I would like to start this off with a little rant: Finding football stats on the web is a pain in the butt. Relevant stats like team passing attempts against and 3rd downs against are almost impossible to find for anything but the most recent year. And don't even get me started on ESPN, that site is so inaccurate that I've completely given up on it. So, anyway, it was my intention to create a chart analyzing the correlation between individual sacks and the number of passing attempts and third and long situations a team faces. I was going to use it to try and figure out if Bryce Fisher is declining, or if his poor sack totals in 2006 were largely a result of an overall decline in the teams offense (or its ability to make teams play from behind, i.e. to force the other team to pass) and defense (i.e. its ability to force third and long situations). What I found I used, but if anyone could point me to a site that offers reliable and in-depth football stats, especially for more than the last year, I'd appreciate it.
Bryce Fisher: I'm a big Fisher fan, and I've written about him before. He's very underrated, a consummate pass rusher, but also an excellent defender against the run. As I've pointed out, the addition of Fisher in 2005 is largely responsible for Seattle's sea-change in defending the run on the defensive left side. To reiterate, Seattle's run D against rushes behind the offensive right tackle improved from 27 in 2004 to 4 and 6 in 2005-2006. Some of that praise is shared with Kelly Herndon, who might be a touch too torchable in coverage, but is one of the best corners in the league against the run.
The real question for Fisher is how he'll perform next season. At 30, he's entering a window where many players rapidly decline. It doesn't inspire confidence that he recorded only 4 sacks last season. I decided to look over the top ten sack leaders for the last three years to see if there was anything instructive to be found in their individual ages.
I grouped it into three age ranges. I used a week 9 cutoff, and then recorded only the players "absolute age" in years. The split went like this: 10 were 22-25,14 were 26-29, and 8 were in the 30-33 age range. Those totals look initially promising, with a quarter of all sack leaders in Fisher's age group. But lets look a little deeper into the totals.
- No player was as young as 22 when they recorded a top ten sack total. In fact, very few players in the NFL are younger than 23. In other words the "early twenties" grouping is slightly slanted, essentially comprising just 3 years.
- Of the performances by players 30 or above who recorded top ten sack totals, two were Simeon Rice, two Jason Taylor and the rest a who's who of elite pass rushers. All six players had recorded 10+ sack seasons earlier in their careers. Fisher's high was 9 in 2005.
- The late twenties grouping is the largest, and most likely to include career years. It's pretty clear, adhering to conventional sports wisdom, that a defensive end peaks in his mid to late twenties.
Fisher likely suffered from but was also a part of an overall decline in Seattle's defensive performance. Seattle's defense faced more 3rd downs in 2005 than 2006, 234 vs. 219, but without information on how many of each where "passing downs"--that is 6 or more yards from converting a first down--it's impossible to know how that might have affected Fisher's overall numbers. What is clear is that Fisher has maxed out his potential and is probably in the midst of a decline following his late 20's peak. Given his health and work ethic, I predict a graceful decline for Fisher. 5 to 7 sacks in 2007 would be reasonable. However, it's not impossible or even incredibly unlikely for the Fish to see an injury or age related collapse and be absent or completely ineffective. The point is, The Hawks must bring in depth at the defensive end position or face a potentially catastrophic collapse in their pass rush. Given the dearth of talent at end in free agency, the Hawks will have to hope for help out of the draft--and hope that the Captain can stay afloat one more season.