- Bill Barnwell
The game isn't played on paper. Stats don't tell the whole story. Stats can't measure [heart, grit, determination or any other emotion that's only applied as a justification to rate the ability of skill position players in the NFL].
The above statements -- often used to discredit the reliance on statistics in sports -- may be true, but they don't really prove their overall point. Still, until someone develops a way to actually measure "heart" or provides a better way to play out a game on paper, they will continue to stand as breezy counterarguments to factually sound positions.
As squishy as these statements are, the alternative is even, well, squishier. The adjectives and labels journalists and fans use to describe players and teams in lieu of numbers-based metrics are as murky and context-sensitive as the most one-dimensional stat.
Take last year's Arizona Cardinals -- a team that made it to the Super Bowl despite middling regular-season numbers against a weak schedule. The Cardinals, like most Super Bowl underdogs, were a team of "destiny," a perpetual second-division unit that had finally morphed into a great unit because "nobody believed in them." They were backed by fans that had fallen in love with an organization that was finally "first class."
Fast-forward eight months later, the Cardinals sleepwalk through an embarrassing loss to the Colts to fall to 1-2.
It doesn't take long for perception to change in the NFL. The Miami Dolphins have gone from being the league's model of rebuilding success to a huge question mark thanks to their 0-3 start, while the Cincinnati Bengals went from their usual "Bungles" reputation to being a tipped pass away from 3-0. The Denver Broncos followed a similar path, but used that same tipped pass to actually go 3-0.
Labels are even dicier when applied to players. Shaun Hill's been anointed a "winner" because he fashioned a 7-3 record in 2007 and 2008 by facing a mix of NFC West opponents and teams with nothing to play for. He put on the best performance of his young career on Sunday, but didn't get the win because his defense couldn't hold up in the final seconds. Yet he contributed more to the team than he did -- arguably -- in any of those games that he "won." Tom Brady has been the source of almost cataclysmic doubt in New England; Kevin Kolb's a future franchise quarterback in Philly a week after either Jeff Garcia or Michael Vick were sure to take over his job.
Yes, the game can be fickle.
The range of an individual player or team's performance from game to game -- let alone from season to season -- is so dramatic as to render (most) labels irrelevant. Is Eli Manning "clutch" because of his Super Bowl run or is he a choke artist because he's 0-3 in the playoffs outside of 2007? Is Kolb really a star in the making, or has he benefitted from two games against the porous secondaries of Kansas City and New Orleans?
With that in mind, the best way to analyze a player or a team is to look at them over the long haul, after accounting for as much context and variance as you can. The more you observe, the more you know.
Which brings us back to statistics and why we use them to break down the game in the first place. The measures of performance used by Football Outsiders may be far from perfect, but they outclass fleeting adjectives, labels and pithy narratives. So, if your initial reaction to what you read below is one of the statements in the opening paragraph, well, keep your adjectives to yourselves (or e-mail us!). Otherwise, enjoy this complete skill position breakdown.
For the detailed skill position breakdown by FBO -- with comments -- you must be an ESPN Insider.
Football Outsiders' Week 3 Quick Reads shows, among other things, that the Chargers -- even in victory -- have holes and are really missing Jamal Williams.