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[Note: I’m scheduled to appear on The Bobby Curran Show on ESPN 1420 at just after 2:00 today. If you’re interested, you can listen here.]

Not Dick LeBeau.

Rex Ryan is the Tim Tebow of coaches: whatever he says tends to get magnified. I was sitting a few feet from Ryan when he made his latest controversial comment. Keyshawn Johnson asked Ryan if having a former head coach in Tony Sparano now coaching the offense would allow him to focus more on the defense. Ryan said it would, although Ryan previously vowed to also be more involved with the offense. The next question asked about Ryan’s confidence, and he said he had a lot of confidence in himself and his coaching staff. He went on:

Now, I wasn’t even in the defensive meeting last night, but I have complete faith and trust in the coaches we have. As I said, it’s easy for me to say I’m the best defensive coach in football. Now that’s saying something, because Dick LeBeau’s pretty (darn) good, Bill Belichick is pretty good. But that’s the way I’ve always believed. And you know what, I believe it because of the guys I coach with, there’s no doubt about that, and the guys that I’ve coached. That’s the truth, and that’s how I feel. I’m going to be more involved over there, calling games or whatever. Obviously, Mike Pettine, that’s my right hand guy, he’s always been my right hand guy and that’s the way it’s always going to be.

Not that inflammatory, is it? In any event, Ryan also issued a call to the media on Saturday, and if you’ve ever read this blog, you know he got my attention with what he said:

I’m still waiting to see somebody put the stats up there, because I know I’m crazy, but go ahead and just put them out there one day, since I’ve been a coordinator and head coach, I dunno where I’d rank…I really don’t even know the answer…Now watch Dick LeBeau get me.

Well, Rex, I’ll put the stats out there for you. Presumably we want to compare Ryan to all current head coaches (with defensive backgrounds) and defensive coordinators in the league. There are only 25 defensive coordinators to examine, as sevens teams do not have coordinators with any relevant track record. Both Missouri teams are actually without defensive coordinators this year: In Kansas City, Romeo Crennel will be head coach and defensive coordinator, while in St. Louis, the Rams are going with a committee approach to replace the suspended Gregg Williams. In addition, five men will be first-time defensive coordinators in 2012: Matt Patricia in New England, Kevin Coyle in Miami, Alan Williams in Minnesota, Jason Tarver in Oakland and John Pagano in San Diego.
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I spent the weekend in Cortland, New York covering Jets training camp. So what should we expect from the Jets this year? As the team enters its fourth season under Rex Ryan, it’s impossible to look at the 2012 season without putting it in the context of the Ryan’s other Jets teams. And while the Sanchez/Tebow stories will dominate the media’s attention, in reality, the defense and the running game will be the key elements of the 2012 Jets.


The table below lists the 15 major contributors for the Jets for each year since 2009. Ryan’s defenses are some of the most exotic in the league, and the Jets often have placed six or seven defensive backs on the field at one time. In addition to nickel corner and the third safety, I’m including a fourth defensive lineman slot and a “Designated Pass Rusher” position, a third down specialist and staple of the Ryan defense.

DEShaun Ellis (32)Shaun Ellis (33)Muhammad Wilkerson (22)Muhammad Wilkerson (23)
NTSione Pouha (30)Sione Pouha (31)Sione Pouha (32)Sione Pouha (33)
DEMarques Douglas (32)Mike DeVito (26)Mike DeVito (27)Mike DeVito (28)
4DLMike DeVito (25)Vernon Gholston (24)Marcus Dixon (27)Quinton Coples (22)
OLBBryan Thomas (30)Bryan Thomas (31)Jamaal Westerman (26)Bryan Thomas (33)
ILBBart Scott (29)Bart Scott (30)Bart Scott (31)Bart Scott (32)
ILBDavid Harris (25)David Harris (26)David Harris (27)David Harris (28)
OLBCalvin Pace (29)Calvin Pace (30)Calvin Pace (31)Calvin Pace (32)
DPRVernon Gholston (23)Jason Taylor (36)Aaron Maybin (23)Aaron Maybin (24)
CB1Darrelle Revis (24)Darrelle Revis (25)Darrelle Revis (26)Darrelle Revis (27)
CB2Lito Sheppard (28)Antonio Cromartie (26)Antonio Cromartie (27)Antonio Cromartie (28)
CB3Dwight Lowery (23)Drew Coleman (27)Kyle Wilson (24)Kyle Wilson (25)
S1Jim Leonhard (27)Jim Leonhard (28)Jim Leonhard (29)Yeremiah Bell (34)
S2Kerry Rhodes (27)Brodney Pool (26)Eric Smith (28)Laron Landry (28)
S3Eric Smith (26)Eric Smith (27)Brodney Pool (27)Eric Smith (29)

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Trivia of the Day – Sunday, July 29th

One of the five most versatile running backs of the last 30 years -- P.K.

Yesterday’s question focused on which leading wide receiver led the NFL in yards per reception. Today, we’ll look at running backs in a similar light.

Carolina’s Cam Newton led the league in yards per carry in 2011, which isn’t that unusual. Michael Vick led the league in that category in five of the last ten seasons, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Robert Griffin III, Newton, or Vick lead the NFL in yards per carry in 2012. But today’s trivia is focused on running backs.

Darren Sproles not only led the Saints in rushing yards, but he averaged an incredible 6.9 yards per carry last season. Sproles may be the game’s most dominant space player, but he fell 13 carries shy of the 100 carries necessary to qualify for the yards-per-carry crown. So which qualifying running back led the league in yards per carry in 2011?

Trivia hint 1 Show

Trivia hint 2 Show

Trivia hint 3 Show

Click 'Show' for the Answer Show


Trivia of the Day – Saturday, July 28th

DeSean Jackson crosses the goal line before discarding the ball

In 2010, DeSean Jackson led the Eagles in receiving yards, with 1,056, and led the NFL with a spectacular 22.5 yards per catch.

Malcolm Floyd led the league in yards per catch at 19.9, but it was Vincent Jackson who led San Diego in receiving yards. If you look only at the leading wide receiver on each team (based on receiving yards), do you know which wide receiver led the NFL in yards per reception in 2011?

Trivia hint 2 Show

Trivia hint 3 Show

Click 'Show' for the Answer Show


He played for them?

Montana, Unitas, Manning and Culpepper all went to the AFC West.

In light of the Ichiro Suzuki trade to the Yankees, Jason Lisk wrote about other prominent star baseball players who switched teams late in their career. I’m going to do the same for football.

The table below shows all players who accumulated at least 100 points of career AV with one team and then switched teams. Len Dawson played for the Steelers and Browns before embarking on a Hall of Fame career with the Chiefs, but he won’t make this list since he never switched teams after his tenure in Kansas City. Johnny Unitas does because he finished his career with the Chargers. Brett Favre’s stint with the Falcons doesn’t count, but his time with the Jets and Vikings does.1

As you might suspect, the top of the list is dominated by quarterbacks. Peyton Manning will join Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Brett Favre as Hall of Fame quarterbacks that looked a bit out of place donning other colors. But it’s actually quarterback Jim Hart who spent the most seasons with one team, the St. Louis Cardinals, before a one-year stint with the Redskins.
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  1. Note that pass rushers Chris Doleman, Jason Taylor and Richard Dent all returned to their original teams after a stint with another franchise; for them, I’m only including their AV during their first stay with those teams. []

I’ll be spending the weekend in Cortland, New York, covering Jets training camp. The big story there, of course, will be how the Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow drama unfolds. The party line among media members is that the duo is doomed to fail, because a team with two quarterbacks doesn’t have one.

Last year, Mark Sanchez ranked 27th in Net Yards per Attempt, so the Jets were behind the 8-ball at the quarterback position well before the Tebow trade. Not that he’ll necessarily help things: Tebow averaged even fewer net yards per attempt than Sanchez in 2011, although arguably his numbers should be viewed in a more positive light.

In my view, the Tebow trade simply gives the Jets more chances to succeed, not unlike when a team throws multiple late round picks at the same position. The most tired complaint regarding the situation is that if Sanchez has a bad drive, quarter or game, fans will call for Sanchez’ head and the Jets will bring in Tebow. But such analysis never goes beyond that. If the Jets do make Tebow the starting quarterback, and he does well, that’s a good thing. If the Jets bring in Tebow, and he fails, New York can go back to Sanchez. At that point, even if Sanchez has some struggles, the calls for Tebow will be muted. However, some will argue that if Sanchez is benched even once his confidence will be shot.

You may find it absurd to suggest that benching a professional athlete may be enough to derail a great career; in fact, that’s what I originally thought. But after combing through the annals of NFL history, I’m unable to find any proof in the other direction. Truth be told, I do think having two quarterbacks is essentially the football kiss of death. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

Can you believe McElroy thinks the girls at Alabama are better than the coeds at Florida and USC?

In the early ’50s, the Los Angeles Rams alternated Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield as their quarterbacks. In 1950, the team averaged 38.8 points per game while each quarterback started six games, and Los Angeles won the championship the next season. But while both Van Brocklin and Waterfield would end up in the Hall of Fame, neither player is well known today by most fans.

A few years later, the Giants would have Don Heinrich as the nominal starter for the first series or two before having Charlie Conerly come in and replace him one the coaching staff had a better read on the opposing defense. Sure the team won the NFL championship in 1956 using this method, but New York ultimately lost the championship to Baltimore in both ’58 and ’59, and neither Heinrich nor Conerly were able to slow down Johnny Unitas in either gmae. In John Eisenberg’s great book on the late ’50s Green Bay Packers, he explained how Vince Lombardi treated Bart Starr like a yo-yo, inserting him and out of the lineup. And while Starr would achieve some success in the ’60s, he ultimately failed as head coach of the Packers in the ’70s and ’80s, going 52-76-3 in 9 uneventful seasons.
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Bill Barnwell wrote an interesting article where he tried to identify the best running back in football. His article made me wonder: which player will gain the most rushing yards over the next decade?

It probably makes sense to start with a look at history. I suspect you would have been able to guess that LaDainian Tomlinson had the most rushing yards from 2002 to 2011, but what about from 1982 to 1991? Or from 1960 to 1969? The table below shows each leader in rushing yards for every ten year period, along with their age and NFL experience during their first season during the relevant period.

YearsRush YdsPlayerBeg AgeBeg Exp.
1932--19413860Clarke Hinkle231
1933--19423529Clarke Hinkle242
1934--19433132Tuffy Leemans22--
1935--19443132Tuffy Leemans23--
1936--19453132Tuffy Leemans241
1937--19462529Pug Manders24--
1938--19472813Steve Van Buren18--
1939--19483758Steve Van Buren19--
1940--19494904Steve Van Buren20--
1941--19505533Steve Van Buren21--
1942--19515860Steve Van Buren22--
1943--19525860Steve Van Buren23--
1944--19535860Steve Van Buren241
1945--19545416Steve Van Buren252
1946--19554817Joe Perry19--
1947--19565337Joe Perry20--
1948--19575791Joe Perry21--
1949--19586549Joe Perry22--
1950--19597151Joe Perry233
1951--19606599Joe Perry244
1952--19616597Joe Perry255
1953--19627459Jim Brown17--
1954--19639322Jim Brown18--
1955--196410768Jim Brown19--
1956--196512312Jim Brown20--
1957--196612312Jim Brown211
1958--196711370Jim Brown222
1959--19689843Jim Brown233
1960--19698514Jim Brown244
1961--19707257Jim Brown255
1962--19716074Leroy Kelly20--
1963--19726885Leroy Kelly21--
1964--19737274Leroy Kelly221
1965--19747262Leroy Kelly232
1966--19758123O.J. Simpson19--
1967--19769626O.J. Simpson20--
1968--197710183O.J. Simpson21--
1969--197810776O.J. Simpson221
1970--197910539O.J. Simpson232
1971--198010051O.J. Simpson243
1972--198110339Franco Harris221
1973--198210204Walter Payton19--
1974--198311625Walter Payton20--
1975--198413309Walter Payton211
1976--198514181Walter Payton222
1977--198614124Walter Payton233
1978--198712805Walter Payton244
1979--198811410Walter Payton255
1980--198911226Eric Dickerson20--
1981--199011903Eric Dickerson21--
1982--199112439Eric Dickerson22--
1983--199213168Eric Dickerson231
1984--199311451Eric Dickerson242
1985--19949346Eric Dickerson253
1986--199510172Barry Sanders18--
1987--199611725Barry Sanders19--
1988--199713778Barry Sanders20--
1989--199815269Barry Sanders211
1990--199913963Emmitt Smith211
1991--200014229Emmitt Smith222
1992--200113687Emmitt Smith233
1993--200212949Emmitt Smith244
1994--200311719Emmitt Smith255
1995--200413366Curtis Martin221
1996--200512614Curtis Martin232
1997--200611462Curtis Martin243
1998--200711607Edgerrin James20--
1999--200812121Edgerrin James211
2000--200912490LaDainian Tomlinson21--
2001--201013404LaDainian Tomlinson221
2002--201112448LaDainian Tomlinson232

Steve Van Buren in the middle of his most famous performance.

Tomlinson entered the league in 2001, but he was so productive in his first nine years that he also led the league in rushing yards gained from 2000 to 2009. O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders each led the league in rushing yards for ten year periods … when they spent the first three seasons of those decades playing college ball. Jim Brown was even more impressive, as he led the NFL in rushing yards from 1953 to 1962, even though he was just 17 years old in 1953 and did not enter the league until 1957.

But Steve Van Buren has them all beat: he entered the league in 1944, but led all players in rushing from 1938 to 1947. As you may recall, he’s still the Eagles franchise leader in rushing touchdowns. We can also look at the leaders over the last nine seasons, although obviously the ten-year windows are not closed in these cases:

YearsRush YdsPlayerBeg AgeBeg Exp.
2003--201110765LaDainian Tomlinson243
2004--20119120LaDainian Tomlinson254
2005--20118420Steven Jackson222
2006--20117374Steven Jackson233
2007--20116752Adrian Peterson221
2008--20115645Chris Johnson231
2009--20114417Chris Johnson242
2010--20112930Maurice Jones-Drew255
2011--20111606Maurice Jones-Drew266

So what can we make of the results? The average running back was just a hair under 22 at the start of his ten year period. Nearly half of all running backs were not yet in the NFL at the start of their ten year run, although that is likely to change now. Those players were in other football leagues, serving their country, or in college, but all three of those factors are less prevalent now. Star running backs leave college a year or two earlier than they did a generation ago, which will make it slightly less likely that a player will not be in the NFL at the start of the next ten-year run.

Fourteen players were rookies at the start of their great stretch, and another 10 were second year players, making nearly 80% of the players having just one year or less of experience in the summer before the start of their streak. What does that mean for the stretch from 2012 to 2021? Trent Richardson is the ideal candidate, as the new Browns running back just turned 21. Last year’s Alabama running sensation, Mark Ingram, was 22 in 2011, while Dion Lewis and Jacquizz Rodgers were the top 21-year-old running backs last season.

The rushing champ from 2012 to 2021?

No running back started his 10-year stretch atop the leaderboard at the age of 26, and only Hall of Famers Steve Van Buren, Joe Perry, Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith were 25 at the start of a streak. That makes it pretty easy to rule out Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson, all of whom will be 27 in 2012. Ray Rice (25 in 2012), Arian Foster (26), Marshawn Lynch (26) and Ryan Mathews (25) are probably suckers’ bets, too.

LeSean McCoy, Beanie Wells and DeMarco Murray all are entering their age 24 season, making them perhaps the best hope among the young runners with NFL experience. On the other hand, along with Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Ronnie Hillman and Lamar Miller made the 2012 draft strong at the position. In the NFC West, Isaiah Pead and Kendall Hunter (or LaMichael James) could be the future for their teams for the next decade. As always, it’s too early to say.

In the collegiate ranks, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore is expected to be the cream of the 2013 class, with Auburn transfer Michael Dyer and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball also in the mix. And based on past history, we can’t count out sophomores Malcolm Brown or De’Anthony Thomas. If you had to pick which player will lead the league in rushing yards from 2012 to 2021, Trent Richardson is the obvious choice. After him, I’d probably be pretty evenly split among McCoy, Martin and Lattimore.


Chris Chambers' career path did not follow an upward trajectory.

In the first post at Football Perspective, I noted that A.J. Green became the first player in over 25 years to be the first wide receiver drafted and then lead all rookies in receiving yards during his rookie season. It’s a good thing that Green has a knack for bucking trends, because he’s going to want to do it again.

Ten years ago, Doug Drinen wondered how often the top rookie wide receiver ended up having the best career among his classmates. At the time, he was discussing Chris Chambers — yes, he was the top rookie in 2001 — and was surprised by the results.

The research showed that for the period between 1981 and 2000, the top rookie receiver almost never ended up as the top wideout from his class. Doug was correct in speculating that because of that track record, Chambers was a bad bet to end up being the best receiver among all 2001 rookies, despite Chambers having had the best rookie year.

Here’s a look at the top rookie receivers from 2001 based on receiving yards, along with three other notable wideouts:

Games Receiving
Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm Lg G GS Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G
1 Chris Chambers 2001 23 2-52 MIA NFL 16 7 48 883 18.40 7 55.2
2 Rod Gardner 2001 24 1-15 WAS NFL 16 16 46 741 16.11 4 46.3
3 Koren Robinson 2001 21 1-9 SEA NFL 16 13 39 536 13.74 1 33.5
4 Snoop Minnis 2001 24 3-77 KAN NFL 13 11 33 511 15.48 1 39.3
5 Quincy Morgan 2001 24 2-33 CLE NFL 16 9 30 432 14.40 2 27.0
6 David Terrell 2001 22 1-8 CHI NFL 16 6 34 415 12.21 4 25.9
7 Reggie Wayne 2001 23 1-30 IND NFL 13 9 27 345 12.78 0 26.5
8 Drew Bennett 2001 23 TEN NFL 14 1 24 329 13.71 1 23.5
9 Chad Ochocinco 2001 23 2-36 CIN NFL 12 3 28 329 11.75 1 27.4
10 Freddie Mitchell 2001 23 1-25 PHI NFL 15 1 21 283 13.48 1 18.9
11 T.J. Houshmandzadeh 2001 24 7-204 CIN NFL 12 1 21 228 10.86 0 19.0
16 Steve Smith 2001 22 3-74 CAR NFL 15 1 10 154 15.40 0 10.3
25 Santana Moss 2001 22 1-16 NYJ NFL 5 0 2 40 20.00 0 8.0

As it turned out, Chris Chambers, Rod Gardner, Koren Robinson and Snoop Minnis weren’t as successful as Reggie Wayne, Chad Johnson/Ochocinco, Steve Smith and Santana Moss.

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What are the odds of that?

[After spending the weekend with Doug Drinen, founder of Pro-Football-Reference.com, we decided that Football Perspective needed to revive this fantastic post of his, explaining why “What are the odds of that?” is a much less straightforward question than you might think.]

You may have heard that last month, a roulette wheel at the Rio in Las Vegas landed on the number 19 an incredible seven consecutive times. What are the odds of that?

Each outcome is a rare one.

That may sound like a simple question, but it isn’t. Some would answer the question by stating that the odds of a roulette wheel landing on the number 19 on seven consecutive spins is a simple math problem. There are 38 numbered pockets on an American roulette wheel, so the odds of a ball landing on 19 in one spin of the wheel would be 1 in 38. The odds of that happening seven straight times would simply be (1/38)^7, or 1 in 114 billion.1

An equally plausible response would be that we don’t care that the wheel landed on “19” in seven straight spins, but rather that it landed on the same number for seven straight spins. In that case, what we really want to know is the likelihood that the wheel lands on any number (odds: 38/38, or 100%) and then lands on that same number again on the next six spins (odds: (1/38)^6). The odds of that happening are 1 in 3 billion.

But it’s not that simple, either. The question “What are the odds of that?” can, and often should, be interpreted differently. What are the odds of a roulette wheel, on seven consecutive spins, landing in the following order: 10-34-3-9-18-30-21. Take a second and think about that.

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  1. I am blurring, and will continue to blur, the distinction between odds and probability. Nothing bad will happen as a result. []

Trivia of the Day – Sunday, July 22nd

No, Peyton, you are #1

With a 3-4 record, there were a lot of things wrong with the 2008 Colts. Well, at least that’s what people thought. The Colts ran the table the rest of the season, and then started the 2009 season 14-0. That gave Peyton Manning the NFL regular season record with 23 consecutive wins. In fact, he’s only of just three quarterbacks to ever win 16 consecutive regular season starts.

Tom Brady won 18 straight regular season games with the Patriots between 2003 and 2004; the streak ended against the Steelers in week 8, but Brady wasn’t finished. New England won their final 3 games of the ’06 regular season before going 16-0 in 2007. Brady then won the season opener in 2008, but Bernard Pollard’s hit tore Brady’s ACL in that game, ending Brady’s season. He would win the season opener in 2009, too, before the Patriots fell to the Jets the following week. But from ’06 to ’09, Brady won 21 consecutive regular season games.

But it wasn’t Brady’s record that Manning broke in ’09. Do you know the quarterback who held the record before Manning, and who won 22 consecutive regular season starts?

Trivia hint 1 Show

Trivia hint 2 Show

Trivia hint 3 Show

Click 'Show' for the Answer Show


Trivia of the Day – Saturday, July 21st

Owens as a Bengal

Last weekend, I asked you to name the fifth of the five running backs who rushed for over 1,000 rushing yards in the final season of their career. Today, let’s switch positions: there are three players who gained at least 1,000 receiving yards in the final seasons of their careers.

Terrell Owens gained 983 yards with the Bengals in 2010, his last season — to date — in the league. This is one of the rare trivia questions where Jerry Rice’s name doesn’t enter the conversation — he had just 429 receiving yards in his final season. The famed triumvirate of wide receivers on the outside looking in at the Hall — Tim Brown, Andre Reed, and Cris Carter — gained just 200, 103, and 66 yards, respectively, in their final seasons. Marvin Harrison gained 636 yards in his last season, and don’t forget, Randy Moss isn’t yet retired.

One of the three players is so obscure I doubt anyone would get it. Reggie Langhorne played for seven years in Cleveland and then set a career high with 811 yards in his first season with the Colts. The next year, 1993, Langhorne broke 1,000 yards for the first time in his career: and he never played in the NFL again. In a salary cap purge, the Colts released several veterans, including Langhorne, following the ’93 season. Content with his career, Langhorne decided to never suit up again.

But the other two receivers are well-known in all football circles. Can you name the other two players to gain 1,000 receiving yards in their final NFL seasons?

Trivia hint 1 Show

Trivia hint 2 Show

Trivia hint 3 Show

Click 'Show' for the Answer Show


Let’s start with some trivia before moving to today’s post:

  • Only two quarterback-receiver pairs have ever topped the 10,000 yard mark. Can you name them?
    Hint: Show
  • Only two receivers (minimum: 7,000 yards) gained at least 93% of their career receiving yards from one quarterback. Do you know who they are?
    Hint: Show
  • Two of the men in the top ten in career receiving yards can credit the same quarterback account for more of their yards than any other passer. Can you name that quarterback?
    Hint Show
  • Can you name the receiver who gained over 10,000 yards in his career, but the quarterback from whom he gained the most yards was… Quincy Carter?
    Hint Show
  • Among the top twenty-five leaders in career receiving yards, can you guess which player was the only one to fail to catch at least 20% of his yards from a single quarterback?
    Hint Show

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This was not how I expected to introduce the “college” category to Football Perspective.

Following the release of the Freeh Report, the depth of college football’s ugliest scandal appears deeper and darker than ever before. For those who have not followed the story closely, Matt Hinton does his typical excellent job bringing us up to speed.

The full report into Penn State’s response to allegations of sexual abuse by longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, following an eight-month investigation overseen by former FBI director Louis Freeh, fills 267 excruciating pages. But to put the finishing touches on the obliteration of a half-century of goodwill, it only took 163 words:

The evidence shows that these four men also knew about a 1998 criminal investigation of Sandusky relating to suspected sexual misconduct with a young boy in a Penn State football locker room shower. Again, they showed no concern about that victim. The evidence shows that Mr. Paterno was made aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, followed it closely, but failed to take any action, even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.

At the very least, Mr. Paterno could have alerted the entire football staff, in order to prevent Sandusky from bringing another child into the Lasch Building. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley also failed to alert the Board of Trustees about the 1998 investigation or take any further action against Mr. Sandusky. None of them even spoke to Sandusky about his conduct. In short, nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity.

That is an excerpt from the seven-page press release summarizing the findings in the full report. It is a bombshell. The four men in question are former Penn State president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley, former administrator Gary Schultz and former head coach Joe Paterno. All four lost their jobs and their reputations last November over their apparently negligent reaction to an allegation against Sandusky in 2001; Curley and Schultz also face serious criminal charges stemming from that incident. Now, in light of confirmation that the most powerful men on campus had been confronted with the same charges against one of their own at least three years earlier, negligence is the least of their sins.

First, the facts. In 1998, an allegation by the mother of an 11-year-old boy (later identified in court documents as “Victim 6”) who claimed Sandusky had sexually assaulted him in a locker room shower led to an investigation by Penn State campus police and local law enforcement. That investigation resulted in a 95-page police report – but no charges against Sandusky.

Crucially, Spanier, Curley and Paterno later claimed to have no knowledge of the 1998 investigation into Sandusky, nor of the accusation that prompted it. By their accounts, they had no reason to suspect Sandusky of any wrongdoing (criminal or otherwise) prior to his retirement from Paterno’s staff in 1999. Freeh said today there is no evidence that Sandusky was forced out, and e-mails cited in the report indicate Paterno had no problem with his former player and longtime colleague continuing to serve as defensive coordinator. Following his retirement, Sandusky maintained “emeritus” status and regular access to university facilities. By all outward appearances, he remained a respected coach and upstanding citizen, venerated for his decades of work with troubled kids, and no one at Penn State – certainly not Joe Paterno, the most venerated man in American sports – had any reason to suspect otherwise. At least, until 2001.

Even by that account, the one in which everyone around Sandusky is completely oblivious to who he really was, there is no defense for the inaction that followed the 2001 accusation by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who claims he personally witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in a locker room shower. McQueary subsequently reported the incident to Paterno; Paterno ran it up the ladder to Curley, who consulted with Shultz, spoke with McQueary and ultimately let Sandusky off with a warning.

According to the Freeh Report, “the only known, intervening factor between the decision made on February 25, 2001, by Messrs. Spanier, Curley and Schulz to report the incident to the Department of Public Welfare, and then agreeing not to do so on February 27th, was Mr. Paterno’s February 26th conversation with Mr. Curley.” In short, nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity. What could possibly be more damning than that?

Only this: That Penn State had already allowed Sandusky to operate with impunity for years even before McQueary came forward. If today’s report is correct – if “the evidence shows that Mr. Paterno was made aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, followed it closely, but failed to take any action” – Paterno had had every reason to suspect that Sandusky was a violent predator for at least three years when McQueary walked into his office. Yet did nothing when those suspicions were confirmed, and did nothing for the next decade. The report could not have leveled a more devastating charge. The old man already knew.

In a sober, well-crafted response to the Freeh Report released this morning, Paterno’s family describes Sandusky as “a great deceiver,” and maintains that “many people didn’t fully understand what was happening and underestimated or misinterpreted events.” But after the report, there is only one possible interpretation. Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials continued to tolerate and to some extent shelter an alleged sex offender despite multiple, credible accusers over the course of more than a decade.

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Quarterback wins over Pythagoras

No, this article isn’t an article about quarterbacks squaring off against ancient Greek mathematicians. Today, we’re going to look at quarterback win-loss records and see how they compare to their Pythagorean win-loss records.

Over 30 years ago, Bill James wrote that, on average, baseball teams’ true strengths could be measured more accurately by looking at runs scored and runs allowed than by looking at wins and losses. Since then, sports statisticians have applied the same thinking to all sports. The formula to calculate a team’s Pythagorean winning percentage is always some variation of:

(Points Scored^2) / (Points Scored ^2 + Points Allowed^2)

With the exponent changing from 2 to whatever number best fits the data for the particular sport. In football, that number is 2.53. We can look, for example, at the Pythagorean records for each team in the league last season, and line it up against their actual record:

YearTmRecordWin%PFPAPyth WinsDiff

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One of my law school professors was very quirky, even by law school professor standards. His preferred examination method was multiple choice, but with a twist. After grading each exam, he would then divide the students into quarters based on their test score. He would then re-examine each question, and measure how the top quarter of students performed on each question relative to the bottom quarter. Any question that more bottom-quarter students answered correctly than top-quarter students would be thrown out, and the exam would be re-graded. As he delicately put out, ‘if the wrong students are getting the question right, and the right students are getting the question wrong, it’s a bad question.’

NFL passing records are falling for a variety of reasons these days, including rules changes and league policies that make the passing game more effective. But there’s another reason: for the first time in awhile, the right people are throwing the most passes in the league. And there’s no better example of that than Drew Brees. Since coming to the Saints in 2006, he’s ranked 1st or 2nd in pass attempts four times, and ranked in the top three in net yards per attempt four times. But even since ’06, we’ve seen the passing game evolve, as the best quarterbacks are now the most likely ones to finish near the top of the leaderboard in pass attempts. In 2010, Peyton Manning had his first 600-attempt season… when he threw 679 passes for the Colts. Tom Brady threw 611 passes last year for the 13-3 Patriots, making New England one of just three teams to threw 600 pass attempts and win 13 or more games in a season. The other two teams? The ’09 Colts and the ’11 Saints.

At various points in the history of the NFL, passing was viewed as an alternative to running, and the high-attempt game was the province of the trailing team. But times are changing in the NFL. I calculated each team’s net yards per attempt (NY/A) and total pass attempts (attempts plus sacks) for every year since 1970. Then, I measured the correlation coefficient between NY/A and pass attempts for the league for each of the last 42 seasons. The chart below shows the correlation coefficient between those two variables (NY/A and pass attempts) for the league as a whole for each year since the merger:
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I don’t know why, but coach of the year is one of those awards that kind of fascinates me. That’s probably because its one of those few awards that in practice, bears little resemblance its name. There was a stretch from ’95 to ’01 — when Bill Parcells, Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren, Tony Dungy, and Bill Cowher were roaming the sidelines — that the award went to Ray Rhodes, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett and Dick Jauron. Coach of the Year sounds like Most Valuable Player but is more often treated like Comeback Player of the Year or Surprise of the Year. Predicting in the pre-season which coach will ultimately win the award is so difficult that Vegas doesn’t even offer odds on the event. For reference, below is a look at every coach to ever be selected by the Associated Press as NFL Head Coach of the Year:

YearTeamWinnerTenureWin %RecN-1 Win%N-1 RecImp
2012INDBruce Arians10.7509-3-00.1252-14-00.625
2011SFOJim Harbaugh10.81313-3-00.3756-10-00.438
2010NWEBill Belichick110.87514-2-00.62510-6-00.25
2009CINMarvin Lewis70.62510-6-00.2814-11-10.344
2008ATLMike Smith10.68811-5-00.254-12-00.438
2007NWEBill Belichick8116-0-00.7512-4-00.25
2006NORSean Payton10.62510-6-00.1883-13-00.438
2005CHILovie Smith20.68811-5-00.3135-11-00.375
2004SDGMarty Schottenheimer30.7512-4-00.254-12-00.5
2003NWEBill Belichick40.87514-2-00.5639-7-00.313
2002PHIAndy Reid40.7512-4-00.68811-5-00.063
2001CHIDick Jauron30.81313-3-00.3135-11-00.5
2000NORJim Haslett10.62510-6-00.1883-13-00.438
1999STLDick Vermeil30.81313-3-00.254-12-00.563
1998ATLDan Reeves20.87514-2-00.4387-9-00.438
1997NYGJim Fassel10.65610-5-10.3756-10-00.281
1996CARDom Capers20.7512-4-00.4387-9-00.313
1995PHIRay Rhodes10.62510-6-00.4387-9-00.188
1994NWEBill Parcells20.62510-6-00.3135-11-00.313
1993NYGDan Reeves10.68811-5-00.3756-10-00.313
1992PITBill Cowher10.68811-5-00.4387-9-00.25
1991DETWayne Fontes40.7512-4-00.3756-10-00.375
1990DALJimmy Johnson20.4387-9-00.0631-15-00.375
1989GNBLindy Infante20.62510-6-00.254-12-00.375
1988CHIMike Ditka70.7512-4-00.73311-4-00.017
1987NORJim Mora20.812-3-00.4387-9-00.363
1986NYGBill Parcells40.87514-2-00.62510-6-00.25
1985CHIMike Ditka40.93815-1-00.62510-6-00.313
1984SEAChuck Knox20.7512-4-00.5639-7-00.188
1983WASJoe Gibbs30.87514-2-00.8898-1-0-0.014
1982WASJoe Gibbs20.8898-1-00.58-8-00.389
1981SFOBill Walsh30.81313-3-00.3756-10-00.438
1980BUFChuck Knox30.68811-5-00.4387-9-00.25
1979WASJack Pardee20.62510-6-00.58-8-00.125
1978SEAJack Patera30.5639-7-00.3575-9-00.205
1977DENRed Miller10.85712-2-00.6439-5-00.214
1976CLEForrest Gregg20.6439-5-00.2143-11-00.429
1975BALTed Marchibroda10.71410-4-00.1432-12-00.571
1974STLDon Coryell20.71410-4-00.3214-9-10.393
1973RAMChuck Knox10.85712-2-00.4646-7-10.393
1972MIADon Shula3114-0-00.7510-3-10.25
1971WASGeorge Allen10.6799-4-10.4296-8-00.25
1970SFODick Nolan30.7510-3-10.3574-8-20.393
1969MINBud Grant30.85712-2-00.5718-6-00.286
1968BALDon Shula60.92913-1-00.85711-1-20.071
1967RAMGeorge Allen20.85711-1-20.5718-6-00.286
1967BALDon Shula50.85711-1-20.6439-5-00.214
1966DALTom Landry70.7510-3-10.57-7-00.25
1965CHIGeorge Halas80.6439-5-00.3575-9-00.286
1964BALDon Shula20.85712-2-00.5718-6-00.286
1963CHIGeorge Halas60.85711-1-20.6439-5-00.214
1962NYGAllie Sherman20.85712-2-00.7510-3-10.107
1961NYGAllie Sherman10.7510-3-10.5836-4-20.167
1960PHIBuck Shaw30.83310-2-00.5837-5-00.25
1959GNBVince Lombardi10.5837-5-00.1251-10-10.458
1958BALWeeb Ewbank50.759-3-00.5837-5-00.167
1957DETGeorge Wilson10.6678-4-00.759-3-0-0.083

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Trivia of the Day – Sunday, July 15th

Barry Sanders walked out on top

Tiki Barber was the answer to one trivia question, and he’s also the answer to this one: Can you name the player who gained the most rushing yards in the final season of his career? Barber set that mark by gaining 1,662 rushing yards in 2006 with the Giants, his last in the league.

Of course, that’s not the trivia question of the day. But Barber is in rare company, as only five retired players rushed for over 1,000 yards in their last season.

Today’s trivia question comes courtesy of Football Outsiders’ staffer Danny Tuccitto, who e-mailed me the question a few days ago. In addition to Barber, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Robert Smith all topped 1,000 yards in their final NFL season. But there’s a fifth, more obscure, member of the group. He’s the subject of Sunday’s trivia of the day. Can you name that fifth member? Take a look at hint one and see if you can get it. As always, the honor system will be strictly enforced.

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Trivia of the Day – Saturday, July 14th

The Hall of Fame

Every August, the NFL inducts another set of men into football’s pantheon, the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Today’s trivia question: which man was the youngest person to ever be inducted in the Hall?

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Matthew Stafford threw for 5,038 passing yards last year, making him just the 4th man to ever throw for 5,000 yards in a season. Of course, Stafford also threw 663 passes in 2011, the third most in league history. Stafford actually ranked 13th in yards per attempt last season, which put him just ahead of Matt Ryan.

Lions fans certainly think that Stafford is a franchise quarterback, an elite talent, and the team’s first star quarterback since Bobby Layne. It’s hard to disagree, as Stafford and Calvin Johnson led a team that had no running game and an inconsistent defense to a 10-6 record last year. But on some level — with one big caveat — Lions fans are essentially saying that Stafford’s 5,038 passing yards are more of an indicator of his ability than his 7.6 yards per attempt average. And we know that’s not true.

What’s that one caveat? You can make a pretty compelling case that if Stafford had 400 attempts in 2011, averaged the same 7.6 yards per attempt, and threw for 3,040 yards, then his 2011 season would still signal an excellent future. At 23-years-old, ranking in the top half of the league in yards per attempt is pretty impressive. A lot of quarterbacks were far behind the curve at age 23: Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Mark Brunell and Trent Green didn’t even get in a game at that age. Others, like Tom Brady, Len Dawson, Philip Rivers, Rich Gannon, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Montana and Norm Van Brocklin were pure backups during their age 23 season. The table below looks at some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history and how they performed at age 23. The two columns on the far right show where each passer ranked in Pro-Football-Reference’s Yards per Attempt Index and Net Yards per Attempt Index. In each case, 100 represents league average, and a higher number is better. 115 represents being one standard deviation above average, 130 represents two standard deviations above average, etc. For players who were 23 before 1969, the first year we have individual sack data for quarterbacks, they do not have a NY/A+ rating.
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Brandon Lloyd and Josh McDaniels together again

Once Josh McDaniels went to New England, it was a fait accompli that free agent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd would soon become a Patriot, too. After gaining only 2,370 yards in the first seven seasons of his career, Lloyd had a breakout season with the Broncos and McDaniels in 2010, catching 77 passes for a league-leading 1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns. McDaniels was fired following the 2010 season and landed as the offensive coordinator in St. Louis, which appeared to end their relationship.

But once the Broncos struggled to start the season, Denver shipped Lloyd off to St. Louis and reunited him with his former coach. In 11 games, Lloyd had modest production — 51 catches, 683 yards and 5 TDs — but much of that can be attributed to playing in arguably the league’s worst offense. He joins a very crowded New England passing attack, but should have a strong season with the Patriots.

I have a large but incomplete database on coaching staffs in the NFL, stretching back to 1990, and a complete list of head coaches for all of pro football history. I wondered, how many times has an offensive player played for the same offensive coordinator or head coach on three different teams? By my count, I see six examples since 1990:

The rumors are true. I've hired Charlie Garner to join the FFCA.

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Thirty years ago, the NFL began officially recording defensive player sacks. Prior to 1982, all teams kept their own individual sack data, but those records (with few exceptions) have never been verified. As a result, it’s an unfortunate reality that for much of NFL history, we simply do not have reliable sack data for individual defensive players.

Three times, Deacon Jones produced 20+ unofficial sacks in the 1960s.1 In 1967, Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson Ike Lassiter had 17 sacks2 in the AFL. Jack Youngblood and Jim Katcavage both led the league in sacks on two different occasions in the pre-1982 era.3 Cincinnati Bengal Coy Bacon has been credited with 21.5 unofficial sacks during in 1976. The first team to record 60 sacks in a season was the ’57 Bears, and we can be sure that Doug Atkins recorded more than his fair share of that number. For players like Gino Marchetti, Norm Willey, and Len Ford, even unofficial records weren’t kept during their time, leaving us unsure as to who is the true sack king.

It’s important to remember that just because we don’t have official sack data before 1982 doesn’t mean there were great sack artists before then. But that’s a topic for another today. So while we can’t precisely measure how the forefathers of the game played, we do have official data for the last 30 years. So who has been the best pass rusher of the last three decades?

Brett, are you SURE you're okay?

Using total sacks isn’t a fair method to current players, or to those players who chose to retire instead of sticking around to compile six-sack seasons. So if we want to measure sack dominance, we can’t simply look at total sacks any more than we can grade running backs by looking at career rushing yards. One method I like that I’ve used before is sacks over one-half sack per game. This makes 8 sacks in a 16-game season the bar; a player only gets credit for their production over that level. This means that 12 sacks in a 16-game season brings a value of +4.00, while 16 sacks is twice as valuable at +8.00.There’s no great reason to choose 8 over 6 or 10 or any other number. I chose 8 because it feels right, but I don’t claim that it’s based on anything other than my personal, subjective preference.

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  1. According to research done by John Turney. []
  2. Source. []
  3. Source: Turney/Webster []

When thinking about the 2012 Cowboys, it’s easy to focus on Dallas’ star offensive players. Unfortunately, that overshadows the fact that we’re witnessing the prime of the career of what will end up being the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the history of pro football.

There is nothing DeMarcus Ware could have done, or could do in the future, to convince most football fans that he ranks ahead of Lawrence Taylor in any all-time list. That’s not unique to Taylor; some would find it unfathomable to vault a cover corner over Deion Sanders, a middle linebacker over Dick Butkus, or a running back over Jim Brown. So let’s just get that out of the way. To many, ‘LT’ is the best 3-4 outside linebacker ever (if not best linebacker or defensive player, period) and that will never change. To them, this post won’t change your mind one bit. To others, allow me to make the case that when he retires, Ware will have been the best player to ever play his position.

The best 3-4 outside linebacker ever?

The 3-4 defense didn’t enter the NFL until 1974, when the scheme was brought to Houston, Buffalo and New England. Putting aside Taylor, the best outside linebackers to play in this scheme include names like Robert Brazile, Tom Jackson, Ted Hendricks, Clay Matthews, Andre Tippett, New Orleans’ Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. In today’s game, it’s probably Ware and Terrell Suggs, who also splits his time playing as a 4-3 end. With all due respect to Suggs, and other active stars like Tamba Hali, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and Cameron Wake, no current player has the body of work to compare to Ware.

The Cowboys star has been named an AP first-team All-Pro four times; among 3-4 outside linebackers, only Taylor has more selections. Taylor (10), Robert Brazile (7), Rickey Jackson (6) and Ware are the only 3-4 linebackers to have been named to six Pro Bowls, and Ware has been a selection in each of the last six years. Ultimately, outside of perhaps a vocal minority that would argue for Derrick Thomas over Taylor (and more on that tomorrow), Ware’s case as the best 3-4 outside linebacker of all-time comes down to whether you could put him ahead of Taylor as a player1.

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  1. Taylor’s legend appears to grow every year, and as a mythical or historical figure, Ware stands no chance of surpassing him. []

[You can find lots of websites previewing each team as we head towards the 2012 season. You won’t find that at FootballPerspective.com, but instead, I’ll share some random thoughts on each franchise based on well, whatever springs to mind. We’ll kick things off with look at the San Francisco 49ers.]

The 49ers are an interesting team to me because they seem like the ideal candidate to regress. Generally, teams that make huge jumps in one season are better candidates to fall back to the pack than elite teams with a history of success. Additionally, defensive teams are generally less likely to retain their success than offensive teams. But since I don’t expect you to just believe me…

I looked at all teams since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that won at least 75% of their games (San Francisco went 13-3 last year) and then separated them based on their records in the prior season (the 2010 49ers went 6-10). There were 155 of them, and how they performed in the year before (Year N-1) their elite season was relevant in determining their record in the year (Year N+1) after that big season. The table below breaks down the teams based on their winning percentages in Year N-1 (for our purposes, that’s 2010 for the 49ers) and then shows how well they performed in Year N+1 (for our purposes, the 2012 49ers):

Year N-1# of TmsN-1 Win%N Win %N+1 Win %
Over 80%2486.3%79.7%67.2%

Just so we’re all on the same page, the top row of that table informs us that of the 155 teams to win at least 75% of their games, 24 of them won over 80% of their games in Year N-1. On average, those teams won 86.3% of their games in Year N-1, 79.7% of their games in Year N, and then 67.2% in Year N+1. The 49ers would represent a team in the bottom row. There have been 25 teams like the 2011 49ers who won at least 75% of their games after having a losing record the prior year (on average, those teams won just 37% of their games – just like the 2010 49ers); in the following year (e.g., the 2012 49ers) those teams won just 53.6% of their games.

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Trivia of the Day – Sunday, July 8th

Every SB logo.

Charles Haley is the only man with five Super Bowl rings, but three different players have won six NFL championships. Can you name any of them? Note that Lou Groza and several other Browns won four championships in the All America Football Conference and then multiple NFL titles; Groza himself won 8 championships overall, as he also played on the 1950, 1954, 1955 and 1964 Browns teams that captured NFL titles.

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Trivia of the Day – Saturday, July 7th

Ricky Williams gets high in a game against the Jets.

Two weeks ago, I asked, “Which active wide receiver leads the league in receiving yards?” That question was so difficult that I got it wrong. I have higher expectations this time around as we examine running backs.

LaDainian Tomlinson and Ricky Williams both topped the 10,000-yard rushing mark, and both retired this off-season. That leaves just one active player in the league with over 10,000 career rushing yards:

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Franchise leaders — receiving stats

On Wednesday, we looked at the franchise leaders in various passing categories; yesterday we did the same exercise with rushing stats. Well, let’s close out Friday with a look at the career leaders in the key receiving categories.

Did you know: only one player who leads his franchise in career receptions retired before the 1978 rules changes:

TeamRecReceiverLast Yr
GNB735Donald Driver
HOU706Andre Johnson
CAR699Steve Smith
ARI693Larry Fitzgerald
SDG593Antonio Gates
PIT1000Hines Ward2011
CIN751Chad Ochocinco2010
BAL471Derrick Mason2010
IND1102Marvin Harrison2008
KAN916Tony Gonzalez2008
NYG668Amani Toomer2008
STL942Isaac Bruce2007
NWE557Troy Brown2007
DEN849Rod Smith2006
JAX862Jimmy Smith2005
OAK1070Tim Brown2003
MIN1004Cris Carter2001
DET670Herman Moore2001
ATL573Terance Mathis2001
SFO1281Jerry Rice2000
BUF941Andre Reed1999
DAL750Michael Irvin1999
TEN542Ernest Givins1994
WAS888Art Monk1993
NOR532Eric Martin1993
MIA550Mark Clayton1992
CLE662Ozzie Newsome1990
SEA819Steve Largent1989
TAM430James Wilder1989
CHI492Walter Payton1987
PHI589Harold Carmichael1983
NYJ627Don Maynard1972

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Franchise leaders — rushing stats

Yesterday, we took a look at the franchise leaders in various passing categories. Let’s do the same for running backs today. The first list shows the leaders in career rushing yards for each franchise; the last column shows the last year that running back played for that franchise:

TeamYardsRunning BackLast Yr
STL9093Steven Jackson
SFO7625Frank Gore
CAR5047DeAngelo Williams
SDG12490LaDainian Tomlinson2009
GNB8322Ahman Green2009
JAX11271Fred Taylor2008
NOR6096Deuce McAllister2008
SEA9429Shaun Alexander2007
KAN6070Priest Holmes2007
NYG10449Tiki Barber2006
BAL7801Jamal Lewis2006
NYJ10302Curtis Martin2005
IND9226Edgerrin James2005
HOU3195Domanick Williams2005
TEN10009Eddie George2003
CIN8061Corey Dillon2003
DAL17162Emmitt Smith2002
DEN7607Terrell Davis2001
MIN6818Robert Smith2000
BUF11938Thurman Thomas1999
DET15269Barry Sanders1998
OAK8545Marcus Allen1992
TAM5957James Wilder1989
ATL6631Gerald Riggs1988
CHI16726Walter Payton1987
ARI7999Ottis Anderson1986
WAS7472John Riggins1985
PHI6538Wilbert Montgomery1984
PIT11950Franco Harris1983
NWE5453Sam Cunningham1982
MIA6737Larry Csonka1979
CLE12312Jim Brown1965

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Franchise leaders — passing stats

Happy 4th of July! Before you head to your barbecue, I’d recommend you take a look at the incredible document our founders signed 236 years ago.

As far as football goes, today’s a good time for a data dump. The table below shows the career passing leaders for each franchise, organized by when the current leader last played for that team.

TeamYardsQuarterbackLast Yr
NWE39979Tom Brady
NOR28394Drew Brees
HOU16903Matt Schaub
BAL13816Joe Flacco
IND54828Peyton Manning2011
SEA29434Matt Hasselbeck2010
PHI32873Donovan McNabb2009
CAR19258Jake Delhomme2009
GNB61655Brett Favre2007
JAX25698Mark Brunell2003
DAL32942Troy Aikman2000
MIA61361Dan Marino1999
DEN51475John Elway1998
BUF35467Jim Kelly1996
TEN33685Warren Moon1993
NYG33462Phil Simms1993
STL23758Jim Everett1993
SFO35124Joe Montana1992
TAM14820Vinny Testaverde1992
SDG43040Dan Fouts1987
CIN32838Ken Anderson1986
WAS25206Joe Theismann1985
ATL23470Steve Bartkowski1985
ARI34639Jim Hart1983
PIT27989Terry Bradshaw1983
CLE23713Brian Sipe1983
OAK19078Ken Stabler1979
MIN33098Fran Tarkenton1978
NYJ27057Joe Namath1976
KAN28507Len Dawson1975
DET15710Bobby Layne1958
CHI14686Sid Luckman1950

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Is Matt Forte an elite running back?

Let’s flash back to December 1, 2011. At the time, Chicago Bears star Matt Forte was having the best season of his career and making a claim to being one of the league’s top five running backs. He was leading the league in yards from scrimmage. He was averaging 5.0 yards per rush. He also ranked in the top three in both receptions and receiving yards by a running back. He had gained 1,475 yards from scrimmage through 11 games, the second most in Bears history.

Forte sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in week 13, costing him the remainder of the season. He has been in disputes with the Bears over his contract for the last two years, but that’s not the focus of this article today. For whatever reason, I’ve often struggled with the notion of Forte being an elite player.

Actually, I know the exact reason. There are two of them. First, Forte was not an elite running back prospect and seems to have average physical skills for a starting running back. He wasn’t a high draft pick and doesn’t have elite measurables (his 40-yard dash time was good, but his metrics in the other tests were underwhelming). This, of course, is just about meaningless when discussing a player who has been in the league for four years. Plenty of players have had average measurables and great careers at the running back position, and it’s not difficult to think of players drafted later than Forte who have turned into great backs.
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A closer look at running back aging patterns

Frank Gore is 29 years old and has been the featured back of the 49ers since 2006. Steven Jackson turns the same age in three weeks, and has been beaten and bruised while playing on bad teams his whole career. Michael Turner had his 30th birthday in February, and has accumulated 300 carries in three of the last four years. Fred Jackson (31) and Willis McGahee (31 in October) have had varying degrees of wear and tear during their careers, and are both competing with younger backs on their roster.

We know the wheels will fall off for these players. But do we know when? And how severe the drop-off will be? Each running back is unique, with his own genetics, history, and supporting cast. It’s difficult to find true comparisons to any one running back, let alone a group of runners. Still, we can try to identify the general aging pattern of top tier running backs.

I looked at all running backs who entered the league in 1990 or later, rushed for at least 5,000 rushing yards, averaged at least 40 rushing yards per game for their careers, and are retired. There were 36 such running backs.

Now we need a metric to measure running back productivity. Generally, I don’t think people worry about running backs failing to be factors in the passing game as they age; Kevin Faulk set a career high in receiving yards at age 32. I don’t think the focus is on touchdown production, either, and we all remember Jerome Bettis still being a short-yardage force even when he was well past his prime. No, when people discuss running backs hitting a wall and deteriorating, the focus is on declining rushing yards and rushing yards per carry. One metric I’ve used before is called “Rushing Yards Over 2.0 Yards Per Carry” or RYO2.0, for short. As the name implies, a running back gets credit for his yards gained over 2.0 yards per carry, so 300 carries for 1000 yards is worth 400 marginal yards, as is 1,060 yards on 330 carries. Essentially, we’re looking at just rushing yards with a small adjustment depending on the player’s yards per carry average.

I calculated the RYO2.0 for each of the 36 running backs at ages 22 through 34. The red line represents the average RYO2.0 for the group at each age for all 36 backs; the green line represents the average RYO2.0 only for those backs who were active in the league at that age.

Running Back production by age

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