Can Utah’s New-Look Offense Lead The Pac-12 Back To The Playoff?

The most realistic shot for the “Conference of Champions” to break its College Football Playoff drought rests on the shoulders of one of its newest and most unproven members. It falls on a coach who traditionally oversees .500 ball once the regular season passes the midway point and on a quarterback whose last two seasons have been derailed by upper-body injuries.

And with the Pac-12 Conference’s preeminent powers having already lost, Utah is perhaps the last team standing between the conference and a third consecutive season of missing the playoff.

But contrary to what the school’s trophy case might indicate, Utah is now more than just a powerhouse on the slopes. The Utes’ football team has made a convincing case to be taken seriously so far this season: They have three wins, with each decided by at least three possessions.7 Kyle Whittingham’s 15th full season at the helm in Salt Lake City opened with unprecedented expectations: They were ranked in the preseason top 15 for the first time, picked by the media and oddsmakers to win the Pac-12 and even deemed a national title contender by the lovably eccentric Lee Corso. And the prognostications were for good reason, too: Utah returns more than half of its starters on each side of the ball and features arguably the best defensive line in the nation. As Stanford coach David Shaw candidly put it at Pac-12 Football Media Day, “I think it’s great they’re not on the schedule for us this year.”

The program’s trajectory has reached an inflection point in recent years. From 1950 through 2013, Utah managed to crack the Associated Press Top 25 poll in just seven seasons. This year marks the sixth consecutive that the Utes have barreled into the top 20.

Since joining the Pac-12 eight years ago, the Utes have finished each season with a defense more efficient than its offense.8 The team’s average defensive efficiency over that time (73.3) grades out as tops among all defenses in the conference, while its offense (46.9) grades out as the second worst. This season, the two are within 2 points of each other, as the Utes feature a smashmouth offense that has vaulted the program onto the national scene.

In a conference marketed by speed and governed by spread offensive principles, Utah has been as deliberate as it gets. That’s the work of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig, who returned to Salt Lake City this offseason after previously serving in the former role from 2005 to 2008.9 Like many coordinators, Ludwig adapts his system to the personnel on hand. This season, that flexibility has arguably produced the kind of offense that, according to Utah backup quarterback Jason Shelley, will “smash you right in the face.”

Last season, Utah huddled on just 60.7 percent of snaps. Two seasons ago, only 27.5 percent of offensive plays involved that traditional gathering. But this year, Ludwig has the Utes huddling before 98.4 percent of plays, a rate outpaced by only a handful of teams. The Pac-12 averages a huddle rate of 52.2 percent, with six teams opting to huddle on less than 40 percent of snaps. In turn, Utah has gone almost entirely under center. While Arizona, Oregon and Washington State have used just two under-center snaps this season combined, Utah has racked up 78. By average time of possession per play and per drive, this is easily Utah’s slowest offensive cadence in at least 15 years — and it’s on pace to be the slowest Pac-12 offense over that same stretch.

Utah has slowed its offense way down

The Utah Utes vs. Pac-12 average in four metrics, for the 2019 season

Metric Utah Pac-12 average
Huddle percentage 98% 52%
Under-center rate 43% 15%
Time of possession per drive 3:12 2:30
Time of possession per play 34 seconds 26 seconds


And it’s working. Since 2005, only once has Utah had a more efficient start to the season offensively. Trailing only Mike Leach’s perennially magnificent Air Raid at Washington State, Ludwig oversees the conference’s second-best offense, which ranks in the top 25 nationally in expected points added on passes a season after it finished 96th. If maintained, the Utes’ 2.59 points per drive would be their best mark since 2008, when they went undefeated.

Starting quarterback Tyler Huntley reportedly spent the offseason packing on 25 pounds. Armed with a new physique, the senior leads the country in adjusted completion percentage (90), ranks fifth in yards per pass attempt (11.2) and is 12th in QBR (85.4). He hasn’t thrown an interception or been sacked.10 He has help in the backfield from Zack Moss, who is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. Moss has accumulated more yards after first contact this season than all but two players in college football and will likely leave as the school’s all-time leading rusher.

These team performances have come via an abridged playbook. “Ludwig has done a very good job of just keeping things really basic,” Moss said after the Utes thrashed Idaho State. “We’ve just been running the first couple installs we did going into this year. If you can win with your basic stuff, that’s really good for your offense.”

Friday’s matchup at USC presents an opportunity for the Utes to allay fears that the moment will grow too big for them. It would mark a historic victory for Utah, which hasn’t beaten the Trojans in Los Angeles since 1916 (though in only nine attempts). Since arriving in the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah has never shown the flash of Oregon or the imagination of Washington State. It has even found itself in the shadow of Stanford, another program that bucks conference norms behind a conservative, play clock-drowning style. So it’s fitting that Utah, a program conventionally known for a stout defensive front, is gunning for contention behind an old face and a new offensive blueprint.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Why Bill de Blasio’s Campaign Failed (Hint: Nobody Liked Him)

There is officially only one mayor11 left in the 2020 presidential race — and it is the one who runs a city of 100,000 rather than the chief executive of the biggest city in the United States. On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — leaving us now with 18 major candidates remaining, per FiveThirtyEight’s definition.

However, the list of candidates with realistic shots at winning the nomination may be even shorter than that; just 10 candidates met the polling and donor thresholds to participate in last week’s Democratic debate in Houston. And de Blasio was not among them, nor did it seem possible for him to qualify for the next debate, in Ohio in October. As of July, only 6,700 people had donated to his campaign (debaters need 130,000), and he has only hit 2 percent support in a handful of polls all year long (none of which are counted by the Democratic National Committee for debate qualification). In short, it’s no mystery why de Blasio called it quits.

De Blasio was always an extreme long shot. He entered the race quite late, on May 16 — after more than 20 other major candidates had declared and the field was already drawing headlines for being historically saturated. In fact, only one successful presidential nominee since 1976 (Bill Clinton) kicked off his campaign later than de Blasio did. And although de Blasio was arguably one of the most progressive candidates in the field — having brought universal pre-K and other liberal reforms to the five boroughs — he was crowded out of the primary’s left lane by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who combined for 56 percent support among “very liberal” voters in the most recent Quinnipiac poll (de Blasio had less than 1 percent).

But probably de Blasio’s biggest problem was simply that Democratic voters did not like him,12 which is quite an unusual place to be among voters of one’s own party. In an average of national polls of 2020 candidates’ favorability from May, de Blasio was the only candidate at the time whom more voters viewed unfavorably than favorably (his net favorability rating — favorable rating minus unfavorable rating — was -1). That’s especially bad because de Blasio wasn’t some little-known candidate; 46 percent of Democrats were able to form an opinion of him. All other candidates who were at least as well-known had net favorability ratings of +21 or better!

It is very difficult to win a presidential nomination when you are well-known but not well-liked among voters in your party early in the campaign. Only one candidate has done so since 1980 — President Trump, who went from a -42 net favorability rating among Republicans in May 2015 to a +28 net favorability rating that September. But Trump had the advantage of tons of earned media coverage, something no future candidate could bank on. De Blasio certainly didn’t get it, appearing in less than 1 percent of cable-news clips the week of Sept. 8, for example. And unsurprisingly, his net favorability rating failed to improve; in fact, it actually dropped over the course of the campaign (it was -6 in our average of August polls).

One group with whom de Blasio became especially unpopular this summer? His own constituents. According to the Siena College Research Institute, de Blasio’s net favorability rating in New York City dropped from -1 point in March to -25 points in September. And there has been a lot of grumbling among New Yorkers about all the time de Blasio was spending out of state — such as when a blackout struck Manhattan and the mayor was campaigning in Iowa, or reports that de Blasio spent just seven hours at City Hall during the month of May.

Although term limits prevent de Blasio from seeking another term as mayor, his doomed presidential campaign may have drained whatever political capital he had remaining in his last two years as mayor. And although running for president is often portrayed as a risk-free way for politicians to build a national profile, de Blasio’s campaign is a cautionary tale that there can be major downsides as well.

Can NFL Refs Do What Analysts Never Could: Get Coaches To Pass More?

Through the first two weeks of the season, holding penalties in the NFL are at an all-time high.1 Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Heading into the 2019 season, the NFL competition committee mandated that referees enforce offensive holding more strictly than they have in the past. The points of emphasis document published by the NFL states that “back-side” holding — action that occurs behind where the ball carrier is running — will be more closely monitored.

A play from the Cleveland Browns’ and the Tennessee Titans’ matchup in Week 1 helps illustrate what the NFL is trying to prevent. The play shown below is a counter run to the left, away from the “strong” side of the offensive line. The idea is to fool the defense into thinking that because there’s an extra blocker to the right,2 you’ll run that direction. To help sell the deception, Cleveland running back Nick Chubb takes a false step toward the right and then quickly cuts across the field in front of the quarterback and heads left, looking for a hole.

Chubb ends up finding some room to run, but only because the majority of his linemen were breaking the rules. While the actions of No. 85 David Njoku best match the description of backside holding, the referee probably could have thrown flags for a number of penalties on this run. There’s an old saying in football that you can call holding on any play, and officials now appear to want to. Refs are calling these fouls at a rate that is unprecedented in recent NFL history.

Offensive holding penalties in the first two weeks of the season rose 78 percent this year, from 82 in 2018 to 146 in 2019. If the current rate of holding penalties called continues over the course of the entire year, we might wonder: Are there winners or losers from the new rule emphasis?

If we look at the number of holding penalties called on each NFL team year-over-year since 2009, there is some evidence indicating that teams take a portion of their holding penalties with them from one season to the next.3 Teams with many holding penalties called on them in 2018 — such as Washington, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Denver and Indianapolis — might be negatively impacted by the new rule emphasis the most.

Some teams have a hard time letting go

Number of offensive holding penalties by team in 2018, including penalties that were declined

Team Offensive Holding Penalties
1 Washington 31
2 Tampa Bay 29
2 Cleveland 29
2 Denver 29
5 Indianapolis 28
6 Dallas 26
6 Buffalo 26
6 New York Jets 26
9 Jacksonville 25
10 Seattle 24
10 Los Angeles Chargers 24
12 Miami 23
12 Minnesota 23
14 Arizona 22
14 New England 22
14 Kansas City 22
17 Detroit 21
18 Atlanta 20
18 New York Giants 20
18 Oakland 20
21 Tennessee 19
22 New Orleans 18
22 Baltimore 18
22 Cincinnati 18
22 Green Bay 18
22 Philadelphia 18
27 Carolina 17
28 Houston 16
29 San Francisco 15
29 Pittsburgh 15
31 Los Angeles Rams 13
32 Chicago 9

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Meanwhile, teams such as Chicago, the L.A. Rams, Pittsburgh and San Francisco were largely able to avoid holding penalties last season and may be in better shape than others if they continue their by-the-book performances.4

Of course, it could also be the case that all teams will be similarly affected by the increased number of holding calls. The year-to-year stability of the penalty at the team level isn’t terribly strong, and the league is now cracking down on a very specific type of holding. But even if the increase in holding calls is relatively constant across the league, there may be another way for teams to gain an edge in light of the new rules emphasis.

It turns out that holding is more likely to be called on a running play. From 2009 to 2018, holding was called on 2636 rushing attempts and 1673 passing attempts,5despite the fact that the majority of plays over that period were passes. Since 61.2 percent of holding calls on these plays occur when rushing, it suggests that running is more risky, and therefore less valuable.

NFL teams hardly need further incentive to call more pass plays, but nevertheless, here is potentially another reason to move away from the run game. Teams that pass more often than they run would stand to benefit the most from the new emphasis on back-side holding. Perhaps the officials will do what analysts have been unable to do all these years; that is, finally convince the NFL to reevaluate the frequency with which they run the ball.

How To Win An Election

Excerpted from “How To” by Randall Munroe. Copyright © 2019 by Randall Munroe. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Winning elections is hard. The truth is, people are complicated, there are a lot of them, and no one is ever 100 percent sure why they do what they do or what they’re going to do next.

But if your goal is simply to win an election, then as a general rule you should be for things that voters like and against things they dislike. To do that, you’ll need to figure out what the voters like and dislike. One of the most popular tools for figuring out what the public thinks is opinion polling — talking to a bunch of people, asking them what they think and tallying up the results. The website FiveThirtyEight has conducted an exercise in which they had professional speechwriters write a speech that simply pandered as much as possible — only making statements that most voters support, to pander either to one party or to the electorate in general.

But what do we agree on the most? If your goal is simply to be in favor of popular things and against unpopular things, what should you campaign on? What are the least controversial issues in the country?

To help figure this out, I reached out to Kathleen Weldon, director of data operations and communications at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, to commission a poll of their polls. The Roper Center maintains a tremendous database of opinion polling data — over 700,000 polling questions spanning almost a century of opinion polling, collected from virtually every organization that has ever conducted a public poll in the United States.

I told them I was looking for the most one-sided questions in their polling database — the questions where virtually everyone gave the same answer. In a sense, these would be the least divisive issues in the country.

The Roper research staff sifted through their database of 700,000 questions and assembled a list of those questions for which at least 95 percent of respondents gave the same answer.

It’s pretty rare for that many respondents to agree on anything in a poll. A small percentage of respondents will often choose ridiculous answers because they’re not taking the poll seriously or because they misunderstand the question. But one-sided questions are also rare because no one bothers to conduct polls on uncontroversial topics unless they’re trying to prove a point. Since everything in the Roper database is something that some person or organization bothered to commission a poll to ask, it means it’s at least potentially controversial, if not actually so.

Here is a selection of the most one-sided issues in the history of polling. If you want to run for office, these are views you can safely espouse, secure in the knowledge that at least one scientific survey puts the people squarely behind you:

  • 95 percent disapprove of people using cell phones in movie theaters. (Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel Poll, 2014)
  • 97 percent believe there should be laws against texting while driving. (The New York Times/CBS News Poll, 2009)
  • 96 percent have a positive impression of small business. (Gallup Poll, 2016)
  • 95 percent believe employers should not be able to access the DNA of their employees without permission. (Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners Poll, 1998)
  • 95 percent support laws against money laundering involving terrorism. (Washington Post Poll, 2001)
  • 95 percent think doctors should be licensed. (Private Initiatives & Public Values, 1981)
  • 95 percent would support going to war if the United States were invaded. (Harris Survey, 1971)
  • 96 percent oppose legalizing crystal meth. (CNN/ORC International Poll, 2014)
  • 95 percent are satisfied with their friends. (Associated Press/Media General Poll, 1984)
  • 95 percent say that “if a pill were available that made you twice as good looking as you are now, but only half as smart,” they would not take it. (Men’s Health Work Survey, 2000)
  • 98 percent believe adults should watch swimmers rather than reading or talking on the phone. (American Red Cross Water Safety Poll, 2013)
  • 99 percent think it’s wrong for employees to steal expensive equipment from their workplace. (NBC News Poll, 1995)
  • 95 percent think it’s wrong to pay someone to do a term paper for you. (NBC News Poll, 1995)
  • 98 percent would like to see a decline in hunger in the world. (Harris Survey, 1983)
  • 97 percent would like to see a decline in terrorism and violence. (Harris Survey, 1983)
  • 98% would like to see an end to high unemployment. (Harris Survey, 1982)
  • 95 percent would like to see an end to all wars. (Harris Survey, 1981)
  • 95 percent would like to see a decline in prejudice. (Harris Survey, 1977)
  • 95 percent don’t believe Magic 8 Balls can predict the future. (Shell Poll, 1998)
  • 96 percent think the Olympics are a great sports competition. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution Poll, 1996)

You can use this list to assemble a campaign platform. For example, you could stand firmly against hunger, war and terrorism; for friendship and small business; and against texting while driving. You could support laws that ensure doctors are properly licensed and oppose allowing other countries to invade.

On the other hand, if you wanted to lose an election as spectacularly as possible, this list could be even more helpful as a blueprint. By taking the opposing position on each issue, you could potentially run the most unpopular political campaign in political history. You’d probably lose, but who knows!

The Saints And Steelers Lost Their Franchise QBs. Can They Still Make The Playoffs?

On Sunday, injuries at the NFL’s most valuable position — to two of history’s most prolific passers — radically altered the landscape of the season.

Sean Payton is about to coach only the second game of his NFL career without a healthy Drew Brees, who is out six-to-eight weeks with an injury to his right (throwing) thumb that will require surgery. With Brees at the helm, Payton’s record is 119-72, and the pair has the second-most wins of any QB-coach combo in NFL history. Now, Payton’s quarterback is expected to be Teddy Bridgewater, who last started an NFL game that mattered in the 2015 season.1

In Pittsburgh, the situation is even worse: Ben Roethlisberger will undergo season-ending surgery on his throwing elbow. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is 115-60-1 with Roethlisberger starting, the fourth-most wins of any QB-coach combo. Tomlin has had to guide his team through Big Ben’s missed time before, going 10-8 in games without Roethlisberger. But those previous fill-ins included veterans Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and an over-the-hill Michael Vick. Current backup Mason Rudolph, a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, has never started an NFL game.

What can we expect from each team with their current backup QBs? The Saints still have a coin-flip’s chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction model. But the Steelers’ playoff chances are now practically nil — down to just 8 percent.

Even with Roethlisberger, the Steelers had started the season so poorly that, had he not gotten hurt, they still would have been projected for just 7.54 wins, or a record of roughly 8-8 — likely falling short of the postseason again. With Rudolph under center, the Steelers’ outlook drops by 2.47 expected wins. Because Rudolph has not yet started a game, the model projects his performance based purely on where he was drafted (the 3rd round) — which could be too bearish an estimate. But as things sit, Rudolph is expected to perform at only 36.6 percent of Roethlisberger’s Elo level, a rolling average of recent performances that incorporates both passing and running.

On paper, the Saints are in much better shape with their backup in Bridgewater, who is expected to perform at 56.5 percent of Brees’s level.2 With Brees starting every remaining game, the Saints would have been the seventh-strongest team in the league by Elo, with an expected win total of 9.62. With Bridgewater in, the Saints drop to 21st overall — and he lowers their projected win total to 8.93 for the full season.

But Bridgewater’s performance is almost impossible to project, given that he’s not the same player after recovering from the “horribly grotesque” injury that he sustained in 2016. Though the sample size is small — only 53 passes to date — Bridgewater’s returns as a Saint have been poor: He has notched nearly 2 yards fewer per pass attempt than as a Viking and has performed worse both by passer rating and ESPN’s QBR.

The Saints could turn to a Sean Payton favorite, quarterback and Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill, who receives zero Elo points because of his lack of NFL starts and his undrafted status. Payton, though, sees the next Steve Young. Hill is already 29 and in his third season of being groomed by Payton, but Young didn’t begin his Hall of Fame-caliber play as the 49ers’ primary starting QB until age 30. So if it’s ever going to happen for Hill, why not now?

For the Steelers, although Roethlisberger says he’s returning from this injury to finish out his contract, there are no guarantees. Eerily, the playing career of the last great Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, ended with an almost identical injury in the last game of the 1983 season. And Bradshaw also said he’d come back after his surgery, but he never did. He was 35. Roethlisberger is 37.

But what if the Steelers were able to get a veteran quarterback for next-to-nothing in a trade? And what if that player is a two-time Super Bowl champion, like Roethlisberger? The Giants are finally turning the page on the Eli Manning era, and it would be far less awkward for them to hand the team to rookie Daniel Jones with Manning gone than with him holding a clipboard. Elo projects Manning at nearly twice the value going forward this year as Rudolph, and he would be the AFC North’s third-best quarterback today in terms of Elo, ahead of Andy Dalton.

It appears, though, the Steelers lack the cap room to trade for Manning or even a modestly paid veteran QB. Pittsburgh sent a first-round pick to Miami on Monday for cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, so it doesn’t appear that the Steelers are intent on tanking. They’re probably just stuck with the uncertainty of a QB prospect who has yet to start a game.

Neil Paine contributed research.

QB Injuries And Absurd Replay Reviews Dominated The NFL’s Week 2

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Aside from a Jets-Browns matchup that I know we’re all excited about, Week 2 is in the books. And boy, did it have it all. Inexplicable replay decisions! Calls blown dead that should not have been! Fires on the sidelines!

So let’s get into it. How about the replay situation? Who could have possibly foreseen this being a huge mess?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It’s funny — I was watching Tony Dungy on the Sunday Night Football halftime show going over plays that he deemed clear and convincing evidence of pass interference, and I disagreed with every one of them.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): 😬

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The cost of replay is being able to live the game you’re watching in the moment. And since replay is far from perfect and can never be perfect, why do we tolerate it?

neil: Because the alternative is missed calls! Except now you can inject questionable calls where there originally were none.

Take Sunday’s Seahawks-Steelers game. Trailing in the fourth quarter, Pete Carroll was able to successfully challenge this no-call, and it set up a go-ahead score. In real time, that didn’t look like pass interference. But in slow motion it did, and that is one of the big gray areas for this rule: How much contact is allowed before it becomes a “clear and obvious” hindrance to the receiver? In slow motion, things tend to look more “clear and obvious” than perhaps they were at game speed.

sara.ziegler: I’m reminded yet again that football is so arbitrary in so many ways.

Salfino: If you’re a coach, how do you know when to challenge? There is some kind of contact on most contested catches, if we’re going to Zapruder things.

neil: Yeah, so do you basically save it for any crucial incompletion in traffic late in a game, and just challenge no matter what on the off chance it works?

Salfino: Think of how bizarre things are in the NFL now, when the most game-changing events in games often involve replay rather than the live action on the field.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The live action has its own set of flaws, though. I think there’s a fundamental principle of fairness that people also enjoy and want in a sporting event.

The refs, as we saw Thursday night, aren’t even all that great at spotting the damn ball.

Salfino: I guess it depends on whether you view refereeing a game as something that should be almost automated and perfect, or whether it’s just an organic part of the game with its variation in performance, just like the players. I totally get wanting 100 percent justice on the field, but it seems like it’s just never going to happen, for structural reasons. It’s not like the system can really be improved. It’s all one step forward and at least one step back.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The replay system and refs in general certainly aren’t helping Sean Payton and the Saints.

neil: That much is for sure, haha.

sara.ziegler: I don’t want to hear about it from the Saints, ever.

neil: To err is Favre-ian. Or referee-ian.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: It’s incredible that the Saints again got screwed by a rule that made it impossible to fix the injustice we just witnessed on the field.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Al Riveron now posts an instant home office analysis on Twitter. They cut out the part where Cam Jordan runs it all the way back for a TD.


neil: Can’t they just, as a rule, err on the side of waiting to blow the whistle?

Let it play out, and if you have to bring it back, bring it back.

sara.ziegler: That was incredible. I thought that’s what they’re told to do?

Salfino: If you wait for the whistle, you’re going to have guys getting blasted on many plays that should be dead.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If it’s close, they are told to let it play out on the field, but in practice it seems that rarely happens.

sara.ziegler: So on replay, what are our options? What can — or should — the league do?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the smartest thing to do — given the mountain of evidence that what’s driving a lot of the issues is the faulty original ruling on the field, and the deference given to those calls by the rule book — is to not privilege any evidence before review.

Salfino: I really want to go back to watching live action. I’d just scrap the entire thing. It was done before. Replay just can never be perfect, and perfection is its reason for existing.

neil: One of things coaches and commentators always beg for is consistency. Especially with regard to the PI challenges, which coaches are still trying to figure out, make what is “clear and obvious” consistent from week to week. Maybe this is just based on a few plays, but on Sunday it seemed like it was easier to overturn a PI non-call than it had been in Week 1.

Salfino: Short of scrapping it, I’d make the booth responsible for all reviews. There should be no limit on things. No strategic component to it.

sara.ziegler: The limit is frustrating, for sure, given how arbitrary it all seems now.

I guess it comes down to what the goal is. Is it to get the call perfectly right, every time? If it is, then the booth needs to be a lot more involved.

I don’t think that is the goal, FWIW, but I’m not sure exactly what the goal is.

neil: The goal is to avoid media and fan criticism. And it always fails.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah by that measure, just delete the account.

Salfino: I thought overturning the Stefon Diggs touchdown was absurd. And there was an outbreak of questionable calls on Sunday besides that, most for very ticky-tack reasons.

sara.ziegler: Don’t even get me started on the Diggs TD.

Salfino: By the way, what the heck is wrong with Kirk Cousins? That game-losing interception was such a horrible decision. It was first down. Cousins is conservative when the situation calls to be desperate and desperate when conservatism is warranted. Sorry, Sara.

Also, Diggs doesn’t take off his helmet on what should have been the second TD if he doesn’t get robbed of the first TD, I would bet. That’s bad by Diggs, but it sure didn’t feel like justice was carried out on replay.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that was just a whole mess.

neil: The Vikings really just did Vikings things to lose that one.

sara.ziegler: All right…..

neil: (Sorry.)

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings running back is leading the league in rushing yards, so clearly these kinds of losses are just variance.

Run to win!

sara.ziegler: Dalvin Cook is a GENERATIONAL TALENT, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Glorious.

neil: 75-yard runs will really pad the totals.

sara.ziegler: ANYWAY.

Let’s move on to the other big issue of the weekend: injuries. We had two big injuries to older star quarterbacks — Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury; Brees will have thumb surgery and miss at least six weeks.

Salfino: Yeah, there was video on the sideline of Brees trying to pick up the ball. Imagine trying to do that without a thumb, and that’s how that went.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

joshua.hermsmeyer: There was something deeply sad about that footage. He tried to play it all off, and just walked away with his head down looking at his hand.

neil: One of the cool new features in our quarterback-adjusted NFL Elo prediction model is that we can quantify the effect of losing a star QB. And these are very damaging injuries. Roethlisberger and Brees are currently the fifth- and sixth-best starting QBs in our model, trailing only Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.

Our model instantly had the Steelers’ playoff odds dropping from 31 percent to 8 percent with the news about Roethlisberger:

The effect of Brees’ injury was a little bit less, because he could potentially come back for most of the second half of the season. New Orleans’s playoff odds dropped from 58 percent to about 51 percent, with Tampa Bay being the primary beneficiary of that dip. But in both cases, we’re talking about drop-offs that cause these teams’ chances of winning their next game to fall by 10 to 15 percentage points with the backup having to start.

sara.ziegler: Are injuries what will finally do these guys in?

neil: Injuries do seem to be what spells the end for old, productive QBs.

Salfino: It seems like Roethlisberger’s injury was likely wear and tear, while Brees’s was a fluke and not age-related. But playing through the injury, if that’s what Brees opts to do, is likely going to be much tougher at his age than it would have been at his peak.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Brees looked like he lost his fastball — or what was left of it — last year. There was a phantom/unreported injury in November where he took a big hit and stopped throwing deep. He didn’t appear to have much zip on it this year either. He attempted just one pass over 20 yards in Week 1. So I guess my money would be on Brees being the most impacted by this accumulation of injuries. He’s also older than Roethlisberger.

neil: People like our friend Bill Barnwell were already speculating before the season about Brees’s performance potentially collapsing this season after his struggles late last year.

Salfino: Do you go to the unknown with Taysom Hill or the known with Teddy Bridgewater? I would do the former: Try to inject athleticism and explosiveness into the position and worry less about floor.


The drop off from Brees to Bridgewater was steep.

I think trying Hill — if Payton really believes he has some “Steve Young” in him — is the right move.

neil: Here’s a little bit more on the drop-offs between Brees/Roethlisberger and their backups. According to our model, replacing Brees with Bridgewater (who is roughly as good as Indy’s Jacoby Brissett, so the 29th-best starting QB in football) knocks the Saints’ Elo rating down from seventh in the league to 20th.

It gets worse for Pittsburgh. Replacing Roethlisberger with Mason Rudolph, who rates significantly lower than Ryan Fitzpatrick (the 32nd-best starter in the league), drops the Steelers from 17th in Elo to 31st, ahead of only the Dolphins.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow.

Salfino: I actually thought Rudolph looked good against Seattle. But it’s always tricky to judge the backups in the game when they are called upon because they play, I think, more free and easy since they had no idea they would be playing. The defense also doesn’t really know who they are. The test for Rudolph will be next week. He has draft pedigree to some extent.

sara.ziegler: Once again, BAN INJURIES.

Let’s wrap things up with a new game I’m calling Good Team/Bad Team. There’s a bunch of teams at 2-0 right now and a bunch at 0-2. But are they actually good/bad?

Starting with the 2-0 teams, I’ll name a team, and you tell me if that team is actually any good. Ready?

Salfino: I like this.

neil: Let’s go!

sara.ziegler: Let’s start with Buffalo! Did you know the Bills are 2-0?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills are an eight-win team until Josh Allen gets injured on a scramble.

Salfino: The Bills are a bad team. They got lucky in Week 1: They played a QB with mono and then had the QB of the opposing defense (C.J. Mosley) go down, before which they hadn’t scored.

neil: Yeah, I agree with y’all. They may have swept the State of New Jersey in Weeks 1-2, but I’m not sure they’re actually any good.

Salfino: (OK, the Bills are not good but maybe not bad either; also, are the Giants tanking?)

sara.ziegler: The eternal question: Are the Giants tanking?

neil: Giants: Bad team.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Are people actually asking this question?

Salfino: Eli is 2-16 now in the first half of seasons from 2017 to 2019.

joshua.hermsmeyer: GM Dave Gettleman cannot abide a tank. They are just bad.

sara.ziegler: I think we know the Giants are bad, so we don’t really even need to discuss them.

What about San Francisco?

Salfino: San Francisco is good. I like their offensive coaching and play calling. They have very good offensive players — Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert are super-talented backs, especially Breida, who has some Barry Sanders in him. They look like they got it right with Deebo Samuel. The defense looks OK. I say 10-6.

neil: Good team…? The Niners currently rank third in EPA per game — granted, they beat a couple of mediocre teams (Tampa and Cincy) to get there. But Cincy held its own in Week 1 at Seattle! And Tampa won in Week 2 against Cam Newton and the Panthers!

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners were impressive in Week 2, but I’m not sold. It seemed like all the scheme stuff worked to perfection, and they didn’t need to really lean on Jimmy Garoppolo. In the first half of Week 1, they looked like the Niners we’ve seen the past two years, which is closer to my prior. So I’m gonna be the pessimist and say third in EPA/game is a bit of a mirage and that they aren’t a playoff team.

neil: San Francisco’s situation would also be rosier in a different division. The Rams and Seahawks are tough competition — our model thinks all three teams win double-digit games.

sara.ziegler: One more 2-0 team: Dallas!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Good.

neil: Good team! I wrote last week about how much it would help Dallas if Prescott became more consistent as a passer, and after two straight strong performances to start 2019 (on the heels of even more to close out 2018), it appears he may have turned a corner.

After that first interception, it seemed like “here we go again…” But he has been great since then.

Salfino: They’re good. For all the joking at Jerry Jones’s expense about how he takes over the team and doesn’t let the football people rule, they draft great every year. However they are doing it is working. Where is the weakness on Dallas? I don’t see one.

neil: With Philly being kinda all over the place so far, Dallas seems like clear NFC East favorites right now.

(Philly has actually been all over the place for like two years now…)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think perhaps the biggest danger is that Kellen Moore runs out of plays three-fourths of the way through the year, and the league catches up. He’s never done a full season of this, and it seems to have happened to Sean McVay last year.

Salfino: Philly had such a spell of injuries on Sunday and still could have won if Nelson Agholor hadn’t dropped that touchdown pass down the sideline in the final two minutes. Carson Wentz often lacks pocket awareness and takes shots like Michael Vick used to take. If they can stay relatively healthy, I think the Eagles are at the Cowboys’ level.

sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move on to a few 0-2 teams to ask whether they’re actually as bad as they seem.


Salfino: Bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Not as bad as they seem. They’ve been surprisingly good in the passing game, and that will earn them a few unexpected wins down the road.

neil: Not sure. Case Keenum has actually been OK-to-good so far. And their losses were against two teams we just said we considered good: Dallas and Philly.

(Anybody else VERY confused to see Keenum as No. 8 for Washington, and think it’s Cousins?)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Hah, yes!

Salfino: I agree that Washington has been decent on offense, but Keenum is going to be benched when the losses pile up. Dwayne Haskins reportedly is not remotely ready, but the fans and owner will demand him. So I guess I’m building seven-plus Haskins starts into the “bad” call.

Keenum is better than Cousins. (ducks)

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

joshua.hermsmeyer: What a lukewarm take after Cousins’s performance this week, Mike. Shame.

neil: Our QB model agrees! (Barely.)

Salfino: Cousins is actually losing games now.

sara.ziegler: OMG, we can’t talk about the Vikings anymore, I’m sorry — I just can’t take it.

How about 0-2 Carolina?

joshua.hermsmeyer: What’s wrong with Cam Newton?

neil: I wish I could defend him and them. But he’s getting outplayed by Jameis Winston at this point. At home!

Salfino: I worry that Cam is broken down and forever Clark Kent now. He’s taken such a beating. We love the running QBs, but there is a price to be paid, and Cam may not be functional in his 30s because he can’t execute at an NFL level in structure in the pocket — he’s not a good enough passer.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If you’re right, then 0-2 is very, very real.

sara.ziegler: LOL

One more 0-2 team: Pittsburgh

neil: With Big Ben out, they’re in huge trouble. I mean, they were probably already in huge trouble anyway.

Salfino: It was ridiculous to think an offense could withstand the losses of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in consecutive years. JuJu Smith-Schuster is not a true No. 1 and is being thrust into that role without even a competent No. 2 receiver.

Pittsburgh is bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agree with all of you. JuJu has been a hobby horse of mine as well. His efficiency last year was buoyed by the presence of AB and being asked to run routes near the seams and in the middle of the field — the best places to pass the ball. Without their starting QB, they are bad.

Salfino: And the thing about Ben aging — you don’t get the sense he’s focusing on diet and yoga. There is no BR7 program, I suspect.

neil: 🤣

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sex, Speed And The SEO Migration of Romantic Depot to WordPress

Romantic Depot operates six, soon to be seven adult stores offering sex toys and lingerie, in the New York City area.  Their flagship stores are in Manhattan and the Bronx.  They’ve been around for sometime and over the years their website aged along with other businesses seeking to help drive local foot traffic.

With the move to mobile devices in full demonstration the old site was not responsive.  This lead the owner of the chain to build a new site that was mobile friendly and it lead to Ultimate SEO‘s involvement overseeing the process of migrating to this new site without hurting the site’s strong local SEO presence.

Romantic Depot does have an impressive keyword positioning presence in the New York City area. Even nationally they are on page 2 of results for “sex shop“.  The goal was to ensure a smooth transition to the mobile site while maintaining the SEO that had been built over the years.

301 Redirects

The new site was largely a 1 to 1 ratio.  The html static page manhattan.html went now to /manhattan/ on the WordPress site.  We placed in any one off redirects, a redirect that took any url that ended in .html and would return it without the html and a redirect for the index.html homepage to come back with the WordPress homepage at /


Backlinks are the life blood of a sit’s ranking and it was important to ensure that those would be maintained with relevant content as well.  Using we collected all of the backlinks and their existing targets and ensured those had rules as well.  While the site’s backlinks were in the tens of thousands it quick came down to a few hundred target urls that needed to be accounted for to maintain SEO.

Site Speed

Most of the work involved in preparing for the migration was speed performance in nature.  The new site when tested on was loading in 12.6 seconds with over 400 http requests. We targeted a 3 second load and through we were able to utilize a CDN that brought the site closer to users as well as offered other benefits.  Cloudflare alone brough the site load time to about 7 seconds.

We further limited content that could be on other pages for those other pages such as Google maps to the location homepages. Instituting lazy load ended up being the primary aspect of speeding up the site.  Image optimization was also completed and a move to PHP7.3 from 5.6.  Merging CSS and JS files also worked to reduce the requests.

SIte Speed FOr SEO MIgration

SIte Speed FOr SEO MIgration

With our work to provide a faster site complete the migration was completed and load times on the site are under 3 seconds for mobile users.

Multi Domain Strategy Consolidation

During the migration I also mentioned the value of building one brand. was the site used as the online store for the chain.

The problem that arises from multiple domain strategies is the segmentation of resources and confusion it can cause to Google Analytics.  An easy eample of this is the bounce rate and pageviews metrics are actually hurt on the primary domain.

Consider this… a person searches romantic depot on Google.  The first result is their site, likely the person is going to want to know what items might be at the store.  Once the page loads they find the link to the store, maybe even before the page loads.  Clicking that link they are now taken to a new domain.

That visitors actions would have counted as a bounced visitor.  See when someone goes to your site and immediately leaves for another site that signals to Google that what was on that original site wasn’t what the searcher wanted.  To prevent future searchers from going to a site that people leave directly after going to it they might increase the position of other sites to try and correct for this in the future.  That ultimately means the top spot position for the keyword is being hampered by the site’s structure.

Further Google sees that a person wasn’t even interested enough in the site to look at a second page, they just left.  In realty the second site is part of the same overall topic or brand its just that Google doesn’t necessarily understand that.  An artificially inflated bounce rate and lower page views are all that the first site is getting and the second site is losing out as well as most of the marketing is surrounding the first site’s address…backlinks, social mentions and such.

Lower Bounce Rate

The illustration above shows our page views of the main root domain.  Guess when on the graph the site was rolled into the main domains … late July.  The thing is, the traffic isn’t any greater its just not split up anymore.  The homepage link to the store is now going to a subfolder of the same domain, its helping by acting as another page view rather than hurting the site as a bounce.

The keywords and authority of this additional site were better utilized under the main domain and this site was migrated to a subfolder /store as a separate WordPress site.

Thats important the site was migrated as a separate site under the original.  This was done for multiple reason and it creates its own set of unique challenges but we’ll discuss that later in a future post.

Consolidated Backlinks

The consolidation of the sites further helps with SEO because after we migrated we put into place redirects from the store’s domain to its new home within the subfolder.  That means all the backlinks now combine to help one site.  Lets consider the following illustration…

Domain A: DA 30 Backlinks: 10,000 Referring Domains: 1,000

Domain B: DA 30 Backlinks: 9,000 Referring Domains: 900

Competitor: DA 35 Backlinks: 13,000 Referring Domains: 1,300

Lets assume everything else is the same…we’d expect then that Competitor will rank higher on Google Search.  But if we combine Domain A ad Domain B.

Domain AB: DA 40 Backlinks: 19,000 Referring Domains: 1,900

Everything else still the same….Domain AB will now rank higher than the Competitor.

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The Third Democratic Debate In 7 Charts

For the first time this cycle, there was just one debate night, and only 10 candidates made the cut — so now we’re trying to make sense of what happened when the front-runners shared the stage. In recent weeks, the polls have shown a top tier of three to five candidates, with former Vice President Joe Biden leading, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tied for second, and Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, a distant fourth and fifth — but did that change last night?

Some candidates from the lower-polling tiers had strong performances — former Rep. Beto O’Rourke delivered an impassioned speech on gun violence and Sen. Cory Booker spoke nearly as much as Biden, though Booker is only polling at 2.1 percent on average (based on 21 debate-qualifying polls). But as you can see from the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, the overall picture hasn’t shifted much yet — although Warren does seem to have done the most to boost her campaign. Here’s what we’ve learned so far about what viewers made of the debate and the candidates’ performances:

Which candidates wowed the crowd?

First of all, how did viewers in our poll think the candidates did on Thursday night? To answer this, we compared debate-watchers’ ratings of the candidates’ performances to their pre-debate favorability scores1 to see if any well-liked candidates failed to impress or if anyone got high marks despite lower favorability. By this measure, O’Rourke and Warren were the biggest standouts, though Buttigieg and Booker also made a positive impression. But Biden and former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro — who memorably clashed — got the lowest scores relative to their pre-debate favorability.


Who gained (or lost) potential supporters?

Another way to assess who won last night’s debate is to see who convinced more voters to at least think about voting for them. Most candidates saw some change in the share of likely Democratic primary voters who were considering supporting them, though not all changes were positive. Warren, for example, saw the biggest increase in voters who were considering her — almost 4 percentage points, while Harris lost more than 2 percentage points of potential support. But for most candidates, the numbers stayed pretty much the same as they had been before the debate. Even for those whose debate performance stood out — like Biden and Castro, who got relatively poor grades, or O’Rourke, who got a strong rating — there was little change in how many likely primary voters said they were considering voting for them.

Which candidates appeal to the same voters?

With many voters in our poll still considering multiple candidates, we were also interested in examining which candidates share potential supporters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two candidates who are being considered by the most voters in our poll — Biden and Warren — also tended to draw a high proportion of other candidates’ supporters, too. Seventy percent of Buttigieg’s supporters are also considering Warren, for example, while 65 percent of O’Rourke’s supporters are also considering Biden. Although many respondents in our survey said they were considering Sanders, fewer of his supporters are considering supporting other candidates. In fact, Biden and Sanders had the most exclusive supporters — 24 percent of Biden’s supporters and 18 percent of Sanders’s supporters aren’t considering any of the other candidates who participated in the debate.

Who made a positive (or negative) impression?

You can also look at the change in candidates’ favorable and unfavorable ratings to understand who got people feeling more positively about them (or perhaps gained unwanted notoriety). So after Ipsos polled voters before and after the debate, we calculated the change in candidates’ net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating). O’Rourke may not have picked up many potential supporters, but he did improve his net favorability rating by more than 8 points with his debate performance. Castro, meanwhile, took the largest hit, dropping 6.7 points in net favorability, which could be related to his heated exchanges with Biden.

More people like O’Rourke, but Castro lost ground

Change in net favorability for candidates in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll taken before and after the third Democratic primary debate

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
O’Rourke +23.9 +32.5 +8.6
Warren +48.5 +56.0 +7.5
Klobuchar +8.1 +13.9 +5.8
Buttigieg +32.2 +37.7 +5.4
Booker +26.7 +32.1 +5.4
Harris +31.3 +35.2 +3.9
Yang +14.8 +17.4 +2.6
Biden +45.7 +45.5 -0.2
Sanders +44.0 +43.7 -0.3
Castro +19.7 +13.0 -6.7

From a survey of 4,320 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11. The same people were surveyed again from Sept. 12 to Sept 13; 2202 responded to the second wave.

Who spoke the most?

Though respondents to the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll thought Biden’s debate performance was less impressive than Warren’s, it wasn’t because he didn’t get a chance to talk. Of all the candidates on the stage last night, Biden had the highest word count, with over 3,000 words spoken. Booker and Warren, the next two most prolific speakers, were about 600 and 750 words behind, respectively.

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the third Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Joe Biden 3,363
Cory Booker 2,769
Elizabeth Warren 2,616
Kamala Harris 2,369
Julián Castro 2,104
Pete Buttigieg 2,054
Amy Klobuchar 1,933
Bernie Sanders 1,891
Beto O’Rourke 1,714
Andrew Yang 1,546

Excludes words spoken in Spanish

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Booker’s place as the second-most-prolific talker is even more impressive considering that he’s polling in the low single digits. (The polling average is based on 21 debate-qualifying polls released between June 28 and Aug. 28.) Castro also spoke more than anticipated given his polling average (1 percent), holding the floor for longer than both Buttigieg and Sanders. Sanders, in fact, had the second-highest polling average going into the debate, but was third from the bottom in words spoken, beating out only O’Rourke and businessman Andrew Yang.

Who mentioned Trump?

In addition to counting the words spoken by candidates, we also tracked the number of times each candidate mentioned President Trump by name:

Who talked about Trump?

How often Trump was mentioned by candidates participating in the third Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Kamala Harris 11
Julián Castro 7
Cory Booker 5
Bernie Sanders 5
Beto O’Rourke 2
Andrew Yang 2
Joe Biden 1
Pete Buttigieg 1
Elizabeth Warren 1
Amy Klobuchar 0

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

Harris was the clear leader, mentioning Trump 11 times, though as a group, the candidates talked about Trump considerably less often than they did in either night of the second debate. And some of the candidates who spoke the most, such as Biden and Warren, seemed to avoid Trump, each mentioning the president only once. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, got through the whole debate without saying Trump’s name even once.

So did the single-night debate change the game? Thursday night’s debate drew about 14 million television viewers, which is more viewers than both nights of the second debate, but still slightly fewer than those who tuned into watch the first debate. And if our poll with Ipsos is indicative of voters’ reactions, then the needle didn’t move all that much. But for those of you who preferred the two-night approach, you might be in luck — the fourth debate, set for Oct. 15 and potentially Oct. 16, might be split across two nights, since at least 11 candidates have qualified so far. (The Democratic National Committee hasn’t yet confirmed what it will do, however.) Either way, we’ll be here live blogging, so stay tuned!

Do you want even more debate coverage?

Cool graphics from other sites

And here’s more great post-debate analysis:

Finally, check out the rest of our debate coverage:

Additional contributions from Aaron Bycoffe.

Charles Leclerc Has Gone From Ferrari’s Future To Its Present

In recent years, Formula One’s defining rivalry has seemed clear: Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes (and before that, McLaren) vs. Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari (and before that, Red Bull). The two have combined to win nine of the past 11 world driver’s championships, with the only interlopers being Jenson Button in 2009 and Nico Rosberg, another of Hamilton’s most bitter rivals, in 2016. Hamilton and Vettel finished 1-2 in each of the previous two seasons’ standings, so the path to the F1 title seemed very likely to go through them in 2019 as well.

This year, though, only one of the two has held up his end of the bargain. Hamilton currently leads the championship, 63 points clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. But instead of vying for the title as well, Vettel is all the way back in fifth place, 115 points behind his English archrival. The German hasn’t finished so low in the standings since 2014, his tumultuous final season with Red Bull.

With the recent breakout of Vettel’s Ferrari teammate, Charles Leclerc — the 21-year-old rising star who just grabbed his first two F1 career wins in back-to-back races — there are legitimate questions as to which driver Hamilton should be more concerned about as a rival going forward. In fact, Leclerc has done so well in his second F1 season that the four-time world champ Vettel might not even be the No. 1 driver on his own team anymore.

That this is up for debate speaks volumes about Leclerc’s meteoric ascent. The Monégasque phenom was a teenager in Formula Two just a couple of years ago, impressing as a test driver but failing to nail down a seat at a prestige team for his rookie F1 season. Leclerc joined Alfa Romeo-Sauber for 2018 instead and flashed his potential with a very strong qualifying performance against teammate Marcus Ericsson, whom he started ahead of on the grid 17 times in 21 races (81 percent) last season. But on race days, Leclerc finished slightly worse than he started,1 beat Ericsson only 57 percent of the time (after adjusting for grid position)2 and notched only 39 points in the championship, finishing a distant 13th.

(Besides, Ericsson wasn’t exactly the toughest competition; he didn’t secure an F1 ride in 2019 and currently competes in the IndyCar series.)

Still, Ferrari saw the talent evident in Leclerc’s performance and pegged him to replace folk hero Kimi Raikkonen as Vettel’s No. 2 going into 2019. But Vettel’s place atop the pecking order seemed secure. He had spent most of the previous four seasons driving circles around Raikkonen, beating the 2007 world champion in 67 percent of qualifying runs and 73 percent of races. Although he couldn’t quite outduel Hamilton, finishing an average of 101 points behind him in the overall standings during those seasons, Vettel was still very competitive — and hopeful that a new 2019 design package would bring the Prancing Horse its first championship (as either a constructor or for its drivers) since the late 2000s.

The early returns seemed like business as usual. Although Mercedes opened the season with an eight-race winning streak, as Hamilton took six of those checkered flags himself, Vettel had also outdriven Leclerc 12 times in 14 chances (including both qualifying and races) over the first seven events on the schedule. (The only exception was the Bahrain Grand Prix, where Leclerc won the pole and finished third to Vettel’s fifth.) Vettel even technically crossed the finish line first in Canada, only to see Hamilton be awarded the win because of a controversial penalty assessed when Vettel swerved back onto the track after a missed turn.

Ever since that moment, however, Leclerc has surged past his older, more decorated teammate at a breathtaking pace. If we build an Elo rating using the same head-to-head approach that I used in this story about Fernando Alonso from last summer — which just compared teammate performances with each other (to control for differences in constructor quality) and gave qualifiers half-weight as compared with races — Leclerc moved past Vettel for the very first time in his career when he won the Italian Grand Prix last Sunday:

This teammate-versus-teammate approach isn’t perfect, particularly when it involves drivers who haven’t changed teams much. But it is able to infer one driver’s performance from how often he beats another driver of an established ability level. And Vettel is certainly established; he went into the season (and his partnership with Leclerc) with the third-best rating of any driver in the 2019 field, trailing only Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen — another Leclerc-esque wunderkind (also 21 years old) trying to end the Hamilton/Vettel hegemony atop the F1 standings.

For Leclerc’s part, he has risen from a relatively mediocre head-to-head Elo of 1454 after the Canadian Grand Prix on June 9 to a 1529 mark (fourth-best in the field) after back-to-back victories in Belgium and Italy these past two weeks. He has now outperformed Vettel in each of the past seven qualifying sessions and five of the past seven races (the only exceptions being Germany and Hungary). By coolly fending off the best attacks Hamilton and Bottas could throw at him, the unflappable Leclerc gave Ferrari a win at Monza — its home race — for the first time since Alonso did it in 2010. Along the way, he has given Vettel more fits than just about any teammate in his entire career:

Vettel’s teammates seldom challenge as much as Leclerc

Head-to-head comparisons between Sebastian Vettel and teammates — in qualifying and races — by season, 2007-19

Qualifying Races*
Season Team Teammate H2H Wins Win% H2H Wins Win% Champ. Rk
2007 Sauber/Toro Rosso Heidfeld/Luizzi 3 38% 3 38% 14th
2008 Toro Rosso S. Bourdais 14 78 13 72 8th
2009 Red Bull Racing Mark Webber 14 82 8 47 2nd
2010 Red Bull Racing Mark Webber 13 68 11 58 1st
2011 Red Bull Racing Mark Webber 16 84 14 74 1st
2012 Red Bull Racing Mark Webber 12 60 14 70 1st
2013 Red Bull Racing Mark Webber 17 89 17 89 1st
2014 Red Bull Racing Daniel Ricciardo 9 47 6 32 5th
2015 Scuderia Ferrari Kimi Raikkonen 15 79 16 84 3rd
2016 Scuderia Ferrari Kimi Raikkonen 9 43 15 71 4th
2017 Scuderia Ferrari Kimi Raikkonen 15 75 16 80 2nd
2018 Scuderia Ferrari Kimi Raikkonen 15 71 12 57 2nd
2019 Scuderia Ferrari Charles Leclerc 6 43 8 57 5th
Total 158 68 153 65

*Race performance is adjusted slightly for starting grid position


Despite the back-to-back losses, Mercedes isn’t exactly worried about Leclerc chasing Hamilton down for the title. The quick circuits of the past two races probably favored Ferrari, with the superior straight-line speed of its SF90 car. And even after Leclerc’s big breakthrough, he remains 102 points behind Hamilton (and 39 behind Bottas) in the standings, with Ferrari running 154 behind Mercedes in the team tally as they look ahead to the season’s final seven races.

But although Leclerc’s wins didn’t make much impact on the overall championship picture, they may have represented something of a turning point in F1 history. Going into 2019, Vettel had outqualified his teammates — a strong group that included Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo and Mark Webber — 69 percent of the time and outraced them 66 percent of the time in his career. Against Leclerc this season, those numbers are only 43 percent and 57 percent, respectively, and getting worse by the moment.

Vettel entered the season as a championship contender and the clear standard-bearer for the sport’s most storied team. Now his place is in doubt. With another year left on his contract, Vettel probably isn’t going anywhere (despite tabloid rumors to the contrary), but it’s hard not to juxtapose Leclerc’s recent surge against Vettel’s growing tendency toward crucial errors and on-track decisions that put other drivers at risk. So the biggest question for the season’s home stretch isn’t whether Leclerc is the future of the sport — that now seems established — but rather, it’s whether Vettel can avoid being left in the past.

Zack Greinke’s 8 Pitch Types Keep ‘Em Guessing

Just over a month ago, the Houston Astros pulled off the biggest move of the season: In a deal reported minutes after the trade deadline had passed, the Astros acquired Cy Young winner Zack Greinke from the Diamondbacks to form baseball’s best rotation alongside Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the two likeliest Cy Young candidates.

Greinke, a future Hall of Famer, has been stellar this season — a 2.99 ERA and a sub-1 WHIP. According to FiveThirtyEight’s pitcher ratings, he would be the top pitcher on two-thirds of teams and the No. 3 on just three — and that’s the one he’s on. The move already has paid dividends for the ‘Stros, who are 5-2 in Greinke’s starts and have baseball’s best run differential since the trade — by nearly 50 runs.

Now six weeks into team No. 6 (remember when he was traded to the Angels for the 2012 stretch run?), Greinke continues to adapt. At 35 years old, it’s anyone’s guess how long he can keep up this performance, but he’s signed through 2021 and should contribute through then. And because of the way he’s dealt with his decreasing velocity by relying on command and movement, he should be set up well for continued long-term success.

According to Statcast, Greinke throws eight pitches: four-seam fastball, changeup, slider, curve, sinker (or two-seam fastball), split finger, cutter and eephus. (We’ll get back to that last one.) Only Yu Darvish has as many listed on his Statcast page, with the same eight (though the classifications may hide some of Darvish’s arsenal). Anibal Sanchez, Rich Hill and Odrisamer Despaigne are the only pitchers with seven.

But it’s not just the variety of pitches that makes Greinke special. It’s how he throws them.

Consider his changeup. Greinke throws his offspeed on 21.9 percent of pitches — a fairly steady increase from 7.9 percent back in 2008. Yet as his fastball has lost velocity, from once hitting more than 100 miles per hour in 2010 to averaging below 90 in 2019, his changeup has gotten faster.

Here, we point out that the goal of a changeup is usually to fool the batter by presenting a speed different from that of the fastball. Greinke does not do that.

Instead, Greinke uses a power changeup with devastating late movement. Only Edubray Ramos has a smaller average speed difference. Greinke’s pitch has surpassed his slider, which used to be considered his best pitch, as the second option. Along with this, Greinke’s cutter, a staple of his arsenal in 2012 and 2013, has all but disappeared.

Then there’s the curveball, a slow sweeping pitch. Greinke’s curveball is the second-slowest among qualified starters, behind the Nationals’ Patrick Corbin, at just over 70 miles per hour.

This is where the eephus comes in. Greinke’s curve can be thrown so slow that Statcast registers it as the arcing pitch. But it’s not clear whether it’s a different pitch or just a curveball thrown slower. Nobody is throwing a true eephus, though six pitchers are credited with the pitch this year; only Greinke has one under 60 miles per hour. But even if you consider his eephus and his curveball as the same pitch, Greinke would still be tied with Sanchez and Darvish for the lead with seven different pitches.

MLB pitchers have struck out 16 hitters on sub-67 mph pitches this year. Greinke owns eight of those (and four of the rest are from position players) with his slow curve that can make batters look silly.

The newest one is the split-finger, which he threw in April for the first time since pitch tracking began in 2008. He’s thrown five so far in 2019, including three to Jacob DeGrom in the same at bat. If he’s experimenting with it now, there’s a chance it becomes a regular part of his arsenal in the future, especially with the Astros’ penchant for getting the most out of pitch selection.

But beyond his wide repertoire of pitches, Greinke’s pitching style is one of a kind. He throws most pitches low but gets strikes. Even though he throws fewer pitches in the strike zone than average, he almost never falls behind. And his .198 wOBA allowed on pitches out of the zone is second in MLB, also behind Corbin.

Greinke has faced just 11 3-0 counts this year and had thrown a fastball every time, almost always on the edge, until he gave Christian Yelich a perfect changeup last week. None of the 20 other pitchers with as many pitches this year has seen fewer than 15 such counts. In the month of July, Greinke threw 479 pitches and none was in a 3-0 count. He threw eight pitches with a 2-0 count — seven were in the strike zone and the other was fouled off. He’ll throw in the strike zone when he falls behind; that just doesn’t happen very often. And even when he does, batters can’t take advantage — they’re just 2-16 on 2-0 counts this year despite seeing 65 percent of pitches in the strike zone.

When he’s ahead, it’s a different story. That’s when the sub-70 curveball becomes devastating. Ahead in the count, Greinke throws just 27 percent of pitches in the strike zone; the league average is 38 percent. And 76 percent of his strikeouts have been on pitches out of the zone, well higher than the league average of 56 percent. And his plan of attack is to go low. On 1-2 counts, specifically, Greinke throws in either the lower third or below the strike zone more often than any other pitcher.

Greinke is truly a unique pitcher. His fastball and offspeed have nearly the same velocity, but his curveball is one of the slowest. He throws outside of the strike zone but never falls behind, and batters can’t seem to figure out any of his pitches.

Through his impressive career, the one thing Greinke lacks is a ring. He has 11 postseason appearances, but his biggest impact was probably his lone start in the 2014 NLDS (in which he scored more runs than he allowed in seven innings). He makes the top 10 list of career games started without a World Series appearance. But if he earns a huge postseason moment, he could move from likely Hall of Famer to potentially first ballot. Perhaps he’ll have that chance in Houston this October.

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