NFL Nation: Inside Slant

For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

How many times have you seen it? A punter gets the ball away just before the approaching rush arrives. The punter falls to the ground. Was there contact? Did the punter flop? Should it be a 5-yard penalty? Oh wait, that doesn't exist anymore. Was it bad enough to be a 15-yarder?

This conversation plays out weekly, even among the most knowledgeable NFL observers, confused by years of rule changes and tweaks and aggravated by the potential swing of returning possession to a punting team. We saw a confluence of these factors Thursday night in Oakland, making this a good time to dig deeper into the penalties for roughing or running into a kicker.

The portion of the NFL rulebook devoted to those two penalties is excerpted in the chart (right). Contrary to popular belief, there is still a 5-yard penalty for running into the kicker. It does not carry an automatic first down. Roughing the kicker, a 15-yard penalty, does bring an automatic first down, if for some reason there were more than 15 yards left to gain.

These rules are complicated and, as you'll notice, there are more exceptions to the rules listed than actual instances. Generally speaking, it's roughing if the punter's plant leg is contacted or if he collides with a rusher when both feet are on the ground. It's running into the kicker when the kicking leg is contacted, or if the rusher slides underneath the punter and "prevents him from returning both feet to the ground."

Given the number of exceptions, these penalties are rarely called. In fact, entering Thursday night's game, NFL referees had made only four calls for roughing the kicker and six more for running into one. Referee Ed Hochuli's crew had called a total of four; no other crew had called more than one; and 10 hadn't called any.

Fast-forward to the second quarter of Thursday night's game. We saw Oakland Raiders special-teams player Ray-Ray Armstrong dive in an attempt to block Dustin Colquitt's punt for the Kansas City Chiefs. Colquitt got the punt off cleanly but then fell as Armstrong slid beneath him.

Replays showed that Armstrong made only mild contact, at best, with Colquitt. So what's your call?

If you said, "running into the kicker," you're right.

The Raiders sideline erupted when referee John Parry made the call, presumably noting the lack of contact between Armstrong and Colquitt. But the play was a textbook demonstration of the second definition for running into the kicker. Armstrong slid underneath Colquitt, preventing him from landing both feet cleanly on the ground. Parry made the right call based on the wording of the rulebook.

The general intent of these rules is to protect punters from injury when they're in a vulnerable position. Over the years, the league has tried to account for unavoidable and/or mild contact, leading to the 500-odd words in the rulebook devoted to adjudicating a collision between a rusher and a kicker. So it goes.

Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season, by crew. Carl Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active, but his average has dropped in recent weeks and now stands at 19.6.

Overall in the NFL, penalties in the past three weeks have dropped significantly. The average number of penalties per week through Week 8 was 251.8. In Weeks 9-11, the totals have twice been 190 and once 189.
The start of Week 12 means only one thing in these parts. It's time to start playing with ESPN's Playoff Machine, which provides playoff seeding for any series of regular-season game results you can imagine.

The possibilities are particularly relevant now, at a time when two-thirds of NFL teams (21 of 32) are either sitting in a playoff position or are within one game of it. And even as the NFL seems destined to expand the postseason field, perhaps as early as next year, the NFC South is vying to send a sub.-500 team to the playoffs. It's not too difficult, in fact, to find scenarios where someone clinches the NFC South with just five wins.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesMike Evans and the Bucs are 2-8, yet very much alive in the NFC South race.
Currently, the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons are atop the division at 4-6, with the Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) only semi-comatose at their heels. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 2-8, a near-fatal record in most years but one that has kept them in contention as Thanksgiving approaches. In fact, a 4-2 finish could be all the Bucs need.

That's right. If everything goes their way -- and with six weeks remaining, there are so many variables -- the Bucs could win the division at 6-10. The Panthers could win it with as few as five victories, as could the Falcons. It appears the Saints would need at least six victories to win the title, based on tiebreakers. (Note: I didn’t consider future ties in generating these scenarios.)

The NFC South debacle conjures bad memories of the 2010 NFC West race, the only other instance since 1967 when a division leader has been two games under .500 this late in the season, per the Elias Sports Bureau. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks overcame the St. Louis Rams in Week 17 to win the NFC West at 7-9.

What would you think if the 5-11 Falcons hosted an 11-5 Philadelphia Eagles team on wild-card weekend, while a 10-6 San Francisco 49ers team stayed home? That could happen, according to the Playoff Machine.

How would you react if the 11-5 49ers had to make a cross-country trip to face the 5-10-1 Panthers, with the 10-6 Eagles home for the holidays? That could happen as well.

Expanding the playoffs a year after a sub-.500 team wins its division might be a bad look, but as we discussed in the spring, it appears inevitable. It's also worth noting that adding a seventh playoff team to each conference, for a total of 14 league-wide, would reduce the chances of a team like the Eagles or 49ers in our scenarios of missing the postseason.

The NFL tabled discussions on a proposed 2015 playoffs expansion during its spring meeting, and perhaps the delay -- and the NFC South's situation -- will spur further discussion. Is there a way to reduce, but not eliminate, the reward of winning a division? Should playoff seeding be based purely on record, or is there a way to differentiate division winners from wild-card teams while still avoiding a 5-11 team hosting a playoff game?

Have an idea? Leave it in the comments section. We have plenty of time to hash it out. And who knows? Maybe an NFC South team will emerge to make the discussion moot for another year.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 11 QB Report

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
10:15
AM ET
video
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves. (For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly QB Report, follow this link. For a full statistical breakdown of all NFL quarterbacks, see ESPN.com's QBR page.)

Robert Griffin III
Washington Redskins
WEEK 11 vs. TB: L, 27-7
NEXT: 11/23 at SF
WEEK 11
CMP: 23
ATT: 32
YDS: 207
PCT: 71.9
TD: 1
INT: 2
WHAT YOU MISSED

For various reasons, Griffin's timing got sped up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense. Although he was put under duress on only nine of his 42 dropbacks, and blitzed only four times, Griffin got rid of the ball quickly and threw short throughout the game. He spent an average of 2.16 seconds in the pocket and took an average of 2.62 seconds before throwing; each figure was his shortest in a game this season. Griffin's average throw traveled 4.19 yards past the line of scrimmage, easily his lowest in a game in his career. (Previous low: 4.78 in Week 10 last season.) Only one of his passes traveled 15 or more yards downfield and it fell incomplete. Griffin has had only one other game in his career with so few downfield attempts, and it came in 2012 when he was sidelined by an injury. Not surprisingly, only eight of Griffin's 32 pass attempts netted a first down, a 25 percent conversion rate that was his worst this season and third worst of his career. The Bucs sacked Griffin four times with standard pressure and six times overall despite Griffin's short throws and short time in the pocket.

FINAL ANALYSIS

There has been plenty of public discussion about Griffin as a leader in recent days, but his on-field performance is much more relevant here. Griffin's efforts to find a rhythm, an elusive goal for many quarterbacks, is moving in the wrong direction. He has been sacked at least five times in five of his past seven games, and his sack rate of 12.4 percent is the highest among 38 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. (The league average is 5.8 percent.) Watching his games makes clear the issue is not just pass protection, but also indecision and inconsistent pocket awareness. It seemed as though Griffin tried to speed up the process Sunday but went too far.

Andy Dalton
Cincinnati Bengals
WEEK 11 vs. NO: W, 27-10
NEXT: 11/23 at HOU
WEEK 11
CMP: 16
ATT: 22
YDS: 220
PCT: 72.7
TD: 3
INT: 0
WHAT YOU MISSED

Dalton had by far his best game in a month. He completed 7 of 8 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown on third down. All seven completions converted a first down, helping him to a 99.97 third-down QBR, the best of his career. (In his previous four games, Dalton threw three interceptions without a touchdown on third down with a 31.6 percent conversion rate.) He threw infrequently downfield, but completed 75 percent -- 3-of-4 on throws 15 yards or further downfield -- when he did. (In his previous four, Dalton completed 34.6 percent of those passes.) Dalton completed 9 of 13 passes against standard pressure for two touchdowns (54.3 percent completions with four interceptions in his previous four) and completed 6 of 8 targets to receiver A.J. Green. (Dalton and Green had connected on 6 of 17 targets during the previous poor stretch.)

FINAL ANALYSIS

Dalton is nothing if not streaky and unpredictable. Few would have guessed one of the sharpest outings of his career would come at the Superdome, but that's how it goes when Andy Dalton is your quarterback.

Ryan Mallett
Houston Texans
WEEK 11 vs. CLE: W, 23-7
NEXT: 11/23 vs. CIN
WEEK 11
CMP: 20
ATT: 30
YDS: 211
PCT: 66.7
TD: 2
INT: 1
WHAT YOU MISSED

Although he was far from perfect, Mallett's debut was better than that of predecessor Ryan Fitzpatrick in a number of ways. He completed all nine of his first-down attempts, averaging 9.7 yards per throw, for a QBR of 99.5 on first down. (Fitzpatrick's 31.1 QBR on first down ranks No. 25 in the NFL.) Against the blitz, Mallett completed 8 of 12 passes for 93 yards, a touchdown and an interception for a QBR of 90.4. (Fitzpatrick's QBR against the blitz: 34.9, No. 24 in the NFL.) Mallett had good success over the middle, completing 8 of 11 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. (Fitzpatrick had three touchdown passes and six interceptions on such throws, the third-worst ratio in the league.) Although it was a team effort, it's worth noting that Mallett wasn't sacked, while Fitzpatrick was taking sacks on 6.8 percent of his dropbacks, No. 22 in the NFL.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Mallett did struggle on longer passes, missing on 5 of 7 attempts that traveled 15 or more yards downfield. But most subjective reviews suggested he was an upgrade over Fitzpatrick for at least one week. These numbers support that conclusion.

Eli Manning
New York Giants
WEEK 11 vs. SF: L, 16-10
NEXT: 11/23 vs. DAL
WEEK 11
CMP: 22
ATT: 45
YDS: 280
PCT: 48.9
TD: 1
INT: 5
WHAT YOU MISSED

Manning struggled Sunday on the simplest of passes, issues that played a big role in his five-interception day. Three of the five came on passes thrown no more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, and overall he completed just 8 of 19 such passes, a stunning 42.1 completion percentage compared to the nearly 66 percent league average this season. (Manning's average entering the game was 69.2 percent on short passes.) Three of his interceptions came on throws to receiver Rueben Randle; he threw eight interceptions last season when targeting Randle. Contributing to those numbers was a horrific red zone performance: just one completion in seven attempts with two interceptions. Before this game, Manning had thrown 15 touchdowns and just one interception for a league-leading 98.3 red zone QBR. Pressure played a role as well; he was sacked or put under duress on 15 dropbacks, tied for his season high, and he completed just 3 of 13 passes in those situations.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The 49ers blitzed on only five of 47 dropbacks, the lowest ratio Manning has faced this season. That helps track Sunday's problem to the Giants' pass protection. Whatever the reason, however, it was a reminder that when Manning starts down the wormhole of mistakes in a game, he doesn't usually get out.

Philip Rivers
San Diego Chargers
WEEK 11 vs. OAK: W, 13-6
NEXT: 11/23 vs. STL
WEEK 11
CMP: 22
ATT: 34
YDS: 193
PCT: 64.7
TD: 1
INT: 0
WHAT YOU MISSED

Rivers continued the relative struggles that have followed his historic start to the season. He completed just 50 percent of his third-down passes and converted just 3 of 10 throws into first downs. Those were the second-worst and worst performances of his season, respectively. In Weeks 1-6, Rivers completed 69.6 of his third-down throws and converted 48.3 percent, giving him the NFL's top third-down QBR (97.0). Since then, he has a 38.5 QBR on third down. Rivers averaged 5.85 air yards per throw Sunday, his lowest of the season, and attempted only three passes of 15 or more yards, exactly half of his previous season low. His only pass that traveled 20 yards or more downfield was a 22-yard touchdown to Malcom Floyd.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Rivers is reportedly dealing with a rib injury, and it's only fair to point out that the Chargers' struggles are not all on him. His receivers averaged 3.32 yards after catch Sunday, well down from the 5.99 they averaged in the first six weeks of the season. Also, Rivers is seeing pressure at a higher rate (22.5 in first six weeks to 27.1 since) even though opponents have blitzed less (34.4 percent compared to 20.7). Still, there is no way to sugarcoat Rivers' performance since Week 6. Perhaps due to injuries, he has regressed.

Jay CutlerJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Bears maintained possession Sunday after Brian Robison forced this Jay Cutler fumble.
It's our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions are welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: Minnesota Vikings challenge an incomplete pass by Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
Referee: Ronald Torbert
Analysis: This play illustrated the subjectively timed moments after a fumble and the requirement of total confirmation in order to reverse a call.

Midway through the first quarter at Soldier Field, Torbert's crew ruled Cutler's arm had moved forward prior to contact by Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, making the ensuing forward progress of the ball an incomplete pass. The Vikings' challenge contended that Robison hit the ball before Cutler's arm began moving forward and that cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had recovered what should have been a fumble.

The replay confirmed Robison hit the ball before Cutler's windup. It was a fumble. The second part of the challenge was much less clear. After the ball landed at the 26-yard line, Bears receiver Brandon Marshall tried to fall on it. So did Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, but the ball squirted away as the whistle blew. Vikings defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd made a halfhearted attempt to pick it up. Only then, more than five seconds after the ball first hit the ground, did Munnerlyn fall on it.

Note 2 of Rule 15, Section 2, Article 4 of the NFL rule book says: "If the on-field ruling is a dead ball, any recovery must occur in the continuing action following the loss of possession."

What was the continuing action of this play? In this case, action appeared to stop -- because of the whistle, perhaps -- after the ball squirted away from Greenway.

By definition, what happened afterward -- including Munnerlyn's recovery -- was not part of the play. Officially, Cutler's fumble was not recovered by anyone, which meant that Torbert couldn't overturn the original ruling. If the call isn't overturned, it has to stand. If it stands, the challenging team loses a timeout, as the Vikings did.

NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tweeted as much during the game. When the initial ruling is an incomplete pass, defenders have a small window with which to mount a successful challenge. Officials, believing they had seen an incomplete pass, naturally ended the play as soon as they could. The Vikings would have needed Greenway to corral the ball in order to win this challenge.

Play: Arizona Cardinals special-teamer Justin Bethel downs a punt at the Detroit Lions' 1.
Referee: Jerome Boger
Analysis: From this wild play, we learned the difference between possession and batting the ball when attempting to down a punt -- and how even the most educated officiating minds can disagree.

Early in the fourth quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium, Bethel grabbed a Drew Butler punt. To prevent a touchback as he fell into the end zone, Bethel shoved the ball back to a group of teammates. The ball bounced off the hands of two Cardinals players. Lions returner Jeremy Ross picked it up off a bounce and sprinted 49 yards in a play that flipped field position for his team.

After a long discussion with officials, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians challenged the ruling by saying that Bethel had gained possession of the ball, meaning the play should have been ruled dead before he pushed it toward teammates.

Rule 7, Section 2, Article 7, Item 1 of the rule book defines possession as a player "having a firm grip and control of the ball with his hands or arms." The replay revealed that for the briefest of moments, Bethel had the ball secured between both hands. Technically, that is different from a special-teams player batting a ball away from the end zone, as Blandino noted on Twitter.

Boger reversed the ruling, and the Lions took possession at their 1 rather than the Cardinals' 46. The decision met the technical definition of the rules, but as former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira noted on Fox Sports' broadcast, we don't often see such a strict definition of possession in such instances.

In this video, Pereira suggested that officials usually allow a player with possession to flick the ball toward teammates to avoid falling into the end zone "as long as it's almost instantaneous, which it was here." Unfortunately for the Lions, it didn't happen in this case. As I find myself saying or writing weekly, every officiating crew sees things a little differently.

Play: St. Louis Rams safety Rodney McLeod is penalized for hitting the helmet of Denver Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders
Referee: Tony Corrente
Analysis: Sanders had broken free down the right sideline and was looking back over his left shoulder for Peyton Manning's pass in the third quarter at the Edward Jones Dome. McLeod approached as the ball arrived, resulting in a violent collision that flipped Sanders and left him with a concussion.

As a receiver attempting to catch a pass, Sanders qualified for defenseless player protection. That meant McLeod couldn't "forcibly" hit Sanders' head or neck area with his own helmet or shoulder, according to Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b)-1. Corrente's crew penalized him for doing just that, an understandable reaction after seeing the play full speed that becomes far less certain when watching in slow motion.

As the play ticks by frame-by-frame, you can see McLeod lower his right shoulder and turn his head away from Sanders at the point of contact. Much of the force came from McLeod's shoulder, but the right side of his helmet did hit the top Sanders' helmet. Was it intentional? McLeod's pre-contact movement suggested he was trying to hit with his shoulder and remove his helmet from contact. Was it forcible? We'll never know if it caused Sanders' concussion, whether it resulted from overall violence of the hit or contact with the ground.

As usual, subjective judgment is involved here. If McLeod led with his shoulder, and in the subsequent motion his helmet touched Sanders', it seems reasonable to consider this a legal hit. But remember, Corrente didn't have the benefit of slow motion. All his crew saw was a defenseless player knocked on his back and clearly concussed. Corrente's call appears wrong in retrospect, but it's understandable why he made it based only on a live look.
  
For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

Through 10 weeks of play, NFL officials had issued a grand total of 20 intentional grounding penalties. Most of us know it when we see it -- a quarterback desperately throwing the ball away simply to avoid a sack -- and calls appear reserved for the most egregious instances.

That is why Walt Coleman's call Thursday night against Buffalo Bills quarterback Kyle Orton stood out. It's true that Orton was under a heavy rush from Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon, and his throw toward the left sideline wasn't close to a completion. But receiver Sammy Watkins was working in the general area, breaking back late toward the sideline after initially making a move inside.

The ball landed just out of bounds at the 23-yard line. At that moment, Watkins was at the 27, roughly 10 yards from the sideline. So the ball was about four yards short and 10 yards wide of him.

Is that enough to infer intentional grounding? Here's how the NFL rule book explains the penalty for quarterbacks who are in the pocket, as Orton was: "It is a foul for intentional grounding if a passer, facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion. A realistic chance of completion is defined as a pass that lands in the direction and the vicinity of an originally eligible receiver."

In this case, there can be little argument that Watkins was in the vicinity of the ball. The question is whether Orton threw in the direction Watkins was running. It is a complicated issue requiring an understanding of route structure and timing that few outside the Bills' offensive huddle would know. Was Watkins running a double-move that Orton couldn't wait on? (Orton broke toward the sideline after the ball was thrown.) Did Watkins run the wrong route, crossing up Orton?

Former NFL official Mike Carey said on the CBS broadcast that officials can't take into account the possibility of a "mis-route" and can only judge what they see. Still, quarterbacks routinely throw passes before the final break of a route. It seems more than reasonable for intentional grounding to be reserved for obvious cases when the quarterback unloads the ball into an entirely empty area.

That did not seem to be the case Thursday night. But after a lengthy discussion, Coleman issued the penalty. Because Orton threw from the end zone, it resulted in a safety and a major turning point in the game.

It was just the second intentional grounding call from Coleman's crew this season. Pete Morelli's crew leads the NFL with three such calls, while three crews -- those of Clete Blakeman, Terry McAulay and Craig Wrolstad -- haven't called one yet.

Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season, by crew. Carl Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active, with more than 20 penalties per game.
CutlerStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesChicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is earning an NFL-high $22.5 million this year.
Tension rises with every turnover, anxiety sets in with each shrug and downright hysteria descends as the Chicago Bears' fan base concludes there is no way out of the cycle anytime soon.

Quarterback Jay Cutler's contract, extended in January, would require a cash payout of at least $10 million and as much as $26.5 million if he is released before the 2016 season, depending on the timing. The Bears' history of what we'll politely call "financial efficiency" makes them an unlikely candidate to pay Cutler eight figures on his way out. A trade would shift financial responsibility to the new team, but in truth, the contract could dissuade offers.

Cutler's contract is among a handful of NFL deals with significant influence over personnel decisions. It's a rarity for a league that retains deep leverage over most players, one where teams almost always dictate the timing of departure. The Bears could handle the salary-cap hit associated with a Cutler divorce, but the cash owed remains a powerful disincentive to part ways regardless of their assessment of his play.

Let's take a closer look at the terms of Cutler's contract, the most notable of six deals we'll consider in this light. They're ranked roughly in terms of the influence they hold on team decision-making. (All contract numbers courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.)

Cutler
1. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler
Full deal: Seven years, $126 million through 2020
Relevant terms: Cutler is earning an NFL-high $22.5 million this year and his $15.5 million salary in 2015 is fully guaranteed. If he is on the roster on the third day of the 2015 league year, which begins in March 2015, $10 million of his 2016 salary becomes fully guaranteed. The remaining $6 million of his 2016 salary becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2016 league year (March 2016).
Analysis: If the Bears wanted to release Cutler after this season, they would have to pay him $15.5 million in cash. Assuming he returns for 2015, they would owe $10 million in cash if they wanted to cut him before the 2016 season. That's why most analysts consider it a rock-solid three-year commitment. Those cash commitments would transfer in a trade, but it's fair to ask if anyone would take them on if the situation deteriorates to that point. The deal is smart from a cap perspective -- the Bears would actually save $14 million in cap space if they release Cutler in 2016 -- but this is one case where the cash owed carries direct influence. Would any general manager ask his owner to spend at least $10 million to make a personnel mistake go away?

Suh
2. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh
Full deal: Five years, $63 million through 2014
Relevant terms: Suh's 2014 salary-cap figure is $22.4 million after several renegotiations to alleviate previous cap crunches. The deal expires after this season and, according to the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the franchise tag value to retain Suh in 2015 would be about $27 million (120 percent of the previous cap figure).
Analysis: The CBA quirk all but eliminates the franchise tag as an option for bringing back Suh in 2015. Even so, the franchise tag value traditionally serves as a baseline for negotiations with elite players. At the moment, the league's highest-paid defensive tackle is Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who received a balloon 2014 salary of $20.3 million in exchange for signing a long-term deal that averages $13.6 million over seven years. Even if Suh came down 50 percent from his franchise value, he would still come in well ahead of McCoy's precedent-setting deal -- and there is no indication he is prepared to offer the Lions a huge discount. These complications tie the Lions' hands, especially considering the elite contracts of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. In the end, barring a Suh discount, the Lions will have to pay him far greater than his open-market value or else allow him to test unrestricted free agency.

Flacco
3. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco
Full deal: Six years, $120.6 million through 2018
Relevant terms: Flacco's cap figures are reasonable in 2014 ($14.8 million) and 2015 ($14.55 million), but then jump dramatically in 2016 ($28.55 million) and thereafter.
Analysis: In reality, Flacco leveraged the Ravens' Super Bowl victory in 2013 into what likely will be two paydays in a three- or four-year period. It's conceivable that the Ravens could carry a $28.55 million cap number in 2016, but it's more likely they'll need to extend his deal again either at that point or certainly by 2017, when his cap charge will be $31.5 million. Here's the catch: If the Ravens wanted to cut Flacco in 2016, he would consume $25.85 million in dead money against their cap that season. The end result is that to maintain cap health, the Ravens likely can't cut Flacco in 2016 or sit on his current deal. They'll have to give Flacco more upfront money -- and possibly an overall raise as well -- whether or not his play merits it.

Johnson
4. Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson
Full deal: Seven years, $113.45 million through 2019
Relevant terms: Johnson's cap number rises from $13.058 million this year to $20.558 million in 2015 and $24.088 million in 2016.
Analysis: The urgency of Johnson's contract situation depends on whether Suh re-signs. Squeezing Suh, Stafford (cap numbers between $17.7 million and $22 million during 2015-17) and Johnson into a long-term cap plan would be a challenge. Johnson will turn 30 during the 2015 season, and he has been increasingly hampered by leg injuries as opponents tackle low on his long frame. Recent history suggests that receivers can maintain elite production well into their 30s, as we discussed last spring, but the Lions could have a complicated decision to make by the time the 2016 season arrives. The ideal scenario is always to keep intact a long-term contract, but the cap jump could make that difficult by 2016. Not coincidentally, that is the first year the Lions could release Johnson and save money ($11.173 million) against the cap.

Romo
5. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo
Full deal: Six years, $108 million through 2019
Relevant terms: Cap number jumps to $27.8 million in 2015
Analysis: Unless the Cowboys want to carry that sky-high cap charge next season, they'll either need to restructure the deal or extend it. The latter seems highly unlikely given Romo's age (34) and two-year battle with back injuries, so the Cowboys will have to push more of his cap space into future years and thus continue a cycle of adding to the eventual charge they'll face to part ways. Already, the deal has prevented owner Jerry Jones from planning for the post-Romo era, most notably by passing on quarterback Johnny Manziel in the draft. While Jones has been universally praised for the decision, it's worth noting that there is precedent for drafting an heir for an established starter in his mid-30s. Brett Favre was 35 in April 2005, when the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers.

Larry Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald
6. Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald
Full deal: Seven years, $113 million through 2018
Relevant terms: Fitzgerald has an $8 million roster bonus due in 2015, along with a cap number of $23.6 million and total cash compensation of $16.25 million.
Analysis: Fitzgerald is on pace for his first 1,000-yard season since 2011 and almost certainly has a number of productive seasons remaining in his career. But his elite-level contract makes him vulnerable at age 31 and in the presence of young Cardinals receivers Michael Floyd and John Brown. The 2015 offseason will be the first time the Cardinals could save cap space ($9.2 million) by releasing Fitzgerald. It's possible he would agree to a pay cut or a restructure, and in truth he could help the Cardinals for years to come. But his contract is an obstacle that seems likely to force a move that otherwise wouldn't be contemplated.
Those of us who gather in social media during prime-time NFL games have found ourselves with plenty of time for, uh, supplementary discussion in recent weeks. The pot boiled over Monday night during the Philadelphia Eagles' eventual 45-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers, prompting the overwhelming -- if not subjective -- conclusion that NFL games have been far less competitive in 2014.

The blowout came one day after the Green Bay Packers' 55-14 demolition of the Chicago Bears on Sunday night and four days after the Cleveland Browns handed the Cincinnati Bengals a decisive 24-3 defeat Thursday night. After that run of snoozers, I figured it was time to dive in to understand what is (and is not) happening.

Is the NFL failing to deliver one of its most reliable products: dramatic and entertaining games? Or have a few high-profile clunkers skewed perception of the entire season?

Here's what I can tell you, courtesy a huge assist from Allison Loucks and John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information: The NFL's prime-time games this season have been its least competitive in the nine years ESPN has maintained the applicable databases. The Sunday afternoon games, which overlap in many cases and thus aren't seen as widely, are off slightly but are still much closer to the norms of recent years.

The charts accompanying this post provide both traditional and advanced documentation.

The first shows that the percentage of total games decided by a touchdown has dropped 10 percentage points this season. The next two charts attribute that fall mostly to the subset of prime-time matchups.

The average margin of victory for all games this season is 12.99, the highest margin since at least 2001 but not dramatically so when you consider the range of the other years (11.1 to 12.97). If you pull the prime-time games from that overall percentage, however, you see the margin of victory in those affairs has jumped from 11.7 last season to 17.8 in 2014.

Margin of victory isn't always a complete representative of competitiveness, of course. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, were tied at 17 with the New York Giants after three quarters last Sunday before scoring 21 unanswered points to close the game. A 38-17 final doesn't indicate that the game was closely contested for its first 45 game minutes. So we also took a look at win probability, an advanced statistical model based on years of results that assigns a likelihood of a team winning based on the score and situation at any moment in the game.

A win probability of 50 percent means that both teams have an equal chance to win at that moment, such as the opening kickoff. The third chart shows that average win probability in prime-time games has been notably further away from 50 percent this season. That's a fancy math way of documenting the decrease in competitiveness throughout the course of prime-time games this season.

In non-prime-time games this season, the average departure from 50 percent win probability is 25.8, which falls in line with the norms of previous years.

What does this all mean? I think we can say with confidence that 2014's prime-time games have been significantly less competitive, and thus less dramatic and entertaining, than in recent years. Why? That's a topic for another post. It could be pure chance, or perhaps it's a function of NFL schedule-makers fruitlessly attempting to project juicy fall matchups amid the annual unpredictable nature of the league.

Regardless, it's much more difficult to lay this conclusion over the entire 2014 schedule.

The recently completed Week 10 provides a neat example. The aforementioned prime-time games were decided by a an average of 28.7 points, but margin of victory in the 10 Sunday games was 11.8 -- in line with previous years.

I don't want to minimize the impact of prime-time games, the NFL's largest window to its customers. And we all have the right to make a subjective judgment as to whether a game has entertained us. But if you're looking for objective documentation that the entire slate of 2014 games has been less competitive relative to other years, you won't find the evidence in these numbers.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 10 QB Report

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
10:01
AM ET
video
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves. (For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly QB Report, follow this link. For a full statistical breakdown of all NFL quarterbacks, see ESPN.com's QBR page.)

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks
WEEK 10 vs. NYG: W, 38-17
NEXT: 11/16 at KC
WEEK 10
CMP: 10
ATT: 17
YDS: 172
PCT: 58.8
TD: 0
INT: 2
WHAT YOU MISSED

Wilson has always been a productive runner, whether scrambling away from pressure or contributing to the read-option. But the Seahawks incorporated Wilson into their running game Sunday like never before. His 107 yards were not a career high -- he established that in Week 5 with 122 against the Redskins -- but they were the result of more deliberate play calling. Of his 14 carries, 10 were classified as designed runs -- twice as many any other game in his career. His 95 yards on those plays more than doubled his previous career high on such runs (46 in 2012). His zone-read breakdown was 64 yards on seven carries, both of which were career highs as well. Most of his production came on first down: seven carries, 79 yards and a touchdown. Overall this season, Wilson has 500 rushing yards, 202 more than the next-highest gaining quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) and enough to make him the leading rusher on 18 of the NFL's 32 teams.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Seahawks lost much of their offensive explosiveness by trading Percy Harvin and losing Golden Tate in free agency. But in this game, at least, the Seahawks refocused around a running game that included regular carries by the quarterback. In the long term, it makes sense as long as Wilson can stay healthy. He has been highly efficient with an average of 6.2 yards per rush before contact this season and a QBR of 97.1 on running plays. His Rush EPA, a production metric explained here, is 18.7 -- more than the next three highest-ranked quarterbacks combined. Wilson is a perfect candidate to maximize the yards available to a quarterback in the running game.

Peyton Manning
Denver Broncos
WEEK 10 vs. OAK: W, 41-17
NEXT: 11/16 at STL
WEEK 10
CMP: 31
ATT: 44
YDS: 340
PCT: 70.5
TD: 5
INT: 2
WHAT YOU MISSED

Manning threw two interceptions in his first 29 passes over six drives but then produced a near-perfect performance over the ensuing five possessions. He completed 13 of his next 15 passes for 214 yards and five touchdowns against the Raiders to ensure the rout. The Broncos protected him well, allowing Manning to make all 15 attempts from the pocket as the Raiders put him under duress on only two dropbacks. Manning threw completions on both of those instances anyway, for 53 yards and a touchdown. Most of his attempts during that stretch (11 of 15) traveled 10 yards or less downfield, but he completed three of the four that went further, including two for touchdowns. He completed all four of his third/fourth-down passes during those five possessions for 100 yards and three touchdowns. Manning found particular success to the left side of the field during that five-possession stretch, completing all seven of his attempts for 102 yards between the left hashmark and the sideline.

FINAL ANALYSIS

When Peyton Manning finds his groove, he really finds his groove. The Raiders' defense ranks No. 28 in scoring (28 points per game), which should be part of this equation, but Manning was on fire no matter how you look at it.

Tony Romo
Dallas Cowboys
WEEK 10 vs. JAC: W, 31-17
NEXT: 11/23 at NYG
WEEK 10
CMP: 20
ATT: 27
YDS: 246
PCT: 74.1
TD: 3
INT: 0
WHAT YOU MISSED

The Cowboys' game plan against the Jaguars reflected the fact that their quarterback was playing with two transverse process fractures in his back. Primarily, they kept it short. All but three of Romo's 27 attempts traveled fewer than 15 yards downfield. He completed only one of the three that traveled further, tied for his fewest such completions in a game over the past three years. His average air yards were 7.22, his second shortest in a game this season and well below his average of 9.24 entering the game. Romo threw for 246 yards overall, but 148 came after the catch; the 7.4 average per completion was the highest for one of his games this season. He might also have benefited from the Jaguars' aversion to blitzing. They entered the game with the lowest blitz frequency in the NFL at 17.3 percent of opposing dropbacks, and their percentage Sunday was 21.4 -- well below the 35.2 percent Romo had faced earlier this season. As a result, the Jaguars put Romo under duress or hit him on only five of his 28 total dropbacks.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Cowboys took a smart approach given Romo's injury, and the Jaguars complied by declining to make his life any more difficult than it already was.

Matthew Stafford
Detroit Lions
WEEK 10 vs. MIA: W, 20-16
NEXT: 11/16 at ARI
WEEK 10
CMP: 25
ATT: 40
YDS: 280
PCT: 62.5
TD: 2
INT: 1
WHAT YOU MISSED

Calvin Johnson's return ushered a new level of play-action for the Lions. Stafford completed 7 of 8 such passes for 145 yards and a touchdown, his highest yardage total of the season. (The 18.1 yards/attempt were the third highest in a game for his career on play-action passes.) It's also instructive to look at how Stafford used Johnson compared to Golden Tate. His average pass toward Johnson was 17.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, and of Johnson's 109 receiving yards, 7 came after the catch. Tate's average target was 3.3 yards past the line, and he accumulated 73 of his 109 yards after the catch. As he often does, Stafford flipped a switch in the fourth quarter, posting a 74.3 QBR after managing a 36.5 QBR through three quarters. He did so by pulling back on his average throw distance, from 9.6 air yards to 8.5 with only two passes that traveled 15 or more yards downfield. Stafford also left the pocket on three pass attempts, including the game-winning touchdown pass, after staying in the pocket for all but one attempt in the first three quarters.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Stafford has started 31 victories in his career, and 13 of them have resulted from fourth-quarter comebacks, according to Pro Football Reference. In this case, he was unafraid to part with an approach that hadn't produced enough results in the first three quarters.

Michael Vick
New York Jets
WEEK 10 vs. PIT: W, 20-13
NEXT: 11/23 at BUF
WEEK 10
CMP: 10
ATT: 18
YDS: 132
PCT: 55.6
TD: 2
INT: 0
WHAT YOU MISSED

Vick was an improvement over former starter Geno Smith primarily because he didn't commit a turnover; Smith threw 10 interceptions and lost two fumbles in the first eight games of the season. Vick reached that efficiency largely by reining in his big arm and limiting his departures from the pocket. Eight of his 10 completions traveled 10 yards or less downfield, and his single completion that traveled at least 15 yards past the line went for a 67-yard touchdown. All 10 of his completions came from inside the pocket, and he was 0-for-4 when he left it. (He did have 42 rushing yards on five non-kneel down carries.) Most of Vick's passing success came down the middle. He completed all seven attempts inside the numbers and missed on 8 of 11 attempts outside of them. As well, nine of his 10 completions and both touchdowns came against the Steelers' standard pass rush.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Jets' approach and success with Vick offered evidence to those who suggest they can be a competitive team if their quarterback doesn't bury them. Vick was hardly spectacular against the Steelers. He just didn't make many mistakes.

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham called for offensive pass interference (OPI)
Referee: Bill Vinovich
Analysis: The penalty nullified Graham's 47-yard touchdown reception on a Hail Mary play at the end of regulation, a rare but accurate call that forced the game into overtime and an eventual loss for the New Orleans Saints.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanReplays show Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) pushing the 49ers' Perrish Cox, on ground, before catching this pass at the end of regulation. Graham was called for pass interference on the play.
Replays show Graham putting both hands on the right shoulder of San Francisco 49ers cornerback Perrish Cox and pushing him at about the 5-yard line. Cox fell to the ground, opening space for Graham to make a leaping catch at about the goal line. Side judge Jimmy DeBell and back judge Jim Quirk immediately and simultaneously threw flags for OPI.

OPI is a 2014 point of emphasis for the NFL, and entering Week 10, officials had called almost as many of them (67) as they did in all 17 weeks of the 2013 season (74); Vinovich's crew had called one earlier in the game on 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin. Graham's play didn't mirror the specific technique the league is trying to curb -- pushing off at the top of the route, before the break -- but there is little doubt it violated Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(g) of the NFL rule book: "Initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass."

Graham suggested that Cox "flopped" to make the contact appear more severe than it was, but if anything, it simply drew attention to the contact. The real issue here is that pass interference is rarely called on either side during Hail Mary plays, where pushing and shoving are routine.

In 2012, in fact, an NFL replacement referee said publicly the league trained him not to call offensive pass interference in such instances because "there are a lot of bodies in there, you just let it go."

It's difficult to pinpoint the frequency of similar instances, but here is what ESPN Stats & Information came up with: Since the start of the 2001 season, there have been seven offensive pass interference calls in the final 10 seconds of either half when Hail Marys are likely to have occurred. That's in roughly 3,700 games.

The dispute here lies in the context rather than the merit, a losing battle. The contact was undeniable and it helped Graham make the catch.

Play: Officials rule that New York Jets quarterback Michael Vick did not fumble as he slid out of bounds
Referee: Terry McAulay
Analysis: Vick scrambled 7 yards toward the right sideline before being tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. As Vick slid awkwardly and tried to extend the ball with his left hand for a first down, Harrison reached up from the ground and knocked it from his hands. Slowing down the replay frame-by-frame reveals Vick lost control an instant before his left shin hit the ground to mark him down.

Line judge Tom Stephan was on top of the play and immediately signaled that Vick was down while the ball rolled near his feet. It wasn't until Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward dove on top of the ball that he realized it was loose.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin challenged the ruling that Vick was down by contact. Former NFL referee Mike Carey, appearing on the CBS game broadcast, called the play one of the "most complicated" he had seen in a while. Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now a Fox broadcaster, tweeted that the fumble was "REALLY close." Carey suggested overturning the call, and Pereira said he agreed with upholding it.

The play was indeed close, and it shouldn't matter that Stephan blew his whistle before recovery. Instant replay provides technology that can make clear what is admittedly difficult to clarify in real time. Overturning a call requires indisputable evidence, which -- from my amateur view -- seems clear when freezing the moment Vick lost control of the ball. McAulay didn't explain the ruling in detail, but I would be curious to know what made him stop short of overturning.

Play: Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker suffers a concussion on a 14-yard reception
Referee: Walt Coleman
Analysis: Coleman's crew initially ruled the pass complete, saying Walker had control of the ball before Baltimore Ravens safety Terrence Brooks dislodged it with a big hit, causing a fumble. Two questions emerged: Did Walker indeed have control? And did Brooks illegally make helmet-to-helmet contact?

The answers are tangled within each other. The NFL rule book bars "forcible" contact with the helmet of a defenseless player, and one of the definitions of a defenseless player (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7) is "a receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or clearly has not become a runner."

In this case, Walker is officially a defenseless receiver because on review, Coleman ruled that he had not completed the process before the hit. That decision appeared accurate; Walker bobbled the ball just before encountering Brooks.

Regardless, what's interesting is that that the hit was not illegal. Brooks used his right shoulder to initiate contact with Walker's left shoulder. In the follow-through, Brooks' helmet hit Walker's, but it wasn't "forcible" because most the initial and primary force of the hit that put Walker on his back came from the shoulder contact. (Pereira made a similar argument in this video.)

The NFL doesn't want helmet-to-helmet contact on any play, but this case in particular isn't covered in its current rules.
For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

In one way or another, most NFL teams track the tendencies of referee crews during the season. Knowing how crews have operated in previous weeks might not be reliable enough to build a game plan around, but it can be helpful to players and coaches nonetheless.

This week's example is offensive holding, one of the most subjective penalties in the NFL. When you hear a football person say that it could be called on every play, technically they're right. The section of the NFL rulebook devoted to holding is filled with notes, exceptions and parsing of phrases that leaves substantial interpretation to officials.

Consider the following excerpt, which attempts to provide context for whether a lineman's hands can contact a defender outside his body frame:

"A blocker may use his arms, or open or closed hands, to contact an opponent on or outside the opponent's body frame (the body of an opponent below the neck that is presented to the blocker), provided that he does not materially restrict him. The blocker immediately must work to bring his hands inside the opponent's frame, and as the play develops, the blocker is permitted to work for and maintain his position against an opponent, provided that he does not illegally clip or illegally push from behind."

What does "materially" mean? What is a reasonable expectation for "immediately?" It's up to the officials to decide.

Not surprisingly, some crews use a different interpretation than others, as you can see in the chart embedded in this post. As in most cases, the range is the most interesting aspect of the analysis. If you're assigned the crew of referee Jerome Boger (35 offensive penalties), Carl Cheffers (34) or Brad Allen (33), you're likely to see offensive holding called more tightly than if you get Walt Coleman (nine) or Bill Vinovich (nine).

To me, it's fascinating that the most active crews have called nearly four times as many holding penalties as two of their counterparts. But that frequency can't solely be traced to officials, of course. Some teams have players who are more likely to hold, and schemes that are more likely to lead to it, than others.

Sorting the total number of holding penalties in the ESPN Stats & Information database by team reveals four tied at the top with 18: the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Four teams are at the bottom: the Cincinnati Bengals (before Thursday night's game in Cleveland), the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints. The Bengals, Chiefs and Raiders have all been called for holding nine times; the Saints have six. The remaining 24 teams fall in a range between 10 and 16.

According to the excellent Football Zebras website, Vinovich will be the referee for the Saints' game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. When you combine his crew's history with the Saints' performance thus far, you wouldn't expect offensive holding to be a major factor in the game. Offensive lineman should feel more comfortable with aggressive blocks.

Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season, by crew. Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active at 20.5 penalties per game.
Thursday night football is that caustic rich uncle you invite to family reunions because he always pays for everything. His jokes aren't funny. He's guaranteed to embarrass you. No one wants to be around him, but despite your noble intentions, he's back on the invite list next year.

NFL players don't like Thursday night football. They say they are not as physically ready after three fewer days to prepare. Coaches walk a public tightrope on the quick turnaround. Twitter fills up with fan complaints as soon as a team registers its first sloppy play. Media members express righteous indignation at the disruption of a hallowed routine.

Yet here is the maddening reality: Despite the preponderance of subjective complaints, it is difficult to find the kind of data for a fact-based argument against Thursday night football. Believe me. I've been trying for two years, as have many others. As we gear up for tonight's exciting installment featuring the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns -- yay? -- there is every reason to believe the NFL will retain and possibly expand weekday football in years to come.

In talking through the issue with various people involved in the league, it seems clear that at least one of three key factors must surface to scuttle Thursday night games: Poor-enough television ratings to diminish revenues, an unmistakable uptick in injuries with clear roots in the short turnaround or a documented decline in quality of play.

Let's examine each dynamic.

The NFL's decision to create and sell a Thursday night package of eight games to CBS has been a success. Offering the first half of the schedule to an over-the-air broadcaster more than doubled the number of viewers compared to the first half of last season's games, televised only on NFL Network. (According to the Sports Business Journal, viewership grew from 7.3 million per game to 16.7 million in the comparable weeks.)

The league pocketed $275 million as a result and holds a 2015 option with CBS. So from an economic sense, Thursday night football this season has brought the league more money, more eyes and a stronger platform from which to negotiate a longer-term broadcast contract moving forward.

From an injury standpoint, there have been only anecdotal instances of Thursday-related consequences. The most obvious was the Week 5 deactivation of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose sprained ankle was still tender on that day but likely would have healed enough to play if his game against the Green Bay Packers was scheduled for Sunday. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, meanwhile, was steamed that his team had to follow a Sunday night game with a road game on Thursday night, during which three key players were injured.

Those instances were unique, however, and otherwise the reporting of NFL injuries and the nature of the game itself makes it impossible to establish a clear health impact. In fact, according to data released by the NFL earlier this year, the per-game rate of injuries was lower on Thursday nights than in Sunday or Monday games from 2011 to 2013.

You can see the comparison on the graph at the top of this post. We don't yet have 2014 information. Even if you're inclined to distrust the league's data, you still must realize it's what executives will use in planning future Thursday night involvement.

At this point, it's difficult to document money or health as a reason the NFL should make a change. We're left to evaluate the quality of play, a nebulous and subjective task that -- like many data searches -- can provide any desired result if skewed the right way. I couldn't find a smoking gun during nearly weekly attempts last season, so I enlisted the help of ESPN senior stats analyst John Parolin.

We looked at a wide swath of simple and advanced statistics, as you can see in the series of charts embedded in this post. (The data does not include the NFL's Week 1 kickoff game between the Packers and Seattle Seahawks because it did not come after a short week.) The major takeaway is that Total Quarterback Rating has been significantly higher on Thursday night, hardly an indication of poor quality of play -- by modern definitions -- unless you think that defenses are disproportionately unprepared or physically inferior on short rest.

This season, at least, quarterbacks are connecting more frequently downfield and have a better touchdown-to-interception ratio on Thursday nights. You will also see that running backs are averaging more yards per carry before first contact, an indication that offensive blockers are winning their battles against run defenders to a greater degree on Thursday night. Given those figures, it's no surprise that red zone efficiency and third-down performance are higher on Thursday night as well.

But when you look at the factors that we would normally associate with sloppy, unaesthetic play, the results are inconclusive. Fumbles lost and interception rates are a bit higher on Thursday night, but penalties are lower. Meanwhile, drops, as determined by ESPN Stats & Information, are about the same (4.1 per game on Sundays/Mondays compared to 4.0 on Thursdays).

Finally, the smoking gun of the 2014 Thursday night package -- a series of early blowouts -- is best viewed as an anomaly in a historic sense. As we noted last month, the average margin of victory on Thursday night games from 2006 to 2013 was about the same as it was on Sunday and Monday nights.
At the time, several one-sided games had ballooned the 2014 Thursday night victory margin to 29.0 points. Since then, it has dropped to 20.5 points compared to 12 points per game on Sundays and Mondays.

We live in a free country, which means there is nothing inherently wrong with disliking the NFL's presence on Thursday nights. But the facts are clear. More people than ever are watching a product that, based on available evidence, hasn't veered in a negative way from its Sunday/Monday counterparts. If anything, more offense is better, right?

Sorry to disappoint you. The rich uncle ain't going anywhere.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 9 QB Report

November, 4, 2014
Nov 4
10:01
AM ET
video
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves. (For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly QB Report, follow this link. For a full statistical breakdown of all NFL quarterbacks, see ESPN.com's QBR page.)

Ryan Tannehill
Miami Dolphins
WEEK 9 vs. SD: W, 37-0
NEXT: 11/9 at DET
WEEK 9
CMP: 24
ATT: 34
YDS: 288
PCT: 70.6
TD: 3
INT: 0
WHAT YOU MISSED

Tannehill opened Sunday's game by completing six consecutive passes and 10 of his first 11, the only miss a drop by running back Lamar Miller. The hot start, which followed two other instances in which he completed 14 consecutive passes earlier this season, helped the Dolphins to a 17-0 lead over the Chargers midway through the second quarter. Tannehill kept the Chargers on their heels throughout, completing 14 of 18 passes on first down -- for an average of 9.3 yards per attempt -- to maintain manageable down-and-distances. During the Dolphins' 4-1 stretch, Tannehill has an 82.9 QBR. (It was 27.2 during their 1-2 start.) What has been the difference? Among the explanations: Opponents have blitzed Tannehill more than twice as often during the winning streak (45 percent of dropbacks) than during the early period (17 percent). In other words, Tannehill's improvement has mirrored an increased blitz frequency. On Sunday, the Chargers blitzed on 49 percent of his dropbacks and did not sack him once. He completed 11 of 17 passes against blitzes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Finally, Tannehill completed 4 of 5 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown when throwing from outside the pocket and also converted three first downs on his four rushes (totaling 47 yards).

FINAL ANALYSIS

This game put on display everything the Dolphins hope Tannehill will become. He can be an accurate and rhythmic thrower within their scheme, can make throws outside or inside the pocket, and can convert big plays with his feet. The final step in his development is to produce similar games over an extended period of time.

Colin Kaepernick
San Francisco 49ers
WEEK 9 vs. STL: L, 13-10
NEXT: 11/9 at NO
WEEK 9
CMP: 22
ATT: 33
YDS: 237
PCT: 66.7
TD: 1
INT: 0
WHAT YOU MISSED

The Rams blitzed Kaepernick on 51.2 percent of his dropbacks, well north of the previous high mark he had seen this season (40.9), but five of their eight sacks came with their standard four-man rush. (The Rams had a total of six sacks for the season entering the game.) In total, the sacks cost the 49ers 5.2 expected points, almost two points more than the previous high in Kaepernick's career. Meanwhile, his troubles in the red zone continued. The 49ers failed to convert a touchdown on two trips; Kaepernick completed just one pass for 1 yard and lost a fumble on their final play of the game. For the season, Kaepernick's QBR in the red zone is 44.9, ranking him No. 25 in the NFL. The 49ers' touchdown percentage of 40 in the red zone is the NFL's worst. The Rams limited Kaepernick's downfield success, holding him to one completion on four passes that traveled at least 15 yards, and they bottled him up in the running game. He gained 14 yards on five attempts, including just 6 yards before contact -- an indication that Kaepernick didn't have much room to run.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The sacks and the fumble left Kaepernick with a 13.4 QBR for the game, his worst since Week 10 last season. But whenever a quarterback takes eight sacks, it's a group effort. It's difficult to understand why the 49ers gave only 16 carries to their running backs while calling 41 dropbacks in a close game against an opponent that was consistently bringing pressure.

Peyton Manning
Denver Broncos
WEEK 9 vs. NE: L, 43-21
NEXT: 11/9 at OAK
WEEK 9
CMP: 34
ATT: 57
YDS: 438
PCT: 59.6
TD: 2
INT: 2
WHAT YOU MISSED

The Patriots forced Manning to hold the ball much longer than he likes to. Prior to the game, Manning was spending an average of 2.11 seconds in the pocket, and his average time before throwing was 2.22 seconds, the shortest and second-shortest times in the NFL, respectively. The Patriots blitzed him on only 8.5 percent of his dropbacks, a season low, and the resulting glut of coverage left Manning spending an average of 2.5 seconds in the pocket and 2.64 seconds before passing. With the extra time, Manning attempted a season-high 25 passes that traveled at least 11 yards in the air. He completed only 11 of them, his lowest completion percentage on such throws this season. His 10.44 average air yards per throw was also a season high. Focusing on coverage, the Patriots broke up a total of 11 passes (nine knocked away and two intercepted), the highest total against Manning in a game since at least the start of the 2006 season. Manning's timing appeared off throughout; he completed just 5 of 11 third-down passes and converted a season-low 27.3 percent of those throws for first downs.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Every defense is a mix of pressure and coverage, but on this occasion, the Patriots beat Manning by focusing more on the latter. They took away his "easy" throws underneath, and he didn't make them pay for it downfield.

Carson Palmer
Arizona Cardinals
WEEK 9 vs. DAL: W, 28-17
NEXT: 11/9 vs. STL
WEEK 9
CMP: 22
ATT: 34
YDS: 239
PCT: 64.7
TD: 3
INT: 1
WHAT YOU MISSED

Palmer rebounded from a brutal start; he had a 1.8 QBR after two possessions thanks to an interception (returned for a touchdown), a sack and three incomplete passes. After that point, however, Palmer completed 19 of 28 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns. That included eight completions in 10 attempts on third down, accounting for all three touchdowns, and a perfect completion percentage (5-for-5) against the blitz. Palmer was especially sharp in key moments, completing 6 of 7 passes in the fourth quarter and 4-of-7 in the red zone for all three touchdowns. Palmer did leave some vulnerabilities on tape. He struggled to get the ball downfield, missing 4 of 6 throws on passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield (including the interception). He also didn't produce much on the 27.8 percent of his dropbacks when the Cowboys put him under duress; Palmer completed just 2 of 8 passes in those situations.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Palmer's downfield success has been inconsistent this season, possibly the result of a shoulder injury, but he remains one of the NFL's best fourth-quarter quarterbacks. His 86.1 QBR in that quarter is second in the NFL. He is making it count for the Cardinals.

Philip Rivers
San Diego Chargers
WEEK 9 vs. MIA: L, 37-0
NEXT: 11/16 vs. OAK
WEEK 9
CMP: 12
ATT: 23
YDS: 138
PCT: 52.2
TD: 0
INT: 3
WHAT YOU MISSED

Rivers' 19.8 QBR was his worst in a game since Week 15 of 2012. Most of his trouble Sunday came against the Dolphins' standard pressure: He completed just 50 percent of his passes (8-for-16) and threw all three interceptions against it, tied for his most in those situations since at least 2006. (In eight previous games, Rivers had thrown four interceptions against standard pressure.) The Dolphins managed to put Rivers under duress on 37 percent of his dropbacks, the highest percentage against him since 2009. On those plays, he completed just 1 of 6 passes and took three sacks. Of his 17 passes that traveled past the line of scrimmage, nine were incomplete. That completion percentage of 47.1 was his lowest since Week 1 of 2013. He also didn't have a single completion on throws that traveled 15 yards or farther downfield. For the game, Rivers averaged 6.0 yards per attempt and 4.8 yards per dropback, both season lows.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Dolphins' standard pressure has given several teams fits this season, most notably the Patriots in Week 1. Not every team can duplicate it, but in this case, Rivers never got into the short-range rhythm that defined his success earlier this season.

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick fumbles on a goal-line quarterback sneak
Referee: Jerome Boger
Analysis: This play capped an eventful day for Boger and his crew. Attempting to score the winning touchdown, Kaepernick bobbled the snap, regained control of the ball and dove over the goal line. At some point between regaining control and landing on the ground, Kaepernick fumbled again. St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis came out of the pile with the ball and was awarded possession.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez49ers QB Colin Kaepernick fumbles on a goal-line sneak in the final seconds against the Rams.
The question is whether Kaepernick lost the ball before or after crossing the goal line. If it was after, the ruling is a touchdown. Anything that happens afterward is moot. If it happened before, then it is a fumble and a loss of possession.

Kaepernick told reporters he crossed the line first, but you wouldn't expect him to say anything different.

The replay demonstrates the officiating mechanics that led to the decision: Head linesman Tom Staible and line judge Ed Walker are aligned on the goal line to determine if the ball broke the plane before Kaepernick was down. Umpire Tony Michalek was standing about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and clearly sees the fumble. Michalek consulted with back judge Tony Steratore, whose responsibility is tracking loose balls, before signaling a touchdown.

There is no evidence that Michalek consulted with Staible or Walker, suggesting he saw Kaepernick lose possession before it was visible to television viewers. In this case, he apparently didn't need to confirm whether Kaepernick was in possession at the goal line. Given the tight formation at the snap, and the resulting crunch of bodies, no replay angle offered a conclusive view of when Kaepernick fumbled for the second time.

This call was one where either ruling was defensible, because in the end there is no visual evidence of what happened at the key moment.

Play: Unnecessary roughness on Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith
Referee: Gene Steratore
Analysis: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III attempted to gain a first down by running around right end on what appeared to be a read-option play. Seeing Smith approaching him from the front, and defensive end Corey Wootton from the side, Griffin began sliding 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage near the right sideline.

Smith lowered his right shoulder to initiate contact, and Steratore penalized him for "a blow to a sliding quarterback's head," according to the post-play announcement.

There are several factors to unpack here; most obviously, a second look at the play revealed Smith at worst grazed Griffin's left shoulder. He did not appear to contact his head or neck. Steratore made a mistake of anticipation, one that isn't entirely surprising when you note that his crew entered Week 9 having called 17 unnecessary roughness or personal foul penalties, by far the highest among the NFL's 17 crews, according to ESPN Stats & Information's penalty database. (The average was 6.7 per crew.)

But what interests me are two other questions: Was Griffin still considered a quarterback by rule at the end of the play? And what, if any, protection did the slide afford him?

First, the NFL confirmed last season that a quarterback running the read-option loses his "quarterback protection" and can be hit as if he were a running back. So it is difficult to understand why Steratore referred to a "sliding quarterback" when the league doesn't consider him one on that play.

Second, what you might not realize is that Griffin is still classified as a defenseless player -- whether or not he is a quarterback -- who had declared himself down and prompted an immediate dead ball.

"A player on the ground" is one of 10 definitions of a defenseless player, as listed in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(a). And any player, not just a receiver, can declare himself down by sliding feet first. According to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(d), "the ball is dead the instant he touches the ground with anything other than his hands or feet." The rule requires the player to start his slide "before contact by a defensive player is imminent," requiring officials to judge whether the defender had a reasonable chance to pull up.

Regardless, in this case the discussion is moot because Smith appeared to sail over Griffin with little to no contact. But had there been contact, to the helmet or anywhere else, Steratore's crew would have been justified in calling the penalty even though Griffin was by rule a runner and not a quarterback at the end of the play.

Play: Rams' Tavon Austin is ruled down in the field of play rather than in the end zone
Referee: Boger
Analysis: In addition to the Kaepernick fumble, Boger's ruling on a complicated play before halftime merits further inspection. Should the 49ers have been credited for a safety after Austin's poor return of a missed field goal attempt?

Austin had advanced the ball out of the end zone, just short of the 2-yard line, before making a hard cut to the right to avoid the 49ers' Derek Carrier. In an unsuccessful attempt to get around Carrier, Austin began moving back toward his goal line. Carrier's tackle brought him down in the end zone. Boger had to decide whether to call a safety or if Austin would be credited with forward progress at the 1- or 2-yard line. Boger chose the latter, a ruling upheld after an inconclusive replay review.

The NFL rule book defines forward progress as "the point at which [a runner's] advance toward his opponent's goal ends and is the spot at which the ball is declared dead by rule, irrespective of the runner or receiver being pushed or carried backward by an opponent."

Did Carrier push or carry Austin into the end zone? Or did Austin get there himself?

The key bit of information, as former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said on the Fox broadcast, was the location of the ball when Carrier first contacted Austin and thus stopped the advance. That is the spot of forward progress; if the ball had already broken back over the goal-line plane, it should be a safety.

In the end, Fox did not supply a replay that provided a direct goal-line angle to determine where the ball was on contact. Because Austin had the ball in his left arm as he turned right, meaning the ball was away from the end zone at the line of forward progress, my guess is that it had not broken the plane when Carrier first grabbed Austin's right knee.

Boger had no choice but to uphold the replay, but it was a reminder of how tricky a forward progress ruling can be.

Play: Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is ruled to be down before releasing a pass, resulting in a sack
Referee: Bill Vinovich
Analysis: In the third quarter Sunday night at Heinz Field, Flacco scrambled away from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and threw an incomplete pass while falling to the ground. The Steelers challenged the ruling, claiming Flacco was down before he threw the ball, and replay official Dale Hamer agreed. The call was changed to a sack.

This play highlighted common confusion about the definition of "down by contact." In this case, both of Flacco's knees and elbows were off the ground when he threw -- and Hamer was still correct when he made his ruling.

Why? According to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(a) of the rule book, an official should declare the ball dead and the down ended when "a runner is contacted by an opponent and touches the ground with any part of his body other than his hands or feet." The definition is further explained as "any part of a runner's leg above the ankle or any part of his arm above the wrist."

While it's more common for a joint -- elbows and knees -- to touch the ground first, a shin or forearm is considered the same. So, to paraphrase John Madden, one knee equals one shin and one elbow equals one forearm.
  
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It makes sense for NFL teams to track how the league's 17 officiating crews call subjective or judgment-based penalties such as offensive holding and pass interference, and most do. It could help a playcaller, for instance, to know whether his pass protection will be compromised by a liberal view of holding.

What you might not realize, however, is that the frequency of presumably more-straightforward penalties still varies significantly among crews. The chart at the bottom of this post documents pre-snap movement penalties such as encroachment, false start, neutral-zone infractions and offside -- none of which seem on the surface to have much gray area. You will see that in 2014, the rate of the most active crews is nearly three times that of the least active in these categories.

That's right. Entering Week 9, and not including Thursday night's game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, referee Walt Coleman's crew had called 37 such penalties (accepted/declined/offsetting). John Parry's crew, meanwhile, had called 13.

How can this be? It's true that the NFL's 32 teams possess varying degrees of discipline, and so it's not surprising to know that some games include more pre-snap penalties than others. But officiating crews are cycled throughout the league during the season, and you would think that over time such things would even out.

Instead, smart teams can get at least a credible preview of the type of game they might see called by analyzing these numbers. Say you have a pass-rusher who puts his hand down at or just beyond the line of scrimmage to gain a subtle advantage. Technically, he is pushing the definition of defensive offside or neutral-zone infractions.

If your referee is Jeff Triplette, who has called 12 defensive offside and nine-neutral zone infractions, you are not as likely to get away with it. But you are more likely to avoid such a penalty if your ref is Pete Morelli, who has called three for defensive holding and none in the neutral zone, according to the ESPN Stats & Information database.

The point, as we've been driving home in the weekly Monday Officiating Review, is that there's more gray area in officiating than most of us realize. Even the most clear-cut penalty -- moving and alignment prior to the snap -- is officiated differently from crew to crew.

Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season, by crew. Carl Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active at nearly 22 penalties per game.


In case you missed it, a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks will face each other for the 16th time Sunday at Gillette Stadium. What makes this game particularly appealing, of course, is that the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning and the New England Patriots' Tom Brady are fresh off one of the best months of their careers.

Among the details listed in the first chart: each has 14 touchdown passes in four games, the first time in NFL history two quarterbacks have thrown that many in a single month, per the Elias Sports Bureau. As it turns out, however, Manning and Brady aren't the only NFL quarterbacks to hit a groove in October.

With one game remaining, October 2014 is shaping up collectively as one of the most productive months for quarterbacks in NFL history. Research from ESPN Stats & Information revealed a continuation of the themes we discussed in a Hot Read story this month about the groundbreaking efficiency of NFL passing games this season.

Let's hit the important points one at a time.

First, five quarterbacks have thrown at least 10 touchdown passes in October for the first time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. A list can be found in the second chart, which also notes that the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees could reasonably join this elite company with three touchdown passes Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers.

Keep in mind that the Panthers' defense has allowed 16 touchdown passes this season, tied for the fourth most in the league. Half of those have come in three October games, tied for the third-highest mark over that span.

Second, NFL quarterbacks have thrown 211 touchdown passes in October, a rate of 3.5 per game. That's the highest rate for any month of an NFL season since the 1970 merger. The previous record was 3.4, in January 2012 and September 1987.

(The post-merger record for October touchdown passes is 212, set in 1983. Barring a defensive battle Thursday night, it seems likely that it will be exceeded before October 2014 officially closes.)

Finally, the league's collective Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) in October is 58.2, its highest for any month other than September 2014. (ESPN has been tracking QBR since 2006). QBR measures all aspects of quarterback play and is weighted by the context of performance.

I know that comparing one particular October to others might seem arbitrary and limiting in the scope of history. But when we piece it together with the trends we've already identified from September -- that quarterbacks are completing passes at a higher percentage, suffering fewer drops and taking fewer sacks than ever before -- we can see the foundation of a sturdy trend.

Passing statistics tend to diminish during the second half of NFL seasons as the weather turns. But unless they drop much more than usual in November and December, NFL passing games will finish the 2014 season as the most efficient and thus effective on record.

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