There are typically a few statistical revisions made during the week between games, usually in regard to plays involving sacks and fumbles. In fact, we’ve found occasions where the official tackle went to a player who wasn’t even on the field.
Stephen Tull och of the Tennessee Titans, for example, officially finished the season with 111 solo tackles and 49 assists. In order for tackles to be used to evaluate players, they first need to be accurately recorded by the NFL.
It is typically better for the defender to stop the ball from being completed, but, if they can’t do that, making the tackle is the next best action. In this case, the tackle (generally assumed to be a positive mark) is a bad thing since the primary objective wasn’t achieved and the catch was made.
It also makes it confusing for safeties and linebackers, since tackle statistics aren’t typically kept separate for pass and run plays. A tackle that results in a loss of yards or no gain is clearly a positive play, and can be credited to the defense.
On plays where the offense gains a first down, an obvious failure by the defense, someone still gets awarded a tackle. On any play that brings the offense closer to a first down without reaching it, judging it as a failure or success can be difficult.
A certain percentage of needed yardage for a first down is typically used to define that line, and that’s what we do at Pro Football Focus. At OFF, we keep track of a statistic that we call “Stops.” A player gets credit for a Stop when he makes a tackle on a “success play” for the defense.
Anthropologists tell us of a time, 9,000 years back, when two Neolithic men engaged in, say, a dispute over land. But even as tacklers' collective technique has improved over the millennia, we haven't gotten any better at identifying the individual winners of these conflicts, particularly those that are waged during the popular land disputes that play out on fall Sundays across the landmass once known as upper Pangaea.
Anyone with a smartphone (and an abundance of free time) can learn Tom Brady's passer rating. NFL.com and Carolina's website will tell you that in 2014, Muchly led the league with 153 total tackles : 99 solos and 54 assists.
The reasons for this oddity are many, but they distill to this: A part-time statistician peering through binoculars from a less than optimally positioned skybox, trying to determine which super-fast defensive ant just tackled that darting offensive ant, without the benefit of a replay, might have an easier time running out and making an NFL tackle himself. They get paid anywhere from $20 to $70 a game for their work, the NFL capitalizing on the same magnetism that allows the Cowboys to rake in $29 per head at Jerry World for standing “seats” with no field view.
“The only thing a tackle tells you about the play is who ended it,” says Sam Monsoon, senior analyst at Pro Football Focus, a digital outfit that watches every NFL play and takes its time in recording dozens of facts about each one, including which player(s) made the tackle. Chargers free safety Eric Meddle is one of only a dozen or so NFL defenders who combine high-volume tackling (82 solos in 2014) with pinpoint precision (four missed tackles, second lowest among safeties who played 50% of their teams' snaps, according to OFF).
Only two parties seem to care about all this, by the way: hard-core fantasy football players, like Schatz, who participate in IDP (Individual Defensive Player) leagues where solo athletes are drafted instead of entire defensive units; and actual NFL defenders. “I think it does need to be looked at,” says Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who, like Meddle, is both prolific and nearly perfect in his work (just seven missed tackles in 99 attempts last year, according to OFF).
“Every team has a guy who makes a lot of tackles ; and when in doubt, if don't know who made a tackle, they just give it to that guy.” Despite Wagner's first-team All-Pro status and his new four-year, $43 million contract extension, his modest NFL-tallied totals of 67 solos and 37 assists in 2014 suggest that he is not “that guy” in Seattle. Browns inside linebacker Carlos Daisy paid dear attention to it in 2013, when he was playing on a one-year prove-it deal with the Cardinals.
Schatz does not have Buccaneers linebacker Lavonne David on his IDP team, so it is without favoritism that he declares the fourth-year player the undisputed champion of making important, game-affecting tackles. Nobody makes more run tackles that stop third-down conversions, or are for losses, than Lavonne David.” David racked up those totals last year, Schatz adds, despite missing two games to injury.
A native Miami an, David grew up watching Dolphins 'backer Zach Thomas, who, according to an informal survey of NFL media relations folks, was notorious for analyzing his tackle stats as soon as he could get his grass-stained hands on them. June Travel, a full-time pediatrician and part-time IDP addict who advises other fantasy players at Footballguys.com, points out that in Week 3 last year members of the Patriots D were awarded 32 assists at home.
Browns players were handed an astounding 50 assists at home in Week 11 (three fewer than the Chiefs' crew gave out all year), while the visiting Texans were given 12. College, guardian of the NFL's tackle stats, points out in defense of his scorers that Houston ran the ball a whopping 54 times that day, but that still doesn't account for the 20 or so dubious calls Cleveland's official scorers made.
I watched Houston linebacker Brian Cushing loaf in pursuit and get rewarded with a cheap assist on a tackle that strong safety Daniel Manning deserved every bit of. Cleveland linebacker Craig Robertson got an assist for arriving after the ball carrier's knee had been forced to the ground by teammate K'Warn Williams.
Texans linebacker Azeem Dent whiffed so badly in trying to bring down the shifty Isaiah Crowell that he hopped to his feet in the wake of the play and clapped his hands in self-admonition. Fifteen years ago they were at midfield, but now their boxes have been moved to much cheaper locations.
In the fourth quarter of Denver's Week 6 road win over the Jets, he was awarded a solo stop on a play in which he wasn't even nearby. The only explanation is that the scorer confused Marshall's number 54 with the 56 worn by teammate Nate Irving.
“Those never get changed.” (SI's attempt to reach the Jets' statistician went unanswered; requests of three other teams were declined.) “ Kilo Alonso was credited with 72 assists in 2013,” says Schatz, referring to the linebacker who has since been traded to the Eagles.
Football historian John Turned has written about this, outlining the way tackle statistics differ according to the NFL (which uses tallies compiled by coaching staffs), sites including ESPN.com and Pro Football Reference (which use play-by-play statistics from official game books), and Pro Football Focus (which does its own funky math). About a decade ago, Rick Hossein of The Dallas Morning News “surveyed a handful of NFL head coaches” and determined that they felt 1.44 tackles per play was a legitimate average, given that many tackles are made by multiple defenders simultaneously.
Anyway, the NFL uses three separate tackle stats: “Comb”, “Total”, and “AST”. The “Total” column are solo tackles or plays on which a defender was the primary tackler.
That's 1.35 tackles per play, pretty close to Hossein's dream number. Conversely, the Indianapolis Colts had just 689 tackles on 782 such plays, just 88.1% of their expected total.
The Cincinnati Bengals were credited with 346 assisted tackles, almost 75% more than the Arizona Cardinals (198). In 2017, Luke Muchly was credited with 74 Total tackles and 51 Assists.
It makes sense for a middle linebacker to have higher-than-normal Assist totals, but not that much higher. Seattle's Bobby Wagner had 97 Total and 36 Assists, almost exactly the league average, and he plays the same position as Muchly, but without coaches padding his stats.
The “Combined” category that the NFL promotes as the most important adds Total and Assist stats, weighted equally, so an Assist is just as good as a solo tackle. In 2017, teams averaged 1,026, just over 1.35 per plays on which at least one player was credited with a tackle.
The Chargers, Giants, Washington, Buffalo, and Houston all had more than 1.40 Combined tackles per play, while Kansas City, Chicago, and Baltimore all had fewer than 1.30. Some teams are stingy with Total but generous with Assists, like the Colts, Panthers, and Bengals.
There are good reasons for bad teams to make more tackles. Their defenses are on the field for more plays, since they allow long drives and their offenses usually punt or turn the ball over.
Eight of the nine lowest “Comb” totals in 2017 belonged to playoff teams, and the exception, the Denver Broncos, had a very good defense. What this means is that players on bad teams have artificially inflated tackle totals, even before any of the shady ways the Assist category can be tabulated.
Is Preston Brown, Blake Martinez, and Joe Schubert guys who come to mind as elite players? This is why it's so frustrating that the NFL uses Comb rather than Total as its primary tackling stat, never mind the issue with relying on coaches rather than game books.
Some teams will generously credit a Total when an Assist might be more appropriate, but at least the guy was involved in the play. The Bills' coaching staff gave Preston Brown an Assist any time he was within five feet of the play.
Ray Lewis used to jump onto piles after the runner was down and get credited with Assists. There are a lot of potential issues with treating tackle stats as meaningful, but the main one, the most important, is not to use Assists or Combined tackles : stick to Total, the one that's hardest to fake.
Some issues identified here still apply, but the game books used at sites likes Pro Football Reference are more reliable than the NFL's official totals, as well.