How can you tell if an NFL player stinks?

The stadium scene.
Sept. 15 2006 4:17 PM

How Can You Tell If an NFL Player Stinks?

It's hard!

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch. Click image to expand.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch

Oh, heavens, whatever shall the Steelers do? Seems "Big" Ben Roethlisberger, the wunderkind who led them to a Super Bowl last year, is still in pain from his recent appendectomy. No worries, Pittsburgh faithful. Charlie Batch, heretofore distinguished only by his clipboard-holding abilities, looked like the second coming of Terry Bradshaw in last week's season opener. The not-so-good quarterback has now gone an impressive 3-0 as a fill-in with the Steelers.

The point isn't that Roethlisberger is overrated, although that's a distinct possibility. It's that virtually all NFL stars receive too much credit for the fortunes of their teams. Stars might not win football games, but they do win fantasy football games. If quarterbacks and running backs didn't get enough credit already, they've come to dominate even more of the headspace of football fans due to the stats-porn of fantasy games. LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander, and Edgerrin James: These are the frontliners in every fantasy geek's lineup. These are also the guys who get analyzed to no end when they have an off week. But this analysis is misplaced—Shaun Alexander isn't the determining factor when the Seahawks win or lose. Nope, the guys who decide things are the supporting casts.

Recent history shows that successful teams do a couple of things well—and nothing terribly. The Baltimore Ravens of 2000 sported a hellacious defense and a quarterback, Trent Dilfer, who earned his trip to Disney World by staying out of the way. New England's three recent titles have come despite an annual round of calamitous injuries that have required coach Bill Belichick to regularly MacGyver a lineup full of guys who aren't playing their stated positions. None of these round pegs become All Pros in their new square holes, but more importantly, none become liabilities. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning has no Super Bowl ring.

If competence wins championships, then the NFL's stragglers are the ones with the weakest links. When the New York Times tallied the league's most-penalized players of 2005, they found that the bottom five led their teams to an average record of 6-10. Rams tackle Alex Barron led the league with 18 penalties in just 12 games. Attention, defenses: Just hang back and wait for the false start.

Another easy example here is the Steelers' other backup QB, Tommy Maddox. Pressed into service early last season against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he pulled the anti-Batch, turning over the ball four times and bobbling a snap on a field goal in overtime. And perhaps the most infamous goat in recent history was Giants long snapper Trey Junkin, signed just one week before his two blown snaps helped usher New York out of the playoffs in 2003. But most guys don't get to fail that spectacularly.

This kind of transcendent awfulness is an outlier. In baseball and basketball, the weak link stands out—it's the guy with the low batting average or the pitiful rebounding stats. In football, the crappiness of nonquarterbacks isn't usually easy to identify. Box scores and highlights shows linger on long passes and scrambling rushes rather than the linemen who midwife those plays. Or the poor oaf who whiffed on a block, or the cornerback who looked over the wrong shoulder.

NFL teams lose because of the linemen who aren't quick enough, the linebackers who miss tackles, and the safeties who blow assignments. Errors in nonglamour positions, though, are typically only glimpsed in the periphery of an opponent's success. The losers are the guys you see at the bottom edge of the screen when Chad Johnson is running into the end zone.

In week one, Charlie Batch was no more brilliant than the Dolphins' secondary was shaky. ESPN.com named Chad Pennington its player of the week after he threw for 319 yards—against the Titans' bumbling defensive backs. The Chargers recorded seven sacks, but they did so against a Raiders offensive line that might as well have been a velvet rope.

If the NFL had no stiffs, there would be no marquee players. But let's be honest here. The formula for a winning pro football team is the same as the recipe for a good intramural softball team: a few real jocks and a gaggle of roster-fillers who have a pulse and a decent attention span.

Sam Eifling is an itinerant freelance writer and editor.