For the last five years, I’ve been in a friendly fantasy football league. Fantasy football works like this: you have a team of a few players–my league’s format is 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, 1  tight end, 1 kicker and 1 defense. Each week, players at those positions accrue points for what they do in the real-life NFL games.  My league is head-to-head, so my goal is for my players to score more combined points than the team I’m matched up against each week.

It’s a lot of fun.  It’s mostly luck, but there is a little skill involved–or at least, I’ll claim there is, because I won my league a few years ago, and it’s more fun to brag if I can say it was because I am a football expert.

So, I started thinking: for what other activities could you make up this sort of game? And I ultimately settled on movies.

Like many people, I like to imagine my “dream all-star cast” for movies. But anyone can do that. Fantasy film-making needs to have an element of strategy and resource management.  So, I came up with some rules.

The format of the Fantasy Movie Cast/Crew is as follows:

  • 1 Director
  • 1 Lead Actor
  • 1 Lead Actress
  • 1 Supporting Actor
  • 1 Supporting Actress
  • 1 Screenwriter
  • 1 Cinematographer
  • 1 Composer

Yes, I realize it takes a lot more people to make a movie, but as with Fantasy sports, there have to be some constraints.

Another constraint: you are only allowed to have two Academy Award-nominees per “team”.  That is what brings out the strategic element–it forces players to prioritize where they want the proven talent.  That’s not to say only Academy Award nominees are any good, but again, as with fantasy sports, you have to know how to find under-valued talent to succeed.

Also, you can’t cheat and use one nominee in multiple slots–no written by/directed by/starring the same person.

Finally, the selection is limited to living people–so no building All-Time teams with Stanley Kubrick directing Peter O’Toole or something.

So, here’s my team:

Director: Mike Leigh. Using one of my two Oscar slots right off the bat.  I figured having an established presence at the helm would be important. He also has experience directing in theater as well as film, and I think that versatility would be useful.

Others I considered: Sir Kenneth Branagh, Rian Johnson.

Lead Actor:  Roger Guenveur Smith. This is what I mean about under-valued talent.  I have seen Smith perform live in his one-man show Juan and John, and he is a marvelous actor. Why isn’t he more widely known?  Beats me.  He is excellent at cycling through a huge range of emotions, and can create all different kinds of characters–often in the space of a few minutes.  He also has a distinctive voice and memorable presence.

Others I considered: Ewan McGregor, Joel Edgerton, Ralph Fiennes

Lead Actress: Natalie Portman. Yeah, yeah; long-time readers probably knew I would pick her the minute they read the description of the game.  Well, she’s a great actress with a wide range, and a particular knack for dark or tragic roles.  Besides which, for a movie to succeed, it helps to have at least one big-name lead.

Others I considered: Rachel Weisz, Sigourney Weaver, Felicia Day

Supporting Actor: Stephen Colbert. People know him mainly as a talk-show host, but he does have a background in acting, which you could see sometimes on The Colbert Report when he would really dial up the crazy.  I read once that he said he always wanted to play Richard in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Just the fact that he said that earns him some acting credit, in my book.

Others I considered: Jeff Lewis, Hugh Laurie

Supporting Actress: Sara Kestelman. Like Smith, I first heard of Kestelman when she was voice acting in the game Knights of the Old Republic II. Since then, I’ve seen her perform in all sorts of things.  But it’s still her KotOR II role that best showcases what a terrific actress she is. While the writing is terrific, I think  Kestelman’s acting also made Kreia into one of the greatest characters in gaming history.

Others I considered: Rashida Jones, Tina Fey

Screenwriter: Anthony Tambakis. His work on Jane Got a Gun and his novel Swimming with Bridgeport Girls impressed me enough to take a chance on someone with a relatively small body of work.

Others I considered: None. There aren’t too many active screenwriters whose work I like.

Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin. I’ve only seen one movie on which he served as cinematographer: The Brothers Bloom. But it had something I really, really liked: color. Not just muted greens and greys and browns, but honest-to-goodness colors. This has fallen out of fashion for some reason, and it’s annoying. So, on the basis of his willingness to accommodate the full spectrum of colors, I choose him.

Others I considered: Dick Pope.

Composer: Lisa Gerrard. Another talent I first discovered in Jane Got a Gun. Since then, I’ve heard her work in the band Dead Can Dance, and I was hooked.

Others I considered: Clint Mansell

As for what the movie would be about–well, we can sort those details out later! That’s how the big studio producers do it, after all. As for scoring and head-to-head competitions, those also can be determined later.

How would you build your ideal movie cast and crew?

[Inspired by (but not exactly a parody of) Tom Lehrer’s “Elements” song, which is itself a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” song.]

Since the Cleveland Browns came back to the NFL in ’99
The quarterbacks who’ve played for them form a very long depressing line–
There was a lot of optimism (I myself can vouch for it)
When the Brownies first came back into town and got Tim Couch for it.
Ty Detmer was a back-up that they had hired just to mentor him,
And Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn, they both sometimes went in for him.
Kelly Holcomb got the job, then Garcia, Dilfer, and McCown
And before you knew it, Akron’s Charlie Frye was the newest Cleveland Brown.

But Charlie Frye was out and in his stead was Derek Anderson
Who briefly held off second-stringer Brady Quinn (Ohio’s native son.)
Both Bruce Gradkowski and Ken Doresy brief QB careers did enjoy
And then the job came down to either Jake Delhomme or Colt McCoy.
Wallace, Weeden and Thaddeus Lewis, they all came and went as well,
And then the starting job to veteran Jason Campbell fell.
But Campbell might as well have left his luggage packed up in the foyer
For soon, the Cleveland quarterback was a chap called Brian Hoyer.

Brian Hoyer didn’t last, and soon the Browns fans began to call
For the gridiron magician who was known as “Johnny Football”
But what worked at A&M doesn’t really work beside the lake–
And after starting Connor Shaw, the Browns admitted their mistake.
Josh McCown was signed, but he didn’t play for them for very long,
And Davis, RG III and Kessler form the coda of this song.
Kizer’s next to be the starter–a rookie out of Notre Dame,
And now we’ll sit and wait to find out who’s in after next week’s game!

[Note: the order reflects my prediction for each team’s standing in the division at the end of the season.]

AFC East

Patriots
Will Tom get his sixth?
They’re loaded like in ‘seven–
It ends the same way.

Dolphins
They’re not a bad team.
But they’re still just waiting on
Brady’s retirement.

Bills
Rebuilding again.
Could be good in a few years.
We’ve heard that before.

 Jets
Usually they’re good
When they’re expected to stink.
But this time, they’ll stink.

AFC North

Ravens
I’m not giving up
On my belief in Flacco.
They win division.

Steelers
Big Ben will get hurt.
Without him, their offense tanks;
And defense is weak.

Browns
Believe it or not
They might be decent this year.
But still no playoffs.

Bengals
Finishing last place
Might get Coach Lewis fired.
But not a sure thing.

AFC South

Colts
It takes more than Luck
To build a consistent team–
Also needs some linemen.

Titans
Mariota is good
But Murray will get injured
And still no playoffs.

Jaguars
They will be awful.
That is, really, really bad–
As in, not too good.

Texans
Watson disappoints,
And a regressing defense
Causes a meltdown.

AFC West

Chargers
Last ride for Rivers?
Their injury luck changes
And they become good.

Broncos
Two seasons ago
Nationwide was on their side.
Life comes at you fast.

Chiefs
Alex Smith is like
Football’s Rodney Dangerfield–
No respect at all.

Raiders
Beast Mode will Bust Mode.
Lame-duck seasons aren’t pretty–
They will fall apart.

NFC East

Cowboys
Prescott is for real.
Behind powerful o-line
They win Super Bowl.

Redskins
Cousins will be great,
And management will be bad.
Will be wild card.

Giants
Still mediocre–
As they’ve been for a decade;
Save two playoff runs.

Eagles
Wonder where winning
Wentz went–he’ll regress this year.
Back to the cellar.

NFC North

Packers
Will better defense
Yield better playoff results?
No-lose title game.

Vikings
Won’t miss Peterson.
But they will miss Brdgewater
And the postseason.

Bears
Quarterback nightmare
Is the most Bears thing ever–
But without defense.

Lions
Stafford’s luck runs out.
Last year was just a mirage;
Meet reality.

NFC South

Panthers
Superman returns!
Cam Newton will lead a run
To division crown.

Buccaneers
They are the new Saints–
Fun offense, lousy defense.
8 and 8 finish.

Saints
Drew Brees’s last year;
Ends a great career on a
Real depressing note.

Falcons
A collapse like theirs
Is bound to cause hangover.
Foregone conclusion.

NFC West

Seahawks
Wilson is awesome.
But their window is closing–
Can’t beat the Cowboys.

49ers
They must be wishing
They could bring Jim Harbaugh back.
“Don’t know what you’ve got…”

Rams
Would have been awesome
Playing in the ’70s–
But now, not so much.

Cardinals
Palmer, Fitz are old–
Without a solid QB
Offense falls apart.

I often criticize the New England Patriots for their play-calling. I argue that they throw the ball too much, and the only reason they usually get away with it is that Brady is so good.

But, as a student of the game, it’s only fair I give them credit where it is due.  And at the end of regulation in Super Bowl LI, with the score tied at 28, they ran one of the most brilliant plays I’ve ever seen.

They pretended like they were just going to take a knee to run out the clock and go to overtime. But instead, they either handed off or direct snapped (I couldn’t tell which) to the running back Dion Lewis, who was lined up close to Brady in standard kneeldown formation.

Brady acted like he took a knee, then rolled out and faked that he had the ball while the rest of the team ran to block for Lewis as he ran down the sideline.

The Falcons ultimately ran Lewis out of bounds, so nothing came of it.  Some fans even criticized the play since Lewis seemingly got injured on the run.

 

Even though it didn’t work,the play was a stroke of genius for two reasons:

  1. There are very few situations where a fake kneeldown makes any sense. Obviously, you usually take a knee when you are about to win,so faking in that case is a needless risk. And no one would ever take a knee when they are trailing. The only other time it would make sense to run such a fake would be at the end of the first half. The fact that the Patriots even bothered to think about and practice such a highly specific play shows why they are so dominant.
  2. The logic is impeccable. It is a low-risk, high-reward play.  The risk is a fumble, which would only be a problem if the other team ran it back for a touchdown, since there wasn’t time for any additional plays to be run.  The odds of that were low, especially since Lewis was careful to stay near the sideline.  On the other hand, the potential reward was winning the Super Bowl.  It was very calculated.

So, well done, Patriots play-callers. Good decision.  Now just learn not to throw the ball with the lead in the 4th quarter, and not to send Tom Brady to throw blocks on reverses, and you’ll really have this football thing mastered.

NFC Championship Game

My gut tells me the Packers will win.  I think it’s because they are on a winning streak and Aaron Rodgers is playing at an otherworldly level.

That said, I also think I could be selling the Falcons short just because they are the Falcons, and Falcons teams of yesteryear always choked in big moments.  Which is very unfair to them–they are not the Falcons of yesteryear; they are their own team, and they have been good enough to earn the number 2 seed in the conference.

Both teams have very good offenses.  But, being football experts, we know that’s all well and good for the regular season, but defense is what matters in the playoffs.

So, which team has the better defense? As it turns out, neither of them are stellar, but Green Bay’s looks to be slightly better. But it’s close.

Accordingly, I predict a narrow Packer win:

GB: 30

ATL: 28

AFC Championship Game

At this point, it’s starting to feel like it should be called the “Patriots vs. Special Guest ________ Game”. Six conference championship game appearances in a row is crazy. That said, the Steelers are kind of like a mini-dynasty within New England’s 15-years-and-counting reign. They’ve reached three Super Bowls in that time, and it could have been more if not for two conference title game losses… to the Patriots.

The Steelers have some incredible offensive firepower, to be sure. Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are the top QB/WR combination in the league. Who really stands out though is Le’Veon Bell. I’ve never seen a running back like him.He takes the handoff and then just stands there, waiting and watching for his opportunity. Then, when he finally commits, he doesn’t seem to run so much as glide through the defense. It’s weird and beautiful to watch. I don’t think many teams know how to handle it.

But the Patriots have this guy, Belichick–maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s only been making a career out of neutralizing top offensive players for about 30 years. The Bills’ seemingly unstoppable no-huddle offense of the 1990s? He stopped it in Super Bowl XXV. The Rams’ nearly-invincible “Greatest Show on Turf”? He destroyed it so bad it ceased to exist after Super Bowl XXXVI. The great Peyton Manning? He shut him down twice in the post-season. LaDainian Tomlinson, Andrew Luck… the list of offensive stars he has  defeated over the years is long.

The teams that beat the Patriots in the playoffs are the teams that have no true stars, but instead simply play well-balanced, efficient football. (And their defense rattles Brady. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) If a team is reliant on a few superstars, Belichick will defeat them, because he knows he only has to take away one or two guys and then his work is done.

The Steelers are reliant on two superstars–Brown and Bell. This bodes ill for them.

But there’s another dimension here: what about the Patriots’ offense vs. the Steelers’ defense?

Last week’s win against Houston was one of the sloppiest, stupidest offensive games I’ve ever seen New England play. Time and again, Brady would drop back to pass, find no one open, and start scrambling before receiving a vicious hit from a defender.

Even late in the game, while holding a double-digit lead, New England stubbornly refused to run the ball and milk the clock. Brady continued to throw–often incomplete, slowing down the game–and absorbing tons of punishment.

On those rare occasions when they did run, it  was with a small running back or a wide receiver on a reverse.(In perhaps the stupidest call of all, they actually had Brady blocking for a reverse at one point in the 4th quarter. The Football Gods will one day punish this arrogance.)   They seemed unwilling to put in Blount and simply play power football.

If I thought the Patriots would play that type of game again this week, I’d feel better about Pittsburgh’s chances. But my guess is that Belichick has reamed out everyone involved with the offense, including Brady, and they are not going to let it happen again. Especially not against a Pittsburgh defense that they have pretty consistently owned over the years.

NE: 30

PIT: 13

In his memoir Where Else Would You Rather Be?, Hall of Fame football coach Marv Levy offered some advice to coaches on how to speak to the press. Levy recognized that offense wins games, but defense wins championships–but he also knew that sportswriters prefer to hear, and write, about offense.  So he advised the following:

Talk about offense. Talk about your aerial circus. Give it a signature name. Call it “The Coast-to-Coast Offense,” or announce, as an alternative, that it will be known–if your last name is Kappelmeier–by the appellation “Air Kappelmeier”. Talk about how innovative you are. Tell them you invented the spiral. Tell them that you like to roll the dice, that punting is for sissies, and that defense is for criminal lawyers. Use words like “razzle dazzle” and every synonymous term you can dredge up. Don’t talk about reverses; talk about triple reverses and fake reverses. Tell the world how you are going to go for it on fourth down, probably with a play-action pass. Say something catchy, such as, “Our offense will take no prisoners” or “Wait until you see our weapons of mass destruction.” And then–do what it takes to win. (p. 214)

Levy’s advice applies to other endeavors besides football.  More often than not, what people want to hear and what actually needs to be done to succeed are very different.

This is why the field of public relations exists. In theory, the job of a public relations person is to handle saying what people want to hear, while the rest of the organization handles doing what needs to be done.

Some people can do what Levy describes: they can wear their public relations hat and tell everyone what sounds good, and then take off that hat and resume doing their jobs. I’m no expert, but I get the sense that Steve Jobs was one of these people.

Where problems happen is if you get a P.R. person who believes their own P.R. pitch running the show.  If somebody who is great at telling people what they want to hear accidentally takes control of the behind-the-scenes stuff, it can lead to prolonged problems for an organization.  Worse yet, it’s hard to get rid of such a person, because he will keep telling people what they want to hear, and thus they will be sympathetic towards him and too willing to forgive failures.

AFC East

Dolphins
Tannehill improves;
Rejuvenated offense
Wins the division

Patriots
With no Tom Brady
Garoppolo will be good–
But defense will not.

Bills
Taylor and Watkins
Need to prove if they’re for real
Or it’s “Goodbye Rex”

 

Jets
Fitzpatrick is back,
But he’s still not the answer–
Can’t make the playoffs.

AFC North

Ravens
Flacco will surprise–
(I know, I said that before)
This time in good way.

Steelers
Sure, they’re talented–
But injuries, suspensions
Mar their playoff hopes.

Bengals
Lack of discipline
Showed in last year’s playoff game
Presages meltdown.

Browns
Same story each year–
Like the chimera, Griffin
Can’t be believed in.

AFC South

Colts
Luck will bounce right back–
Better for having struggled–
And win Super Bowl

Jaguars
Old order changeth:
They now warrant some respect–
But still no playoffs.

Titans
Mariota still
The next “game changing” QB
Who crashes and burns.

Texans
The Wizard of Oz?
“D” made Osweiler look good.
Pay no attention.

AFC West

Broncos
Sanchez of ’09
Paired up with that strong defense
Would have been scary.

Chargers
Not as bad as they
Looked last year, but they are still
Far from being good.

Raiders
Dangerous offense–
But Denver’s dangerous “D”
Keeps a lid on them.

Chiefs
Solid, but boring,
It’s always the same story–
Reid is good, not great.

NFC East

Redskins
“Captain” Kirk Cousins
Boldly goes where they’ve not gone
In years: Super Bowl.

Giants
Eli will be good,
And a strong passing offense
Makes them wild card.

Cowboys
If they stay healthy,
They’re best in their division.
Too big of an “if”.

Eagles
Rebuilding again;
After failed experiment.
Reid looks good now, huh?

NFC North

Bears
Fox’s teams do well
In his second year with them.
They make the playoffs.

Vikings
After heartbreaker–
They come back even better.
But Peterson’s done.

Packers
They are a strong team—
But their luck has to run out,
And this is the year.

Lions
No Calvin Johnson
Will mean no identity–
It will be ugly.

NFC South

Panthers
Newton will regress;
But still will be good enough
To win division.

Saints
Brees is getting old.
Can’t sustain their old style–
Will need to rebuild.

Falcons
Is Matt Ryan good
Or a glorified Stafford?
It is hard to say.

Buccaneers
Winston has been good;
But they seem too pass-happy
To be complete team.

NFC West

Seahawks
Wilson is awesome.
May be league’s most balanced team–
But lose title game.

49ers
Kelly’s second chance
Works out for them and for him–
“Kap”, Hyde run wild.

Rams
Move back to LA
Makes them seem glamorous till
Fans see their offense.

Cardinals
Palmer, Fitz are old–
Without a solid QB
Offense falls apart.

I am a fan of the Buffalo Bills, first and foremost.  I will always root for them; and someday, in the words of the late, great Bills fan Tim Russert, “They will win the damn Super Bowl”.

In the meantime, though, I’ve had to find some other team to pull for in the playoffs, once Buffalo is out.  I gravitated, grudgingly at first, towards the New England Patriots.  Over time, I’ve come to have a strong affection for them as a result.

Most Bills fans will say this is treason.  They have beaten us like a drum ever since Belichick got there.  We have suffered humiliating blowouts and agonizing last-second losses at their hands.  How can I root for them, even a little?

The fact is, the Patriots are the team we all would want our team to be.  They are the premier organization in the sport.  Hate them if you want, but if Belichick and Brady came to your favorite team, would you be anything other than thrilled?

I think this tends to happen with dynasties. My Mom’s favorite team is the Steelers, but she still fondly remembers the Green Bay Packer teams that were dominant in her youth. You get used to seeing these dynastic teams so much that they become pleasantly familiar.  I associate good football with the Patriot brand.

It started out that I would pull for the Patriots in the playoffs, and over the years it developed that I pretty much root for them all the time except when they play the Bills, or when a Patriots victory would result in the Bills missing the playoffs, since the Bills almost always need help to make the playoffs by early November.

The other reason I like New England is I felt bad for them when they lost to the Giants.  I’ve never liked the Giants. (Possibly due to lingering animosity from their narrow Super Bowl win over the Bills that gets replayed every year.) I wanted the Patriots to go 19-0, and it was sad when they were denied on the freakish and bizarre “helmet catch” play.

I hoped they would win the second time around against New York, but wasn’t surprised when they didn’t.  That Patriots team had such a bad defense that they had no business being in the Super Bowl. Even the Bills beat them that year. (Trivia: the Bills have beaten the Patriots exactly three times since I started following football: Once in 2003, once in 2011, and once in 2014.  In each year, the Patriots have gone on to reach the Super Bowl.)

All this is background to the story of the 2014 season, which was the most memorable football season I have ever had in my years of following the game.

(more…)

I am fascinated by football helmets and uniforms.  I study them like some people I know study the dresses movie stars wear at award ceremonies.  Like any enthusiast, I have my opinions on the aesthetics of uniforms and helmets.

In my opinion, these are probably the two best helmets in all of football:

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Image Credit to the NFL. Reproduced under Fair Use for the Purpose of Criticism.

I’m not crazy about the black pants for the Bengals–I almost always prefer white jerseys with white pants–but otherwise I think these are pretty good. (Interestingly, the Ram helmet with yellow horn was the first football helmet design ever.)

Apart from white-on-white, I usually don’t like the same color jerseys and pants–teams like the Chiefs, Texans and Cardinals will wear all red, and they look like they are in their pajamas. I did like these old Buffalo Bills uniforms, though I would prefer it with a white helmet.

The absolute worst uniform in all of football is the Tennessee Titans’ current one.  It is a total disaster, although this mess the Jaguars wore (against the Titans even!) is pretty bad, but it was only an alternate.

I am also a big believer that you can’t change your uniform once you have success with it.  The Rams won the Super Bowl with their yellow horn helmets, then changed them to an awful gold color, and haven’t won since.  They did lose one to the Patriots, who are now stuck with a pretty bad uniform that they have enjoyed tremendous success in.

At the college level, everybody gets new uniforms all the time now, thanks to the influence of the Oregon football team.  Oregon wears a new combination every week, and I have yet to see them find one that is good, although these chrome helmets look kind of interesting.

In general, I find most college uniforms to be stupid. I do like these all-grey uniforms that West Virginia and a few other schools have done. Strangely, my team, the Ohio State Buckeyes, has not worn one of these even though grey is one of their traditional team colors.  Speaking of the Buckeyes, their regular uniforms are some of the best in the sport.  These alternates, which I call their “Christmas tree ornament helmets”, are weird but interesting.

Probably the best helmet/uniform combinations in college football are USC, Ohio State and Michigan State.  I also loved these camouflage uniforms that Army has worn a few times.

What helmets and/or uniforms do you like?

Well, I was wrong. I thought Carolina’s balance on offense and defense would allow them to take Denver down.  In the event, the Denver defense was just too much.  I should have listened to that hunch that said: But remember when the mediocre New York Giants destroyed the mighty Patriots using their strong defensive line!  It was like watching that game again, only more so, because the Panthers looked completely shell-shocked from the first quarter on.

Cam Newton has been taking a lot of heat for not diving on a fumble with 4:10 left in the game that sealed the victory for the Broncos.  Personally, I think that was the least of Carolina’s problems. Even if he recovered, it was going to be 4th and 18 from the Carolina 15 yard line.  With the way they played, does anyone honestly think they were going to get that?

I knew Carolina was in trouble on their first drive of the game, when they faced 4th and 1 after three plays.  I said at the time on Twitter that they should go for it.

They opted to punt.  That was a mistake.  To win the Super Bowl, you have to play aggressively. Think of Sean Payton’s onside kick to start the second half when his Saints beat Indianapolis.

Going for it on 4th and 1 would have sent the message that they had confidence in their offensive line, and were going to play tough.  Punting made them look scared. Coach Ron Rivera is nicknamed “Riverboat Ron”, because he is supposedly so willing to take big risks and be aggressive.  Well, I wasn’t seeing it in this game.

Carolina’s best play was a scramble by Cam Newton.  They should have told him to forget about trying to pass and just start running down the field.  Actually, going forward I think all offenses facing a really strong defensive line should use the following strategy:

  • Spread the defense out with four wide receivers–that will at least keep the linebackers and defensive backs occupied.
  • Tell the tackles that since they are going to get beat, at least get beat to the outside, leaving more room in the center of the field.
  • If you have a running quarterback, tell him to run up the middle.
  • If your quarterback can’t run, use lots of draws and interior shovel passes to the running back. He can then go up the middle.
  • Put in the occasional wide receiver screen play.  That will keep them honest.

Would Carolina have won if they had done that?  I’m not sure.  Denver’s defense was mean; I’m not sure anything could have stopped them.  But I think they would have done better than they did.  I felt sorry for the Carolina defense–they played a great game too, but failed to score on any of their takeaways.