Are statistics really telling us who our best AFL player are?

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By Bon, Bon is a Roar Rookie


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    Ryan O'Keefe was the best on ground during the 2012 AFL grand final, yet is a victim of Sydney's depth this year. (Slattery Images)

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    There is an unfortunately blight on the game AFL and it is one simple word: statistics.

    In an age and time where everything somehow can be qualified, quantified and correlated the emphasis to base everything in our great game around statistics is going too far.

    I love the game, I am a purist and after following the game from a young age and playing for the past 10 years I appreciate the level of skill and just how hard it is to execute and perform at a professional level.

    I am in awe of players who can shake a tag, pick up 40 touches and manage to kick a goal or two along the way but the game has now become so frustrating to watch when this is all we focus on and in particular when all medals, awards and accolades now seem to be going to players who top the possession count.

    Last week I watched Sydney Swans champion Ryan O’Keefe collect the North Smith Medal for Best on Ground in the 2012 AFL Grand Final.

    Now being a passionate Swans supporter I was just happy to see a Swans player finally win a Norm Smith (don’t get me started on the 2005 Grand Final North Smith disgrace) and whilst it is clear the O’Keefe had a big day you have to question, does being on top of the possession count automatically mean you have had a good game?

    If Ted Richards picked up 15 odd possessions and kept Lance Franklin goalless, would he have been awarded the Norm Smith Medal? Probably not. Should he? Simply, yes.

    It seems too often everyone is so keen to see who topped the possession, tackle, disposal count and award accolades accordingly (remember the outrage when Gary Ablett didn’t win the 2008 Norm Smith) but have we all forgotten that each player has a job do every time they go out on the field and if they do that successfully then why are they not acknowledged as much as a bloke who picks up 40 touches.

    Daniel Hannebery can consider himself incredibly unlucky not to pick up the Norm Smith Medal. Whilst he may not have had as many touches or tackles as O’Keefe, I don’t think there was another player on the field who was in the right place when they needed to be or picked up a possession or took a mark at the exact time their team needed it.

    His mark running back with the flight of the ball exemplified this but unfortunately courage, determination and leadership can be statistically defined.

    I dare say that a player, like Hanneberry, who may have picked up 10 less possessions that O’Keefe is more valuable and performs better simply because he did his job and stood up when he needed to.

    We will often see players lay shepards, make fake leads and simply drop back into vacant parts of the field simply to help their team mates yet we never see this rewarded when it matters.

    For the past few years the Brownlow Medal has constantly been referred to as the “Midfielders Medal” with some members of the media even calling for separate awards for the different positions on the field.

    Whilst a ridiculous proposition, it appears each year that this is truer and truer with players who have statistically been best on ground going on to poll three votes each game.

    Whilst Dane Swan’s and Gary Ablett’s Brownlow Medals are thoroughly deserved you have to question whether their 30-40 disposals a week (many probably ineffective or earned by running off the ruckman or teammate) are more important the other midfielder who managed to keep their direct opponent to minimal possessions or the half back flanker who’s five clearances from the back 50 directly resulted in five goals.

    Every player has a different role to play on the ground and we need to start acknowledging the backman who shuts down his opponent or the forward who manages to make the most of his opportunities rather than just looking north on the possession count table.

    My favorite medal of the year is the ANZAC Medal not only because of the game and what is represents but because it is awarded to the player who shows and plays with the ANZAC spirit.

    It’s not for the player who gets a cheap handball from a stoppage or free kick, nor for the player who gets 30 ineffective disposals.

    It’s an award for the player who runs back with the flight of the ball, the player who runs 100m to get to a contest, the player who manages to keep one of the games most damaging players quiet, it’s the player who gets himself in the right place at the right time and does what his team needs exactly when it is needed and while he may not top the disposal count each of his disposals may be worth double than that of the bloke who did.

    If only all awards were based on this criteria, Daniel Hanneberry (and a lot of other footballers over the past 5-10 years) may have a few different medals hanging on display at home.

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    The Crowd Says (31)

    • October 8th 2012 @ 8:52am
      Marlene Mudie said | October 8th 2012 @ 8:52am | ! Report

      I agree, we saw western bulldogs players concentrate on possessions rather than winning games when things got tough. If possessions make coaches happy then that’s what will motivate players. m@p

    • October 8th 2012 @ 9:10am
      Michael said | October 8th 2012 @ 9:10am | ! Report

      Fantastic article, completely agree.

      • October 9th 2012 @ 9:12am
        Magpie Lark said | October 9th 2012 @ 9:12am | ! Report

        Only one more element you mentiond both hanneberry and Okeefe which is fine. However in my view Sewell was the best player on the ground ableit on the losing side and thats my issue. The best player does not always come from the winning team yet in overwhelming cases playing in a losing team takes away the gloss which isnt right. And by the way I am a collingwood supporter and have nothing against the two swans boys. Sewell being best is my opinion.

    • October 8th 2012 @ 10:11am
      Strummer Jones said | October 8th 2012 @ 10:11am | ! Report

      After watching GF replay, agree that Hanne’bar’berry deserved to win the Norm Smith. He actually had a really average season and shocking finals campaign in the lead up, but for some reason something clicked and he played what may well be the best game of his career.

      However, whilst your article raises a point that is often discussed, it doesn’t quite provide a solution for determining the Norm Smith winner or winners of similar awards. Unfortunately, the people that award the votes have basically minutes to allocate votes at the end of each quarter without the privilege of a replay to pick up things they may have missed. Stats are unfortunately both beneficial and (can be) misleading in this regard. Should the voters be asked not to review stats before voting? Should someone prepare a highlights section for each quarter? Should the Norm Smith be awarded only to a member of the winning team and be presented at the club dinner 2 hours later thus allowing more thought? Or is it ‘just another medal’ and we shouldn’t really be that worried about it?

      Personally (and I am against the flow here) I think they should just get rid of all the peripheral awards. Players always talk about the importance of the ‘the team’, so why have individual awards like the Norm Smith for a single game? Its only been around for some 30 odd years, so dumping it should not in theory upset too many traditionalists.

      • October 8th 2012 @ 11:15am
        Christo the Daddyo said | October 8th 2012 @ 11:15am | ! Report

        “Personally (and I am against the flow here) I think they should just get rid of all the peripheral awards. Players always talk about the importance of the ‘the team’, so why have individual awards like the Norm Smith for a single game? Its only been around for some 30 odd years, so dumping it should not in theory upset too many traditionalists.”


        And I reckon you’ll find it isn’t the players you’d be upsetting, but the media.

      • October 8th 2012 @ 7:10pm
        Bon said | October 8th 2012 @ 7:10pm | ! Report

        Interestingly enough O’Keefe was the first to point out the only medal that mattered to him was the premiership medal, but I really have no opinion on how the awarding of the medal should be done. At the end of the day, if you focus in on one player you will notice him more than anyone else, suppose its hard to keep track on 44 individual players. I would love to see all voters banned from seeing a stats sheet until they have awarded the votes/award.

    • Roar Guru

      October 8th 2012 @ 10:14am
      sheek said | October 8th 2012 @ 10:14am | ! Report


      You’re right of course. What stats often don’t tell us, is the effectiveness of players. A wise old boss once told me not to confuse activity with productivity. Stats tell us how busy players are, but what is more essential is how productive they are.

      A player might only do half a dozen key things in a match, but each of those half a dozen things might have a significant influence on the final outcome.

      Take Adam Goodes. He ruptured his posterior cruciate ligament early in the second quarter. For most of the match, he was a passenger. But you couldn’t put a price on how his courage & mere presence on the field lifted his team mates to each give a bit extra of themselves. Goodes kicked a late goal that lifted his team’s morale to the heavens.

      Ditto Ted Richards. He was outplayed by Franklin, but all his team mates knew the great distress he was playing under with regular painkillers in his ankle. Like Goodes, Richards did something special late, taking a mark & clearing kick when his team was under severe pressure.

      Stats are certainly useful, but need to be balanced with other factors.

      • October 8th 2012 @ 7:16pm
        Bon said | October 8th 2012 @ 7:16pm | ! Report

        I don’t necessarily think players should be awarded praise simply because they play under an injury or something similar but in my opinion you are very right in saying that if someone only does half a dozen things in a match it may be more influential than a player who does a dozen. Interesting point you raise about Franklin though, in my opinion he almost won the flag off his own boot and that 65m goal in the third was timed perfectly in the context of bringing his team back in the game. Had the Hawks won would he have been awarded the Norm Smith? Probably not. I would have a guess and say Sewell would have most likely, his statistics were far more impressive.

    • October 8th 2012 @ 1:50pm
      Gus McManus said | October 8th 2012 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

      In another Swans grand final, the centenary final in 1996, Glen Archer’s Norm Smith typified what you’re talking about. He wasn’t the best ‘statiscally’, but he did his job in the backline perfectly and showed immense determination and courage thtroughout, running back with the flight of the ball, shepparding teammates etc. Great article, totaly agree.

      • October 8th 2012 @ 3:09pm
        Gus McManus said | October 8th 2012 @ 3:09pm | ! Report


      • October 9th 2012 @ 11:13am
        Lucan said | October 9th 2012 @ 11:13am | ! Report

        Archer’s award seemed like a “long-service” award more than the job he did on the day.

        David Rhys-Jones’ Norm Smith in 1987 is the best example I can think of. Just owning his one-on-one contest with Brereton.

        • October 12th 2012 @ 7:45am
          Hop said | October 12th 2012 @ 7:45am | ! Report

          long service award?? are you joking ? it was his 4th season in the afl he hadnt even played a 100 games !!!

    • October 8th 2012 @ 3:02pm
      Siege of Perth said | October 8th 2012 @ 3:02pm | ! Report

      I thought Hannabrey did get the most touches? I think the fact O’Kiefe won it is actually going against your point. Nobody thought hed win it cause they overlooked him for Hannbrey with more touches, but the judges recognized his contribution. Im not sure how it actually works but judging panels should watch the games without any commentary and have no access to stats when making their decision.

      • October 8th 2012 @ 7:11pm
        Bon said | October 8th 2012 @ 7:11pm | ! Report

        Hannebery got one more disposal then O’Keefe, but statistically (inclusive of tackles, marks etc) O’Keefe appeared to be the most prominent Swan. Totally agree, shouldn’t even have access to stats when making the decision.