Maurice Clarett: A Life in Two Parts

The Best Passing Quarterback Ever

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Upon Initial Review, Week 5

Don't let two teams facing off in the playoffs make up your mind about the next time they play. Plus, we break down the champs and the chumps from a busy Sunday.

This Sunday brought us rematches of two playoff games from last season, as both the Falcons-Packers and Patriots-Jets games served as rehashes of contests from last year’s divisional round. While the Patriots were able to flip last January’s result and beat the Jets in New England, the Packers narrowly overcame the Falcons with a second-half burst. What was more surprising, though, was how different the games went from last year’s contests. The Patriots were able to move the ball against the Jets defense for most of the game, while the Packers really struggled before breaking through with two big plays in the second half. That’s almost the opposite of how the games went last year, despite the fact that all four teams returned roughly similar lineups. Should we be surprised that only one of the two teams was able to repeat its postseason performance, and that the Falcons nearly made it 2 of 2 0 of 2? To answer that we look to the past. Is the result of a playoff game between two teams indicative of what will happen when those two teams play again during the following season?

To figure out whether it was true, we went back through the 1990 season and took note of every instance in which a pair of teams met in the playoffs and then caught up again during the subsequent regular season. In the case of divisional rivalries like the Jets and Patriots, of course, these teams could meet twice in the subsequent season. In 1993-94, the Lions and Packers took it even further; after the Packers narrowly beat the Lions in the wild-card round in 1993, the two teams played twice during the regular season in 1994 and then met again in the playoffs that same year. In these cases, we included all of those games.

As it turns out, a playoff win really isn’t all that valuable as a predictor of future performance. Teams that won a playoff game between two given teams won only 53.7 percent of the regular-season games between those two in the following season. That means that picking the winner of the previous year’s playoff game to repeat is less accurate than merely picking the team playing at home, which won 59.4 percent of the contests.

The data becomes a little more accurate if we start adjusting for the location of each game, but it’s still not any stronger than home-field advantage alone. Take teams that win their playoff game at home, for example. If they play that same team at home in the subsequent season, they win 59.6 percent of the time; basically, chalk. If they play them on the road, though, they win only 44.4 percent of the time. There’s some hope for you yet, Steelers fans.

The reality is that we always underestimate the amount of change that goes on in teams from year to year. It’s why 98 percent of previews look stupid by the end of the season. (Come on, Rams!) While the Jets have returned the vast majority of their players from the 2010 roster, players such as Bryan Thomas have been lost for the season with injury, while veterans such as Jim Leonhard and LaDainian Tomlinson aren’t playing at quite the same level. And even if the teams were identical, randomness happens. We like to believe that the outcome of one game definitively tells us which team is better, but there are countless random, minute factors that can help push the odds in one team’s favor or another: the particular set of referees handling the game. The weather. The fumble recoveries. The effectiveness of the radio in a linebacker’s helmet. The way a player’s dehydration responds to an IV. If you put two great teams on a neutral field a million times, even the one with superior matchups isn’t going to win more than 60 percent of the time or so.

The Most Valuable Six Feet in Football

The most futile play of the week came when Buffalo produced what TMQ refers to as the “fraidy-cat” punt. During the second quarter of their game against the Eagles, the Bills faced a fourth-and-6 from the Philadelphia 37 with a 7-0 lead. Apparently using their gift of the second sight to peer into the future and realize that they were going to receive gifts from Michael Vick, Jason Avant, and the rest of the Philadelphia roster, the Bills decided to punt the ball away. Unfortunately, Bills punter Brian Moorman put the ball in the end zone for a touchback. And, during the play, the Bills made a rare mental mistake and took a personal foul. End result of the play: A punt for two yards.

What’s Better Than All Day?

Adrian Peterson has a history of nagging injuries and a brand-new contract, so it’s essential for Leslie Frazier to manage his workload and give the Vikings the best chance of enjoying a full 16-game season from their star running back. In the past, we’ve wondered whether saving carries actually saves running backs, but Peterson can’t get hurt when he’s on the sideline.

That’s why it was so surprising to see the Vikings relying on a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson. With a 21-point lead over the Cardinals and 8:55 left in the game, Minnesota took over on downs with the ball on its own 30-yard line. Of the next 10 plays the Vikings ran on offense (over two drives) nine of them were runs by Peterson. It’s hard to argue that Peterson really had an impact that backup Toby Gerhart couldn’t have contributed on his own, since the eight carries went for a total of just 18 yards. And while the Vikings have blown a series of second-half leads so far this season, that was also with Peterson getting the bulk of the load, so it’s hard to make the case that he’s really been an integral part of a winning situation and that the Vikings can’t afford to leave him on the bench.

We’re not advocating a timeshare between Peterson and Gerhart the way the Chiefs split carries between Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones last year, of course. That was suboptimal because it gave Jones plenty of the workload early on in games, when they would have benefited more from an effective Charles. His nickname might be “All Day,” but the Vikings would be better off if they let Peterson leave some of their games that are out of hand a little earlier.

Regression Way Past the Mean

During our NFL preview, we noted that the amazingly low interception rate posted by quarterbacks like Tom Brady (0.8 percent of passes resulting in picks) and Michael Vick (1.6 percent) weren’t likely to stick around during the 2011 season. The interception totals put up by Brady and Vick against the Bills alone were enough to turn those figures around, but even beyond those two, there’s been a remarkable number of picks thrown by the guys who were the best in the league at avoiding them last season. The league-average interception rate for quarterbacks with 250 or more attempts last year was 2.8 percent, and seven quarterbacks had an interception rate below 2 percent. After five games, each of them have an interception rate above that league average; in fact, they’ll each be above 3 percent.

Five Up, Five Down

1. Dwayne Bowe: While Matt Cassel has struggled and Jamaal Charles has gone on injured reserve, Bowe continues to feast on the average-or-worse pass defenses that seem to make up the Chiefs schedule each season. With half of the Colts’ starters sidelined by injury, there was nobody to stop Bowe from singlehandedly taking over the game at times on Sunday, as he caught seven of the 11 passes thrown to him for 128 yards and two scores. Each of his completions went for a first down or a touchdown, and with his incredible nab of a tipped ball in the end zone for his second score, Bowe might be the early leader in the race for catch of the year. He even recovered a fumble from fellow wideout Keary Colbert.

2. Nick Novak: Out of the league at the beginning of the year, Novak was signed by the Chargers after Nate Kaeding tore up his knee on the opening kickoff of the season. Since then, Novak has been automatic; he hit all five of his field goals today in Denver, including a 51-yarder1 and added two extra points. Since San Diego added him to the roster, Novak has gone 11-of-11 on field goals, 9-of-9 on extra points, and put 14 of his 24 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. That’s just about perfect, something the Chargers special teams never could have imagined after their disastrous 2010 campaign.

3. George Wilson: In a way, George Wilson is the Fred Jackson of the Bills’ defense. A consistently productive safety who was expected to be moved aside by players who were flashier or drafted higher, the once-undrafted free agent gave Buffalo the confidence to allow former first-round pick Donte Whitner to go to San Francisco this offseason in free agency. On Sunday, Wilson might have had the best game of his career. He certainly had the best half of his career, as he picked up eight tackles and an interception of Michael Vick before halftime. He finished with eleven tackles, three passes defensed, and a knockdown of Vick. Plenty of Bills are getting deserved credit for their play so far this season, but make sure to add Wilson to the list.

4. Carlos Rogers: A much-maligned cornerback in Washington after being selected with the ninth overall pick of the 2005 draft, Rogers always combined above-average coverage ability with a total inability to grasp and catch the football. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, Rogers dropped five interceptions between 2009 and 2010, the second-highest total in the NFL. Rogers apparently spent the offseason at receivers’ school, because after grabbing a pick-six against Josh Freeman on Sunday, Rogers now has three interceptions in five games. He had just four interceptions from 2007 to 2009 combined. And while the 49ers aren’t as good as their 4-1 record, Rogers is a big part of why they’re going to be hosting a playoff game in January.

5. BenJarvus Green-Ellis: After giving way to rookie Stevan Ridley during each of the past two weeks, it seemed like the Law Firm was on his way out of favor in Foxboro. Instead, Green-Ellis was the battering ram that kept the Jets off-kilter during New England’s 30-21 win. Green-Ellis’s 27 carries included seven runs of eight yards or more, five first downs, and two touchdowns. His only run of the day for negative yardage came on the final play of the game.

And with our compliments all used up, here are the five players who laid an egg on Sunday.

1. Kyle Orton: We covered the drastic rise in Orton’s interception rate a moment ago, but John Fox decided to think with his heart on Sunday and bench the erratic Orton for the hopeless Tim Tebow. A good rule for coaches: Don’t ever do something because your fans are chanting for you to do it. Admittedly, Orton wasn’t anything impressive against an average Chargers pass defense; before being benched, he was 6-of-13 for 34 yards with an interception. Then again, after Orton left, Tebow went 4-of-10 for 79 yards, and 31 of those yards came on a screen pass. With Orton benched and Chad Henne out for the year, the Broncos may now choose to rekindle the trade talks they had with the Dolphins regarding Orton before the season. If they’re compelled to give Tebow a chance, it’s a move that makes sense for both parties.

2. Nnamdi Asomugha: It’s not that Asomugha was overhyped coming into Philadelphia, as Asomugha was every bit a superstar cornerback during his last four seasons in Oakland. Since he’s arrived in Philly, though, Asomugha’s looked like a different player. The Eagles tried to turn him into a cornerback/safety hybrid à la Charles Woodson in Green Bay, but the move hasn’t taken. Even more disturbingly, Asomugha’s once-excellent tackling has gone to pot. Asomugha was responsible for two of the 13 missed tackles from the Eagles on Sunday, and he had the opportunity to make at least two more but took poor angles to the football. There were too many times on Sunday where the Eagles had the chance to make a play in the backfield or limit a receiver to a short gain, only for them to miss tackles and create big plays for the Bills in the process. In the long list of problems with the Eagles at the moment, the tackling issues are at the top of the list. And Asomugha’s one of the many players who need to get more consistent — and fast — if Philly wants to make it to the playoffs.

3. Cedric Benson: Along with Michael Turner, Benson ranks among the league’s least explosive running backs. On Sunday, he produced just 53 yards on 24 carries. That included three carries for no gain or a loss, five carries for a sole yard, and five more for two yards. His longest run of the game was a whopping eight-yarder, and after running for a first down on the opening drive, he didn’t pick up a single conversion the rest of the way. At this point, the Bengals might want to hope that his suspension kicks in sometime soon so they can give backup Bernard Scott, who scored the winning touchdown, a chance as their featured back.

4. Matt Schaub: Schaub was in a bad spot without Andre Johnson, but he really struggled to consistently move the ball against the Raiders and had a dismal final drive. After taking a sack with no timeouts left that was eventually wiped off the board by a 12-man-on-the-field penalty (which was itself erased by a personal foul on the play), Schaub had a snap go over his head from the Texans’ backup center before lofting up a prayer to Joel Dreessen that resulted in a miraculous catch. Then, with eight seconds left from the Raiders’ five-yard line, Schaub should have had two chances to put his team in the end zone. Instead, Schaub waited too long on his first throw, was forced to scramble, and then passed up a chance to run the ball in before lofting a shovel pass across his body into the end zone, producing the game-ending interception. In all, Schaub was only able to complete 47.1 percent of his passes against the Raiders, which doesn’t bode well for them against the above-average pass defenses of the Ravens and Titans over the next couple of weeks.

5. Victor Cruz: Do we give credit to Cruz for his pair of incredible catches, including one tip drill special that resulted in a 68-yard touchdown pass? Of course. But Cruz also fumbled one pass away deep in his own territory, setting up the Seahawks for the game-tying field goal, before failing to grasp a pass near the goal line while tipping it into the arms of Brandon Browner, who promptly returned the ball 94 yards for a remarkable, game-clinching defensive touchdown. That turned what could have been a 32-29 win for the Giants into a stunning 36-25 defeat. It also ensured that the Eagles Cowboys and Redskins had one hell of a bye week.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part IV
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part III
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who’s Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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