20

April

Are Running Backs Becoming Undervalued?

Doug Martin

By most accounts, Boise St. RB Doug Martin is a great talent. But most mock drafts have him falling out of the second round.

As the Green Bay Packers and the other 31 NFL teams rush to find a franchise quarterback and stockpile as many wide receivers, pass-catching tight ends and cover cornerbacks as possible, running backs are being left in the dust.

Passing rules today’s NFL, and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. This fact hurts the value of running backs, making the position expendable in many cases. The movement to downgrade the running back position reminds me a little bit of the book Moneyball’s impact on drafting high school players in Major League Baseball.

In Moneyball, author Michael Lewis highlights how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane avoided drafting 17- and 18-year-old high school kids, and instead tried to draft players with college experience. Beane thought high school kids were overvalued and much of their perceived value couldn’t be justified because, well, they were just high school kids.

After Moneyball was published, it didn’t take long for other teams to catch on and start thinking like Beane. Suddenly, high school players that may have been drafted early five years ago were being passed over for college prospects.

So what did Beane do? He started drafting more high school kids.

As the market adjusted to and caught up with Beane’s philosophy, high school kids suddenly became undervalued. Good prospects were being passed up simply because they were high school kids. Beane saw the market undervaluing high school kids so he started drafting them.

I don’t think we’re quite there with running backs yet, but we’re getting closer. Take a look at Peter King’s mock draft. He’s got one running back — Trent Richardson at No. 4 — going in the first round. Is there really only one running back in this draft with first-round talent?

Maybe. But more than likely, teams have de-valued the running back position so much that talented backs are falling to the later rounds. I suppose that’s fine as long as most teams continue to devalue running backs.

But eventually, some team is going to feel that the running back position has been de-valued too much. This team might start acting like Beane and drafting running backs early again while other teams stick to their philosophy of waiting.

28

September

Forget Passing Yards, NFL Needs New Stat to Measure Quarterbacks

Green Bay Quarterback Aaron Rodgers... Passing StatsGregg Rosenthal of ProFootballTalk.com had a short post the other day arguing that passing yards have become the most overrated stat in the NFL.

Rosenthal is 100 percent correct.

After three weeks of play, there have been 33 300-yard passing games, by far the highest total through three weeks since 2009 (21).

I’ve Tweeted on a couple different occasions that every QB in the NFL might throw for more than 4,000 yards in 2011. My tongue was planted in cheek during those Tweets, but maybe it’s not that ridiculous of a statement after all. Every team in the league, with few exceptions, tries to throw the ball all over the field, even if their quarterback isn’t that good. And why not? You can’t touch a receiver past five yards and refs are always looking for a reason to call roughing the passer.

(Side note: How about the TEs in today’s NFL? You used to play DE or OLB if you were big, strong, tall and fast. Now you learn how to catch and play TE.)

Passing numbers are so inflated that you can no longer just look at a box score to determine if a quarterback had a good game. Even with Moneyball now a mainstream movie starring Brad Pitt, and the stats movement becoming more and more prevalent every day, it’s getting increasingly difficult to judge QBs on their passing numbers, specifically passing yards.

Nope, relying too heavily on stats to judge modern QBs isn’t going to cut it. You have to rely on what you see with your own eyes, then go to the stats to fill in the gaps.

For example, lets look at the Packers Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has excellent numbers this season: 917 yards, 8 TDs, 1 INT and a 120.9 rating. If you just looked at Rodgers’ numbers, you would assume he’s having a good season, and you would be correct.

But what if you just looked at passing yards? Rodgers is ninth in the NFL in passing yards, behind guys like Matt Hasselbeck (932), Tony Romo (942) and Cam Newton (1,012). I hope in this day and age that most fans are savvy enough to look at more than just passing yards, but you know that there are still a lot of people that look at passing yards and make quick judgements.

3

May

On Ted Thompson: Someone Needs to Write the Green Bay Packers Version of Moneyball

Of all sports, baseball and golf seem to generate the best books. I’m not sure why this is, but I have a couple of theories. In baseball, reporters have more access to players and coaches than they do in any other sport. This helps would-be authors build relationships and uncover tidbits and anecdotes to craft a well-executed long-form narrative.

Golf offers a few pressure-packed moments during majors that turn regular guys into mythical figures that talented writers turn into books about life lessons and the deeper meaning of hitting a small white ball into a cup. Either that or talented writers get so bored watching golf that they write a book to keep themselves interested.

Football has some interesting books, but not nearly as many as baseball or golf. Access to players and management is also severely restricted in football when compared to other sports. This unfortunate fact makes it extremely unlikely that my dream project will ever see the light of day: A behind-the-scenes peak at Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers modeled after Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

Moneyball examined how Billy Beane and the small-market Oakland A’s used innovative scouting and player evaluation methods to overcome a shoestring budget and remain competitive with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox. Many people think Moneyball is about statistical analysis, but it really isn’t. It’s about innovation in the stubborn world of baseball. It’s also about Beane’s mindset as he tries to remain one step ahead of fellow GMs that have more resources and bigger budgets.

That’s the kind of book I want to read about Thompson.

I know Thompson is shy, builds through the draft and avoids free agency, but I want to know more. Does he utilize any sort of quantitative analysis like you find on Football Outsiders? What, specifically, is he looking for when evaluating little-known rookie free agents or castoffs from other teams? What sort of demands does he put on his scouts? How does he define value?

What does he do when he gets angry? What is a conversation like between Thompson and another GM? Why does he think many of his draft picks on defense are prone to injuries? How often does he alter his overall roster plan? Is he just as shy and awkward dealing with players as he is with the media?