Free-Floating Hostility

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Sports Guy rips us off

Dave and I, then directors of the Carman Hall football laboratories (better known as the lounge,) hatched the "Barry Sanders theory" way back in 1998. The gist of it was that Barry Sanders was the reason that the Detroit Lions never won important games. Sanders, while the only reason that anybody ever cared about that lousy franchise, could break off spectacular 80-yard touchdowns runs seemingly at random. But on third-and-two with the game in the balance, he was pretty much useless .

Sanders ran in fits-and-starts, throwing moves at defenders to make them miss all over the field. Often times, though, he was doing this in his own backfield trying to get back to the line-of-scrimmage. He would often lose yardage. But once a game he would do something spectacular, run for an 80-yard TD or similiar. In football parlance, I believe this type of player is called (seriously now) the "home run hitter." This sort of player is very exciting to watch, but has a limited value when it comes down to actually winning games.

It's a little counterintuitive at first, that a guy who steals points like Sanders was detrimental to winning. But offenses struggle when they get "off schedule," which is to say it's hard to move the ball when you need 12 yards on 3rd down all the time. Within the flow of the game there is a huge difference 2nd-and-7 and 2nd-and-12. Then in the fourth quarter, mindsets change. The team with the lead would like to score, but running time off the clock is just as important. As the clock ticks closer to zero, getting a first down and bleeding two minutes off the clock means more and more.

The Detroit Lions stole more regular-season victories than anyone when they had Sanders. The team would get dominated within the flow of the game, but have a quick-strike touchdown from Sanders on the scoreboard. But the Lions won exactly one playoff game in Sanders' career and were usually blown out in the postseason.

Anyway, I mention the Barry Sanders theory after Dave alerted me to this from the Sports Guy's football picks column.

Whenever people argued that Barry Sanders was better than Emmitt Smith, my head would practically explode. So you'd rather have the guy who gets tackled behind the line of scrimmage eight out of 10 times, then breaks off a 40-yard run, over the guy who rushes for five yards a pop, keeps moving those chains and gets stronger as the game goes along? You really think the Cowboys were winning those Super Bowls because of Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin? Emmitt was the heart and soul of those teams. I loved watching Barry Sanders, and he's in the Pantheon for "Guys You Should Never Bet Against," but for one game with my life on the line ... sorry, I'm taking Emmitt. No contest.

Two things about this:

1. I wish that Dave and I had published a paper on this back in 1998, so that people wouldn't think that this was really a Sports Guy invention.

2. I object stringently when this is applied to Peyton Manning. I know the point is to win games and Manning seems allergic to beating the Patriots, but the problem is not systemic as it was with Sanders. The Indianapolis Colts play defense like the NHL plays hockey, which is to say not at all this year. Manning, therefore, by throwing 44 TD passes is posting crazy numbers within the context of winning games. The Colts have a great running back, so if they felt they could sit on leads they would. I'll admit that Manning laid an egg in last year's AFC Championship Game. But you can make the argument in the opener this season, Manning played well enough for the Colts to win. He didn't win, but the QB did everything he needed to in that game.

Manning is asked every week to win by himself, something Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are not. It's not fair to lump him in with Barry Sanders, this biggest case of style over substance in the history of sports.

1 Comment(s):

  •   Posted by Blogger Form at December 12, 2004 2:28 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Another way thinking about the theory is, "Does the style of play make things easier or harder on the rest of the team?" This clearly does not apply to Manning.

    1) Manning on the field means that no opposing lead is safe. That is a good thing.

    2) Because he can score at will, he actually takes pressure off the defense. At this point, the Colts realize they cannot play decent D and have probably resorted to playing more aggressively for turnovers. If they give up points, they can count on the offense to score. Under the best case scenario, they can force turnovers and give Manning even better field position. Manning makes things easier on the defense by freeing them up.

    3) Finally, the conventional wisdom says that throwing the ball a lot is risky. I do not think this statement applies to Peyton Manning. Carman Hall football laboratories last watched Rookie Manning throw several interceptions back in that fabled year of 1998 (and make Ty Law a lot of money). Besides that, he is very careful with the ball and has a Vulcan Mind-Meld with his receivers.

    Because he helps his team and does not hurt the defense, I think he is out of the Sanders category. Perhaps an argument can be made that all the audibles at the line hurt his team, but that has yet to be demonstrated. Hopefully new developments on this theory will manifest themselves in Gillete Stadium laboratories this January.

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