On The Numbers: Older quarterbacks, streaky running backs and more
Welcome to Week 4 of ‘On the Numbers,’ a weekly column (formerly known as the ‘Backdoor Cover’) which mines for statistical oddities, numerical fun facts and analytics observations from around the NFL.
On the week that Eli Manning passed Joe Montana on the all-time passing yards list, (and Jay Cutler passed Ron Jaworski, and Ryan Fitzpatrick surpassed 20,000 yards) there was plenty to track across the league.
A Few Old Men
Andrew Luck’s injury forced Matt Hasselbeck, who turned 40 on September 25, into starting quarterback duty for the Colts. It was closer than Indianapolis would have liked, as the Colts topped the Jaguars 16–13 in overtime.
Hasselbeck’s first career touchdown pass (in 1999 with the Packers) went to Jeff Thomason, who was born in 1969. His lone touchdown pass Sunday went to Coby Fleener, who was born in 1988. So Hasselbeck has been around for a while.
But the age gap between Hasselbeck and Fleener is nowhere close to the record for the widest between a quarterback and a receiver connecting on a touchdown. Here are the widest gaps with older quarterbacks throwing to younger receivers:
|2007||CAR||Vinny Testaverde||44||Donte Rosario||23||20 years, 346 days|
|1970||OAK||George Blanda||43||Raymond Chester||22||20 years, 283 days|
|2005||SD||Doug Flutie||42||Ryan Krause||23||18 years, 236 days|
|2010||MIN||Brett Favre||41||Percy Harvin||22||18 years, 230 days|
|2008||DAL||Brad Johnson||40||Martellus Bennett||21||18 years, 178 days|
|2004||DAL||Vinny Testaverde||41||Jason Witten||22||18 years, 174 days|
Looking at things from the other perspective, with young quarterbacks throwing to older receivers—well, you had to know there was a reason I was bringing this up. The widest age gap came back in 2004 when a young man named Matt Hasselbeck, then a spry 29-year-old Seahawk, threw two touchdown passes to the 42-year-old Jerry Rice, 12 years and 347 days his senior.
So all Hasselbeck has to do is hang on long enough to throw a touchdown pass to somebody who’s currently 19, and he’ll be on the throwing end of the widest QB-WR age gap in both directions.
Feats of Strength
Devonta Freeman scored just two touchdowns in his rookie season, so there’s a reason his average draft position in ESPN fantasy leagues this preseason was 40th among running backs and 113th overall.
Those who took a chance on the Falcons’ running back have been rewarded with back-to-back three touchdown games.
Several broadcasts and other outlets noted that Freeman was the first player with three rushing touchdowns in back-to-back games since Ladainian Tomlinson, who actually bowled a turkey with three straight games in 2006.
Freeman is just the eighth running back since 1960 to accomplish this feat in back-to-back games (Priest Holmes did it twice) and none of the other guys on the list were as young or inexperienced as he is. Here’s the list, along with the number of career touchdowns they all had when the streak started, and how many they finished their careers with. It’s way too early to tell how Freeman’s career will stack up to the other players on this list, but his touchdown binge does place him among some premiere touchdown monsters.
The list above only counts players with three rushing touchdowns. Expand the pool to include players scoring three touchdowns of any variety, and unsurprising names like Jerry Rice and Randy Moss pop up, along with running backs like Eddie George and Jim Brown.
Trivia question: Can you name the most recent player before Ladainian Tomlinson to record three touchdowns (of any kind) in back-to-back to games. This wide receiver did it in December 2004. Hint that won’t help: In his eight year career he was never selected to the Pro Bowl. (Answer below.)
An ongoing quest to chronicle the way the new extra point rule affects game theory in 2015.
Three teams attempted two-point conversions in Week 4 (if we choose not to count the Falcons’ declining to kick an extra point after a touchdown on the final play).
Both the Giants and Bengals attempted two-point conversions to stretch six-point leads to 14. Both were safe decisions where they likely would have done the same last season (though a missed extra point did contribute to the Giants’ situation). The third attempt was a no-brainer, as the Browns turned an eight-point deficit into a tie game late in the fourth quarter.
The new extra points have mostly worked, making the PAT an exciting play and injecting a jolt of chaos and fun into the game. The only missing ingredient is an uptick in hyper-aggressive teams deciding to take chances that some analytics enthusiasts have long supported anyway.
The past two weeks I’ve written about situations in which teams could choose to be more aggressive, and the team that most could have listened this week is the Cowboys.
Of course it’s easy to second-guess after an overtime loss, but I think the reasons I laid out in Week 2 can serve as a first-guess. Dallas scored a touchdown and kicked an extra point to tie the game with 1:51 left. But as an underdog on the road, down to their backup quarterback, having lost linebacker Sean Lee for the game to a concussion, they had a lot of reasons to consider playing for the win.
Instead, they lost a coin toss and New Orleans put the game away 13 seconds into overtime without giving them a chance to possess the ball.
The end game could have played out differently if Dallas had gone for two (though New Orleans couldn’t exactly have tried harder to score on their final possession), but Dallas passed up a chance to take the game into their own hands and instead lost in one of the most unsatisfying ways for a game to finish.
However, Dallas didn't check off one significant box on my list—in Dan Bailey, they have a good kicker they trust to make an extra point (and a field goal in overtime, which shouldn’t be overlooked in this decision process). It sounds counterintuitive, but maybe in this instance a team that doesn’t trust its kicker might actually be better off.
But the more teams keep missing extra points, the closer we get to the tipping point of the two-point conversion revolution.
Great Moments in Vegas
There were a few games this week that created some added drama thanks to the betting lines, including that Saints-Cowboys finish on Sunday Night Football. The Saints closed at -3 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook and -3.5 elsewhere. So Zach Hocker’s last-second field goal at the end of the fourth quarter would have forced a push or a loss for Saints bettors. Instead, he doinked it off the left upright, forcing overtime, an 80-yard C.J. Spiller touchdown and a Saints cover that left both Saints fans and bettors happy.
But a much more compelling moment took place earlier in the day in San Diego. The Browns were +5 at the Westgate, with dreams of winning outright after they tied the game 27–27 with 2:09 left in regulation.
By now you likely know how this one ended: The Chargers missed a field goal, but an offsides penalty on Browns DB Tramon Willliams gave them a second shot. Josh Lambo’s 34-yard field goal was good, giving the Chargers a win but giving the underdog Browns one of the most creative covers of the season.
At that point in the game, the Chargers’ only chance to cover was with a touchdown, which likely would have had to come in overtime. So this was one of those fun situations where Browns fans and Browns bettors were in direct conflict with each other. What delighted some infuriated others, even if they were technically pulling for the same team. Vegas can do funny things like that.
It’s been a tough season for kickers, not just on the longer extra points but on field goals too. While some have been quick to draw a connection between the longer extra points and the slipping field goal rate, I think we should still wait to see if those are related or if the field goal percentages are a curiously-timed outlier.
But while we’re all bashing kickers, it seems only fair to recognize one who’s actually having a good season. Cairo Santos converted all seven of his field goal attempts in the Chiefs’ game against the Bengals this week, boosting him to 10-of-11 on field goals this season (with his only miss from 51 yards out late in a three-score game) and a perfect eight-for-eight on extra points.
On Sunday Santos became just the seventh kicker ever to boot seven field goals in one game, and the fourth to do it without missing any kicks. All in all it was a perfect day, except one small problem: Nobody else on the Chiefs scored any points. Kansas City fell to Cincinnati 36–21, making him the first player to make seven field goals in a loss. That must make for a strange flight home.
|1967||Jim Bakken||Cardinals||Steelers||Win, 28–14||7||9|
|1989||Rich Karlis||Vikings||Rams||Win, 23–21||7||7|
|1996||Chris Boniol||Cowboys||Packers||Win, 21–6||7||7|
|2003||Billy Cundiff||Cowboys||Giants||Win, 35–32||7||8|
|2007||Shayne Graham||Bengals||Ravens||Win, 21–7||7||7|
|2007||Rob Bironas||Titans||Texans||Win, 38–36||8||8|
|2015||Cairo Santos||Chiefs||Bengals||Loss, 36–21||7||7|
Trivia answer: The last player before Ladainian Tomlinson to record three touchdowns of any kind in back-to-back to games was Drew Bennett, whose six-touchdown binge for the Titans in Dec. 2004 came with Billy Volek at quarterback. Congrats to all our winners, honor system of course.