Just as the popular conceptions of their home city go, the Detroit Lions are an outdated relic from an era gone by. Both have been squeezed financially by changing economic situations in their respective realms, conditions that have forced each to compete with antiquated setups for too long. The Lions had the misfortune of being catastrophically terrible under incompetent management for many years, and although they were finally placed in a situation where they could recover from that burden, their opportunity came at precisely the wrong time in history. Jim Schwartz’s team is perpetually pinned to the backs of their head coach and his three best players, and when they’re not all up to the task, heartbreaking losses like Thanksgiving’s loss to the Texans seem to ensue far too frequently.
The new era of these Lions came of age at the very tail end of the last collective bargaining agreement, a deal that pushed rookie salaries to the brink of professional sanity. Running counter to the rest of American sports, where rookies are often drastically underpaid and represent the largest value proposition in each respective sport’s marketplace, NFL rookies were making exorbitant sums of money before ever playing an NFL down. When the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft and signed him to a six-year deal, the $41.7 million that he was guaranteed from the deal was a record total. Not a rookie record. Not a quarterback record. An NFL record. Stafford has turned out to be competent at worst, but seventh on that list of record contracts at the time was the $31.5 million guaranteed to JaMarcus Russell, who went first overall the previous year while residing in a similar guarantee neighborhood with Tony Romo and Peyton Manning. Economic studies showed that the first overall pick was actually the least valuable selection in the first round.
The good news is that the league’s new CBA, implemented for the contracts signed by players taken in the 2011 draft and beyond, actually provides a relatively reasonable framework for valuing rookies. Andrew Luck will make $22.1 million guaranteed for four years, a deal that strikes a balance between the ridiculous guarantees of yesteryear and the league minimum salaries bestowed on baseball draftees during their first three years in the majors.1
The bad news, though, is that the Lions were the last team to be truly hit by the loser’s curse of perennially grabbing top-five picks under the old CBA. The rookie contracts of Detroit’s big three — Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh — produced about $108 million in combined guarantees on the day they were drafted. If a team like the Colts had three top-five picks in three years today, those picks would only cost about $60 million in guarantees and have far less onerous terms at the end of the (shorter) contracts. When the final year of Johnson’s deal tied the Lions up with a $24 million cap hold this offseason and threatened to create a situation in which the Lions wouldn’t have been able to franchise2 Johnson the following year, they were stuck with no leverage and forced to give Megatron a deal that guaranteed him $60 million, a 20 percent jump on the guaranteed cash given to previous record receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The extensions that Stafford and Suh are likely to receive in the near future will likely be of similar size, guaranteeing Detroit’s stars around $180 million while preventing the Lions from building up the rest of their roster. Because those three players take up such a disproportionate amount of Detroit’s cap, it’s incumbent upon them to produce at a high level every time out. Johnson showed up on Thursday, but Suh, Stafford, and their head coach weren’t quite as impressive.
If you had the sound turned on Thanksgiving morning during that Lions-Texans game, you undoubtedly heard Phil Simms gushing about Stafford’s ability to throw from virtually a sidearm slot, an arm angle that Stafford used on most of his passes on Thursday. Combined with a propensity for making throws off of his back foot, Stafford’s been able to release passes quickly, compensating for a lack of traditional windup with his raw arm strength.3 Unfortunately, in doing so, Stafford sacrifices accuracy, especially on deep passes. His completion percentage and yards per attempt are both noticeably down this year, and with Megatron around, league-average just isn’t enough.
Stafford mixed big plays on Thursday with disappointing misses. His most notable impact, however, was when he failed on a pair of subtle plays that often get lauded as ones that skip the stat sheet. During the fourth quarter, Stafford failed to protect his seven-point lead by making a pair of situational blunders. In each case, his offense was facing a third-down play from the Houston 36-yard line. An incompletion would give the Lions the option to take a 53-yard field goal, one that would be on the very edges of Jason Hanson’s functional range as a kicker. A short checkdown, even one that didn’t have a prayer of turning into a first down, would have been enough to create a reasonable field goal opportunity for the veteran Lions kicker. Outside of a turnover, the worst thing Stafford could do was take a sack that pushed the Lions out of field goal range and forced them to punt. Amazingly, that’s what happened both times, with J.J. Watt producing huge sacks on both occasions. Had Stafford picked up even four yards on either of the two third-down plays, the Lions would have been able to take a 49-yarder that Hanson would have had a prayer of hitting, one that would have pushed them up 10 points and forced the Texans into full-on desperation mode. Instead, the Texans were able to get the ball back on punts in each case and scored on their second drive, tying the game up at 31-all. It was a huge mental mistake, one that significantly harmed Detroit’s chances of keeping their lead.
You often hear announcers talk about those plays as something mysterious and unquantifiable, but the truth is that they’re just as easy to count as any other. I had anecdotally referred to Sam Bradford as the king of those sacks-out-of-field-goal-range for a while now, even calling them Bradfords, but Stafford taking two of them in the fourth quarter of one key game made me question myself. Was Stafford really the king of those sacks? I went back and used the wonderful Pro-Football-Reference.com play index to figure it out. I took every quarterback’s passes from 2000 to 2012 (not including Sunday’s games) and analyzed what they did in two-score games4 on third down between the 25-yard line and the 36-yard line of the opposition.
As it turns out, Stafford doesn’t have a track record for taking that sort of sack. In fact, his two sacks in the fourth quarter were the first time he’d ever taken such a range-defeating sack as a pro, having managed to avoid them in his previous 31 third-down dropbacks. Bradford was way up there, thanks to five sacks on just 32 dropbacks; his 15.6 percent takedown clip was the second-highest rate for any passer with 30 dropbacks or more on third down in field goal range, trailing only the statue commonly confused for Ben Roethlisberger:
The quarterbacks on the other side of the coin were a group of people you would expect to avoid the sack through sheer talent (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning) and a few that you would mostly be confused by (Byron Leftwich, Joey Harrington, Brian Griese). Josh Freeman currently has gone 45 passes in that situation without being sacked once, an impressive feat that’s unlikely to continue happening forever. With the evidence for Stafford consisting of one game of misadventures, I’m still calling this one a Bradford.
Suh’s calamity was more sinister. Having earned a two-game suspension by stomping on Packers guard Even Dietrich-Smith during last Thanksgiving’s festivities, Suh attracted notoriety this year by seemingly reaching out and kicking Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin as Suh tumbled to the ground. While appearing to be an accident upon first view, each shot and angle of the kick made it look worse and worse. At the time of writing, rumors are swirling that Suh will be suspended Monday for the second consecutive year. Lions fans have tried to defend Suh’s kick as accidental, but at what point do we all agree that this isn’t a coincidence? How many other players have visibly stamped on an opposing player while trying to leave the scene over the past two years? How many have “accidentally,” unexpectedly delivered a rolling koppo kick to the groin of an opposing quarterback? How many have done both? It hardly seems fair to chalk up both incidents to mere chance.
The real disappointment came when Schwartz threw the challenge flag on a bizarre touchdown run by Justin Forsett. You’ve seen the play by now. Forsett’s knee clearly goes down, the referee never sees it and allows Forsett to score, and Schwartz instantly throws the challenge flag out, incurring a 15-yard penalty while wiping out the guaranteed review from the booth.
Of course, the rule is dumb. The spirit of the rule was to avoid giving coaches a way to badger referees into talking to them while their assistants got extra time to look at replays upstairs, but the application here was clearly small-minded and insipid. It’s also the referees’ fault for failing to notice that Forsett was down. That’s all fair, but even after all of it, Schwartz fails at his job by throwing the flag and costing his team the review. He has to know the rules and act accordingly. While the rule is disappointing, it’s not exactly obscure, either: Falcons head coach Mike Smith received a similar penalty last weekend for throwing the challenge flag on a Cardinals fumble recovery that was then never reviewed. Forsett’s touchdown ended up being enough to get the game pushed into overtime, where the Texans and Lions each traded missed field goals before the Texans finally grabbed a game-winner.
Schwartz admitted after the game that he knew the rule and had a mental lapse, which seems to coincide with the lapses exhibited by two of his three star players. Although Johnson remains arguably the best receiver in football, Stafford’s taking a step backward and Suh’s reliving his discipline nightmare from a year ago. Detroit’s season may already be done at 4-7, but Schwartz needs to get more out of his Big Three to get them back into the playoffs in 2013. The Lions simply don’t have a way to succeed if he doesn’t, and if Schwartz can’t, the Lions are likely to try to find somebody else who can get their stars to live up to their price tags.
Momentum’s always been a tricky concept for me to understand in football. I don’t doubt that some semblance of momentum exists somewhere, but the amount of effort and posthaste thinking that goes into defining momentum swings and momentum-changing plays has seemed, well, sloppy. It’s more like an effort to slap a narrative on independent events happening within the context of a game than a way of actually capturing meaningful shifts in the emotional state of one. And Sunday just reinforced those doubts about momentum while pointing out a situation where believing in the power of “momentum” actually caused a team to make a terrified decision.
Take the play of the day yesterday, Ray Rice’s incredible 29-yard sprint after the catch on fourth-and-29 to pick up a game-extending first down in San Diego. There are a lot of things about that play I don’t understand. Why did Joe Flacco think it was a good idea to check down on fourth-and-29, even if all his receivers were covered, as opposed to playing for a pass-interference penalty downfield? How is it a sign of Norv Turner’s stupidity that his defensive players took terrible routes to the ball on a fourth-and-29 checkdown that would have sealed the game for his team?5 And how do you appropriately measure for a first down after replay on a play where you’ve already moved the chains and can’t see where the ball is?
If a play ever had the clear ability to induce momentum without necessarily winning the game it’s that one, and it didn’t really have any tangible impact on the plays after it. Had the Ravens gone in and scored a game-winning touchdown on that drive or even on the first drive of overtime, we all would have looked back and said that the Chargers were irreparably damaged by the game-shifting Rice catch, that the momentum swing was simply too much to overcome. Instead, it didn’t really change things at all. The Ravens stalled shortly thereafter on their drive, taking one halfhearted shot at the end zone before settling for a game-tying field goal. In overtime, they traded unsuccessful 35-yard drives with the Chargers before getting a three-and-out, moving the ball to midfield, and getting a much more impressive throw from Flacco to Torrey Smith in single coverage that set up the game-winning field goal. By the time the Ravens then kicked their game-winning field goal, 14 minutes of game time had elapsed. Can you still really piece together the gathering of momentum from the Rice run to that field goal?
In a vacuum, this is all just innocent narrative-smoothing junk used to turn 160 plays or so into an 800-word story, but it’s pretty clear that people actually believe in momentum and use it as a path to some supremely suboptimal decision-making. That’s where momentum becomes dangerous. Consider what happened earlier in the day, when the Chiefs chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the 4-yard line with a 3-0 lead and 4:35 left to go in the first quarter. The announcers, as every set of announcers seems to do in this situation, noted that the fans were bloodthirsty to go for it while pointing out how the coaches were correct to be conservative. Dan Dierdorf acknowledged that the fans saw a 1-9 team and wanted to go for it, but suggested that Crennel’s decision was saying, “Look, we’ll play the odds. I’d hate to have a good drive like this end up with nothing.”
As a good rule of thumb, when somebody says you need to take the points so you don’t come away from your drive without anything to show for it, they’re wrong. Nobody’s ever won a game and sat in the press conference afterward and said that they won because they were able to come away with small amounts of points on each of their early drives. In this case, Kansas City’s good drive was a six-play, 33-yard one that came after a big punt return; coming away with points ensures that you have a 6-0 lead on Peyton freaking Manning and the Denver Broncos with 55 minutes of football left to go. Is it really likely that those three points are going to represent the margin of victory? That the Chiefs are going to hold Manning & Co. to three points the rest of the way? Of course not.
Your goal needs to be to, well, play the odds, just not the ones that Dierdorf’s suggesting Crennel is playing. Unless there’s a specific point total you know you can get in the fourth quarter with one or two possessions to go, your goal is almost always to score as many points as possible. The Chiefs have Jamaal Charles and were averaging 5.4 yards per carry on the ground up to that point. The odds, according to Brian Burke’s calculator, suggest that the Chiefs would be right to go for it with even a 39 percent chance of making the fourth-and-2. Whatever odds Romeo Crennel was playing bore little resemblance to either the theoretical odds or the actual ones.
Dierdorf’s partner, play-by-play man Greg Gumbel, illustrated the other side of the argument against the aggressive decision. “You give the Broncos tremendous momentum by stopping it,” he noted. Now, I haven’t ever run a study on momentum like that and whether teams who pick up a fourth-down stop inside their own 5-yard line score more often on the ensuing drive than you might think, and maybe it’s possible that they do. I’m pretty sure that Gumbel hasn’t, and I’m even more sure, sadly, that the Chiefs haven’t. Think about how flimsy the concept of momentum has to be for this to work. The Broncos are 6-3 with a five-game winning streak. They have arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of football looking like he’s 28 again under center. They’ve almost surely locked up their division with a month and a half to go in the season. The Chiefs are 1-9 and everyone’s getting fired after the season. If the topic of momentum had been broached at any point before the game, the idea that the Broncos wouldn’t have 100 percent of the momentum would have been ludicrous.
Now the Chiefs are about to gain some sort of momentum on the Broncos by kicking a field goal to go up 6-0? Are the Broncos going to sit there on the sideline, devastated by the whirlwind of impact that is a 22-yard Ryan Succop field goal with 50 minutes of football left to go, wondering how they’ll possibly recover? Alternately, by forcing a stop on fourth-and-2, were the Broncos going to bound off the field with endless swagger, knowing that they’d finally gotten the upper hand on their division rivals and gained the momentum? Of course not. There’s no such thing as momentum in the first half of a football game, because you’re so far removed from placing yourself into a situation where you’ve got a serious advantage to winning the football game that you can’t ever gather any meaningful steam. There’s too much football to go. In this case, the Broncos returned the ensuing kickoff after this field goal to midfield, which gave them some momentum, but when Matt Prater missed a 47-yard field goal to end their drive, the Chiefs regained the momentum. Then the Broncos recovered and sacked Brady Quinn on third down to get it back, but then Peyton Manning threw an interception, giving the Chiefs tremendous momentum of their own. Tracking all these momentum shifts is exhausting!
In the end, the Broncos beat the Chiefs because they’re the Broncos and the Chiefs are the Chiefs, and the talent gap between those two teams is better represented by the distance between planets than by arbitrary shots of momentum. If you’re still confused let’s finish by considering the thoughts of Romeo Crennel, who was asked about the competitiveness of the league after his 0-2 start this past September:
“In this league, one play can make a difference in a game. It can turn momentum and then you don’t know what happens after the momentum turns. We haven’t been able to turn the momentum. If we get to the point where we can make one of those plays and see how it impacts us, then I will be able to answer that question a little better.”
If only somebody would go for it against them on fourth-and-2 at the beginning of a football game! Maybe one day, Romeo.
Thank You for Not Coaching
Well, sure, if you really insist that I stick with Crennel’s discussion … the Chiefs ended up going for it on fourth-and-1 from the 40-yard line later in the first half (on a play where the Broncos might actually get some tangible evidence of momentum from the great field position if the Chiefs fail, ironically), but just as Brady Quinn sneaked the ball over the line for a first down, Crennel called a timeout and iced his own offense. Even more distressingly, in the fourth quarter of a five-point game with 6:41 left to go and the Chiefs about to punt the ball away on fourth-and-6 from the Denver 46-yard line, Crennel used his second timeout before punting. It’s debatable whether a punt was the right move in that situation, considering how close the game was and how well Kansas City’s defense was playing, but why on earth are you taking a timeout before you punt? What’s more valuable: five yards of field position just before a punt that’s going to take off from your 49-yard line, or a timeout in the fourth quarter of a one-score game? I don’t expect coaches to memorize expected value charts or consult papers on game theory when making play-calling decisions, but isn’t it reasonable to expect a 65-year-old professional football coach to use his timeouts with some remote level of efficiency?
Our old friend Pat Shurmur proved that he wasn’t outcome-driven, I guess, by ignoring what happened to his team against the Eagles in Week 1 and making the same mistake for the second time this season. After scoring a touchdown with 5:25 left in the third quarter to go up 19-14, Shurmur kicked the extra point and went up 20-14, probably because NFL coaches are apparently summarily executed if they even look at their two-point conversion chart before the fourth quarter begins. If he had been brave enough to glance in his chart’s direction and it wasn’t done in crayons by kindergarteners, like I imagine it is, he would have found that it’s very valuable to go for two in that situation; the Football Commentary model suggests that the Browns should have gone for two if they thought their odds of success were greater than about 28 percent or so, indicating just how valuable the seven-point lead can be in that situation. The Browns kicked the extra point to go up 16-10 over the Eagles early in the fourth quarter of Week 1 and promptly lost without recourse when the Eagles scored a game-winning touchdown with 1:23 left, but he was able to get away with it here.
Greg Schiano made some curious decisions at the end of Tampa Bay’s narrow loss to Atlanta on Sunday. With fourth-and-7 on the Atlanta 38-yard line and 3:37 left to go in a one-point game, he decided to try a 56-yard field goal with franchise kicker Connor Barth instead of punting and using his timeouts to try to stop Atlanta (or going for it and doing the same if he failed). It’s one of those plays where I think you can make a case for all three sides, but the field goal might be the worst choice of the three.
More notably, Schiano misused his timeouts by saving them for after the two-minute warning. When the Falcons picked up a third down and were able to run three more plays before punting, the Buccaneers got the ball back with a mere eight seconds left on the clock. The Falcons ran a first-down play with 2:47 left and took seven seconds off the clock, which is where Schiano should have started using his timeouts. A three-down stop in that situation would have gotten the Buccaneers the ball back with about 2:25 left on the clock, plenty of time for Josh Freeman to launch one of his spectacular game-winning drives. Even if the Falcons had converted on third down after using those timeouts and then gone three-and-out (to a missed field goal), as they did in real life, Schiano using his timeouts before the two-minute warning would have gotten the Buccaneers the ball back with about 25 seconds left to go instead of eight.
Finally, let’s finish with a bonus college football TYFNC! Let’s honor Arkansas coach John L. Smith, who coached the final game of his short tenure as Razorbacks head coach like he was a student teacher being observed by the principal. In a 17-10 game with 12:54 left to go in Arkansas’s dismal losing season, Smith’s team faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Bless his heart, John L. Smith wanted to come away with points, so he kicked a field goal. This one should be obvious to even the most conventional of thinkers, but really, just think about how bad the decision to kick a field goal is there. If you’re going to hurt your team’s chances of winning that much because you’re that afraid of losing, why even watch film during the week? Why practice? It gets to the point where you’re erasing chunks of the hard work you put in as a coach by making such dreadful decisions at the goal line.
What did John L. Smith have to say about his decision to kick a field goal from 17 yards out in a 17-10 game? “That’s the right call … I mean, you have to score twice to win it, don’t you? At least, I think you had to score twice to win it unless my math was wrong. So do you take it there? You have to take the sure points and then come back you have to score again anyway.” Did he think that LSU’s offense was in stasis and had no possibility of scoring over the ensuing 12 minutes of the game? Was he unaware that all scoring chances aren’t created equal, and that an attempt from the 1-yard line is, some would say, among the easiest places to score a touchdown? Or that even a failed attempt might give his team solid field position to defend and make it easier for his team to score? Or that tying a football game in the fourth quarter is a valuable thing to do? If the field goal represented the sure points and the team needed to score twice anyway, why not just kick the field goal on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line?
In the end, LSU kicked a field goal to restore their seven-point lead and their three-field-goal advantage. Smith’s Razorbacks didn’t advance the ball past the LSU 41-yard line until there were 14 seconds left in the game, at which point they got one chance to throw the ball into the end zone from the 18-yard line in an attempt to tie the game. Almost surely because Smith abandoned his strategy of needing two scores to overcome a seven-point lead, the play didn’t work. Math don’t lie.