Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Exercise in NFL Player Evaluation, 20 Years Hence

Hall of Fame voting happened earlier this month, and once again, the discussion centered around what sort of accolades a player received and how many times he was voted to the Pro Bowl and made the All-Pro team, rather than how good a player he was. The player in the 2010 class that annoyed me the most was, of course, John Randle, but it's a more general problem. We see the current All-Pro teams and, especially, the Pro Bowl teams, and point out the snubs and erroneous selections, but when it comes to judging players who were around 20 years ago, these same flawed metrics suddenly become the be-all and end-all of judging player quality. So, to help fight against that trend, I'm going to do a thought experiment talking about two contemporary players I'll call Player X and Player Y using the information contained in their respective player page on Pro-Football-Reference.

Player X, a cornerback, was drafted in the first round by a veteran team that had missed the playoffs the year before, though his team would return to the playoffs his rookie season. He didn't start as a rookie, but did play in all 16 games and served as his team's primary kickoff and punt returner. He performed credibly, at roughly a league average level, at both jobs. He broke into the starting lineup in his second season. He ceded the kickoff return job, but was still his team's punt returner, where he finished 4th in the league in punt return average. He also intercepted 9 passes, which was among the best totals in the league, and made the Pro Bowl. Pro Football Weekly also chose him to be first team all-conference. He slipped a little in his third season, putting up mediocre punt return stats and only started 14 games but did still have 5 interceptions. In his fourth season, he may have lost his job, playing in 13 games and starting only 6 of them, with 1 interception.

Player X changed teams that offseason (via trade, though that's not listed on his P-F-R page). He returned to a starting role for his new team, playing in 12 games and starting 10 of them. He had 4 interceptions that year, so he proved he still had ball skills. That was true in spades the next year, as he had 10 interceptions in 15 games to lead the league. He made his second Pro Bowl, Pro Football Weekly named him first team all-conference for the second time in his career, his team improved dramatically and won the division after missing the playoffs his first year there, and oh by the way, he made the All-Pro team. His performance would seemingly slip after that season, as he played in 12 games the next year, starting 7, but only had 1 interception, and his team missed the playoffs. Ditto for the year after, only 8 starts in 16 games, only 1 interception. He played for his third team in his age 31 seasons, the third year after he made All Pro, and was active for all 16 games, starting 10, nabbing 3 interceptions, for a team that ended up with a winning record but missed the playoffs.

That age 31 season marked the end of his NFL career. He finished his career having appeared in 132 games, starting 85 of them. He made two Pro Bowl teams, was named to PFW's all-conference 1st team both of those years, and one All Pro team. He twice finished among the league's very best in interceptions and finished with 34 for his career. PFR credits him with 55 Approximate Value, which is far from Hall of Fame caliber but still quite respectable.

Player Y, who's still active, is another cornerback who was drafted in the first round by a veteran team. The team that drafted Player Y was coming off a deep playoff run and had a good recent history of success. Player Y would start 1 game as a rookie and 7 in his sophomore campaign before becoming a full-time starter for his team in his third season. In his fourth season, he had 8 interceptions to rank among the league's best in that category, but that year looks like a fluke compared to the rest of his career. It's fair to say Player Y is not a ballhawk. In fact, he didn't have a single interception in his first three seasons and only had 1 each in his fifth, sixth, and seventh seasons. The Associated Press named him second-team All-Pro the season he had 8 interceptions. His first Pro Bowl appearance came in his sixth season, when he was also named All-Pro by each of PFW, Sporting News, and AP. He made his second Pro Bowl appearance the next season, after which AP and SN both named him second-team All-Pro.

His career isn't over yet, but Player Y will be 29 at the start of the 2010 season, so he could reasonably have as few as 3 years of part-time service available if he follows the path of Player X. Thus far, he's played in 108 games, starting 85 of them (PFR will reflect this when it's fully updated for the 2009 season). He has 11 career interceptions and has made 2 Pro Bowls and 1 All-Pro team. He has never served as his team's punt or kickoff returner. Excluding 2009, which is not available, PFR credits him with 40 Approximate Value.

So, using the available information, who's the better player? This is slightly unfair to Player Y, who's still playing, but they've each made the same number of Pro Bowls and All-Pro 1st teams, though Player Y has another year where he's been rated on a lesser All-Pro team. Player X gave his team return value Player Y didn't have. Player X has more than three times as many interceptions as Player Y. Player Y has been more of a consistent starter than Player X, but he's also played on generally worse teams. PFR's AV system has 15 points of difference between them as of right now; that might be 6-8 once 2009 is figured in, but either way Player X comes out on top. Even so, that's at least another good year of starting for a league-average cornerback, maybe two, before you can rate Player Y to be Player X's equal. Really, based on this and ignoring what I know, I'd say Player X has been better thus far.

And now, the reveal after the jump:

Player X is Deltha O'Neal, while Player Y is Nnamdi Asomugha. Maybe it's just me, but is there really anybody that thinks O'Neal was as good a player as Asomugha, let alone better as AV is suggesting? The raw honors are the same, and O'Neal really did have that many more interceptions. If you haven't seen and watched those players play, or if you don't know things like the Broncos tried to convert O'Neal to offense in 2003 and that's why he only started 6 games, you could really believe Deltha O'Neal was better than Nnamdi Asomugha.

The question you really need to answer is, are you sure you're not making the same mistake when you're judging somebody who played in the 60's, the 70's, the 80's, or any other time before you watched the player with intelligent eyes. Maybe it's just me, but I get the feeling that's not a question that's often enough asked, let alone positively answered. And with Dr. Z's incapacity, that's one less person in the Hall of Fame selection room to answer that question with intelligent eyes.

No comments: