Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
02 Aug 2006
by Michael David Smith and Mike Tanier
Tanier: Another year, another great Hall of Fame class. If I wasn't feeding a two-week old baby right now, I would be in Canton honoring Reggie White's memory.
Smith: I was in Canton a few months ago and had a great time. I think all football fans revere the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is why we take it so seriously when we disagree with the decisions of the selection committee.
Tanier: Enough small talk. Let's start arguing.
Tanier: In an Extra Points blog a few weeks ago, you expressed doubts about Terrell Davis' HoF qualifications. Let me see if I can change your mind.
Years ago, in a Baseball Abstract, Bill James outlined a series of standards to determine the legitimacy of a HoF bid. Three of the most important standards were: "Was he ever the best player in the league?" "Was he ever the best player in the league at his position?" "Did he contribute to championships?"
Davis was MVP in 1998 and was a top-5 candidate for MVP in 1997. He and Barry Sanders were clearly the two best running backs in football from 1996 thru 1998. That wouldn't make him a HoFer, but then we have the Super Bowl resume: two rings, an MVP award in one game, a 100-yard rushing effort in the other game.
Smith: I've got three other Bill James standards that explain why I'm leaning toward "no" on Davis:
"Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?" I think the answer to that is "yes." Mike Shanahan's system and the Broncos' offensive line made Davis look better.
In his last four healthy games, the first games of the 1999 season, Davis had 67 carries for 211 yards (a 3.1 average), and 2 touchdowns. Then an unheralded rookie named Olandis Gary stepped in and played the final 12 games, going for 276 carries, 1159 yards (a 4.2 average), and 7 touchdowns. If Davis is a Hall of Famer, shouldn't he have been significantly better, not significantly worse, than an unheralded rookie?
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the other Denver backs have been as productive as Davis. Certainly, none of them have matched Davis's 1998 season. But they've been close enough that it indicates to me that Davis was not as good a player as his statistics suggest.
Tanier: Maybe part of Shanahan's "system" is his ability to recognize exceptional talents in late rounds and develop them into great players. Clinton Portis and Reuben Droughns have done pretty well in other systems. Gary didn't, but are we really turned on by his 1,100 yard season? And like you said, nobody in the system has come close to Davis in his two best seasons.
Smith: "How many All-Star type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most other players at his position who made the Hall of Fame play in a comparable amount of games or have a comparable amount of All-Star seasons?" He made the Pro Bowl three times. That's awfully low for a Hall of Famer.
Tanier: Canton is full of Joe Namath/Lynn Swann/Dan Hampton type players who were outstanding for a few seasons, won a Super Bowl or two, and then got hurt of faded. Frankly, I'd rather see players like that inducted than "gold watch guys" who played for 14 years and some statistical plateau. Davis fits in perfectly with players like Swann, who only reached three Pro Bowls.
And those who say Davis' career is too short are forgetting about his 240-carry, 1,140-yard, 12-touchdown season. You know when that occurred? In the playoffs. Davis played in eight playoff games, gaining over 100 yards from scrimmage in all of them. The only one he didn't score in was Super Bowl XXXIII.
Smith: "Was he the best player in [foot]ball at his position?" This might seem like sacrilege, but I don't think I can honestly say he was the best running back in any season. In 1997, I think most people would agree that Barry Sanders was the best running back in football. In 1998, when Davis was widely acclaimed as the best running back in the NFL, my vote would have been cast for Marshall Faulk. Faulk actually had more total scrimmage yards in 1998 than Davis despite playing in a much, much worse offense than Davis.
(If you want more advanced statistics, I'll quote our good friend Aaron Schatz: "The Rams running backs in 1998 combined for -5.0 DPAR and -17.7% DVOA. Playing for the Colts, Marshall Faulk was sixth in the league with 22.5 DPAR and tenth in the league with 1.0% DVOA. Faulk was better than his conventional stats looked â€” he had twice as many DPAR as PAR because the Colts played a schedule of very difficult run defenses. This is nothing compared to the way Faulk blew away the other NFL running backs in the receiving game. Faulk had 34.7 DPAR as a receiver. The second-ranked RB in receiving was Amp Lee of â€” oddly enough â€” the Rams, but he had just 15.1 DPAR.")
In 1996, the one other year in which you can make the case that Davis was the best player in football at his position, my vote goes to Ricky Watters. He led the league in scrimmage yards despite being saddled with Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete as quarterbacks.
Tanier: It's the Hall of Fame, not the "Hall of Guys Who Could Have Done Well in Ideal Circumstances" or the "Hall of Guys Who Come Out Slightly Better Using Advanced Metrics." I'm not interested in what Watters or Faulk or Rodney Hampton or whoever "could've" done with the 1998 Broncos. I'm concerned about what Davis did: he gained 2,000 yards and won a Super Bowl. Those accomplishments made him famous for all the right reasons. He belongs in Canton.
Tanier: These five players fall neatly along a numbers/rings continuum. Start with Carter, who scored 130 touchdowns but has no Super Bowl pedigree. Then you have Brown, Reed, Monk, and finally Irvin at the other extreme: three rings, low career totals.
A fan's opinion on these players usually reveals his concept of what the HoF is all about. Fans who like stats want to see Carter and Brown in. Fans who like Super Bowl rings want to see Irvin and Monk in. Reed gets a smattering of support from both sides. I could advocate for any of these players. But if they all join Jerry Rice in Canton, that's six wide receivers from one era, and fans of Henry Ellard and Sterling Sharpe still wouldn't be satisfied. So who belongs?
Smith: I would probably rank those five like this: 1) Tim Brown, 2) Cris Carter, 3) Art Monk, 4) Michael Irvin, and 5) Andre Reed
Brown clearly ranks first because of the teams he was on. He rarely had a good quarterback throwing him the ball or a good receiver on the other side of the field. For the majority of his career he was going up against the No. 1 CB and doing it with a mediocre QB. Also keep in mind that if the Raiders had chosen to use him that way, he would have been one of the all-time great kickoff and punt returners.
Carter had great hands, probably the best of those five. He was also very impressive in the red zone. And although his quarterbacks were a bit better than Brown's, they weren't as good as Troy Aikman or Jim Kelly, and probably not as good as Monk's.
At this point, if Art Monk gets in I think it sets an awfully bad message, implying that Hall of Fame voters are subject to lobbying.
Tanier: Voters subject to lobbying? Two words: Elvin Bethea.
Smith: Nothing about Monk's career has changed, and if he didn't belong before, he doesn't belong now. I just can't get over the fact that through most of his career, Monk wasn't even the first option in his team's passing game.
Irvin was an important component in a great team, but do you honestly think he'd be a Hall of Fame candidate if he had been drafted by any team other than the Cowboys or 49ers? With Emmitt Smith and that offensive line, opposing teams often had to stack eight in the box. That meant Irvin could go over the middle with a lot more room than most receivers could. And, of course, he created a whole lot of room for himself with a whole lot of offensive pass interference. I don't hold that against him -- he could do it without getting called. But I do doubt that he would have been the same player on just about any other team.
And I feel even more that way about Andre Reed. I think there were three players on that Buffalo offense who belong in the Hall â€“ Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Kent Hull.
Tanier: I rank Carter, then Irvin, then Monk, then Brown, then Reed. I don't like the "if he played for some other team, he wouldn't be a candidate" argument very much. You can use it against just about any player who isn't in the Jerry Rice class. And circumstantial arguments work both ways. Brown faced a lot of double coverage, but thanks to a mediocre supporting cast he had dozens of extra passes thrown his way over the course of his career. Emmitt Smith and the offensive line made life easy for Irvin, but the Cowboys ran so well that his receiving stats are low. As an Eagles fan, I don't like Irvin much, but the Triplets belong in the Hall of Fame; they were the NFL's biggest story for over five years.
Smith: I'd vote for him. I like the way he did some of everything: running, receiving, going deep at times. I also like the fact that he was productive with three different teams, and even though the Niners, Eagles, and Seahawks ran similar offenses, you can't really call him a product of a system.
Tanier: Yeah, right. Ricky Watters belongs in the Hall of Famd right next to Ryan Leaf. Anyone who says "For who? For what?" after alligator-arming a pass shouldn't be allowed anywhere near Eastern Ohio. Watters was a good player with a me-first attitude who would grouse about his touches every week; he caused one coaching migraine for every two touchdowns.
And I am not impressed by his 10,000 rushing yards. He did it with a bunch of 1,210-yard, 3.7 yards per carry seasons. I don't want Canton to become Cooperstown, where some journeyman reaches some magic milestone and all the voters just shrug their shoulders and select him. Ten thousand yards won't seem like that impressive an accomplishment in a few years if guys like Fred Taylor reach it.
Smith: You don't have to be impressed with 10,000 rushing yards, but you do have to be impressed with 14,891 scrimmage yards. Every player ahead of Watters on the scrimmage yards list is either already in the Hall of Fame or will get in. Watters should, too.
Smith: I find it incredible that the voters consider Thurman Thomas a borderline candidate. He led the league in total yards from scrimmage four years in a row. I think a lot of voters are from the old school and think of running backs as runners only, forgetting the contributions that guys like Thomas (and Ricky Watters) made as receivers. I also think the fact that Thomas peaked relatively early in his career hurts him. The voters remember the so-so player of the mid-90s and later, not the phenomenal player of the late 80s and early 90s.
Tanier: Thomas' biggest problem is that fumble in the Super Bowl. It's not fair to hold one bad play against a great player, but that fumble against the Cowboys branded Thomas as a "not quite good enough" player in many people's eyes.
Smith: I think if Scott Norwood's field goal had been good in Super Bowl XXV, Thomas would be a sure-thing Hall of Famer despite the fumble in Super Bowl XXVIII. He would certainly have won the MVP award; add that and a ring to his already impressive resume, and he's in.
Smith: Thomas gets a thumbs-down from me. Although he had some great games as a pass-rusher, I don't think he did enough as an all-around player. The guys like Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White and Bruce Smith, who could both rush the passer and stop the run, are the ones who merit induction. Derrick Thomas is more in the Kevin Greene class: very good at one aspect of the game, but not worthy of the Hall as an all-around player.
Tanier: I think Thomas falls short, too, though I hesitate to use the "not a complete player" argument. Many people argue against Deion Sanders, saying that he can't tackle. Well, he can't, but he's so good that he didn't have to. If you blow the curve on the things you do well, if they make you a Pro Bowler, then I don't care if you come up short in some other area.
Smith: Well, hang on a second. It's convenient shorthand to say both Deion Sanders and Derrick Thomas were great against the pass but bad against the run. However, Derrick Thomas didn't pressure the quarterback as well as Deion Sanders covered receivers, and playing the run is more important to a linebacker's job than it is to a cornerback's.
Tanier: Either way, Thomas is a pure sack specialist, and his resume consists of one amazing 20-sack season and a bunch of good 13-sack seasons.
Smith: Even that 20-sack season has always carried a bit of an asterisk in my mind. Seven of the 20 came in one game, and in that game the Chiefs lost on a late touchdown pass in which Thomas had a chance to sack Dave Krieg and missed him. In any event, we're in agreement; Thomas is out.
Tanier: Is your backlash-o-meter working? Lewis is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. In 2000, he really was the league's MVP. He was probably the best defender in the NFL from 1998-2001. He took the Ravens to the Super Bowl on his shoulders. And that affair in Atlanta was more smoke than fire. I would put him in Canton tomorrow.
Smith: Ray Lewis is an automatic Hall of Famer. Anyone who votes against Lewis isn't fit to be on the selection committee.
Tanier: We both agree on Ray Lewis, Deion Sanders, and Junior Seau, all obvious choices. I also like Michael Strahan. Derrick Brooks has had an outstanding career and helped win a Super Bowl; I think he's Canton worthy. I was high on Ty Law before the Patriots won a Super Bowl without him and he turned into a mercenary. If you look back at him in the years leading up to the Pats first Super Bowl title, his record is pretty impressive.
Smith: Strahan is an absolute lock in my book. I can't really imagine a case against Derrick Brooks making it. He's been the most important player to the Bucs' defense over the last decade. He's also a great guy off the field. That isn't supposed to have any bearing on whether he gets into the Hall, but some voters have acknowledged they consider such things.
I would probably vote no on Ty Law, but he's close. If he makes an instant impact with the Chiefs this year, I might change my mind.
Tanier: All three of the biggest-name safeties of the past few years -- Rodney Harrison, Brian Dawkins, John Lynch -- fall a little short for me, though I wouldn't lobby against Harrison, who had all of those fine years (and a Super Bowl appearance) in San Diego before reaching the Patriots.
Smith: Of the three safeties, I think Dawkins has the best case. I love how aggressive he is. Lynch definitely doesn't belong in the Hall. I'd take Ronde Barber over Lynch. Harrison is a tough call. He's definitely been a solid player for a long time, but I don't know if there's ever been a time that I've considered him truly great. And he dishes out a lot of cheap shots.
Tanier: You and I both love it when the big guys make it to Canton. Who do you like among active offensive linemen? I have a short list: Orlando Pace, Tom Nalen, Will Shields, Larry Allen, maybe Jon Ogden. That's two tackles, two guards, and a center: a great starting line to block for the Hall of Fame passers and runners of the late 90's and today.
Smith: Shields and Allen are the two best linemen of my lifetime (I'm 29), and Nalen is just a step below them. They're definite locks. If any of those three don't make the Hall, I'm going to take a page from Homer Simpson's playbook and throw a pie in the face of every member of the selection committee. Ogden and Pace are good, but I'd have to see who they're up against before I could say if I'd vote for them. I think both players have coasted on their reputations at times. I've seen them both get beaten by quick defensive ends on the outside.
Tanier: I'm guessing Forrest Gregg got beat once or twice, too. Pace went to two Super Bowls and was the top lineman on one of the best offenses ever. He's been to seven Pro Bowls. Left tackles are critical players, but there aren't many in the Hall or in the pipeline right now.
Smith: What about Willie Roaf? He's a slam-dunk for me. I think he's the best tackle of the last decade, a great one with both the Saints and the Chiefs. Every Lions fan cringes at the memory that Detroit traded the pick that became Roaf so they could get Pat Swilling.
Tanier: Roaf is borderline for me, and I place him below Pace and Ogden. Not to contradict my Forrest Gregg remark, but I remember Roaf getting abused by Mike Mamula when Roaf was a Pro Bowler in New Orleans. Hall of Famers just aren't abused by Mike Mamula.
Tanier: When he retired, I heard some serious discussions of Jimmy Smith as a HoF candidate. There was no other football to talk about when Smith called it quits, so I think the HoF talk was an "angle" to juice up the story. Is there anything that differentiates Smith from 25 other receivers who aren't in Canton?
Smith: He did finish in the Top 5 in receiving yards five times, and he did that without the benefit of a great quarterback throwing him the ball. But no, I don't see any way that he should get into the Hall. To me, the really interesting question about Smith is how might his career have turned out if the Cowboys or the Eagles had recognized his promise? Would we think more highly of him because he would have been on higher-profile teams? Or would we think less highly of him because he wouldn't have been the main attraction as he was in Jacksonville?
Tanier: At least in Jacksonville, Smith can get into the Ring of Honor, or whatever.
Smith: I think Dick Vermeil should definitely go into the Hall of Fame next year. He had success in three different places and in two different eras. It's hard to argue with that. Some might argue that his tenure in Kansas City was a disappointment, with only one playoff berth in five years, but he did a great job in 2003. I think that's the season that puts him over the top and into the Hall.
Tanier: And Greg Kinnear is playing him in a movie. That did wonders for Bob Crane's legacy. If Vermeil gets in, they'll close Philadelphia for the induction ceremony. That wouldn't happen for Ricky Watters.
Smith: Is there any coach as beloved in his former city than Vermeil? It's been over 25 years since he took the Eagles to the Super Bowl, and he's still a local legend in Philadelphia. Usually, only college coaches get that kind of treatment.
Tanier: What about other current/recent coaches? Let's skip the "duh" candidates like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. I think Bill Cowher became a HoFer in February. Let me throw some names at you: Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Marty Schottenheimer.
Smith: Shanahan and Holmgren all deserve "yes" votes. I'd probably vote "yes" on Cowher, too, although I'd put him a notch below the other two. I'd vote "no" on Schottenheimer; he's an example of a good but not great coach who doesn't quite merit induction. And, although he hasn't earned it yet, I'd be shocked if Jon Gruden doesn't eventually get to the Hall of Fame. He's an excellent coach, already has a Super Bowl ring, and could easily coach 20 more years: He's 42 and hasn't expressed an interest in doing anything but coaching.
Smith: As long as we're talking non-players, I have two more. I think Paul Tagliabue belongs in the Hall. He's done a great job of keeping labor peace, something neither his predecessor nor any of the other major sports commissioners of the last 15 years have been able to do. And I would vote "yes" on Ed Sabol, who founded NFL Films. I think NFL Films is an important reason for the league's popularity, and something every football fan loves.
Tanier: Some people thought of Tagliabue as a custodian commish before this off-season. He blew a hole in that theory with the latest CBA extension. As for Sabol, he belongs in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the American Film Institute Hall of Fame.
Smith: The problem with both of the above is that they compete with the players for a finite number of slots. If you're in that room and it comes down to casting a vote for Thurman Thomas or for Ed Sabol, how do you decide? Paul Zimmerman has suggested separating the players from the non-players, and I think that's a good idea.
Tanier: The Pro Football Hall of Fame exists partly for the players and for the historians but mostly for the fans. The Hall should reflect our memories of the game. The players we are sick of hearing about right now â€“ Brett Favre, Ray Lewis â€“ are the players we will be telling our grandchildren about.
For me, the Hall of Fame should be reserved for players who captured our imagination and shaped our fan experience. It should be for guys we cheered for or booed against extra hard, guys who shaped the history of the game by dominating opponents or stealing the spotlight in January. That may be why I put the stats aside (a little) when talking about Canton; I want my Hall of Famers to have feats, not numbers.
Smith: With so much of the NFL devoted to the casual fan, I think the Hall of Fame should be devoted to more serious fans -- people who can name dozens of great offensive linemen, who know about the greats of the past, and who appreciate that players who touch the ball aren't the only ones who deserve recognition. I hope the Hall of Fame will always be a place that the most intellectual of football scholars can enjoy.
261 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2006, 12:37pm by Dan Grum