What a ‘Bettor Better Know’ – NFL Week #1…And yes, if the Dodgers are playing and the markets are scrambling again we remain in the game…The simplicity of a pizza made right is something to cherish…
Point Blank – September 12, 2017
That was a rather inglorious NFL Week #1 to sort through, the quality of play providing a lot of fingernails-on-chalkboard moments if you are a fan of clean offensive efficiency. I believe that was not just a one-off; it is a story of what we will be collectively trying to come to grips with over the next four months, and then future seasons, with challenges to all segments across the marketplace. But take that optimistically - it can be times like these that generate the most opportunity.
In reviewing this season’s opening salvo I will start with a basic overview that won’t be new to past readers, but comes front and center with even more focus now, and then on to the particulars, including the first splendid Monday NFL lunch of 2017 (the food was several grades above the games I was breaking down). Let’s get to work.
Item: On those warning signals for bad QB and bad OL play
I don’t want to be redundant here because much of this has been written before in PB, in particular back around the draft day for Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, and the take that teams should have considered going all-in while QBs of that level were available, given the projected shortcoming for future years. The theory from that tree is bearing fruit now, and it may get worse instead of better – the likes of Brady, Brees, Manning, Palmer, Rodgers, Roethlisberger and Rivers will be leaving the NFL over the next handful of seasons, likely being replaced by far lesser players.
Sunday brought some horrific offense, and while we do want to credit the defenses for having impact, something they will get better at as more experienced is accrued in learning to tackle under the new rules, on balance there was more an appearance of far more Bad Offense than Good Defense.
Now it is time to try to find that relative balance point. Much of what we are seeing right now stems from so many NCAA teams using the spread offense. It has drawn a focus from the Sports Mediaverse because of how poorly in general QBs that put up big numbers from those schemes have performed in the NFL (look no further than the Baylor passers that have failed at this level), and there is a logic to that. The mismatches that can be created through tempo and spreading the field at the college level don’t exist on Sunday’s, and the awkward transitions have been easy to see.
What doesn’t get focused on as much is that offensive linemen are put at an even greater disadvantage by playing in the spread offenses, and I haven’t read anyone detailing it better than Seattle OL Tom Cable, who is struggling once again to field a decent blocking corps.
Let me bring something back from the files, circa 2015, from Cable - “I’m not wanting to offend anybody, but college football, offensively, has gotten to be really, really bad fundamentally. Unfortunately, I think we’re doing a huge disservice to offensive football players, other than a receiver, that come out of these spread systems. The runners aren’t as good. They aren’t taught how to run. The blockers aren’t as good. The quarterbacks aren’t as good. They don’t know how to read coverage and throw progressions. They have no idea.”
Cable became so frustrated that he even convinced Pete Carroll that they might be better off converting DL to OL, which did not work out very well. But prior to the experiment failing there was this - "I can go get a guy who runs a little faster, jumps a little higher and has an aggressive streak in him on defense and start with him. I'm going to have to retrain an offensive lineman out of college anyway."
Imagine how Cable feels this week, with the OL problems a big part of why the Seahawks offense could only stay on the field for 48 plays and 20:47 at Green Bay. But to back him up let’s detail something that I believe is significant. Here are the OL chosen for the Pro Bowl last December, before injuries caused some replacements -
David DeCastro (Stanford)
Travis Federick (Wisconsin)
Rodney Hudson (Florida State)
T.J. Lang (Eastern Michigan)
Taylor Lewan (Michigan)
Alex Mack (California)
Zack Martin (Notre Dame)
Kelechi Osemele (Iowa State)
Donald Penn (Utah State)
Jason Peters (Arkansas)
Maurkice Pouncey (Florida)
Brandon Scherff (Iowa)
Tyron Smith (USC)
Joe Thomas (Wisconsin)
Trent Williams (Oklahoma)
Marshal Yanda (Iowa)
How many are from college programs that were running spread offenses during their undergrad years? None. Yes, Cal has used those tactics of late, but when Mack played Jeff Tedford was still the coach.
Get the point? In what is now a passing league, spread offenses have created plenty of receivers that can catch the ball and run with it. The problem is that quality QBs to get the ball to them are in short supply, and pass blockers to protect those QBs perhaps even shorter.
In truth it wasn’t just pass blocking that was a problem for the big guys up front…
Item: 12 different teams failed to average more than 3.0 per rush attempt
LeVeon Bell carried the ball 10 times for 32 yards. Todd Gurley ran it 19 for 40. Before David Johnson got hurt for the Cardinals he had 23 yards on 11 carries. All three of those potential Pro Bowlers were up against unimposing defensive fronts. Take away two bursts for 40 yards from Russell Wilson, and the Seattle ground game was 50 yards in 16 attempts from all others. Take away 30 yards in four downfield runs by Kirk Cousins, and the remaining Redskins were 13 tries for 34 yards. Adrian Peterson’s return to Minnesota produced 18 yards on six tries. And so forth.
To understand how bad the running attacks were this week let’s set perspective, looking back at the standards of the previous five seasons -
Season NFL Avg Worst Team
2017 #1 3.6 1.9*
2016 4.2 3.2
2015 4.1 3.5
2014 4.2 3.3
2013 4.2 3.1
2012 4.3 3.4
* - I grade the Rams as better than 1.9 because the three kneel-downs by Sean Mannion lost seven yards at the end of the game, which do not count in my numbers. But even without them it was a putrid 2.3 per attempt, which was less than half the 4.7 the Colts allowed in 2016.
Despite the fact that one could claim that the ground games have an advantage in Week #1, taking on defenders that have not had all that much practice in tackling since the beginning of training camp, the overland attacks were rather miserable.
Item: And if you thought that the running was bad…
Oyyy. To properly integrate both the QB and OL issues, let’s use net yards per pass attempt (NYP), which brings sacks and the yardage lost into play. Over the past two seasons only one qualifying QB finished below 5.0 per attempt, Jared Goff and his miserable 3.8 last year. Yet it was Goff that had one of the better days of any passer this past week.
How ugly were some of the performances? There were a dozen teams that averaged less than 5.0 for NYP, and Houston had the rather inglorious combination of both Deshaun Watson (3.0) and Tom Savage (1.9) rating as the two worst performers individually in the category.
Let’s set the perspective again with the recent NFL history in NYP -
Season NFL Avg Worst Team
2017 #1 6.1 2.4
2016 6.4 5.0
2015 6.4 5.6
2014 6.4 4.8
2013 6.2 5.0
2012 6.3 4.5
What we saw this week was a lot of bad offense, the running attacks producing more than a half yard less per attempt than the NFL standard of the previous five seasons, and the passing attacks about a third of a yard less.
It is a small sample, of course, and there can indeed be aberrational weeks across the playing field of sport. But there is the genuine issue of not having enough quality QBs in the talent pool to fill out the rosters, and while the performances of the OL are more difficult to track (fortunately there are folks like the Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus around to make that more manageable), the awareness of these issues for the modern sport need to become a part of your handicapping consciousness.
As do these items…
Item: The Chiefs went -1 in turnovers and -84 in penalty yards and won (or, the Patriots went +1 in turnovers and +84 in penalty yards and lost)
There were two teams that played legitimately well on offense, the Chiefs and Vikings, and they deserve some added attention. First from an ATS standpoint what Kansas City did at New England was rather historic – an underdog with a minus TO count, and a major deficit in penalty yards, simply does not beat the spread by 23 points. The flip side of that commands just as much focus – a favorite with those advantages will usually cover the spread; almost always still win the game; and ever so rarely finish down 15 points on the scoreboard.
We start with being careful to not over-react, and Andy Reid himself offered a primer on that front – “Now that it’s over, it’s probably the most overrated game of the year because it gets so much publicity.” There is also the usual caution against over-reacting to games in which big plays were such an integral part, like the scoring passes of 78 and 75 yards from Alex Smith to Kareem Hunt and Tyreek in the second half.
But now consider this - take away those two plays and the Chiefs still had 24 firsts downs and 384 yards, at 6.1 per snap. The league average per play this week was 5.1, KC topping that by a full yard without tracking the two most explosive plays of the game. Take away the long reception by Hunt and what do you have? A RB that had 17 carries for 148 yards overland, and still caught four other passes for 20 yards. All that came after he fumbled his first career carry, which made for quite a turnaround for a guy that showed some promise in training camp, and then exploded onto the scene.
How legit was Hunt? Let's go to Pro Football Focus -
The flip side indeed matters. Naturally everything attached to good Kansas City offense can also carry the label of bad New England defense, but the Patriots only generated 5.0 per play when they had the ball. It goes back to the talking points that were laid out here last week – the marvelous chemistry of the passing game has been disrupted, with Julian Edelman and Mike Mitchell missing, and then Danny Amendola going down after getting off to a strong start (six catches for 100 yards).
This isn’t just a change in personnel, but what will have to be an overhaul of a scheme, especially if Amendola does not pass the concussion protocol this week. In 2016 only 11 percent of Tom Brady’s passes were thrown more than 20 yards downfield; vs. the Chiefs it was 30 percent. And no, that was not impacted by desperation throws after the Pats had fallen behind – there was only one Brady pass attempt after it became a two-score deficit, a short attempt to James White that fell incomplete.
New England has work to do on offense. There will be the tendency for the markets to view the team as a power in bounce-back mode, but I will instead be charting them as a work in progress, with some issues on both sides of the ball.
Item: Sam Bradford played an almost perfect game on Monday (which is not as much of an outlier as you might think)
It will be interesting to read the takes on Bradford’s terrific showing vs. the Saints across the Sports Mediaverse today. There will be some gushing, as there should, because of how well he commanded the offense and threw the ball – while I won’t get a chance for deeper dive grading until later in the day, I only recall one poorly thrown pass the entire night.
But now the key – don’t let that showing come as any kind of a shock, which it will be to many. When it was time to sort through the Vikings on the team-by-team tour a month ago there was a major focus put into Bradford’s 2016 campaign, and if you just isolate his play, and sort out the limitations of that offense, he had one of the better seasons of any QB.
Bradford has always been near the top of the charts in terms of accuracy, and he can whip it down the field, but a combination of injuries and being in offensive systems that did not accentuate his skills has led to a disappointing career. It was anything but dink-and-dunk on Monday – Bradford connected to WRs Adam Thielen and Stefan Diggs 16 times for 250 yards.
That is what can happen with a versatile WR/TE/RB corps that offers a lot of options, and the QB’s own post-game take addressed I well – “When I’ve got time to sit back there and evaluate things, I’ve got all the confidence in the world that our receivers on the outside are going to win.”
Which leads to the potential thorn from the rose bush – Bradford had that time vs. the Saints, only getting sacked once in 33 drop-backs. Is the reshuffled OL going to hold up? If so there is a lot of upside here at the skill positions, but how those blockers hold up against the Steelers on the road Sunday will bring a much better read. The highest ceiling I can see for the OL is “competent”, though with the skill cast the Vikings have competence may be enough to make a serious run at a playoff spot.
And because the Dodgers are playing tonight, so am I (again)
I do have to veer away from the NFL talk for the daily reminder of the truly bizarre way the betting markets are treating the LAD slide. In dropping their last 11 games they have been out-scored by 44 runs, and in going 1-16 over the last 17 games it has been a -57. Yet what have the markets done just about every day? Chase the wrong side of the streak. So here we are on Tuesday morning with Clayton Kershaw sitting as high as -255, and that means staying in play again.
The flip side here is that Johnny Cueto has pitched well in both outings since coming back from the DL, leaving with a 5-2 lead vs. St. Louis that the bullpen did not hold, and then rolling to a comfortable win over the Rockies in Coors. He is a consummate professional that will go hard to the final pitch, perhaps with more left in the tank than usual because he is at an innings count that is over 100 less than his average of the past three seasons. As such you might also want to put some Run Line in the pocket as part of the portfolio, with +1.5 returning a generous +130 in the early trading.
Vegas: Monday’s with the Review-Journal NFL Box Score page
I will be keeping a certain tradition going indefinitely in my life, so why not here on the pages of PB as well. After sitting in front of video and computer screens all weekend, Monday’s offer the opportunity to get out and change the flow, and with it comes a particular sense of business purpose. The Las Vegas Review-Journal prints all of the NFL box scores, except of course for the Raiders, who are already considered a “home” team, on one page, and I have found a Monday lunch with those box scores, and some quality food, to be a most productive process.
Going through the games through a different viewpoint is a good exercise for the mind, the slow and diligent process sometimes finding things that might not have been noted otherwise. And Las Vegas has become a superb place to eat, the growth over the last couple of decades on a pace that may be unmatched by any city across North America.
My weekly tour will take you to many spots off the beaten path, including a lot of mom-and-pop places that put a lot of pride in what they do. I began the week with what was truly the essence of mom-and-pop not all that long ago, and has now turned into a major success for good-guy Brad Otton, and his Settebello parlors.
Brad’s story is a classic one of persistence, and realizing that dreams can come true not by merely dreaming them, but by working hard enough to make it happen. He was a former starting QB at USC, and had the tools to make it in the NFL before a knee injury shelved those plans. Being an assistant coach did not light his passions, but he did remember back to something that did – the integrity of the pizza places he had visited during his Mormon mission work. So Brad went to Napoli, studied hard, and dared to bring genuine “Napoletana” pizza back to the west coast, where it has become fairly easy to find these days, but was almost unheard of a decade ago. Hence the birth of Settebello, the name coming from the Italian card game of Scopa.
Salt Lake City was his choice for the first parlor, and it was successful enough for Brad to consider Las Vegas for shop #2. It was a difficult go for a while because some development near his original location did not take place, but he had the fortitude to stick it out. Now there are eight locations across three states, and we are fortunate to have two in Las Vegas.
This is the “real deal” of pizza – the VPN of “Verace Pizza Napoletana” adhered to in the ingredients and the method of cooking, in this instance stone ovens that can reach that magic 900 degrees. You would eat it with a knife and fork in Napoli, and should do that here also, although they will slice it for you if asked.
There is also a particular reason to open the season at Settebello because the notion of value will be the key across the outcomes on the gridirons, and I am not sure if there is a better single dining value in Las Vegas right now than “Margarita Monday’s” at the location on 9350 West Sahara, the classic margarita pie for just $5.00.
This is pizza at its essence, and for my tastes also at its rustic best. Use the prime flour (Caputo) in the right oven, and then comes the classic leopard spots of a properly cooked crust. Add crushed tomatoes, olive oil, high-quality mozzarella and some fresh basil, and you just don’t need any kind of greasy/salty protein to take away from that special balance.
You can find the Point Blank archive here.
And if you want to know when PB is ready to go each day, as well as following along for some of the most important Sports Betting news as in unfolds, make @Vegaspointblank a part of your routine.