The Measure of All Things

There have been lots of tributes to Ken Stabler, aka the “Snake,” the crafty southpaw signal caller who led the Oakland Raiders to their first Super Bowl title in 1977 and died on Wednesday.

I hated those Raiders teams. My oldest friend was a Patriots fan back then – he liked the running ability of their quarterback Steve Grogan. I remember well watching the 1976 playoff game between the 13-1 Raiders and the upstart 11-3 Pats, when several questionable late calls helped the Silver and Black to a game-winning drive in a 24-21 victory on their way to the Super Bowl a few weeks later. We were furious and regarded the Raiders as cheats and dirty players. Ah, the memories. And I hated Stabler, who seemed to me to be nothing so much as lucky.

This morning, Mike and Mike said that Stabler’s greatness was not about “stats” and commented that you can’t compare the numbers of quarterbacks today to those of QBs of yore. The latter point is certainly true. It’s not really all that hard, however, to consider stats in context. There is a bright line in Stabler’s career. He had some excellent seasons early in his career, and then his performance more or less fell off a cliff. The dividing line is the 1976 season, when Stabler really was awesome. He completed better than 66% of his passes. That’s not so unusual nowadays, but it was unheard of back in the days before the five-yard chuck rule, when dinosaurs and head-slapping defensive lineman roamed the planet together and the dominant offensive strategy seemed to be either to hand the ball off or try to throw it fifty yards down field on every pass attempt.

In 1976, Snake was one of only three QBs to complete 60% of his passes (Fran Tarkenton was No. 2, at just under 62%). By contrast, 25 qualifying signal callers cleared the 60% barrier in 2014. Stabler was also one of only two players to have a passer rating of better than 100 in 1976 (Bert Jones was the other). 100 passer rating seasons were exceedingly rare back then. In fact, no other quarterbacks in the NFL in 1976 even had passer ratings as high as 90. In 2014, 16 QBs had passer ratings of 90 or better. He also averaged 9.4 yards an attempt, an historically high figure.

In other words, Stabler had a *great* season, statistically speaking in 1976. There’s no real tradeoff, in other words, between evaluating Stabler’s play in what was by far his best season from a stats or non-stats perspective, where his colorful personality meshed with those of his crazy teammates to help create the iconic image the Raiders maintained for so long. (Whether he should be in the Hall of Fame, as many have been arguing in recent days, is another question. He was really awful for much of the second half of his career).

On a related note – at least in my mind: Colin Cowherd did a nice job today discussing DeAndre Jordan’s change of heart. He spoke in reasonable terms about why Jordan might have reversed himself in recent days and admirably avoided some of the sillier moralizing about Jordan’s conduct this past week (as an aside, I find it beyond laughable that Jordan’s reneging might *cause* the NBA owners to be a little more cynical and a little less forthright in their own future dealings with players. This was the argument Stephen A. made and I trust the utter ridiculousness of the premise requires no explanation).

Colin did say that he thought one reason Jordan decided the Mavs weren’t a good fit for him was because, ultimately, he knows he’s not a great player. This is mistaken. Jordan *is* a great player, in fact an underrated great player. What he is *not* is a primary offensive option and perhaps he did, upon reflection, decide that though that’s what he initially thought he wanted to be and what the Mavs were selling, it was not ultimately the best move for him (especially since he is earning max money even as a secondary offensive option).

Just because DeAndre Jordan doesn’t shoot 15-foot jump shots, play with his back to the basket, foist up 20 shots per game or score 20 points a contest, it doesn’t follow that he is merely good. This is a man who has led the NBA in rebounding each of the past two seasons and field goal percentage for the past three years (this year, he did so by a ridiculously wide margin). Since there is no adjustment for degree of difficulty in NBA scoring, Jordan deserves far more credit than he gets for how rarely he misses his shot attempts. Adding up all his contributions – and making allowances for his atrocious free throw shooting – DJ is one of the elite win producers in the NBA.

Again, in other words, there is no mystery divergence between his stats and how he ought to be evaluated as a player.

As with Stabler, the numbers tell us a lot – not everything, but a lot – about what kind of player Jordan is, as long as they’re considered in their proper context. And maybe he sorted some of that out over the past week.

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