This afternoon, I’ll put up the first post in what will be an ongoing offseason review of positional groups from last season. I’ll look at how they performed, who will be returning, which impending free agents should be retained, and who should be let go. As a necessary caveat, I’m far from a professional scout. It’s incredibly difficult to analyze football players based on statistics; aside from the inherently small sample that skews those numbers anyway, there are a limited number of useful statistics for certain groups of players. With baseball, for example, you can visit any player’s Baseball-Reference page or look them up on Fangraphs and you’ll find a wealth of useful information; normally enough to give you an objective sense of how a player performed and how he’s likely to perform, especially if you combine the statistical knowledge with traditional scouting.
But football is different. Which statistical measure should be used to discern how well Kyle Long played? Numbers like penalties committed or sacks allowed can help, but I don’t think they come at all close to painting a comprehensive picture. Sites like Pro Football Focus chart every play and grade every player, that’s a wonderful resource and they do great work, but treating that number as a definitive player evaluation also seems like a potentially errant decision. There’s a bigger picture to consider.
In terms of attempted evaluation, I think one of the biggest obstacles for someone like me is that a large part of football is misdirection. Before every play, both the offense and the defense are trying to disguise what their action and intent will be. That goes on right up until the snap, then the play is run, the ball is spotted, and they go through it all again. There are so many moving parts that it can be overwhelming to try and figure out just what the blocking scheme was supposed to be, or which defender was supposed to fill certain gaps. With other sports, deciphering intent is easier; a batter is attempting to get on base, a pitcher is attempting to prevent that from happening, an outfielder is attempting to catch a fly ball, a base runner is attempting to steal, a shooter is attempting to hit a three-pointer, a defender is attempting to prevent his man from scoring, a goalkeeper is attempting to keep opponents shots out of his net. And when you know the intent of a play, you can more accurately pass judgment on the relative success or failure of a player.
In football, some things are obvious. A quarterback is attempting to complete a pass to someone on his team; a running back is attempting to gain positive yards, a receiver is attempting to get open and catch the ball, a linebacker is attempting to make a tackle, a defensive back is attempting to prevent a catch, a kicker is trying to make a field goal. But I’d argue that the success or failure of those actions in football is more team-dependent than other sports, in a fashion that is not always readily apparent.
For example, say the Bears call for an interior run. Jay Cutler hands the ball off, Matt Forte hits a gaping hole and makes it to the second level, where an opposing safety makes a tackle. In the box score, that’s a run for twelve yards. Looks good for Matt! But who should we credit for that result? Should we praise the offensive line for opening the hole? Criticize an opposing linebacker who overpursued and failed to fill his gap assignment? Credit Matt Forte for gaining the yards? What about the opposing safety who saved a touchdown? And what if the original play was a pass, from which Jay Cutler audibled to a successful run?
It reminds me of this thought experiment: “Which is more important to a car, the engine or the wheels? It seems obvious to me that all of those actions made up the result, and therefore the proper credit and critique must be distributed across the spectrum. It’s an incredibly context-dependent sport, which makes a by-the-numbers evaluation exceedingly difficult. So as I go through the positional groups, I’ll necessarily be giving my own general impressions of how players performed on the field; those impressions combined with factors such as age, salary, and positional depth (among others) will factor into my judgments on whether a player should be retained, re-signed, or released.
Today’s post will be up early this afternoon, and it’s a look at the specialists on the roster. I think it will be an interesting run through the team as the Bears prepare for the offseason; free agency is only two months away. I hope you enjoy it.