Aug 102011
Eagles WR DeSean Jackson

Eagles WR DeSean Jackson (photo: Wigstruck)

The only thing worse than a baseball stat nerd is a football one.  At least baseball statistics can help paint a pretty clear picture of a player’s worth, even if some over-analyze numbers to the point that they would rather stare at a calculator screen than watch an actual game.  You know, the ones who think that a game played in the heat of a pennant race has the same impact on a player as one played in mid-April.

A stat nerd with a calculator and an agenda is a dangerous thing, as more lies can be told with statistics than an entire school’s worth of third graders trying to wiggle out of trouble for their latest prank.

Luckily, that crowd tends to stay away from the football realm, with NFL fans knowing that stats barely touch the surface of a player and team’s true performance.  Team being the keyword here.  Whereas in baseball performance is mainly dependent on an individual, a football player must rely on his teammates to execute and win.  A quarterback won’t have great passing stats if receivers don’t catch the ball; a running back won’t gain many yards if the offensive line doesn’t block; and so on and on.

In football, stats really only matter in the fantasy version, with fans easily understanding the difference between the two worlds.  Unfortunately, there always seems to be one blowhard who not only refuses to acknowledge reality but somehow finds a way to get enough attention that the rest of us are subjected to their asinine rantings.

Exhibit A — this new article from Grantland, the site run by ESPN’s Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.  This particular drivel was actually perpetrated by another Bill, and I’ll only recommend you remember the name Bill Barnwell so you know to avoid this guy’s future bleatings.

Basically, his premise is that DeSean Jackson isn’t worth big money.  And it’s categorically stupid.  The fact that he tries to explain away this erroenous proclamation with questionable at-best statistics, including one he created himself, really tells you all you need to know about the guy.  That said, let’s pick it apart anyway.

Barnwell’s first point is, yep, pretty much pointless:

Jackson has caught 172 of the 332 passes thrown to him during the first three years of his career, producing a catch rate of 51.8 percent. Among the 55 receivers with 200 targets or more over that time frame, Jackson ranks 47th in catch rate. He’s yet to catch more than 53 percent of the passes thrown to him in any of his three pro seasons.

Anyone who has ever watched even one football game knows that a receiver’s ability to catch a football is hugely dependent on the quarterback’s ability to deliver the football.  Playing with the worm-burner throwing, air mailing, diva Donovan McNabb, the inexperienced Kevin Kolb, and the accuracy-challenged Michael Vick, it may not exactly have been DeSean who was lowering that catch rate.

Plus, the ability of the covering cornerback needs to be taken into account when evaluating a wide receiver’s performance — a player like a Darrelle Revis or Asante Samuel, who are excellent at reading a quarterback and jumping a route, can disrupt a play through no fault of the receiver.  Not to mention if a corner is getting help from a safety over the top.  Or if the receiver slipped on a wet field.  Or the referee is allowing physical play that could obstruct a receivers view or hands.  Or if a bug hit the receivers eye at the moment the ball arrived.  Or one of countless other factors that could be cited as influencing a given pass play.  So catch rate is obviously an extremely dependent statistic that barely scratches at the door of relevance.

At least Barnwell seems to realize this (despite using it to open his argument):

Out of context, catch rate can be a very limited metric. Comparing the catch rates of Jackson and, say, Wes Welker (73.9 percent over the past three years) is unfair since Welker runs six-yard option routes all day, while Jackson routinely sprints 30 yards downfield.

Ya think?

The argument doesn’t get much better in Barnwell’s effort to determine context.  He blathers for a bit about how Jackson’s catch rate is lower than players like Tedd Ginn, Lee Evans, the Panthers’ Steve Smith, Santonio Holmes, Bernard Berrian (who he actually calls a downfield threat, and who the Vikings just demanded take a pay cut or get cut), the largely inconsistent Dwayne Bowe, Devin Hester, and Santana Moss.  Yes, he says that guys like Ted freakin Ginn and Bernard Berrian are statistically superior to DeSean Jackson.  What he doesn’t mention is that the statistical differences between these comparisons add up to barely more than a couple balls a season, and he also fails to mention the general absurdity of the entire comparison, but then again, I guess he wouldn’t.

Regardless, it’s highly likely this guy has never actually watched DeSean Jackson play a football game.

Barnwell goes on to explain DeSean’s inferiorty by exhorting a stat called Team-adjusted plus-minus, a so-called advanced metric Barnwell himself says he created a few years ago.  Not a credibility stretch there.  He claims this stat:

considers the quality of a receiver’s quarterback, the play of the pass-catchers around him, the length of a receiver’s routes, and the down and distance of each of his targets to build an expected catch figure.

Of course, he doesn’t explain how those areas of measurement are quantified, or the fact that other highly influential factors are nearly impossible to quantify, nor does he explain how to account for the inherent differences intrinsic to each and every down and distance situation on each play in every football game.  Assigning arbitrary values to various measurement factors surrounding a play does not make for a worthwhile statistic.

Painting a picture with dog crap still comes up brown no matter which way you hold the brush.

He then goes on to belittle Jackson’s fantastic 22 yard-per-catch average from last year using an unexplained statistic called Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), all because Jackson had some dropped calls, which again doesn’t provide context at face value.  That didn’t stop Barnwell from pontificating pointlessly on Jackson’s failings.

All these incompletions kill Jackson’s efficiency. Even while averaging 22 yards per catch in 2010, Jackson’s DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) was a middling 2.3 percent, which ranked 44th amongst receivers. He scored only six touchdowns as a receiver (adding one as a rusher and one on that punt return against the Giants to make eight overall), and that occasional quick strike is countered by all the times he wasn’t able to come up with a pass and the Eagles were forced to punt. DVOA has a propensity to underrate deep threats like Jackson, but other players with similar profiles have been able to sustain high DVOA figures with this style. Steve Smith of the Panthers, for one, led the league in DVOA during his third full season as a starter. Jackson was 23rd in DVOA in 2009, but he has yet to put together a truly great season.

What he doesn’t mention is that Jackson’s career touchdown catches average 44 yards all by themselves.  44 yards.  Per TD catch.  Plug that one into your TI-3000 and it comes up GAMEBREAKER.  It’s ridiculous to think these kinds of superficially specific stats can come close to explaining what really happens on the football field.

This guy could have saved himself some thumb pain by putting down his calculator and instead used the rest of his fingers to type up an article with a relevant and plausible premise explaining the Eagles hesitation to pay DeSean — the injury factor.

Punch up that Dunta Robinson hit and the results are clear:  Jackson, at his size, is susceptible to the big hit and debilitating concussions, and it’s a legitimate concern.  While he may be tough and unafraid to make a catch, DeSean’s value in the long term is certainly worthy of debate.  There is definitely a valid argument that can be made regarding the fact that DeSean needs to limit his routes across the middle.  It’s something tangible the Eagles could use in their evaluation when considering how much to pay DeSean.

But you know what, it doesn’t matter.  Put in tape of that Redskins game last year, when Jackson, still hobbled by a sprained ankle, just embarrasses LaRon Landry and the rest of the Washington secondary.  And if that’s not enough, how about watching the end of that game against the Giants?  In New York that footage has been rumored to cause severe seizures in any Giants fan unlucky enough to re-live the memory of that embarrassment.

DeSean changes the way a defensive coordinator gameplans against the Eagles.  He puts knee-knocking fear into both the corners who try to play him straight up and the safeties tasked with keeping him in check over the top.  His speed, quickness, agility, and elusiveness cannot be taught, nor can it be cheaply bought.

But yeah, he’s worse than Ted Ginn because some stat nerd’s calculator said so.  How about this equation:  calculate the total dollars DeSean would be offered right now if the Eagles cut him, then subtract what Ted Ginn would make.  Exactly.  NFL general managers won’t be looking at ridiculous stats like catch rate and DVOA when adding zero after zero to DeSean’s contract offer.

That’s why when it comes to football, this Barnwell guy would be better off watching an actual game and only using  his calculator to write 80085.

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