MADISON, Ind. — An hour’s drive from Louisville, perched along the Ohio River, sits the prettiest little town.
Madison, population 12,000, has won awards for its beauty. Best Main Street. One of the top 20 romantic towns in Indiana. One of 12 distinctive destinations in the United States, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The river walk, down from the main street, is a hot spot for joggers and dog walkers and couples canoodling on benches. In the distance, a soaring bridge that connects Indiana and Kentucky often disappears behind a morning fog.
It’s all a lovely distraction from an open secret. On a reporting trip in July, I learned this in the unlikeliest of places: at Horst’s Little Bakery Haus, a doughnut shop with just a few tables, not far from the river.
A waitress had overheard me interviewing someone at the bakery earlier, and asked if I was a journalist.
She checked over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening. There was an urgency in her whisper as she said: “I lost my son last month. He hung himself from a tree in our yard and shot himself in the head. I cut him down myself, with my own hands. So many suicides.”
She wiped away tears.
“We need your help,” she said.
A Heart-Wrenching Epidemic
Madison, in southeastern Indiana, is at the center of a drug-trafficking triangle connecting Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville. It is battling life-or-death problems.
The waitress at the bakery will tell you that. So will her only surviving son, who graduated from high school in May and talks about how he wanted to kill himself a few years ago. The bakery’s dishwasher will tell you a story, too. Her 26-year-old daughter died of multiple organ failure in 2015, after years of addiction. She left behind a drug-addicted infant.
Even the head football coach at Madison Consolidated High School knows that this town — like so many others across the country, in both rich and poor areas — is going through hell these days, pushed over the edge by a growing opioid problem that’s eating away at communities.
In the coach’s preseason speech to his team, he didn’t invoke Vince Lombardi or repeat inspirational quotations. Instead, he told the players how he ended up coaching at Madison, what motivated him to stay here and how drugs played a role in that.
The unemployment rate here in Jefferson County is around 4 percent, just about the same as it is nationwide, and among those employed residents, about a quarter work in manufacturing. The county is mostly rural, and overwhelmingly white. In Madison, which is marked by three riverfront smokestacks that can be seen for miles, the median household income in 2016 was about $51,500, and two of every 10 children under 18 lived in poverty.
The tourists who travel here see Madison’s antique shops and frequent its art, music, food and boat-racing festivals. But beneath all that are the crises that threaten to drag this town under: suicide, depression, child neglect, abuse and addiction to drugs.
“All of these problems go hand in hand,” said Tonya Ruble-Richter, executive director for the Southeastern Indiana Voices for Children, which trains court-appointed advocates for children and is based in Madison’s historic district.
“There’s definitely an underbelly, and people don’t want to address it,” she said of Madison. “We’re on fire here.”
In 2016, the suicide rate in Jefferson County, a county of 32,000 people in which Madison is the biggest town, was 41.8 per 100,000 residents. It was the highest suicide rate for any Indiana county, and more than twice the state average. Compared with the national rate, it’s a startling 3.2 times higher.
The epidemic is heart-wrenching, and it’s getting worse, said Rodney L. Nay, the Jefferson County coroner who runs Madison’s Morgan & Nay Funeral Centre. He said that from February 2017 to early November 2017, there were at least 15 confirmed suicides in Jefferson County, with many more suspected suicides from overdoses. That includes four suicides the week Madison hosted a suicide awareness walk and a high school administrator who killed himself just weeks after submitting a grant to increase suicide counseling.
Just two weeks ago, a 2016 graduate of Madison Consolidated High School fatally shot himself in the head. He was 20.
“You just can’t believe this is all happening in one small community,” Nay, 52, said. “In my career, and I’ve been doing this since I was 14, I’ve never seen anything like this. So many more young people are dying.”
Nay has had to bury the children of his former Madison high school classmates and has wept with those families, as well as many others — because everybody knows everybody here. No one can explain why suicide has become a realistic option.
Many people in Madison must travel out of town for help because there aren’t enough counselors here.
“To help someone through a hard time just takes one person listening and providing hope,” Nay said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
That’s what Patric Morrison, head football coach of the Madison Cubs, is trying to do.
Keeping Players on the Field
Glance at the high school’s trophy cases and you can see that Madison — in the heart of Indiana basketball country — isn’t known for its football.
There are awards for basketball, swimming, wrestling, track and field and soccer. But the most impressive football award is a conference championship trophy — from 1973. The figure of a football player atop the trophy is missing most of its throwing arm.
Madison has had just two winning seasons in the past 25 years, yet Morrison — a Madison native who played for the team — still dreamed of coaching there. Going in, he knew there would be obstacles, including that Madison, with just under 1,000 students, plays in a conference with bigger schools.
Winning football games is not his top goal. During his speech to kick off last season, he explained why.
“I have this younger brother,” Morrison told his players between two-a-day practices. “He’s very athletic, very smart. He can show up for a test without even studying and get 100 — somebody who had to be triple-teamed on the football field. I tried to keep him on the right track.”
Morrison, 30, is five years older than his brother, Zach. As a boy, Patric Morrison was dark-haired, husky and cautious. Zach was red-haired, thin and audacious. The boys fished for walleye on camping trips. They were kart-racing daredevils on their 10 acres of property.
The police called Patric Morrison the night before he interviewed for the Madison coaching job. “Just want to let you know that we arrested your brother,” the officer said. “We caught him with heroin.”
Zach was given a nine-year prison sentence.
“There’s a whole correlation between him, and me getting this job,” Morrison told his players during that summer speech. “Because of him, I’ve gained 60, 70 younger brothers, and I want to keep you from doing the things he did.
“I want to save you from that.”
Some Cubs players told me Morrison should be meaner. He could push them harder, make them run more hills. Maybe he could curse a little.
Morrison believes he has to be careful about how much he pushes his players because he’s afraid they’ll quit. Sometimes he’s a father figure, sometimes a task master. But it’s imperative that he doesn’t scare players away.
“I’d rather focus on the kids than the wins,” he told me, “because I see what can happen to kids who stray.”
He saw it with a player expected to be the starting quarterback. That player, the best athlete on the team, strayed.
“He could throw a ball with his left hand in a perfect spiral more than 30 yards farther than other guys would throw with their dominant hand,” said James Lee, an assistant coach and a Madison police officer. “There’s no doubt he could’ve played Division I — if he hadn’t melted down.”
The player stopped coming to practices. He was suspended from school, and later showed up on a missing-person report. A day before I met Morrison, the player had been escorted from school after being caught with pills.
“It’s crushing when you strike out with a player,” said Morrison, a middle school technology teacher. “If they have something else going on, like another activity, then it can be O.K. But if they have nothing else, that’s what worries me. It’s the downtime that worries me.”
Another player who quit the team eventually dropped out of school and vanished. Morrison later saw a newspaper article about the player.
The police had found the player passed out in a car with a marijuana blunt and a pocketful of prescription pills, including Clonazepam, (an anti-seizure and anti-anxiety drug), Promethazine (an allergy and motion sickness drug) and Trazodone (an antidepressant). He said the methamphetamine pipe in the car wasn’t his because he only snorted the drug.
As Morrison told me about that player, a text from Lee, the assistant coach, popped up on his cellphone. It was a warning.
Lee advised Morrison to be aware of students with gummy bears because they could be laced with a synthetic stimulant called flakka, known to cause violent behavior. The text said the candy was “usually individually wrapped, stickier than normal.”
Morrison could only sigh.
“I never did drugs, not once, and used to look down on people who use drugs, but now I have empathy for them after what happened to my brother,” he said. “I can’t just look away. I want them to do better. It’s opened my eyes.”
‘The Reason I’m Resilient’
It’s a good thing that winning isn’t the only thing for the Madison Cubs because their prospects for it weren’t great last season.
With the loss of that star who quit school, and the loss of the next quarterback to a knee injury during basketball season, the Cubs were looking at starting a third-string quarterback.
But a reminder of the true value of participating in sports — as defined by Morrison — showed up at practice in July.
Curry Morgan, a 2015 Madison graduate, had returned from college to visit. He wanted to thank his former coach. Morgan is a junior biology and neuroscience major at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, on an academic scholarship, with plans for medical school.
His father was out of his life by the time he was in kindergarten. His brother was addicted to pills and sold drugs. His mother died of liver disease two days before his senior year. The day of the funeral, Morrison ended practice early and dispatched buses of teammates so they could support Morgan.
Afterward, when Morgan didn’t have a place to live, teammates offered couches. At graduation, Morrison collected money to pay for Morgan’s cap and gown and class ring.
“I was scared people would treat me differently because of my family circumstances, but Coach Morrison, he wouldn’t let that happen,” Morgan said. “Sports is the reason I’m resilient. It’s the reason I’m where I am and not selling drugs right now.”
Eyes wet, he buried his face in his hands. It has been an especially rough year for him, he told me. His college roommate, also a 2015 Madison graduate, killed himself in March. Morgan was in an apartment next door, just before dawn, when he got the news. Morgan’s brother, who had been visiting, showed up bloodied and crying hysterically. “He’s gone,” he said. His roommate had shot himself on the living room couch.
“No one knows why, but he did,” Morgan said.
Those young adults and teenagers, even middle schoolers, from Madison who killed themselves in the past few years have left behind unanswerable questions. At least three students in the class of 2015 and one from 2014 have committed suicide.
One, a former soccer star, hanged herself from the basketball hoop in her family’s driveway. Another hanged himself in his garage. Another, David Lee Wheeler, shot himself as he hanged himself from a 100-year-old maple tree in his yard.
His mother, Dee Wheeler, was the waitress at Horst’s bakery who had asked me for help. She and I met for lunch after her shift had ended.
“This really came out of nowhere,” Wheeler said of her son’s suicide. “He was fine when I last saw him that night. Before going to bed, I said to him, ‘There’s crab salad in the refrigerator.’ It was his favorite.”
A Team Becomes an Oasis
Madison is a swing-shift town where it’s not uncommon for parents to work two or more jobs. So if a child is looking for an available adult role model, a football coach — a Patric Morrison — can be a last, best hope.
Last season, Morrison paid special attention to Jace Humes, who started the season as quarterback. Humes’s parents had just disappeared into rehab and prison. Another player was dealing with the suicide of his older brother — Curry Morgan’s roommate. So many things for Morrison to worry about outside the X’s and O’s of the game, but his players appreciated his effort.
On senior night of a 1-9 season, the players gave speeches describing how the team had been their oasis.
“For two years in a row, my sister tried killing herself,” offensive lineman Chance Webster told teammates and coaches as he sobbed. “Because of football, I was able to get through life when I was really down. I just want to thank you guys.”
In the same week last fall in which Madison won a national award for being a “stellar community,” the Cubs played a first-round playoff game against Silver Creek High School, in Sellersburg, Ind., a suburb of Louisville.
After so many injuries, including to Humes, the season’s starter, his backup and the backup’s backup, the Cubs were left with a freshman quarterback. Their biggest weakness, though, was defense. The Cubs gave up more than 450 yards, 373 on the ground.
They lost to Silver Creek, 42-7.
Under the field’s dimming lights and with chirping crickets in the distance, Morrison gave his season-ending speech.
He remained stoic. Deep down, he had thought the Cubs might win because they’d played a tougher schedule than Silver Creek had. If the Cubs had won, maybe his brother would have gotten out of prison in time to see the team’s second playoff game.
The defeat ended that possibility.
Zach Morrison left prison five days later.
“I am proud of every single one of you,” Patric Morrison told his players. He addressed the seniors. “No matter where you go or what you do, I will always be a contact for you.”
Many of the seniors had been teammates since fourth grade. Now they were crying. The face of Webster, the lineman, was red, his body trembling. He struggled to gain enough composure to talk.
“I’m not crying because we lost, because it really doesn’t matter that we lost,” he said.
“I’m crying because it’s over.”
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)
How Did He Catch That? A New N.F.L. Stat Can Confirm Your Amazement
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.