June 15, 2011
Our new "Higher Education" series isn't just about discussing pro football's advanced metrics in context with the Yahoo Sports audience; it's also occasionally about an article we see that makes us do the full "AROO?!?!?!?", Scooby Doo style.
So it was when we read this column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, published on Tueday. A fellow by the name of John Harris went to great lengths to convince us all that Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor(notes) is actually better than Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes). For those newer to advanced metrics and the myths they're used to bust, this should be a fun read. It's also important to note that we're not out to bash Taylor; he's not a bad player, and most every cornerback would suffer in comparison to Asomugha.
Let's start with Harris' hypothesis: Taylor is a better and more complete cornerback than the legendary Asomugha, who had been considered the best at his position for years without a contender until Darrelle Revis(notes) became DARRELLE REVIS. Even now, Asomugha is thought to be one of the top two or three pass defenders in the league, which is why his name is at the top of every "when free agency finally does start…" list.
Harris remains unimpressed, despite the scads of scouts and personnel people who have praised Asomugha to the skies.
Unrestricted free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is a pretty good football player. A former first-round draft pick, he's considered a lockdown corner because of his ability to prevent opposing receivers from catching the ball.
But you know what? Asomugha may not be as good as advertised.
Asomugha is definitely talented. But he has an aversion to contact in a physical sport, recording only 19 tackles in 14 games last season. (He missed two games because of injury.) That's an embarrassing stat for someone who ranks among the best at this position.
Asomugha, who didn't have an interception in 2010, was paid $15 million by the Oakland Raiders. That made him the highest-paid corner in the NFL, but also the most overpaid corner when compared with Ike Taylor, another unrestricted free agent.
Harris then gets the opinion of Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune regarding Asomugha's specific value to the Raiders. And with no disrespect intended to Mr. McDonald, that's the first problem. When I have a scouting question, I don't generally hit up my fellow football writers unless they've been … you know … scouts. Actual scouts, people who could be scouts because they watch tape all the time and consult with teams, current and former players — these are the guys you want to talk to first when it comes to what happens on the field.
Okay, on with the show. Harris then gets into the meat of his argument, and this is where we're going to get into that long-held beat writer favorite: The statistical cherry-pick.
According to the numbers, Taylor was a more complete cornerback than Asomugha last season, as well as throughout their respective eight-year careers.
Taylor and Asomugha are perfect foils. They were selected in the same draft, so their body of work is nearly identical. Taylor, who turned 31 in May, is a year older than Asomugha, who turns 30 in July.
Taylor recorded 66 tackles and two interceptions in 2010. He had 11 passes defended to Asomugha's six.
Overall, Taylor has 481 tackles, 99 passes defended and 11 interceptions in 125 career games with the Steelers. Asomugha has 310 tackles, 54 passes defended and 11 interceptions in 122 career games.
That's fine and all, but there's one number Harris is missing: Targets. You know, the number of times opposing quarterbacks throw the ball in a cornerback's direction. You may remember that it was said of Deion Sanders that people knew he was so good in his prime because nobody would throw in his half of the field. And according to Football Outsiders' metrics, that phenomenon still holds true. In fact, Asomugha has been targeted so infrequently through the years, we actually had to lower the baseline for eligible targets just to get him in the tables in the annual Football Outsiders Almanacs.
In the last four seasons, Asomugha has been targeted 38, 32, 25, and 31 times — ranking him 78th, 83rd, 82nd, and 89th in targets among eligible defenders. In those same four seasons, Ike Taylor has been targeted 111, 87, 94, and 85 times, ranking him seventh, 31st, 25th, and 44th. In that context, interceptions are not a real measure of cornerback excellence, and tackles don't work either — passes defensed are marginal at best. Of course Taylor gets more chances to pick off passes (what Harris doesn't say is that Taylor is also legendary for dropping picks as well) — enemy quarterbacks are throwing at him three times as often! And total tackles would be meaningful if the two players were linebackers; the defensive backfield, tackles are just as often indicators of blown coverages by the tackler in question.
On with the debunking:
Statistically, Taylor is a better player than Asomugha, despite earning half as much in 2010. And that doesn't include Taylor starting in three Super Bowls -- winning two -- and playing in four AFC Championship Games.
Asomugha has never played in a playoff game. In fact, he's never played on a team with a winning record.
If a team seeks a talented free-agent cornerback who can also bring a winning attitude to the locker room, Taylor, not Asomugha, is your man.
Uh, yeah. In this case, I'll add a few things about the Steelers to Ike Taylor's "winning record". The Steelers don't run their free agency strategy sessions with blindfolds and dartboards. They don't go through coaches like crazy, looking for the next yes-man. They don't have a bat-crazy owner. They do have an absolutely dominant front seven that allows Taylor to be a cog as a cover and box cornerback, while Asomugha has had to hold it all together for years.
To blame Asomugha for Oakland's losing records over the last decade is like saying that the Jimi Hendrix Experience would have been better off had Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding gotten themselves a new guitar player. It's the same problem I have with the "quarterback wins" argument — football is a team game, and anyone who thinks that the Steelers would fall apart and wind up as a 5-11 team without Ike Taylor needs to get out of the sun.
Harris fills out his argument by mentioning that Dick LeBeau considers Taylor to be the best tackling cornerback in the league (nice, but run support aside — if you're tackling a lot as a cornerback, you're either blitzing, in the box, or something is very wrong), and implicates Asomugha as a cornerback who "doesn't defend both sides of the field or play on special teams like Taylor does."
And now is where we get to scheme. The Steelers run a lot of Cover-2 with their 3-4 defense; LeBeau wants his cornerbacks to switch it up. The Raiders play almost exclusively man coverage, which requires that the cornerbacks cover one side each consistently and stick to their receivers. Debiting Asomugha for not coming up and playing the run in that context makes no sense whatsoever — one of the reasons that Raiders safety Tyvon Branch(notes) led the team in tackles with 104 was that he was supposed to come up as the box player while Asomugha, fellow cornerback Stanford Routt(notes), and safety Michael Huff(notes) were so frequently in the back half of the defense, making sure things weren't getting out of hand. If you're going to compare NFL players, you have to also understand how and why scheme dictates talent, where people play in a system, and what they do. It's also why yardage allowed isn't always an accurate baromter of cornerback success or failure.
Sorry to pick on Mr. Harris here, but his article displayed so many of the canards so often seen in amateur player evaluation, it was a perfect object example. The moral is: Whatever we think we see on the field, and whatever we think the stats tell us, there's always more to the story. People who couch numbers to their own advantage really do not help the process.
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