When things go bad, I try to think as to reasons why things have gone bad. I sorta get into self-reflection mode to figure out how and where things went wrong and where they can, hopefully, get better.
A few weeks ago, I was reading this article about he Dallas Cowboys, no doubt linked to someone from the Ticket about how or why the Cowboys' defense could have been somewhat better than they were last year, in particular the defense, when the team was losing it's top linebacker, defensive tackle and defensive end. There's a lot to dig into there if you are a Cowboys fan, but the part that stood out to me, was this part about how and why the 2013 Cowboys defense was as bad as it was:
To replace the depth, the Cowboys turned to frozen yogurt shop owners and various and sundry other non-football professions. Know the playbook? Hell, the Cowboys were stuck playing guys who didn’t know their position coach. Just how bad was it?
Here’s a bunch of players that were NFL players in name only who played defensive line snaps for the Cowboys last year: Marvin Austin, Everett Dawkins, Frank Kearse, Landon Cohen, Jerome Long, Jason Vega, David Carter, Corey Irvin, Everette Brown, Drake Nevis and Jarius Wynn.
The maximum number of snaps a defensive player could have played for the Cowboys last year was 1,138. Those guys combined to play 1046 snaps. To add some reference to those numbers, it means that if we combined those guys into one really-not-good football player, he’d have been on the field for 92% of the snaps. Essentially, the Cowboys averaged one player on defense who wasn’t an NFL player last year.
Let’s repeat that:
Over the course of the season, the Cowboys played basically every snap with only 10 NFL players and 3 NFL defensive linemen.
What we're talking about here is the idea that the Cowboys were, quite literally using "replacement level" players. This is really a baseball term that's being used a bit more in NFL circles and I think it started in the NFL from Football Outsiders in their definition of DVOA, which is Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, and for my seimple head, I do want to go back to FanGraphs that define a replacement level player in baseball:
We can define a replacement level player as one who costs no marginal resources to acquire. This is the type of player who would fill in for the starter in case of injuries, slumps, alien abductions, etc.
So what we're dealing with here is that we're dealing with a guy that is simply a guy that is starting for the sake of starting, that doesn't have any skins on the wall, no conference honors, no significant starts that is playing. This is not an average player. To be average, you actually have to be better than just a replacement level player.
Oh, and there's a really good chance that I'm totally screwing up the idea of what a replacement level player is for baseball and I understand that there's disagreement as to exactly what replacement level actually is, but for our purposes, it's a guy that's been named a starter, but has almost zero practical experience to be anything more than a bottom of the barrel player.
This is going to sound negative, but I promise I have a point.
A perfect example of a current replacement level player is Reginald Davis. He is slightly better than the competition because he is starting (sometimes), but he has not had the time and/or experience to do much of anything, to learn the game, to figure out how to play the game other than the handful of games he's played this year and last year. In 2013, Davis caught 15 passes. Yeah, just 15 passes and he played in all 13 games last year. He received some experience, but was obviously blocked by a more productive player in Eric Ward. He will, assuming that he progresses, become more than a replacement level player, as he's caught 28 passes this year, but still, maybe not quite up to what we (or I) initially expected. Meanwhile, you have a guy like Jakeem Grant, who has had at least a year of catching 32 passes as a true freshman, and then last year he caught 65 passes and now, this year, he's caught 53 passes. Grant is clearly a step ahead a replacement level player.
The tough thing for us as football fans is that although there are different positions in baseball, we also have guys that don't go through the same stats that they do in baseball, so it can be incredibly difficult to quantify what a replacement level player is. Here's Football Outsiders:
At other positions, there is no easy way to separate players into "starters" and "replacements," since unlike at quarterback, being the starter doesn't make you the only guy who gets in the game. Instead, we used a simpler method, ranking players at each position in each season by attempts. The players who made up the final 10 percent of passes or runs were split out as "replacement players" and then compared to the players making up the other 90 percent of plays at that position. This took care of the fact that not every non-starter at running back or wide receiver is a freely available talent. (Think of Jonathan Stewart or Randall Cobb, for example.)
The easy thing that I'd love to have, and maybe one day we'll have this statistic, is the idea of snaps. The guys that are playing, but are in the bottom 10% of snaps in a two or three deep are essentially your replacement level player. But, as mentioned before, we don't have those stats readily available, so my thought is that a player is essentially a replacement level player if they've played 8-12 games in a purely back-up role to a more veteran starter. That replacement level player, like Reggie Davis, received significantly fewer snaps, probably less than 10%, and as a result, having an expectation of success for Davis, is, most likely, not really even close to being a prime time player. Under this definition, a true freshman would be a replacement level player. Zero experience playing college football zero real-time reps on the field. Same thing goes for a JUCO player. Although more physically mature in terms of age, they are essentially as good as maybe a redshirt sophomore, with plenty of JUCO reps, but zero real reps or starts in Division I college football.
My theory is that there is a significant difference between those players that are merely replacement level players vs. players who have been in the system and contributed for a good while. This is very similar to what Phil Steele does, which is track starts for each player each year and he bases a large portion of his prediction model off of starters and starts returning in a given year. The more career starts, the more likely that this player is not just a good player, but a significantly better player than a replacement level player with zero or very little starting experience.
Just throwing this out there, because this is something that's somewhat of a quirk in this idea, but if you havea junior who is starting his first year, I think you might be able to throw the idea that this player has received enough snaps over the course of a redshirt year and two additional years as a back-up to no longer really be at a replacement level player.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Of course. Michael Crabtree was a scout team player and then exploded onto the scene and was all-world immediately. This is not the normal trajectory for a receiver, to be a star, almost immediately when they set foot on the field. I know that we're all expecting Mike Mitchell to be a Crabtree-like player on defense, but given his relative experience thus far, the safer thing to do is to project that he'll merely be a replacement level player, who will have to actually play the game and work at his craft to become just an average starter, or all-conference, or maybe an All-American.
So, let's look at what I consider to be replacement level players as of the start of this season against Central Arkansas for Texas Tech and the players I consider to be replacement level players by the Texas game.
Replacement Level -- 2013 Central Arkansas:
Offense: Baylen Brown (questionable), Reginald Davis (questionable) and D.J. Polite-Bray
Defense: Kenny Williams, Demetrius Alston (questionable), Tevin Madison, Keenon Ward, Justis Nelson
I think that some of you might quibble with Brown and Davis, but thinking back to last year, Brown played at the end of the year because of a suspended player, but was mostly a player that saw action, but not real significant plays through the year. Same thing for Davis. As far as the defense, that's five players that are repalcement level. Ward saw some action as a back-up to Tre' Porter and TAnner Jacobson, but probably not 10% of the snaps. Same thing with Nelson. He played quite a bit by the end of the year, but if I had to guess if he played 10% of the snaps last year, I would have the under on that. And I could have sworn that Rika Levi started and that would give you eight replacement level players to start the season, but we'll only count on seven.
Replacement Level -- 2013 Texas:
Offense: Baylen Brown, Ian Sadler, Dylan Cantrell, Patrick Mahomes
Defense: Marcus Smith, Keenon Ward, Nigel Bethel, Justis Nelson
And yes, I know that a lot of these players have now started multiple games and all of that, so I'm still basing this off of the experience they all had prior to the season starting. That's eight replacement level players, and that's just the starters. I was unsure about a guy like Micah Awe, but he was 6th on the team with 58 tackles last year, so I left him off.
Now, let's compare to 2008.
Replacement Level -- 2008 Eastern Washington:
Offense: Detron Lewis
Defense: Brent Nickerson, Bront Bird
And by the time the Texas game rolled around:
Replacement Level -- 2008 Texas:
Offense: Detron Lewis, Lyle Leong
Defense: Brent Nickerson, Bront Bird
Just in case you were curious, Ed Britton was eventually replaced by Lyle Leong by the Texas game and only had 18 receptions for the year, but Leong and Britton both probably saw snaps, but Britton had been replaced by Leong at this point.
Anyone want to take a stab as to why that 2008 team was significantly better? Opposed to having to bring as many as 8 players up to speed on each side of the ball and almost an entire secondary, Leach was only having to bring 1 safety and 1 linebacker and 1 receiver up to speed by the start of the season. And, if I had the ability to figure it out, I would guess that the number of replacement level players, across Texas Tech's two-deep for that game, was most likely very small. Meanwhile, Texas Tech's two-deep is littered, yes, littered with players with little, if no Division I experience.
Again, this isn't about making excuses, but trying to provide explanations. If we're ever sitting here at the beginning of the season and trying to figure out whether or not a player is going to just waltz in and replace a player that's started for a number of year. Let's start hive-minding the number of snaps that a player has during the previous year as an expectation of how well that player is and what we're really dealing with in terms of real experience.
The idea here is that nothing, and I mean nothing, really replaces actual playing time. For coaches, they get caught in a situation like Eric Ward or Jace Amaro or Kerry Hyder. They are all too damned good to get off of the field, but in order to be successful moving forward, you have to get guys meaningful snaps otherwise, you have a team like Texas Tech, who is playing a ton of replacement level players, not just those starters named above. If you wanted to point to a fatal flaw from last year, it's that Kingsbury relied way too much on those seniors. To the point of not giving any of those back-ups that needed time to develop, those valuable snaps. The upside is that he won 8 games as a rookie head coach, the downside is that he left a team void of significant starts other than along the offensive line.
And if we wanted to get into the guys who are just a tick below replacement level player, i.e., which means that they are not good enough to be a starter, but are either a freshman, redshirt freshman, sophomores with less than 10% of the snaps as a back-up (that I think has received less than 10% of the snaps) or a first year JUCO players for the Texas game, and it's a bit eye-opening:
Vincent Testaverde, Jr., Reginald Davis, D.J. Polite-Bray, Gary Moore, Devin Lauderdale, Justin Stockton, Theirry Nguema, Jalen Barnes, Tevin Madison, Derrick Dixon, Sam Atoe, Brandon Bagley, Quinton White, JaDeion HIgh, Kahlee Woods, Malike Jenkins, Brandon Thorpe, Josh Outlaw, Talor Nunez, Cameron Batson, Andre Ross, Anthony Smith and Rika Levi.
There were 35 players that saw game participation and were not starters and there were 23 players that met this criteria of being incredibly young and having little to no experience. That's 65% of your players that are just now going through their first year. If you have a better recollection of those players on the 2008 team (I only had time to just consider the starters) I'd love to hear it (again, it is true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, sophomores with less than 10% of back-up snaps and JUCO first year players).
And if I had to give you reason for hope for next year, these replacement level players that are all getting some burn this year will not be replacement level players and they'll have some experience and skins on the wall. This is meaningful. Playing time is incredibly meaningful, it's the reason I think I'm the only one that thinks that even though Jace Amaro's playing time was somewhat sparse as a true freshman, it was meaningful nonetheless. Those snaps are cumulative and important.