Re-assessing my stance in the Jason Peters debate


Just how vital is Peters to Bills' potential? (buffalobills.com)

Last week, we discussed the ultimatum facing the Buffalo Bills this off-season in regards to two-time Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters: sign him or trade him. Ultimately, the "sign him" or "trade him" philosophies are where the vast majority of this fan base end up when discussing Peters.

In an effort to get a better understanding of just how critical a player of Peters' caliber is to a successful offense, let's examine how critical left tackle play was around the rest of the league this past season. Now, clearly, these are 32 unique offensive situations that we're examining here, so don't expect any of these statistics to define a clear-cut relationship between good left tackle play and good offensive production. This is merely an examination of elements of offensive situations and how they relate back to Buffalo's current offensive predicament.

The end result of this discussion is obviously a toss-up; I'll say now that while I've been a fervent supporter of signing Peters to a long-term extension, my opinion quickly shifted to neutral ground while running this "study". (I'm not a scholarly dude, and this isn't nearly in-depth enough to merit the use of the word "study", in all likelihood.) I'll let you make up your own mind from this point forward in regards to Peters, if you haven't done so already.

The debate surrounding the true value of the LT
Author Michael Lewis' claim to fame in football circles is his book entitled The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. In it, he lays out the evolution of pro football offenses from run-oriented to finesse, pass-oriented attacks, and documents the rising importance of left tackle play during said evolution. Obviously, NFL teams agree with the principle of this assessment, because athletic left tackles are snatched up nearly as quickly as perceived "franchise" quarterbacks during each annual NFL Draft.

But theories aren't laws. KC Joyner, he of ESPN.com fame as "The Football Scientist", penned an article in August of 2008 entitled Why the Left Tackle is Overrated. It relates sacks allowed by left tackles to total sacks allowed, using the percentages to show just how often bad lines have good left tackles and vice versa. It's an interesting read that, at a minimum, puts a dent in Lewis' original thesis. On a much more tangible level, it equals out the argument and sets up the baseline for the type of debate we've had surrounding Peters.

Interesting facts regarding LT play in 2008
This list - while unofficial and not totally complete with 2008 game data - at the very least gives us a base-level ranking of the play of all 32 NFL left tackles last season. Obviously, the data isn't 100% accurate (missing Week 17 data), but it's accurate enough to illustrate some of the loose points that can be made here. Below are some facts that might surprise you with relation to the play of left tackles and its relative importance to the grand scheme of things...

* Titans Pro Bowl LT Michael Roos trailed only Denver rookie LT Ryan Clady in fewest amount of sacks allowed. But despite the fact that the Titans were the league's seventh-best rushing team, they still had just the #21 offense in the league.

* Seahawks LT Walter Jones, considered one of the best tackles in the game over the past five years, gave up just 3.5 sacks in 12 games (tied for #13 in the league). Yet despite QB Seneca Wallace ranking #13 in QB rating, the Seahawks were a miserable #28 in total offense.

* New England had the fifth-best offense, the sixth-best rushing attack and the tenth-highest-rated QB (Matt Cassel) in the NFL last season. LT Matt Light ranked #24 amongst the league's 32 left tackles in sacks allowed.

* Texans rookie LT Duane Brown gave up the most sacks of any LT in the league (a feat he shared with - you guessed it - Jason Peters), but the Texans still ranked third overall in total offense.

* The Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers boasted the #24-ranked QB (Ben Roethlisberger), the #23-ranked rushing attack and the #22-ranked offense in the league behind one of the league's worst offensive lines. Yet LT Max Starks was a middle-of-the-pack left tackle (ranked T15 in sacks allowed).

* The Cardinals rode an explosive, fourth-ranked offense to Super Bowl XLIII despite featuring the league's worst rushing attack and LT Mike Gandy ranking just #20 in sacks allowed.

There's a lot to swallow here, and it's a mixed bag. There are examples of good left tackles on "bad" offenses (Jones, Starks, Roos). There are examples of underwhelming tackles on good offenses (Gandy, Light, Brown). Not mentioned here are examples of good tackles on good offenses (Clady in Denver, a team foiled by a terrible turnover margin and inconsistent QB play) and bad tackles on bad offenses (off the top of my head, Jeff Backus in Detroit and Kwame Harris in Oakland).

It's all about the complete package
Putting together and maintaining a dominant offensive line should only be a secondary concern in today's NFL. First and foremost - and feel free to scream "duh!" at your computer monitors - you have to have a good offense to compete in the league. Folks, even with a "dominant" left tackle, the Bills ranked #25 in offense last season. It wasn't good enough to win. (And if you didn't catch the sarcasm, the fact that Peters gave up 11.5 sacks is quite disturbing; even more so when considering that he was actually voted to the Pro Bowl.)

Building a good, cohesive offensive attack is about finding a harmonic relationship between quarterback play, line play, and execution. Right now, the Bills are lacking in all three departments. If things go well, QB Trent Edwards has the tools to develop into a consistent game-day quarterback capable of winning ball games. For now, consider that a check. Like it or not, Peters has given up 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and Buffalo's line has regressed in key areas throughout those 32 games. Fixing the line is a must. Obviously, execution of an offensive game plan has been about as rare as a Sasquatch sighting in Buffalo over the past few years.

I hear a lot of arguments about "building through the lines" and "adding playmakers" and "defense wins championships". The fact of the matter is this: no one cliche is the gold standard for fielding a winning team in the NFL. It sounds simple, but it's certainly not easy: to build a winner, put together the best group possible. Plenty of championship teams have been assembled in a wide variety of ways. The only constant is execution.

My ultimate thoughts on Peters and his future in Buffalo
I am a conservative person by nature. In terms of how my personality relates to my Bills fandom, I generally fly by the rule of "if you have something good, make sure the only way somebody gets it from you is by prying it from your cold, dead fingers". The debate here is just how "good" Peters is, just how much better he can be, and just how crippling a contract extension to Peters would be to the much more important goal of fielding a competitive offense. I mentioned that each NFL offense is a unique situation. In Buffalo's unique situation, I'm not convinced that giving in to Peters' contract demands make a lot of sense in the overall picture. Nor am I convinced that trading him will ensure that the Bills can improve other key weak areas on the team.

So today, I'm changing my opinion on Peters. I'm not forgetting the fact that he's a home-grown talent, nor am I forgetting that by moving him, we're just adding left tackle to an already long list of needs this off-season. I'm also not forgetting the merits of keeping a mega-talent in the prime of his playing career around, nor the value of maintaining continuity along your offensive front. I'm no longer an advocate of the "sign Peters" or "trade Peters" philosophies.

I'm only an advocate of getting better as a team. So my advice to the Bills regarding Peters is this (and you're welcome to apply the "meaningless" label to this advice): shop him and negotiate with him. Do anything in your power to put the best group of ten players you can around Trent Edwards. It doesn't matter if Peters is a part of that group or not. If he's here, we still need to execute better offensively, and we still need to block better up front. If he's not here, we still need to execute better offensively, and we still need to block better up front. It's not mandatory for the team to sign Peters or trade Peters. There are compelling arguments to make on both sides of this debate. So consider me an active member of the "wait and see" approach. If Peters gets his extension, great - let's hope it comes with some restructured contracts and an avenue through which the team can further improve. If Peters is traded, great - let's hope it comes with enough ammo to fill his left tackle spot and make a significant addition elsewhere. I'm not fussy, folks. We can get better with Peters, and we can get better without him.

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