Mailbag: Respect factor for Wells, top RBs

MoJo from Tucson, Ariz., asks a fairly open-ended question regarding the Arizona Cardinals' leading rusher.

"How much respect did defenses show to Beanie Wells last season?" he asks.

2011 Early-down Rushes vs. Loaded Fronts

Mike Sando: An answer would be difficult to quantify with information available to me.

We can say with some certainty that opposing defenses were not loading up against Wells relative to other running backs. The opposite appears to be true.

Wells ranked 18th out of 19 qualifying backs in percentage of first- and second-down rushes against "loaded" fronts, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Loaded fronts are those featuring more defenders in the box than the offense has blockers to account for them. The list featured backs with 200-plus carries on first and down.

2011 Differential, Loaded vs. Unloaded

The percentages would not account for plays when teams passed the ball, perhaps as a response to those loaded fronts. In the Cardinals' case, it's plausible to think opponents would make Larry Fitzgerald the focus of their game plans, limiting how frequently they felt comfortable dedicating additional resources to stop a running back.

However, it's also clear Wells didn't fare well enough against those loaded fronts to force adjustments from defenses. He averaged 4.53 yards per carry against unloaded fronts and only 1.46 yards per carry against loaded ones. That differential, displayed in the second chart, exceeded three yards per attempt, the largest gap among the 19 qualifying backs.

For example, Frank Gore and Steven Jackson both averaged about .74 fewer yards per carry against loaded fronts. Marshawn Lynch averaged 0.5 fewer yards per carry. Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendhenhall, Baltimore's Ray Rice and Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew averaged at least 1.6 additional yards per carry against loaded fronts.

But with a relatively small percentage of carries coming against loaded fronts, one long run could skew the averages.

Lynch had 40- and 29-yard runs against loaded fronts. Gore had two 14-yard runs against loaded fronts. Jackson had 13- and 10-yard runs against them. Wells' longest run against a loaded front covered six yards. He also lost six yards on such a run.

Blocking is another factor to consider. Perhaps the Cardinals did not block these runs as well as other teams blocked them.

That leads me back to the original point. It's tough to quantify a respect factor even though some evidence suggests Wells wasn't commanding as much as other backs commanded.

Jeff from Las Vegas asks what happens when a player such as Terrell Suggs suffers a serious injury before the season.

"Does he still get paid in full, or at some reduced rate?" Jeff asks. "Does it matter if he was working out or doing some activity not related to football? Do most players have insurance to cover their salary?"

Mike Sando: The collective bargaining agreement does allow teams to withhold salary from players suffering non-football injuries.

Suggs has built up considerable equity with the organization during his career, however, and it's not like he was jumping a Harley-Davidson over the fountains at Caesars Palace. Players routinely work out on their own. Sometimes, they get hurt.

Suggs' coach, John Harbaugh, recently said Suggs will remain a team leader while rehabbing. Withholding Suggs' salary would be inconsistent with those comments.

Suggs' contract calls for him to earn $4.9 million in base salary for 2012. His deal runs through the 2014 season. The team would have the right to place Suggs on the "non-football injury" list and withhold salary while Suggs' contract continued to run.

Players placed on the non-football injury list while in the final year or option year of their contracts can have their contracts tolled, or frozen.

"However, if the player is physically able to perform his football services on or before the sixth regular season game, the club must pay the player his negotiated Paragraph 5 Salary (pro rata) for the balance of the season in order to toll such player's contract," the labor agreement reads. "If such player is taken off N-F/I during the period when such action is allowed by League rules, his contract will not be tolled."

Those are the contractual considerations. Some of them do not apply to Suggs because he's not in the final year of his deal. Again, I wouldn't expect the Ravens to play hardball with someone they value so much.

As for players purchasing insurance against such injuries, I doubt it's very common.

Costs would seem prohibitive for lower-profile players earning less money. The payoff wouldn't seem sufficient for players having already earned millions. However, I do not know how many players have such policies.

NCAA players sometimes purchase such insurance, but very few have ever collected, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Jason from Madison, Wisc., viewed Merril Hoge's recent comments in response to Kurt Warner as evidence there's no room on ESPN for views "that are not full-bore in support of a sport." He says Hoge wouldn't know to what extent repetitive blows to the head have contributed to issues observed in boxers and, perhaps increasingly, in football players.

"If the possible outcome is permanent brain damage," Jason writes, "and you do not know exactly what level of contact causes it, are you really being the less reasonable person if you say, 'I am not sure if I would let my kids participate' instead of blindly following along with the pack trying to find way to rationalize what they have done and are doing?

"You are coming off as nothing but an NFL cheerleader and as such it is apparent that your content is not worth reading."

Mike Sando: Don't shoot the messenger, Jason. The item presented both views fairly. Warner's comments were reproduced in full and presented first. I thought Warner's response was understandable, and said so. I also thought it was clear Hoge had thought through the issue to a greater degree.

My oldest son plays tackle football and loves it. I would not let him keep playing if he suffered a serious concussion. That is a reasonable stance to me. I also think it's reasonable for Warner to have reservations about letting his sons play. There's room for more than one view on this subject. The way I presented the piece Friday demonstrates as much, in my view.