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Chris Long, Mario Williams, and hype

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Most people agreed that one of the positive things to come out of the Rams, um, lost season of 2008 was the play of rookie DE Chris Long. However, did Long get higher marks for his inaugural season because of the NFL's notorious hype machine?

KC Joyner, writing over the NY Times Fifth Down blog, sees a disparity between the reviews of Long's rookie season and Mario Williams' rookie season in 2006, which didn't play as well among the critics despite very similar results. It's a valid point. Let's first take a look at the rookie seasons side-by-side.

Tackles (assists) Sacks Pass Def
Long, 2008 40 (8) 4 0
Williams, 2006 47 (12) 4.5 3

Very similar numbers, no? As Joyner points out in his piece, Long tailed off as the season wound down, a not uncommon thing for rookies and something that might have been exacerbated by the inability of the Rams offense to keep the defense off the field. Williams experienced that tail off as well. Long did not record a sack after week 8, and Williams had the last sack of his rookie season in week 9. 

Both players spent their rookie season's on pretty inept teams too. Williams was part of the worst defense in the league during his rookie season, when the Texans recorded a 15.5% DVOA. Breaking it down a little further, against the pass Houston had a 23.9% DVOA, 31st, and a 6.5% DVOA against the run, 26th. Last season, the Rams were even worse, recording an overall defensive DVOA of 23.3%, that miraculously was just the 26th worst in the league and a pass defense with 21% DVOA (25th) and a 25.3% (31st) DVOA against the run. Both players' performance undoubtedly suffered some at the hands of their teammates. 

Similar situations, similar results. It would be worth while to go back and actually look at what was said about Williams' first season in the league from December of 2006 through the next season's training camp. I do seem to recall a lot of pans for the Texans' first overall pick, but since my LexisNexis password from grad school finally ran out, thorough research is a little tougher than it used to be. 

Unfortunately and unfairly for Williams, his reviews had more to do with Rocket Ismail...I mean Reggie Bush, than anything else. Well, that and the expectations that Williams would help right a struggling ship since he was drafted over the most hyped college prospect in a long time. 

I also think Long might have received the benefit of hindsight with his reviews, though thinking national pundits can learn from their mistakes might be too generous of an assumption. But, people saw Williams emerge after his rookie season (though people are just now finally starting to question the hype around Bush), restoring the notion of a development curve for defensive linemen in conventional wisdom in the face of blustery prospect reviews. 

In the comments below Joyner's post, a couple people brought up race. Only a fool thinks that perceptions of race don't still resonate deeply in throughout our culture; however, in this case I think that's off-base. The NFL hype machine, for its many faults, is more color blind than the rest of society, and has been more than willing to saddle players of all races with unrealistic expectations and hype. More cynically, they give every demographic a bevy of marketable players; a product as big as the NFL can't afford to be selective about who buys tickets and merchandise. 

More than anything, I'll always be convinced that Kim Kardashian's boyfriend had more to do with Williams' grades in 2006 than anything else though. Pundits make their living on hype and are ALWAYS reluctant to walk back from the conventional wisdom, no matter how wrong it is, they helped establish. Why else would Brett Favre still dominate headlines, long since removed from his days as the league's best QB?

That still leaves the question as to who's the better player. For two guys drafted where they were, they come with some big expectations for a reason, regardless of who was drafted in the same year. We've compared Williams and Long on more than one occasion at TST. (here's a full list of comments, fanposts, etc. doing just that). I think Williams is probably a better player than Long, though I haven't seen many Houston games (one struggling team at a time, thanks). However, I still think the Rams have a great player and a franchise cornerstone in Long. Thoughts?