Football

FootballHaving 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.

QuarterbacksGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Sammy Baugh17128.6726.835.3532.18 36.0317.61
Peyton Manning29344.3724.236.6630.89 55.42-6.96
Sid Luckman13319.8623.894.4628.35 32.7615.02
Andrew Luck9414.2924.323.7828.10 56.79-8.16
Dan Marino26035.0921.595.9227.52 51.07-7.89
Steve Young18926.1222.115.1127.22 49.27-5.05
Brett Favre32640.9820.116.4026.51 49.15-8.93
Otto Graham13818.9721.994.3626.35 46.55-2.56
Joe Montana21526.5719.775.1524.93 45.69-6.15
John Elway25630.7219.205.5424.74 46.10-7.70
Randall Cunningham17321.2419.644.6124.25 45.66-6.37
Warren Moon21825.8818.995.0924.08 47.20-9.21
Fran Tarkenton25728.1317.515.3022.82 42.25-7.23
Dan Fouts18821.3218.144.6222.76 46.05-9.75
Jim Kelly17719.7017.814.4422.25 44.47-8.85
Roger Staubach14916.1717.364.0221.38 40.66-5.93
Terry Bradshaw18719.5116.694.4221.11 42.39-9.00
Johnny Unitas22021.6115.724.6520.37 39.82-8.38
Ken Anderson19819.5015.764.4220.17 37.41-5.89
Troy Aikman18118.0115.924.2420.16 38.51-6.68
Bobby Layne17916.5914.834.0718.90 39.50-9.84
YA Tittle20618.5014.234.3018.53 36.46-8.00
Joe Namath14613.0614.323.6117.94 38.62-9.98
Sonny Jurgensen21817.2412.654.1516.81 31.13-5.82
Bob Griese17314.0012.953.7416.69 32.98-7.09
Len Dawson21715.2811.273.9115.18 28.94-6.41
Bart Starr20813.3510.273.6513.92 25.40-4.86

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 BacksGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Jim Brown12220.4626.834.5231.36 54.92-1.26
Steve Van Buren8714.8927.383.8631.24 49.525.24
Gale Sayers6811.1726.283.3429.62 53.70-1.14
LaDainian Tomlinson18026.0923.195.1128.30 46.82-0.43
Barry Sanders15922.4422.584.7427.32 45.82-0.66
Emmitt Smith24332.1421.165.6726.83 42.99-0.67
Walter Payton19926.6021.395.1626.54 44.01-1.24
Marshall Faulk18824.6320.964.9625.92 42.34-0.41
O.J. Simpson13617.0620.074.1324.20 41.36-1.23
Curtis Martin17821.7319.534.6624.19 39.40-0.34
Eric Dickerson15318.7719.634.3423.63 40.72-1.47
Edgerrin James16119.0618.944.3723.31 38.89-0.77
Franco Harris19221.3117.764.6222.37 36.85-1.33
Marcus Allen23825.6117.225.0622.28 35.24-0.80
Lenny Moore14716.2817.724.0321.75 36.11-0.67
Earl Campbell12213.7518.033.7121.75 37.05-0.98
Tony Dorsett19020.4017.184.5221.69 35.77-1.41
Thurman Thomas20321.4616.914.6321.55 34.64-0.82
John Riggins18419.4616.924.4121.33 34.69-0.85
Paul Hornung10911.8317.373.4420.80 39.68-4.93
Jim Taylor13914.6316.833.8220.66 34.32-0.67
Jerome Bettis20419.6515.414.4319.84 31.31-0.49
Frank Gifford14113.2815.073.6418.71 30.30-0.17
Larry Csonka16014.0014.003.7417.74 28.40-0.41
Hugh McElhenny14512.4513.743.5317.27 28.30-0.82
Ollie Matson18014.7613.123.8416.96 26.050.18
Marion Motley1159.4213.113.0716.18 24.241.97

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 ReceiversGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Don Hutson12119.8926.294.4630.75 45.826.76
Bobby Mitchell14915.0816.193.8820.08 32.91-0.52
Jerry Rice33129.0114.025.3919.41 28.26-0.21
Elroy Hirsch13612.4114.603.5218.12 23.975.22
Terrell Owens23118.9713.144.3617.49 26.40-0.13
Randy Moss23318.9112.994.3517.34 26.06-0.08
Marvin Harrison20616.8713.104.1117.21 26.42-0.21
Calvin Johnson13711.6613.623.4117.03 27.51-0.27
Lance Alworth15012.4513.283.5316.81 26.67-0.10
Tim Brown26719.9611.964.4716.43 24.20-0.28
Charley Taylor17012.7512.003.5715.57 24.31-0.31
Don Maynard18913.5711.493.6815.17 23.09-0.12
Steve Largent20714.6411.323.8315.14 22.83-0.20
Cris Carter24817.0110.974.1215.10 22.09-0.15
Isaac Bruce23215.8010.903.9714.87 22.02-0.23
Dante Lavelli1329.2711.243.0414.28 19.233.24
Henry Ellard23815.3610.333.9214.25 20.85-0.21
Reggie Wayne23214.8810.263.8614.12 20.66-0.13
Paul Warfield17411.6310.693.4114.10 21.49-0.11
James Lofton24514.889.723.8613.58 19.57-0.14
Raymond Berry15810.1210.253.1813.43 20.500.00
Lynn Swann1298.2010.172.8613.03 20.52-0.19
Art Monk23913.679.153.7012.85 18.43-0.12
Fred Biletnikoff20911.919.123.4512.57 18.29-0.06
Cliff Branch20511.108.663.3312.00 17.41-0.09
Charlie Joiner24812.868.303.5911.88 16.84-0.26

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 EndsGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Tony Gonzalez27719.9511.524.4715.99 23.05-0.01
Kellen Winslow1158.7312.152.9615.11 24.47-0.17
Antonio Gates24816.7810.834.1014.92 21.73-0.07
Shannon Sharpe22214.8110.673.8514.52 21.43-0.08
Dave Casper1579.8410.033.1413.17 20.070.00
Pete Retzlaff1338.4910.212.9113.13 20.45-0.03
Keith Jackson1428.8810.012.9812.99 20.35-0.34
John Mackey1498.789.432.9612.39 19.03-0.17
Ozzie Newsome20811.558.883.4012.28 17.79-0.03
Mike Ditka1689.609.143.1012.24 18.30-0.02
Todd Christensen1488.529.212.9112.12 18.010.40
Jerry Smith1759.658.823.1111.9317.640.00
Brent Jones1648.758.542.9611.49 17.21-0.14

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 LineGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Bulldog Turner14510.4711.553.2314.78 14.538.57
Mel Hein1749.859.063.1412.20 10.268.39
Mike Webster2658.295.012.887.88 10.000.01
Gene Upshaw2417.545.012.757.75 9.940.06
Jim Langer1655.425.262.337.58 10.470.04
Larry Little1966.185.042.497.53 7.590.09
Frank Gatski1565.055.182.257.43 8.481.88
Mick Tingelhoff2407.084.722.667.38 9.320.12
Jim Ringo1905.784.872.407.27 9.630.11
Forrest Gregg2056.074.742.467.20 9.360.12
John Hannah1905.684.782.387.17 9.390.16
Jackie Slater2767.554.382.757.12 8.700.05
Bob St. Clair1203.845.121.967.08 10.060.18
Anthony Muñoz1935.564.612.366.97 9.120.10
Jim Otto2215.914.282.436.71 8.560.00
Dan Dierdorf1624.404.352.106.44 6.580.11
Joe DeLamielleure1884.954.212.226.44 8.300.12
Jim Parker1393.824.401.956.35 8.660.13
Billy Shaw1233.384.401.846.24 6.090.12
Lou Creekmur1223.344.381.836.21 8.690.07
Bob Brown1303.504.311.876.18 8.560.05
Roosevelt Brown1704.274.022.076.09 7.970.07
Russ Grimm1593.104.181.765.94 8.270.14
Dwight Stephenson1253.154.031.775.81 8.010.05
Mike Munchak1693.873.661.975.63 7.240.09

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.

LinebackersGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
George Connor884.578.312.1410.45 8.887.75
Chuck Bednarik1716.486.062.558.61 3.968.16
Ray Lewis2508.045.152.847.98 0.919.38
Lawrence Taylor1996.625.322.577.900.5710.08
Derrick Brooks2357.445.072.737.79 1.388.75
Jack Ham1815.985.292.457.73 0.599.99
Bobby Bell1755.745.252.407.64 1.778.72
Ted Hendricks2367.244.912.697.60 0.948.87
Brian Urlacher1896.025.102.457.55 0.959.24
Dave Robinson1645.305.172.307.47 1.029.32
Sam Huff1755.545.072.357.42 1.079.07
Ray Nitschke2056.244.872.507.37 0.818.93
Jack Lambert1625.165.102.277.37 0.389.81
Derrick Thomas1795.554.962.367.32 0.679.27
Joe Schmidt1584.985.042.237.27 0.899.07
Dick Butkus1193.825.141.957.09 1.019.27
Bill George1755.134.692.266.96 0.758.63
Nick Buoniconti1965.624.592.376.96 0.708.43
Junior Seau2787.304.202.706.90 0.318.10
Willie Lanier1564.634.752.156.90 1.068.44
Harry Carson1825.174.552.276.82 0.688.41
Mike Singletary1915.204.362.286.64 0.068.66
Andre Tippett1574.324.402.086.48 0.358.23
Karl Mecklenburg1945.014.132.246.37 0.447.82
Dave Wilcox1584.214.262.056.32 0.567.72
Tommy Nobis1333.223.871.795.67 0.727.04

Lawrence Taylor sixth 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 LineGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Len Ford1334.825.802.207.99 4.177.72
Alan Page2376.334.272.526.79 0.498.07
Reggie White2476.464.182.546.73 0.318.06
Jack Youngblood2195.564.062.366.42 0.118.01
Bob Lilly2105.364.082.326.40 0.457.71
Carl Eller2445.913.882.436.31 0.197.57
Deacon Jones1934.914.072.226.29 0.187.96
Bruce Smith3006.843.652.626.26 0.157.14
LC Greenwood1884.764.052.186.23 0.058.06
Joe Greene1994.933.962.226.18 0.047.89
Randy White2305.243.652.295.93 0.037.25
Charles Haley1924.543.782.135.91 0.177.38
Merlin Olsen2184.963.642.235.87 0.127.17
Dan Hampton1694.063.842.015.86 0.057.65
Elvin Bethea2184.883.582.215.79 0.196.97
Leo Nomellini1754.103.752.025.77 1.675.83
Ernie Stautner1683.923.731.985.71 0.137.34
Buck Buchanan1884.213.582.055.63 0.096.83
Howie Long1914.253.562.065.62 0.117.01
Doug Atkins2094.523.462.135.59 0.046.89
Willie Davis1733.823.531.955.49 0.246.83
Henry Jordan1753.823.491.955.45 0.126.86
Lee Roy Selmon1252.863.661.695.35 0.197.13
Gino Marchetti1643.523.431.885.31 0.456.43
Art Donovan1412.532.871.594.46 0.055.68

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, but I was genuinely curious how he’d do.

Defensive BacksGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Deion Sanders19913.2310.643.6414.27 12.129.10
Rod Woodson25816.019.934.0013.93 10.179.69
Lem Barney1419.4110.683.0713.75 8.8812.48
Jack Christiansen956.1610.372.4812.86 11.798.96
Emlen Tunnell1719.478.863.0811.94 8.239.49
Herb Adderley1819.818.673.1311.80 7.3410.00
Mel Renfro1978.927.242.9910.23 5.768.73
Willie Wood1767.646.952.769.71 3.7610.13
Bobby Boyd1255.426.942.339.27 3.2610.63
Cliff Harris1626.666.582.589.16 4.149.00
Paul Krause2429.146.043.029.07 2.0610.02
Ken Houston1977.516.102.748.84 3.268.93
Dick Lane1576.216.332.498.82 3.169.50
Mike Haynes1857.076.112.668.77 3.288.95
Dick Anderson1325.306.422.308.73 3.739.11
Mel Blount2197.975.822.828.652.629.03
Ronnie Lott2127.725.832.788.60 1.849.81
Darrell Green31410.285.243.218.44 1.948.54
Kenny Easley953.686.201.928.12 2.879.53
Larry Wilson1695.855.542.427.96 2.348.68
Willie Brown2226.864.942.627.56 1.478.42
Rodney Harrison1785.605.032.377.40 1.258.81
Jimmy Johnson2176.384.702.537.23 1.577.84
Steve Atwater1815.054.462.256.71 0.708.23
Roger Wehrli1965.544.522.356.88 1.317.67

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.

KickersGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
George Blanda35833.0914.795.7520.54 39.93-10.66
Gary Anderson37328.3812.175.3317.50 26.84-2.49
Morten Andersen37927.7611.725.2716.99 25.97-2.53
Lou Groza28521.0211.804.5816.39 26.98-3.38
Nick Lowery26819.5411.674.4216.09 25.64-2.31
Jan Stenerud28218.0210.224.2414.47 24.67-4.22

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 ReturnersGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Brian Mitchell23920.2513.564.5018.06 27.54-0.43
Devin Hester16311.6011.393.4114.79 23.21-0.44
Mel Gray16910.9710.393.3113.70 21.17-0.40
Billy Johnson1438.649.672.9412.61 19.77-0.43

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 …

PuntersGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSum OffDef
Dave Jennings21215.7611.893.9715.86 0.0523.75
Ray Guy22916.6111.614.0815.68 0.0723.14
Sean Landeta30219.4710.324.4114.73 -0.0220.65
Brad Maynard24915.8510.183.9814.17 0.1420.22
Jeff Feagles36320.499.034.5313.56 -0.0118.07

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
Steve Smith
Fred Taylor
Ronde Barber
John Henry Johnson
Charles Woodson
Michael Strahan
Jay Novacek
Gary Clark
Terell Davis
Andre Johnson