Rondo adds new look to Mavs offense

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsDallas no longer has to worry about stopping Rajon Rondo, the NBA's assist leader this season.

The Boston Celtics have reportedly agreed to trade Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder and draft picks. Rondo is currently leads the NBA in assists per game at 10.8 while no Mavericks player is averaging more than five.

What are the Mavericks getting in Rondo and just who is Brandan Wright?

Rondo the Creator
The Mavericks are getting one of the league’s best facilitators, as no player in the NBA over the last four seasons has a higher assist percentage than Rondo’s 49.9. The only two players in the NBA with a percentage over 40 in that time are Chris Paul (46.3) and John Wall (40.8).

Rondo has also ranked either first or second among all players in the NBA in assists per game in each of the last five seasons, including this season. Rondo has averaged 11 assists per game over the last five seasons, the only player in the league to average over 10.

Rondo Rates with Celtics Legends
The Celtics have dealt a player who has had a major impact on the franchise on both ends of the court. Rondo leaves as the franchise’s all-time leader in both assists per game (8.5) and steals per game (1.9) and the only players with more total assists than Rondo's 4,474 in Celtics history are hall-of-famers Bob Cousy, John Havlicek and Larry Bird.

Mavericks Point Guards Lacking
The Mavericks' starting point guard trio of Nelson, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea rank last in the league in points per game and field-goal percentage and 28th in assists per game. None of these players has a 10-assist game this season while Rondo has 13 such games.

Who is Brandan Wright?
Wright, the focal point of the return for the Celtics, is ranked fifth in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating at 26.2 despite averaging fewer than 20 minutes a game. Wright has finished ranked in the top 25 in PER in each of the last four seasons.

Wright is also shooting 74.8 percent from the floor this season, a mark that leads the NBA and is on pace to break Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA record of 72.7 set in 1972-73.

ESPN's Football Power Index: A look back

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18

Wire service photosAmari Cooper, left, and Marcus Mariota helped their teams meet preseason FPI projections.
With the regular season complete and bowl matchups set, it’s time to look back at the 2014 college football season. Just as teams reflect on their seasons to evaluate their performance, ESPN Stats & Information will do the same for its Football Power Index.

Below is a breakdown of how FPI performed throughout the year. Which preseason projections were correct? How accurate was FPI at predicting games? This is designed to be unfiltered and informative, so if you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below and we will do our best to answer.

As a quick reminder, ESPN’s Football Power Index is a forward-looking system designed to order each FBS team by which is most likely to beat an average team on a neutral field. FPI is intended to measure team strength, not evaluate a team’s résumé for the playoff, to best predict future performance. Once team strength is captured, FPI can be used to go through each team’s remaining schedule to produce game and season projections (expected W-L, chance to win conference, chance to win out, etc.).

Preseason information
FPI was improved this season to allow for preseason projections. Factored into the preseason ratings were prior years’ efficiencies (offensive, defensive and special teams), recruiting data, coaching tenure and information on returning starters.

Where FPI was correct in the preseason
• Preseason top 3: The top three teams in preseason FPI -- Florida State, Oregon and Alabama -- performed as expected. Ohio State was ranked sixth until days before the season when Braxton Miller injured his shoulder and returning starter information was adjusted. The Buckeyes dropped to 12th.

• Preseason W-L projections: Team strength must be weighed with the difficulty of a team’s schedule to accurately predict win totals. The teams ranked fourth through sixth in preseason FPI -- UCLA, Auburn and Stanford -- had some of the toughest schedules in the nation. Therefore, FPI predicted that they would lose more than three games on average (and they did). The five teams that FPI projected for the highest win totals were the only five teams in the nation with 12 or more wins. Similarly, the top five teams from Power 5 conferences in projected win total finished the season as the top five teams in the final CFP rankings.

Along those same lines, FPI projected that Florida State had a 38 percent chance to enter bowls undefeated and no other FBS team had more than a 10 percent chance to win out. The Seminoles are the only undefeated FBS team. The second-most likely team to go unbeaten in the preseason -- Marshall -- had a great chance to accomplish that feat through 11 games.

• Conference projections: Seven of the 10 preseason FPI favorites to win a conference went on to do so, including four of the six that were given the highest chances. The three FPI favorites that didn’t win were in the Big 12 (Oklahoma), Sun Belt (Louisiana-Lafayette) and American (Houston). In the case of the Big 12, Oklahoma (35 percent) and Baylor (33 percent) were very close in the preseason. The Big Ten is an interesting case. FPI favored Ohio State to win the conference without Miller, despite most of the public picking Michigan State.

Where FPI was incorrect in the preseason
• Teams FPI underestimated: Georgia Southern, TCU and Georgia Tech

Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern was transitioning to the FBS, and FPI underestimated the explosiveness of its offense, which finished 23rd in offensive efficiency. FPI projected that the Eagles would finish about 4-8, but they ended the year with a 9-3 record.

After finishing 4-8 last year, TCU’s improvement in 2014 was a surprise to many. FPI had the Horned Frogs 36th in its preseason rankings, which was higher than most but still significantly below their current fifth-place ranking. FPI was high on TCU’s defense (seventh in the preseason) but did not envision its offensive improvement after it ranked 99th in offensive efficiency in 2013. Overall, FPI projected that the Horned Frogs would enter bowls with around seven wins, and they have won 11 games.

Georgia Tech lost 11 starters, including its quarterback, from last year's seven-win team. In the preseason, FPI projected that the Yellow Jackets would win about six games and had a 5 percent chance to win the ACC Coastal Division. Instead, Georgia Tech reached 10 wins for the first time since 2009, and the Yellow Jackets seek their first Orange Bowl win since 1951.

[+] EnlargeKliff Kingsbury
Michael C. Johnson/USA TodayNo defense in the Power 5 had a lower efficiency than that of Texas Tech and coach Kliff Kingsbury.
• Teams FPI overestimated: Michigan, Texas Tech and South Carolina

Michigan was returning 15 starters, including quarterback Devin Gardner, to a team that had four of its six losses come by a combined 11 points last season. The Wolverines were ranked 18th in preseason FPI and were projected to have the 16th-best defense in the country. FPI projected that the Wolverines would have about four more wins than they actually did, marking its biggest miss this year.

Texas Tech was supposed to have a top-10 offense this year, but injuries and turnovers stymied the Red Raiders' air attack. And no Power 5 team finished the regular season with a lower defensive efficiency than Texas Tech. It’s safe to say that preseason FPI whiffed on four-win Texas Tech.

South Carolina was ninth in the preseason Associated Press poll, so FPI was not alone in its overestimation of the Gamecocks. Since South Carolina had a favorable divisional schedule, FPI projected that it had the best chance to win the SEC East and the second-best chance to win the SEC. The Gamecocks finished with three conference wins, four fewer than SEC East champion Missouri.

In-season projections
While the preseason ratings served as the basis for FPI, an important part of the system is that it learns from each game during the season and adjusts appropriately as teams play better or worse than expected. This mechanism allows FPI to be fluid as the season goes on, which improves prediction accuracy from week to week.

The team FPI favored won 77 percent of FBS-only games this season, which is better than the win percentage of the Vegas closing-line favorite. There were 50 games in which FPI and the Vegas line differed on the favorite; FPI went 28-22 (56 percent) in those games, including 17-10 in the final eight weeks.

Interestingly, FPI exceeded expectations in games involving teams that finished the season ranked in the CFP Top 25. Most systems would be expected to correctly predict about 66 percent of such games, but the FPI favorite was 34-12 (74 percent), including 18-2 in the final five weeks.

There were certain teams that FPI had a grasp on and others that baffled the system. There were 10 teams, including Michigan State, Clemson, Washington, Florida State and Texas Tech, for which FPI correctly predicted all of their FBS versus FBS games. Add in another 28 teams for which FPI correctly predicted all but one game and the system had a very good understanding of about a third of the FBS.

Texas Tech is a great example of how FPI adjusts as the season progresses. As noted above, FPI was high on the Red Raiders in the preseason but quickly learned of their flaws and adjusted its in-season projections accordingly. FPI correctly identified the favorite in all 11 of Texas Tech’s FBS games.

On the other end, there were five teams -- Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Akron, Utah and Air Force -- where the FPI favorite lost in more than half of the games. Missouri and Texas A&M also were tough to predict with their fluctuating performances.

We have been able to retroactively apply FPI to the past 10 seasons. Since 2005, FPI has correctly predicted 75 percent of FBS games. It is on pace to have its second-best pick percentage in a season but will finish the year far from its 79.5 correct-pick percentage in 2013.

For those looking for a little bowl advice, FPI projects that Marshall (79 percent), Stanford (79 percent) and Georgia (77 percent) are the most likely teams to win their bowl games, and Navy (60 percent) is the Vegas underdog most likely to win.

Stats to know: Grizzlies 117, Spurs 116

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
The Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs played a game Wednesday night that looked like neither wanted to end, and that neither could end. If it was a playoff game, it would have been an all-time classic. Instead, it’s just another in a line of impressive wins by the Grizzlies.

The Grizzlies blew a 23-point lead and needed a miraculous buzzer-beater just to get the game into overtime. But they finally managed to hold off a depleted Spurs team (playing without Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard) in the third extra session.

Elias Sports Bureau stats of the night
The Grizzlies are the first team to beat the team with the best record in the NBA and the defending NBA champ on consecutive days since the 2000-2001 Bucks beat the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.

For the Spurs, this was their first triple-overtime game since a win over the Atlanta Hawks on March 20, 1984.

Shot of the night: take your pick
The game featured two buzzer-beating bank shots by seven-footers, with the Grizzlies' Marc Gasol hitting a 3-pointer to force overtime and the Spurs' Tim Duncan hitting a long jumper to send the game to a third overtime.

It was Gasol’s first 3-pointer of the season and eighth in 50 attempts for his career. It marked the second time he has hit a game-tying or go-ahead basket in the final five seconds.

It was the second time in three games that the Grizzlies hit a 3-pointer as time expired in regulation to tie the game. Mike Conley made the other against the Philadelphia 76ers. Both Gasol’s and Conley’s shots were lunges taken off the wrong foot.

The Grizzlies were 4-for-4 on game-tying/go-ahead field goals in the final 10 seconds of the 4th quarter and overtime in this game.

To put the 4-for-4 in perspective -- the league average on game-tying and go-ahead field goals in the final 10 seconds of the 4th quarter and overtime over the last 15 seasons was 25 percent.

Randolph’s big night
Zach Randolph had 21 points and 21 rebounds for the Grizzlies. It was his 10th 20-20 game in the past six seasons.

Only Dwight Howard (20) and Kevin Love (16) have more in that span.

Vince Carter still has something left
If you weren’t a fan of the Grizzlies, you can be forgiven if you’d forgotten that Vince Carter was still in the NBA.

Carter scored in single digits in 20 of his first 21 games, was shooting only 30 percent from 3-point range for the season, and entered Tuesday having made only 6-of-24 shots in a four-game stretch. But he has scored 16 and 18 points in his past two games, with nine 3-pointers.


Padres adding power to their outfield

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
Wil Myers is reportedly headed to the San Diego Padres, with the Tampa Bay Rays agreeing to trade the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year winner. Myers played in nearly an identical number of games in 2014 as he did in 2013, missing time due to a wrist inury. His production went down considerably from a .293 batting average, 13 home runs and 1.9 WAR in 2013 to .222 with six home runs and -0.9 WAR in 2014.

This was the second time that Myers has been dealt. He was previously traded from the Royals to the Rays in the 2012-2013 offseason in a deal that netted the Royals James Shields and Wade Davis.

What are the statistical storylines behind a Myers deal?

This is an unusual kind of trade
The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Myers will be the first Rookie of the Year winner to switch teams within two years of winning the award since Butch Metzger and Pat Zachry won in 1976 and were traded a season later.

Zachry was traded from the Reds to the Mets as part of a deal that brought the Reds back future Hall-of-Famer Tom Seaver.

A notable drop-off
Exactly 200 players have had at least 300 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons. Only five of them experienced a larger drop-off in OPS from 2013 to 2014 than Myers did (.831 to .614).

Myers’ performance was down even before he suffered the injury at the end of May that sidelined him until late August.

He had a slashline of .227/.313/.354 before the injury. He came back a bit rusty, posting a .213/.263/.268 slashline and only one home run in 127 at-bats after returning.

Myers’ upside
The reason that the Padres would want Myers is because of his potential. He wowed at times in 2013 after being heralded as one of the game’s top prospects.

When Myers is going good, he crushes pitches at the top of the strike zone and up around the eyes.

He hit a major-league best .390 against pitches in the upper-half of the strike zone and above in 2013.

He saw a lower rate of pitches up there last season (the rate decreased from 36 percent to 30 percent and his performance dipped against them as well (he hit only .209 in at-bats ending in those pitches).

A revamped outfield
The Padres deal for Matt Kemp is not yet finalized, but if it is, the team will have done a significant overhaul of its outfield.

Padres outfielders ranked last in the majors in slugging percentage (.347) last season. Their 29 home runs ranked fourth-worst.

Myers had a .478 slugging percentage as a rookie. Kemp slugged .470 in 2013 and .508 in 2014. He slugged .606 after the All-Star Break last season.

One potential weakness: Defense
PETCO Park is spacious and a challenge to hit in. There’s also a lot of ground for outfielders to cover.

Kemp ranked last among outfielders last season with -23 Defensive Runs Saved. In 150 games in right field, Myers has compiled -11 Defensive Runs Saved.


Bears have issues with pass on both sides

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
Even though the Chicago Bears are eliminated from postseason contention, they got some national attention on Wednesday.

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that the team is planning a starting quarterback switch from Jay Cutler to Jimmy Clausen. The Bears have not made an announcement related to a potential move.

Cutler posted a 6.8 Total QBR and was sacked seven times in Monday night’s loss to the Saints. It was the second-worst quarterbacking performance of the week, better than only Johnny Manziel.

It was also the second time in six weeks that Cutler posted a Total QBR below 7.0 and the third time in that span in which he had a Total QBR lower than 25.

Cutler had a 59.0 Total QBR through Week 11, which ranked 15th-best in the NFL. His Total QBR since then is 43.6, which ranks 21st.

The cash value of Cutler’s contract this season is $22.5 million. That’s the highest in the NFL for a player who leads the league in both interceptions (18) and turnovers (24).

Cutler has averaged a turnover every 33.3 snaps. The average NFL quarterback averages a turnover for every 65.3 snaps.

The replacement
Clausen hasn’t started a game since the 2010 season and the reason is likely due to his ineffectiveness then. Clausen went 1-9 as a starter for the Panthers that season. In those 10 games, he threw three touchdowns and nine interceptions, posting a league-worst Total QBR of 11.0

In fact, that Total QBR is the lowest season-ending QBR for a quarterback for any of the nine seasons in which that stat has been tracked.

Far from the only thing wrong
The problems for the Bears have been magnified in recent weeks because of the team’s struggles.

The other big issue they’re currently dealing with is that they can’t stop anyone. They lead the NFL with 409 points allowed.

Their defense added a league-leading 7.6 expected points per game in 2012. Last year they fell all the way to 30th, costing the team about 6.6 expected points per game. They are again 30th this year, costing the team about 7.3 expected points per game.

Opposing quarterbacks have completed 67.6 percent of their passes against the Bears this season, the second-highest completion percentage in the NFL. Their 3,811 passing yards allowed are the second-most of any team. They’ve allowed 33 touchdown passes, most in the NFL.

Teams have exposed the Bears secondary with intermediate-length passes. The Bears have allowed 48 completions on throws 11 to 15 yards downfield, the most in the NFL. Opponents have completed 59 percent of passes thrown at least 11 yards downfield, the worst percentage for a defense this season.

Opponents are putting up big numbers outside the numbers. They've allowed 18 touchdowns on such throws, one fewer than the team with the most, the Steelers.

NFL, NFC North

Defensive rookie of the year candidates

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17

AP Photo/Ed ZurgaRams DT Aaron Donald leads an impressive group of Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates
As the NFL season closes in on the end of the regular season, ESPN Stats & Info looks at some of the leading candidates for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

DT Aaron Donald, Rams
Forget about Defensive Rookie of the Year for a minute. Donald has been one of the best defensive tackles in all of football this season.

Donald has 8.0 sacks while lined up as an interior pass rusher, trailing only Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the most in the NFL this season (8.5) and Ndamukong Suh for the most by a rookie in the last seven seasons (10.0 in 2010).

Opponents have a Total QBR of 44 against the Rams in 388 dropbacks with Donald on the field. That would rank fourth in the NFL. The Rams have allowed a Total QBR of 74 in 147 dropbacks with Donald off the field, which would rank 31st.

Signature play: With just less than two minutes remaining in a Week 14 matchup against the Washington Redskins, Donald lined up as the left defensive tackle against right guard Chris Chester. Donald pushed Chester straight back eight yards as if the veteran weren’t even there and sacked Robert Griffin III.

ILB C.J. Mosley, Ravens
Mosley is another player whose numbers stack up against the best in the league, regardless of draft year.

Among all linebackers this season, Mosley ranks fifth in snaps (877), seventh in tackles (117), tied for second in interceptions (two) and 14th in disrupted dropbacks (10.0). All of those numbers are at least tied for first among rookie linebackers. The snaps and tackles lead all rookies.

Mosley has a knack for impact plays. He is one of three rookies with at least one sack, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery this season. Bradley Roby of the Denver Broncos and Telvin Smith of the Jacksonville Jaguars are the other two.

Signature play: Mosley had a big fourth-quarter sack in Week 15 against the Jaguars, but his sack on "Monday Night Football" against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints might be the most impressive one to date. Mosley blitzed from his inside linebacker position, was held by center Jonathan Goodwin but still fought through for the sack. That knocked the Saints out of field goal range, and the Ravens eventually won the game.

OLB Khalil Mack, Raiders
Mack’s strong rookie season has flown under the radar during another rough year for the Oakland Raiders.

But the No. 5 overall pick, out of Buffalo, has led a Raiders defense that is above average in terms of defensive efficiency against the run and yards per rush. They lead the NFL in negative rushes allowed (69).

Mack alone has 27 tackles for a loss or no gain, the highest total among rookies and sixth among all defensive players. Mack trails J.J. Watt, Lavonte David, Justin Houston, Ryan Kerrigan and DeAndre Levy in tackles for loss or no gain. That is good company for a rookie to be in.

Signature play: Mack sacked San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick twice in a Week 14 win. On the second one, Mack lined up over the right guard, waited for left side of the line to collapse and showed great burst around the outside before he brought down Kaepernick to end the game.

Honorable Mentions
OLB Anthony Barr, Vikings: 70 tackles, 4.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and a rookie-high three fumble recoveries, including a scoop-and-score game-winner (on a fumble he forced) in overtime against the Buccaneers

ILB Chris Borland, 49ers: NFL-high 97 tackles since his first start in Week 7, when he took over for an injured Patrick Willis

Top stats to know: Grizzlies 105, Warriors 98

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
It was an atypical night for Stephen Curry.

The Golden State Warriors met their match.

They finally ran into a team they couldn’t beat, losing to the Memphis Grizzlies 105-98 on Tuesday night.

The Grizzlies are 20-4, just one game behind the Warriors in the Western Conference. It’s the fastest the Grizzlies have ever gotten to 20 wins in team history.

Turning point: Curry sits, Grizzlies run away
The Warriors led by six points at the end of the first quarter and appeared to have early command of the game. But with Stephen Curry on the bench, the Grizzlies took full advantage with a 20-0 run to start the second quarter.

Beno Udrih scored or assisted on 19 of the Grizzlies’ 20 points. The only point Udrih was not responsible for was on a free throw following an and-one by Jon Leuer.

The Grizzlies shot 8-of-10, including three 3-pointers by Vince Carter. Sixteen of their 20 points came on jump shots, including 4-of-6 on contested jumpers. The Warriors were 0-of-11 during that stretch.

The Warriors outscored the Grizzlies by 16 points for the game with Curry on the floor, but shot 3-of-19 and were outscored by 23 points when Curry sat.

Gasol looks for his shot
With Golden State center Andrew Bogut sitting out, Memphis center Marc Gasol was aggressive in looking for his own offense. Gasol’s 21 field goal attempts were his second-most this season and seven more than his season average. Gasol made 26 passes Tuesday, 24 fewer than his average (per NBA SportsVu data) coming into the game.

Not Curry’s best night
Even though Curry had a good plus-minus, he had an atypical game.

He went 9-of-25 from the field and made only 1 of 10 3-pointers. He was 0-for-9 on contested jump shots.

The Warriors also struggled when forced to slow down the pace. They shot only 33 percent from the field in their half-court offense.

Elias Sports Bureau Stat of the Night
This marked the first time in Grizzlies history that they snapped an opponents’ winning streak of at least 10 games. The two longest streaks they’ve snapped have come this season: the 16-game streak by the Warriors and a nine-game streak by the Portland Trail Blazers.


Offensive rookie of the year candidates

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16

Al Bello/Getty Images
Odell Beckham Jr. has made a case of NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in just 10 games.
As the NFL season closes in on the end of the regular season, ESPN Stats & Information looks at some of the leading candidates for offensive rookie of the year.

RB Jeremy Hill, Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals have a rookie running back in contention for offensive rookie of the year for the second year in a row.

This year it is Hill, a second-round pick out of LSU, who played behind Giovani Bernard early in the season. He leads all rookies with 1,082 yards from scrimmage, which accounts for 22 percent of the first-place Bengals’ team total. That is the highest percentage of team offense among rookies and 11th among all running backs.

Signature play: A 60-yard touchdown rush in Week 9 against the Jaguars with 8:13 left in the fourth quarter. Hill made one cut, broke free down the left sideline, shed a tackle inside the 10 and found the end zone.

WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
The New York Giants wide receiver is second behind Hill in yards from scrimmage among rookies with 1,007, despite missing the first four games of the season due to a hamstring injury. Beckham’s 101 yards from scrimmage per game leads the next closest rookie (RB Tre Mason) by more than 23 yards.

Beckham, a teammate of Hill's at LSU, is averaging 7.1 receptions, 97.2 receiving yards and 0.9 touchdowns in the 10 games he has played. All three of those averages are the highest among rookies in a season dating to the start of 2001.

Signature play: What else can it be? The incredible, one-handed touchdown grab that took over social media in Week 12 against the Dallas Cowboys (pictured above) was a catch for the ages. And Beckham believes his best has yet to come.

WR Mike Evans, Buccaneers
Evans, the seventh overall pick, has 11 receiving touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season. That is tied with former Bucs receiver Mike Williams for the most by a rookie receiver since Randy Moss had 17 in 1998.

Evans, out of Texas A&M, is the only rookie to top 200 receiving yards in a game this year. His 209-yard performance against the Washington Redskins in Week 11 is tied for the sixth-highest total in a game for any receiver this season and second-highest in a game by a rookie wide receiver in the past 10 years (Justin Blackmon in 2012).

The quarterback play in Tampa has been poor, but that has not stopped Evans from being one of the best deep threats in the NFL. On passes thrown at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, Evans ranks first in receptions (18) and yards (579) and second in touchdowns (six).

Signature play: It’s tough to choose just one for Evans. His over-the-shoulder grab on his second touchdown against the Browns showed some impressive concentration, and the touchdown against the Falcons showed how tough it is to cover a 6-foot-5 receiver who has a 37-inch vertical leap. Both passes were thrown more than 20 yards downfield, showing off Evans’ ability to stretch the field.

Honorable Mentions
WR Kelvin Benjamin, Panthers (third in scrimmage yards, tied for second in touchdowns among rookies)
G Zack Martin, Cowboys (played all 892 Cowboys snaps)
WR Sammy Watkins, Bills (72 percent of plays have gained a first down, highest among rookies)

Power rankings: Cardinals at 5, somehow

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16

Tom Gannam/AP PhotoRyan Lindley is the latest starting QB for the Cardinals, whose record defies their play.
The Arizona Cardinals are 11-3, share the best record in the NFL (with the Broncos and Patriots), are the only NFC team to have clinched a playoff berth and sit at No. 5 in the weekly NFL Power Rankings.

An argument could be made that their résumé is deserving of an even higher spot in the rankings. An argument could also be made that with two injured quarterbacks and less-than-dominant play, the Cardinals should be ranked lower.

How good are the Cardinals?

Quarterback situation
The Cardinals were 6-0 this season with Carson Palmer starting at quarterback. They were 5-3 with backup Drew Stanton under center. With both hurt, the team is turning to Ryan Lindley, who last started a game nearly two years ago (Dec. 23, 2012).

Stanton posted a 58.0 Total QBR this season (15th in the NFL) to keep the Cardinals in contention. Lindley might not be able to replicate that success, though.

Since entering the NFL in 2012, Lindley ranks last in Total QBR (9.1) among the 60 quarterbacks with 150 passes. Lindley has thrown 181 passes in his career, and none have gone for a touchdown. According to Elias, that’s the most passes without a touchdown in NFL history (next highest: Mike Kruczek, 154 passes).

Behind Lindley is rookie Logan Thomas, who saw action in a blowout loss to the Broncos. He was sacked on his first two dropbacks and then was 1-of-8 passing. The one completion, however, was an 81-yard touchdown pass.

Winning close and winning late
Win probability is a measure of a team’s chances of winning based on the game scenario, factoring in score, time left, field position and down and distance among others.

The Cardinals have an average in-game win probability of 51.8 percent this season, which is 15th in the NFL and puts them on par with 7-7 teams such as the Dolphins (52.0 percent) and Texans (51.4 percent).

Despite not controlling games at the same level as the other top teams in the NFL, the Cardinals have come through in close games. The Cardinals are 5-0 in games decided by eight or fewer points, best in the NFL.

The Cardinals’ defense has keyed the team’s performance late in games. The Cardinals have forced an NFL-high 14 takeaways in the fourth quarter this season and are holding opponents to a field goal (3.1 PPG) in the fourth, also best in the NFL.

The good, the bad and the lucky
The Cardinals’ defense as a whole has been strong all season. The Cardinals rank third in points allowed, making impacts on the passing and rushing game. They have the fourth-most interceptions this season and rank sixth in yards per rush allowed. That’s the good.

The bad is the offense, which has produced two touchdowns in the last four games. Only the Raiders (56.6 percent) have punted on a higher percentage of drives than the Cardinals (54.5 percent) over the last four weeks.

And although luck can’t be quantified, the Cardinals have had some bounces go their way. The Cardinals have recovered 10 of their 15 fumbles on offense and seven of 12 fumbles on defense. Overall the Cardinals have recovered 63 percent of fumbles in their games this season, highest in the NFL.

Sharon Katz of the Stats & Information Group contributed to this article.

Kentucky is No. 1, according to BPI

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16

Mark Zerof/USA TodayESPN’s BPI recognizes how powerful Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky have been this season.
The college basketball season is about a quarter of the way complete and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) has gathered enough information to rate the 351 NCAA Division I teams.

BPI is ESPN’s rating system that accounts for scoring margin, game location, pace, strength of opponent and key players missing. A full breakdown of BPI can be found here, but below are some quick comparisons of BPI to other systems. All of these systems account for outcomes of games, location (home/road/neutral) and quality of opponents, but BPI has at least one feature that differs from each.

SOS beyond opponents’ W-L
RPI is the most notable ratings system and has aided the NCAA’s tournament selection committee for years. It is the simplest of all of the systems and accounts for whom you play, where you play them and who won.

One major drawback of RPI is that it measures strength of schedule purely by opponent win-loss record. As of Dec. 16, Green Bay (5-2 vs D-1 teams) ranks fifth in RPI, largely because it ranks No. 5 in its SOS rankings. Green Bay’s schedule is deemed the fifth-hardest because opponents including Evansville and Florida Gulf Coast had strong records against lower-level competition.

Meanwhile, as of Dec. 16, Green Bay ranks 90th in BPI with the 161st-ranked schedule.

Scoring margin (with diminishing returns for blowouts)
A win is a win, but how a team wins can tell a lot about team strength. Beating Duke by one point is not as impressive as beating the Blue Devils by 40. RPI sees those wins as equal, but BPI and most other ratings systems account for scoring margin.

BPI, however, decreases the value of a blowout; a 30-point win is about 20 percent better than a 15-point win, not twice as good, which is how other methods can value it.

Four of the top five teams in scoring margin – Kentucky, Duke, Ohio State and Notre Dame – rank in the top 5 of BPI.

Pace of game matters
BPI takes score differential one step further by accounting for pace of play. Net efficiency (offensive efficiency - defense efficiency) in each game is captured before adjusting for other factors such as game site, scoring margin, opponent strength and missing key players.

All wins are better than losses (before opponent adjustment)
To capture the value of winning, all wins in BPI receive a game score above 50 on a 0-to-100 scale, and all losses are below 50. Once the opponent and site adjustments are implemented, however, a loss can be more valuable than a win.

Let’s look at an example. Wichita State lost by one point at Utah in overtime Dec. 3. The Shockers had a raw game score of 48 (out of 100), but after adjusting for the fact Utah ranks 11th in BPI and the game was on the road, the Shockers’ adjusted game score rose to 90. Conversely, North Dakota State won by one against Division II’s Minnesota-Crookston and received an adjusted Game Score of 9.

De-weighting games with missing key players
A key differentiating feature of BPI when compared with other systems is that it de-weights games in which key players are missing. Last season, Arizona began the season 21-0 before losing to California in a game where its best player - Brandon Ashley – suffered a season-ending foot injury after two minutes. Should Cal (and future Arizona opponents) receive full credit for beating the No. 1 team in the nation when it was not at full strength? Similarly, should Arizona be fully penalized? BPI accounts for key players based on minutes played and adjusts the importance of games when those players are not [are missing or are not missing.

Ultimately, BPI gives us a tool for rating teams that is more in-depth than other systems. BPI was not designed to be predictive, but in tests, it performed as well if not better than other systems in predicting NCAA tournament games.

Middleton gives Bucks a great finish

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
Milwaukee Bucks fans experienced the lowest of lows and the highest of highs in the same night.

Khris Middleton
After watching Jabari Parker go down with a knee injury, they got to see an amazing finish, one that featured six lead changes in the final 42 seconds against the Phoenix Suns. Khris Middleton gave the Bucks the win with a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer. Milwaukee is now 13-12, two wins shy of last season's total.

The buzzer-beating game-winner was the first of Middleton's career.

The Bucks have gone as Middleton has gone of late. They’re 3-2 in their past five games. Middleton is 18-of-26 from the field and 6-of-8 from 3-point range in the three wins (the other two came against the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers). He’s a combined 3-for-12 in the two losses.

Middleton may not shoot the ball well overall (44 percent for the season), but the Bucks have gotten the most out of him this season. Entering Monday, they had outscored opponents by 5.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court and were outscored by 5.8 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench. He’s also shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range.

That held up on Monday. The Bucks outscored the Suns by 11 points in his 29 minutes and were outscored by nine points in his 19 minutes on the bench.

This was a tough one to take for Suns fans. They’ve lost twice on shots at the buzzer this season, both on desperation 3-point shots that seemingly hit every part of the basket before dropping through. The other was by Blake Griffin.


Stats to know: Saints 31, Bears 15

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
The New Orleans Saints took advantage of the Chicago Bears' struggles in a big way, beating them in a game that wasn't as close as the final score of 31-15 indicated.

The Saints lead the NFC South with a 6-8 record and control their own destiny in terms of winning the division. They've won three straight road games after starting the season 0-4 on the road. This is their third straight win against the Bears.

The Saints are 12-4 on Monday Night Football in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era (since the start of 2006). The Bears have lost three straight, all in games that have been nationally televised.

The Bears clinched their first losing season since 2009. They also had their five-game home win streak on Monday Night Football snapped. Jay Cutler fell to 7-2 on Monday Night Football since joining Chicago in 2009.

A good day for Brees
Brees was 18-of-20 passing in the first half, just short of the most accurate opening half in his career. He went 19-of-21 against the Falcons in 2009.

Brees surpassed 4,000 yards for the ninth straight season. He has seven straight seasons of at least 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Both of those are record streaks.

Brees added two more touchdown passes to tight ends, giving him 16 such touchdowns this season. That's tied with Tom Brady for most in the NFL. Both touchdowns went to Josh Hill, who had his first career multi-touchdown game.

This was Brees' 46th game with at least 300 passing yards and three touchdown passes, tied with Peyton Manning for most all-time.

Trent Dilfer referred to Brees' performance as total mastery of the West Coast offense. Brees won with short throws, going 21-of-25 on passes of 10 yards or fewer. He was 17-of-18 with three touchdown throws when the Bears didn't blitz.

Cutler with another rough game
Cutler had a bad night, adding to his NFL-leading interception (18) and turnover (24) totals with three more Monday night.

Cutler's numbers were padded slightly by a late touchdown. In the game's first 58 minutes, he was 1-for-8 with those three interceptions on passes more than 10 yards downfield.

He was sacked seven times Monday, tied for the second-most in a game in his career.


Top stats to know: Saints at Bears

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15

Getty ImagesQuarterbacks Drew Brees, left, and Jay Cutler face off in Chicago on "Monday Night Football."
The New Orleans Saints travel to Soldier Field on Monday to take on the Chicago Bears (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Saints control their own destiny in the NFC South, but they face a Bears team that has won five straight home games on "Monday Night Football." Here are the top stats to know about Monday’s matchup:

Brees near 4,000-yard mark
Saints quarterback Drew Brees enters the game just 17 passing yards shy of 4,000 this season. He has thrown for at least 4,000 yards each season since he signed with New Orleans in 2006, already the longest streak in NFL history.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is the only other quarterback to reach the 4,000-yard mark in at least five consecutive seasons.

Bears defense struggling
The Bears have allowed an NFL-high 29.1 points per game in 2014, on pace to be the second-most points allowed by Chicago in a single season. The only season with more? Last season (29.9 PPG), coach Marc Trestman’s first year with the team.

And don’t blame pace of play for the Bears' troubles. Chicago also ranks last in the NFL in opponent points per drive (2.48) and percentage of opponent drives ending in touchdowns (27%).

Cutler closing in on Bears record
Although Jay Cutler has struggled with turnovers in 2014 (NFL-high 21 entering Monday), he has also found the end zone. Cutler ranks among the top 10 league-wide with 26 touchdown passes this season, three shy of Erik Kramer’s team record set in 1995.

Cutler’s career high of 27 was set in 2009, his first season with the Bears after being acquired in a trade from the Broncos.

Ingram rolling on the road
Mark Ingram
Brees may be the face of the Saints’ offense, but running back Mark Ingram has been the go-to player for New Orleans on the road of late.

Ingram has rushed for at least 100 yards in two straight road games and is trying to become just the fourth player in team history to top the 100-yard mark in three straight games on the road. The last Saints player to do it was former pro bowler Deuce McAllister in 2003 (five straight).

Back in prime time
This will be the 11th time that the Bears have appeared on "Monday Night Football" since the start of the 2010 season (most in the NFL over that span), and a win over the Saints would give Chicago multiple wins on MNF for the third straight year.

Not to be outdone, New Orleans is making its ninth MNF appearance since 2010, tied with the Jets and Chargers for the second-most league-wide over that span.

Despite their frequent appearances on MNF, tonight marks the first meeting between the Bears and Saints on "Monday Night Football" since the series debuted in 1970.

Bryant passes Jordan, has shot to be No. 1

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reached a much heralded milestone Sunday, netting 26 points to surpass Michael Jordan for third on the NBA's all-time scoring list. Bryant needed 1,269 games to reach Jordan’s mark of 32,292 points, a number Jordan achieved after 1,072 career games. Now with 32,310 career points, Bryant trails only Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).

Although Bryant has passed Jordan in points, it's hard to call Bryant the more prolific all-time scorer. Jordan holds the all-time records for scoring titles and points per game. He is ahead of Bryant in seasons with averaging 30 points per game, 50-point games and highest season scoring average.
What Bryant should be lauded for is his longevity.

If Bryant maintains an average of at least 25 points this season, he’ll pass the two men sandwiching him on the all-time scoring list -- Malone and Jordan -- for most seasons with an average of 25 points or better in NBA history. The three are tied with 12 apiece.

Bryant is in his 19th season. His current scoring average would obliterate Abdul-Jabbar’s record for the highest scoring average by a player in his 19th season or later, which came in 1987-88 when Abdul-Jabbar averaged 14.6 points.

Bryant trails Malone by 4,618 points, therefore would need 182 regular-season games to pass Malone at his current scoring average of 25.4 points. The Lakers have 58 games left this season, so about halfway into the 2016-17 season figures to be a reasonable estimate for when Bryant could pass Malone.

Although Bryant figures to breeze by Malone, catching Abdul-Jabbar will be a challenge. If Bryant keeps up a pace of 25.0 points a game, which is roughly his career average, he could track down Abdul-Jabbar in the 2017-18 season.

Some quick hitters highlighting the rarified air Bryant occupies as a scorer:

• His four straight 50-point games in 2007 is matched only by Wilt Chamberlain (who did it as many as seven times in the 1961-62 season).

• Bryant stands with Chamberlain as the only players with 10 games of 50-plus points in a season. Bryant did it 10 times in 2006-07, whereas Chamberlain did it 45 times in 1961-62 and 30 times in 1962-63.

• Bryant has averaged at least 40 points per game through a calendar month four times. Only Chamberlain (15 times) and Elgin Baylor (once) have averaged 40 in a month (minimum five games per month).

• Bryant averaged 35.4 points per game in the 2005-06 season. He joined Wilt Chamberlain (five seasons), Rick Barry (1966-67) and Jordan (1986-87) as players to score at least 35 points per game through an entire season.


How the Bengals contained Johnny Manziel

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
It was a rough first start for Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel in just about every way.

The Browns were shut out for the first time since the 2009 season, 30-0 by the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Manziel is the first quarterback to get shut out in his first career start since Rusty Smith of the Titans lost to the Texans in 2010.

The last Heisman winner to be shut out in his first start was Danny Wuerffel for the 1997 Saints (he got shut out in his first two starts).

Manziel is the first quarterback to have no touchdown passes, multiple interceptions and three sacks in a game in which he had fewer than 100 yards passing since Alex Smith of the 2005 49ers did so against the Colts.

The Browns have now gone four straight games with no touchdown passes and multiple interceptions. The last time that happened was in 1977, when the Buccaneers did it in five straight games.

Keys to defensive success
Manziel looked a lot different from the quarterback who starred at Texas A&M. The Bengals defense had him well scouted.

The Bengals contained Manziel with a standard pass rush, blitzing only twice on his 24 dropbacks. Entering Sunday, there had been only eight games all season with a lower blitz percentage than the Bengals’ 8 percent.

Manziel was 6-of-7 throwing on first down, but 4-of-11 with both interceptions when passing on second or third down.

Manziel was 0-of-4 with two interceptions on throws at least 15 yards downfield. It was the Browns' first game this season without a completion on such throws.

Manziel broke the pocket on 10 of his 24 dropbacks. He was 2-of-7 with an interception out of the pocket Sunday, and he is now 3-of-11 on the season on such passes.

Five of Manziel's eight incompletions were broken up or intercepted by Bengals defenders. Only two of his passes were off-target (overthrown or underthrown).

Worst of the Year
Manziel finished with a Total QBR of 1.0. That is the lowest QBR by any starting quarterback this season and matches Brandon Weeden for the lowest by a quarterback in his first NFL start within the first five seasons.