The Weekly Gut Check No.260 - Milk Carton Men

The Milk Carton Men series profiles players who went missing last season. Any information leading to their whereabouts may prevent future crimes in the fantasy preseason.

Kicking off with quarterbacks, the Milk Carton Men series profiles players who went missing last season. Any information leading to their whereabouts may prevent future crimes in the fantasy preseason.

If you're old enough, you'll remember when photos and pertinent information about missing children took up real estate on the backs of milk cartons. According to an April 20th article in Slate about the National Child Safety Council's decision to use consumer goods to inform the general public, this practice ended in the late 1980s "after prominent pediatricians like Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton worried that it frightened children unnecessarily."

Slate reported that this measure of plastering photos on milk cartons, pizza boxes, grocery bags, and junk mail never yielded data that showed it was effective. Considering that the only subject in footall approaching this level of gravity is head injuries, I thought I'd take the milk cartons out of retirement and use them for lighter subject. Hopefully prominent Footballguys pediatrician Dr. Jene Bramel doesn't worry that milk carton photos will frighten fantasy football owners unnecessarily.

Then again, a photo of a player with the phrase "Have You Seen Me?" should scare you a little. This month I'm profiling skill positions players who mystified their fantasy owners when their starter production disappeared - and perhaps will never be seen again.

This series begins with two quarterbacks who were once rivals and showed genuine dislike for each other on the field. Perhaps the tension stems from the fact that they are a lot more alike as on-field personalities than they would care to admit (and fans may realize).

One thing is certain, the promise these players have is lost in the fantasy football wildnerness. Will either passer find his way back to civilization?

Philip Rivers, San Diego: Have You Seen Me?

After four consecutive seasons as a top-10 fantasy quarterback - two as a top-5 passer - Rivers' production fell to 18th among his peers in 2012. Rivers will be the first to take blame for his disappearance, but I think the stats reveal - and support what I have seen from San Diego the past three years - that Rivers is covering for the true suspects in this crime against fantasy owners.

Rivers' 3-year Production Window and the Vincent Jackson Factor

  • 2010: 541 ATT, 4710 PYD, 8.7 Y/A, 30 TD, 13 INT
  • 2011: 582 ATT, 4624 PYD, 7.9 Y/A, 27 TD, 20 INT
  • 2012: 527 ATT, 3607 PYD, 6.8 Y/A, 26 TD, 15 INT

Let's begin with the Vince Jackson Factor. The former Chargers' wide receiver was an ideal fit for the San Diego passing offense because he's a great deep threat with skill to win the ball in tight coverage. Rivers knew he could target Jackson downfield in situations that aren't possible with most receivers in the NFL.

Jackson played 166 games in 2011 and averaged 18.4 yards per catch and Rivers' 7.9 yards-per-attempt as over a yard higher than a Jackson-less offense in 2012. Meanwhile, Josh Freeman's Y/A went from 6.5 in 2011 to 7.3 in 2012, and Jackson averaged 19.2 yards per catch with the Buccaneers. Certainly some of Doug Martin's big plays after the catch on short passes helped Freeman's average, but the main factor was Jackson's rare skill set.

A Headless Herd of Horses

The Chargers' 2012 wide receiver corps was a mishmash of Malcom Floyd, Robert Meachem, Michael Spurlock, and Danario Alexander. On the whole, the picture wasn't pretty (receptions-yards-TDs below):

  • Floyd: 43-856-5 and a 19.9 Y/R average.
  • Alexander: 37-658-7 and a 17.8 Y/R average.
  • Spurlock: 23-200-1 and an 8.7 Y/R average.
  • Meachem: 14-207-2 and a 14 Y/R average.

What you have above is the stats of a wide receiver depth chart without a primary talent. The yards per catch averages of Floyd and Alexander would only be meaningful in my eyes if they were on receiver's totals with an average per catch in the 17-20 range. Jackson's 2012 production was 72-1384-8 for 19.9 Y/R and that was a big part of what the Chargers were missing.

This leads the savvy fantasy owner with a good memory to counter with Rivers' memorable 2010 season - his best in three years and done seemingly with smoke and mirrors. Vincent Jackson held out most of the year and the only Chargers wide receiver in the top-40 at his position was Floyd (36th).

Part of the answer is Antonio Gates, who caught 50 passes for 782 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010 - his last elite season to date. Gates' touchdowns in 2010 alone matched the combined totals of Alexander, Spurlock, and Meachem in 2012. The Chargers didn't get that kind of big-play support from the tight in position last year.

The Chargers Offensive Line

The smoke-and-mirrors description of 2010 is my tongue-in-cheek tribute to those who don't pay attention to offensive line play, because the Chargers may not have had a great unit at that time but even with 38 sacks allowed it was a far sight better in pass protection than it has been the past two years. Footballguy Matt Bitonti grades offensive lines and he gave the Chargers unit D-minuses across the board for the run, pass, and overall last year - good for last place in the NFL.

Need a second opinion? How about my colleague Ben Muth at Football Outsiders? - the former reserve lineman for the Chargers (no responsibilities with this unit) - understands the techniques of good line play as well as any football writer. Muth points out that the Chargers had the fourth-most sacks surrendered in the league lst year, ranked 27th in the league in rushing, and "decided to either cut or not re-sign six of its offensive linemen from last season."

Further, Muth notes the lack of continuity as a significant factor. Football Outsiders has an offensive line metric called the Continuity Score and the Chargers' numbers was 22 of 48.

Much explains that the team "used nine different starters on their offensive line and never had the same starters for more than three games in a row." He goes further to say that this lack of continuity combined with its gap in talent prevented the unit from achieving a cohesiveness that could have made a difference because Rivers is at the very least, a competent quarterback and that's something Muth notes will help a team perform better even if the Continuity Score is low. For example, Muth notes that the Jets scored a perfect 48 of 48 last year, but allowed 47 sacks and much of the blame goes to Mark Sanchez.

The bad news for the Chargers is that Rivers isn't getting an upgraded line in 213. King Dunlap, Chad Rinehart, and Mike Harris are not the quality replacements that any team would feel good about on the merits of their individual skills. This trio will need to stay healthy and provide enough continuity that the onus will then return to Rivers and his receivers to make the most of their opportunities. D.J. Fluker should help at right tackle once he transitions to the speed of the game. Yes, even the mighty SEC has to adjust to the NFL and if Fluker had trouble with the likes of 240-pound Barkevious Mingo, wait until he gets a load of Von Miller.

A healthy Vincent Brown and the addition of Keenan Allen will help. Brown is the best route runner of the receiving corps and coach Mike McCoy has been duly impressed in this regard. Brown has also shown the skill to win 50/50 balls from Rivers in 2011.

Allen has excellent hands and the versatility to play outside as well as in the slot. He's a "big slot receiver" along the line sof Marques Colston, Anquan Boldin, and Michael Crabtree, but with more quickness as a ball carrier than this trio. If you watched any Cal football when you know that Allen contended with his share of bad balls from his brother Zach Maynard.

This duo is an upgrade that with time should see significant targets in both the short and intermediate passing game. However, I don't expect Rivers to return to his top-10 productivity this year unless Danario Alexander can take another step forward, remain healthy, and maintain his abundant yards-per-reception average. Even then, the challenges of Rivers establishing continuity with these young receivers, a new offensive coordinator, and new linemen is likely too much for the Chargers quarterback to find his way out of the fantasy wildnerness.

Jay Cutler, Chicago: Missing since 2008 with various rumored sightings

After posting top-five fantasy production at his position during his second year with the Broncos, Cutler has only sniffed at QB1 heights since. He has also become the butt of jokes for his perceived lack of leadership, toughness, and consistency.

More than any position in sports, fans project its expectations, hopes, and dreams on quarterbacks. It's an unrealistic projection approaching the manner we regard the presidency. Positive or negative, everything they do is analyzed and magnified.

I believe there's very little that's real anymore about what we see with most successful quarterbacks. I love what Russell Wilson has done on the field and I like how he comports himself to the media and teammates.

Jay Cutler lacks many of these qualities, and it is for this very reason why I love watching him play. More than any quarterback in the NFL I think he's needed to be brash with his teammates and coaches while not caring one iota what you and I think about it.

I haven't looked at the sack stats for the Bears offensive line, but I have watched them play enough to know that if the Chargers were statistically worse than Chicago's pass protectors in recent years it's only because Cutler can make plays with his mobility that Rivers can only dream of while wearing roller skates and jetpack. For the first time, Rivers also experienced what it's like to lack a primary outside receiver - something that has been a four-year nightmare for Cutler until 2012.

Brandon Marshall may be a fine player, but he's not the same caliber of down field receiver as Vincent Jackson. Marshall average 12.8 yards per catch last year and he's had five years with less than 15 yards per catch during his seven-year career. Further, the Bears have lacked a receiver capable of both stretching the field (Devin Hester) and making the tough intermediate and red zone plays (Marshall).

I think the best chance of that cming to an end lies with 20-year-old receiver Marquess Wilson, a player with A.J. Green's physical dimensions, 4.5-speed, and true skill for tracking and winning the footbal on intermediate and vertical players all over the field. Moreover, Wilson is even quicker than he is fast, and this gives him the potential to work the middle of the field on short routes in Marc Trestman's passing game.

Marc Trestman: Cutler's Compass

Most younger fans and current media leads about Testman will associate him with the CFL, but Testman made his bones in the NFL. In fact, I think he's best known as a difference maker for quarterbacks and passing offenses. This is why I think the Bears' new coaching staff will make the biggest difference with this offense.

There were two young "geniuses" that Art Modell hired in Cleveland before the Browns owner moved the team to Baltimore. One was Bill Belichick. The other was Trestman, who the team saw as a future head coach.

This was probably not healthy talk at the time when Bud Carson, the long-time veteran coordinator who was the architect of the Steel Curtain, finally got his chance at a heading a team only to listen to talk about the youthful Trestman on the other side of the ball.

The Browns eventually fired Trestman, but not before designing a quality passing offense that featured Bernie Kosar and Webster Slaughter. In Trestman's first year in San Francisco in 1995, the 49ers led the NFL in points scored, pass attempts, and passing yards. In 1997, the coach moved to Detroit and helped Scott Mitchell have the fourth-best season for a quarterback in Lions history.

When Trestman moved to the Cardinals in 1998, the bottom dropped out from Mitchell's game in Detroit. However, Jake Plummer threw for 3,737 yards and piloted Arizona to its first playoff win in 51 years. Elevating the performance of Mitchell and Plummer should be enough to convince most folks that Trestman has a good shot to help Cutler find his way back to fantasy starter prominence, but perhaps the quarterback guru's best NFL resume point is what he did in Oakland.

When he joined the Raiders in 2001 as the teams quarterback coach and evetnually took over offensive coordinator duties, Trestman helped Oakland and Rich Gannon produce an offense that topped the NFL in total offense, made the Super Bowl, and earned Gannon the league's MVP.

Cutler and the Read Option

Trestman's offense is known as a short-passing scheme that sets up longer plays downfield. The coach announced this spring that the Bears will also incorporate a read-option element to the offense. While this doesn't seem congruent with what we've seen with Jay Cutler in recent years, the Bears quarterback was a good runner for Vanderbilt. He's not Robert Griffin III, but I also expect Trestman to be selective with his use of the quarterback keeper element.

The reward that comes with the risk of Cutler taking some hits as a runner is that the offense should provide huge lanes behind the linebackers in the middle of the field. When the likes of Marshall, second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery, Wilson, Earl Bennett, and possibly young-Marshall-in-training Mark Harrison gets to run through the open field with a head start on defensive backs, there should be a lot of chain moving for this unit.

I like this offense because it will incorporate short drops and force defenses off balance more than Mike Martz's failed system that used too many seven-step drops in an era of the NFL where the effectiveness of this type of quarterbacking ended with Marc Bulger getting the Pro Bowl talent knocked out of him under Martz in St. Louis. Testman will use more three- and five-step drops when not in the shotgun and I think this will help Cutler stay heatlhy.

Another strong face of the Trestman hire is that six of his seven offensive coaches from that Raiders squad are coming with him to Chicago. There will be continuity with the coaching staff leading these players through the transition.

I'm optimistic that Cutler will no longer have to do more with less. I also like that it is a prove it type of season for the Bears quarterback, because Chicago opted not to extend Cutler's current contract.

This is a crossroads year for Cutler's career. If he makes the right choices and plays within the structure of the new offense, he could return from fantasy no-man's land.

Who makes it back from the Wilderness First?

Both Rivers and Cutler have a chance to out-perform expectations this year. I'd take either one as my QB2 behind a mid-round signal caller like Stafford, Romo, or Luck. I like that both offensive units will get boosts with new personnel and new coaching staffs. It will make these units more difficult to scout and provide a chance for early success.

Of the two, I have more hope for Cutler's upside, but even if I have to leave the Rivers photos on pizza boxes and junk mail, I think there will be reasons to consider retiring both milk carton portraits of these signal callers by 2014.