The Jeff Backus Enigma

Football is an extremely tough game to evaluate, especially from a fan’s perspective, and most especially when that fan has never played a down of organized football. The surface stuff is easy enough to follow — you can usually pick out the best skill position players and the big-impact defenders — but issues like evaluating line play can be difficult for even the most passionate fan.

That’s why I don’t know what to think about Jeff Backus, a player whose advanced stats couldn’t tell a more different tale than what sticks out about him when I’ve watched Lions games. It’s the classic battle of stat nerd versus eyeball-test traditionalist, except that battle is being waged between my own ears.

According to the fantastic “Old Mother Hubbard” series at Lions in Winter, Backus graded out as a solidly above-average left tackle for the second consecutive year in 2010:

Of course, the man of the hour is Jeff Backus, and unsurprisingly he’s the Lions’ best offensive tackle. His overall +1.4 grade puts him 21st out of 78 offensive tackles; 13th out of left tackles. His pass block grade slots him 27th, 14th amongst qualifying left tackles. His run block grade is 33rd, 16th amongst left tackles. His four penalties called (one declined/offset) gave him the 8th-best penalty grade in the NFL (5th-best amongst left tackles. You’ll notice that his blue line is solidly above the thick black AVERAGE; that’s correct. Jeff Backus performed like an above-average tackle in 2010.

To me, this is mind-blowing. I’ve been a Lions fan for as long as Jeff Backus has been on the team, and very fondly remember his days at Michigan, but for the past few seasons my football-watching friends and I have been calling for Detroit to find someone — anyone — to replace Backus as soon as possible. Though I cannot place the exact events any more specifically than during the Jon Kitna era, I distinctly remember Backus literally getting picked up off the ground and tossed aside, rag-doll style, by much smaller defensive ends en route to sacks twice in the same season, one of which resulted in a safety (readers/fellow writers, help me out here, as Google apparently cannot). And of course, there’s this, the greatest reason for concern when it comes to Backus:

Yes, Jeff Backus grades out well when it comes to pass blocking, but it appears that when pitted against elite NFL defensive ends, he’s a ticking time bomb when it comes to giving up a big sack. Matt Stafford got injured in 2010 because Jeff Backus got absolutely torched by Julius Peppers, and while Backus certainly isn’t the first to suffer that fate, it brings up a big red flag moving forward for Detroit — can the Lions afford to potentially risk Stafford’s health by continuing to guard his blind side with an aging Backus?

I’m really not sure how to answer that question. One issue, of course, is the available talent on the roster and in free agency — for now, it appears that Detroit has no choice but to start Backus at left tackle. The other is that, at least statistically speaking, I’m not sure the team can do much better in the short term. By circumstance and choice, it appears Martin Mayhew’s answer is ‘yes,’ and ultimately that’s all that matters. Unfortunately, that means we could be in for some nerve-wracking moments if Backus can’t keep Stafford upright, and I can’t shake the feeling that we may look back and wonder why the team didn’t have a left tackle replacement ready sooner.

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Tags: Detroit Lions Jeff Backus

  • Derek G

    He is ABOVE AVERAGE. Not ELITE, Julius Peppers is one of the best D-Ends of all of football..yes Backus will get beat every now and then (all LT’s do at some point). It was just bad luck that one of the times he got beat it resulted in Stafford getting hurt. I do not believe there was a possible upgrade over Backus this season both via the draft and FA if it ever comes. If we let Backus walk after this season then trust me there will plenty of teams willing to take him as an upgrade.

    • Zac Snyder

      That’s a great point, Derek. There is some confirmation bias in the fact that Stafford got hurt as a result of the Peppers hit. Backus has been much better since Martz’s philosophy left town yet we’re left with bad memories that affect the way we think about Backus’ more recent play.

    • Ace Anbender

      Derek, I agree with you that it was, in large part, bad luck that Stafford got hurt when Backus got beat by Peppers. I know Backus was pretty distraught and said it was the first time in his football career that he’d ever given up a sack that led to an injury, and I believe him.

      The problem is this: the NFL North is full of elite defensive ends. You’ve got Peppers in Chicago and both Ray Edwards and Jared Allen in Minnesota — only Green Bay provides respite from a top-level pass rusher in the division, and they just won the Super Bowl.

      I acknowledge that Backus is what we’ve got at left tackle and it’s going to be that way in 2011 and quite possibly beyond — I guess what I’m looking at is whether or not that’s a big mistake by the Detroit brass to let it get to that point (and I’m a huge fan of Mayhew).

  • Ross Husson

    Backus is also getting old, he’s been in the league for 11 years. This is a reason why I was hoping we would pick up a OT in the Draft.

  • editstet

    The point about Backus is that he is not elite, but elite left tackles are few and far between or they would not be elite. Only Joe Thomas and Jake Long are truly elite left tackles. Ryan Clady, D’Brickshaw Ferguson and Marcus McNeill are very good. And then there is a group of a dozen or so, Backus among them, that are more middle of the road. None of the tackles taken in the first round of the last three drafts has elite written over them. A couple may become very good, but most will be no better than Backus.