In my column about the post-truth world as applied to college football, I neglected to point out that James Fallows has covered the question of sports coverage as compared to political coverage. His argument is that sports media treats its consumers with more respect. Here is the conclusion of his piece after Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention:
The main other place you hear discussion based on the same assumption that people of any background, education level, or funny-sounding accent can understand sophisticated back-and-forth of argument and counter-claim is sports-talk radio. ("I understand the concern about Strasburg's arm. But ... ") You hear insults and disagreements and put-downs on sports-talk discussions. You rarely hear the kind of deliberate condescension, the unconcealable effort as if talking to slow learners, of many political "authorities" addressing the unwashed...
Different people have different natural modes for their speech, and not many people can pull it off just the way Clinton does. But Clinton reminds us of the value (and rarity) of this tone in politics -- and the next time you listen to a sports-talk channel, think how much better our political discussion would be if participants assumed as much sophistication about argument as ESPN and radio-talk hosts do.
I was thinking about Fallows' point on Friday when I was driving to the office, listening to Steak Shapiro argue that anyone who does not view Keith Brooking's career with the Falcons in anything but a positive light is an "idiot." Maybe Fallows lives in a media market where the level of sports discourse goes above the Hannity/Olbermann level, but I couldn't help but laugh at the line about "deliberate condescension" as I was informed that I am an idiot - not that I hold an idiotic opinion, but that I am, in fact, an idiot (I'll stack my academic/intellectual credentials up against yours anytime, Mr. Shapiro; we can start with the fact that I'm smart enough not to pose for a picture looking like an utter prat) - because I think that Brooking was an overrated linebacker when he played for the Falcons.
Naturally, Shapiro had absolutely no evidence for his claim, other than the facts that Brooking played high school and college football in the area (ask winless Liverpool how their farm-to-table approach to the transfer market has worked out) and he was selected to play in the Pro Bowl on several occasions, thus winning a glorified popularity contest, no doubt because of tackle totals that do not account for where on the field the tackles are made. Could Shapiro point to any numbers that show that Brooking was an above-average linebacker for the Falcons? No. Would he have bothered even if numbers did exist? Probably not.
So what numbers can we use to judge Brooking? Well, we can start with Football Outsiders' descriptions of Brooking. Thanks to being a pack rat, I have Pro Football Prospectuses dating back to 2006. Here are Brookings' rankings in stop rate against the run and yards allowed per pass target for his last four years with the Falcons:
2005 - 106/40
2006 - 41/76
2007 - 73/26
2008 - 85/80
When the Football Outsiders' staff were choosing to write about Brooking, they were saying things like that he "played his eleventh season of mediocre football in 2007" or that he is "a liability at middle linebacker, a player who can be effective when blitzing and attacking the line of scrimmage, but "indecisive" when forced to read and react and a "step slow in pass coverage."
Or, we can use the Football Outsiders numbers regarding the Falcons as a whole. Brooking was a linebacker, which means that he shared responsibility for defending tight ends and running backs. Here are the Falcons ranks at defending tight ends for the last nine years in which Brooking was a Falcon, starting with 2008: 28, 21, 21, 28, 26, 26, 28, 21, 14. And here are the Falcons' ranks in defending against passes to running backs, starting with 2008: 29, 12, 2, 16, 25, 13, 24, 31, 31. (The Football Outsiders database does not break down defensive performance against specific positions before 2000.) In short, the Falcons finished in the upper half of the NFL at defending tight ends once in nine years and in the upper half of the NFL at defending passes to running backs three times. Does that sound like a team that was enjoying the services of a top-level linebacker?
So maybe Brooking was not good at stopping runners near the line of scrimmage or defending pass plays, but did he make big plays in other respects? No. In eleven years with the Falcons, Brooking had 17 sacks, 12 interceptions, and eight forced fumbles. Roll those numbers together and the team got about three big impact plays from Brooking per season. Let's compare those numbers to those of Takeo Spikes, another Georgian who played at a local school and was available when the Falcons took Brooking in the 1997 Draft. In 13 full seasons in the NFL, Spikes has 28.5 sacks, 19 interceptions, and 14 forced fumbles. Spikes' employers could expect about two more big impact plays every season from Takeo than the Falcons were getting from Brooking. So yes, there is a lot of evidence that Brooking was not much more than an average player, despite being paid like a star and having been drafted one pick before a demonstrably better linebacker.
It's always hard to judge individual football players. Because of the importance of scheme and teammates, it is often a fool's errand to specify certain players as being great and others as being lousy. This is especially true for defensive players, for whom reliable stats are hard to come by. I do not agree with much in George Will's easily-debunked critique of college football, but he has a point that football is a collective exercise (so is fighting in an infantry division; are the Marines a bastion of progressive thinking, George?), so it is harder to judge a football player as compared to a baseball player. I also do not like criticizing a player who always played hard and who is, by all accounts, a model citizen off the field.
However, sports fans want their teams to win and therefore are more interested in what they do between the lines as opposed to outside of them. On the football field, Keith Brooking was not anything more than a hard-working, durable, average player. Beyond the results of a popularity contest, there is no evidence that Brooking performed at a top level for the Falcons. Thus, I won't feel anything when Brooking steps onto the field of the Georgia Dome as an adversary. I suppose that makes me an idiot.
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