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07 Apr 2004

Back in Black (Ink)

by Michael David Smith

In looking for objective means of measuring football players, we could do a lot worse than to mirror the methods of Bill James. We'll do that here with Black Ink Tests, and we'll start with a quotation from James's book, "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?"

"The Black Ink Test... is an evaluation of the player's league-leading performance. The idea is that in selecting the Hall of Fame we are trying to pick the best players from each era, so an obvious place to look is at the players who led the league in different things when they were playing. All of this is based on the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, which puts the league leaders in each category in boldface type, so you can figure this by just looking at a player's record and counting up the boldface."

I've adapted James's Black Ink Test for football, and I'll give players points for leading the league in certain statistical categories, as follows:

  • 5 points for leading the league in rushing yards or receiving yards
  • 4 points for leading the league in receptions or passing yards
  • 3 points for leading the league in lowest percentage of passes had intercepted, passing touchdowns or total touchdowns
  • 2 points for leading the league in passes completed, completion percentage or rushing attempts
  • 1 point for leading the league in passes attempted

Why these measures?  I weight passing yards less than rushing and receiving because quarterbacks have more statistical categories than running backs and receivers, and I'm hoping that these scores will come out approximately the same across the positions, so that the top few quarterbacks, running backs and receivers will all have approximately the same Black Ink points. Although the total number of passes and rushes is in large part a result of the team's offensive play-calling (and how often the team is ahead late in the game), a player who is consistently durable enough that his team can count on him for a lot of carries or a lot of passes deserves some credit. Other statistical categories, such as yards per carry or yards per catch, could be added, but I think the Black Ink Test is best-suited for rewarding players who contribute a lot of carries or a lot of catches, and using yards per carry or yards per catch seems to reward the players who get fewer carries and fewer catches.

(If you've got an argument for why one statistic should be worth more points or fewer points, feel free to make your case in the comments.)

Let's look first at running backs:


Player Leads
Rush Yards
Leads
Rush Att.
Leads
Total TDs
Black Ink
Points
Jim Brown 8 6 3 61
Emmitt Smith 4 3 3 35
Steve Van Buren 4 4 2 34
Eric Dickerson 5 4 0 33
O.J. Simpson 4 3 1 29
Barry Sanders 4 0 2 26
Earl Campbell 3 1 1 20
Walter Payton 1 4 1 16

Brown, no surprise, is in first by a comfortable margin. What most surprised me is that Payton gets half his points from the four times he led the league in rushing attempts; Sweetness led the league in yards and touchdowns only once apiece. Although, in fairness, this doesn't include special teams, and Payton led the league in kickoff returns as a rookie in 1977.

Next we'll take a look at receivers:


Player Leads
Rec. Yards
Leads
Receptions
Leads
Total TDs
Black Ink
Points
Don Hutson 7 8 8 91
Jerry Rice 6 2 2 44
Lance Alworth 3 3 3 36
Raymond Berry 3 3 1 30
Pete Pihos 2 3 0 22
Lionel Taylor 0 5 0 20
Tom Fears 1 3 0 17
Sterling Sharpe 1 3 0 17
Marvin Harrison 1 2 0 13

Nearly everyone thinks Jerry Rice is the best receiver of all time, but Hutson dominated his era in a way that Rice did not. In the 1930s and 1940s the Packers had the most sophisticated passing attack in the league and Hutson was by far the most dangerous receiving weapon. A two-way player, Hutson also led the league in interceptions in 1940, the first year that statistic was kept. Taylor isn't in the Hall of Fame, and most of today's fans have never heard of him, but he was the original possession receiver. As a rookie with the Bears in 1959 he didn't catch a single pass, but when he moved to the AFL's Broncos in 1960 he led the league in receptions five times and had 508 catches in his first six seasons in Denver. But his career average of 12.7 yards a catch is extremely low for a receiver in the pass-happy AFL.

(Note: a mistake in Hutson and Rice's numbers is now fixed as of April 9.)

And, finally, a look at quarterbacks:


Player Leads
Pass Att.
Leads
Completions
Leads
Comp. Pct.
Leads
Pass Yards
Leads
Pass TDs
Lowest
Int. Pct.
Black Ink
Points
Sammy Baugh 4 5 7 4 2 5 65
Dan Marino 5 6 0 5 3 1 49
Johnny Unitas 4 3 1 4 4 2 46
Sonny Jurgensen 3 4 1 5 2 0 40
Joe Montana 1 0 5 0 2 1 31
Len Dawson 0 0 8 0 4 1 31
Dan Fouts 2 2 1 4 2 0 30
Arnie Herber 3 3 0 3 2 1 30
George Blanda 4 4 1 2 1 0 27
Ken Anderson 0 2 3 2 0 3 27

Baugh is, in my opinion, the best player in pro football history. Not only did he consistently lead the league in passing, he also led the league in interceptions once and in punting four times. The one season Marino led the league in lowest percentage of passes had intercepted was 1983, his rookie season, when Don Shula ordered him to play it safe. Marino got most of his Black Ink points in his first four seasons. Herber was Hutson's quarterback from 1935 to 1940. To give you an idea of what passing statistics were like in his era, Herber led the league in completions in 1931 with 37. Herber missed the 1941, 1942 and 1943 seasons because he served in World War II.

One important point to remember is that expansion has made it harder to lead the league in a statistical category than ever before. Jim Brown led a 12-team league in rushing in 1957, while Jamal Lewis led a 32-team league in rushing in 2003. That's worth remembering. At the same time, after a previous article a reader commented that Jim Brown led the league in rushing eight of nine years because the other backs in the league at the time were "very average." In addition to wondering what the difference between "very average" and "average" is, I don't buy that argument. In 1958, when Jim Brown led the league with 1,527 rushing yards and Alan Ameche was second with 791 yards, he was dominating his era. The era a player plays in is one of the few things he can't control, so it is one of the most important things to try to control for in comparing players. The Black Ink Test is a simple way to adjust all statistics for the period in which they were achieved.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 07 Apr 2004

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