For the better part of the 2000’s, the NBA had a major balance issue. The Western Conference soared far above their Eastern counterparts, regularly turning the Finals into a prolonged version of the victory formation rather than a climactic battle. Dynastic teams such as the Lakers and Spurs were the obvious standouts, but the West also featured other powerful squads such as the Mavs and Kings, both of which would have easily been the class of the East. From the end of the Bulls dynasty in 1998 up until now, the West has won 10 championships in 14 seasons, has produced 72 teams with 50 or more wins, has seen 10 teams with winning records miss the playoffs, and has seen exactly 0 teams with non-winning records make the playoffs. Contrast that to the East, who has produced just 33 teams with 50 or more wins, has seen just 2 winning teams miss the playoffs, and has seen a whopping 20 non-winning teams make the playoffs.
I mention this not because my mind is slowly being consumed by basketball – though that is indeed true – but because we’re seeing a similar development in the NFL. It was no secret prior to the season that the AFC was the weaker of the two conferences, but few could have foreseen just how lopsided it would be. At least then it appeared as if there would be a strong top end, but even that has fallen apart. The Ravens, once a strong Super Bowl contender, have been ravaged by debilitating injuries to their defense as well as further Joe Flacco related issues. They were just trounced by 30 points. And then there are the Patriots, who blew yet another big 4th quarter lead and continue to look like a team on the decline. Even the Texans, clearly the class of the conference, have issues. Not only have they lost Brian Cushing for the season, but they were basically publically executed by the Packers on national TV.
Clearly, the gap is big, but just how big is it? According to smart places like Football Outsiders, it’s really big. In their recently released DVOA update, the NFC accounts for 10 of their top 15 teams, including the top four spots, while the AFC accounts for the nine worst teams. That’s right, the nine worst teams in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, all come from the AFC while the four best teams are all from the NFC. And really, the fact that the top four are all NFC teams is just about all you need to know. Counting the Falcons, who actually were #9 in DVOA, the NFC accounts for five of the six teams commonly labeled as “good.” Basically, there’s a Grand Canyon sized chasm between these two conferences.
Indeed, the AFC is the new NBA Eastern Conference.
The Pat Shurmur Zone
We’ve seen some outrageously stupid coaching decisions this year, from Ron Rivera’s no-go on fourth-and-one to Jason Garrett’s consistently stupid clock management issues. In that context, Pat Shurmur’s widely criticized decision to punt on fourth-and-one late in the fourth and on the Indy 41 is no smarter or no dumber. It’s equally dumb. His comment the next day? Much, much dumber in every way imaginable. Said Shurmur, “I think it worked out.”
The reasoning behind his comment is simple. Shurmur figures that his decision was smart because he eventually got the ball back and had a first down with over three minutes left near the spot of the previous punt. There are two problems with this logic:
1. It’s insane to say “it worked out” since the Browns didn’t score and lost the game. In order for something to “work out,” it actually has to “work out.” Clearly, that wasn’t the case.
2. Even if it had “worked out,” it would still be an overtly stupid decision. Judging a decision to punt based on outcome is almost always the wrong way to approach it. It’s called ‘Outcome Bias’ and it’s one of the things I hate most about how the NFL is consumed. The fact is the odds of getting one single yard is much higher than the odds of executing a good punt, getting a defensive stop, executing a punt return, and driving down the field for a TD, all in sequence, and all in about six minutes. To think otherwise is pure stupidity. Even if they had gone for it and failed, the decision would have been the right one.
Shurmur isn’t the only coach to struggle with this type of logic. For whatever reason, playing conservative football and punting on any and all fourth downs is ingrained in the minds of coaches and it’s costing their team valuable points and even more valuable wins. In many ways, a “Madden” approach to coaching would much more effective. But hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so let’s not get too crazy. All we can realistically hope for right now is that these guys figure out the fourth-and-short situations and admit when they make a mistake. Pat Shurmur did make a mistake, and it cost his team a chance to win.
The Rex Grossman ZoneAny QB with a QB Rating under 39.6Present Membership: Weeden (5.1), Skelton (6.2), Cutler (28.2), BADGABMAXULTRA (37.7), Cassel (38.1), Tannehill (39.0), Bradford (39.2)
I’ve decided to not admit John Skelton’s 6.2 QB Rating from a week ago. It hurts me to have to exclude him, but admitting a player who threw just 10 passes in a single quarter of action is cheating, and while I’m definitely not better than that…wait, that’s a good point, I’m NOT better than that! Skelton, you’re in! As are a couple other unlucky souls from last week!
Russell Wilson (9-23, 122 YDS, 0 TD, 1 INT, 38.7 QB Rating) – Russell doesn’t deserve this. Not at all. His guys dropped at least five passes and at least one of them was a sure TD.
Christian Ponder (8-17, 58 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT, 35.5 QB Rating) – Ponder, on the other hand, does deserve this! 58 yards in a modern NFL game! How is that even possible?!
The Vinny Testaverde Zone
Brandon Weeden – 10 INT’s in 272 attempts (3.7%)
Andy Dalton – 10 INT’s in 243 attempts (4.1%)
Matt Cassel – 9 INT’s in 176 attempts (5.1%)
Tony Romo – 9 INT’s in 221 attempts (4.1%)
Philip Rivers – 9 INT’s in 209 attempts (4.3%)
Ryan Fitzpatrick – 9 INT’s in 218 attempts (4.1%)
A light INT week for our leaders. Doesn’t help that Cassel isn’t playing anymore.
10. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) – I’m not totally giving up on them yet, but things look bleak after Sunday’s embarrassing result. Without Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb, and a healthy Ed Reed, this defense is just a shell, and Joe Flacco has clearly shown he’s not able to rise up. Looks like trouble for the Ravens.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) – They’re basically in the same boat as the Ravens with their pile of injuries…except they have Ben Roethlisberger instead of Joe Flacco. Which is an advantage. Obviously.
8. Denver Broncos (3-3) –Fifth in total DVOA, but does anyone really believe they have the sixth best defense (DVOA rank)? If they really are a top five team, they should breeze through their upcoming schedule.
7. New England Patriots (4-3) – There are legit concerns here that even the staunchest of Patriots supporters have to acknowledge. Giving up leads, mismanaging the clock, and bizarre play calls are very un-Patriot like, but it’s all been a part of this sluggish start. Nevertheless, they’re #1 in offensive DVOA and that alone is reason not to abandon hope. Personally, I see them hitting their stride in the later stages of the season.
6. Atlanta Falcons (6-0) – They only move up because of New England’s struggles. A win at Philly this week won’t entirely sell me, but it would be a good step.
5. Green Bay Packers (4-3) – Heads up, NFL! Aaron Rodgers is back!
4. San Francisco 49ers (5-2) – Thing to be impressed about – They ran all over one of the league’s best run defenses. Thing to not be impressed about – Alex Smith has that look in his eyes again. Not the “hey, I can actually do this” look, but the “I’m scared to death of throwing this ball because I feel 100% certain it’s going to get intercepted and returned for a TD” look.
3. Houston Texans (6-1) – Obviously the win against Baltimore is severely lessened due to the Ravens’ injuries, but it’s not like Houston narrowly edges past the Browns or anything. The Ravens still have talent on both sides of the ball and are still a difficult opponent, so trouncing them by 30 is a pretty darn nice statement.
2. New York Giants (5-2) – Typical Giants letdown game last week, except this time they actually won. Look, I think the Giants hype is a bit much right now – they are NOT a great team by any stretch – but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who thinks they’re the best team in the league. Offensively, they’re as strong and balanced as anyone and their pass rush, as we all know, is unparalleled. Could we really be in store for a third Giants Super Bowl? Can we really live in a world where Eli Manning has three Super Bowls? I know I can’t!
1. Chicago Bears (5-1) – Sticking with the Bears despite a decidedly uneven performance on Monday Night. Quite frankly, the offense has to start clicking and do so on a consistent basis, because eventually, as the 49ers found out, the turnovers just won’t be there. That having been said, the defense is insanely good right now. They’re head and shoulders above the rest of the league, including the 49ers, in defensive DVOA. Also, this team seems to be the single luckiest team in the history of the game. If anybody could roll through the playoffs with only defensive TD’s and punt return TD’s, it would be the Bears.
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