One of the primary reasons that stat analysis can be such an effective tool in our attempt to understand football and grade players is that it 1) catches events that we miss or forget, and 2) isn't susceptible to cognitive biases. As a simple example of that, consider the public perception of Tony Romo. Despite the widespread notion of him choking in clutch situations, the numbers suggest that idea is inconclusive at best and just plain wrong at worst.
It's understandable why humans would create false narratives: We just aren't all that great at deciphering information around us, but we need to form some sort of opinion of how the world works. We're programmed to place an unnecessary amount of importance on recent events (recency bias) and make judgments based on how easily we can conceive of relevant examples (availability heuristic). When assessing player performance, that can be problematic. [embedded_ad]
Consider the negative perception of NFL referees, which is strongly distorted by specific examples that we can recall (typically blown calls). We usually don't praise NFL refs when they do their jobs, instead failing to recognize them until they screw up. That's just the nature of the business for refs, but it produces the illusion that they're mediocre at what they do when, for the most part, they do a really good job.
That same concept – namely that which is governed by the availability heuristic – is why cornerback Orlando Scandrick has been underrated for a long time. When you consider Scandrick's job description in the slot, you start to realize that he plays perhaps the most difficult position in the NFL, outside of quarterback. He must cover receivers without the help of the sideline. He needs to make tackles in the open field. And because he's often in man coverage, he doesn't have as many opportunities to generate big plays, as evidenced by his four career interceptions.
Even this year, it's taken an All-Pro type of effort from Scandrick for him to get any sort of recognition. The truth is that he played nearly as well in 2012. I actually gave him the highest grade on the team last year and ranked him in my top 10 players this preseason. Even when my eyes were telling me that Scandrick couldn't possibly be one of the team's most effective players, I knew my preconceptions were probably strongly ruled be a few specific plays that stuck out in my mind.
To give you an idea of how dominant Scandrick has been in 2013, let's dig into the numbers.
Orlando Scandrick By the Numbers
Through Week 7, Scandrick has been targeted 41 times, a pretty high number for a cornerback playing so well. He's yielded 26 receptions (63.4 percent) for 217 yards (5.29 yards per attempt or YPA). That efficiency is outstanding for any cornerback.
Actually, anything around 7.5 YPA or lower is great, and Scandrick has checked in below that in all but two games.
He turned in a decent performance against the Broncos (although you might say it was above average given the competition) and a slightly below-average game against the Redskins, but otherwise, Scandrick has been unbelievable. Even considering his work solely in the slot, Scandrick has allowed only 5.35 YPA.
One of the other cool ways to judge cornerbacks is by how many yards they allow on a per-route basis. That way, they're actually rewarded for having good coverage and not getting targeted. Whereas a cornerback who gave up one completion of 15 yards in 100 snaps would be penalized in terms of YPA, he'd rank highly in yards per route (YPR).
Looking at how Scandrick compares to the Cowboys' other cornerbacks and the NFL as a whole, we can start to visualize his dominance.
The top cornerback in the NFL in YPR is unsurprisingly Tampa Bay's Darrelle Revis, according to Pro Football Focus. But not far behind him, ranking well within the top 10, is Scandrick. Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr, who ranks in the top 20 in the NFL in YPR at 1.01, is performing better than he did in 2012. Still, at 0.73 YPR, Scandrick is over a quarter-yard better than the Cowboys' "best" cornerback. He's allowing well below half of Morris Claiborne's 1.63 YPR. Scandrick is playing outstanding football, probably the best of his career, but the truth is that he's been underappreciated for a while. He's the prototype for the category of players whose contributions aren't necessarily apparent to the casual viewer, but whose stats prove his value.