With the season now past the halfway point, it’s time to look at one of our favorite features of the year: the All-Bettis team. This team, very simply, celebrates those players whose fantasy production grossly outstrips their actual contributions to winning football games.
Its patron saint, as you can probably tell, is former Rams and Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. Bettis obviously helped his teams win quite a few football games over the course of his 13-year career, so this isn’t a knock on his overall value as a player. It’s a loving reference to what stands as the ideal example of the difference between real performance and fantasy value, specifically Bettis’ output against the Raiders on the opening weekend of the 2004 season. In that game, Bettis had five carries for one yard and three touchdowns. One real yard, three plunges from a yard out (a play that succeeds close to 60 percent of the time), 18 fantasy points. For those of you who don’t play our nation’s greatest export, that’s equivalent to a player running for 189 yards without crossing the goal line. Even if you’re a touchdown fetishist who thinks that the invisible line represents some important barrier, you have to admit that the guy who ran for 189 yards probably did more to help his team win.
As you might suspect, our team starts off with a player who looked surprisingly impressive on Sunday …
Quarterback: Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos. Tebow’s throws are often well out of the reach of his receivers, but they’re also usually pretty far away from opposing defenders, too, which is how he has only one interception in 97 pass attempts so far. (Of course, on Sunday, the Raiders defenders were also generally quite far away from the intended Broncos receivers.) With his running acumen and that famous second half against the Chargers included, the same guy who was getting chatted up as the worst quarterback in the NFL last week is averaging 23.7 fantasy points per game. That’s within one point of Tom Brady (24.8).
Running Backs: Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, N.Y. Giants. The one-two punch in New York have both missed time due to injuries, so we’ll combine their numbers. Brahmad Jacobshaw have just 3.7 yards per carry on their 170 rushes, but the meld has eight rushing touchdowns; that’s 64 points from their rushing yardage and 48 points from their rushing touchdowns. Matt Forte, for comparison, is carrying the entire Bears offense on his back with 672 rushing yards, topping Jacobshaw all by himself despite 46 fewer carries, but he’s crossed the plane only twice on the ground. Somehow, that means that the Giants’ combo has averaged more fantasy points per game from the rushing production. Heck, Bears backup Marion Barber (91 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries) isn’t far off from Forte on a per-game basis. And that’s not a knock on Forte.
Wide Receiver: Plaxico Burress, N.Y. Jets. Even after catching all five of the targets thrown to him on Sunday, Burress is catching just 46 percent of the passes thrown to him overall. Five of his 23 catches have resulted in touchdowns, so just under 22 percent of his catches have produced touchdowns. Burress is a red zone threat, but this is ridiculous; even in his best year, he wasn’t able to get far past 17 percent. As a result, he has 62 fantasy points, which is slightly more than Reggie Wayne (57 points). This would have been even more egregious if he hadn’t been stopped a half-yard short of a touchdown on Sunday, as he would have had the same number of fantasy points as the vastly superior Roddy White (501 yards and three touchdowns, producing 68 fantasy points).
Wide Receiver: Eric Decker, Denver Broncos. As the closest thing to a no. 1 receiver in Denver after Brandon Lloyd’s departure, Decker is often forced the ball on plays where he’s not open (or ignored on those plays when he is open). But it’s amazing to think that his six touchdown catches and 406 receiving yards this year have produced 76 fantasy points, more than White or even Brandon Marshall (46 catches, 644 receiving yards, two touchdowns, and fractionally fewer fantasy points than Decker). Which player would you rather have?
Tight End: Scott Chandler, Buffalo Bills. All-Bettis Team MVP so far, Chandler established his candidacy during the opening week of the season and hasn’t let up since. The journeyman caught two touchdown passes during the 41-7 shellacking of the Chiefs, but he had five catches in that game. The supreme example of his particular brand of artistry was against the Redskins in Week 8, when both of his catches went for touchdowns. He now has six touchdowns among his 18 catches, which combines with his 157 receiving yards to produce 51 fantasy points. That’s more than Brandon Pettigrew (48 points), and it’s within four points of Heath Miller (55 points), each of whom are borderline Pro Bowl tight ends.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being on the All-Bettis team; touchdowns have value, too. But when a disproportionate amount of your performance comes from touchdowns, chances are that your performance is being overrated. Plaxico Burress is not really making a difference in the Jets’ passing game. Jacobs and Bradshaw combine to form the core of a rushing offense that rates as 19th in the league in rushing DVOA. And Chandler is this season’s Jay Riemersma, a similarly obscure tight end who had six touchdowns on 25 catches with the Bills in 1998 and never had a six-touchdown season again. These guys just aren’t really helping their teams win all that much, regardless of how much they’re helping their fantasy football teams.
Something Something Something on the Bus
The Patriots would have been well advised to follow the NFL’s mandate for youth and PLAY 60 on Sunday, since they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a stunning 24-20 home loss to the Giants. The narratives coming out of the game aren’t as simple as they seem.
First, the important part: What an exciting game! The live win probability chart suitably resembles a frantic heartbeat on a heart monitor over the final five minutes. The Giants had a 93 percent chance of winning after Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass to Rob Gronkowski on third down with 1:44 left. That fell all the way to 19 percent when Brady hooked up with Gronkowski on fourth down to take the lead. It got as low as 14 percent before Eli Manning found Jake Ballard up the seam for 28 yards, moving the ball to the Patriots’ 33-yard line. After the pass interference penalty that moved the ball to the 1-yard line, it was at 88 percent, and after Manning eluded a well-timed blitz to get out of the pocket and throw the ball away on first down, the Giants hit 96 percent when Manning found Ballard again for the game-winning score.
For the Giants, the narrative is going to be pushed in the wrong direction. Eli Manning has had an impressive season, but Sunday was far from his best game. When the Giants were up
10-0 10-3 with 18 minutes left and the ball inside the New England two-yard line, Manning took a delay of game on third down and then followed it with an unconscionable interception on a throw off his back foot. A touchdown there might very well kill off the game as a contest, and a field goal forces a team without a point on the board to score two touchdowns in 18 minutes to even have a shot at winning. In a situation that called for conservative behavior, Manning nearly cost his team the game. The three points that the Giants left on the field with the interception were very nearly the margin of victory for the Patriots. Eli deserves credit for his final drive, but some blame for needing it.
Instead, give some credit to the Giants defense. Holding the Patriots to 20 points at home isn’t easy, and the Giants did a much better job of getting pressure on Brady than their two sacks would indicate. And while the New York secondary only has one above-average cornerback (Corey Webster), the G-Men got a surprisingly solid game out of Michael Coe, who notably broke up a third down in the second half with an impressive pass deflection.
As for the Patriots, well, their issues with defensive personnel reared their head again during the fourth quarter. When star safety Patrick Chung went down with an injury on the final drive, the Patriots had to sub in undrafted free agent Sergio Brown. Brown committed an indefensible pass interference penalty against Victor Cruz to set the Giants up on the 1-yard line on a pass Manning was trying to throw away. That was set up by the long completion, and followed by the touchdown throw, to Ballard, each of which came against linebacker Tracy White in coverage. White’s a 30-year-old special teams demon who rarely sees the field on defense. Those are the exact spots where guys like Brandon Meriweather or Jermaine Cunningham would be if they had been effective enough to remain on the active roster. Instead, Meriweather’s on the bench in Chicago, Cunningham’s a healthy scratch, and the Giants were able to beat a pair of undrafted free agents when it mattered most.
Were you one of the people on the Joe Flacco bandwagon as the Ravens needed to drive 92 yards for a game-winning touchdown against the Steelers with 2:17 left and one timeout? We suspect that you had plenty of room to stretch your legs; for a player who appeared to be near getting benched during halftime against the Cardinals last week, Flacco was in an awful tough spot.
It was heartening for anyone neutral on the Ravens QB to see Flacco go those 92 yards and even fade a key drop by Torrey Smith before landing a game-winning 26-yard touchdown pass into Smith’s lap with eight seconds left. Flacco had set the Steelers up for their game-winning touchdown by fumbling on third down inside Steelers territory five minutes earlier, but he persevered and pulled off one of the more impressive game-winning drives you’ll see all year. While Flacco is often overly dependent upon checking down Ray Rice or lofting up lazy bombs to covered receivers, it really felt like he bunkered down and focused and took what the Steelers defense gave him. That mostly consisted of slants to Anquan Boldin, who had four catches for 51 yards (with one drop) on the drive. It was the second week in a row in which Boldin has simply taken over and dominated on a key drive for his team.
The hidden reason why the Ravens were able to stay in the game, though, was their effectiveness on third and fourth down. Only two weeks after they went 2-of-12 on third down against the Jaguars, Flacco & Co. were 15-of-22 on third and fourth down against an arguably better defense. The final drive saw the Ravens pick up a fourth-and-1, a third-and-8, and then a third-and-10 on the touchdown pass to Smith to win it.
While the Ravens get the ego boost of sweeping their archrivals, the real key to this win is that it pushed the AFC North into the Ravens’ lap. Assuming that the Bengals are pretenders and that neither of these teams suddenly falls off a performance cliff, the Ravens now have a half-game lead on the Steelers. They each play the Bengals in the next two weeks, and the Ravens have a game at Seattle; if they each beat the Bengals and the Ravens can overcome the Seahawks, Baltimore will essentially have a two-game lead over the Steelers with seven games to play, thanks to its possession of the key head-to-head tiebreaker. It’s entirely possible that the Ravens and Steelers could end up with the two best records in the conference, meaning that the Ravens’ win could represent the difference between a 1-seed and a 5-seed, which means a week off and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs as opposed to three road games.
In other words, you may be getting company on the Flaccowagon very soon.
You Say Helu, I Say Good Checkdown
With leading receivers Santana Moss and Chris Cooley sidelined, and running back Ryan Torain paying homeowners association fees in the Shanaclan’s doghouse, the Redskins don’t have many weapons to work with on offense. It’s no surprise that rookie halfback Roy Helu got plenty of action on Sunday against the 49ers, but nobody expected Helu to nearly set an NFL record.
Helu caught 14 passes on Sunday, a great haul for a receiver, but a ridiculous level of volume for a running back. It’s only the fifth time in NFL history that a running back has caught 14 passes in a game, and the first time since Brian Westbrook did it against the Cowboys in 2007. The record for most catches is 17, which was set by Jets fullback Clark Gaines in a 1980 loss to the 49ers.
Thank You for Not Coaching
For the second week in a row, coaches were rewarded for naive, insipid decision-making.
That same Shanaclan was presumably occupied with insulting Torain during the end of the first half, since they combined with quarterback John Beck to mismanage a simple clock situation.
After the Redskins completed a pass at the beginning of their one-minute drill, they took their second timeout with 52 seconds left and the ball on their own 40-yard line. They needed a minimum of 20 yards to get into range for a field goal, and probably would have liked to get 30. Beck checked down to Helu for eight yards, but Helu was unable to get out of bounds. This would have been a reasonable time to use their timeout, but the Redskins went to the line and ran another play after running 20 seconds off the clock, a checkdown to Helu for 11 more yards. This absolutely should have been the time for the timeout, but instead, the Redskins ran to the line and spiked the ball with eight seconds left. Washington still had its timeout, and when it threw an incomplete pass on second down and kicked a 59-yard field goal, it left that timeout on the field. It’s a clear choice: Have 25 seconds and no timeouts or eight seconds and a timeout with a stopped clock. The Redskins were rewarded when kicker Graham Gano somehow hit that field goal.
Browns head coach/offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was also saved from stupidity by his kicker. With the Browns down 14-0 to the Texans midway through the first quarter, the Browns were faced with a fourth-and-1 from the Texans’ 32-yard line. The average team historically converts fourth-and-1 about 70 percent of the time and then will score an average of about 3.9 points with a new series from the 31. So the Browns’ expected points from scoring is 2.73. Kickers, meanwhile, will convert a 49-yard field goal just about 60 percent of the time. The Browns will realize an average of about 1.80 points by kicking. The Texans would also get better field position with a missed field goal than they would with a failed conversion. Even if you want to assume that the Browns are better at kicking long field goals and worse at converting at short yardage than the average team, once you consider the game situation, this isn’t a close decision.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
NFL Midseason Report: The NFC
NFL Midseason Report: The AFC
Breaking Down the Suck for Luck Campaign
Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor
Debunking the Tim Tebow Myth
Could Alex Smith Become the Worst Quarterback to Ever Win a Super Bowl?
The Cost of Carson and the Rest of the NFL Trading Deadline Deals
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