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The Pro Football Historical Abstract


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#1 Rupert Patrick

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Posted 02 August 2008 - 07:53 AM

I hope nobody minds me moving this to a separate thread, because I think the discussions about this book will go on for some time, and the other books that are coming out in 2008 will get lost in the pages and pages of threads surrounding the Historical Abstract discussions. It probably makes more sense to have a thread dedicated solely to discussions surrounding Sean's book, and a separate thread for mentioning the other books that are coming out this year. I just cut and pasted my comment from the 2008 books thread.

I started on the book last night and have read up to the Wide Receiver rankings section. While I highly disagree with some of the rankings in the QB and RB sections, this book is an interesting read and has caused me to think twice regarding my own thoughts on analyzing players in a historical context...I highly recommend to all football fans!


In response to his comments on Bradshaw throwing the ball more later in his career (pg 92), I think the main reason was the advent of the bump and run in 1978. The Steelers were the team which most took advantage of the rule change in 1978, and it took most of the rest of the league a year or two to catch up. Bradshaw's career is difficult to evaluate regarding his ranking among the greatest QB's of all time; it certainly helped an awful lot that he was in the right place at the right time. With the talent surrounding him on offense and defense, and with the organization and coaching staff in Pittsburgh at that time, I think a number of contemporary QB's would have won 4 Super Bowls in Pittsburgh in the 70's. If Archie Manning had wound up in Pittsburgh and Bradshaw in New Orleans, I have little doubt that Manning would have led Pittsburgh to 4 Super Bowls and Bradshaw would have had one knee surgery after another from all the sacks due to the lack of an offensive line and people to hand off or throw to. The same could be said for Ken Anderson and Ken Stabler and Joe Theismann and Jim Plunkett; all those guys probably could have won four Super Bowls in Pittsburgh in the 70's. Even an average QB would have thrived in that environment; backup Mike Kruczek went 6-0 as a starter in 1976 and all he had to do was hand off to Harris and Bleier and throw short, safe passes. Having guys like Swann and Stallworth to throw to, and having Harris and Bleier to hand off to, with guys like Webster and Sam Davis and Mullins and Kolb to protect you, can make a QB's job much easier, and make him look really good. That being said, Bradshaw did have one of the half dozen strongest throwing arms I have ever seen; it just took him a few years for all the tools to come together, and the weight of his terrible first few years hurt his career statistics considerably. I don't know that I would rate him at number 25 as Sean did, but I would probably rate him a little higher, probably between numbers 11 and 20.

I have to get deeper into his rating methodology, but it appears Sean's ratings are strictly based on statistics, and Bradshaw's four Super Bowls did not come into consideration. My research is largely based on developing evaluative systems for rating teams or players, but in every paper I have ever written. I always put in the caveat that my ratings do not mean that I necessarily think X was better than Y, but rather my results are but one piece of the puzzle, and should be used as one element of the argument but not the complete argument. Statistics do not tell the whole story, but are part of the evaluative process. One thing that has to be considered is how a player was considered by his peers, and it seems this was disregarded in Sean's book. I remember in one of the Historical Baseball Abstracts, it was probably mentioned in all of them, Bill James explained that the players and writers of a players era knew a lot more about him than somebody in our era ever could, and you have to take that into consideration, and in some cases James disregarded his statistical rating systems when evaluating players in his Historical Abstracts because a certain weight has to be given to the comments from one's contemporaries.

Unlike somebody like....I don't know, Cliff Battles, for whom little or no film footage exists, for a guy like Butkus or Gale Sayers, there is an awful lot of film highlight footage, but not as much full game broadcast footage as one might like. Both men were human highlight reels; watching Sayers catch a punt or kickoff must have given the fans of his era the same feeling we get when we see Devin Hester today. I was seven years old when Sayers retired, and nine when Butkus called it a career, so all I have is the stats, the highlight footage, and the anecdotes from people who played against them or seen them play and those who watched from the stands or press box, and I have to use all of it when evaluating their places in history. I think both were one of a kind.

I'm not knocking Sean's book; it is surely one of the two or three best non-encyclopdia type books ever written about Pro Football and I hope the book I will complete in the next year or so is a tenth as informative and thought provoking. I can't wait to get deeper into his book and read all the player comments; the research behind this book was exhaustive as you can tell from the list of reference materials he cited in the back of the book. I have always felt the best way to really rate players is by a consensus. If you take, say, a group of 50 football historians and sportswriters, intelligent players from a mix of eras, and informed sportscasters, and allow them whatever criteria they desire to compose a top 20 list of greatest QB's, and weight the picks appropriately (20 points for number one, 19 for number 2, and one for number 20), and compile their results, the consensus list they would come up with would be much better than any list any single person could come up with because it would represent a mix of different and informed opinions.

I hope Sean will take my comments in stride; I really love this book and can't wait to finish it as I'm sure I'll have more to say. I hope this sells a million copies, and this book is worthy of it's own thread as the discussions about this book will probably go on for the next year. I don't want to hurt the feelings of any of the other authors in this forum, but the Pro Football Historical Abstract is the best football book of the decade.

#2 SeanLahman

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Posted 04 August 2008 - 09:00 AM

I appreciate Rupert's thoughtful response, and I'll follow-up on his specific questions about methodology. I would like to ask anyone who likes the book to consider writing a review or even a brief blurb at Amazon.com. Word of mouth helps, and the opinions of knowledgeable football fans like those here on the PFRA forum will make a difference.

#3 Tod Maher

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Posted 04 August 2008 - 06:34 PM

I've enjoyed reading Sean's book. I don't agree with everything (Parcells and Gibbs ahead of Walsh in the coaches rankings).
Also, there are a few things on the statistical side which seem to be missing.
One is sack yard data for some early passers (Ed Brown, Bobby Layne, etc.). This data (back to 1948) has been available from the NFL's website for the the past year or two.
Also, the NFL does indeed keep individual first downs as an official stat - it's just not published in the Record & Fact Book but the Official Statistics booklet (which the NFL releases in the spring). Although, it only contains leaders (Westbrook led the NFL last year with 104; 73 rushing and 31 receiving). Again, totals for every player can be found at www.nfl.com.

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#4 JWL

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Posted 04 August 2008 - 09:39 PM

Jim Parker not being in the offensive linemen section surprised me.

I don't understand the return specialists section. It seems that, per the middle paragraph of the chapter intro, guys like Travis Williams (small sample size and/or moved away from returning kicks to get more playing time from scrimmage) were excluded from the rankings. Yet, there is Gale Sayers at #10 and Joshua Cribbs at #15 on the kick returners list. Cribbs has only been in the league for three years. That's a small sample size.

I am also surprised to not see Ollie Matson on the list. Matson was noted in the Dante Hall comments.

#5 SeanLahman

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Posted 04 August 2008 - 09:55 PM

The ratings and rankings are a necessary evil. They'll generate a lot of discussion, but they certainly weren't the means to an end. I hope that folks -- especially knowledgable students of football history -- will get more from the player essays than from the rankings themselves.

I just wanted to respond to a few of the questions Rupert asked about the methodology. He said "it appears Sean's ratings are strictly based on statistics, and Bradshaw's four Super Bowls did not come into consideration" I did not include Super Bowls in my rankings, but for quarterbacks, I did look at how many games their team won. This was because of the fact that quarterbacks on bad teams are forced to throw more because they're often trying to rally from behind. Quarterbacks on great teams tend to throw less becuase their teams are running the ball to protect their leads. But in general, I don't like the idea of giving any individuals (except maybe coaches) credit for the Super Bowl wins.

I don't know if I necessarily agree with Rupert's statement that my ratings are based solely on statistics. What I've tried to do is separate performance from skill. Performance can be measured. Skill is more abstract. I won't argue with those who say that Gale Sayers, for example, was one of the most talented players to take the field. But I just don't see the purpose of trying to rate and rank players based on subjective criteria like how elusive they were, how fast they were, or how "tough" they were. These are all intersting things to talk about, but I think if we are going to rate and rank players, it ought to be on more objective things.

As far as looking at what peers have to say about players, I do include that in my rating system, and I think it's an important part of the process. However, this is a piece of data that has its limitations. All Pro voters have blind spots. Sometimes players get overklooked because they toil for a losing team. Sometimes veteran players coast on reputation. Sometimes perception is just completely out of whack with reality.

Similarly, game film is a useful tool, but can only be one piece of the puzzle. Any player is going to look good in highlights. I can put together a 2-minute package that makes Ickey Woods look like an all-time great. But you have to watch hours and hours of game film to get a real sense for a player. Watch Jim Brown in his bad games against Green Bay, or Walter Payton getting shut down by the Bucs defense twice in 1979. Or Barry Sanders.... my God, you watch some of his games and wonder how he ever made an NFL roster. He was always getting tackled in the backfield.

I felt obliged to write this book after seeing a slew of books that presented listings of the greatest players but failed to say a single meaningful thing about any player. If a guy really "changed the way his position was played," it shouldn't be too hard to explain *how* in a sentence or two, but those sorts of provocative claims are never backed up. What I wanted those books to do was tell me *why* those guys were great, and none of them did. Don't just recycle other people's opinions -- tell me something about his style of play, or point to some evidence of his performance, That's what I've tried to do, and I hope that even if you disagree with some (or all) of the rankings, you'll still find that I have something useful to say about each of these players and coaches.

I'll try to reply to any questions posted here, but with training camp under way, my response time may lag. Feel free to email me, too, with any questions or comments if you'd rather not post here. And I'll repeat my plea for folks who liked the book to post a comment saying so at amazon.com. Thanks.

#6 JWL

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Posted 04 August 2008 - 10:04 PM

I hope that folks -- especially knowledgable students of football history -- will get more from the player essays than from the rankings themselves.

That's how I have approached it. I love the essays.

#7 Rupert Patrick

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Posted 05 August 2008 - 05:51 AM

Jim Parker not being in the offensive linemen section surprised me.

I don't understand the return specialists section. It seems that, per the middle paragraph of the chapter intro, guys like Travis Williams (small sample size and/or moved away from returning kicks to get more playing time from scrimmage) were excluded from the rankings. Yet, there is Gale Sayers at #10 and Joshua Cribbs at #15 on the kick returners list. Cribbs has only been in the league for three years. That's a small sample size.

I am also surprised to not see Ollie Matson on the list. Matson was noted in the Dante Hall comments.


Even after two seasons I thought Devin Hester would have been on the top returners lists. At this point the record for career return TD's will fall in the next year or two given his previous production. Usually when a guy comes along like this and makes something that was previously considered very difficult look easy, one has to wonder if Hester is doing something different, or is it his fellow Bears return team members being far better than the rest of the league, of if Hester is like a Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky, a guy who is just so much better than his comtemporaries that he leaves everybody else in his wake. I think this would be an interesting subject for film study, to review his returns and see why he is so successful.

#8 Guest_Bryan Lutes_*

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 09:02 AM

If Archie Manning had wound up in Pittsburgh and Bradshaw in New Orleans, I have little doubt that Manning would have led Pittsburgh to 4 Super Bowls and Bradshaw would have had one knee surgery after another from all the sacks due to the lack of an offensive line and people to hand off or throw to. The same could be said for Ken Anderson and Ken Stabler and Joe Theismann and Jim Plunkett; all those guys probably could have won four Super Bowls in Pittsburgh in the 70's. Even an average QB would have thrived in that environment; backup Mike Kruczek went 6-0 as a starter in 1976 and all he had to do was hand off to Harris and Bleier and throw short, safe passes.


I think Bradshaw's biggest impact on the Steelers was his ability to complete deep passes during the postseason. I think thats what really defined the Steelers' offense moreso than Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Look at SB IX....Harris had 158 yards but the game was in doubt until Bradshaw converted three 3rd downs, one of them being a 30-yard completion to Larry Brown, and the other being a short TD completion to Brown in the endzone.

I would be interested in seeing how many 30-yard completions Bradshaw had in the postseason. I would guess its quite a few. Think of all the TDs either setup or scored by Bradshaw's long passes in the Steelers dynasty run...its remarkable.

I think its really difficult to say someone like Stabler, Thiesmann, or Anderson would have replicated Bradshaw's success because they weren't really deep-throwers like Bradshaw. I don't think its as simple as "Bradshaw was a good QB surrounded by a great team, so any good QB would have had the same success". Look at Mike Kruczek...he couldn't even throw a TD pass during his 6 games as a starter. He wasn't nearly as effective as Bradshaw, so I don't think thats really evidence that anyone could have succeed in Pittsburgh...unless you think Kruczek could have guided the Steelers to 4 SBs without ever throwing a TD.

#9 rhickok1109

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Posted 17 August 2008 - 03:18 PM

I think Bradshaw's biggest impact on the Steelers was his ability to complete deep passes during the postseason. I think thats what really defined the Steelers' offense moreso than Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Look at SB IX....Harris had 158 yards but the game was in doubt until Bradshaw converted three 3rd downs, one of them being a 30-yard completion to Larry Brown, and the other being a short TD completion to Brown in the endzone.

I would be interested in seeing how many 30-yard completions Bradshaw had in the postseason. I would guess its quite a few. Think of all the TDs either setup or scored by Bradshaw's long passes in the Steelers dynasty run...its remarkable.

I think its really difficult to say someone like Stabler, Thiesmann, or Anderson would have replicated Bradshaw's success because they weren't really deep-throwers like Bradshaw. I don't think its as simple as "Bradshaw was a good QB surrounded by a great team, so any good QB would have had the same success". Look at Mike Kruczek...he couldn't even throw a TD pass during his 6 games as a starter. He wasn't nearly as effective as Bradshaw, so I don't think thats really evidence that anyone could have succeed in Pittsburgh...unless you think Kruczek could have guided the Steelers to 4 SBs without ever throwing a TD.

I believe this is a very telling statistical fact: During his career, Bradshaw threw for more than 300 yards only four times in a regular season game. He did it three times in the post season, including twice in the Super Bowl.