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.