The Education Of Mike Freeman
On December 21, cbssports.com’s Mike Freeman wrote an… interesting column positing that Drew Brees’ (inevitable, at the time) breaking of Dan Marino’s single season yardage record should be accompanied by an asterisk. You can read it here, but it’s not well written nor is it well researched. In fact, it’s a thinly veiled attack on the NFL rules that assassinates Drew Brees in the crossfire. As HumidCity’s resident stat geek and an nigh-unflappable Saints fan, I should like to take Mr Freeman to school for an education. Would you care to join me? Fine!
Freeman states that in 1984, Marino’s “throws were unbelievably accurate…” The only thing unbelievable here is that Mr Freeman is simply making shit up. Marino threw 362 completions out of 554 attempts for an accuracy of 64.2%. Through just 15 games, Brees has pitched 440 completions out of 622 attempts for a completion percentage of 70.7%. More passes, better accuracy. In fact, Marino’s 1984 accuracy ranks in a four-way tie for 98th place all-time and is the highest of his three spots in the top 250. All six of Drew Brees’ seasons with New Orleans rank higher than Marino’s, as do his final two years in San Diego:
2004 SD: 65.5% (61st – three-way tie)
2005 SD: 64.6% (84th – two-way tie)
2006 NO: 64.3% (95th – three-way tie)
2007 NO: 67.5% (26th)
2008 NO: 65.0% (74th – three-way tie)
2009 NO: 70.6% (2nd)
2010 NO: 68.1% (17th)
2011 NO: 70.7% (1st – through 15 games)
Freeman continues: “Players like Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White and Ronnie Lott … were allowed great latitude to do massive damage to wide receivers and quarterbacks. Receivers weren’t protected and quarterbacks were brutalized.”
Wrong again. In 1978 the NFL sought to stop one player from beating the living hell out of every receiver he faced. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mel Blount. After eight years of Blount terrorizing opposing wideouts, the NFL enacted pass interference rules which made it illegal for defenders to so much as look at receivers funny five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In the league, this commonly became known as the Mel Blount Rule. Oh, and this was seven years before Marino’s record. Further, in 1979 the NFL implemented the “In The Grasp” rule to protect the highly paid but incredibly delicate passers that were tip-toeing their way into the league. Again, well before Marino ever played an NFL game! Oh, and Reggie White’s first NFL game was in 1985. One year after Freeman imagines he was brutalizing poor Dan Marino.
To further clarify things, Joe Namath set the bar at 4007 yards in 1967, seven years after the league expanded from 12 games to 14. That record would stand for 12 years until Dan Fouts, running Don “Air” Coryell’s pass-heavy offense, would break it in three consecutive years: ’79, ’80 and ’81 posting records of 4082, 4715 and 4802 yards, immediately after those two rules went into effect! The added games (the league raised the season from 14 to 16 games in 1978) and rules benefitted both Fouts and Marino, but I don’t hear calls for asterisks by their names. I don’t recall anyone claiming their stats are “watered down”. The fact is Fouts, Marino and Brees are all on a pretty level paying field.
But wait… there’s more! “Though Marino’s quick release helped to protect him from many major hits (though far from all of them) his receivers were hammered.”
I don’t have stats on the hammerings –real or imagined– that the Dolphin’s receivers were taking, but Marino ate the turf 13 times for 120 yards in 1984. Through fifteen games this season, Drew Brees has been sacked 24 times for 158 yards. Freeman completely misses –or simply ignores– one aspect of sacks that won’t jibe with his theories: sacks can actually improve passing yards! Get sacked for 12 yards on 2nd and 5 and you’re probably not going to try a 17-yard run for a first down, ya know?
Freeman then brings this into play: “Roughing the passer, blows to the head and the increasing calls for hits on defenseless receivers has given quarterbacks like Brees wide open passing lanes and wide-open receivers.”
Yes, the quarterbacks have more protection now than ever, but Freeman conveniently disregards more facts here which don’t support his rambling thesis. Despite defender fears of drawing penalties for roughing and pass interference, those calls are still made in just about every game, and every time an offense gains 15 yards for roughing the QB or 40 yards for defensive pass interference, those are yards that the QB will not be able to add to his stats! There have been at least three instances in Saints games this year where pass interference calls on the opposing defense near the goal line have erased 60 to 80-odd yards of possible passing for Drew Brees! To simplify things, If it weren’t for roughing and interference penalties, Drew Brees would have popped Marino’s bubble three years ago and again this year in week thirteen!
Freeman’s lack of knowledge regarding NFL rules and history are not his only weak points. He also has a poor view of the big picture. Clearly, he despises some –if not all– of the rules implemented by the NFL over the last thirty years to “improve” league safety. (On this I find myself mostly in agreement!) But there are more aspects to the game than Freeman is willing to admit, which only proves that his blog post is a cheap tirade against certain rules he dislikes and a petty attack against a certain quarterback he doesn’t seem to care for. And he’s willing to compromise his integrity in order to do so!
For example, in 1984, 28 teams played a 16 game schedule. Today there are 32 teams with the same schedule, but there are a few differences. In Marino’s day, there wasn’t a bye-week in the middle of the season. The humble, little bye week is an incredible gift to today’s quarterbacks and can sometimes mean the difference between missing a game due to minor injury and starting healthy. This one little fact could have bolstered Freeman’s theory yet he chose to ignore it.
Further, the 1984 NFL season was composed of 224 games. Then, as now, each team played 8 home games with six of those teams playing under a roof for a total of 48 domed contests. Today, 32 teams compete in 256 games and nine teams have weatherproof home digs for a total of 78 domed contests. That’s 30 less games played in the heat, wind, rain, mud, snow and sleet today than there were in Marino’s day and that’s going to change a team’s game plan and pad the passing stats for both teams! Marino played all but two games outdoors whereas Brees will have played 12 of his 16 games in the air-conditioned (relative) comfort of a domed stadium. Again, something that could have lent credence to Freeman’s hypothesis but somehow is not even considered.
Additionally, most outdoor stadiums today no longer have a grass-over-dirt field, opting instead for some form of artificial turf. This alone gives QB’s and their receivers an immense footing advantage! Of course the passing stats are going to go up, but not because of some perceived rules advantage that, as pointed out above, is basically identical for both Brees and Marino!
Freeman then goes on to complain that of the current top-ten “rated” passers of all-time, most have played in the last decade and all ten boast better passer ratings than Marino. Well, duh! And partially for the three reasons I just pointed out: bye-week, domes and artificial turf! One-third of Freeman’s examples –Schaub, Culpepper, Ryan, Hill and Bulger– spent the majority of their careers and over half their seasons under domes. But there’s more to this list than meets the eye!
Of his examples only Schaub, Ryan and Flacco still have starting jobs which is another aspect of the game that has changed since Marino’s day but fails to support Freeman’s theory and is ignored: Quarterbacks don’t hang around as long as they used to. While Shaun Hill had the requisite numbers to make the list early in his career, (and by that I mean the required number of snaps and passes,) his overall performance resulted in losses and with the wealth of talent entering the league today, no team is going to keep a QB under center if he doesn’t put notches in the “win” column.
What this means is that Hill will probably never have that end-of-career decline included in his stats that many star QB’s experience as they strap the pads on for one last season or three. Compared to Marino’s seventeen-year, 242 game career, the last four years of which age and health helped to decrease his overall passer rating, Shaun Hill’s five-year, 32-game career is already a fucking footnote. This is not a rules problem, but a failure in the computation and application of the passer rating statistic. (And please don’t get me started on the slap-dash mathematics that make up that ridiculously biased stat!)
Marino’s record was a damn beautiful thing to watch and he didn’t have an easy time of it, but I think I’ve shown that Brees’ accomplishment was every bit as difficult along the way and no less beautiful! And consider that Marino was a healthy 23-year old kid in his second year when he hit his high mark and Brees is –by NFL standards– an old man of 32 with an once-injured throwing shoulder! And Drew Brees is most certainly undeserving of Mike Freeman’s petty, flawed rant. Cripes, I do this for free, people! You’d think someone who gets paid to write about sports –for no less an entity as CBS– could do a little research and put the tiniest amount of thought into their work before making fools of themselves and their employers. I guess that’s just one of the differences between Freeman and me. Another is that I have never forged a college degree on my resume to get a job. Asterisk indeed…
(Note: I would like to thank Jason Calbos and his fine post here for bringing this matter to my attention!)