The ‘Most Powerful Political Players Of 2018’ Draft Extravaganza!!

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): OK, welcome all. Today we’re doing a “MOST POWERFUL POLITICAL PLAYERS OF 2018 DRAFT!!!!!!!” The idea here is both to look back on our 2017 picks and see how horrible they were and to preview what we’re looking for in 2018.

In case you forgot: The goal is to pick a team that will have the most influence over politics, policy and the national discourse in 2018.

Here are the final teams we drafted for 2017:

Our old, 2017 ‘power draft’ teams
Round Nate Harry Clare Micah
1 D. Trump M. Pence R. Mueller M. McConnell
2 P. Ryan M. Meadows A. Kennedy J. Sessions
3 J. Comey J. Kushner B. Sanders G. Cohn
4 S. Bannon B.R. Luján R. Tillerson T. Price
5 J. Roberts R. Maddow R. Murdoch S. Collins
6 H. Clinton I. Trump D. Coats N. Gorsuch

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): My team was good.

I HAVE NO REGRETS! (Except maybe, like, Rex Tillerson.)

micah: Harry’s team is the worst?

clare.malone: 100 percent.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I’m still impressed by my Ben Ray Luján pick!!!

micah: Nate’s last three picks are 👎

My only bad pick was Tom Price, former Health and Human Services Secretary.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Attorney General Jeff Sessions was an overdraft

micah: No way.

natesilver: Yes Shway.

harry: Oh lord.

clare.malone: Well, we are all very glad to have Perry in on this year’s fun.

micah: Let’s start the new draft!

Remember, it’s a snake draft. Everyone pick a number between 1 and 100 so we can determine the order. Nate has a random number generator.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): 14

micah: 88

clare.malone: 73

harry: 51

natesilver: 50

natesilver: OK, i’m gonna randomly pick the number … Micah will observe.

The number is … 39!

micah: RIGGED!

harry: This is trash.

natesilver: So order is Nate, Harry, Perry, Clare, Micah.

micah: Remember, this is for 2018!

We’ll do five rounds — we’ll go one-by-one in the first three and round-by-round for the last two.

natesilver: With the first pick of the 2018 power players draft, the New York Nates select … Donald J. Trump, president of the United States.

micah: Bad pick.

natesilver: Oh come on, dude.

natesilver: I wouldn’t trade Trump for your next three picks combined.

micah: I mean, because we include influence over the national discourse, it’s a good pick. If we were drafting for influence over policy only, I could argue it’s an overrated pick.

natesilver: We’re talking about a man who can lead us to war.

Or back us into war.

micah: I’m just saying that — given his level of involvement in the crafting of legislation — he has less influence over the nation’s business than your average president.

clare.malone: hmmm.

harry: I mean, that’s true.

natesilver: Wait, is it true? It seems … uh … not true. He totally drives “the conversation” more than any other president.

clare.malone: I’m not sure that’s true in the age of the imperial presidency!

Presidents inherently have huuuuuuge power.

perry: In terms of influence over policy, Congress has probably done its big bill (taxes), so much of the policy will be foreign affairs and executive branch stuff in 2018. That’s really Trump.

natesilver: Yeah, and what Perry said.

micah: Perry and Clare, I’m just trying to criticize Nate’s pick — stop taking his side.

clare.malone: Excited to spend the next hour with you all on this.

micah: Harry, with the No. 2 pick.

harry: Folks, I’m going to shock the world.

clare.malone: Al Franken.

micah: lol

harry: Here it is….

Are you ready?

natesilver: Bad pick.

harry: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Boom CRUSHED IT.

micah: OMG

natesilver: Oh my fucking god.

Sam Bowie.

micah: It’s a 2018 draft, Harry! Not 2020!

natesilver: Darko Milicic.

clare.malone: Explain, Harry.

harry: OK, it’s pretty simple for me: Democrats are in a position to take back one or maybe both chambers in Congress. Well-educated women are leading that charge. Democrats will have some overarching message, and I chose the person who has been the most anti-Trump and the most outspoken. She’s also in the New York media market.

She is very important to the public discourse.

micah: That’s all fair.

perry: It really isn’t.

micah: Hit him hard, Perry!

clare.malone: Totally fair arguments, but she is not a good No. 2 pick.

perry: And the next five to six picks will show why. Gillibrand is not going to be a big player compared to lots of others. Is she the most important woman in Congress, even? I think no …

harry: Again, this is discourse, not policy. Just so I’m clear.

clare.malone: Wait … it’s POWER, not discourse or policy. Right? And all the trappings that come with that: driving conversation, wrangling, etc.

micah: It is power over discourse and policy and everything politics!

perry: Gillibrand basically removed a senator (Franken). That is power. But I don’t think she will do that again in 2018.

clare.malone: You think Nancy Pelosi’s still the most important woman in Congress, Perry?

perry: Yes, Pelosi.

micah: Don’t answer that!

clare.malone: hah

micah: lol

clare.malone: I feel like that’s a good transition to Perry’s Pick (TM).

micah: Perry, with the No. 3 pick!!!

perry: Robert Mueller.

clare.malone: Yeah. Good choice.

micah: Yup. Special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential connections with the Trump campaign; that’s a big job.

harry: Boring.

perry: I could make a case for him being No. 1, even. He could change the course of the presidency if he brings charges against Trump. Or if he clears Trump or never charges him and ends the investigation — that would be a huge win for the president.

natesilver: What if he gets fired next week, though?

perry: What he says in the wake of that firing would be huge. FBI Director James Comey was fired and that was a disaster for Trump.

micah: OK, here’s my anti-picking-Mueller argument: He could get fired, as Nate said. Also, he’s a straight-down-the-line guy. He’s basically at the mercy of whatever the facts on the ground are. So he’s only playing out a string.

To be clear, I don’t buy that argument.

But still.

natesilver: Yeah, I don’t buy it either. But I also don’t see how he could be ranked ahead of Trump.

harry: Mueller is the type of guy who many in the press think is important, but many voters don’t care about.

micah: Clare, with the No. 4 pick.

clare.malone: There are so many names to parse through.

micah: I know my pick.

My next two, in fact!


clare.malone: Bully for you.

micah: lol

clare.malone: OK.

I’m going to go with a 2018 wave-themed pick: Nancy Pelosi, Democratic minority leader in the House.

micah: Oh god.

That’s a Harry-level bad pick.

clare.malone: hahahaha

natesilver: No, it’s better than Harry’s pick.

micah: Even if Democrats win the House, Pelosi wouldn’t become speaker until 2019 (and that’s assuming she does become speaker).

perry: Actually, Pelosi has essentially already forced out two members of Congress (John Conyers; Ruben Kihuen), one more than Gillibrand.

clare.malone: Ben Ray Luján is who I should have picked, right, Harry?

harry: That’s right.

natesilver: Pelosi could also influence whether impeachment proceedings against Trump begin this year.

micah: How?

People, Democrats are in the minority in the House.

natesilver: Let’s say Trump fires Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or something. Is that grounds for impeachment? Could depend a lot on whether Pelosi wants to press the case.

clare.malone: Anyhow, here’s what I figure: She’s still a powerful fundraising, wrangling force in the party. (See my definition of power above.) And the Democrats might be heading into a little upswing, and might be tangling with Trump over DACA, etc.

perry: She will have huge influence over how the Democrats campaign in 2018, which matters for 2019. She will be a huge player in deciding if Democrats make impeachment a campaign issue this year.

harry: Micah’s probably thinking of picking Martin O’Malley, so don’t listen to him.

natesilver: I will note that Pelosi was NOT DRAFTED in our previous power players draft

micah: I have the No. 5 and No. 6 picks …

With the No. 5 pick, I select …

Anthony Kennedy, Supreme Court justice.

clare.malone: Snipin’ my team, huh.

harry: Ah, good old Tony K.

micah: And with the No. 6 pick I select …

John Kelly, chief of staff to the president.

perry: Excellent choices.

natesilver: One good pick and one bad pick there, Micah.

clare.malone: Crap. Kelly was mine.

harry: I think they are both terrible.

natesilver: No, Kelly is a bad pick.

clare.malone: No way.

micah: Nate, you’re wrong.

natesilver: Go back and look at our previous power player drafts and you’ll find that the people for whom the argument is “this person has Trump’s ear” always turn out to be crap picks because that changes so quickly.

micah: I don’t think Kelly’s power comes from having Trump’s ear.

natesilver: What power has he actually demonstrated so far?

clare.malone: He reportedly fired/forced out Omarosa.

micah: Kelly’s power is literal, in the sense that he has lots of control over White House personnel, as well as what information gets into the Oval Office (much more than former chief Reince Priebus, it seems). But he also has symbolic power, because so much of Trump’s credibility with other players in Washington rests on Kelly.


If Kelly gets forced out, whatever he says will be hugely impactful. He knows all.

natesilver: Oh come on, you could have said the same about Steve Bannon.

And that pick — which I made in the fourth round last time — hasn’t aged well.

micah: No, I wouldn’t have said Bannon controlled the information flow.

And I wouldn’t have said that any of Trump’s credibility rested on Bannon.

natesilver: But you’d have said something equally bullshitty about him.

micah: lol

clare.malone: OK, you guys done fighting?

micah: Quiet power is still power!

perry: I think the dismissal of Kelly will be a big story if that happens. And if he stays, I think that means Trump has stayed somewhat normal (not fired Mueller, for example). Kennedy is big because the Supreme Court has big decisions coming up on gerrymandering and gay rights, and he is the swing vote. Kennedy could be No. 2.

natesilver: Yeah, the gerrymandering thing is a big deal for 2018, potentially.

micah: Lots of SCOTUS cases coming up that could literally redraw the political map.

harry: Just a quick add: I wouldn’t be surprised if John Roberts plays a bigger role than people think, so that may decrease Kennedy’s influence.

micah: OK, Clare with the No. 7 pick.

clare.malone: Vice President Mike Pence.

natesilver: Good pick.

micah: Hmmmm.

clare.malone: I think if the investigation of Trump goes … certain ways, Pence is on the up-and-up. And he’ll stop being so DL about his accumulation of power and dolla dolla bills.

Richard Nixon was only eventually forced out because he lost Gerald Ford’s vouching for him.

natesilver: I mean, there’s a nontrivial chance that Pence could become president next year, so start with that.

And if he turned on Trump, that would be a big deal too.

harry: I’ll add his being the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. That becomes a lot more nontrivial as Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama joins the chamber.

micah: Remember when Nate picked Obama in the first round?

natesilver: Obama was freaking president for part of this year! I don’t see how one can justify taking Kelly over Pence.

micah: Odds are that Pence will not have any official power when 2018 ends.

perry: Pence will not break from Trump. Or say anything interesting. Pence had virtually no influence in 2017. I guess former national security adviser Michael Flynn lying to him and Pence allegedly being mad about it mattered. I think.

micah: That’s the modal outcome.

Right. I’m with Perry.

natesilver: We’re drafting for UPSIDE, though. Trust the process.

micah: Stop making up new goals for the draft.

We’re drafting for POWER!

harry: Remember when Pence led a movement that got Franken expelled? Oh, wait. That was Gillibrand. That’s why my pick was freaking awesome.

Thank you.

micah: OK, Perry with the No. 8 pick.

perry: Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader.

harry: I got no beef with that pick.

micah: I do.

natesilver: One could argue that the Senate isn’t going to pass much in 2018.

clare.malone: Yeah, that’s why I wouldn’t pick him that high.

I think McConnell will not only see a post-tax bill ebb in Washington power, but he’s a toxic force out there in the states for Republicans who are running as anti-establishment.

micah: +1,000,000

perry: Confirmations matter, and they go through the Senate, including if a seat on the Supreme Court opens up or the secretary of state needs to be replaced. Also, the only real Russia investigation in Congress is happening in the Senate. And McConnell, unlike Pence or House Speaker Paul Ryan, might really break with Trump in some strong way. Remember how McConnell behaved in August? McConnell is also likely to fight in primaries against Tea Party candidates.

micah: He might fight them, but he’ll lose.

natesilver: Perry is right. McConnell is clearly better than anyone else on the board.

harry: You wanna bet, Nathaniel? I bet you my pick crushes.

clare.malone: Do tell.

micah: With the No. 9 pick, Harry selects …

natesilver: Harry just said, “I can’t remember the name.”

micah: Not a great sign.

harry: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Nailed it, boom. (Note: I fully expect him to be fired soon.)

natesilver: Wait, are you messing with us?

micah: Are you deliberately throwing this?

harry: I love this draft!

clare.malone: Performance art.

micah: Make your argument.

natesilver: No, let’s not waste anyone’s time.

Just move on to the next pick.

micah: I mean, these drafts are always 50 percent farcical. But, Harry …

harry: I saw “The Disaster Artist” this weekend. I just think we hear more about Tillerson than most administration officials. Foreign policy is going to be a big deal. His firing could set off a firestorm.

micah: That’s not totally crazy.

Nate with the No. 10 pick.

natesilver: OK. I’m going with House Speaker Paul Ryan.

micah: 💤

harry: In all seriousness, I nearly went with Ryan. I just thought it was boring.

micah: He might not even be speaker soon.

natesilver: He’s probably on the way out the door. But in some ways, that makes him more “dangerous” in the short run. He could do things that are politically unpopular with the general public — like big cuts to welfare programs.

Or he could turn on Trump since he was a lame duck anyway.

clare.malone: I think Ryan is too much of a party guy to ever do that

micah: He’ll say, “I have serious concerns about the president’s decision.”

natesilver: Yeah, I think Mueller would rise above that level.

What if Trump fires Mueller? And Ryan is worried about trying to protect his majority, or at least mitigate the damage?

perry: If he pushes a Medicare reform/cuts plan, that has the potential to turn a wave into whatever is worse than a wave. Ryan as a lame duck is a big policy danger for Republicans. He favors stuff that is even more unpopular than this tax plan.

micah: Nate, pick.

natesilver: OK, with the No. 11 pick, I take Chief Justice John Roberts.


clare.malone: I do respect spreading the power.

micah: That was my original team.

Harry, with No. 12.

natesilver: Harry’s gonna pick Ralph Northam.

harry: I select Mike Rounds. I’m kidding. I’m going with Jeff Sessions.

micah: Good pick.

natesilver: “Fine.”

harry: I DID IT!!!!!!

perry: Sessions has big policy influence; less on discourse. But I think he set most of his policies in 2017.

micah: Perry, please pick the No. 13 person.

perry: Sean Hannity, Fox News host.

He really matters to the conservative discourse. And I think he is going to defend Trump in ways that are problematic for the rest of the party, like leading the push to fire Mueller or Rosenstein.

harry: Hannity is this draft’s version of me picking Rachel Maddow.

clare.malone: No, I think it’s a good pick.

micah: That’s a hard pick to judge.

clare.malone: Hannity influences the GOP base enormously.

micah: Or does he just reflect the base? Is he the tail or the dog?

perry: I agree that it’s hard to measure his impact on discourse.

natesilver: One might argue that Hannity doesn’t have that much influence because there’s no chance he’ll turn on Trump.

He’s not a “swing” vote, so to speak.

harry: Hannity is a partisan. He toes the party line.

perry: Micah is right: I’m not sure. I think my question is not if he will swing against Trump, but does he call for things (firing Mueller or Rosenstein, for example) that are extreme, and thus put the party in a bind.

micah: Clare, with the No. 14 pick!!!

clare.malone: You guys are going to ridicule me, but…

Steve Bannon

micah: Clare.


clare.malone: Bannon is still going to make trouble in Republican primaries and cause chaos. That’s a power of sorts. And it could cost the party seats.

micah: True.

natesilver: That’s not a ridiculous pick, but something feels weird about how Bannon went from being picked in the fourth round last time to the third round this time.

He might have some influence, but I don’t buy that he has more influence on the outside than the inside.

Also, it seems possible that some of the people in his orbit will peel off after the Roy Moore debacle.

clare.malone: I definitely think that could happen. But he’s a powerful enough pest to be a pest for the full year.

micah: OK, so with the No. 15 pick, I select Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

harry: Oh lord.

micah: If the GOP tries to do entitlement reform in 2018, Collins will wield a ton of power.

harry: Unless there’s a senator absent, she needs another partner in crime to wield power.

natesilver: I mean … meh? There’s also a universe in which the Senate is split 50-50 after the November elections and she might think about switching parties.

micah: You beat me to it! Switching parties is an underrated possibility.

natesilver: It’s not that uncommon, historically.

micah: OK, so now let’s do the fourth round. Everyone give their picks, and then we’ll debate the whole round as a group. The order is me, Clare, then Perry, then Harry, then Nate.

With the No. 16 pick, I select Michael Flynn.

natesilver: “creative”

clare.malone: Mike Pompeo, CIA director.

perry: Mike Pompeo.


Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

micah: Wow!

harry: Mitt Romney.

natesilver: Going to go with a little bit of a sleeper here … Kirsten Gillibrand.

micah: haha

harry: LOL.

natesilver: I’ll take Chuck Schumer.

harry: Should have gone with Bill de Blasio.

micah: Micah had the best pick that round.

Flynn could bring down the whole administration if there’s a there there!

natesilver: Is he credible enough to do so?

micah: He’ll likely have documentation

clare.malone: I think the kids call it “receipts.”

perry: Foreign policy is big, so Pompeo will matter if he stays at CIA or moves to the State Department. So that is why I was going to pick him.

Cotton is also an important adviser on foreign policy to Trump, whether he joins the Cabinet or not. If we are talking about war with North Korea, those two matter.

harry: I have no problem with Flynn as a pick. If Trump or people close to Trump go down because of Mueller, it’s likely that Flynn will play at least some role in that.

clare.malone: Perry has explained my pick.

Sorry for picking it, but great minds!

micah: OK, LAST ROUND!!!!!

Nate -> Harry -> Perry -> Clare -> Micah

natesilver: Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general.

harry: I’m panicking. I don’t know who to pick. It’s tough. It’s crazy out there. I’m going to select with the biggest pick that I’ve ever made …

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary.

micah: Jeez.

perry: Jared Kushner.

clare.malone: John Dowd, Trump attorney.

micah: Joe Biden.

harry: BIDEN?!

micah: He’s running. Will play a kingmaker role in midterms. Etc.

natesilver: Dan Quayle wasn’t available?

clare.malone: What about Bernie?

We maybe overlooked him.

micah: I’m very meh on Bernie.

harry: I’d like to reverse my selection and select Fritz Mondale.

perry: Bernie’s impact in terms of the Senate may be important as well. Biden campaigned for Jones, but did that matter?

I’m not so sure it did.

natesilver: One of the more interesting developments is how Bernie actually hasn’t been at the forefront of many of the conversations this year. That’s why I gravitated more toward people with some sort of official position of power. Still, Bernie deserved to go ahead of some of the more dubious picks in the last round or two.

micah: Lots of people who were picked last time were not picked this time: Hillary Clinton, Dan Coats, Ivanka Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Rachel Maddow!!!

perry: Ivanka Trump has really made no difference.

Lots of those pieces written about her were kind of a waste.

micah: Very much so.

natesilver: Who picked Kushner?

perry: I did.

Kushner matters to the Russia investigation, in that he will be cleared or not cleared and that matters.

natesilver: I thought that was an underrated pick in the sense of Kushner could give Trump some very bad advice … or Trump could pardon Kushner.

perry: Right.

micah: Trump pardoning Kushner doesn’t make Kushner powerful!

We have this debate every time! Power is active, not passive!!!!!!!!

OK, here are the teams:

Our 2018 ‘power draft’ teams
Round Nate Harry Perry Clare Micah
1 D. Trump K. Gillibrand R. Mueller N. Pelosi A. Kennedy
2 P. Ryan R. Tillerson M. McConnell M. Pence J. Kelly
3 J. Roberts J. Sessions S. Hannity S. Bannon S. Collins
4 C. Schumer M. Romney T. Cotton M. Pompeo M. Flynn
5 R. Rosenstein S.H. Sanders J. Kushner J. Dowd J. Biden

harry: My finest draft ever. I’ll be collecting my awards later today.

micah: OK, everyone vote for a winner. You can’t vote for yourself.

Then we’re done.

perry: Nate picked five people who are in the center of the action. That seems like the best plan and the best group.

micah: Ugh. I vote for Nate’s team too.

harry: I vote for myself.

micah: You can’t.

harry: If I don’t vote for myself, then who will?

micah: No one. Your team is bad.

harry: 😔

natesilver: Recusing my own team, I’d rank the other four teams:

  1. Perry
  2. Clare

[big gap]

  1. Micah

[really big gap]

  1. Harry

micah: lol

clare.malone: I vote for Nate’s, probably.


harry: Clare Malone.

micah: YAY!

Thanks all!

My main takeaway: Nate doesn’t appreciate John Kelly’s power.

Politics Podcast: Lessons From Alabama



The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast team sorts through the various narratives that have emerged after Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in last week’s Alabama Senate election and discusses what the upset means for Democrats looking ahead to 2018. The crew also weighs the political implications of the Republican tax overhaul, which could get a final vote this week.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

The Great NFL Passing Boom Is Over. Hope You Enjoyed It!

In 2011, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints spearheaded an aerial assault on the NFL’s record books. Brees not only broke Dan Marino’s single-season passing record by 392 yards, he also led a small army of quarterbacks who either approached (Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning) or also surpassed (Tom Brady) the 27-year-old mark.

But that was just the beginning of a six-year offensive explosion that saw repeated leaguewide increases in passes thrown, total yards gained and points scored per game. In 2017, the Saints again boast the league’s most prolific offenseIn terms of total offensive yards.

“>1 — but this time, Brees is leading the charge in the other direction.

The Saints currently rank 18th in pass attempts — after finishing either first or second in eight of Sean Payton’s 11 full seasons as head coach. Brees is on pace for Saints-career lows in per-game pass attempts and yards — and the rest of the NFL is following suit. In one season, leaguewide passing attempts, passing effectiveness, total yardage and scoring rate stats have all reverted to pre-lockout norms. The revolution appears to be over; the question is why.

To understand the factors behind the NFL’s offensive implosion, we have to look at what ignited it in the first place.

Halfway through the 2011 season, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King had a roundtable of experts advance various theories — from the offseason lockout to the weather. Denver Broncos defensive back Champ Bailey hit on something big: a dramatic increase in the use of shotgun formation.

“What I want to know is, did college and pro coaches have some sort of secret meeting or something?” Bailey said. “Seems like there’s not the prejudice against the shotgun there used to be. Basically, what I see when I line up now is no more smashmouth football.”

In 1996, three years before Bailey entered the NFL, pro offenses lined up in shotgun formation on just 7 percent of snaps, according to Football Outsiders. By 2011, that figure had increased to 41 percent. In 2016, Chip Kelly’s San Francisco 49ers set a record, using shotgun on 99 percent of their plays. The leaguewide average for last season, 68 percent, matched the league high from just five years earlier.

In this decade, teams began throwing more and more. In 2010, the leaguewide per-game pass attempt average was 33.7; last season, it was 35.7. Offenses didn’t have a reason not to throw; it was working. In the 2015 season, NFL teams posted 6.41 net yards per attempt, the highest mark in half a century.

Per-game scoring rose from an average of 22.0 points in 2010 to 23.4 points in 2013 — an all-time high — before holding at 22.8 in 2015 and 2016. Total yards per game was already at an all-time high in 2010 (336.0); it rose almost every season afterward until peaking at 352.7 in 2015. The average number of first downs gained per game climbed from 18.9 to a best-ever 20.3 last season.

But this year is different. NFL teams have averaged 22.0 points per game, the fewest since 2010. Same goes for per-game yardage (337.1) and first downs gained (19.4). Per-game pass attempts have also dropped, to 34.2, the lowest since 2011.

Teams are passing less often, and they’re less effective when they pass. As a result, offensive output is down across the board.

As with the explosion, there are plenty of factors that are likely contributing, from the law of diminishing returns to a spate of quarterback injuries. The latter has forced the likes of Jacoby Brissett, Tom Savage and Brett Hundley into headlining roles for their offenses. It also seems that college and pro defensive coaches finally held their own secret meeting; NFL defenses have adjusted how they cover shotgun and spread-style offenses, smothering the short passing game.

Defenses are also getting after the passer much better than last year, sacking quarterbacks on 6.5 percent of dropbacks (up from 5.8 percent); that’s the second-highest sack rate since 2006.

Payton and the Saints set off the passing explosion, but now they’re on the leading edge of the implosion. The Saints used shotgun less frequently in 2016 than all but seven teams. This season, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group, they’ve run fewer plays in shotgun or pistol than all but four teams.

Payton was part of that 2011 roundtable interview, and what he said then still resonates.

Teams always pay close attention to how the Super Bowl champions play, Payton said. That year, the champs were the Aaron Rodgers-powered Green Bay Packers, whom Payton said “threw a lot more than they ran it, played good defense and broke the formula of what wins.” That’s “a good starting point in terms of 2011’s passing spike,” he said.

The team that everyone’s copying right now didn’t win the Super Bowl, but they came close.

The Atlanta Falcons used shotgun less than any other team during their 2016 run to the big game, lining up under center on 60 percent of snaps. The Falcons led the league in scoring, racking up 71 more points than the second-best Saints. They threw the ball just 537 times, seventh-fewest in the NFL, while finishing fifth in rushing yards thanks to a hot tailback tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Payton seemed to follow suit. He bolstered his running game, adding tailbacks Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara, as well as free-agent guard Larry Warford. Peterson didn’t work out, but Warford and Kamara did — and now Kamara and Mark Ingram are one of the best running-back tandems of all time and the Saints are No. 1 in offensive yardage.

It’s difficult to imagine the NFL returning to the shotgun-averse state it was in when Bailey entered the league. Giving quarterbacks more time, a better look at the field and more options just has too many inherent advantages.

But teams that can both run and pass the ball well from under center will always be harder to defend, and teams that can’t throw the ball well are no longer putting up big numbers just by throwing it more.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Beside The Points For Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017

Things That Caught My Eye

We figure out the Super Bowl favorite Sunday

New England plays Pittsburgh this Sunday. They’re the two top seeds in the AFC, and the game will set the pair up for the postseason. A win for Pittsburgh locks their first round bye and, per the FiveThirtyEight Elo predictions, increases their chance of winning the Super Bowl from 17 percent to 22 percent. A loss would mean New England has only a 60 percent chance to score that first round bye, but for the Patriots a win gives them a 30 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, up from 22 now and 16 percent if they lose. [FiveThirtyEight]

Lifetime ban

Six Russian women’s hockey players — Inna Dyubanok, Ekaterina Lebedeva, Ekaterina Pashkevich, Anna Shibanova, Ekaterina Smolentseva and Galina Skiba — recieved lifetime bans from competing in the Olympics as part of the continued fallout from the doping scandal that has prevented the Russian team from competing in the forthcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. [The Ice Garden]

Input no longer requested

Beginning in 2018, the USGA will no longer allow viewers at home to call in penalties for players competing. A professional will be doing that now. Call-ins have historically affected tournament outcomes in significant ways. Now you can enjoy golf without having to obsess about the minutiae of the rule book, which I actually think may suck a bunch of the enjoyment out of golf for the people who enjoy golf. [USA Today]

Oh, well, that answers that question

Turns out that Yu Darvish was accidentally tipping off his forthcoming pitches to the Astros’ batters in the World Series, as he had a rather simple tell that was easy to decode. The pitcher made it through 10 outs in two starts. [Deadspin]

Try out our fun new interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?

Blocked and reported

The Golden State Warriors have 8.68 blocks per game which trails only the 1985-86 Washington Bullets historically. In the past three games, the Warriors blocked 12.0 blocks per 48 minutes. Coupled with the fact that Golden State is really good at scoring points off of those blocked shots, it’s yet another instance of the Warriors being even better than their perception as “ridiculously good.” [FiveThirtyEight]

Nick Foles to the rescue?

Carson Wentz tore his ACL, devastating Eagles fans and sucking the air out of one of the most electric seasons the franchise has ever had. His backup is Nick Foles. So, how do backup QBs of wonderful teams do in the postseason? There have been seven quarterbacks who won at least 10 games for their playoff-bound team who were unable to start in the playoffs. Their backup quarterbacks, in five of the seven cases, lost the team’s first game in the playoffs. In one of the cases — Mike Tomczak taking over for Jim Harbaugh in Chicago in 1990 — their team won the first but lost the second game of the playoffs. But one time, the team went 3-0, when Phil Simms backup Jeff Hostestler took the 1990 New York Giants to a Super Bowl win. [FiveThirtyEight]

Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions? game!

Big Number

62.8 percent

Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will finish the season with a projected 62.8 percent of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ total yards of scrimmage this year, beating out their previous combined record, 58.2 percent in 2014, when the pair notched 3,926 of 6,749 Steelers yards of scrimmage. Either way, they’re the best RB/WR duo in NFL history. [FiveThirtyEight]

Leaks from Slack:





what omg
also there’s usually way more yelling in curling


is this our way of returning to the topic of a curling podcast?


Oh, and don’t forget
Jeremy Kerley blames ghost

The Steelers Have The Best Running Back-Receiver Duo. Ever.

Bill Belichick is famous for meticulously studying his opponent’s offensive strengths so that he can neutralize them with his defense. But as he prepares for his epic AFC showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend, he could probably skip some of the film study — Pittsburgh’s likely attack plan is so obvious that a first-grader could decipher it. They will run the ball with Le’Veon Bell. They will throw the ball to Antonio Brown. And that’s basically it. (OK, they may also throw the ball to Le’Veon Bell.)

Pittsburgh’s holy trinity of Ben Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell — or the Killer B’s, if we must — has always thrived when on the field together. But lately, it’s gotten absurd.

Simply put, Bell and Brown are making a very compelling case for being the best running back-wide receiver tandem in NFL history. Currently, Bell is on pace for 2,073 total yards and Brown is tracking for 1,857. That combined projected total of 3,930 yards — or about 2.2 miles — would break the record for the most yards by a RB-WR duo where each totalled at least 1,500. The current record holders won’t be too bent out of shape if that happens, since Bell and Brown set the record in 2014 (the last time Bell played a full season) with a combined 3,926 yards. What makes the pair’s current pace all the more impressive is that Bell labored in three September games this season after refusing to sign a contract all summer; he totaled just 79 yards per game in those first weeks, about half his production in the ensuing 10 games.

The last three games in particular have been off the charts. Brown and Bell have combined for 973 yards — or 324 per game. That’s more yards per game than 13 teams currently average. And it represents a stunning 70.5 percent of the Steelers’ total output from scrimmage in that span.

The best RB-WR duos in NFL history

Teams where a running back and wide receiver each had at least 1,500 total yards and what share of the team’s total output that represented

Steelers 2017* Le’Veon Bell Antonio Brown 3,930 6,257 62.8%
Steelers 2014 Le’Veon Bell Antonio Brown 3,926 6,749 58.2
Rams 2000 Marshall Faulk Torry Holt 3,831 7,335 52.2
Colts 1999 Edgerrin James Marvin Harrison 3,806 5,842 65.2
Cowboys 1995 Emmitt Smith Michael Irvin 3,751 5,942 63.1
Lions 1995 Barry Sanders Herman Moore 3,584 6,263 57.2
Falcons 2015 Devonta Freeman Julio Jones 3,505 6,208 56.5
Bears 2013 Matt Forte Alshon Jeffery 3,459 6,378 54.2
Lions 1995 Barry Sanders Brett Perriman 3,434 6,263 54.8
Broncos 2000 Mike Anderson Rod Smith 3,357 6,775 49.6
Cowboys 1991 Emmitt Smith Michael Irvin 3,344 5,374 62.2
Cardinals 1984 O.J. Anderson Roy Green 3,330 6,722 49.5
Texans 2012 Arian Foster Andre Johnson 3,239 6,169 52.5
Texans 2008 Steve Slaton Andre Johnson 3,234 6,320 51.2
Packers 1995 Edgar Bennett Robert Brooks 3,233 5,967 54.2
49ers 1994 Ricky Watters Jerry Rice 3,188 6,259 50.9
Packers 2014 Eddie Lacy Jordy Nelson 3,085 6,364 48.5
49ers 1989 Roger Craig Jerry Rice 3,043 6,550 46.5

* Projected for the full season


Their share of total team productionBased on yards from scrimmage.

“>1 is increasing from already historic levels, too. Since the schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978, there have only been 18 tandems of backs and wideouts to each notch 1,500 yards from scrimmage.The 1995 Detroit Lions actually had two of these pairs: That year, running back Barry Sanders hit the benchmark with two different wide receivers, Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, so Sanders is counted twice in our tally.

“>2 Among that group, Bell and Brown will rank third all time if they keep up this pace — they’re generating 62.8 percent of their team’s total yards this season, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Their share is not far behind the high mark on this list: Edgerrin James (2,139 yards) and Marvin Harrison (1,667) were responsible for 65.2 percent of the 1999 Colts’ yards. And just ahead of Bell and Brown are another famous duo — Emmitt Smith (2,148) and Michael Irvin (1,603) posted 63.1 percent of the 1995 Cowboys’ yards.

This degree of volume obviously requires a heavy — if not reckless — amount of usage. Bell, who leads the NFL with 283 rushes, is on pace to carry the ball 348 times and haul in 92 passes. If the free-agent-to-be Bell does leave Pittsburgh in the offseason, the Steelers seem determined to make sure they’ve wrung every ounce of value they can get out of him first.

Meanwhile, Brown’s 160 targets also lead the NFL, as do his 99 catches, by a wide margin. Simply put, no receiver has dominated his position like Brown since Jerry Rice was at his peak. Some are even calling for Brown to be the league’s MVP, an award that no receiver — not even Rice, who was arguably the greatest player in NFL history — has ever hauled in. If the award is going to one member of the Steelers duo, Bell would be the more obvious choice, since running backs occasionally bypass quarterbacks for the award. But it’s almost impossible to determine which skill player is most valuable, even just to the Steelers.

And that’s the thing that seems to make the duo unstoppable. Defenses cannot key in on stopping one of the two because it will leave them unprepared for the other. Even though all three Pittsburgh stars have been in the league a while and the Patriots frequently face off against the Steelers, Belichick doesn’t have a lot of experience dealing with Roethlisberger and his two biggest weapons at the same time. Either Roethlisberger or Bell has been injured and missed all or part of every Pats-Steelers matchup after Bell’s rookie year, when he wasn’t nearly the force he is today. And even with the rookie Bell, the Steelers rolled up nearly 500 yards of offense. But the Patriots gained over 600 in a 55-31 victory.

The Three Epic, Early Champions League Showdowns

The draw for the Champions League round of 16 is set, and even though the first games will not be played for two months, we already know that at least one true European power will be eliminated before the quarterfinals kick off, and a couple more elite clubs could be in trouble. This is because the Champions League draw pitted some of the best teams in the world against each other in early clashes. According to Soccer Power Index, six of the nine best teams to make the knockouts have been drawn against each other. These three matchups — each of which consists of two games, one at each club’s home grounds — should give the Round of 16 a new level of drama.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Juventus

Juventus has made the Champions League finals twice in the last three seasons, while Tottenham’s last semifinals appearance in a major tournament came in the 1984 UEFA Cup. SPI nonetheless projects this as a close match, giving Juventus a small 56 to 44 percent advantage in chance to advance. By the underlying numbers, not too much separates these two teams. Spurs may be sixth in the Premier League standings, but the clubs are bunched tightly together, and just four points separate Tottenham from third-place Chelsea. By expected goals, a statistical measure of the quality of chances created and conceded, Tottenham fares even better. The North London side’s plus-17.5 expected goal difference is second-best in the league behind Manchester City.

Meanwhile Juventus, despite a 12-2-2 record in Italy, looks somewhat more vulnerable than it has in the past. Through 16 matches in Serie A, Juve has conceded 19 clear scoring chances, which are defined as opportunities in which a player is expected to score, like when a shooter is one-on-one with the goalie. That works out to a little over one clear chance conceded per match, which isn’t bad, but over the last three seasons, Juventus has averaged 20 clear chances conceded per full season — or roughly 0.5 per match. The defense, shorn of superstar Leonardo Bonucci, has not yet fully come together. Tottenham will be hoping that the defense does not cohere before this February clash.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona

SPI ranks Barcelona as the best team in the world, and the Blaugranes had the misfortune to draw Chelsea, the world’s ninth-best team. Despite the big names here, SPI projects this matchup to go chalk. Chelsea’s chance of making the quarterfinals dropped from 41 to 24 percent after the draw was announced, while Barcelona’s moved only slightly, from 79 to 76 percent.

These two sides’ statistical profiles offer a study in the importance of generating quality chances. This year, Barcelona has outshot its opponents 230 to 162. Chelsea’s shot difference is nearly identical: 240 to 170. However, Barca has outscored its opponents by 31 goals, easily surpassing Chelsea’s plus-15 goal difference. The reason is chance quality, as measured by expected goals. Barcelona has created so many good scoring chances that the club averages 0.16 expected goals per shot. This is not to say Chelsea is just wildly firing everything at net — its 0.1 expected goals per shot attempt is about average but inferior to the otherworldly Barca number. All this is to say that Barcelona deserves its large edge in goals, and this is a big part of the reason that SPI projects Barcelona as big favorites.

The hope that Chelsea fans will be clinging to is that the last time the Blues were huge underdogs against Barcelona, they pulled off an all-time upset in the 2012 Champions League semifinals, en route to an unlikely trophy. This year, Chelsea would need another dose of that good fortune in the round of 16.

Real Madrid vs. Paris Saint-Germain

Spurs-Juve and Chelsea-Barca are fun, but this is the clear marquee matchup of the first round. Real vs. PSG is a matchup you might expect in the semifinals, and it wouldn’t have been half bad as a final. How rough a draw was this for PSG and Madrid? Before the draw, the two teams combined for a 30 percent chance of winning the Champions League, according to Soccer Power Index. Now the teams’ combined chance is only 22 percent. Real Madrid fell from 17 to 13 percent, and PSG dropped from 13 to 9 percent. Manchester City, which was fortunate to draw FC Basel, has moved up to third in the SPI projections for eventual champion, tied with Real Madrid and ahead of PSG.

Here’s how the draw affected each team remaining in the tournament based on its projected chance of reaching the semifinals, reaching the finals and winning it all:

How the draw affected Champions League odds

Teams’ chances of making each round, before and after the draw

Bayern 69% 45% 26% 93% 61% 36% +24% +16% +10%
Man City 63 36 19 87 49 25 +24 +13 +6
Man United 45 18 7 64 24 9 +19 +6 +2
Roma 47 17 6 63 21 7 +16 +4 +1
Liverpool 51 23 9 59 26 11 +8 +3 +2
Shakhtar 30 8 2 37 9 2 +7 +1 0
Porto 37 14 5 41 15 5 +4 +1 0
Sevilla 33 9 2 36 9 2 +3 0 0
Juventus 56 29 13 56 29 13 0 0 0
Barcelona 79 56 36 76 55 36 -3 -1 0
Basel 23 5 1 13 3 <1 -10 -2 -1
Tottenham 57 24 10 44 20 8 -13 -4 -2
Chelsea 41 18 7 24 11 5 -17 -7 -2
Besiktas 24 4 <1 7 1 <1 -17 -3 0
Real Madrid 74 50 31 55 38 23 -19 -12 -8
PSG 71 44 25 45 28 17 -26 -16 -8

Madrid and PSG both have oodles of world-class talent, but even with over 40 percent of the season done, both clubs are difficult to evaluate. Real Madrid stands a disappointing fourth in La Liga. Its struggles appear to be mostly with finishing, as Real has scored 27 non-penalty goals but created 35.5 expected goals. If the finishing improves, Real should be fine, and SPI continues to view this side among the world’s best. But any vulnerability in a team that should be as dominant as Real Madrid is a little worrying.

PSG pose a harder question still. The Parisian side has dominated Ligue 1 and holds a nine-point lead over second-place Lyon. But Ligue 1 is just not that good. There are no other Ligue 1 sides in the SPI top 20, while Italy has five clubs among the world’s best, Spain has four, and England has its big six. The test will come in the Champions League, which is the only competition where PSG matches up against clubs of similar strength. This showdown with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real, these 180 minutes across two tilts, is why PSG spent untold millions on Neymar last summer and is scheduled to deliver another dump truck worth of cash next summer to turn the loan of Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe into a permanent addition. The duo’s combined 15 goals and 11 assists in Ligue 1 are nice, but given the money the team has spent and the weakness of its league, Neymar and Mbappe can only truly pay off in the Champions League. An opportunity to prove their worth comes early in the round of 16.

Whoever emerges from this matchup will be one of the favorites for the trophy, having demonstrated their strength and eliminated a top contender.

Want To Win A Heisman? Follow These 8 Simple Steps

It’s Heisman Trophy time! In advance of the upcoming announcement, we wanted to scientifically determine how the voters choose the winner. Using our combined expertise in analytics — one of us has a Ph.D. in political science (with a focus on complex systems) and the other was a stats consultant for a professional team — we discovered an amazingly simple formula for becoming a Heisman Trophy winner. We couldn’t keep this newfound knowledge to ourselves, so we thought we’d share our findings with all the college football players out there so they can plan accordingly.

Using the top 10 in the voting each year since 1998,We chose 1998 as our starting point because that was the first season of the Bowl Championship Series, when college football’s true modern era began. (And not at all because the 1997 Heisman race is difficult to model.)

‘>1 we analyzed 191 Heisman nominees to figure out what tends to separate the winner from the rest. Then, we applied it to this year’s likely hopefuls to see how they’d fare.Thanks to a 10th place tie last year, we have an odd number in our sample.


Here’s our foolproof plan for Heisman glory:

(Note: We intentionally jury-rigged some of these rules and thresholds to perfectly explain the past winners in our sample. We know, we know: It’s not exactly statistically kosher for making future “out of sample” predictions — and may or may not violate rules of “basic scientific inference.” But it’s fun! And regardless of our playful cherry-picking, we still might learn something about the selection process along the way, in spite of ourselves.)

Step 1: Be a QB or an RB.

Players eliminated: 35

Players remaining: 156

Who it knocks out this year: Ed Oliver, Houston

We found that only eight positions have ever been among the top 10 nominees for a Heisman, and only two — quarterback and running back — have won since 1998. (The others to make a top 10 all-time are DB, DL, LB, TE and WR,Which were called “ends” in ye olden days of football.

“>3 plus exactly one OL.) Voters’ hard-and-fast dedication to QBs and RBs hasn’t always been as rigid; several receivers and tight ends won the award in previous eras, and Charles Woodson won as a defensive player in 1997.Woodson also returned kicks, though, and occasionally played receiver on offense.

“>4 But for the most part, you aren’t winning the Heisman unless you’re a QB or an RB, particularly in recent seasons. (Sorry if rushing or passing just isn’t your thing.)

Step 2: Be part of a Power Five conference (or Notre Dame).

Players eliminated: 27

Players remaining: 129

Who it knocks out this year: McKenzie Milton, UCF; Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

Of the 11 conferences represented among our 191 players, only five — not coincidentally, the current Power Five conferences of 2017 (so, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) — plus Notre DameWhich is independent but gets the same treatment as a power-conference school, because, well, it’s Notre Dame.

“>5 were actually home to a Heisman winner. In order to find a Heisman recipient from a non-power conference, you’d have to go back to 1990, when Ty Detmer of Brigham Young (which played in the WAC) took home the award. Although some minor-conference stars have come vaguely close over the past decade — in our sample, Northern Illinois’s Jordan Lynch and Hawaii’s Colt Brennan each finished third — it’s extremely unlikely that one would have a season spectacular enough to offset the voters’ preference for big-program stars.

Step 3: Be on a team that has three or fewer losses.

Players eliminated: 21

Players remaining: 108

Who it knocks out this year: Bryce Love, Stanford; Lamar Jackson, Louisville; Khalil Tate, Arizona

Unfortunately, winning the Heisman isn’t just about individual excellence. The award disproportionately goes to players on the top teams in the country. Since 1998, 32 percent of Heisman winners have been on a team that was undefeated going into its bowl game, and 26 percent were from a team with just one loss. Meanwhile, no player on a team with more than three losses has won the award. That’s bad news for two of this season’s finalists — Stanford’s Bryce Love and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, each of whom plays for a four-loss squad. The good news, Bryce and Lamar, is you can tell your grandkids it wasn’t your fault.

Step 4: Run for 15 or more touchdowns (if you’re a QB).

Players clinched: 6

Players eliminated: 24

Players remaining: 78

Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.

The Heisman loves quarterbacks — they’ve won 14 of the 19 trophies handed out since 1998 — but not always for their passing skills. When a running QB has an especially great season, the voters are quick to show him some love: Of the seven historical QBs with 15 or more rushing TDs (among those we haven’t already eliminated), six — Marcus Mariota, Eric Crouch, Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow — ended up winning the Heisman. And the seventh — Kansas State’s Collin Klein — had the bad fortune to produce his season the same year Manziel pulled off the feat with better overall numbers.Manziel crushed Klein in terms of total offense, with 5,116 yards to 3,561.

“>6 We’ve avoided the guideline this year, though; no remaining QB on our list came close to 15 scores on the ground, since Lamar Jackson was eliminated in Step 2.The Heisman world is a harsh world.

“>7 But the broader life lesson remains: It isn’t about personal accomplishment, it’s about how good you are compared with everyone else.

(Note: The statistics we used for historical candidates were through the end of the bowls, which isn’t ideal — but hey, you work with what you’ve got.You might even call it the ol’ “college football try.”

“>8 But because we believe in fairness, we prorated this year’s candidates’ stats for an extra game going forward. You’re welcome!)

Step 5: Meet some basic statistical thresholds (if you’re a QB).

Players eliminated: 28

Players remaining: 50

Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.

Although a player’s statistics aren’t perfectly correlated with his chances of winning the Heisman, there is a bare minimum level of output you have to meet in order to seriously contend for the award. For quarterbacks, those numbers are mostly associated with passing (surprise!), but they can be augmented slightly with rushing. No QB left in our sample won the award with worse stats than:

  • 30 passing TDs
  • 1 rushing TD
  • 11 interceptions

These qualifications cull the list of historical hopefuls considerably, narrowing it down to quarterbacks who were highly productive rather than marginal candidates who survived the previous cuts by being on a good team from a big conference. All of 2017’s remaining QB contenders passed those benchmarks with flying colors, though, so, sadly, this step doesn’t help us zero in on a winner for this year.

Step 6: If you’re a QB, have fewer team losses than the other QBs.

Players clinched: 1

Players eliminated: 12

Players remaining: 37

Who it knocks out this year: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State; J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

As we mentioned earlier, Heisman voters are all about QBs who just win, baby. So at this stage, we reshuffle every signal-caller who hasn’t yet been eliminated and keep only the passer whose team lost the fewest games heading into its bowl (using total touchdowns as the tiebreaker). There is one exception to this rule: If a QB with more losses registered 5,000 or more yards of total offense in a season when no other passer cracked 4,000, that quarterback leapfrogs everyone to win the Heisman.Obviously.

“>9 But it’s a rare exception, invoked only once in our sample: When Robert Griffin III (whose Baylor Bears lost three games) got the hardware over Andrew Luck (one loss). Talk about tough Luck.RGIII’s win here also eliminates RBs Montee Ball, Trent Richardson and LaMichael James


Step 7: Meet some not-so-basic statistical thresholds (if you’re an RB).

Players eliminated: 15

Players remaining: 22

Who it knocks out this year: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin; Saquon Barkley, Penn State; Kerryon Johnson, Auburn

Even though they do win sometimes, Heisman life is hard for running backs. Because voters want so desperately to give the award to a QB, the statistical bar a ball carrier needs to clear in order to qualify for the award is pretty high. In our sample of seasons since 1998, no RB won the Heisman with fewer than:

  • 1,980 yards from scrimmage
  • 16 rushing TDs

Those are extremely lofty standards that few running backs can match. None of our remaining running backs met those requirements this season,Bryce Love is currently only 7 yards shy of this requirement and is likely to hit this in his bowl game. But we eliminated him back in Step 3.

“>11 which leaves us with only one clear Heisman favorite for 2017.

Step 8: If no QBs are left, the RB wins. If a QB remains, he wins.

Players eliminated: 10

Players clinched: 12

Players remaining: 0

Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.

Who it clinches the Heisman for this year: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

The final step is a little chaotic. First, you check if any quarterbacks are left after pruning down the list based on statistics and team losses. If there’s a QB who survived all of the checkpoints above, that player wins the Heisman. (Congrats to Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, tonight’s likely winner!) If there is no QB left over, the trophy goes to the running back who cleared all of the statistical benchmarks from Step 7. The one exception: If the remaining QB had fewer than 4,000 passing yards and 40 touchdown passes, and a surviving RB eclipsed 2,200 yards from scrimmage on a team with zero or one losses, the Heisman goes to the running back. (This gets us Reggie Bush over Brady Quinn in 2005 and Derrick Henry over Mayfield in 2015 but preserves Carson Palmer’s win over Larry Johnson in 2002.)Penn State had 3 losses heading into its bowl game that year.

“>12 For running backs, you gotta be in peak form to knock off a qualified QB.

And that’s all there is to it! It’s just that simple. Follow the eight steps above, and you’re guaranteed to be holding the Heisman on a December night in New York City. (Until something unexpected happens — in which case we’ll tweak the rules to make it fit. Science!)

NFL Quarterbacks Are Leaning On The Short Pass — And It’s Not Working

Picture this common scene on a Sunday afternoon. Your team could really use a scoring drive to turn the tide. On a 3rd-and-10, before the quarterback is even pressured, he quickly throws a 2-yard pass, and the receiver is tackled a few yards later to bring up fourth down. The crowd grumbles, the offense casually jogs off the field and the punting unit comes on. Better luck next time.

Sure, once in a blue moon the offense may throw a bubble screen on 3rd-and-33 and end up with a 52-yard touchdown, like the Rams did with Robert Woods against the Giants in Week 9 this season. But that is the rarest of exceptions.

Generally, safe passes like that don’t accomplish much, and we have the data to back that up. How does that 2-yard pass on 3rd-and-10 work out? According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, quarterback passes thrown no more than 2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage on third down with at least 10 yards to go have been converted only 10.9 percent of the time this season. On throws that travel at least 10 yards, quarterbacks have converted 38.6 percent of the time. So an offense can more than triple its conversion rate just by doing the most obvious thing when trying to move the chains: throwing the ball past the imaginary yellow line on your TV screen.

And yet despite this, NFL teams are leaning on the short pass more than ever. The same league that transformed into a passing league over the past 10 years is slowing morphing into something else: the dump-off league.

There are some risks with throwing deeper, of course, such as a higher interception rate. And in some special situations, getting a first down isn’t the primary goal of a drive, especially when facing third-and-long. Sometimes teams are just trying to get enough yards to make a field-goal attempt shorter. Or with a big lead in the second half, they’re hoping for an easy completion that will run some clock and gain field position.

But when an offense really needs to score points, playing it safe and throwing short of the sticks on third down is often the inferior strategy. We looked at the data from ESPN Stats & Info for passes on 3rd-and-10 or longer for Weeks 1 to 13. We divided the passes between those thrown short of the sticks and those thrown at or beyond the sticks:For reference, a 12-yard pass on 3rd-and-13 would be considered short of the sticks.


Short passes become punts

Key outcomes for passes on 3rd-and-10 or longer, Weeks 1-13

Short of the sticks 672 73.2% 6.6 1.2% 2.4% 12.5%
At or beyond the sticks 390 42.8 9.6 4.4 3.8 42.6

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The completion rate for short throws is more than 30 percentage points higher than the rate for longer passes and yet the conversation rate is more than 30 points lower. This is not surprising because defenses are playing to prevent the first down and are willing to concede a fraction of the yardage. However, this positioning make it very difficult for a team to throw short and run after the catch to convert.

So far we have only talked about third downs, the crucial down for maintaining offensive success. However, analyzing aggressive and conservative passing on first and second down is also important. A bubble screen that loses a few yards to bring up 2nd-and-13 is also putting the offense in a position to fail.

Football Outsiders’ key efficiency metrics, including Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (explained here), are built around the concept of successful plays and are adjusted for factors like the down and distance. For instance, a 5-yard pass on 3rd-and-3 is more valuable than a 5-yard pass on 2nd-and-17. For a pass to be considered a successful play, it must gain at least 45 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth. A completion that does not meet those standards is considered a failed completion. Joe Flacco of the Ravens set the failed completion record last season, with 144, and he leads all quarterbacks in 2017 with 95 through Week 13.

It’s not just Flacco. The ineffective dump-off is happening across the NFL. Leaguewide, 26.1 percent of all completions this season qualify as failed completions. That’s the highest rate for a season in the Football Outsiders database, which goes back to 1989, and if the 2017 rate stays at that level, it will break the current high bar set in 2015 (25.1 percent).

This is not to say that the short pass doesn’t have value in the NFL playbook or that every quarterback should begin slinging the ball 25 yards downfield each time he takes a snap. There is no one right way to run an NFL offense, and some teams have been able to use the short pass to devastating effect. To get a better sense of this, let’s look at which quarterbacks throw short most often using air yards stats.This includes passes that drew a defensive pass interference flag but excludes passes that were intentionally thrown away or became intentional grounding penalties.


Football Outsiders has a stat called “Short%” to denote the percentage of attempts that a quarterback threw short of the minimum yards needed for a successful play, as defined above. So if 45 percent of needed yards are required on first downs, then anything shorter than a 5-yard throw on first-and-10 would be considered a short pass here. The league average for Short% in 2017 is 41.6 percent on first down, 45.5 percent on second down, and 42.5 percent on third down. It’s not until fourth down that most quarterbacks realize the importance of needing to convert with a big throw. Short% on fourth down is 26.2 percent (although that is only on a sample of 214 plays).

We looked at Short% on first, second and third downs for quarterbacks who have had a minimum of 200 dropbacks this season. For the 35 quarterbacks, we took the z-score (standard deviations above or below average) of each percentage and added them up, to make sure we were accurately capturing quarterbacks who threw short on all of their downs relative to the league. The quarterback with the largest summed z-score in the table below is the most conservative, as a higher percentage of his passes were short of being a successful play.

Which quarterbacks are the most conservative passers?

Which quarterbacks throw short of a “successful” pass distance the most relative to their peers (as measured by the z-scores — the standard deviations above/below the mean — of the Short%* for each down added together), minimum 200 dropbacks through Week 13 of the 2017 season

D. Brees (NO) 52% 1.38 54% 1.10 53% 1.39 3.87
J. Flacco (BAL) 48 0.79 55 1.28 51 1.12 3.19
C. Beathard (SF) 50 1.07 47 0.19 55 1.65 2.91
A. Smith (KC) 48 0.82 55 1.32 46 0.54 2.68
B. Hoyer (SF/NE) 45 0.42 55 1.27 49 0.90 2.59
J. Cutler (MIA) 42 0.02 51 0.66 56 1.77 2.45
B. Bortles (JAC) 50 1.12 48 0.35 48 0.70 2.17
B. Hundley (GB) 51 1.24 48 0.25 47 0.56 2.05
K. Cousins (WAS) 47 0.70 46 0.03 50 1.05 1.78
J. McCown (NYJ) 49 0.97 47 0.20 46 0.52 1.69
C. Keenum (MIN) 50 1.07 46 0.02 46 0.50 1.59
J. Brissett (IND) 46 0.48 53 1.03 42 -0.06 1.45
P. Rivers (LAC) 44 0.30 51 0.67 45 0.32 1.29
E. Manning (NYG) 43 0.12 55 1.34 40 -0.22 1.25
A. Rodgers (GB) 60 2.38 52 0.89 24 -2.28 0.99
A. Dalton (CIN) 39 -0.43 58 1.66 36 -0.76 0.46
D. Carr (OAK) 43 0.11 45 -0.12 45 0.33 0.32
M. Trubisky (CHI) 29 -1.64 53 1.01 49 0.90 0.28
T. Taylor (BUF) 38 -0.55 44 -0.23 45 0.42 -0.37
M. Stafford (DET) 40 -0.22 50 0.54 37 -0.70 -0.38
C. Newton (CAR) 50 1.07 38 -1.10 39 -0.37 -0.40
J. Goff (LAR) 40 -0.18 41 -0.69 44 0.26 -0.60
D. Kizer (CLE) 37 -0.68 42 -0.52 44 0.28 -0.91
T. Siemian (DEN) 34 -0.97 42 -0.59 46 0.50 -1.05
M. Ryan (ATL) 34 -0.97 45 -0.10 41 -0.09 -1.17
B. Roethlisberger (PIT) 47 0.68 38 -1.11 36 -0.75 -1.19
M. Mariota (TEN) 37 -0.64 46 0.04 33 -1.10 -1.70
C. Palmer (ARI) 29 -1.63 46 -0.03 40 -0.33 -1.98
T. Brady (NE) 36 -0.79 42 -0.54 34 -1.06 -2.40
R. Wilson (SEA) 36 -0.73 37 -1.27 38 -0.52 -2.52
T. Savage (HOU) 38 -0.47 42 -0.55 30 -1.57 -2.59
D. Prescott (DAL) 36 -0.81 32 -1.96 42 -0.05 -2.82
C. Wentz (PHI) 35 -0.92 39 -0.95 34 -1.06 -2.93
D. Watson (HOU) 30 -1.53 31 -2.13 40 -0.26 -3.92
J. Winston (TB) 30 -1.62 32 -1.95 22 -2.54 -6.10

Higher z-scores mean a quarterback throws short more often.
*Short% is the share of passes that fall short of a successful play’s distance (at least 45 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third)

Source: Football Outsiders

Some of the names at the top of the list are predictable, including Flacco and infamous short pass maestro Alex Smith. Jay Cutler has been very dink-and-dunk oriented with Adam Gase in Miami this season, while San Francisco’s first two quarterbacks this season (Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard) made the top five.

The real surprise here is the name at the very top: Drew Brees. Not only does he rank as the most conservative passer, but he has consistently stuck to this strategy no matter what the down is. To his credit, Brees has made it work — the Saints rank No. 1 in offensive DVOA and No. 6 in passing. Perhaps more accurately, the running backs are making this offense work. Through Week 13, rookie Alvin Kamara ranked as the best receiving running back while teammate Mark Ingram ranks as Football Outsiders’ top rusher. With two RBs capable of big gains on any play, it’s no surprise that Brees is throwing short early and often. We’ll see if this strategy can sustain itself — the Saints have failed to score 21 points in all four of their losses this season (each was to a playoff contender, including last night’s loss to Atlanta).

At the bottom, seven quarterbacks had a combined z-score below 2.0 standard deviations. That includes the trio of favorites for the MVP race in Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz, whose aggressive styles this year have been a positive for their offenses. Similar things could have been said about Deshaun Watson before Houston’s standout rookie tore his ACL.

But being aggressive is not a magic formula for success as the list plainly shows. Watson’s backup, Tom Savage, has tried to emulate Watson’s aggressive style, but without anywhere near the same success. Likewise, Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers is routinely one of the leaders in air yards per attempt, but his lack of consistency remains a problem for Tampa Bay. In Dallas, Dak Prescott is throwing aggressively, but his receivers are getting the fewest yards per carry after the catch in the league.

Like with any stat, Short% is only one piece of the puzzle, and every quarterback has his own set of circumstances. As we see with Brees, a quarterback can get away with passive play if he’s extremely efficient and the team is still winning.

Few quarterbacks have this type of arsenal or this type of ability, so they would be better served trusting the numbers and resisting the easy dump-off.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Beside The Points For Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017

Things That Caught My Eye

Ohtani narrows it to seven

Japanese pitcher Shohei Ohtani has narrowed his search for a MLB team down to seven, with New York and Boston notably absent from the list. Right now Ohtani looks to be 20 percent higher than the league average in ERA and on-base-plus-slugging, which is nuts. Only a few dozen players each year beat the 20 percent above average benchmark in either stat, it’d be crazy to hit both. [FiveThirtyEight]

Russia’s banned

Russia was banned from competing in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in light of the complex doping regime the nation operated throughout the Sochi games. So far 11 medals have been stripped from Russians. But with the nation out of the 2018 games, it’s worth looking at which nations may stand to gain. Had Russia not competed in Sochi, and its 33 medals been reallocated, China would have left with five more, Norway four, Germany, Canada, France, Italy and the U.S. three. [FiveThirtyEight]

African players making gains in the NFL

Native-born and first-generation African players are all over the NFL, with 30 teams having at least one African on their roster. Cleveland has the league high, with B.J. Bello, David Njoku, Emmanuel Ogbah, Larry Ogunjobi, and Victor Salako. African players have been making steady gains in the NFL since Howard Simon Mwikuta played for the Cowboys in a 1970 preseason game, and players who have returned home to start development programs have accelerated that progress. [The Undefeated]

A Jonas testifies in soccer corruption trial

Kevin Jonas, one of the Jonas Brothers, testified in Brooklyn that yes, he had gone to a Paul McCartney concert in Buenos Aires in 2010. The circumstances surrounding the testimony have to do with the trial of Juan Angel Napout for money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud. Napout allegedly used his FIFA influence to score tickets to that concert. His lawyers refused to concede there even was a Paul McCartney concert, so prosecutors called on a celeb to solve the problem. Soccer is weird. [Vice Sports]

Try out our fun new interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?

LeBron remains the best

LeBron James remains as good as ever, notching career highs in true shooting percentage, three point percentage, assist percentage, block percentage, and the second highest free throw percentage of his career. While his defense is slightly off his peak performance, James hasn’t really missed much of a step. [FiveThirtyEight]

They did it!

The New York Giants are cleaning house, firing GM Jerry Reese and coach Ben McAdoo after a disastrous season. The team is in the capable hands of defensive coordinator, a man who is 10-38 as a head coach. []

Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions? game!

Big Number

284 kg

Congratulations to Sarah Robles, who won the 2017 IWF World Weightlifting Championships, becoming the first U.S. woman to take gold since 1994. Robles lifted 126 kg in the snatch and 158 kg in the clean and jerk (three kilograms shy of the record) for a total of 284 kilograms. [Team USA]

Leaks from Slack:

emily :


emily :

!! that means the two biggest buildings at nike HQ will be named after Serena Williams and Mia Hamm. hell yeah !!

(also cause I guess the new big WHQ buildings are getting athlete names.. so the whole “She’s the only one!!!” isn’t exactly true)


Oh, and don’t forget
Kasparov with the jokes