July 13, 2015

The overrating of Ken Stabler

Ken Stabler trying to escape from
Denver Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar
n 1976. Stabler was a four-time
Pro Bowl pick.
 CreditJim Palmer/Associated Press
Yes, Stabler, the former keystone of early-mid 1970s Oakland Raiders teams is dead (and the NYT account of his nickname "Snake" is not what is probably the reason why), and I'm not writing to dishonor his memory — rowdy as it was before he got sober.

I am writing to downplay high-gloss buffing of his career, when, after his 1973-76 peak, he really wasn't all that good.

Using a term from Baseball-Reference, he had ZERO black ink after that peak.

Yet, after Craig Calcaterra (who is too young to have seen Stabler's career live) makes a reference to him in this blog post about the Mets' Steven Matz, and says this:
We’re seeing some of this, by the way, in the remembrances of Ken Stabler, too. Admiring and even romantic anecdotes about an era when a quarterback could drink a 12-pack the morning of a big game, still pass for 300 yards and hit the town that night, all while marching his charges to the Super Bowl. It’s definitely a good story with respect to Ken Stabler — the guy was an absolute beast — but it ignores the fact that he was something of a super human and that for every one like him back in the outlaw NFL of the 1970s, there were a dozen promising college quarterbacks who flamed out and found themselves in AA meetings.

And, I counter that Stabler had just a four-year peak, the numbnuts come out of the woodwork.

First, it's interesting that Craig mentioned "survivor bias." Given that he seems to be overrating Stabler's career, whether because Stabler eventually was a "survivor" through sobriety, or a survivor in the game of life with a cast-iron liver even though quickly tailing off as a quarterback, he might want to look that term up himself. Or other logical fallacies. 

Second, Stabler only marched the Raiders to one Super Bowl. Others to do that for wins include such stellar QBs as Jim Plunkett and, well, Jim Plunkett. And, with his two rings to Stabler's one, nobody who knows much thinks he's a great QB either. Daryle Lamonica took them to their first loss in the SB, of course, and Rich Gannon did the same 35 years later.

Then, one commenter admits he was no Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton or Joe Montana, he does say he was a comp to Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw.

Erm, maybe not.

Let's look at Pro-Football Reference's total Approximate Value points. Stabler had four seasons of 14 or more, three of them in that four-year peak. Unitas had six in an eight-year span, all 14 games or less. (Stabler's fourth 14-point season was in a 16-game schedule.) Tarkenton had nine, all in 14-game seasons. And Montana, all in 16-game seasons, actually had just four years with AV of 16 or above, to adjust for the longer schedule, along with a 15 and a 14.

Namath indeed had four 14s or above, all in a 14 game schedule, and three at his peak. So, Namath is a good comp. Namath had a four-year peak of 1967-69 and a healthy 1972. That said, a lot of people overrate Namath as a QB. Like Stabler, his TDs were far lower than his INTs. Stabler did have a much better completion percentage, but, he was almost a decade younger than Namath — and more than that vs Tark or Johnny U.

Bradshaw is also, surprisingly, a good comp, though Bradshaw had a plus-2 on TDs vs INTs. 

Stabler only had one year after 1976 where his TDs topped his INTs, even in years where he had a decent completion percentage. And, maybe that's part of why Bradshaw has four rings and Stabler only one.

He obviously "forced" a lot of passes, and that's probably one reason he's only got one Super Bowl ring. Maybe he thought he "had to," given the Dolphins early in his career (I still remember this 1974 AFC division playoff between the two) or the Steelers next. The 1970s AFC was tough. But, the INTs were in the regular season, too. After that, maybe he thought he had to be Dan Fouts. As another commenter noted, Stabler had to know he was well past his prime when he was traded straight up for Dan Pastorini.

Tight end target Dave Casper, in the NYT story, reflects more on Stabler's getting picked, and relates it to his general gambling (including federal and NFL investigations):
I don’t think he ever cared about losing. Winning is fine. Losing? So what? He’d rather win the gamble and force a pass in there. He’d rather do it the hard way.”
Bingo. Today, a lot of teams would pass on him. 

Another commenter then, going to baseball, tried to compare him to Whitey Ford. Not even close. That's like overrating Stabler 10 times. I said Bob Turley was a better comp indeed. Or maybe Ralph Terry. But, no way in hell is Kenny Stabler a Whitey Ford.

And, all of this is yet another reason why I blogged about sports commenting on blogs last week.

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