Michael Bennett and Dartboard Scouting
Some people will always want to see things with their own eyes before they’ll believe. One of the reasons I joined Pro Football Focus in the first place was because I am one of those people, and wanted the platform to be able to analyze games myself rather than be forced to listen to stuff I knew to be crap just because it came from someone paid to give their opinion on football. So I understand when people come to us and say “I think you’re wrong about Player X, because I watched a couple of games and he was dominant”, or “he didn’t do anything”, or “he was handled”, etc.
I get it.
There is no substitute for watching games, and no stat or combination of stats in the world can make up for that. That’s why we always point people back toward our grading, because those are the part of the site that put the intelligence back into the analysis. Numbers can lie — stats lie all the time — but the grading doesn’t. The grades look beyond the numbers and instead at what actually happened on any given play and every other play in the season. So, if people want to watch players themselves and compare that to PFF’s take on them, we encourage it. The more people watching football with an analytical eye the better, but you do have to consider just how many games you’re watching.
Performances can vary wildly from year to year, game to game, or even from play to play. Rarely does the same player top the PFF rankings for his position two years running, and very few NFL players are consistently good or bad game in and game out. Pick any random player in the PFF Premium section and look at his season performance graph, you’ll see a roller coaster of green and red. Some of that is down to playing hurt, and some of it is down to the opposition or scheme, but the majority of it is just that players are inconsistent throughout a season.
Selecting just two or three games to analyze at random seems like a good plan, but the same player can look like he should be kicked to the curb or be selected a Pro-Bowler depending simply on which games you chose to look at. Of course, the truth for most winds up being somewhere in the middle, but that method of dartboard scouting can get people into trouble and create very misleading pictures.
The great thing about PFF is that every play of every game is covered. You may have gone through three tapes in minute detail using All-22 tape, HD picture, slide rules, and a blackboard to note down the Xs and Os, but we’ve done it for all 16 games for each player… more if he made the playoffs. Whether you agree 100 percent with our methods or not, we have applied the same exhaustive and meticulous process to each player for every snap they played. In a game with so many variables and interconnecting pieces, context is key, and we are one of the only places around that has the time and resources to cover every player in his entirety like that. Just covering the same guy for every game of the season creates such a broader picture. It’s like going from standard definition to full 1080p HD.
But let’s take a look at exactly what I’m talking about as an example of how dangerous this method of dartboard scouting can be.
Take impending free agent defensive end Michael Bennett. Over the past few days we engaged a little in a discussion on twitter with Pete Prisco about whether Bennett, or Michael Johnson from the Bengals was a better player and target for teams in free agency. The Bengals elected to place the Franchise Tag on Johnson, ensuring he won’t hit the open market, but we always had Bennett ranked ahead anyway. Prisco disagreed, claiming he had Johnson as his No. 1 overall free agent available, and did so on the basis of his own film work analyzing tape and watching Bennett.
The problem was with the games he chose to highlight – The Bucs DE struggling in a couple of his poorer games on the year. Bennett, like many players, had an up-and-down season and depending on which three games of his you chose to analyze you could end up with the same player convincing you he was an All-Pro stud, or a waste of a roster spot.
The graphic to the right is a look at what ‘bad Bennett’ and ‘good Bennett’ might look like with three bad games (Weeks 7, 12, and 13) and three good (Weeks 3, 9, and 14) taken out to be the sum of his year.
Let’s be clear, I’m not manipulating anything here — this is an exercise to show you what Bennett’s three worst and three best games would look like if you extrapolated them out over a full 16-game season. If you happened to pick the right or wrong three games you could make the same player look like the worst defensive end in the league, or a guy who was unstoppable, broke the sack record, and generally laid waste to all that went before him.
Three games might seem like more than enough tape to watch a guy and get a great handle on exactly what level he played at all season, but it’s not, and you can get taken down an ugly path simply by trusting your own eyes if you happen to have the misfortune of picking the wrong games to watch. There is a reason NFL teams pay PFF for our complete analysis on players in addition to their own work.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam