Some people have been tweeting and trading comments lately about the validity or otherwise of tracking “turnover-worthy” plays. I’ve joined in a couple of times because I find the discussion amusing, though I sense that a lot of the entrenched positions are less lighthearted than my own.
I get the idea of ‘turnover-worthy” plays; the adjustment is designed to provide context to statistical results. It’s a way of valuing process over production on the theory that doing it right more often (relying on skill) is better than otherwise (relying on luck).
People who are in the business of analyzing NFL statistical performance have been contextualizing stats for a long long time. When we look at a receiver’s catch %, we often see an adjusted measure for “catchable balls”, because his targets include balls thrown in the dirt 4 yards away from him as well as balls thrown 2 yards over his head. In looking at catch %, what we really care about is catchable balls and drops..
Likewise, some measures of running back performance will add elements of “success” to create a richer metric than simply yards-per-carry. For example, a run on 3rd & 1 that gets one yard and a 1st down would be more valuable than a run on 3rd & 2 that gets one yard and results in a punt.
ESPN believed that measures of quarterback success lacked such ‘richness’ and developed a proprietary formula for total quarterback rating (QBR) that is almost conjured out of smoke & mirrors when you look at how far the elements of the metric are from the simple actual performance of the QB on the field:
- Each QB “action play” (passes, rushes, sacks, scrambles, or penalties attributable to the QB) is measured in terms of the expected points added (EPA)
- Adjust for the difficulty of each play. EPA is adjusted based on the type and depth of a pass, and whether the QB was pressured.
- If there is a completion, he only is credited for the typical number of yards after the catch (passer rating takes all yards into effect) based on the type and depth of the pass
- There is a discount on garbage time, or a time where the score is out of reach near the end of the game.
- Opponent adjustment: More credit is given with tougher defenses and vice versa.
- QBR averages the adjusted EPA per play and transforms it to a 0 to 100 scale, with 50 being average.
The point is that football fans are typically pretty simple creatures who talk about a kicker who “won the game” because he came onto the field with 3 seconds on the clock and booted a 42 yarder through the uprights. He becomes the hero of the game even though he didn’t make a tackle, advance the ball a single yard, or do much more than keep warm on the sidelines for 3 hours before trotting on the field for his 2.5 seconds of glory.
Ask the average non-Washington fan what they think of Terry McLaurin, and they’ll point to his yardage and TD totals and proclaim him to be a second-tier receiver. It’s useless to try to contextualize Terry’s situation in which he’s caught passes from 8 or 9 different passers in just 3 years, or the lack of weapons in 2021 to open up the defense, or to add a premium for the Captain’s leadership and maturity.
The headlines and story summaries will focus on the final 3 snaps by Washington in the game against the Colts:
- The catch by Terry McLaurin at the Colts’ 1-yard-line
- The QB sneak for a touchdown by Taylor Heinicke to tie the game
- The extra point by Joey Slye that “won” the game
Terry was celebrated as the hero for his amazing catch with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game — and he should be celebrated.
But games are not won and lost in the final two minutes of play. Okay, they are...but not JUST in the final two minutes. Games are being won and lost on every play of the game, though some plays are more significant than others.
A running back gets the ball on 1st & 10 from his own 30 yard line in the middle of the 1st quarter and runs for 3 yards. If his team goes on to win the game, he contributed to the win, but his play was not as significant (probably) as several others in the game because of the situational context.
Let’s say that later in the same drive, on a 4th & 2 from the opponent’s 44 yard line, the same running back runs for 3 yards to get a 1st down and extend the drive. Was that play bigger than the first 3-yard run he made back on his own 30? Well, I think it depends.
If his team goes on to score a touchdown or a field goal and ultimately win the game, then, yes, the 4th down run was huge.
If the drive stalls out over the next few plays and the team punts or turns the ball over on downs, then I’d argue that his 4th down conversion — while more exciting — was ultimately no more or less meaningful than the 3-yard run he made earlier in the drive.
Likewise, if his team scores the touchdown but ultimately loses the game, then his contribution seems as if it has less significance than if they go on to win it. Context matter A LOT in NFL football — maybe more than in almost any other sport.
By way of a very recent example to show context, just think back to last week’s game against the Packers. In the 2nd quarter, Taylor Heinicke threw a pick-6. If the Packers had gone on to win the game, that would have been seen as a backbreaking play from which the team never recovered. Because Washington came back to win, however, and especially because Heinicke’s play in the second half was a large part of the reason for the comeback win, the pick-6 became less significant in the context of the game and the season. Yes, it was a terrible pass, but in the context of a win, it’s merely a very bad play and not a game-changing play.
I’m not a big fan of hypotheticals. I’ve never seen the point of activities like a 2019 NFL re-draft. I am not immune to saying on occasion that the game might’ve (or even would’ve) turned out differently if a penalty had or hadn’t been called, or if a receiver hadn’t slipped and fallen, but for the most part, my view is along the lines of, “what happened, happened, and we can’t change it, so why try?” Referees blow calls, receivers slip and fall, DBs drop would-be interceptions, kickers miss field goals, offensive tackles jump before the snap, ankles twist, and quarterbacks fumble; that’s why football is such a great sport to watch and to play.
It has seemed to me that fans lately have been more prone than ever to dismissing Washington wins with comments like, “Yeah, but if their DBs and receivers hadn’t dropped so many balls that hit them in the hands, the Commanders wouldn’t have won,” or, “If the other team’s return man hadn’t muffed the punt, we would be 0-8 right now.”
I get it; the team benefits when the opposing team makes mistakes, but all that’s being said here is that if the other team played better, they might have won.
“Mistake free football” is a term we hear a lot, and there’s a reason for it. NFL players miss tackles, muff punts, drop passes and cut upfield at the wrong time. In the high speed chaos of an NFL play, lots of mistakes are made — by both teams. We can play the “if” game all day to prove on one side that the Commanders should currently be 6-2 instead of 4-4, or to show that they don’t really deserve to have anything on the “win” side of the ledger.
But, as Bill Parcells so famously said, you are what your record says you are, and right now, the Commanders are a .500 team after getting wins against 3 teams that are probably struggling more than Washington is. The 3-game win streak doesn’t make the Commanders a great team, and the poor quality of the opposition doesn’t take the wins off the board. The Commanders are 4-4, and only 5 teams in the NFC have better records than that, meaning that — at the moment — the team’s record says that the Commanders are middle of the pack, both in the conference (about 8th out of 16) and in the league (about 16th out of 32). The 6-1 Vikings and the undefeated Eagles are next on the dance card, so things could change dramatically in the next couple of weeks, but we’ll worry about that when and if it happens.
In this article, I want to focus on the Colts game, and I want to pay attention to the plays of significance that came BEFORE that fantastic 33-yard reception by Terry at the one-yard line. I want to celebrate the achievements of Commanders players who made other plays earlier in the game that made the win possible. The only hypothetical that I’ll talk about here is what would have happened if that player hadn’t made that play — but only for the purpose of contextualizing it to demonstrate its importance.
My focus here is only on plays that got made by guys wearing the burgundy & gold.
What is my point in doing so?
I guess I have a few reasons. First & foremost is simply to celebrate the plays for what they were, and to remind myself and anyone who wants to read this article that every win is a team win, and that plays are important throughout the game.
Secondly, though, is to put forward a thought that I think is worthwhile. The difference between winning and losing in the NFL is more about making plays than it is about scheme. Average teams make more plays than bad teams, and beat them because of it. Good teams beat average teams by making more plays. Very good teams make more plays than good ones do, and great teams make more plays than anyone.
The idea of mine, then, is this: to become a better team, make more plays.
To quote myself: “Well, duh...”
What I mean is that you don’t have to wait until next season to get better players to be a better team. The guys on the field now just have to make more plays. If a guy can make one good play, then he’s capable of making two; if he can make two, then he’s capable of making five. A team that plays badly in September isn’t doomed to playing badly all season, and getting better starts with making more plays than the bad teams to get some W’s on the board. Eventually, if you want to be a very good football team, then you’ve got to outplay the good teams.
But if you can outplay a bad team, you can outplay a good team. Every guy on the team just has to make one more play.
So, my focus today is to highlight, not the plays that the Commanders didn’t make, or to review the 3-yards runs on 1st & 10, but to highlight the handful of plays that — in the context of the situation and the final outcome — mattered a great deal. If each guy that made one play against Indy can make two plays against the Vikings...who knows?
Let’s watch football!
There were 115 plays in Sunday’s game between the Commanders and the Colts. I want to show you 17 of them that I think — in the context of the final outcome — were important (some absolutely instrumental) in the Washington victory. I believe I highlighted the names of 17 players who showed up big in these plays to secure the victory.
On the Colts’ first drive, they faced a 3rd & 2. Montez Sweat got early pressure and eventually a hit on Sam Ehlinger, while Bobby McCain defended the pass to bring a swift end to the Colts first drive and get the ball for the offense.
3rd & 2— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
13:53 1st quarter pic.twitter.com/VN3GDz4qZr
While this is not a play that stands out for any reason, in a game that typically features about 11 or 12 offensive drives per team, every drive-ending play by a defense matters. Here, the front end and the back end of the defense worked together to get a result.
Two & Three
I dithered a little bit on whether to include these special teams plays; one is the punt return that followed the drive ending play above and the other is the first punt of the day by Tress Way.
A First let’s look at the Dax Milne punt return.
The argument against including it here is that the subsequent Washington offensive drive didn’t really turn into anything and ended in a Commanders punt. The reason I decided to include it was the alternate universe where Dax Milne fair catches the punt at the 5 yard line instead of returning the booming punt back to the 17 yard line, or — as happened with the Bears and Packers return men against Washington — muffing the punt and giving it back to the Colts in the red zone.
The Colts' first punt— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
Dax Milne returns the ball 12 yards to the 17 pic.twitter.com/OYqWYlJzFi
B On the flip side of the punting battle, Tress Way kicks the ball 49 yards in the air, pinning the return man to the sideline where he has no choice but to make a fair catch, putting the Colts offense on the field inside their own 15 yard line.
Tress Way's first punt of the game pins the Colts inside their own 15 yard line pic.twitter.com/bElIWJoj2e— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
Basically, this is just part of the important field position contest that takes place — a contest that Washington did not end up winning in the first quarter, but Milne and Way did their part to optimize field position on these two plays.
Four & Five
It’s the second play here by Mayo that killed the Colts’ offensive drive, but the play that Bobby McCain makes on 1st down is largely what created the 3rd down situation for the Colts offense, so I’m including them both.
A Bobby McCain reads this perfectly and tackles Granson cleanly for a 2-yard loss on 1st down.
Bobby McCain reads the 1st down play and makes a TFL to put the Colts in a hole near their own 10 yard line pic.twitter.com/2RgcwUSSFk— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
B Here, Elhinger is targeting Pittman, but David Mayo gets into the throwing lane and goes to full stretch to deflect the ball and end the drive with a 3 & out.
David Mayo with a pass deflection on 3rd down to end the Colts' 2nd drive pic.twitter.com/De5Nqa0vby— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
On the Washington drive that followed, there were several nice plays. Gibson had an 18-yard catch & run; Curtis Samuel broke tackles to gain 6 tough yards to set up 3rd & 1, and Robinson picked up the first down. But the drive stalled, Washington punted, and the Colts scored points on their next drive, so, these three good plays, in context, didn’t contribute much to the eventual win, so I haven’t included them here.
Six & Seven
These are two plays from the Commanders’ first scoring drive, which gave them the lead at 7-3.
A The first play is a completion on a crossing route to Terry McLaurin. Given that it was 1st down, it’s not a true “drive extender” like it would be if it had come on 3rd or 4th down, but it went for 42 yards, completely flipped the field position, and set the Commanders up in the red zone, where they scored a touchdown. This was a big play.
Terry McLaurin catches the ball on a crossing route and takes it 42 yards to set up the offense 1st & 10 in the red zone pic.twitter.com/P0v3W0kRr3— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
B Three plays later, Antonio Gibson scores from 9 yards out.
Antonio Gibson scores to make it 7-3 Commanders pic.twitter.com/uFnjcXHhgh— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
Nothing special happened on the Colts’ next possession, which was just 4 plays, but on the Commanders’ next offensive series there was a nice pass from Heinicke to Curtis Samuel for 20 yards. Since the drive petered out and ended in a Tress Way punt, I have not included the Samuel reception here in the collection of key plays in the win.
Eight & Nine
Inside of 6 minutes remaining in the first half, the Colts put together a very good offensive drive with Parris Campbell running the ball for 28 yards and Nyheim Hines adding another 9. Following a facemask penalty against James Smith-Williams, Indianapolis had the ball 1st & 10 at the Washington 13. Watching the game live, I thought they were about to score a touchdown, and was hoping the defense would hold them to just a field goal.
The Commanders defense accomplished much more than that.
A On first down, Jonathan Allen crashed in and tackled Deon Jackson for a 4 yard loss.
Jonathan Allen swallows up Deon Johnson for a 4-yard loss pic.twitter.com/bxUV4O58g4— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
B The next play is a turnover that eliminates the threat of a Colts scoring drive. While Elhinger’s fumble isn’t “forced”, he was certainly under pressure, and the turnover was a direct result of that pressure. Allen and Casey Toohill were the two guys closest to the Colts QB when he fumbled, and Daron Payne alertly got on the ball and pulled it under his body to get possession for the Commanders.
Daron Payne recovers the Sam Elhinger fumble to get the ball back for the offense pic.twitter.com/xKNSETmRPz— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
A QUICK CHANGEUP
I can’t resist mentioning this play, even though it doesn’t belong in this article.
On Washington’s offensive drive that followed the Daron Payne fumble recovery, Taylor Heinicke ran for what looked like a first down, but he started his slide about 18 inches too soon. He was marked short of the line-to-gain, and the team failed to convert on 3rd down. They ended up punting with just a few seconds left in the first half, losing a valuable scoring opportunity.
Taylor Heinicke slides 18 inches too soon, and fails to pick up the apparent first down pic.twitter.com/ddCBO47zhK— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
What made this especially hard to accept was that the same thing happened with Heinicke last season against the Packers in Lambeau Field, when he was ruled to have given himself up a half-yard short of the goal line, costing the then-Washington Football Team an important touchdown.
This play killed what looked like a promising drive, bringing up a 3rd & inches that the offense failed to convert instead of a 1st & 10 near midfield that could have led to points on the scoreboard before halftime.
This was a very disappointing negative play by Heinicke.
Ten & Eleven
On the Colts’ first drive of the second half, they had driven all the way to the Washington 27-yard line, and had the ball 2nd & 9.
A On 2nd down, Kam Curl met Michael Pittman 6 yards downfield and made a crunching tackle to force 3rd & 3.
Kam Curl with a crushing tackle on 2nd & 9 pic.twitter.com/fdzmHM0qz6— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
B On 3rd & 3, Daron Payne stopped Jonathan Taylor for no gain.
Daron Payne with the stop on Jonathan Taylor on 3rd & 3 pic.twitter.com/Dw7mtQ3hBE— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
The Colts kicked the field goal, meaning that this pair of plays potentially saved 4 points, which is a pretty big deal in a game that the Commanders ended up winning by 1 point.
The next time the Colts had the ball, they were trailing 7-6 and hoping to take the lead. A 47-yard pass play from Elhinger to Alec Pierce put them in scoring position at the Washington 34 yard line.
Two plays later, on 3rd & 2 from Washington’s 26, Jonathan Taylor burst through the line only to be met by 2nd year safety, Darrick Forrest — a player who had a somewhat rocky season as a rookie.
Taylor fumbled, and the ball was recovered by Casey Toohill.
Safety Darrick Forrest hits Jonathan Taylor and forces the fumble, which is recovered by DE Casey Toohill pic.twitter.com/5q3tzHxQdy— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
This play forced a fumble at the Washington 15-yard line, ending the scoring drive and keeping 3 or 7 points off the board. Unfortunately, the Washington offense didn’t manage to do anything with it, and Tress Way punted again 3 plays later. The Colts did get a field goal on their next possession to take the lead, but Forrest and Toohill forced a sudden change of possession that gave the Washington offense a chance.
Thirteen & Fourteen
These two plays are 2nd & goal and 3rd & goal. Both of them are stops.
A Kam Curl stops Michael Pittman at the 1-yard line. He might not have kept him out without an assist from Jamin Davis, who gets a secondary hit at around the 2-foot line. This play was initially called a touchdown, and the game announcers seemed skeptical about the stop, but sitting on my sofa in Bangkok, I knew he was short watching it live. This was a big-time defensive stop by the 3rd year safety and 2nd year linebacker.
S Kam Curl and LB Jamin Davis combine to stop Michael Pittman short of the goal line pic.twitter.com/sNnK58WHK7— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
B Jamin Davis shoots the gap and tackles Jonathan Taylor behind the line of scrimmage, wrestling him to the ground like a cowboy taking down a steer by the horns.
Jamin Davis with a huge stop on 3rd & goal from inside the 1-yard line pic.twitter.com/72ivvpjIGm— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
This was the definition of a goal line stand. The Colts had the ball 1st & goal at the 3-yard line and couldn’t get in. These two stops by Curl & Davis were huge for the Commanders. They prevented 4 points in a game that wound up 17-16. It’s hard to overstate how critical this series of plays was in the context of the entire game. This was great defense!
With 7:32 to play in the game, the Commanders were behind by two scores, 16-7. They needed a touchdown and a field goal, with a defensive stop in between. It didn’t matter whether they scored the TD or the FG first, but they had to score.
On 4th down & 6 at the Indianapolis 48 yard line, Taylor Heinicke hit Curtis Samuel for 18 yards and a first down. The drive stalled out at the 10-yard line and Joey Slye came on for a critical field goal, which he made, but without the 4th down conversion on the Curtis Samuel reception, the game, for all practical purposes, would have probably been over.
The Commanders convert on 4th & 6 with an 18-yard completion from Taylor Heinicke to Curtis Samuel pic.twitter.com/zloNvrsvlm— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
It was the time factor that raised the impact of this conversion to critical. If the Commanders failed to gain the first down, then the Colts would have taken over the ball near midfield with a 9-point lead and about 7 minutes on the clock.
Without this play and the subsequent field goal, Terry McLaurin’s great catch in the final minute of the game wouldn’t have mattered.
After the field goal, the Colts got the ball on offense. To have a chance to win the game, the Commanders defense needed to stop Indy, and do it with enough time on the clock for Heinicke and the offense to move the ball downfield for a touchdown.
Short of forcing a turnover, a 3 & out would be ideal, and with 3:38 left on the clock, the Colts were facing 3rd & 5. Elhinger dropped back to pass, but then decided to scramble, and dived for the line to gain. He was met by several Commanders led by Daron Payne, and in the game of inches, came up about a yard short of the first down. Parenthetically, I feel the need to comment on the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever heard a network analyst get more judgement calls wrong than did Robert Smith on Sunday afternoon. On every close play, he declared what he believed happened, and, having watched the game in full 4 times now, I’m convinced that he was absolutely wrong every time. He was declaring on this play, even as the still shot of Elhinger with his knee down a yard short of the marker was posted on the monitor, that the refs had marked him short.
Daron Payne and others stop Sam Elhinger short of the line-to-gain and force the punt with under 3 minutes remaining in the game. pic.twitter.com/vvhNp2pVgv— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
This 3rd down stop kept the Commanders alive for one final offensive drive to seal a comeback victory.
Trailing 16-10 with 2:39 on the clock, the Commanders offense started their final drive of the day at their own 11 yard line. They had to go 89 yards for the score and add the extra point to win.
Facing a 4th down and needing 1 yard to keep hope alive, Taylor Heinicke made what was probably his best pass of the day.
Heinicke to Samuels for a 12-yard gain on 4th & 1 with 1:26 left in the 4th quarter and trailing by 6 pionts. pic.twitter.com/7JSn3M3iMm— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
Had it not been for the tremendous catch by Terry to set up the offense for a quarterback sneak from the 1 yard line a few plays later, this pass from Heinicke to Curtis Samuel might’ve been remembered as the play of the game.
In any event, as with the earlier 4th down conversion, if Heinicke and Samuel don’t connect on this play, the game is over and Washington drops to 3-5.
Two Bonus plays
The catch by Cam Sims for 21 yards on 1st & 10 doesn’t really qualify under the criteria I’ve set for plays in this article, but it was an important play on a crucial drive, and we haven’t seen enough of Sims in his career, so please enjoy this bonus play.
Cam Sims for 21 yards with about a minute left to play pic.twitter.com/57XVaGaSD8— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
For the win
Of course, we’re not gonna come this far and not take a look at the payoff.
Terry McLaurin "Mosses" Stephon Gilmore and rips the ball away to set up the game winning play from the 1-yard line pic.twitter.com/83c1XlTOrj— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
Heinicke with the 6 points to tie the game pic.twitter.com/JC0l6pwGuY— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) October 31, 2022
The defense still had one last job to do.
With 15 seconds left, Kendall Fuller & Montez Sweat keep Pittman in bounds to force the Colts to burn their last timeout. When the final pass was completed in the middle of the field, the fat lady started singing.