Fisking Football Outsiders: Ia. Response to a Response

For those who are interested in reading the rest of this article, first click here and read Football Outsiders' (FO) response to my Manny Lawson post. Said response was written by none other than Bill Barnwell, the author of the 49er chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009.  I'm going to take a moment to respond to his thorough, astute, and well-received response.

My argument essentially boiled down to the following:

  1. The vast majority of sacks come from 3-4 OLBs and 4-3 DEs.
  2. The majority of 1st-round LBs don't have 6+ total sacks over their first 2 seasons.
  3. The vast majority of 1st-round LBs don't have a 10+ sack season after their first 2 seasons.
  4. Even the 40% or so of 1st-round LBs who do have 6+ sacks in their first 2 seasons are still unlikely to have a 10+ sack season later in their careers.
  5. It's relatively rare for a 1st-round LB to lose 1 of his first 2 years in the league because of injury.
  6. It's extremely rare for a 1st-round LB to move from 4-3 OLB to 3-4 OLB after his first 2 seasons.
  7. Therefore, the specific case of Manny Lawson (i.e., 1st-round 4-3 OLB with <6 sacks in his first 2 injury-plagued seasons moves to 3-4 OLB as his primary position later in his career) is so unique that predicting his future performance based on the historical performance of a dissimilar normative group (aka all 1st-round LBs) is like using the performance of an apple orchard to predict the performance of an orange grove.

Overall, Bill agreed with my basic apples-and-oranges argument. However, he did have a couple of bones to pick with some of the auxiliary arguments I made. His rebuttals, which focus on my assertion that Lawson was a 4-3 OLB until the latter part of 2008, are as follows:

  • Lawson has started 10 of his 32 career games at 3-4 OLB, 4 of which came before the latter part of 2008, so I was incorrect in classifying him as a 4-3 OLB thus far in his career.
  • There's not much of a difference between 3-4 OLB and 4-3 OLB in the Niners defense, so Lawson switching to full-time 3-4 OLB won't benefit him as much as I think.
  • Only 1 of Lawson's 5.5 career sacks came while he was playing 3-4 OLB, so Lawson switching to full-time 3-4 OLB won't benefit him as much as I think.

These are all good points, and I agree that I may have shot the moon a little bit by implying that Lawson has been, on the whole, a 4-3 OLB during his first 2 seasons. However, I do have a couple of responses that, in the end, might reveal that we're actually - in a roundabout way - on the same page of Lawson's book.

After the jump, I'll re-re-fisk...

RE-RE-FISK #1

Bill writes:

Danny suggests that no linebacker in the group...has ever gone from a 4-3 alignment during their first two years to a 3-4 in their third year, but that's a disingenuous usage of the two schemes. Suggesting Lawson was a full-time 4-3 linebacker is unrealistic; in reality, he was a hybrid linebacker who moved to the 3-4 full-time in 2007, only to get hurt, and then played a hybrid role in 2008 before moving to the 3-4 full-time.

First, a nitpick on my part. I didn't say anything along the lines of, "no LB played 4-3 his first 2 years, then switched to 3-4 during his 3rd year." In fact, I displayed in my table one 1st-round LB who did exactly that: Jonathan Vilma.

More importantly, though, I wasn't just talking about playing one position or another. Rather, I said (emphasis mine):

...there have been no instances in which a 1st-round LB switched from primarily playing 4-3 OLB during his first 2 years to playing 3-4 OLB for the rest of his career.

Clearly, I have to assume that most every young LB plays more than one LB position. Hell, most of them probably play special teams too. Indeed, for one1st-round LB, Craig Powell, I didn't even list a primary position because, as far as I can tell, he was a perennial backup who filled in at whichever LB spot needed a replacement (Aside: Nice pick, Bill Belichick!). Therefore, I focused only on primary positions for a good reason, i.e., to short-circuit the exact critique that Bill made. With this clarification, I'm sure Bill would agree that Manny Lawson (a) primarily played 4-3 OLB in his first 2 seasons, and (b) is different from the rest of the 1st-round LB group when it comes to switching specific primary positions.

RE-RE-FISK #2

Bill writes:

If we look at the gamelogs available at NFL.com, Lawson's started in a pure 3-4 alignment 10 times in his career: Weeks 1 and 3 of the 2006 season, the first two weeks of the 2007 season (after which Lawson tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the season), and the final six weeks of the 2008 season.

Bill's point here, as I stated earlier, is that Lawson's already played quite a bit of 3-4 OLB; enough to render insignificant  any position-switch-based improvement in 2009. The problem I have with his argument here is that, although his description of Lawson's 3-4 OLB experience is perfectly accurate, it can nevertheless be construed as an argument in favor of future improvement. Why? Three reasons:

  1. Can we really fault Lawson for not being a pass-rushing wunderkind in the 1st and 3rd games of his NFL career?
  2. Doesn't Lawson's knee injury and subsequent rehabilitation from it - which typically takes 2 full seasons - afford him any slack? I mean, we can't throw out all of 2008 because of lingering ACL issues (mental or physical), but we can at least assume he would have performed somewhat better in 2008 if he hadn't torn his ACL in 2007, right?
  3. Is it really fair to extrapolate mediocre performance for the rest of Lawson's career from mediocre performance in his first 2 years when he's had a positional trajectory that looks like this?

Starts Week 1 in 2006 at 3-4 OLB

Starts Week 2 in 2006 at 4-3 OLB

Starts Week 3 in 2006 at 3-4 OLB

Starts Weeks 5, 8-14 in 2006 at 4-3 OLB

Starts Weeks 1-2 in 2007 at 3-4 OLB

Rides glorified club cart, lays on operating table, attends rehab facility in 2007

Starts Weeks 1, 3, 7-8 in 2008 at 4-3 OLB

Starts Weeks 12-17 at 3-4 OLB

In case you (the general you, not you specifically, Bill) didn't notice, that's a perfect alternation of starting positions thus far in Lawson's career. Also, in case you didn't notice, that cycle is finally going to stop in 2009.

COMMON GROUND

This last point about Lawson's constant position-switching is where I think Bill and I are actually interpreting a set of circumstances in exactly the same way. The difference between us only arises in the optimism/pessimism of our predictions. It's perfectly feasible that my optimism is clouded by fandom, whereas Bill's pessimism is not. Of course, I did state in the original article that his prediction may very well end up being correct, just not for the reasons he laid out in his explanatory passage in the Niner chapter.

Anyway, we both are basically looking at Lawson jumping around from position to position while playing in Nolan's ghastly hybrid defense - good luck with that, DEN - and interpreting it as bad...very bad. Below is another passage from the Almanac that's relevant here:

Often, stories about teams not having an "identity" or "having to find themselves" are simply stories to fill vast inches of column space. In this case, though, San Francisco really has failed to develop any sort of coherent identity as a team, and it's hurt them when it comes to player acquisition and long-term planning...Nolan tried to maneuver them into a 3-4 over the course of his tenure, but...had the team alternating between 4-3 and 3-4 fronts...After Nolan was let go, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky played the 3-4 as his base package more consistently, resulting in increased playing time for Haralson and Lawson on the outside...

Interestingly enough, I made this very same point in my own stat review of the 2008 49ers defense. However, I went further by acknowledging that the defense actually played better when Singletary/Manusky made that permanent move to 3-4 in Week 12 @ DAL (e.g., they gave up 6 or fewer 4th-quarter points in 5 of the last 6 games). And who, by Bill's own admission, benefitted from that move? Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson. Who led the team in sacks last season? Haralson. How many did he have in the final 6 games? 3.5. How many did he have after Singletary replaced Nolan? 4.5. And, more importantly, how many of Lawson's 3 sacks last season came after the coaching change? That would be all 3.

So you see, Bill and I agree that the 49ers' own version of the No-Name Defense (aka Nolan's hybrid) has acted like a performance governor for the past 5 years; both on the field and in the front office. However, whereas Bill thinks this lack of identity is going to continue in 2009 - leading to another season of mediocrity, especially from Lawson - I think Singletary's permanent switch to a 3-4 in the waning weeks of 2008 finally gave the Niners' defense the identity it so-sorely lacked under Nolan. Therefore, because (a) there's no reason to believe that Singletary will be returning to the No-Name Defense this season (or in future seasons), (b) Lawson will be playing the pass-rushing 3-4 OLB position in 2009 (and in future seasons), and (c) switching to the 3-4 had a demonstrated, quantifiable positive impact on the performance of Lawson, Haralson, and the defense overall in 2008, I believe Lawson's sack performance is likely to improve this season and beyond.

Looking forward to Bill's re-re-re-fisking. Stay tuned...

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