A Defense of Scott Shanle

In a recent thread, linebacker Scott Shanle came in for some particularly virulent criticism, which I believe to be unjustified. I intend to make the case that it is unjustified; but in doing so, I don't want it to seem that I'm simply piling on WalterFTW, the writer of the original post. His opinion is not too far different from that of a lot of other fans, Saints fans included. This is meant to be an answer to all of them.

At the same time, I'm going to concentrate on what WalterFTW wrote; since putting the argument in my own words may mischaracterize the opinion of my opponents, I'll use their own words...and WalterFTW's are not only the most recent, but the fullest expression I've come across.

First, for the record: I believe that Scott Shanle is a solid linebacker. He simply does his job, without fanfare or gaudy spectacle, so it's easy to forget he's there. Is it possible to upgrade the position? Sure...the only way an upgrade would be impossible is if Shanle were the greatest linebacker in the NFL, which he isn't. We could do better. But do we have more pressing needs than to replace a player who performs well with another who performs marginally better? You bet.

Now that you know my biased opinion, on to the meat of the subject. In his assessment of Shanle, WalterFTW made heavy use of the analysis at Pro Football Focus, which lists Scott Shanle as the worst outside linebacker in the NFL. Regarding his play, WalterFTW specifically had this to say:

"Shanle could not only not cover Dallas Clark (admittedly a tough cover, although imagine if we had a young, fast outside linebacker who could deal with such things), he also got destroyed by Clark’s blocking, which shouldn’t happen to any self-respecting linebacker."

This is representative of the sort of criticism that is routinely directed against Shanle; and it struck me as being not only hyperbolic, but also unfair. Fortunately, I had the means at hand—a tape of the Super Bowl—to check for myself. So I watched every play, noting the formations, Shanle's position (and likely assignment), and how the play actually worked out. The most surprising thing was this: Shanle spent the majority of the game not at weakside linebacker—his usual position—but at strongside linebacker. He didn't simply cover Dallas Clark occasionally: he covered him most of the time.

So did Clark "destroy: him? On every running play in which Clark blocked Shanle, the Saints were playing a formation with 3 down linemen, which meant Shanle was playing strongside outside linebacker. Under those circumstances, he had two main responsibilities:

1) Provide outside containment; and 2) Cover the tight end.

On several occasions, Clark chip-blocked before releasing downfield. There is no way to tell a chip block from a running play except to wait and watch, which was precisely what Shanle did. On no occasion was he "destroyed" by Clark: he held his ground, making sure first that nothing got around him to the outside, and second that Clark was not able to get a release downfield. In other words, he did his job. An example: on Addai's touchdown in the third quarter, Clark blocked Shanle to the outside, but Shanle stood him up and actually forced the play back to the inside: Addai cut back sharply, and it was missed tackles by Greer and Gay that paved the way to the end zone—not any failure by Shanle.

Let's face it: football is a team sport. You do your job, and rely on others to do theirs. Anyone who tells you that an outside linebacker's primary responsibility is to toss aside the blocker like a rag doll and make the tackle single-handedly is probably coaching pee-wee. What's more, Clark is not only bigger than Shanle—he's also a professional, highly trained and motivated. You have to expect that he'll win at least a few of the one-on-one battles. Getting successfully blocked by a tight end is hardly the humiliating occasion for a linebacker that WalterFTW makes it out to be.

Now, on to Shanle's pass coverage. Clark's numbers in the Super Bowl were slightly higher than average: 7 catches for 86 yards, while his seasonal average was 6 catches for 69 yards. But those numbers didn't come against Shanle alone. Clark caught only three passes against Shanle. The first came on the Colts' first play of the game, a slant pattern for 18 yards on which Clark had beaten Shanle badly. That was the only pass Clark caught against Shanle in the first half.

Clark also caught Manning's first pass of the second half, on a crossing route for 7 yards. Several plays later, Shanle was beaten again, though not badly: Clark made a catch on one of the most magnificent passes I've ever seen, with Manning rolling out and laying a perfect throw over the coverage and right into Clark's motionless and waiting hands, for 27 yards. It was more a success on the part of Manning than Shanle's failure.

And that's it. Clark's other catches came when Shanle had other assignments, either blitzing, covering Addai in the flat, or playing deep zone during the Colts' last, desperate drive. (In fact, Clark had two of his catches, for 16 yards, while facing the Saints' prevent defense). For limiting Clark as well as he did for most of the game, you could make the argument that, far from being a liability, Scott Shanle was the biggest unsung hero of the Super Bowl.

* * * * *

Now: an addendum concerning Pro Football Focus, and stat analysis sites in general.

Whenever you come across a site such as this, telling you what you ought to believe about a particular player or team, the first thing you should ask is, "How did you come to that conclusion?" In other words: what analytical technique was used to convert raw stats into a defensible argument?

On PFF, the analysis is perfectly opaque. There is no explanation of how they came to their conclusions. On the home page, they have this to say:

"Because we grade every game using exactly the same methodology we can make available rankings for EVERY position."

...but they never explain what that methodology actually is. Is it flipping a coin? Reading chicken entrails? Or is it—most likely of all—simply an opinion? If you check out their How Do We Grade section, you find this rather unilluminating explanation:

"The grading takes into account many things and effectively brings "intelligence" to raw statistics. For example a raw stat might tell you a Tackle conceded a sack. However, how long did he protect the QB for before he gave it up? Additionally when did he give it up? If it was within the last two minutes on a potentially game tying drive it may be rather more important than when his team is running out the clock in a 30 point blow out.

"The average grade or what we would typically expect of the average player is therefore defined as zero. In reality, the vast majority of grades on each individual play are zero and what we are grading are the exceptions to this. Rating a LT as anything other than zero for a successfully completed backside seal block on a DRE is going to a level of complexity beyond the scope of this site."

Again: this is no explanation at all. We still don't know precisely how a grader assigns a numerical score for a play. Without knowing that, we cannot know how much confidence to repose in the conclusions.

Then there's this:

"If you're not 80% sure what's gone on then don't grade the play. The grades should stand up to scrutiny and criticism. It's far better to say you're not sure than be wrong. However, this is not an excuse for chickening out on making a judgment. What we definitely DO NOT do is raise or lower the grading because we're not sure. Giving -0.5 rather than -1 or -1.5 because you can't be certain what went on is wrong. The correct score is 0."

This entirely gives the game away. The correct score isn't zero; the correct score is unknown. No score at all should be given if you're unsure, because an unwarranted zero will artificially deflate the score of a good player and artificially inflate the score of a bad one. Give Scott Shanle enough zeros, and it lifts him from the abyss of the linebacker charts into the middle of the pack.

The problem occurs whenever anyone attempts to take a set of numerical data and tell you what it means by applying to it a mathematical formula based on subjectve weighting. Argue all you want that an interception on a Hail Mary pass at the end of a half isn't equivalent to a game-turning interception in the fourth quarter; you're right, but how do you weight each one? In the end, the numerical score you give them will be subjective. Mathematics has the reputation of being purely objective and impartial; but when numbers are misused, the resulting garbage doesn't stink less for being made up of numbers. Expressing opinions in numbers doesn't somehow convert them to objective facts.

In a nutshell, these sites are produced by people whose understanding of statistics far outweighs their knowledge of football. And even their understanding of statistics is deficient, because they don't seem to understand its limitations. Numbers don't really explain everything; and subjectively-applied numbers don't explain anything at all.

This FanPost was written by a reader and member of Canal Street Chronicles. It does not necessarily reflect the views of CSC and its staff or editors.

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