While reading Jeff Pearlman’s book “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton” (a fantastic read not at all accurately depicted by the salacious snippet chosen to excerpt in Sports Illustrated and one I’ll write more about later) I stumbled across an old Paul Brown quote that for some reason has resonated in my head ever since. As the cyclical nature of football brings all things full circle, Brown’s wisdom has pervaded my consciousness to a degree that I can’t explain and has absolutely changed the way that I’m looking at football these days.
The fifteen words put forth by Brown that have changed my football viewing life are these: “Football is a game of errors. The team that makes the fewest errors usually wins. “
It’s such a simple concept and one that on the surface doesn’t feel like a revelation at all, yet as we look at games and match ups and try to prognosticate upcoming games or to simply explain the outcomes of games already decided, we the highlight driven society that we are, pay too much attention to the stars and their abilities to make plays and not enough attention to the supporting cast and the likelihood that they’ll be able to provide the requisite support to make those stars shine.
The modern metrics that have taken over baseball have done a fair enough job at quantifying the bare minimum of Major League credibility. The RP in VORP (and formerly in WARP, subsequently shortened to WAR) represents the “replacement player”. In simple terms the replacement player represents a baseline of expectation for the production of any player called up from AAA to fill a given position. Calculating a star’s value beyond that replacement player then quantifies his stardom and moreover his contribution to the winning formula.
Sooner or later the statisticians will take over football too. When they do, you can bet that they’ll begin by figuring out what baseline production should be. In other words, someone far smarter than I could likely come up with a yardage expectation on any given play if all 22 guys involved in the play simply do their jobs. From there it would be easier to determine whether the contributions of stars were valuable enough to offset the costly mistakes of the supporting cast or the mistakes made by those stars on other plays.
The more I watch, the more I’m convinced that far more NFL games are decided by the players who are messing up than those who are making big plays. In fact, the argument could be made that big plays wouldn’t even be possible unless someone on the other side of the ball messes up.
There are lots of different types of mistakes that NFL players and teams can make from play to play. Some are easy to spot, others much more subtle. Players can only be held responsible to do whatever task their assignment calls for, therefore the guys giving those assignments had better be on their games. Players can’t succeed unless they are put in a position to do so. Good play will overcome bad coaching in only the rarest of instances and mistakes made before the ball is ever snapped can be among the costliest and most difficult to overcome.