The Limited Use of Statistics and Other Points of View

“Right tackle seemed to me to be the weakest of the all the offensive starting positions in 2013. I believe an upgrade there would significantly improve the offense. Are they satisfied with Jordan Mills’ potential or is it possible they would look at Kyle Long or Eben Britton there with Brian de la Puente at right guard?  Mills looked OK to me for a late-round plug-in, but I didn’t see the long-term potential. – Jim G., from email”

“Mills, recovered from foot surgery just after the end of last season, lined up with the starters at Tuesday’s OTA open to media. Barring something unexpected, he’s going to be the player to beat out for that job. Coach Marc Trestman has said there are no plans to switch Long and Britton and de la Puente took turns running with the ones at left guard in place of Matt Slauson, who will be sidelined a little longer following surgery on his right shoulder.

“I think Mills has upside as a guy entering his second season. There are a couple things I like about him. For starters, he’s got some nasty to him. Watch him finish blocks, particularly in the running game. He’s also athletic and light on his feet for a right tackle and has long arms. Yes, he needs to get better and as a young players that starts with being more consistent. But in my opinion Mills has taken a bad rap for what to me was a surprisingly poor grade by Pro Football Focus. I’ve got a lot of respect for the work PFF does. Some of their analysis is certainly subjective. We’ve seen plenty of shoddy line play by the Bears in the not-too-distant-past. Remember Bernard Robertson and Qasim Mitchell? J’Marcus Webb never improved, at least on a consistent basis, after his rookie season. Webb got substantially higher grades from PFF than Mills did last year and I think most would agree Webb didn’t pass the eye test.”

Biggs points out one of my pet peeves when it comes to the analysis of performance of any player – the over-reliance on statistics.  As a research investigator at a university in Chicago, I can tell you that to a large extent – especially in situations like this – you can often bias the statistics to show what you want them to.

My Ph.D. advisor used to tell me that if you need statistics to tell you that your results are significant, he wasn’t interested in them.  Similar to the situation here, they need to pass the eye test first.

“Hoping you might put a question to Phil Emery at some point. In light of his talent and athleticism, any thoughts on moving Kyle Long to the tackle position, specifically left tackle? My thinking is he is too talented for guard especially after reading a quote from Gil Brandt where he said “guards are a dime a dozen.” I agree and think Long could excel at left tackle. Jermon Bushrod could move to right tackle and Jordan Mills could compete with James Brown at right guard. The O-line would be improved without adding anyone new. — Robert J., Pompano Beach, Fla.”

“I certainly think Long is athletic enough to play anywhere on the offensive line. One of the first questions I posed to coach Marc Trestman back in March at the owners meeting was about Long and where the team planned to play him this season. He said then the plan was to keep him at right guard and nothing has changed to this point. The only difference on the offensive line through OTAs has been Eben Britton and Brian de la Puente lining up at left guard in the absence of Matt Slauson, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. Guards have long been considered one of the non-premium positions on offense and certainly exploring data of contracts by positions would support that. But I can tell you offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer feels very differently about interior offensive linemen. Kromer came from New Orleans where the Saints put an emphasis on their play from guard to guard on the offensive line. The idea is to ensure there is a secure pocket for the quarterback to step up into and deliver the ball.”

After watching the Bears offensive line over a number of years, I also tend to agree with this philosophy and although they still aren’t at the salary level of the tackle position, to my eye there has been a rise in demand for good guards over the last decade.  Giving up sacks from the outside is bad.  But allowing pressure up the middle to consistently get into a quarterback’s face is absolutely devastating, not to mention the effect of weak guard play on the run game.  I’ll go with strength up the middle every time.

“Why do teams keep a dedicated long snapper rather than just having a backup guard/center be the long snapper? — @jackbearmiller from Twitter”

“This question has popped in a few times and I think it is important to emphasize that long snapping is a true specialty and needed skill. It’s a precision exercise involving hundredths of a second and pinpoint accuracy. The average long snapper will have the ball in the hands of the punter in 0.75 seconds. Snappers with fastballs can come close to 0.6 seconds and you don’t want the snapper to be slower than 0.8 seconds. It requires good zip on the snap but it’s also imperative to hit the punter in the same spot every time. Accuracy becomes a real issue with backup snappers and one bad snap can swing a game. When special teams coaches evaluate the snap for field goals and extra points, they’re timing the entire operation from the snap to the time the ball leaves the kicker’s foot. A smooth operation should take 1.25 seconds or less. Some operations will take 1.15 seconds but a snap that is off line for the holder can ruin a kick and require an extra half-second. Rule changes preventing a double push by linemen have put an emphasis on edge rushers on field goals. The fastest edge rushers can be unblocked and still not get their hands on a kick that is executed in a clean operation of 1.25 seconds or less. This isn’t a task that a reserve offensive lineman could master and it would be foolish for a team to try to go through a season with anything less than a full-time specialist. A bad snap can cost you 50 or even 60 yards of field position on a punt. A bad snap can cost you three points on a field goal.”

One Final Thought

Biggs takes another question that I’ve heard allot:

“With Kyle Fuller doing well against players like Eric Ebron in college were you surprised to see him on the outside in nickel package? — @rayllis from Twitter”

“No. The nickel position is one of the most challenging positions to play on defense. Usually the most successful cornerbacks in the slot are veterans and introducing Fuller to the NFL on the outside probably makes sense. The nickel is a hybrid player as he replaces the strong-side linebacker, so you need someone capable of fitting in the run game. Fuller is considered a physical corner but Tim Jennings has been successful as a run defender. He’s got the short-area quickness and savvy to be productive on the inside. The move makes a lot of sense to me.”

Backing Biggs’ opinion up, Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune addesses the issue with Jennings:

“It’s an underrated skill and a different feel as a cornerback to slide from the outside into the interior. And while Jennings played inside in his early days in the league with the Colts, since arriving in Chicago he’s been an outside corner exclusively with guys like D.J. Moore, Kelvin Hayden and Isaiah Frey handling the slot duties.

“So now comes a different approach. Jennings insisted this week that he has no issues with the push to slide him inside in nickel and dime packages and that he should be adapted to the new role in no time. But again, the responsibilities are different, the vision required is different, the instincts needed are different.

“‘You have to be able to see a lot more things,’ Jennings said. ‘You’ve got to be able to see a lot more backfield sets. It’s a lot more reads. There are a lot more keys that you have to get. I’ve got to get used to seeing different people, different formations with my eyes and being able to see different things with my keys. …It’s kind of two-way, run-pass keys. It’s another linebacker position. But you’re just a cornerback so now you’re kind of matched up with the third wide receiver. Yet in certain situations, with certain keys, you’ve got to be able to fit the run like a linebacker.’”

I can’t emphasize enough that the Bears are under-going is a complete change in philosophy on the defensive side of the ball when contrasted to the last decade or more. In the past players have been expected to learn one position and play it well. Now they’re being asked to learn more than one position in different situations and to be able to play them all well. That’s much harder. You run the risk of being a jack of all trades and master of none.

Remember the Chris Conte mistake that ended the season last year. Although that was more of a miscommunication, don’t be surprised if you see more of those kinds of mistakes, especially earlier in the season.

The Bears are taking a huge risk.

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