by Mike Tanier
There’s nothing better than being the second- or third-best player on a great defensive line. The top guy gets all the double teams and rolling protections. You usually get a one-on-one matchup. It’s great to be Clyde Simmons in 1992, or Osi Umenyiora in 2007. You will probably lead your team in sacks, picking up more than your more famous teammates. You could earn a big payday.
It is great to be Cliff Avril.
Simmons and Umenyiora were/are very good players. How good is Avril? Good enough to earn the franchise tag and, one way or another, a fat raise. But is he as good as his 11 sacks and six forced fumbles indicate?
I decided to look back at all of Avril’s sacks and determine just how opponents blocked the Lions on those plays. Did Avril ever get double teamed? How often did he beat an elite right tackle? Did he register any clean-up sacks as quarterbacks ran away from Ndamukong Suh, who was carrying a board with a rusty nail sticking out of it?
The chart below shows a breakdown of each of Avril’s 11 sacks. An asterisk means that the play was a strip sack. As you can see, and probably knew anyway, the Lions do not blitz much. The only five-man pass rush on the list was a "Confuse-a-Tebow" zone blitz. Opponents double-teamed Suh or Sammie Lee Hill on most of the sacks, but keep in mind that defensive tackles regularly draw double teams in pass protection. Avril was not benefitting from too much extra emphasis on his teammates, though it was also rare for a tight end or running back to chip him on the plays in question. The only double team he fought through for a sack was on a rollout play by the Raiders.
|Cliff Avril's Sacks, 2011|
|Sack No.||Quarterback||Lions Rushers||Blockers||Double Team||Blocker Beat|
|1||Donovan McNabb*||4||5||Suh||Phil Loadholt|
|2||Jay Cutler||4||5||Suh||Frank Omiyale|
|3||Matt Ryan||4||6||Hill, Vanden Bosch||Tyson Clabo|
|4||Tim Tebow*||5||6||Williams||Orlando Franklin|
|5||Tim Tebow*||4||5||Suh||Orlando Franklin|
|6||Jay Cutler*||4||5||Jackson||Lance Louis|
|7||Aaron Rodgers*||4||6||Hill, Vanden Bosch||Bryan Bulaga|
|8||Christian Ponder*||4||6||Hill, Fairley||Phil Loadholt|
|9||Christian Ponder||4||6||Hill, Vanden Bosch||Phil Loadholt|
|10||Carson Palmer||4||7||Suh, Avril||Brandon Myers, Manase Tonga|
|11||Carson Palmer||4||5||Suh||Khalif Barnes|
None of the sacks were really "clean up" sacks; most occurred in the pocket, and Avril was the first guy on the scene. It’s important to note, though, that many of the strip sacks were really just swipes at the quarterback’s elbow that jarred the ball loose. Avril did not escape his blocker and deliver a blow to the quarterback. He beat his blocker off the edge and got a paw out just as the blocker pushed him wide of the play. There may not be any predictive value in that observation, but I have a feeling that a few of those swipes are likely to come up empty in future years, whereas the ability to consistently beat the protection would be more sustainable.
Of course, when we look at Avril’s sacks, we expect to see Avril single-blocked: He’s the guy who got to the quarterback! Let’s look at Kyle Vanden Bosch’s sacks and see if they tell us anything about Avril’s value or how opponents blocked the Lions.
|Kyle Vanden Bosch's Sacks, 2011|
|Sack No.||Quarterback||Lions Rushers||Blockers||Double Team||Blocker Beat|
|1||Josh Freeman*||4||5||Williams||Donald Penn|
|2||Matt Cassel*||4||5||Suh||Branden Albert|
|3||Donovan McNabb||4||5||Hill||Charlie Johnson|
|4||Alex Smith*||4||5||Williams||Joe Staley|
|5||Tim Tebow||6||7||Vanden Bosch, Fluellen||Ryan Clady|
|6||Cam Newton||5||6||Zone Blitz Pickup||Jordan Gross|
|7||Christian Ponder*||4||5||Hill||Charlie Johnson|
|8||Carson Palmer||5||7||Fairley, Jackson||Kevin Boss|
Vanden Bosch sacks looked a lot like Avril sacks: he beat his blocker off the line, got to the edge, and was more likely to swipe the ball free than bring down the quarterback in many cases. Opposing offensive coordinators apparently looked at the Lions front four and said, "hey, let’s block these guys five-on-four, double a tackle, and ignore the insane number of fumbles the ends are forcing." For variety, the Raiders had the bright idea of running a lot of play action and asking the tight ends to block Avril and Vanden Bosch.
Vanden Bosch, like Avril, did not benefit from many sacks where the blocker was just flushed into him. The Cassel sack was caused by Hill slicing through the middle, but most of the time Vanden Bosch was the first defender to apply pressure on his sacks. Vanden Bosch does not appear to be drawing single coverage because of Avril, Avril did not draw single coverage because of Vanden Bosch, and Suh did not get a disproportionate number of double-teams, either. No one Lions defender rode the coattails of any of the others.
What does all this mean for Avril, the franchise player? First, the sack total will probably drop, just because it’s hard to imagine another half-dozen one-handed, drive-by strip sacks. Once you take the total down to seven or eight, however, it’s clear that his abilities are portable. He can beat quality right tackles to the edge, and he doesn’t need notorious teammates to draw attention away from him.
Could the Lions get similar production from Lawrence Jackson? Possibly. But they invested a lot of effort and money in their front four, so you cannot blame them for keeping it intact. Coaches are going to run a lot more six or seven-man protections against the Lions next year. Judging from all the strip sacks, they will focus on chipping either Avril or Vanden Bosch. With both back in the lineup, those opposing coaches will be forced to make some tough decisions.
And the guy who looked most impressive after watching all of that tape was ... Sammie Lee Hill.
Running Back Top Fives
Two storied franchises get the business this week.
1. Emmitt Smith The table below lists all of the running backs who cracked the top 50 in single-season rushing DYAR more than once. The DYAR database now goes back to 1992.
|Top 50 Single-Season DYAR Appearances|
Receiving DYAR is not included. I will run that list when talking about Priest Holmes, or somebody. Emmitt’s 1995 season ranks seventh, 1992 ranks 18th, 1994 ranks 19th, and 1993 ranks 28th. When we get 1991 finished, it might possibly squeak into the top 50 but is more likely to join 1998 late in the top 100.
A few of you were joking in the message boards last week about the phenomenon I will now christen "Credit Jenga." That’s where we shift credit for a player’s or team’s accomplishments onto his teammates or coaches in order to make a particular argument. Then, to make an argument about a different player, we shift the credit in a different way. Play Credit Jenga well enough, and you can either make one player bear an incredible weight load for his team’s accomplishments (the 1970s Steelers were nothing without Bennie Cunningham) or create an Escher staircase in which every person is downgraded because of the quality of his teammates, who are in turn downgraded because of his accomplishments, until a three-time Super Bowl nucleus starts to look like a bunch of guys propping each other up.
Emmitt gets some of the Credit Jenga treatment, especially among younger fans who remember 1996-2002 Emmitt, who was a plodder. Emmitt played with a Hall of Fame quarterback and wide receiver behind one of the best offensive lines in history; there is no question that those factors added yards (and certainly touchdowns) to his totals. Anyone who remembers 1991-95 Emmitt, however, also knows how electrifyingly quick and nimble he was, what a great finisher he was when tackled, and how effective he was as a receiver. He was more an engine of the system than a product of it.
Emmitt versus Barry is going to come up in the thread, so let’s start the ball rolling now. We all know that Emmitt was helped by his superstar teammates, while Barry Sanders was saddled with Rodney Peete and Scott Mitchell and a hinky offense that crippled his statistical production. Except that is not really accurate. The run ‘n’ shoot helped Sanders for many years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, teams were not prepared to play nickel and dime defense for 70 snaps per game. The NFL was only a few years removed from considering the nickel defense strictly a third-and-15 strategy. Dime defenses were just starting to appear in the NFL, but only for third-and-long or in the two minute drill. The idea that a team would put four wide receivers on the field and run any rushing play other than a draw was unheard of, so nickel-and-dime strategies were designed to focus only on passes.
So when Sanders juked a dime defender in the open field, he wasn’t juking Kyle Wilson, a third cornerback who plays about 50 percent of snaps and has experience stopping wide-open running games because he faces the Patriots and Bills four times per year. He wasn’t juking Deon Grant, a player who has made a second career out of stopping runs and short passes from a "heavy nickel" position. He was juking a little-used backup playing an experimental gameplan. Look at the careers of some of the Oilers and Falcons run-‘n’-shoot runners, and you can see that some second-rate backs had very good years in the scheme. It stands to reason that a truly great back probably derived some benefit from it.
None of what I just wrote pushes Emmitt over Barry or vice versa. It was just a preemptive strike against any one-sided arguments about who was "helped" by his surroundings. Both players put up great statistics in unique environments, as did most record setters in most sports throughout history.
2. Tony Dorsett
For most of football history, a fast running back could gain significant yardage on an outside run simply by outrunning most of the defense to the sideline. Teams ran lots of quick pitch plays, some with pulling guards and some without; the latter were often designed to trap the slow linebackers inside or just beat them around the corner. You can still see that style of play at the high school level, but from college on, defenses usually have several players with sideline-to-sideline speed, so getting the halfback to the edge doesn’t have the strategic impact it once had.
Dorsett was one of the last great running backs at just outrunning the defense on sweeps. There was much more to his game than that, but it was what set him apart in an era that was defined by great running backs.
3. Calvin Hill
4. Don Perkins
Perkins ranked ahead of Hill until the final edit. It is a hard call. Perkins was a six-time Pro Bowler, but you must remember that in the 1960s, the NFL picked two full Pro Bowl squads from among 14 or 15 teams. In 1963, when Perkins made the Pro Bowl with 614 rushing yards and 14 receptions, seven NFL running backs were honored. The AFL had its own seven-man squad, so there were 14 Pro Bowl running backs, meaning that anyone who was above the hypothetical "pro average" as a starter now has an asterisk at Pro Football Reference. Perkins never had a 1,000 yard season and was very ordinary as a receiver.
Hill, on the other hand, was the best offensive player on the 1972 Cowboys and second-best behind Roger Staubach on the 1973 Cowboys. He was truly excellent in those seasons, as well as in 1969. But he was an injury case in all the others, and Hill’s best seasons never quite lined up with the Cowboys’ best years. Hill’s Ivy League back story make him a role model and a fascinating character, but it doesn’t give him back any productivity in 1970 or 1971.
In the case of Peak Value versus Career Value, we are going to select peak value here, and we are probably going to be doing it a lot during running back Top Fives, for reasons I will get into ... next.
5. Walt Garrison
There’s a type of stat line that has vanished from NFL statistical history. I call it the Other Back stat line. It’s the 500-yard, 25-catch, 8-touchdown full season, something that was very common from the 1950s until about the early 1980s.
Let’s prorate the numbers to 16 games: 600 yards, 30 catches. James Starks, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis had seasons like that in 2011. In other words, two guys who lost starting jobs and a third who had a banana peel season of injuries and controversy. The 600-yard, 30-catch season is usually a sign a player is on his way out, or is at least expected to bounce back, though sometimes a Roy Helu has an Other Back year while preparing for greater things. No one looks at those stat lines and says "hey, that’s the kind of production we expect for the next half decade."
For much of football history, though, players made full careers out of stat lines like those. Garrison spent six full seasons oscillating between 429 and 818 yards while catching between 13 and 40 passes. Robert Newhouse then spent eight full years in Dallas gaining about 400-500 yards per year, usually with 15-20 catches. This isn’t a Cowboys phenomenon, but it is easiest to notice for the Cowboys because a) even their second-tier stars had long careers and b) Emmittt, Dorsett, and Perkins led the team in rushing so often that there aren’t many lower-level featured backs on their leader boards, so the career Other Backs come up quickly.
Garrison and Newhouse were fullbacks, but on many teams the Other Back was the halfback. Whatever it said on the lineup sheet, his main job was the be the second running threat in an era when offense was defined by having two backs who could attack multiple holes, catch passes out of the backfield, and block for each other. The Other Back has been completely replaced in modern football by specialized players: slot receivers, receiving tight ends, change-up backs (who did exist in the 1960s and 1970), and the vestigial organ known as the modern fullback.
In Super Bowl VII, Garrison rushed 14 times for 74 yards, Duane Thomas rushed 19 times for 95 yards, and Hill carried seven times for 25 yards. Staubach threw just 19 passes. There is no modern equivalent whatsoever for this style of running offense. All three of the backs were very good, though Thomas’ career was cut short by constant battles with management and the media. Garrison usually lined up in the I-formation in front of Thomas or Hill, but everyone could block for everyone else, both halfbacks were big guys, and roles were something close to interchangeable. The Cowboys beat the Dolphins in Super Bowl VII, and the Dolphins had a similar offense, three-back rotation and all. It was unheard of in the 1970s to not have an Other Back. During O.J. Simpson’s heyday, Jim Braxton churned out a series of 450-550 yard seasons for the Bills, because the offensive philosophy of the time emphasized "key breaking," not spreading the field or flooding short zones with fast receivers.
Garrison was an Other Back for his entire career, though his role often expanded when Hill was hurt. He was a very good player and a valuable contributor to some great teams, though his "aw shucks" reputation rubs both ways when assessing his legacy. On the one hand, he got a lot of "spunky white guy" treatment, which is always good for the Q Rating. On the other hand, he was branded a slowpoke, even though he averaged 4.6 and 4.7 yards per carry in his best seasons and typically averaged 10 yards per catch across 30 catches. I watched Super Bowl VII, and Garrison was very quick off the line of scrimmage and had great cutback ability in the hole. He may have looked slow when racing Hill, but he would fit into a modern offense well. For last year’s Texans, Garrison ’71 could have gained 1,400 yards.
Garrison was clearly better than guys like Marion Barber, and I have no problem ranking him above a couple of years of Herschel Walker. At the same time, the two back stat line presents a real danger when evaluating players across eras. Some very ordinary second bananas were able to play for years and churn out stats that sometimes left them in the high-middle of the all-time team career lists.
Newhouse is a fine example. Newhouse had some good years, but his production is well out of whack with his reputation, at least according to modern eyes. Newhouse is fifth on the Cowboys rushing list, ahead of Garrison, Walker, Barber, and some other guys who had a few truly excellent years like Thomas. He is fifth, in part, because he was still rushing for 450 yards per year in 1980, when Dorsett was the clear featured back. The Cowboys also found carries for Ron Springs that year; the fullbacks blocking for Dorsett averaged about 13 carries per game, proving that the Simpson-Braxton phenomenon was still in effect. In about a decade, fullbacks would start to average just above zero carries per game, and Newhouse-types would be relegated to committee roles at best. Newhouse did not get a lot of carries because he was great. He got a lot of carries because he was pretty good, and Other Backs got a lot of carries in his era.
That’s a very long-winded way of asking this question: who do you really think was better, Robert Newhouse or Moose Johnston? Yeah, me too.
It’s also a long way of saying that 1950s-70s "two backs" should be thought of as No. 2 wide receivers. Just as the modern No. 2 receiver can come by 50 catches and 700 yards in a very ordinary season, the old non-featured back could come by 500 nearly fungible rushing yards. As such, we will have to be cautious in separating out the really good two backs -– the Garrisons, Jim Kiicks, and Rocky Bleiers -– and remember that three superstar seasons are worth a lot more than six or seven Other Back seasons, at least in most circumstances throughout NFL history.
Honorable mention for the Cowboys appears to be covered: Moose, Newhouse, Herschel, Duane Thomas. Felix Jones is tenth on the Cowboys rushing list, another example of how Cowboys lists start with a couple of immortals, then hit a cliff because the stars have 1961-95 covered and the last 17 years have been pretty fallow.
New York Giants
Sorry, Giants fans, but I wrote a bunch of Giants countdowns in the week before the Super Bowl and I am all Giants’d out. Here’s a list, and maybe some of you can pick the ball up and run with it in the thread. If you feel short changed, well, you can console yourselves with memories of a parade a few weeks ago.
1. Frank Gifford
Some individuals are easier to rank as "football players" then as position players. Gifford is a fine example. The motion halfback who ends up at flanker and catches 30-50 passes in a 12-game season does not exist anymore. The closest modern equivalent, the change-up runner, has nowhere near the impact on games that players like Gifford had. Gifford also played both ways at the start of his career, and he threw about a half dozen passes per season, ending his career with 12 passing touchdowns. He belongs to a list that includes Charley Trippi, Sammy Baugh, and a bunch of pre World War II guys. Matt Forte may be the best modern comparison to Gifford. The No. 2 guy on this list is similar, but Gifford blows him completely away at every level.
2. Tiki Barber
A bit of a twit as a person, but an exceptional all-purpose player for a solid decade.
3. Tuffy Leemans
Single-wing fullback of the late 1930s; led the 1938 NFL Champions with 463 rushing yards and teamed with Hank Soar in some outstanding backfields of that era.
4. Joe Morris
An incredibly exciting player for a few seasons. Morris was tiny, so everyone assumed that he could not run between the tackles. Tiny backs are often very effective at running between the tackles, and Morris gained over 2,800 rushing yards and rushed for 35 touchdowns in 1985 and 1986. The workload was a little ridiculous in 1986, and Morris lost a yard per carry off his average in subsequent years.
26 years later, the idea that a 5-foot-7, 195 pound running back a) can run well up the middle and is not unusually susceptible to injuries unless b) some coach tries to prove a point by giving him 320 carries is somehow still quantum physics in the NFL. 26 years after Joe Morris, we still downgrade draft prospects for their size when they are Morris-proportioned, and coaches still stand up at press conferences and scoff at the idea that a running back can be overused. It takes a long, long, long time for ideas to sink in at the NFL level.
5. Rodney Hampton
Meat grinder back for the Ray Handley and Dan Reeves teams. Hampton was solid early in his career, then became the tortoise who piddled along at three-point-something yards per carry for four full seasons. No one seemed to notice that the featured back had no speed, big play value, or receiving skills, because when the Giants organization hits a dry spell it lapses into a mass delusion that it is still 1938 and they can win games by grinding Tuffy Leemans and Hank Soar into the line at the Polo Grounds.
Honorable Mention must go to Alex Webster, who just passed away this weekend. Webster shared the backfield with Gifford for many years, and got to be a star in 1961 when Gifford was on Bednarik Sabbatical, rushing for 928 yards and making the Pro Bowl.
Brandon Jacobs deserves some mention, because he is fourth on the Giants all-time rushing list. Does that seem right? A franchise as storied as the Giants, and Jacobs reaches fourth by barely cracking 1,000 yards twice and mixing some barreling runs with lots of Maalox moments? Dude’s got two Super Bowl rings, too. This is a career that will look much better from a distance.
Jacobs reached fourth because the Giants had quite a few short career superstars like Eddie Price, lots of multi-position rusher-receivers like Gifford, Webster, Joe Morrison and Kyle Rote (and Tiki, I suppose), and a gap from 1964 to 1984 when the might as well have been playing competitive backgammon. There were a lot of Doug Kotar and Butch Woolfolk types in the backfield during those lean years, and it didn’t take much for Jacobs to pass them.