Sunday, September 28, 2008

Just Who is the Best Linebacker?

The commercials that ESPN is using to trumpet Monday evening's matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers features one of the most recognizable and lionized personalities in the National Football League ~ Ray Lewis. He dances, he prances, he talks incessantly; and for those reasons ~ not to mention is excellent play during the game ~ the media showers him with the attention he seeks. Moreover, his perceived excellence as a player is also enhanced by the frenetic activity of both his pregame rituals (and their appeal to the media, particularly television) and his play on the field. However, despite Mr. Lewis' nine Pro Bowl selections, we wonder if he is the best inside linebacker in the AFC North much less the entire conference.

He doesn't dance, or prance, and doesn't seem to do much talking on the field but James Farrior is more than good ~ over the last six seasons (i.e. 2002-2007) he's been better than his heralded rival from Baltimore, and has arguably been the best inside linebacker in the AFC. As usual, the numbers do not lie:
  1. Games Played: It may seem like a no-brainer, but the more a team's impact players are on the field the more impactful they are.

    Duh.

    But in addition to that, the salary cap makes it difficult (if not impossible) to adequately replace big-ticket players. Since joining the Steelers in 2002, Mr. Farrior has started 92 games ~ missing a total of four games (two in 2002 and two in 2005). In other words, Mr. Farrior played in 95.8% of the games that the Steelers played. Conversely, Ray Lewis has played in 70 games since 2002 (inclusive) and has played a complete schedule only once in that time (2003). Stated another way, Mr. Lewis has missed more than 30% of his team's games during this period. Reliability is a part of being great, and James Farrior is about as reliable as a professional football player can be.

  2. Total Tackles: During the last two seasons (i.e. 2006-2007) Ray Lewis has recorded 348 total tackles (i.e. tackles and assists combined), a remarkable achievement. However during the last six seasons James Farrior has recorded 705 total tackles while Mr. Lewis has 643. It is a testimony to Mr. Lewis' skill that his per game average (9.19) is better than Mr. Farrior's (7.66), but Mr. Farrior outproduced his more heralded counterpart by nearly ten percent.

  3. Sacks: We have to admit to some surprise here ~ James Farrior 15, only 10.5 for Mr. Lewis. For all the images of Mr. Lewis flying around the field, terrorizing quarterbacks it has been James Farrior who has been bringing them down more often.

  4. Forced Fumbles: Ray Lewis 8, James Farrior 12.

  5. Fumbles Recovered: Here we have a tie ~ both men have seven.
Unlike most arguments over sports we're not trying to denigrate the abilities or performance of one player to boost another. To the contrary, we believe Mr. Lewis is a Hall of Fame caliber linebacker. However an objective look at the evidence reveals the undeniable truth that Mr. Farrior is even better.

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