This year’s Frunobulax

Often, you hear someone say or post, "Yeah, he's this year's _____ (fill in your own blank)". It's a kind of verbal shorthand that can be useful if we are either on the 6th beer or clear on why a certain player has something in common with the one cited. Commonly, it's a just way to denigrate the player without giving any specifics, as in 'He's this year's Ryan Leaf'. Anyone who's followed football for a decade knows exactly what is meant by that - Player X is going to be an utter bust (and probably a felon as well). It's an easy way to say something. Sometimes he's just going to be this year's Frunobulax.

Depending on who you talked to, Mark Sanchez was either this year's Ryan Leaf or this year's Brady Quinn. Occasionally he was this year's Tom Brady, but I never could figure out why. If anyone is this year's Brady, it would nearly have to be our own Brandstater, given the strange list of coincidences they share.  A running back who isn't as fast as some might imagine can be this year's Terrell Davis, for example. Darren McFadden, according to many, was going to be that year's Reggie Bush, although I didn't see that as the insult that it was usually meant to be. The list is long, the comparisons so simplistic that even their meaning can be obscure. But they all have a single thing in common.

They go a long way toward expressing things in as a simple way as possible and equally far toward avoiding the intricacies that are involved with analyzing the specific players and seeing them as individuals with strengths and weaknesses. There's nothing wrong with that unless you want to be precise about what you're talking about, at which point it's not too helpful. They are ways to talk about how you feel about something as opposed to whether or not you think about something, a process that should involve more data and analysis.

You read this from some commentators. Recently, the most common object of this kind of statement has been Denver's own Alphonso Smith. He is a very good cornerback who is a fraction under 5'10 and therefore - to give one side - an utter bust. Well, perhaps not an utter bust, but certainly not worth the pick that was used on him. Short cornerbacks (by which we apparently mean under 5'10) are at a disadvantage, etc. We've all read both sides, and this isn't to bother rehashing those debates. I will, however, use a couple of things to illustrate the pitfalls of this kind of vague measurement-based (physical measurement in this case) thinking.

A good example is Louis Delmas. A lot of MHR members were very high on him at one point - it looks as if he could be a pretty good safety, and we really needed to draft a safety or two. This quote is from the NY Times and was written by Mike Tanier in his update on Day 2 of the NFL Draft:  

Delmas is a square peg. He’s an in-the-box safety who is at his best when taking on blockers, shedding blocks, and hammering ball carriers. He’s also a good cherry picker who reads plays well, stays around the football, and can pick off passes. He’s like Rodney Harrison, only in bonsai: he’s only 5-foot-11 and under 200 pounds, so his stack-and-shed game may not translate to the NFL.

So, a square peg usually means that he's in a round hole, and Tanier is saying that he sees Delmas as a person whose skills doesn't match his projected position. Fair enough - it might or might not be true, but it is something that you can look at and talk reasonably about. Frankly, the way they're already using him in coverage in minicamps ends to cast doubt on this, but that's the point: It's an ascertainable fact. Then we have the inevitable height and weight - those are greatly meaningful, except, of course, when they aren't. Why is that? Simple enough...

I understood the allusion to Harrison who is 6'1 and 220 - the bonsai crack was at least shows that he was thinking and gives a nod to attempting to be 'literary'. Now, how important is height and weight to playing safety? We all get caught on this one at time - I certainly did when looking at potential draft picks. An equally fair question is 'what was the height and weight of the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 and what was his position? If you guessed Bob Saunders at 5'8 and 200 lb you'd be spot on. He picked up a couple of Pro Bowls and a couple of All Pro rankings recently, too. But by all the commotion on Delmas as a safety and on Smith as a cornerback, we should know for a fact that each is too small to play the position he was drafted to play. And that makes not a bit of sense, since in 2007 we proved it insupportable for safeties and Darrell Green showed it wrong a long time ago for cornerbacks, (as long as we're focusing on defensive backs). Mecklenburg showed it unsupportable for the 3-4 LB/DE position. The outcome of an individual's production is based on the skills, mental and physical, of that individual. Period. Focusing on genetics is misleading at the very best.

How about Alphonso Smith? This isn't about whether he's tall enough. While Abe Lincoln said once that a man's legs should be just short enough to reach the ground, I personally don't care what his height is as long as he reaches the ball (which he's done brilliantly so far). But consider this, and you can plug in the player of your choice if you're tired of talking about Smith:

All of these players are individuals. They aren't the other guy, much less an imaginary one that you might think of if you want to reduce a discussion of a player's abilities to a mental exercise involving some statistical mean or median. They aren't part of some list of players who did or didn't get 'X' award. All of that is both pointless and inaccurate. They are individuals. They have strengths and weaknesses. They may have a lot more of one than the other. You have to look past someone's height and weight to see what their skillset is. That - and only that - is what's important.

I've been watching - and in part participating in - some verbal ping pong. If one person mentions Smith as being too short, the other will almost certainly slap it back and mention Darrell Green - he's 1+ inches shorter than Smith and comfortably in the Hall of Fame so it's obvious that height isn't the be-all and end-all as it's being portrayed. The other side then cries, "But Green was faster!" He was, too. He was shorter than Smith, too. He didn't have quite the leaping ability of Smith, either. Does that make Smith better? Of course not, and that's the point. We won't see for a long time if Smith is Hall of Fame material, or Ring of Fame material (more importantly). But what we can do is look at something other than a tape measure and a scale when talking about players. Because if that's all you've got, you've got nothing at all. That suggests that game film doesn't exist, competition doesn't exist and that we have no rational way to judge the man's skills, which is patently false. 

It's just as possible that Smith makes the Pro Bowl, All-Pro status and Ring and/or Hall of Fame as that he doesn't - he will or he won't and we have no evidence either way. Neither side, if that were even the argument, has the faintest idea. Suggesting that he won't be successful because he's 5'9 is a statement without a shred of proof. Are all players of that height unsuccessful? Nope. Suggesting that he's been incredibly successful at every level of competition so far is a statement of fact. That's the difference between them. The 'height is good' argument is a pointless one, because it ignores the individual factors that have made this specific player incredibly good. If you don't know what those factors are, you should - at least, if you're going to join an argument about this player and not some other.

The picture at the beginning of this article is of Champ Bailey out-jumping everyone because he could 'see' the play unfold before anyone else. I haven't heard a word that's negative about Smith's abilities in that area. In fact, he's rated very high in football intelligence and he studies constantly. He, like Champ, has tremendous leaping ability. Why not talk specifically about those factors? If we're going to be fully honest, it's because they interfere with an attempt to keep the debate away from ascertainable specifics. If you can't really talk about why a player is or isn't good, you have to either say that he's this year's Frunobulax or complain that he isn't tall, wide, heavy or long-armed enough. Otherwise, you're stuck with facts, traits, analysis and.production. 

Why not break down (in this example) Smith's skillset and/or his production? Equally, why not discuss them for each player that gets mentioned? If you can, find problems there and we can rationally talk more about this and about what they are. Otherwise, just for myself, I think that we've probably talked his genetics to death. If you accept that kind of argument, you have to suggest that Mike Singletary was too small to be a great middle linebacker. Don't try that argument on anyone he played against. The same would be true of Al Wilson, 10 lb too light to play MLB (or so went the argument at the time. . Karl Mecklenburg? Just a skinny 12th rounder, not worth the time. The list goes on. Who was your favorite player who was too small, too light, too anything to play the game?

Oh, Frunobulax? He was the cheesy monster that Frank Zappa created for his song 'Cheepnis'. Frank Zappa didn't specify his precise height and weight, though. Sad, really...

Originally posted at MHR

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