Most fans can tell you who led the NFL in passing yards (Peyton Manning), rushing yards (LeSean McCoy) or sacks (Robert Mathis) last year. But there are dozens of important statistics that are so hard to find that even NFL experts are unaware of them. Which offensive tackle blew the fewest blocks? Which defensive back allowed the most big plays? It sounds like basic information, but the NFL does not officially tabulate it, making it almost impossible to answer some simple questions.
Luckily, Football Outsiders and other independent stat sources keep track of the little things that make a big difference in the win-loss column. Let's look at the league leaders in obscure but critical categories that are as important (or more than) as the ones you can find in the morning paper:
Best Option Threats
Despite all of the read-option hubbub, quarterback keepers are relatively rare: scrambles still dominate quarterback rushing totals. The list below singles out designed runs -- whether read-options, bootlegs or sneaks -- to determine which quarterback runs the most when he wants to, rather than when he has to.
Terrelle Pryor was barely a quarterback, and a 93-yard run padded his stats, but you can see why the Seahawks are tempted by his athleticism. Among mobile big names, Colin Kaepernick rushed 32 times for 117 yards after taking the league by storm with the tactic in 2012, while Russell Wilson rushed by design just 29 times for 124 yards. The option is a basic component of the Eagles offense, yet their quarterbacks combined for 33 carries and 238 yards, 97 of those yards on two runs by now-departed Michael Vick. The option revolution is much ado about little, but not quite nothing.
Most Battered Quarterbacks
Sack totals don't always reflect the beating a quarterback takes: Some quarterbacks excel at releasing the ball or scrambling for a few yards before getting creamed. This list of the most knocked-down quarterbacks tells a painful story:
Quick-footed, quick-witted Luck finished just 18th in the NFL in sacks but endured a lot of extraneous punishment. Pocket-bound Ryan took a pummeling as the offense around him collapsed. Tannehill suffered 58 sacks as his offensive line became an R-rated after school special, but that was roughly half the rib-crunching story. Palmer is an immobile 34-year old in a division full of great defenses; this season could be like "Shark Week" without the water for him.
Best Tackle Breakers
The names on the following list won't surprise you, but the order might:
Lynch went into Beast Mode to lead the league with 59 broken tackles last year, but Shady and Purple Jesus trumped him in the two-year totals. DeMarco Murray of the Cowboys ranked a surprising fourth over the last two years with 61 broken tackles, but the huge gap between Lynch and Murray proves that the top three are in a class by themselves.
Best Third-Down Receivers
These receivers convert a high percentage of third-down passes into first downs, and they have a knack for big plays in the most desperate situations.
Boldin is one of the league's all-time greats on third and fourth downs. Allen is sometimes called Anquan Boldin Junior, and the table shows the reason why: Few rookie receivers are as effective as he was moving the sticks last year. Jones is not quite in the same category, but he produces a lot of tough 20-yard receptions on third-and-10.
Santana Moss was the worst third-down receiver in the NFL among players who were targeted more than a handful of times. Moss converted just 10 of 36 third-down passes for first downs, even though he was targeted on third-and-five-or-less 11 times, converting just three short opportunities.
Most Consistent Offensive Tackles
Count the number of blown blocks each lineman commits, whether they lead to sacks, scrambles, stuffed rushers or other mayhem. Divide by the number of snaps. Set the minimum requirement to 800 to filter out part-timers, and concentrate on offensive tackles, who have tougher assignments than guards or centers. The results look like this:
Dolphins fans, take heart: New arrival Brandon Albert would have finished fourth but just missed the qualifier due to an injury. The list above is full of Pro Bowlers and playoff starters, but Joe Thomas and D'Brickashaw Ferguson should be singled out for praise. It's one thing to avoid mistakes when blocking for Drew Brees or Frank Gore. It's another thing to hold down the fort for Geno Smith or Fozzy Whittaker.
Defensive Hurry Kings
A "hurry" is a sack that never quite materialized, so leading the league in hurries is nothing for a pass rusher to brag about. Still, these 2013 hurry leaders caused rushed throws, scrambles and general chaos, which means more than coming close to winning a cigar.
Robison's sack total has slowly grown from 8.0 to 8.5 to 9.0 since 2011. At that rate, he will lead the league by 2024, but the Vikings need him to "hurry" the process with Jared Allen in Chicago. Robert Quinn finished second in the NFL in sacks (19) and quarterback knockdowns (36), and he tied for first in offensive holding penalties drawn (7). McCoy is an inside rusher in search of an outside rusher to bag all those quarterbacks he flushes. The Buccaneers added Michael Johnson from the Bengals to clean up McCoy's spills.
Defensive Big-Play Machines
Football Outsiders uses the term "Defeat" as a catch-all for a variety of big defensive plays: sacks, turnovers, stuffs for a loss, stops on third and fourth down and so on. The NFL defeat leader often makes a great Defensive Player of the Year candidate, unless he toils for a 4-12 team with a crazy coach, in which case no one notices:
In addition to seven sacks, 21 tackles for losses and five interceptions, David produced seven stops on third-and-short. Bowman and Davis receive less adulation than their linebacker teammates Patrick Willis and Luke Kuechly, partly by design: The famous guys have the range to make tons of routine plays, allowing Bowman and Davis to attack. Watt set the defeats record with 56 of them last year. He is now teamed with Jadeveon Clowney. Andrew Luck should brace for another long year.
Most Burnt Cornerbacks
Give a struggling cornerback a snarky nickname like "Toastmaster General" after he gives up a big play if you want, but even Ronnie Lott gave up a few touchdowns in his career. The next three cornerbacks led the league in touchdowns and first downs allowed in 2013. They may have been in man coverage or zone, but they were the closest defenders to the catch, so they should have done something.
Taylor has been a frequent flyer on this list for years. The Steelers like his ability to keep catches in front of him, but an awful lot is happening in front of him nowadays. Carr was the Little Dutch Boy of the crumbling Cowboys pass defense, but he still allowed too much leakage. Wright's miserable year led the Chargers to draft Jason Verrett and sign Brandon Flowers. Taylor and Carr combine to eat up about $19 million in 2014 cap space. At least Wright failed on the cheap.
We're not ranking kickers on field-goal percentage, but touchback percentage. Why? The NFL accuracy rate for field goals under 50 yards is now 89.2 percent, meaning the best kickers are almost automatic on all but the hardest kicks. Touchback rates are more variable from kicker to kicker, and forcing opponents to start drive after drive at the 20-yard line creates hidden yardage that can tilt the field in a team's direction.
Gano had just 16 kickoffs returned; unlike Prater and Greg the Leg, he benefitted from neither the Rocky Mountains nor a home dome. Lions rookie Sam Martin actually led the league in kickoff distance at 67.3 yards per kick, but he delivered many returnable line drives. There's more to kicking off than you think. In the NFL, there is more to everything than you think.