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On College Basketball: Chris Mullin Preaches the Power of One Day at a Time

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It has largely been a pinch-me basketball life, much of it spent in the practice gym, an Irish kid from Brooklyn obsessed with straight shooting. Chris Mullin, 54, is still there, taking aim now with blunt talk.

His third season at the coaching helm of St. John’s, where he was counseled by the raspy-voiced musings of Lou Carnesecca in the 1980s, began with the expectant fruition of a program rebuild, with N.C.A.A. tournament ambition. By the peak of winter, when afternoon light shifted too quickly into darkness, Mullin’s team was enshrouded in an 11-game Big East Conference losing streak.

Mullin always appreciated how Carnesecca — still, at 93, a patriarchal presence around St. John’s — became less demanding in the face of adversity. How during Mullin’s freshman season the diminutive coach affectionately known as Looie walked into the locker room after an unsightly first-half effort against Georgetown and told his players they had had a figurative bowel movement on the Madison Square Garden floor, to go clean up as much of it as possible and then wipe it from their memory bank.

“I don’t come in and break TVs when we lose,” Mullin said. “Practice, practice, practice — Coach Carnesecca did the same. You maintain that level of routine and it’ll work out.”

For sure, the gym rat’s mantra. But what happens when the fundamental mistakes continue to be made, when the narrow defeats pile up to the point of being numbing, when injuries and defections have necessitated a six-man rotation confronting an unforgiving grind in a major conference?

That, Mullin recognized, was an actual life challenge, a test of outside-the-lines character and a part of the personal journey he would rather share more than any singular competitive triumph from his Hall of Fame career.

So one January afternoon, in the middle of the losing streak, he asked his players: “Where do you think I was on this date 30 years ago? I was on the Warriors, but where, exactly, do you think I was?”

Blank stares came back at him. A few guesses.

Chicago? Milwaukee?

“No,” Mullin told them. “I was in rehab in Los Angeles.”

In rehab for alcohol addiction, his early pro career at the proverbial crossroads.

“They had no idea,” Mullin said of what would be ancient history to today’s 20-year-old.

What his players did know, or had been told, was that four years later, Mullin was at the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, alongside Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, cranking out textbook southpaw jump shots for the one and only Dream Team.

Mullin huddled with his players during an upset of Villanova, which was ranked No. 1 at the time, last month in Philadelphia. It was the team’s first Big East victory this season in 12 tries.CreditGavin Baker/Icon Sportswire, via Associated Press

The point being, life goes on. Narratives do change.

“I’m not telling you to hang in there because some magical thing is going to happen,” Mullin told his team. “But this doesn’t have to be life and death. One practice at a time. One day at a time.”

There were charmed days[1] to come for St. John’s, stunning upsets in early February of then-No. 4 Duke at the Garden and then-No. 1 Villanova on the road. Consider it a case of college basketball imitating college life — study habits maintained, grades improved.

But the tests of intestinal fortitude for coach and players didn’t conclude there, and won’t end with a season that must be objectively judged. And the revolving door of scholarship players perpetuates the long-pondered question of whether St. John’s can ever reinsert itself into the national conversation.

Perhaps the challenge has been overstated some. Steve Lavin, whom Mullin replaced, did have three seasons of at least 20 victories and made two N.C.A.A. tournament fields. But St. John’s was essentially bereft of talent when Mullin returned in 2015[2]. Moving forward will require more of the contextual approach to life he has had since emerging from that rehab facility, through the highs and lows of a 16-year N.B.A. career, through the pain of losing his parents in the years sandwiching those 1992 Olympics.

Even during that Dream Team summer, what he has called the apex of it all, he sat on a hotel room terrace overlooking the Mediterranean in Monte Carlo and told me: “I’m grateful to be here. I’m proud. But it’s just part of the road I’m taking.”

After working in executive N.B.A. positions and passing time as a television analyst, Mullin returned to the architecturally muted campus on Union Turnpike in Jamaica, Queens, 30 years after starring for Carnesecca in the Final Four. Some said it was a natural homecoming, a nostalgic leap — and risk — that he was destined to take. Others questioned what his tolerance level would be for the game within the game, duplicitous to the level of dirty, according to recent allegations and reports.

Sitting in his office in the St. John’s practice facility, Mullin said he was not big on “fancy slogans” to contrive a program identity. He does not promote himself on social media. To the players he recruits, he is selling what he never regretted buying into — a New York experience, the Garden atmosphere on the night of a big game in Midtown Manhattan.

“I do tell my personal experience, how I came to that decision, but what happened for me is going to vary,” Mullin said. “You can dress that up, but it’s not for everyone. Some kids need to leave, but for the ones that it’s the right fit, there’s nothing like it.”

Losing makes for a harder sell. Mullin made his St. John’s coaching debut with a 90-58 exhibition defeat against St. Thomas Aquinas, a Division II school. His first-season record was 8-24, and then came modest improvement to 14-19, followed by this regular season’s 15-16 heading into the Big East tournament — where St. John’s will meet Georgetown on Wednesday.

Because most of the 14 losses in the conference were not decisive, the 2017-18 what-ifs begin with a knee injury to the point guard Marcus LoVett, who with Shamorie Ponds formed one of the more intriguing backcourts in the country. LoVett played in seven games as the Red Storm began the nonconference schedule by winning 10 of 12, but then he got hurt and subsequently left school, reportedly to turn pro.

A 2016 recruiting coup went bad when Zach Brown, a 7-foot center from Florida, was arrested on a robbery charge, then dropped. In August, Sidney Wilson, an incoming freshman from the Bronx, abruptly transferred to Connecticut. More recently, Mullin’s top-rated 2018 recruit, J’Raan Brooks, rescinded his commitment.

It’s not too difficult to imagine what Mullin finds distasteful about a career fate hanging on the whims of teenagers and those — parents, friends, the shoe-company crowd — whispering in their ears.

What’s to love? The game, he said. Always the game, and the gym.

“I don’t really differentiate from big-time college basketball to any other kind of basketball,” Mullin said. “It’s basketball. It’s fundamentals and defense and shooting — they’re all the same. There are some new innovations, of course. But on the court, the things that win games are the same, and the things that lose games are the same. It looks a little different — the 3-point line — but we were averaging 120 points with the Warriors in 1990.”

Can this old-school approach with an embrace of new curriculum work in a culture inhabited and largely dominated by verbose men with well-oiled shticks?

Tariq Owens, a 6-11 redshirt junior from Maryland, who transferred to St. John’s from Tennessee upon Mullin’s arrival, had an ideal profile for St. John’s. His father, Renard, grew up in Queens during the Mullin era.

“This was my dad’s dream school,” Owens said. “When we heard that Chris Mullin was getting the job, that helped a lot, the history of it all.”

Ponds, a 6-1, flashy scoring guard from Brooklyn, chose St. John’s over its Big East rivals Providence and Creighton, becoming the highest-rated Red Storm player from New York City to stay home since Maurice Harkless, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, did it in 2011.

Tom Konchalski, a Queens-based scout of high school players in the New York metropolitan area, said that although New York was “not quite the hotbed for talent it once was,” Mullin and his staff had done a reasonable job of establishing a recruiting base in New York while also looking elsewhere.

Konchalski said that what has been a growth process for St. John’s overall student body — a significant expansion of on-campus housing — might have been detrimental to the basketball program.

“Before they had dorms, they could give players a living stipend for an apartment, a used car, and that helped,” Konchalski said. “What they’re selling now is Chris Mullin and Madison Square Garden. Can they ever return to the glory days? I don’t know. But they could be a solid Big East program.”

Red Storm forward Tariq Owens (11) said St. John’s had been the dream school of his father, who grew up in Queens during the Mullin era.CreditMichael Conroy/Associated Press

Who knows what is in store for college basketball with the F.B.I. prowling its back alleys? Who knows which programs may become toxic and what opportunities may arise for those who emerge unscathed?

“Those sneaker companies have gotten much bigger, and they have a lot more power now,” Mullin said on a recent Friday, speaking about the latest crisis to envelop the sport.

At the Garden the next day, Ponds and the Red Storm pushed Seton Hall to overtime before losing in front of a near-capacity crowd, the kind of recruit-friendly environment that moved Mullin to say, “Where else would you want to be on a Saturday afternoon?”

In its finale at Carnesecca Arena last Wednesday, St. John’s outlasted Butler — a team it had lost to by 25 in late January — without the injured Ponds. That result piled onto the belief that the resurgence will carry into next season. In addition to the returning starters Owens, Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon, two promising transfers and one injured freshman will expand the depth chart, along with at least three new recruits.

“Everyone knows we’ve been playing short, lost our point guard,” Owens said. “Even with that, we know we’ve been able to compete with the best teams in the country.”

Cautious optimism would be the advised kind. Having caught the eye of professional scouts, Ponds is sure to explore declaring for the N.B.A. draft. And this being college basketball, every turned corner brings the possibility of a head-on collision.

After the Seton Hall game, Coach Kevin Willard was peppered with questions about his program’s inclusion in reports of players from multiple top teams being paid. Drawing similar queries merely on the grounds of being in the same business, Mullin said, “I wouldn’t comment on any of that,” while adding that he “didn’t experience” such impropriety as a player.

When Mullin was a freshman at St. John’s, Ron Linfonte began a 37-year run as the team’s trainer. Mullin is the sixth coach he has worked with since Carnesecca and, he said, the most adaptive.

“I think the way this team has held together has been due to Chris,” he said. “I’ve seen coaches here, when the losing starts, they crunch the guys even more. Chris got a lot of this from Looie. With everything he’s been through, he knows how to reach them.”

Linfonte has his own career dream, finishing with a Mullin-led flourish. “Having him hand me a Final Four ring,” he said.

No harm in wishing upon St. John’s brightest star, who, in turn, would no doubt say: Hold on, slow down, one day at a time. The only certainty in this life, this game, is the gym.

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Kareem Hunt Is Released by the Chiefs After a Video Showed Him Hurting a Woman

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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[1], 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[2] 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.

He has had other outbursts. In June, he punched a man [3]in the face at a resort in Ohio, according to a separate report by TMZ, but no charges were filed.

Clark Hunt, the team’s owner, said in the off-season[4] 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[5], 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[6].

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[7] 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[8]. “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.

“NFL, this is a bad look for the League!” he wrote on Twitter[9]. “You cant just act like you are against domestic violence. You have to be about it. Kareem Hunt has to be suspended.”

About six hours after that message, the league announced the suspension and the team released Hunt.

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Doctors Said Hockey Enforcer Todd Ewen Did Not Have C.T.E. But He Did.

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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.

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Todd Ewen, back, fought the Calgary Flames’ Paul Kruse when he played for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1995.CreditGlenn Cratty/Getty Images

“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.”

Ewen’s statistics reflected his role[5] as a pugilist. He had only 36 goals but 1,911 penalty minutes in 518 regular-season games.

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.”

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A photo provided by the family shows Todd and Kelli Ewen walking with the Mighty Ducks’ mascot and their sons, Chadd and Tyler.

When Hazrati called six months later with the results, Kelli said she was speechless. In a statement after the results were announced[6], 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.

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Kelli Ewen provided photos of her and her husband taken in Montreal in 1992.

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[7].)

A spokesman for the hospital said Hazrati later decided to work pro bono for the N.H.L. and had not been compensated.

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Bloodied, Ewen skated away in a 1997 game while playing for the Sharks. He had only 36 goals but 1,911 penalty minutes in an 11-year career from 1986 to 1997.CreditGlenn Cratty/Getty Images

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.”

References

  1. ^ Derek Boogaard (www.nytimes.com)
  2. ^ Bob Probert (www.nytimes.com)
  3. ^ Steve Montador (www.nytimes.com)
  4. ^ Gary Bettman, pointed to Ewen’s first test to cast doubt (www.nytimes.com)
  5. ^ Ewen’s statistics reflected his role (www.hockey-reference.com)
  6. ^ statement after the results were announced (www.nytimes.com)
  7. ^ announced a settlement on Nov. 12 (www.nytimes.com)

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How Did He Catch That? A New N.F.L. Stat Can Confirm Your Amazement

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Keenan Allen of the Chargers. Yeah, he made the catch.CreditPeter B Joneleit/Associated Press

Philip Rivers’s 4-yard touchdown to Keenan Allen in the Los Angeles Chargers’ 45-10 victory[1] last Sunday tied the N.F.L. record[2] 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[3] 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

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

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

In the fourth quarter[4], 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

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

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.

References

  1. ^ 45-10 victory (www.espn.com)
  2. ^ tied the N.F.L. record (www.espn.com)
  3. ^ Next Gen Stats (nextgenstats.nfl.com)
  4. ^ fourth quarter (www.espn.com)

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