Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Numbers Are A Beast

I know I promised I wouldn't drag numbers into this, but I just couldn't help myself.

Just assuming for a second that all numbers are not whacked when it comes to evaluating the relative merits of O-linemen, let’s let the actuaries and allied number-crunchers make their case.

It just so happens I have actuaries who are my friends. It happens when you work in insurance. It especially happens when you work in insurance and marry an actuary.

Anyway, one of the endearing things about actuaries is that they’re so amazed to find someone talking to them that they will do practically anything you ask them to, as long as it involves numbers and not talking to members of the opposite sex.

(I make an exception to this in the case of my wife, who will most emphatically not do anything I ask her to. In her case, matrimony overrules actuarialism.)

So I was thinking about offensive linemen in the Hall of Fame, and wondering why Gene Hickerson was in and others were out. It’s not that I have anything against Gene Hickerson; not at all. He was one of my heroes growing up. Basically any football player who struck the elbows-out O-lineman pose was my hero, and looking back I have no bloody idea why.

Anyway, the Hickerson thought led me to wonder why Frank Gatski was in when others were out, which led me to wonder why Mike McCormack was in when others were out. The common denominator was that they were Cleveland Browns linemen, and lo and behold, the Football HOF is just down the road a piece from Cleveland. Could there be a geographic bias in the selection of linemen for the Hall of Fame?

At this point I called up my actuary buddy and asked him to take a swag at the question. He boogied over to pro-football-reference.com and grabbed the average career value of HOF linemen and ranked the linemen on that basis.

What he got was this:

Anthony Munoz 137
Bruce Matthews 121
Ron Yary 119
Jim Ringo 113
Gene Upshaw 111
John Hannah 106
Forrest Gregg 104
Rosey Brown 103
Randall McDaniel 103
Art Shell 103
Mike Webster 103
Jim Parker 102
Gary Zimmerman 102
Jim Otto 100
Lou Groza 100
Larry Little 99
Jackie Slater 93
Gene Hickerson 92
Bob Brown 91
Tom Mack 91
Lou Creekmur 90
Stan Jones 88
Joe DeLamielleure 86
Rayfield Wright 86
Dan Dierdorf 86
Mike Munchak 84
Jim Langer 82
Bob St. Clair 80
Mike McCormack 80
Ron Mix 77
George Connor 73
Frank Gatski 72
Dwight Stephenson 71
Russ Grimm 63
Billy Shaw 50

Okay, so Hickerson ranked higher than I thought, but otherwise I could justify pretty much everything I saw.

Then I realized that average value isn’t an average at all. It weights its numbers based on longevity, and longevity along does not get you into the HOF.

So when you factor for longevity the rankings go like this:

Anthony Munoz 11.42
George Connor 10.43
Jim Parker 10.20
Dwight Stephenson 10.14
Bob Brown 10.11
Lou Creekmur 10.00
Gary Zimmerman 9.27
John Hannah 8.83
Rosey Brown 8.58
Ron Yary 8.50
Jim Ringo 8.07
Bob St. Clair 8.00
Gene Upshaw 7.93
Randall McDaniel 7.92
Mike Munchak 7.64
Larry Little 7.62
Tom Mack 7.58
Jim Langer 7.45
Art Shell 7.36
Stan Jones 7.33
Mike McCormack 7.27
Joe DeLamielleure 7.17
Rayfield Wright 7.17
Dan Dierdorf 7.17
Jim Otto 7.14
Ron Mix 7.00
Forrest Gregg 6.93
Bruce Matthews 6.72
Frank Gatski 6.55
Mike Webster 6.44
Russ Grimm 6.30
Billy Shaw 6.25
Gene Hickerson 6.13
Jackie Slater 4.89
Lou Groza 4.76

Better. Hickerson drops but Stephenson rises, which is okay, seeing as he was the Practically Perfect Center for most of his career. Gregg and Matthews might be low, or their reputations may be so strong that they overshadow their real accomplishments.

Okay, now I did the same for a lot of HOF suspects. Just looking at their career AVs gives you this:

Mick Tinglehoff 102
Mike Kenn 100
Russ Washington 99
Dick Schafrath 98
Lomas Brown 96
Jim Tyrer 96
Larry Allen 91
Chris Hinton 83
Jerry Kramer 83
Ken Gray 82
Leon Gray 81
Marvin Powell 80
Bob DeMarco 78
Duane Putnam 78
John Niland 78
Ed Budde 77
Ruben Brown 71
Ernie McMillan 70
Dennis Harrah 66
Dick Stanfel 65
Rich Saul 56

Mick Tinglehoff as an HOFer? It’s a satisfying thought. It feels right. On the other hand, look who else is up there: a bunch of offensive-line lifers and Dick Schafrath (whose raw score is way better than Gene Hickerson’s).

Ah, but these numbers overvalue longevity. Correcting for that brings this:

Dick Stanfel 9.285714
John Niland 7.8
Jerry Kramer 7.545455
Dick Schafrath 7.538462
Leon Gray 7.363636
Marvin Powell 7.272727
Duane Putnam 7.090909
Jim Tyrer 6.857143
Russ Washington 6.6
Larry Allen 6.5
Chris Hinton 6.384615
Ken Gray 6.307692
Mick Tinglehoff 6
Bob DeMarco 6
Mike Kenn 5.882353
Ed Budde 5.5
Ruben Brown 5.461538
Lomas Brown 5.333333
Dennis Harrah 5.076923
Ernie McMillan 4.666667
Rich Saul 4.666667

This may be going too far in the other direction, but it makes more sense. Stanfel was a heck of a lineman for bad teams, and Schafrath was great no matter how you slice it. And it throws the long-lived slugs to the bottom, which is where they belong in this exercise.

So what I wound up finding was not necessarily that there’s regional bias in the selection of HOF OLs (though three of the bottom seven linemen are Browns, and then there’s Leroy Kelly over in the RBs) but that longevity is overvalued. Playing 16 pretty good years is more valuable than playing 10 great ones. And that’s just not the way it is.

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