Backdoor Cover: Analyzing perfect QBs, PATs and more in NFL's Week 1
Welcome to Week 1 of the Backdoor Cover, where each week, we'll take a dive into analytics, statistical oddities and gambling outcomes from around the NFL.
Philip Rivers went 35 of 42 for 404 yards and two touchdowns in the Chargers’ win over the Lions on Sunday. With the two scores, Rivers tied Dan Fouts for tops on the Chargers' all-time list with 254 (they're tied for 15th on the overall all-time list), and he broke a tie with Fouts with his seventh career 400-yard passing game. He joins the following list of now eight quarterbacks with that many 400-yard games in their regular season careers.
Despite the recent explosion of the passing game and the fashion in which this decade’s quarterbacks have rewritten the passing record books, this list has held up fairly well with age. Three of the eight made their mark before the new millennium.
The only surprising name on the list (to me) was Carson Palmer, who threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday’s win over the Saints. Palmer happens to be 1–6 in his seven 400-yard games, but that’s a story for another time. Speaking of Palmer, he and Moon both made the list above by tallying these games with three different teams.
Trivia question: Can you name the only other player besides Palmer and Moon to throw a 400-yard passing game with three different franchises? Answer below.
One of the biggest questions from an analytics and game theory standpoint this season is how the new extra point rules will affect teams’ willingness to go for two-point conversions. Last year the league as a whole converted 28 out of 59 two-point conversions, a 47.5% success rate and an average of 0.23 attempts per game. Already this season, teams have attempted six two-point conversions—an average of 0.43 per game and a pace for 109 this season.
Teams missed four extra points in Week 1 (so far), with Chargers, Jaguars and Texans seeing them sail wide and the Bengals’ Mike Nugent having one blocked. Last season, NFL teams went 1,222 for 1,230 (99.3%) on extra points. So, through 14 games, the league is already halfway to its total of missed extra points last season.
Despite the uptick in missed extra points and attempted two-point conversions, it would be a mistake to overstate the cause and effect relationship without looking closer. There are three main reasons a team could go for two:
1) The book says so. The same reasons teams would go for two-point conversions in years past, with no extenuating circumstances.
2) Teams are scared of missing an extra point. New this year! Teams could be worried about the risk involved in the 33-yard extra point and decide the risk/reward ratio favors going for two.
3) Teams are chasing a previous missed extra point. Not technically new this year, but this should happen more often. A team finds itself down an unusual number (8, 11, 15, etc.) because it missed an extra point earlier in the game, so it goes for two to make up that extra point.
Here are the six two-point conversion attempts from Week 1, broken down by situation and reason:
|Steelers||Patriots||Down 18, to cut it to 10||3||No extenuating circumstances||Yes|
|Texans||Chiefs||Down 18, to cut it to 10||4||Making up for previous missed XP||Yes|
|Colts||Bills||Down 24, to cut it to 16||3||No extenuating circumstances||Yes|
|Colts||Bills||Down 19, to cut it to 11||4||No extenuating circumstances||No|
|Seahawks||Rams||Down 11, to cut it to 3||4||No extenuating circumstances||Yes|
|Raiders||Bengals||Down 26, to cut it to 18||4||No extenuating circumstances||No|
As you can see, five of these attempts likely would have taken place last year as well. It’s possible that the longer extra point helped gently nudge teams in this direction, but it could also easily be a fluke that so many teams fell behind by the magic numbers which traditionally dictate two-point conversion attempts.
The most interesting two-point conversion decision actually isn’t even on this chart. With 11:49 left in the fourth quarter, Ladarius Green scored a touchdown to put San Diego up 26–21 and set up yet another two-point conversion that would’ve made sense by the book last year. Instead, a delay of game penalty changed the scenario, and suddenly Mike McCoy was left choosing between a seven-yard two-point conversion attempt and a 38-yard extra point. He pulled the offense off the field and went for the extra point, which was subsequently missed anyway.
It was a curious decision, though not entirely indefensible. On one hand, if getting the two points was important enough (and extending a lead from five points to seven certainly is), then the Chargers should have considered going for two anyway. On the other hand, 11 minutes is still plenty of time for an opponent to make two field goals, so extending a lead from five points to six isn’t totally meaningless. Had the game been inside the two minute warning, it would have been a much easier call to go for two.
Regardless of the outcome, it's interesting to see coaches (and their advisors) weigh new formulas. We’ll see if Mike McCoy (or some other coach) weighs the risk differently the next time he stares down a 38-yard extra point.
Teams may begin to start going for two more often because of the new extra point rules, but there isn’t proof of that happening quite yet.
Feats of Strength
Marcus Mariota impressed in his NFL debut, both in the box score and on the field. He was 13 of 16 for 209 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. His quarterback rating after three quarters was 158.3 (he sat out the fourth quarter, with the Titans leading 42–7), which many football fans know is a perfect score in football’s long-ingrained, unnecessarily convoluted quarterback evaluation statistic.
I’m quick to point out that quarterback rating is a flawed stat, with its heavy reliance on touchdown/interception ratio and a seemingly arbitrary scale to 158.3. But with that disclaimer out of the way, we can still have a little fun with Mariota’s day.
Below is a list of the 15 quarterbacks who have had a game with a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating (minimum 10 passing attempts) since 1960.
|Robert Griffin III||WAS||1|
Sure, it’s hard to reconcile the presence of Geno Smith and Chad Pennington, but this list is mostly populated with future Hall of Famers and possible Pro Bowlers. However, a few names are notably absent. There’s no Brett Favre, no Dan Marino and no Aaron Rodgers. No John Elway, Joe Montana or Steve Young either.
None of them ever had a perfect game, yet Marcus Mariota did it the very first time he stepped onto an NFL field.
Mariota joins RG3 as the second rookie on the list, and at 21 years, 319 days old he surpasses him as the youngest to do it. After one game, he’s already just one touchdown pass from matching the career totals of such luminaries as Akili Smith and Jimmy Claussen.
Mariota may never have a day like this again, but at least he’ll be able to tell his grandkids about his sparkling debut.
Great Moments in Vegas
By now you may have already heard about the end of the Patriots-Steelers game, but the gambling moment of the week definitely took place on Thursday night. Maybe you figured it out thanks to Al Michaels or from us here at SI:
Trailing by 14 with 2:59 left in a game that felt mostly out of reach, the Steelers staged a dramatic 12-play drive that culminated with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown connecting for an 11-yard touchdown with two seconds on the clock. Tack on the extra point, and the teams arrived at a 28–21 final score.
As the Steelers closed at +7 in most books, the play resulted in a miracle push. For anyone who might have found the Steelers at +7.5, either in Vegas or offshore, it was more like the Immaculate Reception of backdoor covers. (Of course, Antonio Brown fantasy owners enjoyed it quite a bit as well.)
This was the greatest Vegas moment from Week 1. (Or the most tragic, depending on your vantage point.) But that’s what makes this whole thing fun. Or infuriating. Or sometimes both.
Anyway, the NFL is back for all your gambling enjoyment and somehow the very first game of this season nearly matched the drama of the final game of last season.
Good luck out there, gamblers.
The SuperContest is the self-proclaimed biggest pro football handicapping contest in the world, run by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Contestants bet against the spread, picking any five games they want each week. The entrance fee is $1,500, so with more than 1,700 entrees this year the prize pool totals more than $2.5 million.
The lines are finalized on Wednesdays, so keep in mind that some of these might have changed before kickoff Sunday and might differ from what you’ve seen elsewhere.
The most popular pick this week among SuperContest entrants was Miami -3.5 at Washington. Those 664 pickers (38.5% of the pool) received a scare when the Redskins went up 10–0 in the second quarter, but 17 unanswered points from the Dolphins kept their backers happy.
Pittsburgh was the least common pick, with just 64 entries (3.7%) confident in the Steelers’ chances to cover +7 against the defending champs on banner night in Foxborough. But as we saw above, the Steelers’ dramatic garbage time drive forced a push.
(Note: Entrants can pick the Thursday game if they submit all five picks before the game. Otherwise, picks are due Saturday.)
The biggest spoiler in the pool was the Bills, who were 2.5-point underdogs against the Colts and won outright, inflicting losses on 347 entries. It wasn’t a great week for spoilers though, as the Colts were the sixth most common pick in the pool. If you picked the five most popular teams (Dolphins, Cardinals, Rams, Jets and Packers) you survived Week 1 at 5–0.
For the record, the Vikings are tied with the Colts, with 347 people pulling for them tonight.
I’m not actually a SuperContest entrant, I just pick along on Twitter.
Week 1 SuperContest picks:— Mitch Goldich (@mitchgoldich) September 12, 2015
MIA -3.5 @ WAS
IND -2.5 @ BUF
CIN -3 @ OAK
DEN -4.5 vs BAL
MIN -2.5 @ SF
In the interest of full disclosure, last season I finished exactly .500 at 42-42-1. So I could have done just as well flipping coins all season, but I think it’s more fun this way.
My unconventional slate of all chalk nearly worked out as planned, as I’m sitting at 3–1 through Sunday with the Vikings still to play on Monday night.
Trivia Answer: Vinny Testaverde is the third player to record a 400-yard passing game for three different franchises. He did it with the Buccaneers, Ravens and Jets.