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Last Week: 10-5. My entire life: 30-26-2.

Last week was the craziest week of football I remember. The Abominable SnowMegatron in Philly. The most snow for a Ravens game in M&T Bank Stadium ever, and positive freakishness in Baltimore. The Cleveland Browns (and terrible officiating). The sideline in Pittsburgh ruining Antonio Brown’s truly miraculous near-comeback.1 Me taking the Seahawks at +2.5 in San Francisco and having it come through AND having the 49ers actually win by 2! There were some downers, a couple of injuries and that picture of the start of the 3rd quarter in FedExField, but all in all, an incredible day. It’s got me feeling good heading into Week 15, so this’ll probably be a disaster. As always, lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS.

Chargers (+10.5) over BRONCOS

I’ve got a good run going of picking a double-digit underdog against the Broncos, only for the Broncos to cover anyway because Peyton Manning and touchdowns all-day-‘erry-day and stuff. Pythagorean points suggest the Chargers have been the fifth unluckiest team in the league, underperforming by more than a win, so maybe Vegas is giving them a few too many points. Screw it.

UPDATE: Felt terrible about this after that opening drive. Felt good after that Broncos’ neutral zone infraction that gave the Chargers a new set of downs, and it went well from there.

FALCONS (-7) over The Washington D.C. Football Team

Both of these teams are bad. It’s possible we’re overreacting to that crushing D.C. loss last week, but also maybe expecting Cousins to be better than he really is? The Falcons defense should make him look good, but for now, I’ll take Matt Ryan.

BUCS (+6) over 49ers

Let down game and cross-country flight for the 49ers, slipping into the early game slot for the first time in a while. The Bucs defense is good, and I’m still not convinced our offense is.

Seahawks (-7) over GIANTS

If only the Giants had something to play for…

Bears (-1.5) over BROWNS

At this point, we’ve got to be able to count on Cleveland to go for a good draft pick, right? Even if they have to chain Josh Gordon in the locker room to do it? ‘Cause he has been so unstoppable, even having Brandon Weeden throw him the ball might not be enough.

Texans (+6) over COLTS

The Colts already clinched their division, and they’re two games behind a tie for the two seed in the AFC. They’re pretty much locked in to the four seed. The Texans might just confuse everyone, opening the door to the first overall pick with their first ever win in Indianapolis. Or not. I don’t care, I’m gunning for it.

JAGUARS (+1.5) over Bills

Here’s to hoping Gus Bradley actually has them playing better now than in the beginning of the season, and hasn’t just gotten lucky the past few weeks.

DOLPHINS (+1) over Patriots

The Pats have been very lucky, even eking out a win after poor Gronkowski went down and out with that injury. But I think it stops here.

Eagles (-6) over VIKINGS

If not taking the Vikings on the road won’t work for me, I’ll try not taking them at home, damn it! I’m not taking them.

PANTHERS (-11.5) over Jets

The Jets do not deserve their six wins. The 9-4 Panthers might deserve 10. Plus, they’re going to be pissed after a little embarrassment on Sunday Night Football right? Or at least regress to their mean?

The Kansas City Football Team (-6) over RAIDERS

Kansas City has nothing to play for either, but… whatever.

Cardinals (-3) over TITANS

Arizona’s playoff prospects are dimming, but until they’re extinguished, I expect them to keep it up, Honey Badger or no.

Saints (-6.5) over RAMS

Even after that last win, Saints with plenty to prove, and the NFC two seed to secure.

Packers (+7) over COWBOYS

Rodgers hasn’t been cleared. I reserve the right to reverse this pick if he isn’t. But I really, really think he will be. The Packers are a half game back. And the Cowboys are coming off a short week in which Josh McCown scored on them every time he got the ball.

UPDATE: Sportsbook has actually dropped this game for the moment, and an hour or so ago Rodgers was ruled out. So no action here.

Bengals (-2.5) over STEELERS

I just took five four road teams in a row. Oh dear.

LIONS (-6) over Ravens

With that half-game lead, the Lions can’t let up. Also the Ravens might be a little emotionally drained after experiencing five touchdowns in the final 2:07 of regulation last week.

And that’s another week in the books! With football season drawing to a close, I’m going to have to learn how to look stupid guessing basketball and hockey games soon. Stay tuned.


  1. I would put it behind The Play, but possibly ahead of the Music City Miracle2 and the Immaculate Reception, and definitely ahead of the Toucherception from last year, as well as the Miracle at the Meadowlands and the Miracle at the New Meadowlands. The Music City Miracle and the Immaculate Reception were in the playoffs, but this would have been almost as good, with the Steelers and Dolphins still very much in the hunt. There was more controversy in Tennessee and in Pittsburgh in 1972, but there was almost even more in Pittsburgh last Sunday: imagine if the snow had obscured the sideline, leaving them no choice but to call it a TD even on replay? Sigh… 
  2. Inception footnotes! I love how immediately after the Music City Miracle, one announcer notes that “All that’s missing is the band!” 
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First off I’d like to dedicate this column to Bill Barnwell, writer at Grantland, who has been pushing a nomentum agenda heavily in his columns this NFL season. After “momentum” came up a couple of times in my first Sh*t Announcers Say post, I thought I’d touch upon it a bit more, in a slightly different light. I’m not going to offer a bunch of numbers; plenty of people have already done that.1 No, I’m going to look at momentum theoretically.2

We sports fans have a lot of theories. We love our theories. We have theories for why that $*&%bird referee made a certain call when he did, what enabled Lebron James to finally win a championship (two of them, actually), and how the Fear the Beard movement propelled the Red Sox to their third world series title in ten years. Milorad Cavic and many others have their theories about Michael Phelps’ touch-out in the 2008 100-meter men’s butterfly Olympic final. Some theories even rise to such prominence that they get names, such as Dave Cirilli’s Ewing Theory. Personally, I have theories about which articles I read covering the 49ers during the week will help them play the best on Sunday3, and when they scored twice to take a 20-14 lead over the Saints in the fourth quarter last week, just after a friend had come over for a little bit, I almost begged him not to leave his seat on the couch.4 We see things, and we try to explain them. Conceptually, it’s like a science. We sports fans are just a little more fanatical about it, that’s all.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem. Struggling for objectivity is boring and lame, but it isn’t like science: It is science! When you watch a game and the momentum shifts in your team’s favor, and you go on to win, it sticks in your mind. “The game totally hinged on that play!” we say. “After that, we knew they couldn’t stop us. You could see it.” When you watch a game and the momentum shifts in your team’s favor, but they go on to lose (or the “momentum” shifts back), it’s forgotten or dismissed. “We had something going, but the game got out of hand.” But just because a team’s momentum didn’t come through once doesn’t mean it’s not responsible for all the times they actually won. After all, theoretically it makes sense, right? That team was in the zone! After that play they knew they were going to win. It was a huge confidence boost, and they put the other guys back on their heels.5

Forget sports (just for a second, don’t worry) and think about a coin flip. Say it’s a fair coin, and you flip heads two times in a row. Does the coin have momentum? Is the coin more likely to come up heads on the next flip? You’re smart, you know the answer is no. It’s just a coin! A fair coin, at that. It’ll come up heads 50% of the time and tails 50% of the time. Even if the coin wasn’t fair, there still wouldn’t be any momentum. If you knew a coin flipped heads 75% of the time, but while flipping there was a run of three tails in a row, would you next bet on heads or tails? Heads, of course. It comes up 75% of the time.6 If you think momentum plays a role in a coin flip, you may be beyond help. But if you agree it doesn’t, you’ve got to agree that momentum plays no role in sports as well.

BUT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT REAL PEOPLE, PLAYING SPORTS, NOT A STUPID COIN FLIP! Well…

In statistics (like, 101, don’t worry, it’s super simple) we say events are either independent or dependent. Coin flips are independent of each other. The outcome of one event does not change the probabilities of the outcomes of any of the others. Two events that would be dependent are whether I wear a rain jacket and whether or not it is raining. The probability that I wear a rain jacket increases dramatically when it is raining.

So sports. Does the outcome of a certain play, or game, or season, change the probabilities of the outcomes of other plays, or games, or seasons? The 49ers just gained a first down. Are they now more (or less) likely to gain another first down than they were before gaining the original first down? Or, the 49ers just won three games. Are they now more (or less) likely to win the fourth game than they would be otherwise? No and no. No! This is not to say the 49ers (and their opponents) are static. The 49ers may have figured out the other team’s defense. That would improve their chances of gaining a first down. They may have gotten better at playing football. That would improve their chances of winning. Those improvements may be reflected in outcomes (gaining a first down, winning a game), as outcomes are certainly dependent on those improvements. But those improvements are not “momentum”! Future outcomes are not the product of prior ones; they’re a product of what the team is doing. The outcomes themselves are independent of one another.

BUT, you say, WHAT THE TEAM IS DOING DEPENDS ON THEIR PREVIOUS OUTCOMES! Sure, teams respond to what’s happened, and may change their strategy, use different players, employ different techniques, etc. And that’s exactly my point. It’s that process, of evaluating performance and making changes, that drives outcomes.

*Hey, over here! Say we have a fair coin that flips heads 50% of the time. We’re having a coin flipping contest (whoo!) and at halftime, we switch to a weighted coin that flips heads 75% of the time. In the second half we flip heads twice in a row. Are we more likely to flip heads on our third flip than we were on our flips in the first half? Yes. Is it because we flipped heads the last two times? No. It’s because this coin comes up heads 25% more often. The probability of flipping heads was 50%, but now it’s 75%, and we’re seeing the difference.

*Say the 49ers offense scores a touchdown against the Rams (whom we7 play this weekend) 50% of the time. At the end of the first half Robert Quinn is injured, also the 49ers have discovered Alec Ogletree and JoLonn Dunbar get out of position on screen passes. These changes improve the 49ers chances of scoring a touchdown to 75%. They come out of half time and score touchdowns on their first two possessions. Are the 49ers more likely to score on their third possession than they were on their possessions in the first half? Yes. Is it because they scored on their last two possessions? No. It’s because Robert Quinn is injured and they are now exploiting Ogletree’s and Dunbar’s weaknesses! The probability of scoring a touchdown was 50%, but now it’s 75%, and we’re seeing the difference.

That’s all football is. Theoretically, that’s all sports are: a coin flip, and the weight of the coin is always changing. Players practice (and take performance enhancing drugs) to weight the coin in their favor. Head coaches spend hours reviewing tape and game planning to weight the coin in their favor. Peyton Manning makes adjustments at the line of scrimmage to weight the coin in his favor. There are no guarantees, and there are a lot of coins. The probability of Dustin Pedroia getting on base coin. The Lebron James free throw coin. The Landon Donovan penalty kick coin. The Jim Harbaugh challenge coin. There are a lot of coins, and they all contribute to The Coin, the probability of winning coin. It could be weighted heavily towards your opponent, as was the 2008 Detroit Lions coin, or strongly in your favor, as was the 2007 New England Patriots coin. But no matter what you do (as those same Patriots would be sure to remind you), the outcome of The Coin is never 100% certain.

So the game starts and maybe the 49ers will score a touchdown 30% of the time against the Rams. After one drive the Rams change their coverage, weighting the coin in their favor, down to 28%. The 49ers try a new wrinkle, weighting the coin in their favor to 31%. Vernon Davis misses a couple drives with a cramp, weighting the coin down to 22%. So it goes. On and on. And if you think looking at the numbers like that takes the fun out of sports, get some glasses, because you’re seeing sports all wrong. Those changes– the freak occurrences, the constant adjustments in preparation and strategy– are what make sports great. And fun. Win or lose.


  1. Again, to get you started, check out the Hot-Hand fallacy. Also a more friendly Bill Barnwell Grantland piece. And an even friendlier New York Times piece
  2. Jeez, it’s almost like I went to a college where a bunch of people wore “That’s all well and good in practice… but how does it work in theory?” t-shirts. Oh wait, I did! Long live Thompson House, and our blessed cake business! 
  3. Surely reading all of Matt Maiocco’s content before kickoff demonstrates my love as a fan, and will be rewarded? Though actually, I didn’t get to all of it before they beat Washington on Monday. But whatever. 
  4. He did, and the 49ers never scored again, losing 23-20. SEE WHAT I HAVE TO PUT UP WITH? 
  5. They made a statement! Changed the complexion of the game. Dictated the game. Took the driver’s seat. Could smell blood.  Answered the call. Started to make some noise. Fired on all cylinders. Hit their stride. Hit a turning point. Turned the corner. Turned the tide. Set the tone. Raised the bar. Played with swagger. Played with a sense of urgency. Were on a mission. Were off to the races. Made a stand up play. Made a gutsy play. Made a textbook play. I could go on… 
  6. An obligatory link to the Gambler’s Fallacy. Three tails in a row doesn’t make heads any more likely either. 
  7. Yes, I say “we” frequently when talking about the team I root for, in this case the San Francisco 49ers. My San Francisco 49ers. Who are (obviously) Jed York’s San Francisco 49ers. Get over it. 

I love sports, and of course I love sports announcing. Though a San Francisco Giants fan1, I’ll definitely watch any west coast Dodger game just to enjoy the magnificence that is Vin Scully.2 And where would I be in the Olympics without Bob Costas guiding me along in the studio? I’ve never had quite as much love for any football game commentators, with the possible exception of Pat Summerall and John Madden. Generally, I feel they do a good job– it actually isn’t easy to sit down for three hours and talk during a football game while being appealing to millions of viewers– but they say many silly things. Or things that are just wrong. I find this most aggravating when it’s the “expert” color commentator, guaranteed to be a former player or coach, whom I feel people usually, often wrongly, trust. While they may offer some fascinating insights, they may also offer some terrible ones. It is rare that I watch a game and at no point think to myself “That’s wrong,” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” Yesterday as usual I started watching football at noon, and unusually finished at 11:30 pm thanks to an overtime thriller in Foxborough. While not a comprehensive list, I tried to make a note when a commentator said something silly.3 Here we go.

With the Ravens trailing the Jets 3-0 and 4:10 remaining in the first quarter, Ray Rice gained two yards on a 2nd&1 from the Jet 28.

CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel remarked:

Ray has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.

And color commentator Dan Dierdorf, 13 year NFL veteran, five-time First-team All-Pro selection, replied in his infinite wisdom:

Well he did, an- and because the criticism was all on him, when in reality I saw a whole bunch of tape on these guys where there were no holes whatsoever. Ray Rice was being met at the line of scrimmage.

At the moment Ray Rice has the worst Pro Football Focus grade4 among all running backs in the NFL, and it’s not close. With a -0.2 in the passing game, a -11.6 in the run game, a -3.1 as a blocker, and a -0.5 in penalties, he totals a -15.4. The next worst running back, C.J. Spiller, checks in with a -11.2, and third worst, Darren McFadden, registers a -7.9. PFF’s “Elusive Rating” is a statistic designed to gauge how well a running back evades tacklers, controlling for the quality of his blocking. Ray Rice is dead last among the 50 running backs with enough snaps to qualify with a 7.0; tops is Marshawn Lynch with a 72.7. (The rating roughly scales from 1-100.) So I know Dan Dierdof “saw a whole bunch of tape” and I believe him. But a whole bunch of guys at PFF saw all of the tape, and firmly conclude that Ray Rice has played abysmally this season. So if you caught a few Ravens’ games and heard Dierdof’s remarks and thought “Oh, it isn’t on Ray Rice, it’s the people around him,” rest assured: it is on Ray Rice. He has truly earned the second worst running back contract in football. Which is to say, he has not earned his contract at all.

With the Steelers leading the Browns 10-3 on a 2nd&10 from the Brown 14 with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s pass for Antonio Brown in the end zone was broken up by Joe Haden.

Solomon Wilcots, six year NFL veteran and color commentator of CBS, broke down what happened:

This is a great play by Joe Haden. Watch him knife in underneath. He understands that down around the goal line, look at that play! You have to get between the quarterback and the receiver. He allowed himself to slip underneath, he had great position.

It’s great, except CBS is showing the replay as Wilcots is saying this, the replay in which Haden very clearly grabs Brown’s jersey with his left hand and holds on for a good moment. It wasn’t blatant pass interference, but it was pass interference. It’s one thing for the officials to miss it live; it’s another for Haden to miss it during the slow motion replay, as he remarks what a terrific play it was by Haden. And even though this is the type of penalty that may not be called most of the time, Wilcots doesn’t acknowledge that Haden grabbed Brown at all. Fans at home, Joe Haden is a very good corner in the National Football League, but that doesn’t always mean “slipping underneath”. Sometimes it may mean “gets overly physical without getting whistled”.

Down 10-3 at home after an incomplete Case Keenum pass on 3rd&goal from the Jaguar two yard line with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Texans took their offense off the field to kick a field goal.

Said CBS color commentator Steve Tasker, 13 year veteran, seven-time All-Pro:

And that’s going to force the field goal, the fans aren’t happy about it but it’s the right move.

Of course if you’ve ever heard of Brian Burke, or know the difference between actual good strategy in the NFL and the still-prevailing conventional wisdom, you know that’s the wrong call. A quick rundown of the numbers: on average going for it in that situation produces a win probability of 0.38; kicking a field goal produces a win probability of 0.31.  From up in the press box Kubiak’s decision cost his team a 7% chance of winning the game.5 For going for it to be worthwhile in this situation, the Texans need to convert only 26% of the time. It’s two yards, and lest we forget, THEY’RE PLAYING THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS! For Tasker to dismiss this as “the right move” is just… how can he… it’s so obviously… RAGE!!! Furious George, L.O.L. I didn’t watch the end of the game, which the Texans went on to lose 13-6, but I bet at no point during the Texans’ final drive6 did Tasker point out “HEY, the would only need a field goal right now if they had gone for it on fourth down earlier and scored a touchdown, as was quite likely given that they only had two yards to go. And as it is, they STILL need to score a touchdown and are in a situation where they have to go for it on fourth down anyway, even if it’s way more than two yards to go. Jeez, I guess I was just saying what I always say and talking out of my @#$ earlier, huh Bill?” Of course if he did point that out, then, well, tip of the hat to him. But I kinda doubt it.

On a 1st&10 with 8:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Packers, down 20-7 to the Vikings, replaced Scott Tolzien with Matt Flynn, who promptly completed his first pass for nine yards.

Fox play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt stated:

A completion. And it’s got this crowd back in the game.

Color commentator and 15 year NFL veteran, four-time All-Pro safety John Lynch chimed in:

He goes to Matt Flynn and they get a little momentum right away.

Whether or not you “believe” in momentum in sports or not, you probably know there is no factual evidence for it if you feel strongly about it one way or the other. Bill Barnwell, of the great Grantland.com, has sort of made “Nomentum” a thing this year, bringing facts a bit further into the mainstream. I’ll only say this: what do you mean when you refer to “momentum”, exactly? Lynch said they got “a little momentum right away.” Scott Tolzien, just benched, had pulled off two nifty moves on a six yard touchdown run earlier in the game. Did that play accrue momentum? And if so, it must have disappeared, since Tolzien was benched? So was the momentum from this pass from Flynn more noteworthy than any momentum Tolzien had gained, an indication that the Packers’ fortunes would be reversed and cause for the fans to rejoice? I, uhh, kinda doubt it. On the next play James Starks ran for 34 yards, setting up 1st&10 from the Viking 37. The momentum must really be going now, right!?! Then Starks ran for two yards, Flynn threw an incomplete pass, and Flynn threw a pass for a loss of five yards, leaving the Packers with 4th&13 from the Vikings 40. They punted. Tragically neither Burkhardt nor Lynch explained where that momentum had gone, and what impact, if any, it had on the game.

Up 24-3 facing 3rd&1 from the Colt 45 with 4:13 remaining in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals’ Andre Ellington was stuffed for a loss of two.

After the play, CBS color commentator Dan Fouts, 15 year NFL veteran and two-time First-team All-Pro, praised the Colts for the stop, saying:

It looked like the Colts- er, the Cardinals had momentum.

What a curious statement! It LOOKED like the Cardinals had the momentum. But in fact, the Colts now have the momentum? The Cardinals had the momentum because they were up by three touchdowns at home and driving in their opponent’s territory? But then, in one fell swoop, the Colts got a stop and now they have the momentum? Or some momentum? The Cardinals have less momentum now? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, DAN??? You know, I think I know. I was never the quarterback for any football team, let alone the San Diego Chargers, and I’m not in the NFL Hall of Fame, but hear me out: “momentum” is when a team improves their situation, relative to the previous situation. And it gets thrown around for a variety of situation types: momentum accrued from a winning streak (sometimes dating back to last season!), unanswered points, a string of good plays, or just one good play, or penalty, whatever. So far as I’m aware, there is A LOT of anecdotal, personal claims that such “momentum” helps a team or player perform, but actually zero (scientific) evidence that it does. Certainly, that’s the case in other sports7, and given the fickle nature of momentum’s tangible effects on performance, I sure don’t see a case otherwise.

On 4th&4 down 27-3 with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Andrew Luck’s pass from the Cardinal 36 was batted into the air and nearly intercepted on the Cardinal 20 before hitting the turf.

Fouts pointed out:

Well they’re better off not catching that ball.

And good for him, it’s a good point and he is totally right. On 4th down, unless there’s a good run back opportunity, the defense improves field position by batting the ball down instead of catching it. And then play-by-play man Ian Eagle chimed in:

It doesn’t matter other than the yardage. So you can pad your stats as a defensive player, but you actually are going to benefit if it’s incomplete.

Eagle sort hits on the right point (after Fouts brought it up), but uhhh… “It doesn’t matter other than the yardage”? Yeah, that’s what the teams are doing in football, trying to gain yards and get to the end zone. The yardage matters! According to Advanced NFL Stats‘ Win Probability Calculator, in this situation the yardage matters to the tune of a single percent chance of winning. Starting on their 36, the Cardinals had a win probability of 95%; starting on their 20, it would have been 94%. That’s not a lot, but disregarding yards in a football game, especially 16 of them (nearly a fifth of the field), is pretty silly.

With 4:52 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday Night Football, down 31-24, Wes Welker dropped a pass over the middle on a 1st&10 from the Patriot 36.

Cris Collinsworth, eight year NFL veteran and three-time Second-team All-Pro selection, wondered of Welker’s drop:

How many times do you see that?

Fortunately, NBC play-by-play caller Al Michaels jumped right in:

Once too many for some New England fans.

Fans who don’t obsess over the numbers but just enjoy watching football (God bless ’em) may well think Wes Welker has terrific hands, because nearly without fail, every time he drops a pass, whoever is announcing the game remarks “Oh, a rare drop from Wes Welker!” Except Welker’s drops are hardly rare, so over the course of a season it is a pretty regular occurrence to hear a rare Wes Welker drop proclaimed on television. Going as far back as PFF data goes, through the 2008 season, Welker’s drop rate is the following (league-wide rank among players with 25% of their team’s targets or more in parentheses):

  • 2008: 6.03% (19th of 81)
  • 2009: 4.65% (24th of 101)
  • 2010: 13.13% (70th of 89)
  • 2011: 9.63% (48th of 95)
  • 2012: 11.28% (58th of 82)
  • 2013: 9.72% (54th of 97)

Welker certainly doesn’t have the worst hands in the NFL, but he’s hardly elite. Larry Fitzgerald, for example, finished 13th or higher all of those seasons except 2012, when he finished 24th. To answer Collinsworth’s question, counting 2013, the last four seasons Welker has dropped 9% or more of his catchable passes. Counting last night, so far in 2013 he’s dropped seven passes; only seven players have dropped more than him this season. Kudos to Michaels for hinting to Collinsworth that, in fact, a Wes Welker drop is not all that unusual.

Lastly, I just thought I’d remind everyone who the Top 10 quarterbacks have been in fantasy football this week, pending MNF (standard points in parentheses):

  • 1. Philip Rivers (27.78)
  • 2. Tom Brady (24.76)
  • 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick (24.4)
  • 4. Alex Smith (21.46)
  • 5. Carson Palmer (20.56)
  • 6. Cam Newton (20.06)
  • 7. Drew Brees (18.52)
  • 8. Josh McCown (18.48)
  • 9. Ryan Tannehill (18)
  • 10. Matthew Stafford (16.48)

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, and Josh McCown all cracked the Top 10. What is the world coming to? Although to be fair, yesterday at mid-afternoon Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder, Kellen Clemens, and bad quarterback superstar Brandon Weeden were also in the running. Mike Glennon actually scored more points (16.18) than Peyton Manning (13). I give up. Go 49ers!


  1. And also a Seattle Mariners fan. That Pacific Northwest life, being close to the homeland in Alaska. Incidentally my mother’s two favorite baseball teams are the Washington Nationals, where she grew up, and the Mariners, closest to where she lives now. They are the only two active Major League Baseball franchises that do not have a single appearance in the World Series. (Yes, even before when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos.) It’s a hard life. 
  2. Also, Vin Scully had the call for “The Catch”, so it’s even more okay. 
  3. How did I catch calls from so many different games? DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. God bless DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. 
  4. Among running backs who’ve played 25% or more of their team’s snaps. PFF has multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game. Click here to learn more about PFF’s grading system. 
  5. Poor Kubiak. His recent health scare is keeping him from the sidelines, and after losing to the Jaguars, at home, you’ve got to wonder if he’ll be coaching the Texans next season, or even at the end of this one. I only take issue with his chosen strategy in this case; I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being and I wish him and his family the best. 
  6. Which ended on a Case Keenum interception from the Jaguar 41. If the Texans had only needed a field goal to tie then, they might have squeaked it out. 
  7. See all scientific findings regarding “the hot hand”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot-hand_fallacy 

Last year the Kansas City Chiefs finished 2-14, tied with Jacksonville for worst in the league. The league office officially declared them the worst when granting them the first pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, using the strength of schedule tiebreaker. Back in Week 2 of this season, plenty of “The Chiefs have already matched their win total” talk was going around. While a great many people expected the Chiefs to play a great deal better, before the season I don’t think many had the Chiefs losing their first game in Week 11, on the road, against Peyton Manning, to fall to 9-1. And like Jim Harbaugh’s takeover of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, most of the players remained on the team. Despite losing all those games, and despite that the Pro Bowl is a so-so indicator of talent, the 2012 Chiefs still fielded 6 Pro Bowlers, as many or more than 27 of the league’s 32 teams.1 The story was they were an okay team, hindered by terrible coaching and quarterbacking, with bad luck and tragedy thrown in. And like the 2011 49ers, the solution was a competent coach guiding Alex Smith’s check-downs, a solid running back, and a terrific defense to one of the best records in football. So what’s more impressive? The 2012 Chiefs going 2-14, or the 2013 Chiefs starting 9-1?

Before discussing the Chiefs, an anecdote. While looking for numbers relating to this piece, I came across a hilarious, embarrassing, presumably unnoticed error on Bleacher Report. In his article, Andrew Garda indicated the Chiefs’ strength of schedule this season was a .473 based on the record of their opponents last season, who combined to go 121-135. This was good for 5th easiest schedule in the league. The problem is those numbers of wins and losses. 121 + 135 = 256 games the Chiefs’ opponents played last season. As they each played 16 games (the playoffs are excluded), 256 / 16 = 16 teams the Chiefs play each season. Peachy, right? Wrong. Very very wrong. The Chiefs have 13 opponents every season. They play 16 games, but they play the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders twice each in intra-division match-ups. The Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders were double counted to reach that 256 game total. In 2012 the Broncos finished 13-3, the Chargers 7-9, and the Raiders 4-12. Removing those numbers from the total, you get 97-111.2 You are still left with the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders records in this figure, just only counted once. The actual strength of schedule the Chiefs face this season is a .466. Only a .006 difference? Well, the same article had the Raiders with the 4th easiest schedule with a .469, only .004 ahead of the Chiefs. Of course, this double counted their division opponents as well. What a mess. I’m not going to go back and calculate each teams strength of schedule properly, but the message is clear: Beware the Internet!

When outlining each of the Chiefs’ seasons, I used football’s Pythagorean numbers a lot. It’s a way of gauging how many games a team “should” have won using their total points scored and allowed over the course of a season. Bill Barnwell of Grantland explains it, and some other good NFL stats, in this article. I also used this Pythagorean metric to determine strength of schedule. That number represents the percentage of games the Chiefs’ opponents “should” have won, against all competition. On to the Chiefs!

The 2012 Kansas City Chiefs

  • Record: 2-14, .125 (tied for worst in league)
  • Pythagorean Wins: 2.6 (under-performed by 0.6, 12th unluckiest in league)
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: 16% (worst in league)
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: .513
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: 2-3
  • Turnover Margin: -24 (tied for worst in league)
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: -17.7 (Matt Cassel -4.9, Brady Quinn -12.8)
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: 26-41, .388 (Romeo Crennel)
  • Dead Money: $2,462,176

The 2013 Kansas City Chiefs

  • Record: 9-1, .9 (tied for 2nd best in league)
  • Pythagorean Wins: 7.7 (over-performed by 1.3, 4th luckiest in league)
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: 77.4% (3rd in league)
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: .421
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: 3-0
  • Turnover Margin: +15 (1st in league)
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: -4.5 (Alex Smith -4.5, Chase Daniel 0.0 on 3 snaps)
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: 130-93-1, .583 (Andy Reid)
  • Dead Money: $16,667,470

The Improvement

  • Record: +7 games/ +.775 and counting
  • Pythagorean Wins: +5.1 wins and counting
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: +61.4%
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: -.092
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: +2
  • Turnover Margin: +39
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: +13.2
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: +78.5/ +.195
  • Dead Money: +$14,205,294

Yeesh. When the only thing that gets worse from one season to the next is the opposition, a team wins a lot more games. Oh, actually the Chiefs are spending $14 million more on players who don’t play for them than they were last year? Well, ignoring that it’s a close call, but I’m going to go ahead and declare the 2013 Chiefs more impressive at being good than the 2012 Chiefs were impressive at being bad. Congratulations to the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs! Proof of what can happen when you significantly upgrade your quarterback3 and coaching situation.

A few other teams have enjoyed similarly large improvements in the past. The 1999 Rams (13-3), 2004 Steelers (15-1), and 2012 Colts (11-5) all improved by nine wins over the previous season. The 1999 Colts (13-3) and the 2008 Dolphins (11-5) improved by 10, tying for the NFL record. With six games remaining, the Chiefs have already improved by seven wins. The six remaining are home for the Chargers, Broncos, and Colts and at the Redskins, Raiders, and Chargers. I think they’ll at least get to 12-4, tying the record. Hell, I’ll say that they are So Impressive this season that they’ll get to 13-3, and set an NFL record by improving 11 wins from the previous season. Of course, a part of me hopes they lose the rest of their games; the 49ers get their 2nd round pick in the daft.4


  1. And all other teams with 6+ Pro Bowlers made the playoffs, let alone got to .500. 
  2. If you still don’t believe me that this is bad, 97 + 111 = 208. 208 / 16 = 13, the actual number of teams the Chiefs play every season. They play 10 games against opponents they only play once, and 6 against 3 opponents they play twice. When determining their strength of schedule, one team gets one record. You can’t count the Broncos twice because they play them twice. Yes, it does make a difference. 
  3. You may notice, that quarterback improvement is more than a full standard deviation. When I looked at QBs last week, the standard deviation of performance was a 10.4. 
  4. That Alex Smith guy? He got us TWO second rounders, one last year, one this year. And he beat the Saints in a home playoff game. And he still has yet to start two straight seasons with the same offensive coordinator. What a guy. 

Debating the best quarterbacks is a ceaseless venture for nearly all followers of football. Excluding special teams positions, quarterback is the only responsibility shouldered by one player (ideally), and one player alone. They’re the most talked about, most paid, and have won most of the NFL MVP Awards1, honestly with pretty good reason. When Aaron Rodgers was ruled out for the Green Bay Packers game against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, the betting line in Las Vegas swung 10 points in Philly’s favor. For comparison, when elite Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was ruled out for a game against those same Packers earlier this year, the line swung 2.5 points to Green Bay. Quarterbacks are, and I don’t know how to put this, but kind of a big deal.

So who’s the best? I dunno. And really, neither does anyone else, not for sure. Even if it was clear what “best” meant (in the 4th quarter? this week? on the road? this season? his career? his potential?), there is no clear winner. For this season, most would say Peyton Manning (he is on pace to set single season records for passing touchdowns and yards), which is fine. The good people at Pro Football Focus, who grade every NFL player on every play throughout the season, concur. Here are PFF’s Top 5 quarterbacks so far this season, among those who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps (grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Peyton Manning, DEN (24.2)
  • 2. Philip Rivers, SD (19.1)
  • 3. Matthew Stafford, DET (18.1)
  • 4. Aaron Rodgers, GB (18)
  • 5. Drew Brees, NO (15.8)

And here are PFF’s Bottom 5:

  • 34. Chad Henne, JAC (-12.4)
  • 35. Joe Flacco, BAL (-12.7)
  • 36. E.J. Manuel, BUF (-14.2)
  • 37. Terrelle Pryor, OAK (-14.5)
  • 38. Geno Smith, NYJ (-15.1)

PFF grades aren’t perfect. Their biggest flaw is that they don’t adjust for the competition. Pump-faking New England Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty (PFF grade 17.9) to the wrong side before completing a pass counts the same as pump-faking Chicago Bears’ Major Wright (PFF grade -17.1). Nonetheless, they’re an objective analysis independent of a single expert or opinion, grounded in repeated scrutiny and facts. So sure, Peyton Manning is the best quarterback so far this season, well on the way to a record 5th most valuable player award.2 But exactly how much do the Denver Broncos value him?

Under his five year contract with the Broncos, Manning’s average annual salary of $19.2 million ranks third in the league among quarterbacks. (Also all players. Those quarterbacks get paid a lot.) The Broncos are paying the most valuable player (so far) the third most value. Neat. But is that the best? Forget what team is getting the most out of their quarterback, what team is getting the most out of their quarterback for their money? 

For starters, among quarterbacks who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps, here are the Top 5 Most Paid (millions of dollars in parentheses), using their average annual salary under their current contracts as reported by the online professional athlete salary database Spotrac.com:

  • 1. Joe Flacco, BAL ($20.1 million)
  • 2. Drew Brees, NO ($20m)
  • 3. Peyton Manning, DEN ($19.2m)
  • 4. Matt Ryan, ATL ($18.958m)
  • 5. Aaron Rodgers, GB ($18.679m)

And here are the 5 Lowest Paid:

  • 34. Russell Wilson, SEA ($0.749m)
  • 35. Nick Foles, PHI ($0.677m)
  • 36. Terrelle Pryor, OAK ($0.59m)
  • 37. Thaddeus Lewis, BUF ($0.51m)
  • 38. Case Keenum, HOU (0.45m)

Yes, Joe Flacco is the 4th worst performing quarterback (so far) and the best paid. (Enjoy that Super Bowl championship, Ravens fans.) Among the lowest paid quarterbacks, Wilson is alone in starting all his team’s games this season, with Foles, Lewis, and Keenum starting for injured first-stringers and Pryor emerging (somewhat, again second worst grade) while missing time for injuries himself. 12 of the 32 teams have started more than one quarterback this season. All told, which have gotten the most for the least?

A good way to answer involves standard deviations. A standard deviation (henceforth SD) is a measure of variability for a group of numbers, in relation to the average. The SD of NFL quarterback salaries (who’ve played 25% of snaps or more) is $6.4 million. That means 68.2% of all quarterbacks have a salary within $6.41 million of the mean salary, $7.818 million. The SD is almost as large as the mean itself, indicating a lot of variability. The SD of quarterbacks’ PFF grades is 10.2, many times the average grade of 1.4; again, A Lot of variability. What do these numbers tell us about how much the Broncos pay Manning?

Manning’s salary ($19.2m) is 1.65 SDs above the mean. Manning’s grade (24.2) is 2.18 SDs above the mean. Relative to his peers, Manning makes an extreme amount of money. His relative performance, however, is even more extreme. That is good for the Broncos, and suggests that they are not overpaying him. Subtracting Manning’s salary SD from his PFF grade SD equals 0.53. What is 0.53? It’s a measure of Manning’s performance (“extremeness”) relative to his salary (“extremeness”). If it were 0, the Broncos would be paying him exactly how much he was worth. (Well, conceptually. The truth is more complicated.) 0.53 represents Manning’s “contract quality”. That the units are standard deviations, which themselves are in different units (the US Dollar and the PFF Grade) is not important, in terms of general understanding. The higher a player’s contract quality, the better deal it is for his organization. The lower the contract quality, the worse the deal.

The highest contract quality among all NFL quarterbacks is Russell Wilson, of the Seattle Seahawks. With a salary SD of -1.02 and a PFF grade SD of 1.33, Wilson’s contract quality of 2.35 is tops by a sound margin. This should not be surprising to football fans, as Wilson has played well (6th best this year, 15.3 grade) ever since starting as a rookie, all after being drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, which enabled the Seahawks to pay him so little (5th lowest this year, $0.749m). With that, this Economics and Sports Management (or ESPM) recurring segment presents the mid-season award for best quarterback contract to Seattle’s General Manager John Schneider. Congratulations!

Here are the Top 5 NFL Quarterback Contracts (contract quality in parentheses)

  • 1. Russell Wilson, SEA (2.35)
  • 2. Ryan Tannehill, MIA (1.87)
  • 3. Andrew Luck, IND (1.32)
  • 4. Nick Foles, PHI (1.21)
  • 5. Case Keenum, HOU (1.19)

Notice anything? All of them entered the NFL in 2012, with Keenum the only one going undrafted. None of the best performing five quarterbacks makes the list, with Rivers coming the closest, 8th best with a 0.79 contract quality, and Brees being the only one seemingly overpaid, finishing 23rd with a -0.39 contract quality. There is a reason teams like collecting draft picks. Free agents are more expensive. Speaking of which, what are the worst quarterback contracts in the NFL this season?

  • 34. Tom Brady, NE (-0.93)
  • 35. Matt Ryan, ATL (-1.05)
  • 36. Eli Manning, NYG (-1.45)
  • 37. Matt Schaub, HOU (-1.62)
  • 38. Joe Flacco, BAL (-3.13) (Seriously, Ravens fans, enjoy that championship.)

Turns out, all of the worst contracts are free agent signings, with Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco tanking the way. Yikes.

Aside from learning the ole’ don’t-resign-players-who-play-well-even-really-well-in-a-few-games–even-if-those-few-games-are-the-playoffs-and-super-bowl-when-the-rest-of-their-careers-say-otherwise trick, there is a larger lesson to be learned here. Football analysts and commentators often speak of a “championship window”, which seemingly means a variety of things. But maybe there’s something to it. Those young guys leading the league in contract value now will be able to renegotiate after the 2014-2015 season, and become free agents in 2016 if they don’t. That will result in significantly less money for their teams to spend elsewhere. Russell Wilson accounts for 0.5% of the Seahawks’ salary cap this year. Peyton Manning accounts for 12.5% of the Broncos’. (His brother Eli Manning accounts for 17.1% of the Giants’. Yeesh.) So enjoy, Seattle. Nothing lasts forever.


  1. Quarterbacks have won 37 of the 58 NFL MVP Awards (63.8%). Running backs have won 18 (31%), and one defensive tackle, kicker, and linebacker have won one each (1.7% each). 
  2. He already has the current record with four. Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas, and Jim Brown are tied for second with three each. 
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