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September, 2013 | The DC Times

The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

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Cowboys vs. Chargers Analysis: The Tony Romo Illusion

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ lack of aggressiveness today. In addition to a post that will be up at DallasCowboys.com later, I discussed the Tony Romo illusion over at NBC:

Tony Romo is gaming the system right now. With his 105.0 passer rating and 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Romo has made it appear that he’s playing great football. He’s made it appear that he’s leading the Cowboys’ offense and that factors outside of his control are killing the team’s chances. He’s made it appear like he’s an improved decision-maker.

But playing quarterback isn’t all about minimizing turnovers. Yes, Romo has cut down on his picks. That’s awesome and, given interceptions or no interceptions, there’s obviously no choice.

But that’s not the real dichotomy, here. The real decision is between an aggressive, high-variance style of play that leads to interceptions at times but also creates big plays to lead the offense, or an ultra-conservative style of play that typically results in another form of a turnover—a punt.

On Sunday, Romo was again acting as Houdini in San Diego. A 73.0 percent completion rate. Two touchdowns and no interceptions. A magnificent 108.4 passer rating.

But here’s the dark side of his illusion: 6.60 YPA. No individual stat best predicts team success like YPA. Romo’s 6.68 YPA in 2013 is the lowest he’s ever posted. And it’s not even close.

Turnover minimization should be one of the Cowboys’ goals. It should be an important goal, too. But it shouldn’t be the only goal. The offense can’t continue to minimize turnovers at all costs, regardless of whether or not they move the ball. Open up the offense, let Romo get the ball downfield, and stop playing for another 8-8 record.

At ABC, I broke down a few of Romo’s throws:

Dez Bryant 34-Yard Touchdown

It’s not like Romo is never taking his chances, of course, but just that they’re very limited. He threw a beautiful ball into a tight window in the second quarter—a play that changed the outlook of the game at that point.

On a second-and-four at San Diego’s 40-yard line, the Cowboys used a heavy three-tight end package and lined up in a “Jumbo Ace” look. Bryant was isolated to the field.

Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan called for a play-action look—something that’s still way too underutilized. Romo came into the week with a 110.2 passer rating on play-action passes, yet the Cowboys ranked near the bottom in the league in play-action pass rate. We saw the same thing last year when Romo had a similar play-action passer rating, yet Dallas ranked last in the league in play-action attempts.

This play was particularly deceptive because it was used in a running situation with run-heavy personnel. Romo was given plenty of time to throw and even had Lance Dunbar open underneath.

He rightfully decided to bypass the sure thing to Dunbar in favor of looking downfield for Bryant. The window of opportunity was a small one, but the aggressive throw paid off. Bryant caught the ball in traffic and took it all the way in for the score.

And at Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Tony Romo

You’re going to hear all week that quarterback Tony Romo “took what the defense gave him.” That was the case in both Week 1 and Week 2 as well when Romo, despite a high completion percentage, was quite inefficient in terms of yards per attempt.

On Sunday, Romo again padded his completion percentage, connecting on 27 of his 37 attempts (73.0 percent). Completions aren’t valuable in and of themselves, of course, and Romo managed only 244 yards on those passes (6.59 YPA). Let me save you the suspense—if that’s the sort of efficiency we can expect from Romo all year, the Cowboys will be lucky to go 8-8.

Romo is an outstanding quarterback and more than capable of leading the Cowboys as far as they want to go, but not like this. If the Cowboys don’t start throwing the ball downfield, there’s very little reason for fans to be optimistic. Yes, he protected the ball again, but eventually, the team will need to realize that the same style of play that can lead to interceptions is also what makes Romo a great quarterback.

The ‘Boys seem content to employ a low-variance strategy, through which Romo does everything in his power to not throw interceptions, even if it means not moving the offense.

Grade: D

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Daily Fantasy Football: Optimal Lineups, Video Chat, Staking Bales & More

I have a bunch of stuff posted at 4for4.com. First, Josh and I just finished up (half of) a hang out because Google cut us off.

It was like 80 degrees in my apartment, but I wanted to wear my new hoodie for you guys. Dedication.

I also posted two articles with site-specific value plays. One for FanDuel:

RB Bilal Powell @TEN $4700

Powell is going to see a massive workload on Sunday. At his $4700 price tag, it really doesn’t matter who the Jets are playing. Unless Powell completely flops, you’ll see enough of a return to justify playing him. And don’t forget that, due to FanDuel’s pricing, a high-low strategy is often best there.

WR DeSean Jackson @DEN $7300

The Broncos are a sneaky good opponent against whom to start receivers. They’ve given up the third most passing yards in the league through three games, for a few reasons. First, they just aren’t that good in the secondary. Second, the Broncos will almost always be up late, forcing the opposition to air it out. And third, Peyton Manning’s fast-paced offense allows for lots of plays from both teams.

The over-under on this contest is 58 points, which is just enormous. There’s a good chance that the teams combine to run 140 plays or more. It’s a smart idea to stack your tournament lineups with either Broncos or Eagles players, and Jackson is always a great tournament choice because of his big-play ability.

And the other for DraftDay:

QB Joe Flacco @BUF $10800

The Ravens-Bills line opened at BAL -6, but it’s already shifted from between BAL -3 to a straight pick ‘em. That’s ridiculous movement that suggests there’s a whole lot of money on Buffalo to either cover or winoutright. Either way, this game should be close, meaning Baltimore will have an incentive to throw the entire game.

For whatever reason, Flacco is the 26th-highest quarterback on DraftDay. I’m not really a fan of his, but that’s a steal for a quarterback who could throw the ball 40 times against the Bills. Don’t forget that Buffalo’s fast-paced offense leads to more total plays for both teams, not just them.

RB Maurice Jones-Drew vs. IND $9350

MJD has only the 25th-highest running back salary on DraftDay, yet he’s actually ranked in the top 15 in PPR points per game. He has a favorable matchup against the Colts—a team against whom Jones-Drew could see a lot of targets out of the backfield. His surrounding situation is never going to be ideal, but in terms of expected production versus price, he’s valuable. He costs less than Bilal PowellMarcel Reece, and Montee Ball.

And finally, I posted some strategy content in my “Staking Bales” series:

I mentioned earlier this week that I found out my grandfather started playing daily fantasy. Well, through a little detective work, i.e. calling him and asking, I got his username. Some of you asked if you could have it so that I could “share the wealth.” Well here it is. . .

“NoFreakinWay”

As in, no freakin’ way am I giving away his username so that you fools can bankrupt him. He’s my grandfather, so the only person who is going to be taking his money is me. I just called him to set up some head-to-heads, but no answer. I’ll wait it out.

This is a good time to mention that heads-to-head matches aren’t always the best investment if you aren’t facing users who you can consistently beat. The safety that comes from going mano-a-mano disappears if you’re facing sharks. Remember, on most sites, you need to maintain a 55.6 percent winning percentage just to break even on heads-up matches. That’s easier against Dickie Bales (not his username, don’t even bother looking it up) than it is against condia.

Week 4 Strategy

As I discussed in today’s shortened G+ Hangout with Josh, I’ll be participating in more tournaments moving forward, particularly on DraftKings. The majority of their tournaments are paying out the top quarter of entrants, so there’s a bit of safety there that wasn’t previously available (and still isn’t) in most tournaments.

My DraftKings profits are likely going to fluctuate more than at other sites. If I were playing solely at DraftKings, it might be a problem. But it’s important to remember that my bankroll is all of the money I have in the sites (or all of the money I’m willing to put into the sites) combined.

I’m not treating the accounts as four separate bankrolls, because that could potentially limit my profitability. I might have to do that if the barriers to withdrawing and depositing were steeper, but most daily fantasy withdrawals process in a day. If one of the accounts runs low, I can easily redeposit using funds from another account.

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3 Numbers to Know for Cowboys vs. Chargers

At NBC, I posted three numbers to know for Dallas this week. Here’s one:

45: Percentage of Chargers’ runs that have increased their chances of scoring on a drive

This stat is also known as “run success rate,” and the Chargers actually rank fifth in the NFL. That’s notable because San Diego has run for only 3.9 YPC, ranking them 18th in the league. Thus, while traditional numbers suggest the Chargers have been pour on the ground, the truth is that they’ve been rather efficient.

YPC is influenced so heavily by game situations that it’s really a useless stat. Teams that run when they should run, especially in short-yardage and goal line situations, typically have low YPC. We shouldn’t penalize a team for gaining two yards on third-and-one, and that’s exactly what YPC does. Run success rate captures true efficiency, rewarding teams for run that increases their probability of scoring.

The fact that San Diego ranks high in run success rate but low in YPC is actually a good thing; it means they’ve used the run in a lot of low-upside situations, such as near the goal line, which is fine. That’s also undoubtedly helped their passing efficiency—one of the “hidden” benefits of using the run as a complementary piece of the offense instead of the core.

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Projecting George Selvie’s 2013 Sacks

At Dallas News, I tried to predict George Selvie’s final 2013 sack total:

Projecting Selvie in 2013

Through three games, Selvie has a pair of sacks. However, he’s actually pressured the quarterback more than anyone on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. I’ve found that sacks tend to add up to one-quarter of pressures over the long run, so considering Selvie his 12 pressures, his most likely sack total at this point is three.

Moving forward, it’s unrealistic to expect Selvie to post four pressures per game. In comparison, DeMarcus Ware’s career-high in pressures is 61—under four per game. However, based on how much offenses double-team Ware and how that leaves Selvie singled up on most plays, I think he can legitimately record three pressures per game.

Head there for the final prediction.

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Star Magazine “On Air” Podcast, Episode 30: Chargers Preview

The latest episode of “On Air” is up at the team site, and we did an extended Chargers preview. You can watch video of the episode right here.

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Cowboys vs. Chargers: Key Matchups for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I posted some of the matchups I’ll be watching in Week 4:

LT Tyron Smith vs. OLB Dwight Freeney

Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney has only 0.5 sacks through three games, but he’s found himself around the quarterback often. He’s pressured the passer on 12.7 percent of his pass-rush snaps. Sacks tend to add up to one-fourth of pressures for most players, meaning Freeney’s most likely sack total through three games is actually three.

If we look at Freeney’s production over the past few years, we see an obvious decline in efficiency up until this year. He’s really playing well right now, so it’s imperative for Dallas to limit his effectiveness.

The Chargers’ outside linebacker lines up primarily on the right side of the defense and almost never drops into coverage, meaning he’ll see a heavy dose of left tackle Tyron Smith. The third-year pro hasn’t been outstanding in pass protection thus far in 2013, but he’s performed better than last year—his pressure rate has decreased by 50 percent—and he’s been great in the running game. The ‘Boys could probably find success by running right at Freeney on third downs.

WR Dez Bryant vs. CB Johnny Patrick

It’s looking like cornerback Shareece Wright won’t be able to suit up, leaving Johnny Patrick to start. The Cowboys should attack Patrick because he’s a small cornerback at 5’11’’, 191 pounds, and he’s already given up 12.5 YPA on 11 targets in 2013.

The Cowboys can really take advantage of Patrick if he’s ever lined up on Bryant. San Diego might use starting cornerback Derek Cox—who stands 6’1’’—to shadow Bryant, but we don’t know if that’s the case just yet. If Patrick is indeed on Bryant, particularly in the red zone, the receiver should be able to physically outmatch the cornerback.

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Cowboys vs. Chargers: Stat Projections, Final Score

At DallasCowboys.com, I ran through the numbers to project the skill position players for both teams and predicted a final score:

Let’s take a look at Tony Romo’s comps for this game. These are the quarterbacks who most closely resemble Romo’s stats over the past year (with his 2013 numbers getting the most weight).

Before even aggregating those stats, we see some big-time numbers for Romo. Part of that is because he had a quality game last week, but a bigger part is the ineptitude of the Chargers’ pass defense. Quarterbacks with similar numbers to Romo, which you can see includes Romo himself four times and Peyton Manning four times, have dominated defenses that have posted numbers similar to those from San Diego.

If his comps are any indication, take a look at Romo’s chances of throwing for X number of yards.

These numbers are drastically different from what we saw in the first three weeks. Of Romo’s 25 comps, only eight (32 percent) have thrown for under 250 yards. But what’s really amazing is the ceiling production; an incredible 40 percent of Romo’s comps topped 351 yards passing against Chargers-like defenses.

The model also gives Romo nearly a coin flip’s chance of throwing for more than 300 yards. In comparison, it predicted just a 12 percent chance of crossing 300 yards against the Chiefs!

Final Player Projections for Cowboys

Using the same methodology, here are the final stat projections for the main skill players in this contest.

  • QB Tony Romo: 25-for-40 for 304 yards (7.6 YPA), 2.24 touchdowns, 1.16 interceptions

In addition to the high yardage projection, Romo is also projected to throw 2.24 touchdowns. That’s a really high number, actually, and a great sign for Dallas. Notice that the numbers are somewhat dependent on a lot of attempts, meaning opposing quarterbacks have thrown a lot on pass defenses as poor as San Diego’s, which makes sense.

Also notice that Romo is projected to throw 1.16 interceptions, a high number. Again, that’s probably the result of an expected jump in attempts.

Final score prediction is right here.

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The Sportstradamus: Week 4 NFL Game Picks

Last week, I went 10-6 straight up, 6-9-1 ATS, and 7-9 on totals, bringing my records on the year to 33-15 straight up, 20-27-1 ATS, and 27-21 on totals. So that’s just slightly under .500 on the spread and totals combined, which obviously isn’t where I want to be. I started horrifically last year, too, but ended up killing it down the stretch. I’m hoping more game data will help me do the same this year.

San Fran 24 @St. Louis 23 (+3.5) (OVER 42.5)

Pittsburgh 21 Minnesota 20 (+3) (UNDER 42)

@Buffalo 27 (+3) Baltimore 24 (OVER 44)

Cincy 20 @Cleveland 17 (+4.5) (UNDER 42.5)

Indy 24 @Jacksonville 20 (+8.5) (OVER 42.5)

Seattle 24 (-3) @Houston 20 (OVER 42)

@Tampa Bay 21 (-2) Arizona 17 (UNDER 40.5)

@Detroit 28 (-3) Chicago 24 (OVER 47.5)

@Kansas City 21 NY Giants 20 (+4.5) (UNDER 44)

@Tennessee 21 NY Jets 20 (+3.5) (OVER 39.5)

Dallas 27 (-2) @San Diego 23 (OVER 46.5)

@Oakland 21 Washington 20 (+3.5) (UNDER 43.5)

@Denver 34 Philly 27 (+11) (OVER 57.5)

@Atlanta 24 (-2) New England 20 (UNDER 50)

@New Orleans 30 (-6.5) Miami 23 (OVER 48)

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Fantasy Football: RB Scarcity, Expert Leagues & More

I’m competing in DraftDay’s Expert Challenge in Week 5 (since I lost in Week 3 to some CHUMP), and you can win your way into the tournament this weekend.

Go here and use the code “EXPERTGAME” to play for free.

I’m also doing an experts challenge at DraftStreet that you can’t join but you can monitor from a safe distance. Pretty shitty Week 3, so I’m ranked 28th out of 70 experts right now.

And finally, check out my latest article at RotoWire on running back scarcity:

Running Backs

So that’s the background for the most recent study I did on running backs. Looking at running back scarcity from 2009 to 2012, we see a much different story.


There are minor deviations, but for the most part, the position has looked the same every year. There’s a massive drop from the top tier runners – the top six or so – and then a gradual but steady decline from there.

Even if we “zoom in” on the backs ranked seventh or worse, we see the same general trend each season.

 

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Cowboys vs. Chargers: Game Plan for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I posted my game plan for Dallas in Week 4:

DO run more play-action.

Quarterback Tony Romo has compiled a 110.2 passer rating through three games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), a year after totaling a 109.1 rating on play-action passes. Yet the ‘Boys have barely increased their play-action pass rate over 2012 and Romo still ranks 28th in the NFL in play-action passes.

While the Cowboys established some obvious rushing success last week against theRams, it’s not really a prerequisite for the play-action game. It’s fun to think that “running sets up the pass,” but half of the league’s best play-action passers in 2012 were on teams that ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in rushing.

Defenders play situations, so the Cowboys should be running play-action passes in just about every scenario in which they could theoretically run the ball. San Diego will play the down-and-distance, not the Cowboys’ pass-rushing efficiency.

DON’T run the ball just to run it.

Running back DeMarco Murray finally broke out for 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries last week. The rushing success was certainly helpful to Romo, who had by far his most efficient game of the year.

But the Cowboys didn’t win because they just “stuck with the run”—that’s not why it worked. Instead, they “stuck with it” because it was already working. There’s a big difference.

Running the ball just for the sake of running it, or to set up easier third downs, is a pretty sub-optimal offensive strategy. Even better than short third downs is not even facing third down because your team didn’t run the ball twice on first and second down.

Everything should set up well for the Cowboys to pass the ball this week. The Chargers have given up the most passing yards and the second-worst passing efficiency in the NFL, which has led to poor run defense.

San Diego has allowed at least 100 yards rushing and 282 yards passing in all three games. The league averages right now are 106 yards rushing and 248 yards passing.

DO to get the ball downfield.

Having thrown accurately on 71.4 percent of his passes over 20 yards, Romo is the NFL’s most accurate deep ball passer through three weeks. He’s averaged 14.4 yards per pass, thrown three touchdowns and tossed no picks on deep looks. And yet, only St. Louis’s Sam Bradford has attempted fewer deep passes than Romo.

Some of the lack of downfield passing has been due to game situations. The Giants played a two-high safety scheme that made it really difficult to attack downfield, for example. The Cowboys could do just about everything they wanted last week against the Rams. They won’t be every game by three scores, though, which means they’ll need to optimize offensive efficiency by attacking downfield, namely to Mr. Dez Bryant.

DON’T target tight end Jason Witten so much.

Prior to the season, I predicted that Witten wouldn’t be able to pass the 900-yard mark this season. That wasn’t a popular prediction, of course, but it looks good right now with Witten on pace for only 795 yards, despite having some favorable matchupsthrough three games.

In reality, the prediction wasn’t a difficult one from a statistical standpoint. Most of the media won’t admit it, but Witten’s efficiency has been declining for years.

We can make all the excuses in the world for Witten’s declining yards per route, but at some point, maybe the reasoning should be that he’s just not as effective. He’s still a good tight end, but to argue that Witten is the same player he was a half-decade ago is silly. The Cowboys need to replace some of his targets with looks to other receivers.