Posted by Chase Stuart on August 19, 2009
There are two schools of thought on Dick Butkus.
1) He's one of the greatest, if not the greatest, middle linebackers in NFL history. Population: Just about everyone. The Sporting News ranked him as the 9th best player in NFL history. The Associated Press put him at number five. In his prime, he was known as the most feared man in the game. Jonathon Rand, like many sports writers, named him the greatest linebacker of all-time. At the age of 36, he was (and still is) the youngest non-RB to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2) He's the 50th best linebacker in NFL history. Population: Sean Lahman
Now, Sean Lahman is one of the smartest and most knowledgeable football historians around. So why is he alone on an island with respect to the great Dick Butkus? What exactly is Sean's argument?
It's difficult to come up with ways to measure linebackers objectively. Part of the problem is the lack of individual statistics, and part of the problem is the inability to separate the performance of an individual from the other players around them. This issue aplies to all football players, but the group it affects most is linebackers. We have to judge them in the context of the team they played for, and by that measure, it's hard to find any data to support the claims for Butkus being the clear and obvious pick for greatest linebacker of all-time.
The Bears never made the playoffs during Butkus' career, and they only finished with a winning record twice (one of which was a 7-6-1 record in 1967). They never finished as the league's top-ranked defense - either against the run, the pass, or overall. They finished in the bottom half of the NFL's defenses five out of nine seasons. They were pretty good against the run at times, but other times they got steamrolled.
When you try to find specific ways in which Butkus helped his team to win, or at least helped limit the number of yards and points the Bears gave up, it's impossible....
[People claim that] "teams didn't run on the Bears because of Butkus." That's one of those kinds of comments that is easy to throw around, but it simply wasn't true. Teams loved to run the ball against the Bears, and they did it more and more as Butkus got older.
Lahman concluded by showing that the Bears ranked 1st in rush attempts allowed in a 14-team NFL in 1965, but were below the median (and twice in the bottom two) in every season after that.
Before responding to Lahman's arguments, let's get some data. I know pro football didn't begin in 1950, but because that's as far back as the Approximate Value system goes, I often pretend that is does. As usual, my apologies to the pre-modern era players. Let's take a look at 12 of the most famous and dominant middle linebackers since '50, using AV and four team categories.
I looked at how each linebacker's defense ranked relative to league average in three key categories -- rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed, and points allowed. For each linebacker, he was given credit for his team's rankings in his four best seasons as a starter. As an example, in 2000, the Ravens allowed 2.69 YPC, 970 rushing yards and 165 points, while the league average (excluding the Ravens) was 4.12, 1829, and 336 in those categories. Consequently, Lewis gets credit for being on a team that was 35%, 47% and 51% better than average in those three categories. I also included the winning percentage for each linebacker in his team's best four seasons.
To be clear, I'm treating each category as its own; so we could have the Bears best four seasons in wins be in different seasons than Chicago's best four seasons in YPC allowed. After giving each linebacker a score in each of the five categories, I then gave each inside linebacker 12 points for finishing first in any of the five categories, 11 points for finishing second, and so on. I've included the tally for that points system in the final column:
AV YPC RYD PA Win% points Ray Lewis 135 1.27 1.36 1.36 0.719 47 Mike Singletary 125 1.13 1.31 1.37 0.824 47 Nick Buoniconti 103 1.21 1.29 1.37 0.848 46 Jack Lambert 114 1.17 1.26 1.39 0.808 44 Bill George 132 1.16 1.23 1.32 0.746 37 Sam Huff 105 1.19 1.23 1.30 0.807 34 Ray Nitschke 102 1.09 1.15 1.43 0.848 31 Willie Lanier 99 1.12 1.28 1.36 0.759 30 Joe Schmidt 119 1.12 1.22 1.30 0.790 29 Zach Thomas 115 1.14 1.18 1.23 0.656 22 Brian Urlacher 97 1.11 1.18 1.26 0.719 14 Dick Butkus 97 1.12 1.11 1.15 0.527 9
This confirms what Lahman argued -- Butkus' Bears did not stand out in yards per carry allowed, rushing yards allowed, points allowed, or winning percentage. His eight Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pros enabled him to achieve a respectable career AV grade of 97, but those are the only pieces of objective data (based, of course, on underlying subjective opinions) in his favor.
It should go without saying that I don't think Nick Buoniconti is the third best middle linebacker ever. And while Pro Bowls are far from the only (or perfect) measure of talent, let's take a look at the average number of Pro Bowlers at the other ten defensive positions for the above linebackers in the seasons in question:
5.00 Jack Lambert 4.06 Willie Lanier 3.38 Ray Nitschke 3.38 Joe Schmidt 3.31 Nick Buoniconti 3.06 Bill George 2.75 Ray Lewis 2.75 Mike Singletary 2.63 Sam Huff 2.25 Zach Thomas 1.94 Brian Urlacher 1.00 Dick Butkus
From 1965 to 1973, fifteen Bears defenders made the Pro Bowl. Eight of them were Dick Butkus. The only other multiple Pro Bowl defender was Richie Petitbon, who earned those distinctions in '66 and '67.
So what can we conclude? As usual, not too much. If nothing else, it's that not even the best middle linebacker can be professional football's version of an alchemist, turning junk into gold. Butkus' resume, from an objective standpoint, is weak. There's no doubt about that. The reason for Butkus' weak resume is just as clear -- and is fully exculpatory. From 1966 to 1972, he didn't play behind a single Pro Bowl defensive lineman. In seven of his nine seasons, at least one major source named him to its All-NFL team.
We can do one final, in-depth review of each player's teammates. Linebackers peak from ages 27-30. Therefore, we would assume that an all-time great MLB would have led some pretty good defenses during those years. Eleven of our 12 linebackers were starters in all four of those seasons of their careers. Ray Lewis was injured during his age 27 and 30 seasons, so we will use his age 26 and 31 seasons as substitutes. Remember the Great DL/LB/DB playing together posts? I used the same Peak AV and Age grade curves to get estimated values on the strength of the 10 teammates for our 12 great players during their four prime years of their careers. Below is the average AV grades per season of their 10 defensive teammates in the starting lineup during those four years:
Ray Nitschke 117 Mike Singletary 112 Joe Schmidt 103 Jack Lambert 99 Ray Lewis 99 Zach Thomas 98 Sam Huff 98 Willie Lanier 93 Bill George 89 Brian Urlacher 72 Dick Butkus 67 Nick Buoniconti 63
Don't believe the bottom of the list. Buoniconti has the AFL AV issue -- AV is very harsh on AFL players, and we're looking at the AFL from 1967 to 1970 with him. The other outlier, Urlacher has a timing issue -- my formula does not work well for active players, since many of Urlacher's teammates are still active and reaching their primes. Therefore, they're certainly undervalued. That leaves just Butkus, and it's clear that his teammates were far inferior to those of the other great nine linebackers (excluding Buoniconti and Urlacher) in this post. While other pre-merger players like Joe Schmidt, Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke were playing with stars, Butkus was a one man terror. And while the Bears defense wasn't very good, that's not an indictment on Butkus. It's hard to imagine any MLB leading top defenses with those caliber teammates. And while that doesn't make him the greatest MLB of all-time, neither do his poor team stats prevent him from being so named.
Lahman's book -- The Pro Football Historical Abstract -- is my most indispensable hard copy resource on the NFL. I hope I haven't dissuaded anyone from purchasing the book, especially those who think Lahman is certifiable for his ranking of Butkus. If nothing else, his willingness to go far out on the edge, in lieu of playing things safe, makes me respect him even more. On this issue, though, I'll stand with the majority. What's much more valuable to me than any conclusion is that he opened my eyes to a possibility that I had never considered before, and that allowed me to try and use some of our fun tools to answer that question.