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.

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