This is a new recurring segment that is an ode to the wrongness within me. Each time I scrape into these posts, I want to look at what I was wrong about, and try my best to rationalize and/or ascertain why I was so wrong. So today, let’s look at one of my most ill-fated predictions of the 2013 season.
Today, I direct your attention to our Football Outsiders Staff Predictions post on September 5th, 2013, and my picks for the worst team in the NFL and player most likely to fall short of projections:
Rivers McCown: San Diego Chargers. Let’s review: this team finished 22nd in offensive DVOA this year, with the worst adjusted sack rate in the league, and their major offseason fix was adding Danny Woodhead. They drafted D.J. Fluker to help protect the immobile Philip Rivers at right tackle. I think D.J. Fluker is a guard. They installed King Dunlap at left tackle. Nobody thinks King Dunlap is a left tackle. They lost promising hybrid endbacker Melvin Ingram for the season with an ACL tear, and their solution was to call up Dwight Freeney. That would be awesome if it was 2003. It is not 2003. Perpetually injured Derek Cox is their No. 1 cornerback, draft question mark Shareece Wright is ostensibly the No. 2, and offseason waiver claim Johnny Patrick and camp cut Richard Marshall are the depth at the position. The Raiders are a bigger mess, but there’s no chance the Chargers are winning eight games when the only phase of the game they can claim as a strength is stopping the run.
Rivers McCown: Ryan Mathews. I’m out on Mathews. I think the Chargers spend a lot of time trailing, I think Mathews is always a risk to get hurt, and I see Danny Woodhead getting a pretty even timeshare in San Diego because of those factors.
Now, to give myself some credit, I was dead-on about that San Diego defense. Their defensive backs were terrible, and until the very end of the season, they were contending for the worst defense in NFL history mostly because of that. They wound up dead last in DVOA even despite finishing the year with three straight negative DVOA games. Some of this was because Ingram came back (which I didn’t forsee), and once Cox was officially made persona non grata, that boosted the pass defense a bit as well.
But I could not have been any wronger about the offense, so here are the reasons why I think that prediction was a failure.
Momentum: Having done a few Chargers games for Any Given Sunday in 2012, my idea was that Philip Rivers was running out of steam. He was taking more sacks than ever before (the 2012 Chargers finished last in Adjusted Sack Rate), his DVOA had dropped two straight years, and he was headed into his Age-32 season. Looking at that trendline, even after we factored in regression, we didn’t have Rivers as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. It was my belief that he would crater further this season, partially because I didn’t think his receiving corps was very good, partially because I didn’t think his offensive line was very good, but mostly because I didn’t think he had the arm strength to be a good quarterback anymore. Rivers had a 77.1% DVOA on deep throws in 2013, which is not great, but still well above-average. That was a clear misstep. The crater risk is always there with older quarterbacks, but I was too quick to write off one bad year as a trend in this case.
Coaching: This, more than anything, I think led to me being off. While Mike McCoy’s actual game theory gives me nightmares, I think he (and Ken Whisenhunt) did a very good job of minimizing the potential problems that Rivers could have this season. There was more focus on short passes, so the offensive line would have less impact on his reads. The running game worked better than I thought it would given the paucity of talent on the line, so it was able to sustain some drives and milk clock. In short, while I hate the theoretical idea that you have to build a box around a player and keep him from doing risky things, you could not have built a better one for Rivers than McCoy and Whisenhunt did. They deserve a lot of credit for that, and since many teams fought for Whisenhunt’s services before Tennessee won them, NFL folks seemed to agree.
I did not expect Keenan Allen to immediately be one of the best receivers in the NFL: That was silly of me.
OK, I realize that sounds a little snarky, but given what we’d heard about his foot injuries throughout the pre-draft process, training camp, and the preseason, I figured he’d struggle to catch up despite the obvious talent. There are a lot of minor miracles the Chargers performed with their receiving options last year that I don’t blame myself for not seeing coming, including turning Eddie Royal into a statistically productive receiver and surviving Malcom Floyd’s injury. But Allen was talented enough and regarded highly enough by people I respect such as Matt Waldman that I should’ve been more open to the idea he could have an instant impact.
D.J. Fluker is a tackle: He’s not an upper-echelon pass protector at his position or anything, but he can play right tackle. And he definitely has the muscle to push some piles and hold the edge.
One of my blind spots is that I don’t think drafting a first-round tackle that projects to have poor pass protection skills is a good use of the pick. I think that might have rubbed off a little on how down I was about the pick. I still think, years down the line, the optimal result is that they look at Fluker and say “yeah, that was a solid pick in a bad draft.” But that’s better than it could have been. His mobility is a little better than was advertised, even if his footwork is only adequate. And, given how weak the tackle market generally is in free agency, it’s nice to not have to worry about Jeromey Clary messing things up on the outside. A better pick than I gave it credit for at the time, for sure.
As for the Ryan Mathews prediction:
Some of this was bombast: I tend to believe that if I’m going to make predictions, I should at least go out on a limb with some of them. It’s why I picked San Francisco and Cincinnati to make the Super Bowl in the preseason rather than the favorites — I feel like there’s mentally more joy to be derived from having guessed a correct 5 percent pick than a correct 20 percent pick that half of all NFL writers are talking about. Sometimes, due to time and word constraints, it’s just impossible to convey that on every prediction or guess or feeling you write.
So, here, I doubled-down on my initial idea that the Chargers will be bad. My prediction that Woodhead would grab a big role for the team wound up being correct, but it wasn’t because Mathews was poor or hurt and the Chargers were often trailing — it was because Woodhead wound up being a matchup problem and that gave Mathews a lot of clock to eat.
But more importantly, we bury our young running backs too young: Thomas Jones, Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram, Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown.
In fantasy football spheres, where we’re constantly monitoring everything about running backs, it is easier than ever to just get burnt out on a player that hasn’t produced and think that the problem is solely with the player. Frankly, the football news world is too big for any person to cover the entire thing to the full extent they’d need to reach expert status on it. It’s easy to see a player get banged up early, or watch his team get frustrated with him, and conclude that he’s not worth the effort.
But maybe, much like John Hollinger coined with the “second draft” where NBA teams shopped for misused or unappreciated guys coming off rookie contracts (OJ Mayo or Larry Hughes come to mind), this is what actually provides the opportunity for value. Sometimes players are just hurt and it’s not a trend. Sometimes previous coaching staffs don’t realize the full potential of a player. Sometimes the blocking scheme isn’t right, or the player is going through a divorce, or intangible effects are at work.
Try to remember that through all the Trent Richardson jokes everyone makes every time the Colts are brought up this offseason. There is still a reason why players like that are highly-regarded in the first place. And just because the trade is a bad “value” trade doesn’t mean the Colts won’t eventually get Richardson straightened out. Mathews was hardly a superstar this year, but he finally carried the rock at a respectable rate, stayed healthy, and didn’t fumble often. I guess what I take away from this is that a running back with good pedigree does deserve some extra benefit of the doubt, even if it doesn’t really seem like they should on paper.