1New York Jets4,1702,52960.6% 10Cleveland Browns4,1562,00948.3 24New Orleans Saints5,2052,12240.8 28New England Patriots4,8121,86838.8 2Denver Broncos4,2162,43957.9 3Kansas City Chiefs3,4931,96356.2 29Minnesota Vikings3,2461,21537.4 5Jacksonville Jaguars4,4282,43154.9 22Dallas Cowboys3,6781,55342.2 11Oakland Raiders4,1291,99248.2 17Buffalo Bills3,6001,59944.4 Marshall and Decker were also touchdown machines. In nine of the Jets’ 16 games last season, both Marshall and Decker reached the end zone: That made them the first pair of wide-receiver teammates to each score in nine games (and only the second pair of teammates, period, joining former Cowboys Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin). Incredibly, Marshall and Decker by themselves caught 25 of Fitzpatrick’s 31 total touchdown throws, or 81 percent.Thought of another way, Marshall and Decker saw 305 targets last year, with all other Jets players combining for nearly an equal number: 297. Yet Marshall/Decker combined for 2,529 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns, and all other Jets combined for 1,641 receiving yards and just seven receiving touchdowns. Marshall and Decker together averaged 8.3 yards per target; all other Jets averaged only 5.5 yards per target.That difference of 2.8 yards per target between the Jets’ top two receivers and the rest of the team ranked third-largest in the NFL, behind two other teams that had star receivers doing most of the heavy lifting: Jacksonville (with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, at +3.7) and the New York Giants (thanks mostly to Odell Beckham Jr., at +2.9). Marshall/Decker’s rate of 11.7 targets for every touchdown also ranked fourth-best among top receiving pairings,2Behind the top duos of Seattle (9.0), Jacksonville (10.7) and New England (11.6). but the rest of the Jets were targeted 42.4 times for every touchdown pass, the fourth-worst rate in the league for receiving groups outside a team’s top two targets.3That ranked ahead of only Cleveland (56.8), Minnesota (57.2) and San Francisco (44.0). In other words, Fitzpatrick was putting up great numbers only when throwing to Marshall and Decker — not anyone else. It’s fair to say, then, that no passing game in 2015 was as reliant on its top two receivers as the Jets’ was.Granted, the Jets’ other targets weren’t very good,4Bilal Powell, Quincy Enunwa, Chris Ivory and Kenbrell Thompkins were the only other Jets with at least 30 targets. so you would expect a large chasm in production between Marshall/Decker and the rest of the team. But that makes it more difficult to determine how much of Fitzpatrick’s numbers were the product of his own play, and how much was due to his top two targets. And that’s probably what caused such a disconnect between the Jets and Fitzpatrick’s camp during negotiations.Ultimately, Fitzpatrick signed a reasonable one-year contract, so we may be revisiting the same scenario next offseason, with the Jets having to ascertain their QB’s true worth once more. 31Chicago Bears3,8431,27133.1 32San Diego Chargers4,8551,48030.5 12Carolina Panthers3,8731,84347.6 13Indianapolis Colts3,9281,85747.3 8Cincinnati Bengals4,1042,11351.5 League average 23Tennessee Titans3,8931,63742.0 16Green Bay Packers3,8251,71944.9 7Houston Texans4,0792,17953.4 19Seattle Seahawks4,0611,75443.2 6Pittsburgh Steelers4,8222,59953.9 21Philadelphia Eagles4,3411,85042.6 14Arizona Cardinals4,7752,21846.5 15Detroit Lions4,4632,02745.4 Which teams got the most out of their top two receivers in 2015? Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com YARDS BY TOP 2 RECEIVERS 27St. Louis Rams2,9311,16239.6 9New York Giants4,5042,24749.9 25Washington Redskins4,2941,72940.3 30Baltimore Ravens4,4491,61436.3 The Gang Green contract dispute is over: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has re-signed with the New York Jets, on a one-year, $12 million contract with up to $3 million in additional incentives. Casual fans may wonder why it took so long for Fitzpatrick to re-sign — for months, it was clear that Fitzpatrick had no other suitors and the Jets had no exciting alternative. And, after all, Fitzpatrick was coming off of a strong statistical season. He threw for 3,905 yards last year — the highest single-season total by a Jets quarterback since Joe Namath in 1967 — and 31 passing touchdowns, a franchise record.Perhaps most importantly, Fitzpatrick’s statistical output was far ahead of what Jets fans have come to expect from the position. Fitzpatrick averaged 6.46 adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) last season, more than a yard better than any of the Jets’ starting quarterbacks over the previous decade. The chart below shows New York’s main QB each season from 2005 through 2015 and his average ANY/A. Fitzpatrick’s 2015 sticks out in a very good way:On the heels of six Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith seasons, Fitzpatrick’s competent play represented a vast improvement. But Fitzpatrick’s numbers really only look great relative to the poor passers of Jets history and thanks to the rising tide that is lifting passing numbers leaguewide.Before Fitzpatrick, the Jets hadn’t experienced above-average quarterbacking since 2006, and Jets passers had been far below average in each of the four seasons leading into 2015. Against that backdrop, Fitzpatrick’s ever-so-slightly-above-average numbers painted the picture of a bearded savior. But although Fitzpatrick deserves credit for the strong season (along with, perhaps, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey), his top two receivers were just as responsible for the big year.The Jets signed Eric Decker before the 2014 season, and he had a productive year, but he couldn’t save New York’s passing attack by himself. After New York traded for Brandon Marshall in 2015, though, the duo quickly turned into one of the best one-two receiving punches in the NFL. Together, Marshall and Decker combined for 2,529 receiving yards, second-most in the NFL behind Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Perhaps more importantly, Marshall and Decker also combined for 60.6 percent of all Jets receiving yards, easily the highest rate in the league for any pair of receivers:1Defining a team’s top receiving duo as its two leading players in receiving yards. 20Miami Dolphins4,2311,81943.0 RANKTEAMTOTAL RECEIVING YARDSTOTALPERCENTAGE 4Atlanta Falcons4,6022,52854.9 45.7 26San Francisco 49ers3,6461,45239.8 18Tampa Bay Buccaneers4,0421,76743.7
Doc Rivers will sign a three-year, $21 million contract to coach the Los Angeles Clippers, according to sources, ending Rivers’ outstanding run as the head man with the Boston Celtics and ushering a new level of hope for LA’s “other” team.The Clippers will send a 2015 first-round pick as compensation to the Celtics, who have agreed to release the coach from the three years, $21 million he has remaining on his deal with the club.Sources close to the process told ESPN that the Clippers believe the deal with Rivers will clinch Chris Paul’s signature on a new five-year max contract. Paul becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.Contrary to previous reports, according to league and team sources, the Celtics have been complicit all along in assisting Rivers to make the switch from Boston to Los Angeles.Although Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ director of basketball operations, was initially irked that Rivers was lukewarm about returning to Boston, where a rebuilding process soon will be underway, team sources said he recognized the best way to accumulate the first-round draft picks he covets would be to relinquish his two most valued assets — Rivers and Kevin Garnett.Since then, he and Rivers have been working side by side to secure a deal that is best for both parties, sources said.Team sources confirmed Ainge also has been trying to secure a first-round pick for veteran Paul Pierce, who can be bought out by June 30 for $5 million. The Celtics have been unsuccessful thus far, leaving open the possibility they keep Pierce and his $15.3 million contract and attempt to deal him again at the trade deadline next winter, when teams historically look for veteran help and are willing to overpay.Celtics ownership, which blanched at the thought of paying a coach $7 million a season for a team that will not be in contention for a division title, never mind an NBA title, is also on board with Rivers’ departure, sources said.League and teams sources also confirmed that for now, any deal involving Garnett and the Clippers is on hold in light of Commissioner David Stern’s objections to the appearance that the KG deal (for DeAndre Jordan) and Rivers were related.One source with knowledge of the NBA told ESPN.com that the league does not intend to change its stance as expressed by Stern in multiple radio interviews Thursday, meaning that the league would view any subsequent trade agreement between the Celtics and Clippers involving Garnett to be part of the Rivers deal and thus in violation of league rules.Team sources also indicated that Rivers is frustrated with the perception that he was the driving force behind the push to go to the Clippers, or that he was unwilling to coach the Celtics if Pierce and Garnett were not going to be on the roster.“Doc never said any such thing,” a source close to the coach said. “He just wasn’t sure if he could rev himself up for years of rebuilding. He never issued any ultimatums about anyone.”
Serena Williams said every athlete “should be completely grateful and honored” for the protests started by former NFL players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid.Kaepernick and Reid, two former San Francisco 49ers now out of the league, were each given huge ovations when they were introduced and shown on the big screen during the match between Serena and Venus Williams at the U.S. Open on Friday night. Serena Williams said she was focused on the match and did not notice the pair in the stands. Reid raised his fist and Kaepernick smiled for the fans.Kaepernick tweeted a photo of his young niece with Serena and wrote, “Lani lost it when Serena surprised her after the match!!! Thank you so much Serena!!!”Serena said she was grateful for the stand they took that has seen both players take on the NFL. An arbitrator is sending Kaepernick’s grievance with the NFL to trial, denying the league’s request to throw out the quarterback’s claims that owners conspired to keep him out of the league because of his protests of social injustice. A similar grievance is still pending by unsigned safety Eric Reid, who played with Kaepernick in San Francisco and joined in the protests.Kaepernick began a wave of protests by NFL players two seasons ago, kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality. The protests have grown into one of the most polarizing issues in sports, with President Donald Trump loudly urging the league to suspend or fire players who demonstrate during the anthem.“I think every athlete, every human, and definitely every African-American should be completely grateful and honored how Colin and Eric are doing so much more for the greater good, so to say,” Serena said. “They really use their platform in ways that is really unfathomable. I feel like they obviously have great respect from a lot of their peers, especially other athletes, people that really are looking for social change.”Serena Williams equaled her most-lopsided victory ever in 30 professional meetings with sister Venus, beating her 6-1, 6-2 in the third round.
1939Yankees.252.284-.032 201783170.3000.239 8Miguel SanoTwins717875.1 Miguel MonteroC558.181.0-2.8-4.4-1.6 PERCENTAGE OF TIME… 1999Reds.262.298-.036 1906Cubs.238.272-.034 1898Beaneaters.256.290-.034 Anthony Rizzo1B1337.1288.3-5.2-14.2-8.9 PLAYERPOS2016201720162017CHANGE 2001Mariners.260.292-.032 Welcome to Full Count, our new(!) weekly baseball column. Have anything you want me to write about? Email or tweet me at email@example.com or @Neil_Paine.Of all the elements that allowed the Chicago Cubs to erase 108 years of suffering and finally win the World Series last fall, one of the most important was the team’s stellar defense. Just how efficient were Chicago’s fielders a year ago? Relative to league average, the 2016 Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of any team ever.1Over a full season; sorry, 1884 Milwaukee Brewers. As in, since the dawn of big-league ball in 1871, ever. The only team that was even comparable to these Cubs was the 1890 Columbus Solons (a franchise that appears to have folded the next year without explaining its defensive wizardry — or what a “Solon” was).2From what I can tell — which isn’t much — it was either a reference to an Athenian legislator or another town in Ohio (one that, oddly, is not near Columbus). 7George SpringerAstros767575.2 180Corey DickersonRays725562.1 5Joe Morgan2681865689524.6 177Jose ReyesMets566962.5 INNINGSDEF PER 1200 INNINGS* 2016Cubs.255.298-.043 Data through May 9Source: FanGraphs 1899Beaneaters.265.298-.033 Addison RussellSS1262.2273.0+20.8+10.1-10.7 RKPLAYERHRWALKSSTEALSPOWER-SPEED-PATIENCE* 176Xander BogaertsRed Sox567063.1 178Salvador PerezRoyals695862.5 ⁝Average677169.4 Albert AlmoraCF237.0144.1+29.4-5.8-35.2 10Bobby Abreu2881476400451.1 BATTING AVERAGE ON BALLS IN PLAY 182J.J. HardyOrioles536961.0 Weighted average 3Freddie FreemanBraves827276.0 YEARTEAMTEAMLEAGUEDIFF. Data through May 8. Returning Cubs players only.* “Def” is FanGraphs’ defensive value over average, which includes Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) grades relative to position, as well as an adjustment for the defensive value of each position.Numbers are listed per 1,200 innings, roughly a season’s worth of playing time.Source: FanGraphs Ben ZobristUTIL1263.6214.5-1.4+9.0+10.4 BALLS IN PLAYBATTING AVERAGE ON BALLS IN PLAY Nope! The Cubs are still basically shifting as little as they did a year ago. And the irony is that the BABIP they’ve allowed when shifting is exactly the same as it was last season (.239). The only difference has come on plays when Chicago hasn’t shifted, where opposing hitters’ BABIP has risen from a ridiculously low .258 mark last year to essentially league average this season.(The biggest difference in pure positioning for the Cubs is that Kris Bryant now plays the shallowest third base in the game. The rest of Chicago’s infield and outfield positions play at roughly the same average depth as they did a year ago, per Statcast data.)So it’s not the configuration of Chicago’s defense that’s changed. But it wasn’t just Maddon’s contrarian strategy on shifting that was keeping batted-ball averages down last year, it was also his pitchers’ superior ability to mitigate damage on contact. My colleagues Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh wrote last season about how the Cubs’ hurlers were inducing particularly easy-to-field balls on contact — which, they postulated, helped Chicago come by that microscopic BABIP honestly (or at least, more honestly than other teams). And certainly the 2016 Cubs allowed some of MLB’s lowest rates of hard contact, according to both exit velocity and other classifications.But Chicago’s pitchers aren’t doing poorly in that department this season, either, even if they are yielding a few more hard-hit balls this time around.4For those curious, opposing hitters’ average launch angle has barely budged. And any changes in where they spray the ball (hitters are pulling slightly more against the Cubs this year) are minor. If the Cubs’ defensive success was all about inducing soft contact, we’d expect them to be seeing similar defensive results this season, too.More likely, the Cubs didn’t find a secret BABIP-suppressing hack last year, nor did they forget it this season. Instead, a good amount of Chicago’s defensive brilliance (and subsequent backslide) can probably be explained with the statistician’s most dreaded word: luck. For all the advances we’ve made in understanding and evaluating defense over the past couple decades, and for all the hope that Voros McCracken’s original, earth-shattering finding about pitchers — that they appear to have little control over whether balls in play become hits or outs — was flawed or incomplete, there’s a lot about defense that remains highly unpredictable and beyond the control of fielders, pitchers and managers.No matter whether we judge a team’s fielding according to a simple metric like BABIP allowed or something more advanced such as UZR or Defensive Runs Saved, defensive performance in one season only explains roughly 10 percent of the variation in the same statistic the following season.5Using data from 2003 to 2016. Although some of that year-to-year noise is due to players switching teams between seasons, it also speaks volumes about the inherent randomness of a baseball coming off a bat. That’s why even a defense as dominant as the 2016 Cubs — or perhaps especially a defense that dominant– will see a big chunk of its advantage melt away in later seasons.What does that mean for the Cubs? Even granting that last year’s defensive performance was partially the product of good luck, Chicago’s 17-17 record (which the underlying metrics say is about right for how this team has played) is disappointing relative to the amount of talent on its roster. But 34 games is a small sample in a sport where it takes nearly 70 games to reach the same level of certainty in the standings that we get after, say, 11 games in the NFL or 14 in the NBA. So Cubs fans shouldn’t overreact too much: This is still one of the best teams in the majors, and it should eventually put together a record to match. It would be unfair, however, to expect Chicago’s fielding to be as ludicrously efficient as it was a year ago. That historic defense should add to the lore of the Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series win, but that’s all it is now — history.Happy (belated) birthday, Willie MaysInstead of pointing out how terrible the San Francisco Giants are these days — they’ve lost 16 of their last 23 ballgames — I’d like to take a second to once again appreciate the excellence of their all-time greatest player, Willie Mays, who turned 86 years old on Saturday.I’ve written about this before, but Mays was probably the greatest all-around ballplayer in major league history. (The fact that he only won two career MVP awards is one of the underrated travesties of baseball history.) Mays is one of only eight players ever with more than 300 career home runs and 300 steals, and he ranks third all-time in Bill James’ power-speed number.6Which is just the harmonic mean of a player’s career steals and homers. He also walked more (both in total and on a rate basis) than any member of that 300-300 club except his godson, Barry Bonds. Those two — plus Rickey Henderson, who just missed the 300-homer club by 3 dingers — stand atop the reformulated list if we adjust James’s power-speed stat to also include walks: Shift data is on balls in play only. MLB average includes both 2016 and 2017 seasons.Source: FanGraphs 1941Dodgers.245.275-.030 MLB average72280.2970.294 * The harmonic mean of a player’s lifetime home runs, walks and stealsSource: FanGraphs Kris Bryant3B1366.2288.0+9.7+2.5-7.2 +9.7+3.8-5.9 Matt SzczurOF352.430.0+16.3+4.0-12.3 1Barry Bonds7622558514822.2 175Manuel MargotPadres596863.8 Have the Cubs forgotten how to field? YEARNO SHIFTSHIFTNO SHIFTSHIFT Minimum 140 games played in seasonSource: FanGraphs 6Hank Aaron7551402240483.5 Javier Baez2B970.3215.1+15.7+5.0-10.7 Plate discipline doesn’t automatically equate to successful hitting. Corey Dickerson is swinging at everything that moves — and knocking the cover off the ball. Matt Joyce refuses to offer at a bad pitch, and he can’t buy a hit. But by and large, the hitters at the top of the discipline rankings do tend to be more productive than the ones at the bottom. And they do it mainly by avoiding swinging at junk outside the strike zone.In terms of predicting hitting effectiveness, a batter’s rate of good decisions on pitches outside the zone is about three times as important as his rate of good decisions on pitches inside the zone. In other words, it’s not the end of the world if you let a strike go by without swinging — who knows, maybe you’re waiting for your pitch. But few batters can get away with flailing at bad pitches for long. For every Dickerson or Vlad Guerrero, there’s an undisciplined hacker who let the pitcher trick him into getting himself out. 9Gary Sheffield5091475253454.9 1Joey VottoReds77%82%80.1% With the exception of new starting catcher Willson Contreras and utilityman extraordinaire Ben Zobrist, every single holdover from the 2016 Cubs has contributed less defensively than he did a season ago. Some have gone from average to bad while others have gone from great to merely good, but there have been big declines across the board.Such an abrupt and widespread deterioration begs for an explanation, and an obvious one might be that manager Joe Maddon made a tactical change. For example, last season, just as the infield shift hit another all-time high in popularity across MLB, Maddon — famous iconoclast that he is — decided to dial back on using baseball’s favorite new-old tactic. So perhaps Maddon has changed how he’s been deploying his defense so far this year? The all-time kings of power, speed and patience, 1871-2017 183Javier BaezCubs715460.5 The Cubs still aren’t shifting much, but they’re good when they do 9Matt JoyceAthletics688174.9 Kyle SchwarberLF7.2211.0+0.0-17.1-17.1 The most and least disciplined batters of 2017 The most efficient defenses in MLB history, 1871-2016 4Brandon BeltGiants727975.6 5Mike TroutAngels727875.3 1975Dodgers.245.277-.032 4Alex Rodriguez6961338329574.3 7Bobby Bonds332914460477.7 2Rickey Henderson29721901406661.5 Willson ContrerasC588.4212.0+9.2+22.6+13.5 3Willie Mays6601464338581.8 174Carlos BeltranAstros626563.8 Jason HeywardRF1200.2229.3+15.4+7.3-8.1 201684%16%0.2580.239 RKNAMETEAMPITCH IN ZONE, SWUNGPITCH OUTSIDE ZONE, TOOKGOOD DECISION And even within that group, what really set Mays apart was his defense. While Henderson was fairly mediocre with the glove, and Bonds’s once-great fielding skills eroded significantly over time, Mays is the third-best defensive outfielder ever, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s defensive WAR. (He was still a Gold Glove centerfielder in 1968, at age 37!) Because of Mays’s unparalleled skills with his bat, feet and glove, he is the only player in baseball history to record at least 120 offensive WAR and 15 defensive WAR.And he cleared both those benchmarks easily — because of course he did, he’s the greatest all-around player ever. Happy birthday, Willie, and here’s to many more.Who’s showing the most — and least — plate discipline?Three years ago, I cooked up a way to see which players were making the best decisions at the plate using FanGraphs’ wonderful “Plate Discipline” stats. Since the site lists the percentage of pitches each player faced that were and were not in the strike zone,7According to pitch-tracking data collected by Baseball Info Solutions and MLB’s Statcast system. along with the share of pitches that were or were not swung at, we can calculate how often a player is correctly identifying a pitch to swing at (because it was over the plate) or lay off (because it definitely was not).Here are the top and bottom 10 so far this year: 1890Solons.254.295-.041 6Anthony RendonNationals727975.3 181Danny ValenciaMariners556761.7 179Chris DavisOrioles546962.5 2Jed LowrieAthletics757876.5 Boosted by that historic out-generating vacuum behind them, Cubs pitchers also led the majors in earned run average by the 10th-widest margin3Tied with the 1991 Dodgers. of any staff since 1901, threatening all sorts of run-prevention records along the way. They allowed 140 fewer runs than the average team, and analytics credit the fielders with something between 50 and 70 percent (depending on the estimate being used) of those saved runs. The Cubs were loaded with stars up and down their lineup, and their pitchers shined brightly when fielders weren’t required, but the importance of Chicago’s glovework was still undeniable.But the Cubs’ defensive numbers were so off-the-charts last year that they almost seemed unsustainable. And as it turns out, they probably were. This year, the Cubs are right at .500, sitting in fourth place in the NL Central — and their once-dominant defense might be to blame. Instead of allowing the lowest BABIP on the planet, they’re in the middle of the pack defensively; not coincidentally, their staff ERA is unremarkable and they’ve allowed two more runs than an average team. Simply put, Chicago’s secret fielding weapon isn’t working anymore.This raises a host of questions about the Cubs and about defensive metrics in general. Have the Cubs suddenly, collectively forgotten how to field? Are offseason defections to blame? Or did Chicago just enjoy a historic amount of luck in the field last year — luck for which their fielders received too much credit? And if so, what does that say about our ability to measure defense?It’s a lot to sort out, so let’s start with the personnel involved. Chicago’s most notable offseason move effectively saw former Padres center fielder Jon Jay slot in for Dexter Fowler, who joined the rival Cardinals. According to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), one of the most commonly cited advanced defensive metrics, the Cubs haven’t fared well in the exchange. Although Fowler’s defensive track record hasn’t always been great, he was surprisingly solid a year ago; Jay, meanwhile, is tracking for a very poor defensive season in 2017.In combination with the retirement of expert defensive catcher and game-caller David Ross, the Jay-for-Fowler tradeoff has helped erode Chicago’s edge in the field. But a far bigger factor is the team’s returning players: 10Eric ThamesBrewers687974.8 8Carlos Beltran4241054312460.7
Trying to get the offense into rhythm, the Steelers unwittingly played into the Jaguars’ hands. Haley called a host of wide-receiver screens and dump-off passes to tailback Le’Veon Bell, but the lateral speed of the Jaguars defenders allowed them to bottle up the Steelers’ short passing game: The Steelers averaged 5.6 yards after catch on the season,2They finished fifth in the league with 2,146 yards after catch. but they averaged just 3.5 against Jacksonville.This pattern repeated itself throughout the game. Jacksonville’s corners frequently played Brown tightly, with safety help over the top, while keeping Smith-Schuster in front of them with plenty of cushion. Whether or not the Jaguars showed blitz, Roethlisberger kept throwing to his first read, frequently forcing throws to Brown.Here’s Roethlisberger’s passing chart for the game, via ESPN Stats & Info: Meanwhile, Brown is coming off a calf injury that may or may not hamper him against Ramsey and Jacksonville. If Brown is unavailable or ineffective, and the running game isn’t working, Roethlisberger will have to do a much better job of reading the defense and finding the open receiver — or there will be more picks where the first five came from.Check out our latest NFL predictions. Roethlisberger targeted Brown 19 times on the day, completing just 10 passes. Take out that opening bomb, and Brown gained just 108 yards on the 18 other passes thrown his way. That’s an average of just 6.0 yards per target, down from his season-long average of 9.4. And three of Roethlisberger’s five interceptions came while targeting Brown, including both pick-sixes.What could Haley and the Steelers have done instead? They could have taken a page from the other team on the field.While Fournette was racking up 181 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, Bell was given just six second-half carries, despite reeling off his game-high 15-yard carry on the first drive of the second half. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger dropped back to throw 39 times in the second half.Former Steelers tailback DeAngelo Williams saw the solution, too; he told Steve Gorman of Fox Sports Radio that if “Haley doesn’t run the damn ball like he should have the first time, they should fire his ass.”Bell only averaged 3.1 yards per carry in Week 5,3Down from his season average of 4.0. so maybe it won’t be quite as simple as handing him the ball more often. But with Roethlisberger pressing downfield leading to two defensive scores and three flipped fields, restoring run-pass balance to the offense can’t possibly hurt. The Steelers might also benefit from the ball bouncing their way more often; one of Roethlisberger’s picks came on a deflection, and another when Schuster fell down. The last time the Jacksonville Jaguars came into Heinz Field, the 7.5-point underdogs embarrassed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his Pittsburgh Steelers so badly, Roethlisberger wondered aloud if he didn’t “have it anymore.”Roethlisberger threw 55 passes in that Week 5 matchup, netting just 5.67 yards per attempt with no touchdowns and a whopping five interceptions. The Steelers managed just three field goals on 12 offensive possessions. The Jaguars didn’t throw the ball well either, but they didn’t need to: Tailback Leonard Fournette rumbled for 181 yards and two touchdowns, while two Jaguars defenders returned interceptions for touchdowns.On Sunday, the Jaguars will return to the scene of their triumph. Yet they opened as 6.5-point underdogs, with Vegas bookmakers not believing they can do what they did to the Steelers a second time.So just what did they do to the Steelers?On the Jaguars’ first defensive play of the game, at least, they didn’t do much. With second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey lined up tight on All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger tested Ramsey by going long — and completing a 49-yard bomb.But if Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley had faith in Roethlisberger and his wide receivers, Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash had faith in his athletic secondary.Early in the game, Jacksonville showed a lot of tight man and off-man looks, with a single high safety. They also flashed different blitzes, but according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, they only blitzed once. After the snap, the Jaguars frequently dropped back into middle-of-the-field zones while the corners clamped down on the outside receivers.By rushing four and dropping seven, the Jaguars allowed a lot of short completions, but they limited post-catch damage. The strategy also limited downfield options, giving the Jaguars’ second-ranked pass rush plenty of time to create pressure and force Roethlisberger to make mistakes.Just before the end of the first half, the Steelers were facing a 3rd-and-6 at their own 19-yard line. Down 7-3 with 1:20 still on the clock, they still had plenty of time to score before heading into the locker room. Here’s how Jacksonville lined up:At the top of the screen, Ramsey is giving Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster almost 10 yards of cushion. This seems like a mistake, given that Pittsburgh only needs 6 yards to convert. Pittsburgh is lined up in the shotgun with 1-1 personnel,1One running back, one tight end, three wide receivers. and Jacksonville has its nickel package in.Both linebackers are up at the line of scrimmage, along with safety Barry Church, indicating a blitz is coming. But at the snap, only the four down linemen actually rush; the Jaguars drop back seven players into coverage. Roethlisberger, presumably expecting a blitz, locks onto Smith-Schuster and throws early, anticipating Smith-Schuster getting open on his comeback route.Instead, Ramsey uses his closing speed and makes a great play on the ball:
In a day without marquee matchups in Brazil, the World Cup game that is most likely to feature two knockout-stage teams also projects to be the biggest blowout. France vs. Ecuador is the best of an uninspiring lineup. The match that could decide who advances in Group E will feature the tournament’s most-explosive offense.Argentina vs. Nigeria 12 p.m. EDTBosnia and Herzegovina vs. Iran 12 p.m. EDTEcuador vs. France 4 p.m. EDTSwitzerland vs. Honduras 4 p.m. EDTIN BRIEFIN DEPTHFrance has been peppering opponents’ goals: It leads the tournament in per-match rates of goals and shots on target from within the area. Karim Benzema leads all players with nine such shots, a relentless performance that could earn him a big raise from Real Madrid to ward off other teams.France also played one of the easiest schedules of any team at the tournament. Its two opponents so far rank in the bottom 13 of the 32 World Cup sides in ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, and in the bottom eight in defensive rating. Ecuador is no defensive stalwart, ranking right at the tournament average, but Honduras and Switzerland make it look like a steel trap.Not much is at stake for France here: It has essentially clinched a spot in the knockout stage and has a 99.7 percent chance of winning the group, thanks to its mammoth lead in goal differential. Ecuador, though, has work to do. It’s level with Switzerland at three points, and though it has the edge in goal differential, it also has the tougher opponent Wednesday. If Switzerland wins, Ecuador will have to upset France to have a chance to advance.The early games include a matchup between the top two teams in Group F, Argentina and Nigeria. The harmonic mean of these two teams’ SPI is slightly higher than for France and Ecuador. But Argentina is so much better by SPI than Nigeria that the match also projects to be the day’s biggest blowout.A tie would be mutually beneficial for Argentina and Nigeria. Argentina would guarantee itself a spot atop the group; that’s especially valuable because it will face the runner-up in Group E, and that team will probably be much weaker than the winner, which almost definitely will be France. A tie would also mean Nigeria clinches second in the group, knocking out Iran.There is precedent for thinking that when two teams meeting in the last match of the group stage can both benefit from the same outcome, that outcome will happen. It happened in 1982, when West Germany beat Austria by a 1-0 score in a match that turned farcical in front of fans who called out “fix.” And it happened at the Euros in 2004, when the 2-2 draw Denmark and Sweden needed to advance and knock out Italy materialized. Two teams can arrive at a mutually desired outcome without any planning, simply by playing until they reach that score and not pushing hard afterward.Bettors haven’t taken into account the mutual incentive for an Argentina-Nigeria draw. The consensus probability of a draw on the betting sites whose odds are compiled by Oddschecker.com was 21 percent Wednesday morning, which is also SPI’s estimate. There’s a much bigger difference for Thursday’s U.S.-Germany match, another game in which a draw would aid both teams. There, the SPI-based model says there is a 22 percent chance of a tie, while bettors think there is a 33 percent chance.Wednesday also marks the end of South America’s group stage. All six of the continent’s World Cup teams will go through to the knockout stage if Ecuador’s day goes well. CONMEBOL could even win four of the eight groups if Argentina does the expected and wins Group F, and Ecuador accomplishes the nearly impossible and wins Group E.YESTERDAYAmid the controversy surrounding Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, his team defeated Italy 1-0 to advance to the Round of 16, where Group C winner and fellow CONMEBOL member Colombia awaits.The winning goal came from Diego Godin, who scored for his country for the first time in his last 72 matches, dating to Oct. 18, 2006. But Godin is no stranger to big goals lately; he scored the goal on the final day of the La Liga season to clinch the title for Atletico Madrid, and he scored the first goal in the Champions League final for Atletico.Godin scored the winner with his head, continuing a trend. All eight of his goals for Atletico this season were headers, and six of the eight came from set pieces, as was Tuesday’s.The turning point for the match came after Italy’s Claudio Marchisio received a red card in the 59th minute. Through the 59th minute, Uruguay had created two chances and had nine touches in the attacking penalty area. From the 60th minute on, the Uruguayans had eight touches in the box and created five chances, one of which led to the winning goalBy comparison, Italy managed to create one chance and had one touch in the attacking penalty area after Marchisio’s red card. Italy had three touches in the attacking penalty area all told, its fewest in a World Cup match in at least the past 50 years.Though Suarez’s most notable action may have been with his teeth, he also contributed with his feet, posting match highs with six shots and four shots on target. He also was tied for first among all players in chances created (two) and attacking penalty-area touches (three). — Jacob Nitzberg, senior stats analyst, ESPNOFF THE PITCHFrom their partnerships on energy and job creation to their pacts on prisoner exchange, Nigeria and Argentina have gotten closer in recent years. This increasingly friendly relationship is reflected in trade as well. According to OECD data, exports from Argentina to Nigeria have increased significantly from 2009 (in which total exports were worth $59 million) to 2012 (total exports were worth $289 million), the most recent year for which data is available. This is surprising given that the share of higher-value exports, such as machinery, decreased in this span. But it seems that the exports of wheat, maize and soybeans (62 percent of exports to Nigeria in 2012) have grown more than enough to compensate.Trade in the opposite direction doesn’t tell quite the same story, with Nigerian exports to Argentina dropping from $204 million in 2011 to $56 million in 2012. But even that number is a remarkable increase from the $931,000 in exports that Nigeria sent Argentina in 2009. The main cause for the overall rise is the incorporation of liquefied petroleum gases into the countries’ trade agreement in 2011. This new export was so dominant that it caused the previous main export, natural rubber, to diminish from a 72 percent share in 2010 to a 0.8 percent share in 2011. — Hayley MunguiaFURTHER READINGWorld Cup Advancement Scenarios For Groups E And FYour ‘Luis Suárez Bit a Guy!?’ Reaction PostIn Praise of Cristiano Ronaldo
DETBOS, OKC+1.4 (Note that all of these gains and losses are for 2014-15 only — they don’t take into account draft picks exchanged or even the future implications of picking up a player and his contract.)As SB Nation’s Paul Flannery noted, this trade deadline didn’t really make much difference despite all the chaos in the final hectic minutes.Sure, the top team, Miami, added about 2.4 wins over the rest of the season, and Phoenix brought up the rear with a loss of more than 3 WAR when the dust settled. The moves may have kept the Heat afloat for the playoffs (especially in light of the subsequent news that Chris Bosh would be lost for the season with blood clots) and signaled the death knell for the Suns’ postseason chances.But the rest of the biggest movers and shakers on deadline day either had already locked up a playoff slot (Washington and Oklahoma City took steps back but are near 100 percent playoff probability by our projections anyway) or didn’t have a prayer no matter what they did (the Celtics, for all their improvements on deadline day, are still staring at a mere 12.1 percent chance of making the playoffs).The exception to this might be the Detroit Pistons. Two weeks ago, the Pistons clung to a meager 9.9 percent probability of making the playoffs, according to our model. Now they have a 47.8 percent chance of making the postseason and have jumped from 21st to 16th in the power rankings — some of that thanks to the 1.4-WAR boost they picked up at the trade deadline with Reggie Jackson (an upgrade made doubly positive by the discarding of sub-replacement level guard D.J. Augustin).Aside from the Pistons, however, it seems as though few of Thursday’s moves will upend the playoff picture in either conference.At any rate, many of the trades yielded positive WAR simply by jettisoning a poor player from the roster. Take, for instance, Sacramento’s trade of Ramon Sessions to Washington. It netted a solid player in return — Andre Miller is expected to generate 0.8 WAR for the Kings over the rest of the season — but removing Sessions was the bigger windfall in terms of 2014-15 WAR. Sessions’ -5.1 predictive RPM combined with an expectation of 17 minutes per game to potentially deliver -1.0 WAR to Sacramento before it traded him away.As for the rankings themselves, the New Orleans Pelicans were the biggest movers since two Mondays ago — and in a very bad way. They lost all-everything forward Anthony Davis to a shoulder sprain that will cost him several weeks of action, which coupled with an ongoing injury to Jrue Holiday — and the addition of RPM disaster Norris Cole — to drop the Pelicans 11 ranking slots. RPM says their depleted roster projects to be the fourth-worst in basketball over the next week.The Dallas Mavericks dropped eight slots in this edition of the rankings. Adding Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t help, but the biggest changes were an injury to Chandler Parsons and the return of statistical enigma Rajon Rondo to their lineup. Rondo’s having a subpar season by the numbers, and short-term RPM gives him a rating near the replacement level. But at least Dallas is still 99.5 percent likely to make the playoffs, according to our simulations.Looking for good news? The Los Angeles Clippers rose six spots in the rankings from two weeks ago. Usually changes to the power ratings are due to player movement, injuries or other reallocations of minutes, but in the case of the Clippers, the improved play of Jamal Crawford has also played a role. Crawford still carries a negative RPM rating, but he’s averaging 22.8 points per game over his last four outings and has been present for some of the Clippers’ best basketball — they’ve averaged a +17.5 scoring margin per game with him on the floor over the past two weeks.Finally, let’s give a hand to the New York Knicks. While they’ve been a fun punchline all season, they’ve been in a dogfight with the Philadelphia 76ers for last place in our rankings all season. But after a season-ending injury to Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks have separated themselves from the pack, easily ranking as the least-talented team in the NBA this week. With the likes of RPM ne’er-do-wells Jose Calderon, Jason Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. projected to soak up huge minutes for the rest of the season, Jim Dolan’s team is truly a fitting “Hope Diamond in his loser’s tiara.” DENPHI, POR+0.7 MILPHO+0.0 PHODET, MIA, MIL-3.2 After a week’s hiatus because of the All-Star break, we’re back with FiveThirtyEight’s NBA Power Ratings.There are more than a few trade deadline-related changes to the rankings this week, but before I get to those, a quick explanation of how these numbers work: Teams are ranked according to a projection of their strength over the upcoming week using Real Plus-Minus (RPM) player ratings provided by Jeremias Engelmann and Steve Ilardi. For more details on these numbers, see our introductory rankings post.In many ways, ranking the league after a reshuffling of players — like Thursday’s trade deadline — is precisely what power ratings such as these are intended to do. Because they’re based on the underlying talent of the players on each team’s roster, they ought to be able to account for player movement more quickly than ratings that require the new-look teams to play together a bunch of times.So, how much did the deadline really shake up the league? Here’s a look at the statistical effect of deadline trades on each team, in terms of the RPM wins above replacement (WAR) they are projected to gain or lose over the remainder of the 2014-15 schedule: NYKHOU-0.5 MIANOP, PHO+2.4 PORDEN+0.4 NOPMIA, OKC, PHO-0.1 BOSDET+2.1 UTAOKC+0.2 MINBRK-0.2 TEAMTRADED WITHNET WAR PHIDEN, HOU, MIL-0.1 SACWAS+1.8 OKCNOP, UTA-0.7 WASSAC-0.9 BRKMIN+0.4 HOUNYK, PHI+0.3
142000Spurs1694.459.9 222013Spurs1681.858.4 191965Celtics1687.159.5 281985Celtics1677.258.2 101972Bucks1703.463.9 261998Bulls1678.459.0 92014Spurs1708.160.6 161981Lakers1693.360.2 71986Lakers1725.062.1 RANKYEARTEAMELO AFTER 10 GAMESEXPECTED WINS PER 82 GAMES 52002Lakers1725.762.2 31987Celtics1736.762.9 Last season’s Golden State Warriors were a great story. Adding a new coach to what was already an exciting young core, they made The Leap and finally melded their talented roster into a champion — as well as one of the best teams in NBA history.But even after all that, the Warriors still had naysayers. Over the offseason, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers pointed out Golden State’s good fortune in having to face neither his team nor the San Antonio Spurs during its playoff run. (The Clippers, if you recall, had a chance to stand in the Warriors’ way — and whiffed on it.) Others simply wondered if things had gone too smoothly for the Warriors and questioned whether they’d be able to overcome greater adversity when it inevitably presented itself.Few defending champs have had to explain themselves as much as Golden State did this summer. But when the league rolled out the balls and started playing games again, the Warriors picked up right where they left off.Actually, strike that — over the past three weeks, they’ve somehow played even better than the lofty standard they set for themselves last season. According to our Elo ratings — which have always loved this Warriors squad — no team in NBA history has looked so good 10 games into a season:1“Expected wins per 82 games” represents Elo’s estimate of a team’s true talent relative to its league — essentially, it answers the question, “How many games would this team win in a season against an average schedule?” 112009Lakers1700.660.2 132014Heat1694.559.5 252006Pistons1679.558.7 151968Sixers1693.863.3 It might not hold up over an entire season, but the Warriors have improved at both ends of the floor in the early going. The offense is moving the ball more, simultaneously drawing more fouls and shooting more 3-pointers (which means fewer of those dreaded midrange jumpers2According to the shooting zones defined by NBA.com.), and on defense, they’re doing just about everything a teensy bit better. Plus, five of their top six minute-earners have a higher Box Plus/Minus (BPM) than they did a season ago,3The only holdout? Klay Thompson, who’s almost certainly going to start shooting better and rein in those turnovers. headlined by Stephen Curry’s outrageously high +15.4 mark.It’s not hard to tell how Curry, in particular, has gotten off to such a ridiculous statistical start this season. He’s notched 30 or more points in six of Golden State’s 10 games, including a 53-point outing against the New Orleans Pelicans and a couple more 40-point performances: 61993Bulls1725.562.8 122003Mavericks1696.459.8 172015Spurs1692.759.3 292010Lakers1676.058.0 If Curry’s BPM stays this high all season, it would make for the best individual season in modern NBA history. Of course, that’s something our preseason CARMELO projections assigned a roughly 0.9 percent probability to, so it’s likely he’ll come back down to earth a bit between now and next April.But Curry himself also typifies what might be a slightly new tendency in Golden State’s offense. Like his team, Curry is shooting fewer twos than ever but getting to the line more, eschewing the midrange game in favor of more shots in the restricted area, as well as more of every type of 3-pointer. These marginal changes in shot selection can add up: If Curry maintains his average rate of points per shot within each zone,4And we can argue how much that’s a valid assumption — especially since Curry seems to be assisting himself more in the midrange than last year, which is bad. But these shifts are so subtle that I think it’s a fair baseline to start from. he’ll essentially get four “free” points for every 100 shots he takes from the floor, a number that balloons to 54 points — or almost two extra wins — when you take 1,371 shots per season.It remains to be seen if Curry and the Warriors can keep this up. Certainly, they’re not going to keep beating the rest of the league by 17 points per game. But it’s notable that Golden State has come out of the blocks so quickly this season. After a summer spent fending off doubts about the long-term viability of its style of play, this team seems determined to extend the Year of the Warriors into 2016 and beyond. 241973Bucks1680.361.3 81999Jazz1710.761.4 12016Warriors1793.866.8 232008Spurs1680.458.5 212010Cavaliers1684.358.8 272005Spurs1677.458.7 41992Bulls1729.663.4 21997Bulls1785.567.1 301991Pistons1675.759.6 201989Pistons1685.160.1 181982Celtics1687.559.5
blythe (Blythe Terrell, general editor): OK, so the conference championships are this weekend. The real test of our new College Football Playoff model is IMMINENT.natesilver (Nate Silver, editor-in-chief): Well, it’s not much of a test, since the scenarios are either pretty obvious or the model’s like all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.andrewflowers (Andrew Flowers, quantitative editor): Yeah, if Alabama and Clemson cruise to win their conference titles, this is an open-and-shut case: They both get into the playoff, alongside Oklahoma and the Big Ten winner. But if one or both lose, all hell will break loose.natesilver: Probably where the model most disagrees with the conventional wisdom is in thinking Clemson might still have a pretty good shot — even with a loss.andrewflowers: Exactly, @natesilver. That makes the ACC championship the most interesting game to watch. If Clemson loses, the playoff committee has a difficult job. Will UNC get in? Or could Stanford take their place if they win the Pac-12?Or will Clemson sneak in despite losing?!blythe: Part of me hopes it gets exciting (since I’ve got no team in the game). I want something weird to happen. And part of the model is trying to predict how the committee members will think, right?natesilver: Yeah, the whole point of the model is that it’s trying to replicate human thinking. So since everyone else is all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about what happens if Clemson or Alabama loses, maybe that means it’s right in some sense!What it can do, though, is think an extra step or two ahead. For instance, it recognized that Stanford still had an outside path to making it into the playoff even after Stanford’s second loss to Oregon a few weeks ago. Why? Because it knew that Stanford could potentially beat Notre Dame, then win the Pac-12 — and that might look pretty good to the committee.Likewise, it recognized that a Big 12 team that got hot was likely to leapfrog Notre Dame — and it turned out that Oklahoma did exactly that, even before Notre Dame lost to Stanford.blythe: Stanford sneaking in would make SOMEONE here happy (@allison)allison (Allison McCann, visual journalist): AND WE DID BEAT NOTRE DAME!blythe: Oh, yeah, what ever happened to the Irish?andrewflowers: I get emails from Notre Dame fans asking for their playoff odds if they had beaten Stanford.blythe: Everyone is on a quest for hope, Andrew.natesilver: If there were a six-team playoff, like there should be, Notre Dame would be a bubble team right now. But maybe let’s get back to the cases at hand?allison: Stanford is sitting with a 13 percent chance of making the playoff, but they almost certainly need a big-time loss from someone else this weekend, right?andrewflowers: That’s right @allison — Alabama and/or Clemson need to lose for the Cardinal to get in.blythe: So, the Big Ten winner gets in. And Oklahoma is a lock. That’s where we stand, right? Those are the two knowns?natesilver: And that Alabama and Clemson are locks if they win. So there could be no drama at all, if the favorites win out.blythe: Right. So the interesting scenarios …allison: Yeah, forget favorites. Give us all the drama.blythe: If Clemson loses and Alabama wins, then what?allison: Does that make Ohio State next in line? (It’s NOT Stanford, which is garbage.)andrewflowers: Our model is high on Clemson even if they lose; they have the highest odds to get in, at 42 percent (assuming Alabama wins). But the Pac-12 game really matters here. If Stanford beats USC, they might get in.allison: I am completely unashamed of my favoritism here. Stanford could be more likely than Ohio State to make it in if they win that conference title! THAT’S WHAT ANDREW WROTE!natesilver: Yeah, let’s unpack a few things here. First, the model thinks that four teams have a credible case — Stanford, Clemson, UNC and Ohio State. It likes Stanford’s chances a little better than UNC and Ohio State — if Stanford wins. And it puts Clemson right up there with Stanford, in defiance of the conventional wisdom I guess.But when I think through the politics of the committee’s decision, I like Stanford’s chances a little better than the model does.allison: Because of Condi???andrewflowers: Think of it like this: if Clemson loses, they can point out they’ve played a more challenging schedule than UNC, and had a signature win over Notre Dame, too. And, relative to Stanford, they’d have fewer losses despite not winning their conference. It’s a tough call for the committee.But the ultimate nightmare is if Clemson and Stanford lose. Will that pave the way for Ohio State to sneak in? Don’t sleep on the Buckeyes!natesilver: @allison: I think the committee starts from the premise that it doesn’t have much respect for UNC and thinks they’d get demolished if they were in the playoff. So it wants to find an excuse to leave them out. But it has trouble taking Clemson over UNC when UNC just beat Clemson. How about Ohio State? Maybe, but they’re not a conference champion either — and frankly, if you’re going to take a one-loss nonchampion, Clemson’s resume is at least as good as Ohio State’s. That leaves Stanford. They’re a politically correct choice, having won their conference title and having played a much better schedule than UNC.allison: And because of Condi ;-).Okay fine, Andrew, I’ll go with you and consider losses from both Clemson and Stanford. You’ve written that our model consistently likes the Buckeyes more than the committee — why?andrewflowers: Would the committee really pick UNC over Ohio State if the Tar Heels beat Clemson and Stanford also loses? That to me is the existential question. Lots of $$$ is involved in these selections. I don’t mean to sound too conspiratorial, but with Ohio State’s national football fanbase, it’d be awfully tempting to pick them.blythe: Let’s look at another scenario. What if the Tide get rolled and the Tigers beat the Tar Heels? Then you have Florida as the SEC champ over ‘Bama. What does that do? Could a two-loss Gators team show up in the playoff?andrewflowers: Um, no.natesilver: Ohio State’s a fascinating case, @allison. Because, remember, the model’s job is to replicate human thinking. And it thinks humans should really like Ohio State for some pretty basic reasons. One-loss power conference team. Defending national champion. (That’s factored in implicitly in way the model uses Elo ratings, which carry over slightly from season to season.) Coming off a HUGE win against Michigan. Only loss was against another very good team, Michigan State.But the narrative that developed around Ohio State was poor. I actually thought the Ezekiel Elliott comments after the Michigan State loss might have hurt them — it made it seem like they had blown their chance instead of reminding voters that this was a very good football team that had a chance to redeem itself against UM.blythe: That Florida State loss was pretty brutal. So no Florida. But how does that change the picture? A ‘Bama loss and Clemson win?andrewflowers: A ‘Bama loss is less of a headache than a Clemson one. Sorry Florida fans, but if you win, the SEC is getting shut out. Stanford is in pole position to make it if they win the Pac-12; and if they slip up, then Ohio State is waiting in the wings.To be specific — Stanford has a 61 percent shot at the playoff if Alabama loses, Clemson wins and the Cardinal beat USC.blythe: But ‘Bama is pretty unlikely to lose, right?natesilver: Florida would have to DEMOLISH Alabama. If they win 42-3 or something … and Stanford loses … and the committee decides it really prefers conference champions after all, they might get a look.andrewflowers: Very unlikely, @blythe. They’re 78 percent favorites.natesilver: And having seen a bunch of Florida over the past few weeks … I’m not taking the 22 percent side of that bet.blythe: OK, so the final scenario: If ‘Bama and Clemson both lose, then what? MAXIMUM CHAOS!andrewflowers: In this nightmare scenario, Stanford is a great bet if they win the Pac-12 (62 percent). But, honestly, it gets messy real fast. Five teams possibly competing for two spots.natesilver: Here’s something interesting, though. According to the model, Ohio State would rather have Alabama lose and Clemson win than both Alabama and Clemson lose.andrewflowers: But don’t count out just-beaten Clemson, either: They’re right with the Cardinal at 59 percent. And that’s right, @natesilver — Buckeye fans should be rooting hard for Clemson.blythe: This seems like the real ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ situation.natesilver: They should be rooting for Clemson only if Alabama loses. If Alabama wins, though, they need Clemson to lose to have any shot at all. It’s like some weird prisoner’s dilemma.blythe: As college football should be.natesilver: But the thinking here is that if both Alabama and Clemson lose, the committee would resolve its UNC-Clemson “problem” by letting both teams in. Especially if Stanford loses, too.andrewflowers: One last thing: We’d be remiss without mentioning how @natesilver rigged the model to favor Michigan State. The Spartans are obviously in if they beat undefeated Iowa; and vice versa for the Hawkeyes. Zzzzz…natesilver: Ha! The main question is how far Sparty will move up into the top four with a win.Excuse me — WHEN they win. Weirdly, it might be best for them to stay at No. 4 — because most computer rankings think No. 1 Clemson isn’t as strong as No. 2 Alabama or No. 3 Oklahoma.andrewflowers: BTW, a strong Michigan State win makes Ohio State look good. Another thing for Buckeye fans to root for.allison: Should I [Stanford fans] be rooting for a Michigan State or Iowa? What’s my prisoner’s dilemma here?natesilver: Yeah, that could help Ohio State a bunch. Historically, the times when we’ve seen two teams from the same conference rank in the coaches poll or AP top four is when the second team’s only loss came to the team ranked ahead of it. Which works for Ohio State is Sparty wins, but not if it’s Iowa instead.So you should be rooting for Iowa, @allison, because it makes Ohio State’s case weaker.blythe: So basically, the likeliest situation is that ‘Bama and Clemson win their conference titles and everything is very boring (or great, depending on your team preference) with Oklahoma, Iowa/Michigan State, Clemson and ‘Bama. But we’ll see if UNC or Florida makes it interesting on Saturday.andrewflowers: Should be fun! Read more: All The Wild Scenarios That Could End The College Football Season That’s the big question going into this Sunday’s College Football Playoff selection. Our staff college football fans sat down to talk through the scenarios on Slack. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Citing concerns about safety, the NFL adopted a rule change last offseason that moved touchbacks on kickoffs five yards out to the 25-yard line, ostensibly to reduce the number of kick returns, though perhaps with the added benefit of juicing the league’s offense.For its stated purpose, the effect of the rule change has been underwhelming. Of non-onside kickoffs this season, 39 percent have been returned. While this is an all-time low, it’s only down from 42 percent last season, which was already well below the 52 percent average from 2011-14, which was way below the average before the tee placement for kickoffs was moved to the 35-yard line in 2011. It’s not clear that this decline is any greater than what we would have expected if the rule change on returns hadn’t been adopted, based on the ongoing kicker improvement that has been taking place across the board.While there are multiple issues at play, the main reason the change hasn’t been more effective is straightforward: Despite kick returns out of the end zone being rendered a demonstrably worse bet, teams keep trying them.Below is a chart showing the league average starting field position for standard kickoff returns1Meaning returns from non-onside kickoffs kicked from the 35-yard line, excluding returns that ended in a lost fumble. from near the end zone: In 2015, the Jacksonville Jaguars returned 24 percent of kickoffs out of the end zone, and had the seventh-worst average starting field position in the league. In 2016, they have the lowest return rate from the end zone in the league at just under 9 percent3Jacksonville returned 8.7 percent to the Carolina Panthers’ 9.3 percent. and are tied with the Arizona Cardinals for the second-best starting field position after those kickoffs (both 0.8 yards better than if they’d taken the touchbacks). Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears went from returning 37 percent in 2015 to returning 48 percent in 2016. Yet, despite seeing their starting field position improve from the 23-yard line to the 24-yard line, their advantage fell from being tops in the league (by a wide margin) to being 20th — and one of the 25 teams that would have been better off always taking a knee.Further complicating matters, kickoffs that drop short of the goal line seem to be better for the kicking team than touchbacks (as you can see on the first chart above). Before the new rule came into play, the league anticipated that coaches and kickers might try to game the system by kicking just short of the end zone. This seems to have happened, at least somewhat, with 79 percent of kickoffs going into the end zone this season, down from 87 percent last season. That’s a low mark since the kickoff spot was moved in 2011 (in a stat that had been on the rise). But the fact that teams have been willing to inefficiently return out of the end zone may have limited the incentive to try.If this rule stays, it’s likely that teams will adjust eventually on both sides, meaning fewer returns out of the end zone but fewer kicks into the end zone, as well. Kickoffs may essentially go the way of punts, with how often a kicker pins the opposing team inside the touchback line (“In 25”) becoming an important stat for kickoff specialists.Check out our latest NFL predictions. This chart doesn’t give any bonus value to touchdowns, which are slightly more valuable than their equivalent in yardage, though it also doesn’t reflect returns with fumbles lost (which are rare, but still considerably more common than return touchdowns). While some endgame situations may arise where even a bad return is worth trying, and perhaps some of those returns were legitimate responses to openings presented by the kick-coverage unit, ultimately there is no reason to be significantly under the red line save poor judgment. If the entire league had simply taken a knee on these 356 kickoffs it returned out of the endzone, it would have saved a combined 1,108 yards of field position.Kick returners have been more judicious this season — just 23 percent of standard kickoffs have been returned from the end zone, compared with 33 percent last year2That 33 percent was also down from the 42 percent between 2011 and 2014. — but little has changed about the average result of such returns, other than whether they’re worth it.Some teams appear to be figuring this out and have been rewarded as a result. Others have declined the free yards and continued running it out, and they have been punished accordingly: