As one of the more vociferous J'Marcus Webb advocates, I've been struggling with conveying how he's not as bad as people make him out to be... And that's not me saying 'he's good', because frankly, he's still pretty bad, but he's not as bad as the media will tell you. The media will clamor "He's the worst LT in the league!" and people will back it up with PFF or FO numbers that say the same thing... And they'll watch Bears games, and see what they want to reinforce their point.
One of the difficult parts for the average fan to grasp is: what does the other team look like? How often do you watch the Packers tackles? Or are you fixated (like I usually am), on Aaron Rodgers and Jermichael Finley or Clay Matthews and BJ Raji? Let's take a quick tour of some appropriate metrics, some statstics nonsensery, and a few left tackles I've been watching lately on the DVD machine.
Lets start with the metric: A lot of people pass around the position ratings from PFF where they give the +/- grades based on their metrics. I'm not a fan of how they put them together, because of the overall lack of context of what they grade negative and positive plays as surrounding the playcalling & line calls by both teams. Especially the combined aspect that people toss around where Webb's like -40 something. When you're combining both the Run and the Pass, you're really missing the big picture: Last year the Bears ran for 2000 yards and over 4 yards a carry amongst 3 rushers. If we're concerned about our ability to rush (and even after the PS game, I'm not), I think you have to look a the results. So, instead, we're using PFF's pass blocking efficiency metric, which they admit is an imperfect metric (clearly), but I think has much less subjective bias to the grand picture.
League Average is around 94.0, meaning 6 out of every 100 snaps results in a combination of Sacks, Hits and Hurries.
League Average Pass Blocking Snaps for a 16 game Tackle: Around 590.
Basically: It's a metric that says: as the grouped part of the equation gets closer to zero (the part that's over pass blocking snaps), the better it is. The lower the number, the more negative attributes per stat. I will briefly comment to some of the mathmatics associated with it: You could further improve context by looking at the turnover rate of a QB in passing situations in relation to hits and hurries, and furthermore, you could separate based on blitzing parameters of overloading sides vs 4 man rushes. It's possible, and would require more intricate statistics, but it's the case when you use metrics like these in non-closed event systems, that they can be further refined per context to acquire better results when more data is included.
When your QB, like Aaron Rodgers has a high degree of success vs the blitz, but your offensive line does not, you're able to reduce the hits and hurries by virtue of the QB play, not the line play, based on successful audibles and playcalling. Metrics like these, and like what FO and PFF use aren't 'end all be all' of metrics, they're guides to what you see, they're not perfect, because the data isn't perfect, the formulas aren't as precise as they could be, and the outcomes aren't always important. They're not to be used to perpetuate a confirmation bias.
So, what's this confirmation bias?
Confirmation bias is (and I'm directly quoting from wikipedia here):
"a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs."
Basically, confirmation bias is fans looking at the field after looking at PFF or FO ratings, reading a whole bunch of articles, and saying: Yep, that's totally what I see. It's something that, as a fan, who's trying to look objectively at the skill of the players, you have to be able to disassociate with. Part of it goes, especially with Webb, what we hear and what we read, shouldn't bias what we see. The other way to condition your brain is to look at other examples with the same bias, guys like Marshall Newhouse or Levi Brown and how they stack up in your mind against Webb.
Because of legal reasons above and beyond SBNation, I'm not able to provide video clips, and some are frankly hard to find, but, pull out your old DVR recordings of games that aren't the Bears and start watching the tackle play.
Packers - Marshall Newhouse
Newhouse came in after the injury to Clifton, and is going to stay there this year with the PUP'ed Derek Sherrod. Newhouse, like Webb is a day 3 draft pick (5th round), but unlike Webb got his first year in the league redshirted. He's not nearly as physically gifted or as quick as Webb is, but shows better recognition of the attack on his side of the line during 4 man rushes, but suffers just as badly as Webb during Blitz pickups. One of the things I noticed the most is how McCarthy plans away from Newhouse and how GB tries to keep Newhouse from moving too much. Either way, with a left tackle that looks physically overmatched, and struggles against anything outside of your basic stunts, it's amazing (sarcasm intended), that Rodgers can be as productive as he is.
PFF Pass Blocking Efficiency for 2011: 92.3
Baker was benched mid-season after his third surgery on his back, and couldn't regain the starting job from Will Sviteck, who currently is the #2 LT on the Falcon's depth chart. He's in line to be healthy and starter worthy once again post-surgery. Now, what's not mentioned is how he's been really poor in pass blocking over his entire time in the league from the tape. It's never been his strength. But, for what he lacks in that, his line is a really effective run blocking unit. His overall +/- play numbers are higher than Webb's, but, when we talk about pass blocking. I don't think I can effectively tell you how atrocious his form looks in pass blocking. He's really bad with his hands in the passing game and going to defenders instead of absorbing defenders... Part of it might be because of his back, and how he uses his leverage, but, that coupled with his short arms leads to leverage issues.
PFF Pass Blocking Efficiency for 2011: 90.1
Cardinals - Levi Brown
Levi Brown, the former first rounder, is essentially a more expensive clone of Webb. A guy that people always heap on personal insults to his play, and someone who has an inconsistent, longer career than Webb. A guy who still says 'he can put it together', and guys like Ken Wisenhunt and the Cardinals FO believes him enough to have cut him and resigned him to a cap-friendly deal. A guy who played well in a stretch last year, granted, not as good as say, Matt Light, Joe Thomas, or Jake Long, but someone who played just below league average for a portion of the year. He suffers from a lot of the same mental consistencies issues as Webb, but, watching 3 of their last 9 games after watching 2 of their first 7 games, there was a distinct difference with how he played, which reminded me of how the offensive line started gelling on the Bears during the win streak. It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough to start winning games. During the first 7 games of the season, the Cards were like 1-6... They won 7 of their last 9. I'm not attributing their winning streak to that, but, I am saying that when you're winning like that, your linemen play better. It's a riding high mentality.
PFF Pass Blocking Efficiency for 2011: 92.8
Giants - Dave Diehl
Dave Diehl plays all over the line, but then again, that's kinda like how some of our linemen have been lately. He's played some guard, but mostly right tackle, until this past year, where he replaced Will Beatty at LT when he had a (gross) detached retina. Beatty again has the injury bug this year with a back injury, and Diehl will once again be called to play LT. But, how about him at RT? How bad was he in pass protection. Pretty bad. How much worse was it when he was on the left side. Much. Watching him on the left tackle during the SB was pretty impressive... Impressive in how bad the Patriots pass rush was. His ability to move in space is legitimately worse than Webb, but his mental breaks of engaging and not letting the rusher get inside is better. But then again Diehl is like a 10 year vet... who played like a rookie at LT last year in 300 snaps.
PFF Pass Blocking Efficiency: 90.4
Bears - J'Marcus Webb
Webb's struggles are like many of the other players on this list. Regardless of Webb's public persona, or anything that's not related to his work on the field, what stands out are the changes he's made as a player during the middle of the season that really got me thinking that he might still be improving. Re-watching some of last years play, you can see the growth in some of the positive traits he employed then, and watching during the PS game, you could have spied a few of those there, his mirroring, his ability to reach and redirect without getting off balance, and some of the mental things that didn't force him to overpursue his rush. He's got the physical tenacity to move with the faster rushers, and the size to take on the stronger ones... But, as everyone well knows, his mental struggles are indicative of his time here. But there's guys that figure it out, and guys that are successful even though they are inconsistent. Guys like the Jeff Backus who's all over the map from year to year, or Max Starks in Pittsburgh, or Jermon Bushrod who's inconsistent blocking hasn't slowed down Drew Brees and the Saints, or the aforementioned Marshall Newhouse.
PFF Pass Blocking Efficiency: 92.9
Moving on, I think there's still upside to Webb's game. The difference in his game verses some of the others mentioned in pass blocking isn't as atrocious as many portray it. During the middle of the season, the Bears line wasn't impressive like Cleveland or Tennessee's lines, but even without being impressive, the ability to move the ball effectively and put points on the board, and further, the Bears will have the ability to run more Tight End sets and account for what's known line deficiencies on the play. We talk a lot on here about interior pass rushes, and how important it is to account for, other teams know this and are actively augmenting the core of their pass rush to include stronger interior presence... Guys like B.J. Raji come to mind or Vince Wilfork, Haloti Ngata too... You're vulnerable for the pass rush in many locations, not just on the edge, and with the advent of 2-TE systems again (a la 90's NFC East), pass rushing from the exterior is going to be tougher regardless of the level of play of Webb. But, even in 4 wide sets, I still think there's adequate upside to Webb putting it together in now his third NFL season to be league average at best.
Mission of Burma - That's When I Reach for My Revolver