Tuesday, August 22, 2017

NFL History: Statistical All-Pro Snubs (Part 2)

By Brad Oremland

This spring, I wrote about T.Y. Hilton, who led the NFL in receiving yardage, drawing no votes from the Associated Press' 50-selector All-Pro panel. Receiving yards are the most fundamental and important statistic for a wide receiver, which is what made Hilton's snub so remarkable. That made me wonder: which other statistical leaders were passed over by the All-Pro voters?

I examined three offensive positions: quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. For QBs, I chose the leader in touchdown-interception differential (TD/INT +/-). For RBs, I examined rushing yards. And for WRs, of course, I looked at receiving yardage. I also worked out two defensive statistics, sacks (since 1982) and interceptions.

I examined 47 NFL seasons: 1970-2016. All-Pro voting was a little messy before the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, and it was around that time that the Associated Press became clearly the most prestigious All-Pro designation. I'll list every statistical leader who was left off the AP All-Pro team. Last week, we looked at QBs. This week, we tackle (so to speak) other positions.

Although we're focusing on the Associated Press, I'll refer occasionally to the All-Pro selections of other organizations: Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA), and Pro Football Weekly (PFW).

Running Backs

Rushing Yards

1971: Floyd Little (1,133)

1971 shows up a lot in this study, because AP didn't name second-team All-Pros that season. If they had, Little might have gotten one. The Packers' John Brockington, who ranked second in rushing (1,105) and averaged a yard per carry higher than Little, was a consensus All-Pro, joined on the AP ballot by Larry Csonka. Those are both sound selections ahead of Little.

Little's competition for the second team would have come from Larry Brown (948 yds, 2nd-team NEA) and Leroy Kelly (865 yds, 1st-team NEA, 2nd-team PFWA). Little himself was named 1st-team All-Pro by PFW and 2nd-team by PFWA. This really isn't analogous to Hilton's snub last year.

My choices: Csonka and Brockington

1991: Emmitt Smith (1,563)

Emmitt was named second-team All-Pro, behind Barry Sanders (1,548) and Thurman Thomas (1,407). That's probably right. Sanders led the league in touchdowns (17) and Thomas gained 600 receiving yards. Both Sanders and Thomas had higher rushing averages and fewer fumbles than Smith, and neither of them played with Moose Johnston and the Great Wall of Dallas. Again, this doesn't really resemble Hilton, who got no votes at all; Smith was All-Pro, just not first-team.

My choices: Sanders and Thomas

1996: Barry Sanders (1,553)

Sanders maintained a small lead over first-team All-Pros Terrell Davis (1,538) and Jerome Bettis (1,431). If I had to guess why the voters chose Bettis over Sanders, I would suggest that:

1) Barry had already won a bunch and they felt like The Bus deserved a turn, and
2) They watched a lot of Chris Berman highlights.

I don't know how else to explain it. Bettis had a good season, but Sanders was much better. Statistically, Barry was tied with or ahead of Bettis in every major category, including rushing yards, rushing average, rushing TDs, rushing first downs, percentage of rushes for first downs, receptions, receiving yards, and fewer fumbles.

My choices: Davis and Sanders

2000: Edgerrin James (1,709)

NFL MVP Marshall Faulk was a no-brainer, joined as first-team All-Pro by Eddie George. Statistically, it's impossible to justify George ahead of James. Edge rushed for 200 yards more than George (1,509), on fewer carries. He gained 141 more receiving yards, and although George had more rushing TDs (14-13), James scored more total TDs (18-16). George got more All-Pro votes (26-19) because he played for a better team, because James had been All-Pro the year before, and because the voters are suckers for power backs.

My choices: Faulk and James

Other than Little in '71, there are no instances of a running back who led the NFL in rushing yards failing to be named first- or second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

Wide Receivers

Receiving Yards

1975: Ken Burrough (1,063)

Burrough led the NFL in receiving yards by a lot, with second-team All-Pro Isaac Curtis (934) more than 10% behind. The AP first-team All-Pros were Cliff Branch (893) and Mel Gray (926), with Lynn Swann (781) joining Curtis on the second team. The other major organizations chose the same four players, with some minor shuffling between first team and second.

Statistically, there's no compelling argument against Burrough:

Chart

Burrough had by far the most yards in the group, as well as the most receptions, and the TD differences are minor. Perhaps most remarkably, the United Press — the only major outlet to name second-team All-Conference selections — chose Branch, Swann, Curtis, and Buffalo's Bob Chandler as All-AFC. Statistically, there's no comparison between Burrough (53 rec, 1063 yds, 8 TD) and Chandler (55 rec, 746 yds, 6 TD). In the '70s, receptions were considered a more important stat than yardage, and Chandler did have more catches than Burrough, but [1] Burrough was so far ahead in yards (42%) and touchdowns (25%), and [2] if you're prioritizing receptions, why not Reggie Rucker (60 rec, 770 yds, 3 TD)?

My choices: Burrough and Branch

1996: Isaac Bruce (1,338)

In 1996, the Rams went 6-10. Quarterback Tony Banks threw as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns, but the real problem was that he took so many sacks. Banks "led" the NFL in sack yards lost (306) and fumbles (21). Leading rusher Lawrence Phillips finished the season with 632 yards and a 3.3 average. The Rams ranked 26th (out of 30) in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed.

That season, Isaac Bruce gained 1,338 receiving yards, ahead of All-Pros Jerry Rice (1,254), Herman Moore (1,296), Carl Pickens (1,180), and Tony Martin (1,171). Bruce's closest competitor, Jake Reed (1,320), was also passed over by the All-Pro voters. I believe they snubbed Bruce for a combination of five reasons:

1. His yardage lead was small (four players within 100 yards).

2. His reception (84) and TD (7) totals were good but not great. Rice, Moore, and Pickens all had more TDs and at least 100 receptions.

3. His team was awful, and he didn't get much TV time.

4. He didn't lead the team in TD receptions (Eddie Kennison, 9).

5. Rice and Moore had pedigrees and name recognition.

Some of those reasons are more valid than others, but I think the voters got it mostly right.

My choices: Rice and Moore

2000: Torry Holt (1,635)

A victum of circumstance. Holt played alongside Isaac Bruce, who by this time had a pedigree and name recognition. Bruce had an excellent season, with 1,471 yards, plus more receptions and touchdowns than Holt. But the Rams suffered injuries and a defensive meltdown, leading to a disappointing 10-6 finish. In a year with other great receivers at or near their primes, who was going to vote for both WRs from a disappointing team?

Randy Moss and Terrell Owens were first-team All-Pro, followed by Marvin Harrison and Rod Smith. All four gained over 1,400 yards, though only Smith was within 150 yards of Holt.

My choices: Smith and Moss

2016: T.Y. Hilton (1,448)

I wrote a whole article about this.

My choices: Mike Evans, Hilton, and Odell Beckham, Jr.

Seven other receiving yardage leaders since 1970 were named second-team All-Pro by AP: Harold Jackson 1972, Harold Carmichael 1973, Roger Carr 1976, Steve Largent 1979, J.T. Smith 1987, Reggie Wayne 2007, and Brandon Lloyd 2010. Hilton was only the fourth receiver since the merger to lead the league in yards and not make the AP All-Pro roster.

Pass Rushers

Sacks (since 1982)

1982 is the first season sacks were an official stat. Some teams kept sack statistics, and football historian John Turney has done some great research on pre-'82 sack numbers, but the spirit of this project is to see how Associated Press voters treat league leaders in the statistics that define certain positions, and before 1982 we really can't use sacks to understand that.

1982: Doug Martin (11.5)

Well, right out of the blocks we've got a snub. 1982 was a strike season, only nine games long, which produced some statistical flukes. Martin wasn't a fluke, exactly. He was a first-round draft pick in 1980, and he had double-digit sacks in '83. But I wouldn't especially want to argue that he had a better season than Mark Gastineau or Too Tall Jones, even though they only registered 6 sacks apiece. Lee Roy Selmon and Harvey Martin were the second-team All-Pros.

It's instructive, though, to observe how little influence sack stats appeared to influence the AP voters in this first season as an official stat. Here were the NFL sack leaders, and their All-Pro status on the AP team:

1. Martin, 11.5 — snubbed
2. Dennis Harrison, 10.5 — snubbed
3. Dan Hampton, 9.0 — 2nd-team DT
4. Al Baker, 8.5 — snubbed
5. Harvey Martin, 8.0 — 2nd-team DE
t6. Jesse Baker, 7.5 — snubbed
t6. Curtis Greer, 7.5 — snubbed
t6. Lawrence Taylor, 7.5 — 1st-team OLB

Of the three players tied for 9th (7.0 sacks), only outside linebacker Ted Hendricks appeared on the AP All-Pro roster.

My DE choices: Jones and Selmon

This was the only season since sacks became an official stat that the NFL sack leader failed to make the Associated Press All-Pro first or second team.

1998: Michael Sinclair (16.5)

Sinclair was second-team All-Pro, behind Reggie White (16.0 sacks) and Michael Strahan (15.0). The voting reflects the relative insignificance of small statistical differences — half a sack, 1.5 — and Sinclair did receive recognition from the voters.

My DE choices: White and Strahan

2005: Derrick Burgess (16.0)

After four quiet years with the Eagles, Derrick Burgess moved to Oakland and led the NFL in sacks, ahead of Osi Umenyiora (14.5) and Simeon Rice (14.0). Dwight Freeney (11.0) and Umenyiora were first-team All-Pro, with Michael Strahan (11.5) and Burgess on the second team.

Burgess was legitimately a top defensive end from 2005-06, but not at the level his '05 sack total implied. He only started 12 games, and didn't contribute anything beyond pass rushing, not to dismiss the impact of 16 sacks.

My DE choices: Umenyiora and Rice

2010: DeMarcus Ware (15.5)

Focusing on linebackers... the league leaders in sacks, DeMarcus Ware (15.5), Tamba Hali (14.5), and Cameron Wake (14), obviously had impressive seasons, but Ware and Wake disappeared for long stretches, while Hali faced extremely weak opposition, the easiest schedule in the AFC. The first-team All-Pros, Clay Matthews III and James Harrison, had 13.5 and 10.5 sacks, respectively, but were more consistent on a down-to-down basis, and made more impact. Matthews and Harrison ranked second and third, respectively, in Defensive Player of the Year voting (behind winner Troy Polamalu). Five sacks is a big difference, but compared to Ware, Harrison had more solo tackles, more assists, more forced fumbles, more pass deflections, and more interceptions.

My OLB choices: Harrison and Matthews

Sacks, more than any other defensive statistic, are a "Holy Grail" category. If you lead the league, you're going to be All-Pro, and probably on the first team.

Defensive Backs

Interceptions

All-Pro voters are less impressed by interception leaders than sack leaders, so I'm sticking here to total snubs; I'll list second-teamers at the bottom.

1973: Mike Wagner (8)

Dolphins safety Dick Anderson tied Wagner for the NFL lead, for which the Associated Press named Anderson its Defensive Player of the Year. Wagner was less fortunate, sharing Pro Football Weekly's first-team honors with Anderson, but missing the AP team entirely, behind fellow safeties Anderson, Jake Scott, Bill Bradley, and Ken Houston.

Wagner was a good player, a member of the Steel Curtain Dynasty, who retired after the 1980 season with 36 career interceptions, returned for 491 yards. But interceptions are a little flukey, and Wagner's relatively slim lead over Houston (6 INTs) and Bradley and Scott (4 each) wasn't compelling evidence of his superiority. The one I would definitely take him ahead of was Bradley, the leading interceptor (and a first-team All-Pro) the previous two seasons, who was riding his reputation in '73; Wagner had a better season.

My choices at safety: Anderson and Scott

The Dolphins allowed the fewest points in the NFL, en route to repeating as Super Bowl champs. Anderson and Scott were their two best defensive players.

1981: Everson Walls (11)

Everson Walls was an undrafted rookie in 1981. He led the NFL in interceptions in '81, '82, and '85; he and Ed Reed are the only three-time leaders in history. Walls is not in the Hall of Fame, though, and has never been a serious candidate. He was a pure ballhawk, and a superior one, but he wasn't physically imposing and he wasn't fast. Like Reed, though, he had a tremendous instinct for the ball. Walls intercepted 11 passes as a rookie, and 7 passes in the 9-game 1982 season. Mel Blount and Ronnie Lott were the first-team All-Pros in '81, Louis Breeden and the Giants' Mark Haynes in '82.

You can dismiss a rookie INT leader — especially a UFA — as a fluke who's getting picks because he's getting thrown at a lot, but after '82 he wasn't so easily dismissed: Walls was second-team All-Pro, and a couple outlets were finally convinced, naming him to the first team. I agree with them.

My choices at cornerback, 1981: Lott and Walls

1989: Felix Wright (9)

Wright was a good player, not a fluke. He had over 125 INT return yards in '87 and '88, followed by 9 INTs in '89. The Browns allowed under 300 points in each of those seasons, and made the playoffs every year. That's not one man; Cleveland had several Pro Bowl-caliber defenders. That was part of the problem: Wright was overshadowed by Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield.

But Wright was one of those good players, not just someone along for the ride. Like Walls, he was undrafted. But the Cowboys signed Walls; Wright signed in 1982 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, finally joining the Browns in '85. In '89, when his INT lead failed to impress the All-Pro voters, David Fulcher and Ronnie Lott got the first-team nods, followed by Joey Browner and Dennis Smith. Fulcher had almost the same stats (8 INT, 87 yds) as Wright (9 INT, 91 yds, TD), and Lott had 5 picks. Browner and Smith were good players, but I would have gone with Wright on the second team in '89.

I also want to give a shout-out to Colts safety Keith Taylor, who intercepted 7 passes for 225 yards, more yardage than Fulcher, Wright, and Lott combined. Unlike Wright, Taylor was a fluke, but that's still a nice season.

My choices at safety: Fulcher and Lott

1995: Orlando Thomas (9)

Thomas was one of those rookie flukes, but he had tremendous stats: 9 picks, over 100 return yards, 4 fumble recoveries, and 2 defensive touchdowns. The All-Pro safeties were Merton Hanks and Darren Woodson (first team), joined by Carnell Lake and Tim McDonald. Those are all big names, among the best safeties of the decade, but I'm not convinced that any of them truly had outstanding years. I might throw Thomas a bone, less on talent than performance.

My choices at safety: Hanks and Woodson, though Thomas would be my third choice

1996: Tyrone Braxton and Keith Lyle (9)

Green Bay strong safety LeRoy Butler had a brilliant season, and probably should have won DPOY, but settled for a first-team All-Pro designation, shared with Darren Woodson. Steve Atwater and Merton Hanks took the second-team honors. Braxton and Lyle had very good seasons, but if you're willing to go with two strong safeties, Butler and Woodson were probably the right choices.

My choices at safety: Butler and Eugene Robinson

1997: Ryan McNeil (9)

McNeil probably split some recognition with his teammate Lyle, who intercepted 8 passes for over 100 return yards — on a team that went 5-11. The All-Pro cornerbacks were Deion Sanders and Aeneas Williams. James Hasty, Cris Dishman, and Doug Evans made the second team ahead of McNeil, but Williams was the only All-Pro corner who had half as many INTs as McNeil.

My choices at cornerback: Sanders and Williams

1999: five players tied (7)

Sam Madison was the only one of the five named All-Pro. The others were Donnie Abraham, James Hasty, Troy Vincent, and Rod Woodson.

My choices at cornerback: Madison and Todd Lyght

My choices at safety: Rod Woodson and Lawyer Milloy

2001: Anthony Henry (10)

Henry tied with Ronde Barber, who did make first-team All-Pro. They led a youth movement that also included Deltha O'Neal, Dre' Bly, and Champ Bailey. Barber's fellow All-Pro CBs were Aeneas Williams, Troy Vincent, and Sam Madison, established stars. They were good players, but the fewer meaningful stats that exist for a position, the more its All-Pro selections will be driven by reputation, which often lags a year or two behind performance.

My choices at cornerback: Barber and Bailey

2002: Brian Kelly (8)

Kelly tied 37-year-old Rod Woodson, who helped Oakland to the Super Bowl and earned first-team All-Pro honors. Kelly, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, benefitted from quarterbacks' hesitation to throw at Ronde Barber. The All-Pro CBs were Pat Surtain and Troy Vincent, with Barber and the Eagles' Bobby Taylor as the second team.

My choices at cornerback: Barber and Surtain

2003: Tony Parrish and Brian Russell (9)

Obviously, INT leaders don't get the same respect as rushing yardage, receiving yardage, or sack leaders. And there's a reason for that: INTs are so rare that mediocre players often fluke into more of them than great players, a possibility exacerbated by QBs' reluctance to throw in the area of the best defensive backs. Parrish and Russell had good seasons, but they weren't great players. The All-Pro safeties, Roy Williams and Rodney Harrison, were better. Parrish did make the second team, along with Ravens rookie Ed Reed.

My choices at safety: Harrison and Darren Sharper

2005: Ty Law and Deltha O'Neal (10)

Law and O'Neal were established standouts with eye-popping numbers — especially Law, who had 195 returns yards and a touchdown. It wasn't enough to impress the AP voters, who preferred Champ Bailey and Ronde Barber. O'Neal joined Chicago's Nathan Vasher on the second team. Barber was the dominant corner of the decade, at the height of his powers. But Bailey, by this time, was beginning to coast on reputation. He gambled too much, and got burned an awful lot. Vasher was a fluke.

My choices at cornerback: Barber and Ken Lucas

2006: Asante Samuel (10)

Samuel tied Champ Bailey for the league lead, and fell two votes shy of the last second-team All-Pro spot. That went instead to Ronde Barber. In addition to Bailey and Barber, the other All-Pro cornerbacks were Rashean Mathis and Nnamdi Asomugha. Bailey, having his best season, was a no-brainer, a unanimous selection. The other spot was less clear, and the voters went in a number of different directions. I think they more or less got it right on the first team.

My choices at cornerback: Bailey and Mathis

2009: four players tied (9)

Jairus Byrd, Asante Samuel, Darren Sharper, and Charles Woodson intercepted nine passes each. Sharper and Woodson were obvious All-Pros, with Woodson winning DPOY and Sharper receiving votes as well. With Darrelle Revis and Woodson monopolizing 96 of the 100 All-Pro votes at cornerback, Samuel's 1 vote was enough for second-team All-pro status. Byrd was less fortunate, missing the cut by a single vote. The All-Pro safeties were Sharper, Adrian Wilson, Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, and Nick Collins.

My choices at cornerback: Revis and Woodson

My choices at safety: Sharper and Wilson

2011: Kyle Arrington (7)

Arrington tied Eric Weddle and Charles Woodson, both of whom did make first-team All-Pro. I find it hard to get real fired up about this one, especially since 7 is a pretty low total for the league leader.

My choices at cornerback: Revis and Lardarius Webb

Fourteen other interception leaders since 1970 were named second-team All-Pro by AP: Lyle Blackwood 1977, Thom Darden 1978, Everson Walls 1982, Everson Walls 1985, Scott Case 1988, Mark Carrier 1990, Nate Odomes and Eugene Robinson 1993, Aeneas Williams 1994, Tim Jennings 2012, Glover Quin 2014, Reggie Nelson and Marcus Peters 2015, Casey Hayward 2016. The high number of snubs here is exacerbated by frequent ties for the lead.

On offense, the one stat that essentially guarantees All-Pro recognition, historically, is rushing yardage. Defensively, sacks are pretty close to a sure thing. Other stats are less reliable, but Hilton's zero-vote snub remains remarkable and unfortunate.

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