September 25, 2016

Pass-Catching Backs, Part II

By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day

Last week’s column, looking at reception-crazy running backs, noted that teams that used “playmaker” running backs who led their teams in both rushing attempts and receptions won fewer games than the average team. Now, this would seemingly make the Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, and right analog stick in Madden 2004 all quite unhappy, but let’s not confuse correlation with causation and say that having a LaDainian Tomlinson or Tiki Barber on your team makes them worse. Well, not yet.

I found last week that teams won, on average, 7.73 games when a running back led the team in receptions. Drilling down some, I found that teams who employed a secondary running back to lead them in receptions won 8.34 games, over a half win better than the average. I mentioned that playmaker-led teams performed slightly worse.

There have been 79 instances since 1978 where a running back led his team in both rushing attempts and receptions. Those teams won 7.25 games per season, a full-game worse than the John D. Williams and Dave Meggett-style offenses, and more than a half-win below the average NFL team. How could that be? These teams had players good enough to be dynamic threats both behind the line of scrimmage and out in the flat, and they were somehow still crummy?

I was still skeptical. There’s gotta be some advantage to having a playmaker on your team. I thought about LaMont Jordan, who’d been close to the team lead in receptions for the Raiders last season. He had 70 receptions while Jerry Porter had 76, but had a below-average DVOA (Football Outsiders’ metric measuring Jordan’s performance versus the league-average in the same situations — for further explanation, please read our Methods page) because he wasn’t doing anything with them; a lot of the time, he was catching meaningless dumpoffs on third and long and going a few yards, and he rarely, if ever, broke a long gain, leading to a low 8.0 yards per catch average. (For reference, the average running back who led his team in receptions averaged 8.89 yards per catch over the course of the study.) I wondered whether there were certain running backs who were just padding their stats with dumpoffs and other assorted flotsam, while running backs who were breaking big plays shouldn’t be associated with them. I took the ten running backs with the highest yards per catch average and the ten lowest and compare them below.

yards_per_catch.jpg

There are definitely sample size issues here, but a three-win-per-season difference is pretty gigantic. I found that yards per reception correlated with team wins for these 79 players at .29, a decent-sized correlation when it comes to football data; for the larger group of running backs who led their teams in receptions, that number went down to .21. I still wasn’t convinced I’d found the solution, though.

Since the numbers being analyzed here aren’t too complicated — yards, receptions, touchdowns, and carries — I decided to pull out the fantasy point metric again to see if it revealed anything. Just as a reminder, the formula for fantasy points is that used in most leagues I’ve seen and participated in: (((Receiving Yards + Rushing Yards) /10) + ((Rushing TDs + Receiving TDs) * 6) + Receptions). LaDainian Tomlinson’s brilliance on the waggle, sadly, will not be included for study.

The correlation between the 79 running backs’ fantasy points for the season and their team’s number of wins was .38, much stronger than the yards per catch correlation of .21. So now, something had been revealed that seems somewhat obvious: if a player is going to lead your team in carries and receptions, he best be getting a lot of yards and touchdowns, or your team’s not going to do very well.

I wondered whether either was more important, and separated the fantasy points into fantasy rushing points and fantasy receiving points. Fantasy rushing points correlated to wins (.34) higher than receiving points (.21), but that would also intrinsically follow — after all, teams that are losing throw the ball more than they run it, while teams that are winning do the opposite (that is, unless you’re Philadelphia). That being said, I checked whether carries correlated to wins, and for the 79 running backs who led their teams in carries, the correlation was only .21, so it was more so what the running backs were doing with their carries than the fact that they were getting them at all.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, it’s very important to not confuse correlation with causation. With that in mind, I think what history is telling us here is that having a playmaker on your team isn’t a bad thing — you just have to make sure that he’s a good one.

Game Day Rear View – Pats Crush Next Big Thing

by Scott Benson

The New England Patriots took an utterly convincing step towards the NFL playoffs tonight with a thoroughly dominant 31-7 road win over the upstart Minnesota Vikings.

If the playoffs were seeded today (sorry Bruce) the Patriots would be the AFC’s second seed, behind only the undefeated Indianapolis Colts, and again would possess a coveted first round bye.

The Patriots will return to Gillette Stadium to battle the Colts for the AFC lead at the halfway mark next Sunday night.

Tonight, the Patriots were expertly led by the league’s best quarterback,Tom Brady, who directed a spread offense – often with an empty backfield – and completely controlled the game from the opening gun to the final bell.

Brady finished 29 of 43 for 372 yards and 4 touchdowns in one of his greatest performances as a Patriot. Typically, he spread the ball to ten different receivers. He cut the highly rated Vikings D with long strikes over the top, and bled them to death with short underneath throws that controlled the ball, the clock, and the only-briefly boisterous Metrodome crowd.

As good as Brady was tonight, the Patriots defense may have been better.

They did not allow a point. They harassed veteran Brad Johnson into three interceptions (and Brooks Bollinger into one) and just 185 yards in 33 attempts, and held Chester Taylor to just over two yards a carry. Thanks to their suffocating performance, and their searing physical play, the Vikings were never once a threat.

Mike Vrabel led the D’s tour de force, flying from sideline to sideline for 7 tackles and an interception, and veterans like Rodney Harrison, Rosevelt Colvin, and Junior Seau made the Vikings pay for every measly inch they were able to scratch out.

The new look Vikings took the field with newfound confidence, and left the field a whipped bunch, the difference between them and a legitimate playoff team having been made painfully clear.

The game went south for Minnesota almost immediately, as Brady and the Pats took the opening kickoff and marched 86 yards for a touchdown. The key play was a Doug Gabriel catch and run that went for 45 yards on 3rd and 10 from the New England 10. The former Raider angled across the middle, took a Brady throw in stride, and raced all the way to the Vikings 41.

Just four plays later, Reche Caldwell worked his way free in the right corner of the end zone to grab a perfectly placed Brady toss, and the Patriots were off and running.

Later, after an ill-advised Brady 3rd down prayer had been intercepted by Darren Sharper at the Patriots 45, the Vikings made their only competitive run of the night. Minnesota moved 40 yards with a mix of the run and the short pass, and soon were threatening inside in the Patriots 10 yard line.

The Pats D stiffened (that’s what they do), and on 3rd down and goal from the 5, feeling pressure from the Patriots front (a quiet night on the score sheet, but not in the trenches), Johnson threw an inexplicable pass right into the arms of Harrison, who held on at the goal line to stunt the Vikings best scoring chance of the night.

Despite being in the shadow of their own goal posts, the Patriots went right back to the spread and promptly drove 90 yards for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a 10-0 lead. Brady stretched the field here again, htting Ben Watson down the seam for 40 yards, and brought the team into field goal range with a deftly executed 20 yard screen to Laurence Maroney.

Already down two scores, the Vikings went to the air, and again Johnson was picked off, this time by Chad Scott for his first interception as a Patriot. The former Steeler showed good awareness by doubling back on a badly underthrown Johnson ball in Patriots territory.

The Patriots were unable to do anything with that one, and they traded punts with Minnesota. But with four minutes remaining in the half, they went on the march again. It began when Caldwell took a short 3rd down pass and turned the Viking defender inside out before racing past him for a 34 yard gain. Maroney took it from there, breaking a rare running play to the outside for 22 more, all the way to the Minnesota 20. Soon after, Brady hit Caldwell again for another 3rd down conversion (this time on 3rd and 10, and again it was Caldwell running through a defender for the first), which set up a 9 yard Ben Watson touchdown (on a nice crossing route to Brady’s right) as the final seconds of the half ticked away. Brady had led the Pats on a 11 play, 74 yard drive, and for all intents and purposes, had finished off the Vikings.

The Patriots had gained more yards in one half than the Vikings defense had been allowing for an entire game. 30 minutes with a professional outfit and they were dead in the water.

The Vikings had one brief moment of hope early in the third, when Mewelde Moore took a Josh Miller punt and blew through several Patriots missed tackles en route to a 71 yard touchdown. For the first time since the game’s opening minutes, the Minnesota crowd had finally found its tongue.

But only for a second. On the ensuing kickoff, Maroney found a seam and busted off on a 77 sprint before finally being tripped up from behind by Artose Pinner. Three quick Brady completions and the Patriots were back in the end zone again (on a sharp 7 yard grounder gathered up by Troy Brown). The Vikings Moment was just that. A moment.

Game over.

The Patriots added another touchdown to close out the third, as Brady got his fourth TD of the day thanks to an impressive play by Chad Jackson. The rookie took a short Brady toss at the Vikings 10 and was nearly knocked to the ground, but he maintained his balance by keeping his feet moving, essentially crawling on his hands into the end zone.

The Patriots receiving corps, so often the focus of dissection and derision since August, had its finest hour tonight. Caldwell tied Watson for the team lead in receptions with 7, and Gabriel added 5 more. Brown and Jackson each found the end zone. They riddled the Vikings secondary and were open on virtually every play. The game plan to beat Minnesota had been built around them, and they were resolute in their response.

The offensive line, reminded all week about the Vikings unstoppable defensive front, protected Brady as well as they had all season. He was sacked three times, but the former Super Bowl MVP far more frequently enjoyed tranquility as he cycled through his available receivers. The line even opened the occasional hole for the little used Patriots backs (Maroney had his 22 yard dash, Heath Evans went for 35 on a quick hitter, and Corey Dillon added a 15 yard run despite only carrying three times).

The defense added four sacks to its four interceptions. and their 4th quarter assault on backup QB Bollinger (three sacks on his first three plays) was stark evidence of their clear superiority. Tully Banta Cain had two sacks and provided consistent edge pressure all night. Chad Scott was another standout, providing close coverage and steady run support from the corner.

There were a few curious moments in the 4th quarter. With the game safely in the bag, Brady remained in the game, and the Patriots continued to whip it around the lot. A long throw to a streaking Chad Jackson, which might have led to another score, was called back by a penalty. After that, Minnesota sent the house, and Brady took some shots, leading some to woinder what he was doing in there in the first place. What was that about?

A short week, and the number one seed in the AFC, awaits.

GDRV Game Day Blog – Are You Ready?

by Scott Benson

I’m just wondering if the Disney Company will manage to squeeze in at least a few plays from scrimmage tonight during the weekly Monday Night Informercial for the company’s diverse line of entertainment products.

*****

Look, I understand that the Minnesota Vikings have gotten their act together faster than anyone expected. I understand they have a steady veteran quarterback, a talented runner, and one of the best defensive lines in football. I’d wager my Super Bowl ticket scalping proceeds that Brad Childress is a better coach than Mike Tice. I understand that, emboldened by ending the Seattle Seahawks formidable home winning streak last Sunday, they’ll be sky high for their first Monday Night home game in five years. That’s fine. They’re 4-2, and clowns are no longer running their ballclub. Good for them.

But I’ll say this – that’s a three-time Super Bowl champion standing on their visiting sideline tonight. The road they took to get there is littered with the rotting corpses of more than a few teams that looked like champions in October.

*****

I’m watching the pre-game show and celebrating the news that Richard Seymour and his gruesome elbow will be in action tonight (watch your step, Rodney). Still, it kind of freaked me out to see Wendi Nix again. Can Greg Dickerson be far behind? Jesus, what the hell happened to ESPN, anyway?

*****

Daniel Graham is out again, missing his third straight. Is it crass of me to wonder if this improves the chances of the Patriots re-signing him? Its not like he’s having a contract year.

*****

Gotta go. Ugly Betty is making over Belichick. Ugly Betty, Thursday nights at 8:00 on ABC. And joining us now in the booth…….

GDRV Roundtable

by Scott Benson

I hate Monday Night Football.

Conceptually, I embrace it. I like that even after 10 or 11 hours of marathon broadcasting every Sunday (who else but the NFL gets away with this?), our football weekend isn’t quiiiiiiiiiiiite over yet – there’s still another game tomorrow night! I find that comforting, in an odd way.

So I guess I don’t really hate Monday Night Football. I just hate that the Patriots have to appear on it.

I’m sure you know why. If you’re a Patriots fan, you know that the bad has far outweighed the good when it comes to the Pats and MNF.

In short, over the past 35 years, the Patriots have a 13-21 record on Monday nights. Winning percentage in weeknight prime time? .382. THREE-EIGHTY-TWO. That’s a good average – if you’re George Brett.

The stories – the indignities – have become legend. Joe Washington, in the rain, no less….”No man can serve two masters”….after another loss in Miami, Michael Madden of the Globe writing, “the Patriots are losers”…..and that’s just the freaking 70’s. There’s almost three decades more.

Christ, the Patriots even killed a Beatle on Monday Night Football.

The good news is that during the Bill Belichick era in New England, the Patriots are a respectable 5-4 as a featured MNF player. The memories are largely good. They’ve humiliated the chest-pounding Steelers on on a banner-dropping, stadium-christening, season-opening night. They’ve used an intentional safety and late Tom Brady heroics to outfox Denver IN Denver. Heady stuff. Yeah, they also got their tired ass waxed by the formerly-dominated Indianapolis Colts last year, but back in the old days, Patriots fans would have been lucky to limp away from MNF with something as simple as a severe beating. Maybe the prancing Colts wounded our regional pride a bit, but at least nobody got pissed on.

Alrighty then, let’s move on. Panel?

Michael Felger seems pretty intent on convincing us that Eugene Wilson is a lousy player. He mentions it five times a week lately. Forgetting for the moment what Felger is up to, what do YOU think of the Patriots safety (who is still hurt and questionable for this week)?

Bruce: Wilson is one of the most low-key guys in the Patriots locker room, so I doubt he and Felger had any sort of tiff. I think perhaps Felger knows Wilson won’t bite back at him, so maybe that’s part of what has made him a target this season. The only change I’ve noticed out of Wilson last year and this is the lack of the huge hits that marked his first two seasons. I think part of that might actually be by design…Wilson used to “launch” himself into players, creating memorable hits, (I recall one one on Marvin Harrison, I believe.) but if he missed, it left him out of position. Perhaps because of injury, he’s stayed away from the big hits and has focused more on just being solid in coverage. Chasing down Willis McGahee last week despite a bad hamstring was an example of what he can do on defense. He may not be making big plays, but he’s certainly not hurting them back there, either.

Greg: He is a good player. He is in his fourth year and has had two extremely good years, borderline Pro Bowl and one so-so year. Contrary to Felger’s analysis, which he seems incapable of doing accurately in any aspect of the Patriots anyways, he was not awful last year. He must just have ticked Felger off or something. He wasn’t great either and certainly had his least effective year. This year, he has been fine. I mean, we’re talking about a defense that hasn’t given up more than 17 points in any of the games he has played in. He is a solid tackler, good in coverage and has good range. What’s the problem? You’d like to see a few more picks as he had his first couple years, but that could be just a function of randomness. Its not like he doesn’t know how to create turnovers. And we’ve seen several times this season where he has run down a ball carrier in the open field where they otherwise may have taken it all the way. That’s exactly what you need from a safety. Don’t trust Felger. He’s really become a pathetic obseverer of anything Patriots.

Scott: The lack of turnovers is the thing with me. He just hasn’t been creating them. After generating ten in his first two seasons (8 picks and 2 forced fumbles in 37 games), Wilson has dropped off considerably (just one interception and one fumble recovery in last 22 games). But generally, he seems like a solid, knowledgeable, reasonably productive player, a guy that’s proven that he can play at the highest level. Pointing out that he hasn’t become Ed Reed seems, well, pointless.

The Patriots defense is ranked 4th in the league in points allowed, 6th in rushing yards allowed per game, 10th in the league in red zone TD’s allowed, and thanks to their 10 forced turnovers, tied for 8th in the league in turnover differential (+4). Is the Patriots defense as good as the numbers indicate?

Greg: Yes it is. And it will get better. They’ve had a few slips here and there, but in general they have plugged a lot of the holes from last year’s leaky defense. I credit Dean Pees, Bill Belichick and the players. They are playing very well against the run, though they can do better. They have, with only a couple exceptions, not been burned by the big play like last year. And they’re creating turnovers now. I like what I see.

Scott: These past few weeks, I’m dying with every third down conversion they give up, and with every battle of field position they lose. Come ON defense, I cry. MAKE A F*****G PLAY! Then I look up at the end of the game and the other team has like 13 points. I don’t know what the hell I’m watching, frankly.

Bruce: Like Greg said, I think this defense is going to get better. In fact, it is a trademark of the Belichick defenses that they get better as the season goes along. I’m looking forward to seeing what the defense is looking like come December.

Ty Warren is off to perhaps the best start of his career. He’s on pace for season bests in tackles and sacks, and what’s more (fun fact ahead), he’s second on the team, behind only Asante Samuel, for passes defensed (4). He’s an ironman, of course, never missing a regular season game. Everyone knows that Richard Seymour is considered one of the best in the league, so where does that place Warren?

Scott: To Seymour’s left? Warren’s not the flashy pass rushing end like Freeney and them, so as far as Pro Bowls, he’ll only get them by outlasting the others. But those of us who watch him every week know how he can blow up the run, and mix speed and power to get into the pocket. You can’t say enough about the guy being there every week, either. You really get the sense this is a guy that’s still getting better, he’s stuck out that much. When was the last time the Patriots had this good of a defensive line? The Sixties?

Bruce: Warren has been getting more attention from the media this year, which is good for him, he deserves to be recognized for his play. I don’t think he’s getting the recognition around the league that is going to get him any postseason awards. If Seymour doesn’t play this Monday night, the Patriots are going to need to see Warren play at a Seymour level. I think he’s up to the challenge. All very good for a guy who had his work ethic challenged by some when he was coming out of school.

Greg: I think Warren is having a Pro Bowl season and has been the best player on defense to date. Now, given the way the Pro Bowl is selected, I doubt he’ll get in. But he really is playing that well and its nice to see. This is one first round pick that seems not to get the accolades as the excellent pick its turned into. But clearly, its becoming obvious the Patriots did a good job with that pick as well.

Everybody in New England noticed last week when Matt Hasselbeck went down with what looked like a painful – and potentially devastating – knee injury. With Seattle now at 4-2, and with Hasselbeck out a minimum of three weeks, is the stock of their first round pick (now, of course, owned by the Patriots) rising?

Bruce: The Curse of the Super Bowl loser! Someone should write a book on it. There aren’t enough sports related curse books out there, in my opinion. I think the pick could be low 20’s, but that’s about as good as it can get for the Patriots. Seattle’s division is just too weak for them to completely fall apart.

Greg: Yes, of course. They were lucky to beat St. Louis the previous game too and could be 3-3. Heading into games without Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander still out and likely not to be at full speed at least at first when he comes back, they are going to continue to struggle. Fortunately for them, they have some easy games that will help them pull out a few wins while they are ailing, but I think the end result is they’ll be a 9-7 or 10-6 team at best. That’ll place the Patriots pick somewhere in the low 20’s. Not too bad.

Scott: I’d say they have a pretty favorable schedule in general, so these guys are probably right when they say low 20’s at best. I can’t say that qualifies as ‘rising stock’. I have to admit I was expecting more when I heard about Hasselbeck – by the way, should I feel guilty about letting out a little ‘whooo!’ when the news came? That doesn’t make me a bad person, right? I didn’t think so.

Let’s pull out the dartboard and blindfolds – it’s prediction time. This week, let’s go with: Baltimore at New Orleans, Atlanta at Cincinnati, Seattle at Kansas City, Jacksonville at Philadelphia, St. Louis at San Diego, and in the big one, Indianapolis at Denver.

Greg (1-5 last week; 20-21 overall):Trying to pull a fast one on me, huh Benson? By my review of last week I picked both the Bengals and Indianapolis. That would put me at 2-4 not 1-5. Nice try pal, but I’m on to you. I call for a Big 8 accounting firm to review the season results and get to the bottom of this GDRV record scandal immediately! Anyways, for this week I’ll go with New Orleans to continue their hot start. They have found a rhythm on offense and their defense is pretty good as well. The Bengals will beat Atlanta. Michael Vick won’t play as well this week on the road. Kansas City beats up on the injured Seattle, Philadelphia rebounds at home versus Jacksonville, San Diego does at well at home and Denver hands Indianapolis its first loss in a big game.

Bruce (2-4 last week; 28-13 overall): Hmmm, Greg’s got me wondering about Scott making up so much ground on me the last few weeks. One week I’m lapping the field, the next Benson is right on my tail. I’m going with New Orleans, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Jacksonville, San Diego, and I think I’ll take Indy.

Scott (2-4 last week; 24-17 overall): Mistakes were made. Now is a time for coming together, in a bypartisan fashion, to look beyond those mistakes and forget they were ever made. Then, and only then, will true healing begin. I ask for your support. Now, let’s see….I’ll take the Saints over the Ravens, the Bengals beat the Falcons at home, I like the Chiefs to prevail at home, Philly too, and for that matter the Chargers as well. I fully expect the Denver Broncos to beat Indy, because that’s just the kind of thing those pricks would do. The Colts might get them if they were at home, but it doesn’t seem likely there in Denver. By the way, you crybabies, the corrected standings are below:

Bruce: (3-3 last week; 29-12 overall)
Scott: (3-3 last week; 25-16 overall)
Greg: (2-4 last week, 21-20 overall)

When the 06 schedule came out, I’m sure a lot of us marked ‘W’ next to ‘Minnesota’, what with those visions of of bawdy cruises and Mike Meathead Tice dancing freshly in our heads. Not so fast, kimosabe. The Vikings actually seem to be becoming a legit outfit under former Philly OC Brad Childress. And suprisingly, the team’s real strength seems to be defense. How do you like the Pats on the road in this intra-conference game?

Scott: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I’m thinking of the last time the Pats went on the road to play an opponent that had been playing well. I was convinced that the Bengals would push the Pats around a bit, and as it turned out, it was the other way around. Fool me once. I don’t know how they’ll do it, but I’m picking the Pats to come up big again, 30-14. The Vikes may be on a real upswing, but they were just another lousy team a few months ago. Once the opening adrenaline rush subsides, this rebuilding team is going to find themselves in a 60 minute football game against a bunch of guys that have been there plenty of times before. I haven’t heard anybody playing up that angle this week, so I guess I will.

Bruce: Well, the Patriots are 1-0 when I pick against them this year, so here’s hoping that streak continues. This is a tough game in a tough, loud environment. The Patriots are still coming together as a team, and that Seymour injury couldn’t have come on a worse week, given the strength of the Vikings offensive line. Tom Brady is going to need to have a big day in the passing game, as I think Minnesota is going to make it tough to run the ball. Ben Watson could have a big game Monday. I’m going to have to pick the Vikings though, let’s say 17-13.

Greg: Its a pretty tough matchup and the Patriots are a bit banged up. They could be without key players like Richard Seymour, Stephen Neal and Eugene Wilson. Still, I like the way they are playing and I think they’ll be ready. Minnesota is far from explosive on offense anyways, and the Patriots just aren’t allowing much on defense. I see a 23-13 Patriots win.

Coming down the backstretch…….it’s our Mediot of the Week!

Bruce: Bob Lobel attempting to set the AFC playoff seeds (if the season ended today…) after last week’s game was a bit much. It’s way too early for that, and with Denver and Indy playing this week, you had to at least wait until after this game to even be able to consider anyone the favorite to get home field. There’s plenty of things to talk about without trying to force talk about the playoffs. PLAYOFFS?

Greg: Can we go with Dennis and Callahan for their harping, panic-riddled calls for Laurence Maroney not to return kick offs a few weeks ago? Although we have expressed the sentiment that Patrick Pass return kicks here on GDRV, that was more because we preferred a different style and Pass role of a non-fumbling, hard runner who won’t break one but will do okay on kickoffs consistently. It wasn’t that we thought it was ridiculous to have Maroney back there. In contrast, on Dennis and Callahan, they basically claimed it was the height of idiocy to have Maroney back there and demanded he be removed for a good solid 20 minutes just before the Buffalo game. And now Maroney broke a couple good runs on kickoffs, including one near touchdown Sunday, and they go silent on the matter or their criticism of Belichick for using him in that role. Typical of those weasels.

Scott: Are you kidding? Didn’t you see the Boston Sports Media Watch afternoon update on Thursday?

Editor’s Note: Speaking of BSMW, don’t miss Bill Barnwell’s latest column, also posted on Thursday.

Pass-Catching Backs

By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day

This week sends the Patriots to the one of this season’s surprise packages in the 4-2 Minnesota Vikings. Well, surprising to me at least — I picked the Vikings as the team most likely to have the 2007 #1 overall selection in the Football Outsiders Season Predictions. While four of the ten FO writers participating chose the surprisingly competent Bills, two others chose the Raiders, who may already have Brady Quinn jerseys in stock. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Raiders sign Jonathan Quinn and have him wear the same jersey number that Brady Quinn does, just so they can start selling that jersey now. Alternately, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Raiders sign Jonathan Quinn because they are, unfortunately for Raiders fans, the Oakland Raiders.

Let’s try and keep things pleasant, though. The Vikings have played above expectations by employing, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic, the third-best defense in football so far this season. Unfortunately for them, it’s had to overcome the 24th best offense in football. One of the strange things about the Vikings offense is that, right now, their leading receiver is a halfback, Chester Taylor. Granted, he has 21 receptions, and two other players have 20 and 19 receptions, respectively, but he’s the leader right now.

I should give a disclaimer here: I love running backs that can catch the ball — for about six straight years, I’d make sure to grab Larry Centers with my last pick in fantasy football. By mid-season each year, whoever’d drafted Rashaan Salaam or Curtis Enis or Anthony Thomas (do you see a trend here?) would need a second running back and would pay far over the odds to get him. This happened every year without fail. What I noticed, though, was that while Centers bumped around from team to team, his teams usually didn’t do very well: he only played on three teams with a winning record in 14 seasons, one of which being the 2003 Pats, where he really played a peripheral role.

With memories of Larry Centers getting dealt for Jerry Rice running through my head, I decided to go back and take a look at teams who’d had their running back be their leading receiver, to see if the teams had anything in common. I also wanted to see if teams that used a running back as their most frequent (if not primary) receiver enjoyed success on a regular basis or struggled, to see if the Vikings’ frequent use of Taylor might portend future struggle.

My hypothesis was that teams that used running backs as their leading receivers did so because they had poor talent at wide receiver and/or couldn’t keep their quarterback upright long enough to throw the ball downfield, resulting in short dumpoffs for little-to-no-gain. I didn’t think that teams were designing their playbooks to be built around throwing to their running back, and as a result, having a running back who caught the ball more than anyone else on your team would be a reference point similar to teams that have been using non-Tim Wakefield knuckleballers in the last fifteen years; the only way that Jared Fernandez or Steve Sparks have gotten innings this decade is by pitching for really bad teams that just need to throw someone out there, so in the same way, the only way these teams could advance the ball even a little bit would be to dump the ball off to their running back for a few measly yards on third and long.

Starting off at the advent of the sixteen-game schedule, I located every team since 1978 (short 1982 and 1987) that has had a running back lead it in receptions. Somewhat surprisingly to me, that resulted in 146 different teams, or nearly six full teams a season. I never realized that so many teams had a running back catch the most balls for a single season! There are some situations in which the same players repeatedly pop up: LaDainian Tomlinson and Tiki Barber, for one. On the other hand, though, there are some weird players like former Falcons running back John Settle. In 1988, he led his team with 68 receptions; no one else had more than 37, and even that was fellow backfield mate Gene Lang! The next year, Lang and rookie Keith Jones had more catches than Settle out of the backfield, while Shawn Collins and Michael Haynes caught more balls whilst split out. To go from first on your team in receptions to fifth is a pretty dramatic drop.

What I found out about the teams is that they weren’t very different from the average NFL team. The 146 teams I looked at won an average of 7.73 games per season, only slightly less than that of the average NFL team (factoring in the effect of ties, NFL teams win a hair-on-Matt-Hasselbeck’s-head sized amount less than eight games per season). So, clearly, using your running back more often any of your wide receivers to catch the ball isn’t much of an impediment to winning games.

Lots of the running backs, I found, were stars who simply got the ball running and receiving a whole lot: guys like Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, and Roger Craig in the eighties, and the aforementioned Tomlinson and Barber in the modern day. The Vikings are employing Chester Taylor in this way, as he has 137 of the team’s 165 carries. Centers, though, never led his team in rushing; the only year he came close was 1996, when he had 116 carries to LeShon Johnson’s 141. I wanted to isolate players like Centers, who were used specifically as the pass-catching backs on their team, in order to see if that disproved my hypothesis further.

Of those 146 teams, 67 of them employed a back as their leading receiver who was not their leading rusher. Those teams won an average of…8.31 games per season, over a half-win per season more than those 79 teams that used a single player to lead them in both rushing and receiving. Could that be due to fatigue on the part of that star player? Perhaps. That’s something I’ll look at later on this season. I was really surprised, though, to see these teams employing secondary halfbacks as their top receivers winning more games than teams who used one all-purpose guy as their featured receiver.

No one, though, holds a candle to Centers when it comes to this situation. He led teams in receiving but not rushing seven times in fourteen seasons, including four consecutive years with some miserable Cardinal teams in the mid-nineties. No other player can match those numbers. Some of the closer ones include:

Kimble Anders, Kansas City (1994, 1996, 1998)
You’ll note from the years above that Anders led the Chiefs in receiving every other year over the course of six seasons. Those seasons, they won 9, 9, and 7 games, respectively. The odd-numbered years surrounding them? They won 11, 13, 13, and 9. Oops. Anders isn’t exactly the most representative of these backs when it comes to seeing his team’s performance improve, I guess. Anders was actually outgained by fellow backfieldmate Todd McNair in 1995, but was in the shadow of wide receivers otherwise. All in all, Anders was a very useful role player on the team — not only did he catch balls, but he was regarded as a solid fullback, averaged 4.6 yards a carry over his career, and made three Pro Bowls. When the Chiefs tried to make him their starting running back in 1999, Anders suffered an injury in the second game of the season (while running for 142 yards against Denver on Monday Night) and went on IR. The next season was his last.

Keith Byars, Philadelphia (1989, 1990, 1991)
One of the most versatile players in the modern NFL era, Byars actually led the Eagles in rushing his rookie season (1986) as well as in 1988 (where he actually also led the team in receptions as well); in 1999, he had 133 carries as Anthony Toney (172 carries) took over for him as the starting running back, and over the 10 seasons remaining in his career, Byars had 287 carries. Meanwhile, Byars was catching more passes than Cris Carter, Fred Barnett (who he tied in 1991), and Calvin Williams as he was the point man on an offense that was 3rd in points scored in 1990 — of course, into 1991’s life, the proverbial Rich Kotite fell. Well, the actual Rich Kotite. The Eagles had double-digit wins each year of the Byars-receiving era.

Ronnie Harmon, San Diego (1991, 1992, 1994)
Harmon’s tenure saw rapid shifts in both system (former BC man Dan Henning being replaced in 1992 by Bobby Ross) and success (from 4 wins in 1991 to 11 in 1992, 8 in 1993, and then 11 again in 1994), but Harmon remained a useful cog in what was a rather successful Chargers offense under Ross. Also worth noting is that Harmon’s catches were more successful than that of most running backs; while the average running back who led his team in receptions averaged 9.15 yards per catch, Harmon averaged 10.4 for his career, and 10.25 from 1991-1994.

John Williams, Seattle/Pittsburgh (1988, 1990, 1992, 1994)
Even weirder than Anders, John Williams managed to pull this feat off for four consecutive even-numbered seasons, and managed to do so on two coasts. In fact, it’s pretty rare that these sort of players lead two teams in receptions but not rushing attempts; only Williams, Centers, and Richie Anderson can say they’ve done it. (Centers, by the way, did it for three different teams, the only person to do so.) Williams wasn’t like Harmon, Byars, or Anders, serving as a fullback who only occasionally saw a carry, but instead was a legitimate running back, averaging 152 carries per season over his first seven years in the NFL. He saw the last six seasons of the Chuck Knox era, and quickly became a significant part of the offense, backing up (the old) Curt Warner and becoming an excellent receiver out of the backfield, averaging over 11 yards per catch in 1987 and 1988.

In 1989, meanwhile, Williams was only one catch short of Brian Blades, which put him into the rarefied air of Centersville; strangely enough, though, his yards per catch dropped from 11.2 to 8.6 and stayed around there for the rest of his career. Williams stuck around for the beginning of Tom Flores’ nihilistic football statement that was the early-nineties Seahawks, but once Rick Mirer began to get entrenched as Seahawks QB, Williams moved to Pittsburgh, where he repeated the feat out of the backfield whilst backing up Barry Foster and Bam Morris on a 12-win team. That year, he outcaught both Charles Johnson and Yancey Thigpen. The next year, the Steelers brought in a similar player in Erric Pegram, and Williams was out of the league in 1996.

If anyone’s similar to Centers statistically, it’s Anders; they both didn’t average very much per catch and they both were given aborted runs as the starting halfback, but stylistically, they were two very different players. In addition, Anders spent his entire career playing for a pretty consistently good Kansas City team, while Centers spent his career floundering in Arizona and Buffalo, finally winning his ring in 2003.

So, what did the research show here? So far, I think it’s safe to say that using a running back more often than any of your wide receivers doesn’t prevent your team from victory. That being said, I think the research about running backs who lead their team in both categories might reveal something interesting about “playmakers”, and might be a sobering thought for Reggie Bush and Chester Taylor.

Second Look: Patriots at Buffalo

A very good performance by the Patriots last Sunday, overall, in their trip to Buffalo. A look back at the film reveals it wasn’t quite the blowout, at least in the first half, competitively as the score suggests. But, nevertheless, a fine win and one in which the Patriots became more and more in control as the game wore on. Buffalo was a game opponent for awhile, but the Patriots were too much for them and imposed their will on Buffalo to cruise to victory. Lets break it down by units.

QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady had a pretty good game. But I’m not sure I agree with some of the commentary I heard he was more on than any other game this year. I just didn’t see that. He was certainly more on than against Miami, a team he usually struggles with. But he missed some throws. For example, on the fourth play of the game on offense, he missed a wide open Reche Caldwell streaking down the right sideline. That’s a throw he should hit. Later, he could have made a better throw on another play which could have been a score to Caldwell, though it did hit Caldwell in the hands. Overall, however, it was a solid performance. We’re just still waiting for the vintage performance we know Brady has in him. I’m sure its coming.

RUNNING BACK: Not an overly productive day. Corey Dillon ran hard and had two touchdowns. Laurence Maroney struggled a bit with dancing in the hole, though admittedly he wasn’t presented with much. Heath Evans had a good day, including a great block on Corey Dillon’s first TD run. Kevin Faulk made a heads up play jumping on a loose ball in the second half.

WIDE RECEIVER: A pretty good day. Reche Caldwell made some effective catches, including a big one for first downs on each of the first two drives on third down. He was open and could have had some other big plays with just a little bit more precision in the timing with Tom Brady. Troy Brown chipped in a couple catches and Doug Gabriel had a decent day, including scoring a touchdown. Chad Jackson showed up too, with a nice thirty-five yard touchdown which was a well-run route, as well as a 14 yard gain on a reverse on the first drive.

TIGHT END: A good day for Ben Watson with five catches. Some nice blocking from David Thomas as well, including a very smart decision to bypass Aaron Schobel on Jackson’s reverse where he recognized Schobel didn’t have an angle and Thomas moved down field to block someone else instead, even though he had Schobel lined up in his sites and could have leveled him.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Not a great day, but some outstanding play at times. Dan Koppen got some good push in the middle, as usual, on a number of plays. Stephen Neal got out and made some good blocks in space. But Matt Light struggled with Schobel, as he has always done and the line gave up some pressure, particularly in the first half. Buffalo’s quick defensive line isn’t the ideal for the Patriots in the passing game. But overall, not a bad day.

DEFENSIVE LINE: A pretty good job here too. They created pressure on Bills quarterback J.P. Losman. Although he had his moments, Bills running back Willis Magahee was held pretty much in check. Vince Wilfork dominated in the middle, which was the key to the inability of the Bills to really get a ground attack established all day.

LINEBACKER: Roosevelt Colvin had his best day since early in the season, both against the run and creating some pressure in the passing game. Junior Seau was active in the middle and Mike Vrabel had one of his best games of the season, including causing a fumble on a sack. This group appears to be coming together better.

DEFENSIVE BACK: A great day for cornerback Asante Samuel, who had blanket coverage most of the day and another interception. Chad Scott continued his hard hitting good play and Rodney Harrison gets better and better every week as he returns from injury. Eugene Wilson made a nice touchdown saving play by running down Magahee on a shovel pass early in the game on a drive that ended up only resulting in a Buffalo field goal.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski’s kickoffs again were outstanding, a feature of his game that has been overlooked and has been among the best in the league this year. Josh Miller again quietly had a nice day and the coverage was good, save one return, against a tough Bills special teams unit.

A tough game in Minnesota awaits on Monday night next week. Minnesota is a loud venue and tough to play in and the Vikings are playing conservative, smart football. Their defense is really turning into one of the better defenses in the NFL, so the Patriots will have their hands full. Until then.

Game Day Rear View — Patriots Outlast Bothersome Bills, 28-6

by Scott Benson

The New England Patriots today ran their record to a division-leading 5-1 with a 28-3 win over the Buffalo Bills in a game that may have been, as the old cliche goes, closer than the final score would indicate.

Despite the three-score margin of victory, the Patriots spent most of the first three quarters trailing Buffalo in both total yardage and time of possession, as the Pats offense again struggled with the Bills active front seven and their defensive teammates labored to slow down Willis McGahee and JP Losman. Only a couple of late touchdown drives by the Patriots – the inevitable outcome of an afternoon filled with predictable errors by the undisciplined Bills – gave New England the edge in both categories, and on the scoreboard.

Corey Dillon had two early touchdown runs for the Pats, and a once again battered Tom Brady hung in there to throw scoring passes to Chad Jackson and Doug Gabriel that provided some much needed breathing room over the final twenty minutes of play.

The Patriots defense recovered from a sometimes-rough first half to eventually clamp down on Buffalo, closing off the run and forcing Losman into one third-and-long situation after another.

They didn’t so much beat the pesky Bills today – they outlasted them. Which is fine; a win is a win, especially when it produces the second best start of the Bill Belichick era, and an early 4-0 division mark.

The Bills may match up well physically with the Patriots, but they’re still miles away from the possessing the kind of maturity and composure that New England has become known for. Take away the three Losman turnovers (two fumbles lost, and an Asante Samuel interception deep in Patriots territory) and the mindnumbingly stupid roughness penalty that set up Dillon’s second touchdown, and we’d likely be talking about a much different game tonight.

But we’re not. Which is reason enough to look beyond today’s momentary difficulties to appreciate a professional win by one of the few truly legitimate teams in the NFL.

As called for in this morning’s Globe, the Patriots got off to a rare fast start with a six-and-a-half minute touchdown drive on the game’s first possession. It was their first such TD of the season.

Though many of us expected the Patriots to pound the smallish Buffalo front with Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, the initial drive was keyed by the passing of Brady, who countered Buffalo’s quickness with a series of short drops and flips to Reche Caldwell, who was targeted on the quarterback’s first four throws. He grabbed three of them to lead the Pats downfield, where Jackson (a nifty end around for 14 yards), Ben Watson (a 14 yard catch and run on another misdirection play, this one a multi-fake screen) and Troy Brown (a sharp 9 yard grab on 3rd and 8 inside the 20) took over. Two plays later, Dillon carried it home with a slashing run from the Buffalo 8, and the Patriots had a 14 play, 71 yard scoring drive and the early lead.

Losman and the anemic Buffalo offense then surprised by heading back upfield with a drive of their own. McGahee had early success running against the Pats front seven, and on a 3rd and long in Bills territory, he grabbed a shovel pass from Losman and left New England defenders grasping at air as he raced 56 yards to the Patriots 17 (Eugene Wilson saved the TD by running him down from behind). But soon, Losman was fumbling a snap on a 3rd down play (he recovered), and Buffalo was settling for a Rian Lindell field goal. The Patriots had escaped with the lead intact, and the Bills had suffered the consequences of the kind of error that would plague them for the rest of the day.

They’d quickly make two more. Laurence Maroney took Lindell’s kickoff and veered sharp left, where he ran right through a tackle attempt by Buffalo’s Anthony Hargrove. This left the rookie to tightrope the sideline and race deep into Bills territory, where he was forced back inside and tackled at the Buffalo 21. The play was unsuccessfully challenged by the Bills (they hoped Maroney had stepped out, but replays showed he didn’t) and the Patriots were poised to run their lead to eleven with another touchdown.

The Pats went nowhere. Pass attempts to Caldwell and Watson were unsuccessful (an open Watson was overthrown at the goal line) and on 3rd and long, Brady scrambled for his life, first to the left, and then to the wide right, but he could find no one. Finally, exhausted, he gave himself up by sinking to the ground at the line of scrimmage, but London Fletcher-Baker and others – incredibly – crashed into him just the same. Flags flew instantly, and instead of being held to a 40 yard field goal attempt, the Patriots had a gift first down at the Buffalo 12. A grateful Dillon once again took the first down carry and lugged it into the end zone.

The teams exchanged punts before Buffalo set off for Patriots territory once again. Losman began to find Peerless Price and tight end Robert Royal while mixing in runs by McGahee, and he quickly set the Bills up with a 1st and 10 at the Pats 41. Could Buffalo maintain their wits and mount a challenge to the Pats?

Uh, no. On the next play, Mike Vrabel shot in from the quarterback’s right to dislodge the ball from Losman’s grasp again, and Vince Wilfork recovered at midfield. Would the veteran Patriots make the youngster pay for his shoddy ballhandling?

Uh, no. Inexplicably, the Pats seemed to shelve the quick passing game that had set their first drive in motion, opting instead for seven step drops and deeper looks downfield. Naturally, Buffalo was all over it, and Chris Kelsay sacked Brady, effectively ending the threat.

The threat against the Pats defense, however, continued. Led by the jabbing runs of McGahee, and the continued accuracy of Losman, the Bills drove 60 yards to the Pats 23, with the key play a 25 yard completion to Royal, who ran alone through the Pats defense. With two minutes left in the half, Buffalo sought to cut the lead to 4.

But here, the Patriots defense stiffened, forcing a 3rd and 8 on Losman, who in turn forced a bad throw to Lee Evans that was picked off by Asante Samuel. Samuel, who had a solid game, jumped Evans’s out route when Losman locked on him too early, and he grabbed the ball at the New England 13.

That ended the scoring threat, and the half. But despite their offensive quick start, and the rash of Buffalo miscues, the Patriots had not yet put away the Bills.

That task would be left to the defense, which came back from the break to shut down the Bills until the offense could get untracked. They forced three consecutive 3rd quarter punts from the Bills, who were unable to move out of their own territory after statistically controlling much of the first half. McGahee was slowed considerably, and Losman struggled with numerous third and longs. This defensive turnaround proved ultimately to be the key for the Patriots.

Brady and his teammates finally rebounded late in the 3rd quarter, when the quarterback hit Watson for 20 over the middle before throwing a 35 yard beauty to a speeding Chad Jackson, who was running free in the back right corner of the Buffalo end zone. It was the rookie’s second NFL score in limited action, and as he did with his 1st quarter run, he flashed uncommon ability to separate. If this guy can ever stay on the field, the Patriots may have a “#1″ wide receiver after all.

After Buffalo’s final scoring drive could net nothing but another (successful) 40+ yard field goal attempt by Lindell, Doug Gabriel closed out the scoring for the Patriots. In doing so, he too flashed potential for the future of the Patriots receiving position.

The former Raider (did you see Ron Borges’s column today?) started by running past coverage to haul in a well-thrown Brady lob down the right sideline for a gain of 31. Soon after, the Patriots faced a 3rd and goal at the Bills 5, and Brady was again chased from the pocket. Running right, he spied Gabriel (who had nearly been forced across the back line by the coverage) working his way back to the quarterback. Brady wheeled and threw back, seemingly into a pack of Buffalo defenders. But from them an unchallenged Gabriel emerged, turning a sketchy gamble by his QB into an easy touchdown. Brady could only shake his head.

That the Pats were still throwing with a 21-6 lead and 7:00 minutes remaining tells you all you need to know about their game planning today. They had no intention of running the football apparently, as the 23 carries for the backs indicate. Dillon was still brilliant at getting the ball in the end zone.

The quarterback deserves a tip o’ the cap for getting the wide receivers involved this week, more so than any other. Caldwell, Gabriel and Jackson were all given chances to contribute, and today, they did. Troy Brown managed – as always – 2 or 3 key plays. Ben Watson joined Caldwell in leading all Pats receivers (with 5 catches), and he was a threat whether he was striking downfield or settling back behind a screen.

Unfortunately, Brady was hurried throughout, and he took some shots. The Bills sacked him four times, and are responsible for 7 of the 9 sacks the Patriots have allowed this season. Matt Light was brutalized by Aaron Schobel, which seems to happen alot.

Defensively, Junior Seau led the team in tackles. My first instinct is to think he made a lot of these downfield, but in the end, the Pats held McGahee to just 59 yards on 20 carries. He was useless in the second half. Sounds like Junior might have had a hand in that, and by the way, does signing Seau still qualify as a “desperation move”?

I noticed the defensive backs today, including Samuel, who also forced Lindell’s second field goal attempt by swatting away two consecutive passes, including a sweet strip of Lee Evans in the end zone. Chad Scott made a few solid plays in relief, and for all his early completions (including the 56 yarder to McGahee), Losman never cracked 200 yards passing.

Laurence Maroney certainly had the knack for working his way to the sidelines as a kick returner today, which he followed (on two occasions) with a burst of speed that gave the Patriots return team its first real threat of the season.

Of concern are injuries suffered by Richard Seymour (elbow) and Eugene Wilson (leg), neither of whom finished the game. With another road game – against surprising Minnesota – on tap for next week, and games with the Colts and Jets just ahead, the Patriots can ill afford to lose a player of Seymour’s caliber. For Wilson, its a continuation of his recent struggles, and if he’s sidelined, it will leave the oft-beleaguered secondary ever thinner.

Game Day Blog — This Just In: Bill Polian Sucks

By Scott Benson

Colts President Bill Polian was all over the news this week.

Probably because was reportedly forced by the NFL to apologize for shoving a Jets functionary in a disagreement earlier this month over loudspeakers (“you kids turn that infernal music DOWN!”), which led everybody to spend the following days reminiscing about what a first-class dickhead Polian really is.

Old friend Tom E Curran, former PJ beat man, got the ball rolling with his nbcsports.com column on Friday, in which he reported that the Pats had appealed to the league to ensure the safety of their employees when the Colts come to town on November 5th.

Hoo boy. This was, no doubt, retribution for Polian recently throwing his two cents into the league-wide debate over the condition of the Gillette Stadium turf. As we know, Polian’s got one of those Commissioner Gordon-style phones on his desk – the kind with no keypad or rotary dial – that patches him directly to the NFL’s complaint desk. It’s the first thing he goes for (as opposed to, say, a mirror) anytime one of his poorly-constructed, fatally-flawed teams comes up short.

Which is to say often.

The Pats have other fish to fry over the next two weeks, but Curran and Michael Felger have amusingly set the stage for the next matchup between two of the league’s most bitter rivals. Polian may have one of the league’s least impressive jewelry collections, but in the Land of Miserable Assholes, he is king.

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Looks like the Pats will be a tad thin on the offensive line today, as both Russ Hochstein (knee) and Nick Kaczur (shoulder) will be sidelined. I swear Steve Foley will be back playing again before Kaczur is, and he got shot like thirty times. Making matters worse, Daniel Graham will also be among the missing with his ankle injury. I can’t help but wonder if these aches and pains will prevent the Pats from running the ball with the same effectiveness they displayed in Week One.

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If the Patriots run their record to 5-1 today, they will be off to their second best start under Bill Belichick, trailing only their perfect 6-0 start in 2004.

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The weather is expected to be iffy at best today, with about a 50/50 chance of rain at game time (with chances increasing later). The Bills, as you know, play on a FieldTurf surface – what happens to those rubber pellets when they get wet? Don’t you get improved traction, like with radials?

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It was kind of nice to see the Pats receivers rally behind maligned rookie Chad Jackson in a Herald article this week. Troy Brown, in particular, countered the local media’s notion of an immature, out of control Jackson with this quote:

“He’s a hard-working guy,” Brown said. “He’s always in the weight room or running his routes. He’s trying to do the right thing to take care of his body now. He’s realizing that’s how you stay on the field, by taking care of your body.”

Cbssportsline.com claims Jackson will start alongside Doug Gabriel this afternoon. Don’t ask me how the hell they know.

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Mike Reiss reports this morning that the Pats have worked out secondary swingman Derrick Strait, formerly of the Jets.

GDRV Roundtable

by Scott Benson

The bye week is over. Let the games begin.

The Patriots have the next eleven Sundays booked, and they better get busy. Time will soon grow short for NFL playoff hopefuls to declare their intentions.

Will the Pats smooth out their inconsistent offense? Will Troy Brown and His Band of Little Renown coalesce into a useful tool for Tom Brady? Will the defense remain steady, and continue to force turnovers? Will the secondary tighten the ship? Will the kicking game settle down, or will the Patriots be left kicking themselves?

The time to start answering those questions is now.

Speaking of questions, let’s head to the Row of Chairs and see what our panel has been up to.

Come on, admit it……you were starting to believe those Randy Moss rumors.

Greg: No, I really didn’t. Though in some ways I don’t think Belichick hates Moss as everyone assumes. I mean, the guy was once on a team one missed field goal away from going to a Super Bowl. So how bad could he be for a team? If a Denny Green coached team with Moss can get within a missed field goal, couldn’t a Belichick team get to a Super Bowl and win it with Moss? I bet Belichick thinks so. Still, I don’t think he really fits in at this particular time, its too late to try to make sure he could maybe fit in and his salary doesn’t really fit the bill either. I didn’t believe the rumors.

Bruce: I wouldn’t say I was starting to believe them…but I was intrigued by it all. So many media people said that there was no way that Belichick would have a guy like Moss on his team that I was kind of hoping that they would get him. I can’t even imagine the amount of backpeddling a guy like Pete Sheppard would be doing. Beyond that, just adding a player of his talent would’ve been great to watch and see how he would interact with the guys in the Patriots locker room and if it would’ve had an effect on him.

Scott: Thankfully, no. To me, it was never about what kind of ‘guy’ Moss is; I just couldn’t get beyond the logic that the Pats would draw a hard line on two guys (losing them) and then turn right around and make a mid-season trade for one of the highest paid receivers in the league. A friend said, “well, Branch and Givens aren’t in Moss’s league.” Don’t look now, but neither is Moss, at least lately. Since otherwordly seasons in 02 and 03, Moss has averaged about 55 catches a year, and is on pace to do it again. Not bad, but not elite. And, as one of the most thoughtful Pats observers I know reminded me, Moss is one toke from going over the line. Sweet Jesus. None of this trade chatter made a damn bit of sense.

So what are they going to do with that 53rd roster spot, anyway?

Bruce: Patrick Pass will get it as soon as he is ready to return. That won’t be this week, as Belichick has said already, but I expect it sometime in the next week. They might throw a temp guy in there just to fill it for a week, but eventually I expect that spot to be filled by Pass…if he’s healthy enough to take it.

Scott: I’m with the Tall Man, I maintain that spot has Patrick’s name on it, though the time doesn’t appear to be this week. In the meantime, Russ Hochstein is struggling with a bad knee apparently, and I noticed Billy Yates won the coveted black jersey last week. Maybe Yates gets moved up to fill in for the ailing Russ in Buffalo, while Pass gets ready to begin practicing next week.

Greg: That is a good question. They just let Jonathan Sullivan go, so I suppose Santonio Thomas from the practice squad is a possibility. Eventually, I would imagine it will go to Patrick Pass and he’ll become their main kickoff returner.

We haven’t had a chance to opine on Dan Koppen and his new five year extension. What are your thoughts about the Pats re-signing of the redheaded pivotman?

Scott: Redheaded pivotman? What kind of writing is that? That’s TERRRRRRRRIBLE! What is Benson THINKING!? Anyway, for all the high-visibility turbulence of the off-season, how predictable is it that the Pats choose to quietly spend their money on a position that most of us never even see? In doing so, they’ve locked down – for the foreseeable future – the front line that is most directly responsible for protecting the team’s most valuable resource. I can’t remember the last time the Pats have so adamantly assured themselves of consistentcy and continuity on the offensive line. Wait a minute…..yes I can. Well, all we can do now is hope that Dan and the rest of the boys don’t care for Everclear.

Greg: An excellent signing and fair value. Although Russ Hochstein did a solid job filling in last year when Koppen was injured, it was really noticeable how much better and how good Koppen was when he came back this year. Now they have their line pretty much wrapped up for the next few years and that is excellent for the team’s future.

Bruce: I’m glad its done. Koppen is a big part of the team, and a very good friend to Tom Brady. It kills me that when the deal was announced, media people just assumed that he took less to remain with the Patriots. Then Mike Reiss comes out and posts that the deal puts Koppen in the company of the top paid centers in the league. Guys like Mike Felger grill Koppen about why he didn’t wait until free agency when he likely could’ve gotten more…well, I’m not sure he could’ve done better, and he’s happy here, so it seems to be a win-win for him and the Patriots.

The Patriots are in the midst of dealing with some very painful, and very public, lawn care issues. After the debacle that was the field condition for the Miami game, the League Itself has decreed that the Men of Kraft must get to Home Depot forthwith. One erroneous report said the Pats would install FieldTurf before the end of November, though it was later learned that league rules prohibit teams from changing surfaces in midstream(season). So for now, they’ll resod. In the long term, should the Patriots carry through with their reported plans to install the rubbery rug at the conclusion of the 06 season?

Greg: I would say no. I think the beat up field is condusive to winning teams in the northeast, like the Patriots have done, come playoff time. Yes, the field got a little bit more beat up earlier this year than usual. Probably a combination of factors there. But the short term fix is actually the answer in this case. Just re-sod and lets get on to more important issues.

Bruce: I’d rather just kick out the New England Revolution. I think they’re they real culprits in this. Let them play on the Patriots practice fields…I’m sure the stands there can handle the crowds that the soccer team attracts. I ‘m only half-joking about this. How about not having concerts on the field during the season too? I’d want to keep the natural grass, but if they’re finding they just can’t grow it, then I guess FieldTurf would be the answer. Interesting that a piece from David Pevear later in the week had the FieldTurf guys still making preparations to do a quick install at Gillette…maybe the field is so bad that the NFL grants them special permission to change to a synthetic surface in the middle of the season.

Scott: I’m like anybody else – I don’t want to see the Patriots have the worst anything, much less something as important as the field. But I’ll be damned if I want to see Gillette Stadium become the kind of place where the Indianpolis Colts feel comfortable. I’d be hanging on to that grass like grim death, man. You can’t just sweep frozen grass. The Patriots are of course responsible to ensure the field is playable and safe, but they don’t have to be fanatics about it, if you know what I mean. Why give away an indigenous advantage like that? Bury the hatchet with Dennis Brolin and end this madness. That said, if we end up with a turf toupee, there has to be a way we can use it to screw a Bill Polian-assembled team. There HAS to.

The Big Board O’ Predictions is gettin’ mighty crowded, fellas. Last week was a walk in the park for yours truly, as I posted a 4-1 record on the strength of my all-seeing, all-knowing picks of the Jets and Panthers. Neither of my competitors had the imagination or the courage to make such bold selections. That’s why I’m a suddenly resurgent 22-13 and bearing down on glorious victory. Both Bruce (26-9 overall) and Greg (19-16) lost 3 of 5, which means I’ve got them exactly where I want them. This week, let’s try Detroit at the Jets, Green Bay at Miami, Pittsburgh at Atlanta, Carolina at Cincinnati, San Diego at Kansas City, and Washington at Indianapolis.

Bruce: The Jets should be able to handle the Lions, Can Miami beat Green Bay? It’s at home…I’ll have to take the Dolphins. I think the Steelers should be able to win in Atlanta, I’ll take the Panthers over the Bengals, the Chargers over the Chiefs and the Colts at home.

Scott: I’m sticking with the Jets again, and in Miami, I figure Brett Favre will give the Dolphins all the ammunition they need to beat him. I like Pittsburgh to quiet down Atlanta’s running game and pummel the Falcons defense on the ground. Carolina seems like an obvious pick, coming off a big road win in Baltimore, and with the Bengals still reeling from the asskicking the Patriots laid on them three weeks ago. That’s exactly why I’m picking Cincinnati. You never know. Just like in Kansas City, where the Chargers have lost 5 of their last 6. Do I dare pick the Chiefs? Nah. I’ll take the Chargers, as well as the Colts over Washington, who will react to the loss by signing someone.

Greg: Detroit at the Jets…..could the Jets actually get over .500? I’m gonna say no and Detroit pulls this one off. The Dolphins will win at home in this battle of two awful teams. Pittsburgh will win after getting its act together last week. I’ll take the Bengals to knock off the overrated Panthers at home, San Diego to beat up the Chiefs and Indy to get by Washington, but it’ll be close again.

Tom Brady and the Patriots certainly had their hands full with the Bills on opening day, and that was at home. This week, they have to travel to always-tough Buffalo for their fourth divisional game of the young season. Care to make a wager?

Scott: I don’t care where Takeo Spikes is on the first play of the game, he better be blocked. I’m going to assume they’ve figured a way to account for Buffalo’s front seven this time, and that they can run the ball with the same success they had in Foxboro. The Bills are giving up nearly 120 yards a game on the ground (20th in the league). The Bills offense is 29th, so as long as the Pats don’t turn the ball over, Buffalo won’t score much. I’ll take the Pats to get by the pesky Bills D 20-10 to go to 4-0 in their division.

Greg: I agree with Scott, the Patriots should be able to run the ball. And perhaps get a big day from the tight ends as well against Buffalo’s defense, whose linebackers don’t cover well. I like the Patriots 27-17.

Bruce: These division games are always tough, especially on the road, however the only way I see this being a really tight game is if the Patriots just come into this game totally overlooking the Bills. I don’t see that happening, and look for a fairly easy 28-10 win this week. The Patriots should be able to run the ball, and I don’t see J.P. Losman picking them apart this week.

Last call for Mediot of the Week!

Greg: I think I’ll go a little different route this week and go with a caller to sports radio, mostly WEEI. No he’s not media, but he is broadcast in the media when he calls, so we’ll bend the rules a bit. I’m talking about the illustrious Steve from Fall River. This loser’s act and wrong pronouncements are so ridiculous, ill-informed and miserable, you wonder if he sticks his mother’s cat in the microwave every day. He displays about the same understanding of the salary cap as an elephant does. This guy is a charter member of the get-a-life club, calling 4-5 times a week to repeat the same crap over and over.

This week, I caught him on ‘EEI Sunday morning NFL show. It was his typical rant the Patriots can’t win a Super Bowl without Ty Law and the others who’ve left (no mention of the fact they DID win one without Ty Law when he was injured for 3/4ths of the season in 2004). Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli don’t know jack compared to this clown from Fall River, to hear him tell it.

So he goes on this rant about how is Kansas City 4th in defense and Ty Law is the difference and they should have signed him, yada yada yada. He kept asking, how did Kansas City improve to 4th….higher than the Pats? Kept calling the AFC East the Adams Division as if the Cincinnati win and holding them to 13 points was nothing. The same Cincinnati that had scored 23 on Kansas City WITH Ty Law.

So, what happens a mere few hours later? Kansas City gives up 45 to the struggling Steelers, including allowing them to complete 17 of 20 and throw for 244 yards. All with the struggling Ben Roethlisberger, who hadn’t thrown a TD pass all year before the game. And Ty Law? Toasted like a turnstyle all day.

I wonder if he’ll bring that up in his next call?

Bruce: Let’s go with the nags that suggested immediately that Koppen had taken a “below market” deal when he re-signed with the team last week. I guess we need to know what their definition of “market” deal is. Is it “a dollar higher than what the most out there potentially would be?” or is it “an average of the top x number of contracts at that position?” Apparently for some, a market deal seems to be the former…where it is the highest possible amount potentially out there that someone might be willing to pay. I think in reality, the definition should be more along the lines of the latter, which is certain what Koppen got, and which makes the questioner an idiot.

Scott: The whole NESN team, for reporting for at least a few days that the Pats were going to install FieldTurf in a matter of minutes. Turns out if they’d asked the league, they’d have quickly found out that no matter what their ‘sources’ were telling them, it couldn’t happen. I thought that’s what reporters were supposed to do – ask.

Food for thought from reader Dan.

We get letters – and sometimes, they’re not nasty. I liked this one, from longtime reader Dan.

“I saw something interesting in Belichick’s press conference today.

Towards the end of the conference, he goes into detail about the perils of inside passing routes vs. outside routes. He said each has its dangers. The outside routes represent the tougher throw, but in one sense they’re easier in that the QB only has to account for the one defender. On the inside routes, however, the QB and WR have to be on the same page about leading the receiver vs. waiting for a settle in the zone, going under vs. over the coverage, trying to stick the ball in there vs. waiting for the receiver to clear, etc.

I thought it spoke a lot to what we might be seeing right now with Brady’s choice of throws. With the exception of passes to Brown inside, and some long passes to the TE down the middle, I think Brady’s preferring to throw more outside routes to guys like Caldwell and Gabriel. You think it could have anything to do with lack of communication? That the over-the-middle throws are things you do only when you’re more in sync with your receiver?

Maybe what I’m seeing is just coincidence or maybe I’m forgetting some over-the-middle stuff to Caldwell. It just seemed like a plausible reason why we’re seeing a lot of outside routes. And also why we’re seeing Brady throw it into the sidelines or into the dirt.”

Bill Simmons wishes he had such erudite, attentive readers. It’s good for him that he doesn’t. They’d eat him alive.

Patriots Midweek – National Views

A look at some national articles that mention the Patriots:

From Jeffri Chadiha on SI.com, in an article on the pressures young quarterbacks face:

The only quarterback I’ve seen who has managed his early success without facing any criticism is New England’s Tom Brady. Granted, he has more hardware in his house than you’ll find in your local Home Depot, but he has also managed his career in a way that young quarterbacks should emulate. He hasn’t written any books. He didn’t do many endorsements early in his career, Even his current ads downplay his personality. Brady has carefully manipulated his image so that it doesn’t conflict with his team’s perception of him. Today he’s as close to being “one of the guys” as a rich, handsome, three-time Super Bowl champion with a hot actress girlfriend can be.

Rodney Harrison

From Sports Illustrated, Lisa Altobelli has a “First Person” look at Rodney Harrison.

On his Super Bowl XXXVIII win and the photo of him under a hail of confetti with his arm in a sling:

I had it blown up, and it’s hanging in my basement. Tears are flowing down my face, and my arm is broken: It signifies my career and life. There was so much pain and hard work. I remember days [growing up] it was 100 degrees. I would be running up and down the street in the neighborhood, and people would laugh at me, saying, ‘Are you crazy? You’re not going anywhere.’ That motivated me. You’re not going to outwork me. You may be faster, you may be bigger, you may be stronger, but you won’t outwork me. And I’m not afraid. I don’t care if you’re 6’6″ and 300 pounds, I’m going to try to make you pay.

From Vic Carucci’s Tuesday Huddle on NFL.com:

– I never saw how the New England Patriots would be a good fit for Randy Moss, if they had ever pulled off the much-speculated trade with the Raiders for his services. Yes, the Patriots need a receiver and Moss is talented, but his poor attitude simply doesn’t seem to have a place on a team built with players who don’t bring the divisiveness that Moss brings. Bill Belichick is a great coach, but I don’t think even he could get Moss to buy into his team-first approach.

From Pete Prisco’s Blog Quick Hits:

The New England Patriots amaze me at how they constantly plug in guys to their offensive line and never seem to miss a beat.

This season they have tackle Ryan O’Callaghan starting at right tackle and the line has played well.

A year ago, they started rookie Logan Mankins at left guard all season and also started rookie tackle Nick Kazcur at times. They also played most of the season without starting center Dan Koppn, yet still won the division and won a playoff game.

Why are they able to do this? Line coach Dante Scarnecchia is one of the best in the NFL.

“Dante gets guys ready to play,” Koppen said. “He’s not afraid to put the young guys out there and just let them play.”

O’Callaghan, a second-round pick from Cal, has been a pleasant surprise. He’s done a good job in the run game and in pass protection.

No matter who the Patriots seem to put in the lineup, they always have a good line. They lose players like Damien Woody, Joe Andruzzi and others, yet they keep playing well.

It’s time Dante Scarnecchia gets the due he deserves as a great line coach.

From John Clayton on ESPN.com:

Nothing doing on Moss, Porter fronts: The chances of Raiders receivers Randy Moss or Jerry Porter being traded to the Patriots were a longshot at best. The Patriots weren’t really interested in Porter, and his suspension due to insubordination in practice last week scared off a lot of teams that might have been interested. Moss was another story. There really wasn’t much talking going on between the two teams. Oakland was in a tough spot. If the Raiders received a first-round pick for Moss, they would be perceived to be taking a discount. It would be hard for the Patriots to give up the No. 1, so a deal was not imminent.

From Len Pasquarelli’s Tip Sheet on ESPN.com, talking about players eligible to come off the PUP list:

• RB Patrick Pass, New England (toe): The kind of experienced, utilitarian guy you don’t miss until he’s absent, Pass does a little of everything for the Patriots and is a valued veteran. Pass can play fullback or tailback, is a solid pass protector on third down, returns kickoffs and also plays on all of the special teams coverage units. A seventh-year veteran, Pass, 28, has just 1,161 yards total offense from scrimmage, but New England coaches will feel a lot better about their depth when he returns.

From Andrea Kremer’s Blog on NBCSports.com:

On the Raiders Handling of Jerry Porter:

A final thought, mercifully, on the Porter fiasco.

Remember, the Patriots who always find a way to win. Well, when they reached an impasse with Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, they didn’t make it personal because as one team president told me, when a situation becomes a ‘stare down,’ no one wins. You have to make a business decision, not an ‘I’ll show this guy ‘personal one.”

So the Patriots cut their losses and parted with Branch for a hefty number one pick next year — masterful negotiating, although the price Tom Brady “pays” is a whole other story.

Similarly, the Broncos didn’t make it personal with disgruntled receiver Ashley Lelie, (why is it always the receivers?!) rather they shipped him off to Atlanta in a three team deal.
That’s why the Patriots and Broncos, and not the Raiders, are winners on the field and in the front office.

Power Rankings:

Carucci’s Power Poll on NFL.com:

4. New England (4-1; unchanged): Maybe an extra week of practice has allowed the Patriots to improve the timing of their passing game.

Pete Prisco’s Power Rankings on Sportsline.com:

4 Coming out of the bye, they are on cruise control to the AFC East title. They get another chance this week to tighten the grip at Buffalo.

From the ESPN Power Rankings:

6 (7 last week) Patriots 4-1-0 Unless they trade for a WR before the deadline, the Patriots really need rookie Chad Jackson to become more of a contributor.

From Charles Robinson’s Yahoo! Sports Power Rankings:

5. New England Patriots (4-1) – Say goodbye to that awful field at Gillette Stadium now that the Patriots have been told by the NFL to revamp their surface. Field Turf should be in place by December. Coach Bill Belichick should shed a tear because in December and January, that torn up field used to be an advantage.

Dr Z’s Power Rankings on SI.com:

4) New England Patriots (4-1)
Still true to last week’s rankings. Bye week, leisurely relaxing, occasional TV viewing while watching the other poor devils getting the hell knocked out of them. Folks, this will get more interesting, I promise.

Peter Schrager’s Power Rankings on FoxSports.com:

6) (Last week, 7) Before the season, the Miami Dolphins were the chic pick to not only win the AFC East in 2006 — but to win the Super Bowl come January. Six weeks into the season, New England already holds a two-game lead in the division, is riding high after big wins over Cincinnati and the Dolphins, and are well on their way to a first round bye in the playoffs. Writing off Bill Belichick? Yeah, probably not the smartest idea.

GDRV Roundtable – What I’m Going To Do On My Football Vacation

by Scott Benson [email protected]

Maybe I’ll go to a renaissance fair.

Maybe I’ll take the kids to an apple orchard, or a corn maze. Quality time with a capital Q!

Maybe I’ll really focus on getting some yard work done. Some raking, some winterizing, some fresh air.

I’m just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my Patriots-less Sunday.

Maybe we’ll go to a flea market and look for priceless antiques.

Maybe we’ll stroll to the library, and comb the racks for undiscovered treasures.

Maybe we’ll volunteer for something, somewhere. A bottle drive, a church yard sale, anything where I can feel like I’m GIVING SOMETHING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY. Because that’s important stuff, this GIVING SOMETHING BACK. Everybody says so. So I want a piece of that action. I don’t care who I have to step on to get it, either.

Maybe I’ll just take in a playoff baseball game. You know, to reconnect to our National Pastime. I’ll watch the game, and it will be as if I had dipped myself in magic waters. The memories will be so thick I’ll have to brush them from my face. It will remind me of all that once was good, and could be again. For its money I have, and peace I lack…….

Just kidding. Also gagging.

Maybe we’ll head to the park for a picnic. We’ll take a bottle of wine, an FM radio (for NPR, of course), tie bandannas on the dogs, the whole nine yards……

Nine yards? Hmmm. Screw it. I’m going to watch the Dolphins and the Jets. Who the hell am I kidding?

Chad Jackson has been taking some guff lately for his minimal contributions to date. The theories range from soft in the hamstring to soft in the head. Is this criticism fair?

Greg: Not really. The guy is a rookie who has had a lingering injury. And he still managed to contribute to at least one win. Its five games in and rumors are running rampant amongst the irresponsible press. Figures. He’ll have a big game some week and they’ll probably shut up for a few weeks with their unprofessional innuendo and uneducated guesses.

Bruce: I think Patriots fans are a bit frustrated at not being able to see more out of this kid. We’ve heard a lot about his talent, but haven’t been able to see it on a consistent basis. It’s hard to tell if the criticism is fair or not…no one seems to know the extent of his injury and the rumors about his preparation and maturity are often vague, without any hard examples. I’m going say that the media is being unfair, because that’s what they do. Their track record speaks for itself, unlike young Mr Jackson’s.

Scott: David Givens took the money and ran to Tennessee, and Deion Branch forced a trade to Seattle. In five whole weeks, Jackson hasn’t made us completely forget about either of them, much less both of them, which, as a second-round pick, he has the obligation to do. And frankly, based on the things we’re hearing, Jackson doesn’t seem to be our kind of people anyway. So he’s got to pay, plain and simple.

The Patriots released Johnathan Sullivan and Hank Poteat this week, and signed veteran receiver Jabar Gaffney. This leaves the team with one vacant roster spot. It seems likely that it will be filled by Patrick Pass, who is eligible and apparently ready to return from the PUP list. What can Pass bring to the Patriots that they don’t already have?

Bruce: His versatility is a trait that is always welcome on a Bill Belichick coached team. He gives Tom Brady another guy to dump the ball off to in a pinch, or to hand off to on a draw play. I suspect that special teams is where he’s going to impact the most for the Patriots and add some depth to that unit.

Greg: Pass is a versatile back that has contributed a lot to three Super Bowl winners. He is good at special teams, he can block. He can catch. He can fill in at halfback in a pinch. It’s funny a stray comment by Charlie Weis about him in a book defines some people’s perception of him. It’s probably the type of thing Weis said all the time, knowing what I know about him and the general nature of football coaches. Yet ridiculously short-sighted fans hear one thing because its one comment out of a million they happen to know about and think they have some inside information. It’s pathetic. The bottom line is the Patriots have kept him around for a long time because he is valuable and has contributed a lot. I assume they think he can continue to do so.

Scott: I have no idea what the plan is, but I say Patrick Pass is a better kickoff returner than anybody the Patriots have now, and he should be back there next weekend. At least Pass runs it straight ahead with authority. They haven’t had that.

Any thoughts on Gaffney?

Greg: He’s average. He can probably help a bit. Not overly fast, but decent hands and size. I think he’ll certainly be an upgrade over Jonathan Smith and can actually get on the field and play solidly. But I wouldn’t expect miracles.

Bruce: I haven’t seen a whole lot of the guy, but I think he’ll be a good addition. Last year David Carr spent most of his time on the field on his back, yet he still managed to complete 55 passes to Gaffney over the course of the season. I think a receiving unit of Gabriel, Jackson, Gaffney, Caldwell and Brown is solid, if unspectacular. I’m ok with that group.

Scott: I figure they have room for a guy that’s averaged 40 catches a season since 2002. It’s not like they have already have too many. He’s probably an average player, but at this point, kids, that’s an upgrade.

Back to the Big Board of Predictions for another week. In Week Five, Bruce ‘The Greek’ Allen went 6-0, running his overall record to 24-6. Honestly, we’re already sick of him. Greg Doyle had a big week too, also going 6-0, and he’s finally eclipsed the .500 mark for the first time this season (17-13). I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that I was 3-3 again, picking the Jets to beat Jacksonville (near miss), the Steelers to beat San Diego, and the Cowboys to beat the Eagles. That’s right, I bet on Drew Bledsoe. No wonder I’m 18-12, six games out of first and sinking like a stone. This week, let’s try Miami at the Jets, Carolina at Baltimore, Cincinnati at Tampa Bay, Kansas City at Pittsburgh, and Oakland at Denver.

Greg: I have to go with Miami, though they are bad. Their defense should lead them to a close victory. I’ll also go with Baltimore, the Bengals, Pittsburgh to get untracked and Denver to beat up the hapless Raiders. Not many great games this week.

Scott: I’m going to take the Jets. I had pretty good luck with them last week. Let’s see how Joey does when the other team has a week to prepare for him and only him. Will Steve McNair turn it around against the Panthers defense? I’ll take Carolina, even on the road. I’ll take the Bengals over Tampa, the most written about 0-4 team in history, thanks to Peter King. I’m going to take the Steelers and of course the Broncos.

Bruce: I’m just thankful we’re not picking spreads here. I’d be lost. The Jets/Dolphins game is the toughest of the week to pick. I’m going to take the Dolphins, thinking that Harrington is better than Culpepper at this point and the defense is pretty solid. I’m going to take the Ravens at home, the Bengals on the road, the Steelers at home and the Broncos.

I’m sure they’re not paying attention, so let’s get a good shot in at the Mediot of the Week.

Bruce: You know, maybe it’s the bye week or something, but I don’t recall too many stupid, idiotic things being written or said this week that I recall. Of course it is entirely possible that I’m just becoming numb to all of it. The stupidest thing I read all week didn’t come from a media person, but from a “fan” of the team who sent the following letter to Patriots Football Weekly:

I asked the Sports Guy from ESPN the same question. I’m a diehard Patriots fan, but at this point, some of my loyalties lie to our former players (Law, Vinatieri, Bledsoe, McGinest, etc.) Now lets say the Colts are trailing the Patriots by two, and Vinatieri is about to kick the game-winning field goal. I would without question want Vinatieri to nail the kick, and send our beloved Patriots home losers. Am I wrong? Can you give me some thoughts on the matter? Thanks, you guys are awesome.

I withheld the guy’s name for his own safety. Doesn’t what he just wrote go against the very definition of “diehard Patriots fan” which he claims to be? I just don’t get some people. It’s one thing to want former players to do well. It’s another to want them to come back and beat your team.

Greg: Tomase for repeating the idiotic Patriots Football Weekly Inside Track level stuff about Chad Jackson being “immature” at a Patriots function. This is something I have yet to hear one media member describe in coherent fashion or in any manner that resembles the slightest facsimile of responsible journalism.

Scott: My mediot of the week is anybody who’s taking about Randy Moss coming to the Patriots, whether they’re media or not.

Testing Bill Simmons’ Theory on Running QB’s

By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day

Resuming normal service this week, I’m going to take a look at something Bill Simmons brought up in his column about the struggles of Daunte Culpepper, struggles which led to Culpepper’s benching last week before his game against the Patriots’. In the column, Simmons writes the following:

Running QBs are like professional wrestlers and porn stars. In other words, it’s such a taxing profession on so many levels, and you end up taking such a pounding, there’s only a five- or six-year shelf life before things turn sour.

Lamentations of Gino Hernandez and Traci Lords aside, I thought about the idea for a minute, and it didn’t seem too absurd. I felt even more agreeable to the idea after Simmons provided actual data – granted, cherry-picked data, but that’s still eight or nine years ahead of Joe Theismann – in the defense of his argument.

Now, I’m aware that the internet backlash to our dear friend Mr. Simmons is mighty strong right about now, particularly after a rather desultory comment towards the sports blogosphere in a recent chat. Now, Bill Simmons is about eight thousand times the writer I am – he can say whatever he wants. That being said, isn’t that a little like NFL announcers insulting fantasy football players? It just seems strange to insult your core constituency. I mean, you don’t see Dennis Hastert saying people who go to church on Sunday are dorks, right? I digress.

Interested in its validity, I decided to do a more rigorous test of Simmons’ theory and what it might mean for the career paths of quarterbacks. I had to put several limitations on the quarterback pool to make sure we were working with the quarterbacks Simmons is talking about, which meant I filtered the sample down to quarterbacks had both:

  • Started their career during or after 1978 (the advent of the sixteen-game schedule), and
  • Thrown more than 1500 career attempts (since we’re not comparing Danny Kanell to Dameyune Craig here, but instead legitimate starting quarterbacks and their career paths, which requires several years of data to work with)

That brought the pool down to 83 different quarterbacks. I toyed with different ways of delineating the quarterbacks into mobile and immobile groups, not wanting to just separate the two willy-nilly. What I found worked best was using the number of rush attempts per game a quarterback had on a season-by-season basis, and then separating players from the mass as such.

I defined a “rushing” quarterback as one who averaged more than 4.5 carries per game for any two seasons in his career. That yielded a list of quarterbacks I was pretty comfortable with:

rushingQB.jpg

Not particularly coincidentally, this includes each of the players that Simmons provides as examples of the running quarterback problem in his column. It’s also worth noting that Michael Vick doesn’t appear in this group because he falls 67 attempts short of the 1500 pass qualifier. If he’d made it past the bouncer, he would’ve easily qualified for this group.

The flat-footed quarterbacks, on the other hand, were even harder to define; after all, it’s very easy for a quarterback to rack up very few carries per game by simply not playing — alternately, it’s easy for a quarterback to get three or so carries a game solely by downing the ball as a backup. With that in mind, I made the qualifications slightly harder for this group. The quarterbacks listed below had five seasons where they averaged below 1.75 carries per game, throwing at least 150 attempts in each. That yielded a group of, well, guys with creaky knees.

tortoiseqb.jpg

I am sure there are arguments you can make for putting a particular quarterback not listed here in one group or the other, but I think these are two pretty representative groups of quarterback.

After separating the groups, I calculated the performances of each quarterback in the respective season of his career – that is to say, I calculated how each quarterback did in the first season of his particular career, added that to the performance of every other quarterback in their particular career, and then produced an average result for all the quarterbacks in their first seasons. I did that for every group of seasons available, stretching all the way to 19 (Dave Krieg and Vinny Testaverde, before you ask) before I was done. I calculated this for all quarterbacks (incorporating all 83 quarterbacks), the running quarterbacks (listed as “Fast” in the charts below), and the slow ones (listed, as you might expect, as “Slow”).

I’ll include all the results in a table at the end of the article, but I chose to focus on three aspects of performance: yards per attempt, QB rating, and since the original article was about Culpepper’s fantasy dropoff, fantasy points.

chart.jpg

As you can see, the performance of the faster quarterbacks cut out after season 15, since none of the rushing quarterbacks in the study have made it that far. This may be because seven of the eleven quarterbacks in the group are still active, and haven’t had a chance to make it to their fifteenth season as of yet. Regardless, what the data shows is that the quarterback performances are actually almost the opposite of what Simmons mentions in his column: the running quarterbacks underperform both the average quarterback and the slower quarterback until their sixth season, at which point they spend several outperforming the quarterbacks until a big drop around Season 11 (which includes a mediocre Steve Young season, a mediocre Jeff Blake season, Mark Brunell’s first aborted season with the Redskins, Randall Cunningham’s final half-year as an Eagle, and Steve McNair’s last year with the Titans. In other words, Donovan McNabb is in trouble when 2009 rolls around). You could chalk this up to a number of things — maybe the running quarterbacks are adapting to an NFL system, or becoming “pocket” passers, but I wasn’t expecting that data trend whatsoever.

QB Rating shows a variation on the story.

chart2.jpg

This time, the faster quarterbacks have a better showing, but they still don’t branch out from the pack of other quarterbacks until Seasons 6-10 roll around. Could it be that speedier quarterbacks elude sacks and throw fewer interceptions than slowpokes? The following chart shows the average number of attempts it takes a quarterback in each of these groups to throw an interception, followed by each group’s cumulative average:

attempts.jpg

Pretty obvious that rushing quarterbacks do throw fewer interceptions than pocket passers — a relatively hidden advantage of their performance up to this point.

Finally, to answer Simmons’ question, do these stud quarterbacks actually perform worse after a few years in fantasy points?

chart3.jpg

The short answer is, well, it’s debatable. The running quarterbacks don’t really seem to fall off a cliff in five or six years, like Simmons says, but he’s not far off. Somewhere around eight to nine seasons appear to be the limit for rushing quarterbacks — that big jump in the last year you’ve been seeing is the confluence of Mark Brunell’s revitalization last season with the Redskins and Randall Cunningham’s gigantic 15-win season with the Vikings. What does appear to be true, though, is that rushing quarterbacks are peaking very early into their fantasy careers, while slower quarterbacks do so slightly afterwards. It’s interesting that they both see the same dropoff after eight or nine seasons, though.

I’m inclined to say that Simmons’ hypothesis, for fantasy purposes, is pretty accurate. Rushing quarterbacks peak earlier into their career than I think a lot of people, myself included, realize: a sobering thought for those with Michael Vick, and a happy one for those who have Vince Young in a keeper league.

And now, a data dump.

datadump.jpg