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Are Commissioners at a Competitive Disadvantage?
9/1/09

July’s Question:

In last month’s column, I suggested that many FFers do not pay enough attention to offensive lines and asked readers how they go about evaluating offensive lines around the league (particularly those that went through personnel changes in the off-season). Readers such as Roy clearly do give a lot of thought to o-lines, as this comprehensive response indicates:

I agree that not too many people focus their draft decisions on a teamís O-Line. And if they do, like you said, they focus on rankings that have little to do with offensive production. More importantly, the success (or lack thereof) of an O-Line can tell you a lot about the players around them and even show hidden truths about a teamís offense or a playerís talent. For instance, is Kerry Collins really so good in the pocket that he was only sacked 8 times (NFL leader) last season? Or is it that the Titans were focused on runnning and Collins only had 415 pass attempts? No matter how you look at it, 8 sacks out of 415 attempts is very impressive for an O-Line; thatís 1 sack allowed for every 51 passing attempts. And the success of the Titansí RBs even further proves that point. Chris Johnson, was 4th in the league at 4.9 yards per carry. And we all saw how effective Lendale White was inside the 5 yard line.

On the flip side, letís look at Eli Manning and the Giantsí O-Line. On the surface, the Giantsí O-Line would appear very porous, considering they allowed 27 sacks on 479 pass attempts. That translates to 1 sack every 18 pass attempts, which was one of the worst Sack-to-Pass Attempt Ratios (what I call SPAR) in the league. However, upon further investigation, we find out that Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward averaged 5.0 and 5.6 Yards Per Carry (YPC) respectively last year. Both RBs finished top 3 in YPC, which is amazing, considering they were two of only three RBís who averaged more than 5 YPC in the entire league last year. OK, so I know what youíre thinking, ďBrandon Jacobs is a freight train and could average 5 YPC on almost any teamĒ. Though this may be true, for Derrick Ward to average more than Jacobs at 5.6 YPC lets me know this O-Line was one of the best in the league last year. Furthermore, it lets me know that if Eli Manning is getting sacked once every 18 plays with an O-Line this good, he still has a long way to go before he matches the pocket presence of big bro Peyton.

So those are just two examples of how individual player stats can tell us a lot about an O-Lineóand how overall O-Line stats can tell a lot about a player. With that said, here are the key things I look at when evaluating O-Lines:

- RB Yards per carry (YPC): The main stat that I am concerned with regarding O-Line/RB success is Yards Per Carry (YPC). With the exception of greats like Barry Sanders, an RB is usually only as good as his O-Line.

- QB Sacks allowed/ Sack-to-Pass Attempt Ratio (SPAR): I focus on sacks allowed and more importantly, sacks per pass attempt. Dan Orlovsky was only sacked 14 times in 2008, which was top 5 in the league. However, he only attempted 255 passes, which gives a sack-to-pass attempt ration of 1:18, which is dismal. Yes, Orlovsky is no John Elway, but when youíre getting blind-sided once every 18 pass attempts, you canít even become Jon Kitna. In all fairness, the Lions bad O-Line and the poor play/inexperience of Orlovsky combined to put the Lions into the history books for futility.

- Good YPC and good SPAR: I basically look at both stats listed above (RBís YPC and QBís sacks allowed). If a team is ranked near the top in both, then you have a grade A offensive line. A good example of this would be the New Orleans Saints. Last year, Drew Brees had a sack-to-pass attempt ratio of 1:48. I donít know where that ranks him in the league, but it sure beats the 1:18 ratio of Eli Manning. Likewise, Saints RB Pierre Thomas averaged 4.8 YPC, which was good enough for 6th in the league.

- Bad YPC and bad SPAR: Needless to say, if an O-Line is bad in these 2 areas, then stay away. A good example of this is with Green Bay : Aaron Rodgersí sack-to-pass attempt ratio was 1:16 and Ryan Grant averaged 3.9 YPC. I feel that both players are better than they stats showed, and a lot of that blame should fall on the shoulders of the O-Line. Remarkably, Aaron Rodgers was still able to amass 34 touchdowns (28 passing and 6 rushing). He is 1 good O-Line from becoming an elite QB in the NFL.

- Conflicting YPC and SPAR: The true talent comes in deciphering O-Lines that are good at one, but not both stats. This typically actually gives you more insight into the player, as opposed to the O-Line itself. Take the Houston Texans for example. Matt Schaub had a SPAR of 1:17óeven worse than the whipping boy of this article, Eli Manning. However, Texans RB Steve Slaton averaged 4.8 YPC, which ranked him at 7th in the league. You can look at this a couple of ways. You could say the problem is not the O-Line and that Matt Schaub is really not that good. And maybe, just maybe, Andre Johnson makes him look good by catching balls that most receivers wouldnít even attempt to. Or you could say, based on the SPAR, the O-Line is really bad and Steve Slaton, with his 4.8 YPC, is the reincarnation of Barry David Sanders. Personally, I believe Slaton is good, but is running behind a decent line. I think you would see a significant drop off if he was in Green Bay or San Francisco. My take on Schaub is that about 15 other QBs would have had greater success behind the Texansí O-Line. At the end of the day, my scoring would be: Steve Slaton = Above Average; Texansí O-Line = Average; Matt Schaub = Below Average.

Although I focus on the stats above, I don’t dismiss other factors such as:

  • Number of returning starters on the O-Line

  • Average age of O-Line, where unlike most positions, younger is not always better

  • - Player injuries

  • O-Line coaching changes

  • And sometimes, rankings of O-Lines in magazines. At the end of day, I do this for fun, while analysts and writers do it as their jobs. I tend to think that they put more thought into than I do, even if that thought is sometimes misguided.
I am grateful to Roy for his extremely thoughtful response to my question. He uses solid stats to support methods of evaluation outlined by many other readers who took the time to write in. There must be something highly intuitive about Roy’s evaluative method, since it is clearly echoed (in simplified form) by readers such as Troy:

Reading your article got me to thinking more about O-Line adequacy. I have for many years used the strength of an O-Line to determine my fantasy teams; I just didn’t know it!

1. With O-Lines one of the factors I take into consideration is if the line is good at pass blocking, run blocking, or decent at both. This is usually easy to figure out after the season has started. Simply look at what the coach is doing. Does the coach rely on the pass or the run? These guys are paid millions of dollars to figure out if the offense should be passing, running, or balanced. I would like to think that their judgment in this area is much better than my own.

2. Was there a big acquisition this year for a beast of an O-Lineman? If so look for improvements on the running game. Typically when a new lineman is brought in it is to improve the run.

3. Was there a new coach implementing a new scheme to the team’s offense? Many times when this happens it take more than a couple games to really determine if the new style is going to work.

Since any blocking unit is going to need a little help from time to time, Luke reminds us to pay attention to changes at the fullback position:

In regard to offensive line changes, I am probably like most in that I do not pay enough attention. I will keep my ears open for major moves along a line and do feel the importance of a great line makes for a better RB. The one thing I really pay attention to more is the loss or gain of a quality FB. If a RB had a stud FB for him during a strong campaign and then lost him the next season, I find that can have a huge impact, particularly if the FB is featured in a lot of packages.

Luke didnít name any particular players in his response, but I suspect that he is one of many readers who could tell me what the careers of Eddie George, Corey Dillon, and LaDainian Tomlinson have in commonóthe support of an elite blocking fullback named Lorenzo Neal.

The real challenge, of course, is to apply the information that is available to us in the preseason to our assessment of an O-Line’s capability before the season begins. Mike wrote in with some examples of how he has done just this in the past and what he thinks he can tell us about 2009:

I've been looking at O-Lines for years, [though usually more for their impact on the running game than the passing game].

Back when Culpepper and Moss were with the Vikings, Minnesota lost a top lineman along with the unfortunate death of Korey Stringer at tackle. I was laughed at by a few fellow owners [when I warned them to] avoid Viking players. That year didn't turn out very good for owners who drafted them.

The same can be said about the Chiefs with Roaf and Shields, I have avoided Chief players since then. Ask Larry Johnson how itís worked out for him since they retired.

When the Jets gained Alan Faneca from the Steelers (along with Favre to open the passing game up), I moved Thomas Jones higher on the RB list than most of the FF owners in my league. He shouldn't have been as much of a surprise [as some people thought].

[Moreover, since the Steelers lost Faneca, their] line play has been very subpar. Big Ben seemed to be throwing almost from the ground way too many times.

Everyone loves to bash America's team for their player acquisitions in recent years (e.g. TO and Pacman). But I give Jerry Joness credit, even if some say he overpaid for lineman in recent years. I don't see Marion Barber complaining.

Three teams that should be watched in 2009 because of O-Line changes:

1) Eagles - pretty mutch totally revamped and a must watch in preseason.

2) Steelers - see if they improve.

3) Colts - started off very slow last season; the way Manning handles the offense with his adjustments, any new lineman has to be scrutinized.

Mike’s thoughts on the Faneca-Jones connection were echoed by a reader who identified himself as Spectral:

For me, I just tend to look for bigger names that have joined a team, or a line that had a significant injury or suspension the previous year. Last year I got Thomas Jones in the 7th which was a good value. I had my mind set on him, not so much due to the Brett Favre effect as because of Alan Faneca coming over in a trade. I figure, if it is a name I am quite familiar with chances are they will be an upgrade to an O-Line, and thus the fantasy back's production. Jones was also a great buy-low candidate due to his low TD totals from a year prior.

It's good to sift through all those transactions through the offseason. Who's going to take over Pace's vacated spot on the Rams? Those types of questions are the ones I need answered if I am thinking of drafting Steven Jackson. Because if that line still stinks, so will he.

In summary, [when it comes to O-Line evaluation, I look at]: Age, solid additions, performance as a unit (if it ain't broke or too old don't fix it), and sacks/runs for loss allowed. That's my take. But it will always come down to the guy with the rock behind them in the end. Because who doesn't want a sexy pick at the end of the day?

Solid skill players are sexy picks of course. Itís a lot more fun to pick Larry Fitzgerald because of who he is than it is to pick Thomas Jones because of who is blocking for him. But letís not forget that O-Lines are sexy in their own special, hawgish way!

Question for Week 1:

In light of a commissioner’s many responsibilities in addition to managing his own team, how can commissioners be truly competitive with owners who can focus solely on their own success?

This question was forwarded to me by Mike MacGregor from a reader named Robert, who points out that his commissioner duties, such as keeping drafts “inviting, entertaining, and orderly” have forced him to overlook a number of “important . . . and obvious” draft candidates.

My own experience at drafts indicates to me that the people who run them really are at a bit of a disadvantage. I remember one draft in particular that made me think of the commissioner as an elementary school teacher with endless patience who was stuck in a room full of bratty, selfish children. I have honestly never heard of leagues taking any measures to offset the disadvantages that commissioners have to overcome in order to contend with their comparatively unburdened competitors, but I would love to hear from commissioners who have developed strategies for dealing with the kinds of problems that appear to be nagging at Robert.