Colors of the wins
Player rankings provided by three NFL teams shed some insight as to why the Patriots and Steelers are a combined 31-3 and appear perfectly matched
In the opinion of the people who know best, whoever wins Sunday's AFC Championship game will have to part a sea of red to do it.
According to the personnel ratings of three NFL teams who made their private pro personnel boards available to the Globe this week, there is little to pick between the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots and the 16-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. They each have several elite players and solid professionals at nearly every position, which is to be expected when one considers they are a combined 31-3 this season.
These three clubs, like most NFL teams, use a color-coded rating system, with blue being an elite player, three rankings of red for various types of NFL starters, three rankings of purple for veteran role players and young players on the rise, as well as orange, black, green, and yellow ratings for backup players, practice squad players, and players who are not considered NFL quality athletes.
If one looked at the personnel board of these teams for, say, the San Francisco 49ers, you would find a sea of orange and purple with very few red and very likely no blue players. One look at their board compared with their competitors and it would be clear why the Niners were in the market for a new coach and general manager during the offseason. It also would make clear the monumental size of the rebuilding job now facing new coach Mike Nolan.
Every team in the league uses a similar rating system and many have their boards lining the walls of the pro personnel director's office so he can quickly see where opposing teams have a matchup advantage or disadvantage.
These ratings are reviewed at the end of each season and regularly updated and altered during the year. Take, for example, the Steelers' 34-year-old cornerback, Willie Williams. Although a longtime NFL starter, he was most often rated between a purple (+) and red (-), even in 1995, when he led the AFC with seven interceptions for the Steelers. But after returning to Pittsburgh this season following seven years with the Seahawks, he's lifted his level of play in the opinion of two of the three teams to a solid red. "It's something you see sometimes," one scout said. "A late career rise. It may just be for this season. It may be coincidental because of other improvements on their defense. But he's played solidly. You can say the same about [Jerome] Bettis. For a couple years he looked like he was sliding badly. He had a lot of injury problems. He comes back this year as a backup, gets a chance, and nearly runs for 1,000 yards. He's not what he was at his best, but he's a solid red player again. At least this year he is."
Last Saturday, the New York Jets attacked Williams on several occasions as if he was the purple (+) of old and had only marginal success in a game in which the Jets failed to score an offensive touchdown. That doesn't mean New England won't choose to go after him, but in the opinion of at least three teams, Williams may be up to the task.
Very few players are considered blues on the boards of these particular teams, and that is probably a universal opinion in the picky world of NFL scouting, where they can find holes even in the game of someone such as John Elway. As one scout explained last week, "For a guy to be a blue player in our rating system he has to be dominating. [LaDainian] Tomlinson in San Diego is a blue on our board for the Chargers, but [Corey] Dillon is a red (+) on our board for the Patriots. Dillon is a great runner and a workhorse and you'd love to have him on your team. It's not a putdown that he's not blue. It's because he doesn't do anything in the passing game. Tomlinson is one of the most dangerous receivers out of the backfield in football. That's the difference.
"The way we do it, if a team has two blues on their team they're doing well. Take the Ravens. On our board they have two blue players -- Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Some teams might have Jonathan Ogden as a blue, too. We have him red (+). You could argue either way, but what you know is he's a darn good player.
"Same with [Willie] Roaf in Kansas City. He's a top tackle. Consistent Pro Bowl player. But in our system he's a red (+), not a blue. Walter Jones in Seattle is a blue. To be blue you have to be a very special player. And you can't have too much age on you."
As long as teams understand their system, it doesn't matter if they're lenient graders in the Ivy League tradition or hellish graders such as Sister Helena back in parochial school. It's the comparisons that are important, and in the case of the Steelers and the Patriots, what's clear is that Sunday's game will not be decided by any glaring deficit in talent in any one area.
Although the individual opinions on various players differed in some cases, the consensus was that the Steelers had red quality or better players in eight of the 10 categories rated, including two blue players -- wide receiver Hines Ward and inside linebacker James Farrior. Fullback Dan Kreider was seen as a purple (+), which is a rising young player or often a slipping older one, and the Steeler tight ends rated the same as a unit, in part because they lost Jay Riemersma earlier to injury.
The Patriots, at least in the opinion of three of their competitors, also have two blue-rated players, quarterback Tom Brady and kicker Adam Vinatieri, although not all three teams were in agreement. One had Brady and Vinatieri red (+), but the consensus was blue for both. When one has won two Super Bowls with last-second kicks and the other is 55-14 as a starter and undefeated (7-0) in the playoffs with two Super Bowl MVP awards, it's difficult to argue any other color unless you're colorblind.
The rest of their team had seven red units and two purple pluses, also at fullback and in the secondary. However, if cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole were healthy, New England would have had another red category unit with Law rated a red (+) by all three teams and Poole red (-) by one, red by another, and purple (+) by the third (falling veteran player on the way down from a red rating in his case).
Hence it is clear that neither team has a particularly glaring weakness or an area of overwhelming superiority over the unit opposing it except, perhaps, when one compares the Steelers' receivers, who were universally considered red to red (+), with New England's secondary, which was on average purple (+) without Law and Poole.
On paper this creates a unit mismatch, but as the Patriots proved last weekend, that is meaningless if the other parts of their defense play up to speed. If they do, the New England secondary is more than adequate and makes up for its on-paper deficiencies with intelligence, aggressiveness, and the defensive game plans of coordinator Romeo Crennel.
There is only one area in which there is nothing but strong units going head-to-head across the board. While Brady is seen as a blue elite player, Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a red (-). That's an excellent rating for any quarterback and a particularly good one for a rookie, and Roethlisberger has earned it by winning his first 14 starts.
He looked more like a rookie last weekend against the Jets in his first playoff game, and the rumor is he's been nursing a sore thumb that has affected his accuracy, but in overtime he was letter perfect, setting up the winning field goal, which led one scout to say, "He looked terrible against the Jets. He made some poor decisions and some bad throws. It looked like the pressure may have affected him a little bit, but I don't think you'll see that happen again unless the Steelers fall behind and he's forced to pass in predictable situations. He's very accurate and he scrambles well enough to buy himself time to throw. That's what he's looking to do when he runs. Find a place to throw to. He's not like a lot of guys when they start running. He doesn't get tunnel vision.
"But if the Patriots can shut down the run and get an early lead that forces the Steelers to throw more, that's when he could get them in trouble, because he does have a tendency to throw it up some times in traffic and let his receivers try to make a play."
Judging by the private ratings of three NFL teams, the Steelers and Patriots have no shortage of those kind of players. The kind who make plays. The ones who make the most such plays Sunday against some extremely stiff competition will very likely carry the day, but it won't be easy swimming in this sea of red. Not easy at all, because they are too close in too many areas for this game to be anything but a tight squeeze, and a bruising test of will as well as skill.