Problems With NFL All-Pro Voting

For the last month, I've been writing about Super Bowl quarterbacks (and related subjects), but I wanted to respond to Chase Stuart's critique of the Associated Press All-Pro voting process.

I agree with Chase's premise (as I understand it) that the second-team All-Pro selections are often ridiculous, and that there is a better, more accurate, more fair way to choose those positions: "Simply naming the second vote getter (or third and fourth vote getters at positions with two starters) as the second-team All-Pro(s) invites significant abuses of the system." We see this almost every year, where there's a ridiculous vote at a near-unanimous position so that the writer's favorite player can be an All-Pro.

Chase is a smart guy, and he and I share an interest in getting these things "right" and honoring the most deserving players. Many of his criticisms are on-point, including one I'm jealous I didn't think of first. But there are also several instances where I disagree with him, and I hope to explain why. Chase organized his article by position, so I'll do the same, going through each one, highlighting instances where he and I see eye-to-eye, and the few where we don't. As a point of reference, here's a link to my own 2013 All-Pro Team.

Quarterback — Peyton Manning, Denver, 50

Okay, maybe we don't need to address every position.

Running Back — LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia, 48; Jamaal Charles, Kansas City, 47; Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, 1; Eddie Lacy, Green Bay, 1

Most people seem to agree that Matt Forte had the best season outside of Charles and McCoy, but the AP All-Pro Team suggests that Adrian Peterson and Eddie Lacy were the third- and fourth-best RBs in the NFL last season. All it took was a single voter getting away from the obvious to grant Peterson and Lacy Second-Team All-Pro status. This is a perfect illustration of Chase's point.

Fullback — Mike Tolbert, Carolina, 31; Marcel Reece, Oakland, 8; Anthony Sherman, Kansas City, 5; Bruce Miller, San Francisco, 4; John Kuhn, Green Bay, 1

Here, Chase wrote, "Anyone want to offer me 49:1 odds that the AP voter who selected Kuhn also selected Lacy?"

Here's the thing: I also picked Kuhn, and not because of some Wisconsin bias. The fullback position is nearing extinction in the NFL, and there was no obvious choice this year because no one really stood out. I doubt Chase would want to present an argument for Mike Tolbert and Marcel Reece as deserving All-Pro status. This isn't about the AP voting process, it's about the inanity of selecting an All-Pro at a position that doesn't exist.

Because I am a tedious pedant, I actually wrote seven paragraphs about this in my All-Pro column.

Tight End — Jimmy Graham, New Orleans, 49; Vernon Davis, San Francisco, 1

Chase felt that Graham should have been a unanimous pick, and had a big problem with that one vote for Vernon Davis. "We all know what happened here: some voter decided that he wanted Davis to get some love, and figured he could ensure such accolades by placing Davis on the 2nd team by casting just one vote for him."

Chase takes for granted that Graham should be evaluated as a tight end. I disagree, and I'm frustrated that Davis didn't get more votes. Graham is listed as a TE because he's huge and it might save the Saints some money in contract negotiations. Graham is a great player, but he's purely a receiver, and shouldn't be compared to true tight ends.

Wide Receivers — Calvin Johnson, Detroit, 42; Josh Gordon, Cleveland, 28; A.J. Green, Cincinnati, 12; Demaryius Thomas, Denver, 6; Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh, 6; Brandon Marshall, Chicago, 5; Alshon Jeffery, Chicago, 1

Since I'm already writing about disagreements with people I respect ... Gregg Rosenthal does fine work for NFL.com, but he was incensed about Gordon's First-Team selection: "No one would take him as a complete player compared to Green ... This was a fantasy football pick."

I think one of the great things about the explosion of fantasy football is that it's basically objective: a guy either has the numbers, or he doesn't. Rosenthal's "fantasy football pick" line is effective, but at a certain point, you have to acknowledge the numbers. Gordon averaged 117.6 receiving yards per game, compared to 89.1 for Green. The All-Pro Team recognizes the best players in football over the course of a single season, and when that single season is 2013, I think you have to concede that Gordon, who out-gained Green by almost 30 yards a game, had the better year.

Tackles — Joe Thomas, Cleveland, 28; Jason Peters, Philadelphia, 25; Joe Staley, San Francisco, 16; Tyron Smith, Dallas, 14; Zach Strief, New Orleans, 4; Orlando Franklin, Denver, 3; Jordan Gross, Carolina, 2; Gosder Cherilus, Indianapolis, 1; Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati, 1; Jermaine Bushrod, Chicago, 1; Demar Dotson, Tampa Bay, 1; Trent Williams, Washington, 1; Branden Albert, Kansas City, 1; Jake Long, St. Louis, 1; Phil Loadholt, Minnesota, 1

Clear separation here between First Team and Second, Second Team and “others receiving votes.” But one of those others stands out to me in a way that emphasizes Chase's point. If voters were asked to submit an ordered ballot, or participate in a second round of voting after the First Team was chosen, I suspect Trent Williams would have risen to fifth or sixth in the vote count. Only one voter picked him as one of the top two offensive tackles in 2013, but I imagine he would have made a lot more top fours and fives than Cherilus, Whitworth, Bushrod, Dotson, Albert, Long, and Loadholt.

Guards — Louis Vasquez, Denver, 22; Evan Mathis, Philadelphia, 18; Jahri Evans, New Orleans, 14; Josh Sitton, Green Bay, 13; Mike Iupati, San Francisco, 12; Logan Mankins, New England, 12; Larry Warford, Detroit, 3; Marshal Yanda, Baltimore, 3; Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati, 1; Andy Levitre, Tennessee, 1

Chase points out that AP appears to have made a math error here ... there are only 99 votes listed (instead of 100) and Mankins was shown on the Second Team and tied with Sitton in the initial press release. I don't understand why AP was so secretive with the vote totals this year; even Rosenthal, who works for the league, didn't have immediate access to them.

Center — Ryan Kalil, Carolina, 26; Alex Mack, Cleveland, 9; Jason Kelce, Philadelphia, 4; Max Unger, Seattle, 4; Manny Ramirez, Denver, 2; John Sullivan, Minnesota, 2; Mike Pouncey, Miami, 1; Dominic Raiola, Detroit, 1; Nick Hardwick, San Diego, 1

Chase wrote, "No place is it safer to file your homer votes than on the interior line," and I think that's accurate; no one is likely to brook much criticism on these. At the same time, I think he's got the wrong idea. He assumes that guys get one or two votes out of bias rather than ignorance. But most of these aren't homer votes, they're guesses. Many of the AP voters don't know how to analyze offensive line play, so they're guessing here. Honestly, I can relate. I do know how to analyze offensive line play, but it's hard work and I see a limited number of games. At the stat positions, you can use numbers as a guide to help sort things out, but that doesn't really apply to guards and centers.

More specifically, I doubt Pouncey, Raiola, and Hardwick were selected due to bias. Hardwick had a nice year, and was a reasonable choice. Pouncey has name recognition and he played very well the year before, in 2012. That's a classic formula for the AP voters; I'm surprised he didn't get more votes. Raiola I have a little more trouble explaining, but he's a respected veteran on an above-average offense. In a year when no one really stood out, that's not an unforgivable vote.

Placekicker — Justin Tucker, Baltimore, 38; Matt Prater, Denver, 7; Stephen Gostkowski, New England, 3; Steven Hauschka, Seattle, 1; Phil Dawson, San Francisco, 1

I'm still disappointed that Tucker was chosen over Gostkowski. Their field goal numbers were basically identical, but Gostkowski plays in tougher weather, made more extra points, and was better on kickoffs. Tucker had his two biggest games on Thanksgiving and MNF, so he got 13 times as many votes. That's narrative, not analysis.

Kick Returner — Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota, 36; Dexter McCluster, Kansas City, 8; Dwayne Harris, Dallas, 2; Devin Hester, Chicago, 2; Trindon Holliday, Denver, 1; Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh, 1

Here, Chase went into semantics about McCluster not returning kickoffs. AP doesn't use separate categories for kickoff returner and punt returner; they're both grouped into this one position. And is it really such a crime that none of the H guys made the Second Team? The argument against McCluster actually runs contrary to Chase's larger point, because he's trading in a clear Second Teamer for a soup of four guys with one or two votes apiece.

Whoever voted for Trindon Holliday needs to watch some Broncos games. I've never seen a returner make so many mistakes.

Defensive Ends — Robert Quinn, St. Louis, 46; J.J. Watt, Houston, 28; Greg Hardy, Carolina, 14; Mario Williams, Buffalo, 5; Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets, 1; Cameron Jordan, New Orleans, 1; Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati, 1; Charles Johnson, Carolina, 1; Kyle Williams, Buffalo, 1; Chandler Jones, New England, 1

Defensive Tackles — Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay, 28; Ndamukong Suh, Detroit, 19; Dontari Poe, Kansas City, 13; Justin Smith, San Francisco, 8; Jurrell Casey, Tennessee, 8; Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets, 8; Kyle Williams, Buffalo, 6; J.J. Watt, Houston, 3; Jason Hatcher, Dallas, 3; Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets, 2; Brandon Mebane, Seattle, 1; Marcell Dareus, Buffalo, 1

J.J. Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Kyle Williams all received votes at both defensive line positions. As recently as last year, Justin Smith was named Second-Team All-Pro defensive tackle and Second-Team All-Pro defensive end. Perhaps AP should ask teams to submit their rosters with a single position listed for each defensive player. That's not a burden for any team, and it could help players like Wilkerson and Williams receive All-Pro designation. I can understand some confusion at the defensive line positions, because the strengths and responsibilities of a 3-4 defensive end are very much like those of a 4-3 defensive tackle, and it makes sense to compare those players with each other. Misunderstandings at linebacker are harder to justify.

Outside Linebackers — Robert Mathis, Indianapolis, 49; Lavonte David, Tampa Bay, 22; Tamba Hali, Kansas City, 10; Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco, 5; Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati, 4; Justin Houston, Kansas City, 4; Terrell Suggs, Baltimore, 3; John Abraham, Arizona, 2; Thomas Davis, Carolina, 1

Inside Linebackers — Luke Kuechly, Carolina, 45; NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco, 39; Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati, 7; Karlos Dansby, Arizona, 4; Patrick Willis, San Francisco, 2; Derrick Johnson, Kansas City, 2; Thomas Davis, Carolina, 1

What Chase wrote here was superb, and I wish I had thought to approach the subject this way:

In case you can’t tell, the positions are labeled “Outside Linebackers” and “Inside Linebackers.” I repeat, we have one category for “Outside Linebackers” and one category for “Inside Linebackers.” These categories are NOT labeled “Pass Rushers” and “Tacklers.” Vontaze Burfict led the NFL in tackles and was a “second-team All-Pro” at inside linebacker. But Burfict is an outside linebacker. Rey Maualuga plays on the inside in Cincinnati, and Vincent Rey replaced him when Maualuga was injured. According to Pro Football Focus, Burfict spent 306 snaps as an inside linebacker, 18 snaps deep, 22 covering the slot or lined up out wide, and roughly 700 snaps as an outside linebacker.

This is not a new problem, and it gets worse every year. David's selection notwithstanding, the OLB position is basically set aside for pass-rush specialists. The Associated Press selected two pass rush specialists as its First-Team outside backers every year from 2006-12. Four of those years, the Second-Team OLBs were both pass rushers, as well.

Thus, Burfict is an All-Pro inside linebacker, and pass rushers get 73 of the 100 OLB votes, while Detroit's DeAndre Levy (who made 85 solo tackles and 6 INTs) somehow receives zero votes. Lance Briggs was injured in 2013 and not an All-Pro candidate, but he and DeMarcus Ware are the best OLBs of this generation. Briggs has never been First-Team All-Pro, and Second-Team only once. Half the teams in the league play a 4-3 defense, and some of them have very good linebackers. You would hope the AP voters might recognize that.

Cornerbacks — Richard Sherman, Seattle, 48; Patrick Peterson, Arizona, 28; Aqib Talib, New England, 8; Alterraun Verner, Tennessee, 6; Joe Haden, Cleveland, 6; Brent Grimes, Miami, 4

Pretty reasonable choices here.

Safeties — Earl Thomas, Seattle, 47; Eric Berry, Kansas City, 32; Eric Weddle, San Diego, 10; Jairus Byrd, Buffalo, 2; T.J. Ward, Cleveland, 2; Devin McCourty, New England, 2; Antrel Rolle, New York Giants, 2; Kam Chancellor, Seattle, 2; Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona, 1

Six safeties were named Second-Team All-Pro. That's a lot. It's silly, really. I wonder if it would help to ask the voters to select one strong safety and one free safety. Then you've got Weddle as the obvious Second-Team free safety, and I suspect Ward or Chancellor would edge ahead as the Second-Team strong safety.

Punter — Johnny Hekker, St. Louis, 23; Brandon Fields, Miami, 20; Shane Lechler, Houston, 3; Jon Ryan, Seattle, 2; Bryan Anger, Jacksonville, 1; Andy Lee, San Francisco, 1

The three people who voted for Shane Lechler obviously do not take their votes seriously, and should be immediately removed as All-Pro voters. Playing most of his games indoors, Lechler led the league in ... nothing, while booting too many touchbacks and allowing too many long returns. The votes for Lee and Anger weren't really any better, but at least they had high averages. Lechler was in the middle of the pack. He wasn't terrible, but there was literally nothing he did well this year and no earthly reason to vote for him.

The Hekker vote ... Hekker led the NFL in net average, by a lot, almost two yards. This year, Hekker had four touchbacks and 19 punts down inside the 20-yard line, a total of 23 kicks near the end zone. Those 23 punts represent 29.5% of his total punts. League-wide, punters average 42% of their punts near the end zone. Punting in that area kills your average, because there's a fixed limit on how far your punt can go, and shorter kicks, down at the eight- or 10-yard line, are better than those that roll in for a touchback. Hekker also plays in a domed stadium, which boosts averages.

Compare Hekker to, say, Thomas Morstead from the Saints. Both play their home games in domes. The chart below shows number of punts, net average, punts down inside the 20, touchbacks, and Short Field Percentage: I-20 plus touchbacks, divided by total punts.

Chart

Hekker had 55 punts where he could bomb away and use the whole field, compared to 31 for Morstead. If you gave Morstead another 24 punts where he didn't have to worry about the end zone, would he have added two yards to his average? Yes, very likely. An even stronger case can be made for Mike Scifres, whose net average was only 40.0 (the same as Lechler), but had a 55.4 SF% and only one touchback all season.

Awards

Chase didn't write about the big Associated Press awards like MVP, but those aren't much better. The most ridiculous, almost every season, is Offensive Player of the Year. This year, Peyton Manning won easily, with 33 of the 50 votes, far ahead of second-place LeSean McCoy, 10. But Manning had a historic season, one that earned him unanimous All-Pro selection and 49 of the 50 MVP votes. He broke the single-season records for passing yardage and touchdowns. Yet a third of the voters chose someone else as OPOY. I've been wondering ever since, what more could Manning have done to earn their votes?

In 2010, Tom Brady was a unanimous selection for both All-Pro quarterback and NFL MVP, 50 votes out of 50. He got 21 out of 50 OPOY votes, splitting the vote with five other players, including three QBs. That doesn't make sense. The true standard for nonsense, though, was set in 2011. Below are that year's vote totals for All-Pro quarterback, Offensive Player of the Year, and Most Valuable Player:

Chart

Keep in mind, all three awards are chosen by the same people. They overwhelmingly, almost unanimously, picked Aaron Rodgers as All-Pro QB and MVP, but nearly everyone selected Brees as OPOY. Maybe there's a bigger distinction between those awards than I'm able to understand, and obviously some voters felt they just had to vote for Brees somewhere, but this is 90% of the group, casting their votes alike. Evidently some mentality links the writers together, but I don't understand it. I'm not sure they do, either.

Addressing the Problem

Although my opinion differs from Chase's on a few specific players, he and I are essentially are on the same page with regard to All-Pro voting. Chase proposed a simple solution to help create an All-Pro Second Team that makes a little more sense: "the voters should actually vote for both a first and second team." He's probably right that we'd get more fair selections that way, and many fewer ties. I think it's a good step. In my opinion, though, the main problem isn't the voting process — it's the voters.

Some of the AP voters are everything you could ask for: knowledgeable, unbiased, and serious about selecting the best players — for an honor that can shape contracts and legacies. Others, however, don't understand football well, don't understand how to interpret statistics, vote for undeserving players from their local teams, vote for undeserving players whom they like personally, or are simply lazy and put no effort into their selections.

Laziness is most visible outside of the offensive glory positions. The same offensive linemen are selected year after year, based on draft status or prior performance. Ray Lewis continued to get votes when he was years past his prime. Shane Lechler drew votes in 2013, from voters who obviously never gave the matter any consideration. If you ask these voters to select more players, or to submit a second round of choices after the First Team is chosen, how much will that really improve the selections? Some of them can't be bothered with a one-part process; I shudder to think how they'd handle a two-part selection.

If we aim to improve the All-Pro selections, a better voting process like the one Chase suggests is a good start, but we'll keep seeing bad choices until we have more selectors who understand the game and cast thoughtful votes. I would trust Chase Stuart's personal All-Pro team, or Gregg Rosenthal's, more than I would the AP voters, and the sooner we have guys like them making the selections, the better.

Comments and Conversation

March 11, 2014

Chase Stuart:

Well-written critique, Brad. I agree that the OPOY voting is some of the silliest in the sport.

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