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: May 10, 2007
Posted on: August 26, 2011 3:04 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Agreed. Hockey goalie (not soccer or lacrosse) is the single most important position to a team in any sport.

Since: Aug 11, 2006
Posted on: August 26, 2011 2:42 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Hockey is my least favorite sport among the big 4 but I have to agree that goalie is the most important position in sports over the course of an entire season. In a single game the one player who can impact the result the most is the starting pitcher, but a goalie plays so much more over the course of the season than the pitcher that they get the nod.

The QB is vastly overrated as the most important position in sports. A good offensive line and a great defense can be enough to win a super bowl. Defense does win championships and the QB is the one player out of the four who has nothing to do with defense. Trent Dilfer winning the Super Bowl with the Ravens, Brad Johnson winning it all with the Bucs and even Brady's first Super Bowl with the Patriots are all great examples. (I realize Brady is a great player now but that first year he basically did nothing but throw 5-yard slant routes and avoid turnovers).

If I bought the alpha player argument in the NBA I would actually agree that this is the most important position in sports. Ex: Cavs go from #1 seed to #1 pick in one season with the loss of only one player, but the alpha player can play any position and are often so versatile (Lebron/Magic) that they don't even have a defined position.

Since: Feb 2, 2009
Posted on: August 26, 2011 2:30 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Outside of Rando, I don't think any of these would have been ranked a top 5 PG in the year that they won it.
Would argue that billups, in his prime, was one of the best pg in the league. The guy was the finals mvp on a team with ben and sheed wallace, rip, and prince. That's pretty deserving

Since: Sep 16, 2007
Posted on: August 26, 2011 1:39 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Thomas has them all beat in the beard department.

Since: Nov 18, 2006
Posted on: August 26, 2011 1:27 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

PG isn't even the most important position in basketball. What was the last team to win a championship with a PG as their best player? The Pistons and Isaiah Thomas? Star point guards don't win championships anymore... big men and dominant 2 guards do. Without a post presence, PG's are completely ineffective. Look at the big men on every championship team in the last decade: Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'neal, the Wallace's (Ben and Rasheed)... now look at the point guards: Jason Kidd, Derek Fischer, Rajon Rando, Tony Parker, Chauncy Billups, Jason Williams. Outside of Rando, I don't think any of these would have been ranked a top 5 PG in the year that they won it. But I go with QB over goalie. Detroit dominated for years with mediorcre/bad goaltending. Nearly ever Superbowl Champ has a great QB.

Since: Aug 16, 2006
Posted on: August 26, 2011 1:13 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

The debate between QB and goalie is a good one, but I can not remember the last time a bad goalie won the Cup.  More bad quarterbacks have won super bowls then bad goalies winning cups.  I get it, Football is the most popular sport, and hockey ranks anywhere from 4 to 6 depending on what part of the country you live in. 

Since: Jul 29, 2009
Posted on: August 26, 2011 1:09 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

By far the most important position. A QB is only as good as his o-line. Dave Kreig would have been a hall of famer with Montana o-line and Mr. Rice(I feel Joe's the most overated QB of all time).You can controll the game by running it down their throats, not passing. Put Brady or Peyton in Seatle the last couple of seasons and we'd hear talk of retirement. Rule out Baseball it's not a sport( until there is a salary cap, I will not consider Baseball a sport) and as for basketball, it's not the team that scores most, it's the team that gives up the fewest points, and defence has to be a system not an individual effort. Now Hockey can be dominated by one single player and that's a goalie. For all the atheletes out there, strap on some pads(skates too) and stand in front of a 100mph slap shot with trafic in front of you while someone deflects the puck. It takes a different kind of brain to be a goalie and is by far the most athletic position in all of sports.

Since: Dec 1, 2006
Posted on: August 26, 2011 11:06 am

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

you're a fool, you penalize qbs saying they play half the game ( while the defense is on the field ) yet you say goalie's play "every second of the game". How is a qb sitting on the bench any different than when the goalies team has the puck in the other teams offensive zone. Hockey is possesion based as well. 
A goalie still has to be alert the entire time.. the game doesn't stop when possesion is changed... there could be an offensive changeover at any time in a hockey game.  The goalie plays every minute of every game.. a QB does not.  Also, the goalie's offense can play different if the goalie is good... they can be more aggressive, and pinch in the offensive zone more, without worrying about a counter attack, because the goalie can cover the offense's mistakes.  So what the play is sometimes at the other end... does one say since there were no hits to right field for an entire game, that a baseball team doesn't need a right fielder?  Another WR gets no passes all game but is covered by someone, so they didn't play?  Saying a goalie isn't playing when the puck is not in their end is similar to that.

Also a goalie CAN score... (Ron Hextall) or assist on offensive plays (Broduer) and they certainly can steal games that their teams should not win.  The point being they are on that ice the entire game.  Look at the play of pulling the goalie... there is a reason it is only done in the end and by a team that is losing.. it is desparation, and the odds of a team evening up a score without the goalie is extremely remote.
 You cannot win without a good goalie.. at all.

This is all opinion though, and I doubt hockey fans or football fans will ever agree on this.   

A QB can sort of affect the defense, by game management, but that also has something to do with the OC and with the RBs... that is not all QBs.

Since: Mar 9, 2008
Posted on: August 26, 2011 10:42 am
This comment has been removed.

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Since: Jul 1, 2010
Posted on: August 26, 2011 10:36 am

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

I wish I could agree with the goalie being the most important but I think it has to be quarterback followed by goaltender.   Because of the size of the pads or some really good defensive skaters, I think a goalie can have a terrible night and still do okay with some luck, but if a qb makes bad reads or bad decisions with the ball, I think they'll be far less likely to catch those breaks compared to a goalie, I think it would be easier for the quarterback position to win or lose you games than a goalie.    A system can offset bad decision making by a goalie better  than bad decision making by a qb imo.   Given the choice, I would take a bad goalie over a bad quarterback if I wanted a better chance to win a championship.    To goalies credit, they don't get to call timeouts when things aren't going well or looking well for them.

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