Offensive players get an undue amount of attention when we consider the impact individuals have on the game of football.
Maybe it's time to talk about Baltimore's spectacular safety Ed Reed in the same breath, on the heels of his performance in his team's thorough 27-9 beat-down of the Dolphins in the wildcard round on Sunday.
For evidence of the undue attention given to offensive players, simply look at MVP voting through the years: 55 performers have been named Most Valuable Player since the Associated Press introduced the award back in 1957. Only four honorees played defense, and the last was Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986 – so long ago that we were still keeping Strat-O-Matic stats in the bedroom at mom's house way back then.
The only defenders before Taylor to get an MVP nod were Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971, Lions linebacker Joe Schmidt, who shared the award with Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin in 1960 and Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti in 1958.
The Hall of Fame is also unfairly represented by offensive players, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have chronicled
through the years (with great success, by the way
). College "pundits" have the same problem, too, as evidenced by the annual parade of glitzy offensive stars who earn an invite to the Downtown Athletic Club and a shot at the Heisman Trophy.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts are just as guilty: its simply easier to argue the merits of players for which we have empirical evidence of some kind, and that evidence is normally found on the offensive side of the ball: yards, touchdowns, catches, attempts, passer rating, etc., are all used to compare offensive players.
Defenders get no love. Hell, tackles, the most basic function of a defender, aren't even an official stat (yeah, hard for us to believe, too).
But a select few defenders leap off the stat sheet for their game-changing performances, and perhaps none more so in today's NFL than Reed.
He may have been the biggest star of wildcard weekend. In Baltimore's win over Miami, Reed was responsible for two of his team's four interceptions of CHFF 2008 MVP
Chad Pennington – who has otherwise been the most accurate passer in NFL history and who had thrown only seven picks during the entire season. Reed had a shot at picking off at least two other passes, too.
After his first pick, the athletically gifted safety weaved his way through the Miami offense as if he were Gale Sayers, returning the ball 64 yards for a score that lifted Baltimore to a 10-3 second quarter lead that they would never relinquish.
His second INT was not nearly as spectacular, but perhaps as important: it thwarted one of Miami's best chances to score in the second half after they had driven from their own 29 and deep into Baltimore territory.
While it's hard to quantify the impact defenders have on a game, it's not hard to quantify the impact Reed has had on Baltimore's ability to win. Thanks to pro football researcher Coach T.J. Troup, we know that the Ravens in the regular season are:
- 27-8 (.771) when Reed intercepts a pass
- 34-43 (.442) when Reed does not intercept a pass
In other words, his capabilities have an immediate and profound impact on Baltimore's bottom line: the Ravens win when he produces, and lose when he does not.
It's rare to find that kind of quantifiable impact out of a defender. Of course, it's rare to find a defender like Reed: a big, athletic, hard-hitting safety with the proverbial ball skills who seems like he could easily adapt to a role as running back or wide receiver on most NFL teams.
The key for Reed is not just that he picks off passes. It's what he does with the ball when he gets his hands on it: as we saw with his 64-yard TD Sunday, Reed is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
In 2004, he returned an INT 106 yards for a TD against Cleveland – the longest interception return in history. Or at least it was the longest, until Reed returned one 107 yards for a TD against the Eagles earlier this year.
He can literally score from anywhere, and often does.
Reed has just 65 "touches" in his career (43 INTs, 16 punt returns, 6 fumbles). Yet he's turned those 65 touches into a remarkable eight touchdowns (5 INT, 1 punt, 2 fumble). That's 1 TD for every 8 touches.
(Reed has also scored three other touchdowns on blocked punts, though we're not sure if we should qualify those as "touches.")
It's a rate of scoring that's literally unmatched in the history of football.
Compare Reed's rate of success to that of Deion Sanders – perhaps the most explosive scoring defender in history before Reed (not to mention a member of the CHFF All-Time 11
Sanders scored more non-offensive touchdowns than any player in history, with 19 (9 INTs, 6 punt returns, 3 kick returns, 1 fumble). But Sanders needed 433 touches (212 punt returns, 155 kick returns, 53 INTs, 13 fumbles) to score those 19 TDs – a rate of 1 TD for every 23 touches.
In all fairness, Sanders compares much more favorably when we look only at defensive scores – he turned 53 INTs and 13 fumble recoveries into 10 TDs (a TD every 6.6 touches). Reed has turned 43 INTs and 6 fumble recoveries into 7 TDs (a TD every 7 touches).
On the flip side, if Reed routinely returned punts and kicks like Sanders did, it's not a stretchh to believe that he would have already smashed the non-offensive TD record here in his seventh year in the NFL (Sanders played 14 years).
Here's a few other numbers that leap off the back of the Ed Reed bubble gum card:
- He's Baltimore all-time leader in INTs (43).
- He the first person in NFL history to return an interception, punt, blocked punt and fumble for a touchdown.
- He holds the single-season record for INT return yards in a season (358).
- He's twice led the NFL in INTs with nine in both 2004 and 2008.
- He's grabbed five INTs in just three career postseason games.
- And, as noted above, he boasts the two longest INT returns for TDs in history.
With the exception of Baltimore's win over Miami Sunday, Reed's production has yet to have the same impact on his team's ability to win in the postseason as it has had in the regular season.
After all, Reed nabbed an interception from Tennessee's Steve McNair in Baltimore's 20-17 loss to the Titans in the 2003 playoffs. Reed also picked off Indy's Peyton Manning twice in the 2006 playoffs, but the Ravens lost, 15-6
Of course, those playoff Ravens were led offensively by Anthony Wright (2003) and Steve McNair, who was heading for a drink at the 19th hole by the time he played for Baltimore in 2006. Reed could have intercepted passes and then walked on water in those games and his handicapped team probably wouldn't have won.
The 2008 Ravens at least have a bit of offensive hope for about the first time in franchise history thanks to a ground game that continues to be formidable (33 for 151 and 2 TDs against Miami) and to rookie quarterback Joe Flacco – whose greatest accomplishment on Sunday was that he didn't throw an INT. But in the process, he became just the third quarterback in history to win his first postseason start (Shaun King, Ben Roethlisberger).
Flacco appears like a quarterback who could make an impact for a long time to come. And, like most quarterbacks, his exploits and his stats will generate a lot of attention from the pigskin "pundits," including the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
But as long as Reed plays with Flacco, it might not hurt to take a look at the thin, undersized and typically ignored defensive side of the stat sheet anytime the Ravens win. There's a good chance you'll find an impact performance there from a certain game-breaking Baltimore defender.