In his masterfully played role as "The Informer," Fooch has been keeping readers up to date on 49ers snap counts this season. In his latest update last week, AptosNinerFan asked the following question in the comments section:
The entire 2012 Draft Class has contributed 25 special teams plays via one player-Trenton Robinson?!? Anybody know if any draft class has contributed less than this one?
In his masterfully played role as "The Inspector," Fooch followed this lead to its inevitable destination: my e-mail inbox (not literally, of course). In case you were unaware, at Football Outsiders (FO), we have a new page this season with snap counts for all teams and players. Naturally, behind the scenes of that nifty search tool is a gigantic database, which allows us to answer questions like the one posed by AptosNinerFan.
I have an FO column in the works examining some connections between snap counts and player years of experience (which you should totally look out for in the near future), but, in this very special appearance back at my former stomping grounds, I'm going to focus on how teams have allocated snaps to rookies over the first nine weeks of the 2012 regular season.
At the team level, the average NFL squad has played 67 snaps on offense and defense per game, as well as 29 snaps per game on the various special teams units. Through Week 9, San Francisco registers just a tick below those averages, at 62 and 26. And of course, it makes sense that their preferred style of play would produce a slower pace to their games.
That's nice summary information and all, but it's not very interesting. Instead, to find "interesting" requires magnifying snap counts down to the player level. When we do that, we find there have been nearly half-a-million player snaps so far in 2012, and, proceeding to the question at hand, only about 10 percent of those snaps have been played by rookies. Rookies comprise about 16 percent of all players who have seen the field this season, so their much-lower snap percentage suggests -- shockingly! -- that NFL head coaches loathe playing rookies.
There's one head coach, however, whose aversion seems akin to a triskaidekaphobic encountering the number 13: Jim Harbaugh. Below is a table showing stats related to rookie snap counts for every team through Week 9. So we're on the same page, the "TOT," "OFF," "DEF," and "ST" columns tell you the number of snaps played by rookies in total, on offense, on defense, and on special teams. The "PCT" columns tell you how those snap counts relate to the number of snaps played by all of the players on the team; not just rookies. Because some teams have played more games than others, and some teams have more snaps per game than others, the percentages are really what matters. (I'm just posting the raw numbers because I'm a swell guy.)
As you can see, the answer to our question is, "No." Not a single team has had their rookies play a smaller share of total player snaps than your San Francisco 49ers; and it's not even close. The next-most-invisible group of rookies plays for the Atlanta Falcons, and that group sees the field over five times as often.
Splitting things out into team units, we further discover that, unlike -- say -- the New England Patriots, who give rookies a ton of snaps on defense but few on offense, the 49ers are ranked at the bottom across the board. That's certainly amazing in its own right, but the really crazy snap count percentages are the ones for defense and special teams.
Although head coaches prefer not to play rookies in general, it's also well known that they don't mind as much when it comes to populating their special teams. And yet, Jim Harbaugh will have none of it. Rookie safety Trenton Robinson has played 25 special teams snaps, Garrett Celek has played one, and that's it. For no other team outside of the Chicago Bears is the sight of a rookie on special teams truly "special."
On defense, the 49ers are one of only two teams in the NFL to have not given a single snap to a rookie. Granted, their 2012 rookie class is mostly geared towards the other side of the ball, but you'd figure Robinson would get into the game for one snap at the end of a blowout, right? Nope. Jim Harbaugh will have none of it.
As I've been saying since June, the primary thing that could derail San Francisco's Super Bowl train this season is their relative lack of experience on their defensive bench, and especially in the secondary. As the snap count data shows, Harbaugh doesn't seem to mind being in that situation. If he did, Robinson would be getting at least an iota of valuable gameday experience when situations allow it. Obviously, he's the elite coach and I'm the guy who writes about football stats on the internet, so I'm not going to second-guess him here for one minute. As fans, however, it is something to be cognizant of as the playoffs approach.