Having gotten its feet wet with baseball and cricket, football represented the sink-or-swim moment for Apples & Oranges. We’re going from a pair of sports that distribute opportunity more or less evenly to one where a single player has the ball on every possession, and three-quarters of the team never get to touch it.
Modern NFL players play offense or defense, not both. Or they might come in seven or eight times a game to kick the ball. Linemen spend all their time simply trying to neutralize one player on the other team. Defensive players earn vast sums of money if they manage to make 20 big plays in 16 games. Football is the sport that, quarterbacks aside, demands from its stars the most sacrifice to the team ethos. Huge rosters mean players are constantly shuttling in and out, further limiting a single player’s impact.
The end result is that there is huge variance from position to position among football players. Quarterbacks have the potential to be immensely valuable. Running backs are more productive than wide receivers, who in turn out-gain tight ends. Defensive backs make some impact, especially if they return kicks, too, but “in the trenches” — the linebackers and linemen on both sides of the ball — the numbers are tiny.
The low numbers for linemen and defensive players don’t mean that I think they aren’t as “good” as the skill-position guys. It’s just that a player’s opportunity to impact the game is directly related to how often he gets the ball. It takes tremendous talent, physicality and endurance to play on the line in the NFL, but each one of those guys is matched up with an opponent who is also tremendously talented and physical. The net result of all that blocking, pulling, stunting and tackling is a zero-sum game where only the most impactful players move the needle even a little bit.
As I’ve said before, if I’m going to compare quarterbacks to shortstops, I have to be clear-eyed about the value of every position. I can’t give linemen and linebackers extra credit because what they do is so physically grueling.
As for the actual stats: Offense 1 is yardage; passing yards count half, everything else — rushing receiving, returns, losses on sacks — counts full. Linemen and tight ends get credit for team rushing, and the interior linemen also get credit for preventing sacks. Offense 2 is scoring: passing and receiving touchdowns are 3 points; every other TD, field goals, PATs and safeties count full. Offensive linemen, but not tight ends, get a bonus for team rushing touchdowns.
Defense 1 is turnovers. Fumbles — fumbling, recovering and forcing — count as half a turnover, except for the years where we don’t have forced-fumble statistics, in which case recovering the a fumble for the defense counts as a full turnover. Interceptions, punts and missed field goals all count as a turnover. Because these will be the only “defensive” stats for most modern offensive players, their final defensive number will end up being a slight negative. Defensive players also get credit for the punts forced by their team.
Defense 2 is yards allowed. Linebackers get credit for the total yardage their teams allow, defensive linemen are rated on rushing yards and defensive backs on passing yards. Sack yardage counts here, but it gets tricky. We have individual sack yardage for some years, individual sacks since 1981 (and unofficial sacks for some players before that), and team sack yardage since the 1940s. Depending on the year, we may be able to credit a player with his individual impact on that front, or we may have to give him a piece of the team total. Punting yards count here, too, in full — a punter will generally have a negative Defense 1 number and a positive Defense 2 number, averaging out to a net positive.
|Quarterbacks||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
Baugh and Luckman played defense and punted, too, which drives their final numbers up. I’m sure most fans would discount anyone who played before 1950 (or 1960, or 1970 …). Of the modern guys, Manning is tops, but Tom Brady is knocking on the door (30.32 after the 2019 Super Bowl), and Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers will all likely finish in the top 10. Modern football makes QBs more valuable than ever.
Brett Favre was tied with Marino after his last year in Green Bay. His Jets/Vikings dalliances cost him two spots.
Griese, Dawson and Starr are of a type extinct in the NFL. We’d call them “game managers” now (dismissively), but they were really more like offensive coordinators on the field. Bob Griese once won a playoff game in which he threw six passes.
|Running Backs||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
|Steve Van Buren||87||14.89||27.38||3.86||31.24||49.52||5.24|
Running backs are characterized by great early value, followed by a steep decline. That’s why Van Buren and Sayers did so well here; they got hurt before they got old.
Tomlinson was on pace to blow everyone away through Year 7 and then fell off a cliff. Dickerson and Campbell were similar, but done even sooner.
Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Walter Payton finished within a point of each other. I think most people would be surprised to see Payton behind Smith. I sure was. If you go by regular-season yardage, Payton is way ahead. But add in touchdowns, and postseason stats, and Smith inches out in front. He came along right when offensive coordinators realized it was probably a good idea to give the ball to your best back on the goal line whenever possible.
|Wide Receivers||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
The original formula split yards between the passer and the receiver, and gave receivers credit for receptions. It ended up being needlessly complicated, and I found I got much the same results if I just gave receivers full credit for their yards. It does mean that the sum of individual numbers will exceed the team total, if that matters.
Weird to see Jerry Rice third. Just keep in mind that Don Hutson played in the 1930s and Bobby Mitchell was more of an all-around offensive player. Half of Mitchell’s yards came as a receiver, a quarter as a running back and a quarter as a return man. Among modern, pure wide receivers, Rice is comfortably in front.
There’s a batch of recently retired players in positions 4-7. As with QBs, the modern NFL is better for this position. But it’s not enough to catch the running backs. Receivers are about 60-70 percent as productive as backs.
Hutson was a two-way guy, so that helps him. But even without his defense, he’s the most productive receiver ever, relative to his peers.
|Tight Ends||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
Tight end isn’t a real deep field. A ton of 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown guys.
Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement in March of 2019, at which point he was by far the top tight end ever. Now he’s back, so we’re taking him off the list. It’s likely that the decline that set in two years ago will continue, but he has enough of a cushion to survive even a few years of mediocrity.
|Offensive Line||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
|Bob St. Clair||120||3.84||5.12||1.96||7.08||10.06||0.18|
Two-way play matters a lot more here. It’s hard to have confidence in the rankings when the margins are so tight, but for what it’s worth, I thought Mike Webster and Gene Upshaw were the top two modern linemen before I started.
|Linebackers||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
Lawrence Taylor fourth and Derrick Thomas 14th shows how little sacks matter. Getting to the quarterback a dozen times a year is nice, but there’s a lot more to defensive play.
|Defensive Line||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
|Lee Roy Selmon||125||2.86||3.66||1.69||5.35||0.19||7.13|
OK, sacks matter a bit more here. As a group, defensive linemen rate the lowest … there’s just not a lot of opportunity for them. Including Art Donavan was a bit unfair; he’s not really in this class.
|Defensive Backs||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
Defensive backs are divided by whether they returned punts and kicks. Sanders, Woodson and Christiansen actually have higher offensive values than defensive because of their production in the return game.
Deion Sanders’ rating is for football only. Add in his baseball career and it’s 17.45, just behind Terrell Owens. If you ever wondered why he stuck to baseball for so long, consider that his 160-game average was 10.64 for football and 9.95 for baseball. In other words, he was slightly more valuable as an all-pro defensive back than he was as a journeyman outfielder.
|Kickers||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
There’s a gaggle of kickers that have retired since I started — Jason Elam, Jason Hanson, John Carney, etc. — that should probably be here. I’ll get to them eventually. Vinatieri will retire one day, too.
Blanda also played quarterback, and Lou Groza was a lineman, at least for the first half of his career. That was pretty typical until specialists like Stenerud showed up. The special-teams lists are more for context than to be exhaustive.
|Kick Returners||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
Hester has more return touchdowns than anyone, but he’s pretty far behind Brian Mitchell on yardage. The recent rule changes on kickoffs put the final nail in his stellar career. Dante Hall should be here. One more on the list …
|Punters||Games||Total||Per 160||Sqr Root||Sum||Off||Def|
Feagles, Landeta and Maynard are 1-2-3 in career punting yards, with Shane Lechler on the way. Guy and Jennings are in by reputation. Going by this tiny sample size, the value of punters has gone down since the 1970s. I would attribute that to fewer turnovers and more scoring; trading possession for yardage has slightly less value now than 40 years ago.
To do list:
Norm Van Brocklin
John Henry Johnson