The Matt Ryan–for-MVP bandwagon might be charitably described as empty after Atlanta’s narrow victory over Arizona on Sunday. The 23-19 win came about despite a shocking five-interception day from Ryan, who had just seven picks in nine games before he fell apart at home. Several of the interceptions were tipped passes that were turned into tip-drill picks by an opportunistic Arizona defense, but Ryan made his fair share of poor decisions on the day. You don’t have a five-interception day through luck alone.
Even more amazing than Ryan’s dismal day is that the Falcons were still able to pull out a victory. Ryan became the 38th player since the merger to finish a day with zero touchdowns and five picks, and in those 37 previous games, the quarterback having the truly bad game lost 37 times. No quarterback had won a zero-touchdown, five-interception game since Bart Starr did it for the Packers in 1967.
Of course, just as Ryan and the Falcons tried to throw away the game, the Cardinals were shockingly unwilling to take it. If you plug the starting field position and game situation for each Arizona drive into Brian Burke’s point probability estimator, the Cardinals “should” have scored an average of 24 points from their drives. In addition to Atlanta’s six turnovers, the Cardinals got a 65-yard kick return from William Powell and a 52-yard run to start a drive by LaRod Stephens-Howling. Even if 24 points represents a low estimate for Arizona’s scoring, hitting that total would have been enough to give the Cardinals a one-point win.
Instead, the Cardinals bungled their way through opportunities and scored their only touchdown on their opening drive of the day, one that began on the Atlanta 9-yard line after Ryan’s first pick. They had four other drives begin between the Falcons’ 16-yard line and 35-yard line, a set of possessions that should produce an average of just under 15 points, but they mustered only two field goals. They lost their final possession of the game on downs after starting from the Atlanta 32-yard line, and actually managed to punt on a drive that began just three yards away from that one in the second quarter. That’s where the Cardinals lost the game.
Why were the Cardinals unable to produce on those drives? Well, you can probably start with the decision made by Ken Whisenhunt to bench starter John Skelton. Benching the inaccurate Skelton isn’t unwise in a vacuum, but consider the circumstances surrounding the benching. Arizona was coming off their bye week, giving them a two-week stretch where they chose to do nothing about Skelton’s middling play and continued to give the former Fordham quarterback the first-team reps in practice. Yet after a 2-for-7 start at the beginning of the game against Atlanta, Whisenhunt chose to bench Skelton — who had a 13-0 lead at the time — for rookie sixth-rounder Ryan Lindley, who proceeded to go for 9-for-20 for 64 yards while losing a fumble that was recovered for a (bizarre) touchdown.
Whisenhunt’s decision is almost comically short-sighted on both ends. For one, benching Skelton after seven passes without an interception is absurd. If Whisenhunt is going to cycle through his quarterbacks on whims that quickly, he’s going to end up with three quarterbacks who have absolutely no confidence, something that has happened to him and his team in virtually every season that didn’t involve Kurt Warner holding the job all year. And if Skelton’s leash was really only seven bad passes long, Whisenhunt should have realized that before the bye and made the move to Lindley in advance, giving the rookie a week of practice (and two weeks of mental preparation) before unleashing him into a key game on the road against a playoff team.
As it was, he handed the ball over to an overmatched quarterback with no hope of succeeding. The cumulative performance for sixth- and seventh-round picks as true rookies since 2000 is terrifying: 434-for-819 (53.0 percent), 4,082 yards (5.0 yards per attempt), and 21 touchdowns against 40 interceptions. That’s not a shot in the arm for your team; that’s a snuff film. It’s even worse when you figure that some of those guys at least had practice reps to get somewhat familiar with the starters before their entry into the lineup; Lindley came in cold off the bench with no notice. This was the same Ryan Lindley whom Whisenhunt shot down as a viable option as recently as Halloween. Could anybody really have expected him to do much better than Skelton? Was Whisenhunt the only one?
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the move pulled the breaks on whatever offense they had and might have cost them even their outside shot of making the playoffs. After a 4-0 start that brought Arizona to an 11-2 record in their previous 13 games, the Cardinals have lost six in a row and still have road games against the Seahawks and 49ers to come. That streaking Cardinals team went 10-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less; since the 4-0 start, Arizona’s played three games that were decided by seven points or fewer and obviously lost them all. Their hot streak roughly coincided with the time Kevin Kolb spent in the lineup before getting injured, but don’t get correlation and causation confused. Had Kolb stayed healthy, Whisenhunt would probably have found a reason to bench him, too. If this once-promising Arizona season continues to fall apart à la last year’s Buccaneers or Bills and Whisenhunt ends up paying for it with his job, his inability to handle the quarterback position will have been his downfall.
A Problem Not Even Breakfast Sandwiches Can Solve
That yelping moan you heard from the Northeast just before the Sunday-night game kicked off was New England’s collective response to the news that star Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had reportedly suffered a fractured forearm, an injury that will keep Gronk out for a minimum of four weeks and likely prevent him from doing this for far longer. Patriots fan or not, I think we can all agree that a world without Rob Gronkowski fist-pumping is one that’s a little colder and sadder than it otherwise would be.
Now, you don’t need me to tell you how the Patriots are going to be affected by this injury. They’re going to suffer in the red zone, where Gronkowski remains a freakishly effective target. They’re better situated to handle his absence in the passing game than they were in the Super Bowl last year (when Gronk suited up but was a shell of his normal self), thanks to the addition of Brandon Lloyd and the dramatic improvement in their running game. An offense with Lloyd, Wes Welker, the multi-headed rushing attack, and eventually a returning Aaron Hernandez is still going to be very good. The absence of Gronkowski’s dominance as a blocker might slow the running game some and create pressure on right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to do better work. But you can figure all that out yourself.
What I did want to bring up was the absurd discussion that’s surrounded the nature of the Gronkowski injury. The Patriots have come in for criticism because Gronkowski reportedly fractured his forearm on New England’s final extra point of the game on Sunday, one that gave them a 59-24 lead over the Colts with 3:55 to go in the fourth quarter. Because the game was out of hand, critics say, a valuable property like Gronkowski shouldn’t have been on the field to block for an extra-point try.
It’s a shortsighted opinion driven entirely by hindsight and outcome. How many times do you see a blocker get hurt on an extra-point play? If it ever happens, it’s an injury that occurs once or twice a season. Teams almost always leave their regular personnel on the field for extra-point plays for that exact reason; it’s a play with virtually no risk and the tiny reward of developing timing as a unit. It’s more dangerous for a valuable asset like Gronkowski to line up for a drive on offense, and the Patriots knew that; they had sat Gronkowski for the entirety of the drive leading up to that extra point. Nobody would have batted an eye at the risk of having Gronkowski be out there for the final extra point had he made it through without an injury. In fact, the play itself was so innocuous that Gronkowski made it onto and off the field without the announcers mentioning his presence or the fact that he’d just broken a bone in his arm on the play.
Furthermore, the Patriots were once lauded for their all-for-one attitude as a team that would throw their starters out on special teams to make plays. Tedy Bruschi, for one, was still playing on special teams as a 32-year-old linebacker in 2005. If you thought that the Patriots fostered a team spirit and improved their special teams by using their starters as special teams assets, well, you don’t get to have it both ways. The Patriots didn’t do anything wrong by sending Gronkowski in to protect on that final extra point. They just got unlucky.
Thank You for Not Coaching
Ron Rivera did it again, guys! Regular TYFNC readers might remember Rivera’s ridiculous decision to pass on a game-sealing fourth-and-inches on the road against the Falcons in Week 4, turning over the ball to his dismal pass defense while suggesting that his $75 million backfield couldn’t pick up a few inches with the game on the line. Considering the context, it was — and is — the single worst decision a coach has made this year.
On Sunday, Rivera faced a similar situation and did the same thing. It came back to haunt him. This time, his Panthers were up 21-13 and had a fourth-and-1 waiting for them on the Tampa Bay 49-yard line with 1:09 remaining. With zero timeouts for the Buccaneers, a yard from Cam Newton and company would have been enough for the Panthers to seal their second home victory of the year and hammer the playoff hopes of a division rival. Rivera didn’t think about that; he instantly threw his punt team onto the field and produced a touchback, picking up just 29 yards of field position while turning the ball back over to the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay promptly drove the length of the field for a touchdown and converted the two-pointer. After a Newton kneel-down to end regulation, the Buccaneers won the coin toss and drove down the field again to score a game-winning touchdown. Rivera turned the game over to his pass defense for a second time, and for a second time, he got burnt.
Now, let’s be fair. This decision wasn’t quite as egregious as Rivera’s choice in Atlanta. In that game, the Falcons needed only a field goal to win; in this one, the Buccaneers needed to drive for a touchdown and hit a two-point conversion merely to tie. In this situation, Brian Burke’s fourth-down calculator suggests that the Panthers win 99 percent of the time if they convert fourth down, 91 percent of the time if they don’t, and 96 percent of the time if they punt. Mash up those possibilities and Burke’s calculator finds that Carolina needs to convert on fourth-and-1 63 percent of the time to make the decision to go for it a palatable one. Carolina is 20-for-26 (76.9 percent) converting third or fourth down with a yard to go since Cam Newton arrived in town.
Even if you think that oversells Carolina’s ability to convert, at what point do you just say that you’re in the middle of a season going nowhere and risk it in an aggressive attempt to win a game? Is it really that much better to punt and try to avoid losing? That’s why I liked Mike Mularkey’s decision to try to convert a fourth-and-10 from the Houston 47-yard line with 2:36 left in overtime. Yes, it was obviously a risky call. So what? Jacksonville’s offense had enjoyed a banner day, repeatedly moving the football down the field under replacement quarterback Chad Henne, and their exhausted defense had failed to force a punt in the second half, only managing to stop the Texans via forcing turnovers. If they punted, they would likely never see the ball again, and Jacksonville would have to either create their first punt of the day or force another turnover to stop Houston from getting a shot to win the game. A conversion, meanwhile, would put Jacksonville at the edge of Josh Scobee’s range and likely prevent the Texans from getting another possession in overtime. And even if you don’t believe in any of the numbers, is Jacksonville really going to leave Houston elated about a tie? Their season’s over. If anything’s going to be satisfying, it’s a win over arguably the league’s top team in their house in a game in which you were 16-point underdogs. Henne couldn’t come up with the conversion, and Jacksonville lost on a long touchdown pass to Andre Johnson, but at least they tried to win the game when it mattered most.
Finally, with the game winding down and his Steelers trailing by three points, Mike Tomlin faced what appeared to be a difficult clock-management decision during the fourth quarter on Sunday night. With one timeout left in the bag,1 Tomlin’s team faced a new set of downs from the Ravens with just 2:51 left in the game.
I thought Tomlin’s decision to risk his final timeout on challenging that third-down conversion in the fourth quarter was totally reasonable. He was only challenging to gain a yard, but it was a conversion toward the end of a close game at midfield. And since his team was punting, he got to see plenty of replays before making his decision. The reward was suitably high, and because he had only 10 minutes or so of time during which he could challenge, the risk was basically limited to the possibility that he would find a more meaningful moment to use that timeout.
In making his decision, Tomlin needs to assume that he’s going to get a pair of stops and try to leave as much time on the clock as possible. While the Steelers ended up committing an offsides penalty that cost them 40 key seconds, you can’t assume that your veteran defense is going to take an incredibly ill-timed penalty. You have to plan for the best-case scenario, because there’s virtually no way you can win with anything worse.
On first down, the Ravens ran the ball with Ray Rice and gained three yards, taking about two seconds in the process. With 2:49 left, the Steelers had about a two-second window during which they could have called timeout and forced the Ravens to run two plays before the two-minute warning. A timeout at exactly 2:49 forces the Ravens to run the ball on second down, taking about four seconds off the clock, which would then wind the clock down to 2:05 before the Ravens had to act on third down. There, the Ravens would have likely called timeout just before the play clock hit zero and then run a play to try for the first down; with no need to burn clock (since a punt would come across the two-minute warning anyway), the Ravens could choose to throw on third down as opposed to relying upon their moribund running game. If the Steelers came up with a stop, the punt would come right at 2:00 and they’d take over with about 1:56 or so left to go.
What the Steelers chose to do instead wasn’t all that much different. They let the clock run after the first-down handoff, let the Ravens run for no gain and take five seconds off the clock, and then called a timeout at 2:04. The Ravens then would have had the opportunity to throw (or run) the ball with 2:04 left before a stop would have forced them to punt at or just after the two-minute warning. The Steelers ended up taking that unfortunate offsides penalty and then forced a sack of Joe Flacco (likely by design, with coach John Harbaugh insisting that Flacco take an easy completion or be sacked to run clock) on the other side of the two-minute warning, costing Pittsburgh 40 seconds in the process. Without the offsides, though, the timeout usage at either 2:49 and 2:04 wouldn’t have resulted in a significantly different process. In both cases, Pittsburgh’s getting the ball right around 1:55.
What if the Steelers had chosen to use their timeout after the two-minute warning? Well, let’s see. The Ravens would have run the ball at 2:09, just as they did in the real game, pushing the clock to the two-minute warning. When they came back to third down, they would have needed to run the ball to ensure that the clock kept moving while forcing the Steelers to take their final timeout with about 1:56 to go. A punt would then give the Steelers the ball with about 1:51 or so left.
Tomlin’s timeout situation, then, left him with a tradeoff. By taking the timeout before the two-minute warning, Tomlin traded an extra four to five seconds of game time for the ability to induce a run from the Ravens on third down. Had he taken the timeout after the two-minute warning, he would have done the opposite, forcing a third down run while costing his team five seconds or so. I don’t think it’s clear that one option is better than the other, and in the long run, Pittsburgh’s offsides penalty ended up making the whole thing irrelevant.