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Autumn in New York

Screwing With Fate

We interrupt the Patriots' lock of a win to remind you how random the NFL is, plus the rest of the Week 2 news

It’s a time-honored tradition among fans to look at the future schedule for their team and start penciling in wins and losses for the upcoming slate. You know how it is. A mediocre team at home or on the road is an automatic win, unless they’re a divisional opponent, in which case it’s a “tougher than we might think” win. A good team at home is a win, and on the road, they’re a maybe. Facing an elite team is usually a loss unless you’re truly a homer. Eventually, using this method, you find a way to project your team to win about 70 percent of their games and everything is swell.

I say this with almost total certainty: There is not a single Patriots fan on the planet who started looking ahead through their 2012 schedule and said, “Week 1, Titans? That’s a win. Cardinals at home in Week 2? Oh, that one’s going to be tough, we lose that one.” The NFL is a weird, weird league, and the Cardinals winning as 6-to-1 underdogs on Sunday just serves as the latest reminder of how unpredictable it can actually be.

How did the lowly Cardinals upset the AFC champions in their home opener? It certainly wasn’t with the offense, since Kevin Kolb’s squad produced just 245 yards. Larry Fitzgerald had one of his worst days as a pro, catching only one pass for four yards. Instead, the Cardinals rode their defense and special teams to victory, including a number of tried-and-true upset specials:

  • Field position: The Cardinals only scored 20 points on the day, and with their offense scuffling, it’s no surprise that they produced 10 points from their two short fields of the day. A Tom Brady interception gave them the ball on the New England 36-yard line and resulted in a field goal, and a blocked punt started them on the 2-yard line and yielded a touchdown. Their 10 other drives all started with 71 yards or more to go for a touchdown and produced an average of five plays, 23 yards, and a single point per possession.
  • Dominance up front: Arizona’s front seven is underrated, and while Calais Campbell isn’t a household name, he’s one of the best three or four defensive ends in the NFL. Campbell had two of Arizona’s four sacks on the day, and they each came in critical situations: one stopped a Patriots drive on a third-and-4, and the second was inside the red zone during the fourth quarter. While it didn’t bother them against the Titans in Week 1, the Patriots are going through a major transition period on their offensive line, with stalwarts Matt Light and Dan Koppen having both left town. Although they have legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia on the job, there are naturally going to be some hiccups up front for the Patriots as they adjust.
  • Personnel problems: You always have a better chance of winning when the other team doesn’t get to employ their optimum personnel, and that’s what happened to the Patriots’ offense on Sunday. An early injury to tight end Aaron Hernandez — likely a high ankle sprain — eliminated a matchup problem for the Cardinals, who also benefited from New England’s decision to play Julian Edelman ahead of Wes Welker. Welker came off the bench and still managed to lead the Patriots in receiving yards, but everything about Welker’s treatment seemed to suggest that it was the latest step in what seems to be a protracted breakup between the two parties.1

The game came down to a bizarre final two minutes (check the heartbeat on the win probability chart) that were really more about poor execution than poor coaching.

First, after seemingly running out the clock, the Cardinals saw Ryan Williams fumble in his second professional game, handing the ball to the Patriots with a minute left on a third-and-13 run play. I’ve seen suggestions that the Cardinals shouldn’t have handed the ball off to Williams, but that seems like ex post facto logic. The Patriots had called their final timeout before that third down, with 1:10 remaining, but Williams had been effective running the ball during the final drive, and there was reason to believe that he could pick up a few extra yards and help produce better field position for the coming punt to New England. Williams is basically a rookie after missing the 2011 season with a knee injury, but research I’ve done has found that there’s no significant difference in the fumble rates of rookies as opposed to more experienced players. And what were the Cardinals supposed to do instead, hand the ball to Beanie Wells (who has fumbled once every 63 touches as a pro) or let Kevin Kolb throw the ball? It was an acceptable risk that didn’t work out.

The Patriots countered with some questionable decision making of their own. Taking over on the Arizona 30 with a minute to go, the Patriots picked up a first down and moved the ball to the 18-yard line before taking a five-yard penalty and essentially giving up on offense. With 46 seconds left, they took a knee, spiked the ball, and ran out the clock to set up Stephen Gostkowski for a 42-yard field goal that he promptly missed.

Should New England have tried to press the ball deeper into Arizona territory and create an easier field goal try for Gostkowski? It’s an arguable point. The case against it seems pretty clear, since the Cardinals had just fumbled the game away to the Patriots in a situation where they assumed risk to try to pick up a few extra yards. With no timeouts and less than a minute to go, a sack, penalty, or bad snap would have been devastating to the Pats’ chances, and they had no reason to try to go for a touchdown2 when down just two points.

The argument for picking up extra yardage is marginal. Using a multiyear sample with some smoothing around specific yard lines, my best estimate is that a kicker will hit a 42-yard field goal just over 77 percent of the time.3 The Patriots lost five yards on a Gronkowski false start and another yard on the Brady kneel-down; if they had gotten those six yards back and given Gostkowski a 36-yarder, his chances of hitting the field goal bounce up to 84 percent. A first down that moved the ball to the 8-yard line bumps them into the 95 percent range, but also creates far more risk of a possible turnover. You’d like to think that Tom Brady wouldn’t screw that situation up, but stranger things have happened. I don’t think the Patriots were clearly right or wrong to stand pat and let Gostkowski kick from 42 yards out, but if I had to pick a side, I’d go with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels’s choice of staying safe and kicking.

So, the Cardinals — a team I thought had a very good shot at being the worst team in football — have started 2-0. (In my defense, the seven other teams on my worst-in-football list are a combined 2-12.) Are they going to be a serious contender in the NFC West? I don’t think so. They’ve now won two games in harrowing circumstances at the buzzer, after they stopped the Seahawks from scoring despite giving them first-and-goal from the 6-yard line with 38 seconds left in a four-point game last week. They could be some sort of cardiac kids, but it’s far more plausible that they’re something like last year’s Bills, who had two incredibly narrow wins against the Raiders and Patriots as part of a 3-0 start before losing 10 of their next 13 games.

We All Penciled in Rams-Skins for Game of the Week, Too

The Rams-Redskins game ended up being the most entertaining tilt of the week, albeit one that featured its fair share of refereeing disasters. (More on that in a moment.) The ending produced an instant classic in the highly entertaining genre of game-deciding blunders,4 as Josh Morgan reacted to a late smack by Cortland Finnegan by throwing the ball at the often-exasperating Rams cornerback. The resulting personal foul knocked the Redskins out of Billy Cundiff’s field goal range and sealed a three-point victory for the Rams.

In terms of sheer stupidity, Morgan’s move was high on the list of gaffes. What was the upside to throwing the ball at Finnegan? The referees had allowed the game to proceed through countless late hits and post-play skirmishes, but there was no way they would be able to sit through a player actually chucking the ball at a guy on the other team. That goes double since Morgan actually made a statement during the week about not responding to Finnegan’s cheap shots:

“You don’t want to be the second guy because the second guy is going to get caught … He’s going to come at you and he’s going to be the first, second and third guy. You’ve got to remind yourself not to be that fourth and fifth guy, and throw your hands up and walk back to the huddle.”

In terms of actually hurting his team’s chances of winning the game, though? The play wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. Had Morgan been tackled without incident at the same spot, Cundiff would have faced a 46-yard field goal, a kick that goes through the uprights about 69 percent of the time. That kick only would have tied the game, so it would have improved Washington’s chances of winning to only about 50 percent. If you assume that those estimates are correct, Morgan’s gaffe took Washington’s chances of winning the game from 35 percent down to just about nothing. Williams’s fumble, to use an example, was significantly more damaging to his team’s chances of winning. Morgan’s penalty was just far more unnecessary.

Redskins fans who want Morgan shipped out of town are likely to be disappointed. While the Shanaclan does not react kindly to players who make mental mistakes,5 it seems incredibly shortsighted to cut a starting wideout who is in the first year of a multiyear contract, especially with Pierre Garcon currently injured. Morgan is also an excellent downfield blocker who caught all five of the passes thrown to him on Sunday. He’s far more likely to spend a week or two in the doghouse than be released outright.

There are still plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the Redskins, close loss or not. They’ve recovered six of seven fumbles in their games so far, and even picked up a second “phantom” fumble by Steven Jackson on Sunday. Most of the concern should be about the defense, but Robert Griffin III also had a pair of interceptions dropped by the Rams defense, including a likely pick-six. It’s true that they probably also won’t have a blocked punt against them every week, and the offense is truly a blast to watch, but they’re more of an entertaining team than a good one through two games.

Thank You for Coaching

The Niners-Lions game on Sunday night brought two of the league’s most innovative handshakers thinkers to national television, and while Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz engaged in an innocuous set of pleasantries before and after the game, the duel between their two teams brought up two very interesting coaching decisions.

The 49ers were able to get something out of nothing at the end of the first quarter, thanks to some quick thinking from quarterback Alex Smith. When a third-down snap flew over his head, Smith immediately picked up the ball and threw it away, returning the 49ers to the previous line of scrimmage and setting up a field goal attempt. David Akers was able to put the 34-yard field goal through the uprights, but a running-into-the-kicker penalty produced a difficult decision for Harbaugh: Keep the field goal and the three points, or take the points off the board and go for a touchdown? Harbaugh chose the latter and got that touchdown a few plays later.6 Was it the right move?

Although the time-honored adage is to never take points off the board, Harbaugh was right to do so. Ignoring the fact that the 49ers did actually score a touchdown and just focusing on the process that would go into making that decision, it’s actually pretty clear. A first down would have given the Niners a new set of downs from the 12-yard line. Different expected points models produce different scoring expectations, but from the models I’ve seen, a first down with 12 yards to go for a touchdown produces an average of just about five points. Five is more than three! Since it was so early in the game, there was no strategic reason for the Niners to do anything beyond score as many points as possible, and their aversion to turnovers made them less likely to end up with zero points and really regret making the decision.

It’s actually a situation Harbaugh faced during San Francisco’s last regular-season home loss, which came at the hands of the Cowboys in Week 2 last year. There, with a 21-14 lead and 11:16 left, Harbaugh chose to decline a 15-yard penalty on Keith Brooking for leverage and take a 55-yard field goal that gave the 49ers a 10-point lead. It came back to bite them when the Cowboys scored 10 points on their final two drives and then won the game in overtime. Good decision makers are always process-based as opposed to being outcome-driven, but it’s hard to imagine that Harbaugh didn’t at least have that decision in the back of his mind when he was weighing the possibility of leaving the points up on the board.

At the very end of the game, the Lions faced a mostly theoretical decision that is worth discussing, too. When Brandon Pettigrew scored with 1:29 left, the Lions went down by nine points, pending the conversion. They chose to kick an extra point, bringing them within one score, and then failed on an onside kick that essentially ended the game.

Should the Lions have gone for two? It doesn’t really matter because their odds of winning were so low,7 but they probably should have, yes. The natural argument is that the Lions should take the extra point and make it a one-score game, but that’s just delaying the moment of truth. Analyst Chase Stuart has written a bunch about this recently, and he makes a very good point:

Essentially, people are afraid of missing the two-point attempt and trailing by 9 points. But it’s not a one-score game. Trailing by 8 isn’t a one-score game if you are going to fail on your two-point try. And there’s no reason to think your odds of converting a 2-point attempt are higher when trailing by 2 than by 9. Trailing by 8 is a 1.5-possession game; half the time it is a 1-possession game, and half the time it is a 2-possession game. To simply put your head in the sand and say “I don’t wanna know!!” may keep hope alive longer but it lowers your odds of winning.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the Lions scored with five minutes left and faced this same decision. If they go for two and don’t make it, they’re down two scores with five minutes left. They’re pretty screwed. On the other hand, what if they kick the extra point, score again with 20 seconds left, and then don’t get the two-point conversion? They’re really screwed. If you fail with five minutes left, you at least know that you need two scores and can plan the rest of the game accordingly. By delaying the decision, you’re trading that tangible knowledge for a glimmer of hope in being able to put off the really tough part until later. Unless there’s some significant reason to think that a two-point conversion after the second touchdown is more likely to succeed than one after the first, delaying it doesn’t offer an advantage.

Let’s All Be Fair About Insulting These Terrible Referees

Before the topic of terrible refereeing is broached, let’s establish one quick ground rule that everyone needs to keep in mind when analyzing the replacement referees. It’s unfair to just count every bad call in a given week and point out how bad the referees are, because the baseline for refereeing quality isn’t zero bad calls, it’s however many bad calls were made by the “professional” referees in a typical week from last season. These referees are definitely screwing up more frequently than the pros were, but remember that they still haven’t done anything as bad as pointing in opposite directions for a fumble recovery.

Now that we’ve all agreed to abide by that rule, Oh my god, these referees were awful this week. The Redskins-Rams game was obviously decided by a correct personal foul call, but that came after two hours of fighting that was only sporadically interrupted by football acts common to the game. On that one notable goal line stand-alone, Steven Jackson was wrongly charged with a fumble, the Rams were wrongly forced to use a challenge to have the fumble overturned (instead of the turnover being automatically reviewed, as per the new rule this season), and then Jackson was marked short of the goal line on a play in which he clearly scored. To make one of those mistakes is human. To make all three in the course of two plays is pretty bad. To have that occur amid seemingly constant fighting and seemingly arbitrary rulings for personal fouls and unnecessary roughness was even worse. And these aren’t exactly obscure rules that the referees are failing to notice, either.

If this lockout does go on through the bye weeks, the league would be wise to use the quieter schedule to eliminate the worst-performing crews from these first few games. The Wayne Elliott–led crew in St. Louis should be among those canned.

The worst call of the week, though, was the pass interference flag thrown on Ike Taylor in the Steelers-Jets game. If you watch the play, you see innocuous coverage from the flagged Taylor followed by a tough but clean hit by safety Ryan Clark on Santonio Holmes.

Now, it’s not impossible for refs of any kind to invent a pass interference call where there shouldn’t be one. What makes this one so damaging, though, is the Clark factor. Because Taylor’s coverage was so obviously not a penalty and the Clark hit was so jarring, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the refs threw the flag for the Clark hit, realized afterward that it was clean, and then called the penalty on Taylor because they didn’t want to look bad. I’m not saying that’s what actually happened, but it sure looks that way. Taylor was also not flagged when he made significant contact with Holmes on a pass over the middle two plays later.

There’s no option available on the market that’s going to deliver perfect refereeing, and fans clamoring for the old refs are going to be disappointed by the number of mistakes they see from the veterans when they eventually do make their way back onto NFL fields. If the replacement referees put together another Sunday or two like this past one, though, don’t be surprised to see NFL players and coaches pooling their money together in a Kickstarter campaign to meet the old refs’ demands.

Filed Under: NFL, Sports

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell