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A Fantasy Star Is Born

Doug Martin rewrites the record books, and the rest of the Week 9 news

Sunday was Rookie Day in the NFL. Week 9 was one of the rare times in league history when a freshman passer and running back each put up the best performances of the day at their respective positions. That might have been among the expectations for Andrew Luck, who had his best game as a pro in Indianapolis’s emotional 23-20 win over Miami on Sunday afternoon, but it wasn’t likely to be in the cards for the day’s most memorable star. Buccaneers running back Doug Martin followed an impressive performance in the national spotlight last Thursday night by putting up one of the best halves by any running back in league history: 17 carries, 220 rushing yards, and four touchdowns would be a great quarter-season for most backs. Martin did that on six possessions.1 Putting his 251-yard game into context tells us a lot about how great Martin just might be.

If you play fantasy football, there is at least one person in your league who is despondent about Doug Martin’s big day, since there is either somebody in your league who had to go up against Martin or somebody who left the Bucs star on the bench. It’s safe to say that he single-handedly won a few fantasy matchups; it’s also safe to say that it was one of the greatest games in fantasy football history. Since the merger, only three running backs have produced more fantasy points (by the traditional scoring system) in one game than Martin’s 51.2-point outburst on Monday:

The list of accomplishments goes on from there. Martin became the first player in NFL history with three rushing touchdowns of 45 or more yards in a game, had the third-most rushing yards by a rookie running back in a game in league history, and finished up with the 10th-most rushing yards in an NFL game since 1940. Of the nine guys ahead of him on that single-game rushing yardage list, only two (Jerome Harrison and DeMarco Murray, whose career is still ongoing) failed to make it to multiple Pro Bowls or an All-Pro team. There simply aren’t many backs who do what Martin did who don’t become stars. Martin might already be one.

Even more stunning is the fact that Martin did this without his best offensive linemen. After Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph went down before the season with a knee injury that will cost him the entire season, fellow Pro Bowler and prize free agent signing Carl Nicks went on injured reserve this week with a season-ending toe injury. Those guys were supposed to be the road-graders, the brutal engulfers who would create lanes for Martin at the line of scrimmage and reward his North-South running style. Instead, Jeremy Zuttah and Jamon Meredith filled in at guard and put together an impressive facsimile of their better-compensated brethren. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 197 of Martin’s 251 rushing yards came before contact, the highest total since James Harrison’s 235-yard total against the Chiefs several years ago. Oakland’s run defense was obviously in shambles during that dramatic second half, but the guys who were moved around or brought off the bench in Tampa deserve a lot of credit for helping Martin get this done.

The obvious comparison for Martin when he entered the draft was Ray Rice, a player with whom he shares a short, muscular body type, an ability to serve as a strong safety valve in the passing game, and the same head coach (Rice played under Greg Schiano at Rutgers). Schiano drafted Martin in the first round with the hopes of developing a Rice-like talent for his pro team. In an offense that’s built around two big-play downfield targets in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, Martin plays an important role as an underneath receiver and safe checkdown for Josh Freeman, one that didn’t exist with LeGarrette Blount in the lineup last season. And while Rice plays that role in Baltimore’s offense for Joe Flacco, he didn’t get steady time in the starting lineup or produce the way that Martin’s produced until his second season with the Ravens. Martin’s doing this halfway through his rookie campaign.

Having just finished up his first half-season as a pro, Martin’s numbers through his first eight games are staggering: He’s run for 794 yards on 154 carries, an average of 5.2 yards per pop, and he’s scored seven times. That’s the fifth-most yards for any back during the first half of his rookie season since the merger, and the guys ahead of Martin are pretty good: Adrian Peterson (1,036 rushing yards), Eric Dickerson (995), George Rogers (859), and Billy Sims (859). The only backs with 100 carries or more during that first half who averaged more yards per attempt than Martin were Peterson, Don Woods, Barry Sanders, and John Brockington. Some of these figures are inflated by the enormous game, but the last guy to do anything like this as a rookie is Peterson, and he turned out all right.

Martin’s breakout game in the afternoon overshadowed what Luck did during the previous slate, but the first overall pick doesn’t have many performances to look up toward, either. Luck finished 30-for-48 for a whopping 433 yards, scoring two touchdowns while avoiding turnovers and taking just one sack. It was impeccable, and it came against Miami, who has one of the league’s best defenses.

Luck’s passing total is a record for quarterbacks playing out their rookie season during the year they were drafted, and if you include “rookies” like Marc Bulger and Jeff Garcia, it’s the fourth-largest yardage total for a rookie quarterback since the merger. It wasn’t produced in a blowout or in garbage time, either, since the two teams in Indy were never separated by more than one score. The Colts needed Luck to consistently deliver and matriculate the ball down the field, and he responded by picking up 12 of the 16 third downs he attempted to convert on pass plays during the game. That included six third downs with 10 or more yards to go and even a conversion on third-and-20. Since it’s impossible to avoid comparing Luck to Peyton Manning, this was the first game in which Luck really had that “He’s just going to convert anything he wants and beat the other team” vibe that Peyton often exhibited in Indianapolis.

Although his situation isn’t quite as dire as Martin’s, Luck’s also playing for a team that doesn’t offer him much support. Luck does get to play with Reggie Wayne, but Wayne was a washed-up veteran as recently as a year ago; now, Wayne looks like a new man with his real quarterback. Outside of Wayne, the offense is a mix of cast-offs (Donnie Avery, who just got injured on Sunday, Samson Satele, Winston Justice) and young question marks. If Avery and Donald Brown each miss time, the Colts could start five different rookies on offense in their next game. And judging by the play of Luck, T.Y. Hilton, and Vick Ballard, they might not be worse off for it.

Before this week, both Luck and Martin were looking up in the Offensive Rookie of the Year ranks at Robert Griffin III, whose stunning rookie season had produced more highlights, better statistics, and a roughly similar record. The obvious inclination is to give the quarterback the award, regardless of how good Martin’s been, but the Bucs back is second in the league in both rushing yardage and touchdowns. Griffin is eighth in yards per attempt and eighth in completion percentage, while Luck is 19th in the former category and a disappointing 29th in the latter. Luck, though, has the most notable wins on his résumé, and while quarterback wins are an overrated statistic, there’s a lot to be said about leading a team as filled with misfits as the Colts are. To me, after eight games, it’s just about a dead heat for OROY, with a slight lean to RG3. I’m excited to see who pulls away from the pack in the second half.

Don’t Teach Me How to Elway

When Robert Griffin III was concussed on a hit near the sidelines several weeks ago, I wrote that the criticism that surrounded Griffin for not going out of bounds was mostly post hoc arguments surrounding the fact that Griffin got injured, not that he put himself in danger. I noted that Sam Bradford and Andrew Luck had each leaped headfirst to pick up a first down on the same day without being criticized for not sliding, almost exclusively because they weren’t injured on the play. And I also pointed out that the narrative surrounding the concussion — that Griffin had somehow learned his lesson and wouldn’t put his body at such risk again — was absurd and predicated upon the false notion that he had made it this far without having to make smart decisions about protecting himself as a runner.

I’m not saying all this to toot my own horn. (I think San Francisco stomped on my horn at some point this year.) But I am bringing this all up again because Sunday’s Redskins game provided a perfect example of how the arguments surrounding Griffin were inane and solely based upon his injury as opposed to his decision.

On the play in question, Griffin sells out his body on a fourth-and-4 scramble and goes Full Elway, leaping into the air to ensure that he gets the yards he needs for a first down. It’s a truly fearless move from the game’s most entertaining player, putting himself on the line to try to get his team a new set of downs. It’s also a really, really stupid thing to do.

Daryl Johnston describes the play as representing Washington’s “whole season” and as the biggest play in the game so far. At the time, the 3-5 Redskins were trailing 21-6 to the Panthers with 3:19 left in the fourth quarter. Griffin’s brave run improved Washington’s chances of winning from about 3 percent to 5 percent. It was Washington’s last prayer at having any hope of working a chance to get one shot to possibly win the game. You don’t need a win probability chart to know that a 3-5 team trailing by 15 points at home to a 1-6 team with three minutes left to go isn’t winning the game, let alone possessing any prayer of making the playoffs. It was a garbage-time play, not the last stand of some proud football team.

It’s hard to take fault with Griffin’s competitive spirit and his decision to try to sell out for the first down, but watch the play again. Griffin very well might get the first down by sliding, let alone by staying on his feet. Instead, in the heat of the moment, he launches himself forward, headfirst, and gets spun around in mid-air without having any control over his body. It’s a small miracle that one of the Panthers surrounding him didn’t make helmet-to-helmet contact with him, even by accident. Isn’t this the exact sort of poor decision that Griffin was supposed to have learned from after the concussion several weeks ago? Elway’s leap wasn’t the smartest decision he’s ever made in terms of his long-term health, but he was at the end of his career and it was in the Super Bowl. Griffin’s dive was during his rookie season in front of a half-empty stadium. In fact, considering that the concussion in the Falcons game came in a close contest on a play where he merely slipped on the sidelines and exposed himself to a head shot, this was a far worse conscious decision.

I’m extremely happy that Griffin — whom I love to watch and want to see play 20 years in the league — didn’t get hurt. But, just for a moment, let’s pretend that he ended up colliding with a Panthers helmet on that dive and suffered his second concussion. There would be an enormous outcry from the media and from fans that RG3 simply wasn’t a smart player. That he got hurt at the end of a blowout trying to extend a meaningless game. That he was going to end up damaged goods if he didn’t wise up and start protecting himself. It’s an argument that recognizes the bad outcome (the concussion) to beat Griffin up over the poor process (leaving himself exposed to a hit). On Sunday, Griffin’s process was far worse and in a far less meaningful situation, but because his outcome turned out OK, nobody said a bad word about it. In fact, it received high praise from a commentator who had his own career cut short by a neck injury. If that doesn’t say everything about how backward the NFL’s concussion and player health narratives are, what does?

Let’s Fix Fantasy Defenses

I know that fantasy football isn’t exactly built around the idea of being equitable, or fair, or even vaguely representing the real game of football that’s occurring on the field,2 but I have a simple proposal to make the fantasy football defense slightly more realistic and meaningful while actually making fantasy football more fun in the process.

First, I propose that we collectively decide to stop counting touchdowns scored by the other team’s defense as points on the record of our team defense. The poor Titans had a rough day yesterday, and as bad as they were, the Tennessee defense didn’t deserve to have 14 points added to their ledger from a Chicago blocked punt and interception returned for a touchdown. It wasn’t their fault that Brian Urlacher was able to run the 46-yard dash in 11.4 seconds without being tackled. You’re starting the Tennessee defense, not the number next to Tennessee’s opposition on the scoreboard. To counteract the point inflation from lower scoring totals, defenses should incur larger fantasy point penalties for giving up points on the field.

That’s the thing to take away. I want to add something, though, that has been horribly overlooked in most fantasy football leagues.3 Why do defenses not get credit for a fourth-down stop of the opposing offense? Outside of the turnover, it’s the most impressive thing a defense can do, and it’s far more meaningful than a mere sack. I think you can safely add the fourth-down stop as a 1.5-point play for fantasy defenses. If you want to adjust it for context, make it a two-point play if it’s a fourth-down stop in the red zone or a one-point play if it occurs outside of the red zone.

I have long advocated that there should be a fantasy football board of executives that serve as the unified rulemakers and official liaisons to the pros. When there’s a catcher-eligible player who is one start away from qualifying at backstop in most fantasy leagues, why aren’t we sending Matthew Berry to that city to hassle the manager into starting that guy one more time at catcher? Shouldn’t there be a general fund used to lobby NFL coaches into avoiding running backs by committee? And to whom can I appeal with my fantasy defense changes and actually have something happen? All of our lives would be better with this board.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Sunday delivered swift justice for those coaches who are inclined to use their ultra-valuable, potentially game-changing challenges to pick up the tiniest of gains. In each case, the coach used his challenge to pick up a relatively meaningless bit of yardage in the middle of a game and promptly had whatever gains made on the challenge disappear within a play or two.

Two of these challenges popped up in the Arizona–Green Bay game. First, in the opening quarter, Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt challenged a would-be catch by Jordy Nelson (who was injured on the play) on second-and-goal from the 8 that would have given the Packers third-and-goal on the 3-yard line. That might mean something if you were playing the Jaguars, but these are the Packers, who have the best quarterback in football and the worst running attack in the game to go with it. The five-yard difference between third-and-goal situations here is minuscule. When the play was overturned, the Packers committed a false start and subsequently scored on third-and-goal from the 13-yard line. Because, you know, they’re the Packers.

The Packers returned the favor two quarters later. When LaRod Stephens-Howling picked up five yards on a second-and-10 carry, it set the Cardinals up with third-and-5 on the Packers’ 31-yard line. Because LSH appeared to fall down at the line of scrimmage, though, Mike McCarthy decided to throw his challenge flag and try to regain those five yards. Unlike Arizona’s challenge, which was on a more obvious drop, McCarthy’s challenge was speculative and turned out to be a failure; the five yards were upheld. And on the very next play, John Skelton hit Larry Fitzgerald up the middle for a 31-yard catch-and-run into the end zone.

Meanwhile, in the Pittsburgh–New York game, frequent challenger Mike Tomlin saw fit to use his first challenge with six minutes left in the third quarter, when a questionable spot on a Victor Cruz reception gave the Giants first-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 23-yard line. Spot challenges are notoriously iffy propositions, but this one worked out for the Steelers, who picked up a half-yard and turned the reception into third-and-1 from the 24. As Phil Simms mumbled something about Tomlin using his gut to make challenges and how it usually works, the Giants lined up on third down and ran for eight yards, totally nullifying the gains made by the challenge.

Of the three, Tomlin’s challenge was the least questionable; it came halfway through the third quarter, it was his first challenge, and it could have dramatically changed the way the drive played out with a (unlikely) stop. On the other hand, of these three coaches, Tomlin was also the one who should know better. When I hear from people that the high-reward challenge strategy I advocate doesn’t rear its head in real life, the example I invariably think of relates to Tomlin and his challenge usage in the 2010 playoff game between the Steelers and Ravens.

In that game, Tomlin successfully challenged a down-by-contact ruling on the opening kickoff, producing a 14-yard swing that moved the ball from the Baltimore 49-yard line to the Baltimore 35-yard line. With a full game to go and the ball still on Baltimore’s side of the field, Tomlin’s challenge couldn’t have shifted Pittsburgh’s win probability by more than 1 percent. For whatever arguments you make about field position and momentum, 14 yards on the opening kickoff meant absolutely nothing in the context of the game. And when the Steelers had to desperately challenge a Cory Redding fumble recovery at the end of the first quarter and their appeal was denied, they were promptly out of challenges for the final 42 challengeable minutes of the game.

Nowadays, of course, the Steelers wouldn’t have had to challenge that Redding fumble recovery for a touchdown because both turnovers and touchdowns are automatically reviewed, and that does decrease the likelihood of needing three challenges in a game. However, teams still find themselves regularly needing to challenge would-be turnovers and touchdowns that aren’t ruled as such on the field; before the refs changed the call pre-challenge in Carolina-Washington, the DeAngelo Williams touchdown run on Sunday would be a perfect example of such a call. And there’s also the possibility that teams will be more hesitant to throw the flag on a borderline second challenge out of fear of losing that challenge possibility; the Packers had at least one questionable post–third down spot inside Cardinals territory in the second half at which Ken Whisenhunt could have thrown a challenge flag, but it was one that would have cost him his final appeal. Even though those are relatively slim possibilities, they’re more meaningful than shifting your win probability by 2 percent or less with three quarters to go. Save yourself for big plays, coaches. You’re worth it.

Tomlin took a lot of flak for his4 decision-making inside the red zone in the second half, but I think the worst decisions he made were the ones that nobody will remember by the end of the week. The most notable call was the fake field goal the Steelers ran on fourth-and-1 from the 3-yard line, down three points with just under 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. It’s a play where the case for kicking is actually pretty compelling; Brian Burke’s calculator suggests that the Steelers needed to convert 46 percent of the time to justify going for it, which isn’t a guarantee considering how bad the Pittsburgh OL is. The difference between the two options is within the margin of error for me, but the choice to kick a fake field goal was just weird. Did the Steelers see something in New York’s kick coverage that would suggest that they weren’t going to fall for a fake? Were the Giants likely to sell out to block a chip shot? Absolutely not. The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger, who is 7-for-8 on fourth-and-1 (and 16-for-18 if we include third-and-1) over the past three years on sneaks. If the Steelers really wanted to go for it, they should have just gone for it with their best option as opposed to whatever that fake field goal play was.

Once the Steelers got the ball back, the previously aggressive Tomlin made a bafflingly conservative call. On third-and-7 from the Giants’ 14-yard line, with the same three-point deficit and 5:26 to go, the Steelers called a draw play for Isaac Redman to set up a short, game-tying field goal attempt. The Steelers were ready to settle for three and turn the ball over to Eli Manning (whom the Steelers had admittedly been very impressive in stopping for most of the day) with just under five minutes to go in a tie game. Instead, they got lucky when Giants lineman Jayron Hosley jumped offsides at the snap, giving them a third-and-2 that they converted and eventually turned into a game-winning touchdown. I can understand that decision if you don’t trust your quarterback, but Roethlisberger had completed his last six passes and undoubtedly knew the game situation. A touchdown and a four-point lead there is enormous, especially considering how well the Steelers had shut down Manning throughout the game. While you undoubtedly kick the field goal on fourth down if you come up short, passing on a chance to score a touchdown was a disappointing decision and one that the Steelers were lucky to be bailed out of.

Of course, we also have to discuss the decisions made by our TYFNC favorites. In the spirit of noting inane decisions that were quickly given their just deserts, let’s start with Ron Rivera. In the third quarter of a 14-6 game, Rivera’s Panthers team was actually stuffed for no gain on a third-and-1 handoff to Mike Tolbert on their own 46-yard line, setting up fourth-and-1. Despite the fact that they have Cam Newton, who would finish Sunday 14-for-18 converting on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, Rivera decided to play it conservative and bring out rookie punter Brad Nortman. Nortman promptly booted the ball all of 14 yards. You can’t say that Rivera should have known that Nortman would shank his punt, but even an average punt from Nortman isn’t going to be successful enough to justify passing on a chance to get the yard with Newton. At the very least, the Panthers should have thrown Newton out on the field and tried to get the Redskins to jump offsides, a play with all upside and no downside in that area of the field.

And finally, let’s finish up with TYFNC Hall of Fame candidate Pat Shurmur, who probably deserves his own section at this point.5 Shurmur’s Browns put in a credible performance against the Ravens on Sunday, losing 25-15 when they settled for five field goals from Phil Dawson. For some reason, despite the fact that the organization just spent a top-five draft pick on a running back, Shurmur got incredibly pass-happy on short yardage on Sunday. How happy? The Browns faced third or fourth down with four or less yards to go nine different times on Sunday. Shurmur called a pass play each time.6 They produced four conversions and an interception. There’s nothing wrong with throwing the ball in short yardage if you think it’s what your team does best, but doesn’t it make sense to run the ball with your best player at least once or twice in those situations? Maybe Shurmur thinks Dawson’s the organization’s best player and that he was putting the ball in that guy’s hands. Given how bad the Browns are these days, he might even be right.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell