Championships Aren’t Won On Paper. But What If They Were?

You probably missed this as baseball’s postseason was coming to an end last week — but congratulations are in order to the Houston Astros. Why? Because Houston finished the 2019 MLB season with the No. 1 Elo rating in Major League Baseball, of course.

The Astros were No. 1 in 2019 … on paper

Top 10 MLB teams in 2019 according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating*

Reg. Season
Team Wins Losses Playoffs Elo Rating
1 Astros 107 55 Lost WS 1595
2 Dodgers 106 56 Lost LDS 1590
3 Nationals 93 69 Won WS 1589
4 Yankees 103 59 Lost LCS 1585
5 Athletics 97 65 Lost WC 1570
6 Rays 96 66 Lost LDS 1554
7 Cardinals 91 71 Lost LCS 1543
8 Braves 97 65 Lost LDS 1541
9 Indians 93 69 None 1538
10 Twins 101 61 Lost LDS 1537

*Using the version of Elo found in our “Complete History of MLB” interactive, which does not adjust for the quality of pitchers.

I mean, sure, the Washington Nationals just beat the Astros to win the World Series in seven games. But still, the Astros were your official Elo champs for the 2019 season. (Somehow I doubt the Astros will throw a parade or put up a banner for the honor.)

Because Elo takes a long view of the entire season, being the best in it is a pretty good proxy for being the best team in the league “on paper.” And it’s actually not uncommon for Elo’s Paper Champion and the team that wins the World Series not to be one and the same. Including Houston this year, it’s happened 28 times — or in a whopping 52 percent of seasons — since the late 1960s, when MLB expanded to a division-based playoff format. Simply put, baseball is a sport in which the best team doesn’t always win. (Or even if it does, maybe we don’t always know who the best team is anyway.)

Take a tour through MLB’s Hall of (Paper) Champions

Actual World Series champions and end-of-season MLB Elo champions* (for years where they were not the same team), 1966-2019

Paper Champ Actual Champ Paper Champ Actual Champ
Year Team Elo Team Elo Year Team Elo Team Elo
2019 HOU 1595 WAS 1589 1995 CLE 1596 ATL 1580
2017 CLE 1596 HOU 1572 1993 ATL 1588 TOR 1565
2015 TOR 1562 KC 1561 1992 MIL 1558 TOR 1555
2014 BAL 1559 SF 1542 1990 OAK 1567 CIN 1544
2012 TB 1566 SF 1561 1988 NYM 1569 LAD 1555
2011 NYY 1575 STL 1555 1987 TOR 1562 MIN 1521
2010 PHI 1570 SF 1563 1985 NYY 1571 KC 1544
2008 BOS 1567 PHI 1564 1982 MIL 1555 STL 1552
2006 NYY 1551 STL 1531 1980 BAL 1577 PHI 1545
2003 NYY 1567 FLA 1547 1974 LAD 1569 OAK 1559
2001 OAK 1596 ARI 1567 1973 BAL 1569 OAK 1556
2000 SF 1559 NYY 1542 1972 PIT 1560 OAK 1557
1997 ATL 1572 FLA 1538 1971 BAL 1591 PIT 1568
1996 CLE 1568 NYY 1547 1969 BAL 1576 NYM 1567

*Using the version of Elo found in our “Complete History of MLB” interactive, which does not adjust for the quality of pitchers.

Ratings include results from all regular-season and postseason games.

Other sports have their own Paper Champs. (Although none happen anywhere near as frequently as in MLB.) I went back to the start of the Super Bowl era in 19662 and looked at the other sports for which we keep Elo — the NFL, NBA, college football, and men’s and women’s college basketball. Using the versions of our Elo that contain no adjustments for trades or players being in and out of the lineup,3 I found each case where the champion at the end of the season4 was not the team that finished atop the Elo leaderboard. Across all of these sports, these Paper Champs come up more frequently than you might think:

Since 1966, all but seven seasons5 (2013, 2009, 2005, 1998, 1989, 1979 and 1967) contained at least one Paper Champion across these five sports. Some years featured a lot more: In 2011, for instance, there were four Paper Champs — the Yankees in MLB, the Patriots in the NFL, and Ohio State (men’s) and UConn (women’s) in college basketball. (The only champs that actually led in Elo were the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA and Alabama in college football.)

In general, there is about a 50-50 chance that a given baseball season would produce a Paper Champ and somewhere between a 20 and 30 percent probability each of the other sports will as well.

How each sport’s Paper Championship rate compares

Frequency of Elo “Paper Champions” (and rate of the real champion being decided head-to-head) by sport, 1966-2019

Sport
MLB NFL NBA CFB MBB WBB*
No. of Paper Champs 28 11 15 14 14 4
Share of seasons 51.9% 20.4% 27.8% 25.9% 25.9% 22.2%
% of Paper Champs lost H2H** 46.4% 90.9% 60.0% 14.3% 78.6% 25.0%

* Women’s NCAA basketball data only goes back to 2001-02.

** This is the share of seasons with a Paper Champ that saw the actual champ beat them head-to-head in the postseason (or, in college football, the entire season).

Source: Sports-Reference.com

What does all of this mean? Well, it could be that Elo is broken. Even though it is calibrated to be the best predictor for a team’s next game — given its recent form, long-term expectations, wins and losses, scoring margin, opponent quality and game locations — maybe there are certain aspects of each sport’s postseason that aren’t captured by the algorithm. (This is the “Billy Beane’s Shit Doesn’t Work In The Playoffs” theory.)

A fundamental challenge of forecasting is the balancing act between considering a large amount of information — some of which may be of less relevance than others — and a more specific one that is more relevant, but also more prone to factors such as random variance in a small sample. Our Elo models attempt to straddle this divide, but it’s impossible to find the perfect mix of information that works in every single case.

Then again, maybe the real issue is that playoff systems are too small of a sample to determine the best team. Perhaps the best we can do is be content believing the champion was simply one of the top teams in a given season, nothing more.

Still another way of reconciling Paper Champs to postseason reality, though, is to consider that most of these actual champions vanquished their on-paper rivals head-to-head along the way. When there was a Paper Champ in baseball, for instance, 46 percent of the time that team lost directly to the eventual champion in a postseason game or series. (See: Nationals over Astros.) In the NBA, that number was 60 percent; in men’s college basketball, 79 percent; and in the NFL, a whopping 91 percent. Although Elo still wasn’t convinced that the matter was settled afterward, the Paper Champ at least had a chance to make its case on the field or court.

And in most of the cases where things weren’t settled head-to-head, you only have to zoom out a little to find a path of head-to-head superiority between the actual champ and the paper one. Like in the 2017 NCAA Women’s Tournament, when UConn finished as Paper Champ … but lost in the national semis to Mississippi State, which then lost to South Carolina in the title game. Almost every disagreement between Elo and the official championship can be settled either directly head-to-head or in this manner — with the exceptions of a few pre-wild-card MLB seasons (in which the Paper Champ didn’t even make the postseason at all) and a number of older college football campaigns that underscored just how broken the sport’s pre-playoff system truly was.

In 2007, famously one of the weirdest college football seasons ever, USC was Elo’s choice, while LSU prevailed in the BCS. To find a head-to-head path that put LSU over USC, even if you open up the possibilities to include the regular season,6 you needed to follow a trail of four games: LSU beat Ohio State, which beat Washington, which beat Stanford, which beat … USC.

But at least the BCS existed by then. Before it came along, the 1970s and ’80s often required even more ludicrous daisy-chaining of head-to-head results to reconcile the championship. In 1976, the path from actual champ Pitt to Paper Champ USC required a string of five games. And in 1983, the chain went like this: Actual champ Miami beat Notre Dame, which beat Boston College, which beat Clemson, which tied Georgia, which beat Texas, which beat Auburn, Elo’s Paper Champion. No wonder college football fans clamored for a proper playoff (even if the one they have now could also probably stand to be expanded).

But even with the perfect playoff system, you can never really avoid Paper Champs. Random variance and matchups — plus a million other factors — will always cause teams to play better or worse than they look on paper. And would we really want it any other way? If we look at who would have benefited most over the past half-century if Elo perfectly aligned with actual championships, the rich would mostly have gotten richer:

Who has beaten their on-paper odds most (and least) often?

MLB, NFL, NBA, college basketball (women’s* and men’s) and college football teams with the biggest positive — and negative — differentials between their actual championships, 1966-2019

Biggest gainers No. of championships
Team Sport Actual Elo Diff
Notre Dame Fighting Irish CFB 4 0 +4
Los Angeles Lakers NBA 11 7 +4
New York Giants NFL 4 1 +3
St. Louis Cardinals MLB 4 1 +3
Miami/Florida Marlins MLB 2 0 +2
Houston Rockets NBA 2 0 +2
Kansas City Royals MLB 2 0 +2
LSU Tigers CFB 2 0 +2
Clemson Tigers CFB 3 1 +2
Miami Heat NBA 3 1 +2
San Francisco Giants MLB 3 1 +2
Connecticut Huskies MBB 4 2 +2
Ohio State Buckeyes CFB 4 2 +2
Boston Celtics NBA 9 7 +2
Biggest losers No. of championships
Team Sport Actual Elo Diff
Baltimore Orioles MLB 3 8 -5
Cleveland Indians MLB 0 3 -3
Oklahoma Sooners CFB 4 7 -3
San Antonio Spurs NBA 5 8 -3
Connecticut Huskies WBB 9 12 -3
Milwaukee Brewers MLB 0 2 -2
Philadelphia 76ers NBA 2 4 -2
Kentucky Wildcats MBB 4 6 -2
North Carolina Tar Heels MBB 5 7 -2
New England Patriots NFL 6 8 -2
New York Yankees MLB 7 9 -2
Alabama Crimson Tide CFB 9 11 -2

*Women’s NCAA basketball data only goes back to 2001-02.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Although I feel bad for the Orioles and Indians, who would have won multiple extra championships if Elo had been perfectly predictive, other teams that have won plenty of real titles — Alabama football, UConn women’s basketball, the Patriots, the Yankees, the Spurs, etc. — “should” have even more under Elo.

Oftentimes, it’s the unpredictability of sports that make them great — just ask the Nationals. So we’re sorry, Astros. Although the first-ever Elo Championship pennant would be something to behold.

Icing The Play-Caller Really Doesn’t Work

With four seconds left until halftime, trailing the San Francisco 49ers in a 14-7 game, the Arizona Cardinals defense had forced a fourth and goal at the 1-yard line. In what turned out to be a pivotal moment in the game, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo handed off to Jeff Wilson Jr. for a run up the middle that was stuffed for no gain. But what should have been cause for celebration for the Cardinals defense quickly turned into disappointment. The refs waived off the result; Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury had called a timeout before the play began.

San Francisco made Kingsbury pay on the next play, with Garoppolo tossing an easy touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders as time expired. After the game (which the Cardinals ended up losing 28-25), Kingsbury explained his reasoning behind the timeout, saying that the stoppage was to get a better look at what the 49ers might be planning offensively and that he “wanted them to hopefully burn their best play.”

Unfamiliar with the concept of burning a play, I reached out to a handful of coaches and experts to understand what Kingsbury might have meant. I was told that teams will often carry just three or four 2-point conversion plays into a game because of the rarity of the situation. Since the inventory of available plays is limited, a coach will usually call his favorite one first. Once a team lines up, some of the surprise is lost, so calling a timeout could force the play-caller to abandon the best play in favor of one the defense hasn’t yet seen.

One obvious problem with this explanation is that goal-line stands aren’t 2-point conversions. A play run on fourth and 1 at the goal line has some similarities with a 2-point conversion attempt — they’re both near the end zone, after all — but I was told that teams won’t necessarily limit themselves to their 2-point playsheets in goal-to-go situations. And if that was true of the 49ers, a timeout wouldn’t exhaust play inventory in the way Kingsbury might have assumed. For the gambit to work, it seems that a coach would need to have fairly detailed information about how an opponent organizes and prepares its game plan.

This made me wonder: Is there any evidence to suggest that icing the play-caller is a successful tactic? Do defenses tend to fare better following a timeout on fourth and goal at the 1-yard line? To find out, using data from Armchair Analysis, I looked at every play run on that down and distance from 2000 to 2018 in both the regular season and playoffs. I separated timeouts called by the offense from those called by the defense and compared the touchdown rate on plays with timeouts to plays with no timeouts called. The results were surprising.

On goal-line stands after the defense calls a timeout, offenses score a touchdown about 17 percentage points more often than when no timeout is called, on average. Defenses have called timeouts in these situations just 46 times in the past 18 years, so there is still uncertainty about the true difference in touchdown rates, but there’s also no evidence that the touchdown rate after those timeouts is lower. In other words, the benefits of icing the play-caller appear to not exist — and the call may backfire more often than not, just as we saw with Kingsbury against the 49ers.

Perhaps this result shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve known for a while that icing the kicker is likely ineffective. In their book “Scorecasting,” Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim found that when they adjusted for distance, field goals attempted in high-pressure situations weren’t affected by defensive timeouts. If athletes aren’t affected, why would we think coaches would be rattled by a little gamesmanship? A play-caller’s job is to choose plays, and a timeout probably just gives him more time than usual to do it.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Happy Week 9 To The Ravens, The Chargers … And Maybe The Dolphins?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It was another wild week in the NFL. The nearly completed Week 9 saw a win for the Dolphins, a loss for the Patriots and FOUR losses for the NFC North.

Let’s dive right in: Anyone surprised that Baltimore took down New England?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): A little bit. There was a stat floating around that Bill Belichick had won 21 straight games against QBs in their rookie or second NFL seasons.

And yet, Lamar Jackson had the best game of the week according to our QB Elo! His development this season continues to be incredible.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I was not surprised. The Ravens are a unicorn team that’s tough to prepare for and impossible to tailor a roster to stop. Most teams can’t replicate the Chargers’ plan during the playoffs last year, borne out of injury desperation, to play seven defensive backs on base downs. Plus you have a very vanilla Patriots offense in terms of skill talent with a QB who is playing well for a 42 year old, but, let’s be real, is having quantifiably his worst season since at least 2006 (in terms of QBR).

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I don’t think the Ravens feared the Patriots offense, and as Mike said, they have a scheme and roster that can give a defense fits — even a defense as outrageously good as New England’s has been. They also executed their plan perfectly. One play sticks out to me: the Marquise “Hollywood” Brown jet motion pitch play:

It had all the components of the offensive strategy: Make New England account for Lamar, use misdirection and really lean on some great blocking

Salfino: Lamar — with two rushing TDs and 61 yards rushing on Sunday — continues after Week 1 to score more fantasy points with his legs than with his arm, which is extremely unusual. He did it last year, too. Only Bobby Douglass of the Bears (1972, 1973) has repeated this feat since the AFL-NFL merger was completed in 1970, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

I do think that it’s a bad break for the Ravens that they had to face the Patriots in the regular season. You wanted this to be the playoff game.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens got off to such a strong start that it seemed to shell-shock the Pats a little. I was still surprised New England didn’t make it all the way back.

neil: Especially once the Ravens gifted the Pats the ball on that muffed punt — that felt like a here we go moment, where the Pats would start their climb back. And NE got within 4 points, but the Ravens kept answering in the second half.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Fumble luck regression really helped.

Salfino: That kind of stuff never happens to New England. The Patriots have committed only 13 turnovers that resulted in the opposing defense returning the ball for a TD since 2010.

sara.ziegler: It was also interesting to me that Belichick was faced with a fourth down on the opponent’s side of the field and chose to punt, and he had a fourth-and-goal from the one and kicked a field goal.

The Ravens went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter, got the first down and then a touchdown on that drive, and that put it away.

Salfino: Well, Belichick doesn’t believe in analytics, Sara.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Less than zero

sara.ziegler: Just more evidence we can add to the pile!

Salfino: Belichick uses Bret Easton Ellis’s analytics. Or Elvis Costello’s, if you prefer.

neil: And his aim is usually so true!

sara.ziegler: 🤣🤣🤣

Salfino: Awesome, Neil.

sara.ziegler: From one analytics move to another, what did you all think about the Chargers **taking points off the board** against the Packers?? Green Bay stopped Los Angeles on the 2-yard line but jumped offsides on the field goal attempt, giving the Chargers another fourth down. L.A. coach Anthony Lynn pulled the field goal unit off the field, sent his offense back out and Melvin Gordon ran it in for a TD.

Salfino: The game was over, so I like the macho move to make a point.

Lynn can build a whole narrative around that now, and it was not going to cost him anything. So, worth it.

sara.ziegler: But … giving Aaron Rodgers an opening?!?!?!?

Salfino: Rodgers was hopeless before the “home crowd” in Los Angeles.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s not always “correct” to be aggressive, but you’ll be right far more often than wrong if it’s your default mentality. For that reason alone, I liked the call.

Salfino: But wasn’t that free money, Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I haven’t looked it up, but my intuition is yes, it was a no-brainer.

sara.ziegler: I liked the call too, though up just two touchdowns with 10 minutes to go against Rodgers doesn’t seem like a situation where the game is put away.

neil: Maybe given the Chargers’ difficulty actually closing out opponents, though, you’d think they’d be skittish about giving somebody like Rodgers a potential opening.

Salfino: Yes, but Neil, you are forgetting the Chargers rules. They shock us by falling out of the playoff race and then shock us again by charging back into it (almost). This is part two of their annual metamorphosis. I refuse to be played again.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I am fairly sure based on discussions with analytics people around the league that the Chargers are not a team that has a chart and uses it. So I think the touchdown call was all gut, and on those terms I agree with it.

Salfino: It’s good that the Chargers reject analytics, otherwise they would be mentally crushed by all the win probability they have frittered away.

sara.ziegler: If the Chargers don’t get the TD there, and the Packers answer with a touchdown, you can see things falling apart fast!

This is why these questions are interesting, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d look at it as if it had been a great punt instead and just get after Rodgers at his own 1 yard line.

neil: Maybe you can trick him into pulling a Ryan Fitzpatrick and kneeling down in his own end zone.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Rodgers was already on the slab, IMO. Toe tag in place for Week 9. He will rise again, I guess, but the Packers are not a good team.

sara.ziegler: You know who else in the NFC North isn’t a good team?

Trick question.

NO ONE in the NFC North is a good team.

Salfino: The Vikings are good, Sara. Sorry to get your hopes up. They just ran into Matt Moore!

Seriously, the Adam Thielen injury was crippling. Without him, they are pretty easy for even the Chiefs to defend.

sara.ziegler: I’m sorry.

You can’t say “They just ran into Matt Moore” about a good team.

Them’s the rules.

neil: “They just ran into Matt Moore” 🤣

Salfino: Moore is showing that playing QB in KC is very good for your stats. Also, seriously, the Vikings lost on a fluke 91-yard TD run by a guy who usually takes 45 runs to string together 90 yards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, if the QB drives the bus in terms of what makes a good team, then Sara is right. By total QBR, the Packers are 12th and the Vikings are 14th.

sara.ziegler: (BRB, pinning “Sara is right” to this conversation.)

I always think Kirk Cousins will do something amazing at the end of a game, and he never, ever, ever does.

Salfino: I agree on Cousins at the end of games. He’s like Matt Ryan in that regard: He can be relied on to not get it done. I know Ryan has a lot of fourth-quarter comebacks, but we need the batting average, not just the hits. And it turns out he’s lost 81 games by a TD or less in the period.

neil: Sheesh, you lose ONE Super Bowl after leading 28-3 …

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

Salfino: As for the other NFC North QBRs, the Lions — and Matthew Stafford — are sixth. We won’t talk about Mitch Trubisky.

neil: Sara probably has a lot to say about ol’ Mitchie!

But can we print it?

sara.ziegler: Trubisky, ugh. Can’t believe I had to start him in my fantasy football matchup against Neil. Let this be a lesson not to let jokes interfere with good fantasy football decisions.

Salfino: Just burn money in the street if you’re starting Trubisky in fantasy, Sara.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Or Allen Robinson, it turns out.

Salfino: Well, I believe in a QB-centric WR-ranking system. (And air yards :))

joshua.hermsmeyer: My man.

neil: And I started Cousins! (Because we traded them for each other.)

He may have lost the game, but he had a pretty good fantasy performance. Which, as you know, is all that matters.

sara.ziegler: Neil

joshua.hermsmeyer: oh noes

sara.ziegler: Shut up

neil: Lol.

Salfino: Sara gets the Price Is Wrong sounder.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

ANYWAY

One more game we must discuss, and that’s the incredible, amazing, UNBELIEVABLE first win of the season for the Miami Dolphins.

Mike … can you speak for Jets Nation and express your feelings at this one?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, please.

I have a feeling this will be a treatise

sara.ziegler: “Salfino is typing”

Salfino: The most alarming thing for the Jets right now is Sam Darnold. But this is the product of so many losing drafts. The Jets have not had a hit in the first round of the draft, never mind the other rounds, since Darrelle Revis in 2007. And we’re talking a lot of draft capital. Another top-10 overall pick has just walked out the door in Leonard Williams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sixth overall selection for a third- and fifth-round pick. Yikes.

Salfino: The sad thing is that was a good trade for the Jets.

I mean, the Giants were insane to offer it. Now we have the Jets vs. Giants on Sunday in East Rutherford, which should temporarily be declared a toxic dump.

neil: Is it time to wonder whether Darnold is going to be any good? He had his moments but was mostly bad as a rookie and has been much worse this year. Maybe it’s still too early, but we’re 18 starts in and only five have been above average, according to our QB Elo.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought the game was really really interesting. There was another pretty glaring example (or two?) of Miami perhaps attempting to tank in-game, and yet Adam Gase and the Jets foiled them at every turn. The announcers even commented on it!

Salfino: It’s reasonable to wonder if Darnold is going to be any good, for certain. But if football is environment, and I think much of it is, he’s got a lot to overcome. Plus, who knows how long mono really lasts.

sara.ziegler: It’s really too bad when you can’t do the thing you’re trying to do … especially when that thing appears to be “losing.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: So frustrating!

neil: Well, idk why Miami continues to insist on starting Fitzy. They have a tank-ready QB right there in Josh Rosen.

sara.ziegler: Really not following the Tanking Playbook.

neil: TankBook?

sara.ziegler: Haha

neil: Either way, Fitzy has turned in above-average Elo games in two of his past three starts since being reinstated as starter. Rosen never came within 150 Elo points of being average in any of his starts.

And you know that Fitzpatrick runs hot and cold — so he has upside potential that really hurts your tankability when he plays well.

sara.ziegler: Need a new QB rating that ranks them by tankability. Just as a helpful service for tanking teams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d like to go on the record that having a team or two tanking each season adds a bunch of entertainment value. Situations like this with the unexpected win, the team drama — all of it is good for the game IMO.

neil: Josh coming in with the pro-tanking take!

sara.ziegler: “Tanking = Good” was not the take I was expecting today.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The haughty anti-tankers reek of the folks that offer takes about amateurism in college football.

This is my fire for the week.

Salfino: I don’t think tanking can be leveraged in football because we don’t know if the QBs are going to be good or even what order to take them in.

neil: Right. First you Suck For Sam, then you just Suck Because Of Sam.

Salfino: My joke about the Jets, Sara, is the Jets lost to Glass Joe.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Dolphins Threw Eight Players Into A Blitz. Were They Trying To Lose?

On Monday night, the winless Miami Dolphins were headed toward halftime with a surprising two-touchdown lead. But for a Miami team that is widely believed to be tanking, leading the heavily favored 2-4 Pittsburgh Steelers may not have been a cause for celebration. Beating the Steelers might have boosted short-term morale among the players and coaching staff, but with the hapless Cincinnati Bengals also winless on the season, a victory could have potentially derailed the Dolphins’ plans for landing the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft. So with 26 seconds left before halftime, Miami general manager Chris Grier may have felt some small sense of relief after the defensive play that his head coach, Brian Flores, dialed up on third and 20 for the Steelers.

The Steelers lined up with three wide receivers and sent two out to the right side of the formation. Miami blitzed with eight pass rushers, leaving just three defenders in the secondary to cover the three receivers. With no help from a fourth defender, the defensive backs played well off the line of scrimmage to protect against deep routes. After the snap, right cornerback Xavien Howard and safety Nik Needham failed to switch responsibilities for the crossing receivers on the strong side of the formation. In the slot, JuJu Smith-Schuster ran a vertical route upfield and slightly toward the sideline, while Diontae Johnson, who was lined up further behind the line of scrimmage at flanker, ran a shallow slant toward the wide-open middle of the field. The result was an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown.

The defensive play call is uncommon enough, and the result so bad, that some commentators on Twitter immediately accused the Dolphins coaches of being complicit in the tank. After reviewing the tape, others disagreed, arguing that cover-zero blitzes — plays on which there is one coverage defender per receiver, and the rest of the defense rushes the quarterback — are poor evidence of tanking since they’re occasionally employed by successful teams. Who is right? Was sending eight rushers on third and long a viable strategy, or was it a questionable call made by a Miami team that should be under suspicion of in-game tanking?

The evidence suggests that the call was of dubious value if a team is attempting to win a football game. Rushing eight or more is actually quite rare in the NFL. Teams rushed eight players just 110 times on all downs and distances during the regular season from 2016 through Week 8 of 2019. On third-down passing plays over that same period, teams rushed eight or more just 33 times. And on third and 11 or greater — the situation most similar to the one the Dolphins faced — there have been just two plays called with eight or more pass rushers. And that’s counting the play run by Miami on Monday night.

Regardless of the call’s frequency, we can say with confidence5 that dialing up an eight-man rush on third down is the worst play that defensive coordinators can call if they want to prevent their opponent from scoring.

Third down is typically advantageous to the defense. On average, plays called with any combination of three to seven defenders rushing the passer cause the opposing offense to accrue negative expected points added.6 Only when defenses decide to rush eight and drop three into coverage does the offense regain the advantage. On those plays, the script gets flipped, and offenses net nearly a point per snap over expected.

To force short throws, drop eight — don’t rush eight

Average depth of target by opposing offenses according to number of pass rushers in all regular-season pass plays since 2016

Number of rushers air yards per pass attempt
8 or more 8.32
7 9.58
6 9.13
5 8.35
4 8.03
3 or fewer 6.56

Through Week 8 of the 2019 season.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Nfl ngs

Some have argued that the Miami play was sound based on the theory that an all-out blitz forces the quarterback to get rid of the ball more quickly, leading to shorter passes. But that’s not what we find. It turns out that if you want to minimize an offense’s depth of target, it’s better to drop eight or more into coverage than to rush eight.

Fans and analytics-minded observers, in particular, often scream and yell for NFL teams to be more aggressive, but in this case, conservatism appears to be the better choice. Especially on a third and long like the Steelers faced against the Dolphins, who were up two scores with less than 30 seconds remaining in the half, calling a high-risk, low-reward play doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Unless, of course, the goal wasn’t actually to win. In that case, it was the perfect call.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Which Of The NFL’s Top Teams Are For Real?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 7 of the NFL season is just about wrapped up, and we’re starting to see some teams separate themselves from the rest of the league. So this week, I want to talk about the current crop of top squads.

We currently have nine teams with at least five wins: New England, Buffalo, Baltimore and Kansas City in the AFC, Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC. The Patriots and Niners are undefeated, with the Pats yet to play this week at the moment. Are those two the best of the best right now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Not if you believe, as I do, that the best way to forecast a team’s future performance is its early-down offense. The only problem is that the No. 1 team by that measure — the Chiefs — just lost their MVP quarterback.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): We still list the Pats as our top Super Bowl contender — what else is new? — at 26 percent to win it all. Our model has been a little slower to accept San Francisco (8 percent) as a true top contender. Maybe it’s because the 49ers have still really only played one opponent considered to be a top team — the Rams.

The rest of the Niners’ victims are pretty unimpressive: Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Washington.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): For sure, the Patriots and Niners are the likely No. 1 seeds. Both are firmly in control of their divisions. If I were to pick two other teams that are good bets to win the Super Bowl, or are at least in the conversation, it would be two NFC teams, though — Minnesota and New Orleans. Whichever gets the first-round bye is going to have a big edge. This assumes a healthy Drew Brees, of course, because let’s face it: Teddy Bridgewater just happens to be winning these games.

sara.ziegler: The Saints have to be thrilled with how well they’ve played without Brees, though — and last week without Alvin Kamara.

neil: Yes, I believe we (and everyone else) said that if Bridgewater could just keep them from sinking too far, or just keep them around .500, they could survive. Instead, they’ve been undefeated with him at starter.

Salfino: The Saints are like those old Patriots Super Bowl winners, pre-2007: just solid in every area. The only question is whether Brees can play near-peak form if needed in the postseason. Maybe the time off helps him maintain his play through the finish line.

Kamara is a generational talent, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: * Chase Edmonds

sara.ziegler: * Latavius Murray

Salfino: We have to get Sara to talk about the Vikings, who are, I swear, legit Super Bowl contenders.

sara.ziegler: Mike.

No.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed!

neil: Every week we do this.

sara.ziegler: They’re not.

neil: Cousins was great for a third straight week.

sara.ziegler: You guys.

Salfino: Captain Kirk is the first QB ever with three straight 300-yard passing games with a completion percentage of 75 and a passer rating over 130.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings are No. 3 in early-down offensive expected points added per play among teams with at least five wins, and they’re extremely well-balanced overall. I think they’re legit. Kirk can win them games.

They have to hope Thielen is OK, though.

sara.ziegler: Sigh.

Salfino: Cousins has made Mike Zimmer believe again in the forward pass, so, progress.

sara.ziegler: I think it was opposing defenses that did that.

Salfino: I worry, though, that Thielen will be out a month with his hamstring injury.

neil: Yeah, that’s a problem.

sara.ziegler: Though Bisi Johnson came out of nowhere to be a decent No. 2 wide receiver, behind Stefon Diggs.

Salfino: What a soft sell on Cousins by Sara. We’re all going to chip in and buy you the Cousins jersey.

sara.ziegler: I will not wear that.

LOL

Salfino: Revenge game on Thursday for Case Keenum.

sara.ziegler: What about the actual leader in the NFC North, Green Bay?

neil: Aaron Rodgers is ELITE again!

(We actually do rank him third among current starters in QB Elo.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: A-aron will win the MVP on the strength of one game — you know this is true.

neil: I was surprised that he had the first perfect passer rating game in Packers history, given the QBs they’ve had over the years. (Now the Jaguars and Panthers are the only teams who have never had one.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will stan for Rodgers — you put up those performances against Oakland if you are elite. Also, the running game is third-worst in yards per rush on early downs among teams with five wins. (Patriots and Chiefs are lower.)

sara.ziegler: I’m a little confused about why our model rates the Vikings higher than the Packers.

Salfino: The Vikings are much better at winning the passing game.

neil: Part of it might be that the Packers were coming off such a down season last year, too. Easy to forget we’re not even halfway into the 2019 season yet, so there’s still some amount of 2018 baked into the ratings right now.

sara.ziegler: (The Vikings weren’t much better. 😞)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens look pretty amazing, and Lamar Jackson needs to be in the MVP conversation, I think.

sara.ziegler: I was super surprised by the second half of the Ravens-Seahawks game. Baltimore just ran away with it.

neil: Such an impressive win for Baltimore. Going into Seattle, slowing down Russell Wilson — who is having an MVP-type season himself.

Salfino: Lamar is definitely in the MVP conversation. His approach is not a sustainable model with all that running, but it’s working now. His passing since Week 1 — measured in pretty much every way — has been “meh.” But who cares when you’re rushing for close to 100 yards a game. It seems like we — meaning football Twitter — all hate the run game but LOVE when the QB runs.

neil: We all grew up playing Madden 2004 with Mike Vick.

Salfino: Pete Carroll hasn’t been able to stop a running QB since Vince Young in the National Championship Game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Seahawks deserved to lose a game that was close for long stretches just based on their decision-making. Carroll likes to talk about keeping games close, as if it builds character or calluses, but it’s more a function of their lack of aggression on fourth down and an inability to maximize win probability.

neil: The 2019 Seahawks are kind of the same story as it’s been the past few years: Wilson is amazing, but the supporting cast — including, against brand, the defense — is questionable.

Salfino: Nothing came easy for Wilson and the offense. That’s the way things used to be with him and Seattle, but this year, that seemed to have changed. They were getting easy plays in structure without Wilson having to play like his hair was on fire. I think Wilson has aged out of being able to succeed when playing in a generally chaotic state. He should only be sprinkling it in now.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens have had kind of a weird season — losing to the Browns and barely beating the Steelers and Bengals.

neil: That win over Arizona in Week 2 is looking better and better, though. 😉

sara.ziegler: Haha — true.

Salfino: I was shocked by how well Baltimore’s defense played. I thought they were just a name brand and had lost too many people. But Wink Martindale has coached this unit up and then some. They looked dominant on Sunday. I think that was the biggest story out of that game, not Lamar. They need to add an edge rusher at the trading deadline, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There are football narratives I don’t really buy, but having a QB who can punish a defense with deep passes really does open up an offense. When Lamar has his deep ball working, I think the Ravens are tough to beat. All that said, there were two fluky defensive scores Sunday, so we need to temper our expectations a bit for the Ravens’ offense.

neil: Marcus Peters wasn’t enough of an addition for you, Mike?

Salfino: That was good, but it’s not pass-rush. They seem to really struggle there. As for Lamar, what’s interesting to me is that the Chargers solved him in the playoffs by playing seven defensive backs on nearly all downs when they were forced to because of injuries, just a couple of weeks after getting gashed by the Ravens in the running game. I guess this is not repeatable for teams because they are not going to construct a roster with all those DBs just to beat the Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That same defense was exposed the very next week, though.

Salfino: It wasn’t exposed by the Ravens, though.

sara.ziegler: Wow, remember when the Chargers weren’t terrible?

neil: OMG the CHARGERS

How many ways can a team find to lose games?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s sad! The Chargers seem like they should be good, kind of like a slightly better version of the Falcons, and yet.

neil: The Chargers have been doing less with more for a long time, but my goodness that game Sunday.

Salfino: Bigger football crime: Chargers moving from San Diego or not using the Human Cheat Code Austin Ekeler on more snaps? Ekeler had 118 receiving yards on eight targets. At RB.

sara.ziegler: Back to teams that are not awful, the other five-win team in the AFC is Buffalo. What do you make of the Bills?

joshua.hermsmeyer: A fermenting dumpster waiting for a match. Of the teams with five wins, they’re the only one with negative offensive EPA per play. I’m absolutely convinced their success is a mirage.

neil: Their defense remains legit on the season (fifth in EPA), but it’s never great to give up 21 points — and a pretty good QB game — to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Phins.

Salfino: Fitz gave that game away with a pick after a first and goal inside the 5-yard line. A touchdown there would have made it 21-9 and “Murder She Wrote” for the Bills. But then, Josh Allen took them 98 yards for the 14-point swing.

neil: Yeah, that was a huge drive for Allen.

Salfino: Remember, the Jets would have beaten the Bills in Week 1 if Sam Darnold hadn’t been half-dead.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that’s the only reason the Jets didn’t beat the Bills.

Salfino: “Spleen Talk,” Episode Six.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

neil: Can’t we talk about other organs for a change???

joshua.hermsmeyer: 🤐

neil: I will say this, Tre’Davious White is amazing. He made one of the INTs of the year.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I saw you tweet something about Jimmy Garoppolo not being able to hold onto the ball in the rain. I haven’t watched the full game yet — what was going on?

Salfino: He simply could not throw a spiral. It was bizarre.

The thing is, January is the rainy season in San Francisco. At least, it used to be.

sara.ziegler: When the field looks like this, you’ll take anything you can get, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Was Keenum any better? My prior right now is that Jimmy G is average at best.

Salfino: I was only paying attention to that screen when the Niners had the ball.

neil: I’ll give Jimmy G a pass for the conditions yesterday. But I keep waiting for one of two things to happen:

  1. a) Niners stop winning
  2. b) Jimmy G puts up a great stat game

Neither has happened!

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Jimmy G is like Teddy B.

neil: In our Elo QB ratings, Garoppolo has had a below-average start (adjusted for opposing defense) five times in six games this year.

The only good one was against Cincy.

Salfino: The Niners and Garoppolo seriously remind me of those early 2000s Patriots teams. They also spread the ball around, lack fantasy significance, are very well-coached and crush the opposing passing games. And they have a QB who is not lighting up the stat sheet but manages the game (pre-2007 Brady).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Interesting comp. Is 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan up to the Bill Belichick comparison though?

neil: I look forward to Jimmy G’s stats finally taking off when they trade a fourth-round pick for Randy Moss Jr.

Salfino: How about A.J. Green?

neil: Haha. Green certainly deserves better than the Bengals.

Lowkey, they — and NOT the Dolphins — are last in our Elo rankings!

sara.ziegler: Ooof, Neil.

neil: Reminds me of how we all assumed that the Orioles would be the worst team in baseball, and the Tigers were like, hold my beer.

sara.ziegler: So, you guys bring up an interesting point: Which players out there would make these top-tier teams better?

Salfino: Teams that should go all in are the ones we started with, IMO.

The NFC is so strong that one trade can tip the balance between the 49ers, Saints and Vikings. (Notice I did not say the Rams, who already made their trade.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners should trade for Broncos fullback Andy Janovich to save their season.

Salfino: In the AFC, the team that’s screaming out for a trade is the Ravens. I would add Vic Beasley from the Falcons. A pure edge rusher.

neil: Seems like there are a ton of WRs potentially on the trade block.

sara.ziegler: NOT DIGGS, THO

neil: Well, beyond just Green, also Emmanuel Sanders, Mohamed Sanu, etc.

Maybe even Robby Anderson?!

Salfino: Julio Jones can’t be traded because of his contract. Of course, the Patriots desperately need a WR. They can be in on Green, too. The Chargers can’t dump. Tampa Bay should trade Mike Evans, if the cap permits it. They don’t need two lead WRs, and they can get two first-round picks for him. I do think teams can do pretty much whatever they want with the cap, if they put the pain off until tomorrow.

neil: Would love to see the Patriots acquire yet another name-brand WR before season’s end. Just for their full list of receivers for the season to be even more bizarre.

Salfino: There just are not a lot of WRs out there on the bad teams. Allen Robinson? The Bears are going to keep lying to themselves that they’re fine.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree that Mitch Trubisky probably isn’t good, but he’s coming off an injury, so this week probably isn’t the best time to finally declare him a bust

Salfino: Marvin Jones to the Patriots for a first-round pick? Only the third player ever with two four-TD receiving games since 1950 (Rice and Sterling Sharpe).

sara.ziegler: The Vikings should trade away Kirk Cousins — like I did in fantasy football.

😉

neil: Hey wait, Sara! I got Cousins from you and was happy with him! LOL

(Also, my regular starter was on bye.)

Salfino: Wait a second! Sara traded Cousins to Neil? How am I just finding out about this?

sara.ziegler: It was a classic Cousins-for-Trubisky deal.

neil: I also got a Chipotle lunch out of it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jelly.

Salfino: Steal.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Reports Of The Fullback’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

There was a time when you couldn’t turn on an NFL game without hearing the announcers opine on fullbacks: goliaths of the gridiron who mowed down defenders. Backs like Bronko Nagurski and Larry Csonka played the position with such grit and ruggedness that they are remembered years after their final, bruising 3-yard runs.

Fullbacks are easy to root for. Their ability to both absorb and mete out punishment sometimes seems superhuman. When Csonka, the Miami Dolphins fullback, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987, his longtime head coach Don Shula gave perhaps the greatest and most apt description of a fullback ever uttered: “He was blood and guts. Dirt all over him. He had 12 broken noses.”

But despite enduring in the sport’s collective memory, the style of football that produced these bruisers was very much of a particular time and place. It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern NFL has all but abandoned the position. According to Over The Cap, a website that tracks player contracts, just 14 of the NFL’s 32 teams currently have a fullback signed to a multi-year deal, and the average yearly salary for the position is just $1.16 million. Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson has admitted that the Eagles don’t invest resources in the position, and the data seems to suggest that much of the league agrees with their approach.

On the field, too, the second back has become an endangered species:

During the 2006 regular season, there were 13,157 total offensive snaps from formations with two running backs.1 By 2018, that number had plummeted to 3,714.

And fullbacks don’t have to look far for a villain to blame: pass-happy offenses. In a league increasingly focused on moving the ball through the air, it turned out that the fullback was the most obvious position to lose importance. Since every NFL offense has to include five linemen, who are ineligible receivers, and a quarterback, there are only so many ways you can mix and match the remaining five eligible players to meet your offensive goals. As NFL teams moved to formations with multiple receivers to support their passing attacks, it was inevitable that some position had to feel the pinch.

Yet, not everyone agrees that fullbacks are obsolete. In fact, some of the NFL’s best teams this season are featuring them. Through Week 6 of the 2019 season, there are six NFL teams who’ve run 100 or more offensive snaps with two backs on the field — and their combined record is an impressive 23-10-1. Even more interesting, the two teams that trot out fullbacks the most — the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers — are the only two undefeated teams left in the league.

New England and San Francisco play fullbacks the most

Teams by frequency of offensive snaps with two running backs

Rank Team Record Snaps Yds/ Play Yds/ Att. Yds/ Rush Success%*
1 New England 6-0 178 4.5 6.6 3.0 37.1%
2 San Francisco 5-0 139 7.4 11.8 5.7 54.0%
3 Minnesota 4-2 134 6.4 8.5 5.5 41.8%
4 Detroit 2-2-1 107 5.0 7.2 3.9 37.4%
5 Denver 2-4 106 5.6 7.7 4.2 44.3%
6 Baltimore 4-2 103 4.5 5.9 4.2 41.7%
7 New Orleans 5-1 87 5.7 7.8 4.4 41.4%
8 L.A. Chargers 2-4 79 4.9 8.0 3.0 40.5%
9 Oakland 3-2 74 5.4 9.4 4.2 50.0%
9 Green Bay 5-1 74 5.1 6.9 3.6 45.9%
11 Chicago 3-2 71 3.7 4.7 3.8 36.6%
12 Buffalo 4-1 70 4.2 6.1 3.2 44.3%
13 Carolina 4-2 62 5.5 7.8 4.5 35.5%
14 Atlanta 1-5 60 6.6 10.7 4.1 50.0%
15 N.Y. Giants 2-4 39 5.7 8.2 2.7 46.2%
16 N.Y. Jets 1-4 38 5.0 8.1 2.5 23.7%
17 Dallas 3-3 36 4.1 4.7 3.7 33.3%
18 Kansas City 4-2 29 4.0 8.1 2.2 44.8%
19 Miami 0-5 26 3.9 6.2 1.7 30.8%
20 Houston 4-2 24 2.9 5.0 2.1 37.5%
21 Seattle 5-1 17 1.8 20.0 1.3 35.3%
22 Arizona 2-3-1 16 10.6 15.4 6.0 62.5%
22 Tampa Bay 2-4 16 2.5 5.6 1.1 31.3%
24 Tennessee 2-4 12 1.8 1.6 3.3 41.7%
25 Cincinnati 0-6 9 1.6 5.2 2.0 44.4%
26 Indianapolis 3-2 8 3.0 7.0 0.6 37.5%
26 Washington 1-5 8 1.4 4.3 -0.4 37.5%
26 Philadelphia 3-3 8 2.8 11.5 1.4 37.5%
29 Pittsburgh 2-4 7 2.9 3.4 1.5 57.1%
30 Jacksonville 2-4 5 1.0 0.0 3.7 20.0%
31 Cleveland 2-4 2 10.5 0.0 21.0 50.0%
32 L.A. Rams 3-3 0 0.0 0.0

2019 totals through Week 6.

*Success rate is the share of plays with positive expected points added.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Before we get carried away, the Patriots probably can’t credit two-back sets with too much of their success. Their expected points added per play for the package is actually negative, and they’ve gained just 4.5 yards per play with a fullback on the field.

Still, four of the six teams to feature two-back formations extensively are generating positive EPA on those plays, and none more than Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers. The Niners have run plays with a fullback on 139 of 348 offensive snaps through five games in 2019, and they’re gaining about a quarter of a point per play.

Yet what’s surprising about the 49ers and the rest of the teams utilizing a fullback is that their offensive gains aren’t coming from the obvious play type: the run. Having an added blocker in the backfield hasn’t really made running the ball more effective. Instead, the most successful gains from the package have come from the pass plays when a fullback is present.

Even as the two-running-back personnel package has become more rare, passing from it has become increasingly effective. In all but three seasons2 from 2006-18 we can say with a high degree of confidence3 that passing with two backs was better than rushing with two backs, on average. All told, passing with a fullback on the field has been a winner.

The question is: Why?

The dominant narrative around two-running-back sets is that they benefit rushing, not passing. But there are at least a couple of reasonable explanations for passing’s surprising effectiveness, starting with former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, who extolled the virtues of the fullback in the passing game nearly 40 years ago. He believed the fullback was the “critical part” of the 49ers passing attack because of the matchup difficulties the position presents. (A speedy, athletic fullback can be particularly hard for a middle linebacker to defend in space, but the defense has no choice but to send one out to counter the threat of the run he presents as an added blocker in the backfield.)

And while most teams still run more than they pass with a fullback in the game, there is some evidence that NFL coaches have taken Walsh’s ideas to heart. The gap between the frequency of rush and pass plays called in two-back groupings has narrowed slightly since 2006, and creative play-callers like Shanahan are lining up their top receiving weapons at the fullback with success. The play below from Week 6 shows 49ers tight end George Kittle lined up as the fullback in the offset I-formation. It ends with the Niners gaining 45 yards and setting up a first and goal.

Aside from the matchup difficulties a talented fullback presents, deception is another likely explanation for passing success out of two-back personnel. When teams bring out a fullback, the defense is strongly incentivized to stack the box and defend the run, leaving parts of the field vulnerable to attack with the pass. On the pass to Kittle, the play design called for him to sell to the middle linebacker that he was going to lead block. Kittle does a good job fooling No. 51 Troy Reeder, and then he breaks across the field — away from the linebacker — and is wide open for a big gain.

Still, if deception is so effective, why don’t more teams do it? One explanation is the negative perception it appears to have around the league. Recently, former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was asked for his thoughts on the decline of the fullback. Lewis lamented that defenses resort to trickery to win, and appeared to long for simpler times when the physicality of the game was paramount.

“The game is about men battling men … that’s what the game was. The game was not tricks. Now we tricky. Now everybody’s smart,” Lewis said.

Teams might prefer to win by lining up and punching the other guy in the mouth, but the data supports Walsh’s view of the world. Given the precedent set by Walsh in San Francisco, there’s a certain symmetry to Shanahan and the Niners leading a mini fullback-resurgence, but it’s not just vapid nostalgia. When you combine a consistent matchup advantage with deception, you probably have a recipe for success in the NFL. As a potent passing weapon, perhaps the fullback is back to stay.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

How Much Trouble Is Kansas City In?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): In Week 5, we saw two teams get their first wins of the NFL season, a coach receive his pink slip and an undrafted rookie quarterback out of Samford — yes, Samford — make his NFL debut, nearly leading his team to a comeback win.

We also saw last season’s MVP limping around the field on Sunday night. Guys, how worried should we be about Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): This was the second game in a row where a team took the deep ball away from Mahomes. Of course, Tyreek Hill could be back next week, so that could turn the tables in the Chiefs’ favor again, regardless. Mahomes’s ankle injury didn’t seem too serious, but it could affect his ability to evade the rush for a few weeks, as it did after the injury last night.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yeah. He’s had some ankle issues already earlier this season, but he’s expected to be fine from all the reports I’ve seen. What his performance really did was underscore just how strange it is for Mahomes to not be amazing.

Believe it or not, this was only the second start of his career in which he was below-average in our Elo QB metric.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think the same is true of QBR — but I suppose our metric and QBR are closely related.

neil: Right. Mahomes’s previous below-average start was his first career start, at the end of 2017. So that means Mahomes had a streak of 22 consecutive above-average starts end yesterday.

Salfino: Mahomes had been on an epic run of efficiency on 20-plus air-yard passes, and in the past two weeks, he was just 4 for 15 with a passer rating of 80.7. Not good.

sara.ziegler: So should we have expected that his amazing run was going to come to an end at some point, and this was just the time it happened? Or is there something else going on here?

Salfino: I think the Lions and Matt Patricia went to school on it, and the Colts followed up even with an injury-riddled secondary. Now the ball is in the Chiefs’ court. Sort of the NFL circle of life.

neil: If anybody can adapt, it’s Andy Reid. And it still helps to have a QB who can do this:

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s interesting to see how reliant the team really is on its all-world QB. It’s just so clear how much he means to the Chiefs, and I would think their top priority is to keep him healthy.

Salfino: Someone posted a diagram on that play showing that pass-rushers have to coordinate rather than going for the cheese in the same direction. The deeper rusher, we were told, should have gone outside to keep Mahomes contained. Sort of like how the Raptors worked in Jurassic Park. 🙂

neil: And here I thought all the Raptor talk this week would be confined to basketball

sara.ziegler: LOL

So what do the Chiefs need to do to take care of Mahomes? The offensive line looked … not good.

Salfino: Deeper passes require more protection. Maybe they need to get into a quicker rhythm and forget about emphasizing the deep throws so often. His protection for his career to date has been top-notch.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There are schemes you can employ to buy more time and prevent him from having to hang in the pocket, but they’re probably not sustainable. It’s also tough because what makes him so special is what he does when a play breaks down — and that’s also a dangerous time to be a QB.

Salfino: But they’re still winning the battle of the passing game so decisively for the season to date that I really believe that, despite the loss, the Chiefs are right on schedule. The pass defense is decent. The run defense … not so good. But high-scoring teams naturally evolve this way, if they’re smart. It’s the old Colts/Peyton Manning model.

sara.ziegler: So if the Chiefs are going to be fine, how about the Cowboys? They looked incredibly flat on Sunday against the Packers.

neil: The Cowboys are now 3-0 against teams with pregame Elo ratings under 1500 (i.e., average) and 0-2 against teams with pregame ratings over 1500.

Salfino: If you believe the Cowboys have the kind of high-powered passing offense their per-play stats suggest, they’re golden. I’m not sure I believe that, though. I’m not quite ready to go all-in on Dak Prescott as a true franchise-level QB. He’s good, though.

Neil’s point about their win quality is spot-on.

neil: Though, to push back against my own snarky observation about opponent-quality splits, Dallas did beat six above-1500 Elo teams during that period last season when they won eight times in nine games down the stretch.

So it’s not necessarily a persistent split. But it has stood out so far this season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dak has been fantastic. I thought they mounted a respectable second-half comeback. If I’m a Cowboys fan, I’m not worried when my team’s QB is playing like one of the top 5 at his position.

sara.ziegler: So the game did nothing to change anyone’s priors on the Cowboys?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was a loss, so not great! But I’m not selling on the Cowboys yet.

Salfino: Definitely not selling. They are a legit Super Bowl contender.

sara.ziegler: You guys are refusing to overreact, and it’s annoying.

neil: Maybe the past two games have settled them back into the tier below the top contenders again.

Salfino: You can overreact to Captain Kirk, Sara. The Vikings are an offensive juggernaut.

sara.ziegler: I will not.

And they are not.

neil: Speaking of teams and QBs that play well only against below-average opponents…

sara.ziegler: Damn.

Tough but fair.

neil: That IS a trend dating back to last season.

Salfino: The Giants defense is … inviting.

sara.ziegler: I am on record saying that the Vikings were 100 percent going to win that game. It was a classic game of absolutely no stakes, so Kirk Cousins played well. Easiest call I’ve ever made.

neil: Can’t he just convince himself that all games have no stakes?? We said it ourselves last week: We all die in the end. Loosen up a little, Kirk.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: I was just happy to see the Squeaky Wheel narrative pay off for Adam Thielen. Two touchdowns was a great game for him.

sara.ziegler: OK, so what about the other notable NFC North teams this week? Aaron Rodgers did nothing, but the Packers looked … great?

Salfino: The Packers pretty much ignored their wide receivers in the game. It somehow worked.

We may have to accept that the Lions are the best team in the North. Did I just type that?

sara.ziegler: The same Lions that tied Arizona? Those Lions?

neil: Let’s not go crazy here.

Salfino: Actually, the Vikings grade better in my key stat — net yards per pass play — but I don’t want Sara to have unrealistic expectations. I will say the Lions are playing better than the Bears.

sara.ziegler: My expectations are always as low as possible.

neil: BTW, all four NFC North teams still have winning records.

sara.ziegler: But what about those Bears? Is Chase Daniel not the answer???

Salfino: No less not the answer than Mitchell Trubisky.

I’ve tied myself up in double negatives.

Daniel and Trubisky are a double negative.

neil: 😂

joshua.hermsmeyer: I need more coffee to parse these Salfino Bears takes. Interestingly, if you were hanging your hat on their defense being great against the pass this season, early returns are not that good. Chicago, so far, has allowed the fifth-highest completion percentage in the league.

neil: Daniel basically played like you would expect from somebody with four career starts in 10 NFL seasons.

Salfino: Daniel is beating the system.

But Jon Gruden is still a good coach. That he’s 3-2 — with a team that is not talented and with all the Antonio Brown distractions — is impressive. The Raiders should be a losing team and probably still will be, but it won’t be because of Gruden.

neil: What about JAY Gruden? Lol.

sara.ziegler: First coaching casualty!

neil: Josh, is the Bears’ performance another example of defenses just regressing to the mean incredibly quickly in the NFL?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t know what to make of NFL defenses, tbh. Some claim there was a jet-lag factor with Chicago, or they didn’t sleep well. It’s all a muddle.

Salfino: I’m shocked by how bad the Ravens pass defense has looked, even yesterday against the third-string QB.

sara.ziegler: Devlin Hodges was the best part of that game.

That story is my favorite of the season so far. Guy goes undrafted, signed to the practice squad, makes the team because some other backup is traded away … then, BAM. He’s leading a second-half comeback.

Salfino: The Browns may win the AFC North by default even with a loss tonight.

neil: We do still have Cleveland as favorites (granted, at 49 percent) to win the division.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I feel like you were bagging on Baker Mayfield just a week or two ago, Mike. How quickly the winds change.

neil: And we were pumping up Lamar Jackson!

Salfino: No, I was defending Baker. I was bagging on Baker in August. I am still bagging on Baker Mayfield the spokesperson.

neil: Lol

BTW, speaking of Jackson, he had the second-worst QB Elo game of the week yesterday. After that hot start, his rolling QB rating is basically average again.

However, the worst by a MILE belonged to poor Luke Falk of the Jets. In fact, Poor Sad Luke Falk had the worst QB game of the entire season. Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson of the Texans had the best game of the entire season!

The best — and worst — of 2019 QB starts were in Week 5

Best and worst quarterback games of the 2019 NFL season, according to FiveThirtyEight’s QB Elo ratings vs. league average

Best QB Games of 2019 season
Date Quarterback Team Opp QB Elo vs. Average
10/6/2019 Deshaun Watson HOU ATL +464
9/22/2019 Russell Wilson SEA NO +379
9/8/2019 Dak Prescott DAL NYG +340
9/8/2019 Patrick Mahomes KC JAX +270
9/15/2019 Dak Prescott DAL WSH +265
9/8/2019 Lamar Jackson BAL MIA +259
9/15/2019 Patrick Mahomes KC OAK +255
9/22/2019 Patrick Mahomes KC BAL +253
9/15/2019 Lamar Jackson BAL ARI +239
10/3/2019 Russell Wilson SEA LAR +224
Worst QB Games of 2019 season
Date Quarterback Team Opp QB Elo vs. Average
10/6/2019 Luke Falk NYJ PHI -478
9/15/2019 Ryan Fitzpatrick MIA NE -350
9/30/2019 Andy Dalton CIN PIT -326
9/22/2019 Luke Falk NYJ NE -263
9/8/2019 Jameis Winston TB SF -239
9/29/2019 Case Keenum WSH NYG -235
9/16/2019 Trevor Siemian NYJ CLE -202
9/29/2019 Josh Allen BUF NE -200
9/5/2019 Mitchell Trubisky CHI GB -200
9/22/2019 Joe Flacco DEN GB -185

Source: ESPN

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike’s Jets: Out indefinitely.

neil: This was such a sad play:

Salfino: Jets fans like me have not had a season at all yet, and it’s Week 6. Can’t even kill the team for the way they’re playing. Can’t practice Falk if you think Sam Darnold can play because you have to get him ready for his health’s sake. And you can’t know how big his spleen is. But practice is not gonna save Falk, who just has no clock in his head for when to throw the ball. That’s fatal in the NFL. The Jets defense is actually … OK.

neil: When will Jets QBs not be on the receiving end of the universe’s jokes?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s the curse Namath put on the franchise after that embarrassingly inept attempt at hitting on Suzy Kolber on the sidelines.

sara.ziegler: I’ve never before thought about how big a quarterback’s spleen is.

Maybe never want to again.

neil: There’s Big Brain Time, and then there’s Big Spleen Time.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What We Learned From Week 5 Of The NFL

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): In Week 5, we saw two teams get their first wins of the NFL season, a coach receive his pink slip and an undrafted rookie quarterback out of Samford — yes, Samford — make his NFL debut, nearly leading his team to a comeback win.

We also saw last season’s MVP limping around the field on Sunday night. Guys, how worried should we be about Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): This was the second game in a row where a team took the deep ball away from Mahomes. Of course, Tyreek Hill could be back next week, so that could turn the tables in the Chiefs’ favor again, regardless. Mahomes’s ankle injury didn’t seem too serious, but it could affect his ability to evade the rush for a few weeks, as it did after the injury last night.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yeah. He’s had some ankle issues already earlier this season, but he’s expected to be fine from all the reports I’ve seen. What his performance really did was underscore just how strange it is for Mahomes to not be amazing.

Believe it or not, this was only the second start of his career in which he was below-average in our Elo QB metric.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think the same is true of QBR — but I suppose our metric and QBR are closely related.

neil: Right. Mahomes’s previous below-average start was his first career start, at the end of 2017. So that means Mahomes had a streak of 22 consecutive above-average starts end yesterday.

Salfino: Mahomes had been on an epic run of efficiency on 20-plus air-yard passes, and in the past two weeks, he was just 4 for 15 with a passer rating of 80.7. Not good.

sara.ziegler: So should we have expected that his amazing run was going to come to an end at some point, and this was just the time it happened? Or is there something else going on here?

Salfino: I think the Lions and Matt Patricia went to school on it, and the Colts followed up even with an injury-riddled secondary. Now the ball is in the Chiefs’ court. Sort of the NFL circle of life.

neil: If anybody can adapt, it’s Andy Reid. And it still helps to have a QB who can do this:

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s interesting to see how reliant the team really is on its all-world QB. It’s just so clear how much he means to the Chiefs, and I would think their top priority is to keep him healthy.

Salfino: Someone posted a diagram on that play showing that pass-rushers have to coordinate rather than going for the cheese in the same direction. The deeper rusher, we were told, should have gone outside to keep Mahomes contained. Sort of like how the Raptors worked in Jurassic Park. 🙂

neil: And here I thought all the Raptor talk this week would be confined to basketball

sara.ziegler: LOL

So what do the Chiefs need to do to take care of Mahomes? The offensive line looked … not good.

Salfino: Deeper passes require more protection. Maybe they need to get into a quicker rhythm and forget about emphasizing the deep throws so often. His protection for his career to date has been top-notch.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There are schemes you can employ to buy more time and prevent him from having to hang in the pocket, but they’re probably not sustainable. It’s also tough because what makes him so special is what he does when a play breaks down — and that’s also a dangerous time to be a QB.

Salfino: But they’re still winning the battle of the passing game so decisively for the season to date that I really believe that, despite the loss, the Chiefs are right on schedule. The pass defense is decent. The run defense … not so good. But high-scoring teams naturally evolve this way, if they’re smart. It’s the old Colts/Peyton Manning model.

sara.ziegler: So if the Chiefs are going to be fine, how about the Cowboys? They looked incredibly flat on Sunday against the Packers.

neil: The Cowboys are now 3-0 against teams with pregame Elo ratings under 1500 (i.e., average) and 0-2 against teams with pregame ratings over 1500.

Salfino: If you believe the Cowboys have the kind of high-powered passing offense their per-play stats suggest, they’re golden. I’m not sure I believe that, though. I’m not quite ready to go all-in on Dak Prescott as a true franchise-level QB. He’s good, though.

Neil’s point about their win quality is spot-on.

neil: Though, to push back against my own snarky observation about opponent-quality splits, Dallas did beat six above-1500 Elo teams during that period last season when they won eight times in nine games down the stretch.

So it’s not necessarily a persistent split. But it has stood out so far this season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dak has been fantastic. I thought they mounted a respectable second-half comeback. If I’m a Cowboys fan, I’m not worried when my team’s QB is playing like one of the top 5 at his position.

sara.ziegler: So the game did nothing to change anyone’s priors on the Cowboys?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was a loss, so not great! But I’m not selling on the Cowboys yet.

Salfino: Definitely not selling. They are a legit Super Bowl contender.

sara.ziegler: You guys are refusing to overreact, and it’s annoying.

neil: Maybe the past two games have settled them back into the tier below the top contenders again.

Salfino: You can overreact to Captain Kirk, Sara. The Vikings are an offensive juggernaut.

sara.ziegler: I will not.

And they are not.

neil: Speaking of teams and QBs that play well only against below-average opponents…

sara.ziegler: Damn.

Tough but fair.

neil: That IS a trend dating back to last season.

Salfino: The Giants defense is … inviting.

sara.ziegler: I am on record saying that the Vikings were 100 percent going to win that game. It was a classic game of absolutely no stakes, so Kirk Cousins played well. Easiest call I’ve ever made.

neil: Can’t he just convince himself that all games have no stakes?? We said it ourselves last week: We all die in the end. Loosen up a little, Kirk.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: I was just happy to see the Squeaky Wheel narrative pay off for Adam Thielen. Two touchdowns was a great game for him.

sara.ziegler: OK, so what about the other notable NFC North teams this week? Aaron Rodgers did nothing, but the Packers looked … great?

Salfino: The Packers pretty much ignored their wide receivers in the game. It somehow worked.

We may have to accept that the Lions are the best team in the North. Did I just type that?

sara.ziegler: The same Lions that tied Arizona? Those Lions?

neil: Let’s not go crazy here.

Salfino: Actually, the Vikings grade better in my key stat — net yards per pass play — but I don’t want Sara to have unrealistic expectations. I will say the Lions are playing better than the Bears.

sara.ziegler: My expectations are always as low as possible.

neil: BTW, all four NFC North teams still have winning records.

sara.ziegler: But what about those Bears? Is Chase Daniel not the answer???

Salfino: No less not the answer than Mitchell Trubisky.

I’ve tied myself up in double negatives.

Daniel and Trubisky are a double negative.

neil: 😂

joshua.hermsmeyer: I need more coffee to parse these Salfino Bears takes. Interestingly, if you were hanging your hat on their defense being great against the pass this season, early returns are not that good. Chicago, so far, has allowed the fifth-highest completion percentage in the league.

neil: Daniel basically played like you would expect from somebody with four career starts in 10 NFL seasons.

Salfino: Daniel is beating the system.

But Jon Gruden is still a good coach. That he’s 3-2 — with a team that is not talented and with all the Antonio Brown distractions — is impressive. The Raiders should be a losing team and probably still will be, but it won’t be because of Gruden.

neil: What about JAY Gruden? Lol.

sara.ziegler: First coaching casualty!

neil: Josh, is the Bears’ performance another example of defenses just regressing to the mean incredibly quickly in the NFL?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t know what to make of NFL defenses, tbh. Some claim there was a jet-lag factor with Chicago, or they didn’t sleep well. It’s all a muddle.

Salfino: I’m shocked by how bad the Ravens pass defense has looked, even yesterday against the third-string QB.

sara.ziegler: Devlin Hodges was the best part of that game.

That story is my favorite of the season so far. Guy goes undrafted, signed to the practice squad, makes the team because some other backup is traded away … then, BAM. He’s leading a second-half comeback.

Salfino: The Browns may win the AFC North by default even with a loss tonight.

neil: We do still have Cleveland as favorites (granted, at 49 percent) to win the division.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I feel like you were bagging on Baker Mayfield just a week or two ago, Mike. How quickly the winds change.

neil: And we were pumping up Lamar Jackson!

Salfino: No, I was defending Baker. I was bagging on Baker in August. I am still bagging on Baker Mayfield the spokesperson.

neil: Lol

BTW, speaking of Jackson, he had the second-worst QB Elo game of the week yesterday. After that hot start, his rolling QB rating is basically average again.

However, the worst by a MILE belonged to poor Luke Falk of the Jets. In fact, Poor Sad Luke Falk had the worst QB game of the entire season. Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson of the Texans had the best game of the entire season!

The best — and worst — of 2019 QB starts were in Week 5

Best and worst quarterback games of the 2019 NFL season, according to FiveThirtyEight’s QB Elo ratings vs. league average

Best QB Games of 2019 season
Date Quarterback Team Opp QB Elo vs. Average
10/6/2019 Deshaun Watson HOU ATL +464
9/22/2019 Russell Wilson SEA NO +379
9/8/2019 Dak Prescott DAL NYG +340
9/8/2019 Patrick Mahomes KC JAX +270
9/15/2019 Dak Prescott DAL WSH +265
9/8/2019 Lamar Jackson BAL MIA +259
9/15/2019 Patrick Mahomes KC OAK +255
9/22/2019 Patrick Mahomes KC BAL +253
9/15/2019 Lamar Jackson BAL ARI +239
10/3/2019 Russell Wilson SEA LAR +224
Worst QB Games of 2019 season
Date Quarterback Team Opp QB Elo vs. Average
10/6/2019 Luke Falk NYJ PHI -478
9/15/2019 Ryan Fitzpatrick MIA NE -350
9/30/2019 Andy Dalton CIN PIT -326
9/22/2019 Luke Falk NYJ NE -263
9/8/2019 Jameis Winston TB SF -239
9/29/2019 Case Keenum WSH NYG -235
9/16/2019 Trevor Siemian NYJ CLE -202
9/29/2019 Josh Allen BUF NE -200
9/5/2019 Mitchell Trubisky CHI GB -200
9/22/2019 Joe Flacco DEN GB -185

Source: ESPN

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike’s Jets: Out indefinitely.

neil: This was such a sad play:

Salfino: Jets fans like me have not had a season at all yet, and it’s Week 6. Can’t even kill the team for the way they’re playing. Can’t practice Falk if you think Sam Darnold can play because you have to get him ready for his health’s sake. And you can’t know how big his spleen is. But practice is not gonna save Falk, who just has no clock in his head for when to throw the ball. That’s fatal in the NFL. The Jets defense is actually … OK.

neil: When will Jets QBs not be on the receiving end of the universe’s jokes?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s the curse Namath put on the franchise after that embarrassingly inept attempt at hitting on Suzy Kolber on the sidelines.

sara.ziegler: I’ve never before thought about how big a quarterback’s spleen is.

Maybe never want to again.

neil: There’s Big Brain Time, and then there’s Big Spleen Time.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Patriots’ Defense Is Good. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Going To Stay Good.

After four full weeks of play, the New England Patriots are one of only three undefeated teams left in the NFL,1 and their defense is getting much of the credit for their early success. The Patriots lead the league in point differential at +95 and, on the strength of defensive backs Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty, have been particularly good against the pass. New England has yet to allow a passing touchdown this year, making it one of just 10 teams since the AFL-NFL merger to accomplish that feat in the first four games of the season. And it’s not just the pass defense. The Patriots have surrendered just one touchdown in total on defense — a 1-yard run by Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen in Week 4.

Given these eye-popping stats, we would expect the Patriots to top the leaderboard in defensive expected points added per play. And that’s exactly what we find. New England stands atop the rankings with an EPA per play more than double that of the second-ranked defense, San Francisco’s.2

The Patriots’ defense is, in fact, very good so far

NFL defenses ranked by expected points added per play by the opposing offenses, through Week 4 of the 2019 season

Point Totals
Rk Team Record For Against Diff Defensive EPA/Play
1 New England 4-0 122 27 95 -0.35
2 San Francisco 3-0 96 54 42 -0.16
3 Chicago 3-1 66 45 21 -0.12
4 Buffalo 3-1 76 63 13 -0.10
5 Tennessee 2-2 91 62 29 -0.09
6 Tampa Bay 2-2 123 117 6 -0.05
7 Carolina 2-2 95 80 15 -0.05
8 Minnesota 2-2 84 63 21 -0.04
9 Green Bay 3-1 85 69 16 -0.04
10 Pittsburgh 1-3 76 88 -12 -0.03
11 L.A. Rams 3-1 117 104 13 -0.03
12 Dallas 3-1 107 56 51 -0.02
13 N.Y. Jets 0-3 33 70 -37 -0.02
14 Cleveland 2-2 89 91 -2 -0.01
15 Seattle 3-1 103 89 14 0.00
16 Houston 2-2 78 78 0 0.03
17 Detroit 2-1-1 97 95 2 0.05
18 Jacksonville 2-2 84 84 0 0.06
19 Kansas City 4-0 135 94 41 0.06
20 N.Y. Giants 2-2 87 97 -10 0.09
21 Cincinnati 0-4 57 110 -53 0.09
22 New Orleans 3-1 84 92 -8 0.10
23 Philadelphia 2-2 110 105 5 0.12
24 Arizona 0-3-1 74 115 -41 0.13
25 Denver 0-4 70 93 -23 0.14
26 L.A. Chargers 2-2 90 74 16 0.14
27 Atlanta 1-3 70 99 -29 0.14
28 Washington 0-4 66 118 -52 0.14
29 Indianapolis 2-2 94 102 -8 0.16
30 Baltimore 2-2 135 100 35 0.16
31 Oakland 2-2 79 102 -23 0.16
32 Miami 0-4 26 163 -137 0.29

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

This list tracks well with our intuition of how defenses have performed and passes the “eye test.” New England, San Francisco, Chicago and Buffalo appear to be good defenses, and Miami, Oakland, Baltimore and Indianapolis appear to be bad. With a quarter of the season finished, we might even be tempted to draw some conclusions from this defensive leaderboard — it seems reasonable to expect the good defenses to stay good and the bad to remain bad. But does further evidence actually support making these inferences? Or are our eyes and the aforementioned data fooling us?

To find out, we took ESPN Stats & Information Group data from 2006 through 2018 and calculated the year-to-date EPA per play for each team prior to a given game. Then, we tested how well the team’s past performance predicted what the teams ultimately did in those games.

As an example, for a team’s fifth game of the season, we looked at the previous four weeks of games and calculated the EPA per play for each team.3 We then took those EPA averages and tested how well they predicted the EPA per play for that team in Game 5. If a defense was good in the first through fourth games, did it tend to stay good in the fifth? We conducted this analysis for each game of the season for both offense and defense, using the data from all previous games of the season. The results were surprising.

There’s a lot we don’t know about teams early in the season, but after nine or 10 games, we like to think that we have a decent idea about how each unit will perform in a given game, especially late in the season with the playoff picture in focus. This turns out to be partially true — for the offense, anyway. Our ability to predict a team’s offensive performance in an upcoming game does improve as the year goes on, peaking around Game 11. But, surprisingly, this isn’t true for the defense. We know roughly as much about a team’s upcoming defensive performance after one game of results as we do after 12 or 13.

In fairness, our ability to predict offensive performance is fairly modest,4 and by the very end of the season, we do see a small spike in our ability to predict defensive performance. But when comparing the predictive power of the two measures, the difference ranges from moderate to dramatic. Exactly why we can’t predict defense as well is hard to say with any confidence, but it might start with our inability to fully quantify the parts of a defender’s performance that are stable over time and reliably impact a game. In other words, it’s possible that we aren’t measuring the right thing by taking the aggregate performance of the offenses a team has faced and assigning the relative success or failure to the defense. Rather than capturing the strength of a team’s defensive unit, our metrics and stats may mostly be measuring a team’s strength of schedule.

Taking this view, the Patriots’ defensive performance is perhaps best attributed to the inept offensive performances of their opponents: the Steelers with an aging Ben Roethlisberger and newly without Antonio Brown; the tanking Miami Dolphins in a 43-0 blowout; a Jets team led by quarterback Luke Falk because of Sam Darnold’s bout with mononucleosis; and a narrow win over the Bills without a concussed Allen in the fourth quarter of Week 4.

Perhaps these performances aren’t as clear a harbinger of future defensive success as Patriots fans would like to believe. Conversely, it’s potentially good news for the defenses of Indianapolis, Baltimore and Oakland.5 We should probably be hesitant to read too much into their slow starts. Things can change quickly in the NFL, especially on defense.

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 RomanticDepot.com 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 /

Backlink

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 SEMRush.com 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 GTMetrix.com was loading in 12.6 seconds with over 400 http requests. We targeted a 3 second load and through Cloudflare.com 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.  RomanticDepotSuperStore.com 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 romanticdepotsuperstore.com 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 RomanticDepot.com 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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