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Franchise Nemeses: Rushing Metrics

Yesterday, we looked at the top statistical passers against each franchise. Today, we revise a post from a couple of years ago and look at the top rushing producers against each franchise.

Only two players have emerged as a franchise’s top rushing nemesis over the last two years. One of those situations involves the Rams. Only five players have ever rushed for 1,000 yards in their careers against the Rams franchise: Shaun Alexander, Jim Taylor, and Tony Dorsett each finished with between 1,008 and 1,032 rushing yards against the Rams. As of two years ago, Roger Craig’s 1,120 was the most, but since then, Frank Gore has upped his career total to 1,191 rushing yards against St. Louis (and he’s done it in three fewer games than Craig).

With the Saints, it’s even trickier. For a long time, Lawrence McCutcheon was the career rushing leader against New Orleans with 966, but Eric Dickerson (984) passed him before Dickerson retired. Then, Warrick Dunn took over the top spot with 1,135 yards. But in 2013, DeAngelo Williams passed Dunn for most career rushing yards against the Saints. Otherwise, the list below remains pretty similar to how things were last time, although note that this time around, I’m including the playoffs. That’s enough to cause Eddie George to leapfrog Jerome Bettis for the top spot against the Ravens.

Oh, and for the second day in a row, you have to go back to the ’60s to find the man who has been the number one nemesis for the 49ers: [click to continue…]

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In 2008, Jamaal Charles had 67 carries and averaged 5.33 yards per carry. Those 67 carries represent 5% of Charles’ career attempts to date (excluding playoffs). That season, the NFL league average was 4.20 yards per carry, which means Charles was 1.12 (after rounding) YPC above average in 2008, or 1.12 YPC above average on 5% of his career carries.

In ’09, Charles had 190 carries, representing 15% of his career YPC. He averaged 5.89 YPC, and the league average was 4.24, which means Charles was 1.65 YPC above average for 15% of his career carries.

In 2010, those numbers were 230, 18%, 6.38, and 4.21, so Charles was 2.17 YPC above league average on 18% of his career carries.

I performed that analysis for every season of Charles’ career — and every other player in NFL history — to determine each player’s career YPC average relative to league average. The table below shows the 200 running backs (by default, only the top 10 are shown) in pro football history with the most carries. The table is sorted by YPC over league average. Here’s how to read it. Jamaal Charles ranks 1st in YPC over league average. His first year was 2008 and his last year (so far) was 2014. For his career, Charles has 1,249 career rush attempts, which ranks 118th in pro football history. He has 6,856 yards, giving him a 5.49 career YPC average. His “expected” career yards per carry average — based on the league average YPC in each season of his career, weighted by his number of carries — is 4.21. Therefore, Charles has averaged 1.28 YPC above league average for his career, the highest rate in football history. [click to continue…]

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Was Walter Payton the biggest workhorse in NFL history? In 1977, he gained 43.5% of Chicago’s total offensive yards. The next year, it was 39.5%, and the year after that, it was 39.1%. Payton also was responsible for 37.8% of the Bears output in ’76, 36.2% of the team’s yards in ’84, and 35.8% of Chicago’s offense in 1980.

But wait, there’s more! In ’82 and ’85, Payton was responsible for 33.1% and 33.5% of his team’s offense, and in ’81 and ’83, it was 32.7% and 32.8%. For ten seasons, Payton was responsible for at least thirty-three percent of his team’s offense! And in 1986, he gained 30.6% of all Chicago yards.

Yesterday, we looked at the single-season leaders in percentage of team yards. Today, the career list, using a 100-95-90 weighting method. What’s that? To avoid giving too much credit to compilers, I did not assign full credit to each season, and instead used the following methodology:

1) Calculate the total yards from scrimmage by each player in each season since 1932.

2) Calculate the total team yards (excluding sacks) by that player’s team. Players who played for multiple teams in a season were therefore prejudiced by this methodology.

3) Calculated the percentage of team yards gained by each player in each season since 1932. This was the basis of yesterday’s post.

4) Order each player’s career from best season (per step 3) to worst.

5) Give each player 100% credit during his best season, 95% credit during his second best season, 90% during his third best, and so on. So for Payton, we give him 100% of 43.5%, 95% of 39.5%, 90% of 39.1%, 85% of 37.8%, and so on.

6) Sum the values in step 5 for each player for each season to get a career grade.

That career grade doesn’t mean much in the abstract — Payton’s grade is 318% — but when we order the list, it does provide some limited insight as to which players have been the biggest workhorses in NFL history. This is far from a perfect formula, but I do think it’s interesting. Note that I also performed the same analysis using a 100-90-80 method — to give even less value to compilers — and not a single player moved up or down in the top 15. The table below shows the top 150 players by this metric: [click to continue…]

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Last year, DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards. The 32nd-ranked rusher last season rushed for 570 yards, which means Murray rushed for 1,275 yards more than the Nth-ranked rusher, with N representing the number of teams in the NFL. That’s obviously excellent, although not quite the best of all time.

That honor, as regular readers could have guessed, belongs to O.J. Simpson. In 1973, Simpson rushed for an incredible 2,003 yards, while the 26th-ranked rusher in the 26-team NFL rushed for 655 yards. As a result, Simpson is credited with 1,348 yards over the Nth-ranked rusher. Then again, remember that this was a 14-game NFL season; we need to pro-rate that number to 16 games to make for a fairer comparison. That brings Simpson’s season up to +1,540, slightly edging out Adrian Peterson‘s 2012 season (2,097, 564, +1533).

What if we use that methodology for every player during every season of his career? That, to me, is an improvement on just a list of the career rushing leaders, since we don’t give players any benefit for junk seasons. That may be the only thing this list is an improvement on — after all, it is still based on only one statistic — but hey, it’s Friday. Below are the career grades for the top 150 running backs (note that by default, the table only displays the top 25). I have also listed for each back his career rushing yards and his rank in that category. [click to continue…]

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A quick data dump today. Since 1960, players who record 20+ carries in a game were on the winning side of things 72.7% of the time. Steven Jackson, however, is just 30-31-1 in his 62 games where he has had at least 20 carries. Given that we would “expect” a player to win 45.1 games given 62 games with 20 carries, Jackson’s 30.5 wins falls 14.6 wins shy of expectation. That, perhaps not surprisingly to regular readers, is the worst record relative to expectation among all running backs since 1960.

The table below shows all running backs who had at least 20 games with 20+ carries over the last 55 years, including the postseason. Thurman Thomas is on top of the table because he had 71 games with 20+ carries, and his teams went 63-8 in those games for an incredible 0.887 winning percentage. That gave Thomas 11.4 wins over expectation, the most ever. If you want to sort by a different category (say, win%), you can: the table is fully sortable and searchable. [click to continue…]

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Which Running Backs Played With Best Passing Games?

Payton played with some terrible passing attacks

Payton played with some terrible passing attacks

Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt is the best simple measure of quarterback play. ANY/A is defined as (Gross Passing Yards + 20 * PassTDs – 45 * INTs – Sack Yards Lost) divided by (Pass Attempts + Sacks).  Relative ANY/A, or RANY/A, is simply ANY/A minus league average.

I looked at the 100 players with the most rushing yards in football history.  Then, for each player, I calculated the average weighted RANY/A of the offenses he played on.  As usual, to come up with a career grade, I gave more weight to a player’s best seasons.  If a running back had 18% of his rushing yards come in one season, well his team’s RANY/A for that year was responsible for 18% of his career RANY/A grade.

For example, in 2001, the good Jake Plummer showed up for the Cardinals, and Arizona had a RANY/A of +0.53.  But since Thomas Jones rushed for only 380 yards that year — just 3.6% of his career total — only 3.6% of his career RANY/A is based on the +0.53.  Conversely, Jones set a career high with 1,402 rushing yards in ’09 for the Jets, representing 13.2% of his career total.  New York, behind a rookie Mark Sanchez, had a RANY/A of -1.69 that year, which matters a lot more when calculating Jones’ career grade.  In fact, Jones played with bad passing offenses for most of his career: as it turns out, among all players in the top 100, it’s Jones who played with the worst passing offenses in his career. [click to continue…]

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Running Back Heat Maps

Commenter Dan had a good suggestion: what if we create heat maps for each running back, with color-coding to depict how often a player gained at least X amount of yards?

Well, ask, and ye shall receive. I looked at all running backs with at least 100 carries in 2014, and then measured on what percent of their runs did each running back gain at least 0 yards, at least 1 yard, at least 2 yards, etc., up to 10 yards. I also calculated the percentage of runs that went for at least 15+ and at least 20+ yards. [click to continue…]

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On Friday, I asked the question: how many carries would we need to take away from DeMarco Murray in order to drop his YPC average to at or below league average?

Today, I want to look at it from the other side. How many of Trent Richardson’s worst carries would we need to erase to bring his YPC above league average? For this experiment, assume that we are sorting each running back’s carries in ascending order by yards gained. I’ll give you a moment to think about the answer.

[Final Jeopardy Music]

[Keep thinking…]

[Are you ready?]

[Your time is now up. Post your answer in the comments!] [click to continue…]

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DeMarco, how many Cowboys fans still think you're great?

DeMarco, how many Cowboys fans still think you’re great?

DeMarco Murray was really, really good last year. He rushed 393 times for 1,845 yards, producing a strong 4.69 YPC average. Jamaal Charles was also really, really good — he averaged 5.07 yards per rush last year, albeit on “only” 205 carries. The NFL average yards gained per rush was 4.16 last season, down a tick from in previous years. But that brings us to the question of the day:

Suppose we sort each running back’s carries in descending order by yards gained. How many carries would we need to take away from Murray in order to drop his YPC average to at or below league average? Same question for Charles. I’ll give you a moment to think about this one.

[Final Jeopardy Music]

[Keep thinking…]

[Are you ready?]

[Your time is now up. Post your answer in the comments!]
[click to continue…]

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Last year, I built a trivia question around the leaders in receiving yards per games over a 3-year period. Today, the same thing but for rushing.

Trivia hint 1 Show


Trivia hint 2 Show


Trivia hint 3 Show

The table below shows every player to average at least 75 rushing yards per game over a 3-year period, with a minimum of at least 100 carries in each season. [click to continue…]

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The Emmitt Smith Rant

Emmitt Smith was a product of the system, the one where they gave him the ball.

Emmitt Smith was a product of the system, the one where they gave him the ball.

One of Doug Drinen’s first posts at the old PFR Blog was titled, “The Emmitt Smith Rant.” That was now nine years ago, and while not much has changed regarding Smith’s career since 2006, how many people other than me still remember that old post? So I’ve decided to revive Doug’s old post, with his permission, of course.

With greatness comes backlash, and every great player has collected his share of detractors. And while Football Perspective readers don’t underrate him, it feels as though Emmitt Smith has been remembered by a significant number of football fans as a less-than-special running back.  He played with Hall of Famers at quarterback and wide receiver, with Pro Bowlers at fullback, tight end, and several spots on the offensive line. As a result, it’s understandable that some diminish the peak numbers he produced during his prime.

And yes, he did put up some monster numbers during his prime.  From 1991 to 1995, Smith was historically dominant. Consider that among all running backs during their ages 22 through 26 seasons (i.e., Smith from ’91 to ’95), he rushed for 8,019 yards; the next closest player during those ages was LaDainian Tomlinson with 7,361.  Smith also rushed for 85 touchdowns: Tomlinson (72) is the only other player within 20 rushing touchdowns of Smith during those ages.

But let’s say you don’t want to give Smith “full credit” for those years.  What about what he did from 1998 to 2001? During those years, Chan Gailey and Dave Campo coached the team for two seasons each. Dallas went 28-36 during those years, and the passing attack ranked 17th in Net Yards per Attempt. In other words, these weren’t the Troy Aikman/Michael Irvin Cowboys. And while Larry Allen was still around, the offensive line was more name than substance at this point.

At the start of this four-year period, Smith was 29 years old. Through age 28, Smith had recorded 2,595 carries in the regular season,1 the most of any player through age 28 in NFL history. So you’ve got a situation where a running back had been worn down to an absurd degree, stuck on a mediocre team and on a mediocre offense. If Smith was not a special back, how would he do? [click to continue…]

  1. In addition to 318 more in the playoffs. []
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The GOAT.

The GOAT.

On February 20th, Football Perspective hosted a “Wisdom of Crowds” election with respect to the question: Who is the Greatest Running Back of All Time?™ Well, Football Perspective guest commenter Adam Steele offered to count the ballots, and I’ll chime in with some commentary.

There were 41 ballots entered, with each person ranking his or her top 20 running backs. The scoring system was simple: 20 points for a 1st place vote, 19 for a 2nd place vote, and so on. As it turns out, the race for the top spot was heated, with three players running away from the pack.

This chart is sortable by total points, points per ballot (using 41 as the denominator), GOAT votes, top 5 votes, and top 10 votes. In the interest of statistical significance, a player needed to appear on at least five ballots in order to be ranked in the table below. [click to continue…]

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Forsett, praising his Excess Yards

Forsett, praising his Excess Yards

In the comments to the Greatest Running Back of All-Time Post — and reminder, entries are due by midnight Thursday — a debate broke out between sn0mm1s and Jay Beck, among others, about how to value running backs generally, and specifically, the value of long runs.

One idea I’ve had before is that the yards a player gains after picking up a first down are similar to the yards picked up by a returner. For example, when a punt returner gains 10 yards instead of 5, that’s obviously worth 5 additional yards of field position to his team. But it’s not as valuable as 5 yards on 3rd-and-5; the return yards were gained outside of the context of the down-and-distance/series-of-downs nature of the game.

Does this mean that all yards gained after a first down are exactly as valuable as return yards? I’ll leave up that to the reader to decide. But I do think one thing is noncontroversial: Lamar Miller ran for a 97-yard touchdown on 1st-and-10 against the Jets in week 17, the most valuable 10 yards during that run were the first ten. The last 87 yards were slightly less valuable (on a per-yard basis), or akin to the yards a player would gain on a return.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Who cares?” And that’s a very good question: after all, return yards are valuable. And the last 87 yards of Miller’s run were certainly more valuable to Miami than the first 10 yards, even if that may not be true on a per-yard basis.

But I thought it would be interesting to look at all running plays this season, and break them into two categories: yards that came after a first down had already been achieved, and all other rushing yards. So a 10-yard run on 3rd-and-5 has five yards in each bucket; if it was 3rd-and-1, 9 yards get assigned to the “excess yards” bucket, and 1 yard to the “going towards picking up a first down” bucket. [click to continue…]

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Since 1950, there have been only 24 seasons where a team’s rushing leader rushed for more yards than its passing leader gained through the air. The last team to accomplish this feat was the 2009 Titans, when Chris Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards. That year, the Titans split the duties at quarterback, with Vince Young throwing for 1,879 yards and Kerry Collins finishing with 1,225.

Can you guess which team had the largest differential?

Trivia hint 1 Show


Trivia hint 2 Show


Trivia hint 3 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer Show
[click to continue…]

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Greatest RB of All Time: Wisdom of Crowds Edition

Two weeks ago, Adam Steele administer a Wisdom of Crowds edition of the GQBOAT debate. Today, Adam has offered to run the same experiment but for running backs.  And we again thank him for that.



Who is the Greatest Running Back of All Time? In recent years, the practice of crowd sourcing has gained momentum in the analytics community, in some cases yielding more accurate results than mathematical models or expert opinions. For the initiated, here’s the gist: Every human being represents a data point of unique information, as all of us have a different array of knowledge and perspective about the world. Therefore, when you aggregate the observations of a group of people, they will collectively possess a greater and more diverse reservoir of knowledge than any single member of the group.

The readers of Football Perspective are an insightful bunch with areas of expertise spanning the entire football spectrum; we are the perfect group for crowd-sourcing these sorts of age-old football questions. And given how successful the last experiment was, there’s no reason not to look at other positions. If you’d like to participate in this experiment, there are just a few guidelines to follow:

1. Create a list of the top 20 running backs of all time, in order, using any criteria you believe to be important. I encourage readers to be bold in your selections – don’t worry about what others may think.

2. Commentary is not necessary, but most definitely welcome. In particular, I’d enjoy seeing a short blurb explaining the criteria you based your selections on.

3. Please compile your rankings BEFORE reading anyone else’s. Crowdsourcing works best when each source is as independent as possible.

4. Please DO NOT use multiple screen names to vote more than once.

The deadline to cast your ballot is midnight on Thursday the 26th, then analyze the results in a follow-up article. A first place vote is worth 20 points, second place 19 points, and so on. Let the process begin!

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Bettis ran for only five yards on this play

Bettis ran for only five yards on this play

Congrats to the newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You can read my thoughts on the candidates here; while this class is not exactly the one I would have picked, Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Charles Haley, Junior Seau, Will Shields, and Mick Tingelhoff were all outstanding players. In addition, Bill Polian and Ron Wolf were the inaugural selections for the Contributors spots, so congratulations to them as well.

The Bettis candidacy is an interesting one. Many want to focus on his underwhelming 3.9 career yards per carry average. But as I have written many times, I am not keen on putting much weight on YPC as a statistic. Brian Burke has also written about how coaches don’t view running backs in terms of yards per carry, but rather by success rate (which correlates poorly with yards per carry). Danny Tuccitto calls yards per carry essentially “a bunkum stat.” [click to continue…]

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Alfred Morris and Production Through Three Years

The 2012 OROY and Washington's most productive player from the 2012 draft

The 2012 OROY and Washington’s most productive player from the 2012 draft

Alfred Morris was just a sixth round pick. During his rookie season, he happened to play alongside the eventual offensive rookie of the year. Since then, RG3 has continued to dominate headlines, while Morris continues to plug away without garnering a fraction of the attention. For example, did you know that Morris has now hit the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season? He’s also rushed for 7 touchdowns each year in his career.

Do you know how many other players have rushed for 1,000 yards and seven scores in each of their first three seasons? Seven: Earl Campbell, Ottis Anderson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, and Chris Johnson. That’s five Hall of Fame caliber running backs and Anderson/Johnson, a duo that has combined for nearly 19,000 rushing yards and still counting.

Morris has rushed for 3,919 yards and 27 touchdowns in his career, with one game left in his third season. In addition to the six of the seven players above (Anderson had 26 rushing touchdowns through three years), only five other players have hit those marks through three years: Clinton Portis, Terrell Davis, Emmitt Smith, Edgerrin James, and Walter Payton.

In other words, Morris’ production through three years puts him in in the inner circle of elite running back performance. Of the thirteen running backs mentioned in this post, ten were first round picks. The eleventh was Portis, a player who fell to the second round solely due to concerns about his size and durability. None of the other players were drafted in the second, third, fourth, or fifth rounds; the other two were Morris and Davis, both six round picks under Mike Shanahan. [click to continue…]

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Checkdowns: YPC Differential Leaders

Wilson's rushing prowess has powered Seattle this year

Wilson's rushing prowess has powered Seattle this year

[End of Year update: Seattle finished the season with 2,762 rushing yards on 525 carries, good enough for a 5.26 YPC average. The Seahawks allowed just 1,304 yards on 380 carries, which translates to a 3.43 YPC average. Therefore, the 2014 Seahawks averaged 1.83 more yards per carry than they allowed; that’s the second best differential since the merger, and just a behind the ’63 Browns for the third best since 1950.]

Last season, the Seahawks posted the best ANY/A differential in the NFL. In fact, it was the 9th best ANY/A differential of any team since the merger, and Seattle wound up becoming the 5th team in the top ten in that statistic to win the Super Bowl.

You heard all about Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas and the great Seahawks pass defense, and it’s not as though Russell Wilson was flying under the radar, either. But this year, the Seahawks are recording even more extreme statistics in a different differential stat.

Yards per carry is super overrated: Danny Tuccitto did a nice job revealing that just a couple of days ago. But hey, I love trivia, so let’s move on.

Seattle ranks 1st in the NFL in yards per carry (5.08). Marshawn Lynch is at 4.2 YPC on 132 carries, but it’s Wilson’s 7.6 yards per carry average on 52 carries that sets the Seahawks apart. But the defense — so unstoppable against the pass in 2013 — ranks 1st in this metric, too. Seattle is allowing just 3.19 yards per carry this year; if it holds, that would be the best mark since the 2010 Steelers.

Combine, though, is where the Seahawks really stand out. Seattle has a 1.89 YPC differential, defined as YPC for the offense minus YPC allowed for the defense. How good is that? If it holds, it would be the 2nd best mark since 1950: [click to continue…]

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Antone Smith and Long Touchdowns

Allow me to present to you Atlanta running back Antone Smith’s 2014 play-by-play log in its entirety:

Week 1 vs. NO
QtrTimeScoreDown/DistYardlineDescription
211:400 - 132nd-and-10own 20rushed for 2 yards
209:160 - 131st-and-10opp 31rushed for 5 yards
300:3317 - 202nd-and-9own 46caught pass for 54 yards TOUCHDOWN
Week 2 vs. CIN
QtrTimeScoreDown/DistYardlineDescription
214:49417011st-and-10own 28caught pass for 4 yards
201:14417083rd-and-4own 38target of incomplete pass
410:23417221st-and-10opp 35caught pass for 15 yards (first down)
400:54419361st-and-10own 41target of incomplete pass
Week 3 vs. TB
QtrTimeScoreDown/DistYardlineDescription
104:21367081st-and-9opp 9rushed for 4 yards
209:0028 - 01st-and-10opp 11rushed for 10 yards (first down)
302:3649 - 01st-and-10opp 36rushed for -2 yards
301:5949 - 02nd-and-12opp 38rushed for 38 yards TOUCHDOWN
Week 4 vs. MIN
QtrTimeScoreDown/DistYardlineDescription
105:230 - 73rd-and-2opp 29rushed for 2 yards (first down)
104:470 - 71st-and-10opp 27rushed for 3 yards
214:55418342nd-and-10own 31rushed for 9 yards
301:4021 - 271st-and-10opp 48rushed for 48 yards TOUCHDOWN
Week 5 vs. NYG
QtrTimeScoreDown/DistYardlineDescription
103:420 - 71st-and-10opp 23rushed for 2 yards
214:59418273rd-and-4opp 4caught pass for 1 yards
212:33419191st-and-10own 25caught pass for 8 yards
305:5113 - 103rd-and-4own 26caught pass for 74 yards TOUCHDOWN

That’s four long touchdowns on 17 offensive touches.  On his four scoring plays, Smith has gained an incredible 214 yards.  That’s the most in the NFL so far, with Steve Smith (162 yards) and Jordy Nelson (160) rounding out the top three.  Perhaps even more incredible is that Smith has gained 214 yards on scoring plays despite gaining only 63 yards on non-scoring plays.  Here’s a chart I tweeted a couple of days ago, showing yards gained on TDs on the X-axis and yards gained on all other plays on the Y-axis: [click to continue…]

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Lynch leads the league in Skittles eaten over average

Lynch leads the league in Skittles eaten over average.

Over the last three years, no player has recorded more carries than Marshawn Lynch. But while Lynch’s 901 carries may lead the league, that’s a pretty low number, at least in modern history. The 2011-2013 seasons very nearly became the first three-year period where no running back had 900 carries since 1989 to 1991, which was essentially the post-Eric Dickerson/pre-stud running back era. This jives with what we’ve seen on a broader level, in that the NFL is both veering away from rushing and towards running back committees, two factors which have combined to torpedo running back value.

The table below shows the leader in rush attempts for every three year period beginning with the AFL-NFL merger. Here’s how to lead the Lynch line: From 2011 to 2013, Lynch, who was 27 in 2013, led the NFL in carries. Over that period, he rushed 901 times for 4,051 yards, a 4.50 yards per carry average. [click to continue…]

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Jerome Bettis is a polarizing Hall of Fame candidate. I’m on the fence with the Bus; I don’t think he’s as deserving as Steelers fans think, but he’s a more deserving candidate than those who mostly remember end-of-career-Bus remember. One thing I’ve heard from time to time about Bus is that he was the greatest “big” back of all time. That’s undoubtedly true, assuming you set the weight1 high enough. Bettis had an official playing weight of 252 pounds, and no running near that weight can match his resume. Cookie Gilchrist, Pete Johnson, Marion Butts, Christian Okoye, Natrone Means, and Mike Alstott had short bursts of success, but they can’t match Bettis’ longevity. Players like Jamal Lewis, Michael Turner, Larry Csonka, Eddie George, Jim Brown, Franco Harris, John Riggins, and Earl Campbell carried the “big back” label, but all were 10-25 pounds lighter than the Bus.

I looked at every running back in history, and calculated his number of rushing yards over 500 in each season (to avoid giving undue weight to compilers). After adjusting for season length, I then calculated career grades in this statistic. In the graph below, the Y-Axis shows this career rushing grade, while the X-axis displays weights. Bettis is represented on the far right with the code “BettJe00.”

[click to continue…]

  1. Try the veal. []
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Thoughts on Running Back Yards per Carry

The man in odd-numbered games

The man in odd-numbered games.

Regular readers know that I’m skeptical of using “yards per carry” to evaluate running backs. That’s because YPC is not very consistent from year to year. But it’s also not consistent even within the same year. For example, In 2013, Giovani Bernard rushed 92 times for 291 yards in even-numbered games last year, producing a weak 3.16 YPC average. But in odd-numbered games, Bernard averaged 5.18 YPC, rushing 78 times for 404 yards!

Jamaal Charles also showed a preference for odd-numbered games, averaging 5.80 YPC in games 1, 3, 5, etc., and only 3.96 YPC in even-numbered games. Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller had a reverse split, producing 5.57 YPC in even games and 3.61 YPC in odd games.

Okay, this stuff is meaningless, you say. Who cares about these random splits? Well, there are a couple of reasons to care. For starters, these splits serve as a great reminder that splits happen. If Spiller averaged 3.61 YPC in the first half of the year and 5.57 in the second half, the narrative would be that Spiller was finally healthy by the end of the year, and was set up for a monster 2014 campaign. Meanwhile, if Charles had seen his YPC fall from 5.8 YPC in the first eight games to 3.96 in the back eight, the narrative would be that he couldn’t handle a heavy workload, was breaking down, and could be a huge bust this year. Narratives are easy to invent, and remembering that “splits happen” is an important part of any analysis. [click to continue…]

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted a list of the best rushing teams in 2013 using Adjusted Yards per Carry. That metric, you may recall, is calculated as follows:

Rushing Yards + 20*RushingTDs + 9*RushingFirstDowns

We can use the same formula to grade every team across history. To account for era and quantity (having more above-average rush attempts is better), I calculated each team’s AdjYPC average, subtracted the league-average AdjYPC average, and multiplied that difference by the team’s number of rush attempts.

The top team by this method isn’t even an NFL team: it’s the 1948 San Francisco 49ers. You may recall that the 49ers and Browns staged two epic battles that season, and may have been the best two teams in pro football. That season, San Francisco averaged 6.1 yards per carry and rushed for 35 touchdowns on 600 carries; along with 152 first downs, and the 49ers averaged 9.5 Adjusted yards per Carry. That’s the highest average ever, just narrowly topping the production of the franchise’s Million Dollar Backfield six years later. Joe Perry was on both teams because Joe Perry was the man.

The table below shows the traditional rushing data for the top 200 rushing teams of all time; the VALUE column represents the number of Adjusted Rushing Yards produced above average (i.e., relative to the league average AdjYPC). I’ve also listed the three most prominent rushers on each team. [click to continue…]

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Ellington races for a long touchdown

Ellington races for a long touchdown.

In November, I wrote about the unique running back by committee taking place in Arizona. At the time, Rashard Mendenhall was averaging 3.1 yards per carry, while backup Andre Ellington was averaging 7.2 yards per rush on 54 carries. I thought it would be fun to revisit the Ellington/Mendenhall time share now that the season is over, and to use a slightly different methodology.

Mendenhall ended the season with 687 yards on 217 yards, a 3.2 yards per carry average. Ellington finished his rookie year with 118 carries for 652 yards, producing 5.5 yards per rush. One way to measure the magnitude of the difference in the effectiveness of these two players — and boy was there a large difference — is to simply look at the delta in the players’ yards per carry averages. In this case, that’s 2.36 yards per carry.

Where does that rank historically? Some teams — I’m looking at the Lions in the early Barry Sanders years — gave only a handful of carries to their backup running backs. So one thing we can do is to take the difference in the yards per carry between the team’s top two running backs and multiply that number by the number of carries by the running back with the lower number of carries. In each instance, I’ve defined the running back with the most carries as the team’s RB1, and the running back with the second most carries as the RB2. In Arizona’s case, that would mean multiplying -2.36 (Mendenhall’s average, since he was the RB1, minus Ellington’s average) by 118, the number of carries Ellington recorded. That produces a value of -278. [click to continue…]

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Is Chris Johnson Better than Chris Ivory?

Over the last three years, Chris Johnson has rushed 817 times for 3,367 yards, a 4.12 yards per carry average. Over the last three years, the Jets have had running back seasons where a rusher recorded at least 150 carries: Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory in 2013, and Shonn Greene in both 2011 and 2012. Collectively, in those four seasons, the group rushed 887 times for 3,647 yards, a 4.11 yards per carry average.

If you put a lot of stock in yards per carry as a metric, it would seem as though Johnson won’t be bringing much to New York in the running game. But today we’re going to take a closer look at the production of Johnson and the Jets back. And I’ve created some graphs that I think are pretty interesting.

Because Johnson has 817 carries since 2011 and the Jets backs have 887, we can’t just compare things on a carry per carry basis (i.e., 20th best carry for each).  So instead, I’m going to look at their percentile ranks — i.e., how many yards they gained on X percent of their carries. This first chart looks at the percentile ranks for Johnson and the Jets backs over the last three years. For example, 22% of Johnson’s runs have gone for negative yards or no gain, while the 22nd percentile of Jets runs has been for one yard. In the table below, the X-axis represents percentile, and the Y-axis represents yards gained. In this chart, being higher is better, and the Jets green line is higher or even with Johnson’s blue line on about 75% of all runs. Then, at the end, things switch, with Johnson being more productive with respect to each group’s best runs. [click to continue…]

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Rushing EPA and Yards per Carry

Today I want to look at how traditional rushing statistics compare to rushing Expected Points Added, one of the main stats used over at Advanced Football Analytics. In my analysis, I used the EPA numbers for each team in each season from 2002 to 2013.

Stickiness from year to year

Yards per carry is not a sticky metric: by that, I mean, it is not very consistent from year to year. The correlation coefficient between a team’s yards per carry in Year N and yards per carry in Year N+1 was just 0.31. Sometimes the square of the correlation coefficient is described in terms of “explanatory power”: loosely speaking, this means roughly 10% of a team’s YPC average in Year N+1 can be explained by its YPC average in Year N.

Now, a lot of metrics aren’t sticky from year to year, because the NFL is a highly competitive league. In fact, Rushing EPA per play has a lower correlation coefficient from year to year at just 0.30. That’s a strike against EPA. On the other hand, Burke’s success rate metric has a CC of 0.39, which is more impressive. The CC for Net Passing Yards per Attempt year over year is 0.43. [click to continue…]

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There is no doubt that in modern times, passing is king. But until pretty recently, we were at the peak level in NFL history with respect to individual rushing performance. On the team level, rushing production ebbed and flows, with high points in the late ’40s, mid-’50s, and mid-’70s, but on the individual level, the 2006 season may have been the high point.

That year, Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker rushed 337 times for 1,494 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, but Parker ranked just sixth in rushing yards. He also caught 31 passes for 222 yards, but Parker ranked only 7th in yards from scrimmage. That season, the average leading rusher on the 32 teams gained 1,124 rushing yards. Again, that was average. Last year, the average leading rusher gained 912 yards. Consider that in 1991, after Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and Thurman Thomas, the fourth-leading rusher was New York’s Rodney Hampton, and he gained 1,059 yards. In other words, 2006 and its surrounding seasons — even if it might not feel like it — really was a different era of football for running back statistics.

The graph below shows the average rushing yards gained by the leading rushing for each team in every season since 1932. All team seasons of fewer than 16 games were pro-rated to 16 games1; the NFL line is in blue, while the AFL/AAFC line is in red. [click to continue…]

  1. But this does not pro-rate for injury. []
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A couple of weeks ago, Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics (formerly Advanced NFL Stats) wrote a great post on the value of a first down. From that post, we concluded that the marginal value of a first down is 9 yards, and we’ve previously determined that the marginal value of a touchdown is 20 yards. Therefore, we can create an Adjusted Yards per Carry statistic, which can be calculated as follows:

Adjusted Yards per Carry = (Rushing Yards + 20 * Rushing TDs + 9 * Rushing First Downs) / Rushes

If we use this metric to analyze the 2013 season, how would it look? Last year, the Eagles averaged 5.13 yards per carry and 8.29 Adjusted YPC, courtesy of the fact that the team led the NFL in rushing first downs. Philadelphia also ranked 1st in the NFL in both of those metrics and in overall rushing yards. [click to continue…]

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Steven Jackson and Running Back Records

Jackson, presumably walking off the field after a loss

Jackson, presumably walking off the field after a loss.

One of my very first posts at Football Perspective looked at the weighted career winning percentages of various running backs. You can calculate a player’s weighted career winning percentage in lots of ways, but here’s what I did:

  • Calculate the percentage of yards from scrimmage a running back gained in each season as a percentage of his career yards from scrimmage. For example, if a player gained 10% of his yards from scrimmage in 1999 and the team went 15-1 that season, then 10% of the running back’s weighted winning percentage would be 0.9375. This is designed to align a running back’s best seasons with his team’s records in those years. For example, Emmitt Smith played 2 of his 15 seasons with the Cardinals. But since he gained only 6.5% of his career yards from scrimmage in Arizona, the Cardinals’ records those years count for only 6.5% — and not, say, 13.3% — of his career weighted winning percentage.
  • Add the weighted winning percentages from each season of the player’s career to get a career weighted winning percentage.

At the time, Steven Jackson had the lowest average adjusted winning percentage of any running back in my study. Since then, Jackson played for the 7-8-1 Rams in 2012 and the 4-12 Falcons in 2013. That upped his adjusted winning percentage from 0.292 to 0.307. Among the 129 running backs in NFL history with at least 7,000 yards from scrimmage, only James Wilder had a worse career adjusted winning percentage.

The running back with the highest adjusted winning percentage is Lawrence McCutcheon, who spent the majority of his career with the Rams before end-of-career cups of coffee with Denver, Seattle, and Buffalo. The table below shows the first and last year for each running back, the teams he played for, his career yards from scrimmage, and his adjusted winning percentage. McCutcheon played on those great Rams teams of the ’70s, gaining the bulk of his yards from ’73 to ’77. As a result, his adjusted winning % is an incredible 0.741: [click to continue…]

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At the end of my Seahawks-Saints playoff preview, I came up with (what I thought was) a pretty neat bit of trivia:

New Orleans gained 4918 passing yards and allowed only 3105 passing yards. That 1813 yard difference is largest by any NFL team in history. The 1961 Oilers, led by George Blanda, Bill Groman, and Charley Hennigan, actually gained 2,001 more passing yards than they allowed, but Houston of course was an AFL team. And there’s a bit of an asterisk here because of the games played: the 1943 Bears, 1951 Rams, and 1967 Jets also had a larger passing yards differential on a per-game basis. But regardless, that puts the Saints in some pretty impressive company. The Oilers, Bears, and Rams all won their league’s championships that season, and Joe Namath’s Jets won the Super Bowl the next season. The team with the fifth largest passing yards differential on a per-game basis, prior to the Saints, was the 2006 Colts, also a Super Bowl champion.

I never ran the same numbers but for rushing yards, because I just assumed it would be dominated by the ’72 Dolphins and other similar teams.  But as it turns out, the undefeated Dolphins rank only third in net rushing yards in a single season since 1950, even on a per-game basis.  In 1972, Miami rushed for an amazing 2,960 yards, but allowed 1,548 yards on the ground to opposing teams. That comes out to a 1,412 yard difference, or a +100.9 rushing yards per game differential.

The 2001 Steelers, with Kordell Stewart, Jerome Bettis, and a suffocating defense, finished with a +98.7 differential, the fifth best differential since 1950.  The ’84 Bears, behind Walter Payton and their own dominant defense, checks in at #4 at +99.8.  The second best performance is owned by the ’76 Steelers, who finished with a +108.1 differential.  That was the year Pittsburgh allowed just 28 points over the team’s final 9 games, and Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier both hit the 1,000-yard mark (they were the second duo to do so, behind Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris on the ’72 Dolphins).

None of those teams caused me any surprise, which I guess is why I never ran the numbers until today.  But it would have taken me quite a few more guesses to come up with the number one team on the list.  That’s why I’ll give you guys some hints. [click to continue…]

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