The Dallas Cowboys have one of the most demanding fan bases in all of professional sport..."/> The Dallas Cowboys have one of the most demanding fan bases in all of professional sport..."/>

Is Anthony Spencer ‘Average’? A Comparison with DeMarcus Ware


The Dallas Cowboys have one of the most demanding fan bases in all of professional sports.  The franchise’s history of success, whether it be Tom Landry’s historical 20 winning seasons or the three Super Bowl victories in the 1990s, creates fans that demand excellence from any player who wears The Star.

When it comes to how people evaluate Anthony Spencer, he has the misfortune of not only being a Dallas Cowboy, but playing the same position as future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware.

Spencer recently spoke out and explained what it was like playing with one of the best players ever to play the position in Ware:

"“It’s both a curse and a blessing,” Spencer said of playing with DeMarcus Ware, who was second in the league in 2011 with 19.5 sacks.After giving the “curse” portion of his comment some thought, Spencer quickly added: “I wouldn’t say it’s a curse, but it has its benefits and its non-benefits being across from him, definitely.”Fortunately for Spencer, he has learned to ignore his critics.“I only hear it from my family and what not: ‘Did you see what they said on this? Did you hear what they said on that?’” Spencer said. “Other than that, I really don’t worry about that stuff. As long as I’m doing what I need to do for the team, that’s all that really matters.”"

Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan has been a huge supporter of Anthony Spencer since he was hired last summer.  He has constantly told the media that they are crazy if they don’t understand how good Anthony Spencer plays.

He recently commented on the subject again:

"“I listen to all those radio shows on the way home, and when they’re not dog-cussing me, they’re dog-cussing him,” Ryan said. “The bottom line is: He’s a damn good football player. What we asked him to do, he did a great job with. So if we send him more this year (as a pass-rusher), that will be great. I know everybody just looks at the bottom line on sacks or wins, and I don’t blame them. But as a coach, you appreciate a guy like Anthony Spencer because he does the right thing, and he plays hard; he forces fumbles; he still rushes the passer. … I think he’s going to have a great year.”"

Despite these strong endorsements from his coaches and similar ones from teammates, and the fact that the Cowboys franchised him at a cost of $8.8 million rather than risk losing him in free agency, fans and many in the media continue to malign Anthony Spencer and ridicule his abilities as a football player.

People who believe that Anthony Spencer is a valuable asset to the Dallas Cowboys and a good OLB typically assert three main facts when assessing his performance:

1. It is unfair to judge anyone by comparing them to DeMarcus Ware because he is one of the best defensive players in the NFL and one of the best to ever play OLB.

2. The Dallas Cowboys, like many franchises, do not have sufficient salary cap space to pay two elite OLB’s.

3. Anthony Spencer has more responsibilities as a defender than simply rushing the passer on every play, so it is unfair to judge his contribution to the team by the number of sacks he makes.

I recently had a discussion about whether Spencer was being overpaid and then specifically about whether he was “average”.

It may be that part of what fueled the disagreement was semantics: the lack of a clear definition of “average”. Cowboy fans often say “average” when they are trying to say “not excellent”, but the concept of ‘average’ is essentially a mathematical construct.

If you look at Anthony Spencer’s production in 2011, his season was not average. Even in the area that Spencer is most viciously criticized, pass-rushing, his number were much better than average.

Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus has pointed out that Spencer was fourth in the league in sacks (6), pressures (31) and hits (9), though pressures and hits are unofficial stats.  Being 4th in the NFL in getting pressure on the QB seems so distant from the possibility of being ‘average’ that no real analysis is required.

Let’s take a quick look at how Spencer’s official NFL stats compare with DeMarcus Ware.

Ware had 47 tackles, 11 assists, 19.5 sacks, 2 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles.

Spencer had 51 tackles, 15 assists, 6 sacks, 1 pass defended, and 4 forced fumbles.

Three things stick out on the surface:

1. Spencer had more tackles.

2. Ware had far more sacks.

3. Spencer caused 2 more fumbles.

It may surprise some to see that Spencer had more tackles and caused two more turnovers.

The advanced stats at provide an interesting perspective on basic NFL stats.  Many people are skeptical of the grades PFF assigns to specific players (click here to read how they determine grades).  While skepticism of the grading may have some merit since every judgment is necessarily subjective, it would be difficult to doubt the validity of the advanced statistics that are compiled by PFF because the statistics can be verified.

This analysis is limited to the statistics.

Snaps PlayedStats
Totalvs RunPass RushPass Cov.SacksQB HitsQB Prs’sTacklesAssistsMTStops
 Anthony Spencer93937240016769355311939
 DeMarcus Ware9133554768220844278442

The first thing that sticks out about these stats is that when DeMarcus Ware’s sacks are removed from his number of tackles, Spencer has many more tackles (53) than Ware (27).  If you included sacks to compile total tackles, Ware would have 47 and Spencer would have 59.

Part Two will address the MT stats.

The addition of QB hits and pressures are also illuminating.  Spencer is much closer to Ware in both categories than he is in actual sacks.

One way to look at their relative abilities to get pressure on the QB is to compensate for the frequency with which both players actually rush the passer as their primary responsibility.

Ware rushed the QB on 476 snaps and had 20 sacks, 8 hits, and 44 pressures for a total of 72 ‘QB disruptions’.

Spencer rushed the QB on 400 snaps and had 6 sacks, 9 hits, and 35 pressures for a total of 50 ‘QB disruptions’.

Ware disrupted the passer every 6.6 snaps; Spencer disrupted the passer every 8 snaps.

Clearly pressures are not as good as sacks, so treating them equally is ludicrous, but surely the frequency with which an OLB gets pressure on the QB and knocks the QB down should be considered (rather than just sacks) when assessing the ability to rush the passer.

If getting some kind of pressure on the QB every 6.6 plays is the standard set by the best OLB in the NFL, then it is hard to understand how disrupting the QB once every 8 plays would be only ‘average’.

Perhaps the most revealing of all of the statistics compiled by ProFootball Focus is the last: “STOPS”.  A ‘stop’ is defined as:

Any defensive solo tackle that constitutes an offensive failure (including sacks).”

It is hard to imagine a much more important stat than “stop” the way they define it.  If Ware is the best OLB in the NFL, as I certainly believe he is, and he made 42 solo tackles including his sacks that resulted in offensive failures, it seems inconceivable that Spencer got so close to Ware at 39 if he was only average.  While sacks are certainly the best possible outcome, other than a turnover, making these ‘stops’ seems very like a reasonable and reliable criteria for evaluating an OLB’s.

I have often argued that tackles are an extremely poor way of evaluating a defensive player.  The basic objection is that a terrible defense that gets scored on all the time will necessarily have defenders who have to make a high number of tackles.

The beauty of the “stop” stat is that it eliminates all the meaningless tackles from the solo stops that had a direct impact on the game.  It is difficult to overstate the significance of those 39 stops made by Spencer, or the fact that DeMarcus made 42.

Despite all the comparisons with DeMarcus Ware, truly determining whether Anthony Spencer is ‘average’ will require a look at all the other OLB’s in the NFL.

This post is already longer than most people will read, so I will post the comparisons of Spencer and the rest of the NFL’s OLB’s that play in a 3-4 in a future post.

Thank you to DC Fanatic and Mark Contreras  (they are both die-hard Cowboy fans, you should follow them both on twitter) for the idea to look into Anthony Spencer.

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