Reading and Thinking Football

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Thoughts on Thoughts About Drafting Quarterbacks

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Over a decade ago, well before I was on staff there, Football Outsiders published David Lewin’s fascinating research, that the eventual fate of NFL quarterbacks could be predicted with reasonable accuracy knowing simply that (a) they were selected in the first two rounds of the draft, (b) how many games they started in college, and (b) their collegiate completion percentage.

To the extent this relationship existed, it completely broke down probably before Dave’s work was even published. I don’t want to rehash his work or the ideas, but simply note one of the maybe not so obvious implications of his work: fewer quarterbacks should be drafted in the first two rounds. The ones that started many games and completed a high percentage of their passes, go on and keep drafting those. But the Akili Smiths and Jim Druckenmillers of the world who didn’t start many games or complete many passes, don’t take those.

The potential further implication of that research would be that players with many starts and a good completion percentage were good bets. Assuming teams would draft quarterbacks at roughly similar rates, fill the void created by not taking the Smiths and Druckenmillers with those guys. Even at the time Lewin’s work existed, though, those same qualifiers didn’t predict the success of quarterbacks drafted after the first two rounds, thus my addition of point (a) to research results that were largely described as consisting of (b) and (c). This research, then, depended further on NFL teams not realizing the relationship and responding accordingly.

This may seem like a rather abstruse, potentially recondite way of starting off an explanation, but as I think back on over a decade of thinking about the NFL draft, there are essentially two types of heuristics for finding good players, or at least not taking bad ones:
(1) Ones that, like Lewin’s research, inevitably break down over time, whether naturally in response to other changes, by NFL teams becoming aware of it, or both; and
(2) Ones that do not necessarily produce solutions, essentially telling even teams picking high in the draft they don’t have good options.

From that perspective, that “analytics” is considered a dirty word in NFL circles doesn’t seem too surprising. NFL teams have to draft players with the picks they have now, and waiting until process type (2) tells you there’s a player you should pick there isn’t always an option (see, e.g., Sashi Brown’s fate in Cleveland). The answer, then, may be to use flavor du jour (1) to help identify which prospects are higher risk in general and which risk factors you have to use.

Putting this in context of an actual player discussion, any evaluation of Carson Wentz coming out of North Dakota State would have said that there are few enough potential high draft pick QBs coming out of I-AA/FCS there will be an element of irreducible risk to the basic analysis. A team that stuck to type (2) because making a mistake at QB gets you fired would not have drafted Wentz. As a decision-maker, you just had to get past that to select Wentz. Philadelphia did and reaped the rewards, but plenty of other teams have ignored other risk factors, whether analytical or more irreducible, and gotten burned by it.

But the draft is just one of the various methods of building a football team. It has particular characteristics.  Since I’m talking quarterbacks here, the most important one is that all contracts are extremely cost-controlled relative to the free agent price. We haven’t seen any “true” quarterback contracts in an extremely long time; barring something shocking, Kirk Cousins will be the first quarterback this millennium hitting free agency after a couple good seasons as a starter at a reasonable age not coming off a major injury. How much he makes will not be a product of limited cap room, his rookie deal (still important for Matt Stafford, the last QB still directly benefiting from being a high pick under the old CBA), or negotiating in the shadow of the franchise tag, which normally dominate discussion.

But even with those limitations, we know what quarterbacks get paid, and it’s a lot. Just to enter into the game, you’re looking at a minimum of $15 million for a Mike Glennon, while Carson Wentz’s cap hit in 2017, as the #2 overall pick, was just over $6 million. That difference is basically equal to a starting pass rusher, and it becomes a top 10-type pass rusher if you look at the split between even a high pick rookie like Wentz and the good part of the starting quarterback market. If the quarterback you take ends up as even an average starter, you’re much better off picking him in the draft even before you account for the fact that Cousins aside, good starting QBs without red flags don’t hit the market.

It therefore makes sense, especially in the current environment, to draft a quarterback even if the expected hit rate is much higher for a different position. Which, I know, is basically the opposite conclusion any sort of type (2) process like Lewin’s suggests. If you’re thinking this sounds like a great recipe for muddled thinking, you’re not alone; conceptually, “don’t draft bad quarterback prospects early” and “draft a quarterback prospect early if you think there’s a chance he’s good” are both extremely justifiable maxims.

And let’s look at the quarterbacks drafted in first round in the past 10 drafts a holdover head coach:

Year QB Head Coach Fate
2010 Bradford fired after Year 2
2010 Tebow fired in Year 1
2011 Gabbert fired in Year 1
2012 RG3 fired after Year 2
2012 Weeden fired after Year 1
2014 Bortles fired after Year 3
2015 Winston fired after Year 1
2015 Mariota fired in Year 1
2016 Goff fired in Year 1
2016 Lynch left after Year 1
2017 Trubisky fired after Year 1
2017 Mahomes TBD
2017 Watson TBD

We’ll see what happens with Bill O’Brien, who seems to have just won a power struggle, and Andy Reid, but those are pretty dismal results. More coaches were fired in the first season after drafting a quarterback than got to coach him in a second season, and the only one to make it to a third season was Gus Bradley.

There are a few obvious responses to this, like these teams were bad, so it’s no surprise the teams were fired. This suggestion only goes so far; a number of the quarterbacks went to teams that weren’t that bad. The Broncos (Tebow), the Jaguars (Gabbert), and the Rams (Goff), to name three, had natural picks in the middle of the first round and chose their new signal-caller only after making a trade. The dynamic highlighted by an old Bill Walsh quote probably played a bigger role; the owner sees the pick, the GM sees he chose good players, and the team isn’t winning games so it must be the coach’s fault. A new coach (I didn’t track these the same way, but many of them survived much longer than holdover head coaches) doesn’t carry the same baggage in terms of judging team performance before v. after picking the shiny new QB who is supposed to solve all these problems.

That may feel like, and have been, a bit of a digression from what felt like the main point, but I think it goes to stress what I see as the underlying dynamic, that quarterback success requires (1) that there be a team around him, because one position can only do so much in a team game, and (2) organizational clarity is a must. Somebody, including Doug Pederson, had to push for Carson Wentz, to get past the irreducible risk, and then Pederson had to be the one to put him in the best position to succeed. The path of development is rarely absolutely straight and up, even for ultimately successful players (see, e.g., Wentz’s 2016 season, with a passing DVOA of 26.6% through three weeks and -19.3% thereafter), and a united organization may be some of the difference between bumps that are straightened out (Wentz’s 2017) and players plateauing and ultimately failing. In a world of deeply conflicting maxims, without the size needed to create impersonal processes, that’s the way it has to be.

But, please, for us stat guys, stop drafting guys early thinking you can convert erratic general accuracy into specific accuracy without a specific, easy to fix flaw. Know what the risks are, and have a plan to fix or mitigate them. Or, as I like to put it, tell me what a player can’t do and then tell me why I should draft him anyway.

This post was inspired by the post Thoughts About Drafting Quarterbacks by Chris B. Brown at Smart Football. I wrote a brief draft of this post before the 2017 NFL season began, got stuck, and abandoned it for a while. As I wrote the bulk of this post it mostly became an excuse for me to write what I wanted to write about rather than a post serving as commentary or meta-commentary on Chris’s post, which has thoughts on base rates and the value of the Mitchell Trubisky trade that are largely orthogonal to what I wrote above, which may speak more to his point #5 at the end.

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Written by Tom Gower

February 18, 2018 at 16:09

Posted in General NFL, NFL Draft

A Not-So-Brief Summary of the Goodell Article I’ll (Likely) Never Write

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For the past 18+ months, I’ve contemplated writing a really long, in-depth, detailed, comprehensive article about Roger Goodell’s time as NFL commissioner. I have currently written zero actual words for that article and done absolutely none of the research I would do before starting to put fingers to keyboard to figure out just how the article would work. But I still hold on to this idea in my head and keep thinking about it. So, in an attempt to solve that problem, here are the main themes to that article.

The problem with most writing about Roger Goodell is a problem shared by much journalism these days, that it is too focused on the deeply immediate with very little attention to how the deeply immediate came to be. There’s actually an at least semi-sophisticated defense to this sort of hyperfocus, that people in positions of authority are by necessity hyperfocused on the deeply immediate, and do very little to no deep thinking on how the deeply immediate came to be and what might happen next. There is almost never a master plan. What there are, however, are beliefs, heuristics, and traits that cause people to react the ways they do. Short version: this exegesis of Roger Goodell is based on how Goodell has acted, and imputes beliefs based on those actions.

If this were a real article, I’d support a lot of the assertions I’m going to make here. Some of the things I think I think I could convince a skeptical interlocutor are correct, are conceivably correct, are the most logical reading of the evidence, are well supported by the evidence, and/or are at least plausible readings of the evidence. Some of it will be things I think even though I couldn’t necessarily convince anybody else to agree with me. In a long version of this piece, I’d go into these in detail and discuss things like which are which, and why you might reasonably disagree with me. I don’t want this braindump summary to be 8,000 words, though, so I won’t do that here.

A Sort of History of Roger Goodell’s NFL

Roger Goodell became NFL commissioner in 2006, after Paul Tagliabue negotiated the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the NFL Players’ Association. If I had to summarize Goodell’s commissionership in corporate mission speak parlance, it would be to “use the NFL’s intangible value to make the NFL more money.”

One of Goodell’s selling points, beyond his past work for the league, was to quadruple the NFL’s revenue from $6 billion to $25 billion. This is kind of a tricky proposition, because the popularity of the NFL comes from the 21 Sundays it beams games into living rooms across the US (and elsewhere) yet Goodell can only do so much to expand that inventory. Pushing the NFL season from 16 games to 18 games is one way to increase that, by taking the regular season from 17 weeks to 19 or 20. The creation of Thursday Night Football as an institution is another piece of that pie. Expanding the playoffs beyond 12 teams would be another way to do that. Yet, as I wrote about the 18-game season back in 2010, that only gets you so far, and not anywhere close to where Goodell wanted to go.

Another way to increase the size of the revenue would be by making the NFL more of an international league. The London Series, Goodell’s interest in a franchise in the United Kingdom, and the like are all quite reasonable steps in this direction, and I expect them to continue. Again, useful, but this only gets you so far.

Goodell’s solution to this problem was, simply, to make the NFL bigger and more ubiquitous in the US. The NFL draft, once regarded as basically just a huge conference call that nobody might want to televise, has been transmogrified into a gigantic fan-focused event taking over vast public spaces instead of a hotel ballroom or local theater. The growth of the Super Bowl, not just the game itself but the attendant parties and entertainment, has accelerated. There is an NFL awards show. NFL Network was around before Goodell, but has continued to grow as an operation and has shifted from a repository of NFL Films archives to a legitimate network found in many places.

With declining NFL ratings in the news lately, it’s become popular to talk about a backlash against the NFL. This is, in a way, precisely the point. Goodell’s whole goal is to leverage the NFL brand to increase revenue from stuff other than the standard sources of revenue that were around in 2006 and weren’t going to grow in a way that met his expectations. The tricky part of his task is to find the right way to maximize that revenue. His logic is to expand to the inflection point, where the next expansion turns from useful to the NFL’s bottom line to over-leveraging, in a way that hurts his revenue goals. [This is a fascinating subject I don’t know much about and is easy to argue over, so I was going to go into it in detail.]

Goodell’s vision of leveraging the NFL’s brand identity to make more money is extremely important, because it actually explains a lot of what Goodell does. When I was first thinking about writing this particular piece, I wanted to publish in October 2016, on the tenth anniversary of when we got our first real recognition event that Goodell’s NFL was different than Tagliabue’s NFL. That was when Goodell suspended Koren Robinson, a former first-round pick at wide receiver, for multiple DUIs. Tagliabue, an attorney, typically followed the law on player discipline for off-field conduct. When the legal process didn’t punish harshly, he didn’t. Goodell, with a background in public relations and marketing, did not see the same limitations on his power. The easy contrast with the Robinson case is with Leonard Little, who was suspended 8 games after killing a woman while driving drunk (while 0.19, well above the legal limit) and was not further suspended after a DWI conviction several years after that. Goodell’s discipline continued early in his time in office, coming down harshly on Michael Vick and Pacman Jones.

The story, for Goodell, was easy. Robinson, Vick, and Pacman were malefactors, hard to defend, and of a sort that would have drawn much less punishment under Tagliabue. And it fit with his protection of the NFL Shield. Goodell’s vision of leveraging the NFL’s intangible value depended on keeping the public with a positive view of the NFL. That includes the sometimes tricky task of selling a playerbase to a public with different demographics. Like any political figure or head of a large brand whose profitability depends on general attitudes toward the company, Goodell needs to be aware of shifts in public opinion toward his business; a Mark Maske story at the Washington Post several years ago confirmed what I expected, that the NFL makes use of the same sort of polling shops as politicians.

The issue that came up later with Goodell’s punishment strategy is that he really had no punishment process, so that decisions did not have much rhyme or reason. This was made quite apparent in his handling of Bountygate and Deflategate and his cavalier attitude toward factual finding. By nature and training Tagliabue relied on the legal process to find those things. By nature and training, Goodell depends much more on social truths. Not so much what is, but what can be credibly alleged.*

*There’s a natural connection here to a certain public figure famous for his denunciations of things he doesn’t like as fake. Both he and Goodell are creatures and products of the current milieu, which predates and is much larger than either of them. To the extent a partisan political figure is important to Goodell, it is his Senator father and his subsequent vindication for being on the right side of history, such as it was, with his opposition to the Vietnam War against the wishes of his political party. [An issue I could have expanded upon in a long version of this piece.]

The 2010 CBA and All That Jazz

Deflategate is actually a useful jumping off point to the biggest story of definitely Goodell’s first five years as commissioner, the build-up to and ultimate fight over the 2011 CBA. One thing that became clear early in Goodell’s time in office is that the players made a lot more money under the 2006 CBA than they did under the old CBA, and there was a consensus among ownership that that was too much money.

The actual genesis for this piece was an article on what new NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith did in that run-up and how he handled the 2011 CBA negotiations. Ultimately, I wrote a 1500 word introduction before starting to write about De Smith, realized I needed to put the NFL’s side of things into a huge context involving Goodell’s regime more broadly, and then realized the De Smith piece I planned wasn’t that interesting in light of the Goodell piece, of which this is a sort of high level summary.

One of the key goals of the years of 2007 to 2010 for Goodell, then, was to solidify his relationship with the most important owners, and to prepare all owners emotionally and financially for the possibility of a labor stoppage (most likely a lockout) that might cost some of the 2011 season. The most important owners to Goodell were the ones that most closely matched his vision of what the NFL could be and had leveraged their ownership of their teams to make more money. Two in particular were Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots. Then Spygate happened.

Spygate was a huge problem for Roger Goodell, maybe the biggest until the lockout happened in 2011 or even bigger. On the one hand, he knew the CBA negotiations were coming and he could not alienate Robert Kraft. On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore it. Baseball got their first commissioner after and because of the Black Sox scandal. Any sort of threat to the competitive integrity of games is potentially an existential threat to the league as a whole. As a new commissioner, he needed to come down and come down hard, like Pete Rozelle did early in his tenure as commissioner against George Halas when he questioned Rozelle’s fitness and against Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for their links to gamblers (Goodell’s ambition seems to have been to become NFL commissioner; he would know offhand about what Rozelle did). Ultimately, though, any sort of harsh sanction, like suspending Bill Belichick, would have alienated Kraft. Goodell chose to take the hit by underplaying Spygate knowing the 2011 CBA was the bigger goal and he needed Kraft’s complete support for that.

The details of the actual 2011 CBA negotiation and that process were interesting at the time, and would be worth going into in a different forum. For purposes of this piece, we can summarize them fairly briefly. NFL owners remained committed to the lockout. The first inevitable, player compensation, was cut (the adjusted cap figure for 2009 was ~$127.8 million; it wouldn’t reach that total again until 2014). Disciplinary power, necessary to Goodell’s ability to control the brand of the NFL, remained in Goodell’s hands instead of being shifted to an arbitrator who might care more about things like non-social truths and process. Faced with a choice of accept the deal on hand or hurt the compensation of current players in potential exchange for future gains, the NFLPA unsurprisingly caved. Save the Hall of Fame Game, nothing but an offseason of OTAs was lost. The NFL got to keep more of every dollar it earned, useful for the owners as Goodell’s plans to increase revenue went forward.

With the 2011 CBA settled, Goodell could do more to show he was more than just a pawn of the big money owners. Jones and Daniel Snyder, an owner apparently held in much more esteem in league business circles than he is for his operation of the on-field aspects of his franchise, saw their teams capriciously punished for spending too much money in the nominally uncapped 2010 season. Kraft’s day of reckoning was coming, and it finally arrived with Deflategate.^ After minimally punishing one violation of competitive integrity, Goodell had to come down hard for this one. Fortunately, this one was against a player, reinforcing that part of his disciplinary authority. Goodell has to show he’s more than just a tool and compadre of the big money owners; he’s further come down on Jones’ team over the Ezekiel Elliott suspension. So far the only Goodell favorite to have been spared his wrath is the New York Giants; I was surprised the Josh Brown suspension was as light as it was, as it would have been the perfect opportunity to address that issue. Jones and the Giants aside, Goodell’s relationships with owners seem fairly stable, at least from the outside.

^-That Deflategate is all about Spygate is one of those things I always thought was obvious, well before we got the Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham article confirming that that was indeed the case. Van Natta and Wickersham’s reporting on Goodell’s tenure has been an invaluable source, and a full version of this piece would be replete with links to their articles.

Concussions

Head trauma is an extremely serious issue for the future of the NFL. Much of the idea animating this piece for me has been how the NFL under Roger Goodell has been different than the NFL under anybody else might have looked. I have no strong opinions on how Goodell’s NFL has responded to head trauma in a way that has been specific to some aspect of Goodell. Obviously he’s done more than Tagliabue did, but so would anybody else, for multiple reasons. An inability to write about this important subject in any satisfactory way is part of why I didn’t end up writing the whole piece.

Going Forward

Jones and the Giants aside, Goodell’s relationship with owners (his constituents and employers) seems fairly stable, at least from the outside. There are two major issues for the next stage of Goodell’s commissionership, and they’re somewhat intertwined.

First, the next CBA. The current CBA expires after the 2020 season. Goodell reportedly wants to stay in office to see that completed. I don’t have a strong feeling on what the NFL wants to see or doesn’t want to see in the next CBA; if you offered them a 10-year extension of the current CBA, would they take it? My inclination would be to say their answer is ‘Yes,’ but I don’t have much to support that. Players probably want more money, which they might have a chance of getting some of, and maybe some sort of actual discipline process, which I doubt they get as long as the NFL sticks to a Goodell-style conception of what the NFL wants to be.

Second, how long and how big can the revenue streams get until they stop? This is a huge issue, with multiple players. One is the broadcast rights to various games, whether the NFL will face a hit if the current ratings declines continue, and whether it should continue to retain value as the only remaining non-niche cultural product in the United States. This is tied in with the future of media payment plans in general and the extent to which bundled programming becomes “just” a way to watch sports and if we see even more of a bifurcation between “people who watch sports” and “people who don’t get cable.” This is made trickier by the fact that it’s a huge discussion that goes well beyond the NFL and it is, to a large extent, vulnerable to shifting currents beyond its direct control and that it can only indirectly influence. Second, that challenge for Goodell I mentioned earlier, navigating the line between expanding the NFL from outside Sunday afternoons to other projects. The worry is that crossing a fine line could have a cascade effect. The NFL under Goodell could go from $6 to 12 to 18 to 14 billion in revenue, whereas a more conservative commissioner could have taken it from $6 to 8 to 11 to 14 billion in revenue; same destination, but different processes and potentially very different futures for the NFL. A tricky place to navigate from, but that’s life as an entertainment and media company in 2018.

TL;DR

1. Roger Goodell has operated pretty consistently as NFL commissioner.

2. His main idea is to use the NFL’s popularity to make NFL owners more money.

3. His player discipline strategy is all about protecting the NFL’s popularity.

4. Goodell will leverage the NFL’s popularity to expand the NFL until further expansion hurts the brand, so expect him to push boundaries.

5. The players were always getting screwed in the 2011 CBA.

6. Deflategate was all about Spygate.

7. I don’t know where Goodell goes from here, with either the 2021 CBA or how the NFL navigates the changing media landscape.

Written by Tom Gower

February 12, 2018 at 17:58

Posted in General NFL

Some Thoughts on the 2017 Tennessee Titans vs. My Expectations

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The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

This post is about the version of the Tennessee Titans we saw on the field in the 2017 season versus my pre-season expectations for what we might see. I’d been thinking about this post since a couple weeks to go in the regular season, planning to cover specifically pass game targets and the defensive line rotation, rather than the team more generally. The point of this post was to see just how accurate my predictions were, and where I went wrong.

Now, we’re in a little bit of a different place. My predictions were rooted, more or less explicitly, in the specific history of the coaching staff and with their past usage of the players they had going into 2017 and their past usage of players in general. The Titans have since fired Mike Mularkey and hired Mike Vrabel in his stead. Vrabel will be bringing in his own coordinators. That obviates some of the utility of the specific comparisons, so I’ll add to this post thoughts on the Titans as they were compared to some of my more general projections like those in my preview post or the Titans chapter I wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017.

The Pass Game and Target Usage

There was a general thought among the fantasy football community and at least part of the fanbase that the volume of the Titans pass game would increase significantly from 2016. This was based on Matt Ryan’s third-year breakout, better talent at wide receiver, and general optimism about Marcus Mariota. I generally did not agree with those thoughts, considering Ryan’s volume increase from his second to third season a function of run game ineffectiveness, and expected at most a modest increase in pass game volume.

As it happened, in the regular season, Mariota went from 276 completions to 281 and the Titans as a team went from 307 completions to 306. This happened in kind of a funny way; like the Falcons from 2010 to 2011, the Titans run game fell off from the year before. Unlike in 2016, though, the Titans did not convert the ensuing third-and-medium/long at a high rate, nor did they operate as efficiently in most obvious passing situations like two-minute drill and when trailing. The situation was ripe for the Titans to throw the ball more, but they could not do so as effectively, so overall their volume numbers did not increase.

Looking at specific players, injuries to both starting wide receivers played a key role in how the Titans ended up targeting their receivers in 2017. First-round pick Corey Davis missed five games and was limited in another, so he finished the regular season with just 34 catches on 65 targets. The other starting receiver, Rishard Matthews, missed only two games, but that camouflages an important split in his role. After he came back from injury, he did not play as big a role in the offense. Before getting hurt, he was targeted on 20.6% of Mariota’s passing attempts. After returning to the lineup, in the final six games (including postseason), he was targeted on just 14.6% of Mariota’s passing attempts. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that his hamstring injury had a lingering effect on his play.

The primary beneficiary of both of those injuries was Eric Decker. I was extremely pessimistic on his volume projection after the Titans signed him in June, guessing he might have as few as 20 catches. He finished with 54 total catches (on 83 targets). The more difficult question to answer is how many catches he might have had if neither Davis nor Matthews was injured. As Davis played only situationally in Week 1 against Oakland, I would say we only got three games where the Titans used their receivers like they planned to, Weeks 9-11 against the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers. In those three games, Decker had a target share of 8.8%. Using his overall catch rate to project that over Marcus’s 478 attempts in the regular season*, that comes out to about 28 catches. That’s still not 20, but it’s only an extra catch every other week. Do I really think Decker’s volume basically doubled because of the injuries to Matthews and Davis? I find the idea plausible, but that’s probably at the upper end of the scale. The late season shift to more 3WR sets and things like the persistent difficulty with lining up correctly Taywan Taylor (16 catches v. my projected 20) showed even at New England I presume would have put him in the 30-35 catch range had neither Davis nor Matthews been injured.

*-EXPLANATORY NOTE: When I track receiver usage, I do it in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, so my numbers will be different than other people’s. First, I threw out the Cassel snaps. He targeted RBs and TEs more often than Marcus did, because he can’t throw long. Second, I include all plays, including those negated by penalty. A holding call, illegal shift, or defensive offside does not mean we necessarily should not nor cannot use the information we get from what the Titans did from that play. Thus, 478 attempts for Marcus when P-F-R clearly shows he had 453. For overall numbers, I also include the playoffs, so Marcus had 548 attempts in total. /fin

One of the things that was striking about the Titans pass game at midseason was how running backs almost disappeared. Backs accounted for 16% of pass game targets in 2016, a not-uncommon share for a Mularkey offense. RB target share was down markedly early in the season, as I noted at the time. After Mariota return from injury, though, it was at 14% for the rest of the year and finished at 12.5% overall from Marcus. The tight end position picked up the slack. No, it not all Jonnu Smith. In the 14.5 regular season games with Mariota, he had 13 catches, 1 off from my very modest expectation.

The real surprise at tight end was Delanie Walker. My expectation for him was 65 catches, matching his 2016 total (and in line with his 2014 total of 63). I thought, if anything, the new receivers might actually depress his volume. Instead, it increased. He finished the regular season with 74 catches, and was listed as the intended receiver on 22.8% of Marcus’s targets, up a bit from his use in 2016 (though still not where he was in 2015).

Defensive Line

My attempt to project the 2017 defensive line rotation came in March after the Titans re-signed Karl Klug, and was based around the idea the Titans were pretty much full-up at the position and there was no reason to expect them to draft Jonathan Allen or any other defensive linemen (and they indeed did not select a DL in April). The Titans would later add a defensive lineman, David King, but overall the five players I thought in March would get the work on the DL for the Titans did in fact get the work on the DL for the Titans.

As with receiver, though, a key injury would affect the rotation. DaQuan Jones was injured in the Week 13 game against the Texans, and his absence thereafter clearly affected playing time. But, unlike the Decker-Davis-Matthews issue, that gives us a good sample size for how the Titans probably planned to use their defensive tackles. So, here are how many snaps each DL was in line to play based on their playtime rate through Week 12 versus my March expectation.

Jurrell Casey-770 projected-830 pace
Austin Johnson-250 projected-258 pace
DaQuan Jones-650 projected-600 pace
Karl Klug-400 projected-323 pace
Sylvester Williams-450 projected-293 pace
David King-not projected-86 snaps

A few things stand out here:

1. DL snaps are mostly down across the board. I projected the Titans with almost exactly the same number of defensive line snaps they did in 2016. Even adding in David King, they were on pace to play about 5% fewer. I knew I was probably overprojecting a bit because of the possibility of additions, but part of this was probably also the 3 OLB package with Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, and Erik Walden, not signed until well after my tweet.

2. Jurrell Casey’s snaps were up, not down. The Titans played Casey 71% of the time he was active in 2016. That was a bit on the low end for players who play his position, but I thought they would likely stick around the same number. Nope, they decided to play their best DL about how often many teams played their best DL. That probably accounted for some of the “extra” snaps I tried to give Karl Klug.

3. Silly me, I thought that them giving Sly Williams a big money free agent contract meant they actually liked Sly Williams and he would therefore play a pretty significant role on defense. No dice, at least until Jones’ injury.

4. The Titans didn’t need another major contributor. King was active in just four of 12 games prior to Jones’ injury, and two of those were due to injury (Klug and Williams each missed a game, which I did not account for in my snaps projection). The hypothetical Allen selection truly would have been a zero-sum move with the five defensive linemen the Titans had. Contrast that with wide receiver, where three of the four biggest contributors were added after mid-March, or outside linebacker, where Walden, not signed until July, played a major role.

General Team Thoughts

Yay me: in my preview post here, published just before the Titans kicked off the regular season, I predicted the Titans would go 9-7 and make it to the postseason for the first time since 2008. In the Titans chapter I wrote for Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, I concluded by noting the Titans could win their first playoff game and then have their season ended with a resounding defeat to one of the AFC’s really good teams. All that stuff actually happened.

Overall, though, how the Titans got there presents a significant puzzle, one I don’t have an answer for myself and haven’t seen a good answer for from anybody else. As I noted in FOA17 and endlessly on Twitter, the Titans had a sharply bifurcated passing offensive performance in 2016: Marcus Mariota was fantastic in shotgun and not so good from under center.  In the 2017 regular season, by contrast, he was very good from under center (28.7% DVOA; I write for Football Outsiders perma-disclaimer) and not very good at all from shotgun (-15.3% DVOA). Play-action went from not being much of a strength at all to something that really helped the Titans.

This was at least kind of weird. The Titans did change over their receiving corps, but overall it doesn’t make that much sense that with the same quarterback, offensive design, and most of the same other players on offense that their offensive profile shifted so much. My best explanation for this is the default one, that on a level much smaller than the one on which I normally operate but one with which NFL coaches and coordinators are rightly heavily focused the Titans were easier to play against the pass from shotgun and harder to play the pass from under center, at least when they showed the run action. If I wanted to put this in my over-arching “Mularkey offense is bad” narrative, successful play-action can provide the misdirection that is the sine qua non for plays from those condensed formations that deny the quarterback much clarity in the pre-snap read to work. The lack of success from shotgun and not having great success from under center plays without play-action is a sign that, yes, the Titans were too easy to defend and needed a change at offensive coordinator.

The preceding couple paragraphs are really important for the Titans offense in 2018 and beyond as Mike Vrabel’s search for an offensive coordinator continues. While it’s a subject worth revisiting later, it’s kind of orthogonal to the point I was trying to make here. More on point is the point I tried to make about the questions the Titans offense faced in that preview post.

Ha ha, silly me. In that post, I wrote “So, Delanie Walker’s not that guy. Jonnu Smith’s not that guy. Those are the top two tight ends, and neither of them can fill a fundamental role in how the Titans played in base offensive sets last year. The Titans have a decision to make-they can ask somebody else to do that, who doesn’t present the same threat as a receiver that Smith and Walker do, or they can go without that role.” In fact, the Titans’ answer was “play Jonnu Smith, even if he’s not good at that essential task.” The third tight end, whether Phillip Supernaw or Luke Stocker averaged 16 snaps a game, down a bit from 2016. Six offensive linemen sets were present but rare, about six-seven a game. Smith instead was asked to do largely what Anthony Fasano did, even though he was a significant downgrade as a blocker. The Titans’ run game suffered accordingly. This did not make sense. This never made any sense. This never had the potential to make sense. I’d probably better leave it at that.

Defensively, I was pretty sure Logan Ryan would be the nickel slot player, as he ended up being. My questions revolved around the two outside corners, specifically when Adoree Jackson would take the field as a starter and who would play the other outside corner spot in nickel. With LeShaun Sims out for Week 1 with an injury, Jackson made his first start then and held on to the job all year long. The other outside corner spot ended up being a mix of Sims, Brice McCain, and, late in the season, Tye Smith.

My other big defensive questions were about how the Titans would play, if they would be able to resolve the dilemma around whether they were a rush-5 team and if Kevin Byard in those situations would be the deep safety or a coverage player or rusher or if they could be effective as a rush-4 team. It’s Dick LeBeau, so we still saw plenty of 5-man rushes. Ultimately, I don’t think the Titans ever came any closer to solving this dilemma in a satisfactory way than I expected them to, to their detriment as a defense. By DVOA, they were virtually unchanged, going from 18.8% pass defense DVOA in 2016 to 19.0% in 2017. (To judge defensive quality, I pay absolutely zero attention to the NFL’s official rankings by yardage; per play efficiency, adjusted for opponent and situation, is so much more insightful.) Compared to my preseason expectations, that’s okay but not great. But if you look at it from the perspective that the Titans paid big money to Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien and spent a first-round pick on Jackson, only to not improve at all, you should be disappointed.

Now, the Titans will have a new coaching staff. Terry Robiskie and Dick LeBeau will not return. The offense will presumably look a lot more like the rest of the NFL does, with more use of three receiver sets (something the Titans did turn to late in the season) and shotgun on early downs. The defense may still look broadly similar at first glance, though many details may change. We’ll find out more about those when Mike Vrabel hires the new coordinators, and we’ll see how they choose to solve or avoid some of those issues I just detailed and ones of their own.

Written by Tom Gower

January 25, 2018 at 15:02

Posted in Tennessee Titans

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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So, two posts a year about what I’ve been reading. Sounds about right. I’ll cover what I read in 2017 I didn’t note in my post at the end of the June, then list some of my favorite 2017 reads.

Fiction

Overwhelmingly genre not worth noting more broadly. Unlike every pretty much other Neal Stephenson book, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (co-written with Nicole Galland) never got to the point where I felt the compelling need to read the next page regardless of what else I had to do. I enjoyed The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead more than I expected to, given my typical distaste for the conceits of magical realism, but that didn’t mean I liked it. Most alt-history novels feature at their core too much woo for one reason or another; Gregory Benford’s The Berlin Project is definitely an exception to that. Very deeply grounded in the history of the Manhattan Project and the paths that could reasonably have been taken, it’s a look at how those paths resulting in an earlier bomb could have gone, and how World War II might have unfolded given that. The bomb-making project is the more certain, and better, part of the book.

Football

We keep writing a book, and I keep not mentioning it in a books post here on a timely basis. I wrote the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, and will freely admit I did not expect both teams to make the playoffs (more on the Titans after their season ends).

My friend Nate Dunlevy was kind enough to send me a review copy of the second edition of his book Blue Blood, on the Colts in Indianapolis. I never read the original, so I can’t tell you how the revised and expanded version (covering the Luck years pre-2017) compares, but I enjoyed it (aside from the constant “here’s how I’d write a similar book about the Titans differently” that kept going through my head).

Memoir time: I liked all of Wade Phillips’ Son of Bum, Bruce Arians’ Quarterback Whisperer, and Ralph Cindrich’s NFL Brawler, but none really stuck in my head that deeply. I’d read some of Paul Zimmerman’s Dr. Z when it was online; I wish his third book had been a new version of New Thinking Man’s Guide, or at least for him to explain just how he ended up going from Stanford to Columbia. Alas.

Non-Fiction Non-Football

A lot here, even though my reading output was down over the last six months. So, a bunch of quick hits.

I’m not sure if that I didn’t get more out of Dave Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends or Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles says more about the books or how I consume music, but the plausibility of the latter says I shouldn’t devote more of my limited reading time to reading about music without compelling reason to do so.

I pretty much liked Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion, and Riches, and would give it some more consideration in a different project.

Fox Conner by Steven Rabalais is much more of a conventional biography than the previously-noted Grey Eminence. Recommended to the interested.

One brick off the list: I finished Ron Chernow’s Washington. Probably because George was a better person than Alexander, in some ways a less interesting book than Hamilton (which I read more than a decade ago), though still excellent. George (a) having no natural-born children and (b) dying in 1799 sets up a couple potentially interesting counterfactuals.

Miracle at Dunkirk by Walter Lord was a good experience after watching the movie (which I mostly quite liked). The Brits are the Brits, in all their heartening and exasperating qualities.

My big takeaway from Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden is, at least in the U.S., there may not be any deeply integrated works on the Vietnam War. Everything I’ve read, including this, ends up feeling small and/or deeply limited in some way.

Richard Feynman was a companionable sort in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I can see why people who read this at a younger age quite liked it.

Senior year of college, for one of my classes, I ended up doing a small group presentation on Lee Kwan Yew and Singapore. At the time, I looked for and didn’t see a good fairly casual introduction to Singapore that covered the history and modern city-state. John Curtis Perry’s Singapore: An Unlikely Power would have filled that void, had it existed at the time. Recommended to the interested.

One of my takeaways from Richard McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning was that it was just more evidence we are living in Gurri World. Recommended to the interested, with a fantastic “This is Bill Clinton” anecdote.

Tim Harford’s Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy read a lot like his podcast series, which I’d already listened to, in book form. But I can’t downgrade anything that has a section based on a Randy Picker paper.

My most interesting (to me) thoughts arising from Gordon Wood’s Friends Divided on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were less about Adams and Jefferson themselves or even the relationship between them (though it was nice to see Wood acknowledge early on their later reconciliation was in some ways quite superficial), but about other things. It’s Wood, so you know it’s good and he knows the material, but I may be getting to a point of Founder fatigue barring new angles (and somewhat relatedly, the only part of Chernow’s new Grant biography that really interests me is how he treats his presidency, and as noted infra, I have plenty to read already).

A book like Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus could easily be too twee; my private joke is I don’t like my people too anthropomorphized, so you really better not do it to animals. It ended up a bit but not as unbearably as I feared. Still a good bedtime read, in that I could read 3-30+ pages at a time and never felt compelled to read the next page.

My 2017 Favorites

Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Non-fiction is a hodgepodge; a minor concentration on football, some history (broadly defined), mostly popular rather than academic, but no single driving focus.

Note this is a “favorites” list rather than a “best” list. Like past lists, whether identified as “favorites” or “best,” this is a listing of books I found particularly memorable that met some vaguely defined quality threshold. I don’t want to look back in five or ten years and think “What on earth possessed me to like this terrible book,” but I am absolutely not declaring these are the most technically excellent books I read in 2017.

My most immersive fiction reading experience in 2017 was Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, very much genre (fantasy). Notwithstanding, despite, and because of his many flaws (and the books’ flaws), I greatly enjoy particularly the FitzChivalry Farseer books, whether others do or not. Beyond those, Benford’s Berlin Project was probably my favorite novel I read this year. It wasn’t a great year for peaks in broadly recommendable novels.

Non-fiction shortlist: Dreamland by Sam Quinones, a fascinating and multi-layered look at the opioid crisis, pill mills, and heroin delivery. The Great Escape by Angus Deaton; the chart showing greater life expectancy at age 15 than at birth was maybe my favorite thing I saw in 2017. Though it doesn’t get the top spot on the hypothetical syllabus, Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry gets the nod here. Add Chernow’s Washington to the list, especially if you’re not familiar with the details of his life. A tick down, give spots to Lord and McGregor. Overall, give the top honor to Quinones.

Aside from, of course, FOA2017, my favorite football book of the year was, uh, hmm, what’s the question again? I guess give the nod to Jerry Barca’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew on the 1986 Giants, even though it doesn’t hit the top level of team-season books.

Mark Kurlansky’s Cod was the worst non-fiction book I finished in 2017, with multiple egregious violations of the first and only principle of non-fiction books, that what you write must be correct. In fiction, it was some genre novels that ended up unsatisfying to me on multiple levels but were not actually bad enough I want to single them out here. I gave up on four books and decided now was not the time to read five others, perhaps most notably including Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, a book whose soft futurism I found difficult to get through.

Things to Read

Always too long a list and now even longer. I finished every physical book I ordered from Amazon in 2016, but 2017’s unread list features seven titles. The most notables ones include the latest installment in the Oxford History of the United States, Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands, and two titles in Penguin’s History of Europe, The Pursuit of Power by Richard J. Evans and Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back, while mainstays like Napoleon by Andrew Roberts, The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (I got 250 pages into it before putting it down in September), and War and Peace are still around. Maybe by next update, with the three series books in the order I listed them getting priority. Also, The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson showed up in late December and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet comes out later this month, and those go just as high on the priority list. Now where’s that extra time I need?

As always, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (up to $9.69 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Written by Tom Gower

January 3, 2018 at 21:43

Key Questions for the Fate of the 2017 Titans

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The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. 

With the start of the regular season soon upon us, now is the time people who write about the NFL from time to time are asked to make predictions about the upcoming season. As of writing this, I have just submitted my info for the 2017 staff predictions article at Football Outsiders. Outcomes, though, are the result of dynamic processes. Any dope can, like me, predict the Seahawks beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, or that the Jets get the first pick in the draft and select a quarterback. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is how they get there-that the Seahawks move Sheldon Richardson to offensive tackle, where he suddenly becomes the reincarnation of Walter Jones, except that he plays both ways, so he’s also the reincarnation of Chuck Bednarik, or that the Jets clinch the #1 pick by having their punter boot the ball out of their end zone for a safety instead of taking a knee to seal a 1-point win (two things I would love to see happen but expect to never occur).

It’s easy to predict the Tennessee Titans to win the AFC South, what with the Houston Texans offense, the Indianapolis Colts being without Andrew Luck for an as-yet-indeterminable amount of time, and the Jacksonville Jaguars continuing whatever it is they’ve been doing. What interests me most, though, is which version of the 2017 Titans we end up seeing on the field on Sundays (and, for the first time in a few years, also Monday night). This is a question not just of where exactly among the range of outcomes the Titans fare, but also exactly which of the possible versions of the 2017 Titans the coaching staff will make it a priority to deploy in games. There are serious questions of fundamental identity for both the offense and the defense for which we do not have good answers. I will address each side of the ball in turn.

Offense
Adding wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor in the first and third rounds of this year’s NFL draft, plus Marcus Mariota’s experience in a spread at Oregon, has led some people to believe that the Titans will look more like a “normal” NFL offense and less like the “Exotic Smashmouth” that in 2016 ranked last in their usage of three or more receivers and last in percentage of passes called when leading in the second half (to pick two stats from the tables in my Titans chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, still available in PDF and dead tree). I am not and have never been one of those people. We may see somewhat more three receiver sets, and slightly fewer runs, but for Mariota’s passing attempts to take a big jump like former Mike Mularkey pupil Matt Ryan’s did in his third season will require at least one of (a) the Titans’ run game or (b) their defense to significantly decline, putting the Titans in more passing situations-third-and-longs and down more than a score and with fewer leads. Could happen, but I doubt it.

The big question for me is how effective the Titans will be in those multiple tight end sets they used 55% of the time on first and second downs in the first 28 minutes of games last year, and specifically how they will respond to the loss of blocking tight end Anthony Fasano. Fasano was a key player for the 2016 Titans, playing 535 snaps even though he was a non-factor in the passing game (17 targets). This preseason, the second tight end with Delanie Walker has been rookie third-round pick Jonnu Smith. Game four of the preseason normally tells us little, but one play said a lot to me, crystallizing the Titans’ dilemma. Smith was lined up as an in-line player on a run to that side. He met Kevin Pierre-Louis at the point of attack, and KPL (a weakside linebacker listed at 230 pounds who failed to find a significant role on defense his first three seasons with Seattle) met Smith and defeated him, forcing running back David Fluellen to bounce. That cannot happen regularly if the Titans are to be successful doing what they did last year, and if asked to be the in-line player, Smith would have to face many players much harder to block than KPL.

So, Delanie Walker’s not that guy. Jonnu Smith’s not that guy. Those are the top two tight ends, and neither of them can fill a fundamental role in how the Titans played in base offensive sets last year. The Titans have a decision to make-they can ask somebody else to do that, who doesn’t present the same threat as a receiver that Smith and Walker do, or they can go without that role. If they decide to play another player, then there are two obvious options. First, they could ask the third tight end, Phillip Supernaw, to do that. He played with Fasano in some 2-TE sets last year and while he wouldn’t be as good as Fasano, he likely would be better than Smith. Second, lots of six offensive linemen, particularly Dennis Kelly. The Week 1 opponent Raiders provided a model of what this could look like. Their fine blocking tight end Lee Smith was injured early last season, and Oakland responded by giving basically all of his snaps to an extra offensive linemen. That’s one thing as an in-season adjustment, though, and another thing to go into the season with that as their primary plan and without an apparent backup. Like Supernaw as the Fasano replacement, this is something I would have expected to see in the preseason if it was going to be common.

The outside answer is “play more three receiver sets.” This is a bad answer. Walker often played in-line in 11 personnel, but he normally goes out for a pass route there. He’s a fine blocker for what he is, but he’s undersized for a tight end, only 6’0″, and cannot control edge players at the point of attack the way Fasano did, and the problems with the other potential solutions I went through remain.

The other potential answer is “play without an in-line tight end.” This is also problematic for a couple reasons. First, you need an eligible receiver on both ends of the line of scrimmage. The X receiver (likely Davis for as many snaps as he can play) is one of them, but the problem is at the other end of the line. Mularkey’s offense uses plenty of presnap motion with the Z receiver, to get the defense flowing one way and to set up blocking angles in the run game. That’s out if he has to stay on the line of scrimmage and cover up the offensive tackle. Second, not having an in-line tight end takes away a gap at the line of scrimmage the defense must account for, which means more defensive players are free to flow to the ball. It’s possible to get 2 off-ball defenders flowing the wrong way and get big gains that way. It’s harder to get 3 defenders flowing the wrong way. Third, those same defenders are still out on the field. Aligning, say, Smith and Walker as wing players and H-backs, may give them better angles against bigger edge players, but they’ll still have to sometimes block bigger edge players. Better matchups for Tennessee, perhaps, but still not great ones. Fourth, part of the run game playbook from last year’s extremely successful offense will have to go. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie spent much of their time revamping the offense this offseason on just this plan, but it would have been a lot easier to get a better blocker so you could keep doing what you already do well and build off that.

Another outside answer is “play more three receiver sets, by which we mean change the offense.” Another potential path for the Titans this offseason would have been to do more on improving the wide receivers and transitioning from their base offense last year, with its condensed formations, multiple tight end looks, and run orientation, to something that looks more like what Mariota played in at Oregon (and where most of the rest of the NFL is, at least to a greater degree). There have been no indications the Titans are actually planning to do this. We saw more of those same condensed formations and multiple tight end looks in the preseason, and all the insider chatter, from May when that sort of chatter started onward, has suggested more of the same.

So what the heck do I think the Titans are going to do? I’m not confident in my answer, which is why I just wrote all the above. What makes the most sense to me, given Fasano’s limited role in the passing game, is plenty of 6OL sets, but we’ll probably see at least a little bit of all of the above.

Defense
The Titans finished last year 27th in pass defense DVOA. They remade their secondary this offseason, with free agent acquisitions Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien starting at corner and safety, Kevin Byard stepping into a bigger role at safety, and LeShaun Sims, who finished fifth among Titans corners in snaps, starting at the other corner spot (though not in Week 1 against Oakland because of injury).

The questions here revolve around how the Titans ended up playing defense much of last season. They ranked first in the NFL in percentage of 5-man rushes in all situations, and had more plays in sub package defense (at least 5 DBs) where they rushed 5 players than any other team in the NFL. Behind those frequent 5-man rushes, the Titans played a lot of cover-1 looks, with a single high safety and man coverage on the eligible receivers. Their cornerbacks, particularly outside corners Perrish Cox and Jason McCourty, could not hold up in coverage. Should we expect better from this year’s group?

Ryan’s the big added name. He’s a fine player, general manager Jon Robinson is very familiar with him, and New England played plenty of man coverage. I have two specific strong concerns about his fit in Nashville, though. First, what the Titans were to 5-man rushes, New England was to 3-man rushes. Combined with man coverage, this given Bill Belichick and company the ability to double potentially multiple players on the opposing defense. Depending on the matchup, his teammates could give Ryan much more help in Foxborough than he will receive with the Titans unless they completely change how they play defense. Second, in the highest and best version we saw of New England’s defense last year, in sub packages, Ryan played slot, not on the outside. The Titans return last year’s slot corner, Brice McCain. McCain led the position group in snaps and was, if only by default, the group’s best player. If Ryan does play slot in sub packages, the Titans will still need two outside corners, and the other options are even more questionable.

McCain is a useful slot corner. We’ve seen him play outside corner before, and the results were sub-optimal. Sims won the other starting job; he had a solid last four games after a rough first outing against Chicago, but going from a couple hundred snaps to key starter is a big jump. Eventually Adoree’ Jackson will be a starter, but it would take a particularly strong performance in Week 1 to keep permanently a job he’ll likely have earned by injury; I’m skeptical of all rookie corners, he’s undersized so NFL receivers will look to body him early (and this happened some at USC last year), and his first look against NFL starters in Preseason Week 3 against Chicago wasn’t impressive. The Titans have suggested they’re even more skeptical of other potential answers.

The other significant question about the sub package defense is who plays the single high position if the Titans continue to play as much Cover-1. The obvious answer is Kevin Byard, who did well there in college. Cyprien is equally obvious as a non-answer for that role if you watched him play in Jacksonville. But Byard was nearly as obvious an answer last year, when he was deployed largely as a cover player, likely due to his athleticism and ability to match up in man coverage, while Da’Norris Searcy played the deep safety role. Searcy is back, so the Titans could do something similar again, but we just don’t know.

One potential answer for these problems is to not rush 5 as often, so the Titans have an extra defender to devote to coverage help, whether in a shift to two-high, as a robber, to double a dangerous opponent, or some mix and matching among those and other possibilities. The problem with that last year is the Titans could not get home with just four players, ranking in the bottom five in the league in pressure rate in those situations.

It’s hard to see Dick LeBeau shifting from a pressure-oriented coordinator to Belichick’s coverage-oriented schemes, so my questions about the defense revolve more around how the defensive question marks play than the offensive questions about scheme and deployment. How well, then, do I expect this to work? The top three pass rushers are all veterans, and I don’t see much reason to expect notable internal improvement there. The best case scenario is probably something like we saw in 2015, where the top three work just well enough that the Titans come out around average in pass defense as long as none of the top three gets hurt. The downside is the Titans defense against the pass is as bad as or worse than it was last year.

Conclusion-Type Thoughts

I don’t really know how the Titans are going to play offense in base personnel. I don’t trust the Titans to play well in pass defense. Fortunately, they’re in the AFC South, where all you have to do to go 9-7 is to stop shooting yourself in the foot without then starting to bang your head into a brick wall. These questions, while I believe they’re significant, are nowhere near as problematic as the obvious potential problems in 2014 and 2015 that caused the Titans to go 5-27 and end up with the second and first overall picks. 9-7 and a playoff berth, ho!

Bonus Fantasy Appendix

Mike Mularkey has spent his entire career as a head coach and offensive coordinator (except when he was running Scott Linehan’s offense in Miami in 2006 or adapting Ken Whisenhunt’s offense as an interim coach in 2015) throwing the ball to no more than three players in the pass game. But I’m a bit more skeptical of Corey Davis because of how much time he’s missed with injury and expect him to be eased into the lineup. If he recovers reasonably quickly, then I’d expect him to end up with 45 or so catches and Eric Decker in the 25-30 catch range. Right now, I’d be staying way the heck away from each player in non-daily fantasy, and would also not touch Jonnu Smith (Mularkey offense TE2 has never hit 20 catches in a season).

DeMarco Murray’s rushing numbers last season were inflated by a very easy schedule of opposing run defenses. This is probably the best reason to expect the Titans to have to throw the ball more, though I expect this to be only a modest effect (remember, they were already a bottom six pass defense last year, and my likely scenario for them is around that mark, not 2015 Saints). Derrick Henry’s fantasy upside remains entirely focused on injury; a more sensible workload management for Murray gives him 8-10 carries a game instead of the 1-4 he got some games last year. But I’m thinking 10-15 more (team) pass attempts, not 50 or more, and improvement at wide receiver should by better efficiency offset any increase created by fewer favorable down-and-distance situations.

Written by Tom Gower

September 10, 2017 at 01:15

Posted in Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans 2017 Roster Prediction as Training Camp Opens

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The latest in an irregular series of posts about the Tennessee Titans.

For the past dozen seasons, around the start of training camp, I have predicted which players the Tennessee Titans would keep when they cut down the roster to 53. I may have abandoned blogging regularly about the team, but this is an interesting enough exercise to keep me at it.

The intro, largely cribbed from past attempts at the task:

Each season, the day the Tennessee Titans players report to training camp, I attempt to predict which players they will keep after the cutdown all the way to 53. Some years this goes kind of okay,  while in other years I end up on quixotic quests and stick on them long after it becomes obvious they are indeed quixotic quests. Most years, I’m happy to get 48 of the 53 right at this stage of the game, as the inevitable injuries, surprises, and attempts to be clever that don’t work out happen.

Last year, I got 45 of the 53 players who would be on the roster Week 1. Subsequent personnel moves explained some of the misses, as four of the players were not on the roster when camp opened, while getting the positional mix wrong explains some of the others (3 QB and 6 DL instead of my prediction 2 QB and 7 DL, for example). But I also flubbed a couple depth chart orderings that look bad in hindsight. So, here’s a chance to do better.

So, here’s what the positional mix looked like for Week 1 last year:

QB: 3
RB/FB: 4
WR: 6
TE: 4
OL: 9
DL: 6
LB: 9
DB: 9
ST: 3

The Titans still have the same head coach and coordinators, so this might be a useful guide for what they’ll do this year. In putting together this roster prediction, I relied a great deal on what players the Titans suited up for games last year. I think that gives us an extremely useful guide for the 46-man active roster, but the other 7 players remain a hodgepodge. They could credibly keep a third QB (not active on gameday) over a ninth offensive lineman (not active on gameday) or vice versa, and the only thing I can do from my couch is try to guess along with them.

QB (3): Matt Cassel, Marcus Mariota, Alex Tanney
Analysis: Two or three? If it’s two, Casssel or Tanney? My guess would be Cassel. The Titans have hit a point with Tanney where figuring out his role bothers me. As noted above, I didn’t expect them to keep three last year (though Tanney would spend most of the season on the practice squad). This is one of those variable roster spots, and there’s no way I would feel too comfortable with any prediction.

RB/FB (4): Jalston Fowler (FB), Derrick Henry, Khalfani Muhammad, DeMarco Murray
Analysis: Three chalk names, and Muhammad provides enough of a change-up and the ability to play special teams my guess is he’s in much better shape to make the team than most seventh-round picks as long as he keeps up his end of the bargain in training camp. David Fluellen is RB3/4, but I see him more as Henry/Murray insurance and to give the rest of the team similar looks. If they keep a different third RB not for injury reasons, my guess is that player is not on the roster right now.

WR (6): Corey Davis (unsigned), Eric Decker, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor, Eric Weems
Analysis: I feel pretty good about Davis, Decker, Matthews, and Taylor as the four receivers who dress weekly and play on offense. The other two spots are up in the air. Sharpe only played one position last year and doesn’t play special teams, so even as the predicted inactive they could prefer Harry Douglas over him. But Decker fits the same role as Douglas and is up weekly, so I don’t see them with a need for that role. Weems will depend on how comfortable the Titans are with other returners, both kick and punt, and a numbers game for the special teams positions he plays. He could potentially be competing with, say, Demontre Hurst for a spot on the 46/53.

TE (3): Jonnu Smith, Phillip Supernaw, Delanie Walker
Analysis: Three good names, but is there a space for a fourth, and is that player potentially on the roster? I think the Titans would probably like to have a mini-tackle. Unless Supernaw is a much better blocker, I doubt they see one on the current roster. Then, it’s the waiver wire or trade, playing 6OL, or changing the offense. My current favorite is plenty of 6OL sets. With the addition of Smith, I don’t see any potential role for Jace Amaro.

OL (8): Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Josh Kline, Tim Lelito, Corey Levin, Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain
Analysis: Six chalk names in Conklin, Jones, Kelly, Lelito, Lewan, and Spain, then the two wild cards. With a good offseason, Sebastian Tretola could have maybe challenged Kline at right guard, but he had a bad one. My guess is they stick with Kline at right guard, but if he loses his starting spot, is there a need to keep him around as a regular backup? My guess is Josue Matias is also on the “starter or out” train. Kelly and Lelito are your gameday backups, and both have 6OL experience. Levin gets the iOL inactive spot, and I did not choose to make room for Brad Season as OL9.

DL (6): Mehdi Abdesmad, Jurrell Casey, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, Karl Klug, Sylvester Williams
Analysis: Gameday actives: Casey, Johnson, Jones, Klug, Williams. Then it’s a matter of what they want for the backup. If they want a pure NT, Antwan Woods is the favorite. A vet, Angelo Blackson. Something else, somebody else. The biggest risk I see is Klug’s return to form after his Achilles injury, but I’m not fully confident in which player they would keep if they’re concerned about him.

LB (10): Daren Bates, Jayon Brown, Kevin Dodd, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Nate Palmer, Erik Walden, Aaron Wallace, Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: Grouping inside linebackers and outside linebackers together is bad practice, but I did it anyway.

Outside linebackers: they’re in a rough spot with Dodd, counting on him but not comfortable with it. But I think with three guys for defensive purposes he’s number three with maybe Wallace and Palmer as primarily special teams players who are active. Or maybe they keep Walden up over Wallace. But I think all those guys make the team.

Inside linebackers: Brown, Williamson, and Woodyard play on defense. Bates is up for special teams purposes. I came up with a flex active spot and had Palmer penciled in there for his positional versatility and special teams value. That they re-signed him early in free agency means they like him, right?

DB (10): Kevin Byard, Johnathan Cyprien, Demontre Hurst, Adoree Jackson, Brice McCain, Logan Ryan, Da’Norris Searcy, LeShaun Sims, D’Joun Smith, Brynden Trawick
Analysis: Grouping together corners and safeties is also bad practice, but I did that anyway too.

Four good names at safety in Byard, Cyprien, Searcy, and Trawick. I don’t see a fifth.

Four names at corner I think are good in Jackson, McCain, Ryan, and Sims. Hurst is this year’s Valentino Blake, a veteran who can play special teams and be trusted not to screw up too badly as long as you don’t ask him to cover good players or often. LeBeau often keeps a lot of defensive backs, so I gave them D’Joun Smith as an extra corner. But that could easily be Kalan Reed or somebody else.

ST (3): Beau Brinkly, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis; Chalk, chalk, chalk. The open questions are at returner, and those affect other positions.

Where will I be wrong?
1. I kept 24 offensive players and 26 defensive players. That’s the same as my roster projection last year, but the Titans actually kept 26 offensive players and 24 defensive players for Week 1.
2. Special teams roles are a mess. I don’t have a well-formulated idea of what they’re looking for at each position, so I may have too many R4/5 and not enough R2/3. Or vice versa.
3. They’ll inevitably make a roster move or two, like the ones they made last year and the year before.
4. I’m too used to no undrafted free agents making the team, so I do not project them to make it barring overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They could easily keep a player below my radar over, say, Tajae Sharpe.
5. The late sixth and seventh rounds are basically UDFA-plus, so it’s a mistake to prioritize those players over other ones.
6. Offensive line, defensive line, and corner stand out as positions where marginal players make the most improvement out of sight. I haven’t even listened to, say, Mike Mularkey’s press conference when players reported yesterday, so I easily be wrong at those positions in particular.
7. Injuries. One year I believe I got 46 (of 54) right, but seven of my misses were because players were placed on injured reserve after the start of camp.
8. I’m a guy who sits on his couch in Illinois and makes stuff up. People who talk to people who work inside St. Thomas Sports Park may know important things I do not. I also do not think like Jon Robinson and Mike Mularkey, but they’re the ones in charge of this project, so I try to think like I think they might think, and without that “talking to people” check, so I end up going on quixotic crusades no matter how much I try not to. Thus, getting 48 of 53 right is a performance I would be happy with given all the other stuff.

Written by Tom Gower

July 29, 2017 at 10:01

Posted in Tennessee Titans

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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I pretended like I was going to keep up with quarterly reviews. But I put off doing one for the first quarter of 2017, hoping I’d read things I wanted to talk about more in April, then didn’t get that reading done then. Fortunately, May gave me some things to talk about, if only I could figure out how I wanted to talk about them. I then wrote a draft of this post, only to decide it was way, way more 2017 than I wanted to publish. I re-wrote it, and it went from way, way too 2017 to simply way too 2017. Back to the drawing board again, and here you go.

Fiction

So, what have I read? An awful lot of genre fiction, with months devoted to binge-reading. February: the mystery novels of Robert Crais. The early ones hew to the formula, the later ones suggest Crais got bored with writing the same book around the time I got bored with reading the same book. May: fantasy novelist Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings novels, particularly re-reading Farseer and Tawny Man in preparation for the recently-concluded Fitz and the Fool (it’s fantasy, so those are trilogies).

Non-genre fiction, or that which might be of interest to non-genre readers? As a historical novel, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall avoids the typical literary fiction complaint of nothing happening. Protagonist Thomas Cromwell had a bad historical reputation, but political fixer was an especially important job in a pre-modern state. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology reminded me of the virtues of a ratiocinative mechanistic universe over a polytheistic pantheon. Also, some of my read of it overlapped with my Hobb re-read, and the Norse gods had comparatively no depth. I also re-read Pride and Prejudice in preparation for watching the acclaimed BBC mini-series (still haven’t done that), and enjoyed it nearly as much as I did the first time. Question for Austen-ites: what would a 21st century Mr. Bennet be doing to fill his days?

Football

I did read a couple of books about football. Jeff Pearlman’s Gunslinger covered Brett Favre more comprehensively and in a more satisfying way than the Football Life episode on him did.

On Howard Mudd’s View from the O-Line, I refer you to Ben Muth’s review at Football Outsiders. I found it more satisfying than just a clip show, but not as good as a really good oral history.

Jerry Barca’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew, about the 1986 New York Giants, remembered one thing I like to emphasize and re-emphasize to myself: what happened in the games is what was in some sense really real. What we are doing as writers, him there and me now as I write about the Jaguars and Titans for Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (forthcoming in July), is condensing, expressing, and rendering stories about what happened there. Yes, it’s much harder to focus strictly on game action for a book like Pearlman’s, but that should always be the focus unless there’s a compelling reason for it not to be. Barca’s work doesn’t transcend the genre, but is a fine exemplar of it.

I also finished Bill Connelly’s The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time, which worked perfectly as a lunchtime read, where I could bite off a chapter or three at a time over a long period of time.

Non-Football Non-Fiction

Ben Macintyre’s Rogue Heroes on the SAS during World War II is strongest on the SAS in the desert, when David Stirling was getting going. The more back-and-forth campaign, and the problems of starting up a new unit, lets the SAS be more interesting than it was in Europe, especially France after D-Day.

I really enjoyed Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog and The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz when I read them; people who, like them and unlike me, actually run things and really manage other people should also enjoy them and will find them of more lasting value than I did.

Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape is a great book on how life, as a whole, has improved for most people. I noted on Twitter one of the more surprising things; that in Britain in the 19th century, life expectancy was greater at age 15 than it was at birth. Childhood mortality was an extremely serious problem not that long ago, even in the most advanced countries. Not as a breezy as your standard pop econ book, but still extremely accessible and not political.

I previously noted Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World; he returned to the Mongol world with Genghis Khan and the Quest for God. The thing about this is how … ecumenical the Mongols were. The Romans considered themselves pretty expansive and accommodating to other religions, letting other people keep their gods as long as they put the Roman gods above them. Obviously, this turned out to be an occasional issue with the Abrahamic religions (I refer here, obviously, to the “classic” broader Roman regime, not the later empire post-Constantine). The Mongols were apparently content to just exist at the top of the power structure and let the locals keep their silly religions as long as it didn’t pose the Mongols any problems.

Speaking of the Romans, there are some really good passages in Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana about what the Roman empire enabled due to its large geographic area of control. Getting to them requires processing a lot of material. Was it worth it? I think so, but I cannot recommend this more broadly.

In Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, he refers to some shooting between U.S. and Canadian ships in a 1970’s fight over fishing grounds as the first U.S.-Canadian shots since the French and Indian War. This neglects such minor details as the War of 1812 when THE UNITED STATES INVADED CANADA AND BURNED ITS CAPITAL CITY OF YORK (Toronto). It also neglects a minor detail such as the American Revolution when THE UNITED STATES ALSO INVADED CANADA, CAPTURED MONTREAL, AND BESIEGED QUEBEC. I only got to this point in the book because I was sufficiently amused by his previous insane claims and wanted to see what nutty thing he’d claim next. Recommended to those who delight in finding absurd claims in works of “non-fiction” and those in need of kindling.

I found South Park‘s explication of time travel more satisfying than that James Gleick offered in Time Travel. Anti-recommended.

My favorite non-fiction read to date has been Dreamland by Sam Quinones, a great and fascinating look at the opioid crisis, pill mills, and the transition to heroin delivery. More interesting on the economics of that drug cartel than Narconomics, and there’s a lot more to it than that. Very much worth a longer consideration in a different project.

Fine, the world of 2017. An Extraordinary Time by Marc Levinson gets a spot on the syllabus. Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class does as well, though not as big a one. Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise is fine for what it is, but gets listed under further reading. Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry I found better grounded and probably gets a space on the (entirely hypothetical) syllabus. I did not experience any of the four as a political book, though each obviously touches on some areas subject to intense partisan disagreement.

It probably says something about me and where I am as a sports fan that what I wanted more out of Jonathan Abrams’ Boys Among Men, on the NBA’s preps to pro era, was an in-depth look at just how aging curves worked for generally younger teenagers entering the NBA directly from high school compared to older college students. The NBA obviously has a logic all its own, in what it takes to win a championship and clearly that’s reflected in the draft itself.

Things to Read

Success: I finished off every physical book I ordered from Amazon in 2016. Still plenty of books from years prior to then to read, and a half dozen books from this year are on the “owned and unread” list. I’ll discuss most of those if and when I read them, but will note in progress right now is Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion & Riches. The unread list still includes, among other titles, Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War, Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon, Ron Chernow’s Washington (though my younger niece was happy to listen to some of it on a recent vacation after I finished off Berenstain Bears No Girls Allowed), and, yes, War and Peace. You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (paperback down to just $8.95) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Written by Tom Gower

June 27, 2017 at 22:13