Victor Butler vs. Anthony Spencer: Which OLB Should Start for Dallas Cowboys?

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Victor Butler vs. Anthony Spencer: Which OLB Should Start for Dallas Cowboys?
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In last year’s “Training Camp Battles” series, I analyzed the Dallas Cowboys’ most intriguing positional battles heading into the season.  I’m continuing the series this year with a matchup that might not even be much of a competition.  

It has kind of been assumed in the past that Anthony Spencer’s starting job is secure, and that Victor Butler, Brandon Williams and company are all competing to garner snaps behind Spencer and DeMarcus Ware.  Perhaps it is because Spencer is a former first-round selection or maybe the Cowboys think his run-stopping ability is far superior to his backups, but it needs to end.

With new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Big D, I think there is finally a legitimate shot of Butler unseating Spencer from the starting strong-side outside linebacker position.  With Ryan’s version of the 3-4 defense calling for multiple pass-rushing linebackers on the field together, Butler at least figures to see far more than the 157 snaps he saw in 2010.  But even 300 snaps is not nearly enough for a player who, in my opinion, should be starting opposite Ware from Week 1.  Here is why...

 

In my 2010 Outside Linebacker grades, I provided Butler with a 89.9 percent and Spencer with an 84.6 percent (for the record, Ware received a 94 percent).  My grades are obviously based on efficiency as opposed to total production, but the gap between Butler and Spencer, in terms of pure efficiency, was rather vast.  You can see to the right that Butler’s sacks-per-rush were over twice that of Spencer.  With only 157 snaps, though, I think sacks are a poor indicator of Butler’s play.  The same can be said for hits, which are perhaps even more fluky than sacks.

In my view, quarterback pressures are the best determinant of a pass rusher’s worth.  Of course you want a player who can bring the quarterback down once he reaches him, but past sacks have been shown to be a worse predictor of future sacks than past pressures (i.e. despite being less valuable in games, pressures are “more valuable” than sacks in statistical analysis).  Butler’s pressure rate of .118 is incredible–even better than that of Ware.

 

But what about Butler’s run-stopping ability?  He’s a pass-rush specialist, some argue, and his numbers are inflated due to an increased percentage of snaps against the pass.  Errrntttt. (Like a buzzer.  Like at the end of games, ya know?  Like I’m saying the hypothetical Butler “hater” is wrong in his assessment of Butler’s efficiency.  Whatever.)

On the contrary, Butler actually played the highest percentage of snaps against the run of any outside linebacker in 2010: 39.5 compared to Spencer’s 38.6.  Good numbers for us, because it makes the statistics of the two players very comparable.  You can see Butler’s production against the run is arguably superior to that of Spencer.  He recorded a tackle on 7.6 percent of his snaps in 2010, compared to 5.6 for the former Purdue Boilermaker.  And oh yeah, Butler also didn’t miss a single tackle; Spencer missed six.

Some might argue that we should expect Butler’s stats to be superior to Spencer’s because Butler’s lack of sizable snaps means he is always at near 100 percent.  Efficiency numbers might be a poor barometer of value because we should expect the players who receive the most snaps to get a little tired and see at least a small decline in play.

That is certainly the best argument in favor of Spencer retaining his starting job, but it is also in some ways irrelevant to Butler.  He has played incredibly while in the game, and that’s all he can do.  At the very least, it is the job of the coaches to make sure the players who are performing at the highest level receive the most playing time.  Butler’s 157 snaps in 2010 is a joke.  DCT readers knew before the 2010 season began that Butler was a rising player (dare I say potential star?) who deserved more snaps.  Actually, just prior to the season I wrote:

Victor Butler will play close to 250 snaps and will record at least five sacks.

The kid has shown he is ready for more playing time.  There’s no way Coach Phillips wants DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer playing 1,100+ snaps again this season, so either Butler or Brandon Williams will have to step up.

Butler was phenomenal in the preseason, particularly against the run (and we know he can get to the passer).

 

So why didn’t Butler get more snaps in 2010?  Unlike Wade Phillips, I think Rob Ryan has the guts to sit a veteran in favor of a more productive player.  At the very least, he should increase Butler’s snaps until the production and efficiency of both players (combined) is maximized.  At that point, the Nash equilibrium as it pertains to the outside linebacker situation will be reached.

Think of it like this: as Butler’s snaps increase, his production will, at some point, decline (due to fatigue, increased attention from the offense and so on).  Once his efficiency declines to the point of Spencer’s, the Nash equilibrium will be reached.  Although neither player’s individual production will be maximized, the overall efficiency of the outside linebacker position will be at its peak.

When you have an All-World player like DeMarcus Ware, the Nash equilibrium is shifted to Ware playing as many snaps as possible (i.e. a tired Ware is better than anyone else).  Spencer isn’t Ware.  When he is tired, he needs to come out of the game.  Ryan should shift the snap count of Spencer and Butler until the ‘Boys reach their Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production.  I have a strong feeling that equilibrium would result in Butler receiving the majority of snaps.

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