NFL announcers are bad at math, too

Football aficionados, and advanced life forms like The Upshot’s 4th Down Bot, endlessly marvel at NFL coaches who order punts on fourth-and-short. Possession of the ball is far more important to victory than field position. Fourth-and-short tries are about 60 percent likely to succeed in maintaining possession. Yet coaches order punts, essentially awarding the opponent a turnover.

It’s not that coaches don’t know the math — rather, it seems they don’t want to be criticized. If a coach does the expected and sends out the punt unit on fourth down, and then his team goes on to lose, players are blamed for the defeat. If the coach orders a conversion attempt that fails, the coach is blamed for subsequent defeat.

What surer barometer of this psychology than network announcers?

Trailing, 20-0, late in the third quarter at Seattle, the Chicago Bears reached fourth-and-inches at midfield. Chicago coach John Fox faced this option: try for a first down or concede the game. When the punt team trotted out, the CBS booth denizen Phil Simms said: “I agree with the decision. I think I would punt it here and just go ahead and see if your defense can make a play.” In other words, shift blame to the players, in this case the defenders.

Later, when the Bears were down, 23-0, in the fourth quarter and punted on fourth-and-2, announcers said nothing about the decision. That’s because they have to punt, right?

Washington, at the New York Giants on Thursday night, the visitors, mired in a three-season slump, faced fourth-and-inches. The CBS play-by-play voice Jim Nantz declared, “Now the Redskins have to punt.”

That teams facing fourth-and-short “have to” punt is what NFL coaches want everyone to think: This takes the onus off them.

With the Philadelphia Eagles at New York Jets game scoreless, the Jets were stopped inches shy of a first. “It’s a three-and-out for the Jets,” the Fox announcer Kevin Burkhardt said cheerily, seeming never to contemplate the possibility of going for it.

Because network booth crews interpret the football universe for the mainstream fan, if broadcasters criticized timid punting tactics, coaches would be embarrassed. But coaches know there is almost no chance this will occur. In NFL sociology, players are labor and coaches are management. Network announcers side psychologically with management. The booth guys scoff at dropped passed or missed tackles, criticizing labor, but back up tactical decisions, validating management.

San Diego at Minnesota scoreless: the Chargers faced fourth-and-inches in Vikings territory. As the punt team trotted out, the CBS announcers Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts said not a critical word. “Knowing Mike McCoy, he wants to play a field position game,” Fouts observed, as though this were like using a Nimzo-Indian opening defense. The announcers thought a punt on fourth-and-inches in opposition territory was a good idea. And of course the Chargers went on to lose.

In other football news, no 0-3 team has ever gone on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens are 0-3 for the first time in franchise annals, and Joe Flacco is on an 0-4 streak versus the Bengals. They are rending garments and gnashing teeth over at Sports Illustrated, which on the eve of the season picked Baltimore to win the Super Bowl. “The Ravens are due for some luck,” SI opined. Well, the magazine didn’t say what kind of luck.

Sweet Play of the Week:

Atlanta trailing, 32-28, in the fourth quarter at Dallas, the visitors faced third-and-goal. Julio Jones lined up as a slotback on the left. At the snap, Atlanta play-faked. Jones ran a pattern behind the line of scrimmage — covered up by his own offensive linemen — then was open in the right flat for a touchdown, and the Falcons never looked back. During the contest, Jones had 12 receptions for 164 yards, ran pretty much every pass pattern in the book, and for grins once lined up as fullback. The Falcons outscored Dallas, 22-0, in the second half, on the Boys’ turf. Sweet.

Sour Play of the Week:

Denver leading, 7-6, with 13 seconds remaining till intermission, the Broncos faced fourth down on the Detroit Lions’ 45. There’s little incentive to big-blitz since even a successful blitz would give the hosts possession at midfield with only a few seconds remaining. Whatever Detroit does, it must not allow a touchdown.

It’s a blitz! Seven Detroit defenders crowd the line of scrimmage, leaving just one safety “high” and Demaryius Thomas, Denver’s best receiver, single-covered deep. Touchdown and the Broncos never looked back. Before the play, the Lions had taken a timeout in order to come up with this disastrous defensive call. Sour.

Sweet ‘n’ Sour Play of the Week:

At Oregon, Utah ran a punt return trick play that had everyone looking at the wrong guy. Expecting Oregon to punt toward the sideline — whether teams should always deliberately punt out of bounds will be the subject of a future Tuesday Morning Quarterback — the Utes put two returners back. One looked up into the sky as if the ball were sailing to him. That drew the coverage team toward Guy #1, who was careful not to fake a fair catch: Once a fair catch is signaled, no receiver may advance. Actually the ball was sailing toward Guy #2 on the opposite sideline, who fielded the punt and ran 69 yards untouched for a touchdown. Sweet!

Sour was that Guy #2 was on the Oregon side, close enough for Ducks coaches to reach out and touch him. Oregon coaches should have been pointing at Guy #2 and shouting warnings. Yet Guy #2 was most of the way to the end zone before the Oregon sideline realized who had the ball.

The Chicago Bears used this action in 2011 for a punt-return touchdown versus the Green Bay Packers, though the score was nullified by a penalty. One of the Bears got so carried away with the fake that he was called for holding — in front of the Guy #1 actor, who was only pretending to have the ball.

Did Bill Belichick Stage the PSIcheated Scandal to Get Brady Fired Up?

New England’s possession results in hosting Jacksonville: Touchdown, field goal, field goal, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, kneels to end game. While the Patriots’ punter was idle, place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski swung his leg 19 times — six extra points, three of three on field goals and 10 kickoffs, seven of which were touchbacks. But what was Tom Brady doing still on the field with New England ahead, 44-10, in the fourth quarter?

The Football Gods Chortled No. 1:

While their new Santa Clara field was under construction, the 49ers were 41-14-1 with a Super Bowl appearance. Since abandoning San Francisco, the 49ers are 9-10.

The Football Gods Chortled No. 2:

If every pass an NFL quarterback attempts clangs to the ground incomplete, he gets a 39.6 passer rating. Colin Kaepernick’s rating at Arizona was 16.7.

According to the NFL, Kaepernick netted 53 yards passing — 67 yards gained minus 14 lost to sacks — while producing no touchdowns. But Kaepernick’s four interceptions were returned for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Shouldn’t we say the 49ers’ passing game netted minus-18 yards and minus-14 points? TMQ will return to this thought later in the season.

Matt Cassel, the Zip Car of the NFL Quarterback:

Matt Cassel is now with his third NFL team in six months. The Buffalo Bills rented Cassel for the summer — at least they got their damage deposit back, netting a late-round draft selection in two Cassel transactions. Dallas issues his jersey now. One of TMQ’s laws is that all quarterbacks suddenly become more talented when they stand behind a good offensive line. Dallas has one of the league’s best offensive lines, and if Cassel plays, he suddenly he may become more talented. Fun fact: Cassel has 71 starts in the NFL, none in college.

Cheesesteaks Versus Sloppy Joes:

Philadelphia is now 10-0 all-time versus the Jets. The rare Eagles-Jets pairings — the previous one was in 2011 — reflect local sociology. Philadelphia is right on the border of New Jersey. Philadelphians view themselves as infinitely more cosmopolitan than the Jersey crowd, which scorns anyone who acts Philly rather than gives off a Jersey boardwalk aura.

Stats of the Week:

  • The Patriots are on a 42-4 home run versus the AFC.
  • Washington is on a 2-11 stretch versus the NFC East.
  • Carson Palmer is on a 16-2 streak as a starter.
  • Posting their first victory in Cleveland since 1985, the Oakland Raiders broke a 0-16 streak when playing in the Eastern time zone.
  • At Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers is on a hard-to-believe streak of 48 touchdown passes versus no interceptions.

The 700 Club:

Last week TMQ introduced The 600 Club, a members-only establishment for football teams that gain 600 yards on offense, and lose. I noted, “In the basketball-on-grass world of NCAA football, someone’s sure to reach The 700 Club this season.” Just a few days later it happened. Visiting Memphis, the University of Cincinnati gained 752 yards on offense, and lost.

Will bouncers draw the velvet rope back to allow some college to enter the ultra-exclusive, ultra-louche 800 Club? This happened once last season; Washington State gained 812 yards on offense, and lost.

Hurl That Spheroid Down the Field!

Matt Cassel has been with five NFL squads in total, same as the five-team Luke McCown. Both are staring at the taillights of Josh McCown, who has been with nine NFL teams, plus the Hartford Colonials. There aren’t many active NFL players who have suited up for teams that no longer exist.

Josh McCown has started a game for five of his nine NFL employers. The NFL’s reigning King of the Vagabonds is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has started at quarterback for six teams — St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, Houston and now the Jets. Every team that signs Fitzpatrick sees him as the perfect backup — the one who “reps with the 2s,” in this year’s slang for the backup quarterback. And every team that signs Fitzpatrick to be its backup ends up handing him the ball after something untoward happens to the first-string gent.

This couldn’t have anything to do with the class in medieval poisons that Fitzpatrick took at Harvard, could it?

So far as TMQ has been able to determine, none of Fitzpatrick’s six employers have blasted “Fight Fiercely Harvard” over loudspeakers during a home game. “How we will celebrate our victory!/We shall invite the whole team up for tea.” I call on the Jets to play this fight song, at least in warm-ups. Maybe the lyric “let’s try not to injure them” is what scares NFL teams off.

Arena League Game of the Week:

The Broncos and the Lions combined for 644 yards passing, 69 yards rushing.

Why the Colts Can Rebound:

The Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts, title-round finishers last season, both opened 0-2. Now Seattle is 1-2 and enjoys seven of the next 13 at home, where the team is on a 27-2 stretch. The Colts, now 1-2, can feast on the AFC South, a weakling division.

Sunday, the Colts visited Tennessee, whom they had beaten in 12 of the last 13 meetings. Leading, 24-14, and facing fourth-and-goal on the 3, the Flaming Thumbtacks — see name explanation below — had a chance to reverse years of losing psychology versus Indianapolis by going for the coup de grâce. Instead Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt did the “safe” thing and kicked. Soon the Colts held the lead.

When the home team scored to pull within 2 points with seconds remaining, a penalty allowed Tennessee to attempt its deuce from the 1. Tennessee put its heavy offense on the field. In these situations, the coaching saying is: “Low man wins.” Defensive tackle Billy Winn “got low” to bust up the play, and Indianapolis had taken 13 of 14 versus Tennessee.

The Colts have a total of five more dates versus the Titans, whom they own, and the Moo Cows and the Jacksonville Jaguars, against whom they are on a combined 10-0 streak.

Single Worst Play of the Season — So Far:

Desperate to avoid an 0-3 start, the Ravens had just pulled ahead, 17-14, at Cincinnati. Bengals on their 20, Andy Dalton threw long to A.J. Green against a soft Cover 2. It should be impossible to get open deep against a soft Cover 2, but Green did, catching a strike and motoring downfield.

Halfway to the goal line, Green was hemmed in by defenders, and seemed likely to be tackled. Ravens safety Kendrick Lewis, trailing closely, quit on the play, slowing to a jog. Green broke the tackles and continued for an 80-yard touchdown. Lewis started running again, but it was too late to catch up. And now Baltimore is 0-3.

NFL players spend the entire year preparing for a small number of games, then quit on the action as if they’re bored. Kendrick Lewis, you are guilty of the Single Worst Play of the Season — so far.