One thing I find frustrating with fans, media, former players, and even some coaches and front office executives, is their insistence on measuring the quality of a player based on statistical production.
Time and again, it seems, those with an opinion too often hang their hats on stats most easily identified rather than ones that are most important.
In my time involved with several sports, I've come to learn that what's most important to winning championships often doesn't show up on the newspaper stat line.
As a Detroit Tigers baseball fan, I've listened to many complaints about the team's primary catcher, Alex Avila. Last season, fans were clamoring for backup Bryan Pena to become the primary starter. Last season Pena hit .297 compared to Avila's .227. Yet, when Avila was in the starting lineup the Tigers won nearly two-thirds of their games while their record hovered around .500 with Pena as their starter. As of May, Detroit's ERA hovered anywhere from one-third to a half run better during Avila's career in Detroit when he is their catcher. And despite his current .225 batting average, Avila's .342 on base percentage tops that of the .305-hitting Ian Kinsler (.338 OBP).
There isn't an obvious stat for calling a good game or working a pitch count. I wish I could place an immediate bet every time I see a game in which a batter works a pitcher 10 pitches or more in an at-bat early in a game. I can't remember the last time I've seen that happen and that team not explode for a lot of runs. I believe those types of at-bats are a critical turning point in that team's success. Yet, sometimes the only thing that shows up on the stat sheet for that player is a strikeout.
In basketball, there was no better example of irrelevant stats than the San Antonio Spurs last season. Ball movement, court spacing, and team defense were the keys to their championship run. Tony Parker led the Spurs in scoring in both the postseason (17.4 ppg) and regular season (16.7). Those are low totals for a typical team's overall scoring leader. Parker averaged 5.7 assists per game in the regular season and 4.8 during the postseason. Neither of those stats jumps out at you. Maybe that's why he never seems to be mentioned as the top point guard in the league. Guys like Stephen Curry and Derrick Rose get more press. Yet Parker consistently breaks down defenses. When he kicks the ball to open teammates, it often leads to one or more other passes which leads to easy scoring opportunities. It doesn't show up on his stat line, but Parker created the points.
No one who follows basketball would ever compare the undisciplined and often selfish play of Detroit Pistons PG Brandon Jennings, whose season averages of 15.5 ppg. and 7.6 apg., to Parker's. Neither would anyone confuse Pistons power forward Greg Monroe and his 15.2 ppg. and 9.3 rpg. for Tim Duncan and his averages of 15.1 and 9.7.
These are connections that immediately came to mind when the recent player and quarterback rankings came out in in various media circles. Like Avila and Parker, Ben Roethlisberger doesn't always do things that show up on a stat line. Yet in a recent ESPN piece, 26 league insiders -- including GMs, head coaches, coordinators, and pro player personnel men -- ranked the top QBs in the NFL. Ben ranked seventh. In the NFL Network's top 100 overall players, Ben ranked 31st.
Rod Woodson and others on the network debated whether Roethlisberger is a Hall of Fame. Woodson doubted Ben's qualifications at this point, comparing him to Jim Plunkett.
While Plunkett has won two Super Bowls, he never went to a third. Plunkett won his first Super Bowl at age 33. Ben is only 32, yet he already has 21 more wins and a .669 win percentage compared to Plunkett's .500 record.
The most-emphasized QB stats seem to be passing yards and TD passes. It's hard to dispute the importance of TD passes. However, the objective isn't accumulating touchdown passes. It's winning. Among quarterbacks in the Top 50 all-time in wins, only Tom Brady (.775), Roger Staubach (.746), Joe Montana (.713), Peyton Manning (.696), and Terry Bradshaw at (.677) have a better win percentage than Ben's .669.
Roethlisberger has also consistently ranked near the top of the league in yards per attempt and third down-conversion percentage, two stats that I value more than yards an TD passes.
For his first several years in the league, Ben was one of six quarterbacks in NFL history to average more than 8 yards per pass attempt. Roethlisberger still ranks in the top 10 all-time at 7.8 ypa., an average maintained despite playing behind an offensive line that has had talent deficiencies and/or struggled with injuries for the better part of six years. Ben's career ypa. still ranks him ahead of the likes of Manning, Brady and Drew Brees.
I can understand if people choose to rank Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Manning, and Brees ahead of Roethlisberger. But I think it's absurd to rank the inexperienced Andrew Luck and the Super Bowl-less Philip Rivers ahead of him. I would debate that Brees and Manning should rank behind Ben. Both Brees and Manning have struggled more with the weather elements than Ben has during their careers. Manning has been highly inconsistent in the playoffs. Manning's one Super Bowl victory was blanketed by the surprising late-season performance of the Colts' defense and run game. It made most forget the six interceptions Manning threw during that playoff run.
Roethlisberger's ability to buy time and make plays has been one of his greatest strengths in winning football games. In Super Bowl XL, he bought the time necessary to convert a third-and-28, which led to a touchdown and helped overcome an otherwise dreadful throwing day.
Ben has shown the ability to make plays without the ball in his hands. How many quarterbacks can anyone say that about? His block during Antwaan Randle El's Super Bowl XL touchdown pass is one example. Arguably the most important play Roethlisberger ever made was a tackle.
The one knock I've had against Roethlisberger has been an inability to consistently score points. He's never led a Top 5 scoring offense. One reason being that Ben's greatest strength has been his greatest weakness. By consistently looking for the big play and taking sacks, his offenses haven't been consistent enough to score at a high level. That was par for the course until the second half of the 2013 season. Roethlisberger took 11 sacks in eight games while getting rid of the ball quickly and running the no-huddle. The Steelers averaged over 28 ppg. during that stretch. I didn't think he could play the cerebral, quick-strike game that Manning and Brady play. I thought he was a QB that needed the running game and play action to be elite. He proved me, and the rest, wrong.
I expect the trend will continue in 2014. This season I expect to see a drastic improvement in the run game and therefore a legitimate play-action game to with it. I look for the point scoring trend to continue, with Roethlisberger's ypa. to return closer to 8 yards. By the end of the 2014 season, maybe people will start to give Ben the credit he's due.