NFL

Why Interceptions are the Most Misleading Stat in the NFL

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There is a reason that stats in baseball are sacred while stats in football are side notes. Football is the ultimate team game, rendering most individual stats misleading at best and irresponsible at worst.

It is not uncommon to see an offensive lineman charged with a “sack allowed” even though the play would have been a completion if the slot receiver ran the correct hot route. Or to see quarterback charged with a fumble on a botched handoff that was clearly the running back’s fault.

Football stats, in general, are misleading. But there is no stat more misleading than interceptions.

There is a seemingly infinite number of factors that play a role in a cornerback’s ability to corral interceptions. What kind of safety help is he getting? How strong is the pass rush in front of him? Is he playing in a man scheme that requires him to turn and run or a zone scheme that allows him to keep his eyes on the quarterback?

Most experts agree that Darrelle Revis is the best cornerback in the NFL. But he had only two interceptions last season; Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter had more than twice that many.

The other cornerbacks in the discussion for “best in the league,” Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, finished with four and three interceptions, respectively. That means they combined to intercept as many passes as Lions safety Glover Quin.

But even these elite cornerbacks still use interceptions as a measure of their impact on the game. When Revis and Sherman were engaging in a Twitter war a few years back, Sherman famously told Revis, “Get ya picks up!”

It is also important to remember that pick-hungry cornerbacks are at the mercy of the quarterbacks they play against. When facing a conservative offense like those in Kansas City and Seattle, there are only a handful of interception opportunities throughout the game. When playing teams that like to gamble more — think Philadelphia, Indianapolis and San Diego — there are more chances to make plays.

There are so many other variables, too. Down and distance, for example. An interception on third-and-20 is much easier to come by than one on third-and-3. Several quarterbacks will throw deep balls up for grabs in third-and-forever situations, knowing an interception is just as good as a punt at that point.

Experience plays a factor, too. It’s easier for a defense to fool Blake Bortles than Ben Roethlisberger.

Wonder how Colts safety Mike Adams set a career-high in interceptions last season (his 11th year in the league)? Three of his five picks came in games against Tennessee and Cleveland, two of the NFL’s worst quarterback situations.

Most of these concepts are simple to grasp. Yet for some reason, too many general managers do not take them into account when negotiating contracts. Time and time again we see the players with the most interceptions pulling in the biggest contracts. It’s like teams refuse to address the underlying question: “Why do opponents keep throwing in his direction, allowing him to get all those picks in the first place?”

For example, look at the current contractual standoff between the Chargers and Eric Weddle. The All Pro safety sat out voluntary workouts because he is displeased the Chargers have not addressed his contract, which has just one season remaining. However, San Diego has made it clear it has no intention of offering him a new deal.

Why the big discrepancy over his true value? Interceptions.

Weddle began to show his play-making skills in 2009 and 2010. He intercepted four passes during those two seasons, returning two of them for touchdowns. That prompted the Chargers to give him a five-year extension that made him the highest paid safety in the game. He went on to pick off 13 more passes over the next four seasons, which is why he’s expecting another big payday now.

Here’s the issue: Weddle is not as good as his interception totals indicate. He is a mediocre open-field tackler who lacks the size to cover elite tight ends and the speed to keep up with speedy receivers. These things, though, do not show up in a box score.

Weddle’s best season came in 2007, when he posted seven interceptions (he averages less than two interceptions per season in his other seven campaigns). It’s no coincidence that breakout season coincided with a breakout year by pass rusher Antwan Barnes, who led the team with a career-high 11 sacks.

Weddle is hardly the only defensive back to have his value inflated by lofty interception numbers. Look at New Orleans safety Jairus Byrd, who landed a six-year, $54 million deal with the Saints last offseason after intercepting 22 passes over his first five seasons with the Bills.

Byrd was a huge disappointment in New Orleans … and that was before tearing his lateral meniscus. Without the help of Buffalo’s dominant pass rush and physical cornerbacks, Byrd was unable to soar.

This is not to imply interceptions are completely random events. It takes a certain set of skills — speed, agility, hands, instincts, etc. — to rack up picks on an annual basis. This is where teams must be most discerning: it is critical to pay for a player’s attributes that are applicable in any scheme, as opposed to paying for a stat dependent on so many outside variables.

In the last seven seasons, no player has led the league in interceptions more than once.

Expect another new interceptions leader in 2015. It will likely be someone from the NFC South, as those teams are pitted against the AFC South this season (meaning matchups against the inexperienced Bortles, Marcus Mariota and Ryan Mallett). And it figures to be someone benefitting from a good pass rush, which points towards the Panthers. So congratulations, CB Josh Norman, on the big season that surely awaits.

“[Norman]’s on the verge, in my opinion, of being one of the top corners in the National Football League,” Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks told the Charlotte Observer. “He’s gotten to the point where he understands the details of the game. He’s been a student of the game. He’s letting the game come to him. He’s not trying to do things outside the defense and it’s really showing in his play.”

Sounds like an interceptions leader to us. Now, let’s see how much money the Raiders throw at him when he becomes a free agent next offseason. After all, paying for picks is what losing teams do best.

Who do you think will lead the league in interceptions in 2015? Talk about it with author Michael Lombardo during his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now!


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.