When Grading Games, Sometimes "The Play's the Thing"

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David Malinsky

Wednesday, September 20, 2017 1:46 PM GMT

Wednesday, Sep. 20, 2017 1:46 PM GMT

To properly grade games, you have to accept that sometimes “The Play’s the Thing”…Another shallow dive into the Survivor Pool (not that there’s anything wrong with that)…You probably aren’t paying enough attention to the Marshal Yanda injury…

Point Blank – September 20, 2017

Stay with this one today because it is not as dry as it will start, and it is something that the serious football handicapper needs to make a part of his routine. Scoreboards and box scores are essentially abstracts, not precise measurements, of what happens on the football fields each weekend, and when stat accumulations are put together, they often take the game further away from what really happened on the field, rather than closer to it.

That means time for what will be an annual take in mid-September, as the first few football weeks sink into the consciousness. A notion I have repeated so often through the years that there is as much Shakespeare as Euclid or Ptolemy needed if you are going to win the point spread battles, an understanding of human nature every bit as important as the numbers that measure the outcomes.

There are various dimensions to that, but for today there is a Shakespearean reference that also brings us is the ideal title to deal with a most important aspect of football science, and how one single snap of the ball can mean far more than six points, which is the upper scoreboard limit. Once again time for “The Play’s the Thing”, as a little Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2) comes front and center.

It was déjà vu in Las Cruces, from both the Rose Bowl a few weeks earlier and decades of football gone by

I had a ticket on Troy at New Mexico State on Saturday night, and for the first 2.5 quarters the game unfolded almost possession by possession the way that I had envisioned, the Trojans leading 20-3. There was little reason to suspect a turnaround was imminent when the Aggies faced a third-and-11 near midfield midway through the third quarter, and even less so as that play unfolded, QB Tyler Rogers not finding anyone open and scrambling in the pocket, finally rolling toward the sidelines before heaving a throw deep down the middle of the field.

Rogers doesn’t have a strong arm, and the ball was short of WR Izaiah Lottie, with a Troy defender primed to make the interception. Freeze the video at that point, and the odds of the Trojans covering the pointspread are likely in the 5-1 range, perhaps higher. But after that pause, when you hit the play button you see that the ball was only deflected by the defensive player, and went through his hands to Lottie for a 46-yard touchdown. It was still 20-9 Troy after the missed PAT, but long-time observers of the sport would have known that the -7 ticket was in trouble. Momentum.

Not many of you likely watched that play (ESPN3 for the coverage) on a busy Saturday night, but it would bring back memories of something a lot of you probably did view, an almost identical touchdown being made in Texas A&M/UCLA a couple of weeks ago on a Sunday evening, which touched off these disparate reactions in the end zone, just moments before a game-winning celebration for the Bruins occurred –

Here is how that one set up. While the UCLA comeback had already begun, narrowing the margin from 44-10 to 44-24, the Bruins were still major long-shots to win the game when they had the ball at the Aggie 42-yard line with 8:24 remaining. Rosen actually made a mistake on the play – while Rogers could be excused for making a desperation heave on third-and-11 down by 17, it was a first down pass that Rosen forced towards the goal line, and it came up short of WR Darren Andrews. But somehow it got through the hands of A&M safety Larry Pryor, and went to Andrews for a TD. UCLA only narrowed the deficit to 13, but again long-term observers would have a feel for what was likely to happen next. Momentum.

One play can genuinely be worth 3-4 touchdowns in the outcome of a football game. The human emotion involved creates major ebbs and flows, and the adrenaline rush of momentum plays a considerable part. As such you need to learn the steps to grade games with such swings with some finesse, understanding full well how a fluky bounce can have such a huge impact.

Does UCLA beat Texas A&M if Pryor intercepts that pass? Almost assuredly not. Does New Mexico State get back into the game if Troy comes up with an interception (I could not isolate which player it was from viewing) of a bit of a wounded duck from Rogers? Most unlikely, and even if the pass is merely incomplete State is punting on the next down. While the Bruins and Aggies were only granted six points for those plays, and the opposing teams penalized for six, they were in fact worth far more than that in the ultimate game flows.

What is often the aftermath of such a play? Troy had not punted all night until the possession following the State touchdown, but then got stopped on that ensuing drive by an Aggie defense that returned to the field with a jolt of energy. Texas A&M did not score again in the game vs. UCLA, and the Aggie defense was rattled when it got back on the field.

This happens, and it happens more often than many folks appreciate. Hence why there is so much diligence that goes into the grading of games each week, and also the caution of blindly attaching too much weight to the bottom line scores and statistics. Many games are more of a Rorschach blot awaiting interpretation than something that allows for precision, and it is in having the patience to sort through them that the shrewd handicapper creates the opportunity to grow the portfolio.

If Rosen does not connect to Andrews through the hands of the A&M defender, the most likely outcome in Pasadena that evening may have been a 20-point UCLA loss. If Rogers had not connected to Lottie through the hands of the Troy defender, New Mexico State would have been punting down 20-3, and there is a greater likelihood that margin would have grown, rather than shrunk.

Football is that way, and the earlier one accepts that, and learns to work around it, the better are the long-term prospects for success.

Survivor 2017, Week #3 – Remaining in the shallow end

After a yawner of a week with the Raiders it is more of the same for the card ahead, a safe pick that doesn’t bring much daring, but also one that has a bit of savvy to it. It will be the PATRIOTS, a team that is at the top of the must-use list at some point for the season. As it turns out, the best of all settings is a tenuous one, the final home game vs. the hapless jets being one in which the AFC playoff seedings may already be clinched, which could turn it into a bit of a circus. And in truth, this week the other prime candidates bring issues. I do not like the schedule setting nor the injuries to Green Bay (and the Packers can also be saved for next Thursday vs. the Bears); Pittsburgh has a prime look-ahead to that division grudge match vs. Baltimore; and because of the travel sequences Miami shows vulnerability against the Jets. So I just play it safe and hopefully move on to the next week.

  1. Carolina
  2. Oakland
  3. NEW ENGLAND

The injuries to Marshal Yanda and Jarrad Davis mean more than most folks will appreciate

Injuries to skill players come front and center during the NFL season because the guys that touch the ball have performance numbers that can easily be referenced, while those that lack such measurements get less attention (in part because the lack of numbers makes it more difficult for the Sports Mediaverse to do their jobs). There are a couple this week that are extremely significant, Yanda with the Ravens and Davis with the Lions, and I will deal with each of them over the next two days, saving Davis for tomorrow so that there can be a little more clarity about his status.

Reader Jake Evans wisely brought up Yanda in yesterday’s comments thread, and in this instance it isn’t just about how good Yanda is, but also the particular circumstances of the Baltimore OL, something that was made a focus point during the team-by-team preview tour before the season.

First let’s begin with the fact that Yanda is damn good, having earned six straight Pro Bowl appearances for his impact in the trenches. But now let’s also deal with the aspect of leadership, which the responses of some of the Ravens detailed well upon learning that he is out for the season.

From TE Benjamin Waston - “It’s tough emotionally. Even before I came here, everybody in the league knows about Marshal, how special he is, his excellence on the offensive line, and the way guys gravitate towards him, the leader that he is. So it’s definitely going to hurt. Football is a team game; we’re going to put 11 on the field, and someone is going to play. The train never stops, but emotionally, when a guy like that goes down, it’s definitely going to be tough to move forward.”

And from RT Austin Howard - “This game is all about adapting to change. It can happen at any moment, and we’re used to that. But, man, what a guy. He’s super tough, and to see him go down was shocking at first. You think he can fight through anything, and we’re so saddened to have him go down.”

This goes beyond Yanda’s individual abilities, however, and to the fact that since the end of last season Jeremy Zuttah (16 starts in 2016), Rick Wagner (14 starts) and John Urschel (3 starts, played in 13 games) were lost (an attempted return by Zuttah was short-lived back in training camp), and after training camp opened Alex Lewis (8 starts) and Nico Siragusa were lost to injuries.

This was not going to be a good OL even with all hands on deck, but now they lack talent and chemistry (only LT Ronnie Stanley is starting in the same position as last season), and are paper thin. Combine the physical and leadership skills of Yanda with the fact that the Ravens were not well-set at all to absorb his loss, and there is an impact here that will go beyond the likely market perceptions.

Developing some consistency up front is made even more difficult on a practice week that is disrupted by the long trip to London, so I believe there is just enough value to take a piece of #462 Jacksonville (Sunday, 9:30 Eastern) at a full +4, which is easy to find in Nevada but becoming more difficult beyond the borders. There is the natural squeamishness that comes from backing Blake Bortles against an aggressive defense, but the Jaguars are strong across their own defensive front, and are capable of being alive for the outright win to the final possession. An alternative idea is to wait out a Ravens Team Total Under, hoping to find 21 as a win number, but since I expect the +4 to get away I am grabbing a moderate play now, and may add some TT Under when those hit the board later in the week.

In the Sights, Wednesday MLB

Time to also add something for the MLB Diamonds - I will have some #963 Arizona/San Diego First Half Under (9:10 Eastern) in pocket, with the 4's still holding up out there.

Robbie Ray has just been dynamite since returning from the DL, a masterful 5-0/1.39 in which it has been 55 strikeouts vs. only 21 hits and 6 walks allowed. I am not sure anyone in the sport has been better during this duration. But has anyone really paid attention to Dinelson Lamet, who has worked to a 2.44 over his L10 starts, that 95 mph fastball developing into a weapon? I have liked the way that Lamet has continued to compete despite little offensive support - the Padres have lost 4-1, 2-1, 1-0, 3-1 and 3-1 over his last five starts, yet he has not shown any frustration through that stretch.

What a 'Bettor Better Know' – NCAA Week #3

What a ‘Bettor Better Know’ – NFL Week #2

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