Instead, I’m only going to focus on two numbers in this post: 1.2 million and 600,000.
It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is, who the running back is or who’s mad at whom on the defense for missing an assignment. There is nothing else as critical to the 2011 Redskins as offensive line depth. The loss of Kory Lichtensteiger and Trent Williams has been devastating. Although we don’t need fancy statistics to see that, a little math can help illustrate how the Redskins got to where they are.
Everyone is familiar with the concept of the average, but the concept of the median can often be more meaningful. If you’re not familiar, the median is just the middle number in a group of numbers. Say the town of Redmond, Washington is populated by Bill Gates, who makes a bazillion dollars per year, and 100,000 other people who make $30,000 per year. Redmond’s average income might be $1 million, but that’s not very representative of what life is really like there. In this case, the median income of $30,000 is much more meaningful. The median tells us that although Redmond might have plenty of total income, it lacks income depth.
If a team spends half its salary cap on a single star player and the minimum salary on the other 52 other players, it’s going to have no depth and a very low median salary. But if a team has a high median salary by allotting its salary cap equally among its players, it may not have any superstars, but it will have nothing but depth. (Cap hit is probably the best measure of NFL salaries, because it includes base salary plus amortized bonuses.)
The Redskins are about average in the league in terms of the total amount of salary allotted to their offensive line in 2011 — 17th by my numbers. But a very large portion of that total goes to Trent Williams. His cap hit this season is over half of the Redskins’ offensive line total of $20 million, which means there’s not much left for the other linemen. The median cap hit is slightly under $600,000.
For comparison, the eight current division leaders have an average median cap hit of $1.2 million for their offensive lines, twice that of the Redskins.
Williams’s $10 million might be just too many eggs in one basket. He’s a solid player, and is sorely missed at the moment, but I wonder if the team would be better off with two second-round $5 million linemen than one $10 million dollar guy. Offensive lines are somewhat like chains. If one link breaks, there’s probably going to be a sack or a tackle for a loss. It may not matter much how strong the other links are, or if one particular link is exceptionally strong.
One way to illustrate this to think of Barry Bonds and a papaya. The excellent baseball site Fangraphs posted an analysis that Bonds’s 2001 and 2002 seasons were so good, you could literally put a papaya in the lineup to hit behind him, and you'd come out with a replacement-level duo. In other words, you could bat me behind Bonds, and the Giants would have still won more than 70 games each season. But football is a different kind of sport. If you put me at right guard for the Packers this year, they’d almost certainly be 0-7 instead of 7-0. Depth is uniquely important to football, and the Redskins are never going to get very far with $600,000 papayas protecting the quarterback.
Brian Burke is former Navy pilot who has given up his F/A-18 for the less dangerous hobby of football analysis. He is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a website about football, statistics, and and game theory.