Last Chances for Wisconsin and Nebraska, and Tennessee’s Long Shot Against Georgia

The Colossus of New York

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Mediocre Mark

The Jets demonstrate their bleak future under center, plus the rest of the Week 4 news

Have all the burial plots under MetLife Stadium been spoken for? If they haven’t been claimed, now might be a good time to start clearing out a tomb for the 2012 Jets, the 2-2 team that brings every other 2-2 team’s property value down. With Darrelle Revis done for the year, the Rex Ryan model that led the Jets to AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010 has essentially disappeared into thin air. During those runs, the Jets went to great lengths to avoid exposing the limitations of Mark Sanchez. Now, with their defense and running game sapped by age and injuries, the Jets have become dependent upon Sanchez as a result of desperation as opposed to maturity. The scary thing isn’t that Sanchez isn’t ready to be the best player on his football team. The truly terrifying thing for both this year’s and next year’s Jets is that there don’t appear to be many signs that Mark Sanchez has matured much at all.

It’s easy for a defense as good as San Francisco’s to make a quarterback look bad, but this is now Sanchez’s third straight week of incompetence. After the Jets and Sanchez looked fantastic in Week 1 while dominating the Bills, Sanchez’s performance has gone south. Even if you include his Week 1 stats, Sanchez has been wretched: He’s completed just 49.2 percent of his passes, dead last among NFL starters, while averaging a mere 6.4 yards per attempt. That’s 29th of 32.

You can chalk that up to a four-game sample against a couple of tough defenses, but when you start looking at the broader picture, it’s hard to see the ways in which Sanchez has gotten better. If we take Sanchez’s last 16 regular-season starts1 — this year’s opening four games and the final 12 from last season — and compare them to his 16 preceding starts, you have to squint to notice the improvements:

The notable difference in Sanchez’s favor is a spike in passing touchdowns, which is almost entirely attributable to the degradation of New York’s running game near the goal line and the presence of Plaxico Burress last year. If Sanchez had some sort of green thumb for the red zone, he certainly hasn’t shown it off this season. Otherwise, outside of the improvements Sanchez made after his rookie season, this is the picture of stagnation. If there were signs in Sanchez’s play that the statistics weren’t doing a good job of representing his actual performance on the field, that would be one thing, but it’s hard to watch the guy play and notice significant, steady ways in which his game has gotten better.

Take Sanchez’s turnovers against the Niners. His fumble in the second quarter took just about every little thing that quarterbacks are supposed to gain with experience and dared to show off just how little awareness Sanchez has developed. It’s bad enough that Sanchez was about to take a sack on third down to push his team out of field goal range, showing a remarkable lack of consideration for down-and-distance and field position. What’s worse is how Sanchez handles pressure. When nobody gets open and Justin Smith gets in Sanchez’s throwing lane, he brings the ball down and tries to scramble away. Note that I didn’t say that he tucked the ball, because he didn’t; Sanchez just puts the ball at his side, like it’s a grocery bag. Then, once he eludes one rusher, Sanchez doesn’t have the feel for the rush to step somewhere safe and get rid of the football. He moves backward into a pile of Niners without the ball protected, resulting in an easy forced fumble and a key turnover.

Sanchez’s interception wasn’t quite as egregious, but it also came about as a result of a poor decision. The Jets actually make a good play call, with a screen coming against a blitz, but the rush is on Sanchez too quickly and he doesn’t have a chance to get the ball out properly. It’s a play that Sanchez probably should have killed with a spike to the ground, but instead he tries to throw it through the hands of Ray McDonald, who bats it to Patrick Willis for an interception.

When will Sanchez start avoiding those sorts of mistakes born from inexperience? It’s not the Jay Cutler argument, either, because Cutler mixes mostly above-average play with flashes of brilliance and awful, staggering failure; Sanchez is pretty consistently below-average. What you can borrow from the Cutler argument, though, is the conclusion; if Mark Sanchez was really going to get much better, why hasn’t it happened yet? The last argument was that Sanchez didn’t have an offensive coordinator who made him better, but so far, Tony Sparano’s work has made Brian Schottenheimer look like a wizard. And with Santonio Holmes suffering from what looked to be a serious leg injury on Sunday, whoever starts for the Jets might have to endure a season with Jeremy Kerley as the team’s top wideout. Uh-oh.

Of course, the Jets are now stuck with a quarterback controversy that will engulf the rest of their season. Next Monday, the Jets will host the 4-0 Houston Texans, who seem to be the best team in football through four weeks. The Jets will likely lose, and against an extremely effective pass defense, fail to produce a ton in the passing game. That will lead to extended cries for Tim Tebow, who has played a peripheral role in the New York offense so far this season. A move to Tebow would make Sanchez — due $20.5 million in guaranteed money through the end of 2013 — the league’s most expensive Gatorade distribution specialist and erode what remains of Sanchez’s confidence without providing even a sliver of a guarantee that the offense will play any better. And then, if Tebow struggles and you go back to Sanchez, the opposite is true. The Jets can only break the glass in case of emergency once; after Sanchez’s start, it seems like more a question of when they will, not if.

Sanchez wasn’t the only Jets player who failed to deliver on Sunday. San Francisco was able to gash the Jets defense with some interesting wrinkles to their offense. During the first half, they took 2011 second-rounder Colin Kaepernick and put him back in the Pistol alignment that he played out of at Nevada to run a series of plays based off of the triple option. The Niners even ran an option play with Alex Smith in the red zone, but they didn’t really need the trickeration. They left at least two long touchdown passes on the field, both of which came on plays where Revis Island subletter Kyle Wilson was badly beaten on double moves. The Jets got away with Wilson’s largesse on Sunday; they won’t in future weeks.

A furious Rex Ryan gave the Jets Monday and Tuesday off to clear their heads, a move that launched a million jokes about Ryan’s team having received that news a day early. It’s hard to figure out what inner peace the Jets are supposed to find during their absence. Holmes might very well be out for the remainder of the season. Their upcoming schedule includes games against the Texans and Patriots. Their quarterback is approaching the guillotine. No, the 2012 Jets aren’t dead yet. But it’s time to start making the preparations.

Fumble Shucks

One way the Jets were unlucky? Fumble recoveries. During their game with the Niners, the Jets fumbled three times and forced two more from San Francisco. The Niners recovered all five of those fumbles. The San Francisco turnover margin — an even zero before this week — has been restored to its proper place on the books at plus-four.

Their NFC West brethren, though, topped them. The first-place Arizona Cardinals amazingly recovered all six of the fumbles that hit the ground in their narrow victory over the Dolphins, taking them to 4-0 in the process. As analyst Chase Stuart noted, the Cardinals narrowly escaped becoming just the second team in the past 15 years to lose a game where they went 6-for-6 on fumble recoveries.

Just behind those two teams stand the Redskins, who have enjoyed some incredible context with their work on fumble recoveries. Washington recovered the lone fumble of their sparsely attended game with Tampa Bay on Sunday when Robert Griffin III fumbled the ball into the end zone and Pierre Garcon recovered it for the score. That means the Redskins have now scored on a fumble recovery in the end zone and batted an opposing player’s fumble into the end zone out for a touchback. (They also have a pick-six for zero yards in the opposition’s end zone.) On the year, they’ve recovered 10 of the 12 fumbles in their games and swung at least 14 points in the process. When your team is suffering pregame collisions that knock starters out, maybe you could use that extra bit of luck.

The Star Hartline

You might not have shocked your friends if you’d predicted that a player in the Arizona-Miami matchup would be the league’s leader in receiving yardage through four games, but you would have had to pass up very short odds on Larry Fitzgerald to find the right receiver. Instead, the league’s leading receiver is Brian Hartline, who took the lead by compiling a stunning2 253 receiving yards on 12 catches in the 24-21 overtime thriller.

So who is Brian Hartline? And is he here to stay? Well, Hartline’s the guy who filled the receiver vacuum in Miami, a 2009 fourth-rounder who has quietly started 25 games over four years as a secondary target in one of the league’s worst passing attacks. If Chad Johnson hadn’t allegedly head-butted his wife in training camp, it’s entirely possible that he would be playing ahead of Hartline right now. Because the Dolphins are so thin at wideout they were forced to start Hartline along with Davone Bess at receiver.

While you might expect this to be the part where I say, “Hartline can’t do this every week regression to the mean, etc, etc” and pat myself on the back, here’s the problem with that: It’s hard to have a game this good and not exhibit some level of consistent production at the NFL level. Hartline became the 16th player since the merger to accrue 250 receiving yards in one game, and almost all of those 15 players had meaningful careers at the professional level. It was the sign of a huge breakout for Miles Austin, the last player to do it, and even average receivers like Qadry Ismail enjoyed lengthy careers around their huge game. The only exception on the list is Redskins receiver-returner Anthony Allen, who had a 255-yard game in 1987 that accounted for one-third of his career receiving yards. That game was played by replacement players during the players’ strike, though, so Allen was really just the equivalent of the best replacement referee. By all accounts, Hartline’s just announced to the world that he’s a legitimate starter at the NFL level.

The game was also promising for Ryan Tannehill, who threw for a whopping 431 yards against a defense that had been among the league’s best. Alas, it was flashes of brilliance mixed with painful, ill-timed struggles. While Tannehill made a number of nice throws, he threw two sloppy interceptions at midfield on third downs. He was able to successfully adjust his protections at times to properly account for the Cardinals’ endless stream of blitzes, but two failed adjustments cost Miami the game. One saw Daryl Washington sprint up the A-gap virtually untouched to force a fumble that the Cardinals recovered, and a second saw Tannehill hit as he was about to throw in overtime, creating an easy pick that set the Cardinals up with great field position. It was Tannehill’s best game as a pro, but it was worse than the numbers indicated.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Pretend that you were suddenly granted any two wishes by a genie. (If you want that genie to be Shaq, that’s fine.) Would you use one of those life-changing, dream-fulfilling wishes on having someone take out the trash for you? No, right? That’s what NFL coaches seem obsessed with doing, though, and it nearly came back to bite one of them this week.

Freed of the tyranny of the replacement refs, head coaches around the league went out of their way to waste challenges on low-reward situations early in the first half of games this week. Among them:

  • Romeo Crennel threw a challenge flag to pick up six yards at the end of a long pass on the opening drive of the Chiefs-Chargers game. The upheld challenge turned a 27-yard pass that picked up a first down into a 21-yard pass that picked up a first down, placing the ball on the Chiefs’ 28-yard line as opposed to the 22. Philip Rivers and the Chargers picked up the yardage on the next play and scored four play later.
  • Gary Kubiak’s Texans were stuffed on a third-and-1 pass at the Tennessee 13-yard line with a 7-0 lead toward the end of the first quarter. Instead of relying on his legendarily effective running game and dominant goal-line back, Arian Foster, to get a single yard, Kubiak challenged the spot of the ball and was given the spot for a first down, scoring two plays later.
  • Andy Reid challenged that a second-and-10 pass to DeSean Jackson at the sticks that was ruled incomplete was actually a completion. The pass was ruled complete for a first down, giving the Eagles a first-and-10 on their own 31-yard line in a 0-0 game with 47 minutes left to go. They stalled out 20 yards later and punted.

These challenges were all confirmed, so they were successful, right? Absolutely not. There’s more to a challenge than merely being right, because there’s a hidden cost to using a challenge early in a game. You only need to fail on one challenge to cap the number of challenges you can use in a game at two, so even if your first challenge succeeds, using that challenge makes it more difficult to throw your second flag in a debatable situation. And if that second challenge opportunity also comes up early in a game and you don’t get it, you’re going to be stuck in an uncomfortable situation for a good chunk of the game. When you challenge a marginal play in the fourth quarter, you don’t have to worry about needing two more challenges in the ensuing 10 minutes or so. When you do so in the first quarter, you’re leaving a lot of time on the clock to get screwed.

That combination of events might sound like a rare occurrence, but in fact, it’s exactly what happened to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy on Sunday. He threw his first challenge flag out early in the second quarter on a relatively meaningless play, a second-and-12 pass to Jordy Nelson from his own 6-yard line that ended up with Nelson possibly catching a ball at the sticks for a first down. The pass was ruled incomplete, and when McCarthy challenged that ruling, he lost. He would later lose his second challenge on a controversial catch by Jimmy Graham at the beginning of the third quarter, which left the Packers challenge-less for 27 minutes of game time. Sure enough, McCarthy needed a challenge when the refs missed an obvious Darren Sproles fumble on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter, a play that truly would have produced a dramatic swing in their likelihood of winning the football game instead of relying on a missed field goal by the Saints.

That’s the prism through which coaches and fans need to view the possibility of challenging calls: How does this affect our chances of winning the football game? It’s easy to fetishize concepts like momentum and field position in the first quarter, but the vast majority of the time, 10 yards of field position or a first down just don’t move the needle in terms of win expectancy. It is far worse to be without a challenge in a game-changing situation than it is to keep the flag in your pocket on a play where you know you’re right and can pick up seven yards. Just ask Mike McCarthy.

You can probably guess who made the worst decision of the week, though. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera absolutely bungled his end-of-game scenario against the Falcons, setting Atlanta up for a dramatic comeback win. Let’s not judge Rivera’s decision by its obviously poor outcome; let’s go through his thinking and analyze the process.

To set the scene, the Panthers came within a fumble of winning this game. Cam Newton actually got the ball past the sticks on a key third-and-2 run, but fumbled backward to the point where the ball was a yard short of the sticks, setting up a fourth-and-1 on Atlanta’s 44-yard line. With 1:44 on the clock and no timeouts left for the Falcons, a conversion for the Panthers would allow them to kneel three times and hold onto their hard-earned 28-27 victory. A failed conversion would give the ball to the Falcons with excellent field position, and a punt would give Atlanta the ball with inferior field position.

The “indeterminate” field position is a key bit in analyzing this decision. After the fact, the argument in favor of Rivera’s call seemed to revolve around the idea that the Panthers were able to down the ball at the 1-yard line, giving Carolina the best possible punting outcome before the long drive. The problem with that logic is that you can’t assume whatsoever before the play that a Panthers punt will be downed on the 1-yard line, since such a great punt is far from guaranteed. Carolina’s gunner was inches away from touching the goal line, producing a touchback that would have been of little value. There’s a shot of downing the ball at the 1-yard line, of course, but you can’t plug it in as one of Rivera’s choices. Instead, you have to take the average of all the possibilities from the punt and use that as your baseline in making the decision. ESPN Stats and Info checked that and found that a punt from the 50-yard line3 will produce an average of 31 yards, giving Atlanta the ball at their own 19-yard line.

ESPN Stats and Info also found that, since 2001, teams who ran the ball on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter with a lead and the ball between the 40- and 50-yard line have converted on 71.9 percent of those carries. And according to Brian Burke’s fourth-down calculator, the Panthers would be in the right to go for it in this situation if they thought they could succeed 35 percent of the time on fourth-and-1. Thirty-five percent! Remember: that’s the average team. The Panthers are not your average short-yardage running team. In addition to the considerable skills of Cam Newton, Carolina has spent nearly $50 million on running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to ensure that their running game is effective. If you don’t trust your team to pick up one yard with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, why did you spend close to $50 million on running backs? What’s the point of having Cam Newton?4

Don’t believe all those numbers? Fine. Throw all the numbers out. Pretend you’ve got your life savings riding on a Panthers victory. Would you rather the Panthers try to get one yard with Cam Newton or try to stop Matt Ryan from picking up 50 yards at home against Haruki Nakamura? Do you think a single Falcons fan in the Georgia Dome was upset that the Panthers didn’t try to go for it against that legendarily fierce Falcons front four? Of course not. It felt like a gift because it was one.

Given his team’s particular mix of strengths and weaknesses, and the extremely high stakes of the situation, Rivera’s decision to punt is a strong candidate for worst coaching decision of the year. ESPN Stats and Info’s win expectancy model estimates that it dropped Carolina’s chances of winning from 83.5 percent to 57.4 percent without adjusting for the specific skills of the two teams; chances are that Rivera dropped his team’s “true” chances of winning by 35-40 percent by punting.

But, hey, at least he iced Matt Bryant before the game-winning kick, right?

Filed Under: Mark Sanchez, People

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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