Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bruce Smith, 200 or 201?

by John Turney

In Week 11 of the 1985 season the Buffalo Bills traveled to Cleveland to play the Browns, which was not considered a historical game by any means. What makes it interesting is a statistical anomaly that occurred in the NFL Game Summary (play-by-play or PBP).

In reviewing it one can see that late in the first half rookie Bruce Smith was credited with two sacks on back-to-back plays, one for four yards and the next for six yards. However, as is sometimes the case with the PBPs the tackle chart at the end of the game summary showed conflicting information. But, to make this a rarity, the conflicting information is corrected in the tackle chart to make it consistent with the text. However, that information never seemed to be forwarded to Elias Sports Bureau, the NFL’s official statisticians.

The tackle chart and the end of the PBP showed one sack for Bruce Smith for four yards, but shows Don Smith, a defensive tackle who entered games in likely passing situations, getting the other sack for six yards. In NFL sack research Nick Webster and I often go with the text of the PBP as opposed to the tackle chart if there is a conflict, the logic being that the more senior member of the statistical crew would be typing the text. But in the case, the tackle chart was corrected in pencil giving both sacks to Bruce Smith, which made it consistent with the text.

Why mention it now? Only to show that in football there are often anomalies in these documents that have to be addressed by researchers who examine them. What makes this anomaly different is that if the text and the tackle chart agree (which they do after a Bills official corrected the tackle chart) then Bruce Smith had 7.5 sacks in 1985 rather than 6.5. If it bears out, then Bruce Smith has 201 sacks rather than 200.

It’s not a major difference, but does show that prior to 1987 when Elias Sports Bureau insisted on reviewing sacks there were small discrepancies and it shows that even though sacks were official beginning in 1982 that sacks are a tough statistic to score and on occasion it’s a matter of opinion.The best evidence would be the game film or television copy of the game, but those may not still exist. So, using the best evidence at this point, it is that Smith has 201 career sacks.

Art credit: John Turney
On a related note, in 2014 when the St. Louis Rams traveled to Kansas City there was another type of scoring anomaly that shorted Robert Quinn of a rightly earned sack.

Early in that game Quinn tacked down Chief quarterback Alex Smith and stripped the ball from him behind the line of scrimmage and the ball traveled forward a few yards where it went out of bounds. The Chiefs’s official scorers ruled it a running play likely because the officiating crew marked the ball improperly.

For weeks, to no avail, the Rams challenged the scoring. Team officials were told that Elias was having trouble accounting for the yardage since miscellaneous yards were no longer a category for odd plays like this. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said, "Yeah, it's one of those unusual things that happens once every few years". Quinn was disappointed, but also shrugged it off, "No need to sit there and lose sleep about it, right?" he said.

One aspect that would make it significant is that if properly scored Quinn would have had three sacks in the game, which would give him six three-sack games in his career in four seasons. The official leaders in that category are Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White, who had 12 each. Both those players did it 13 and 15 seasons, respectively.

The moral of the story is errors happen in football statistics, it’s such a fast and dynamic game that often split decisions are made to who made a tackle or sack or who forces a fumble or tips a pass. Pro Football Journal likes to report on these types of statistics, but is not under any illusion that the stats are always concrete or set in stone. And don’t even bring up a 2000 sacks credited to Le’Roi Glover that likely should have been credited to defensive end Joe Johnson. Johnson knocked a ball loose a split second before Glover tackled the quarterback who had no ball in his hand. That would have given Glover 16 for the season and Johnson 14, but it would have cost Glover the sack title as Warren Sapp had 16.5.

When this was pointed out to Seymour Siwoff he was a bit put out in that he replied “I wish you would have contacted us, we want to get it right”. His staff was informed by me, but in a busy season it was either not reviewed or it was and the film was not conclusive enough to make the change.

So no one is at fault, all involved try to get it right, but in football, “right” is a bit more nebulous than in say, baseball.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A LOOK BACK: 1979 AFC Pro Bowl selections: DE

by John Turney

Often at Pro Football Journal we like to review the post-season honors players received and with perfect 20/20 hindsight make suggestions as to possible oversights and omissions.

One example is the 1979 Pro Bowl selections for defensive end in the AFC. The players voted to the game were Fred Dean, LC Greenwood, and Elvin Bethea. Dean and Bethea are Hall of Famers and Greenwood is a many-time finalist. Sacks did not become official until 1982 but in 1979 they were kept by game statisticians and most teams tallied them in their weekly press releases, along with tackles, forced fumbles, and other individual defensive statistics.

In the NFC the choices were fairly easy. Lee Roy Selmon was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Jack Youngblood and Bubba Baker were two of the top sackers in the NFL. Selmon was injured in the 1979 NFC Championship game and was replaced by Harvey Martin. Carl Hairston of the Eagles had 15 sacks and was thought to be a top alternate.

However, the AFC players didn't have the gaudy statistics of their NFL counterparts. Dean had nine sacks and Greenwood had seven. Bethea had one. Yes, one. Research has yielded some interesting details about that season and can perhaps offer a couple of choices that may have been better than Bethea and even Greenwood. Clearly, sacks are not the only measure of a defensive end, playing the run and being aware of run action passes like screens and on occasion taking the second back out of the backfield in coverage. But, from the Deacon Jones era to the present, sacks are a representation of the major job a defensive end has. To paraphrase Hall of Fame coach George Allen, "If a defensive lineman cannot rush the passer, he's stealing".

Starting in the late-1960s the designated pass rusher was starting to show up in NFL games, a player who played primarily on likely passing situations. However, none had ever received post-season honors such and being named All-Pro or voted to the Pro Bowl until 1981, when Fred Dean was so honored with both and more. Bethea was a worthy Hall of Famer, but 1979 was not one of his better seasons.

Rookie designated pass rusher Jesse Baker got the lion's share of sacks and led the AFC with 15½, about the number of Dean and Greenwood combined. However, being a rookie and not being an every-down player (he did spell Bethea some at right defensive end in the base defense) he was not voted for any post-season honors other than being voted to various All-Rookie teams so it's understandable how he was overlooked. 

Also overlooked, for likely the same reasons, was Tony "Mac the Sack" McGee, who totaled 11½ sacks The same is likely true for Tony "Mack the Sack" McGee, who, from 1974 through 1983 was a consistent nickel rusher for the Patriots and Redskins. The same goes for Willie Jones, the Raiders replacement in the DPR role previously held by Pat Toomey, with his ten sacks.

As for the players who were starters the best candidates for the Pro Bowl who were overlooked were Art Still and Vern Den Herder. Den Herder a nine-year vet had nine sacks as the Dolphins surged after a few down years. Still was chosen by Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman for his All-Pro team, citing consistent pressure and great ability to stop the run. Still, he had 8
½ sacks but really began to show his ability the following year, 1980, when he totaled 14½ sacks and continued in his run-stopping dominance.

Bethea was hampered by some injuries, but played through them and on occasion played defensive tackle while Baker played right defensive end in the Oiler pass-rush set.

So, in this looking back installment, the best choices for 1979 AFC defensive ends would be Dean, who played very well on a very good Chargers defense, Still, an up-and-comer, and then a pick 'em: Den Herder or Greenwood. Both veterans with good moves, but coming to the end of their careers. 

Career stats: