View Full Version : Posnanski: Willie makes it work

10-02-2005, 01:24 AM

Willie makes it work when he’s in the lineup
Kansas City Star

There’s a story about Stanley Ketchel, the great middleweight boxing champion of the early 1900s who was so tough he went 12 brutal rounds with heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, even though Johnson outweighed him by 50 pounds.

Anyway, Ketchel was shot and killed when he was 24. Word made it to Wilson Mizner, a Hollywood screenwriter who was once Ketchel’s manager. Mizner, according to the great columnist Red Smith, said: “Start counting 10 over him. He’ll get up.”

That is exactly how I’ve felt the last four years about Chiefs left tackle Willie Roaf. You would see him away from the field, the man could barely walk. He would limp so severely, you were never sure which leg was hurting more. After games, you would want to call one of those little airport carts to pick him up and take him back to the locker room.

But when the whistle blew, Willie Roaf got up.

“He’s the most explosive football player I’ve ever been around,” Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil said after one practice.

Based on that I watched Roaf the entire next practice. It was jaw dropping. I don’t have a great understanding of offensive line technique and leverage, but I can understand that whenever someone happened to be in front of Willie Roaf, he wasn’t there for long. Roaf blasted huge men 3 or 4 yards down field. He chased down linebackers and knocked them backward. He’s 6 feet 5, 320, but he moved faster than a Greyhound bus.

And then, practice ended, and Roaf looked like he needed an ambulance.

So, when Roaf hurt his hamstring in the first half of the New York Jets game, I felt sure he would be right back. First of all, after 12 seasons at left tackle in the NFL (and 10 Pro Bowls), I was surprised Roaf actually had hamstrings. You know how waiters and waitresses at Mexican restaurants seem to have lost all feeling in their hands so they can carry those hot plates without suffering third-degree burns. I figured Roaf had lost his hamstrings.

An announcement was made over the press box loudspeaker: “Willie Roaf has a strained hamstring … questionable whether he will return.”

And I thought: “Blow a whistle. He’ll get back in.”

Only he didn’t come back in.

And the Chiefs haven’t been the same.

As far as I know, nobody has ever done any sort of breakthrough statistical study that measures the importance offensive linemen. In baseball, there are studies on everything from the wisdom of sacrifice bunting in early innings to the value of having a good baseball name. This abrupt turn in the column was just a cheap way for me to bring up the Toronto Blue Jays’ first two pitchers against the Royals Saturday were Dave Bush and Brandon League, which meant the Blue Jays’ side of the box score looked like this:



Sorry. The point is, Moneyball hasn’t really come to pro football. There isn’t much deep statistical study. Coaches still think of the two-point conversion chart Vermeil came up with in the late ’60s as the Rosetta Stone. So, when people ask, “How important is Willie Roaf to the Chiefs’ offense?” well, let’s really try to come up with an answer.

The year before Roaf arrived in Kansas City, in 2001, Priest Holmes led the NFL in rushing. But overall, the Chiefs did not have a particularly good offensive team. They were 16th in the NFL in scoring. Trent Green had all sorts of troubles — he was sacked 39 times. He also threw 24 interceptions, the most in the NFL. Holmes did rush for 1,555 yards but he managed just 10 touchdowns.

Willie Roaf arrived. Understand that the rest of the offensive line was exactly the same (with John Tait moving from left tackle to right tackle). The Chiefs had the same quarterback, same running back, same tight end, more or less the same receiver corps.

In 2002, the Chiefs led the NFL in scoring. Green was sacked 13 fewer times and, with the extra time, suddenly became one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL (he threw 26 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions). Priest Holmes was even better than the year before. He scored 24 touchdowns in just 14 games. The Chiefs as a team rushed for 300 more yards.

And the next year, with Roaf in place, the Chiefs were even better. The Chiefs scored even more points to lead the NFL in scoring. Green was sacked only 21 times and still managed that two-to-one touchdown to interception ratio. Holmes set the NFL record by rushing for 27 touchdowns. Brian Waters, an undrafted college tight end who played guard next to Roaf, was picked for the Pro Bowl.

“I just learned by watching the master,” Waters would say.

And, in 2004, with Priest Holmes missing half the season, the Chiefs’ offense was almost as good. They scored one point less, Green set a Chiefs record for more passing yards in a season, Tony Gonzalez became the first tight end to catch 100 passes in a season, and once again Waters went to the Pro Bowl.

So, let’s break down those numbers: Year before Roaf: Chiefs had 2,008 rushing yards, 3,863 passing yards, allowed 39 sacks and scored 320 points.

In the three years after Roaf, the Chiefs have averaged 2,199 rushing yards, 4,145 passing yards, 26 sacks allowed and 478 points.

An astute statistician might notice the second set of numbers is a whole lot better.

Using my own special offensive lineman formula (patent pending), I’d say the Chiefs are 24.7 percent better with Willie Roaf in the lineup than they are without him.

The thing is, as we have watched the Chiefs’ offense struggle the last two and a half games, it seems clear that Roaf might be even more important than that. Remember how dominant the Chiefs looked on those first three series of the season? They scored all three times — two touchdowns and a field goal. The Chiefs running back tandem of Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes (best known now as Larry Holmes) averaged about 10 yards per carry. Trent Green completed eight of his first 10 passes.

Then Willie Roaf got hurt.

As far as I know, nothing else changed, certainly nothing significant. But without Roaf, the Chiefs’ offense has instantly reverted back to 2001 form. Without Roaf, the Chiefs have averaged 3.5 yards rushing the ball the last two games. Green has been sacked just three times, but he’s been hit a few dozen times, and clearly does not have the time or confidence to throw the ball downfield. He has one touchdown pass, and that came late in a blowout loss.

The player hurt most by Roaf’s absence might not be Holmes or Johnson or even Green. It might be tight end Tony Gonzalez. Why? Well, it’s just a guess, but a tight end needs an extra instant or two to get off the line and get downfield. Without Roaf, the Chiefs don’t have that time. The last two weeks, Gonzalez has caught 10 passes, which is a good pace. But he has only managed 73 yards on those catches, which is way down from last year. And Gonzalez has not scored a touchdown yet.

At press time Saturday night, it seemed very unlikely that Roaf would play today against the Eagles. That will make the job of winning today a lot harder. I remember last week, before the Denver game, there were several Chiefs reporters and observers rushing around trying to find out if Roaf would play. A Denver reporter walked over.

“What’s the big deal?” a Denver reporter asked. “He’s just an offensive lineman.”

Oh, it’s a big deal. He’s a very, very big deal.

10-02-2005, 05:05 AM
Truer words were never spoken. Damn this guy is good.

10-02-2005, 11:07 AM
Truer words were never spoken. Damn this guy is good.

He is excellent... Hope we don't lose him as well.

Guess this is why teams take tackles in the top 5 spots of the draft almost every year.