Wed. Nov 13th, 2019

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Scramble for the Ball: The Fish Tank

39 min read
Scramble for the Ball: The Fish Tank


By Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week your humble Scramblerazzi feel that we are beginning to get a clearer understanding of the shape of this NFL season. Week 3 is usually the point where things begin to settle down into some kind of discernable shape. The 3-0 teams are normally kinda good. The 0-3 teams are usually not going to amount to much. Good offenses will probably have shown themselves by now. Bad ones will definitely have shown themselves.

Bryan: This is the NFL’s 100th season, so we’ve had 100 Week 3s. And, in the history of all of those hundred Week 3s, we may be witnessing history. We may be watching the worst professional football team ever assembled. May we be so lucky.

Andrew: The worst team ever assembled relative to its era, that is. Even this year’s Dolphins would be vastly superior to most of the worst teams of the first, say, 80 individual seasons of the league. But by the standards of 21st-century football, this year’s Dolphins through three weeks are unquestionably the worst team in recent history.

Bryan: Oh, there’s no doubting that in a straight, one-on-one matchup, the Dolphins would crush pretty much any team put together before, say, 1960 — and that might be being overly generous to teams from 50 years ago.

Andrew: I feel compelled to pre-empt the ubiquitous, “of course they would, most of those guys are either dead or in their 80s by now” snark. Though with how bad this Dolphins team is, that may not be as irrelevant as it usually is.

Bryan: Just take a look at the sorts of teams the Dolphins are being compared to! This next table shows the teams with the worst point differential in their first three games. Even being mentioned in the same breath as some of these teams is deeply, deeply embarrassing.

Worst Point Differential, First Three Games
Year Team PD Final Record
1922 Louisville Brecks -134 1-3
1923 Rochester Jeffersons -122 0-4
2019 Miami Dolphins -117 ???
1933 Philadelphia Eagles -107 3-5-1
1961 Oakland Raiders -106 2-12
1950 Baltimore Colts -97 1-11
1973 New Orleans Saints -96 5-9
2001 Washington Redskins -96 8-8
1920 Toldeo Maroons -94 1-3
1954 Washington Redskins -94 3-9

Bryan: When we do tables like this, normally we limit ourselves to the post-merger era, or the Super Bowl era, or something similar because it A) puts teams on the same basic playing field, and B) prevents some weird outliers from the years when the football was rounder and teams had names like the Moline Universal Tractors and the Kewanee Walworths. But we really do have to bust open the door to the mysterious and long-distant past to really put into context the putridness of the Dolphins’ 0-3 start.

Andrew: Given the history of the development of professional football, “worst team since 1933” really is effectively saying worst team ever. A lot of the really bad teams in that era weren’t even established football clubs by amateur standards, never mind professional. The soccer equivalent, because I live near Arbroath, is when Arbroath beat Bon Accord 36-0 in that legendary Scottish Cup fixture. Bon Accord was a new club who literally plucked two players from the crowd to play against the established, newly professionalized Arbroath team. One of those lucky spectators was placed in goal. While technically it was a first-class football match, in reality it was a professional team against a rec club.

Bryan: Literally half of the 1922 Louisville Brecks had never played in the NFL before. All but one of their other players had only played one season prior. Only two — lineman Wilfred Smith and coach-slash-fullback Hubert Wiggs, because we’re talking about the era when coaches also lined up — played more than two seasons. Both the Brecks and ’23 Rochester Jeffersons only scheduled a handful of games; they gave up because it’s not fun getting slammed over and over again into the turf by better-organized and more talented teams. Neither franchise continued past 1926. The Dolphins might wish they could give up halfway through, but no, they’ve got to muddle through.

The 1920 Maroons weren’t even an NFL team! They officially joined the league in 1922, but 1920 saw them play four games against NFL teams — or, rather, AFPA teams as it was known then — because back in those days, you could schedule your own opponents from one of the many other semi-pro leagues operating at the time! That makes them more the equivalent of a Western Carolina or a Citadel; a cupcake school that a major college program schedules so they can run up the score and sell more tickets to their fans.

Andrew: Make that item No. 491 on the list of things I don’t understand, and have no intention of ever trying to understand, about NCAA football.

Bryan: It goes on. The ’33 Eagles were an expansion team, formed after the previous Philly-era team (the Frankford Yellow Jackets) went bankrupt. The ’50 Colts aren’t the Colts we’re familiar with — they’re a different franchise entirely, who folded after the season and were replaced by our Colts three years later. The ’54 Redskins were part of a run where Washington was the last team to keep an entirely white roster; the racism of George Marshall keeping Washington as persona non grata throughout the ’50s and early ’60s. They had also just replaced their coach in preseason, as had the the ’73 Saints, a surefire recipe for success and organizational competence. The ’61 Raiders played in an AFL which was not really good enough to be considered an A-tier professional league; it took that league the better part of a decade to get to a point where they could be fairly compared to NFL teams. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in those first three seasons were far bigger than you’d get in an established league.

Really, only 2001 Washington and maybe those Saints really are comparable to the Dolphins’ start — a professional team, run by professional people, in a balanced league where every team is operating on the same, level playing field. Just being mentioned in the same breath as these other franchises is humiliating. In an era with a salary cap, not to mention things we take for granted like a common draft, teams are not supposed to be this bad. The Dolphins just had, by far, their best game of the season in any statistical method you choose to use, and they still lost 31-6. This is an embarrassment to the city of Miami, and they’ve seen more than their fair share of embarrassing football, from the George Wilson days as an AFL expansion club to the 1-15 Cam Cameron season to the Adam Gase era.

Andrew: I’m not sure I would have called the Adam Gase era specifically embarrassing, but that sure does put into context last week’s statement that “it could be worse, you could be a Dolphins fan.” We’ve never seen an established modern football team make a start this bad. It’s not just point differential either; by almost any statistical measure you care to use, from DVOA to first-down rate to yards per play differential, the Dolphins are putrid. On defense in particular, the area which is theoretically their head coach’s strong suit, and the unit that hypothetically has the most talent, these Dolphins are competing on a level so bad that it would be enough to prevent a playoff appearance by a healthy, peak Drew Brees — who, incidentally, could have been Miami’s quarterback, but they opted for Daunte Culpepper. It’s been quite a decade and a half.

Bryan: To be fair, the schedule has done the Dolphins no favors. We all know how good the Patriots are, year-in and year-out, and the Ravens and Cowboys may also be top-five teams this season. Of course, maybe we think that because they’ve been fortunate enough to play the Dolphins, but still. This has to be rock bottom, right? The schedule will open up, and the Dolphins will look like … well, still a terrible team, but maybe a 21st century terrible team, and not on par with franchises still struggling to figure out where they could find equipment for their next game.

Andrew: Bryan has compiled a comprehensive list of records the Dolphins are on pace to break this year.

Bryan: Oh, I wish it was comprehensive. They’ve been so bad at so many things, I’m sure there’s three dozen or so I’ve missed.

Andrew: Bryan has compiled a manageable list of records the Dolphins are on pace to break this year. Your mission, dear reader, should you choose to accept it, is to join us in predicting which of those we think they have a chance at, which of those we think they have no chance at, and which, if any, you think they will actually break.

Bryan: “Team X is on pace to do Y!” stats are always ridiculous early in the season — indeed, the Dolphins would have been on pace to break a dozen more records before their relatively competent showing against Dallas — but we’re nearly 20 percent of the way through the 2019 season already, and it’s fair game to at least start poking at some of these. Can the Dolphins keep up their all-time worst pace, even with games against Washington and New York (both of them!) remaining on their schedule? Let’s dive in and find out.

Another Perfect Season?

Andrew: We always have teams who are “on pace” for 0-16 after Week 3; but there’s on pace in a hypothetical, “well if the sky falls in” kind of way, and there’s on pace as in “the sky already fell in, we’re buried under a pile of sky rubble, and the only way out appears to be digging.” The sky fell in on the 2008 Lions after Jon Kitna went on injured reserve. Hue Jackson was the sky falling in on the 2017 Browns. The 2007 Dolphins were a 64-yard Greg Camarillo touchdown catch-and-run from being the first ever 0-16 team. The 2019 Dolphins can’t possibly get worse, can they?

Bryan: It’s a long and ugly schedule ahead for the Dolphins. Every road game but maybe the one against the Giants looks about as unwinnable as you can get, barring the usual Any Given Sunday stuff. Even most of the home games look nasty. They’ll be underdogs each and every week from here on out, barring some kind of amazing turnaround.

There seem to be three games, and only three games, Miami fans could circle and think that they have more than a puncher’s chance of winning: Week 6 against Washington, at home after a bye; Week 9 versus the Jets, which may come before Sam Darnold is back from mono; and Week 16 against a Cincinnati team who, in any normal year, might be the worst team in football. I mean, that’s it. Nothing else looks even remotely tempting. I do, however, still think they’ll win one or two games, because football is weird. Last year alone, the Eagles, Raiders, Cardinals, Bills, Titans and Buccaneers won as 10-point underdogs or worse. The Dolphins won twice as double-digit underdogs in 2017! Thirteen weeks is a long time for nothing to bounce right.

Andrew: I’ve already looked at this in passing for our Double Survival picks. Absent anything else unexpected happening, I think I have that Cincinnati game circled. I expect Darnold back for Week 9. I think Washington is slightly better than their results so far, even if Monday night was ugly. Really though, these Dolphins are the first team I’ve looked at since I started writing this column and thought “winning any game this season would be a surprise.” Realistically, I think they finish 1-15. But I wouldn’t bet on the one actually happening.

Pointless Pontificating

Bryan: Obviously, the reason the Dolphins’ 0-3 start has caught everyone’s attention is the lopsided nature of the scores. That means they’re on pace to break pretty much every scoring record you can think of.

The Dolphins are on pace to score 85 points, which would be the fewest ever in a 12-game season. The 1977 Buccaneers have the current record of 103 points, while the legendarily putrid 1992 Seahawks hold the record for a 16-game season with 140.

The Dolphins are on pace to allow 709 points. That would obliterate the current record of 533, held by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.

The Dolphins are on pace for a point differential of -624. That would absolutely shatter the record of -287, held by the 0-14 ’76 Buccaneers, as well as the 16-game record of -274 by those same ’81 Colts.

That’s a motley collection of record-holders. The only reason the ’81 Colts hold those records compared to the next year’s team is because of the players strike which wiped out half of the 1982 season; they were a winless 0-8-1 in that season. They were so dysfunctional that, by the end of the year, owner Bob Irsay was taking over the coaching booth to call plays. He was not good at it. The ’76-’77 Buccaneers, of course, had the league’s all-time-worst 26-game losing streak; when asked about his team’s execution, head coach John McKay said that he was in favor of it. And our own Aaron Schatz described the 1992 Seahawks as “mind-numbing,” with a -65.3% passing DVOA. The Dolphins, by comparison, are just at -54.3% through three weeks. That’s right, it can get worse than Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen.

Andrew: Let’s get the easiest of those out of the way right now. 140 points in a 16-game season is less than nine points a game. There’s no way, in this rules environment, a team is finishing below 160 points on the season. Even the 2002 Texans, the worst offense in DVOA history, eclipsed 200.

Bryan: Their poor start means they’d need more like nine and a half points per game to break the record, but that hasn’t been done over the course of a season since the early 1990s. To break the Buccaneers’ record, they’d need less than a touchdown per game, which hasn’t happened in the free substitution era. It ain’t happening.

Andrew: The defensive figure is marginally more interesting, because it doesn’t require nearly so big a leap from recent trends. It’s still a leap, mind you. We’ve had a run of recent offenses scoring over 500 points in a single year, but even bad defenses generally don’t allow more than about 460. The worst this decade has been 494. 540 would be astounding, but that extra 40 or so points is only a field goal more per game.

Bryan: They’re not going to sniff 700 points allowed, because first of all, wow, that’s a lot of points, and second of all, they don’t have the offense to back that up. Teams won’t have the incentive to go for the jugular for all 60 minutes, and we’ll likely see a lot of fourth quarters of pounding the rock and running out the clock. That being said, opponents just need to average 31 points from here on out to break the Colts’ record. That’s not inconceivable at all. The 2011 Buccaneers, led by the decaying corpse of Ronde Barber, managed that feat, as did the Lions in several years around their 0-16 seasons. And if anything, offenses are just that much stronger this year than they were at the beginning of the decade. If their home games were back-loaded, I think they’d have a real shot, but three of their last four games are on the road in potential snowy conditions — two games in New York, one in Foxborough. A snowstorm in December could just kill this push dead. It’ll be close, and they might break the ’08 Lions 21st-century threshold, but I think Chuck Weber’s squad will keep their place in the record books.

Andrew: For me, the probable deal-breaker is the slate of opponents. After the Chargers this weekend, there isn’t really another intimidating offense until Week 13. They only play three truly formidable opponents after the bye: Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and New England. I don’t trust Washington, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh to continue the pace of Baltimore, New England, and Dallas. Now if they do, and the Dolphins are still leaking 30 points a game by November, then this record is in serious danger regardless of the weather effects. Put this one down as a maybe.

Bryan: That just leaves point differential, and woah nelly. Losing by 624 points isn’t sustainable, but that’s over twice the current record. To break the all-time record, they’d have to lose by just 13.1 points per game; to break the 16-game record, they’d have to lose by 12.1 points per game. You’re telling me the Dolphins can’t lose by two touchdowns every week? I certainly think they can!

There are plenty of teams in recent history who have managed to put up season-long slumps like the Dolphins would need. Last year’s Cardinals were regularly beaten like a drum, so Josh Rosen knows how to get blown out. You have the 2014 Raiders — Derek Carr’s rookie year and the year which saw Tony Sparano return to coaching duties and give Dolphins fans PTSD flashbacks. You had the 2013 “last straw for Blaine Gabbert” Jaguars; the 2012 Chiefs which led to Romeo Crenell’s firing; the 2011 Rams, which made hiring Jeff Fisher seem like a good idea; the Jimmy Clausen-led 2010 Panthers … this is a level of badness that teams regularly can sustain over the course of a season.

Andrew: Given trips to those aforementioned formidable opponents who are all likely to be involved in a playoff push, it’s no stretch to say the games against the Chargers, Colts, Eagles, and Patriots could average out as 25-point losses. Add another 100 points to the current differential, and you only need to lose the other nine games by an average of a touchdown each. That is very, very possible. That’s not to say it’s reasonable, but then neither is anything else about the Dolphins’ situation. I really think they have a chance at this one.

Long Live the Underdogs

Bryan: Actually losing games is one thing. Being perceived as hopeless is quite another, and even if the Dolphins do manage a surprise blowout somewhere along the line, it seems like Vegas has already decided that they are going to remain putrid. They are on pace to be a combined underdog of 251 points this season. In Pro Football Reference’s database, the current record belongs to the expansion 1999 Browns, who were given a total of 171 points over their first season in existence.

The Browns were underdogs in each and every game in 1999, and double-digit dogs in nine games. They only once were considered to be within even a field goal of their opponents, a +3 against the then 1-4 Bengals. Wins over the 1-6 Saints and 5-4 Steelers did briefly give them a little bit of respect in Vegas, but they were soon back to being multiple-score underdogs each and every week.

Vegas has already shown a willingness to make the Dolphins 20-point underdogs this season, and they still do have to face the Patriots once more. There’s a pretty good piece from ESPN on how oddsmakers are struggling to deal with the Dolphins’ ineptitude, with the director of Caesar’s Sportsbook saying “there’s nothing you can do. You just make high numbers.”

The Dolphins would need to average being 6.2-point underdogs the rest of the way to break this unofficial record, and they’re already 16.5-point dogs this week against the Chargers. Woof.

Andrew: My question at this point is whom the Dolphins will be less than seven-point underdogs against. Home versus the Jets and Bills? Maybe against Washington and the Bengals? Do we see them being less than seven-point dogs on the road at all? They’re going to be double-digit dogs in at least four, probably five of their remaining games, including this weekend against the Chargers. That’s 55 more points before another ball is kicked. They’re going to set this record unless something dramatic changes.

Bryan: We have had at least one 100-point underdog every season since 2011, and that’s the pace the Dolphins need to be on. Are you telling me the Dolphins are going to get more respect than last year’s Cardinals or Bills? Again, no. This one seems to pretty much in the bag without a dramatic reversal of fortune.

Don’t Get Defensive

Bryan: The Dolphins actually aren’t on pace to break too many offensive records, all things being considered. The offensive environment of 2019 is high enough that even a putrid team like Miami still compares favorably to the worst teams of, say, the 1970s. That’s a double-edged sword, however, because that same offensive environment means they’re in danger of shattering defensive records up and down the board.

Let’s start with the biggie — yards allowed. The Dolphins are on pace to allow 7,989 yards of offense. The current record is held by Andrew’s beloved 2012 Saints, who allowed only 7,042. You remember those Saints, don’t you Andrew? The Sean Payton suspension year?

Andrew: Sure. They went 7-9. Like 80 percent of Saints teams from 2012 to 2016. The only thing that could keep Drew Brees out of the playoffs was the Saints defense. That … is not what’s happening in Miami. There is no danger of these Dolphins making the playoffs, defensive futility record or no defensive futility record.

Bryan: That Saints team had been rocked by Bountygate, too, so they were dealing with a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator and a lot of chaos going on behind the scenes. I suppose the Dolphins, too, are dealing with new defensive schemes, but uh, not quite in the same way the Saints were.

To break this record, the Dolphins would have to give up 426 yards per game from here on out. Only the ’12 Saints have pulled that feat off. This is rarified terrible air. There have been a handful of teams which have shown the ability to put up these kinds of numbers for parts of a season, of course. The aforementioned ’81 Colts were the previous record-holders in this category. The 2011 Packers had nine games where they allowed at least 426 yards. A number of teams have done it over eight games in recent memory — the ’11 Patriots, the ’13 Cowboys and Vikings and, ugh, my 2016 49ers, as Chip Kelly’s super high-pace offense meant that other teams had plenty of opportunities to run tons of plays.

Andrew: This is another area where that garbage-time stuff you mentioned earlier comes into play. What killed that Saints team was teams staying aggressive to keep ahead of Brees and the Saints offense. Most teams won’t need 400 yards to beat Miami. The Dolphins are the kind of team that could average 250 yards allowed in the first half, and barely 100 in the second. They also play Washington, the Steelers, the Bengals, and the Jets and Bills twice. It only takes a couple of low-yardage games to kill a record bid, and they play enough bad offenses to avert it.

Bryan: Yeah, one or two games against bleh teams kills this record. Those aforementioned ’16 49ers, for example, had two games against the equally putrid Jeff Fisher Rams, and held them under 200 yards each time. The 2012 Saints had three top-14 offenses in their division. You need plenty of guns against you to lose this one, and I don’t think the AFC East is up to the task.

Similarly, the Dolphins are on pace to allow 7.3 yards per play. That would shatter the modern-era record of 6.6, allowed by the 2015 Saints, as well as the 7.0 record put up by the aforementioned 1950 Baltimore Colts.

Andrew: Again, there’s just no way. The record-holder’s another Saints team with a great offense and a terrible defense, forcing teams to stay aggressive. Teams just don’t average 7-plus yards per play by running out the clock in the second half of wins.

Bryan: I’d say this is a little more possible than the yardage record, because a few big plays and then some clock-grinding from Miami could be in play; teams might just not have to run as many plays against the Dolphins. But no, again, the opposition just isn’t good enough to make this plausible.

While we’re at it, the Dolphins are also on pace to allow the most rushing yards in NFL history, which is astonishing in the 2010s. They’re on pace to allow 3,328 yards on the ground, breaking the record of 3,228 held by the 1978 Buffalo Bills. 1978 was the first year the NFL opened up passing rules, prohibiting bumping receivers downfield and letting offensive linemen use open hands to block. Not every team had gotten the memo in ’78, and run-first offenses still led the day.

Andrew: Two-hundred rushing yards per game is absolutely nuts. It’s HB-Toss Madden fantasy stuff.

Bryan: The Bills faced 677 rushing attempts in 1978! The record for that in the 2010s is just 571, with only 18 teams being over 500. It really was a different game in the ’70s. Who is going to run the ball 40 times a game on a regular basis? It’s just not a thing! The Jets could be forced to go to Le’Veon Bell as their emergency quarterback, and they still wouldn’t run the ball 40 times a game each and every week.

Andrew: The Dolphins aren’t going to play the Cowboys and Ravens every week, either. The Patriots had over 100 yards on the ground, but that’s not sniffing a record. This is a firm “no.” Not even in our continual blowouts scenario.

Bryan: Now first downs, on the other hand, seems far more possible. The Dolphins are on pace to allow 459 first downs, breaking the record currently held by last year’s Chiefs, with 419.

The problem I’m seeing here is that you don’t pick up first downs if you’re already on your way to the end zone.

Andrew: There are a couple of different first down records that probably bear individual but concurrent consideration. The overall first down record is yet another example of a team with a great offense but terrible defense, forcing teams to stay aggressive to keep up with them. Miami isn’t getting close to that one. However they may well face enough rush attempts to challenge the record for rushing first downs, especially considering the teams on their schedule.

Bryan: The Dolphins are on pace to allow 192 first downs on the ground. The current record is 179, held by the 1985 Detroit Lions. The Lions were not a particularly bad defense in ’85 — they certainly weren’t good, but PFR’s Simple Rating System had them at exactly league average. Still, the up-front trio of Eric Williams, Doug English, and William Gay could apparently not hold their own in short-yardage situations; they’d probably come out really bad in our power success ratings and whatnot.

Andrew: I mentioned that the Dolphins don’t face the Ravens and Cowboys every week, but they do face a lot of run-first teams. The Bills, twice. The Le’Veon Bell Jets. The Mason Rudolph Steelers. The Giants, probably (hopefully!) with Saquon Barkley back to full health. Ten rushing first downs per game is a lot, especially with a pass defense this bad, but it’s not too outlandish. This goes in the bucket of the possible, though I think it’s decidedly unlikely.

Bryan: It’s not crazy-impossible. There were 42 games last season where teams allowed more than 10 rushing first downs, and it has already happened eight times this season. If the Dolphins are getting blown out and teams are running down the clock late, I could see it. I think they’ll fall just short, and be more in contention for the 21st century record of 147, held by the 2013 pre-Fangio Bears, but I wouldn’t completely write them off.

But rushing is passe. That’s such a ’70s stat. What about air defense?

Opposing passers currently have a quarterback rating of 139.1 against the Dolphins, turning everyone they play into 2019’s Patrick Mahomes. The record for a full season once again belongs to the 2015 Saints — 116.2. Man, those Saints defenses were really, really bad, weren’t they?

Andrew: If anybody needs me, I’ll be in the film room reviewing footage of rookie Marshon Lattimore.

Passer rating is interesting, because it’s not a volume stat. I doubt it holds up — there are too many Andy Daltons and Josh Allens and Mason Rudolphs on the schedule, rather than Tom Brady and Dak Prescott, but it is the kind of number that teams running out the clock doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on.

Bryan: Last year’s Buccaneers are a pretty good model of what the Dolphins would have to do from here on out. They allowed near-perfect ratings to Eli Manning and Mitch Trubisky, as well as 120-plus ratings to a more gaudy set of passers in Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Cam Newton. They did tighten up a bit late, holding both Newton and Nick Mullens to sub-70 ratings, so it’s not like one bad (good?) day can ruin a team’s chance at this record. The Buccaneers finished last season allowing a passer rating of 110.9. You need low interceptions, you need lots of touchdowns allowed, and you’ve probably got to allow at least a 70-percent completion rate. None of that seems out of the question for the Dolphins, but it’s a delicate balance.

Andrew: Hmm. That sways me a bit, actually. If even the 2018 Buccaneers weren’t bad enough to come within five points of the record, neither will the 2019 Dolphins. Brandon Browner and company can keep their record for another year.

Bryan: We can keep up the 2015 Saints thing, if you’re enjoying reliving those old memories! They currently hold the record for passing touchdowns allowed at 45. The Dolphins are on pace to allow 53 passing touchdowns.

Andrew: More than three per game won’t hold up against the Rudolphs and Daltons of the schedule. Again, it’s not like teams will have to throw to keep up. Total touchdowns might be in play, but pure passing probably isn’t.

Bryan: What we’re learning today is the 2015 Saints were a special snowflake, and that their level of putridness will stand for quite some time.

Andrew: Thanks. I needed that reminder.

Bryan: The record for touchdowns allowed in a season does not belong to the 2015 Saints. The ’81 Colts allowed 68 touchdowns. The Dolphins are on pace to allow 96 touchdowns. Yowza.

That basically means they need 3.8 a game from here on out to break the record. In the 16-game era, that has only been done by the ’81 Colts and the winless ’08 Lions. Interestingly, the Lions did this without facing a murderer’s row of offenses in the division. The Packers had a down year, finishing 11th in offensive DVOA, while the Bears and Vikings hovered at about -9.0%.

Andrew: That Lions team allowed a 62-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins on the first pass attempt they faced that year, rookie Matt Ryan’s first career pass. It didn’t get much better from there. Being on a pace for 50 percent more than the current record is so far beyond absurd that it’s barely conceivable. It’s not even that talentless a defense.

Bryan: It’s getting less talented by the minute as they keep dumping all their players. But they did add Taco Charlton, who sounds way more delicious than he is talented.

Andrew: Sounds like a recipe for an all-food team in a future Scramble, but for now Taco’s just part of Miami’s shell of a defense. Good offenses will make mincemeat out of them, bad offenses may still shred them like lettuce, but 68 touchdowns is more than four per game. I don’t see it happening. By Week 10, we’ll forget it was ever a prospect.

Bryan: I’d have to agree — when the Bengals or Jets or possibly even the Bills, who I still don’t buy into, come to town, the Dolphins will keep them from hitting 30 points. Maybe. I mean, it’s possible.

… man, they’re bad.

Just as an aside, the Dolphins are not challenging the record for the most third-down conversions allowed. To do that, you have to actually stop a team on first or second down, and that doesn’t really play into Miami’s strengths. They are, however, currently allowing a 56.3% third-down conversion rate, which would shatter the post-’91 record of 49.6%, held by the 1995 Browns just before they moved to Baltimore. That’s not really a stat people keep track of, but it’s just one of many, many ways in which the Miami defense is breaking new ground in terribleness.

Offensive is the Right Word

Andrew: We mentioned earlier that the rules environment will probably prevent Miami from achieving records for offensive futility. They might break new ground in DVOA, but in terms of raw points totals and whatnot they’re unlikely to challenge anything prior to about 2005. Even the 2002 Texans look safe. Still, it’s worth looking at what they’re currently on pace to do, even if it’s just to show how bad their opening few weeks have been.

Bryan: The point of an offense is to score touchdowns (I think — I’m still getting used to what a good offense looks like after years of wandering in the San Francisco wilderness). The Dolphins are on pace to score just five touchdowns, which would be the record in at least a 12-game season. That record is currently set at 11, by the ’77 Buccaneers. The 16-game record is 14, held by the ’91 Colts and ’92 Seahawks.

Yes, that’s the ’91 Colts, not the ’81 version. The Colts have had record-breaking terribleness in at least three different decades, basically every time they haven’t had a Unitas or a Manning under center.

Andrew: It’s kind of amazing really, when you look at the great, great quarterbacks they’ve had, that so much of the rest of their history is so utterly and dismally futile.

Bryan: Well, the ’91 Colts were led by Jeff George, who was Captain Checkdown in his second year in the league, averaging a league-low 8.3 yards per completion. He also was sacked a league-high 56 times. The sacks are somewhat of a constant for this stat — Stan Gelbaugh and company went down 67 times for the ’92 Seahawks, and the ’77 Buccaneers’ menagerie of quarterbacks were sacked 48 times in a much more run-heavy era. It turns out, keeping a quarterback upright is conducive to scoring touchdowns.

The Dolphins have been sacked 13 times already. Just mentioning.

Andrew: They also have one touchdown through three games, deep in garbage time in their home opener, and play a lot of defenses that should be at least respectable this year. That’s the strength of the Bills and Jets, for example, and the Eagles and Patriots should both have defenses more than good enough to overpower this Dolphins squad. The Bengals don’t, though. The Giants defense is terrible. The Steelers aren’t convincing. They’ll pick up garbage time scores. I don’t think 14 touchdowns is a realistic play. I don’t think averaging under one touchdown per game over a 16-game season is realistic, really. If they were playing the NFC North instead of East, maybe, but not the current schedule.

Bryan: They’d need to have one touchdown per game to tie the record. That has been done in recent history. Remember the Andrew Walter/Aaron Brooks 2006 Raiders? The year Randy Moss sulked enough that he got traded to New England after the season? Wondering if Art Shell was actually alive or just a cardboard cutout on the sidelines? Good times, that.

Andrew: Aaron Brooks. Man, you really are going all-in on my Saints PTSD, aren’t you?

Bryan: When we’re talking about legendary terribleness, we have to cover the Saints early and often.

I, too think they’ll end up just short of this record, but it’s not inconceivable. Slightly more inconceivable is the passing touchdowns record. Every Dolphins score, all one of them, has been through the air, so they’re on pace for five passing touchdowns. That would tie the 1995 Buccaneers for futility in a 16-game season, because if there’s one team that we have to mention more than the Saints when talking about futility, it’s the Buccaneers. 1995 was Trent Dilfer’s first year as a starter, and only a terrible four-game stretch by Bubby Brister kept him off the bottom of our DYAR leaderboards. He later won a Super Bowl, so it’s not all hopeless, Josh Rosen!

Andrew: Five passing touchdowns in a season is hilarious. It’s almost impossible to be that bad. One of the reasons we so often have a quarterback as our Random Fantasy Player of the Week is that any starter, for any team, should be capable of a couple of random scores in any given week. It needs to be a truly insane performance to elevate a quarterback there.

It needs an even more insane performance for a passing game to have only five scores. Blaine Gabbert gets you more than than. Rookie Josh Allen gets you more than that. Even JaMarcus Russell gets you more than that. Miami will get more than that. Passing, at least. Now rushing…

Bryan: If the Dolphins’ one touchdown came through the air, that means that none have come on the ground. In a 16-game season that projects to … divide by three, clear the remainder, multiply by 16 … ah yes. Zero. They are on pace for zero rushing touchdowns. The record in the modern era — not just the 16-game era, but post-1930s — is two. Done by the 2005 Cardinals, the 1995 Jets, the 1972 Eagles, and the 1940 Steelers.

Andrew: The 2005 Cardinals were gloriously inept on the ground. Marcell Shipp was their starting running back for 11 out of 16 games, averaged under 3.0 yards per carry, and scored a big fat zero touchdowns. Rookie J.J. Arrington got two, and that was it. Plus, Josh McCown started six games at quarterback! A team with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, quarterbacked mostly by Kurt Warner, went 5-11.

Bryan: What gets me is the 1940 Steelers. They ran the ball 36.6 times per game, and could only manage two touchdowns? Then again, they only had six touchdowns all year, so I suppose their lack of success on the ground can’t be too much of a surprise. The ’72 Eagles crack me up, as neither touchdown went to lead back Po James or primary backup Tony Baker. Instead, seldom-used fullback Larry Watkins and backup quarterback John Reaves punched the ball in the end zone. Man, fantasy players of 1972 must have been furious.

The Dolphins will find the end zone with a running back, I’m sure of it. Then again, they managed to keep Frank Gore out of the end zone all of last season, and he has been scoring rushing touchdowns since roughly the dawn of time.

Andrew: There’s also a decent chance of a Josh Rosen or Ryan Fitzpatrick scramble getting them there, and that would count for this category. Kalen Ballage has been extremely poor, but Kenyan Drake is a talented back. The bigger problem is the offensive line. Still, they’ll get a couple of boom plays along the way. I can see them tying this record. I really don’t think they’ll beat it.

Bryan: And that about does it! No more records I can think of, nope, we’re clear here, moving on…

… Oh. Those records.

Pro Football Reference only records third-down conversion stats starting in 1991, so that’s what we have here. The Dolphins are on pace to convert just 43 first downs, and are currently converting just 20% of their third-down attempts. That would break the post-’91 records of 49 and 24%, both held by, uh, the 2005 49ers.

I suppose if we dunked on your Saints repeatedly, we probably should dig up memories of the Mike Nolan-era 49ers, too.

Andrew: Rookie and first-overall pick Alex Smith! Tim Rattay! Ken Dorsey! Cody Pickett! How could we not?

Bryan: The 2005 49ers were the worst team I have ever seen play football. Period. Bar none. Worse than the winless Lions or Browns. The four-headed monster at quarterback was horrendous. A receiving corps of Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle is not NFL-worthy. Derek Smith was probably the team MVP. This was still two years after the 49ers had said goodbye to Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens and Derrick Deese, leaving just Bryant Young (and, unbeknownst to us at the time, a young, fresh-faced rookie named Frank Gore!) to carry the franchise forward. The 17-9 loss to the Bears, admittedly played in very high winds, is the worst football game I have ever watched — the 49ers completed one forward pass all game. They finished the year with a -55.5% DVOA, still the lowest in the DVOA era. This is the crown the 2019 Dolphins are trying to take away. This is their ultimate goal.

And those 49ers still won four games and missed out on Reggie Bush, because football is freaking weird.

Maybe that explains why the Dolphins have been so bad! It’s the curse of Frank Gore! The Dolphins kept Gore out of the end zone and, as retaliation, he’s causing this year’s Miami squad to replace his rookie team as the worst in NFL history! It all makes sense now!

Andrew: I’m not sure it does make sense, but it makes more sense than Miami’s roster-building strategy right now.

Bryan: Look. This is the NFL’s 100th season. To be the all-time worst at anything is nearly impossible. You can almost always find someone worse — an expansion franchise without a clue; a floundering offense struggling to find a starting quarterback; the Colts in every other decade. The fact that the Dolphins are even in play for any of these is an incredible feat of poor play. It is so, so hard to be all-time bad, but the Dolphins are really giving it their all.

We’re lucky, in a way. Our fathers and their fathers before them never got to witness a team like this. We’ll be able to tell our kids about the time we saw the 2019 Miami Dolphins attempt to play a football game. They have the potential to be not only remembered in the record book, but in the history books — a truly seminal moment in the history of the NFL.

Andrew: I know it’s Scramble, but you really don’t need to be that excited for a team this bad. I think I’ll remember them more as an embarrassment from an era in which tanking was seen as a justifiable strategy, a sort of backwards attempt to build a winning football team by losing as much as possible. A relic from a bygone era. A curiosity that ultimately failed even to be as futile as we all hoped it could be.

Bryan: The one record I need them to break is the ’05 49ers record for worst DVOA. Give me that, and I’ll be happy.

Andrew: That, at least, appears to be a realistic outcome for a strategy that, for all its flaws, still makes more sense than many of the other happenings from Week 3.


 

Weekly Awards

 

Keep Choppin’ Wood

We can’t give this award to Antonio Brown again, right? Wrong. We can, and we will. Fresh from his release by Oakland, and shortly after landing in what should have been his dream situation in New England, Brown continued his pattern of disregarding both contract clauses and rules of basic human decency in targeting abusive harassment at one of the women who has accused him of sexual assault. This, coupled with a series of detailed and disturbing reports by Sports Illustrated‘s Robert Klemko in particular, led to Brown’s release from New England — after they had traded another receiver to make room for him on the roster — and the voiding of another $9 million in contract guarantees. Brown is likely to face league discipline should he ever return to the field, but his increasingly destructive off-field behavior may well have scuppered any chance of that happening.

John Fox Award for Conservatism

For such a heralded coach, Bruce Arians did not cover himself with glory on Sunday, as the Buccaneers tried to hold on to a 28-10 halftime lead. Arians was responsible for two of the worst five coaching decisions of the week, per EdjSports’ Game-Winning Chance model. Up 28-25 with 6:03 to play, the Buccaneers kicked a field goal to go from a one-score lead to a different one-score lead. Later, up 31-25 with 3:24 to play, the Buccaneers punted on fourth-and-1 rather than trying to clinch the win. These are conservative to the extreme.

And yet, all of that pales in comparison to the worst decision Arians made in the game, a decision that could have won the Foxy for conservatism, or the Fisher for confusing play calls. Instead, we’re covering it in the Game-Changing Play, as Arians essentially picked up a trifecta of terribleness in the closing seconds of this one.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game

We loved John Harbaugh’s game plan and aggressive approach in Kansas City, which included a series of analytically acclaimed decisions too numerous to list here. However, what we also really loved was the way he discussed those decisions when questioned afterward. We recommend watching the full 2:38 clip from this video on the Ravens Twitter feed:

Even if you don’t watch the full clip though, just this one quote is a keeper: “While you may think that getting 10 [points] is the thing to do … it’s the thing to do if you want to go into overtime. It’s not the thing to do if you want to win the game in regulation and that’s what we were trying to do.” Harbaugh’s team, in the end, went for it on fourth down four times and attempted three two-point conversions. With conventional play, the Ravens might have lost by a narrower margin, but as Harbaugh pointed out, if they had been successful then the Ravens would have been in a position to win the game at the end. Harbaugh has promised to stay aggressive, so we watch the Ravens with renewed interest.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching

Bruce Arians, we’ll get back to you in just a moment — you’re the true winner this week, but we do want to spread these awards around somewhat. So, instead, we’re going to briefly turn our attention up north to Freddie Kitchens. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Browns trailing by four and facing a fourth-and-9, Kitchens made the bold move to go for it. It was the right call, per EdjSports’ GWC model … had it been a pass. Instead, Kitchens called a draw play to Nick Chubb — a worse call than just punting the ball away from the Rams’ side of the field. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work, with Chubb stopped 7 yards short of the first down.

Per ESPN Stats and Info, this was the first draw on fourth-and-9 or more since they started using video tracking in 2007. Hopefully, it will also be the last.

‘Sledgehammer’ Fantasy Player of the Week

If you’ve been a Taylor Gabriel owner, you’ll know his stock has been going up and down, all around the bends, since his 2016 season in Atlanta. Neither Steve Sarkisian nor Matt Nagy has really found a way to get the most out of Gabriel, who had just three touchdowns in 2017 and 2018 combined. On Monday night, however, Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears fed Gabriel’s rhythm, and Gabriel responded by finding the end zone three times in the second quarter alone. Of course, now he has a concussion and is week-to-week, so maybe don’t call his name for your lineups in Week 4.

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

You don’t usually get 14 targets as a tight end unless your name is Zach Ertz, but the Raiders are looking towards Darren Waller early and often in 2019. The third-most targeted game of his career came last week against the Chiefs, when Derek Carr looked his way seven times. The second-most targeted game of his career came in Week 1 against Denver, where he had eight balls come his way. And now he has had the most-targeted game of his career. Snatch him up if he’s available in your fantasy league, boys and girls.

Waller hauled in all 13 catchable passes he was thrown on Sunday, and he kept grinding even as the Raiders were being ground into a fine powder. He caught nine passes for 80 yards in the last 22 minutes of the Raiders-Vikings clash, which would have put him in the top 25 for receivers last week even if he had been held silent for two and a half quarters.

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week

Washington neither suffered the worst defeat of the week nor are the worst team in the NFL, but the strength in depth of the NFC means that their 0-3 record is arguably even worse for their playoff chances than the equivalent record in the AFC. One bright spot in the 0-3 start has been the play of third-round rookie receiver Terry McLaurin. McLaurin’s six-catch, one-touchdown day against the Bears made him the first player ever to have at least five catches and a touchdown in each of his first three career games. Naturally, he is unlikely to sustain that pace, but his play has been a bright spot in what already looks a lost season in Landover, Maryland.

Game-Changing Play of the Week

Right, let’s get back to Bruce Arians. His questionable decision making led to an utter Tampa Bay collapse. Despite all we talked about up in the Foxy award, and despite Daniel Jones playing out of his mind in the second half, the Buccaneers were still in position to win the game late, trailing by just one point. Deep passes to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans set up would should have been a chip-shot 27-yard field goal for Matt Gay — important, because he had already missed two extra points on the day. 27-yard field goals are successful about 96% of the time, and EdjSports gave the Bucs about the same win probability. A chip shot for the win. But then…

Bruce Arians took a 5-yard delay of game penalty, intentionally, because he thought his kicker would be better from further away. This is not really a thing. There’s some extreme cases very close up when talking about kicking field goals at awkward angles, but A) that’s mostly an issue in college, where they have wider hashmarks and thus sharper angles for extremely close field goals, and B) the Buccaneers lost an additional 2 yards falling down to put the ball on the perfect hashmark for Gay anyway. No, the logic doesn’t add up.

Kickers still nail 32-yarders about 93% of the time, so in most cases, this would be one of those minor points we harp on while fans roll their eyes — who cares what the odds are after the fact? It’s either good or not, and there’s not that much of a difference between 93% and 96%, so who cares?

It’s not quite as simple as this, but if the ball had followed the same path from 5 yards closer, it would have skimmed the inside of the right upright, and likely been good. Neither of these teams look particularly playoff-bound, but the Buccaneers did enter Week 2 atop the NFC South; a win here would have kept them above the Saints on tiebreakers at the moment. With Drew Brees out and Cam Newton ailing and the Falcons struggling, there’s room for the Bucs to make a move in the division … but no. Same old Buccaneers, same old kicking problems.


Weekly Predictions

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week

All picks are made without reference to FO’s Premium picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Records to Date:
Andrew: 2-1
Bryan: 1-2

Bryan: A quarterback controversy in Carolina! OK, not yet, but Kyle Allen looked pretty darn good under center; and the Panthers looked like the team we hoped they would be with a healthy Cam. An interesting situation to watch develop over the next few weeks.

Andrew: Even with the disparity in records, I didn’t expect to see the talented but underperforming Eagles as five-point underdogs in Green Bay. True, the Packers have won all of their games, but they haven’t looked entirely convincing in doing so. Philadelphia is dealing with injuries and inconsistency, but they still have the talent to win anywhere they play. No Eagles game has been won or lost by more than five points this season, and even if they are to fall to 1-3, I think they keep this one close until the end. Give me the points. Philadelphia (+5) at Green Bay.

Bryan: It’s not just my locks that are suffering; I’m a terrible 17-30-1 against the spread overall so far this season. My straight-up picks are doing fine, but Vegas is kicking my butt. So keep that terrible record in mind as I go way off the board and take Detroit (+7) at home against Kansas City. I know, I know, picking anyone to stay close to the Chiefs and Pat Mahomes is crazy talk, but maybe I need some crazy to get my mojo back. The Lions have played in a bunch of messy games this year, and I’m hoping that messiness continues. Besides, Mahomes can’t stay on pace for 6,000 yards all season … right? Right?

Double Survival League

Bryan: This is what I get for doubting Daniel Jones, isn’t it? Or, at least, for trusting the Buccaneers not to fall into a shell in the second half.

Andrew: Trusting the Buccaneers, either to fail or to win, has been the ruin of many a poor boy. I know, last week I was one. Yet despite that, I’m picking against them again this week. The L.A. Rams have two more games on their schedule that should be close to guaranteed home wins: this week against Tampa Bay, and Week 8 against Cincinnati. There are many more matchups I like in Week 8 than there are this week though, so that sways me toward the marginally trickier of the pair.

Since I’ve picked against one untrustworthy outfit, I might as well pick for another, but this one is about to play in just about the most favorable circumstances imaginable. The L.A. Chargers play this season’s apparent whipping boys, which even in Miami ought to make them the easiest of easy picks. The astute reader may observe a pattern emerging in my picks this year, but far be it from me to tip my hand.

Bryan: I shall join you in taking the L.A. Rams this week; I think the Bucs game is actually the slightly easier of the pair of Rams games you highlighted, and the easiest pick of the week. I can’t join your Los Angeles double-double however, as I already used the Chargers back in Week 1. I will, however, join in your contempt for Florida football and take 0-3 Denver at home against the Jaguars. It’s not a matchup I’m particularly confident in, but then, there aren’t that many matchups I’m confident in for Denver on the whole. We can’t use their home game against Oakland; that comes in Week 17. So, what are we left with? Home games against the Titans? The Browns? The Chargers? The Lions? No, I’m not a fan of any of that. So I’ll cross my fingers that a Vic Fangio defense can get at least one sack in a season.

Bryan selects the Broncos; Andrew selects the Chargers, and both select the Rams.


http://www.footballoutsiders.com/scramble/2019/scramble-ball-fish-tank

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