Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Big Hair and Singles Bands

Troy Polamalu is a very well-thought-of football player with fantastic hair, though I wouldn’t want to be his brain.

This all seems obvious, but even though Polamalu is exceptionally highly regarded, there are times that to me he seems overrated – erratic as a pass-rusher and a liability in coverage.

Being the type of person who whacks the WWII mortar shell with a stick just because, I decided to see who’s right – the Polamalu lovers or doubters like myself.

The value of a given player to a given team can be hard to uncover depending on the player and his role. How do you value the contributions of a guard or center, especially one with a quality backup? I don’t begrudge Dermontti Dawson his Hall of Fame anything, but his team was on average 16th in the league in yards during his career, and 12th in yards the five years after he retired. The team’s winning percentage was roughly the same with and without him. He was valuable to the Steelers because he provided continuity at the position and allowed the Steelers to get by with less talented players on either side of him, but he didn’t make the Steelers a better offensive team by hisownself.

Contrast that with Aaron Rodgers’ value to the Packers. After this season, can anyone begrudge Rodgers his millions, the relentless State Farm ads notwithstanding? His replacements put up worse numbers, but they weren’t merely worse numbers; they were poorly timed worse numbers. They let down at the times when Aaron Rodgers would pick it up a notch. Instead of an incompletion or an interception, Rodgers would throw a touchdown; instead of a sack, positive yardage.

Of course, quarterbacks put up quantifiable numbers. You can run the numbers on Rodgers versus Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, and Seneca Wallace and come to the same conclusion and be right in a general sense, though the numbers miss the nuances.

The lack of solid numbers for offensive linemen, punters, and most defensive players is vexing in many ways, especially when it comes to ranking these players against players with numbers. Pro Bowl appearances are misleading. Even if there are no great guards one year, eight guards still need to play in the Pro Bowl. This makes Ruben Brown look a whole lot better than he is, but it’s no substitute for a win.

For all the attempts to create quasi-sophisticated multivariate indexes that put all players on a semi-equal footing, to me nothing takes the place of victories. If a team wins more games when a player arrives, loses more when he’s out of the lineup, and loses a lot more when he leaves, and if that player’s a perennial Pro Bowler besides, that’s a pretty good player.

Polamalu’s value is actually a lot easier to measure than I had thought, because there’s data from seasons where he played every game and seasons where he missed time. Polamalu played every game in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2011, and 2013; he missed three games in 2006, five games in 2007, 11 games in 2009, two games in 2010, and nine games in 2012. The Steelers’ record in the years where Polamalu missed games was 8-8, 10-6, 9-7, 12-4, and 8-8. The team’s record in the years where Polamalu played every game was 15-1, 11-5, 12-4, 12-4, and 8-8, with one Super Bowl in there. (The 8-8 year was 2013; Polamalu is past his prime.) On aggregate the Steelers from 2004-12 were 50-14 in years where Polamalu played every game and 47-33 in years where he missed time.

Polamalu is clearly instrumental to the Steelers’ success, and that coupled with multiple Pro Bowl nods and other honors makes him one of the best defensive players of his time, and a worthy Hall of Famer.

The case is a little less clear as you move closer to the line. Brian Urlacher is the consensus pick for the most dominant linebacker of the 2000s (sorry, Ray Lewis – okay, not really sorry, Ray Lewis), though not on measurables, because there are none. A D-back can lead the league in interceptions; a D-lineman can lead the league in sacks. A linebacker is unlikely to lead the league in anything; the very best linebackers get you some sacks, some interceptions, some fumble recoveries, and a whole bunch of intimidations.

Like Polamalu, Urlacher missed enough time to draw some conclusions on his value to the Bears. Urlacher missed seven games in 2004, 15 games in 2009, and four games in 2012. The team was 5-11, 7-9 and 10-6 in Urlacher’s final season, when he was clearly no longer the force he was earlier in his career. However, the Bears’ track record for the seasons when he played all 16 games was hardly clear and consistent. They went 5-11, 13-3, 4-12, 7-9, 11-5, 13-3, 7-9, 9-7, 11-5, and 8-8. The aggregate favors the seasons Urlacher played (88-70 in seasons where he played all 16 games versus 22-26 in seasons where he missed time), but the division is not as clear-cut as with Polamalu.

The reasons for that are largely beyond Urlacher’s control. The Bears’ offense was a bottom-third unit (and the defense was only a top-10 unit in four of Urlacher’s seasons), and Dick Jauron and Lovie Smith will never be mistaken for Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. Still, looking at the numbers and multiplying them by 1.2 for tradition (because while Urlacher is one of the greatest middle linebackers of all time, he’s fourth on the Bears’ all-time depth chart at the position), Urlacher is a first-ballot HOFer.

In toto, I expected just a little more from Urlacher – especially in the three seasons when he was teamed with the era’s most dominant defensive lineman, Julius Peppers.

It’s fair to say that the Urlacher-Peppers edition of the Bears did not live up to expectations. The defense was top-10 in 2010 and 2012 (though about average in 2011), but the offense was horrific. It’s astonishing to think that Jay Cutler plus Brandon Marshall plus Matt Forte equals a 28th-ranked offense, but that was the case. However, in watching the Bears play defense over those years you never got the sense that Urlacher was making Peppers better or vice versa. They were simply two exceptional players playing on the same team.

Without getting too far ahead rock-‘n’-roll-wise, the 2010-12 Bears were the football equivalent of Blind Faith, the first rock supergroup. You can argue whether Urlacher or Peppers was Steve Winwood or Eric Clapton, but the end product wound up being merely interesting when it was supposed to be epochal.

Speaking of Peppers, running him through the same battery of tests as Urlacher and Polamalu produces about the same results. There’s no question the Panthers improved from 2001, when they went 1-15 without Peppers, to 2002, when they went 7-9 with him. While a lot of that is due to Peppers, some has to be ascribed to the maturation of a young, aggressive defense (that, lest we forget, also included Kris Jenkins, Will Witherspoon, Dan Morgan, and Deon Grant), and some to the development of Steve Smith, and a whole lot to John Fox, who is turning out to be a much better coach than people may have thought.

Peppers missed four games his rookie year; the team went 7-9. Peppers missed two games in 2007; the team went 7-9. Otherwise the Panthers went 11-5, 7-9, 11-5, 8-8, 12-4, and 8-8 in Peppers’ years with the team. Most of those years Jake Delhomme was the quarterback.

The year after Peppers left the Panthers went 2-14, so to sum up his career with Carolina, the team went from 1-15 to respectable to very good, stayed there for seven years, and then plunged back to 2-14 after Peppers left. (It should be noted that the quarterback for most of the 1-15 season was Chris Weinke and the QB for most of the 2-14 season was Jimmy Clausen, so it wasn’t all Peppers.)

In Peppers’ case, the hypothesis holds up. He was/is a dominant D-lineman, he makes his teams better, and he has plenty of hardware. Canton is waiting anytime he decides to hang ‘em up.

Somehow we always manage to bring things back to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and this is no different. Because they rank at the top of their positions over the recent past, Polamalu, Peppers, and Urlacher are like singles bands. They were great individual players whose team accomplishments were good, but just not as good.

Here’s what I mean: The top singles bands of the British Invasion were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Dave Clark Five. The Beatles and Stones were anomalies, singles bands that made incredible albums.

Not so much the DC5. Can you name a Dave Clark Five album? Probably not, unless you’re really into the Dave Clark Five, really into the British Invasion, or cheating.

Perhaps a truer challenge is this: Name a Dave Clark Five single. Okay, name another. The DC5 had 17 singles in the American Top 40 and eight top-10 singles, yet most people are hard-pressed to name their sole No. 1 (“Over And Over”).

That’s the problem with singles bands (One Direction, take note): They tend to be forgotten after the singles run out, and sometimes even before. Anyone up for a Little River Band retrospective?

Singles bands are capable of making good albums -- albums full of singles. They only stumble when their ambitions get out of whack with their abilities and they try to do their own Sgt. Pepper's. They all have; none of them have held up. Spin The Turtles Present The Battle Of The Bands, Tommy James' Cellophane Symphony, The Monkees' soundtrack to Head, The Grass Roots' Feelings, and Paul Revere and the Raiders' Something Happening back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back (and follow it with the deathless double-dip of Paradise Theater and Kilroy Was Here). I quadruple-dog-dare you.

In football, though, single-bands players are expected to do great albums. Individual accomplishment without accomplishments from the greater group tends to go a-glimmering. Ken Anderson would be a Hall of Fame quarterback if the Bengals had won something, anything.

Of course, there are exceptions. Floyd Little made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame somehow, with only the slightest bit of help from Haven Moses and pre-knee-destruction Rich Jackson. (Spoiler alert: Much as I like Floyd Little, he's really not a Hall of Famer.)

Rock 'n' roll's American-made versions of Floyd Little have handfuls of recognizable singles, stats at least as good – and a snowball’s chance of making it to Cleveland.

In other words, we're talking about unloved American singles bands of the ‘60s. Any guesses?

You probably guessed right. Tommy James and the Shondells had 12 Top 40 singles, five top-10s and two No. 1s. The Monkees also had 12 Top-40 hits with six top-10s and three No. 1s. And if you want to move things up a decade, the Spinners had 18 Top-40 hits, seven top-10s and one No. 1 – the DC5’s numbers almost to a T.

These bands are the Peppers, Polamalu, and Urlacher of their genre and era, and they’re outside contenders at best for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Why?

There’s a slight but specific British bias to the RnRHOF, for one thing. If there’s a British band and an American counterpart the British band goes in. So Queen gets the nod over the Steve Miller Band and Donovan over Jerry Jeff Walker. When faced with several singles bands with similar credentials – Tommy James, the Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Dave Clark Five – voters opted for the British bands.

It’s enough to make you think that the only thing keeping out the few Hall-worthy British acts (John Mayall, Marc Bolan, Yes) is the lack of suitable American counterparts. (Don’t even come around here with that Styx-equals-Yes garbage.)

Every one of these missives comes with a lesson, just like the Loop-flipper in the box of Froot Loops. The lesson this time is that performers' tangible measurements of success are treated differently in football and rock ‘n’ roll. Football players are measured by what they do for themselves and what they do for the team. Music’s best performers are measured by what they do for themselves or what they do for the team, but the threshold changes from act to act. Good luck figuring out what it is for your favorite performer.

For all the sportswriters currently wringing their hands over the brokenness of the Baseball Hall of Fame I come bearing goodish news: Compared to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, the Baseball Hall of Fame is as regular and regulated as a Mormon actuary in Singapore. And the Football Hall of Fame is a CPA in Saudi Arabia.

And Troy Polamalu still has fantastic hair.

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