Statistics Don’t Tell Story for Ryan Clady
By ANDY BENOIT May 22, 2012, 6:00 am
Reports about a possible contract extension for Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady recently led to a wave of arguments that his performance had been declining. Those arguments aren’t flawed, but their main points of evidence are.
In truth, Clady’s performance has declined. As a first-round rookie in 2008, he instantly proved to be football’s most athletic left tackle, if not football’s best left tackle. His 2009 season was equally impressive. In the spring of 2010, however, Clady tore his patellar tendon in a pickup basketball game. He didn’t miss any regular-season action, but he clearly didn’t have the same explosiveness. Last season, he regained much of his original form, but he was also mistake-prone.
This is where the flawed evidence comes in. ESPN.com recently got statistical to highlight Clady’s 2011 woes. In 16 starts, according to Stats L.L.C., Clady allowed a career-high nine sacks and was penalized 12 times. Since allowing just a half-sack as a rookie, Clady has given up 24.5 sacks over the past three years.
Here’s the problem: “sacks allowed” is a respectable statistic, but only if taken with a grain of salt. The people at Stats who track and grade game action are required to record the result of a play, not what actually happened on a play. In Clady’s case, many of his allowed sacks were a consequence of Tim Tebow’s running around to buy time. Sure, the man Clady blocked may have gotten the sack, but Clady successfully blocked for an entire seven-step drop; Tebow just turned it into a 13-step drop.
Another caveat: a “sacks allowed” stat can show that a talented left tackle was beaten by a talented edge rusher one or two times, but it can’t show that that talented left tackle singlehandedly kept the talented edge rusher at bay on the other 30-something dropbacks. Sometimes what’s more important than what a player did on a play was what a player was asked to do. Last seaon, the Broncos were often able to ask their left tackle to face the opposing team’s top pass rusher with no tight end help or even a chip block.
This is not meant to be a defense of Ryan Clady. Although Clady did improve as a run blocker in 2011, his overall play has indeed dipped a bit from his first two years. Twelve penalties are far too many, and so are nine sacks when considering that Denver ranked 32nd in pass attempts. But there needs to be more emphasis on the grain of salt. Watch the film and you’ll see, quite clearly, that Clady is a good football player. He just is. The numbers suggest he’s a bottom-feeder; the film shows he’s a top-feeder.
To judge Clady, or any offensive lineman, solely on his “sacks allowed” is akin to judging quarterbacks on interceptions. Fewer negative plays does not equal better performance. Alex Smith threw five interceptions last season; Tom Brady threw 12. But because quarterbacks can be portrayed through multiple statistical categories, no one in their right mind would argue that Smith was a better quarterback than Brady. Smith threw for 3,144 yards; Brady threw for 5,235. Smith had 17 touchdowns; Brady had 39.
Unfortunately, offensive linemen have no other statistics. Sure, there are the little-known rushing stats by field lane (the Broncos when running left last season had 67 power runs, 22 runs of 10-plus yards and 19 negative plays, which are solid all-around numbers), but those are vague and often misleading. For example, a lot of runs to the left are set up by a right guard’s pull block. How is that depicted in the stats?
Many football statistics are circumstantial and/or influenced by a multitude of factors. What’s important is to trust how a player – especially an offensive lineman – looks on film and make that the backbone of evaluation. Because this is what quality front offices do, don’t be surprised if Denver’s “mistake-prone” left tackle soon becomes one of the highest-paid players at his position