Wednesday, July 1, 2009

12 comments I Completely Disgree With This Article John Lopez Wrote

Whenever I start off a post with a compliment to a writer, then you know that is not good news for that writer's latest article. John Lopez has worked for CNNSI.com for a couple of weeks now I believe and he has written two articles. The first one I enjoyed and the second one I did not enjoy quite as much simply because I think it has a faulty premise behind it. There is something about CNNSI.com guys, they tend to read obscure blogs like this one, like Cliff Corcoran and Jeff Pearlman have done in the past, so I have some bizarre feeling that John Lopez is going to end up responding to what I write here. It sounds very egotistical of me and it probably is, but I get weird feelings like this sometimes. I just thought I would throw that out there before I start...

John Lopez thinks that middle linebackers are a dying breed in the NFL for several reasons. First the offenses are becoming less run based and teams are spreading defenses out which calls for faster players, they are not getting paid as much as other positions so he believes this means they are devalued, and because there are no Hall of Fame players at the position right now all playing together. At least that is what I assume from what he has written. Needless to say I completely disagree and what irritates me the most about this article is that he pretty much admits middle linebackers are not a dying breed by listing all the good young middle linebackers who could be great but ignores this and just keep on typing.

Picture in your mind the NFL's all-time most dominating defensive players.

You're probably seeing Ray Nitschke's bent nose, Mike Singletary's cutting stare, Dick Butkus' scowl. Maybe it's Jack Lambert's toothless growl, Junior Seau's wild eyes or Ray Lewis' ferocity.

Unless I am 50 years old, which I am not, I just think of Seau, Singletary, and Ray Lewis...but this is the one and only time I willl agree with John Lopez in this article.

But where have all the great middle linebackers gone? Once roaming wild, today dominating middle linebackers practically are on the verge of extinction.

That's the thing, the dominating middle linebackers have gone nowhere and he is wrong in this article. There are many dominating middle linebackers in the league today, it just so happens many of them are younger. John Lopez just listed six middle linebackers that are among the most famous of all time. Here is when they played:

Nitschke: 1958-1972
Butkus: 1965-1973
Singletary: 1981-1992
Lambert: 1974-1984
Seau: 1990-present
Lewis: 1996-present

What do they all have in common? Every decade two of them played in the NFL together at the exact same time. What that tells me is that though Lopez has listed 6 of the most dominating middle linebackers in history, they did not play in the same era, so it would be irrational to expect there to be a rash of 5 or 6 dominating linebackers right now at this time. Sure there were other dominating linebackers when these players played, but many others did not play at the same level as these. The middle linebacker has gone nowhere over the past couple of years, the trend has stayed the same that there are only a few dominating middle linebackers in the league at the same time.

I would in fact argue that even though middle linebackers are not the highest paid position anymore there are actually many great middle linebackers in the league now and the position could see many great players come from this generation. Right now, Ray Lewis, Jon Beason, Patrick Willis, DeMarco Ryans, and Brian Urlacher come to mind. That doesn't include guys who could be great like Aaron Curry (even if he doesn't rush the passer), Derrick Brooks (editor/author's note: As pointed out to me Derrick Brooks has always been an OLB, which I should have known since I called his teammate Barrett Ruud a MLB just below here. I am not Jay Mariotti so I don't cover up my mistakes but instead point them out.) who hasn't been signed for this upcoming year or players that will need to step up their play another level to be considered great like Stewart Bradley or Barrett Ruud. My point is there are great middle linebackers out there. It's not a dying position.

They have been replaced as feared game-changers by sleek rush-ends, massive defensive tackles and shut-down corners. Recent free-agent signings reflected as much, with Albert Haynesworth signing a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Redskins, Nnamdi Asomugha signing a three-year deal worth $15 million a year and Carolina's Julius Peppers signing a one-year tender worth more than $16 million.

I know what we should do! Let's take two exceptions to a rule and then try to pass those new exceptions off as a new rule! Also, let's pretend like the more money a player gets, the better that player is! Sounds like fun...

Haynesworth was WAY overpaid by the Redskins but I will give that example to Lopez here since this was market value for him. The other two examples of sleek rush-ends and shut-down corners getting all the money are exceptions to the rule. Peppers is only getting $16 million this year because he got the franchise tag on him, there is no way he gets that much money on the open market. Asomugha's contract has been absolutely vilified by GM's and other people around the league and there is no way he gets that much money on the open market. So while these three players are being paid greatly, I am not sure this is proof of the middle linebacker position dying.

Quick: Name the five best middle linebackers in the league today.

Beason, Willis, Lewis, Ryans, and Urlacher. That took me 5 seconds to type.

Baltimore's Lewis? Naturally. Chicago's Brian Urlacher? Of course. Patrick Willis of the Niners and DeMeco Ryans of the Texans? You would get an argument in some circles, but probably.

And ... and ... who else?

Well since we are listing the top 5 middle linebackers, I would say Jon Beason should be added to your list. If you ask for the top 5 at any position, you can only name 5. Just because the top players at the position are well defined doesn't mean the position is dying. Actually, the opposite is true. If there was actual debate about who the top 5 linebackers were in the league then that could very well mean there were no dominating linebackers. Hence the word "dominating" which indicates that person stands out from others.

I think the quarterback is a dying position...

Quick name the top 5 quarterbacks in the league today:

Brady, Manning, Warner, Cutler...

And who else? There could be an argument so the position is dying.

Most impact NFL middle-linebackers today are either relics, such as Zach Thomas and Tedy Bruschi, or hybrids playing the inside-linebacker spot in the ever-popular 3-4 defense, like Karlos Dansby and Bart Scott.

Ray Lewis does play in a 3-4 defense and Mike Singletary played in the 46 defense and Lopez included those two in his list of all-time greats. I don't really see how the defense being played and that linebacker's position in that defense can preclude him from being a dominating middle linebacker. It's not the most dominating middle linebacker in a traditional 4-3 defense, it's who is the most dominating middle linebacker overall. Ray Lewis actually doesn't play middle linebacker but he is still considered a middle linebacker.

Once the premier position on the defensive side of the ball -- the proverbial quarterback of the defense -- middle linebackers now are more like the tight ends of the defense. Or at least that's how they're paid.

I looked it up and could not get any statistics but I am pretty sure middle linebacker has not been one of the highest paid positions on the field ever. I am about 90% sure the skill positions always have been and always will be the highest paid positions on the field. I would also like to point out the franchise tag for linebacker is higher than that of the defensive tackle and very close to that of a defensive end. I am not sure if that really means anything.

Money earned is really a bad way to determine if a position has dominating players because there is always going to be positions that earn more money in football for various reasons. Just because the kicker position is the lowest paid position does not necessarily mean there are no dominating kickers, it just means teams are not willing to pay a lot of money for a dominating kicker. This article really has a faulty premise in my mind.

If you averaged the top-five salaries at every position on the field in 2008, the five highest-paid middle linebackers averaged $5.68 million. Only kickers ($2.24 million) and tight ends ($3.74 million) averaged less. Cornerbacks ($10 million), defensive tackles ($8.04 million) and defensive ends ($8.02 million) averaged significantly more among the five highest-paid players at their respective positions.

Hey, let's use misleading data to prove a point! The best middle linebackers in today's football game are still very young. Jon Beason, Patrick Willis, DeMeco Ryans, Stewart Bradley, Barrett Rudd, and Jerod Mayo are still on their rookie contracts. I may even be missing someone because it doesn't include Aaron Curry since he hasn't signed yet or anyone I have forgotten. Not to mention Ray Lewis just signed a smaller contract because he is at the tail end of his career. I would imagine once these six young players get their contracts extended the middle linebackers are going to have the average salary jump up a bit on average.

Not to mention the idea that the highest paid linebackers are also the best overall is also a faulty premise because of rookie contracts and teams overpaying for players at the position. I am not sure you can use money to show that middle linebackers are a dying breed. It may show how teams value them right now but it doesn't include the up and coming crop of middle linebackers, who are the top middle linebackers now, and the salary they will soon earn.

The position is going the way of the dinosaur for the same reason real dinosaurs disappeared. The landscape and climate have changed.

Football really hasn't changed that much. There have been new innovations in game planning but football is not being played while riding on horses and using a robot to kick a concrete ball around, so it is pretty much the same game.

The beginning of the end of the do-everything, Ray Lewis-type middle linebackers probably began with the advent of run-and-shoot and no-huddle offenses in the mid-1980s.

That doesn't mean there are no more dominating middle linebackers or that there were more dominating middle linebackers "back in the day." There are maybe only 3 or 4 dominating linebackers playing at the same time no matter what decade and today's game is no different.

Offenses have spread the field with four- and five-wide sets. There have been one-back and no-back sets. There have been spreads, wider line-splits and now more teams turning to the wildcat formation that extends the defense even more.

I would argue this had made the middle linebacker even more important than ever. Now there has to be a guy in the middle who can cover a tight end or even a receiver if need be, while still paying attention to the run. It's not as if teams are completely pulling linebackers off the field against the spread offense or the no-huddle offense. The Wildcat formation involves a running back or another skill position player running the ball many times. I think this is a situation where having a middle linebacker in the game is crucial. The Wildcat formation should not reduce the need for middle linebackers on the field.

Classic middle linebackers have been left in the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust past.

I don't think so. The number of teams who are running a no-huddle offense or a spread offense in the NFL effectively is not that large of a number. Teams may go no-huddle at times during a game or use the spread offense at times during the game but you need an incredibly competent quarterback to run both those offenses and most teams don't have that. Teams still rely on running the ball for success and a great middle linebacker is still needed to stop the run.

Remember? I proved earlier dominating quarterbacks are a dying breed so it is hard for teams to effectively run a no-huddle or spread offense.

That's not to say there is no place for fierce players like San Francisco's Willis, Houston's Ryans or Carolina's Jon Beason. Teams still must stop the run in order to be successful.

So basically he has no point. Teams are going to have to stop the run so the middle linebacker is still going to be a position of necessity for football teams and the middle linebacker is not a dying breed...just a younger and less well paid breed as of now.

And middle linebackers have evolved as well, becoming faster and better in pass coverage without losing tackling punch. But those kinds of talents are rare.

As opposed to the 60's, 70's, and 80's when there were just a ton of guys like Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, and Dick Butkus running around? There are only a few dominating middle linebackers in each decade and this decade is no different. I don't think the fact today's middle linebacker is required to cover more ground or cover a more diverse set of players is any proof they are a dying breed.

Sure, teams that don't have a dominating middle linebacker are having to sub for their normal middle linebacker on third down or another natural passing down, but that has been the case throughout the history of the NFL. It's not exclusive to today's NFL.

Spread offenses -- with quarterbacks constantly in the shotgun formation, running backs running laterally into pass routes and wide receivers all over the field -- have stressed the linebacking talent pool.

It's not uncommon on college football Saturdays to find safeties playing in the middle-linebacker spot, or not a single linebacker even on the field.

In natural passing situations, maybe...and I still don't think this happens a lot. I watch a lot of college football and I can't recall how many times I have seen a defense not have a single linebacker on the field. I have no way of researching this but I can't even recall a time when my favorite college football team had no linebackers on the field...and they are in a conference where there is a lot of passing done.

John Lopez is in love with taking the exception to a rule and just pretending that is the new rule. Again, I watch a lot of college football and usually see linebackers on the field during most of the game.

College defensive coordinators are forced to put five, six, seven defensive backs on the field. Players who could be NFL linebackers usually are forced to line up on the defensive line.

Players who could be NFL linebackers are "usually" forced to line up on the defensive line? Uusally is overstating the case. Maybe a few times a game...maybe. I am starting to question whether John Lopez watches college football. I can count on one hand how many times I saw a middle linebacker lining up on the defensive line in a game. College defensive coordinators will maybe put 7 defensive backs on the field a few times a game but every college football game I have ever watched has never shown this to be a trend. Again, you can't take something that may happen 5% of the time in a game and turn this new exception into the rule.

It also doesn't matter if could be NFL linebackers are forced to line up on the defensive line or anywhere else on the defense. That doesn't mean they won't be good NFL middle linebackers or even inside/outside linebackers in the NFL. Brian Urlacher was a safety in college and he turned out fine in the NFL. Not to mention the fact the players who could be NFL linebackers and line up on the defensive line are not going to be middle linebackers in most cases and will end up being 3-4 outside linebackers or hybrids of some fashion.

The position has become the most difficult to scout and project, because teams are speculating on whether a collegiate defensive end can play standing up, can tackle and pursue, or if an undersized safety or outside backer can bulk up and play inside.

Or scouts could just look at players who played middle linebacker during their college career and scout those players. That's how Jon Beason, Patrick Willis, Aaron Curry, and a number of other middle linebackers were scouted in the NFL. I don't know of a single middle linebacker currently playing in the NFL who was a defensive end in college. John Lopez has gone from talking about middle linebackers to linebackers overall. I am still talking about middle linebackers.

I don't mean to be rude but I think John Lopez is actually making things up here. College football teams have in no way eliminated the linebacker position and I don't think in any way the middle linebacker is the hardest position to scout. It is far below other positions like receiver, quarterback, and even defensive end. Most of the top players at the MLB position were MLB in college as well. Scouts do have to project if a defensive end could be a outside/inside linebacker in a 3-4 system or to make the switch to outside linebacker but that is not what we are talking about here. God, stay focused on the topic.

The last middle linebacker to enter the Hall of Fame was Mike Singletary, 11 years ago.

So the position has been a dying breed for a while now? Then how come Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks (not a MLB but an OLB so he will go in as a OLB), and Brian Urlacher are all going in the Hall of Fame as MLB? Like I said earlier, every decade has 3 or 4 top players at the MLB position and it has always been that way. It's not dying, but reloading. There is also a waiting time before a player can be put in the Hall of Fame, so we have to take that wait into account as well for why there hasn't been a MLB inducted lately.

Take a good look at Ray Lewis. Take a mental picture. He is among the last of a dying breed.

Yes, until 2 or 3 of today's MLB go into the Hall of Fame in a few years, just like has happened over the past 40 years. It's not a dying breed, not at all.

12 comments:

KentAllard said...

That was a bad article. A few points:

My college team, through various misfortunes, got down to only two scholarship linebackers season before last. They still tried their damndest to stick to a 4-3.

Contract money as a way of valuing players is a terrible concept. There's always a lot of other factors that go into it. Matt Leinart, Vince Young, and Jamarcus Russell are among the highest paid QBs in the league, but few would put them in the top ten at their position, and they probably won't be in the future.

Thanks for making me feel old. Nitschke was da bomb, yo. :-)

KentAllard said...

I mean Lopez' article, not yours, of course.

Word verification = moran. I think it knows me.

Bengoodfella said...

I figured you meant Lopez' article wasn't that great. My college football team plays in the same conference with tons of quarterbacks who throw for tons of yardage in the air and they still keep LB's out there on the field for extended periods of time...and those players get drafted, including as MLB.

I do have to make a correction though, Stewart Bradley was a defensive end and failed miserably at it, so they moved him back to LB. I am not saying a MLB has never played DE at some point, I am saying no MLB was a DE his senior year and moved to MLB in the pros.

Players move all the time in college, which isn't really even my point. My point is that regardless of which players move where in college and where the players are drafted, college programs still use LB's frequently in passing situations and the MLB is not dying out.

I feel like John Lopez started talking about LB's in general towards the end but the original idea was about MLB, so he tried to throw me off, but it didn't work.

Money is a horrible way to determine the best at each position, it is a reflection how much that position is valued, not the talent at the position.

Sorry to make you feel old, I wasn't attempting to make anyone feel old, just say I had no memory of a couple of those players.

KentAllard said...

I think it's actually age making me feel old.

Bengoodfella said...

I think I would be more concerned if I were you if you could not remember the football players and you were old enough to watch them play. Then the age thing would be a problem.

KentAllard said...

All I can say is that Red Grange was a helluva kid.

The Casey said...

I thought Brooks was a weakside linebacker, especially early in his career when he was faster.

Also, I think a lot of teams (specifically all but the 5 who have the MLBs you mentioned) see the players there as kind of interchangeable. The defense kind of funnels plays to them so as long as you've got somebody there who can tackle, you're OK.

Bengoodfella said...

Ha, Red Grange...I bet you taught him all of his moves didn't you?

Derrick Brooks may have started his career off as a outside linebacker, I am not sure. If he did then I was sort of wrong but I am pretty sure he ended his career as a MLB.

You bring up a good point, which is the fact that some teams if they don't have a great MLB will use the players interchangably, which I am not sure speaks to the idea the MLB is a dying breed or not. I think it is like anything else, where if a team doesn't have a dominant MLB then they will move the players around...but I am not sure this is evidence the position is dying.

RuleBook said...

I hate to break it to you, but Derrick Brooks has always been an OLB (at least in every article I've been able to find). Barrett Ruud has been the Bucs MLB for the last 2 seasons

Bengoodfella said...

Dammit, I always thought he was a MLB. How did I not figure this out, especially when I called Barrett Ruud a MLB in the article?

Thanks Rulebook, I contradicted myself. Don't hate to break it to me, I didn't look it up and assumed, which was dumb.

Martin said...

Two other good MLB's would be Lofa Tatupu and Johnathan Vilma. Both are considred a bit undersized, but their speed and smarts make up for it.

I would think that most positions only have a few players who "dominate" at a HoF level. Sometimes things cycle high or low, but two seems about right to me. That would give you 1-4 or so at anytime for each position, and maybe a couple more for "double" positions like wide out. For linebacker that would give us Seau on his way out, Lewis in the sunset, Urlacher jsut past his peak and Beason in his prime. Sounds good to me.

I think the 5th QB you were looking for would be Brees...

Bengoodfella said...

I thought about Tatupa and Vilma but I don't think I included them as elite, but since I included Ruud and Bradley you can accuse me of either Nebraska or East Coast Bias. I think Vilma and Tatupa should be in the discussion either. See, I agree with what you are saying as well. There are only a few elite players at a position and they overlap but the MLB is not a dying breed.

I do have to say Patrick Willis is probably ahead of Beason at this point, so I think I would put Willis over Beason as being on his way to being elite. Either way, I think there are some good guys out there at the MLB position and that was my point.

Yeah, I wasn't actually forgetting Brees, I was just making fun of John Lopez for listing players and saying because there was a debate that meant the MLB was a dying position. I should have put Brees instead of Warner in there though.