Who is a better football player: David Carr or Steve Hutchinson?
David Carr was the first overall pick in 2002, and the jury is still out on him. Some people believe he only needs a decent offensive line, a change of scenery, some better receivers, or some combination thereof; others believe he’s simply a bust. Steve Hutchinson, for you casual football fans who wandered in here not prepared for a quiz, plays guard for the Seahawks, and does so spectacularly. Let’s set aside for the moment the debate about the value of a mediocre quarterback versus a top-notch guard, and focus on who does his job better. You ask 100 knowledgeable football fans, and all 100 will tell you that Hutchinson is a much better guard than Carr is a quarterback.
Now let’s think about information. On what information are we intelligent football fans basing that judgement? As usual, this is easy for baseball fans. If we are debating baseball players, we can start by looking at the numbers. We may quibble about which numbers to look at or exactly what kind of adjustments we need to make to those numbers, but ultimately we feel pretty confident that the players’ statistics — if properly interpreted — tell us what we need to know.
It’s not so easy in football. There are, of course, plenty of stats on Carr. But everybody knows that they reflect not only his own performance but also his teammates’ performance, his coach’s offensive philosophy, and so forth. We know his numbers are tainted, but we’re willing to use them anyway, at least as a rough estimate.
For Hutchinson, we don’t even have that much. In fact, we’ve got nothing. Those of you who have broken down enough game film of Hutchinson, and have broken down enough game film on every other guard in the league, and who really know enough about guard play to know what you’re watching for, you can speak with authority. You form a miniscule fraction of the football watching population, though. For the rest of us, the only stat we have on offensive lineman is the number of pro bowls to which they’ve been named. Either directly or indirectly, that’s how most of us form our opinion of the quality of offensive linemen. Hutchinson has been to three straight pro bowls. He’s good. Who are the best offensive lineman in football? Jonathan Ogden? Nine straight pro bowls. Orlando Pace has been to seven straight. Willie Roaf? Eleven pro bowls in the last 12 years. Will Shields? Ten pro bowls in the last 11 years. Larry Allen likewise has gone to 10 in the last 11 years.
Do you know how many non offensive linemen have been to 10 pro bowls in 11 years, as Roaf, Shields, and Allen have? Concentrating for the moment just on the offensive side of the ball, here is the breakdown:
Number of players who have been to 10 pro bowls in an 11-year span
Offensive linemen – 9
Quarterbacks – 1
Running backs – 1
Wide Receivers – 1
Tight Ends – 0
In the history of the NFL, Johnny Unitas, Jerry Rice, and Barry Sanders are the only three players on the offensive side of the ball who played their position as consistently well as Will Shields, Willie Roaf, and Larry Allen have played theirs. Now, it is true that offensive linemen generally have longer careers than the so-called skill position players, but here is an equally revealing glimpse into the pro bowl voting:
Pro Bowl “retention rates”
Offensive line – 60%
Tight Ends – 52.6%
Wide Receivers – 45.5%
Running Backs – 43.4%
Quarterbacks – 43.2%
In other words, 60% of the offensive lineman who made the pro bowl in year N also made it in year N+1, while only 43% of quarterbacks were able to retain their pro bowl status from one year to the next. The contrast is even sharper when you realize that 19% of the league’s starting quarterbacks make the pro bowl in a given year but only 10% of the league’s starting offensive linemen do (6 of 32 QBs, 16 of 160 lineman), so it should be easier for quarterbacks to repeat. Of course it is possible that there is something inherent about the positions that makes skill position players much more volatile — pitchers are naturally more volatile than hitters, for example — but I’m suspicious.
If you ranked the positions on the offensive side of the ball in terms of how many statistics are available to describe the performance of players at that position, you would get a list that is in the exact opposite order of the above list. Quarterbacks are measured in several passing and rushing categories, including the complex passer rating formula. Running backs have rushing statistics and receiving statistics. Wide receivers have only receiving statistics. Tight ends also have only receiving statistics, but those receiving statistics measure a smaller part of the tight end’s job than of the wide receiver’s job.
Even when you include defensive players, the correspondence remains. Retention rates for linebackers, defensive backs, and defensive linemen — for whom we have a couple of statistics (sacks and interceptions), but not many — all fall between those of the offensive lineman and the wide receivers. Now that tackles are becoming a more standard statistic for defensive players, it will be interesting to see if their pro bowl retention rates fall. I bet they do.
The less information we have, the more we have to rely on reputation. We evaluate skill position players on some combination of information (stats) and reputation. For linemen, the information is the reputation, so we get a self-fulfilling prophecy. Offensive lineman make the pro bowl because they’re good. And we know they’re good because they make the pro bowl.