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Clay Matthews, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia, and The Sexiest Stat

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Clay Matthews, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia, and The Sexiest Stat

We’ve all heard the wails and gnashing of teeth.  “Clay Matthews only has 1 sack so far this season, and he had six by this time last year!”  As the Packers’ defense has gone through what can be politely called “some ups-and-downs” in this young season, it is none other than CM3 that is getting the microscope treatment.

And to that, I say:  bullshizzle.

One of my favorite quotes is “There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (hattip: Benji Disraeli).  And there is no greater lie than the importance we place on the sack statistic.

But, in a way, it isn’t the sack statistic’s fault.  Simply put, linemen on both sides of the ball lack objective, every-down records of their performance.  It’s not the case almost everywhere else on either side of the ball.  A quarterback can be objectively measured every time he goes back to pass:  completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, touchdowns, interceptions.  There probably isn’t a position that is more wrapped up in stats than the field general.

But don’t forget the running back, who has attempts, yards, and yards-per-carry, just to start.  Or, the receivers, with their targets, receptions, yardage, and YAC.  Secondary players have passes defensed, tackles, and interceptions to measure up to.  And kickers and punters are little more than players who stand virtually in one spot and compile statistics.

But those poor linemen, who do the majority of the battling, bleeding, and fighting on that football field, do it the old-fashioned way without the benefit of some glorious stat that measures them.  Oh, there’s a lot of indirect stats that can be used, as well as many subjective ones.  The offensive line can be measured indirectly by how many times the quarterback is hit, or how many rushing yards they help open holes for.  And, if you’re playing Madden, there’s no greater measure of a man than “pancakes”.

But, let’s face it.  Moreso than any other position on the field, the evaluation of those offensive linemen has to come from the coaches in the film room, who watch every player on every play, deciding if he hit the right block, sustained it long enough, or opened the hole he was supposed to.  There’s really no way around it.

If there were some objective stat you could keep (besides pancakes), wouldn’t you believe that Jerry Kramer would have been in the Hall of Fame years ago?  Yet in every petition made on his behalf by die-hard Packer fans, the stats cited usually are derived from players who played behind him--whether it was how few interceptions Bart Starr was forced into, or how many rushing yards Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung were able to ring up.

The point is that there simply isn’t a viable, every-down statistic that can be directly attributed to an offensive lineman, and perhaps to a lesser degree, the guys who line up on the opposite side.

Oh, they have that “tackles” stat, but you and I both know that on 90% or more of the plays, somebody is going to make a tackle.  In 2008, a miserable year for the defense, AJ Hawk led the team in tackles.  Did that make him the team’s best player, or simply the guy that had to make the tackles when the defensive line allowed ball-carriers through to the second level?

Those front seven have some moneyball stats, like forced fumbles, interceptions, and tackles behind the line of scrimmage, to be sure.  But how to you evaluate them play in and play out?  Answer: you watch the film.

But, then 1982 came along, and the sack became an official, objective sack for defensive players.  Now, finally, if a quarterback (objective) trying to pass (objective) was tackled (objective) behind the line of scrimmage (objective), that defender was awarded a sack.

Now, Deacon Jones could have had a measurable stat that confirmed what we knew simply by watching him play:  he was a devastating presence on defense, just like Clay Matthews.  But, there is that inner man-nerd in all of us, the one that relies on the stats to tell the story for us when we can’t trust our eyes (or have imbibed too much alcohol to coherently observe the game other than touchdown/not touchdown).  We watched players like Derrick Thomas, Reggie White, Mark Gastineau, and Bruce Smith quickly go to work setting records in a category than was never calculated before, and we celebrated players for getting those 10+ sack seasons as “game-changers”.

Now, in many cases, those players were bona fide game-changers with or without  the official statistic, but it still was a sexy statistic that we loved.  After all, isn’t a sack devastating?  Didn’t the term “sack” come from Deacon Jones himself, who said that tackling the quarterback for a loss was equivalent to a city getting “sacked”?  Isn’t forcing teams into 2nd- or 3rd-and-long situations almost always lead to the defense getting the ball back in one way or the other, whether forcing a punt or turnover?

Sure, it’s devastating.  But the problem comes, once again, that a sack is not an every-down statistic.  Take a defensive player that garners 16 sacks over the course of a season.  That statistic measures the impact of one player on one play per game.  An important sack?  Sure.  But when a team averages 50-60 offensive plays a game, those 16 sacks leave a whopping 98% of plays (conservatively around 784)  where he did not sack the quarterback.

It’s like the tale of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia.  You might not remember KGB, a once-popular player in the Mike Sherman era.  Take a trip down into the Packer Hall of Fame, where frozen, ghostly players forever ride children’s bikes to training camp.  You know them:  Donald Driver, Gilbert Brown, and that other guy.  That Other Guy = Gbaja-Biamilia.  The guy, when the stadium renovation was underway, excited fans as much as anyone else.  After all, KGB had 13.5 sacks in 2001.

Therefore, he must have been a dominant defensive player.  Right?

Well, sort of.  You see, the sack stat doesn’t tell the whole story.  Kabeer was a tall drink of water that found his role as a pass-rush specialist.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a part-time, third-down player.  And Gbaja-Biamilia did it very, very well.  Heck, Charles Haley made a living racking up stats and winning Super Bowls in that role.  To this day, KGB is still known for having one of the most explosive first-steps in the game and is the present holder of the Packers’ team sack record with 74.5.

But after two seasons in that pass rush-specialist role, the Packers were faced with a tough choice with their starter, Vonnie Holliday…the man who “tenderized” the offensive tackles for Gbaja-Biamilia.  Holliday became a free agent and was offered a $21.3 million, 5-year contract with $4 million guaranteed by the Kansas City Chiefs.  Mike Sherman was beginning his first year in his ill-fated dual role as head coach and GM, but you can’t quite blame him for not matching the offer sheet for a player who had spent much of the previous season injured.

However, the loss of Holliday set up a domino effect, with Gbaja-Biamilia and his 12 sacks from ’02 deemed as a good enough resume' to award him a $37M, five-year salary to be a full-time defensive end.  They also signed an underachieving defensive tackle named Cletidus Hunt to a six-year, $25 million dollar contract. Sherman then also turned around and signed another inconsistent defensive linemen in Grady Jackson, a couple-of-plays-a-game guy that struggled with his weight.

So, what happened?  Thanks to several misfires by Sherman to shore up the defensive line, the Packers were forced to keep a one-dimensional player starting at defensive end over the next several seasons.  Yes, he made the Pro Bowl in 2003 based on ten sacks (and past sack totals), but it was becoming clear that he was a one-trick pony that offensive tackles could easily contain when they didn’t have to shift gears with a early-down pounding power end.

Sure, Gbaja-Biamilia continued to pile up sacks.  He got another 23.5 over the next two seasons, but the defense became leakier and leakier.  In 2005, the Packers had a historically bad rushing defense, and KGB’s speed and explosive first step didn’t do much to help it.  You could watch him regularly in every replay and see him make the same move, over and over again, and get taken out of the play.  But, then in some meaningless game with a big lead, he’d get three sacks, and the celebration of the sexy stat would begin anew.

Finally, in 2006, new coach Mike McCarthy benched KGB, who returned to his role as a part-time player.  The following year, he broke the Packers’ career record for sacks, taking it from Reggie White, with about the same amount of excitement fans had for Roger Maris breaking the Bambino’s single-season home run record.

Why bring up KGB?  Because he is the exact opposite of Clay Matthews.  As an every-down player, Gbaja-Biamilia epitomized the once-a-game sexy sack surrounded by a glut of failed pass rushes and missed tackles that made him far more a liability than an asset.

But in order to truly see the impact Matthews is having on the game, trust Coach McCarthy: “I understand what the statistics may, you know, [look like] from your standpoint. But as far as his grades week in and week out, he’s playing at a very high level.”  Or, if that’s not good enough, trust Dom Capers: “I told Clay today he just needs to continue to play like he’s playing.  Those things will come. He’s playing outstanding football right now.”

Or, go back to your DVR and check it yourself.  Look at how many times he’s taking on two blockers or more.  Watch how many times he’s in the backfield and forcing a premature throw.  Watch how running backs and quarterbacks go away from him.  "As long as I'm occupying other people, there are guys on our team that are going to benefit. At the same time, my time will come," say Matthews, and that may be the key right there.

One may call into question the problems the Packers have had in the middle of the field, and perhaps it is Hawk or the opposite OLB spot that has fallen off from last year, not taking advantage of the opportunities that a double-blocked CM3 regularly provides.  The loss of Cullen Jenkins as a destructive force is something that we knew couldn’t be easily replaced; and while Jarius Wynn is doing a yeoman’s job, he's not equaling the disruption Jenkins brought (other than, of course, those three sacks in three games).

How do you tell when BJ Raji has controlled his gap and forced the running back to the outside and into the waiting arms of Desmond Bishop?  You look at the tape and make sure he executed his assignment.  There’s no “stat” that is easily measured from the press box.  When Jay Cutler throws another interception, how do you tell which defenders in coverage forced him to keep going through his reads?  You look at the tape.

Long before Matthews was drafted by the Packers, I always said I would much rather have a pass rusher who put  consistent pressure on a quarterback—pressures, hurries, flushouts, and hits—than one that got one sack a game and nothing else.  Sure, Reggie White did both, but we all know that no one is going to be Reggie White again.

If you want to truly evaluate Clay Matthews, sit down and look at the tape, and see how many times he changes the course of what the offense wants to.  Watch and see how many times he’s fighting off a second or third blocker, and which player should be taking advantage of it.

Or, take the word of the guys who actually do it every week.  Mike, Dom, and his staff say Clay is doing just fine.  I believe it, because I’ve seen his impact with my own eyes.

If you are going to judge Matthews, do us all a favor and quit worshipping at the Sack Stat Altar and focus on what happens every down.  If he had his six sacks and was invisible the other 98% of the time, would be still be Clay Matthews?

Of course not.  He’d be Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia.

Comments (27)

cow42's picture

yes - clay matthews grades out well every game - that is not being disputed... i'm guessing so does hawk - along with pickett, and bishop, and yadda, and dadda, and dadda.... i get that.

but clay matthews used to do more than 'grade out well'. again - go watch last years eagles game, or bills game, or cowboys game. the guy was an angry bolt of lightning.

not arguing that he's not playing well - he is. not arguing that he's not making plays - he is.

it just appears to me that he's not nearly as violent/explosive as he has been in the past.

call me crazy or greedy but i don't want matthews to be a 'good player who grades out well'. i want matthews to be lawrence -fucking-taylor.

Chad Toporski's picture

He also wasn't as good against the run... which is why teams like the Steelers wanted to run right at him. (And, of course, to help negate the rush.)

I re-watched the Packers-Bears game and kept my eye on Matthews for every defensive snap. And he played lights out.

He blew up more than a couple running plays, and he put pressure on Cutler the whole game when he wasn't getting double- or triple-teamed.

And then there were the couple of plays where he played the coverage or contain man, where getting to the QB wasn't a priority.

Part of the problem, too, was the secondary. It's been said that coverage generates sacks and pressure generates interceptions. And to an extent that is true. If Cutler has an open receiver to throw to, he's going to be able to get the ball out quickly before the pressure hits.

Honestly, I was starting to worry about Matthews after the game. But when I went back and rewatched the footage, I became more confident in CM3's performance.

cow42's picture

'Honestly, I was starting to worry about Matthews after the game. But when I went back and rewatched the footage, I became more confident in CM3?s performance.'

THIS IS THE PROBLEM RIGHT HERE.

if you have to go back and re-check his performance to see how he did - THEN HE ISN'T THE SAME GUY AS HE WAS EARLY LAST SEASON - THERE WAS NO NEED TO 'CHECK THE TAPE' YOU KNEW HE WAS KILLING PEOPLE.

MarkinMadison's picture

I agree with Chad. CM3 is playing the run much better this year. He's a more complete player this year.

cow42's picture

i give up.
if people don't see he's a different player it's because they don't want to see it. nothing anyone says will be able to change their minds.

maybe i'm flat wrong. maybe i just have to re-adjust my expectations.

go ahead clay - be a good run stopper.

packeraaron's picture

I'm with you cow.

MarkinMadison's picture

Honestly, I thought CM3 disappeared for stretches last season as well. Take away the forced fumble in the Super Bowl and his stat line for that game is very pedestrian. My point is that I'm not sure if I was ever as high on CM3 as some, and I'm apparently not as low as others now. I'm not so sure you couldn't find at least two three-game stretches from each of the last two years where CM3 didn't look as ordinary as he does now.

CD Angeli's picture

I guess if that's how you want to go, cow, more power to you. I'm more about winning games than I am about putting a level of play I expect from individual players and griping if they aren't met.

The issues with the defense go so radically beyond whether Clay has 1 or 6 sacks thus far this season Jarius Wynn WALKED into two sacks last week. Does that make him a great player, or the beneficiary of everyone else doing their job?

In the end, while our pass defense is shaky, the Packers have forced good running teams to become one-dimensional passing teams. If Clay is being asked to be a part of that strategy, then you have to judge him on that, not our idealized version of him.

packeraaron's picture

"I’m more about winning games than I am about putting a level of play I expect from individual players and griping if they aren’t met."

Wow.

How is cow "griping"? If anyone is griping its all the folks who jumped all over him a few weeks ago for daring to have an opinion contrary to the crowd (yes, something I'm a bit familiar with)

You CAN be "about winning games" AND point out how a guy has seemingly fallen off in one particular area of his game.

cow42's picture

so me wanting him to play better means that i don't want the packers to succeed... got it. oh - and it's either 'be good against the run' OR 'be a raving terror of rage' ... got it. oh - and an increase in clay's intensity, violence, and production wouldn't help the team... got it.

3-0 IS MASKING ISSUES

if clay keeps playing at the level he's playing, and the defense plays at the level it's playing - this team will not win the super bowl. clay - and the team need to play better.

i believe he and they will. i'm just not happy/comfortable with what's been going on up to this point

packeraaron's picture

Now you're overstating things cow. Yes, the Packers have "issues" - as does every other team in the NFL. Nothing they are doing now will mean "they won't win the Super Bowl". That's just silly.

CD Angeli's picture

cow, apologies if my "winning games" came off as snarky. Wasn't my intent to say that wasn't important to you.

My point was that I don't care what individual stats are when the team is playing well as a whole. In 96-97, LeRoy Butler was a sack machine, mainly because Eugene Robinson gave him the opportunities to get close to the line. When Robinson left and Butler was stuck with a young safety, he had to stay back in coverage.

Does that mean Butler was less effective? No...it means he was doing what he needed to in order to make the squad better.

Matthews is doing what is expected of him right now. Sure, I WANTED Butler to keep rushing the QB and be a beast, but that wasn't the game plan. They couldn't afford the luxury. As offenses scheme to stymieing Matthews, other players need to step up, just as we did last year.

PackersRS's picture

Really wrong analogy CD.

They ARE asking Matthews to rush the passer. He IS getting one-on-one opportunities.

Not as much as he used to, but he is getting them. And not winning them constantly.

MarkinMadison's picture

Well done.

Not that it matters at all, but I remember the whole Holliday non-signing being portrayed in the media, at least, as occuring because of the Packers' belief Hunt's potential than in his belief that KGB was an every-down player. Hunt got a new contract in March of 2003. KGB may have played a role in Sherman's thinking, but I don't know that anyone ever believed in him as an every down DE. I believe at the time he had a known or rumoured history with the bong, and a very apparent lack of motivation. Yes, Holliday was hurt a bit in 2002, but otherwise he was clearly the best DL the Packers had in that time frame. The Packers with Kampman on one side, Holliday on the other, and KGB as a pass-rush specialist might have been a decent defense in the Sherman era. Hunt was a total bust.

It was also around that time that I wondered why the Packers didn't move to a 3-4. I've often wondered how KGB would have looked against the run in a 3-4 with big DEs in eating up blockers in front of him. At 6-4, 250, he had what some would call classic dimensions for the spot. Could he have learned to be more effective against the run from off the line of scrimmage? Probably not, but we'll never know.

MarkinMadison's picture

Hunt = bong and unmotivated, not KGB.

Matthew's picture

I'm actually with cow and Nagler on this. It is not the lack of sacks that bother me, though. When an All-Pro goes against an undrafted rookie, he should beat 1 on 1s repeately and cause havoc. Not neccesarily sacks, but disruption to the flow of an offense. Think Allen Babre in 2009, when Akin Oguiyle (sp.) beat our RT like an absolute drum and changed the entrie way we wanted to play. Julius Pappers against Bryant Mkinnie is another example. I just don't see that out of CM3. I see a very good player who is playing an extremely high level, but one who is not dominant at causing pressure.

Brett63088's picture

Great post, Matthews' start reminds of Dwight Freeney in 2006. Freeney only had 5.5 Sacks, but led the NFL in hurries and QB hits, still very disruptive despite his low Sack totals.

Jim's picture

I think Clay is capable of more, so I will hope for more, but as everyone already said he's no slouch right now. This was an awesome article, and the comments are just as entertaining. Thanks guys.

Ruppert's picture

I honestly can't say where I see Matthews looks that much different than last year based strictly on the eyeball test. McGinn opined that last week might have been Clay's finest game as a Packer. Even if that's not totally true, it still tells me he is doing a lot of things right and isn't slipping at all.

The only thing I really notice is that Clay's bull rush doesn't seem as powerful this year for whatever reason. Injury? Don't know.

PackersRS's picture

I agree with cow on this one.

It isn't about grading well, or getting sacks. It's about winning one-on-ones.

NOBODY so far has discredited that notion, that Matthews isn't winning one-on-ones as he used to. They say he's much better against the run, and that's absolutely true. They say he's playing very well, and that's also true.

But a pass rusher is measured by how he pass rushes. In that department, he's not playing as well as last year, and, like I said, nobody has said otherwise.

As for stats, something I've never seen, but the best stat to measure pass rush would be pressures per rush and pressures in 1-on-1 situations.

I know that Matthews already has more than 10 pressures in the season, but that alone doesn't tell a lot.

I would bet money that last year he got many more pressures in 1-on-1 situations than this year, and also pressures overall.

My guess is his quad injury prevents him from going 100% all the time. Because he has shown in instances, including triple teamed, that he can play like he used to.

But he's not doing it on every single play, like last year.

I understand him not going 100% against Newton, he was porbably asked to rush with contain principles.

But against Brees and Cutler he should be wreacking havoc to the point of humiliation, specially against those subpar tackles he has faced.

CD Angeli's picture

Incidentally, RS, I agree with you. I believe there should be official stats taken for not only pressures, but hurries, flushouts, and hits after throws. It's still far from perfect, and a lot of it is subjective.

And, it requires you to watch tape to determine those stats...which was kind of my whole point.

Depending on who you is talking, I'm sure hearing two different stories. One side says he's just as impactful, the other says he's not. Can guess all eyes will be on #52 this afternoon. Guess maybe the question is what is going to be plateau for Clay having a good game now? Does he have to wreak havok on 100% of plays? Does he have to be in the backfield on every pass, or in on every tackle in the running game? Or 90%? Or 80%?

In some ways, I have to agree with Chicago Bear Jew that Clay's stats, especially early on, is creating a measuring stick that is pretty darned steep to live up to. I'm not sure this is the way we want to go as Packer fans.

PackersRS's picture

"Depending on who you is talking, I’m sure hearing two different stories. One side says he’s just as impactful, the other says he’s not."

I'm in neither.

It is exactly like you said. Clay himself has created such high expectations from him, that it's almost unfair.

I do believe he's having a very good year, particularly in the running game. But what I expect from him, and what the Packers expect from him, specially with the loss of Cullen Jenkins, is much more.

I KNOW that Clay Matthews is the best pass rusher I've seen since Reggie White. He's not playing like it.

To me, he's playing like Kampman in his prime. A high effort player that is very instinctive and sound fundamentally.

But I've had this discussion with Nagler, and now I'm on board with him. The elite pass rushers bring more than effort. They dominate, they destroy a game if they're not doubled every single time, moreso against inferior OTs.

I know it's a very high standard, but it's one Clay himself has estabilished.

And I'm not that worried, exactly because I think his injury is limiting him.

But it's pretty obvious he's not playing as dominant as he used to, when rushing the passer.

Point Packer's picture

What's up with the Donald Driver dig in this article?

"Take a trip down into the Packer Hall of Fame, where frozen, ghostly players forever ride children’s bikes to training camp. You know them: Donald Driver, Gilbert Brown, and that other guy. That Other Guy = Gbaja-Biamilia."

CD Angeli's picture

You will need to explain to me how this was a dig on Donald Driver.

packeraaron's picture

Agreed - didn't see it as a dig at all.

Kevin's picture

You called him frozen and ghostly!!!! WHAT AN INSULT HE'S NOT THAT OLD!!!!!!!

JerseyCheese's picture

I really hope Clay has a monster game so people can shut the hell up.

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