Wednesday, May 27, 2009

College Football: The Offensive Story Behind Defensive Stats

The Southeastern Conference is conducting its annual Spring meetings this week in Destin, Fla. League officials are coming together with administrators and coaches from all 12 member institutions to share ideas on how to keep the SEC atop its pedestal as king of the collegiate athletics landscape.

No doubt the Sunshine State's "Luckiest Fishing Village" is hosting a bevy of brilliant minds, and the discussions will be healthy and productive for sure. From television contracts to NCAA compliance to public relations hotpoints, countless worthy subjects will be broached.

But many worthy subjects also will fall by the wayside. A mega-million dollar machine can't get all its parts oiled in just a few days each spring. It's impossible. Especially when you're at the beach, for cryin' out loud!

One subject that likely will not arise--and perhaps it's better-suited to be addressed at an NCAA level, though the SEC could certainly be the one to bring it to Myles Brand's desk--is the method by which the defensive statistics of players across different historical eras are measured.


Let me try to explain my thought process on this one... I'll change gears for just a moment and use Major League Baseball as an example. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs during his career. Two things are certain about Ruth: 1) he was one hell of a hitter; 2) he didn't use performance-enhancing drugs. Anyone dispute that?

Barry Bonds, meanwhile, has 762 home runs to his credit. Do you believe the two aforementioned "certainties" about Ruth hold true for Bonds? If you do, please navigate away from this blog and promise never to return.

For those of you still with me, I propose that it's only fair to athletes that their accomplishments be compared to those of fellow athletes who competed under the same circumstances or whose statistics were measured using the same methods.

You can't fairly compare Ruth to Bonds. You can't compare Willie Mays to Mark McGwire. The powers-that-be in the MLB office ought to separate statistical data into eras. Determine when the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs became rampant in baseball and group all the players who began their careers after that point into the "Modern Era" (I would prefer something like "Steroid Era" or "PED Era," but that would be too harsh, I suppose).

You could then say Hank Aaron is the "Golden Era's" all-time home run king. And Barry Bonds is the "Modern Era's" home run king.

Which brings me back to college football. Let's look at the individual defensive statistics at the University of Tennessee. The school record for total (primary + assisted) tackles in a single game belongs to linebacker Tom Fisher, who had 28 against Auburn in 1964.

One player, 28 tackles. The game was decided in regulation, not 13 overtimes, in case you were wondering (Tennessee lost 3-0, by the way).

There have been some damn fine defensive players to suit up for the Volunteers since 1964. Linebackers in particular: Kevin Burnett, Keith DeLong, Leonard Little, Jerod Mayo, Raynoch Thompson and Al Wilson just to name a few.

None of those guys ever logged 28 tackles in a single game. And unless UT finds itself in a double-digit-overtime affair in the future, no Vol ever will match or surpass that total.

I'll tell you why.

Some years back (can't pinpoint exactly when, but it would be possible to find out), the NCAA changed the way defensive statistics were filed. In Fisher's days as a student-athlete, offensive statistics were kept in real time from inside the press box by the official stat crew at each respective venue. But defensive statistics were tallied up by each team's coaches via film review one or two days after each game took place.

Now I'm not saying the coaches were being dishonest. But coaches do have a vested interest in assuring that their players post good numbers. I'm not trying to take anything away from Tom Fisher here, but is it plausible that maybe just one of his 28 tackles may have been credited on a play during which he jumped on the pile as the whistle was already being blown? I say, sure.

By the time Kevin Burnett was donning the Orange & White on the gridiron, the NCAA had relieved coaches from their stat-keeping duties and ruled that all statistics--offensive and defensive--were to be kept by the stat crew in the press box in real time.

At Tennessee, as at most other schools in the SEC, the stat crew sits in the working-media area of the press box and is surrounded by writers. It's awfully hard to "pad stats" for your team when a respected, national writer from the New York Times or is sitting within earshot of the individuals calling out tackles.

Not that such a thing would happen anyway. Stat crews are generally made up of sports information directors whose professional reputations hinge on their credibility. They're going to call it how it happens on the field. No B.S.

When the Vols won in five overtimes at Alabama in 2003, linebacker Robert Peace logged 16 tackles in an awesome, gutsy effort. That game was decided in five overtimes.

That five-overtime, 16-tackle performance wouldn't even crack Tennessee's all-time top-10 list for single-game total tackles. He would have needed six more stops just to tie for 10th place.

Why should Burnett, Peace and co. be compared to Fisher when it comes to statistics? You're comparing apples to oranges.

The records book should be separated into eras, with footnotes plainly stating that in Era X, defensive statistics were maintained by the coaching staffs via postgame film review. And in Era Y, those stats were kept in real time by the home team's official stat crew.

This suggested alteration of the records book doesn't take a thing away from any player in any era. It doesn't wipe anyone off the books. Football rules change all the time. Sports evolve.

So too, should the records books. Robert Peace's grandkids sure would appreciate that.

Postscript: I should point out that I am a member of the official stat crew at Tennessee home games. We place an emphasis on calling it right both ways. I can't say that for every school. We played a road game a couple seasons ago, and at halftime the home team had been credited with 30 assisted tackles, while we had been credited with only 12 assisted tackles. We had rushed the ball 14 times, and they had rushed the ball 17 times. They had only attempted seven passes. Do you really think with that kind of offensive playcalling by the opponent we were making that many solo tackles?

1 comment:

  1. Official defensive stats coming from the press box is a very recent developement, this decade...I used to go to the defensive film room to sit in with the coaches to review the film to make sure the numbers were correct on Sundays...That was not fun, because they watched each play about 10 times.

    You could pull the stat book for the 1964 Auburn game and check the play-by-play for Fisher, to see how the press box called it--at least the primary tackler. In a 3-0 game, I'd say each team had a lot of possessions, just three and outs.

    Two more pressing issues to me in college football are (1) Allowing offensive tackles to actually line up in the backfield, not on the line of scrimmage, rules say seven men have to be on the LOS. The two steps back gives OTs a tremendous advantage in passblocking. (2) Multiple numbers has become a problem in college football. You should not be allowed to have two starting players play with the same jersey number...Double numbers should only be used when dressing 100+ players at home games and the second number going to a walk-on, who is not likely to play. Coaches promise kids a number in recruiting regardless if someone else already has it...Time to add a rule against this stupid practice.