Statistics in the NFL can be as misleading as they can be helpful. Obscure statistics like quarterback rating can give us a very broad picture of a player, but they don’t necessarily tell us much beyond the overall quality of a player. Other stats such as completion percentage or interceptions on defense can tell us a more targeted piece of information, but again, they don’t give us the whole story.
One such statistic is that of tackles. Last Sunday, we saw one player, Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers get involved on 24 tackles, including 9 of his own. In just under two seasons of work, Kuechly has nearly 200 tackles, but what exactly does that tell us?
Before we go further, it’s important to note that a high number of tackles is not a bad thing, at least for the player that’s racking up tackles. That being said, the tackles stat does tell us more than simply whether a player is an adequate tackler.
Beyond simply telling us that a player can in fact bring another player down, the tackles stat does tell us something about a team’s defense as a whole. Teams that routinely feature one or two players with huge tackle totals and few others generating tackles generally indicates an inefficient defense. It means that one or two players, usually linebackers, are cleaning up their teammates’ messes. In short, it’s rarely good to see one player with far more tackles than anyone else on his team.
Individually, the statistic can indicate that a player is efficient on the field. Of Kuechly’s 24 tackles against the Saints on Sunday, only 9 were made without assistance. That tells us that Kuechly isn’t taking plays off. He’s getting to the ball carrier and helping his teammates stop plays. The fact that the Saints were only able to muster 13 points in four quarters of play tells us that Kuechly wasn’t simply cleaning up messes either. He was a very productive member of a more-than-capable defensive unit.
The overarching point here is simple. Statistics can’t be used in isolation. One team featuring a player with a huge tackles total may be completely inept on defense, and that one player may be one of the few productive players. Alternatively, a huge tackles total may simply indicate that the player in question is simply a productive member of his own unit.
Because any individual statistic can’t tell the whole story, careful analysis of other related stats is almost always required to understand what any individual stat may mean. Is the tackling stat a useful tool to analyze a player as an individual and as part of a unit? Sure it is, but we have to be able to consider it as part of a number of other defensive stats that are equally as important.
Tackles are great, but to determine the effectiveness of any defensive player, one must figure out what else that player does well. Defensive players have to be able to do more than just bring down the ball carrier, and that’s something we have to consider when we start hearing about players with 100 plus tackles in a given season. That’s one aspect of their game, but what else can they do to help their team?