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Rolling Up the Score, Passer Ratings, and NFL Prediction Results

Drew Brees was right to go after the yardage record when he did.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 3, 2012

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Rolling Up the Score, Passer Ratings, and NFL Prediction Results

In a 2010 Wisconsin-Minnesota football game, Wisconsin scored a touchdown to go up 41-16 with 6:39 left in the fourth quarter. Coach Brett Bielema went for a two-point conversion to go up by 27. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster was upset about it after the game, and remained so days after.

Bielema, however, was correct.  And, if the Gophers mounted a furious comeback that included three touchdowns with three two-point conversions, AND if they had kicked a field goal, the best they could have done was tie Wisconsin and force overtime. Bielema knew that a 25- or 26-point lead didn't make any difference, but a 27-point lead did.

Later the same year, a Giants-Eagles game showed how quickly the touchdowns can come; the Eagles scored four touchdowns in the last eight minutes to win 38-31. It's improbable, but not impossible, to score so many touchdowns so quickly.

This was obvious to me at the time, and was disappointed by Brewster's whining. If I was in a position to hire a coach and interviewed Brewster, I would press him on it.

I was reminded of this small controversy recently. On December 26, Saints quarterback Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's 27 year-old single-season passing yardage record.

The way in which this was achieved, however, was heavily criticized in some quarters. Brees set the record on a touchdown pass with five minutes left, increasing the Saints 22-point lead to 29.

Critics say the Saints "rolled up the score" on the Falcons. Others defend the Saints and the decision to go for the record, but still don't address the fundamental flaw in the "roll up the score" accusation.

It comes down this: the Falcons still had a chance to win before the touchdown. Afterward, they had NO chance.

Here are the facts of the case...

Even as the Saints got the ball back on downs, the Falcons had a chance to win. Imagine...

  • The Saints fumble the ball as they tried to run out the clock, followed by a quick Falcons score;
  • A three-and-out by the Saints, followed by another Falcons score;
  • A recovered on-side kick and another score, followed by a 2-point conversion.

Is the sequence unlikely? Yes? Impossible? No. Similar "miracle comebacks" have happened before. Some of the Bronco-Tim Tebow comebacks this year had similarly unusual sequences of events.

A 29-point deficit, however, has NEVER been overcome in the NFL regular season.

By throwing his record-setting pass, Brees was NOT "rolling up the score" against a bitter rival or overmatched opponent. Instead, he nailed the Falcon's coffin door shut by giving the Saints a virtually insurmountable lead. Even if the passing yards record wasn't at stake, the call to pass on that play would have been appropriate.

I would argue that even if the Saints DID have an insurmountable lead, that it was still appropriate for Brees to go after the record during this game, rather than come close and have it be a distraction the following week. But that argument doesn't need to be made, because the Saints did NOT have an insurmountable lead.

And I continue to be amazed by how easily people can make, and believe, demonstrably false claims.

NFL Prediction Results

As promised, here are the results of my NFL Predictions made at the beginning of the season. They were based on three criteria: confidence in the head coach, confidence in the quarterback, and confidence in the defense.

AFC West

Predicted: 1. Chargers 2. Chiefs 3. Broncos 4. Raiders
Result: 1. Broncos 2. Chargers 3. Raiders 4. Chiefs

These were close, as the top 3 teams finished 8-8 and the Chiefs came in 7-9. I thought Charger talent would carry them though I don't have confidence in head coach Norv Turner. The Chiefs were derailed by injuries at quarterback.

AFC South

Predicted: 1. Texans 2. Colts 3. Titans 4. Jaguars
Result: 1. Texans 2. Titans 3. Jaguars 4. Colts

Obviously, I thought the Colts would play better after signing Kerry Collins. I also should have had more confidence in Titans qb Matt Hasselbeck.

AFC North

Predicted: 1. Steelers 2. Ravens (wild card) 3. Browns 4. Bengals
Result: 1. Ravens 2. Steelers (wild card) 3. Bengals (wild card) 4. Browns

I had no idea Bengals rookie qb Andy Dalton would play so well. Steelers and Ravens finished with identical records, and they score very high in coaching, qb, and defense.

AFC East

Predicted: 1. Patriots 2. Jets (wild card) 3. Dolphins 4. Bills
Result: As predicted, except that the Jets didn't get a wild card.

Patriots are at the top in qb and coaching. I thought Jets qb Mark Sanchez would play better than he did this year. It does appear that the Dolphins and Bills may have some stability at qb for the next few years.

NFC West

Predicted: 1. Rams 2. Cardinals 3. 49ers 4. Seahawks
Result: 1. 49ers 2. Cardinals 3. Seahawks 4. Rams

Rams qb Sam Bradford was the only qb I liked in this division, and I thought the Rams would continue to improve and grab a mediocre division. I could not have been more wrong. I should have had more confidence in new 49er Coach Jim Harbaugh, and he proved that quality coaching was what that talented team needed.

NFC South

Predicted: 1. Saints 2. Falcons (wild card) 3. Buccaneers (wild card) 4. Panthers
Results: 1. Saints 2. Falcons (wild card) 3. Panthers 4. Buccaneers

The Saints are right at the top in qb and coaching, and Falcons are very good. I thought the Buccaneers, 10-6 last year, would continue to get better with young Josh Freeman. I was almost as wrong about them as I was about the Rams. Panthers qb Cam Newton was sensational and he could reinvent the position.

NFC North

Predicted: 1. Packers 2. Bears 3. Lions 4. Vikings
Results: 1. Packers 2. Lions (wild card) 3. Bears 4. Vikings

There was little reason to doubt the Bears, and they were among the best teams until qb Jay Cutler was injured. Lions qb Matthew Stafford's 97.4 passer rating was fifth among all qbs.

NFC East

Predicted: 1. Eagles 2. Giants 3. Cowboys 4. Redskins
Results: 1. Giants 2. Eagles 3. Cowboys 4. Redskins

I missed this by one game. I liked the coaches and quarterbacks of both the Eagles and Giants, and the Cowboys qb. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has not been very successful for several years.

I correctly predicted the slots for twelve of the 32 teams, and predicted seven of the twelve play-off teams. Most of the times I was wrong, it was only by one slot or one victory. (For example, I was completely wrong on the AFC West, but very close to being completely correct.) There were five teams I was spectacularly wrong about: Colts, Rams, Buccaneers, Bengals, and 49ers.

Most notably, however, is that I was right on one essential point. Of the top twelve quarterbacks in passer rating, nine are on teams going into the play-offs. Two others, Romo and Rivers, played on 8-8 teams and the twelfth, Miami's Matt Moore, did not begin the season as a starter but the team played much better with him at the helm.

More than any other statistic, I believe the NFL's "official" passer rating is the best indicator of team success. Indeed, five of the top ten passers account for eight of the last ten Super Bowl victories, and all are returning to the playoffs this year.

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