Four Down Territory – QB Blast from the Past

This is an era of big data, analytics, and explosive passing in the NFL. The rules disproportionately favor wide receivers, and true shutdown corners …

Welcome to Four Down Territory! This is a space where I’ll write about four things in professional sports every Saturday. Whether it’s the four greatest moments or the four worst blunders or anything in between, the only rule is that I’ll discuss four things. In my ninth installment, I’ll be outlining some of the best quarterbacks to play before the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

This is an era of big data, analytics, and explosive passing in the NFL. The rules disproportionately favor wide receivers, and true shutdown corners are harder and harder to come by. Thursday’s Hall of Fame game gave me a blast from the past. I want to showcase some of the game’s greatest quarterbacks before 1970, because these guys tend to fall by the wayside when we think of the greatest QBs ever. Their statistics simply can’t match the modern players because the game was different back then. Today, we use the term “game manager” derisively, but that’s what a quarterback should do: manage the game. These QBs were the best at it, thanks to their knowledge of the game and consistent performance. Hope you enjoy!

Slingin’ Sammy Baugh

Slingin’ Sammy was destined for greatness as the sixth overall selection from TCU to the Washington Redskins. Yet, we had no idea of his impact on the very game as we know it. Baugh played during the Great Depression and World War II. These were very lean years for the NFL, as World War II pressed many of the players into military service. During the war, there just wasn’t much interest in the seemingly insignificant games and teams had to merge or fold to field full games. Sammy Baugh was able to rise above these adverse conditions and become one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. His trick was the forward pass, a routine play today but highly uncommon back then. Baugh was more accurate than any quarterback before him, making the forward pass a viable option that Washington used regularly. Passing wasn’t his only strength, as he was one of the most versatile players ever. He played quarterback, cornerback, and punter, filling important needs in a league starved for players. In 1943, he had his finest season as a pro: he led the league in passing, punting (45.9 yard average), and interceptions (11). When all was said and done, Baugh set 13 NFL records over three positions, won six passing titles and two championships, and made Washington the football town it is today. Oh, and every team utilized the forward pass after him.

Otto Graham

We talk about winning as an important individual statistic, even though it’s done as a team. How many times have you heard someone compare players by the number of championships won? We all know that this is what defines legacies, but Otto Graham is still overlooked. Graham won seven championships and appeared in the NFL or AAFC Championship game ten times. He played for the Browns that long ago. Yes, they were actually elite back then. They started play in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), winning four of the league’s eight championships in total. Following the 1949 season, the AAFC merged into the NFL, but this did not change the disrespect that NFL owners had for the AAFC teams. Commissioner Bert Bell scheduled the Browns to play the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Eagles (boy, this really was a long time ago), figuring it would be a smackdown. But, Otto Graham led coach Paul Brown’s innovative offensive, taking advantage of advanced passing concepts and motion shifts to beat Philadelphia through the air. He threw for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns, a great line no matter the era. 14 weeks later, Graham led the Browns to their first NFL championship, passing for four touchdowns to beat the Los Angeles Rams. When all was said and done, Graham was the greatest winner this game has ever seen, and we ought to hear his name more when we discuss winning at any level of football.

Bart Starr

Pretty much every time New England plays, we have to hear about how Tom Brady was a sixth round draft choice and the 199th overall pick. But when we’re thinking about draft steals, our view is too narrow, and Bart Starr rarely comes up. Guy was picked in the 17th round, 200th overall, and again, all he did was win. Starr compiled a 9-1 record in the postseason and a 104.8 passer rating, still the highest mark in league history. His only loss was his first playoff game, the 1960 NFL Championship that they dropped to Philadelphia by three points. Perhaps more importantly, Starr was the engine that made Lombardi’s machine go. He acted as a coach on the field and called his own plays, executing Lombardi’s game plans to a T. Starr and the Packers employed a very balanced offensive attack, placing particular emphasis on the sweep to showcase the mobility of their offensive line. Though Starr never attempted more than 300 passes in any season, his passes were almost always effective. When we think of Starr, though, one shining moment stands out from his five championships. In his and Lombardi’s last hurrah, Green Bay trailed Dallas by three in the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the Ice Bowl. The last drive was vintage Packers football: six passes, six runs, and a -50 degree wind chill. Starr calmly drove Green Bay down the field and his last run on the drive was most memorable. Without telling any of his teammates (but of course consulting with Lombardi), Starr ran a quarterback sneak, using a double-team from center Ken Bowman and guard Jerry Kramer to score the winning touchdown. Had Starr made the wrong call, time would’ve run out and Green Bay’s three-peat would’ve been foiled. He is still the only QB to win three championships in a row. When all was said and done, Starr was a winner who cared most about the team, and who was the best field general for Vince Lombardi.

Johnny Unitas

This is the QB who transcended era, a player so great that he still gets mentioned as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. It’s hard to believe he was cut by Pittsburgh and was paid $6 a game playing semi-pro ball for the Bloomfield Rams. But in a very representative story in sports, John Constantine Unitas made the most of a lucky break. After signing with the Baltimore Colts, he was thrust into the starter’s role after George Shaw went down with an injury. He proceeded to throw an interception returned for a touchdown, but he persevered. In 1957, Unitas led the league in passing (2,550 yards) and touchdowns (24), but the next year he would achieve greater heights. We all know of The Greatest Game Ever Played, but it was only made that way because of Johnny Unitas. In the 1958 NFL Championship Game, Unitas and the Colts found themselves down by three with two minutes remaining in regulation. Undeterred, Unitas introduced the league’s newest innovation in front of a national audience: the two-minute drill. Calling his own plays, Unitas calmly and swiftly led the Colts down the field for the tying field goal. He didn’t call a run the entire drive, instead throwing the ball and finding Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry time and again. In overtime, Unitas had the opportunity to lead a drive to win the game this time, and he mixed the pass and the run to punch it in the end zone and secure the title for the Colts. The game was a master class in timing and execution, the two elements of offensive playcalling that are still used today. Unitas and Berry also showed the world the importance of rhythm between quarterback and receiver, as Berry recorded 12 receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown. This game lifted the NFL to the popularity it enjoys today, thanks to Unitas’ clutch performance for the dramatic victory. Over the rest of his impressive career, Unitas amassed three MVP awards, three championships, an innumerable amount of records, and the distinct title of the best quarterback ever. When all was said and done, Unitas was a hard worker who perfected his craft, revolutionized football, and made it the game it is today.

Artificial Intelligence Could Slash Salaries of Overpaid NFL Star Players

As computing power continues to improve, one company plans to take data analytics to the next level. They are using an artificial intelligence (AI) …

As computing power continues to improve, one company plans to take data analytics to the next level. They are using an artificial intelligence (AI) system to provide recommendations on player salaries for all National Football League (NFL) teams.

Cincinnati-based Pro Football Focus (PFF) is owned by broadcaster and former Cincinnati Bengals player Cris Collinsworth. The company is in business with all 32 NFL teams and 62 college programs. PFF sells player data in every game, provided in a searchable setup. The data package comes with videos.

In an interview with Fox Business Network, PFF’s Collinsworth said:

“We break down every player on every play in every game. So we have this treasure trove of data that we work with.”

For now, teams are using the data provided by PFF to analyze plays, make strategic changes, and recruit new players. Within a year, however, the company will leverage the immense repository of data and use it in conjunction with machine learning algorithms to more accurately predict a player’s market value.

So far, the data analytics firm has discovered that some teams are not making every dollar count.

Initial Analysis Reveals That Some Teams Are Overpaying Players by Millions of Dollars

Early results have been shocking, even to the chief executive of the company. PFF’s analysis shows that some NFL teams are paying more than they should. Collinsworth said:

“Who knew that running backs aren’t as valuable as quarterbacks in the National Football league?”

Even if quarterbacks have more value than running backs on the field, PFF found that no team has won the Superbowl with a quarterback receiving more than 13 percent of the salary cap. Based on this insight, one can easily assume that at least 10 quarterbacks are significantly overpaid.

nfl
AI suggests many star NFL players are overpaid. | Source: Shutterstock

Examples of Overpaid NFL Players Based on PFF Numbers

  • Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is the highest-paid player in the history of the sport at $35 million per year. Wilson occupies 20 percent of the team’s $175 million salary cap. Based on PFF’s numbers, the team is overpaying Wilson by $12.5 million per year.
  • The same is true for Aaron Rodgers, who is earning $33.5 million. The Green Bay Packers team is paying the quarterback $11 million more than they should.
  • Atlanta Falcons star Matt Ryan is receiving $30 million per year. PFF data suggests that the franchise is paying the quarterback an excess of $7.5 million per year.
  • Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings is making $28 million per year. He fills 16 percent of the team’s salary cap, which means the Vikings are overpaying by $5.5 million each year.
  • Jimmy Garoppolo is still an unproven asset, but the 49ers decided to give him $27.5 million. PFF data suggests that he is earning $5 million more than he should.
  • Andrew Stafford may be the best quarterback to play in a Lions’ uniform, but he is overvalued by at least $4.5 million.
  • Andrew Luck may have thrown 39 touchdowns last year, but the Colts are paying him $3 million more than they should.
  • Derek Carr and Drew Brees are both overpaid by $2.5 million. That money could have been spent to bolster other positions.
  • Khalil Mack and Alex Smith are both earning $23.5 million. Their teams blew an extra $1 million.

Bottom Line

Overall, PFF can restore some balance in the NFL by using AI technology to disrupt player salaries. Based on data-driven analysis, teams can opt to pay according to the actual market value of the players instead of their star power. Sure, some stars may see their salary dwindle, but if they value winning more than earning millions, they’d understand that the money will likely be used to acquire more above-average players in other positions.

Artificial intelligence to determine salaries of NFL players

Does your favorite NFL player get more than his fair share of salary? Artificial intelligence is now being used to decide. The national football league is …

Does your favorite NFL player get more than his fair share of salary?

Artificial intelligence is now being used to decide.

The national football league is turning to technology to determine whether some superstars are getting overpaid.

Analytics company pro football focus helps teams decide player’s salaries by delivering performance data.

The system works with amazon web services to provide the metrics of all 32 NFL teams.

Scientists measure information such as play difficulty, dropped receiver passes, catchable passes and runs that gain a first down after broken tackles that data is then translated into a monetary number to reflect a player’s overall value.

Early results show some teams are overpaying players by millions of dollars.

The company hopes the information will be used to even the playing field in the professional football league.

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Which Positions Do Teams Obsess Over (And Overlook) On Draft Day?

… while in drafts since 2010, teams have allocated 11.23 percent of their first-round capital on the position — very close. But most other positions don’t …

A strong NFL draft can instantly transform a franchise. But the draft isn’t just about getting great players — it’s about getting great players on the cheap. The league’s rookie wage scale allows teams to employ impact players for far less than what they’re worth on the open market and this surplus value frees teams to spend elsewhere.

But not all positions are of equal value — or at least they aren’t according to the share of money teams allocate to them. So it stands to reason that to maximize the value of first-round picks (and those bargain rookie contracts) in the draft, teams should prioritize the positions that will cost NFL general managers the most amount of money on the open market. At the extremes, this does happen: It’s why 13 of the 19 first overall picks this century have been quarterbacks and why no team has taken a punter or kicker in the first round since 2000.

To look more closely at value per position, we used Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart to assign points to every pick since 2010 and then tallied up all of the points at each position. We then compared the share of total value for each position with the share of total (nonkicking) position salaries for each position group. For example, teams in the 2019 season will spend 11.12 percent on cornerbacks, while in drafts since 2010, teams have allocated 11.23 percent of their first-round capital on the position — very close. But most other positions don’t align so neatly.

How are NFL positions valued?

NFL position groups by 2019 salaries, 2010-18 draft points* and the difference between the shares of each

Share of total…
Position group Salaries Draft points Salaries draft points Difference
Defensive lineman $922.4M 74,520 16.64% 22.38% +5.74
Quarterback 597.2 48,560 10.78 14.58 +3.80
Running back 237.4 18,450 4.28 5.54 +1.26
Cornerback 615.5 37,405 11.12 11.23 +0.11
Safety 402.9 19,380 7.27 5.82 -1.45
Linebacker 644.6 32,530 11.63 9.77 -1.86
Offensive lineman 1,137.6 61,615 20.53 18.50 -2.03
Wide receiver 712.8 34,640 12.86 10.40 -2.46
Tight end 270.4 5,895 4.88 1.77 -3.11

* Draft points are found by adding up the values per pick from FootballPerspective.com.

Sources: pro-football-reference.com. Over the Cap, FootballPerspective.com

Tight ends will get 4.9 percent of the salary pie this year, but teams have spent only 1.8 percent of first-round value on the position. Looking at the past nine drafts, it’s also clear that the running back balance is out of whack: GMs have spent 5.5 percent of their draft capital on the position (led by the game’s fiercest defender of RB value, the Giants’ Dave Gettleman) compared with just 4.3 percent of 2019 salaries.

Wide receivers also seem to be getting short-changed on draft day. But this may have to do more with how difficult it is to assess them. The position has proved exceedingly difficult to scout, judging by first-round bust rate. What’s more, many of the drills that wide receivers endure at the scouting combine don’t seem to predict actual NFL success. So maybe spending more money on proven receivers rather than rolling the dice in the draft than you are willing to spend in the draft is wise. After all, the smartest team in football hasn’t drafted a wide receiver in the first round in 23 years.

But by far the biggest incongruity in absolute value among the positions is on the defensive line, where teams are spending 16.6 percent of their money but 22.4 percent of their first-round draft power. Teams seem to be buying into the belief that, after quarterback, the most valuable player in the league is the person who trying to throw the quarterback to the ground.

The rate at which teams spend first-round picks on pass rushers is likely to climb even higher this year given that defensive linemen are expected to rule this draft like no other. In some mock drafts, as many as five or six defensive linemen are projected to be selected among the first 10 picks. Looking at SBNation’s mock draft database1 and pairing that with Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart, we can predict that an amazing 37.7 percent of first-round draft capital will be spent on defensive linemen. Yet not one safety is expected to be drafted in the first round, and just two linebackers who aren’t pass-rush specialists, LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush.

The experts who follow the draft most closely are also predicting that general managers will more heavily weight a prospect playing quarterback than his scouting grade. Despite this quarterback draft class being regarded by some experts as subpar, four signal callers are expected to be selected in the first round, including three in the top 10 — something that’s happened just five times since 1970. Any chance to land a good quarterback at the relative bargain-basement price of a rookie contract is apparently too tempting to pass up.

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