The Real Reason that Talent Surplus Doesn’t Reflect in Winning Percentage

If you’re a baseball fan, or have some background with making managerial decisions in the business world, you’re probably familiar with the theoretical concept of replacement level, or at least some of it’s deviations.  The whole conceptual idea is to establish a baseline–no matter what the measure of performance is–at which the level of production is no longer unique to the person providing it.  In other words, the performance loses it’s value because the pool of performers capable of replicating it is large enough and accessable enough to “replace” the performer at minimal cost.  It’s why you’re local elementary school music teacher probably doesn’t get paid as much as the principal’s secretary.  While both roles require competent people who can handle business in a professional manner, it takes less education and preparation to go in and be able to play instruments and get a group of 9-year-olds to sign a few songs in tune in preparation for the recital than it does to be able to organize and plan someone’s schedule each day for an entire school year.

It might even be the case that the music teacher has more work to do than the secretary.  This person directly impacts the lives of many younglings, and has to be able to work with both an entire group and struggling individuals to make the whole product run in perfect synergy.  It’s a difficult task, and that’s why schools employ professionals to handle it.  The concept of replacement level suggests that there are many members of the hypothetical community who could step into the role should the music teacher have to go on maternity leave, or something similar, and could execute the job without much risk of “ruining” the classroom.  If the same thing happens to the secretary, the school board might chose to bring in an aide from another school in the district, or consolidate the role.  They wouldn’t employ a member of the community with no background in the field of work.

The real reason the Redskins have failed to win consistently in the free agency era is because of a fundamental, but consistent, misunderstanding of the replacement level concept.  In a game where teams can roster 53 players, it’s impossible to get through a year without receiving a sub-replacement performance from someone, probably even a major contributor on your team.  Recent ex-Redskin Fred Smoot is a common target of this blog, and others, for his complete inability to cover anyone, and having players like Smoot on the team is avoidable.  Sometimes though, you can get a string of sub-replacement games from an unexpected source, such as Laron Landry.  This is much less avoidable.  The Redskins, in hindsight, would have been better off in 2009 with a replacement level free safety on the roster instead of Laron Landry, but there was no one that had this projected before the season, and there was never a time during the season where it ever seemed obvious that giving Landry’s roster spot to someone off the street such as Corey Chavous, Dexter Jackson, or Dwight Smith would have improved the team.  Although the replacement-level concept would suggest otherwise, sometimes a team just has to live, or at least have an allowance for, a sub-replacement performance.

Where the Redskins have gone so wrong since 1994, but particularly since 2000, is in the misvaluation of players that are above replacement level under the guise that they are receiving above average performance, when they are not.  This mistake has been visable not only in moves the Redskins have made, but also personnel moves that the Redskins have tried to make but haven’t executed, such as the QB saga of 2009.

What I am going to focus on today is the fact that not all positions are created equal in terms of where the replacement level is.  Some positions have a relatively high replacement level, such as safety, running back, center, and defensive line.  Other positions have a relatively low replacement level: wide receiver, tight end, linebackers, and specialty players.  Quarterbacks, Guards, and Cornerbacks tend to fall right in the middle.  But the position that completely dwarfs the system in the quality of replacement player in the modern game is the offensive tackle position, and the Redskins offensive failures since 2007 can be directly related to a fundamental mis-evaluation, not of the talent on their own roster, but of the offensive tackles (and wide receivers, as well) salary structure as it relates to the replacement level concept.

In 2007, the Redskins had an above average left tackle (Chris Samuels), a league average right tackle (Jon Jansen), a journeyman replacement level type who they thought could start at LG (Todd Wade), and a prospect undrafted free agent rookie (Stephon Heyer).  This was a pretty good group, all things considered.   But when Jansen went and ruptured his achillies in Week 1, we were about to find out how ill-prepared the Redskins were to deal with having a hole at the tackle position, something they hadn’t dealt with in a team-building sense since drafting Samuels in 2000.

It might be hard to think of it this way now, but Jansen was an incredibly durable player throughout his career.  His season ending injuries in 2004 and 2007 were obviously not the norm, and could have happened to anyone.  When he got injured in 2004, the Redskins had 42-year old Ray Brown in reserve to handle Jansen’s absence.  The Redskins never really had to deal with the replacement concept before, but Todd Wade was a different type of player.  The Redskins had just signed him to a contract extension after he had just one start in 2006, but Wade was not any more prepared to play right tackle (or left guard) for the Redskins that year than any number of unsigned, unwanted players who had the same level of experience at the position.  The Redskins’ nearly comical non-chalantness towards this roster shortcoming (not even admitting a failure of the Wade-at-LG plan until a training camp deal for Pete Kendall of the Jets) turned to action when Todd Wade’s play necessitated the genesis of the Stephon Heyer era at the RT position in Washington.  As the Redskins casted Todd Wade out at years end–as tends to be the norm with replacement level players–they didn’t make a move to address a weakening position as much as they just moved Jason Fabini out to right tackle to be a replacement level player in Wade’s place.

Heyer was being pressed into service at RT, all while remaining the primary contingency plan to Chris Samuels at LT.  From training camp 2007 until November 2009, the Redskins never made any effort to acquire a player who was above replacement level to back up Samuels, instead, if Samuels ever couldn’t play, Heyer would go in at LT.  It didn’t matter that the Redskins outed Jansen (along with Fabini), at the conclusion of the 2008 season, giving the job to Heyer full-time, Heyer was still the contingency plan to Samuels at LT.  As Heyer was starting to lose his prospect status without gaining any sort of value around the league, the team was thrusting more and more responsibility upon him.  They, of course, would sign Mike Williams, Jeremy Bridges, and D’Anthony Batiste in an attempt to bolster the back-up tackle position with pure free agent wire fodder.  Heyer never was able to achieve much more than what he started with in 2009, though through an improvement of his run blocking, he became the one above average run blocker on the Redskins OL in 2009.  When Samuels suffered a career ending injury in Week 5 of 2009, whatever cloak the Redskins had over their poorly executed plan fell to the ground.

The one thing that replacement level offensive tackles have that no other position has to worry about is that they cannot be hidden by the scheme.  In the weeks following Samuels injury, the Redskins’ tackle tandem of Mike Williams at RT and D’Anthony Batiste/Stephon Heyer at LT could have easily been bested by the roster building abilities of a UFL expansion team, who only has NFL camp releases to choose from.  But, to be frank, all teams have to deal with this phenomenon at some point or another, and most rely on strong coaching structure to help get the ship to shore while the highly paid labor gets healthy.  The part where the Redskins screwed up was where they assumed that the offensive tackle position was no different from all the other positions on a football field in terms of freely available talent.

It’s simply not the case.  When the Redskins signed Levi Jones to help stop the bleeding in a lost season, they pretty much had only a few veteran options available at LT, and they included Jones, Jonas Jennings, George Foster, or Kwame Harris.  With the exception of Jennings, those are all past-their-prime former first round picks who, in the case of Foster or Harris, never actually developed anyway.  When you look at the replacement level for every other position, it’s not nearly this dire.  If Jason Campbell had gotten a season-ending injury, and the Redskins had been watching Todd Collins get the crap kicked out of him behind this offensive line, they could have signed Gus Frerotte or Damon Huard off the scrap heap.  These are unwanted players, definitionally replacement level, but these players were successful NFL passers as recently as 2007, much like Collins, except that they aren’t getting 3 million per year.  If DeAngelo Hall had gotten hurt, the Redskins could have signed a Chris McAllister or a Mike McKenzie to carry the team for a few weeks, players who a year or two ago, were considered a key cog of their team’s defense.

The Redskins’ offense has not been able to score since the Jansen injury because they have not bothered to replace him.  Since Heyer held prospect status, there have been no prospects on the Redskins roster.  League average play has been a struggle to find on the offensive line, but at tackle, pure respectability has eluded them.  At most offensive positions, you’ll find that the Redskins aren’t exactly stacked with potential, and that their back-ups would not likely be picked up by another team when released.  You’ll see this phenomenon this year.  Todd Collins is likely not going to be picked up, and Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright are going to be out on the street for a considerable amount of time.  Todd Yoder is probably going to opt for retirement.  Randy Thomas may, or may not, be interested in landing a one year deal.  And poor Levi Jones is not going to get another offer from a team that isn’t Washington, no matter how weak the offensive tackles market appears.  This is the replacement level concept at work.  The million dollar question is: how does the new Redskins brass understand the concept?

The results are obviously not complete through a few days of free agency, but they are promising.  The Redskins did not sign below average tackles such as Chad Clifton and Tony Pashos to mulit-year contracts, despite an obvious need at the position.  They did sign Artis Hicks, a replacement level lineman, to a 3-year contract, but considering his experience in scheme and versatility, the signing can be defended as a stand-alone additions.  If the team ends up with two other Artis Hicks’ clones, it’s not a good sign.

Here’s where the real key will come: if the Redskins start to add actual prospects to the roster via the draft instead of the replacement level types who would instead occupy the position.  If the Redskins sign the replacement-level Barry Sims, and he makes the team (but not as a starter), that’s not a good sign of improvement.  But if they spent a fifth round pick on a developmental tackle, and he makes the team, that’s a much better sign.

If the team is serious about it’s desire for offensive improvement, whomever plays quarterback for the Redskins in 2010 is an irrelivant player.  Improvement will come from who lands the LT and RT positions in the offense.  This does not mean the Redskins should not take a quarterback early in the draft if the prospect is deemed to be one of the best available players within the next three years, but that passing up the opportunity to land a franchise LT should not excuse the team from the required offensive line improvement.  The Redskins need to start building around players who are like a present day Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, and currently they have no prospects who can live up to either role.  The success or failure of the upcoming season should ultimately be judged by the steps the Redskins take to reach this goal.  Add prospects now, and watch as they start to fulfull their ability to be part of the next great tackle tandem for the Redskins.

There are positions where a replacement player is unavoidable, but offensive tackle might be the one position on the field where it must be avoided, and at all costs.

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