In my experience, football is one of the most debated sports around. Sure, you’re going to have GOAT debates in all sports, but none of them meet the level of player discussion that the NFL has. Why is this? Well, as the title says, it is almost impossible to correctly evaluate talent. A lot of times this is good for the sport. It means less givens and more excitement. If everyone knew exactly how good each team is, it would be boring. The problem is, players achievements can be overlooked just because they don’t regularly show up in the box score.
That brings me to my first point; stats are incorrectly used by the media and fans alike. The player who most personifies this is Ryan Tannehill. He is an great quarterback, but is viewed much too highly by many people. I mean, the guy won comeback player of the year over guys like Brandon Brooks and Zack Martin. I recently got in a debate whether or not he was better than Aaron Rodgers. I know. Aaron. Rodgers. When you look at stats from last season, Ryan Tannehill blows Rodgers out of the water. He would have a higher yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, and completion percentage. So the stats would signify that not only is he more accurate, he is also pushing the ball down field more effectively.
When you look at a player’s stats, context matters. For instance, a player with a better run game would have a clear advantage. On the surface that sounds counter intuitive because the run game should be taking away snaps from the pass game. In a way that is true, but not completely. A team that runs the ball more effectively will he gaining more first downs and have overall more plays and more opportunities to pass. Not only will the number of passes increase, the effectiveness of the passing game will too. Teams that have ran the ball very well also open up the passing game because the defense plays scared in a way. They will be much more likely to stack the box so they don’t have a numbers disadvantage in the run game. Linebackers and defensive backs may also be more willing to bite on play action then they otherwise would have if they were not facing a top running team. That is just one way that a player could have an advantage over another. Quality of opponents, offensive skill, coaching, scheme, and defensive play are just a few of the most common factors that could skew statistics.
Many fans and honestly a lot of media personnel don’t correctly understand this. That’s not to say that people don’t understand how stats can be affected by outside factors, but it is a common problem to not correctly take the context into account. I feel this is due to other sports being so easy to understand. In a sport like basketball, the amount of points/rebounds/assists that a player gets is very indicative of their performance. Sure, players will perform worse when they play against good defenders, but overall, it is not hard to evaluate who is the better basketball player. A very casual fan could arrive to easy conclusions in basketball, but that really isn’t the same as football.
Well, if stats aren’t reliable, then what is? One of my favorite answers to this is film. If you correctly watch film, you can pick up on players skills much better than going on sports reference’s website. Now, I will be the first to tell you that even film isn’t reliable. Sure, I could watch a player and find that they aren’t correctly identifying coverages, going through progressions, moving in the pocket, or making throws, but I could be wrong. I could have incorrectly watched it myself, I could have looked at too small a sample size, or I could be flat out lying. The problem with film is any discovery you make on film is very hard to prove. I could make a film breakdown video showing you what I see and I could still be bending reality. I could be showing you a players worst moments to get my point across. Overall, watching film can create several different takes. The only way somebody would be able to correctly tell you which player is better after watching film is if they were a professional who watches all of the players film. A normal person like you or I don’t have the skill or time to correctly measure skill.
My last point is that football is very unpredictable. I could tell you that Patrick Mahomes will be one of the best players of his era, but what if he’s not? Right now it seems like he is trending in that direction, but he could go in a downward spiral. What if the past two seasons were a fluke? I wouldn’t be able to know. Skill in football is incredibly hard to project. I wouldn’t say it is easy in other sports, but it really isn’t that hard to say that Zion Williamson or Ja Morant will be great players. Good luck guessing the career path of Daniel Jones. I want to say that he will be great next year. I want to say that he will be able to clean up any mistakes he had, but I can’t with 100% certainty. Not even 50% to be honest. It is so hard to project how good a player will be in football. Just ask every single general manager who has participated in the NFL draft.
So how do you determine skill in football? How do you project it for the future? In all honesty, you can’t. Unless it is an argument between Russell Wilson and Case Keenum, most player debates don’t have any true answer. Though I believe that Carson Wentz is better than Dak Prescott and that Julio Jones is better than Michael Thomas, there is no way of determining if I am 100% right. I believe that Drew Lock is positioned for a breakout year. He experienced steady improvement over the last 5 games of last season. I believe he has all the tools to succeed in a offense that is built around him. This is all speculation. I could be right or wrong. This isn’t to say that all debates are pointless or that no conclusions could possibly be made of any player, but I felt it was necessary to be told. If you do want to debate how good certain players are, I would suggest you balance your claims. Make sure that you watch film to first arrive at you conclusions, and then try to use stats and context to support your claims. Never stop talking football. It is the most interesting yet frustrating sport in the world.