"Those five guys, they pave the road for us to run. We do the easy part, they do the hard part. It takes real men to do what they do for us." - New York Giants running back Derrick Ward, talking about his offensive line in October 2007.
In his January 23 column, Press Herald sports columnist Steve Solloway laments the fact that only one offensive lineman has won the James J. Fitzpatrick Trophy (Lewiston's Gerry Raymond in 1977) since the award's inception in 1971. Now, Solloway briefly touches upon why this is the case (namely, a lack of appreciation among spectators for those who spend all game laboring in the glob of flesh known as the line of scrimmage), but he largely neglects how the collegiate and professional ranks of the sport may influence why so few linemen have been recognized as the best high school football players in Maine.
Fortunately, there's Gregg Easterbrook, a columnist at ESPN.net, who's always examining football's neglected arguments, overlooked statistics, and undervalued players (or smarter-than-expected cheerleaders, such as Standish native Alyssa Caddle). So, whether he's explaining the mathematical reasons behind his belief in why teams should almost never punt, highlighting the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens' habit of blitzing at least one defensive back on two-thirds of the third-and-long situations in last week's conference championship game, or just giving Division II football teams shout-outs on a platform generally reserved for their richer and more talented brethren, Easterbrook always demonstrates an appreciation for the underappreciated. So it is no surprise that part of his December 17 hodgepodge of football-related thoughts turned to the lack of representation of lineman and linebackers in the pantheon of Heisman Trophy winners.
After noting the irony of the award's namesake probably not being able to win the award named after him (John Heisman was an offensive lineman), Easterbrook recommends the award be re-named the "Heisman Trophy for Big-College Quarterback or Running Back Who Receives Most Publicity." To be sure, the new moniker would be a mouthful, but at least its lack of brevity is redeemed by its accuracy. That's because, according to Easterbrook, ninety-three percent of the Heisman Trophy winners since the award was established in 1935 have either been a quarterback (25 times) or a running back (43 times), while wide receivers (4 times) and a cornerback account for the remaining 7 percent. Moreover, according to Easterbrook, the last lineman or linebacker to finish in the top 3 of the voting was University of Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green, when he finished in second 1980. This, despite the fact that offensive linemen have been represented in the top 5 picks of the NFL Draft every year since 2000, except two (2005 and 2003).
As unrepresentative as the the Heisman Trophy has been, though, the National Football League's (NFL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) track record is even worse.
Since 1957, ninety-six percent of the winners of the NFL MVP award have been either quarterbacks (33 times) or running backs (16 times). No offensive lineman or wide receiver has ever won the award, and a defensive player has been determined to be the league's MVP only twice (Minnesota Vikings Defensive Tackle Alan Page in 1971 and New York Giants Linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986). And, like the benign neglect the Heisman Trophy voters pay the college game's offensive lineman, the underrepresentation of professional linemen in MVP voting doesn't necessarily reflect the value the NFL labor market has placed on offensive linemen: Michael Lewis, author of the book The Blind Side: Evolution of Game notes that "the average N.F.L. left tackle’s salary was $5.5 million a year, and the left tackle had become the second-highest-paid position on the team, after the quarterback."
Which begs the question: Why are collegiate and professional linemen continually ignored for consideration as the game's finest players? Well, in a word, statistics. If baseball is the sabermetrician's game, then football is quickly becoming her second-favorite. A couple clicks on NFL.com's stats page, for example, can probably yield information on how well New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has performed when he's played in a dome on an oddly-numbered Sunday, while wearing a red undershirt. But good luck simply finding how many pancake blocks Patriots offensive Matt Light has executed or how many sacks Nick Kaczur has allowed. In fact, "Offensive Line" isn't even an option on the Web site's "View By Position" scroll.
Which begs the ultimate rhetorical question: If the NFL doesn't care to measure and statistically appreciate its offensive lineman, how can we expect Fitzpatrick voters to do so?
- John C.L. Morgan