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Indefensible Moves Are Indefensible

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I was amused to see Paul Mike Holmrgen [although what Paul thinks is about as relevant at this point] suggesting that a coach unlucky enough to have to try to win with “talent” assembled by late-period Mike Holmgren should resign if the new management tried to salvage some real value from Holmgren’s comically inept drafting. In other news, Dave Littlefield told LGM that as a manager he’d have to resign when his general manager released Matt Morris.

And yet, Holmgren will have his defenders. Bill James once noted that broadcasters believed so strongly in the essentially non-existent protection effect that when dealing with a player who went from a bad offense to a good one while getting worse, rather than wondering if protection really mattered or even ignoring it, they’d just take some arbitrary selection of 15 games and try to argue that the hitter really was better now. Ground n’ pound nostalgia is like that; it’s essentially impervious to empirical evidence. By all rights, the question of whether it was a good idea to trade up to draft Trent Richardson with a #3 pick should be as settled as the question of whether a team going nowhere should give up an outfield prospect for the privilege of paying a lot of money to a no-longer-able-to-pitch Matt Morris. 1)Using high picks on running backs has a horrible track record; 2)this isn’t surprising, since in the modern game running backs are largely fungible and the marginal quality of a team’s running game doesn’t have a lot of impact on a team’s ability to win; and 3)in practice, Richardson’s well-below replacement level performance at a low impact position for the cap hit of a #3 overall pick provided massive negative value to the Browns. And it’s not like it was an incredibly thin draft with no other decent options; if when trying to unload Richardson the Browns had asked for Luke Kuechly or Dontari Poe or Mark Barron or even Ryan Tannehill the other GM not only would have hung up but would have ignored your calls in the future. When a move is a terrible idea in theory and works out worse than that in practice, I’m inclined to think this settles the question.

But, as I said, people attached to ground and pound always have a million reasons to ignore the evidence, so Brien Jackson:

I confess, I have no idea why you think a running back not lighting up the world when there’s very little offensive talent around him and you’ve pretty much led the world in shitting on the guy playing quarterback. Why, it’s almost like defenses might have keyed on him and bet that Weeden wasn’t a good enough quarterback to make them pay for it!

First of all, I love the “lighting up the world” formulation to describe one of the worst regular RBs in the league and I plan to use it in the future. “Josh Skelton did not light up the world.” “Joba Chamberlain has not lit up the world as the future closer this year.” “Christine O’Donnell’s Senate campaign didn’t light up the world.” And second, is there any reason to believe that it’s impossible to run well without a good passing attack? Sure, some top backs last had decent-to-excellent quarterbacks (Lynch, Gore, Rice. And Morris, although he’s obviously a better argument that any random RB can do well in Shanahan’s blocking scheme than an argument that you should give up a king’s ransom to acquire a running back.) On the other hand, Adrian Peterson — the one running back good enough to possibly justify a high draft pick — had a historically good year with the QB stylings of Mr. Christian Ponder. You think defenses weren’t keying on him? C.J. Spiller had a great year with a Harvard man who no longer has a job. Jamaal Charles had a fine year with a guy who no longer has a job. Doug Martin had a much better year than Richardson with a QB who just lost his job to Mike Glennon. There’s no reason to believe that you need to have a top QB to run well.

This isn’t to say that context doesn’t matter at the margin. The fact that defenses were keying on Richardson is relevant if you’re trying to determine if he merits a starting job. As an argument for giving up further draft picks to take him #3 overall, it’s self-refuting. If Richardson can’t be expected to run well if defenses are keying on him, it’s just another way of saying that he doesn’t remotely justify an elite draft pick. If he can only be good if you have a first-rate passing game it’s insane to take him with a top draft pick, because if you have a first-rate passing game you don’t need an expensive running back.

Speaking of 2012’s top backs, several commenters brought up Marshawn Lynch as an argument for investing in a running back. Look, I’m a Seahawks fan; I like Lynch and I’m glad that the extension worked on in its first year. But it should be obvious that a gamble working out doesn’t mean that it was a good gamble at the time. After the 2000 season the Mariners declined to make a serious offer to a young superstar and instead offered a significant contract to a 32-year-old second baseman coming off two bad years. Since the latter unexpectedly turned into Rogers Hornsby for 2 of the next 3 years this worked out very well. But it would be a horrible idea to infer from this that it’s better to pay above-market rates for past-their-prime mediocrities than market rates for young superstars. (Alas, this does seem to be the lesson that the Mariners inferred from 2001, which helps to explain why they haven’t outscored their opponents in a decade.)

But even as an anecdote, Lynch doesn’t prove what Holmgren apologists think it proves. First, he’s evidence that you can acquire a good running back for not very much. The extension wasn’t a good gamble in my opinion, but it (unlike blowing a top 3 pick along with multiple later ones) was a low-stakes one. Since the Seahawks have an elite QB signed dirt cheap and some elite defenders signed to reasonable deals, they can afford a luxury purchase at running back. If Lynch doesn’t have a big year it doesn’t really hurt the team.

Now, Lynch might be relevant anecdotal evidence if he was always an outstanding player, justifying the mid-first rounder the Bills used on him. Except the following is an exhaustive list of the seasons in which he’s been an elite running back:

2012

The rest of his career, he’s been a decent player, sometimes a little above-average and sometimes a little below, but nothing special. Outside of Wilson’s read option, he’s a decent back, not an elite one. He certainly can’t be used to justify the Browns trading up for Trent Richardson, and the new Cleveland management did very well in salvaging a first-rounder from that busted pick.

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