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Bell had a lot of valuable yards last year.

All yards gained on special teams are done outside of the context of the series (down and distance) environment that defines most games. A kickoff return from to the 30 or to the 40 represents a difference of 10 yards, but those 10 yards are not as valuable as the difference between a gain of 5 yards and 15 yards on 3rd-and-10. The former are, quite literally, special teams yards. They don’t provide any value in gaining any additional first downs, or keeping a drive alive. This is why we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about all-purpose yardage leaders, or the difference between a kickoff returner who averages 28.0 yards per return or 24.0. Special teams yards, while obviously valuable, are — just as obviously — the least valuable yards possible.

On a 3rd-and-10, a 15-yard pass provides a significant amount of value by providing a first down. But let’s get a bit more precise: the first 10 of those yards were really valuable. The last 5? Well, those were special teams yards. The difference between gaining 10 yards and gaining 15 yards on 3rd-and-10 isn’t that significant: well, it’s about as significant as returning a kickoff for 30 yards or 35 yards. Those last 5 yards don’t help a team move the chains. [click to continue…]

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Two years ago, I wrote this post titled “Take Away His X Best Carries and He’s Average.” The idea was simple: Suppose you sort each running back’s carries in descending order by yards gained. How many carries would we need to take away from him to drop his production to at or below average?

Browns running back Isaiah Crowell ranked 9th in yards per carry last year, with an impressive 4.81 average gain. But that number may be a bit misleading, to the extent it made you think that Crowell was consistently churning out big gains. Crowell was responsible for the longest run of the season last year, an 85-yard run in week 2 against the Ravens. And, for what it’s worth, it was one of the easiest long runs you’ll ever see:

In the last game of the year, Crowell had a more impressive 67-yard run against the Steelers. But here’s the thing: outside of those two runs, Crowell averaged just 4.08 yards per carry on his other 196 carries.

There were 42 running backs last year who had at least 100 rush attempts; those players averaged 4.19 yards per carry last year. So if you remove Crowell’s two best carries, he falls below that average.

An impressive Powell movement

On the other hand, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell averaged 4.86 yards per carry last year, and his six best runs went for 44, 38, 33, 26, 25, and 24 yards. Remove those, and Bell still averaged 4.23 yards per carry, which means you need to remove his seven best runs to drop him below average.

Jets running back Bilal Powell was the star of this metric.  He averaged 5.51 yards per carry last year, but he was a consistent producer of big gains.  He had 12 runs of 13+ yards, and you need to remove all 12 to bring Powell below average.  Remove those 12 carries and his average finally dips to 4.16 yards per carry.

Below are the 19 running backs to exceed that 4.19 yards per carry average last year, and the fewest number of carries you would need to remove to bring their production below average: [click to continue…]

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Yards per Carry: RB1 vs. RB2

Regular readers know that I’m not a huge fan of yards per carry as a metric to evaluate running backs, or even rushing attacks. Given the limited numbers of metrics available, sometimes it is a useful measure, but we also much caution ourselves against relying on it too often. Today’s post is another example of that.

I looked at all rushing attacks since 2002, and calculated the yards per carry gained by each team’s top running back and second running back (excluding pure fullbacks and situations where the second running back had fewer than 50 carries), as measured by carries. If yards per carry was the best way to evaluate running backs, and coaches wanted to play their best players most frequently (and, of course, coaches were able to identify their best players), then RB1s should be better at RB2s at yards per carry.

Last year, Bears rookie Jordan Howard averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 252 carries, while backup Jeremy Langford (who actually opened the season as the starter) gained just 3.2 yards per carry on 62 carries.  That’s a piece of evidence that YPC is useful: Howard was much better than Langford at YPC, and he gained way more carries.  But that +2.0 discrepancy was the largest in football last year: this is an outlier, not a typical example.

How about an outlier in the other direction? The Jets top running back last year was Matt Forte, who started 13 games and handled 218 carries; he averaged 3.7 yards per rush. Meanwhile, backup Bilal Powell averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 131 carries.  This might mean that Powell is better than Forte, but at least last year, the Jets didn’t seem to think so — or maybe thought so too late.

These are two interesting examples because they show some of the drawbacks to actually trying to properly analyze the issue.  Howard was the backup, but because he was so much better than Langford, he gets graded as Chicago’s top running back.  This biases the study in favor of RB1s: if a running back is producing at a high rate, even if he’s the backup, he may wind up leading his team in rushes that year (thanks to earning more carries in the second half of the season), which means RB1s in generally will appear to have higher yards per carry than RB2s.  In that way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the other hand, look at the Jets example.  I think we would all agree that Powell was the Jets best running back last season. He actually finished with more yards from scrimmage than Forte (thanks to playing in two more games), and nearly outrushed him, too. Forte was the (moderately) high priced veteran free agent signing, while Powell was intended to be the backup. By the end of the year, it was clear Powell was the Jets best running back (if not best player), but he didn’t have enough carries to overtake Forte for RB1 status. So in some ways, this study may not properly identify a team’s true top running back and backup running back, if we only classify those players by carries.

So there is some issues with this on a case-by-case basis.  That’s why the best thing to do is to aggregate the data.  The graph below shows the average yards per rush gained by the average team’s RB1 and average team’s RB2 in each year since 2002: [click to continue…]

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RBBC, Rushing Concentration, and Outliers

In 1984, James Wilder had 407 carries for Tampa Bay at a time when the league was only beginning to shift away from running back by committee. In fact, by the end of the ’84 season, three of the highest single-season carry totals in NFL history had taken place that year, with Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson joining Wilder as true workhorses. The ’84 Bucs had the most concentrated rushing attack of any team in an era of increasingly concentrated rushing attacks.

Take a look: in ’84, Wilder had 1,544 rushing yards, which represented 86.94% of all Bucs rushing yards. The square of that is 75.58%; sum the squares of all players who gained rushing yards for Tampa Bay last year, and you get a concentration index of 75.87%.

PlayerRushYdsPercSqrd
James Wilder407154486.94%75.58%
Steve DeBerg28593.32%0.11%
Mel Carver11442.48%0.06%
Jack Thompson5351.97%0.04%
Adger Armstrong10341.91%0.04%
Michael Morton16271.52%0.02%
Gerald Carter1160.9%0.01%
Scott Dierking3140.79%0.01%
George Peoples120.11%0.00%
James Owens110.06%0.00%
Total4831776100%75.87%

James Wilder was a one man offense

That was a truly remarkable number in the historical context of 1984. It crushed an NFL record set just one year earlier: the ’83 Rams, with a rookie Dickerson, had a rushing concentration index of 65.95%. Only one other team – the ’81 Oilers — had a concentration index of over 60% when the Bucs hit 76% in 1984.

The average team had a rushing concentration index of 35.5%, and the standard deviation among the teams in 1984 was 13.7%. As a result, Tampa Bay’s rushing concentration index was 2.96 standard deviations above average, known as the Z-Score. That was the 2nd most concentrated score from 1946 to 1984, snugly fit in between the 1966 Patriots (2.93) and 1967 Patriots (2.97).

In 1966, the Patriots led the AFL in rushing attempts and featured a two-back offense with Jim Nance (299 carries) and Larry Garron (101 carries). But since Nance averaged 4.9 yards per carry and Garron just 3.2, Nance wound up rushing for about 74% of the Patriots rushing yards that season. In ’67, New England ran less often, but Nance took a larger share of the load. He had 269 carries to Garron’s 46, and had 76% of all Patriots rushing yards in a very RBBC-centric era. From ’66 to ’67, Nance wasn’t just the top RB in the AFL but in all of pro football. Thanks to his heavy workload, he easily outrushed two HOF RBs in the primes of their career during those seasons.

The table below shows each team that had a Z-Score of at least 1.25 in rushing concentration. Here’s how to read it. In 1991, the Cowboys behind Emmitt Smith had 1,726 rushing yards.1 The squared result of each player’s percentage — i.e., the concentration index — was 82.3%. The standard deviation among all teams that year was 13.9%, and the league average was just 33.9%, giving the ’91 Cowboys a Z-Score of 3.48. In other words, the ’91 Cowboys’ rushing attack was so concentrated for that season that it was 3.48 standard deviations above average. That’s why it ranks 1st in this metric. [click to continue…]

  1. This excludes any player who finished the season with negative rushing yards. []
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Three years ago, I looked at the single-season leaders in percentage of team rushing yards. Then and now, the top two seasons belonged to Edgerrin James: he had 94% and 92% of the Colts rushing yards in his first two seasons in the league. There were only three other seasons where a running back had at least 90% of his team’s rushing yards: Emmitt Smith in 1991, Barry Sanders in 1994, and … Travis Henry in 2002. In that post, I calculated for each team the percentage of his team rushing yards gained by that team’s top rusher. Then I calculated the league average percentage gained by each team’s top rusher, and plotted how that varied over time. This was intended to measure how running back back committee centric the league was in each year.

For a less rigorous method to measure RBBC-ness, you can see this post, which looked at games with more than 15 carries.

Both methods show RBBC being heavy in the ’70s, and the stud RB era peaking about 10 years ago.  But if you want to measure rushing concentration, a better method is probably to use the formula described yesterday. So for each team, I calculated the percentage of team rushing yards gained by every player on the team, squared that result, and then summed those numbers for each player on the team. You can read yesterday’s post for more info on the methodology, but here were the results for 2016: [click to continue…]

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Isaiah Crowell had a funny year. If you were paying attention in the beginning of the season — or maybe just the end of the season — you probably thought he did really well. Crowell rushed for 394 yards  in Cleveland’s first four games, the second-most among all players through their team’s first four games.  He also rushed for 347 yards in the Browns last four games, the fifth-most among all players in their team’s final four games.  And he averaged about 6.5 yards per carry during each of those quarter-season stretches, too.

The middle of the year? Well, that was a very different story.  Crowell ranked 48th among all players in rushing yards in their team’s middle 8 games of the season, with just 211 yards and an anemic 2.51 yards per carry average.  Given that Crowell was the Browns main running back, Cleveland as a team experienced similar results.  Absent a week game in week 7 when backup quarterback Kevin Hogan entered the game and wound up rushing for 104 yards himself, the Browns rushing split was dramatic: in all 8 games in the first/final quarter of the season, Cleveland rushed for at least 107 yards; in the 7 games in the middle of the season, the Browns rushed for fewer than 70 yards in every game.  Take a look:

Browns Rushing By Game


Another team that had a weird rushing split was the Miami Dolphins.  This was closely tied to the success of Jay Ajayi, who had three games with over 200 yards, one other game with over 100 yards, and failed to hit 80 yards in Miami’s other 12 games.

Dolphins Rushing By Game

I didn’t pick Miami and Cleveland at random: those two teams had the largest variation in rushing performance in 2016, at least when measured as a percentage of average output. Miami rushed for 114 yards per game, with a standard deviation of 69.8 rushing yards, or 61.8% of the team’s average performance. Cleveland was at 107.0 and 64.8, respectively, or 60.6%. The table below shows the standard deviation in rushing for each team in 2016: [click to continue…]

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The most efficient runner in NFL history? That depends.

Jamaal Charles is now a Denver Bronco, making him the second superstar running back in two weeks to join a new team at the tail end of his career. In his prime, Charles was a very good receiver and a player that could be the centerpiece of an offense. However, he will likely be remembered for a singular skill: rushing efficiency.

Charles has a career YPC average of 5.45, easily the best in history among running backs in the NFL. That number is at least a little misleading. While rushing efficiency has not soared the way passing efficiency has, we are currently in a high-YPC environment. Two years ago, I calculated era-adjusted yards per carry: at the time, Charles was at 5.49, while the league average was 4.21. For reference, the league average during the careers of Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, and Barry Sanders was 4.08, 3.95, and 3.93, respectively.

I am not a big fan of yards per carry as a statistic, but hey, it’s still interesting trivia. It’s a little silly and mostly an academic exercise, but let’s pretend that we replaced every Charles rush attempt with a league average rush attempt. How much worse off would Kansas City have been? Well, a whole lot. Let’s use his 2010 season as an example. He had 230 carries for 1,467 yards, producing an incredible 6.38 YPC average. The league average that season was 4.21, meaning he was 2.17 YPC above-average. Given his 230 carries, we would have expected him to rush for just 968 yards, meaning he produced 499 rushing yards above average. And for his career? Charles is at +1657. [click to continue…]

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Peterson with a rare cameo by a good quarterback.

After a ten-year career with the Vikings, Adrian Peterson is now headed to New Orleans where he will get to play with Drew Brees.  It will be the second time Peterson has played with a Hall of Fame quarterback, after Brett Favre’s stint with the team beginning in 2009.

In ’09, the Vikings had a Relative ANY/A of +2.05, easily the best passing game the franchise has produced in the last decade.  In fact, the only other time in the last ten years that Minnesota had an above-average ANY/A was last year, when Peterson rushed for just 72 yards in three games.

Most of his time in Minnesota, though, the team’s passing attack has been below-average — or outright bad.  For example, in 2012, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards.  That represented 17.9% of his career total, and it came when the Vikings had a Relative ANY/A of -0.94.  Overall Peterson has a weighted average RANY/A — i.e., the Vikings RANY/A in each season of Peterson’s career, weighted by the number of rushing yards Peterson had — for his career of -0.52.  Take a look. [click to continue…]

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Last year, Tyrod Taylor led all quarterbacks with 580 rushing yards. Colin Kaepernick, in 12 games, ranked 2nd with 468 rushing yards, and no other quarterback had even 400 rushing yards. But Aaron Rodgers, Blake Bortles, Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota, and Andrew Luck all had at least 300 rushing yards, so 7 out of 32 teams had a quarterback with at least that many yards.

How does that compare historically? Two years ago, in one of my favorite posts/methodologies, I looked at how to measure quarterback rushing yards. Here’s what I did.

1) Calculate the percentage of league-wide passing yards by each player in each season. For example, Tyrod Taylor was responsible for 2.3% of all passing yards in 2016.

2) Calculate the weighted average league-wide rushing yards for each season. So we take the result in step 1 and multiply that by each player’s number of rushing yards. For Taylor, this means multiplying 2.3% by 580 for a result of 13.4 rushing yards. Perform this calculation for each player in each season and sum the results to obtain a league-wide total. For 2016, this total was 150.9 rushing yards (obviously Taylor was the biggest contributor among quarterbacks).

3) For non-16 game seasons, pro-rate to 16 games.

Perform this calculation for each season since 1950, and you get the following results: [click to continue…]

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Todd Gurley, Jay Ajayi, and Running Back Variation

In yesterday’s post about Frank Gore, I lauded Gore’s remarkable consistency, year after year. But his consistency — for better or worse — is also true game after game. Gore pulled off a tough feat in 2015, rushing for 967 yards while failing to record a single 100-yard game. Last year, he rushed for 1,025 yards and while he topped the century mark twice, he gained just 101 and 106 yards in those games.

How consistent is Gore? Well, not as consistent as Todd Gurley (again, for better or worse: consistency is neither inherently good or bad). I looked at all running backs who averaged at least 50 rushing yards per game and had 700 rushing yards last year. In the graph below, on the X-Axis I have plotted rushing yards per game; on the Y-Axis is each player’s standard deviation in rushing yards across all 2016 regular season games. Gurley, as you can see, is the “lowest” on the graph, although he’s also really far to the left (because his average wasn’t very high). In general, the running backs who gain more yards are less consistent, which is just a residue of how standard deviation works. One interesting counter to that: Ezekiel Elliott. [click to continue…]

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538: Buffalo, Washington, Are Making Running Great Again

The Bills are on one of the craziest running streaks in recent history.  Washington? Well, here is what I wrote in my Game Scripts recaps after weeks 1 and 2:

Washington finished with a Game Script of -5.8, but even that doesn’t typically justify a 78% pass ratio. That was the most pass-heavy attack in the week (both without adjusting for Game Script and after adjusting), and is a sign of the lack of faith in the team’s ground game. Matt Jones rushed 7 times for 24 yards, Chris Thompson had 4 for 23, and the team’s only other run was a scramble by Cousins for 8 yards on 4th-and-10.

On the pass-heavy side, Washington was at it again. In a game where Washington led for much of the second half before ultimately losing to Dallas, Kirk Cousins had 48 dropbacks (50, if you include the two scrambles), while the team rushed just 17 times (15, if you exclude the two scrambles). Matt Jones wasn’t bad against Dallas, and Cousins wasn’t very good, so it will be interesting to see if anything changes in week 3 against the Giants.

Since then? Well, both teams have seen significant improvements in both quantity and quality on the ground. And now they are are on four game winning streaks after 0-2 starts.  They were the subject of my 538 recap this week:

But it wasn’t just the 0-2 record on the field; the teams looked ugly off the field, too. After the team’s second loss, Buffalo fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman, a move widely viewed as an attempt by head coach Rex Ryan to make Roman into a scapegoat for the team’s problems. In Washington, rumors swirled that the locker room was holding quarterback Kirk Cousins responsible — and that caused head coach Jay Gruden to issue the dreaded vote of confidence for his starter.

Now? Both teams are riding four-game winning streaks and look like playoff contenders. Before this year, only 18 teams in NFL history1 had started a season 0-2 and then won four straight games. Over the past 20 years, this season’s Buffalo and Washington squads are only the fourth and fifth teams to do so. So how did they do it? Although the NFL continues to shift toward the passing game, both teams have zagged and rebounded thanks to their ground game.

You can read the full article here.

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Adrian Peterson Was Declining Before His Injury

Adrian Peterson has a torn meniscus, which is expected to keep him out until at least December. Given Peterson’s age — he’s 31, with his half-birthday coming yesterday — it’s reasonable to start thinking about whether the end is near for Peterson.

In his last 8 games (excluding playoffs), he rushed 150 times for 529 yards (3.52) with 5 TDs, one fumble, and 26 first downs. Prior to this stretch, Peterson had averaged 159 carries, 786 yards (4.95), 6.5 TDs, 2.24 fumbles, and 37 first downs. Given his performance in the one playoff game during that stretch (23 for 45 with one fumble), including that would only make the numbers look worse.

I came up with a relatively simple adjusted rushing yards metric to measure running back performance (note that in the formula below, rushing TDs are actually worth 20 yards because all rushing TDs are also rushing first downs):

(rushing yards + rushing first downs * 9 + rushing TDs * 11 – fumbles *30) minus (rush attempts * 5)

This is basically a mix of rush efficiency and rush quantity: we take rushing yards, add some other information, and then provide a penalty for each attempt used. The graph below shows Peterson’s game-by-game results for his career, along with, in black, a trailing-8-game average: [click to continue…]

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Running Back Production By Birth Year

Barry Sanders was born in 1968. Emmitt Smith was born in 1969. The next two years were pretty quiet — Dorsey Levens and Garrison Hearst were born in ’70 and ’71 — but business was about to pick up. Terrell Davis and Jerome Bettis were born in 1972, and Curtis Martin, Eddie George, Marshall Faulk, and Priest Holmes were all born in 1973. That’s a 6-year period that gave us some of the most important running backs in NFL history.

And it came at a really important time. Because the previous five years were not nearly as fruitful.

  • In 1967, there were no notable1 running backs born.
  • In 1966, Thurman Thomas was born, but other than him, not much else.
  • In 1965, there were no notable running backs born.
  • In 1964, Neal Anderson2 was born and that’s about it.
  • In 1963, Rueben Mayes was the most notable running back born.

[click to continue…]

  1. Okay, this sounds kind of mean, but I mean notable in the sense of having historical importance to the game of football. []
  2. Note that the notable bar is very low. []
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David Johnson, Receiving Superstar

The great Chris Wesseling at NFL.com published an article this week about Cardinals running back David Johnson.  The piece contained lofty praise about Johnson’s receiving ability, so much so that it made me want to re-evaluate his rookie stats.

One place where Johnson’s receiving ability stands out is in his yards per reception. As a rookie last year, he became the first player (rookie or otherwise) in 16 years to average 12 yards per reception while gaining at least 400+ rushing yards and 400+ receiving yards.   And just the third in the last 25 years:

 
Games Rushing Receiving
Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm G GS Att Yds Y/A TD Y/G Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G
1 David Johnson 2015 24 3-86 ARI 16 5 125 581 4.65 8 36.3 36 457 12.69 4 28.6
2 Marshall Faulk* 1999 26 1-2 STL 16 16 253 1381 5.46 7 86.3 87 1048 12.05 5 65.5
3 Garrison Hearst 1998 27 1-3 SFO 16 16 310 1570 5.06 7 98.1 39 535 13.72 2 33.4
4 Gary Anderson 1990 29 1-20 TAM 16 13 166 646 3.89 3 40.4 38 464 12.21 2 29.0
5 Barry Sanders* 1990 22 1-3 DET 16 16 255 1304 5.11 13 81.5 36 480 13.33 3 30.0
6 Albert Bentley 1987 27 2-35 IND 12 4 142 631 4.44 7 52.6 34 447 13.15 2 37.3
7 James Brooks 1986 28 1-24 CIN 16 16 205 1087 5.30 5 67.9 54 686 12.70 4 42.9
8 Gary Anderson 1985 24 1-20 SDG 12 6 116 429 3.70 4 35.8 35 422 12.06 2 35.2
9 Curtis Dickey 1983 27 1-5 BAL 16 16 254 1122 4.42 4 70.1 24 483 20.13 3 30.2
10 Darrin Nelson 1983 24 1-7 MIN 15 9 154 642 4.17 1 42.8 51 618 12.12 0 41.2
11 Joe Cribbs 1981 23 2-29 BUF 15 15 257 1097 4.27 3 73.1 40 603 15.08 7 40.2
12 Billy Sims 1981 26 1-1 DET 14 14 296 1437 4.85 13 102.6 28 451 16.11 2 32.2
13 Billy Sims 1980 25 1-1 DET 16 16 313 1303 4.16 13 81.4 51 621 12.18 3 38.8
14 Wilbert Montgomery 1979 25 6-154 PHI 16 16 338 1512 4.47 9 94.5 41 494 12.05 5 30.9
15 Greg Pruitt 1977 26 2-30 CLE 14 14 236 1086 4.60 3 77.6 37 471 12.73 1 33.6
16 Sherman Smith 1977 23 2-58 SEA 14 14 163 763 4.68 4 54.5 30 419 13.97 2 29.9
17 O.J. Simpson* 1975 28 1-1 BUF 14 14 329 1817 5.52 16 129.8 28 426 15.21 7 30.4
18 Mike Thomas 1975 22 5-108 WAS 14 10 235 919 3.91 4 65.6 40 483 12.08 3 34.5
19 Mack Herron 1974 26 6-143 NWE 14 14 231 824 3.57 7 58.9 38 474 12.47 5 33.9
20 Larry Brown 1973 26 8-191 WAS 14 14 273 860 3.15 8 61.4 40 482 12.05 6 34.4
21 Larry Brown 1972 25 8-191 WAS 12 12 285 1216 4.27 8 101.3 32 473 14.78 4 39.4
22 Cid Edwards 1972 29 SDG 12 12 157 679 4.32 5 56.6 40 557 13.93 2 46.4
23 Carl Garrett 1972 25 3-58 NWE 10 6 131 488 3.73 5 48.8 30 410 13.67 0 41.0
24 Essex Johnson 1972 26 6-156 CIN 14 11 212 825 3.89 4 58.9 29 420 14.48 2 30.0

And while you may remember Johnsons’s game-clinching, 55-yard touchdown catch against the Saints, it wasn’t just one or two catches boosting up his average gain. Consider: there were 40 running backs last year who had at least 25 receptions.  Of that group, only Johnson (58%) converted at least half of his receptions into first downs. To find a player with a better conversion rate, you’d have to go down to Arian Foster, who converted 13 of his 22 catches (59%) into first downs.))

RkPlayerRec1Dratio
1David Johnson362158.3%
2Danny Woodhead803948.8%
3James White401947.5%
4Dion Lewis361747.2%
5Benny Cunningham261246.2%
6Bilal Powell472144.7%
7Mark Ingram502244%
7Ameer Abdullah251144%
9Charles Sims512243.1%
10T.J. Yeldon361541.7%
11Theo Riddick803240%
11Chris Thompson351440%
11Marcel Reece301240%
14James Starks431739.5%
15Giovani Bernard491938.8%
16Duke Johnson622438.7%
16Dexter McCluster311238.7%
18Matt Forte441738.6%
19C.J. Spiller341338.2%
20Darren Sproles552138.2%
21DeAngelo Williams401537.5%
21LeSean McCoy321237.5%
21Fred Jackson321237.5%
24Shane Vereen592237.3%
25Javorius Allen451533.3%
25Chris Ivory301033.3%
27Frank Gore341132.4%
28Lamar Miller471531.9%
29Jonathan Grimes26830.8%
30Doug Martin331030.3%
31Darren McFadden401230%
31Adrian Peterson30930%
33DeMarco Murray441329.5%
34Devonta Freeman732128.8%
35Rashad Jennings29827.6%
36Shaun Draughn27725.9%
37Melvin Gordon33824.2%
38C.J. Anderson25624%
39Latavius Murray41922%
40Justin Forsett31412.9%

It’s obviously premature to talk about Johnson as an all-time great receiving back, despite the quotes in Wesseling’s article. But this gives us something else to keep an eye on in 2016.

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Todd Gurley and Rushing TDs on Bad Offenses

Here’s a good article by Matt Harmon presenting the contrarian case against Todd Gurley as a fantasy player. One of Matt’s arguments against Gurley’s fantasy value is that he’s on a bad offense, and his numbers last year were only strong because he scored such a high percentage of St. Louis offensive touchdowns.

That math checks out: Gurley ran for 10 TDs (with no receiving touchdowns), while the Rams scored 27 total offensive touchdowns. That means that Gurley rushing touchdowns made up 37% of all Rams offensive touchdowns, which was the highest rate in the NFL last year, and the highest rate in the NFL in three years. The only other players in shouting range of that number were Adrian Peterson (11/32, or 34% of all Vikings offensive touchdowns) and Devonta Freeman (11/34, of 32% of Falcons touchdowns).1

Another rookie from the SEC holds the modern record in this category. In 1981, South Carolina’s George Rogers was drafted by the Saints, and he led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie. He also rushed for 13 touchdowns, despite the Saints finishing last in the league in scoring. Rogers rushed for 13 of the team’s 24 offensive touchdowns, or 54%. The table below shows the top 100 seasons by this metric since 1960: [click to continue…]

  1. Note that if we included receiving touchdowns, Freeman would vault Gurley, as he accounted for 41% of all Atlanta offensive touchdowns. []
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Thomas Rawls and Great Rookie Seasons

Rawls is one of the best running backs to earn a few hundred grand to play for Pete Carroll.

Rawls is one of the best running backs to earn a few hundred grand to play for Pete Carroll.

Thomas Rawls had an incredible rookie season. He was the only player, rookie or veteran, with two games with at least 160 rushing yards in 2015. His heat map was otherworldly, with the highlight being that an astounding 10% of his runs went for at least 15+ yards. And he led the league in yards per carry, as Rawls averaged 5.65 yards per carry while rushing for 830 yards. Rawls ranked 1st in DYAR, 1st in Success Rate, and 2nd in DVOA according to Football Outsiders.

In the historical context, Rawls also stands out. The table below shows all rookies since 1970 with at least 700 rushing yards and 5.00 yards per carry: there are only 18 of those players, and Rawls has the second highest YPC average in the group: [click to continue…]

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Running Back Heat Maps – 2015 Season

Last year, I looked at running back heat maps for the 2014 season; that was a fun article, so let’s update those numbers for 2015.

Last season, Adrian Peterson rushed for positive yards on 78.3% of his carries. Of the 44 running backs with at least 100 carries last season, those running backs, on average, rushed for positive yards on on 79.5% of their carries. That means Peterson was at -1% relative to the average running back at running for at least 1 yard.

In general, Peterson was right around average, plus or minus one percent, at rushing for at least 1 yard, at least 2 yards, at least 3 yards, and so on. Where he stood out was at generating long runs: he had 43 carries of at least 10 yards. And while Peterson also led the league in rushing attempts, he far outpaced all other runners in this category: Doug Martin had 33 such carries, Devonta Freeman had 32, and no other runner had 30+ carries of at least 10 yards.

In the picture below, I’ve listed all running backs with at least 100 carries. I have then shown how they fared at rushing for at least 1 yard, at least 2 yards, at least 3 yards,… at least 10 yards, more than 10 yards, at least 15+ yards, and at least 20+ yards. A blue shading is good: that means a player gained yards at a higher clip than average. A red shading is bad, even though this is a heat map, since I think it makes more sense to associate red with bad (if you don’t like the way my brain works, you can let me know in the comments). [click to continue…]

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The 1978 Patriots, Part I

Here’s what I wrote in my first post at Football Perspective:

I’ll be blogging about everything football-related, from Jerry Rice to Bobby Douglass, and from the 1978 Patriots to who is the greatest quarterback of all time.

The New England Patriots rushed for 3,165 yards, an NFL record that still stands. Take a look at the individual players on that team:

Games Rushing
No. Age Pos G GS Att Yds ▾ TD Lng Y/A Y/G A/G Fmb
39 Sam Cunningham* 28 FB 16 14 199 768 8 52 3.9 48.0 12.4 4
23 Horace Ivory 24 rb 15 3 141 693 11 28 4.9 46.2 9.4 5
32 Andy Johnson 26 RB 15 13 147 675 3 52 4.6 45.0 9.8 4
14 Steve Grogan 25 QB 16 16 81 539 5 31 6.7 33.7 5.1 9
44 Don Calhoun 26 rb 14 2 76 391 1 73 5.1 27.9 5.4 1
37 James McAlister 27 16 0 19 77 2 16 4.1 4.8 1.2 3
86 Stanley Morgan 23 PR/WR 16 16 2 11 0 6 5.5 0.7 0.1 6
29 Harold Jackson 32 WR 16 13 1 7 0 7 7.0 0.4 0.1 0
30 Mosi Tatupu 23 16 0 3 6 0 3 2.0 0.4 0.2 0
4 Jerrel Wilson 37 P 14 0 1 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 0.1 1
83 Don Westbrook 25 16 0 1 -2 0 -2 -2.0 -0.1 0.1 0
Team Total 26.2 16 671 3165 30 73 4.7 197.8 41.9 35

[click to continue…]

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Bob Ford, a longtime fan of Pro-Football-Reference and Football Perspective, has contributed a 2-part guest post on Yards Per Carry Leaders. Bob is the owner and founder of GOATbacks.com, which looks at the greatest running backs of all time. Thanks to Bob for yesterday’s and today’s articles!


Yesterday, I looked at the YPC leaders for the 46 seasons since the merger was completed, 1970-2015 at the 100/120/180-carry cutoffs. Today, a look at the YPC leaders since 1970 at three higher thresholds. [click to continue…]

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Bob Ford, a longtime fan of Pro-Football-Reference and Football Perspective, has contributed a 2-part guest post on Yards Per Carry Leaders. Bob is the owner and founder of GOATbacks.com, which looks at the greatest running backs of all time. Thanks to Bob for today’s (and tomorrow’s) article!


I’ve been curious about YPC leaders over the years, particularly as they’re sorted through increasing numbers of carries. Over the next two days, I will look at the YPC leaders using six different carry minimum thresholds: 100, 120, and 150 today, and 180, 220, and 280 carries tomorrow. These cutoffs weren’t arrived at in an analytically rigorous way, just through instinct and personal judgment. I ran a number of different carry thresholds and simply tried to keep my statistical eyes peeled; in my view, these are at least 6 of the minimums where interesting changes seemed to emerge.

As a general rule, though not an absolute one, I’m in the camp that regards YPC as, at best, a questionable stat when it comes to assessing skill and performance, and at worst a misleading and even bunkum stat, to borrow a term from Chase and the crew over at Intentional Rounding. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting YPC is useless. In fact in some narrow contexts I think it’s even key. But I think it’s woefully overused and over relied on, and I do regard it with suspicion when it comes to assessing rushing and running back value and effectiveness, particularly in “real-game” situations. I think the same holds for mobile quarterbacks, too.

I decided to look at YPC leaders for the 46 seasons since the merger was completed, 1970-2015. Again, no special reason, just to make things more manageable. This would probably get really interesting if we included all pre-merger seasons, but I didn’t do that here. If anyone does, kudos. At any rate, here are the YPC leaders since 1970, sorted at 6 different carry thresholds. [click to continue…]

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Guest Post: Putting Lipstick on the YPC pig

Brian Malone, a writer for dynastyleaguefootball.com, has put together a great guest post today. You can follow him on Twitter at @julesdynasty. Thanks to Brian for today’s article!


Putting lipstick on the YPC pig

We all know that that yards per carry is, as Danny Tuccitto puts it, nearly a “bunkum stat” in terms of predictive power.   Even as a descriptive tool, YPC is tolerable but unsatisfying.  Matt Forte (4.12) and Chris Johnson (4.15) had nearly identical YPC in 2015, but their paths to these numbers were notably different.  Forte rarely got stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, and he was well above average at posting four-yard gains.  Johnson, in contrast, was a home run hitter, padding his YPC with runs longer than 20 yards.

Painting a better picture

We could supplement YPC with the standard deviation of a player’s runs.  Or, as Jeff Levy suggests, we could include confidence intervals to define a player’s “true” YPC.  Both supplements add useful information, but neither smacks the reader in the face with the contrast between Forte and Johnson.  For that, we may need a visual. [click to continue…]

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Yesterday, Bob Ford wrote DeMarco Murray and, how his 2014 season stands out as a career outlier. Today, I want to look at where it stands among the biggest year-to-year declines.

I looked at all players who rushed for at least 5 games in consecutive years, and rushed for at least 60 yards per game in the first season. For example, Murray rushed for 1,845 yards in 2014, an average of 115.3 yards per game. Last year, in 15 games, Murray averaged only 46.8 rushing yards per game. That’s a dropoff of 68.5 rushing yards per game, which is the second most in NFL history. The first? That honor goes to Lee Suggs.

Suggs was a star at Virginia Tech, rushing for 27 touchdowns in 11 games as a sophomore at Virginia Tech before tearing his ACL as a junior. In his senior year, he had another great season, rushing for 1,325 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was a 4th round pick of the Browns in 2003, where he served as the team’s backup. In ’04, he stole the job from William Green, and rushed for over 100 yards in each of Cleveland’s final three games. He averaged 74.4 rushing yards per game in ’04, but lost his job to Reuben Droughns in ’05. As a result, Suggs saw his average decline by 72.5 yards per game, an even more dramatic dropoff than Murray. [click to continue…]

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Bob Ford, a longtime fan of Pro-Football-Reference and Football Perspective, has contributed today’s guest post. Bob is the owner and founder of GOATbacks.com, which looks at the greatest running backs of all time. Thanks to Bob for today’s article!


Is DeMarco Murray in Danger of Joining A Very Exclusive Club?

In 2014 DeMarco Murray rushed for 1,845 yards on 392 carries at 4.7 yards per carry and just over 115 yards a game. That’s a great rushing season by any standard, and it puts Murray in some pretty exclusive company. Since Jim Brown first broke 1,800 rushing yards in 1963, just 16 other running backs have done it a total of 20 times, and only 3 (Dickerson, Sanders and Simpson) did it more than once.

Among the 17 RBs who’ve rushed for 1,800 yards, 10 have posted at least 10,000 career rushing yards, and 4 have at least 9,000. Those 4 are Ahman Green with 9,205, Earl Campbell with 9,407, Chris Johnson with 9,442 and Shaun Alexander with 9,553. And only 2 who’ve retired, Terrell Davis with 7,607 career rushing yards, and Jamal Anderson with 5,336, have failed to break 9,000 career rushing yards. After 5 seasons and 5,228 career rushing yards, DeMarco Murray is still active, so we don’t know how many career rushing yards he’ll eventually have, but all running backs who’ve rushed for more than 1,800 yards in a season have always, with the exception of Anderson and the singularly unique exception of Davis, put up a minimum of 9,000 career rushing yards.

Why do I call Davis a “singularly unique” exception? I’ll get to that in a minute, but consider how far behind the rest of the group Jamal Anderson, who rushed for 1,846 yards in 1998, actually is. He’s nearly 2,300 yards behind Davis and nearly 4,000 behind Green. What’s more, and not enviable for Murray, is that it’s Anderson’s career, not Davis’ or any of the others’, that bears a striking resemblance to Murray’s, and that doesn’t bode well for Murray. [click to continue…]

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In 2015, there were just 15 games where a player rushed for at least 150 yards in a single game. That’s the smallest number since 1996, when just 14 players hit that mark. Thomas Rawls (!) was the only player with multiple games of 160+ rushing yards, and Adrian Peterson was the only other player with two 150+ yard rushing games.

Games with at least 150 rushing yards were much more common in the early ’00s, but they have not exactly been frequent throughout history. The graph below shows the number of times players rushed for 150+ yards in a game in each season since 1960. Note that in seasons with fewer than 32 teams/16 games, the number of instances were prorated as if it was a 512-game league season.

150+ rush2

The same trend holds up if we look at 125+ rushing yard games, with 2015 representing a modern low. Again, throughout this post, I have pro-rated non-512 game seasons. [click to continue…]

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Today’s guest post comes from Adam Harstad, a co-writer of mine at Footballguys.com. You can follow Adam on twitter at @AdamHarstad.


On Saturday, the Hall of Fame selection committee will meet, lock themselves in a room, and debate the relative merits of the 15 modern-era finalists for induction. After an intense discussion, the results will be announced nationally as the final event in the festivities leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl.

While the list of 15 finalists includes several names who have been waiting longer than they should for their call, the one that stands out the most to me is Terrell Davis, who has been a semi-finalist more than anyone else in this year’s class, reaching the top 25 ten times in his ten years of eligibility.

Hopefully the Hall of Fame committee can manage to make room for him in what could easily be a stacked class. Whatever they do this Saturday, however, will not change one simple fact: Terrell Davis should have long ago been elected to the Hall of Fame. [click to continue…]

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Antonio Brown has 1,586 receiving yards, most in the NFL, which puts him on pace for 1,813 receiving yards this season.

Adrian Peterson has 1,314 rushing yards, most in the NFL, which puts him on pace for 1,502 rushing yards in 2015.

That’s pretty weird.  In general, the rushing leader usually gains more rushing yards than the receiving yardage leader picks up through the air.  From 1970 to 2014, the receiving yards leader  “outgained” the rushing yards leader in only 10 of 45 seasons.  And in only three of those years did the receiving leader “win” by more than 100 yards: in 1999 (Marvin Harrison had 1663 receiving yards; his teammate Edgerrin James had 1553 rushing yards), 1990 (Jerry Rice over Barry Sanders, 1502 to 1304), and 1982 (Wes Chandler over Freeman McNeil in the strike-shortened season, 1032to 786). On a per-game basis, it’s tough to beat what Chandler did, but Brown is on pace to become the first receiving leader since the merger (in fact, the first in the NFL since 1952) to “outgain” the rushing leader by over 300 yards. [click to continue…]

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New York Times Checkdowns: Martin vs. Gurley Battle

A little late, but here is a link to my Thursday Night Football preview: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/18/sports/football/thursday-nfl-game-has-running-backs-to-savor.html

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Running Back Class of 2008 Still Going Strong

Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Justin Forsett, Jonathan Stewart, Danny Woodhead, Mike Tolbert, Darren McFadden, Marcel Reece, and Jerome Felton all entered the NFL in 2008. So did Steve Slaton, the rookie rushing leader that year, and Ray Rice, Rashard Mendenhall, Michael Bush, Peyton Hillis, and Felix Jones. Analyzing where the ’08 class ranks in NFL history is a project for the offseason, but today, I thought it would be fun to look at rushing yards by running backs by class year.

The graph below shows that data through six weeks of the 2015 season. As you can see, players in their 8th NFL season — those who entered the league in 2008 — are doing quite well.

wk6 2015 rushing yards class year

The class with the most rushing yards so far in 2015 are the rookies. That class is currently led by Thomas Rawls, but has also received strong production from higher picks like Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and T.J. Yeldon. After the class of ’15, there’s a gradual decline with respect to production by older classes. And then, there’s the class of 2008. [click to continue…]

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As I did last year, I want to analyze the rushing stats for each team in 2014 using a metric known as Adjusted Rushing Yards per Carry. Thanks to the help of Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics (formerly Advanced NFL Stats), we were able to conclude that the value of a first down was about 9 yards. And since we’ve previously determined that the marginal value of a touchdown is 20 yards, this means Adjusted Rushing Yards per Carry is pretty easy to calculate. Also, since Bryan Frye crunched the numbers, we might as well exclude all kneels from the process, too.

One thing to keep in mind (which I have forgotten in the past): since the NFL records-keeping process labels touchdowns as first downs, you should only assign 11 yards per touchdown if you are already giving 9 yards to all 1st downs. And since kneels are marked down as runs, you must back those out, too. As a result, here’s the formula to use:

Adjusted Rushing Yards per Carry = (Rush Yards + 11 * Rush TDs + 9 * Rush First Downs – Kneel Yards Lost1 ) / (Rushes – Kneels)

If we use this metric to analyze the 2014 season, how would it look? Seattle was by far the top rushing team in the NFL last year, rushing for 2,762 yards and 20 touchdowns on 525 carries, good for a 5.26 yards per carry average. But 19 of those 525 carries were kneels, and they went for -20 yards. In addition, Seattle not only led the league with 144 rushing first downs, the Seahawks gained a first down on 28.5% of non-kneel carries, also the highest mark in the NFL. Seattle averaged 8.49 Adjusted Rushing Yards per Carry, while the NFL average was 6.63. Since the Seahawks averaged 1.86 ARY/C over average for 506 non-kneel carries, that means Seattle rushed for 941 rushing yards (1.86 * 506) above average.

The full list for all 2014 teams, below: [click to continue…]

  1. Since this is a negative number — i.e., 10 kneels for -11 yards — we need to subtract kneel yards to turn those yards into an add back in the numerator. []
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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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