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What does Tamba Hali have left? That’s a complicated answer

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For the last decade of my life, there are some things that have been completely consistent. My wife will always correct me when I tell people what our plans are. One of my kids is going to spill something at the dinner table. The moment we think winter is over, we’re going to get hit with one more storm that feels like the coming of the Others. And Tamba Hali is a soul-sucking terror who is impossible to block one-on-one.

Simple, consistent facts of life.

There’s comfort in having things that are routine. There’s something strangely satisfying about things working exactly as they should. And so, year after year for most of my adult life, Tamba has been a source of not only joy, but comfort.

But now it’s 2017. Tamba is going into his 12th year as a Chief. And Father Time, as we’ve heard on innumerable occasions, is undefeated. 2016 saw Tamba’s snap count drop dramatically, as he played only a shade over 53 percent of the defensive snaps this season. This was despite the fact that Justin Houston missed much of the season and outside linebacker was a big need. Additionally, Tamba’s 3.5 sacks were the lowest he’s had since 2008.

Naturally, the whispers started as the season went along: Tamba is done, Tamba is too old, Tamba doesn’t have it anymore. Those whispers were close to shouts by the time the season ended (with Tamba seeing only SEVEN snaps in the playoff loss to the Steelers) and today you can’t even mention Hali without at least one person calling him finished.

Of course, there has been pushback to the idea that Tamba is quite finished as a player, some of it coming from unexpected places.

The idea that Tamba could be top five in pressures from the right side despite seeing VASTLY fewer snaps than most other starting OLBs is out of step with the idea that he’s past it. For example, Melvin Ingram was on the field for 89 percent of his team’s snaps. In other words, Tamba was racking up pressures at a higher rate than most other pass rushers, despite his decreased playing time.

(Side note: regardless of what you think of PFF, and I’ve got plenty of opinions on it, one thing they do right is track pass rush productivity, combining sacks with hits and pressures to determine how effective a pass rusher is. This is much, much, MUCH more accurate than simply counting sacks)

So what’s actually happening? Is Hali washed up or is he still a guy the Chiefs can count on to make plays? You know where this is going ... It’s time to dive into the film.

If you’ve never read a piece I’ve written on DL or OLBs, click here for some background. Essentially, I watch every snap on all-22 (Madden cam is the most useful) and gauge wins, losses, and neutral plays against the run and the pass. I also look at pressures and hits on the QB as well as sacks. Normally I gauge effective double teams and “stuffs” against the run as well, but I was in a bit of a time crunch on this so we’re leaving that out.

Basically, the point is to filter out everything else that’s happening and look at what Tamba alone was accomplishing. It should be noted that you’re going to see more losses and neutral plays than wins from defenders than you will when grading, say, an offensive lineman. That’s the nature of the work they do. If defenders racked up wins and hardly ever lost, defenses would give up three points a game. It’s just much more difficult to get a win against an offensive lineman who knows where the play is going and where his help is than it is for an OL to hold his own. So keep that in mind as we look at the numbers and then talk about what Tamba has left.

There’s no hard line for exactly how many wins and losses are acceptable, and I don’t have enough data to tell you exactly where I prefer the line to be (contrary to OL, where I’ve done enough to get a general idea). However, for frame of reference you can review individual games by Dee Ford and Justin Houston (here and here, with both games being good games. Houston’s in particular was fantastic).

Anyway, let’s talk about those numbers. For starters, you can see that Hali was still able to get a fair amount of pressure on the QB in the form of pressures and hits. Additionally, he was able to win an OK number of times per game (we’ll come back to that later). Hali was also solid against the run, with very few losses to his name. Against Denver, in particular, he was a big help in stopping the ground game (that was back when Denver actually tried to run the ball).

So all that’s positive. On the flip side ... those loss numbers are higher than I’d like. Again, losing is a part of life as a pass rusher. and those numbers aren’t terrible ... but they’re not TAMBA, if you know what I’m saying. And those numbers accurately reflect what I saw on film. While Tamba was still able to get it done a solid amount of the time, there were stretches where he would get erased by competent tackles in a way I’m not accustomed to seeing. I’d like to see a few more of those snaps lean towards neutral, where at least Hali is in the vicinity of the QB.

Which brings us to talking about Hali’s 2016 film. Look, Hali is still a productive player when he’s out there, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. He still has plenty of snaps where he wins quickly and forces QB’s to make throws immediately or bail from the pocket.

Hali’s hand-fighting remains his strength, always and forever. The chops, grabs, swats, etc. are all still there, and tackles still struggle to deal with them. Hali has also recently (I saw more of it this year than ever before) added an inside move to his repertoire, which is a fun added element to an already dangerous pass rusher. This move resulted in a lot of holds over the course of the season, as off-balance tackles couldn’t adjust in time when Tamba crossed their face and careened towards their quarterbacks.

That was late in the game when the Raiders were attempting to mount a comeback. Hali was one of the players who kept it from happening. He struggled overall against Oakland that week, but in the fourth quarter he came on and had several important pressures (and forced the above hold, which was actually flagged) to derail Oakland’s offense.

You can definitely see that Tamba has lost a step when you watch him play, and that seemed particularly true in the first Denver game, where Tamba (in part due to Dee Ford being hurt) played 98 percent of the snaps. It seemed to wear on him as the game went along, and while he didn’t slow down too much, he looked absolutely spent between snaps at times.

That lost step hasn’t robbed Tamba of his efficacy as a pass rusher, but it HAS reduced it in little ways across the board. Unless he wins the battle of the hands he’s not getting around the edge any more (while he was never a burner, he used to have a little quickness to him). That means he’s gotta do everything right in order to have a shot at making the quarterback uncomfortable.

Now, fortunately for us and for Tamba, he does everything right a LOT.

It remains a joy to watch Hali rush the passer, especially with regards to hand usage and seeing a guy who rarely wastes his steps. I sincerely, sincerely hope he goes straight into coaching edge rushers when he’s done playing (if he wants to keep working, naturally. Dude’s earned some rest), because he has an incredible amount to offer on how to do things the right way.

But did you notice the stutter-step Hali took there to fake out the tackle? Even though it worked (when combined with his signature hand-fighting), that’s not something you saw as much out of him a few years ago. The same applies with him going to the inside more often. I think both are a natural result of the fact that Hali just can’t win around the edge as frequently as he used to. It’s an adaptation by a remarkably savvy veteran to his body (especially his knees) slowing down on him.

In my opinion, the vast majority of players with Tamba’s current speed/burst wouldn’t be able to get on the field. He’s just so proficient at all the little things that he’s able to compensate and still be a good pass rusher. It’s wildly impressive to watch, but it can be a bit painful at times for someone who has seen him be great rather than merely good.

Against the run, Tamba was absolutely a marked upgrade from Dee Ford when it comes to setting the edge and holding the point of attack.

Interestingly enough, Hali was often not on the field on first downs and (at times) obvious running plays, with Frank Zombo often substituting for him in those situations. It’s pretty clear that they wanted him as fresh as possible on pass rushing downs, and Zombo is adequate against the run (though I prefer Hali).

However, despite the limited opportunities Hali generally held up well. He’s not as strong as Houston (who is?), but he’s usually tough for tackles to move. He also clearly understands his assignment when he’s setting the edge or minding a certain gap. Finally, his aggressive hand usage will at times allow him to send a would-be blocker sprawling.

One area where Hali isn’t as good a run defender as Ford is when he’s unblocked on runs to the opposite side of the defense. Ford (and Houston) can move laterally down the line of scrimmage with enough quickness to meet running backs at the line, or even in the backfield. Hali just doesn’t have the juice to get there anymore, at least not with consistency.

So what is Tamba, other than obviously a certain Ring of Honor guy? Well... that’s complicated to answer. The people who say that he’s done are absolutely wrong. But if you modify that to say “he’s done being a consistently great pass rusher,” then you’ve likely hit the nail on the head. He’s no longer a guy who takes over games, and the stretches where he gets blocked out of plays are longer than I ever remember them being.

That said, he still requires (and receives) a great deal of respect from opponents. Teams clearly have him in mind when designing their protections, with tight ends and running backs helping on his side very consistently in order to keep him from doing what he’s been doing since before I met my wife. If you want a real measure as to whether a guy can still play, that’s where you find it: does the opponent fear him? And based on the way they play him, teams absolutely still fear Tamba. And they should.

But the days of him being a great player appear to be over. And it’s tough for me to wrap my head around that. Like I said, some things you’ve been able to count on for so long you don’t even think about them. Hali being a great pass rusher is something I’ve taken for granted for so long I’m not sure how to view him any other way.

I spent a few minutes trying to describe to my wife what it’s like watching Tamba after he’s taken a lot of snaps. The closest I can get to is when I worked on an oil rig out an eastern Montana. Some days, when you spent hours and hours picking up and laying down stands of pipe, your body would just start to quit. In the minute you had between each stand, your arms would hang limply at your side, your back would ache to the point that you could barely move, and your legs trembled as you walked painfully to the rig floor in preparation for the next deadweight to fall into your arms. Then for 15 seconds your mind would go white as you heaved another piece of pipe onto the rack, every inch of your body screaming that THIS was the time you were going to drop it from exhaustion.

You feel that from Tamba watching him between snaps. His chest heaves, his head hangs a little late in games, and he moves with almost a Willie Roaf-like gingerness as he gets into place. Then the ball snaps and he takes off, fighting like a madman against bigger, stronger, younger men. Fighting against chipping tight ends and running backs. Fighting against knees that are betraying him. Fighting against time. And winning more than he has any right to win.

I wouldn’t describe watching Hali play as fun all the time. He’s such a wonderful technician, yes, and that’s a privilege to watch. But as much as we talk about it, seeing someone ACTUALLY leave everything he’s got on the field is ... almost disconcerting.

I’ve mentioned this before, but in one of my favorite moments in the iconic “Friday Night Lights” television series, Matt Saracen, an embattled senior quarterback who has a rookie phenom breathing down his neck, is playing against a team with a remarkably physical pass rush. He’s taken a beating throughout the game to achieve a slim lead, and is totally wrung out sitting on the sideline, bleeding from his right eye. His defense gives up a touchdown, and suddenly they’re down again. Coach Taylor leans down and shouts over the crowd, “We need to take more! You got one more in you?”

And Saracen looks him dead in the eyes as a trainer wipes blood off his face and says “I always got one more.”

What is Tamba’s role in 2017? I have no idea. I don’t know how long a player can keep staving off the twilight of his career as his body betrays him. But if I were a betting man, I’d put money on Tamba having one more. Because he’s always got one more.