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St. Louis Rams breakout players: Chris Long and fighting statistical traditionalism

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Chris Long will break out in 2011, but unless you watch the game, you might not notice.
Chris Long will break out in 2011, but unless you watch the game, you might not notice.

Earlier today, Van wondered if DT Darell Scott was primed for a breakout season. I'm looking for another kind of breakout. The kind of breakout that is easy for the casual observer to digest. The kind of breakout that is unassailable. The kind that demands attention. I'm talking about a breakout of statistics.

There was a comment in that Scott piece that sums up the traditional approach to evaluating defensive line play by the numbers by everyone's favorite lightning rod.

And, I cannot get excited about the "QB pressures stat." You can pressuring heck outta a passer and he can still throw for a TD. Deacon Jones would refer to them as "missed sacks." I wonder if Long got credit for QB pressures when both the Bucs and Niner’s came back late and beat us last year?? Was Josh Freeman being pressured when he threw the winning TD pass with seconds left on the clock? Were the 49ers being pressured when they converted 3rd and 32 and 4th and 16 clutch completions?

That was RamChop's comment in the Scott piece earlier today, and it's one that I suspect mirrors the assessments of numerous players across the league by a number of older fans who go by traditional statistics as not just a primary metric, but the only metric to evaluate play. It's also the kind of mindset that won't exist for the average NFL fan in ten years.

After the jump, Chris Long and the impotence of the sack statistic.

With the advent of sabermetrics in baseball, sports fans have largely, albeit slowly, accepted the fact that traditional stats don't measure performance; they measure outputs. And outputs are ridiculously short-sighted ways to evaluate play in team sports.

Take the overly simplified sack. There are four components to any sack. First, the pass rusher has to avoid any interference en route to the QB. Second, the rusher has to minimize the amount of time it takes to get front from the point of avoidance to the passer. Third, he has to complete the sack itself. But the most important one, and one that is entirely out of the control of the pass rusher, is that the QB has to not throw the ball.

Despite the ridiculous complexity of the process and in spite of the overwhelming number of factors and players involved in the entire procedure of a sack, the traditional statistic measures that procedure in just three forms: no points, a half point, or a whole point. Doesn't that seem a bit oversimplistic?

If a defensive end beats an offensive tackle on two consecutive plays in the exact same manner, but the QB throws a short slant on the first and is sacked on the second, there is no quantified appropriation of the equality of his defeat of the tackle. If Fred Robbins comes unblocked up the middle and is given a free sack that requires little to no skill, that is accrued the same value as a sack by a defensive end who displays outstanding ability in eluding a blocker, sprinting around the edge and getting to the quarterback before he throws. Using even the most basic logic, we would discard the sack as an outdated, inefficient model for evaluating pass rushing ability. And yet, because it is so simple, we cling to it as the key determination of defensive end supremacy.

Take Julius Peppers. Regarded by many as the best, most complete DE in the entire NFL, Peppers joined the Chicago Bears in 2010. Since Chop mentioned Deacon Jones as a baseline for greatness (and that itself is hard to argue), let's take it from the man himself:

Yet last season Julius Peppers demonstrated he was fully capable of embodying Jones' notion of a complete defensive end during a career rebirth after signing with the Chicago Bears. Peppers was ranked as the game's best defensive end by USA TODAY Sports Weekly's panel of NFL writers and editors. Regarded primarily as a sack master during his first eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Peppers also was a force in shutting down opposing backfields in the Bears' 4-3 defensive alignment in 2010.

When Chicago raced to a 4-1 start in October, Pro Football Weekly splashed the powerful end on its cover and proclaimed him, "The Newest Monster of the Midway." Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, Peppers' highly decorated teammate, called him the best defensive player in the NFL.

He even pleased at least one tough critic.

"Julius Peppers impresses me as much as anyone," Jones says. "He has it all."

Peppers as the best DE? Interesting, since he had less sacks last season than Chris Long.

I don't think Long's skill set lends itself to gaudy sack totals in the modern NFL. I doubt he'll accrue the kind of numbers needed to make the Pro Bowl (an absolutely ridiculous metric by any standard) annually. It doesn't matter.

Chris Long changes offensive capabilities. He disrupts the pocket better than anyone on our team. Football Outsiders' advanced statistics put Long in some impressive company, and watching the football it's easy to understand why. He beats offensive tackles with aplomb. What he's lacked to this point is complementary pieces along the line to take the focus away from him.

Fred Robbins' impact in 2010 was, like Fred himself, huge. He, and Long's development into a much better pass rusher in his third year, opened things up for James Hall. Hall had only topped 6.5 sacks once in his career prior to last year; in 200 while still with Detroit, Hall finished with 11.5 sacks. Every year since then, Hall finished with less than 7 sacks. And yet last year, Hall led the team with 10.5 sacks.

Did he suddenly go Benjamin Button on everyone and get younger by a couple of years? Of course not. With the focus largely on Chris Long, Hall's side of the line was afforded much less protection.

Chris Long may not be a league leader in sacks. He may not make the Pro Bowl. But he will "break out" this year. He will be an absolute force in 2011, and he will be a major silent spokesman for the death of traditional statistical analysis that baseball fans have embraced to a degree I pray football fans would.

We may be more grateful for his contribution as a Ram, but decades from now, fans of football will thank him for showing football fans that there's more to dominant play than the sack statistic. By clinging to those three forms of antiquated evaluation, we end up missing the whole point.