On why Stanford's David Shaw will consider a scoreboard margin of less than 31 to be a "win." ... The Chargers limp into LA; will LA be limp about the Chargers? … A primer on Power Ratings (and you really should keep two sets).
As the 2017 college football season nears kickoff with a few Saturday games, it will be time to get the first investment into the portfolio, a unique setting creating a challenge for the oddsmakers, who have left us just enough room to get in play. But that will be saved for the end of today’s missive; first we have to deal with another unique setting, in more ways than one.
The daily team tours across the 2017 NFL landscape take us to possibly the toughest team to power rate of all – the Chargers bring some significant challenges, and that is before we even get to what the moving of the franchise to Los Angeles means, and whether the next three seasons at the StubHub Center will be a football purgatory. While the focus here has been to narrow down one key item for each team, this one properly becomes a two-parter.
The problem with LAC from a football standpoint (I will grow accustomed to addressing both the Chargers and the NBA Clippers that way, though it shouldn’t cause confusion) is that the past is so difficult to grade, and when you can’t grade the past it makes the present more uncertain, and the future even more fragile. The base issue is injuries, one of the most difficult items to sort through in general, but a real headache with this franchise in particular.
A primer on Power Ratings (and you really should keep two sets)
Let’s take a step back first to what I believe is one of the most important handicapping components – having two baselines for Power Ratings. I learned to do this across all sports long ago, and it has been a key aspect to surviving over all of these years. I not only have a power rating for every team (and of course for individual players where pertinent), which is recorded as a number, but also a confidence factor for that rating, which is marked by a letter grade. I believe this is so important, especially in helping to develop the optimal mindset about the various components that go into setting ratings. In terms of the Chargers, my letter grade is rather low; accurately power rating their recent past is simply not easy.
Injuries happen, and as part of the general routine there is often the expectation that a team that suffered mightily in that category in a season can expect better luck on that front the following campaign. Not so for the Chargers in the former Mike McCoy era – they finished #28, #31, #26 and #31 in AGL (adjusted games lost). That is a staggering blow to a team’s framework, and naturally the Chargers could not win through it, going 27-37 in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs.
The difficulty for the NFL handicapper is in establishing what the baseline would have been with only a league average AGL, and there aren’t any reliable formulas for that. And in terms of charting the individual San Diego games (no, that is not a slip, because we are looking back at that era of the franchise), how many late failures could have been directly attributed to both the lack of quality and the exposure of depth that comes through injuries?
Consider this: 25 percent of all games in the McCoy era were Charger losses in which they led in the fourth quarter. In each of the last two seasons they finished tied for the NFL bottom in games that got away after leading in the final stanza. Then consider one more element: They were -11 in turnover differential over the last two campaigns, which rated 30th across the league.
Now the question – if a team had a slew of injuries and a negative turnover differential, yet was in position to still win the majority of its games (the Chargers led in the fourth quarter in 20 of 32 the past two seasons), might the team be legitimately good if healthy?
That is the conundrum. Where is the LAC baseline power rating to begin this season? Even with all of those 2016 injuries they were #19 on the Football Outsiders' adjusted efficiency ratings, which could easily lead one to project that they were at least average, or slightly above it, had they not lost so many key players for such long stretches.
Of course, moving north hasn’t necessarily solved the medical issues – losing LB Denzel Perryman was a major blow, given the gap between him and the potential replacements (Korey Toomer and Nick Dzunbar are role players, not high snap count guys); projected starting guard Forrest Lamp is also gone; and the Chargers don’t know when they will get first-round pick Mike Williams on the field at WR. Already, 2017 is less than a clean slate.
When I look at the LAC depth chart I see a team that can compete for a playoff spot if those names don’t have to be shuffled again. But off seasons of 4-12 and 5-11, is that the way they see themselves? Once again it is the psyche of the athletes that will play a major role in how a season unfolds. Those psyches may be hindered, rather than helped, by playing in a new location.
Will the StubHub be purgatory instead of an advantage?
It isn’t just about power rating the Chargers from a purely football standpoint, of course, but also the delicacy of establishing a home-field advantage, if they even have one at all. It will be a couple of seasons of playing in the StubHub Center, which seats less than half of the capacity of a typical NFL stadium, only topping out at 27,000 on game day, but might that help in a subtle way – it could distract folks from realizing just how little the city may be buying in to the team.
There is already a bit of alarm, the first two preseason games only bringing counts of 21,054 and 21,197, with no particular buzz that could be discerned.
There is also the matter of the inconvenience to the players, which can be an issue across the season. Something worth following will be the daily commute of Philip Rivers to practice, which is truly unique across the professional sports landscape. And of course, one of the problems that already plagued the franchise in San Diego is that the west coast is home to folks from all over the country who have migrated towards the Pacific, and that has often meant home games in the past in which the fans for the visiting team appeared to be louder. That may even be magnified in Los Angeles instead of mitigated.
There is one added issue here that I believe matters – the 2017 cycle is simply a terrible one for the Chargers to generate a spark in the community. The Dodgers are having one of the best regular-season runs in MLB history and will command attention in their October hunt for the World Series. The USC Trojans are No. 4 in the opening AP Poll and would likely have outdrawn the Chargers this autumn even if both teams played in The Coliseum. And just when the Dodgers are ready to pack things away for the season, possibly after a victory parade, here comes the media circus that will be Lonzo Ball’s first season with the Lakers, along with the Clippers, of course, and the Ducks and Kings of the NHL.
Contrast this to what would have happened had the Chargers remained in San Diego – the Padres will only be fulfilling schedule obligations in September; San Diego State football has a good but modest following; and professional hockey and basketball do not host there.
In recent years the Chargers' home-field advantage has been among the weakest across the NFL; it is probable that the advantage will be even lower this season, if indeed there can be any real advantage found at all.
In the Sights, NCAA Football Saturday …
It is time to get out into the market on this week’s NCAA board because there is a setting that makes the value bells chime, but it may require shopping for some of you: #298 Rice (10:00 Eastern) works on my stuff at +31 vs. Stanford in Australia. That price point is easy to find across Las Vegas this morning, but for those elsewhere you may have to check multiple outlets.
This is only a moderate investment, but there is a fundamental in play that is worth exploring because it will hold up through much of the season – when the line is so high that one coach literally has control of the proceedings, and that coach isn’t looking to get a margin, there can be value to the underdog. In this case that coach is the Cardinal's David Shaw, who has his sights set on something other than this scoreboard.
Even if Shaw wanted to crack the whip for this game, it would not be easy to keep his team to show a lot of spark – the Cardinal beat Rice 41-17 in the final game of the 2016 regular season, and one of the most difficult motivations is to get a team to focus hard, and play hard, when they know they are far better than the opposition. But I don’t believe Shaw would be looking for that spark anyway; this game is merely a dress rehearsal for what is on deck in two weeks, a showdown against USC that is the most important date on the 2017 Stanford regular-season calendar.
Even at the best of times Shaw is not a “style points” guy. The Cardinal play at a slow tempo, and there may not be much explosiveness with an offense that could take a while to jell, QB Keller Chryst at full health now but having missed all of spring practice. There certainly isn’t much reason to extend the playbook in this setting, not wanting the USC coaching staff to see any flavors beyond vanilla. That makes the full +31 loom large in what could be a methodical grinder of a game, and the favorite more interested in watching the clock tick away, rather than adding to the scoreboard in the latter stages.
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