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Point, counterpoint: Should stats be the measure of a player?


! Staff Writer Mike Spofford says yes.

I like objectivity. It's how I was trained in this business and it's the crutch on which I'll always lean. Statistics are as objective as it gets in sports, and they're good gauges for me.

Look, I'm not going to say that because one receiver had 950 yards in a season and the other had 900 that the first guy is better. That's not what I mean. But statistics quantify any player's impact on his team and on a game, and they help to draw the most reasonable, defensible conclusions.

Some of you are probably wondering, then, what I think of Clay Matthews after he had only six sacks in 2011, the lowest total of his career. I don't think any less of Matthews. When I look deeper, I see that he was credited with 53 of the team's 129 hits on the quarterback over the course of the season. That's 41 percent of a team's pressure coming from one guy. That's a big-time player whether he's reaching double digits in sacks or not.

Notice how I found different stats than the one everyone focuses on for pass rushers? There are more stats out there than just the traditional categories, and while some can be misleading or you can get lost in the numbers, properly digested statistics provide the most informative measure out there.

Now, certain positions don't lend themselves to stats, like offensive linemen. That's a different conversation. For positions with tracked statistics, those numbers are, at a minimum, the foundation of measuring a player. Where stats get you in trouble is when you try to compare and contrast players from different eras based strictly on their numbers. The game has changed too much over time to do that.

To steal a glance at Vic's Pittsburgh era, Lynn Swann's 5,462 career receiving yards don't get him into any Hall of Fame conversation based on today's game. In the 1970s, though, Swann ranked in the top eight in the league in receiving yards three times in a nine-year career and was the Steelers' leading receiver twice during seasons they won Super Bowls. Those stats, studied in the proper context, tell me something. The numbers alone didn't get Swann his 2001 Hall induction, of course, but they provide a meaningful context and foundation to all those acrobatic highlights.

I like to quantify things as much as I can, as long as the numbers mean something. Many now are discussing whether Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a Hall of Famer. They say there's something about his play in the clutch, in big games, that trumps some of the ugly interception numbers (two seasons with 20-plus) from earlier in his career.

Well, I'd argue that "something" is quantifiable. Two game-winning drives in the waning moments of Super Bowls is a pretty good stat. So is two Super Bowl MVPs. That's going to trump a lot, and it should. Just because I like to focus on statistics doesn't mean I give every statistic equal weight. Some numbers matter more than others. That's the subjective part.

But give me all the objective information first, and the fun part is digesting it all and reaching a reasoned, sound conclusion. Players can have more impact than their stats would indicate but, to me, they aren't having much impact without those stats.

! Editor Vic Ketchman says no.

There's nothing wrong with stats. They can tell a story, when used in a responsible fashion. When used to support an agenda, they often tell a lie.

Of course, I would never do that. I only use stats responsibly, and I use them at a minimum because, in my opinion, never, ever should stats be the measure of a man.

Measure his passion for the game by something as lifeless as an arrangement of numbers on a piece of paper? OK, so where's the stat for Bart Starr's courage to tell Vince Lombardi what play the Packers would run in the most important moment in franchise history? Where's the stat for the genius of Joe Namath's play-calling in Super Bowl III? Where's the stat for Ben Roethlisberger's game-saving tackle in the 2005 season's playoff win in Indianapolis?

Where's the stat for Johnny Unitas' icy glare?

The expert eyes of an unbiased analyst are best used to measure a player, and we need more of both, expert eyes and unbiased analysts. We need them to help us measure those men that weren't fortunate enough to play in championship games they might use to distinguish their greatness.

Use every piece of information available to measure the man. Use his stats, your eyes, your heart, his teammates' love, his opponents' respect, his impact on the game, an allowance for the era in which he played, the love for the game he displayed and, oh, of course, never discount his toughness. Oh, yes, it is all about his toughness, because this is a tough game for tough guys and he must have been one of those tough guys to be measured at all.

Here's what not to do: Don't look at Starr's passing yards, which topped out at 2,438 in 1962, and compare them to the passers of today, who are routinely doubling up Starr's numbers. The eras in which they played are as distinctly different as a hammer is from a pillow, and had the passers of today played in Starr's era they likely wouldn't have thrown for as many yards as he did.

The young fan loves to use stats to tell a lie, but he knows no better so I make allowance for him. He doesn't understand that there were very few garbage yards in Starr's 2,438. He doesn't understand that receivers didn't wear gloves that are allowing for so many one-hand grabs in today's game. He doesn't understand that quarterbacks weren't mere mechanical arms, they were play-callers and coaches on the field. He doesn't appreciate that helmets didn't include radio transmission receivers.

Starr's game was Johnny Unitas' black high tops. A touchdown pass was real reason to save the ball; Starr never threw more of them than 16 in any one season.

Hey, Matt Flynn threw six in one game. How do you compare that to the way the game was played in Starr's day? Lombardi wouldn't have allowed Starr to throw six touchdown passes in a game. That's the kind of thing that got a quarterback killed back then. You just didn't do that sort of thing to players such as "Night Train" Lane and Alex Karras.

Here's a stat I'd like somebody to find: Number of times Starr was hit in the head by a pass rusher but a penalty wasn't called.

Why am I so passionate about not using stats to compare the generations? Because they tend to yellow history and the accomplishments of those that graced it. One day, it will color today's stars that way, and that will be every bit the mistaken measure of today's players that it is the mistaken measure of yesterday's stars.

Look deep. Look much deeper than the stats. Find the truth.

What do you think?

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