Charting the Replacements
NFL Offseason - "Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever."
—Brett Favre, probably.
As Football Outsiders impatiently awaits a football version of Moneyball in which New Girl and Minx star Jake Johnson plays disc jockey turned analytics pioneer Aaron Schatz, we are left to reexamine the existing classics. A year removed from the release of some indie movie called The Matrix, Keanu Reeves starred in the most important film ever made, The Replacements.
The Replacements tells the story of an NFL player strike and the non-professional athletes one NFL owner hired to play in their stead. And while some might consider this portrayal too frivolous for its source material—the actual 1987 NFL player strike, which Mike Tanier (Jack Black) detailed in a short book—or question why the cheerleaders went on strike as well, I consider this film with the critical eye it deserves. And as such, I have done what other football analysts have been too afraid to do: charted all 35 plays from the film and produced the insights and player comps any worthy FO reader would demand.
Shane Falco, QB
Key Stats: 13.0-yard aDOT, 53.3% pressure rate, 10.3 yards per carry
Modern Comps: Brett Favre, Robert Griffin III
Thanks to their dyslexic last names and shared home venue of M&T Bank Stadium—which is in Baltimore, not D.C. where the film is set—I have called Joe Flacco "Footsteps," Falco's nickname in the movie, for the past 15 years. And underwater daydreams aside, Falco cements a Flacco comparison in his first football act in the film, a 65-air-yard pass in his practice debut. But as infamous as he became for his deep attempts and their tendency to draw often unwarranted pass interference penalties, Flacco never demonstrated the outlier arm strength Falco showcases on the practice field. In fact, only 22 quarterbacks have thrown a pass 55 or more yards in the air since 2009, and only six have completed at least two of those attempts.
|Best Comp% on Passes Thrown 55-Plus Air Yards, 2009-2021|
|Minimum 2 completions|
Brett Favre may look like a small-sample champion with his 66.7% completion rate on just three super-deep pass attempts. But he also played 18 of his 20 NFL seasons prior to 2009, the first year in my play-by-play database. I see Favre the player with the same rose-colored glasses I do this film. As such, I have no doubt that a more complete database would show that Favre both attempted and completed far more super-deep pass attempts than more recent leaders such as Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers have. And while his don't turn into interceptions or self-completions, Falco throws one of his 14 pass attempts in the film into double-coverage in the end zone, and another intentionally into the helmet of an approaching pass rusher. That's Favre moxie.
Favre may be the best arm-strength analogy, but Falco has other defining characteristics in his 53.3% pressure rate and penchant to scramble. Falco averages 10.3 yards on three unpenalized carries in the film—two scrambles and one failed-pitch fumble recovery. And those metrics evoke a quarterback who is a better match for Falco's football history, Robert Griffin III. Among the big-armed quarterbacks, Griffin is tied for third with nine pass attempts of 55 or more air yards since 2009. He is top-10 with an 8.3-yard average depth of target and 21.1% pressure rate. And he is first with a 9.4% sack rate, which likely contributed to the three concussions that, along with several knee and ankle injuries, derailed his professional career. Falco jokes that he suffered three concussions from hits he took as a too-soon starter. And while Griffin was ready to start as a rookie, one could argue his organization, like Falco's, failed to support him with better coaching, a better roster, and better medical choices.
Clifford Franklin, WR
Key Stats: 20.0-yard aDOT, 20.0% drop rate
Modern Comp: John Ross
Franklin drops just one of his five in-game targets, hardly at outlier rate for so small a sample. Kevin White and Marcus Kemp duplicated that drop rate on as many targets in 2021. Former second-round draft pick and Eagles fan favorite J.J. Arcega-Whiteside dropped three of his five targets last season. But context clues hit one over the head with the idea that Franklin has absolute stones for hands. He drops the package of Twinkies a shoplifter throws into the air. He drops the on-target pass the film shows in the practice before the replacement team's first game. His drops are so notorious that John Madden exclaims that Franklin "never catches the ball!" as he pulls down a deep touchdown—aided by a foreign sticky substance. And as such, one assumes that Franklin maintains a similarly poor drop rate over many more targets than the film shows.
Double-digit drop rates are much rarer for receivers with heavy target volumes. Ja'Marr Chase led the league with 12 drops in 2021, and even his 9.3% drop rate fell short of that standard. Fortunately for comp purposes, former No. 9 draft pick John Ross crosses the threshold with a 12.2% drop rate over multiple seasons since 2015. His is the highest rate among receivers with 100 or more targets in that time and one of just two over 10.0% (Torrey Smith, 11.0%). And Ross also matches Franklin with his field-stretching style. Ross has a career 14.6-yard aDOT that is seventh-highest among the same set of wide receivers. And his 4.22s 40-yard dash remains a combine record and would fit right in with the recruitment montage of Washington's replacement players in the film.
Brian Murphy, TE
Key stat: 18.3 yards per reception (from Falco)
Modern Comps: Derrick Coleman, O.J. Howard
As a deaf man, Murphy may seem closer to a Disney character than a real NFL player. But Coach Jimmy McGinty tells an assistant that Murphy played for Gallaudet University, a real school for the deaf in Washington D.C., whose football program invented the huddle, went undefeated in 2005, and currently plays in Division III. And since the release of the movie, Derrick Coleman (not the basketball player) became the first legally deaf offensive player in the NFL. As a fullback, he caught 15 of his 21 targets in a five-year career and won the Super Bowl with the 2013 Seahawks. And mirroring McGinty's joke in the film, Coleman told the L.A. Times that "You never really see me jumping offsides. … If I do, it's because I'm too excited and I'm not focused. It's not because I didn't hear the ball snapped or anything like that."
Independent of his impairment, Murphy is exceptional on the field. He catches all four of his targets from Falco, two for touchdowns. And he averages 18.3 yards per reception. Last season, Kyle Pitts led regular tight ends with just 15.1 yards per reception, but O.J. Howard bested that with 16.6 yards per catch in his first two seasons in 2016 and 2017 before injuries derailed his career. Howard is the only player with multiple seasons in the top 10 in tight end yards per reception since 2009. And he is a former first-round pick, the same round Coach McGinty believes Murphy would have gone in if he hadn't been born deaf.
Walter Cochran, RB
Key stat: 50.0% breakaway%
Modern Comp: Rashaad Penny
If his sporadic Christian humor doesn't land for you, then Cochran may be less memorable than his other skill-position teammates Franklin and Murphy and kicker Nigel Gruff. That may seem odd for a running back in 2000 when the position still enjoyed its classic cachet with players such as Emmitt Smith, Eddie George, Curtis Martin, and Jerome Bettis. But Cochran takes just one carry in the film. And his two most notable plays—an off-script 22-yard catch-and-run that comes a yard shy of a game-winner and a 98-yard screen-and-run that results in his first NFL touchdown and second devastating knee injury—are both receptions. That makes Cochran difficult to compare to a non-receiving back. But interestingly, an early-down back paces his position with a 10.6% breakaway rate in recent seasons.
|Breakaway% Leaders, RBs, 2009-21|
|Breakaways defined as touches that gain 15-plus yards.
Minimum 250 touches
Rashaad Penny can't quite match Cochran's absurd 42.0 average yards after the catch. But like Cochran, Penny had promise as a first-round pick in 2018 and at least so far has failed to meet it as myriad knee, hamstring, and calf injuries have limited him to 303 career touches.
Andre Jackson, LG
Jamal Jackson, RG
Modern Comps: Ryan Kalil and Matt Kalil
You cannot tell from the film whether Andre and Jamal Jackson are capable pass-protectors. They blow one and two blocks, respectively—bad totals if the 15 pass plays shown in the film are representative samples but excellent totals if they are notable plays with 100 or so unfilmed clean pass plays in the four replacement games.
As such, I'll lean on their relationship to compare. Andre and Jamal Jackson are brothers, a rarer distinction that you might expect for NFL offensive linemen. Zack and Nick Martin and Maurkice and Mike Pouncey are two recent examples. But Zack and Maurkice enjoyed outsized success with seven All-Pro and 16 Pro Bowl distinctions versus zero and four for their brothers. And neither pair played for the same NFL team. To my mind, that makes Ryan and Matt Kalil the better comparison since they played together for the Panthers in 2017 and 2018. That said, they were inverse Jacksons. Coach McGinty tells his assistants that Andre and Jamal fell apart when one of them was traded. In contrast, Ryan and Matt Kalil earned their two All-Pro and six Pro Bowl distinctions before Matt joined the Panthers. And after the latter signed a five-year, $55-million contract with Carolina, both brothers fell apart. Ryan played just six games in 2017 because of a neck injury. And Matt blew 4.5% of his pass blocks in 2017—tied for 10th-highest among tackles with 300 or more pass snaps per Sports Info Solutions—and he missed all of 2018 with a knee injury.
"Jumbo" Fumiko, RT
Modern Comp: Gyo Shojima, Efe Obada
Fumiko is another lineman that feels unfair to judge for his one blown block and one holding penalty. And he is a tricky narrative comparison. No Japanese player has ever played in an NFL game—although that has some chance to change with Yoshihito Omi becoming the first to participate in the CFL combine. But center Gyo Shojima was the first Japanese Division I football player after he walked onto the Jim Mora-era UCLA Bruins. And current NFL defensive end Efe Obada mirrors the former sumo wrestler Fumiko's late arrival to football. Obada grew up in Nigeria and was homeless for a time after he was trafficked to London. Despite those hardships, Obada became the first international player to transition from a European league straight to the NFL.
Danny Bateman, LB
Key Stats: 1 forced fumble, 1 recovered fumble
Modern Comp: Brian Cushing
Bateman's totals of one tackle for a loss, one forced fumble, and one recovered fumble seem unremarkable. But you have to watch the film. Bateman rips a ball away from an upright running back to force a turnover three years before Charles Tillman threw his first peanut punch. Bateman's playing style reminds me of Brian Cushing, a player whose career the Texans celebrated with an eight-and-a-half-minute video that starts by defining the word "intense." Check the 6:10 mark of that tribute to see a helmetless Cushing headbutt a helmeted Shawn Lauvao. Similarly, Bateman spends the bulk of his on-field time bleeding from his face.
I like to picture this image when I consider that Bateman actor Jon Favreau went on to direct or produce Iron Man, Iron Man 2, the four Avengers movies, and The Mandalorian, and has an estimated net worth of $100 million.
Earl Wilkinson, FS
Key Stats: Two interceptions, one interception returned for a touchdown
Modern Comp: Deion Sanders
After he lost his first chance at the NFL by, allegedly, beating up some cops and going to jail, Wilkinson sees a second chance playing under an assumed name of Ray Smith. And like the other sidetracked former pro prospects Falco, Murphy, and Cochran, Wilkinson demonstrates an NFL skill set. Most notably, Wilkinson intercepts two passes in four games and returns one for a touchdown. He also returns a punt for 38 yards with a nifty reversal to the opposite sideline and takes a carry for 19 yards after Cochran injures his knee.
It is rare for a modern player to check those three boxes. Tremon Smith and Myles Hartsfield are the only safeties who took carries on a first, second, or third down in 2021. But neither has intercepted a pass in his career. And broadly speaking, interception rates have declined in the last decade-plus. Richard Sherman is the active leader with 37, and no full-time safety has even hit 30. As such, Wilkinson is a better comp for a player from nearer when the film was released. And it's hard to beat Deion Sanders for that distinction. More than two decades removed, Sanders is still tied for 24th all-time with 53 interceptions, tied for fifth all-time with nine interceptions returned for touchdowns, 33rd all-time with 2,199 punt return yards, and tied for 47th all-time with 10.4 average yards per punt return. And unlike Ed Reed, who inherited his mantle as the best defensive back in football, Sanders took nine career carries.
Nigel Gruff, K
Key stat: Made 65-yard field goal
Modern Comps: Justin Tucker, Josh Lambo
Gruff may be new to American football and face pressure from his debts to Welsh bookies, but you wouldn't know it from his performance on the field. Based on scores, Gruff converts every extra point he attempts. He makes a 40-yard field goal into the wind that would have been good from at least 50. And he makes a 65-yard field goal that would have been good from close to 70. That latter kick places Gruff in the top tier of powerful modern kickers. Sebastian Janikowski, Cairo Santos, Greg Zuerlein, Justin Tucker, Joey Slye, Matt Prater, and Rob Bironas are the only kickers who attempted a field goal from 65 or more yards, outdoors, and away from the altitude in Denver since 2009. And at 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds, one of those kickers is particularly wiry.
|Wiry Kicker Rankings, 2009-21|
Justin Tucker may have missed his lone super deep outdoor kick. But he set the NFL record with a 66-yard conversion in the dome in Detroit just last season. And even with the added difficulty of his many deep attempts, Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Gruff would need to convert 325 of his next 356 field goal attempts to best Tucker's standard.
The European-turned-American football player is rarer than one might expect. Toni Fritsch played the former sport in Austria before he joined the NFL in the 1970s and early 1980s, earning All-Pro honors in 1979. More recently, Josh Lambo was the No. 8 pick in the 2008 MLS draft. He was a goalkeeper and is American, but he remains a fun comp since Urban Meyer allegedly kicked him in a Jaguars practice last year. In the movie, Gruff breaks his arm when Falco pulls the ball away so Gruff won't miss a kick intentionally to satisfy his gambling debts.
Eddie Martel, QB
Key stat: 32-yard scramble
Modern Comps: Eli Manning, Daniel Jones
Martel is not a replacement player. As he will happily boast, he is an All-Pro quarterback with two Super Bowl rings who puts fans in the stands. But Martel doesn't play to those standards in the film. He completes just one of his three passes with one miscommunication with Brian Murphy and one throwaway. And on a scramble, he slides short of the goal line as time expires when a touchdown would have won Washington a game. Clearly, Martel is motivated by money and invested in the strike's efforts to increase the salary cap. But even at less than full effort, Martel gains 32 yards on that scramble. And only 10 quarterbacks ran for 30 or more yards on a play in 2021: Josh Allen (twice), Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert, Tyrod Taylor, Taylor Heinicke, Zach Wilson, and Sam Darnold. Mahomes is the closest of that set to Martel's career accomplishments. But I see Martel as more of an Eli Manning/Daniel Jones hybrid. Manning is the quarterback you cannot believe has two Super Bowl rings. And Jones is the quarterback you cannot believe runs as well as he does.