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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 
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First of all, this evaluation uses player performance through Week 10, and doesn’t include what happened over the weekend. With at least 15 more positions to get through (depending on what I decide to do with blocking and coverage units on special teams), I wanted to move along. But Monday Night Football happens tonight. As I’ll be going back at the end of the season to hand out the official awards for best and worst contract anyway, there’s no point to rush ahead and leave behind the Patriots’ and Panthers’ running backs playing tonight.1

Another note, regarding position: a player’s position may not match what he’s perceived as, or even what’s on his team’s official depth chart. In addition to providing grades on every player on every snap, Pro Football Focus details where each player lines up in relation to each other, and records them in the corresponding position for that snap. So if San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore lines up wide left, for that play PFF lists his position as Left Wide Receiver. Gore’s PFF grade includes such plays; he is listed as a running back because he has played 25% or more of his team’s snaps at “Halfback”, as defined by PFF.2

So, running backs! There have been 55 running backs (using PFF’s classification) seeing significant time this season. Da’Rel Scott, formerly of the New York Giants, was released earlier this year, leaving 54. Here are the Top 10 performers (PFF Grade in parentheses):

  • 1. LeSean McCoy, PHI (17.2)
  • 2. Marshawn Lynch, SEA (14.9)
  • 3. Adrian Peterson, MIN (13.1)
  • 4. Giovani Bernard, CIN (13)
  • 5. Danny Woodhead, SD (11.2)
  • 6. Darren Sproles, NO (11)
  • 7. Frank Gore, SF (10.3)
  • 8. Eddie Lacy, GB (9.3)
  • 9. Pierre Thomas, NO (8.9)
  • 10. Joique Bell, DET (7.9)

A pretty sound group, with rookies Bernard and Lacy getting in alongside superstars like Peterson and some solid play from less famous veterans like Danny Woodhead. Here are the Bottom 10 (grades in parentheses):

  • 45. Chris Ogbonnaya, CLE (-4.8)
  • 46. Chris Ivory, NYJ & Rashard Mendenhall, AZ (-5.3)
  • 48. Chris Johnson, TEN (-5.4)
  • 49. Trent Richardson, IND (-5.7)
  • 50. Bilal Powell, NYJ (-5.9)
  • 51. Doug Martin, TB (-7.8)
  • 52. Darren McFadden, OAK (-7.9)
  • 53. C.J. Spiller, BUF (-9.1)
  • 54. Ray Rice, BAL (-12.8)

Oh dear. The bottom of that list shouldn’t surprise anyone who has played fantasy football this season, especially if you drafted one of them.3 Also, and I hope to write more about this soon, the rest of the NFL must be excited if the Colts would truly trade for Trent Richardson again. The Saints had two players in the Top 10, while the Jets have two players in the Bottom (and the Browns were close, with Ogbonnaya’s teammate Willis McGahee just beating him out with a -4.6). The average running back grade is a 2.23, with a standard deviation of 6.52, reflecting a rather substantial amount of variation in player performance, though not as much as among quarterbacks. As for their compensation, here are the Top 10 best paid running backs, using data from Spotrac.com (average annual salary in parentheses, in millions of dollars):

  • 1. Adrian Peterson, MIN ($13.714 million)
  • 2. Darren McFadden, OAK ($10.002m)
  • 3. Chris Johnson, TEN ($8.996m)
  • 4. Arian Foster, HOU ($8.7m)
  • 5. DeAngelo Williams, CAR ($8.6m)
  • 6. LeSean McCoy, PHI ($7.603m)
  • 7. Matt Forte, CHI ($7.6m)
  • 8. Marshawn Lynch, SEA ($7.5m)
  • 9. Ray Rice, BAL ($7m)
  • 10. Frank Gore, SF ($6.475m)

Once again, players worst in performance make the best paid list! It hasn’t failed yet, with Rice, Johnson, and McFadden joining in. Here are the Bottom 10 paid running backs:

  • 45. Rashad Jennings, OAK ($0.63m)
  • 46. Roy Helu, WAS ($0.628m)
  • 47. Bilal Powell, NYJ ($0.61m)
  • 48. Zac Stacy, STL ($0.584m)
  • 49. Andre Ellington, AZ ($0.565966m)
  • 50. Mike James, TB ($0.565788m)
  • 51. Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL ($0.558m)
  • 52. Alfred Morris, WAS ($0.556m)
  • 53. Daryl Richardson, STL ($0.536m)
  • 54. Brandon Bolden, NE ($0.485m)

Alfred Morris is certainly the most noteworthy, with Stacy and Ellington putting together promising rookie campaigns as well. The average NFL running back makes $3.043 million a year, with a standard deviation of $3.134 actually being lower, if only slightly. Relative to how well they play, there is much less variation among how well running backs are paid. Which teams got the best deals?

The ESPM award for best running back contract (so far) goes to… Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals. Congratulations Bengals General Manager Mike Brown! To calculate a player’s contract quality, we determine the number of standard deviations his performance grade is above/below the average, and subtract the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average. Here are the Best 10 contracts among NFL running backs (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Giovani Bernard, CIN (2.2)
  • 2. Danny Woodhead,SD (1.79)
  • 3. Eddie Lacy, GB (1.78)
  • 4. Joique Bell, DET (1.64)
  • 5. Andre Elleington, AZ (1.63)
  • 6. Mike James, TB (1.52)
  • 7. DeMarco Murray, DAL (1.5)
  • 8. Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL (1.4)
  • 9. Roy Helu, WAS (1.21)
  • 10. Darren Sproles, NO (1.2)

It’s an interesting list. Bernard is a rookie, but he didn’t come as cheap, being more than twice as expensive as most others at $1.313 million a year. Eddie Lacy, chosen 24 picks later in the second round of last year’s draft, makes $0.848 million, while the others are closer to a half million than a full. Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles represent the rare free agent signing success. Still, only three of the top ten most paid running backs have quality contracts (McCoy, Lynch, & Gore). With Alfred Morris at #11 (1.14), Washington seems to have been the best at getting the most out of their money, at this position at least. Here are the 10 Worst contracts:

  • 45. Doug Martin, TB (-1.11)
  • 46. Arian Foster, HOU (-1.29)
  • 47. Matt Forte, CHI (-1.41)
  • 48. Adrian Peterson, MIN (-1.74)
  • 49. Trent Richardson, IND (-1.88)
  • 50. C.J. Spiller, BUF (-1.91)
  • 51. DeAngelo Williams, CAR (-1.92)
  • 52. Chris Johnson, TEN (-3.07)
  • 53. Ray Rice, BAL (-3.57)
  • 54. Darren McFadden, OAK (-3.78)

So while generally using draft picks is better than signing free agents, as players on their first contract generally provide more for the money, there are exceptions. Doug Martin and Trent Richardson were drafted in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft and are still on their rookie deals. But usually, the worst results come from enormous free agent signings, though that is not to say that all enormous free agent signings are the worst. Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, and Darren McFadden are in a world of their own at the bottom, each with, well, an enormous gap between where they stand among their peers in performance (low) and pay (high).

In all, 30 of 54 (55.6%) have “good” contracts, in that their teams are getting as much or more than they pay for. Those numbers for wide receivers were 59 of 109 (54.1%); quarterbacks, 19 of 37 (51.4%). Those numbers are my first glimpse of how efficient (or inefficient) the NFL may be. Even with good players and bad players, rich ones and poor ones, greedy owners and greedy agents, all contracts could (ought to) still be better priced. One should’t expect teams to get the performance they paid for (or better) from every one of their players. But only just over half? Among quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs, NFL teams are overpaying nearly 50% of their players. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done.


  1. Though also, not all players have played the same number of games anyway, as some teams are still waiting for their bye week. But as the Patriots and Panthers did have theirs, they would be two games short of some teams. ANYway, this is not the ultimate assessment, just an intermediate one. 
  2. PFF records a player as a Halfback if they are the only back (besides the quarterback) in the backfield OR if there are multiple backs in the backfield and they are as far back (or farther) from the line of scrimmage than all other backs. 
  3. Chris Johnson did have a sound night on Thursday Night Football, with a +1.8. I think Rice played well yesterday too, but his PFF grade isn’t up yet. (They’re still busy having a few different people watch and grade every snap of that game.) 
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