Philip Rivers’s 4-yard touchdown to Keenan Allen in the Los Angeles Chargers’ 45-10 victory last Sunday tied the N.F.L. record for consecutive completions to start a game, with 25. It was the kind of play that warranted several viewings, just to marvel at Rivers’s synchronicity with Allen.
It also harbored another distinction: the most improbable completion of Week 12.
Just how improbable was determined within seconds, by tracking devices embedded in the football, the players’ shoulder pads and the goal-line pylons, among many other places.
Those devices collect data like the quarterback’s foot speed at the time he releases the ball, how much time he has to throw and the distance to the receiver. If, for instance, a quarterback is running faster than 8 miles an hour when he throws, his chances of completing the pass drop.
The devices also collect data related to the receiver, including the space between him and the nearest defender and the distance separating him from the sideline. The closer a receiver is to the sideline, the lower the likelihood of his catching the pass.
All that data is funneled through a machine learning model, which weighs those factors (and others) against similar information about more than 35,000 pass attempts to calculate the probability of a completion. Unveiled this season on the N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats platform, completion probability is in the nascent stages of being unpacked for greater meaning — the frequency of improbable throws toward a particular receiver, perhaps, or a measure of a quarterback’s willingness to make dicey passes.
For now, completion probability is more frivolous than illuminating, a nifty bit of trivia. But it could eventually become a scouting tool.
“On a play level, it’s kind of fun to see how hard that pass was,” said Matt Swensson, the N.F.L.’s vice president of emerging products and technology. “At another level, it tells a story of these guys and their inclination to take risks and whether or not they’re able to convert that or not.”
The quarterbacks with that inclination this season run the gamut in pedigree, from Case Keenum to Aaron Rodgers, each of whom has delivered some of the more improbable completions in the league.
But since the model values certain factors more than others, Swensson said, there is not always a correlation between a spectacular catch and a low completion probability. If a quarterback throws from a clean pocket or if the receiver catches the ball in the middle of the field, the play’s success will not be viewed as unlikely as, say, that of Keenum’s 4-yard laser on the run to Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown in Week 1.
“There’s definitely a high degree of confidence in this,” Swensson said of the assessments, “but there’s not really a magic formula.”
In the case of Rivers and Allen, their touchdown contained all the elements. Rivers faked a handoff, looked left, then rolled right, almost reaching the sideline. He was running at 14.22 miles an hour when he fired the ball 16.6 yards through the air to Allen, who caught it on the boundary of the end zone, his feet dragging inbounds as his body fell out. At the time the pass arrived, Allen was actually 0.3 yards out of bounds.
Swensson said any catch with a 20 percent probability or less would be considered “pretty difficult.” The chances of Rivers’s completing that pass were a scant 14.5 percent.
Still, it ranks as only the seventh-least probable completion this season. Here are the top five:
Week 11 vs. Ravens
1. Bengals QB Andy Dalton to WR John Ross
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey covered Ross step for step down the sideline so well that he probably thought there was no chance Dalton would throw his way. Dalton did, and Ross rewarded his conviction, securing the ball against Humphrey’s arm as he came down in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown. The primary factors contributing to the 12.3 percent completion probability, the lowest in the N.F.L. this season, were the 38.9 yards the ball traveled in the air, Ross’s 0.4 yards of separation from Humphrey and his 0.2 yards separation from the sideline.
Week 2 vs. Packers
2. Vikings QB Kirk Cousins to WR Adam Thielen
Late in the fourth quarter, with Minnesota trailing Green Bay by 29-21, Cousins dropped back to pass from his 22-yard line. Just as he got hit by defensive end Mike Daniels, Cousins released a throw off his back foot that went 42.2 yards in the air, sailing between two Packers defenders to nestle in the arms of Thielen, whose momentum carried him into the end zone as he caught it. The pass had a 12.4 percent of being completed, in large part because of Daniels’s proximity — 0.4 yards — to Cousins when he threw the ball and because of Thielen’s place on the field, 1.3 yards from the sideline and 1.2 yards from cornerback Jaire Alexander.
Week 2 vs. Bengals
3. Ravens QB Joe Flacco to WR John Brown
In the fourth quarter, Flacco connected with Brown on a 21-yard touchdown that defied belief. Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was draped on Brown from the snap to the end zone, but Brown grabbed the ball over Kirkpatrick, reaching around his right arm to catch it. The completion had a 12.6 percent probability because of the 37.5 yards traveled by the ball, as well as Brown’s minimal separation from Kirkpatrick (0.7 yards) and from the sideline (0.5 yards).
Week 7 vs. Lions
4. Dolphins QB Brock Osweiler to WR Kenny Stills
Since guiding the Houston Texans to an A.F.C. South title in 2016, Osweiler hasn’t had many highlights. One, though, came against Detroit, in his second start for the Dolphins in relief of an injured Ryan Tannehill. In the second quarter, Osweiler flipped a 5-yard touchdown pass to Stills, who was running so fast toward the back corner of the end zone that he flattened a security guard facing the stands. The pass had a 12.7 percent chance of connecting because of the 31.7 yards it flew but also because of Stills’s 1.2 yards of separation from cornerback Darius Slay and how close he was to the back of the end zone when he made the catch just 0.5 yards inbounds.
Week 2 vs. Patriots
5. Jaguars QB Blake Bortles to WR Keelan Cole
This might just be the prettiest pass of Bortles’s career. Bortles, since demoted, lofted a 24-yard touchdown in the first quarter that soared over New England cornerback Eric Rowe and into the arms of Cole. The catch had a 14.1 percent possibility given Cole’s 0.8 yards of separation from Rowe and his 0.5 yards from the sideline; the 1.3 yards between Bortles and the nearest defender at the time of release; and the 43.9 yards the pass traveled in the air.
Kareem Hunt Is Released by the Chiefs After a Video Showed Him Hurting a Woman
The Kansas City Chiefs released their star running back, Kareem Hunt, on Friday, shortly after the N.F.L. suspended him in response to the release of a video that showed Hunt knocking a woman to the ground and kicking her at a hotel in February.
The video was recorded at the Metropolitan at the 9 hotel, in downtown Cleveland, where Hunt has an apartment. The police were called, but no arrests were made and no charges were filed. The Chiefs knew about the incident — it had been reported by news organizations at the time — but it was not clear whether team officials or N.F.L. officials, or both, had seen the video until TMZ posted it on Friday.
The league, in a statement, said it had placed Hunt on the commissioner’s exempt list, which would not allow him to play, practice or attend games but would let him be paid. The statement said the league had begun an investigation soon after the incident in February and that the investigation would now include “a review of the new information that was made public today.”
The Chiefs, in a statement, said that several members of their management team had spoken directly with Hunt after the team learned of the incident in February. “Kareem was not truthful in those discussions,” the team statement said. “The video released today confirms that fact. We are releasing Kareem immediately.”
The case has joined a litany of questionable, and sometimes violent, off-season incidents involving N.F.L. players.
ESPN reported that Hunt, 23, who is in his second season, was sent home from a practice after the video came out. The league took no disciplinary action after the incident first came to light in February, and he has been one of the most dynamic players on the Chiefs, who are 9-2 and in first place in the A.F.C. West.
The video shows Hunt pushing a woman and being restrained by several men. Hunt then breaks free. The ensuing tumult sends the woman reeling, hitting a wall and falling to the ground, where Hunt kicks her.
One police report obtained by The Kansas City Star said a 19-year old woman from Ohio claimed she was “shoved and pushed” by Hunt, who was listed as a suspect. The Star reported that a second police report named the woman as a suspect.
Clark Hunt, the team’s owner, said in the off-season that he was hopeful that the player had learned from his past. “Kareem is a young man, second year in the league, obviously had a very big year on the field last year,” he said. “I’m sure he learned some lessons this off-season and hopefully won’t be in those kinds of situations in the future.”
The accusations against Kareem Hunt are a fresh reminder of the N.F.L.’s conflicted approach to players accused of assault and domestic abuse. The league has vowed to take a hard line on cases of domestic abuse since 2014, when the former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was seen on video knocking out a woman who was his fiancée.
The league had suspended Rice for two games when the incident was first reported, but weeks later, when more graphic video was released, Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely. A former federal judge brought in to adjudicate the matter overruled the permanent suspension because Rice was effectively being suspended twice for the same infraction.
Rice, though, never returned to the N.F.L.
After that controversy, the league introduced several new policies that included stiffer penalties for players found to have committed domestic abuse, less reliance on law enforcement for guidance and a more robust investigative team at the N.F.L.
Still, the response to incidents has been uneven. In 2016, the league suspended Josh Brown, a Giants kicker, for one game because it believed he committed only one act of violence against his wife.
The league later suspended him indefinitely with pay after police documents showed Brown wrote about being “physically, verbally and emotionally” abusive to his wife.
This week, the Washington Redskins were widely criticized for claiming linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers. Foster, 24, had been released by the San Francisco 49ers days after he was arrested in Tampa, Fla., on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge.
The league suspended Foster indefinitely with pay, but the Redskins decided to sign him anyway, though it is unlikely he will play this season. “The Redskins fully understand the severity of the recent allegations made against Reuben,” Doug Williams, the senior vice president for player personnel, said in a statement. “If true, you can be sure these allegations are nothing our organization would ever condone.”
While the Redskins were willing to await judgment on Foster, some former N.F.L. players were quick to condemn Kareem Hunt. “I thought I was a perfect example of what NOT to do!!!!” the former Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, who was convicted of domestic violence, said on Twitter. “I thought by speaking aloud about my pitfalls that players after me could see these situations before they happen.”
Ray Crockett, a retired defensive back who played a part of his career for Kansas City, lashed out at the league.
About six hours after that message, the league announced the suspension and the team released Hunt.
- ^ The video was recorded at the Metropolitan at the 9 hotel, in downtown Cleveland (www.tmz.com)
- ^ police report obtained by The Kansas City Star (www.kansascity.com)
- ^ he punched a man (www.tmz.com)
- ^ Clark Hunt, the team’s owner, said in the off-season (www.kansascity.com)
- ^ league suspended Josh Brown, a Giants kicker (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ wrote about being “physically, verbally and emotionally” abusive to his wife (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ Foster, 24, had been released by the San Francisco 49ers (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ Larry Johnson, who was convicted of domestic violence, said on Twitter (twitter.com)
- ^ he wrote on Twitter (twitter.com)
Doctors Said Hockey Enforcer Todd Ewen Did Not Have C.T.E. But He Did.
WILDWOOD, Mo. — The news at first seemed to shock the medical world studying the relationship between hard hits to the head in sports and a degenerative neurological disease called C.T.E.
Todd Ewen, one of hockey’s most aggressive fighters, who fatally shot himself at age 49 in September 2015, did not have the disease, despite displaying a wide range of symptoms for it.
That was the conclusion of doctors in Toronto. It turned out to be wrong.
Ewen’s wife, Kelli, was skeptical about the Toronto doctors’ conclusion and had her husband’s brain tissue tested by doctors at Boston University’s C.T.E. Center, whose findings were checked by researchers at the Mayo Clinic.
Ewen, they said Friday, did in fact have C.T.E., stoking the debate about the disease’s relationship to hockey instead of tempering it.
on the links between C.T.E. and the sport of hockey and to fend off lawsuits from former players who said the N.H.L. had misled them about the dangers of the sport.
Most of all, the diagnosis provides some closure for Kelli Ewen, who watched her husband’s life spiral out of control and who was mortified when the initial conclusion that he did not have C.T.E., or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, became a prop in the wider war over the disease between sports leagues and scientists.
“Now I have a reason for how and why all this happened,” Kelli Ewen said in her home outside St. Louis. “How could one expert find no C.T.E. at all? So we asked another expert, who said there is no way a 49-year-old man with repeated head trauma didn’t have signs of C.T.E.”
Kelli Ewen said she knew nothing about C.T.E. until Todd mentioned it a year before he died. By that point, he was forgetting even simple tasks and conversations, withdrawing socially and lashing out with little prompting. She had no inkling he had a corrosive brain disease. The couple sought therapy for a few years.
Todd Ewen, though, sensed something more serious was wrong, and began reading about C.T.E. and its links to other athletes who suffered repeated head trauma, including hockey enforcers.
During his career, Ewen, who played for the St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Anaheim Mighty Ducks and San Jose Sharks, broke three knuckles and every finger on both hands. His nose was reconstructed three times and his eye socket was shattered. He blew out both knees. He had multiple concussions, black eyes and stitches on his face. Once, a player punched him so hard the screws on the inside of Ewen’s helmet were driven into his forehead.
“If a fighter got a concussion, it was just part of the game,” Kelli Ewen said of hockey enforcers in the 1980s and 1990s, when her husband played. “But I can tell you there were many nights he came home and couldn’t see, or was blurry out of one eye for days, or had headaches, or was confused for 24 hours after a serious fight.”
After he retired, Ewen became an investment broker, worked in real estate, received five patents for various inventions and earned a degree in information technology. He coached the St. Louis University hockey team for several years, but resigned in 2013 because he started to miss practices and forget plays.
Afterward, he became more reclusive, his widow said. He started carrying a yellow notepad so he could remember what errands to run. Doctors prescribed anti-depressants, but they made his moods worse, she said.
“In the morning, I’d wake up and wonder if I was getting the mad Todd or the sad Todd,” she said. “Todd knew there was something wrong with Todd. He kept saying, ‘There’s something wrong with my brain, I don’t know what it is, but there’s something wrong.’”
After he killed himself, a member of the St. Louis Blues alumni association asked Kelli if she wanted to donate her husband’s brain to doctors in Toronto. Eager for an explanation for her husband’s demise, she agreed. She said she spoke with Hazrati, the doctor, and asked if she was unbiased.
“I had read that there were a lot of C.T.E. naysayers,” Kelli Ewen said. Hazrati “assured me she was not on one side or another.”
When Hazrati called six months later with the results, Kelli said she was speechless. In a statement after the results were announced, the doctor said: “Our findings continue to show that concussions can affect the brain in different ways. This underlines the need to not only continue this research, but also be cautious about drawing any definitive conclusions about C.T.E. until we have more data.”
In her own statement, Kelli said, “We hope that anyone suffering from the effects of concussion takes heart that their symptoms are not an automatic diagnosis of C.T.E. Depression coupled with other disorders can have many of the same symptoms of C.T.E.”
Skeptics of C.T.E. and its link to repeated head trauma used the negative diagnosis to underline the need for caution. In July 2016, Bettman, the hockey commissioner, in a letter to Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, cited Ewen’s case to blame the news media for getting ahead of the science on the long-term effects of head injuries.
“This, sadly, is precisely the type of tragedy that can result when plaintiffs’ lawyers and their media consultants jump ahead of the medical community and assert, without reliable scientific support, that there is a causal link between concussions and C.T.E.,” Bettman wrote.
Kelli Ewen was livid. She knew firsthand what Todd had gone through, and “C.T.E. had to be the answer,” she said.
She asked that a sample of her husband’s brain be sent to Ann McKee, the chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the Boston University C.T.E. Center, who has diagnosed many more cases of C.T.E. than Hazrati.
In February, McKee called Kelli Ewen to tell her Todd had C.T.E. (The scientific link between C.T.E. and suicide is far from established.)
Kelli Ewen then asked for a third opinion, so her husband’s brain samples were sent — with his identity cloaked — to the Mayo Clinic, where doctors confirmed McKee’s positive diagnosis.
In a statement, McKee said Ewen was most likely misdiagnosed because “the samples were taken from unaffected brain regions.” Less severe cases of C.T.E. like Ewen’s are found in fewer areas of the brain, McKee said.
A spokeswoman for the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where Hazrati works as a neuropathologist, said she was unable to elaborate on the new findings in Ewen’s case because the hospital did not have consent from the family. She confirmed that Hazrati provided expert testimony for the N.H.L., but said that “neither she, nor our organization, were compensated for her time.”
But in a declaration related to the N.H.L. concussion case, in which the league was sued by more than 100 former players, Hazrati said she had billed the league for $25,000, which she said was donated to a foundation at the hospital where she works. (The league and plaintiffs announced a settlement on Nov. 12.)
A spokesman for the hospital said Hazrati later decided to work pro bono for the N.H.L. and had not been compensated.
Ewen’s lawyer, Brian Gudmundson, questioned Hazrati’s objectivity. In court documents, the doctor was skeptical of whether C.T.E. was a disease, going beyond the questioning among some researchers on whether the disease was linked to repeated head trauma.
“I do not believe enough research has been performed to date to show that C.T.E. is a slowly progressive neurodegenerative disease, nor do I believe that the current research can explain the relationship between head impacts and pathology or head impacts and the symptoms described in the current C.T.E. literature,” she wrote in a declaration in April 2017.
“It is concerning to me that someone who won’t admit C.T.E. is a disease, or has any symptoms, so actively seeks to obtain these players’ brains,” Gudmundson said.
With the new diagnosis in hand, Kelli Ewen is trying to move on from what has been an emotional roller coaster.
“Looking back, it makes me sad because if I had known why he was sick, it would have changed things a lot,” she said. “Something good has to come out of Todd’s passing. I don’t want other families to have to go through what I had to go through.”
- ^ Derek Boogaard (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ Bob Probert (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ Steve Montador (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ Gary Bettman, pointed to Ewen’s first test to cast doubt (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ Ewen’s statistics reflected his role (www.hockey-reference.com)
- ^ statement after the results were announced (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ announced a settlement on Nov. 12 (www.nytimes.com)
Unwanted in L.A., Brook Lopez Became Milwaukee’s ‘Splash Mountain’
There could be only one response, from the perspective of Milwaukee Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer, to the historically futile shooting night Brook Lopez recently endured.
In the first game after Lopez set an unwanted league record for most 3-point attempts in a game without a make, shooting 0 for 12 on threes in a loss to the Phoenix Suns, Budenholzer drew up the first play of the next game just for his unlikely long-range specialist.
A Lopez-specific wrinkle was added to one of the Bucks’ most trusted sets, calling for what is known as a “sleeper” action to free him at the top of the floor after an entry pass to the Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Budenholzer happily watched the play unfold with Lopez swishing his attempt from beyond the arc — good for the first of 15 3s for the Bucks, out of 40 tries, in a 135-129 victory over the San Antonio Spurs and Budenholzer’s coaching mentor Gregg Popovich.
“I’m not Mr. Tricky or anything,” Budenholzer said this week in an interview. “But it made sense.”
In the modern N.B.A., starting a game with a play expressly designed to reaffirm the team’s confidence in its 7-foot roving marksman indeed makes total sense. Teams are averaging 31.3 3-point attempts per game leaguewide — which will establish a new single-season record if the pace holds — and Lopez has become a symbol of the newfound freedom to fire away that even former back-to-the-basket centers are granted in this pace-and-space era.
Over the first eight seasons of his career, all with the Nets, Lopez attempted just 31 shots from 3-point range — and made three. Starting with the 2016-17 season, Lopez has hoisted 855 3-pointers, which is 175 more than his nearest pursuer among centers: Memphis’ Marc Gasol who has 680.
When the Los Angeles Lakers elected not to re-sign Lopez in free agency last summer as they were building their new team around LeBron James, Milwaukee pounced. Budenholzer wanted as many floor-spacers as the Bucks could find to take defenders away from Antetokounmpo — no matter how tall — after Milwaukee finished last season 25th in the league in 3-point attempts per game (24.7).
This season, Milwaukee is off to a 15-6 start and ranks second, behind Houston, at 40.5 3-point attempts per game. Lopez accounts for 6.8 of them — helping Antetokounmpo average a whopping 18.9 points per game in the paint thanks in part to the extra space in the lane opened up by the absence of Lopez and whoever is guarding him.
“It’s been great here, even including the other night,” Lopez said, referring to his 0-for-12 woes.
“My teammates were so supportive. They were telling me to keep shooting after each and every miss. To have them all have my back, and to have Coach Bud draw up the first play of the next game for me, it feels really good.”
Lopez acknowledged that the Lakers’ decision to look elsewhere when assembling James’s first supporting cast in Hollywood, by contrast, was “tough on me.”
It’s a decision still second-guessed by some in Los Angeles, even though the Lakers have a very effective two-headed center duo in JaVale McGee and the recently acquired Tyson Chandler. The reason: Management chose to sign the former Knick Michael Beasley for essentially the same modest one-year contract (worth $3.5 million) that Lopez took from the Bucks ($3.4 million).
Surely you’ve heard the incessant chatter about the Lakers’ need for more perimeter shooting to open driving lanes for James. Combine that with the fact Beasley has been a non-factor as a Laker, after being pegged as the more capable replacement for the departed Julius Randle, and letting Lopez go is, at best, a curious call.
Missing out on the chance to play with James, though, set up Lopez to start alongside Antetokounmpo, who may well rank as the best player in the post-James Eastern Conference.
Although Lopez averages a mere 3.8 rebounds per game, Budenholzer is adamant that he is as important to the Bucks as a defensive presence as he is with his floor-spacing. The Bucks are the only team ranked in the league’s top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency so far this season.
“He’s really embraced what we’ve asked him to do,” Budenholzer said. “He’s pretty disciplined about getting hits, boxing out, being physical, communication. The pairing with Giannis defensively … Brook is in a good place on both ends of the court.”
Said Lopez: “Growing up, I was a huge Laker fan. It’s home for me. I enjoyed playing in L.A. and being a Laker. But I couldn’t be happier playing in Milwaukee. This has been an amazing situation to come into.”
It doesn’t hurt that Lopez has already picked up a fun nickname as a Buck — “Splash Mountain” — which understandably thrills him as a self-professed “Disney geek.” And teaming up with the uberathletic, unorthodox and still-developing Antetokounmpo, of course, is a thrill ride in itself.
But maybe this all wouldn’t have happened without an assist from Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson — Lopez’s ninth coach in nine full seasons with the Nets.
It was Atkinson, after all, who urged Lopez during the summer of 2016 to come to training camp ready to reinvent himself as a 3-point specialist. With a strong scouting report from Atkinson, who worked on Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta before getting the Nets’ job, Budenholzer came into this season eager to “see if we could take it even further.”
“I’m a huge Robert Horry fan,” Budenholzer said, referring to the decorated role player he worked with in San Antonio. Horry was part of seven title teams with the Spurs, Lakers and Houston Rockets.
“There’s a reason why Robert won so many championships,” Budenholzer continued. “To have a 6-10, 6-11 guy be able to shoot 3s and space the court, it’s something the Spurs always prioritized and now it’s just kind of evolved.
“If you can have a center or both bigs out there able to create space for other players, it just makes you harder to guard. This is kind of the next step.”
At the quarter mark of the regular season, it’s difficult to quibble with Budenholzer’s geometry. Milwaukee averages a runaway 116.7 points per 100 possessions when Lopez is on the floor beside Antetokounmpo. In Antetokounmpo’s time on the floor without Lopez nearby, that figure drops to 103.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank in the league’s bottom five.
“I knew this was coming,” said the Boston Celtics’ All-Star big man Al Horford, whose own game was extended beyond the arc when he played under Budenholzer in Atlanta. “I said it during the preseason. Milwaukee played us really tough during the playoffs, and I knew they were going to make a jump adding a coach like Bud.”
Lopez is shooting 36.4 percent from 3-point range and is on pace to attempt 558 3s by season’s end. Not surprisingly, Lopez has emerged as Antetokounmpo’s favorite passing target, attempting a team-high 2.5 3s per games directly off Giannis feeds.
Lopez’s chemistry with The Greek Freak — and how rarely Lopez ventures into the paint offensively — should be noticeable when the former Net returns to the area Saturday night to play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s fun,” Budenholzer said. “I’ve got to admit.”