Tossed Salad & Scrambled Eggs
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A Minor Retraction (Week 5 Game Review)
I’m starting this week’s article with a bit of egg on my face. Historically speaking, I’ve been meticulous about nailing down accurate stats for my articles. Last week, feeling the crunch to get the game review posted, I consulted Google for a stat I could have and should have calculated myself. It bit me in the ass. I posted Matt Cassel’s yards per game as 235.4 against losing teams and 141.0 against winning teams. The site I referenced was using just his 2009 and 2010 figures, which is a limitation I could accept, provided they had done their math correctly. They were close…. Over his first two years as a starter in Kansas City, he averaged 239.9 against losing teams and 158.8 against winning teams.
The clue that tipped me off to the screw up, however, was their touchdown and interception figures: 31/12 against losing teams and 14/16 against winning teams. Well…. Cassel didn’t throw 45 TDs and 28 INTs over that stretch. He threw 43 and 23. They spotted him a couple of scores, but they bumped his picks by 22 percent. I don’t like the guy (as a quarterback, anyway…. he may be a perfectly decent human being), but I’m not going to disseminate false information to prove my point.
Why should I? I don’t need to. The actual, factual figures are proof enough.
I know what you’re thinking…. Is this jackhole actually gonna pile on a guy coming off a four TD game against the best pass rush tandem in the league? Well…. Yes. Wins like this are exactly what has falsely legitimized his place as a starter in the NFL. Of his 35 starts in red and gold, he has a grand total of two wins against teams that concluded the season with a winning record. If Minnesota and Indianapolis right the ship this year, that number could go up to a whopping four.
Before I get into this, however, I want to acknowledge a handful of players I feel stood out this week. First and foremost, major props are due to Dwayne Bowe. His juggling touchdown catch had shades of David Tyree’s famous helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII. In truth, I’m almost equally impressed by the way he shed tackles on his first score. Steve Breaston played a third consecutive solid outing as well. Bowe and Breaston could very likely be the first Chiefs wide receiver tandem to crack 2000 yards in 28 years (kudos to you if you can name that last tandem off the top of your head…. I had to look it up). Four fifths of the offensive line deserves props as well, particularly Branden Albert, who did an excellent job of limiting the effectiveness of one of the best, most consistent pass rushers of the last decade. On the opposite side, respect should be given to Kelly Gregg. It’s easy to see why he was so important to Baltimore’s run defense for so long. Glenn Dorsey had a nice day as well.
Of course, no discussion of this game would be complete without mention of Jackie Battle’s 119 yard day (140 if you include his two catches). I’ve never shied from my support for him. I liked him from his very first carry back in December, 2007–a three yard high contact touchdown straight up the gut. It shouldn’t shock anybody that a fourth string back had a career day against this Colts defense, but there was something hidden in Battle’s stats that did hint as to why I’ve thought so much of him for so long: 4.0 yards after contact per carry, which indicates his engine doesn’t shut off. He’s still fighting for distance at the point where most backs would be sitting on the turf, waiting for one of their blockers to give them a hand up. I’ll say it again, because it merits repeating: 4.0 yards after contact per carry. Thomas Jones, on the other hand, was stuck at 1.4.
Back to the subject…. I’ll start with a couple of figures from the Indy game. To Cassel’s credit, of his 29 passing attempts, he targeted his top three receivers 18 times and his starting tight end 3. Of the remaining eight, seven were to his ever-expanding fleet of tailbacks. The final throw was to Terrance Copper. Throws to Terrance Copper are, as a rule, ill advised, but the pass was complete, so I’ll leave it alone.
Cassel completed 72.4% of his passes for 257 yards. Over the season, opposing QBs have completed 68.4% for an average of 254.2 yards a game against Indy. 68.4% is stunningly bad; it ties them up at the bottom of the league with Denver. 254.2 yards a game is middle of the pack, but I’m guessing that number would be considerably higher if they weren’t getting gashed on the ground for another 145.2 (second worst in the league, behind St. Louis). That’s a combined total of 399.4 yards a week they’re giving up (seventh worst), and they’re allowing an average of 27.2 points (fourth worst; regrettably, the Chiefs are bringing up the rear in that category).
There’s really nothing unexpected about this contest. The Colts allowed a lot of rushing yards; that was to be expected. The Colts allowed a high percentage of completed passes; that was to be expected. The Colts allowed four scores; that was to be expected. It did my heart good to see the house that Jeff George built brought to its knees (and yes, before the snarky replies start, I am aware that the Pride of Purdue never played in Lucas Oil Stadium), but, in the words of Huckleberry Finn, I warn’t surprised. If there was ever a case for the importance of a franchise quarterback, they’re it.
I’ve heard the assertion that the Colts are losing now because all of their money is invested in Peyton Manning. That’s not exactly correct. Manning makes a pretty penny, but Wayne, Clark, Freeney, Mathis, Bethea, Diem, and Saturday didn’t come cheap. That team is built to win. I respect Kerry Collins, but the expectation that he’d be able to operate Manning’s fine-tuned machine on two weeks’ notice was ludicrous. Had Curtis Painter been handed the reigns from day one, I doubt they’d be 0-5, but they wouldn’t be a lock to win their division either. That’s the difference a guy like Manning makes. With him, they’ve made an unprecedented playoff run–nine appearances in the past decade, and 11 in his 13 year career. Without him, they’re probably no better than an 8 to 10 win team, perennially in contention for a wild card, but not a lock.
I digress. Back to Cassel. With his stats in hand, I wanted to do a more comprehensive analysis. In his first two seasons with Kansas City, he was 4-10 against teams with an 8-8 or better record and 10-6 against teams 7-9 or under. Within those ranges, there’s a fair amount of ambiguity. Beating a 13-3 team is not the same as beating a 9-7 team. Thus, I broke down Cassel’s various stats into four categories, based on the opposing team’s season record: 5 or fewer wins, 6-7 wins, 8-9 wins, and 10+ wins. I also separated a two year analysis of his start in KC with a three year analysis that includes his time starting in KC and New England. Since he played the majority of the week 1 KC/New England game in 2008, it’s included in my figures. This year’s games, along with his handful of attempts prior to 2008, are not included. To begin, I present his wins and losses (two year window in KC listed first, three year starting career second):
Opponents with 5 or less wins: 6-3 (66.7%) / 10-3 (76.9%)
Opponents with 6-7 wins: 4-3 (57.1%) / 7-3 (70%)
Opponents with 8-9 wins: 4-4 (50.0%) / 7-6 (53.8%)
Opponents with 10+ wins: 0-6 (0%) / 1-9 (10%)
The lone win against a team with double digit victories came against Chad Pennington’s fluke 2008 11-5 Dolphins.
Wins are reflective of a full team effort. Defenses can lose games just as easily as offenses. Thus, those numbers don’t necessarily tell the full story. Next, consider his completion percentage:
5 or less: 57.5% / 58.9%
6-7: 62.7% / 64.3%
8-9: 48.0% / 53.9%
10+: 57.5% / 60.1%
There’s an obvious abberration there. The 48.0% and 53.9% figures are weighed down considerably by that 11-33, 2 INT performance against the Raiders at the close of last season. Otherwise, his numbers are essentially consistent top to bottom, with minimal deviation from his time in KC to his career starter figures. Next, yards per attempt:
5 or less: 7.1 / 7.1
6-7: 7.2 / 7.3
8-9: 5.6 / 6.5
10+: 5.3 / 5.7
There’s a minor but noticeable favorable bias toward his full career. This is the influence of Wes Welker. In 2008, Wes added 767 yards after catch on 111 receptions, or 6.9 extra yards per catch. The median average for first wide receivers is 5.0. That means Cassel got another approximately 215 yards on the season from Welker’s standout performance. I’m not going to run what-if calculations, but it definitely accounts for the discrepancy.
The cause for concern is the sizeable margin that separates his performance against mediocre and bad teams versus his performance against winners. If the drop in production was coupled with a similar drop in completion percentage, the logical assertion would be that it was the net effect of facing tougher teams with better pass rushers and stronger secondaries. For Cassel, there is no corresponding drop–his completion percentage stays about the same. Thus, his yards per completion suffers considerably against top competition:
5 or less: 12.3 / 12.1
6-7: 11.4 / 11.4
8-9: 11.8 / 12.0
10+: 9.2 / 9.5
Of course, these numbers by themselves are relatively meaningless without seeing how they stack up against Cassel’s competition. The easy out for me would be to size him up to Manning or Brady–guys whose busts for Canton have already been sculpted and stowed away for later use. Again, I’m not out to unduly disparage the guy; thus, my choice for the job was Joe Flacco.
Why Flacco? First, their careers as NFL starters have completely coincided. Baltimore drafted Flacco in 2008 and threw him into the fire immediately, while Cassel took over for the injured Brady in the first week of the same season. Second, both have experienced the ups and downs associated with underperforming wide receivers. Flacco’s have been more consistent, but Cassel struck gold early with Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Third, neither has established himself as an elite signal caller. I think Flacco eventually will (which is kind of the point of this whole exercise), but he hasn’t arrived yet, and a bumpy start to the current season isn’t exactly expediting the process. Fourth, and finally, he could have been ours. He was there for the taking for both of Kansas City’s first round picks that year. As much as I like Albert and Dorsey, I think I could justify not having one or the other if my team had a legitimate quarterback for the next decade.
Flacco, incidentally, graduated from Delaware, but actually started his collegiate career at Pittsburgh. He left after two years because he couldn’t escape the long shadow of starter Tyler Palko.
Here are Flacco’s numbers compared to Cassel’s (Flacco first, Cassel second). To level the playing field, I’m using Cassel’s full three years as a starter rather than just his time in KC. Going in the same order as before, I’ll start with wins and losses:
5 or less: 17-1 (94.4%) / 10-3 (76.9%)
6-7: 3-0 (100%) / 7-3 (70%)
8-9: 6-1 (85%) / 7-6 (53.8%)
10+: 6-14 (30%) / 1-9 (10%)
Next, completion percentage:
5 or less: 61.9% / 58.9%
6-7: 70.8% / 64.3%
8-9: 61.1% / 53.9%
10+: 61.2% / 60.1%
Now yards per attempt:
5 or less: 7.8 / 7.1
6-7: 8.3 / 7.3
8-9: 7.1 / 6.5
10+: 6.8 / 5.7
And yards per completion:
5 or less: 12.5 / 12.1
6-7: 11.7 / 11.4
8-9: 11.6 / 12.1
10+: 11.0 / 9.5
One of these things is not like the other.
To close the statistical diatribe portion of this article, I want to revisit a couple of negative things I’ve said about Cassel in the past, but with hard numbers. First, he can’t throw deep passes (passes where his target is positioned 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage). Second, his accuracy is absolute crap when he’s under pressure. The deep ball is a nice tool to have, but not an absolute requirement. Poise under pressure, on the other hand, is a definite must. Again, the numbers are meaningless without comparison, so Flacco’s numbers are included here as well. I am, however, upping the ante…. I stated that Flacco was not yet an elite quarterback. Thus, to see how both of them stack up, I’ve also pulled the numbers for five guys I do consider elite: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers. These figures are also over the window of 2008-2010.
First up, deep ball accuracy:
Brees: 97/211 (46.0%)
Rivers: 80/197 (40.6%)
Roethlisberger 66/185 (35.7%)
Brady: 36/111 (32.4%)
Flacco: 63/197 (32.0%)
Manning: 75/239 (31.4%)
Cassel: 42/151 (27.8%)
Brees simply shreds the competition here. Figures adjusted for blatant drops make his numbers even gaudier–well over 50%. Manning’s percentage also suffers considerably from drops. Cassel clearly doesn’t measure up to the top of the pack, but again, it’s a great skill to have, but not mandatory; thus, I could probably let that slide were it not for this, probably the most damning statistic of all–pass completion under pressure:
Brees: 233/438 (53.2%)
Manning: 227/435 (52.2%)
Roethlisberger: 181/349 (51.9%)
Rivers: 200/392 (51.0%)
Brady: 137/271 (50.6%)
Flacco: 166/351 (47.3%)
Cassel: 104/370 (28.1%)
I consulted my lawyer, and he concurs…. With evidence like that, I really don’t need to bother making a closing argument.