Blog Entry

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Posted on: August 25, 2011 11:20 am
Edited on: August 25, 2011 11:52 am
It’s a debate as old as time … or at least the invention of talking TV heads: What is the most important position in sports? It seems the sports world has come to the universal conclusion that’s a quarterback in football. So we put it to our bloggers to represent their respective sports and make their cases for the most important position.

Royce Young, Eye on Basketball: Basketball’s kind of in a tough position to make a claim in this debate, because while a point guard is the quarterback of a team, he/she’s not always that important. I mean, look at who the Bulls won their titles with -- John Paxson, Steve Kerr, B.J. Armstrong. Or the Lakers with Derek Fisher. You sometimes get a similar thing in football with guys like Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson winning Super Bowls, but in basketball, it happens quite a bit.

And there’s not really a specific position that stands out as more important. Basketball’s a free-flowing game with positions often interchanging. Is LeBron James a point guard or a small forward? Heck, sometimes he’s a power forward. So really, basketball doesn’t entirely fit because it’s kind of a sport that doesn’t exactly feature positions.

So here’s what I’m arguing: Basketball’s most important position is always the alpha player. Whoever that may be. For the Magic it’s Dwight Howard at center. For the Hornets, it’s Chris Paul at point guard. For the Lakers it’s Kobe Bryant at shooting guard. And that one player can impact the game and team more than any other position in any sport. Because there are only five players on the court for each team, one player -- a great player -- can change everything. Carmelo Anthony carried Syracuse to a national title pretty much by himself. Dirk Nowitzki obviously meant everything to the Mavs in their title run. Michael Jordan ... well, I don’t even have to say.

Every other sport’s top position -- quarterback, pitcher, goalie -- all are really going to have to rely on their teammates as much as themselves. But basketball’s a game where one guy can entirely take over. (For reference, see Kobe’s 81.) And that’s why, while not an actual position, the alpha player in basketball is the most important in sports.

Evan Brunell, Eye on Baseball: Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. While all players are collectively pushing for a team to win, the game relies on specific, individual contributions for the team to win out. As opposed to basketball or football, where players have to move in a cohesive unit, baseball spotlights individuals.

Due to the power of Wikipedia, we learn what scholar Michael Mandelbaum has to say about baseball in The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do.:

It is impossible to isolate and objectively assess the contribution each [football] team member makes to the outcome of the play.... [E]very basketball player is interacting with all of his teammates all the time. In baseball, by contrast, every player is more or less on his own.... Baseball is therefore a realm of complete transparency and total responsibility. A baseball player lives in a glass house, and in a stark moral universe.... Everything that every player does is accounted for and everything accounted for is either good or bad, right or wrong.
This is why advanced statistics have taken off in baseball as opposed to other sports. In baseball, it's easy to divide and quantify, to bastardize an old saying. And this reasoning is also why the starting pitcher is the most important position in sports.

Let's get one thing out of the way first in favor of the argument for a quarterback. There's no question that the closest approximation to a starting pitcher in another sport is the quarterback. A good or bad quarterback will derail the game, just like a bad day by the starting pitcher will kill the entire game as early as the first inning. What the quarterback has to his advantage, and what tips the scales to that position being the most valuable, is the schedule. The QB only has to play 16 regular-season games and has a week off in between to recuperate. Now, this isn't a negative -- it's simply how football functions. Due to this, the same QB can and will affect the entire season of a team, while even someone like Roy Halladay missing the entire year wouldn't necessarily destroy a baseball team's season.

But is the right point of comparison the entire season? After all, if baseball followed football's schedule to a T, baseball would only need one starting pitcher (plus a few in reserve, just like backup quarterbacks) as that pitcher would receive plenty of rest and be able to start all 16 games under a football schedule. (And just like a QB, an injury to the pitcher would then kill the team's entire season.) By the same vein, good luck making the argument that one quarterback would be able to sustain playing 162 football games in consecutive days. This is nothing against football or baseball -- these are two distinct sports. But we need to make the right comparison across both sports, and that means looking at the individual-game level.

And there, starting pitchers win out as the most important position in sports. If a quarterback fails in a season, the whole year is usually lost. But if he fails in one game, the game isn't necessarily over. The team can turn over the game to the running game, can hope that the defense clamps down and that special teams does its job. Of course, the same can be said about a starting pitcher. If the pitcher is playing badly, the team can hope for a lockdown performance by the bullpen and the offense to do its job. But it's much harder to overcome a starting pitcher imploding than it is a quarterback.

Remember, baseball is a team sport played by individual players, and in every game, the starting pitcher is the most important player on the field. Even the best hitters will only get to the plate around four times, but a pitcher who throws a complete game will have registered 27 outs, just barely under seven times the chances a position player gets. While a quarterback is in a similar position, being involved in a higher volume of plays than any other football player, the distribution of work is spread out much more, and the quarterback has to rely on other players doing their job to do his job. How can a quarterback do his job if his interior line keeps collapsing, or his wide receivers can't get open? The starting pitcher, meanwhile, stands on a circle in the middle of the field, all alone, with only his ability standing in the way of getting the menacing batter at the plate out. While other variables in baseball can influence a pitcher's effectiveness, such as the quality of the defense behind him, it doesn't come close to matching the variables in football that can mitigate a quarterback's ability.

The Bears made the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman. Enough said.

Brian Stubits, Eye on Hockey: Well this is fun to read you guys try to convince yourselves, but time to come out and play with the position you all are sleeping on.

I understand hockey isn't this country's most popular sport -- understatement of the debate -- but that shouldn't diminish it's most important position's role. First of all, a goalie is almost always in play. A QB, at best, is playing maybe 2/3 of the time in any game? Maybe? That's only if his team is really dominating. Then, of that, he hands the ball off to another player half the time.

A pitcher in baseball, particularly in the American League, is making about an equal impact as a QB considering half of the time he isn't in the game and more often than not he doesn't finish the game.

Basketball, while I must commend Royce for thinking outside of the box, just doesn't have a most important position that can compete here. The alpha player in basketball is a role perhaps more significant than any other in sports, but it's not a position.

That brings me back to hockey. Let me put it to you this way. If a QB, pitcher or basketball player is successful 85 percent of the time at what he does, he is the best player in his sport's history. Ever. If a goaltender succeeds 85 percent of the time, he's probably being relegated to your local beer league.

While you might maintain a goaltender is reliant on his offensive players too much, I would argue that's not the case. Because hockey permits ties in the regular season, it is the only sport where you can say if your most important position player is perfect, your team is guaranteed not to lose. A pitcher can only go so long in any game before being relieved even if he is perfect, a QB going perfect significantly increases your chances of winning, but is no guarantee. Same goes for basketball.

To speak a little more specifically, the Philadelphia Flyers just reached the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago. Yet they just finished an offseason overhaul that saw them jettison their top offensive talents just so they could squeeze what they think is an elite goaltender on their roster in Ilya Bryzgalov. Or if you'd like I can point to Tim Thomas, who was simply amazing in the Stanley Cup Final this year and was easily the biggest reason why the Bruins won the Cup against the offensively supercharged Canucks. One player can make that tremendous of an impact in every game.

What other sport do they give players such descriptions as "standing on his head?"

In closing, a sport that is as low scoring as hockey is, surely you can all comprehend the value of keeping the puck out of your own net.

Will Brinson, Eye on Football: Well, for starters, it's cute that every single one of you is like "WE'RE BETTER THAN THE QB!" That pretty clearly makes the point that you're starting from behind.

Although not quite as much as a) Royce's need to create a fictional "position" to make his argument or b) Evan's need to take things down to an individual-game level in order to try and justify that a starting pitcher is the most important position. (We'll get to the only defensive-sided goaltender in a minute.)

Regarding pitchers, I have some questions. Who is the best starting pitcher on the Phillies, Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay? Why do pitchers not win the most valuable player award in their own sport? Why, if pitchers are so important to an individual game, have closers become so important? If the best pitcher in baseball last year, Halladay, completed just nine games, why on Earth would you think he could complete your fictional 16-game baseball schedule? Why are there multiple teams with multiple "aces" in baseball when there aren't enough quality starting quarterbacks to fill up the entire NFL? Are we dealing with different talent pools?

And most importantly: why are you citing Wikipedia?!?!?!

Actually, the most important question is why would you think that the level of an individual game matters? Justifying things at the level of an individual game is not only ridiculous and counter-intuitive to the very argument of importance, but it goes against the very "advanced statistics" you cited the paragraph before in that it condenses the argument to the smallest possible sample size.

To wit: Paul Maholm has five complete games in his career. PAUL MALHOLM! With an ERA+ of 96 for his career, he is the definition of not just "below average" but, more importantly "replacement player." That means that you can take someone who is typically worse than the average pitcher and potentially have him pitch the entire game and while you won't get the same performance, there's a decent chance that you get an acceptable performance.

Do you know what happens when you replace Peyton Manning with a below-average quarterback? The Colts win three games and are terrible.

That's how big a difference-maker quarterbacks are over the course of the entire season. The maximum value of any baseball player this season is 7.6 wins above the replacement value player below him (Jose Bautista) and for a pitcher it's only 6.9 WAR (Halladay). He's worth, then, 18 percent of the Phillies' season based on your own proclaimed advanced metrics. It's not even a remotely close argument.

As for basketball, the "only Kobe can score 81" argument is interesting, but I point to my man Peyton again -- while quarterbacks require other people to handle the physical action of completing a pass, there's little question that a great quarterback + terrible wide receivers can have success. Peyton did it with Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. These dudes weren't great until he came around, of course. Or look at the Patriots, who were a dominant offensive team with Deion Branch as their top target last year.

Conversely, the Panthers had Steve Smith last season and won two games, entirely because they had the worst quarterback situation in the league.

In basketball, teams can be built all kinds of different ways. A great center, a great point guard, run-and-gun, defensive-minded, etc., etc. The same thing works in football, of course, but there's one problem -- it won't work without a great quarterback. Not anymore, not in the NFL, which has become so QB-dominated that it's surprising we're even having this discussion.

Brunell: Will asks "Why are there multiple teams with multiple "aces" in baseball when there aren't enough quality starting quarterbacks to fill up the entire NFL? Are we dealing with different talent pools?"

Just because teams have multiple aces doesn't mean baseball is crawling with them. Paul Maholm, for example, is the Pirates' ace, and he's hardly a "true" ace. Your argument about Maholm having five complete games doesn't quite marry up. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut every once in a while, just like Tarvaris Jackson can pull out a strong game from nowhere. It doesn't make Jackson an elite quarterback. Just like football, there are varying levels of great pitchers -- the elite ones, the great ones, the good ones and the rest.

A team lucky enough to have multiple "true" aces, like the Phillies, takes away that true ace for another team. Cliff Lee isn't the No. 1 pitcher on his own team, but if you put him on pretty much any other team, he would be the ace. Heck, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre were on the same team for some time. So was LaDanian Tomlinson and Mike Turner. Each player was either great at the time or went on to be great, but it doesn't mean that there was a paucity of quarterbacks just because multiple good players at the same position are  on the same team. Plus, here you get into the differences between 16 games and 162 games. Every Opening Day, there are 750 players that receive at least one day's playing time in baseball. The number of players climbs over 1,000 by season's end, numbers that football can't possibly match. With that much competition, there are naturally going to be more aces. It's a simple ratio. It's not a different talent pool, it's a bigger one.

As to why the level of an individual game matters, we're here arguing what the most important position in the game is. How can you throw out individual games? Especially in football, you would think the importance of individual games is heightened because there are just 16 games in a season and playoffs are single-elimination. The argument is what the most important position in sports is. That tells me we need to figure out who influences the team's chances of winning the most. If you look at a season's worth of evidence, I don't think you can argue against the quarterback. But is it appropriate to compare a quarterback to a starting pitcher with all other considerations factored in? I don't think so. Compare them in a vacuum and distill it down.

Brinson: Even if the talent's shifted to one team -- as happens in many sports, even if the Favre/Rodgers point doesn't work as Rodgers actually became better by sitting and learning -- pitchers are used once every five games. That makes the argument done and done, because you know what Roy Halladay does every four out every five (individual!) games? He lights matches in between Ryan Howard's toes.

As for the goaltender, I think it's important to remember that you only win if you can outscore the other team. This is true in every team sport.

And goalies simply do not score points. In fact, when a team desperately needs to make a run and really get on the offensive in hockey, they actually pull their goaltender! Additionally, the cerebral and athletic requirements to be a goalie are, I'm sorry to say, just not the same that are required for a quarterback.

Stubits: Well you know the old saying: defense wins championships.

Brinson: Though I respect the arguments your making, goalies are just for the defensive, which is where every all of you remain when trying to argue that the quarterback isn't the most important position in all of sports.

Photos: Getty Images

Since: Oct 10, 2007
Posted on: August 28, 2011 5:26 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Lots of good views for lots of reasons, but the answer, quite simply, is the goalie in hockey, here's why:

1)  There are fewer players on the surface at one time (only 6 including the goalie) so just from a pure numbers perspective the hockey goal is most important.
2)  The goalie plays the entire game, a QB plays part of the game, and most pitchers don't hit (or hit well) or add to the offense.
3)  The best QB doesn't amount to much without an Oline to give them time to throw.
4)  The goalie in hockey many times has to make up for the undisciplined play of his team when his team goes down one man and two men, no other sport does one player have such an impact potential impact or such pressure.
5)  What other sport does one player have such pressure as having to stop a player streaking in all alone?  Or facing a 2 on 1, 3 on 1, or other add man rush?
6)  A great QB can impact a game, but not like a great goalie; a QB needs others to be great (if no one is open or no O-line or no running game, a great QB has little impact on the game), a goalie can impact the game regardless of how bad his team plays in front of him, he can make up for all the mistakes of his team and in many ways the goalie in hockey is the QB of the team (especially on the penalty kill - ie "the team's best penalty killer is so and so, the goalie").

In any given sport any player can impact a game to the point of winning, but the goalie in hockey has the biggest potential and is therefor the most important position in all of sports.  No I don't live in Canada.

This question is really only close for people who don't know hockey.....

Since: Nov 4, 2007
Posted on: August 28, 2011 2:30 pm

The article is: Most important POSITION in sports

Not most important PLAYER. So this is not about quality of an individual player but the importance of a position. On that the basketball commentator was spot on with his response. The baseball commentator gave a classic "baseball is existentialist" answer which was also spot on in that no one position is more important than another. The football commentator gave the typical caveman "(grunt) football is better than you sissy sports (grunt, grab crotch)" nonsense answer. The hockey commentator gave the correct response: the single most important POSITION in sports is the goalie in hockey because that is the one position where a let down in performance most effects the outcome of a game. The low scoring nature of hockey really strengthens that reality. A similar argument can be made for the goalie in soccer being the most important POSITION in sports, especially given that soccer is even lower scorin than hockey.

Since: Jun 1, 2007
Posted on: August 28, 2011 9:59 am

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Patrick Roy made the Avalanche a powerhouse, but Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic had much to do with those championships! NHL Goalies are streaking beasts. They're unbeatable for a week, a playoff run, then they'll be terrible for the same stretch.

I can't believe there is an arguement outside of basketball, but i guess it is because it isn't a true position. The alpha player is the most important and dominant.

2009-2010 Cleveland Cavaliers with Lebron James: 61–21 record
2010-2011 Cleveland Cavaliers without Lebron James: 19–63 record

That doesn't happen in any other sport, no matter who the player.

A goalie doesn't need to be more than average to lead his team to the playoffs, a MVP QB can get hurt and his backup or a veteran can come in and fill his role. Look at what happened when Ben Roethlisberger was suspended. Steelers went 3-1. A Pticher just doesn't play enough.

Since: Jul 8, 2008
Posted on: August 28, 2011 8:21 am

To " IKnowShawn "... I say catcher before pitcher

I`m not sure if you`re talking about me,as i see that here are several other posts mentioning catcher being more important than pitcher as well.I played catcher,when i was young.Give it a whirl some time,let me know how that works out for you.Hurt two catchers in a game.What do you do ? It`s not like you`ve got fifteen of them sitting there "walking" the dog like you have pitchers.
 Anyway,i see there`s a lot of goalie talk here.The overwhelming consensous,even though some can`t bring themselves to come right out and say it...goalie.

Since: Nov 16, 2009
Posted on: August 27, 2011 11:11 am

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

I'd go with goalie, just because that's the one position in sports that can single-handedly win a game.  If the other team doesn't score, you'll win (eventually) or possibly tie if it's a regular season game.  You could say the same about a starting pitcher, but they only play 20% of the time.  Quarterbacks only play less than 50% of the time and rely on 10 other people to look good, and I honestly don't think any one basketball position is more important than another.

Since: Dec 1, 2006
Posted on: August 27, 2011 9:51 am

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

I see what you are saying hockeybob about QB and goalie and consistency.  However, in a game or a season, a goalie can't be on for 82 games... they get hot streaks or bad ones... the point is in a series in the playoffs, in a regular season game, the position of goaltender can directly impact the outcome of the game more than a QB ( in my opinion).  Whether a specific goalie is average or a HOFer is irrelevant... if they are hot at the right time, they can win a Stanley cup for a team... look at Cam Ward, Neimi, the Flyers platoon last season (two seasons ago, i guess) on their Cup run..Vernon, Roloson,  and many more that were hot at the right times, and won games for their teams.

Another good example of a great goalie  directly affecting a team would be Patrick Roy being traded to the Avalanche.  They instantly became the NHL powerhouse with him, and the Canadiens haven't sniffed at the Cup since.

I can't think of a QB that was a winner, and was traded to another team and see how they did after that... Boomer is all I can come up with, but it isn't a good example.    Drew Bledsoe?  going from a Superbowl dynasty to irrelevance in a year would be a good example. 

It is still kind of tough comparing apples to oranges though.. as a goalie plays 82 games plus a possible 24 more games, while a QB plays 16 games plus post season... that is a huge difference... a football team takes an entire week , even two weeks to get ready for one game, whilea goalie could see four games in a week, so it is really different outlooks.

Since: Jun 1, 2007
Posted on: August 27, 2011 8:30 am

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Fast forward to last season, where the Bruins only managed to escape us in the first round because of absolute atrocious defensive play.  Our D couldn't get it out of the zone for their lives, constantly turning the puck over and failing to outplay them in the most important parts of the rink(the few feet before and after the lines).  End result, the Bruins not only move on past us, but go on to win the cup.
I think you are talking about two different seasons. I'm a Sabres fan too and I remember our crushing defeat against the Flyers this past season. Two years ago, we lost to the bruins in post season and the Bruins went to the conference finals before being eliminated in biggest-collapse-ever fashion against the Flyers.

Using the Sabres as an example, it should be easy to argue the goalie is the strongest position. Dominik Hasek took the Sabres to the finals in 1999. He also won an olympic gold that year. Unbelievable considering the lineup on each of those teams. Unless I am making up memories, I believe Curtis Brown lead the team in post season scoring. Hasek was lights out for a 6-month stretch that nearly brought Buffalo a championship without the team required to pull it off. At the same time, its about playing lights out. An "elite" goalie hasn't won the cup in years. I'm not calling Tim Thomas elite because he wasn't even the starter in Boston last season. But the big names like Rinne, Luongo, Miller and Lundqvist don't have a recent cup, while Cam Ward, JS Giguere, Chris Osgood, Marc Andre Fleury have theirs. Its about getting hot at the right time.

In football, this isn't close to the same. We know who the elite QB's are and we know their teams are going to the post season. We know one of them will win the Superbowl. There is so little doubt. Sure, it's possible for a defense to carry a team to the Superbowl despite its Trent Dilfer, but it happens once a decade. Outside of that, the elite guys are the heart, soul, and FUTURE of their teams individual seasons. Sure, guys step in and have great seasons when their QB goes down, but the team almost always goes out in the early round of the playoffs.

Since: Jul 1, 2010
Posted on: August 26, 2011 10:19 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Hmm Okay Hockeybob- So when Mike Vernon won the Conn Smyth for the 1997 Stanely Cup finals he was just an adverage Goalie then we all know who played on those Detriot  Teams and Vernon won the MVP for the Cup that say allot. Adverage far from it.
He was hot, going into the post season he was anything but solid, had a subpar save percentage and hadn't been a clear no 1 on the team that season or the year before for a number of reasons.   He was not a very good goalie, and then he got hot and then he played good for a while and then he was bad again.  Detroit almost always had goalie issues through the 90s, heck even now, they've had very few comfortable years in net.

My other point about goalie being the most important behind qb is that there have been so many goalies who weren't the no 1s come in and win a cup compared to qbs.   Just recently for example, Niemi wasn't supposed to be on the roster in Chicago,  and Ward wasn't  supposed to see  his 2006 post season and were true rookies.   We haven't seen a rookie come into a team mid-season and win a superbowl in the free agent era (Too ridiculous trying to compare the positions, let alone comparing them in the decades before free agency was implemented).   Brady, Warner, and Roethlisberger would be the closest thing to a nobody stepping in and winnig a title, but they even came out of camp as no 1s (except Brady who waited until week 2) and already had time with the team, and Johnson was a vet.   Rookies and backups have done it in hockey right before the postseason, but it's harder to prove that something as drastic can happen with that position in football.

For a single game I agree with statements saying pitcher is the most important, but for an entire year and postseason, I think it's qb.  Teams still have a chance to recover from a mistake made by a goalie or pitcher with a little luck and sound strategy, a qb makes a mental mistake and it's up to the defense to screw up the opportunity, his team doesn't have a chance to make up for the mental mistake as easily or as often imo.   I don't know the NBA well enough to have a strong opinion about guards being the most important.

No right answers and there are exceptions to every rule anyway.

Since: Aug 22, 2007
Posted on: August 26, 2011 8:56 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

sensarmy.  I think you could look at it both ways.  However, I don't think people would talk as highly as they do about Brodeur if it weren't for the D put in place of him.  If you talk about late 90s early to mid 00s for the Devils the first thing that comes to your mind that is not a players name is the TRAP.  I don't know how many times I saw Brodeur get a shut out with fewer than 20 saves but it was enough to make me sick.  Was he a great goalie, YES.  Was he important to the team, YES.  Was he the most important part of the team....a big part but the D that was in front of him was the biggest.  I've never heard a story about a goaltender that had a great season that didn't come along with a story about how good their defense was.  People like to think goaltenders are the most important because they are too short sighted to see the big picture.  People like RB's WR's and QB's because they are the ones that score, but they overlook the block that got the RB in the end zone.  The same is said about hockey.  people look at the score and see a 2-0 shutout and immediately think, wow that Brodeur is good....never thinking maybe he only faced 19 shots and it was the D that won it for the team 

Since: Nov 9, 2009
Posted on: August 26, 2011 8:53 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

As a big hockey fan I would like to think a goalie is the most important position in sports. But I personally think its the QB.
You will see great goalies on weaker teams or on teams that don't have a great record but not very often will you see a great QB be on weak NFL team

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