On Wednesday night, both the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs closed out their series in five games. Through the end of these second-round series, the Spurs have been outscoring their opponents by an average of 9.9 points per 100 possessions, the Heat by nine points per 100 possessions. Both of those marks lap the rest of the field — the next closest team in the playoffs is the Oklahoma City Thunder at +4.5. The Heat and the Spurs have been the best in these playoffs by a wide margin.Those point-per-possession metrics are important; they account for pace and average margin of victory or defeat. That means they offer a more insightful understanding of a team’s strength than its record can. And once we understand a team’s strength, we can better guess its future success.By that metric, the Spurs and Heat are converging. After a seven-game slog against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, the Spurs had a per 100 possession point differential of +3.4. From there, they seem to have swelled, getting stronger and stronger as they dismantled the Portland Trail Blazers. The Heat’s dominance looks inverted. First, they swept the Charlotte Bobcats with a per 100 possession point differential of +10.1. But after trampling the Brooklyn Nets in the first two games of the second round, they’ve struggled to separate themselves and their point differential has been slowly creeping downward.The chart below shows the cumulative per 100 possession point differential of each team going into the second round and after each second-round game.Both teams swung upward in their two home games to start the round. But as the Spurs’ point differential has continued to climb, albeit at a slightly slower trajectory, the Heat have been trending downward from their playoff peak to meet them. Quality of competition is certainly a factor, and the Spurs’ first-round point differential is heavily influenced by having played the Mavericks, a much more successful team during the regular season than the Charlotte Bobcats. But the Spurs’ second-round opponent, the Trail Blazers, had a Simple Rating System mark of 4.44 during the regular season, sixth-best in the league. The Nets were -1.58, 20th in the league.Of course, both teams still have plenty of obstacles, but playing at such a high level bodes well for the next round (though which teams they face may matter even more). But the directions their performances have been trending implies that the Spurs might be moving on with slightly more momentum than the Heat.
Monday marks the end of the beginning of the World Cup: the simultaneous matches phase. At 4 p.m. EDT, all teams from Group A will kick off: Brazil will play Cameroon in Brasilia, Brazil, while Mexico will play Croatia in Recife. FIFA schedules these matches simultaneously so that no team might benefit from knowing the score of the other match ahead of time, which could potentially impact strategy.These are the final matches of the group phase and therefore will determine who advances. Sometimes, working through the permutations is easy — as it is in Group B, where the Netherlands and Chile have already guaranteed advancement and are playing only to determine who finishes first in the group. But other cases, like the United States’ Group G, are more complicated.FiveThirtyEight’s World Cup forecasts project the results in a probabilistic fashion, showing each team’s odds of winning and advancing from its group. But we’ll also be working through the possibilities in a more detailed way with matrices, such as the one you see below:That was the simple case I mentioned before: Group B, which will play its matches at noon Monday. The Netherlands will advance first in the group if it beats Chile or draws with it; Chile will do so if it beats the Netherlands by any margin. Australia and Spain are already mathematically eliminated from the tournament, and their game won’t make any difference.But the Chile-Netherlands game matters more than you might think: Up for grabs is the right not to have to face Brazil in the Round of 16, which the second-place team from Group B will probably have to do.Brazil’s Group A is more complicated, even though most scenarios result in Brazil finishing in first place. Cameroon has been eliminated. Brazil is almost certain to advance, but there are wild-card scenarios where it might not. Mexico can guarantee advancement with a win or draw against Croatia. A Croatia win means that it advances while Mexico almost certainly does not. This is what that group looks like:I’m assuming, as a default, that all wins come by a 2-1 scoreline while all draws are 1-1. Cases where the exact score matters are highlighted in yellow.Brazil and Mexico, for instance, are tied atop Group A with four points, but Brazil is ahead on the goal-differential tiebreaker. If both teams win their matches Monday, both will advance with seven points. Will Brazil advance as the first-place team? Yes, if both wins come by our default 2-1 scoreline or under most other realistic scenarios. But it’s theoretically possible that Mexico could surpass Brazil — for example, if it beats Croatia 3-0 while Brazil beats Cameroon 1-0.The more treacherous case for Brazil — albeit extremely unlikely because it’s so heavily favored to beat Cameroon — is if Brazil and Mexico lose. In that case, Croatia will qualify first in the group. Brazil and Mexico will be stuck on four points and tied for second. If Brazil lost by a wider margin than Mexico, it could fail to advance.There’s also one case where Brazil would be denied advancement outright. That comes if it loses to Cameroon, and Mexico and Croatia draw. Then the group standings would be: Mexico 5 points, Croatia 4, Brazil 4, Cameroon 3. Mexico qualifies first and Croatia and Brazil are tied for second. But Brazil would be guaranteed to lose the goal-differential tiebreaker because it and Croatia currently have the same goal differential (+2) and Brazil’s would worsen with its loss while Croatia’s would stay the same with its draw. Fortunately for Brazil, the probability of this happening is only about 0.5 percent.
New Orleans Hornets coach Monty Williams was a serviceable player for the New York Knicks, a first-round pick out of Notre Dame who was smarter than he was talented. He lasted 10 years in the NBA on being hard-nosed and cerebral.His transition to coaching was surprising at first, but upon further review, made perfect sense. He understood the game. And what he has done since becoming coach of the New Orleans Hornets in his two year has earned him a four-year contract extension, the AP reported.“I would like to thank Mr. (Tom) Benson, his family, Mickey (Loomis, executive vice president) and Dell (Demps, general manager) for putting their trust in me and showing me their commitment,” Williams said in a statement released by the club. “The love and support the city and its fans have shown me and my family in the time we have been here has been incredible and I look forward to continuing to work to make the city and the Benson family proud of the Hornets.”Williams came to the Hornets after five seasons as the assistant coach in Portland under then-head coach Nate McMillan.“The Hornets have a promising future and an exciting young nucleus,” said Hornets executive vice president Mickey Loomis. “It is our opinion that Monty is the perfect coach to develop and lead this group of talent going forward.”Williams took the Hornets to the playoffs his first season with a 46-36 record. Last season, the club went 21-45 after trading star Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers in a deal that helped New Orleans build for the future with the acquisition of 23-year-old shooting guard Eric Gordon and an additional first-round draft choice.The Hornets then won the NBA’s draft lottery and selected Kentucky star Anthony Davis first overall and added Duke’s Austin Rivers with the 10th pick.This off-season, the Hornets have also traded to acquire forward Ryan Anderson from Orlando and center Robin Lopez from Phoenix, giving Williams something to work with for the future.
With a 15-yard run in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl, San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey became the all-time career FBS rushing leader. Except, no, not really. But, officially, yes.Wait, what?Dieter Kurtenbach offers a good explainer about the situation at Fox Sports. Basically, in 2002, the NCAA started counting statistics from bowl games toward official records. Before then? Nope. So even though Wisconsin RB Ron Dayne ran for 7,125 yards in his career when we include bowl games — games in which the NCAA recorded the exact number of yards he ran for, and games whose yardage would count toward his career total if they occurred after 2002 — Pumphrey is your career “leader” with 6,405 yards.Go figure.This isn’t the first time a counting-stat record has been determined by an arbitrary bureaucratic decision or a data limitation:• Officially, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich picked up his 1,000th coaching win in 2015 — but that’s only because the NBA doesn’t include playoff wins in its ranking of the most victorious coaches. If you count the postseason, Popovich won his 1,000th game two full years earlier. And his “true” 1,000th win even comes with a fun bit of arbitrary accounting: Because Popovich was sick, assistant coach Mike Budenholzer (now head coach of the Atlanta Hawks) coached the team that night in 2013 … but the win still counted toward Pop’s official tally, as per the NBA’s policy on interim coaching records.• In 2015, Ivo Karlovic became the all-time ace leader in men’s tennis, zooming past former leader Goran Ivanisevic. But for aces, “all-time” only means “since 1991,” when the stat was first tracked on the ATP World Tour — and by then, Ivanisevic was already in his fourth year of competing, which effectively gave Karlovic a head start in his record chase. Plus, the ATP doesn’t include any aces recorded during Davis Cup play, even though those games count toward players’ win-loss records.• Nobody can agree on how many hits were racked up by early baseball star Cap Anson and others of his era. Because of both record-keeping discrepancies and disputes over whether the National Association, the league in which Anson played the first several years of his career, should be considered part of Major League Baseball (and therefore be included in MLB’s official stats), we can’t muster much more than an educated guess about Anson’s place on the all-time hits leaderboard. Here’s SABR’s Bill Felber on the topic:More than any other achievement in the statistically obsessed game that is baseball, Anson’s hit totals are subject to debate. The most respected statistical references in the game disagree on how many hits the 19th-century Chicago star actually had … or whether he even reached 3,000. The Hall of Fame credits Anson with 3,081 hits. But The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia gives him 3,012. Baseball Reference says Anson had 3,435 hits. Project Retrosheet accepts both the 3,012 and 3,435 figures, while the Macmillan Encyclopedia gives him an even 3,000. Total Baseball credits Anson with 2,995. Anson biographer David Fleitz puts the figure at 2,995 or 3,418.So the NCAA isn’t alone in matters of head-scratching record-keeping decisions. For what it’s worth, they’ve even tried to offer up some justification for Pumphrey breaking Dayne’s record: They don’t want to retroactively change what was considered official at the time of an earlier season. (Counterpoint: Dayne literally rushed for more yards!!!) In the end, it’s just another example of a sports organization grappling with potentially incomplete data — and making a strange decision as a result.
Pau Gasol316.31.920.1 K. Abdul-Jabbar816.23.751.3 James’s Cavs and Heat teams have generally gone into the Finals with far less than a coin flip’s chance of winning the series. And although James played poorly (especially by his standards) during his first two appearances — including a 2011 matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, in which Miami was favored and could have won if James had only performed better — he’s been playing at a progressively higher level as his Finals career has gone on. With the Warriors’ juggernaut always advancing out of the Western Conference in recent years, though, it hasn’t mattered.So in that sense, it’s not really a surprise that James has that 3-6 record in the Finals. In fact, if you add up the pre-series odds in the table above, you get an expected championship count of 2.8 for James — meaning he’s somehow running 0.2 titles above expectation, despite his record. Although that trails Jordan (who won 1.9 times more than we’d expect from the pre-series odds), it’s better than Bryant, whose 5-2 mark is exactly even with what the probabilities would have expected.Here are those numbers for every player who averaged at least a Game Score of 15.0 across a minimum of three NBA Finals appearances since the ABA-NBA merger: 2007CLESAS27.5%10.6 2011MIADAL55.913.7 Kyrie Irving318.90.610.4 Count the (adjusted) ringsNBA championships won vs. expected (based on pre-series Elo ratings) for players with at least 3 Finals appearances and an average Game Score of 15.0 per game, 1977-2018 Magic Johnson921.14.051.0 Kevin Durant325.92.42-0.4 2016CLEGSW27.426.5✓ Julius Erving421.22.21-1.2 Stephen Curry418.23.23-0.2 2018CLEGSW19.628.3 LeBron has seldom had much of a chance in the FinalsPre-series odds (via Elo ratings) for LeBron James’s teams in the NBA Finals Clyde Drexler319.81.21-0.2 2015CLEGSW21.424.6 Tim Duncan6184.108.40.206 Scottie Pippen6220.127.116.11 Finals Wins Michael Jordan624.54.16+1.9 2014MIASAS20.922.5 YearTeamOpponentPre-Finals W%Finals Game Score/GWon Finals? 2012MIAOKC30.823.6✓ Isiah Thomas317.61.920.1 Another year, another NBA Finals defeat for LeBron James. After his Cleveland Cavaliers fell to the Golden State Warriors Friday night, ending a four-game championship sweep, James’s Finals ledger now lists only 3 wins against 6 losses. It’s a mark completely out of step with those of his historical peers, including Michael Jordan (6-0), Tim Duncan (5-1), Kobe Bryant (5-2), Shaquille O’Neal (4-2) and Stephen Curry (3-1). It’s also probably the No. 1 stumbling block in James’s case as the NBA’s greatest-ever player.But, as is usually the case when you dig deeper than simple ring-counting, things are more complicated than they initially seem. For instance: According to the pre-series Vegas lines, Jordan was favored in all six of his Finals bids, while James has been an underdog seven times in his nine trips to the Finals. One of the hallmarks of James’s career has been dragging terrible teammates to the brink of a championship (and none might have been worse than the crew he brought to face the Warriors this season). That’s great for boosting a player’s tally of Finals appearances — but it leads to a terrible record in the title round itself.Because of this, any analysis of rings won has to account for the differing levels of expectation a player’s teams have going into each series. And by that standard, James has actually won more championships than we’d reasonably expect him to, even after falling to the Warriors this year.We can measure a player’s Finals record versus expectation by using FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings (which measure a team’s relative quality at any given moment) to calculate his teams’ pre-series odds of winning the Finals. Add up those probabilities over an entire career, and you get the number of titles we’d expect a player to have won, adjusted for who he played and how good his own team was. Here’s how James’s Finals career breaks down against expectation: Hakeem Olajuwon318.104.22.168 LeBron James922.62.830.2 Shaquille O’Neal622.63.840.2 Kobe Bryant716.75.050.0 Larry Bird520.63.13-0.1 PlayerAppearancesAvg. Game ScoreExp.Act.Diff. James Worthy616.12.730.3 Dwyane Wade517.72.031.0 Game Score is a metric that summarizes a player’s statistical production, set to roughly the same scale as points per game.Source: Basketball-Reference.com 2013MIASAS67.422.5✓ 2017CLEGSW9.629.6 Source: Basketball-Reference.com According to our measure, James is firmly in the middle of this pack of historical greats. That’s probably still a knock if we’re judging his candidacy for the title of absolute GOAT, but adjusting for competition does end up softening the blow of LeBron’s raw Finals record. Individually, James has outplayed almost all of his peers on the game’s biggest stage, but he’s seldom been in a position to convert those performances into championships.And in many ways, 2018 was the ultimate microcosm of James’s Finals career. He went into the series as a massive underdog, after carrying his undermanned Cavs through a grueling Eastern Conference playoff run. Even as James was scoring 51 points in Game 1, JR Smith’s late blunder probably cost Cleveland its best chance to make the Finals competitive. (It also reportedly spurred James to punch a whiteboard in the locker room after the game, injuring his hand for the rest of the series.) Still, according to Game Score, James had one of the best individual NBA Finals of any player since the merger (on a per-game basis) … and for all of his efforts, the Cavs still got swept. He might have been the only player ever, in any sport, who could earn Finals MVP speculation while being on the wrong side of a sweep.This is LeBron James’s fate, it appears. And because of it, we have to measure him relative to his conditions, rather than in the typical vacuum of ring-counting analyses. Perhaps that will be one of James’s enduring legacies: He caused us to bring a new level of nuance to the usual debates about Finals records.
Nearly three years ago on a rainy November night in Cleveland, it seemed as though the Chicago Cubs were poised to begin a dynasty. But that promise is gone. The Cubs had an optimistic 69 percent playoff probability on Sept. 17, but a four-game sweep at the hands of their archrivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, all but ended their hopes, and they were eliminated from postseason contention on Wednesday night. And as the Cubs collapse, the Cardinals are headed back to the postseason for the first time since 2015.While Cubs manager Joe Maddon is oft-cited as a possible culprit, he is a useful scapegoat: There is plenty of blame to be shared. And perhaps the most consequential area separating the Cubs and Cardinals is pitching. No team has been more productive in drafting pitchers than the Cardinals have been since 2012 — and few clubs have been worse than the Cubs.Since Theo Epstein was hired to lead the Cubs baseball operations in October 2011, the Cardinals’ drafts lead baseball in pitching wins above replacement produced (29.2 WAR from 117 pitchers drafted and signed), while the Cubs rank 25th (2.2 WAR from 105 pitchers drafted and signed), according to Baseball-Reference.com data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight.1WAR totals include all major league WAR produced by pitchers, not just for the team that drafted the player. A significant part of the Cubs’ rebuilding strategy was to use their premium picks, the spoils of tanking, on position player prospects — and then fill in pitching gaps via free agency with their big-market dollars and through trades. But Chicago produced zero pitching WAR — or worse — to date from six of the seven drafts from 2012 to 2018, placing substantial pressure on the organization to fill the voids externally. Free agency is an inherently risky vehicle to improve a team, especially as players are getting younger, and the Cubs have the oldest collection of pitchers in the majors with an average age of 31.1 years.No club has spent more payroll dollars on pitching this year than the Cubs ($128.4 million), and with a modest return from that investment: The Cubs are just 11th in wins above replacement from pitchers. External additions of Yu Darvish, Craig Kimbrel, Cole Hamels and Tyler Chatwood each have pedestrian fielding-independent pitching marks; none has a mark better than 4.18 on the season. Epstein’s quest to “find pitching,” words he scrawled on an office white board in 2016, has also cost the Cubs treasured prospects in Gleyber Torres2Sent to the Yankees for a half-season of Aroldis Chapman. and Eloy Jimenez.3Sent to the White Sox in the José Quintana trade.Today’s model organizations don’t just tank to successfully rebuild (see the Houston Astros) — and many don’t even have to tank (see the Yankees, Rays and Dodgers). They’re creating draft-and-develop success stories. Those clubs have proven that they can draft well without having to pick near the top of the draft, and they can get more out of the big-league pitchers they acquire, like Houston has done with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.The Cardinals, with only one losing season this century, haven’t needed to resort to tanking. They’ve used their drafts to select quality arms — and the value of their homegrown pitching was on display last weekend in Chicago.On Thursday, Jack Flaherty helped St. Louis to a series-opening win with eight dominant innings. Flaherty — drafted by the Cardinals with the 34th overall pick in 2014 — has emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half of the season, owning a 1.00 ERA over his last 15 starts. Michael Wacha, one of the Cardinals’ first-round picks from 2012, started Friday’s game and allowed one run over four innings. Then, rookie Ryan Helsley, a fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft, picked up the win with a scoreless inning in relief. Helsley has a 2.23 ERA through 36 1/3 innings this season. And on Saturday, 2016 first-round pick Dakota Hudson (16-7, 3.45 ERA this season) started a wild back-and-forth affair.On the other side of that Saturday seesaw was Kimbrel, signed for $43 million in June to help Chicago’s struggling bullpen. With his team up 8-7, Kimbrel came in for the ninth inning and immediately allowed back-to-back home runs — a devastating sequence for the Cubs. Kimbrel owns a 6.53 ERA on the season.The Cubs are well aware of their homegrown pitching deficiency and have taken steps in recent years to improve their draft-and-development capabilities. Prospect Brailyn Marquez is an early success story. Darvish has been excellent in the second half of this season, though he’s expected to be an ace, given his $126 million contract. But other clubs like the Dodgers, Cardinals and Astros have gotten ahead of, or have been ahead of, the Cubs.While this group of Cubs will always be remembered for delivering a title, fans may be more focused today on the dynasty that might have been, had they followed the model of the rival Cardinals in drafting and developing pitchers.Check out our latest MLB predictions.
In preparation for the 2015 NFL season, FiveThirtyEight is running a series of eight division previews, each highlighting the numbers that may influence a team’s performance (including projections and rankings based on ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index). Here we take a look at what’s going on in the NFC South through the lens of the salary cap. Tampa Bay Buccaneers2014 Record: 2-14 | 2015 Proj. W: 5.7 | Playoff Odds: 6.1%Off. Rank: 29th | Def. Rank: 28th | S.T. Rank: 15thPlayer taking up the most cap space: DT Gerald McCoy ($14.6 million, 10.7 percent of the cap)McCoy has made three straight Pro Bowls and is probably the best defensive tackle in the league (Pro Football Focus put him at second in 2014, first in 2013 and second in 2012). Thanks to his play, he’s gotten paid:McCoy isn’t just the biggest cap hit at his position, he’s also an enormous outlier. The closest defensive tackle, the Bengals’ Geno Atkins, is paid $9 million per year. That’s a $5.6 million gap — only wide receiver Calvin Johnson ($7.4 million more than Demaryius Thomas) and running back Peterson ($6.2 million more than Matt Forte) are that far ahead of their nearest positional rivals. McCoy might not have the name recognition of those two stars, but he’s younger and closer to his peak.Despite McCoy, in 2014 the Buccaneers defense ranked 28th in passing yards allowed, 19th in rushing yards allowed, 25th in points allowed and 21st in sacks. A single player can have only so much impact on a team’s defensive performance.But McCoy is still a big part of the Bucs’ future. Tampa Bay isn’t realistically looking to win in 2015. Its path forward — into the tier of teams that legitimately contend for the Super Bowl each year — is a bet on top pick QB Jameis Winston. If he pans out, the Bucs will aim to contend a few years down the line, with McCoy as a cornerstone of a defense that’ll look very different than it looks today. Read more: What To Expect If You’re A Packers, Lions, Vikings Or Bears Fan New Orleans Saints2014 Record: 7-9 | 2015 Proj. W: 8.7 | Playoff Odds: 51.7%Off. Rank: 8th | Def. Rank: 27th | S.T. Rank: 16thPlayer taking up the most cap space: QB Drew Brees ($26.4 million, 18.2 percent of the cap)No NFL team spends as much of its cap on one player as New Orleans spends on Drew Brees. The QB has been one of the league’s best since he joined New Orleans in 2006, but in 2015 he’ll have lost most of his favorite targets. He’s also 36. The latter puts him in rare company.Only 38 QBs in NFL history have thrown 500 attempts after turning 36. Thirty-six of them also had at least 500 attempts from age 26 through 35, closer to a quarterback’s peak decade.3The other two QBs — Butch Songin and Doug Flutie — had many more attempts after they turned 36 than before, which is nuts. For obvious reasons, these quarterbacks are some of the best in NFL history. It’s a group that includes 12 Hall of Famers and four presumptive Hall of Famers (Brady, Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner and Brett Favre).To make sense of whether Brees, another all-time great, is due for a decline, let’s look at what happened to these quarterbacks’ ANY/A and interception rates after they turned 36:That’s … not much of a dip in performance. Weighting by attempts after age 35, the ANY/A of the QBs was basically unchanged. Interception rates improved by a decent chunk, 0.3 percentage points, which is around two fewer interceptions a year for a pass-friendly QB.The 2014 Saints season was a mess, but Brees, despite an uncharacteristic 33-17 TD-INT ratio, was stellar as always. He’ll likely retire as the career leader in completion percentage, a lame consolation prize for an elite QB competing against Peyton Manning’s records and Brady’s titles, but if the Saints can stop stripping for parts for a few seasons, he may have another Super Bowl push in him yet. Atlanta Falcons2014 Record: 6-10 | 2015 Projected Wins: 9.4 | Playoff Odds: 63.6%Offensive Rank: 7th | Defensive Rank: 16th | Special Teams Rank: 3rdPlayer taking up the most cap space: QB Matt Ryan ($19.5 million, 13.3 percent of the cap)One basic issue with NFL parity: If a team wants to win a Super Bowl in today’s league, it pretty much has to have a great QB. There are maybe 10 of these QBs on the planet, but 32 NFL teams. If your team is lucky enough to have a great QB, it’s probably paying him a huge amount of money. If your team doesn’t have one, it’s likely waiting to win some sort of QB lottery, gambling on either a high-pick rookie or an aging free agent (even one who, thanks to two neck surgeries, still can’t feel his fingertips).This year’s league includes several Hall of Fame QBs, and Matt Ryan is probably not one of them. But he is good enough for the Falcons to win a championship.It’s impossible to reduce every component of a QB’s performance into a single number, but adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) does a fine enough job, showing the strongest correlation with wins among common statistics.1Adjusted net yards per attempt is based on a QB’s pass yards, pass attempts, interceptions, touchdowns, sacks, and sack yardage. It is calculated as (pass yards + 20*(pass TD) – 45*(interceptions thrown) – sack yards)/(passing attempts + sacks). The chart below ranks each team’s QBs (with a minimum of 10 starts) by ANY/A, from 1990 through 2014.Twenty-one of the last 25 Super Bowls went either to QBs who had one of the top five ANY/A performances that season or to Tom Brady, whose career ANY/A is the fourth highest of all time.2Brady’s ANY/A doesn’t align with the Patriots’ Super Bowl wins. The Patriots QB came in seventh, eighth, ninth and 12th during his championship seasons but was first in 2007 and 2010 and second in 2011 and 2012. Ben Roethlisberger had a championship in a down year, and borderline “elites” Eli Manning and Joe Flacco add one each. That leaves just one QB in the past 25 years, Trent Dilfer of the 2000 Ravens, who won a ring despite being a bad — or even just mediocre — quarterback.So is Matt Ryan, who has a top-10 ANY/A in four of the past seven seasons, Super Bowl material? Sure! He’s no Drew Brees, but he was just a hair behind both Brady and Russell Wilson last year, and more often than not he’s close to being among the league’s best QBs. And that lukewarm recommendation is, in the QB-hungry NFL, enough to warrant a $19.5 million cap hit. “When you come into a season, every fan thinks that their football team has a chance to win the Super Bowl, and that’s what I believe the 32 clubs are working towards.”— NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, May 5, 2011The NFL prizes parity, and the 2014 NFC South had loads of it. Every team finished below .500, no team was eliminated until Week 14 (Tampa Bay, at 2-11) and a division winner wasn’t determined until a Week 17 lose-and-go-home battle. If you squinted just right, it had the appearance of exciting football.In a twisted way, 2014 was a continuation of years of the division’s parity. During the last 13 seasons, New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay have won three division titles apiece, Carolina four. Going into 2014, Adam Schein of NFL.com touted it as the league’s “most entertaining division” simply because it was so balanced that there was no clear favorite. Balance is overrated.The biggest instrument in the NFL’s quest for parity is the salary cap, in which the more a team pays for its strengths the more it (generally) exposes its weaknesses. The NFC South has three players — quarterback Drew Brees, defensive end Charles Johnson and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy — who will be the biggest cap hits in the NFL in 2015 at their positions. Let’s take a look at each team’s biggest obligation. Carolina Panthers2014 Record: 7-8-1 | 2015 Proj. W: 8.3 | Playoff Odds: 42.4%Off. Rank: 21st | Def. Rank: 7th | S.T. Rank: 24th Player taking up the most cap space: DE Charles Johnson ($20.0 million, 13.4 percent of the cap)Johnson4Not to be confused with Minnesota wide receiver Charles Johnson, who, in a sad coup for fantasy sports, has much better name recognition. is a solid defensive end — ProFootballFocus graded him as 11th in the league (among players who play in a 4-3) in 2014. Having a bad contract is not the same as being a bad player, but his is definitely a bad contract. But it’s not the Panthers’ most perplexing cap move in recent years. A year removed, let’s take a look at Carolina’s disastrous running backs.Honorable mention: The Panthers’ 2014 running back/fullback trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert ($13.9 million, 10.1 percent of the cap).That $14 million is a lot to spend on a backfield. The Seahawks, who led the league in rushing in 2014, spent $8 million on Marshawn Lynch but only about $1.5 million on other backs. In exchange for all these dollars, the Panthers were seventh in the NFL in rushing yards, with 127 per game. That sounds pretty good! Except their QB ran for more than a quarter of those yards, and the Panthers’ backs caught few passes in a league that’s relying more on QB play.Let’s take a look at how much Carolina’s RBs really contributed. The chart below shows how much yardage each team’s 2014 running back corps (including fullbacks) contributed to team rushing and receiving.Carolina falls into that bottom left quadrant, teams whose running backs contributed below-average rushing and receiving yards per game. Neighbors include Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Tampa Bay — three of the NFL’s worst teams in 2014 — and Minnesota, whose star back, Adrian Peterson, was accused of child abuse and did not play after Week 1.Williams is off the books in 2015, but Carolina is still spending almost $12 million in cap dollars on Stewart and Tolbert. The pair combined for 37 receptions last year. With WR Kelvin Benjamin out for the season, Ted Ginn Jr. is the team’s No. 1 receiver despite being a 30-year-old with five starts in the past five seasons. Behind him on the depth chart is someone named Brenton Bersin. The Panthers might need their RBs to catch some passes.
The International League leading Columbus Clippers split a pair of seven inning games with the visiting Lehigh Valley IronPigs on Sunday in what turned out to be two very different contests. Columbus’ David Huff took his previously unblemished record to the mound in the first game of the afternoon, but the IronPigs were swinging hot bats from the start. Five of the first six Lehigh Valley batters reached base safely, including a run scoring single from Ronnie Belliard and a run scoring ground-rule double by Josh Barfield to build a 2-0 advantage before the Clippers even stepped to the plate. And that would be all the help IronPigs’ starter Eddie Bonine would need. “I think the first game you’ve got to give credit to their starter, Bonine,” said Clippers manager Mike Sarbaugh. “I think it’s not so much about what we didn’t do, it was more about what he did.” What he did was go five innings on the hill giving up just one run on five hits before making way for his bullpen to close out the game perfectly with two innings of no hit baseball. The IronPigs offense added a run in both the third and fourth innings to secure the 4-1 victory. Huff dropped his first game of the season falling to 3-1 with Bonine improving to 3-3. The afternoon’s second contest saw plenty of early offense once again, however, this time it was the home squad doing the damage from the batter’s box. “I thought it was key the way we came out in game two, especially after struggling a little bit offensively in game one,” Sarbaugh said. The Clippers got on the board in the first thanks to a Cord Phelps run scoring double before a power surge ensued over the next two innings. Jerad Head and Luke Carlin belted home runs of the solo and two-run variety respectively in the bottom of the second before Wes Hodges and Phelps added three and two run blasts of their own in the third. Second baseman Jason Kipnis and first basemen Hodges led the way offensively for the Clippers with three hits apiece and combined for five runs batted in between them. Kipnis credited the team’s boost in production from game one to two to their change in mindset. “I think everyone started to loosen up on the day and it kind of clicked in that we had to go back to our approaches,” he said. “We just had to step back, look at our pitch selection that we were swinging at and I think once guys started to do that you started to see better at bats, harder contact and more runs scored.” That they did. The Clippers ran IronPigs’ starter Brian Bass from the mound after just two innings in which they tagged him for eight earned runs on nine hits. After the Clippers cooled off, the IronPigs took a run at the 10-0 Columbus lead with two runs in the fourth, three runs in the fifth and one in the sixth, but ultimately fell short as the Clippers took game two by a score of 12-6. Scott Barnes got the job done on the mound for Columbus giving up 5 runs on 7 hits in 5 innings of work to earn his second victory of the year. “He ran into a little bit of trouble in some innings where he wasn’t getting ahead of hitters,” Sarbaugh said of Barnes’ performance. “It was a good game for him and I think it is definitely something he can build off of…there were a lot of positives from Scott today.” With the split of the doubleheader, the Clippers move to 23-7 on the year and Lehigh Valley is now 16-14. The two squads split the four game series with two wins a piece. The Clippers will return to action on Monday night as they welcome the Charlotte Knights to town for a 6:35 p.m. first pitch.
Ohio State men’s lacrosse senior attacker Logan Schuss has one more year, one more chance to do what he’s done for the past three seasons. The British Columbian has led the Buckeyes in many ways during his illustrious four-year career. Last year’s Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) Offensive Player of the Year, Schuss has been a standout since first stepping foot on campus in Columbus. In his freshman campaign, Schuss garnered honorable mention All-American honors, on top of his ECAC Rookie of the Year award and first team All-ECAC status. He has lead the Buckeyes in goals in each of his first three seasons. Recruited by coach Nick Myers from the beginning of high school, Schuss took the risk of heading to a foreign environment to play for OSU, but he said he’s never doubted the decision. “I had the opportunity to have coach Myers come and see me play and we started talking,” Schuss said. “We just saw all the stars line up and I got the chance to come here and play.” As one of the primary recruiters going after Schuss, Myers recalls being impressed by the Canadian’s talent as he watched Schuss grow as a player and a person over a span of almost eight years. “It’s been a great deal of growth,” Myers said. “Logan was a young man that we recruited and I can remember seeing him play for the first time when he was a ninth grader.” Voted a captain by his teammates for this season, Schuss sets an example for his teammates on and off the field. Assistant coach Dave Dobbins said Schuss is a positive influence on the younger players. “We expect a lot out of him, he’s a senior and a captain for us,” Dobbins said. “His responsibilities go way beyond just scoring goals and making assists. He’s what makes the team tick a lot of times.” The success and accolades haven’t gone to Schuss’ head, though, and fellow captain, senior midfielder Dominique Alexander, said Schuss remains very much the person he was when he first came to OSU. “He’s become more of a leader. Overall he hasn’t changed much. He’s still running around yelling at practice, you come around and hear him yelling, getting guys pumped up,” Alexander said. “Logan’s definitely going out with a chip on his shoulder, where he doesn’t want it to be something he looks back on as, ‘I didn’t do my job.’” Dobbins said Schuss’ mentality of not wanting to let down his teammates makes him work harder at practice and show a work ethic seen in few players his age. “He’s a guy that goes out there to practice every day with the right approach,” Dobbins said. “He’s not a guy who always leads with his voice, but leads by example. He’s one of the hardest working guys out there.” The future looks bright for Schuss, who was drafted recently by the Ohio Machine along with Alexander and senior midfielder Kevin Mack, but Schuss said he isn’t letting anything distract him from giving the game his all in his time left at OSU. “I try not to think about the whole ‘getting drafted’ part of it,” Schuss said. “I want to focus on the Buckeyes and being a leader.” As a three-time OSU Scholar Athlete majoring in physical education, Schuss said his future isn’t just squared on lacrosse. He said he sees his career taking him toward a different leadership role. “I’m going to be coming back for a fifth year to do my student teaching,” Schuss said. “I’m going to one day, hopefully, be a P.E. teacher.” In the season opener against Detroit Saturday, Schuss tallied a career-high 10 points. In fact, he has totaled least a point in all 46 of his career games. “On the field, he’s a competitor. He’s very talented. Aside from the talent is a work ethic that his teammates and the younger guys can feed off of,” Myers said. Schuss and the Buckeyes are scheduled to take on Jacksonville Sunday at 3:15 p.m. in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Ohio State men’s lacrosse team won its matchup against Jacksonville, 9-6, in the Moe’s Southwest Grill Classic in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sunday. OSU’s potent offensive play overcame the return of Jacksonville’s junior goalkeeper Pete DeLuca, improving its record to 2-0 on the season. OSU senior attacker Logan Schuss dominated against Detroit in the season opener when he recorded a career-high 10 points. Sunday’s matchup saw the goals more spread out as six different players found the back of the net. Schuss, senior co-captain midfielder Dominique Alexander and sophomore midfielder Jesse King each scored twice as OSU pulled away in the fourth quarter with a comfortable win. The two goals pushed Schuss’ total points to 12 on the season. Jacksonville was hoping its defense could keep the game close, a plan that succeeded until fatigue set in late in the fourth quarter. DeLuca, who was sidelined in the Dolphins season opener, returned with nine saves for Jacksonville and kept the game closer than the final score showed. Attempting to break a troublesome trend of letting teams outplay them early, OSU came out and doubled up the Dolphins in the first quarter, leading 4-2. The teams settled down after that point and exchanged goals back and forth, with the Buckeyes’ lead closed to one, 6-5, heading into the fourth and final period. Three goals then put things out of reach, and saw OSU head home victorious. Much improved from the first game against Detroit, the Buckeye defense took leaps and bounds toward reaching last season’s level of success, forcing 18 turnovers as junior goalkeeper Greg Dutton made nine saves. The victory was a welcome one for OSU, which is now heading into the heart of its schedule with tough games against Penn State, Denver, Virginia and Notre Dame in the coming month. Looking to build on their hot start to the year, OSU is scheduled to take on the Marquette Golden Eagles at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center Saturday at 1 p.m.