Can I Have Your Numbers? Why Offensive Linemen Need Stats

It was a west-coast vacation, October 2003, and 11-year-old me was standing in line at the Seahawks Stadium (now CenturyLink Field) gift shop. Just two days before, my parents and I were in the stands for Seattle’s 20-19 Sunday Night Football victory over the 49ers. I had noticed an advertisement for an upcoming Walter Jones autograph signing, so we were back, even though my parents would’ve rather been outside of Seattle altogether, looking at a mountain or trees in some other part of Washington’s vast expanse.

Well, there was a mountain, in the form of Jones, the six-foot-five, 315-pound man who protected the blind sides of Warren Moon, Matt Hasselbeck, and others for 12 years. I got my picture taken with him, and took home an autographed action shot, which I still have somewhere, framed. But I remember being a little disappointed that I hadn’t seen Shaun Alexander instead; the star halfback’s meet-and-greet was scheduled for the next week, when I’d be back home in boring old New York, and my access to All-Pro running backs would be severely curtailed.

Flash forward a few years: Walter Jones was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. Shaun Alexander was not enshrined, and will never be enshrined. Alexander had a record-breaking 2005, with 1880 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, but overuse killed his future; he was out of the league after three more languid seasons in which he failed to surpass 896 yards or 3.6 yards per carry. Jones was simply a better football player than Alexander, but his inhabitance of a non-“skill” position meant that he wasn’t the savior of anyone’s fantasy team, wasn’t on the cover of Madden 2007, and didn’t get to trip over a dog in this surprisingly funny commercial for ESPN Mobile, whatever that was (cameo appearance by a flip phone):

There was something else working against Walter Jones throughout his career, though, and I’m a bit vexed as to why it remains relevant in 2015, seven years after both he and Alexander retired. Did you notice how I didn’t say much about Jones in that last paragraph, but had plenty to offer on Alexander? That’s due in large part to the fact that the NFL does not keep track of any official statistics for individual offensive linemen. Yes, even in a time when baseball statisticians are tracking the precise locations of batted balls to calculate advanced fielding metrics, there’s no hard data to tell you how Michael Oher’s performing this year (or whether his performance has been better or worse than Sandra Bullock’s in The Blind Side. Get on that, somebody.)

NFL.com does offer some team offensive line statistics; their usefulness varies. They tell you how each team has fared on running plays to the left, center, and right of the field (somewhat interesting), plus how many sacks and hits quarterbacks on the team have sustained (less interesting). But if you go to Walter Jones’ NFL.com profile, all you’ll see is that he played in and started in 180 games from 1997 to 2008, and the same is true if you’re trying to learn more about any of his successors in Seattle.

When it comes to evaluating offensive linemen, fans aren’t left with many other options than to take people at their word. Some of these people (certain coaches) probably know what they’re talking about, but most of them (other coaches, Jon Gruden) probably don’t. Their evaluations tend to be based on height and weight measurements, or feats of strength (bench press and squat records), but being six-foot-seven doesn’t mean you can move downfield on a run play, or make the right reads after the snap.

Linemen are also judged on their past reputations, which tend to be self-confirming. Commonly invoked abstractions like “toughness,” “grit,” and “hustle” are nothing more than folklore. “A symbol of bigness, strength, and vitality” sounds like something Michael Irvin would’ve said about Tyron Smith, right? Nope, that’s an excerpt from Encyclopedia Britannica‘s description of Paul Bunyan. (Michael Irvin has definitely used the word “bigness,” though.)

The problem with evaluating O-line play is that I’m not sure we could develop reliable analytics even if we tried. The success or failure of a running play doesn’t necessarily tell you much about the performance of the offensive line as a whole, let alone the individual players involved. If Richard Sherman finds his way into the backfield on a run blitz, it’s still very possible that no one on the line did anything wrong. And a successful conversion on 3rd and inches doesn’t always result from a great push. Football plays depend on 22 moving parts, and the only reliable way of measuring an offensive player’s skill is tracking how far the ball moves every time he touches it (or is supposed to touch it). An offensive lineman touches the ball maybe once or twice in his career, and only in cases of disaster, so we’re left to wonder.

There is hope, though. The unofficial stats guys over at Pro-Football-Reference keep complete penalty statistics for all players, including false starts and holding penalties for linemen. These actually shed a fair amount of light on a lineman’s overall performance–Jones had a notorious (and astoundingly low) total of 35 accepted penalties over his 12 seasons. Even the Madden gaming franchise has tried to innovate in keeping stats for the guys up front, tallying pancake blocks and sacks allowed for its virtual players. While these statistics aren’t exactly feasible or practical in the real world, they are at least indicative of some attempt to quantify the performances of linemen.

I say, just as Major League Baseball has done to gain insight into the minutiae of fielding, put some nerds in front of video screens and have them stare at film of centers and guards and tackles until they can tell us more about what’s going on. Have them count how many times players miss their blocks, or how many seconds, on average, players hold their blocks. Give the guys a demerit whenever a defender blows by them for a sack.

 

Or maybe I don’t want to see those new stats, since they might strike down every truth I’ve come to accept about the greatness of Walter Jones. Nah, that’s impossible. I’ve seen his bigness with my own eyes.

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Dustin Petzold is a writer with zero false starts or holding penalties on his career. You should follow him on Twitter.

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