game has a winner and a loser. With 32 teams, there are now 256 games in an NFL regular season. Thus, all forecasts of regular season records should total 256 wins and 256 losses. But hey lookee here:

Sports Illustrated256256
USA Today282230
Tampa Tribune256256
Buffalo News264248
Sports E-Cyclopedia260252

The results point to the dangers of a) looking at each team, division or conference in isolation, and b) splitting your forecast among several writers. If I'm responsible for breaking down only the AFC East, I'll say New England's going 13-3, the Jets will be 11-5, Buffalo 9-7 and Miami 5-11. Reasonable, right? But that's a division record of 38-26. Somewhere, some team or combination of teams has to lose 12 more games than they win in order to balance it out. Now, if several writers have divvied up the eight divisions, no one is looking at the big picture. And because the tendency is to give teams the benefit of the doubt, the balance sheet becomes skewed in favor of wins. USA Today had several writers assemble its forecast and wound up with a forecast 26 games out of balance. The Buffalo News had one writer for each conference and came out eight games out of whack. The Tampa Tribune, however, had one writer, Ira Kaufman, take on the whole league, and his forecast is balanced. Sports Illustrated also was in balance. Adam Hoff at, a site that pits teams from different areas against each other, came close enough -- one game out of balance -- that it may just be a mistake. (Credit to Hoff for being the only one to err on the side of more losses, though.)

Another element a forecast should consider is the share of winners and losers. Though the number of wins and losses is always equal, the numbers of teams with winning records and losing records are rarely the same. Say you have a four-team league. You could have teams finishing 14-2, 7-9, 6-10 and 5-11. The league would have an even 32 wins and 32 losses, but would have just one winning team and three losing teams. Complicating matters is the fact that the NFL usually has some teams that finish as neither losers nor winners. These are the ones that go 8-8.

For a sense of what an "average" NFL season produces in terms of winners and losers, I looked at the past 15 years, 1990-2004. Raw numbers can't be compared from year to year because for the period in question, the league grew from 28 teams (1999-94) to 30 teams (1995-98) to 31 teams (1999-2001) to 32 teams (2002-present). So for each year, I converted the numbers of winners, losers and 8-8 teams to a percentage of the teams in the league. I then got the average of those percentages over the 15-year span and applied it to the current 32-team league.

On average, over the past 15 years, 45.3% of the teams in a given year finished 9-7 or better; 43.9% finished 7-9 or worse; and 10.9% finished 8-8. Projected to an "average" year in a 32-team league, that comes out to 14.5 winners, 14 losers and 3.5 teams at 8-8. Here's how the six forecasts compare with the hypothetical average year:


The only number here that's completely out of the range seen in the past 15 years is USA Today's multi-writer forecast of eight losers, or only 25% of the teams in the league. But here's what's really remarkable about the table:

Every forecast calls for more winners than losers. In only six of the 15 seasons examined were there more winners than losers. In another six seasons, there were more losers than winners. In the remaining three seasons, the numbers were equal.

Every forecast is for a higher-than-average percentage of winners. All three of the newspapers predict 17 winners this year, or 53.1% of the league. Only once in 15 years has the NFL seen more than half its teams finish 9-7 or better: 2000, when 16 of 31 (51.6%) did it. Sports Illustrated and Sports E-Cyclopedia get as close to the average as possible, yet still go to the high side of it. WhatIfSports goes for an even half of the league finishing above .500. For those interested, the lowest percentage of winners in the past 15 years came in 1999: 11 of 31 teams (35.5%).

All forecasts except one are for a lower-than-average percentage of losers. WhatIfSports hits the 15-year average of 14 losses, or 43.9%. Three sources predict 12 losers, or 37.5%. One picks 11 (34.4%), and we already discussed USAT at 25%. But only once in the past 15 years have fewer than 39% of the league's teams been losers: 1999, when 11 of 31, or 35.5%, finished 7-9 or worse.

(Yes, that's correct about 1999: 11 teams were winners, 11 were losers and nine were 8-8. Now that's parity. Of a sort.)

The last issue I'll bring up related to forecasts is extremes. Generally, if you get 11 or 12 wins, you're good. But if you get 13 wins, you're considered really good. Conversely, if you win only five or six games, you're pretty bad. But you finish 3-13 or worse, you stink. So let's compare how many teams the forecasts say will finish with 13 to 15 wins or 1 to 3 wins, compared with the league averages over the past 15 years:

13-15 wins2.1120120
1-3 wins2.2202232

There's something a little misleading about this table: No source predicted that any team would finish with one, 14 or 15 wins, and only one source predicted that any team would finish 2-14 (Cleveland, as picked by Sports E-Cyclopedia). So almost all predictions at the extremes are for 3-13 or 13-3. To top it off, all but one forecast lowballed the number of teams at the extremes. The reason for that is obvious: Forecasters can stand to be wrong, but no one wants to go that far out on a limb. I know I wouldn't.

The intention here is not to mock out the forecasts. They're done in fun, and they provide great grist for football talk. But by adhering to certain rules -- evening out wins and losses, sticking to reasonable ratios of winners to losers -- we could devise forecasts that come closer to reality, and thus would prompt even livelier discussion.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Vikings: 28 next years and counting

Take a look at this chart. It ranks NFL teams by the number of playoff appearances they have made in the 39 years of the Super Bowl era. Also included are the number of conference (or league, pre-1970) championship games the teams have reached, how many Super Bowls they have played in, and the number of Super Bowl titles each has won:


The chart is all you need to know about being a Vikings fan.

I grew up in Minneapolis, and the first NFL game I can remember watching was Super Bowl XI: Minnesota Vikings vs. Oakland Raiders. Particularly when you're a 7-year-old kid, your first experience with something becomes your point of reference, so I just assumed that the Vikings were in the Super Bowl every year. This wasn't entirely ridiculous: The 1976 season marked the fourth time the Vikings had reached the Super Bowl, meaning they had appeared in more than one-third of the games to that point, and half of the past eight. (Dallas and Miami had each been there three times.) Midway through the fourth quarter, when Willie Brown intercepted a Fran Tarkenton pass and ran it back 75 yards for the nail-in-the-coffin TD, I thought something along the lines of "we'll get 'em next year."

Twenty-eight next years later, the Vikings have yet to return to the Super Bowl. Purple Power!

The research that produced the chart above came from a hunch. I suspected that the Vikings just had to be the team with the most playoff appearances without a ring. They made the postseason eight times in the 1970s, five times in the '80s and seven times in the '90s. In addition to their four Super Bowl appearances, they played in the NFC Championship Game four times. I assumed that repeat champions like the Steelers, Raiders, Cowboys and 49ers had made more trips to the playoffs, but no one could match the Vikes for the sheer number of postseason trips with nothing to show for them.

When I got all the numbers together, it was even more depressing. The Vikings have been to the playoffs more than any team except Dallas. There are teams with a total of 15 titles weirdly clustered at 21 appearances each, three fewer than the Vikings. The Patriots have been in the playoffs half as many times yet have been to one more Super Bowl and have won three rings. The Redskins and Packers have each been to the dance 10 fewer times, yet each club has three titles.

Now, I have long since quit living and dying by the Vikings. But understand that this is what it's like to be a Minnesotan: Year after year, you think you have a shot, and you get nothing. You can lose big (e.g. Walter Mondale in 1984; or Giants 41, Vikings 0 in the 2000 NFC Championship Game). You can lose narrrowly (Hubert Humphrey in 1968; or Falcons 30, Vikings 27 in overtime in the 1998 NFC Championship Game). You can lose year after year after year (Harold Stassen, the Jerry Burns era). But you will lose. Oh, sure, the Minneapolis Lakers didn't lose; they won several NBA titles. But the state lost the team to L.A. The Minnesota North Stars lost the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals, and the state soon lost that team to the burgeoning hockey hotbed of Dallas/Fort Worth. The Minnesota Twins -- God love 'em, the only team that can still make me cry -- won the World Series twice in five years, and Major League Baseball put out a contract on them, or whatever that was. This is sports life in the Gopher State.

But back to the Viqueens, as Morgan Mundane loved to call them. The deeper you look into the numbers, the more maddening they become. Many of the teams at the top of the list went dry at one time or another. The Rams, for example, made the playoffs in 1989, when they were still in Los Angeles, and didn't get back until 1999, by which time they had moved to St. Louis. The Raiders went in 1993, while they were in Los Angeles, and their next appearance wasn't until 2000, by which time they had moved back to Oakland. The 49ers played in the NFC Championship Game in 1970 and '71, made the playoffs in '73, then disappeared until '81. The Cowboys were out of it from 1986 through 1990. The Vikings' longest stretch without a playoff appearance: four years, 1983-86. That matches the worst stretches of the Dolphins (two rings) and Steelers (four). The Vikings are always a threat to make the playoffs; they just don't do anything to make you proud while there.

The Vikings' postseason futility spans all eras. Since their last Super Bowl, they've lost the conference title game after the 1977 season (under Bud Grant), 1987 (Jerry Burns) and 1998 and 2000 (Dennis Green). The only Vikings coaches (except Norm Van Brocklin in the post-expansion years) who haven't made it to -- and lost -- the NFC Championsip Game are Mike Tice (working on it) and Les Steckel (3-13 in 1984). Further, it wasn't just losing those games; it was the way they were lost:
1977: Defending NFC champion Minnesota goes into Texas Stadium and gets throttled 23-6. Dallas goes on to wipe its shoes with the Denver Broncos.
1987: The Vikings, who had been on strike and unloved while the Twins were becoming World Series champions, win back the hearts of Minnesotans in the playoffs by crushing the Saints 44-10 and shocking the 49ers 36-24, both on the road. They proceed to break those same hearts in the NFC title game when Darrin Nelson drops the tying touchdown in the end zone, the Redskins win 17-10, and Washington disassembles the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
1998: The original Greatest Show on Turf. Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Robert Smith and the rest of the boys in violet set a league record with 556 points scored. They go 15-1, winning games by gaudy scores of 41-7, 50-10 and 31-7. Gary Anderson, who was a million years old even back then, misses only one kick all year: the winning field goal in the NFC Championship Game. Atlanta wins in OT and goes on to face the damn Broncos. At least this time the Broncos win. Cold comfort.
2000: Minnesotans see this loss coming, though not the size: Giants over Vikings, 41-0. Kerry Collins, who two weeks later would turn in the most dreadful appearance by a quarterback in Super Bowl history, looks like Y.A. Tittle in slicing the Vikings to ribbons. At least the Giants, rather than the Vikings, go on to get killed by the Ravens. At least, at least, at least. Even colder comfort.

A reasonable person could say that this is being awfully hard on the Vikings. After all, they've made the playoffs. If the chart above proves something else, it's that the St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals are truly the pits of the league. But nowadays, people in Arizona are thinking about going to the playoffs and are excited about the prospect. Vikings fans don't get excited by being in the playoffs. They're like Atlanta Braves fans that way: They want to know, what are you going to DO with this opportunity? I'd venture to say that Vikings fans would trade all those 9-7 seasons, all those losses in the wild-card round, all those shellackings in someone else's stadium, for a single five-year stretch that ends in a Super Bowl victory. Like Tampa Bay in 2002 or Baltimore in 2000. Or, hell, the Minnesota Twins in 1987 and 1991.

As it stands now, Minnesotans know tht the Vikings could make the playoffs this year. They're almost dreading it.


Note: Yes, the Vikings were officially NFL champions in 1969, the last year before the merger. They even wore a patch on their uniforms to that effect in 1994 (the 25th anniversary season). But they lost the Super Bowl to the Chiefs. The championship was only a technicality.

Weekly picks

This season I'll be taking taking part in The Writers' Picks over at We're going to try to find out who's the top prognosticator. The Week 1 picks have been posted. Check it out.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Ballad of the Redskins QBs

I've quit reading the Washington Post, so I'm not sure of the status of the alleged quarterback controversy here in DC. But considering that Patrick Ramsey looked unimpressive in the preseason while Mark Brunell looked sharp against second-team defenses, I assume Redskins fans will be calling for the hook after Washington's seemingly inevitable slow start. In no city is it more true that the most popular player on the team is the backup QB.

For as long as I've lived in the DC area, it's always been thus. I moved here early in 1998, as the Redskins were coming off one of their infrequent winning seasons -- and at 8-7-1, it was pretty much the least-winningest season that can still be classified as a winning season. Though the Capitals were advancing to the Stanley Cup finals, all the sports talk in DC was about the Redskins, as it always is. Specifically, the talk was about Gus Frerotte.

Since 1994, Frerotte had been strapped in on a quarterback carousel with mad Norv Turner at the controls. First the "competition" was John Friesz. Then it was Heath Shuler, the No. 3 pick in the 1994 draft. (Shuler was an epic bust, sure, but I don't think he was a bad pick. He put up huge numbers at Tennessee in a pro-style offense and was generally labeled a can't-miss. He missed, but at least he wasn't a basket case in the Leaf model. He's since made a fortune in business. Good for him.) After Shuler crapped out, Jeff Hostetler came in to push Frerotte. He didn't push all that hard, and in the 1997 season, it appeared Frerotte had finally won the job.

And so it was that in Week 13 of the 1997 season, trailing the Giants 7-0 on national television on Sunday night, Frerotte took a snap on the goal line. He's gonna take it in himself! Touchdown. And Frerotte chose to celebrate by head-butting the padded wall along the end zone. I can't explain it. It was the first season at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedEx Field); maybe the walls at RFK had more give. Regardless, Frerotte hurt his neck and was essentially done for the year. The game ended in a tie. (Also notable about the game was that with 48 seconds left in overtime, the reliably petulant Michael Westbrook took off his helmet to argue a call and got flagged for 15, pushing the Skins out of field-goal range. It was his signature moment as a Redskin, except for the time he beat up Stephen Davis in training camp.)

Frerotte was to return for the 1998 season but wouldn't stay long, as the carousel had begun to pick up speed. Over the ensuing seven seasons it would spin madly through five coaches and a dozen quarterbacks. Other teams may have played more quarterbacks during the period, owing to injuries or free-agent losses. But no club switched QBs based on coaches' whims or owner's box pressure more frequently than the Redskins. This team goes through quarterbacks like digital cameras go through batteries.

The 1998 season began with Frerotte the starter. It also started with seven consecutive losses. Paper Bag City in the stands at the Cookie. Frerotte went to the bench, and 28-year-old Trent Green became the starter. Green put up acceptable numbers (55 percent completions, 3400 yards and, most important, 23 TDs against only 11 interceptions), and it appeared the Redskins had their quarterback of the future. So naturally the team lost him in free agency. He signed with St. Louis, which had decided Tony Banks (remember that name) was not the answer.

The loss of Green was tempered somewhat by the signing of Brad Johnson, who had done well in Minnesota before getting thrown off Denny Green's own carousel in favor of Randall Cunningham, who would later be tossed for Jeff George (remember that name), who in turn would lose his job to Daunte Culpepper, but not before Green played footsie with Dan Marino. Got all that? The upshot was that with Brad Johnson at quarterback, Tre Johnson providing Pro Bowl protection, Stephen Davis developing into a featured back, rookie Champ Bailey turning into a shutdown corner, and new owner Dan Snyder not yet ready to start playing with the buttons, the team finished 10-6 and won the NFC East and its first playoff game.

With the Redskins seemingly poised to take the next step in 2000, the team signed as free agents the declining Bruce Smith, the decrepit Mark Carrier, the disinterested Deion Sanders and the disastrous Jeff George (as a "backup"). They thus ensured that that next step would be taken on surgically repaired, arthritic knees. On the first drive in the opening game, the Redskins offense marched straight down the field and scored a TD on the Panthers. And that was about it for 2000. Though the team started 6-2, someone upstairs wanted to see George play. In George went. Down went the season. A 2-6 finish got Turner fired (when the team was still 7-6), and interim coach Terry Robiskie came in to mop up.

George's ridiculous contract meant that the next coach, Marty Schottenheimer, was obligated to make him the starter in 2001. When a quarterback known for a huge arm and a tiny head is asked to run a short passing game, you can predict the results. George, whose most notable accomplishment in Washington was declaring that leadership is an overrated quality in a quarterback, was cut after two games, which the Redskins lost 30-3 and 37-0. The backup was newly signed Tony Banks. A year earlier, the Ravens, like the Rams, had decided that Banks wasn't the answer. And the Ravens, like the Rams, won the Super Bowl after doing so. The Redskins had no choice but to make him their answer. And to make newly signed Kent Graham their backup answer. At this point, rookie Sage Rosenfels, a fifth-round draft choice, had the most experience in Schottenheimer's system. It's no surprise then, that after five games, the team was 0-5 and had been outscored 135-25, including a 45-13 loss in Week 3 to the Trent Green-led Chiefs. The Skins won their next five and finished 8-8. Schottenheimer had patched up his differences with some of the veterans, and the club looked ready to move forward. But Snyder's longtime crush, Steve Spurrier, was looking for an NFL job, so Marty was out.

Banks was out, too, and was off to Dallas, where Bill Parcells made an example of him by cutting him before he even got to camp. For 2002, Spurrier figured that the key to the offense that was so successful in college was putting it in the hands of two quarterbacks who had failed in the NFL: Florida alumni Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel. Rookie Patrick Ramsey was also in camp, because Snyder had wanted to pick a quarterback in the first round, regardless of whether there were any QBs worthy of a first-round selection available. Spurrier never seemed to like Ramsey but appeared resigned to having to play him at some point. Rosenfels moved on to Miami, where today he's third on the depth chart behind Gus Frerotte (there he is again!). The University of Florida guys immediately endeared themselves to the city by letting Spurrier give them Joe Theismann's and Sonny Jurgensen's jersey numbers (7 for Wuerffel, 9 for Matthews). That didn't go over well, and they got 17 and 6 instead. Of the two, Matthews showed the most promise, so Spurrier was determined to play Wuerffel. All three quarterbacks got playing time in the Fun N' Gun offense, and the Redskins finished 7-9, despite the Fun N' Gun offense.

By 2003, Matthews and Wuerffel were gone, and Ramsey was the starter. Washington watched with gruesome fascination as Ramsey was beaten within an inch of his life every Sunday and Spurrier slowly came unglued. Ramsey lasted 12 weeks, which frankly was a miracle, and the far-less-talented Hasselbeck brother, Tim, took over. Spurrier tried to talk Wuerffel into coming back. Wuerffel, however, knew he was done, which is the sort of thing you really expect the coach to figure out before the player. The Redskins and their $25 million coach finished 5-11, the team's worst record in nine years. Unable to cut his own throat with his visor brim, Spurrier quit instead.

Joe Gibbs, the legendary Redskins coach and really the only trick Snyder had left to pull out of the hat, returned to the team in 2004. His first acquisition was quarterback Mark Brunell. Though no one else wanted Brunell, though he had replaced by a rookie in Jacksonville, though he was in his mid-30s and five years removed from his last Pro Bowl season, the Redskins gave him an $8.6 million signing bonus that rendered him uncuttable. He was also unplayable. On the season's first play from scrimmage, Brunell handed off to Clinton Portis, who ran 60-some yards for a touchdown. It was Brunell's best work of the year. Pretty soon Ramsey was playing again. It wasn't until the 13th game of the season that the team scored 19 points in a game. The record: 6-10. Better than Spurrier's the year before, at least!

Which brings us to today. The preseason has folks in DC muttering again. Ramsey will start, but Brunell is on the bench, and the Redskins traded up in the draft to get Jason Campbell. Snyder's going to want to see him play, as will Gibbs.

Gus Frerotte, Jeff Hostetler, Trent Green, Brad Johnson, Jeff George, Tony Banks, Kent Graham, Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Patrick Ramsey, Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell. Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs. The coaches change, the names change, the seasons change, but the carousel turns, turns, turns.