Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Unfounded Mystique of the Pro Bowl and Flozell Adams

The Pro Bowl rosters were released this past week and while most of the ESPN no-it-alls are debating pointless crap (like which guy was left out), I began to wonder exactly what being a Pro Bowler means. What we’re supposed to believe, indeed, what the award is supposed to signify, is that the recipient is the best at his position in the league (or conference rather). By this thinking, if I was to theoretically take all these Pro Bowlers and put them all on one team, they would be perfection personified (keep this thought in mind as we go on) since, as was just established, these are men who reign unmatched in their respective positions throughout the league.

Now go back a couple of weeks, when I was still entrenched in my laborious old job that would have made even Peter Gibbons cringe, where I was having some vague idea about measuring a team’s draft success (which I’m still thinking about and will probably write about soon since this fascinates me from a football-geek point of view). After staring into space for about 30 minutes (not an uncommon practice while on the clock at the old job) I decided initially that Pro Bowl appearances was a good measuring stick. I mean, after all, these are the best of the best right? That’s when I started actually looking at Pro Bowl rosters since 2000.

Immediately, a couple of stark indicators stand out regarding the validity (or lack thereof) of Pro Bowl selections. Since the beginning of the new century, no Super Bowl champion has led the league in ‘number of Pro Bowlers.’ In fact, of the teams that led their respective year in Pro Bowl players, they carried a combined 5-9 record in the playoffs. Six times in nine seasons, the most Pro Bowl laden teams have gone one-and-done in the playoffs (and the 2008 New York Jets set the benchmark for All-Star futility by not even making the playoffs last season despite fielding the most Pro Bowlers in the league along with the Titans). So basically, two thirds of the supposedly highest quality NFL teams have lost right away upon arriving in the playoffs. Only once in the last decade has the squad with the most star power made a Super Bowl appearance (the 2004 Eagles).

So what’s wrong with this picture? By very simple, sound logic, my original thesis of success being derived from the number of Pro Bowlers on a team should be true. I mean, if being a Pro Bowler really is an indication of superiority, then the team with the greatest number of these guys should at the very least do moderately well. By the odds, one of the aforementioned teams leading the league in Pro Bowlers should have gotten at least one Super Bowl. That none of these teams has won a Super Bowl makes this a trend, not a fluke.

There are a couple of explanations for this. Foremost is that the way Pro Bowlers are selected is flawed. Badly. That fans can vote is nice, but not really a wise move. Maybe in baseball or even basketball the casual fan can recognize true effectiveness, but not in football. Even most coaches and players won’t get it. They’ll hit the nail on the head usually with the selection of quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, but let’s take a closer look at offensive linemen.

Flozell Adams has been voted to five Pro Bowls. Every one of these Pro Bowl appearances has been as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. The first of these came in 2003. In fact, from 2003-2008, he made the trip to Hawaii every year accept 2005 (when he sustained a season-ending injury). In that same time, Adams ranked among the league leaders in penalties (he was in the top ten for most penalties among all NFL players, not just offensive tackles). On top of this, he was part of a Dallas offensive line that never ranked among the top teams in running the ball (their highest rank in this span was 12th in 2003). Ok, so if he’s not good at run blocking or avoiding penalties, then surely that must mean he’s fantastic as a pass protector right? Well…not exactly. In fact, in 2008 (as in last year) he ranked a very unremarkable 22nd in the league in terms of sacks-allowed among tackles.

So why is this guy going to the Pro Bowl every year? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s not even that he was having legitimate seasons at the beginning of his career and then fell off with no one noticing (like Orlando Pace). He definitely was never really that good at any point. Yet almost by sheer force of reputation, Adams has slithered his way into multiple Pro Bowls. It’s almost as if NFL experts who look at someone as physically gifted and, frankly, as large as Adams and think ‘he’s got one of the best NFL-caliber bodies in the league, therefore he must be good and therefore he warrants a place in the Pro Bowl.’ It’s a case of body type and potential justifying what should be a performance driven award. This is where too many of those that select Pro Bowlers turn the page a little too quickly. If they bothered to delve into this subject at all, the writing about Adams would be on the wall. Instead, we get to listen to Joe Buck rave about ‘how much Flozell Adams and teammate Leonard Davis can bench-press’ (Davis is another example of a fraudulent Pro Bowler).

Actually, speaking of Joe Buck, it seems that the number one credential that guys like Adams put forward is their ability to attract good PR. Playing for a team constantly in primetime (the Cowboys in Adam’s case) a lot of guys that have the ‘good body’ or get clichés attached to their name by announcers (they play with ‘reckless abandon’ or are ‘playmakers’ etc) become glorified to a public that is already influenced by the ADD television coverage that will only follow the ball. So the blitz-happy safety will get the PR, while the guy who covers downfield and negates touchdowns goes unnoticed.

To be fair, Flozell isn’t the only example of this. Not even close (he’s just the most obvious target). Others are out there. Defensive players in general are a good example. Another reason why these picks get screwed up is simple: too often statistics are used to measure a sport that can’t really be judged on pure numbers. It goes back to when I used to play football. As anyone who has played free safety will tell you, the most tackles you have is during a loss, because it signifies that the linemen and linebackers aren’t doing their jobs and that you, as the last line of defense, are having to make a play. This reasoning is also true in the NFL, so when certain db’s or linebackers receive attention as ‘tackling machines,’ just remember that their numbers are often inflated by incompetent personnel that surrounds them.

There also is no readily available statistic for missed tackles, which probably would have cast doubts on certain cornerbacks (Deion Sanders is a great example). Next time you watch a football game, especially an NFL game, just try and count all the times that defensive backs, for whatever reason, decide to go for the ‘kill shot’ on a receiver or running back and blow the tackle, allowing the offensive player to pick up additional yardage at best and a touchdown at worst. Why proper tackling technique is not drilled into their skulls relentlessly is a mystery, shrouded in an equal mixture of egotism and stupidity.

So what does this really mean? Clearly it indicates that the definition of a Pro Bowler is not ‘the best player at his position.’ More reasonably, the definition of a Pro Bowler is the person who has achieved the best mix of good PR and impressive statistics which, as has been shown, are many times a result of things having nothing to do with their own ability. Where does this leave us in explaining the curse of leading the league in Pro Bowlers? It should begin to make sense now that the mystique of being selected a Pro Bowler has become unraveled.

The initial and fundamental part of the explanation as to why these teams will underachieve is psychological. It’s funny how so many teams will insist that they aren’t fazed by having a league-leading tally named to the Pro Bowl when the stats mentioned earlier scream the contrary. In the modern era where media coverage of sports has become so widespread that it’s almost suffocating, players simply are incapable of escaping their own good press. They will hear about how awesome they are or how well they’ve played. And they will hear about this constantly during the playoffs (since Pro Bowl rosters are named near the end of the regular season). This affects everyone, whether subconsciously or consciously. Not only that, but it effects the teams they play. The other team is most definitely going to play with a chip on their shoulder after hearing all week about how the other team has ‘more Pro Bowlers than any other team in the league.’ (Of course they wouldn’t be as worked up if they actually knew how flawed the selection is).

The other main reason why these Pro Bowl-infested teams fail is that the same bad criteria for their selection (good PR, flashiness, arbitrary and inflated stats) proves to be their undoing against a more disciplined, albeit less flashy opponent. In other words, a balanced team with a good blend of aggression and intelligence will generally beat a team that is unbalanced. This sounds so simple and yet it perplexes even some of the most tenured minds in the game.

Essentially, it’s therefore the best strategy to have a handful of players who will fill out the Pro Bowl criteria, as most teams generally need some flash. Yet it’s also essential to have some substance to go with that flash. It’s why Carl Banks always complemented Lawrence Taylor so well. While LT was busy ruining the quarterbacks day, Banks was worrying about covering tight-ends or stuffing draw plays. The balance is what achieves success ultimately. This is probably the best example of how the NFL has become such a cerebral game. While in the past it was many times enough to win on talent and aggression alone, the modern game has evolved to take advantage of that concept. Intelligence has become just as crucial as athleticism and for those of you who don’t believe me, just watch the disgust on Tony Romo’s face the next time five time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams turns a convertible 3rd and 4 into a much lower percentage 3rd and 9.

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