This story appears in the Sept. 7, 2015 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
The act of taking a man to the ground against his will isn't what it used to be. Anthropologists tell us of a time, 9,000 years back, when two Neolithic men engaged in, say, a dispute over land. They would grapple awkwardly with one another about the neck and shoulders until one of them corkscrewed the other to the dirt.
At variance with the swiftness and exactitude of a modern NFL tackle, these bouts—like the ones etched inside the 4,000-year-old Egyptian tombs found at Saqqâra—appeared to consist of prolonged squaring off followed by prolonged hugging. But even as tacklers' collective technique has improved over the millennia, we haven't gotten any better at identifying the individual winners of these conflicts, particularly those that are waged during the popular land disputes that play out on fall Sundays across the landmass once known as upper Pangaea.
Anyone with a smartphone (and an abundance of free time) can learn Tom Brady's passer rating. In 2007. On third-and-short. Against a blitz. In cold weather.
But an accurate count of Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly's tackles last season? That's as hard to nail down as De'Anthony Thomas on a bubble screen. NFL.com and Carolina's website will tell you that in 2014, Kuechly led the league with 153 total tackles: 99 solos and 54 assists. But those numbers are as trustworthy as they are telling—which is to say, not at all—for they contain more judgment calls and flat-out errors than they do tackles for loss. (Kuechly had just 10 of those in '14, tied for 51st in the league.) The crucial difference is that “tackles for loss” is an official NFL stat, while plain ol’ “tackles” remains unofficial. The reasons for this oddity are many, but they distill to this: A part-time statistician peering through binoculars from a less than optimally positioned skybox, trying to determine which super-fast defensive ant just tackled that darting offensive ant, without the benefit of a replay, might have an easier time running out and making an NFL tackle himself.
Was there one tackler? Two? The computer system in a stats crew's cubicle doesn't allow there to be three, even though there are dozens of instances each Sunday when three men appear equally responsible for a stop (or five men, in the case of quarterback sneaks on third-and-inches). Despite all these complications, says one exasperated team p.r. director, “when you go to NFL.com, the guy leading the league in tackles has his picture at the top of the page, next to the QB who's leading in passing yards.”
It's not the statisticians' fault. The NFL's official recorders of its unofficial stats are asked to perform not only the nonsensical each Sunday, they are also asked to perform the impossible. These good people, laypersons like you and me, hold down day jobs during the week. They get paid anywhere from $20 to $70 a game for their work, the NFL capitalizing on the same magnetism that allows the Cowboys to rake in $29 per head at Jerry World for standing “seats” with no field view. With few exceptions, these statisticians are passionate supporters of the teams that employ them for 10 to 13 days a year. “And they tend to stick around awhile,” says Chris Hoeltge, the NFL official in charge of reviewing their work and entering it into the record. “If you can get one of those spots, you stay around for a long time.”
On fall Sunday evenings, as Hoeltge's staff in New York City collects the dozen or more so-called “game books” from the afternoon's completed contests—filled margin-to-margin with stats of every shape and relevance—the process of crediting tackles has only just begun. Team p.r. departments, position coaches and quality-control coaches will have a say in who ends up with official tackle credit on a handful of plays. Players themselves log their complaints with a position coach or p.r. flack. It's yet another reason for the rampant inaccuracy in recording one of the game's two most fundamental undertakings (blocking being the other, according to Lombardi), an act that the ancient Greeks did just fine recording with hammer and chisel, or papyrus and wet soot.
The tackle, on its own, has debatable merit as a statistic. “The only thing a tackle tells you about the play is who ended it,” says Sam Monson, senior analyst at Pro Football Focus, a digital outfit that watches every NFL play and takes its time in recording dozens of facts about each one, including which player(s) made the tackle. “A tackle doesn't tell you where [it happened], how bad the damage was before the tackle was made, whether the eventual tackler missed three tackles [earlier in the play] or whether he made the tackle five yards in the backfield. There's nothing to suggest that a guy with 200 tackles played better than a guy with 100. He just made more tackles."
Chargers free safety Eric Weddle is one of only a dozen or so NFL defenders who combine high-volume tackling (82 solos in 2014) with pinpoint precision (four missed tackles, second lowest among safeties who played 50% of their teams' snaps, according to PFF). “If a safety has a lot of tackles,” says Weddle, “it could mean you're coming up and making tackles in the run game, or you're getting a lot of balls caught on you, or you're covering for other guys [who missed tackles]. It's all in the details.”
The statistic becomes even murkier when we consider the biases and judgment calls that inform its tabulation—to say nothing of the outright errors. “"I've always thought it was funny when a guy ends up with, like, 180 tackles,” says Weddle. “How is that even possible?”
“The league actually credits solo tackles pretty reliably,” explains Aaron Schatz, founder of Football Outsiders, an analytics website that among other things monitors inflated tackle stats with diligence. “Assists are where you get the weirdness. That guy jumping on the pile, that's where the problem is.”
Only two parties seem to care about all this, by the way: hard-core fantasy football players, like Schatz, who participate in IDP (Individual Defensive Player) leagues where solo athletes are drafted instead of entire defensive units; and actual NFL defenders. Both parties are notably vocal in their dismay.
“I think it does need to be looked at,” says Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who, like Weddle, is both prolific and nearly perfect in his work (just seven missed tackles in 99 attempts last year, according to PFF). “Every team has a guy who makes a lot of tackles; and when in doubt, if [the statisticians] don't know who made a tackle, they just give it to that guy.” Despite Wagner's first-team All-Pro status and his new four-year, $43 million contract extension, his modest NFL-tallied totals of 67 solos and 37 assists in 2014 suggest that he is not “that guy” in Seattle. Asked if he's ever been surprised by the tackle figures next to his name on a postgame stats sheet, Wagner says, "It happens so often that it's not surprising. When you have a game where you feel like you had a lot of tackles, that'll be the game where they short you. Or when you feel like you only had a few tackles, that's when you end up with 12 or 15. I don't even pay attention to it anymore.”
Browns inside linebacker Karlos Dansby paid dear attention to it in 2013, when he was playing on a one-year prove-it deal with the Cardinals. “I think it's some [expletive], personally,” he told The Arizona Republic that fall upon noticing that other players among the league leaders in total tackles had “like 30-some assists, and I got three!
“It's frustrating as hell,” Dansby continued. “I'm 10 years in, I'm working too hard, bro, and it don't make no [expletive] sense. I'm pissed.”
His anger may have been justified. According to Schatz, the Cardinals' stats crew that year gave out an assist on only 9% of plays in which a tackle was recorded—the NFL's lowest rate. In 2014 the Jets' stats crew doled out assists on a whopping 44% of plays, highest in the league, while the Chiefs' crew did so on only 7% of plays, edging out the Dolphins (8%) for 32nd place.
When we consider the stinginess of Miami's statisticians (who gave out 58 assists all year) compared with the generosity of Baltimore's (231), Dolphins linebacker Jelani Jenkins's 110 total tackles (83 solos, 27 assists) start to look more impressive than Ravens inside 'backer Daryl Smith's 128 (68 and 60—tied for the most assists in the league). NFL.com, meanwhile, tells us that Jenkins finished 22nd in tackles and Smith 10th.
The world has bigger problems—the armed escalation of those original wrestling matches, for one. But even if there isn't a new contract or an incentive clause at stake, a linebacker who studies a given play in the film room, hammers it into his mind in position meetings, then sniffs it out on Sunday and fights his way past two 300-pound bodyguards for the privilege of taking Marshawn Lynch's knee upside his head—that man deserves to have his efforts accurately accounted for somewhere by his own employer, instead of by some league outsider pecking them into his Cheeto-dusted iPad.
Michael B. Poliakoff, author of the seminal Combat Sports in the Ancient World, points out that “in addition to their writing and record keeping, the ancient Greeks democratized sport. Wealth, birth, social standing—none of it mattered. And they structured their games so that one man could emerge and say, inarguably: I defeated everybody at this contest.” Surely, then, we can sift through all this partiality and misdirection and identify the best tacklers in the modern NFL. Right?
Schatz does not have Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David on his IDP team, so it is without favoritism that he declares the fourth-year player the undisputed champion of making important, game-affecting tackles. Pressed for proof, Schatz opens his laptop and says, “Let's talk about situations. We have a stat called ‘defeats.’ It combines forced turnovers, tackles that prevent third-down conversions, and tackles for loss. David had 23 defeats last year on rushing plays. No one else had more than 17. The year before, he had 24 to lead the league. No one else had more than 20. Nobody makes more run tackles that stop third-down conversions, or are for losses, than Lavonte David.” David racked up those totals last year, Schatz adds, despite missing two games to injury.
“It all begins with film study,” explains David, a soft-spoken 25-year-old. “You're trying to learn which play is gonna be run, but you're also learning who's accountable for [blocking] you. You try to learn who is accountable for each of your teammates as well ... so when the play happens, you have a head start on getting to the line of scrimmage, or behind it.”
With this in mind, David registered 85 tackles against the run last year. No other linebacker made more than 70. (Raiders rookie Khalil Mack made an impressive 60 run stops, for an average gain of just 1.9 yards—lowest among qualifying players.) A native Miamian, David grew up watching Dolphins 'backer Zach Thomas, who, according to an informal survey of NFL media relations folks, was notorious for analyzing his tackle stats as soon as he could get his grass-stained hands on them. This is not David's M.O. “I don't pay attention to solos and assists,” he says. “As far as looking to see whether a guy really made a tackle or not, it's not something I care about.”
Jene Bramel, a full-time pediatrician and part-time IDP addict who advises other fantasy players at Footballguys.com, points out that in Week 3 last year members of the Patriots' D were awarded 32 assists at home. The following week, in K.C., they got four. Browns players were handed an astounding 50 assists at home in Week 11 (three fewer than the Chiefs' crew gave out all year), while the visiting Texans were given 12. Hoeltge, guardian of the NFL's tackle stats, points out in defense of his scorers that Houston ran the ball a whopping 54 times that day, but that still doesn't account for the 20 or so dubious calls Cleveland's official scorers made.
Hardly anyone wanted to watch the 4–5 Texans play the 6–3 Browns when that game was shown live last Nov. 16, but here I was, nine months later, analyzing it down to the last frame as I followed along with the NFL's official game book. I watched Houston linebacker Brian Cushing loaf in pursuit and get rewarded with a cheap assist on a tackle that strong safety Danieal Manning deserved every bit of. Cleveland linebacker Craig Robertson got an assist for arriving after the ballcarrier's knee had been forced to the ground by teammate K'Waun Williams. Texans linebacker Akeem Dent whiffed so badly in trying to bring down the shifty Isaiah Crowell that he hopped to his feet in the wake of the play and clapped his hands in self-admonition. He was given a solo tackle for his efforts.
“You have to remember,” Hoeltge says, “each play averages six seconds, and there are 22 guys running around. And generally these [scorers] have a pretty terrible view of the field. Fifteen years ago they were at midfield, but now their boxes have been moved to much cheaper locations. That's hurt a little bit, especially when the action is on the opposite side of the field.”
This is the system that left Wagner, one of just five members in last year's “"60 Run Tackles” club, tied for 33rd on NFL.com's total tackles list. “I love Bobby Wagner,” says Bramel. “He's probably my favorite player. But I don't start him, because he plays in Seattle [where they don't pad his stats]. If he was playing in St. Louis or Miami, he'd be a 90 [solo], 20 [assist] guy. In New England he'd be a 100--60 guy.”
Why doesn't the league just uncrumple this car crash? In short, hiring a review team to watch game film on Mondays—just to adjust tackle and assist totals—is neither an exciting nor a cost-effective prospect. Put another way: If it's broke, wait for the complaints to rise above a whisper before you fix it.
As disruptive as David's and Wagner's tackles are, only one player at their positions last year ranked in the top five of PFF's two most telling tackling metrics: tackling efficiency, which computes tackles made against tackles missed (like batting average), and run stop percentage, which recognizes players who make tacklesmore than half the distance from a first down. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was a practice-squad player in 2012 and '13 before an injury to Denver starter Danny Trevathan last summer catapulted Marshall toward a breakout year in which he logged 89 solos, 21 assists and just four missed tackles, according to PFF.
“Funny thing is, tackling wasn't my strong suit in college,” says Marshall, a four-year starter at Nevada-Reno. “Even though I'd end up with 100 tackles, I'd still miss a lot, so that's what I worked on: taking an extra step, not being off balance....”
His years of work were rewarded with a single All-Pro vote this past January. “That was the greatest thing. For a guy who got cut three times—I got cut twice in one week in Jacksonville—to be able to say I received an All-Pro vote.... Whoever that one person was, I appreciate it.”
Unfortunately, at least one of the 91 solo tackles that the NFL credited to Marshall never happened. In the fourth quarter of Denver's Week 6 road win over the Jets, he was awarded a solo stop on a play in which he wasn't even nearby. At any point. The only explanation is that the scorer confused Marshall's number 54 with the 56 worn by teammate Nate Irving. “Sometimes you see a player who wasn't even on the field get credit for a tackle,” says Bramel. “Those never get changed.” (SI's attempt to reach the Jets' statistician went unanswered; requests of three other teams were declined.)
Another eternal truth of tackling stats: the home cooking that stats crews like the one in Buffalo seem to keep on simmer. “Kiko Alonso was credited with 72 assists in 2013,” says Schatz, referring to the linebacker who has since been traded to the Eagles. “That's the highest total in our database, going back to 1996.” That was the year, of course, that Buffalo's scorers logged more two-man tackles than any crew in the league. “The running joke in our office,” says PFF chief Neil Hornsby, “was that Kiko Alonso was still making tackles last season”—when he didn't play a snap due to an ACL tear in his left knee.
Such favoritism is rarely found in the work of the Steelers' veteran stats crew, which gives out assists at a rate right around the NFL mean: 25%. Crew chief Jim Downey—a sportswriter by trade, so he's no stranger to thankless, undercompensated work—says the hardest part about recording tackles these days is “the tempo of some of these modern no-huddle offenses. It's hard to keep up.” As for those scrums on third-and-inches, when any of six players could be given credit for a stop, Downey says, “that's when I tell Charlie [Wortman, whom the 55-year-old Downey has known since first grade and who has toiled on his crew at every home game since 1985] to just pick a number.... Some stadiums, the last guy who stands up from the pile is the player they'll give it to.”
That faint wail you hear? That's the sound of hundreds of players—NFL and IDP alike—screaming and yanking out their hair.
In the end the whole endeavor calls to mind The Wrestlers, the famous Greek sculpture from the third century B.C. that depicts two combatants locked in a position—nudity notwithstanding—familiar to any referee arriving at the end of an NFL play. Attributed variously to Myron, Cephisodotus the Younger or Heliodorus, The Wrestlers not only fails to identify the winner of the clash—we don't even know who sculpted it.