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Sacks Hits and Pressures or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Doubt Anthony Spencer

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There has been, I think, some confusion in recent months as to the nature of what I shall dub as "The Spencer Skeptical Position." This confusion stems from what I believe to be a lack of a thorough positing of the position by someone who holds it. Anyone who has been on the blog for a sufficient amount of time knows that I am one of what I take to be about 5 or 6 people who holds this position, and because I have been challenged on it recently – and because I call myself a Spencer skeptic in my sig line- I shall attempt to provide a formulation of the position.

As a brief aside I do not intend this to be a piece that generates a lot of comments, and unfortunately I do not anticipate a lot of recommendations. If it does do that, I will of course be happy. This is intended as a summation of the opinion on Anthony Spencer, if anybody does not feel like reading this you are free to stop now.

First, here is a brief history of the position. Spencer skepticism, in its current form, developed in response to the change in opinion of Spencer in the 2012 season. Prior to that season there were many persons who held the belief that Anthony Spencer was a mediocre to terrible outside linebacker and should not have been a member of the team. When Spencer had a great 2012 season many of these people changed their minds and began to support him. Now they believe that he is an integral part of the defense who is irreplaceable at this very moment. Spencer Skeptics, as it says in the name, disagree with this position. Not every Spencer skeptic was a Spencer hater pre-2012. Rather, Spencer Skeptics are defined by their doubt in Spencer’s ability at some level- I shall return to this later.

Before I begin my summary and defense of the Spencer Skeptical Position, I wish to first offer a quick clarification. I once made a statement that I thought Anthony Spencer was a "mediocre" player. In retrospect that was an incorrect statement and I regret making it. Anthony Spencer is a "good" player; he may even be a great player. That’s not what the skeptical position is about.

The Position Itself:

The first thing I wish to address is the nuance of the Skeptical Position. Some may think this is hair-splitting but there is a reason that I label myself as a Spencer skeptic and not a Spencer hater. Hate implies that I necessarily believe that Spencer will not do well in 2013. My position is not that I believe he won’t do well, but that I think there is a good chance of it. Some may think this is a "cowardly" position, but it is my personal philosophy not to endorse a position unless I firmly believe it to be true and have sufficient evidence to back it up.

Skepticism is the belief that there is a sufficient amount of doubt to refrain from endorsing a position. Skepticism can come in various degrees from moderate skepticism to severe skepticism. To give you an example there are two different players on the Cowboys whom I have a skepticism about with regard to their abilities. The first is Anthony Spencer. However there is a wide gulf between the moderate skepticism I experience towards Spencer and the severe skepticism I have towards Orlando Scandrick. I just refuse to believe he will have a good season because I don’t think he’s that good. I will hold that position in face of people trying to argue the opposite.

However, my doubt towards Spencer is much more tempered. If Spencer has a good season I will be mildly surprised. Not so surprised that I eat crow. I’m not betting against Spencer; I’m just not betting for him. Likewise if Spencer does not have a good season I won’t rub it in people’s faces saying "Ha! See? I told you so!" Rather I think I will experience mild disappointment that I was right. I think the severity of the positive emotion that one experiences when one is right mirrors the negative emotion one experiences when he/she is wrong. This severity is determined by how firmly a person holds his position. To wit: My Spencer skepticism is mild. I just am not buying into his ability to be good. I could be wrong. I’m open to the possibility. So we’ll see.

Spencer Skepticism can come in various forms. I have seen it expressed in many different ways by those who hold the position, and I shall list the 6 I think that are the most prevalent.

(A) Spencer is a terrible player

(B) While Spencer is good at his skillset, his skillset is itself not valuable

(C) While Spencer’s 2012 year was good, I doubt his ability to repeat it

(D) With the increase in pass rushing snaps, Spencer’s ability to pressure the QB will probably decrease

(E) Spencer’s ability is in some form or fashion dependent on rushing opposite Demarcus Ware

(F) No matter Spencer’s ability, he is not elite and we cannot afford to keep him around on any long term contract.

All Spencer skeptics endorse one or some of these positions. It is impossible to endorse all of them because (A) is inconsistent with (B) and (C), yet I think most people endorse some combination.

Let me start by reiterating that I think that any formulation of (A) is incorrect. Spencer has proven himself to be a good player on this team. Jason Garrett has spoken highly of his ability and other coaches have done the same. Further I think that it is completely accurate to say that Anthony Spencer is a Top 15 player on this team.

Spencer’s Ability

I endorse positions (B)-(D) and (F) of the Skeptical Position. In this section I shall attempt to defend (B)-(D). I think that (E) is somewhat self-explanatory, however if you feel the need to challenge me on that position please provide an argument below. (After a good argument in the comment section below, Boyman has convinced me that (E) is not a good position to hold. Reference his comment to understand why)

First, I will start with the good about Spencer. Spencer was a Top 10 pass rusher (9th to be exact) among 4-3 DEs and 3-4 OLBs. My metric for determining this comes from this formula: Pressure %= (Sacks +Hits+Pressures)/Pass Rush Snaps. If you include Von Miller and JJ Watt (I think you should) then he would be 11th but that’s still incredibly respectable when you realize it’s 11 out of 66. That’s incredibly good play. He is disruptive 13.89% of the time he rushes the QB. And even scarier he only rushes the QB 62% of the time. Imagine what he would be like if he were rushing the QB the amount of time Cameron Wake rushes.

However, it’s not like he’s been like that his entire career. Far from it, Anthony Spencer has never graded that well in his entire career. In 2011 his Pressure % was 11.97% good enough for a mediocre 19th best pass rusher in the league only better than 4-3 Des because he rushes the passer less often (I’ll discuss this later). Even worse his pressure in 2010 was downright awful sitting at 9.07% productivity, good enough for 48th best pass rusher in 2011 or 46th best pass rusher in 2012 (As of this point I have been unable to compile the full list of pass rushers for 2010 so I cannot tell you how he stacks up to those years. His last really good year before 2012 was 2009 where he had a 12.36 which would put him at a mid-teens pass rusher in both 2012 and 2011. My point is that Anthony Spencer’s best year put him just barely in the top 10 of pass rush productivity if you don’t count JJ Watt or Von Miller. If you do count those two Spencer has never been a top 10 pass rusher. EVER!

Now let’s discuss another interesting fact. Did you know that for the most part 3-4 OLBs tend to have better pressure productivity than 4-3 DEs. Now I think there may be a few reasons for this, but my best guess is that because they do not rush every down the defense has a harder time dealing with the "non-elite" OLBs than it does with the "non-elite" 4-3 DEs. Now that Spencer will be rushing the passer close to every down he plays, his production will most likely decrease.

Given these two facts, do we really want to call Spencer a great player based on 1 great year and 1 good year? This clarifies (D) and (F) Some people make the argument that Spencer’s role has never been pass rush. Rather he is an edge-rusher and run-stuffer. That’s what makes him important. My initial sarcastic reaction is usually, well that’s good for him. But I’m not sure people know why I think that. I don’t intend this post to be a full defense of my position for why I don’t think run-stuffing is very important, but I will give a very brief analysis of my opinion. There is little correlation between RB YPC and winning football games. The Buffalo Bills had the 4th best Offensive YPC last year, the Chiefs the 6th, the Eagles the 10th, the Bucs the 11th and on and on. More telling Atlanta Denver and Green Bay were all bottom 10th of the league in rushing. There is a .03 correlation between YPC and winning. To give you a basis for comparison a .7 is considered a relatively strong correlation.

On the other hand there is a higher correlation between NY/A and winning (around .5 I think). Given these facts wouldn’t you rather care more about a player who will help you stop the pass more than stop the run? Especially since the completion percentage of a quarterback drops by an average of 15% when you get pressure on him? I can’t be the only one who sees this.

Keeping Spencer

Honestly I happen to think that most of these facts happen to moot. Spencer is not going to be with the Cowboys in 2014, he’s just not. Some of you may see this as a tragedy but I don’t. Spencer had 2 good years and I doubt his ability to replicate a third. Regardless of all that it would be fair to say that Spencer was a top 10 3-4 OLB last year and we just can’t afford to pay that kind of money to him and hope to retain Dez Bryant Bruce Carter and Tyron Smith on the roster. I’m not sure point (F) needs much clarification, most people see this.

This is the outline of what I believe to be the best formation of the Spencer Skeptical Position. Spencer is a good player who isn’t great at pass rushing consistently. I believe that pass rushing is the most important thing a team can do and greatly impacts a team’s chance at success. If Spencer could maintain or improve his number from 2012 it would be great for the year, but (1) I don’t think he will and (2) we couldn’t afford to keep him if we did.

As a final note, I have not nor ever just judged a pass rusher based on his sacks. Not sure where this notion came from. Total Pressure is ridiculously more important than sacks by themselves.

I’d appreciate your comments and feedback on this piece if you’ve managed to make it this far.

Cthulu Fhtagan.

You’re still here? It’s over. Go home.

….

Go.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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